Death in the classroom

the pearl_2At least once during the English teacher’s career, we inflict the heinous crime of beating a perfectly good novel to death. I must confess that some time ago, during my maiden voyage as a new teacher, I perpetrated such an offense against The Pearl.

It all began one day in September as a perfectly legitimate assignment. I was to instruct the students on all the literary nuances that could be squeezed out of the novel. My class of eighth graders and I commenced with an author biography, a lively testament to John Steinbeck’s literary genius. It was from here that we embarked on our thoughtful migration into the book.

As we began to decipher each chapter, characters were delicately probed and analyzed. It was imperative that we assess traits and dispositions. We wanted to understand who and what each character stood for, their symbolic relationship to themselves as individuals and to mankind.
Discussions of the “settings” were tabled. Cooperative group activities were exercised. Students were given opportunity to examine both the historical significance of the novel’s setting, as well as the geographic clues that were relayed to us by the author. And, as if this wasn’t enough, we explored “themes”; the struggle for existence, free will vs. determination, social class, and oppression to a minority group.

September was creeping into October, and by this time of the dissection, these kids were screaming for mercy. But no, relentlessly we pushed on. After all, we had only touched the surface; we needed to consider, “STYLE”! Even though there are a mere six chapters, we sought after metaphors, similes, phrases, and descriptions!
With the patience of an archaeologist, we left no page untouched. Our mission was now to decipher the “point of view,” the third person narrative, our omnipotent action teller who guides us through the universal parable. Determined to seek out more, we struggled with “form and structure.” Was this important novel merely a simple legend or was it an allegory designed to teach us a moral lesson? This probing question lasted a good two classes. With pens in hands, we highlighted, scribbled notes in the margins, and to be sure, probably exhausted any pleasure that was intended by our notable American author, Steinbeck.

So, I confess, I killed The Pearl in a purely selfish attempt to teach the great American novel, to impose my love of literature and all its wonders.

Esteemed thinker: Walker Evans

PH00604 Driving was once an activity that required a person to use two hands and two feet; one hand to shift and the other to steer, one foot to clutch and the other to break and accelerate. It was an activity that required the driver to pay attention to the sound of the motor, when to engage the car to another gear and when to stop….to operate the vehicle sufficiently meant the driver needed to know why and what they were doing. Those who were not competently trained did not get very far, finding themselves chugging along at a speed that was irritating even to the vehicle itself for the engine ached until it was put into the correct gear. Those who did not clutch appropriately found themselves stalling out with an abrupt and incredibly awkward thwart. Even steering the car took two hands and opening a window was laborious; all that cranking.

Fast forward to today where operating a car is so easy that some drivers often find time to shave or put on make-up at the same time. In fact, in order to manipulate a car takes less coordination or concentration than riding a bicycle. Cars of today do not even require the turning of a key; all it seems to require to get to your destination is a ridiculously simple act of … “mash and go”….

But then, it makes you wonder… who decided to design a car that is so automatic that it requires obviously very little from the driver. Not to belabor the subject, but maybe it wasn’t so bad when the driver actually had to be part of the driving process….


Today’s post introduces the esteemed thinker: Walker Evans (1903-1975 ) Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Evans began his career as a painter and writer however graduated into becoming one of America’s most prominent photographers. Evans recorded everyday life, creating a visual catalogue of contemporary America. During the Great Depression he worked for the FSA documenting the hardships and poverty of the era, with an emphasis on the rural south.

As part of his collection, I bring to you his photo, Wrecked Cars in Automobile Junkyard, Tampa, Florida (1941) His composition and subject matter is a visual reminder…driving is not for the “inattentive”!

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Second photo: Portrait of Evans (1941)

Humor: a most personal taste

Where one gets their sense of humor is a question that can be deliberated; for some it may be inherited such as one inherits their blue eyes, or it might have been nurtured beginning with the way we may have reacted to situations and then how this reaction was perceived by others thus forming our ‘own’ sense of humor.

Humor can be something subtle or it can be found in a story that takes time to read. And then humor can take on different modes such as when we hear a joke, see a show, or find a situation that is ironic, not outwardly funny but rather it is understated. And then sometimes what we consider funny may not seem humorous to others.

But regardless of origin or style… humor is a human characteristic that can take us away from the most unpleasant day and send us happily into a different mood, even if it is for just a moment.
Today’s blog is my way of bringing perhaps a bit of humor to your day… by taking the liberty of sharing one of my pieces that I think is…well…kind of funny!

eeeks a mouse_compressed_avery

An interlude with nature

Nature wears no watch yet she conveys to us changes that we measure as time. From cycle to cycle, season to season, there is no evidence of her work being complete for as soon as one bloom opens, another may fall…and happily, we receive more. But sometimes we stray too close to her seemingly endless bounty and like breaking the shapely hour glass; we allow the sand to run out.

Today’s blog invites you to step back for a moment and ponder my image; it is a simple photo with a crude reminder of what can happen if we slip too far between, if we step over our boundaries during an interlude with nature…

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Henri Bergson and humor

cartoon blk and white Humor is like a twin sibling that grows up with you. It is always there by your side however, it too changes and matures; whereupon things and ideas that you once considered humorous may now take on a less than funny state. For what makes you laugh now is quite different from what made you laugh as a child. Take the comic section of the newspaper…it is a curious thing…when you were young the drawings lured you into their story cells, but once inside the cartoon bubbles were not very funny…even to an extent that they really made little sense; creating a disappointing sham to your six year old mind. (After-all… your concept of satire and irony was just forming.) And it was not until you grew older that the humor contained within each comic strip made you laugh.

As ideas and values have transformed with time, from one decade to another, what amuses us to the point of laughter has gone in and out of vogue. Which moves us along to another phenomena; laughter is a uniquely human quality. Yes, I too have sensed that an opened mouth pet looks like they are laughing, and yes, the dog’s tail wags wildly when you talk in a “silly and endearing voice,” as if they found you to be rather amusing. However, no matter how much teeth and gum they show, I would have to say we humans hold the lease on laughter.

Henri bergson Today’s blog brings back our esteemed thinker: Henri Bergson. Like many before him the idea of humor and laughter was “no laughing matter” for there was and likely still is wonderment about it. Mr. Bergson found a “common ground” regarding humor, the comic, and laughter in his essay titled Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. And so, let us take a pass through the early 1900s and contemplate a snippet extracted from his words.

“…the comic demands something like a momentary anesthesia of the heart. Its appeal is to intelligence, pure and simple. This intelligence, however, must always remain in touch with other intelligences… Laughter appears to stand in need of an echo, Listen to it carefully: it is not an articulate, clear, well-defined sound; it is something which would fain be prolonged by reverberating from one to another, something beginning with a crash, to continue in successive rumblings, like thunder in a mountain. Still, this reverberation cannot go on for ever. It can travel within as wide a circle as you please: the circle remains, none the less, a closed one.

Our laughter is always the laughter of a group. It may, perchance, have happened to you, when seated in a railway carriage or at table d’hote, to hear travelers relating to one another stories which must have been comic to them, for they laughed heartily… However spontaneous it seems, laughter always implies a kind of secret freemasonry, or even complicity, with other laughers, real or imaginary. How often has it been said that the fuller the theatre, the more uncontrolled the laughter of the audience!

On the other hand, how often has the remark been made that many comic effects are incapable of translation from one language to another, because they refer to the customs and ideas of a particular social group! It is through not understanding the importance of this double fact that the comic has been looked upon as a mere curiosity in which the mind finds amusement, and laughter itself as a strange, isolated phenomenon, without any bearing on the rest of human activity…

To understand laughter, we must put it back into its natural environment, which is society, and above all must we determine the utility of its function, which is a social one. Such, let us say at once, will be the leading idea of all our investigations. Laughter must answer to certain requirements of life in common. It must have a SOCIAL signification…”

A.A. Milne and titles

milne As time goes by the meaning of everyday words can change. Let’s take the word branding as an example. According to its etymology this word originates way back to the Old English when it was defined as: burning, a burning piece of wood or torch. However, to the 21st century ear a brand ( used as a noun) is the idea or image marketed to a particular service or product. Branding (used as a verb) is equated with a marketing strategy of creating a name or symbol that identifies that product from others. If the branding is successful then the consumer identifies and differentiates your product, hopefully, in a favorable light.

So why all this blogging about branding and brand…well let’s think about the author…how he or she consciously or unconsciously uses branding…. I would have to say the initial “impression” we wish our readers find appealing or attractive is established first by way of the title. After all, that is really the first thing that sets off a piece from another. Considerable time is spent trying to come up with that perfect title, the one that defines your story with just enough of a subtle nudge to get someone interested. If however you are already a household-name author, such as Stephen King, you have already established your “brand” and c’est la vie…you will not lie awake at night trying to come up with that wit or metaphor embedded in your title that literally screams off the shelf or wows the reader.

So, today I bring back A.A. Milne …yes, the same guy who wrote Winnie –the- Poo…but let me remind you that he has many other titles under his belt…who has written a clever piece that will give you a smile or a nod of “yes, I get it” regarding titles. Here is a sampling of his essay “Labels” neatly extracted from his book titled, “Not that it Matters.”

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The Labels

“….I have been reading the titles of the books. That is not so good (or bad) as reading the books themselves, but it enables me to say that I have heard of such and such a novel, and in some cases it does give me a slight clue to what goes on inside.

I should imagine that the best part of writing a novel was the choosing a title. My idea of a title is that it should be something which reflects the spirit of your work and gives the hesitating purchaser some indication of what he is asked to buy. To call your book Ethnan Frame or Esther Grant or John Temple or John Merridew (I quote from the index) is to help the reader not at all. All it tells him is that one of the characters inside will be called John or Esther—a matter, probably, of indifference to him…

But if you don’t call your book Phyllis or John Temple or Mrs. Elmsley, what—I hear you asking—are you to call it? Well, you might call it Kapak, as I see somebody has done. The beauty of Kapak as a title is that if you come into the shop by the back entrance, and so approach the book from the wrong end, it is still Kapak. A title which looks the same from either end is of immense advantage to an author…

Another mystery title is The Man with Thicker Beard, which probably means something. It is like Kapak in this, that it reads equally well backwards; but it is not so subtle. Still, we should probably be lured on to buy it. On the other hand, A Welsh Nightingale and a Would-be Suffragette is just the sort of book to which we would not be tempted by the title. It is bad enough to have to say to the shopman, “Have you A Welsh Nightingale and a Would-be Suffragette?” but if we forgot the title, as we probably should, and had to ask at random for a would-be nightingale and a Welsh suffragette, or a wood nightingale and a Welsh rabbit, or the Welsh suffragette’s night in gaol, we should soon begin to wish that we had decided on some quite simple book such as Greed, Earth, or Jonah.

And this is why a French title is always such a mistake. Authors must remember that their readers have not only to order the book, in many cases, verbally, but also to recommend it to their friends. So I think Mr. Oliver Onions made a mistake when he called his collection of short stories Pot au Feu. It is a good title, but it is the sort of title to which the person to whom you are recommending the book always answers, “What?” And when people say “What?” in reply to your best Parisian accent, the only thing possible for you is to change the subject altogether. But it is quite time that we came to some sort of decision as to what makes the perfect title. Kapak will attract buyers, as I have said, though to some it may not seem quite fair. Excellent from a commercial point of view, it does not satisfy the conditions we laid down at first. The title, we agreed, must reflect the spirit of the book. In one sense Five Gallons of Gasolene does this, but of course nobody could ask for that in a book-shop…”