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Review 221: We Learn Nothing

LL 221 - We Learn NothingWe Learn Nothing by Tim Kreider

While I was reading this book – in a faculty meeting, I have to confess – my colleague looked over, looked at the title and remarked something along the lines of, “That’s completely against what we do here.” I just shrugged, flicked to the next page, and went on reading, as it would have taken too long to explain right there, to say nothing of outing me as someone who wasn’t paying what might be called “strict attention” to what was being presented at the time.

Book Release InvitationIt is true that, as teachers, we might recoil from the idea that we learn nothing. After all, if that is true, then what are we even doing here? It might seem that some of our students have chosen this motto as the guiding principle for their years of secondary education, but still and all, we like to believe that they come out of this school having learned something – if only how to bullshit the teacher into thinking you’re smarter than you really are.

Kreider isn’t talking about book learnin’ here, though. He’s not talking about learning how to do math or why the sun shines or how to make a delicious pie. Those are indeed things we can learn, and should learn. What he’s talking about are the things we fail to learn in life, the big-scale decisions about love and family and politics, where no matter how badly we screw up, we always seem ready – eager, even – to stand up, brush ourselves off, and screw up again.

He begins the book with a statement that not many of us can make: “Fourteen years ago, I was stabbed in the throat. This is kind of a long story and less interesting than it sounds.”

Past TimKreider goes on to say that there is an expectation that getting stabbed in the neck and nearly dying is the kind of thing that should make a person re-evaluate his life. Perhaps gain some perspective on the things that are important and those that are merely trivial. And while there was a time where he looked at the world anew, eventually he reset back to where he was before his brush with death. Yelling in traffic, getting impatient with other people, fixating on things that were in no way good to fixate upon.

In short, after the ephemeral nature of life was made clear, he eventually went back to living as though nothing had changed, simply because one cannot live in a constant state of gosh-wow bliss all the time.

Through this collection of funny, touching, and thoughtful essays, Kreider looks at the lessons he just doesn’t seem to want to learn. He talks about the women who have broken his heart, and how given the chance, he’d let them do it again. He reminisces lovingly over his extended youth of drunkenness and adventure, knowing that it wasn’t the best way to spend so many years, but at the same time knowing he wouldn’t trade them in for a more conventional life. He lets us in on the dark secret of the crazy, pathological uncle that he tried to help despite his mother’s insistence that he stay as far away as he can, about his attempts to infiltrate the Tea Party just to find out if it was crazy as we all thought it was, and about letting his anger and frustration have free rein as he drew cartoons during the Bush Years.

We Could've Had the MoonIn short, Kreider is just as aware of his flaws as he is unable to correct them. But it’s not his fault, really, as these are flaws that we all have. They’re glitches in our reasoning and gaps in our self-knowledge that we couldn’t fix even if we wanted to. They’re part of the human drive towards self-destruction – potent in some, less so in others – that cause us to make irrational decisions that we know we’ll regret in the fullness of time. While my life may not have been quite as exciting and turbulent as Kreider’s, I could still see in his stories the same kind of willful ignorance of shortcomings that has sabotaged many a good thing in my own life.

But as bad as all that sounds, they make us who we are. Kreider wouldn’t be who he is and do the things he does if it weren’t for the events that shaped him. The decisions he made throughout his life – the bad and the good – molded his personality, gave him purpose, and made him the person that he is. The same can be said for all of us. We have our weaknesses, our foibles, our neuroses, many of which are prime impediments to having what we imagine to be a good life. What we can change, we should. But those things that we cannot change about ourselves are perhaps the things we should embrace. They are the things that keep us humble and human, and as long as we know they’re there, well… maybe they won’t do too much damage.

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“The Soul Toupee is that thing about ourselves we are most deeply embarrassed by and like to think we have cunningly concealed from the world, but which is, in fact, pitifully obvious to everybody who knows us.”
– Tim Kreider, We Learn Nothing

The Pain Comics (not entirely work-safe)
We Learn Nothing on Amazon.com

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Review 58: Sum – Forty Tales from the Afterlives


Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman

So. What happens after we die?

I’ll wait.

Is it a Heaven of clouds and harps and angels? A Hell full of fire and brimstone and horrible torture? Do you get to come back again and live a new life, perhaps building on the mistakes of your previous one? Yeah, I guess that’s all well and good. I mean, the classics never go out of style, right? Perhaps some pearly gates with Morgan Freeman hanging out nearby, or an place of endless torment where David Warner is ready to turn you into a cockroach. Variations on an old and well-worn theme.

But how about an afterlife where you get to live with every possible version of yourself? You know the “many worlds” theory of the universe, right? For every choice you make, a new universe is born, and in that universe there lives a different you. Perhaps one who made better choices, perhaps worse. Well, after you die, you get to hang out with them all! Including, unfortunately, all the yous who made much, much better decisions than you did.

Or perhaps you get the afterlife where you re-live your entire life, but with all moments of the same quality grouped together. So that means you get to spend thirty years sleeping, or two hundred days taking a shower. Doesn’t sound too bad, except for the eighteen months you spend waiting in line, or the five months you spend on the toilet, or the 27 hours of intense pain.

Maybe you discover that there is no afterlife for us, just as there is no afterlife for a computer chip. We’ve all been components in a great computer, wherein every nod of your head, every word, every blink is merely a signal sent to other processing units (AKA people). Of course, the programmers don’t know why we’ve thrived as we have – they didn’t make us to be sentient, and still don’t realize it’s happened. But our world is the greatest of the computer worlds they’ve built.

There are forty other afterlives in this book, all described in two or three pages. Each one is an attempt to break free of the traditional sense of what the afterlife “should” be, and shows a great deal of creativity.

What’s fun is reading this and understanding that any one of them could be true. Just as true as the traditional heavens and hells we’ve been building for the last few millennia. After all, why couldn’t we have an afterlife where we’re given the opportunity to come back – but with one change of our own choosing? Or another where we get to choose the form of our next life, but are betrayed by our inability then to remember why we had chosen it? Just because they don’t have the weight of a Church’s doctrine or thousands of years of philosophy doesn’t make them wrong.

Because, after all, we don’t know. We can’t know. We may think we know, or believe we know, but that really doesn’t mean anything. Hell, I came up with my own afterlife scheme that sounded pretty good to me, but does that make it true? Nope. The one big constraint that seems to apply to all afterlives is that no one ever gets to tell the living how it worked out. Why this should be is unknown to me, but that just puts me in league with every philosopher who ever lived. Not bad company.

But since all afterlives could be true, it can be argued that none of them are. And if you can’t know what will happen to your soul after death, and how to ensure that your eternity is a pleasant one, then perhaps you should stop worrying about it. The nature and requirements of your afterlife are totally out of your control.

The same cannot be said for your life. That is something that you have knowledge of and control over. So appreciate that little fact and go do something with it.

Go ahead and entertain speculation about life after death. Let your imagination go wild. But don’t for a moment think that you know what will come when you breathe your last. Because it probably won’t be anything you ever expected.

Or maybe it will. Who am I to say?

In any case, this is a fun little (and I do mean little) book, suitable for reading in one sitting or in forty tiny bites of time. And who knows, maybe it’ll spur you on to thoughts of your own afterlife. If you have one, I’d love to hear it.

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“Among all the creatures of creation, the gods favor us: we are the only ones who can empathize with their problems.”
– David Eagleman, Sum
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David Eagleman on Wikipedia
Sum on Wikipedia
Sum on Amazon.com
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Review 57: When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?


When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? by George Carlin

This is pretty much what you expect from Carlin – acerbic, abrasive, disrespectful, challenging language that doesn’t give a good goddamn what anyone else thinks. Which means there’ll definitely be something in there that you disagree with, and probably something that pisses you off. Not me, of course. When I watched the South Park movie, at the abortion joke from The Mole, the entire theater was dead silent except for me in the back row, cackling. I have a very broad sense of humor.

Anyway, if you’ve read his previous works, Braindroppings and Napalm and Silly Putty, you pretty much know what’s going to be in here – a lot of essays on current events, social customs and traditions, and the general weak character of Americans today. Plus, there are lots of short bits that are really funny:

“I wanted to be a Boy Scout, but I had all the wrong traits. Apparently, they were looking for kids who were trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. Unfortunately, at that time I was devious, fickle, obstructive, hostile, rude, mean, defiant, glum, extravagant, cowardly, dirty and sacrilegious. So I waited a few years and joined the army.”

One of Carlin’s hot points is his love of language, as the above points out. He loves language and he loves to watch how people use language to bend the truth of their meaning – in other words, he takes particular notice of euphemism. As an English teacher, and a lover of language myself, I also find this topic fascinating and have cannibalized some of Carlin’s material for use in lessons on the topic. Included in this book is his “Shell Shock to PTSD” speech, chronicling the renaming of the same condition from World War I (“Shell shock. Almost sounds like the guns themselves. Shell shock!”) through to the present day (“…at last, the pain had been completely buried under psycho-jargon. Post-traumatic stress disorder.”).

This is one area in which I have great respect for Carlin. Overall, I prefer his old material – the Hippy Dippy Weatherman, Congolia Breckenridge and all that – to his newer, rougher stuff. But on the subject of language, I find him to be an insightful and clever scholar of communication. Words exist to describe things. At the same time, however, words conceal the true nature of things, and no one word can completely encompass the thing it describes. Knowing that, we use words to change things according to comfort and custom. We soften the things that make us uncomfortable – going from “cripple” to “physically challenged” might make us feel better about it, but it doesn’t change the condition itself. No matter what we call it, Stephen Hawking isn’t going to engage in a round of beach volleyball anytime soon.

Even in simpler, less controversial matters, he rails against the use of language as a means of manipulation (no doubt fully aware of the irony of his profession). He remembers when bathroom tissue was toilet paper, when customer service was the complaint department and when direct marketing was junk mail. He tells us to beware of “systems” and “centers” and “programs,” and longs for the days when things were simpler, while never really believing they were that simple to begin with.

What Carlin believes, and what he explains in this book and his others, is that, given the choice, we should opt for the word that is clearest, simplest and truest over the one that just makes us feel better….

In between the jokes about sex, death and old people, that is.

For anyone who loves language, Carlin is someone to pay attention to.

I was upset when Carlin died, as were a whole lot of other people. I know he denied it, but I think he grew angry in his old age. His comedy, his points of view shifted less from observational humor and word humor to meditations on death and the baser nature of humanity. He would open his show with a reminder to everyone that they were, basically, meat with an expiration date. He talked about how much fun it would be to see plane crashes and train derailments and chaos reign across the world. It never resonated with me as much as his early stuff did, and that’s fine. No artist who works as long as Carlin did can continually please the same people throughout his entire career.

Still, nestled within the anger and chaotic glee was a certain… dare I say it? Love. I think he really expected a lot out of humanity, and knew our potential to do a lot of great things. If he became angry or bitter, perhaps it’s just because we weren’t living up to his expectations.

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“A children’s museum sounds like a great idea, but I would imagine it’s not easy to breathe inside those little glass cases.”
– George Carlin, When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?
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George Carlin’s home page
George Carlin on Wikipedia
When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? on Wikipedia
When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? on Amazon.com

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Review 52: Maps and Legends


Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon

In this book, Michael Chabon has done something very interesting – he has uplifted me and humbled me at the same time. It’s a weird feeling, that combination, probably because I’m reviewing a book about literary criticism and the telling of stories, which put me in a kind of meta-reviewer mindset. Reading this book not only forced me to think about myself as a reader, but as a reviewer of and writer about books.

Let’s do the first part and then I’ll get to the second.

The beginning and ending of this collection of essays focuses on something very important regard the telling of stories: the idea that reading is entertainment. Reading a book or a short story, Chabon maintains, should be, first and foremost, fun. It should be a good way to rest your mind and give it a break from the rigors and stresses of daily life. Movies, music, juggling – those are all labeled entertainment and are generally accepted as being fun, so why not books?

With me as a reader, Chabon was certainly preaching to the choir. I’ve always regarded reading as fun, and if I have time to spend with a book, then it’s time well spent. But even I, the reader looking for a good time, have fallen prey to the idea that reading a book should Mean Something. I mean, look back on these reviews for a moment. How many times have I dug deep to find some kind of moral or philosophical “lesson” in a book that was probably written with nothing more in mind than to pass a few pleasant hours on an airplane? Far too often, and more often than not it was born of a desire to make the review a little longer than, “I liked this book and you will too.”

Many readers have this secret shame that we’re reading for fun. This drives us to pick up books that we wouldn’t normally read – and in my case here I’m thinking about pretty much anything written by a Russian in the 19th and 20th centuries – in order to pick up some kind of intellectual cachet. We wander around the bookstore, dawdling before the “literature” section in the hopes that someone will see us there instead of in the science fiction/fantasy ghetto, which is where we really want to be. Chabon suggests that it is this ghettoization of books that contributes to such book snobbery and, if he had his way, he would see it gone. Every bookshop would be one section – Books.

The title of his book, Maps and Legends evokes this feeling. Maps, you see, serve two purposes. They chronicle where you have already been, showing you the roads you took and the things you saw. But, and possibly more importantly, they show you where you haven’t been yet. Who among you has never sat down and looked at a map and thought, I wonder what’s there? Even a map of the town in which you live can be oddly alluring. I lived in Kyoto for nearly nine years, and yet I could still look at a map and wonder where I should go next.

Books, Chabon maintains, should have the same quality. When I go into a modern bookstore, I head straight for the ports I know. I don’t explore distant shores or unknown islands. I’m provincial, a homebody of the literary sort. Perhaps if there were a store where the map was different, the layout unfamiliar, I might discover new worlds that would have otherwise gone unnoticed.

So this is where the uplift comes – Chabon inspires me to be a better reader. To not only read more, but to read better. To not gloss over the details in order to enjoy the book, but to actively search for them. To stare at some part of a story and wonder, What is that? Have I been there before?

Where he humbles me is simply in his writing. For the purposes of this book, he and I are in the same field – talking about books and writing and how they affect us. And Chabon is much, much better at it than I am. His writing is a pleasure to read – not in that frenetic, sensory overload Tom Wolfe kind of way, but more in the same way one would enjoy a really good meal. You want to pause and roll the words around in your head for a moment before you move on. He digresses and wanders and then comes back again, just when you were wondering where he was going with all this.

In the essays to be found in this book, he looks at the immortal allure of Sherlock Holmes, the bleak horror of The Road, and the unfortunate lack of anything worthwhile for children to read. He talks of golems and death and imaginary homelands for speakers of dying languages, and makes it all compelling and enthralling. I want to write like Chabon when I grow up.

If there’s higher praise, I don’t know it.

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“The brain is an organ of entertainment, sensitive at any depth, and over a wide spectrum. But we have learned to mistrust and despise our human aptitude for being entertained, and in that sense we get the entertainment we deserve.”
– Michael Chabon, Maps and Legends
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Michael Chabon on Wikipedia
Maps and Legends on Wikipedia
Maps and Legends at Amazon.com

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