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Monthly Archives: May 2012

DeLillo Messes With My Head

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Don DeLillo’s book, White Noise, has been on the bottom bookshelf, collecting dust bunnies for ages. I’d pick it up, dust it off, and put it down. DeLillo re-entered my life as this past month’s book group selection: Falling Man. It’s a book that focuses on a family that is significantly dysfunctional before September 11 in NYC and massively sad and broken post 9/11. It was not a fun read and several times I thought about putting it back on the shelf with the dust bunnies.

Falling Man hit three of my emotionally fragile hot spots: 9/11, Alzheimer’s, and suicide. One of these would have been almost more than I could have handled, but all three of them really pushed buttons.  The primary characters were separated and emotionally disconnected before the planes hit the World Trade Towers. Afterwards, they spent time together, but it was painful as a reader to see them be so inadequate, loveless, and alienated to themselves, each other and their son, who is called “the kid” most of the novel. Empty and hurting and it doesn’t stop—that’s the pace of the novel.

The wife’s compassion is revealed only with her work at a local Alzheimer’s day care center, but it is likewise measured and hopeless. It is her effort to stave off the inevitable loss. The patients lose their memories, their love of life and gradually slip away. In contrast to this slow death, we see the shock of the traumatizing 9/11 deaths and her father’s suicide when he discovers he has Alzheimer’s and doesn’t want to live long enough to forget who his daughter is. It’s an alternative plan that seems selfish and selfless at the same time. His disease is, likewise, a random event… and he chooses to jump.

Amidst all of this gloom and doom is a performance artist, called “Falling Man” who dresses in street clothes and then rigs himself so that it looks like he is falling out of a window or off of a bridge. It’s a creepy reminder of tower victims who jumped from windows to their death in order to escape a fiery death. He performs by taunting death and raising fears—but does so for entertainment and art—much like DeLillio. Ironically, this is one character that I want to know more about. What makes him tick? Who is he? What’s his story? All we learn is that he dies young, and it is because of natural causes. He does toy with chaos and randomness instead of succumbing to it. It’s a scary game.

There is no relief from grief, guilt, lovelessness, and alienation in this book. The husband ends up playing poker professionally, sometimes cheats, and is living a shell of a life. He’s fighting randomness on the poker table. Everyone else is broken and doesn’t heal, and the droning beat goes on.

Why write this story? What’s the purpose? It can’t be just to make me sad. Perhaps this is the miserable underbelly of living through struggles. It shows what it’s like to survive short term and long term disappointments and failures. “Survive” is the canonical verb, not thrive. These are the folks that find a way to put one foot in front of the other when their lives suck. They survive their despondency and cope the best they can. Each does so by entering into one’s own cocoon, where the character has the opportunity to control what little can be controlled. It’s not optimal, but it’s safe, and they found a way to go on.

“Eat It, Mills.”

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At the White House Press Correspondent’s Dinner, Jimmy Kimmel made a remark that resonated amongst many. It was not about the President—not about politics—but about his tenth grade history teacher who told Kimmel that “he’d never amount to anything if he didn’t stop screwing around.” Apparently Kimmel was not a cookie cutter, goodie two shoes student; he pushed boundaries, and his teacher, Mr. Mills, responded with the big guns— the “you’re going to be a loser” label. It seems like Kimmel was a challenging student, and his teacher failed to meet the challenge.

In my years of teaching, I have heard many versions of this story told by far too many students whose dreams were dashed by a thoughtless teacher. I taught writing, reading and literature from grade six through college. These students had been told that they would never be a good writer or reader, or they always got the “wrong” meaning from literature. I am a firm believer in making things happen. Everybody can learn to do these skills, but they don’t all learn it the same way. One size does not fit all in the classroom. A teacher who tells a student that he will never amount to anything is WRONG. The teacher’s responsibility is to encourage growth, not to thwart it.

I still don’t understand how any adult could find it reasonable or responsible to tell a kid that he is hopeless. It must be pathetic egotism or incredibly weak teaching skills. I find that it is possible to reach these students who had been told that they don’t conform and won’t succeed. The first step is to try to eradicate the damage done by the demeaning teacher; the second is to find a strategy to enable the student to tackle these tasks and appreciate the work that goes into success. The last part is practice and conference repeatedly until the goal is accomplished. It’s hard work for both the teacher and student, but it’s effective and always amounts to something.

When I taught eighth grade in an affluent Boston suburb, achievement awards were given at a year-end assembly. Each English teacher was asked to submit the names of the students in his/her class that deserved the writing awards. I had two students who finally found their voices as writers after being told they were mediocre. I submitted their names only to be told by the department head that she taught them earlier, and they weren’t good writers. She was WRONG when she failed to teach them, and she was wrong to deny them the recognition they deserved by succeeding in spite of her failings. I had to go to the principal and fight for these two kids. I won that battle. The department head recommended that I not be rehired; I left for a better job, and she is now on the School Committee. She ran unopposed. Scary thought.

As a professor at a local university, I was overwhelmed by the number of students who defined themselves as non-writers, not good readers, and horrible at analyzing literature. These students got the negative label in middle or high school; it stuck and significantly limited how they thought about themselves. I made it clear immediately that I never wanted to hear those words again. Stop the negative talk, and let’s start working on the problems. The process is time intensive and worth every second. It’s what good teachers do.

Standards need to be met, skills need to be learned, and there are multiple options. One person’s “screwing around” is another person’s creative process. Steve Jobs, Richard Feynman, Robin Williams, and John Lennon are non-traditional successes. They did what we should be encouraging all students to do: think critically, use imagination, question authority, push beyond expectations, and push back those who want to suppress, depress or oppress.  We want creative, individual thinkers, not compliant, obedient puppets. It’s the teacher’s role to capture the student’s energy, help him harness it and sometimes redirect it. Redirect, not rebuke. Teach, not judge and label.

Mr. Mill’s jab caused a deep wound with significant scarring. So much damage that this successful entertainer needed to clear the air in public, on TV, in front of the President of the United States. How’s that for vindication! Kimmel remained feisty, smart, and strong. He didn’t succumb to belittling. He gives students a battle cry and hope.

I’ve been in a similar, but non-academic, situation to Kimmel’s. In the 25 year hiatus between my teaching jobs, I was a commercial real estate consultant.  When I was introduced to the guru of industry, he commented: “Diane, you’ll never make it in this business. You’re not blond. You’re not thin.” Thank God I had the strength to reply, “You won’t make it in long term because you’re short, bald, and have really bad people skills”. I fought fire with fire and didn’t get burned. I not only survived in this cutthroat industry, but also thrived for more than 25 years before I returned to teaching. He crashed and burned.

Like Kimmel, it’s the passionate ones who take calculated risks, color outside the lines, and dare to be different that achieve success. Eat that, Mr. Mills and your minions.

Ants Make Me Say “Uncle”

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This past week has brought two encounters with the species that is going to take over the world, according to my old high school biology teacher. The ants have arrived a bit early, I’m told, because of the warm weather. They’re in their glory in one small section of my basement and perhaps under some shingles on the east side of the house.

When I was a kid, the ants arrived in my mother’s living room one season. I got yelled at because I was apparently to blame. “Apparently” I ate sugared gummy candies and left some sweet stuff behind for the insects. I’m not admitting to anything… but the cure, back then, was rather simple. My mother made me spray Raid until I choked. That killed everything, she said. Hmmmm…I said gagging.

Today, however, we have spoken to four specialists at a “pest control” company. Actually, I wanted the company that had the big cockroach on its van to show up in Swellesley, but my husband nixed that idea. I don’t want to offend PITA or Green People, but I want these ants dead, and I’d like to not choke in the process.

So on Monday, the games will begin: Pest Controllers VS Ants. Who are you rooting for?


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After I retired from college teaching, I needed a book group. I mean, really needed a book group—like most people need oxygen. As a professor, I was so accustomed to reading all types of texts and having a mostly attentive group of students to discuss our observations and opinions. I also had some key faculty members who would huddle in the hallway and share book goodies.

For the last year I’ve been reading a lot on my own and have been at a loss seeking a small group of like-minded bookworms. I found several groups in public libraries, bookstores and on line. I don’t usually think of myself as a high maintenance literary diva, but I am awfully hard to please in this department. Either the books didn’t interest me, the atmosphere was tense or loosey goosey, or nobody actually read the book. So I muddled on my own and tried to get satisfaction with online book groups; that wore thin quite soon. I missed the face to face contact and the ability to discuss a book in depth instead of several people jotting down random, spontaneous thoughts.

Several years ago I enjoyed five years of an absolutely fabulous, perfect book club. I think that experience spoiled me forever. We were a group of six to eight professional women who had delightfully eclectic and adventurous taste. Titles on our list included Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel García Márquez), Like Water for Chocolate (Laura Esquivel), Collette (Collette), House of the Spirits (Isabel Allende), Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro), Great Expectations (Dickens) and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith). There were many more, one each month, but I most loved that these books made me think. I got so much more out of them by being able to talk about them.

The problem with this perfect book group is that it changed. Members became very interested in having multi-course meals to coordinate with the book. Some tried to duplicate recipes mentioned in the texts. Several had our monthly meetings catered, complete with the catering truck parked outside and cloth linens.  Most upsetting to me, however, was that fewer and fewer members were actually reading and discussing the book. Instead, there was a lot of talk about kids, decorating, shopping, tennis, spouses, vacations… get the point?  It evolved into a different kind of social get together, and the books eventually disappeared. Nobody else complained, so I figured I was odd man out.

Until now… I found a new book group, and I’m so grateful and excited about it. Yes, you could say I’m giddy about the find. Ironically, it was all by accident. After dinner at a local restaurant, my husband and I were strolling through downtown Falmouth, and we wandered into an exquisite children’s bookstore, Eight Cousins. Because the other full size independent bookstore closed its doors a few years ago, Eight Cousins started to carry a small assortment of non-children books. I noticed one of my favorite books in the world on their shelves (Extremely Loud, Incredibly Close—not the movie!!) and started talking to the salesperson about it. She mentioned that it was the topic of their book group, and the  group discussion was amazing. All of this year’s book group selections were connected to September 11. I felt like a schoolgirl and asked what one had to do in order to be invited into this group. She said, “Read the book and come talk about it on the second Tuesday of the month.” Honest to God, I skipped out the store with the next book under my arm: Netherland by Joseph O’Neill.

The following Tuesday about eight women showed up, sat in a circle towards the rear of the store, and talked about the book for a couple of hours. We noticed that the three main characters reacted quite differently to the trauma of September 11 in New York City. Members had selected specific parts of the book that merited discussion. We talked about the author’s use of language and whether or not the characters were authentic. The group compared and contrasted it to Extremely Loud, Incredibly Close. It was enlightening, satisfying and lots of fun.

The book for next month is Dom DeLillo’s Falling Man. So far, I’m half way through it and can’t put it down. I’m not quite sure where it’s going, but I’m there for the ride. I’ll let you know what I think when I finish it. I’d love to hear about what you’re reading and what you think of book groups. In the meantime, walk quietly and carry a big book.

Open Letter to My New Elliptical

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Dear New Elliptical,
Welcome to our home. Please notice that we didn’t put you in the basement, or the studio, or someplace dark and ugly. We also did not put you in the bedroom to be used as a clothes rack. You are perched on the loft overlooking the living room, the woods and the pond. There’s an air conditioning duct nearby and a gorgeous hardwood floor underneath you—don’t scratch it. You have sunlight, salt air, and good company. Please remember that you are new, sleek and agile…I am none of the above. It is my hope that we visit every day for about 40 minutes, and I build up a sweat—Oh—that sounds funny! I better go put on my sneakers and sweats.

With great expectations,