The Essay is the most direct literary genre
Montaigne, come down from your tower and take a bow! You invented the most enduring and versatile form of writing.
The essay allows me to directly to the reader. I can use persuasion, description, analysis as well as narrative and humor to convey concepts as well as experiences.
These short essays are meant to be listened to or read in a few minutes, like a satisfying snack.
They cover the details of living and include such topics as forgetfulness, excessive home work, jerks, pigeons, and a father and daughter
sharing a baseball game, .
Power has always been seen as something large. In reality, power is small, specific, of finite duration, and present in every situation.
Majorities and Minorities
How to bleed commuters till they are dessicated corpses
Tribalism in America
Essays on Education
I have written extensively on education and on topics that I have taught, including the Turner Frontier Thesis.
"I WANT MORE ESSAYS!!!"
News and Celebrity, History and Myth, Admiration and Suffocation
Do you ever have the sensation that your mental processes are choked and suffocated by an ozone cloud of media?
I worry that much of the information I receive, many ideas and issues I consider, and emotions I feel are not actually my own, but have entered my brain from the radio, television, newspapers and magazines to which I am exposed.
Due to the support I get from a willing network of media-addicts, I am encouraged to go about my life and let the media think for me.
It seems like a cozy arrangement, but the danger is apparent. I may be abuzz with thoughts, feelings, and opinions, and believe I am their author, when I am only their conduit. If I stop thinking on my own for any period of time, can I do it again? This is no cantankerous, Luddite concern, but one based in physiology and pharmacology.
When a man has prostate cancer he can be given a course of luprolide acetate, an androgen blockade, more bluntly called “chemical castration.” This is how it works. By flooding his system with a drug that induces a surfeit of testosterone, the androgen blockade tricks the pituitary into shutting down the patient’s own testosterone-production, thus depriving the tumor of one of its favorite foods. But once the therapy is over, there is no guarantee that the patient’s testosterone factory will resume production. Good for the patient, not so good for the man.
A steady infusion of media can have a similar effect on a human brain. If I depend too heavily on the media to deliver food for thought, what happens when the power shuts down and the infusion stops? Will my thinking revive? Will I be able to produce one original idea? If no thoughts or feelings come, will I be lost? Or will I recall and recycle tatters of thoughts and feelings left over from media feasts and through repetition and fragmented memory remodel the information as my own? If so, I will be in the company of my ancestors, the cave painters and story-tellers, because this is a plausible model for how history and myth evolved in their minds aeons ago.
The media also fulfill this role. They serve--appropriate--a natural purpose, feeding and relieving our imaginations, reminding us always of what is real and possible. They are our collective shamanic storytellers, whose daily sap hardens into the amber of enduring truth. For this reason, I am less rancorous about media, its productions, deceptions, and creations. I am enthralled to witness history and myth being formulated from the news and celebrity gossip which media provide. The Hebrews, Greeks, Indians, Aztecs and other peoples created figures and stories and we cannot be certain how long it took them to devise. We call them myths, suggesting they were fictitious. But they must have been based on actual people and situations, like OJ's white bronco or baseball players' steroid use. Later Sigmund Freud gave the tales credence when he cited them as paradigms of behavior and relationships. Now, in the daily barrage of media news and celebrity making I see in real time how the history and myths were made.
According to Freud and other observers, America is a society whose culture suffers from a deficiency of history and myth. Yet, what America lacks in tradition, we more than compensate for with industry. Freud did not estimate the power of American media to create out of the immense, raw resources of America a history and mythology in the same manner that the robber barons laid rails and poured steel. In the venal and practical task of informing and entertaining us, the media serve a greater purpose than they know. They feed our bottomless appetites with the stuff of which our history and myths will be made--if we and our descendents remember them. Under the “truths” they sell is the truth they tell. Even their trivial stories bely a mundane profundity because they tell us what we want, what we fear, and what we are.
Today’s media makers may be no less than scribes of this culture’s sacred texts, inscribing for the ages what our culture holds most dear and most true. However, many thoughtful people have reasons to doubt it. They adduce the inordinate focus on the vacuous exploits of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, of Tom and Katie and Brangelina, and Bill and Hillary as worthless gossip that pander not to intelligence but stupidity, not to pyschic wealth but moral bankruptcy, Similarly, the generations who rolled out of the previous century as if it were no more than a teenager's dissheveled bed, roll their eyes at the Vietnam War and the 60s. The media critics in both cases deny, ignore or resist the transformation of news and celebrity into history and myth in real time.
Decadent pop stars will never need to rent a place in the pantheon; they own their spot. These mortal avatars of reckless gods bring us a new message of an old truth, that creativity is wrapped in destruction. Dissipation is the self-sacrifice artists make on the altar of society; their excesses spurn and confirm the restraints of an obedient public. It is the awful price of being different. By the same token, anyone who witnessed the transformation of Vietnam from news to history understands how history is made. We’ve been on the field trip, seen the documentaries and visited the monuments, spoken to the survivors and heard the testimony of a presidential candidate.
Vietnam’s historical prominence rests on its status as a template and taboo. America’s greatest test of virtue is competition; we venerate success and despise failure. By this token, Vietnam is a taboo event, a war lost at terrible cost. There is no larger tragedy in America than the paradox of giving so much for nothing, of crushing, irredeemable loss. Meanwhile, Vietnam is the prototype for a succession of similar conflicts—in Lebanon, Kuwait, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan—characterized dubious objectives, loss of life, and nebulous results. Vietnam fulfills a requirement of history—it is both factual and symbolic.
Equal to the immediacy and speed with which the news travels to us is the speed with which it degrades to trivia. The velocity of the present propels past events into distant memory. Ten years feels like a hundred and recent history by academic standards is prehistoric on the street. For this reason, history must be compiled, compounded, compressed from multitudes of reports and impressions. History results from a constant renewal of news—headline upon headline, bulletin by bulletin, story after story, repeated day after day and every decade.
History is no residue, but a chiseled imprint on collective memory. Interminable repetition is necessary to fortify memory since without it, information dies, leaving traces, but no voice. And with no voice, facts are mute artifacts. They no longer witness truth, but invite interpretation. Americans have been cited for having a short collective memory, and the media’s insistence on dumping tons of information on our minds each day places a huge burden of time, space, and energy on memory. The media gives us history by day, and forgetfulness by night. What are we left with? To maintain memory, and interpret history becomes an individual challenge and responsibility. Each of us must transmit what we remember to anyone willing to hear.
Our insatiable need for news and celebrity is the sensational, preliminary phase of a more powerful need to create myth and history. It is a relationship parallel to sex and procreation; ripping immortality from the loins of our titillated minds. Like any human I am fascinated by the process, yet fearful of how easily media bypass and override my thinking apparatus. Although the brain may be a permeable and interactive medium like the psychologist, Herbert Meade’s “Looking Glass Self”, in constant exchange with the media, the myth-and-history making machine is so loud and ubiquitous that it does not permit interaction and evaluation, but compels submission to its messages. It forces consciousness undercover for protection.
Alzheimer’s and dementia are duly frightening. Memory and consciousness determine who we are as other body organs do not. They define identity, individuality and freedom. Yet, physiological illness is not the only threat to our minds. The ways in which our thinking can be infiltrated and controlled are insidious. There are no blood tests, EKGs or stool samples to determine a loss of thinking or emotional autonomy. No doctor will ask if you have had an original idea or ask you to think into a cup. You must be able to diagnose it yourself, not with a stethoscope to your ear, but by waiting for the words that emerge from darkness.
MEMORIAL DAY MEMORIES
Memorial Day weekend has likable qualities but the weather usually isn't one of them. Of course, any long weekend has a claim to public affection, as an atoll of leisure in an ocean of work. Memorial Day is one in a series of rest-stops in the calendar that includes Labor Day, Columbus Day, and President’s Day--secular holidays whose solemn, original meanings have been obscured by the universal need for respite and relaxation that they partially fulfill.
What makes Memorial Day special and endearing is that it is such a screw-up. With its sibling holidays you know what to expect. M.L. King Day is solemn and cold. President’s Day usually brings the first foretaste of spring, longer daylight, and winter clearance sales. Labor Day is the last summer holiday, when the shadows of shorter days fall earlier and more profoundly, a harbinger of cooler seasons ahead, regardless how humid the air or how high the heat. But you never know what to expect of Memorial Day because it has been forced to overachieve in play a role for which it may not be qualified.
Memorial Day is the prodigal child of holiday weekends. It makes no grandiose claims for itself, but carries our impossibly high expectations. Memorial Day is like most children--hopeful, impatient, and eager to please those implacable adults who pressure it to be what they want it to be. We ask Memorial Day to be the first summer holiday when it is more apt to be the last holiday of spring, falling as it does squarely in the milder season. We ask Memorial Day for beach weather while the ocean is still chilling after a long winter. We ask it for barbecue skies when over the past century, it has rained on Memorial Day one day out of three.
Perhaps the most confusing quality of Memorial Day is that its name denotes solemnity, mourning, and a mood more conducive to houses of worship, yet it has become a major symbol of summer frivolity and spending, inducing somber reflection only by seaside merchants lamenting poor business when Memorial Day is a rainout. In essence Memorial Day is when we drink and grill hotdogs to honor the dead.
I remember Memorial Day before it was the last Monday of May, packaged for a convenient holiday weekend. In those days it was specific to a date, May 30, and was celebrated inconveniently in mid-week, like the 4th of July, if that was when it fell, . Because it was one isolated day, it was a good sleeping day, not much for cook-outs and get-togethers. Falling at the end of May it was usually steamy and warm, a 75 degree soup, and overcast. The languor I associate with Memorial Day, a bilious boredom, is doubtless due to these first impressions of childhood. It was a day off when the weather was depressing and nobody was around to play with--a wasted day.
Since that time there have been some good Memorial Days. I once attended a fine barbecue in the surprising concrete backyard of a tenement building in the west 30s. That was a Memorial Day weekend that lived up to its summery expectations. It was also a funny occasion because it was the last time I saw men cling so tenaciously to their role as barbecue cooks. The anointed few stood over the open charcoal grill in white aprons and snowy toques and did not cede or share for a moment the priestly task of turning the drumsticks every few minutes. It occurred to me that cooking, boiling and all preparations involved with water might fall to women, but men were still consider ourselves the masters of flame, the stokers of the fire.
In some way, Memorial Day is Rorschach for how one feels about summer, especially the summer ahead, for which it is the ceremonial portal. When I was in college, Memorial Day marked the start of a long, hot summer of menial work to earn college tuition. Thus Memorial Day was unavoidably tainted by the summer that ensued. It was like Sunday evening before a dreaded workweek that in my case would last twelve weeks.
As an adult, I recall another Memorial Day that produced acute anxiety. I was in a rock and roll band that was breaking up after a busy but fruitless May. On Memorial Day I woke up at 6 AM, acutely and prematurely alert as only fear can make me. I was immediately aware of how long the summer stretched before me and had no clue what I would do without a band or a job or friends to hang out with. There would be little opportunity or money with which to continue my pursuits. Memorial Day marked an off-season for rock and roll, a recreation of the night and an on-season for the beach and other wholesome places. People who had places out of the city to go to went and the city, usually a magnet, was now abandoned to those who were trapped here. On that Memorial Day I grieved for the career that had not taken off and took stock of my situation. I was broke and alone, and I knew I would need to find a job under difficult circumstances.
Memorial Days have had their share of drama. I lost two wallets on Memorial weekend--both were found. On the first occasion, I found it between my car seat and the door. On the other, I roamed the entire neighborhood looking in trashcans the night I discovered it lost. The next morning, the finders called me. When they gave me the wallet they lamented that there was no money in it. I lamented with them. Of course, I was teaching at the time.
With a school age child, Memorial Day becomes just another long holiday in which the final projects and reports must be done. One of my best Memorial Day memories as a parent was when my daughter was wrapping up her kindergarten year. I had just started a new career and my daughter was doing her final science project--a wetlands diorama. We went to the park and foraged in the grass and under the trees for twigs, handsomely shaped stones and curious artifacts to put in the environment populated by plastic alligators, snakes and frogs. It was a warm, sultry day like the ones I remembered as a child, but it felt so much better now. I was able to exorcise some of those bad old feelings. Being with my family, I realized that Memorial Day was never at fault for how I felt back then. It was always loneliness.
Since I am more settled in my wage-earning ways, Memorial Day has become more of a spectator sporting event. I listen to people’s plans for this holiday, and watch them pull their suitcases to taxis en route to glamorous destinations. Then I watch to see what the weather will do. In the past thirteen years it has rained more often on Memorial Day than it has not. I meanwhile catch up on things I need to do--like sleep and laundry.
What I like most about Memorial Day is that it is such an absurd hero of the calendar, assuming its gratuitous place in the year, struggling to be what it cannot be, and to do what it can do only with luck --provide a worthy introduction to the summer for which it comes a month early. Memorial Day is the holiday that pushes and overachieves. It demonstrates the American penchant for coaxing nature into a new order that is unnecessary even if it might be more convenient, like damming great rivers and draining great swamps. Dedicated to freedom, rooted in chaos, steeped in stress, we retain a poignant attachment to order and balance, an affinity which Memorial Day expresses. Do we need an unofficial start to summer that is a month early--a marker to balance The 4th of July and Labor Day? No, but it would be nice. So we force an unreliable spring day to be the first unofficial day of summer. Then we proceed to feel miserable and betrayed when it lets us down.
Memorial Day is a thoroughly human invention: paradoxical, whimsical and grim. It gratifies our need for pleasure while calling itself a day of patriotic mourning. It bespeaks the child in us that cannot, will not, wait, that demands a summer holiday NOW although summer is a month away. It springs from the stubborn need that compels boys to play basketball in darkness and rain and grown men to hit golf balls in the snow. This holiday does not commemorate youthful romps any more than it honors fallen heroes. It epitomizes the rashness, impatience and hopefulness with which we view ourselves and our lives, as well as our frivolous genius for bending anything to our stubborn will. The failure of Memorial Day to fulfill the puerile yearnings we force upon it may be what the memorial is all about.