Jackson, our lab/boxer mix, gets caught in waves of light and smoky shadow cast by a winter sun. All pictures taken with my iPhone 5. I consider the last one to be the best picture I’ve ever taken.

“An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language.” -Martin Buber

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Six-Actors-Poster-WebI had a dream about Wikipedia once. (I know, right?)

If you analyze the format of a Wikipedia page, you’ll see that, at the top, there’s the main concept, and the page becomes increasingly detailed and fractured the further down you look.

Well, as my dream opens,  I’m looking at the very bottom of a Wikipedia page—at the “External links,” probably—and then I begin visually scrolling up, higher and higher, with an increasingly urgent need to reach the controlling Word, where all the scattered instances will finally fuse together into One, the only One there is.

I woke up about 2″ from the top.

Anyway, sometimes I think that the secret of academic writing is not to look for examples to support a thesis, i.e. “cherry picking,” but to allow examples to suggest a meaning, to hint, tantalizingly, at a concept, just as they are wont to do in waking life. Similarities propose a marriage; resemblances suggest a unity. Find 3 or 5 or 7 of these things and you’ve got yourself a paper.

I just watched a YouTube video of Collin Raye’s 1993 country classic, “That’s My Story,” while I was doing some research. (It’s complicated.) At the beginning was an ad for Tough Mudder. I never watch the ads, but the text of this one caught me. Here it is:

Immediately, I was reminded of a number of similar texts we went over in my ENG101 sections just this semester. The first is an entry in the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, “Yu Yi”:

Some Mudders might find it strange—or annoying—to be lumped in with the existential lyricism of the Dictionary, but tough. It works.

A second example is “Cycle of Fear,” an article in the New York Times where Tim Kreider writes about how he deals with his anxiety by bicycling at high speeds through Manhattan traffic:

I’m convinced these are the conditions in which we evolved to thrive: under moderate threat of death at all times, brain and body fully integrated, senses on high alert, completely engaged with our environment. It is, if not how we’re happiest — we’re probably happiest in a hot tub with a martini and a very good naked friend — how we are most fully and electrically alive.

I could go on. There are many other examples, but they all add up to one thesis: something’s missing, I know not what. Is it a nostalgia for a fresh and exciting world? A fealty to some atavistic trait long forgotten? A longing to express a kind of immediate, pre-linguistic experience that language itself has absorbed into its dry concepts? How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seem all the uses of this world.

We seem to have gotten everything backwards.

Pick the cherries first, then dream of red.

***

It hardly seems necessary to counter the assertion by Republicans that they are still “the party of Lincoln,” but what the heck.

“Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter,” by toown, at Deviant Art

I’m rereading some of Lincoln’s speeches and letters, and finding passages that, if uttered today, would make him Enemy #1 to today’s Republicans. These are from his July 4th Message to Congress, in 1861. The whole thing is a refutation of the secessionist argument, but these parts stand out:

This sophism derives much, perhaps the whole of its currency from the assumption that there is some omnipotent and sacred supremacy pertaining to a State—to each State of our Federal Union. Our States have neither more nor less power than that reserved to them in the Union by the Constitution, no one of them ever having been a State out of the Union…

Having never been States, either in substance or in name, outside of the Union, whence this magical omnipotence of “State rights,” asserting a claim of power to lawfully destroy the Union itself? Much is said about the “sovereignty” of the States, but the word even is not in the National Constitution, nor, as is believed, in any of the State constitutions. What is a “sovereignty” in the political sense of the term? Would it be far wrong to define it “a political community without a political superior”?

Tested by this, no one of our States, except Texas, ever was a sovereignty; and even Texas gave up the character on coming into the Union, by which act she acknowledged the Constitution of the United States and the laws and treaties of the United States made in pursuance of the Constitution to be for her the supreme law of the land.

Ted Cruz would have a field day with that one.

The States have their status in the Union, and they have no other legal status. If they break from this, they can only do so against law and by revolution. The Union, and not themselves separately, procured their independence and their liberty. By conquest or purchase, the Union gave each of them whatever of independence or liberty it has. The Union is older than any of the States, and, in fact, it created them as States.

More to come, probably…

***

Yesterday, the Washington Post published an editorial called, “GOP leaders, you must do everything in your power to stop Trump.”

Not gonna work, as anyone who saw the 1956 sci-fi classic, Forbidden Planet, could tell you. Here’s why:

“Never forget where you are.”

That’s one of the first things I was told when I started teaching classes in the prison. Initially, the warning seemed absurd; if you’ve ever been in one of these places, you know that  you can no more forget where you are than you could if you were to suddenly materialize at the bottom of the ocean. It was also vaguely threatening, redolent of sudden attacks, and covert manipulations by desperate, irredeemable men. For the record, I have never experienced any of those things. But there is wisdom in the warning, nonetheless, and I often receive stunning reminders of “where I am” just as I begin to feel comfortable.

For instance, last week we were talking about deductive reasoning, and what can happen when you try to make a deduction based on imperfect evidence, or no evidence at all. I admitted that the very first time I entered the prison I had thought to myself, Here there be monsters, but where? That got a laugh, plus several nods of the head. Then, I asked if they had had any deductions about college before actually starting the program. (For many of the students, “college” might as well have been “Timbuktu” for all they knew about it.) I was expecting answers that touched on anxiety, course load, fear of the unknown, etc.

Instead, one student said, “I remember wondering whether or not the teachers would treat us the same as their other students.”

“Do you mean if we would ‘dumb down’ the classes?”

“No, I meant if you would treat us like everyone else does.”

“Treat you like inmates.”

“Yes.”

This wasn’t the first time I’d experienced something like this. A few years ago, right in the middle of a presentation on APA style, one of the students raised his hand and announced, quite calmly, “Mister G., I have question about ethos.”

Now, a question about ethos should not be surprising in a composition class. But this was Science Writing. Ethos had not been mentioned once since the start of the previous semester, when I’d casually mentioned it as one of the elements of persuasive rhetoric. To have it come popping out of the underbrush at that point was a shock.

I lowered the strip of toilet paper I’d been using to clean the White Board, and waited.

“You said that ethos means ‘good character.’”

“Yes. Partially.”

“Well, given who we are,” he continued, gesturing vaguely to the rest of the class, “why would anyone ever read anything we write?”

Experienced teachers know the occasional need for an extemporaneous “Plan B,” that sudden, vertiginous swerve down a road you never saw on the map, but which you must navigate at high speed with only slight pressure on the brakes. In the prison classroom, it’s always Plan B. Every text hits bone. Words have consequences. Rhetorical concepts, long ago discarded as boilerplate, are discussed endlessly, dissected and rebuilt, not just in terms of essay writing, but of freedom, justice, identity.

Your lecture notes are worthless, then. So are the skills of which you were once so proud. Even if you used to thrive on spontaneity, challenge, and surprise, your intellectual agility means nothing when you have been stunned into silence by a grown man who has been made to feel worthless. At that moment, you will remember where you are.

And why you’re there.

***

CS1954283-02A-BIGI was at the Rochester Public Market the other day, and a little boy in a stroller pointed to some kind of vegetable and asked his mother, “What is that?,” and she answered, “I don’t know what it’s called, honey.”

Which, of course, was not the question.

Something’s name is not what it is; it’s only the pin through the butterfly. Or the bat. I think Bill Clinton had it about right. So did Gertrude Stein:

As I say a noun is a name of a thing and therefore slowly if you feel what is inside that thing you do not call it by the name by which it is known. Everybody knows that by the way they do when they are in love and a writer should always have that intensity of emotion about what ever is the object about which he writes. And therefore and I say it again more and more one does not use nouns.

So what’s to be done? Stein suggested switching over to verbs and adverbs, but I think nouns are a challenge that needs to be taken head on.

There’s something of an adage in college writing that a student should never use the word “thing” in a paper. I’m starting to have my doubts. It feels more honest to tell them to use “thing” every time they need a noun. If that word begins to get tiresome, they can pick from a list of nouns coined by Mark Twain in A Tramp Abroad. (Twain is mocking the ostentatious use of foreign phrases in travel writing, but we can utilize them, nonetheless.)–

bong-a-bong
swosh-swosh
schnawp
bzzzzzzzeee
hogglebumgullup
poopoo
haboolong
nappersocket
yokky
puckitypuck

It’s too bad that mom didn’t have this list in her pocket when her kid pointed to what was clearly a beet.

***

I was just helping a student do some research for a history essay. The mission: find 3 primary documents from the 19th Century that reveal something about the spirit of the age. Her topic: Christmas shopping.

We did a database search of all the articles from the New York Times published before the year 1880, using the terms “Christmas” and “Shopping,” and got a measly 40 hits on 2 pages, a good number of them tiny classified ads. The first article, written in 1870, was titled, The Enemy of the Family, and was a complaint about “middle men” running up the prices of goods at Christmas time. Other titles included:

PERU.: How Christmas was celebrated in Lima—Peruvian Ladies—Their Lack of Refinement—Political Matters.

COMMERCIAL AFFAIRS.: Sales at the Stock Exchange Dec. 16.

THE SPECTRE SHIP

And, lumbering in at #24:

CURRENT ENGLISH TOPICS: POLITICAL AND GENERAL NOTES. THE MAN WHO KNOWS EVERYTHING THE EASTERN QUESTION BRAGGING JOHN BULL COCKNEYISM IN LONDON TWO PUGILISTIC WAR CORRESPONDENTS THE PRIVILEGES OF PROTECTION AND THE IRON TRADE.

This last one very nearly crushed her spirit. We were stymied.

Then I remembered that I’d recently read Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture, by the historian William R. Leach. According to Leach:

Before 1880 business like department stores did not exist…In the next twenty years, however, cities throughout the country would be filled with large retail establishmentsmultifloored, multiwindowed buildings of great concentrated selling power.

These huge department stores were the result of a deliberate, concentrated culture of shopping,

unconnected to traditional family or community values, to religion in any conventional sense, or to political democracy. It was a secular business and market-oriented culture, with the exchange and circulation of money and goods at the foundation of its aesthetic life and its moral sensibility.

In the case of Christmas,

when the large department stores first began to overshadow retail districts, Santa Claus’s status also started to metamorphose. The big merchants laid claim to him and to the imagery of the Christmas holidays. Urban merchandising began to give substance and form to the Christmas rituals.

So, on a hunch, I suggested to the student that we change the search criteria to articles published between 1880 and 1900. A few clicks of the mouse later, and we had 406 citations on 21 pages. The title of the 1st article was:

MUCH CHRISTMAS SHOPPING: The Season of 1898 Has Been the Best in Many Years. THE FINAL RUSH LAST NIGHT Belated Buyers Crowded the Stores—A Great Year for Mistletoe and Other Greens.

Some others were:

CHRISTMAS STREET SCENES.: JOSTLING CROWDS OF SHOPPERS IN THE RETAIL STORE DISTRICTS. (1888)

FOR THE COMING HOLIDAY: Suggestions to the Christmas Shopper and Home Worker. THE SEASON’S RARELY LAVISH DISPLAY What a Round of the Shops Offers — Prices and Quality Most Satisfactory — Designs for Home Work. (1895)

STORE THIEVES AND DETECTIVE: Both Have Already Appeared in the Mass of Holiday Shoppers That Crowd the Big Shops. (1899)

And, of course:

Killed After Christmas Shopping Trip. (1900)

Thank you, Santa! The student left happy, if a little over-burdened, and now I’m looking forward to reading a fine essay.

And to Bill O’Reilly and all the other commentators who complain yearly about the government and the forces of political correctness storming the Christmas gates, I offer this line from The Odyssey:

But come now, change thy theme, and sing of the building of the horse of wood, which Epeius made with Athena’s help, the horse which once Odysseus led up into the citadel as a thing of guile, when he had filled it with the men who sacked Ilion.

Christmas lost the war a long time ago, taken from within before it even knew it was vulnerable.

***