Thursday, July 31, 2014

Thoreau and Humor

When I was a newly married teaching assistant long ago at Southwest Missouri State (now Missouri State University), one of my fellow TA's, a good friend of my husband's, hung over and desperate to procure a copy of Walden from which to make illicit copies for his freshman composition class which was to begin in fifteen minutes, borrowed my well-thumbed little paperback edition and promptly lost it, although not before having successfully used it to prep materials for his class.  I regretted its loss, although not so much, perhaps, as Mark regretted the borrowing of it in the long run, for his students gave him a very hard time about the effusive marginalia which which I'd worshipfully inscribed its pages.  I badgered him so mercilessly about the book's return and was so heartbroken at his confession of its loss, that a year later he presented me with a hardback edition in a Victorian replica binding.  On the title page, he'd written, "Walden deserves your love almost as much as a certain lanky redhead does--and like Scott, Walden is not something so live with as to live for.  & now you've an edition that will age no quicker than you will...Forgiven?"

Mark may have been a too often high, irresponsible if well-meaning sot who taught his lesson on Thoreau in a lime green jester suit he'd passed out in the night before, but here's the thing about Mark: he was brilliant, utterly and undeniably brilliant.  And he was right.  Scott, that lanky redhead whom I've now been living with and for during the last twenty-four years?  He has some things in common with Thoreau, including something I've not often heard brought up in relation to dear old Henry David--the propensity to employ a fine, often irreverent bit of humor when making an earnest point. 

One way Thoreau shows off his clever self is through word play.  Writing about a piece of land, he says, "I think I shall not buy greedily, but go round and round it as long as I live and be buried in it first, that it may please me the more at last" (1998).  The word play in this sentence hinges on the word buried, which can mean placed in a grave or to be immersed in some activity.  I can't help but believe that Thoreau here means instead of buying the property, he intends to simply spend a great deal of time there, walking around it and enjoying it--burying himself in it, so to speak.  Using the word immediately after the phrase "as long as I live," however, causes the reader to associate it with the end of life and the burial that occurs as a result. 

Another humor tactic Thoreau uses is through juxtaposition of subject matter that is heady with that which is very down-to-earth, often introducing the latter unexpectedly: "One value even of the smallest well is, that when you look into it you see that earth is not continent but insular.  This is as important as that it keeps butter cool" (1999).  The reader has to grin at herself by the end of that sentence, when she finds herself  surprised to be staring not into the secrets of the earth, but at a tub of butter.  Thoreau sets her up via her own expectations of some deep intellectual insight, and then delivers butter instead.  To be sure, the insight is there, but so is the giggle at the end of it, instead of an opportunity to rub one's forehead, nod sagely and look knowing.

Thoreau isn't above using a bit of snark, either, sassy bits of commentary with a bit of an edge to them.  Of Britain he writes, "The government of the world I live in was not framed, like that of Britain, in after-dinner conversations over the wine" (2033).  Dinner parties also seem to draw his ire, for after reporting that his neighbors enjoy meeting famous people at such gatherings, he says, "The interest and the conversation are about costume and manners chiefly; but a goose is a goose, still, dress it as you will." (2031). Ouch.

Let's not forget exaggeration, either.  One of my favorite lines is (again!) in reference to dinner time, when evidently one was expected to dine in company.  Thoreau's advice for surviving its horrors is nothing short of comic genius: "Let us not be upset and overwhelmed in that terrible rapid and whirlpool called a dinner... Weather this danger and you are safe, for the rest of the way is down hill" (2005).  (I need to remember that in order to survive the next multi-generational family holiday get-together at which my presence is required.)  Thoreau was not above using absurdity (exaggeration's close cousin), either.  A passage that made me laugh aloud was one addressing the need to strive to fulfill one's potential, regardless of whatever limit that potential might have.  "Shall a man go and hang himself because he belongs to the race of pygmies," asks Thoreau, "and not be the biggest pygmy that he can?" (2029).  Today, I'm sure this qualifies as politically incorrect.  Nevertheless, it is funny simply for the extreme absurdity of the image.  Here we are, tootling along in conversation with one of America's best respected Transcendentalist writers, and he throws pygmies (not a common nineteenth century American subject of conversation for most of his readers, I would assume) into the mix. 

He uses humor for a purpose, of course, does Thoreau.  He knows that most people can only sustain serious mind-bending thought for so long, that we need concrete images to connect to abstract thought in order to process them and remember them best.  And of course, his own Transcendental belief in the need to put foundations beneath our castles in the clouds, to ground our philosophies in earthy reality, taught him to do just that in his writing as well.  The result is that he is not only a more enjoyable read than Emerson, but a more easily understood (and appreciated) writer, as least in my book.

As for that lanky red-head, he's still making me laugh, too, and he does it with all Thoreau's techniques, from the absurdity of pouring salt on my arm during a romantic dinner date ("Well, at least now we know you're not a slug.") to puns and definite snark, he keeps life interesting and lightens the load that responsibility and deep thought too often press upon us.  I'm keeping them both--Great Scott and Thoreau; they give me hope.

Note:  I love Thoreau.  I really do.  That fact does not mean, however, that he is above having a bit of fun poked in his general direction.

Thoreau, Henry David. "Walden". The Heath Anthology of American Literature. 7th ed.  Ed. Paul Lauter. Vol. B. Boston: Wadsworth, 2014. 1996-2034. Print.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Taking Another Look at Emerson

I've been rereading Ralph Waldo Emerson this week for a literature class, visiting him again after a twenty-five-year hiatus, and the result is not what I'd expected.  Twenty-five years ago in an American lit survey class I was startled to read a man from the 1800's putting my own thoughts and beliefs (many of which I'd never shared with anyone else) into words.  I fell.   I fell hard.  I knew why Louisa May Alcott left wildflowers on his doorstep.  When I discovered at the beginning of this summer that I would be reading Emerson, I determined to save him for the end of the term, to savor him again and in hopes of finding inspiration with which to return to my classroom in August.  Instead, I found myself having to get out of the chair where I sat and pace around the room in frustration, and procrastinating writing this blog entry. 

Emerson, of course, hasn't changed in the past twenty-five years; I have.  While he still speaks to me deeply, while I still love his fierce insistence on the necessity of discovering one's own truths and then standing in them unshaken by institutions or individuals in one's surrounding society, I find that I cannot agree with him wholeheartedly any longer.  I have seen too much.  I know too much. 

It was this passage which broke my heart:
"I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued adviser who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church.  On my saying, What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within?  my friend suggested--'But these impulses may be from below, not from above.' I replied, 'They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil's child, I will live then from the Devil.'  No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.  Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it."
The last sentence sent chills down my arms when I read it.  I have no issue whatsoever with the potential fallibility of the church and its interpretations of the scriptures upon which it claims to base its doctrines.  Nor do I think that living from within is wrong--to the contrary, we must live from within, or we can hardly be said to be living.  No.  What I cannot believe in the least is that good and bad are defined only by what lies within our own natures.   In the six years that I've been teaching high school, I've seen one student threaten--loudly and violently--to kill another based on his sexual orientation.  Two students lost their grandfather to a neighbor who decided to kill him and hide his body in a shallow grave in the woods...over a property line dispute.  Several students have been hospitalized for self-harm or suicide attempts and been mocked or harassed for it.  I could go on.

Maybe Emerson would say that actions like these are born of not listening to our true natures, actions caused by either the stress that builds in us from denying the truths we recognize deep in our hearts but are afraid to grasp tightly enough to stand up against the pressures of a world that wishes us to conform, or caused by our utterly believing some untruth we've been fed all our lives, by not searching and finding those truths that are naturally and individually ours.  I believe that many such actions are exactly that.  But surely ending a life over a few acres that one can only possess for a limited time is wrong, even if the person wielding the weapon believed completely that it was the right thing to do.

My disagreeing with Emerson on the question of right and wrong has clouded that original starry-eyed love I felt for him when I was twenty, but in a way, it also gives me reason to love him more, to love him for his idealism, his ability to believe that people were so truly good that if they would only listen to their natural selves, they would never do great wrongs in the world.  The second love feels more authentic anyway, based as it is on what he was, on his being faithful and thorough in pursuing and sharing his own deeply held beliefs--such as believing that the nature of man was good--rather than the viability of his beliefs in the real world.  Surely Emerson would approve.

Note:  For "something entirely different, pop over to Alon for a blog entry on what happens when I get wound up about Emerson and start talking with The Younger Daughter.  She's quirky, and she has some insight.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Self-Reliance". The Heath Anthology of American Literature. 7th ed.  Ed. Paul Lauter. Vol. B. Boston: Wadsworth, 2014. 1871. Print.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Job Shadowing Incident

Friday Great Scott (The Husband) took The Younger Daughter to school with him for her job shadowing assignment. When his first class walked in and inquired about the new kid, he told them, "She's the new student from Juvenile Hall. She has to sit next to me because she has a history of stabbing people with scissors."

The believed him completely. The Younger Daughter was thrilled.

Killing the Writer

Teaching is not conducive to writing. I have come to this conclusion after three years of in-depth research, research that was entirely unnecessary but which, having been completed, bestows on me the authority to say that teaching is most definitely not conducive to writing. A good friend of mine reminded me of this fact last week when he wrote concerning a recent decision I've made: "What do you need an MFA for? You want to teach? Cyril Conelly once said that teaching had killed more writers than alcohol had--no small feat." Alcohol having never really been my thing, I suppose that leaves me with death by teaching, an option that I find entirely plausible, though not preferable. I'm not quite ready for the writer in me to head to that great used book store in the sky. I'm not done with her yet; that's why I've applied to an MFA program.

Part of me says that this scheme is entirely laughable, after all, I'm forty-three and have been out of school for nineteen years, I'm working a full-time job that requires more than full-time hours, and in one more year The Older Daughter will be filling out her own college applications. Nevertheless, there are reasons to try, as well: I have to have a certain number of professional development hours each year to maintain my teaching certification, hours which might as well count toward a degree; an MFA will allow me to teach per course or eventually even full-time at the college level should I ever change my mind about teaching high school; and I feel rusty and definitely lack discipline in my writing habits, so the challenge and accountability of a graduate program will be good. Ever since I have known there was such a thing, the MFA has been the degree I've wanted badly enough to be afraid of, even if it might kill me.

The application has been dispatched. Now I wait. We'll see what kills me first.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Quote of the Day: On Learning

"The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education."
--Thomas Edison

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Procrastination Aid: Writing Style Analyzer

I'm having a lot of fun playing with this particular procrastination aid. All of the following were results for various samples of the blog writing right here on Quotidian Light.

I write like
Vladimir Nabokov

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

I write like
Stephen King

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

I write like
James Joyce

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

I write like
H. P. Lovecraft

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

I write like
George Orwell

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

I write like
Douglas Adams

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

I write like
J. K. Rowling

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

I write like
Margaret Mitchell

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

I write like
Edgar Allan Poe

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

I write like
Arthur C. Clarke

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Just for giggles, here's the last one I'm posting tonight, although tomorrow I'll probably try running some of my poetry through. First, let me post the text I entered:

"Once upon a time there was a little bunny rabbit who ran out in the road and got squashed. The End.

Once upon a time there lived a tiny flea, and when time fell back because of Daylight Savings time the flea fell into the void. The End."

Now, the result:

I write like
Margaret Atwood

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Writer's Meme

Call it inspiration, call it guilt, but the end result is the same. I've not been writing much of late, so when I read this meme at Stick Poet Super Hero, I knew right away I'd have to try it.

1. What's the last thing you wrote? - A comment on my husband's Facebook status.

2. Is it any good? - Of course.

3. What's the first thing you ever wrote that you still have? – Written down? A long poem chronicling how my siblings and cousins and I were sent to my grandparents' basement every year at Christmas while our parents had a business meeting upstairs with all the food. There are a couple of earlier pieces that I still have memorized, however (poems...of a sort), and my mother has numerous bits of things I scribbled in school.

4. Favorite genre of writing? - Poetry or creative nonfiction. I do more of the former but have been told I'm better at the latter. Both scare me.

5. How often do you get writer's block? - I live in writer's block.

6. How do you fix it? – I don't. I withdraw from it and from writing, more often than not.

7. Do you save everything you write? – I save most of it, yes, since college. I did burn 6 years worth of journals--the first 6 years I kept them. Since then, I have almost everything, and my desk looks like it, too.

8. How do you feel about revision? - Absolutely 100% necessary. I don't trust writers who say they don't revise. Rather, I trust that their writing is probably horrible. I've heard too many people get up in church to read their "straight from the Lord" poems to NOT cringe when someone tells me they never revise.

9. What's your favorite thing that you've written? -- Probably the poems "Night Augur" or "A Second Birthing" or one I'm still revising: "Winter Seduction". Possibly an essay parody of Walden, if you want to talk prose.

10. What's everyone else's favorite thing that you've written? -- This seems to be "Mania," oddly enough.

11. What writing projects are you working on right now?--Theoretically lesson plans. (Ho!) I've got snippets from a fiction piece inspired by my brother that I've been adding to for a few years. There's a CNF essay that I would really like to see where it goes, and "Winter Seduction," which I'm about ready to give in and start sending off. My journal would probably fall under this category, too, since it's a perpetual project of sorts.

12. What's one genre you have never written, and probably never will? - I would be quick to say horror, save that one of my poems was actually nominated for inclusion in a "year's best" horror anthology awhile back, to my surprise, and that Great Scott tells me he finds many of my poems pretty horrifying. Romance is probably the genre I would be least likely to write (as well as being the genre I'm least likely to read). I don't think I would be any good at writing science fiction, either, although I'm a sci-fi fan (Down with the Alliance! Browncoats forever!).

Friday, May 28, 2010

What I Deserve


Setting: Home after a very rough day, hugging The Daughters gratefully.

Me: You are the best daughters in the whole world! I have done nothing in my life to deserve such great girls!

The Older Daughter: We know. That's why God made you a teacher.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Closing out Year Two

School is out for the summer. Scores for the state End of Course (EOC) exams are in, and my grades are finalized and posted. I have turned in tutoring logs, professional development hours and inventory. My room has been straightened and labeled and locked.

It has been a year.

When I checked out today, my principle told me that she was very glad I had stayed, had come back a second year. It was a small thing to have said, but it meant a great deal to me.

The first year was rough, now that I look back on it. Staying until midnight wasn't uncommon. Staying until 3 a.m. happened more than once. It was the first year of our state's EOC exams. I had to prep for 5 different classes a day (7 different classes for the year, all told), I had 50 extra hours of eMINTS training to complete, and I was sponsoring or helping to sponsor 3 different extracurricular groups plus the freshman class. Being hired two weeks before school began (with only that much warning) and being totally unfamiliar with the curricular materials was another factor, although this one was "helped" since I was also assigned to be on the team to write our school's curriculum right away, as well. One of my fellow communication arts teachers (who is one of my own former teachers) told me last year, "I don't know how you're doing it; anybody else would have quit at semester."

I had forgotten all this, much in the same way that the details of childbirth are often smudged in a mother's mind, I suspect. So when my principle told me today that she was glad I had come back, I stared at her blankly for a moment. Why in the world wouldn't I have come back, I wondered.

Human beings are remarkable. We often have no idea of what we can accomplish until we have done more than we ever imagined we could. I despise being pushed--more than I could possibly convey to you without physical violence and perhaps regurgitation. In fact, I will NOT be pushed by anyone...but myself.

This summer I hope to write a lot of lesson plans down and create some new ones. This last year I had 80 students, all told. Next year I will have a little over 100. Next year I will push hard again, but for now I'm going to sit for a bit and reflect on the two years behind me.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Friday Quote: On Meaning and Escape

"For the true writer...there is some distance, some remove, that allows for the shaping of the work...Every reader can sense the difference between a writer who embodies meaning through the events he describes and the writer who seems simply mired in those events. It is that struggle for meaning that lets the writer escape the tyranny of what really happened..."

---Sue Miller

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Thirteen Things I Need to Remember When My Students Drive Me Crazy

1. Some of my students didn't sleep last night.

2. Some of them haven't eaten anything since yesterday's school lunch.

3. Some of them are trying to find the right balance of anti-depressants and/or anti-psychotic meds.

4. Some of them are seniors and are beginning to feel a bit crazy about getting to leave school and having to leave school, and they can't decide whether they love or hate these things.

5. Being cooped up in a computer lab when it's 80 degrees and sunny outside isn't anyone's idea of fun.

6. Some of these kids know a whole lot more about livestock and motors than I could ever dream of knowing.

7. Some of them are taking care of mentally ill parents at home and may not get to class on time because they had to wait for the ambulance...again.

8. Some of them are so smart that they're bored out of their minds and coming up with trouble to keep themselves entertained.

9. Some of them look scroungy because they had to get younger brothers and sisters ready for school this morning, and they put little sister's hair in ponytails instead of brushing their own before catching the bus.

10. Some of them laugh and joke because they're afraid of anyone figuring out that they care very much that they're failing, and they're covering up.

11. Not all of them HAVE to like me or like my class.

12. I can love them, anyway.

13. Crazy isn't such a bad state of mind if you're in far enough.

NaPoWriMo 2010 Begins!

I have a horrible track record when it comes to any kind of regular writing, and teaching school the past two years has only exacerbated the situation. Nevertheless, better to try than not to try. At least, that's the line I feed my students. I don't have time for revision, however--at least not now. You'll have to settle for rough drafts splattered down on the page.

Let the scrawls begin!


Fat buds wing into full bloom and float
in arcs above my monitor. Students drop
their shove and scuffle, stoop to touch trembling
petals, one slow finger at a time. I've watered them
for months, watched them stretch
new growth and now, although their roots
still tangle, gnarled amid dead wood
and sphagnum, they are opening
along their lengths, lifting
fragile faces toward the light.