Forms of Not Listening

youre_not_listeningIn my previous post, I discussed the intense activity of listening–but what are the dangers and losses of not listening? Before addressing this question, one must identify the various kinds of “not listening.”

There’s “not listening” where you willfully plug your ears. There’s also the kind to which I am prone: where your mind wanders, and you lose track of what the person is saying. Often a person’s word will trigger a thought, which in turn triggers another thought; before I know it, I have gone far away in my mind. Usually I catch myself quickly, but sometimes not.

There is also the kind where the words go “in one ear and  out the other”–that is, where you make no attempt to assemble or remember them.

But the kind I will focus on today is perhaps more insidious than the others: where you decide, in advance, that you know what the person is going to say, what the piece is going to sound like, etc. When you listen, you hear what you have already set out to hear; you exclude what does not fit. This includes listening to silence; you cut it to your own prefabricated interpretation and ignore the range of possibilities.

Anyone is capable of this kind of error; what’s more, we often commit it unawares. It is all too easy to fit a person’s words (or lack of words) into our existing models. This is the essence of prejudice; we sum others up and shut out what doesn’t fit our summations. Or, if we are listening to a piece of music, we shut out its uniqueness, or the particularities of the performance; it becomes “just another” Romantic work or what have you.

The danger lies not only in the reduction of others, but in the accompanying hubris. The person who listens badly in this particular way assumes that he or she is right and does not need to hear anything more.

Now, some of this is inevitable; we have to filter the sounds and speech that come at us. We can’t take it all in; sometimes we have to make quick sense of it and proceed from there. Also, to listen to something well, one must shut out other things; the very act of selection requires not listening to everything. Still, one can recognize the incompleteness of the gesture, the existence of something more.

Listening to silence, or near-silence, challenges everything in us; we rush to make sense of “nothing.” We are terrified of the expanse of “nothing”–the possibility that it could mean thousands of things. I think of–and question–the ending of Lawrence Durrell’s Justine (the first novel in The Alexandria Quartet):

Soon it will be evening and the clear night sky will be dusted thickly with summer stars. I shall be here, as always, smoking by the water. I have decided to leave Clea’s last letter unanswered. I no longer wish to coerce anyone, to make promises, to think of life in terms of compacts, resolutions, covenants. It will be up to Clea to interpret my silence according to her own needs and desires, to come to me if she has need or not, as the case may be. Does not everything depend on our interpretation of the silence around us?

This passage has puzzled me for years. Yes, everything depends on our interpretation of the silence around us–but is it correct to interpret it according to our own “needs and desires”? Is it right to expect others to do so? The narrator hints at something beyond these words: that a reply would be false at this time, and that time itself has a role to play. But that differs from interpreting the silence according to one’s needs and desires. The narrator’s own expression has flaws (which propel us into the second book of the Quartet).

To listen to silence is to know that one does not know what it is. To box up silence is to presume oneself above it, folding the flaps and tying the strings. Pride consists in packaging the infinite.

Image credit: “you’re not listening”  by Jesslee Cuizon.

Note: I made minor edits to this piece after posting it.

An Update-Ish Sort of Post

I try not to make this blog too update-y, but once in a while an update or two is in order. Here are a few bundled together in one post.

The other day I bit the bullet and set up a Facebook author page. One disagreeable thing about Facebook is that it’s set up for people to judge you by how many “likes” you have. Oh, sure, now they’ve added various emoticons, so that you can personalize your “liking.” But the effect is the same. It’s one big jostle for popularity. But I wanted a place for updates, separate from the blog. So there you have it, likes or no likes. (The three likes I did receive are worth thousands as far as I am concerned.)

Next, I have announced this already (and deleted the former announcement): my TEDx talk “Take Away the Takeaway” is up on YouTube. I have been getting great responses by email. Ironically, one of the first commenters on YouTube wrote (within an hour or so of the posting), “Not many views for a 6 million subscriber channel…” Someone pointed out that it had just been posted, and he replied, “obviously, but still after 3+ hours only 100 views.” Is this supposed to pass for discourse? What irks me is not what he said–which was just silly–but the structure that sets people up to think and speak that way.

As a teacher, I continually emphasized the difference between popularity and quality. I encouraged students to consider views on their own merits, to withhold snap judgments about a text, and to hear each other out. But much of our culture pushes in the opposite direction.

in-the-heightsWait–this was supposed to be an update-ish post. My other two updates have to do with my former school. On February 4 and 5, a huge cast at Columbia Secondary School will be performing In the Heights. Year after year, the performances have been beautiful and rousing; this one promises to stand on its own. Here’s the show synopsis from the Rodgers and Hammerstein website:

IN THE HEIGHTS tells the universal story of a vibrant community in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood – a place where the coffee from the corner bodega is light and sweet, the windows are always open and the breeze carries the rhythm of three generations of music. It’s a community on the brink of change, full of hopes, dreams and pressures, where the biggest struggles can be deciding which traditions you take with you, and which ones you leave behind. IN THE HEIGHTS is the winner of the 2008 Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Score, Best Choreography and Best Orchestrations.

Finally, the fourth issue of CONTRARIWISE is now in production and will appear this spring! The editors have done a superb job of taking over all the responsibilities, shaping the fourth issue, and seeing the journal into the future. I have been uninvolved, except to answer a question once in a great while,  but have been eagerly awaiting the new volume.

Speaking of Columbia Secondary School, I will be returning in early March (and possibly a second time) to lead a philosophy roundtable. More on that as the date approaches. For now, that’s it for the updates.

The Wobbly Words of Morning

morning-snow-1This morning I went walking in Fort Tryon Park and saw a long ribbon of snow. It seems to have fallen off the top of the bench but stayed intact, even sagging.

I thought, as I walked, about how, when you wake up from dreams, the words don’t fall into place immediately. They wobble for a little while. I wondered whether that might be part of the role of dreams: to detach us, even momentarily, from the utilitarian function of words. If, for a few minutes each morning, we lack ready-made phrases, maybe we can think about things in a different way. I was thinking about a book I had just finished rereading. Eleven years had passed between the first reading and now. As I walked up the hill (before this photo–this was on the way down), it occurred to me that I did not have to say anything about the book. I could keep my thoughts to myself until I wanted to say something. In the meantime, the world would do just fine without my review.

Day after day, we are urged to cast our instant reactions in words and numbers. To withhold an opinion is to risk offending the automated deities. morning-snow-2But look beyond all that clatter and chatter, and there is the possibility of silence. I don’t mean that silence is always better. Each of us makes distinct choices about when and when not to speak. The point is that one can choose.

So I walked past these benches and this near-infinite tree, whose branches stretch into smaller branches, which stretch into brushes of twigs. I heard my boots crunching in the snow. Up here, I was all alone. But there were ski tracks, dog tracks, footprints from earlier, maybe from yesterday. In my mind, these turned into sounds of gliding, crunching, and frisking.

The sun came up, the snow fell in ribbons, and phrases shone on the ground. I returned home and revised my twelfth chapter.

Something to Sit Up For

gazing-catsI know a few people who write both poetry and nonfiction (more or less concurrently), and while they involve different kinds of imagination, they still have a good deal in common. In both, you are looking and listening not only for the right words, but the right combination of sounds, the right allusions, the right departures from the known and expected.

Recently I have been writing much more nonfiction than poetry, but the poems still come now and then, and some of them hold up over time. This one (an unrhymed sonnet from 2009 or so) is one of my favorites. It appears on the dedication page of Republic of Noise; Stella Schindler quotes it in full at the beginning of her review in Humanum. Reading it now, I still hear something like the offbeat clanging of a bell (in the preposition “for,” which occurs at the end of three consecutive phrases with two enjambments). But of course my ear is slanted. (So is the picture I took yesterday morning of the cats and sunrise.)

The Speech

From far away I heard you speak today,
the way we hear bells in a slant of sun,
knowing they ring at five—the calendar
itself makes words, the very rays make chords.

A teacher must have rushed there after school,
arrived breathless, flopped in a seat, arranged
her coat and hair, leaned into heed, and found
a rampart in the very listening.

Something to sit up for, something to hold
one’s head up for, a time to put aside
one’s foibles for, even a distant time,
this came my way today, a reckoning.
I grasped that there was loneliness in gold
and gold in air, and debt in everything.

Rush and Lack: The Common Core’s Foreseeable Fall

In 2011, 45 states had signed on to the Common Core State Standards; by the fall of 2016, only 20 states were still planning to use the Common Core-aligned assessments. While only a few states have officially revoked the Common Core, the general support has visibly and audibly crumbled.

What went wrong here? Much has already been said about the great expense, the swell of resistance to excessive testing, the longstanding resentment of federal mandates in education, the confusion around implementation, and much more. I will highlight the effects of rush and curricular lack.

I was briefly involved with the development of the CCSS. In 2009 I served on the English Language Arts Work Team; in this role, I proposed titles for the list of suggested books, reviewed drafts of the standards, and provided commentary here and there. I was not part of insider discussion, nor did I commit to supporting the standards in my writing. (In fact I stated outright that I would need to retain the freedom to say whatever I wanted about the standards; this was never contested.) I supported aspects of the standards in principle but was wary of possible corruptions, all of which came true.

First of all, states were rushed and pressured, through President Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative, into adopting the standards. (I admire President Obama but consider this one of his biggest presidential mistakes.) The problem with such rush is that it strips you of the ability to act wisely. In 2010 I wrote an op-ed,”The Problem with ‘Race to the Top’ Is the Race,” for the Washington Post; I stand by those words today. The third paragraph reads,

Indeed, we should be willing to shake things up to improve the schools. All depends on what we shake and how. We may well be shaking up the wrong things, or the right things in the wrong way. There is great danger in the rush of Race to the Top. To compete for funds, states must embrace reforms that haven’t been fully tested, reforms rife with problems, reforms in which they may not even believe. In other words, thoughtfulness and integrity are pushed aside. This is deadly for education.

Second, the whole initiative was conducted backwards. You can’t have standards until you establish what you are going to teach. Standards outline the abstract skills–but those abstractions mean little out of context, especially in English language arts. I do not mean that there should have been a national curriculum; that probably would have been dreadful. Rather, any standards should have been grounded in an understanding of the subject matter that would be taught over the K-12 years.

If you do not ground the standards in subject matter, then your tests, too, will be ungrounded; instead of testing what the students have learned, they will test generic skills. Schools will have to scramble to figure out what might be on the test and how to approach it. I wrote about this (again in 2010) in my op-ed “Curriculum Should Precede Assessments” on the Core Knowledge blog.

How do you establish subject matter for an entire country? Well, perhaps you don’t–but you can start by publishing a few model curricula as examples. By “curriculum” I do not mean the typical mess of lengthy descriptions, unit plans, lesson plans, and so on, but rather a clear and simple outline of the content and sequence of instruction.

How did this curricular lack come about? I imagine that the Common Core leaders realized that a national curriculum would be politically doomed. So instead of putting forth a curriculum, they simply stated, within the standards, that a curriculum was necessary. Curriculum proponents frequently quoted those words–but unfortunately (as Robert Pondiscio has noted) it isn’t enough to say “you gotta have curriculum, folks.” People have wildly different understandings of–and experience with–the word, concept, and practice.

This equivocation led to a big mess regarding nonfiction. The standards stated that by grade 12, 70 percent of students’ reading in school should be “informational.” The standards clarified that this applied to the students’ reading across the subjects, not in English class–but English teachers were receiving the message, from many directions, that they should include much more “informational text” in their classes.

When the type of text (here “informational”) precedes its very substance, something has gone awry. Why not focus on choosing excellent texts for students–fiction, drama, poetry, literary nonfiction, according to the content of the courses? Why the pressure to include more “informational” text per se? (Not all nonfiction is “informational”; I would not call Mill’s On Liberty “informational text,” for instance, but that does not diminish its value.)

There were certainly political reasons for the emphasis on “informational text.” In 2012, the Council on Foreign Relations issued a report titled “U.S. Education Reform and National Security,” which called for education reform that would serve national security. This conspicuously  included greater emphasis on “informational text.” In Forum, no, 5 (2012), I joined Rosanna Warren, Lee Oser, David Bromwich, John C. Briggs, Robert Alter, Helaine Smith, and others in challenging the assumptions and recommendations of this report.

The standards’ two problems–rush and curricular lack–go together. The standards’ glaring flaws were not worked out prior to their implementation; thus states, districts, and schools had to bear the brunt of the confusion. Here we are, with a lesson learned and unlearned again and again: Like subject matter itself, education policy requires careful thought, open dissent, and dialogue.

Note: I made minor edits to this piece after posting it. I later changed “dissension” (in the last sentence) to “dissent.”


The Terror of Subscription

columbia-record-co-a-serious-manIn the Coen brothers’ movie A Serious Man, the physics professor Larry Gopnik enters his office to find three messages and an anxious student waiting. One message is from the Columbia Record Club; unbeknownst to Larry himself, he has subscribed and fallen behind on his payments. (See that magnifying glass in the still; I didn’t even notice it when watching the movie. Maybe it suggests that Larry is looking so closely at certain things that he completely misses others.) I see this “surprise subscription” as one kind of deep nightmare.

What is so scary about subscriptions? Some of it is innocuous and even good; people proudly maintain their subscriptions to newspapers and journals, for instance. But in other cases, the subscription technology (crude or advanced) tricks you; you agree to a “trial” or some such thing and then find out that you’ve signed up for a whole year. Or else you sign up for a year and then forget  to cancel at the end. Subscriptions sneak up on you and claim a debt. Suddenly, out of nowhere, you owe someone money.

But that’s only one side of it. To “subscribe” to something is also to become it. Sometimes, when I get a surprise renewal notice, I ask not only “Can I afford this?” but “What do I have to do with this? Is it really part of my life?” Once upon a time I subscribed to the Franklin Library. The books were beautifully bound, and some titles I was delighted to have–but after a while, they started looking and feeling like a fake collection. I couldn’t keep up with the reading, and when my shelves started filling with books I had barely opened, I knew something was wrong. The subscription had go. I would buy books when I actually wanted to read and reread them. (So I did, and my shelves still overflow.)

So that leads to yet another of subscriptions’ scullduggeries. They can con you into overgetting. You end up amassing “stuff” that  you don’t really want, merely because you continue to pay for it. Somewhere in there, presumably, is something you want, so you accept the full pile, knowing full well that you will use only a handful of it. (I am not referring here to journal subscriptions. There, in my experience, the situation is different; if it’s a good journal, there will be all kinds of surprises in it, things I wouldn’t otherwise have known to read.)

And then, when you do want to quit, you won’t be let off easily. You’ll get reminders, phone calls, letters… won’t you please, please rejoin us? Even if your answer is an emphatic “no,” you are continually reminded that you once did sign on for a whole year.

Today the problem has heightened, since there are so many more things than before that require subscription: antivirus software, word processing and photo finishing software, genealogical research databases, even your own domain name. To do your basic daily work on the computer, you probably need to subscribe to at least three services. And then there are all the subscriptions to “ad-free” versions of blogs and other things; if you don’t want to have ads dancing before you all day long, you must subscribe to peace and quiet.

All of these things combine into the terror of subscription. It’s a mild anxiety; for the most part, I barely think about it. But I often catch myself wishing that I could just have something or not, instead of signing on to this costly, nagging, partial purchase, the effect of a hesitant click one dubious day.

All of this reminded me of Bill Knott’s sonnet “The Unsubscriber” (which isn’t “about” subscriptions in this sense but plays with the topic in an interesting way.) You can see it quoted in full in an article by Edward Hirsch (though the formatting is bad; I recommend the book of the same title). It ends,

No one loves that vain solipsistic sect
You’d never join, whose dues you’ve always paid.

To understand and misunderstand what this means, one needs to read and reread the full poem, to subscribe and unsubscribe, many times.

Image: A still from the first  “Clive scene” in A Serious Man.


A Statistical Study of Literature

e-h-_shepard_illustration_of_mr_toadRecently Drake Baer reported on a study of the emotional arcs of stories. Working from ideas that Kurt Vonnegut puts forth in his master’s thesis and 1985 lecture, a research group, led by University of Vermont Ph.D. candidate Andrew J. Reagan, analyzed the progression of happiness levels in a selection of 1,327 stories. They did this by measuring the “happiness levels” of the words themselves and mapping the movement in happiness over the course of the story.

They found six basic shapes. In Baer’s words, “A full 85 percent of the books analyzed fell under one of six shapes. They are: ‘rags to riches,’ in which sentiment goes up; ‘riches to rags,’ where it goes down; ‘man in a hole,’ in which there’s a fall, then a rise; ‘Icarus’, where it’s a rise then a fall; ‘Cinderella,’ or rise-fall-rise; and ‘Oedipus,’ or fall-rise-fall.” It isn’t the plot that matters here, Baer explains, but “the way sentiment [is] conveyed by the words themselves, and whether they rise or fall, signaling happy or sad endings to chapters and sections and books as a whole.”

The initial problem is that the arcs don’t really match the stories themselves. Here’s the arc that supposedly matches the emotional arc of The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (one of my favorite books from childhood):

On Listening to Poetry in Unfamiliar Languages

I have some upcoming posts about TED and what it could do to improve. My TEDx talk may appear on YouTube any day now, so I speak from an inside-like place. (TED refers to TEDx events as “TED-like,” so I suppose the inside of a TEDx event is “inside-like.”)

But right now I have something different on my mind: poetry in unfamiliar languages. Last night I went to the wonderful Uncle Vanya Cafe (quiet, cozy atmosphere, delicious food) to hear three poets: Tomas Venclova (whose poetry I have translated), Valzhyna Mort, and Vasyl Makhno. All three were superb in my ears. Mort and Makhno read some of their poems in Belarusian and Ukrainian, respectively; although I do not know those languages, I enjoyed listening as carefully as I could, picking up not only on familiar words (that is, words that had similar-sounding counterparts in Russian), but on cadences, repetitions, rhythms.

In some strange way it is possible, when listening to a poem in an unfamiliar language, to tell whether it is good. You can sense a mastery of orchestration. Something about the momentum and structure will come across strongly. For this reason and others, I love the exercise. Also, when you listen with that intensity, you remember the poem later.

Two of Mort’s poems stand out in my memory. One was titled “Psalm 18” (I think). She read it in Belarusian and English. There was a magnificent passage with curtains opening and closing, opening and closing. I can’t find it online, but I hope to track it down.

Another one, “Belarusian I” (which she read only in Belarusian, I think) had a progression that I immediately grasped. I didn’t understand the words at the very end, but I understood what led up to them. You can read the poem in Belarusian and English, listen to an audio recording, and watch a video here. (For the first four minutes of the video, she speaks about her work and background; then she reads the poem.)

In the video, she explains that she came to poetry through music. In childhood, she studied music with the intention of becoming a professional musician. When she started writing poetry, she thought of it as music too; she used words she didn’t understand, just for the sound of them. Something of this quality has stayed in her poetry; this partly explains why I could listen with such involvement. Her  poetry, reaching the listeners, returns in some way to its beginnings. At the same time, I need to take time with it to understand it better. Someone who understands nothing in a poem may still understand something (nonverbally); someone who understands something, a little more, and so on. Understanding a poem is a long and layered feat.


Note: I made some minor changes to this piece after posting it.


Chekhov’s “Home”

doma3Anton Chekhov’s “Home” is just ten pages long, but it will take me a few blog posts to do it a sliver of justice. This post consists of three parts. You can read along in English here and in Russian here.

In Russian the title is “Дома” (“Doma”), which can be translated as “home,” “at home,” or even “in the family.” All of those senses come into play here.

A Reading of “Home”: Part 1

The father, who works as prosecutor for the circuit court, has just come home from work; the story begins with the governess’s voice, as she rattles off various news. People came by for a book, the postman delivered the mail, and now for serious matters (which she introduces with “kstati,” or “by the way”: For the third day now, Seryozha has been found smoking. Not only that, but when the governess tried to speak to him, he simply plugged his ears and started singing.

Amused by the picture, the father gathers some facts, as is his habit. How old is Seryozha? he asks. (What a question! we may think. But a judgment here would be too hasty.) Where did he get the tobacco? Having learned that he got it from his (the father’s) study, he asks to have Seryozha sent in.


At Home

domabookstandFor the next few blog posts, I’m going to do something a little different from the usual. I plan to walk through Chekhov’s story “Home” (“Дома“), pointing out some details and favorite parts as I go along. In this story, a father (a prosecutor by profession) learns from the governess that his seven-year-old son, Seryozha, has been smoking in his study. He now has to take up the matter with the little boy, but how? For the first post, I will discuss the story from the beginning to the boy’s entrance (“Good evening, papa!”). Subsequent posts will progress through the story. I will announce the passages in advance.

cardinal-book-propThroughout this reading, I will use a book prop manufactured by my great-granduncle’s company, the Chas. Fischer Spring Co., once located on Kent Street in Brooklyn. They were best known for the AN-6530 goggles, which the U.S. Army and Navy flight crews used in World War II. But Charles Fischer (1876-1946) invented and patented a host of other things, including a timer (Pat. No. 2,417,641), a handle for pipe cleaners (Pat. No. 1,782,871), a boudoir lamp (Pat. No. 1,639,493), a rack for boots and shoes (Pat. No. 1,603,382), a take-up spring (Pat. No. 1,578,817), a telephone receiver (Pat. No. 1,526,666), a magnetic speedometer (Pat. No. 1,467,031), a display stand (Pat. No. 1,437,837), and a telephone stand (Pat. No. 1,371,747). (The links take you to the drawings.)

The book prop has some marvelous features; it rests on the leg and clasps onto the knee, so that you can do other things with your hands; it has an indentation for the book’s spine, and it clasps the pages from below or from the sides. I don’t see a Charles Fischer patent for this device, but his company definitely produced it, and it resembles his display stand in some ways.

Charles came to New York City around age 14, with his parents and seven siblings, from Györke, Hungary (now Ďurkov, Slovakia). My great-grandfather Max was one of his younger brothers. They were Jewish, and they spoke Hungarian at home. In 1900 they lived at 346 East 3rd Street, and Charles worked as a toolmaker. A few years later, they moved to Brooklyn; from there they dispersed to the various boroughs. In 1906 Charles founded his company (where some family members, including Max, would be employed for many years to come). In 1933 he was one of the charter members of the Spring Manufacturers Association.) In 1944 the Knights of Columbus named him among “public-spirited citizens who are always in the fore in striving to make our community a finer and a better place in which to live.” He died in 1946.

It seems fitting to use the book prop for Chekhov’s story. I hope you enjoy reading along.

Update: I took the two pictures at the top;  the picture of the box is courtesy of The Monkey’s Paw, “Toronto’s most idiosyncratic secondhand bookshop.” Also see Joe Simpson’s comment (below), as well as my later post “The Springs of Creativity.”