Garbage In, Garbage Out

Some parents are happy if their children read anything. I am not one of them. I’d rather my kids watch hours of “Dora the Explorer” than read some of the children’s “literature” out there.

Q recently checked out Dork Diaries: Tales From a Not-So-Fabulous Life from the school library. Guess what? I don’t love it. It’s in the tradition of pandering books about silly girls with bad attitudes and nasty mouths who manufacture social drama in the name of plot. The fact that “dork” is slang for “penis” is a minor gripe. Go ahead; check it out. I linked to the series’ website so you can judge based on the most complementary angle on this drivel, tripe, book-like object.dd1-large

I cannot control what she chooses at the library. She goes with her class, and I am not about to ask her teacher to censor Q’s selections based on my criterion. She is a classroom teacher, not a nanny. This is not a battle I want to pick, because it is not one I can possibly win, and frankly, I don’t think it is necessary. Books let us try on someone else’s life and explore new worlds with only an investment of time. There is even a place for mindless and silly entertainment. I unapologetically loved “XENA: Warrior Princess” for years and consume PG Wodehouse novels like candy.

However, what we feed our minds matters as much as what we feed our bodies. A mind fed on a diet of pandering entertainment will be weaker and less healthy. Q’s behavior took a turn while she read this book. She got snippier, less happy, and Hot Swede noticed phrases from the book coming out of her mouth. When she read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, she played pioneer girl, we had discussions about the Native American/US relations, and I taught her how to embroider.

I won’t forbid her to read these garbage books, (Forbidding something is the quickest way to pique her interest.) but I did make scaffolding for her reading. I explained my concerns with this book and we talked about the importance of putting good things into our heads. She may read another of the Dork series, but must finish Anne of Green Gables first, and so it will go- rubbish, literature, dreck, literature. Hopefully, the trash will become less frequent by her choice. If she comes home with Fifty Shades of Grey, I’ll volunteer to chaperone library trips.

What children’s novels do you love? Which ones stink to high heaven?

How Can I Keep From Singing?

Piano_bokeh_by_NickKoutoulasEvery once in awhile, I get to witness a piece of performing art that really works. All the parts are there- the performer fully synthesizes the work and effectively conveys its beauty and purpose. Such performances stick with me and I always feel lucky to have been there, especially when they are unexpected.

No one goes to student recitals expecting great art. My reluctant pianists, Q and Bear, were slotted to play on the program, and that is the only reason I was there. (I do enjoy music school recitals- assuming they are not longer than one hour and the string players all have a general grasp of the difference between whole and half steps.)

A five-year old in a double-breasted suit and superhero sneakers started us off. His face was serious and his 8 bars were just what you’d expect. There were girls in flouncy dresses, boys in khakis and button downs. The young ones tend to be calm and matter of fact. The older children have nerves when they bow, but not when they play. It is the teenagers that I root for- fighting nerves through every measure, hands shaking whenever not engaged in playing. One of them made the sign of the cross over himself when he finished.

Halfway through the program was John, a singer. I’ve seen him at other recitals. He’s only studied voice for a year or two. He walked to the side of the piano, smiled at the audience, and waited for his accompanist. I saw him counting out the measures of introduction in his head. He sang. His is a soft voice, not powerful or lithe. There is a quiver in it. I don’t think it was because John was nervous. I think it’s because he is at least seventy.

4267059618_af54737fc0_z Effective music is not about showcasing technical perfection. Ultimately, it is about communicating the deepest emotions of the human experience. John emoted his song, transmitting it with his body language, as well as his voice. The poetry was in the combination of the lyrics and this performer, a man who has lived long enough to know the sorrows and difficulties of life, who’s age shows in his face and his walk. Yet he stood in front of a room of strangers and sang with such joy and gratitude that I was moved to tears and inspired to live that same way- to learn new things as long as I am able, to squeeze as much living as I can out of life, and to remain grateful for each day and every good thing.

My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation,
I hear the sweet, though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation;
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?
 
What though my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Savior liveth;
What though the darkness gather round?
Songs in the night he giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging;
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?
 
I lift my eyes; the cloud grows thin;
I see the blue above it;
And day by day this pathway smooths,
Since first I learned to love it;
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart,
A fountain ever springing;
All things are mine since I am his—
How can I keep from singing?
                        -Robert Wadsworth Lowry

 

 

How to Lose Friends and Irritate People

I like social media. It connects me to people I would never see in person, but who enrich my life through our digital society. That said, I am sometimes made ill by the behavior I see online- the vile way people talk to and about each other. We behave abominably online in ways that, I hope to God, (I actually do; this is not a taking-name-in-vain violation.) we would never ever behave face to face. After years on Facebook and being witness to much keyboard ugliness, I’ve developed a rule for myself. If you are tired of rabid pedants, aggressive strangers, and other senseless bile, read on.

The Cocktail Party Rule

Old-Fashioned

Old-Fashioned.

Here’s the groundbreaking idea: If you wouldn’t do something at a cocktail party, don’t do it online. Mind blown? No? Good, then there is hope for us.

Before I flesh out this common sense, shouldn’t even have to mention it idea, let me say that all this assumes that the reader has basic adult social skills and is not a complete ninny.

Other People’s Houses

Pages, updates, editorials, etc.

When you arrive at a friend’s house/online space, you are on her turf, interacting with her life and her family/friends/co-workers. For goodness sake, be on good behavior. Assess the tone of conversation; watch your language; engage in charming and mindful small talk. Save complaining about your gouty toe until after dinner and a few glasses of wine. While the other guests there are strangers to you, you are all valued friends of the host.

If someone starts talking about a movie they hate and you love, do you call them a tasteless hack and curse at them? No, because that shows disrespect for your friend’s friend and, by extension, your friend. Also, you are an adult and understand that people have different opinions about every single thing in life.

There are a few types of individuals who damage good social interaction, in person or online. Here are a few of most odious.

The Blowhard

This individual operates under the false notion that passion and knowledge for a subject override common decency towards complete strangers. Even more confounding is when her passion overrides respect for people she does know and calls “friends.”

316350341_00239c8fc2The Blowhard typically sees herself as exceedingly correct in her opinions and feels the need to enlighten or shame everyone within range with her brilliant take on a given subject. She thinks she holds the monopoly on truth and that only misled, bad, or stupid people could have an opinion different from hers. It is a precariously high pedestal on which to balance, and if you rock it, even just a little bit, she will respond defensively with a hiss of vitriol and anger, instead of setting her feet on solid reason.

Don’t attack your friends’ friends, ever- in person or online. Learn to disagree on point without belittling the individual. No one was ever persuaded to change his mind on a subject by being called an idiot.

Changing opinions is a long process, unless the opinion under pressure is not well formed in the first place. We are far likelier to succeed at increasing the understanding of both parties. The best way is to welcome the examination of ideas. This requires both sides to remove their opinions from their person, lay them out and examine them together, as partners. This is far less emotionally satisfying because it requires us to control and scrutinize ourselves. Unfortunately, a lot of people seem incapable or unwilling to do this.

If you want to rant against the Republicans or excoriate the President, that’s fine; do it on your own wall. I don’t like this either because vitriol is poison, but at least don’t inject it into others’ space. I have seen countless good Facebook conversations hijacked or ended by a blowhard with an ax to grind. The great thing about social media is that you don’t have to get involved in a conversation if you are angry or can’t set aside your righteous indignation. Rest your fingers; you might get carpal tunnel.

The Honest Jerk

“I’m sorry, but I’m just being honest.” This is a common excuse for being rude, as if honesty and respect are mutually exclusive.  What exactly is the Jerk being honest about? It can’t be the facts of an argument because facts and logic stand on their merits and are not dependent on verbal muscle to be convincing.

This is an honesty of emotion. The Jerk is irritated/threatened/mad that others don’t share his view, so he expresses that to the detriment of his argument. Because the Jerk is ruled by his emotions, he will call you names and make wild, hysterical assumptions about the other. I recently saw a comment by a woman who said that she teaches her children that any man who is pro-life is a child-molester… – wild, hysterical assumption. Oh, her lucky, lucky children.

I’m not sure why people hold public emotional honesty in such high esteem. When children indulge in it, we call it a ‘tantrum.’ It must make Jerks feel better and they justify it by its being honest and natural. Body odor is also honest and natural, but I don’t particularly enjoy my own, why should I put up with yours?

If you are interested in a good exchange of ideas, a dance of minds- temper your temper. It takes self-control and effort to construct a disagreement around ideas and not emotions, but you will get your point across better. It will not be overshadowed by a tantrum. Yell your anger/fear/disdain at your screen, in the privacy of your own home where no one will see the ugliness.  Don’t put it on a public forum, where the outburst will live forever.

The Quoter

You know that guy you knew in your 20s, the one who communicated almost exclusively in movie quotes? While impressive in the sheer volume of minutia committed to memory, that guy is tedious. Don’t be his equal in digital society- the person who only posts third-party links and never has an original thought. If I’ve added you to my social circle, it is because of you, not because I need you to filter for me everything that Huffington posts.

All those memes are not funny either, not in aggregate. It’s like the drunk at a party who holds everyone hostage with a chain of knock-knock jokes. Share one or two, then give it a rest. Political memes are the digital equivalent of protest signs and are therefore obnoxious by default. Use them sparingly.

Tell me what you are thinking. Hell, show me what you’re eating for lunch. Show me your cute pets. Tell me about your kids. Give me a good book review. Express yourself directly because we are friends and I want to read about you.

The Competitor

Red Boxing Gloves Hanging on WallThis one is easily combined with the other social irritants. The Competitor sees any argument as a win or lose proposition. She does not let up. It is as if she wants her “opponent” to tap out and declare her the winner. Sorry, hon, that is not how the real world works. State your case as best you can, answer any resulting queries, and leave your brilliant rhetoric to simmer in the brains of your conversation partners. If you argument is convincing and you have not been a Jerk, they may come back for a second helping of your wisdom.

Be A Bouncer

It is so easy to fall into these patterns. We’ve all done it, but we need to control ourselves, like we do in real life. Because, in modern culture, digital society is real life. Unfortunately, social media is a terrible medium for dialectic. Only telegram could be worse. Good written arguments take a lot of time and words to construct, and even then, nuance is tricky and the recipient can’t interrupt and ask for clarification. A public space full of knee-jerk writing is simply not the place to discuss important and delicate issues. It is barely the place to take a stand on something as benign as feta vs. chèvre. There is always some troll lurking about.

We can encourage good behavior by practicing it ourselves, and reminding ourselves that a difference of opinion is just that. It does not lessen or threaten anyone’s validity or humanity.

Let’s be less tolerant of rabid pedants. Don’t engage with a name-calling jerk. Don’t respond to a blowhard. Tell them that you won’t continue the exchange because of their rude behavior and failure to control their emotions.  Then, stay away or unfollow the thread.  If the pedant is on your wall, insulting your friends, remind them to be civil and, if they persist, erase their comments and send them a private message explaining why. I would love to know how you respond to bad behavior in your online space.

Please, let’s hold ourselves to a higher standard. I will likely have to log out during the next election year. And then I will miss out on countless pictures of dinner and trifling cat memes.

To the Letter

An appreciation of the ancient pairing of pen and paper.
vermeer-20-51

I have carefully saved every single letter I’ve received since I was a child, and a rough draft for every letter I sent out before I was too busy to write rough drafts (about age 23.) The oldest are yellowing in an old square cookie tin in my childhood room. I’m sure my mother would love me to finally empty out that closet. The more recent are in a file cabinet, each in its envelope.  I burned and discarded my adolescent journals. (They practically burned themselves, so full of sap and crackling teenage angst.) But I will not willfully part with the letters. They are the souvenirs of affections and friendships, and the memories of the very best times. No one takes the time to write a trivial letter. They are all precious.

Poetry and power lie in the very physicality of letters, in holding the words of another. Letters reflect the time and place of the writing- postcards, stationary unique to locale, the age and type of paper. They bear witness to the state of the writer at the moment of composition- the way he shaped his letters, the speed and neatness of the writing, the strength of the pen strokes. They can carry the scent of a place and the markings of their place of origin.  They may be read over and over again without the aide of an electric screen. They can be kept in a pocket. They can be treasured.

Reading a letter in someone’s handwriting is like hearing her voice. I know the handwriting of my family members and letter writing friends by sight.  For the recipient, there is meaning in holding this thing that was created in the hands of a friend, lover, family member, honored or even unknown person. I love letters- short ones, long ones, ones with doodles, tear stains, or chocolate smudges.

(Not Hot Swede)

Hot Swede and I spent the summer before we were married apart. I was at the Chautauqua Institution for most of the summer. He was at home in Minnesota and on tour as a member of a nascent chamber music ensemble.  I received a letter from him every day but Sunday, when the mail was not delivered. Every day. They are written on proper stationary, with interesting stamps, in as neat a penmanship as his left-hand and our right-handed language allows. I treasure each one. Combined with all the letters I sent in reply, they make a stack just under a foot tall.

Nothing did more to convince me that this was a man worth combing my hair for than receiving and reading all those letters. Each one was a gift. Hot Swede had never written letters before but did so because he knew how much I value them. They are love letters, descriptions of the day, musings on music and friends, questions begging reply. I soaked them all up. (Since saying the old “I do” 13 years ago, he’s written me one letter…and it was an apology. Ha!)

A handwritten letter is always a gift- completely unique and created with only one reader in mind. The sender takes the time to craft a personal message and present it in a way that reflects not only her thoughts, but the very movement of her hand and the tactile imprint of her surroundings. A letter is a record of a moment of her thinking of someone else.

Of course, these memories can be recorded digitally. Social media makes it easier than ever to stay in touch. We share messages, photos, jokes, and have destructive ideological typing matches that only result in raised cortisol levels and people behaving like the very worst kind of pedants. We Skype family around the globe for less than the cost of a .44¢ stamp. People are doing plenty of writing. My 2nd grader has a blog. (We started ours at the same time, how cute.) Facebook et al are powerful tools- facile, ubiquitous, and cheap. I like Facebook. I’ve rekindled valuable relationships that enrich my inner life and significantly allay the loneliness of being a stay at home parent of young children. It is useful and I enjoy it.

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Twsbi 540, medium nib. It even makes writing checks less painful.

None of it replaces ink and paper for its ability to carry deep significance and leave its mark on the soul. Who doesn’t enjoy getting a real letter? I love writing them too- choosing my ink, pen and stationary, feeling the scratch of my nib on paper, enjoying the pleasing sight of a sheet filled with the lines and curls of the Latin alphabet in cursive. Each time I write a letter, thank you note, or sympathy card, I say, in the very action of taking the time to connect in this ancient way, “I value you. This is important. I mean what I say.”

I am resolved to write more letters. I am resolved to write to remaining influential pedagogues and family and thank them for their lessons. I am resolved to keep my promise of writing letters to my children each year.  I want my words and gratitude to be present in their lives, even when I cannot, and not as a memory, but actually there, in hand, in view.

Need more inspiration to write a letter? Check out the amazing collections of letters over at Letters of Note. (Yes, I know it’s run by a company who trades in online correspondence. The irony is not lost on me. Check it out anyway. You will be rewarded.)