Category Archives: Teaching

On Becoming Professor Brulov

There’s a part in one of my favorite Hitchcock movies, Spellbound (1945), in which Ingrid Bergman, a clinical psychologist, takes Gregory Peck, a man who has amnesia and may have commited a murder, to her former psychology professor’s house to hide out from the authorities. Professor Brulov is the epitome of a German academic: eccentric, kind, and highly intelligent, he is genuinely happy to see Ingrid Bergman, who, he says, was his best assistant. It’s a wonderful part of an interesting movie, but lately it’s taken on even greater significance for me.

I first watched the movie on television as a teenager, at which time I identified with Ingrid Bergman (of course I did–the movie is all about Freudian wish fulfillment, after all). Some years ago, as a middle-aged professor, I watched it again with my students when I taught a course on the films of Alfred Hitchcock, and I realized with a rather unpleasant shock that I had evolved without realizing it from the young, attractive, and inquisitive Dr. Constance Peterson into the aged, almost-but-not-quite-grumpy Profesor Brulov. (In Mel Brooks’ hilarious spoof of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies, High Anxiety [1977], Professor Brulov is transformed into Professor Lilloman, which the protagonist mistakenly pronounces as “Professor Little Old Man.”) And, while it has taken me a few years to accept this transformation, I’m now fairly comfortable with my new, much less glamorous, role as mentor to my former students.

The reason is simple. Constance Petersons are a dime a dozen. The world is filled with beautiful young people making their mark on the world. But Brulov–he’s different. In fact, he’s quite special. Think of it this way: When Peterson is in trouble, she seeks him out, and Brulov helps her without asking any difficult questions, despite the fact that he knows she’s lying to him. He trusts her even more than she trusts him, which is touching, in a way. And so one thing that this very complex movie does is set up the idea of a mentor relationship between Brulov and his former student. It’s an interesting side angle to the movie that I never really noticed before.

And, now, in my retirement, I am learning to embrace this new Brulovian stage of life. I have had very few, if any, mentors in my own career, so while I’m not too proficient at it yet, I hope to grow into the role in the years to come. The way I see it, we need more Professor Brulovs in this world; we can’t all be Ingrid Bergman or Gregory Peck, after all. I’m happy that my students remember me with something other than aversion, after all, and so becoming Professor Brulov is, at least for now, quite enough for me.

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On Lost Voices

A few days ago, an article appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Carlin Romano that discussed H.J. Jackson’s book Those Who Write for Immortality. Jackson’s book talks about literary fame and how it occurs, and Romano’s article introduces some interesting, and troubling, ideas. For example, what if, as Jackson suggests, we remember Wordsworth and Coleridge not because they are eminently good poets, but because their poetry is easier to anthologize and illustrate than the works of Robert Southey or Leigh Hunt? Many good writers fall by the wayside, Romano seems to argue, simply because they are not convenient to read.

This makes me question my own work as a teacher in years past. One of the things I’m proud of is my attempt to help my students understand Romantic poetry and feel comfortable with it. Of course, I emphasized Wordsworth and Coleridge, because they are so accessible and so easy to identify with, considering their love of simplicity and Nature with a capital “N.” What’s not to like about that, after all? But recently, while reading the letters of Charles Lamb, a literary figure who was once loved for his essays and is now only known for his pseudonym (any crossword addict knows that “Lamb’s alias” is “ELIA”), I discovered a rebuttal of all the nature-worship perpetrated by Wordsworth and Coleridge.

Charles Lamb

Charles Lamb

Of course, any student of Romantic literature will remember lines like “Henceforth I shall know / That Nature ne’er deserts the wise and pure; / No plot so narrow, be but Nature there, /…and keep the heart / Awake to Love and beauty!” (“This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” by S.T. Coleridge). This is also the poem in which Coleridge addresses Lamb himself (much to Lamb’s chagrin) not once but three times as “My gentle-hearted Charles,” telling him at one point, “thou has pined  / And hungered after Nature, many a year, / In the great City pent, winning thy way / With sad and patient soul…” (28-31). Lovely as those lines are, there was at least one reader who was unimpressed by them. Lamb himself wrote to Coleridge on August 6, 1800, “For God’s sake (I never was more serious) don’t make me ridiculous any more by terming me gentle-hearted in print, or do it in better verses.” Apparently, Coleridge heeded Lamb’s plea, and never again addressed him in a poem.

Five months later, Lamb writes to William Wordsworth an interesting, chatty letter in which he brings up his view of nature, which runs counter to all Romantic ideology, ending in a paean to city life worthy of Dickens or Thackeray some fifty years later: “Separate from the pleasure of your company, I don’t much care if I never see a mountain in my life. I have passed all my days in London, until I have formed as many and intense local attachments as any of you mountaineers can have done with dead Nature. The lighted shops of the Strand and Fleet Street; the innumerable trades, tradesmen, and customers, coaches, waggons, playhouses; all the bustle and wickedness round about Covent Garden; the very women of the Town; the watchmen, drunken scenes, rattles; life awake, if you awake, at all hours of the night; the impossibility of being dull in Fleet Street; the crowds, the very dirt and mud, the sun shining upon houses and pavements, the print shops, the old bookstalls, parsons cheapening books, coffee-houses, steams of soups from kitchens, the pantomimes–London itself a pantomime and a masquerade–all these things work themselves into my mind, and feed me, without a power of satiating me. The wonder of these sights impels me into night-walks about her crowded streets, and I often shed tears in the motley Strand from fulness of joy at so much life. All these emotions must be strange to you; so are your rural emotions to me.” Lamb’s letter continues to contrast his view of the poetic with Wordsworth’s, ending, “So fading upon me, from disuse, have been the beauties of Nature, as they have been confinedly called; so ever fresh, and green, and warm are all the inventions of men, and assemblies of men in this great city.”

Old Covent Garden Market, by Georg Johann Scharf, 1825 (source: Wikipedia)

Old Covent Garden Market, by Georg Johann Scharf, 1825 (source: Wikipedia)

This passage is more than striking; it’s a gobsmacking refutation of the Nature-worship that I have, for many years, erroneously taught was part and parcel of the literary landscape of early 19th century Britain. So here’s a public apology to all my students, with this little piece of cautionary advice: H.J. Jackson may well be right. Rather than teach the old stand-bys, we ought to be engaging in our own recovery projects to introduce more readers to the jewels that we’ve let slip through our fingers.

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Postscript to Previous Post

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

Tolkien, the story goes, wrote the first words of The Hobbit in the pages of a student examination blue book. He had been grading examinations as a form of part-time work, and, exhausted by the monotony of the task, he celebrated his discovery of a blank page in the book, untouched by the student’s ink, by writing the words “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

I am far luckier than Tolkien. I received the following essay from a student (who gave me permission to post it here) as a final exam. It is a lovely way to end my final semester at the community college where I teach. Thank you, Cari Griffin, for summing up my attitude towards the study of literature in such a humorous and appropriate way. Indeed, I am a very lucky teacher. After all, a doctor is only as good as his or her companions.

 

 

27 April 2015

“Doctor” Shumway:

For nearly two years, I have been your companion as we have traveled through space and time. Your Tardis is not a blue Police box; it is your classroom, and you are “The Doctor”; a madwoman with a YouTube account. Though there was never a fez involved, exploring foreign lands, examining history, and best of all, discussing literature has allowed for, myself, at least, great understanding of the space-time continuum as it pertains to the literary world.

There can be no question that our travels, having begun in September of 2013, frequently took us to England. I think we can both agree, it is our favorite stop. Whether it has been a visit with the Anglo-Saxons, an exploration of medieval England, several visits with our favorite playwright, William Shakespeare, or an extensive amount of time spent in 19th century Great Britain, each visit afforded us an opportunity to see British history and its inhabitants in a new way. We lacked only our tea while we observed an Abbey, paid a visit to Thornfield Hall, or grasped the devastation of World War I.

We were not always in England. We’ve been to France with a philosopher, to Spain within American, and Germany to witness the beginning of the Romantic Movement. We saw 17th century Turkey through the eyes of an English woman, visited Japan at the turn of the 20th century, and briefly stopped in Imperial Russia. The authors we have covered acted as conductors, providing the means for us to travel. Their voices allowed us to see into their worlds, to spend time in their society, to have a momentary glimpse of a fixed point in time. We have seen revolutions, oppression, and inequality in many of the places we have visited, but always, the voices of those authors who have guided us cried out for equality, rallied for peace, and asked us to question, alongside them, our purpose within our community, our country, and our society, just as they did the same in theirs. Together, on our journey, we have celebrated the individual, applauded the growth of the female author, recognized brilliance, and felt the influence of those long ago voices within our modern society.

It was not just the authors that we met. We examined the world around them. We studied the era in which they lived: we viewed their art, heard their music, and, ultimately, questioned the validity of their place within the literary canon. Perhaps we did not always embrace them as friends, but we did not leave as foes. No. Our relationship with these authors, however brief, brought us a little closer to our fellow man, allowed us see into his or her own world through their eyes, and, to realize they are very much like us, though they lived in a far different world than the one we inhabit now.

As our journey nears its end, you ask, “why?” I interpret this as, “why take the journey? “My answer is quite simply this: we must. For anything less than a madman in a blue box landing in our backyard, we have no other way to reach across time and space, to look at a moment in man’s history, and have an opportunity to see that moment through a different set of eyes. Yes, Doctor Shumway, literature is our Tardis through space and time. We have an obligation to not only understand our place within our own culture, in history, but our fellow man’s place and his culture as well. After all, “We’re all stories, in the end” (The Eleventh Doctor).

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The End of Something

My career as a full-time teacher is drawing to a close, and I’m having some trouble getting used to the idea.

Several weeks ago, I decided to take advantage of an early retirement program at my college, so I will be leaving at the end of this semester. Of course, I’m really excited about the prospect of having free time to read whatever I want, in whatever order I want to read it; to focus on my writing, music and knitting; and, most of all, to do a bit of traveling. Teaching, as I told one of my colleagues, was getting in the way of my own learning, and so I’m grateful to be able to step back from a career that, despite its frustrations, has been a central and valued part of my life. I have learned more about teaching in the dozen or so years I’ve spent at this small community college in rural Northern Michigan than I ever thought possible, which is part of the reason I have mixed feelings about leaving.

In some ways, I feel I’m at the top of my game as a teacher. I don’t have to take a lot of time to prepare for each class, and most classroom situations don’t really throw me. (Of course, there are a few that were pretty funny, and, once I retire, I look forward to sharing these stories, like the one about the time a speech student tried to bring a goat to class.) Grading papers, of course, is still a tremendous burden, and like most writing instructors, I greatly resent it. But it turns out that grading is not as heavy a burden for me as the human burden. By this, I mean that I try to see each of my students as an individual; everyone, I told myself as I began my teaching career, is someone’s child. I asked myself, how would I want my child treated by their professors? The answer was clear.  So I have always tried to be open, inviting, and encouraging with my students, and it’s made for some great moments as a teacher. But it’s also made it possible for me to see the real pain in my students’ lives. From the student who schleps her infant to class, no matter subzero temperatures, to the student whose grip on religion is ironclad because he’s found no other outlet or support, to the student who suffers from a laundry list of health problems as a result of serving in Afghanistan–each of these students has a claim on me, because I have always felt it’s more important to be a human being first and a professor second.

It’s a noble idea, but now, as I move towards my last days of teaching (at least full-time), I can see its flaws. In essence, teaching as a human being is like “hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heartbeat,” in the famous words of George Eliot in Middlemarch (Chapter 20), whose narrator predicts that those who can attend to such emotional minutiae are likely to “die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” I am not in danger of dying from being exposed to that roar, but I am pained by my work these days. I’m stricken by the sadness of seeing the eccentric student who has no friends, sitting alone in the cafeteria; I’m depressed by the difficulties facing young mothers and fathers as they try to gain an education to make life better for their children; and I’m overwhelmed by the challenges, and, yes, the tragedies, that lie behind the eyes of many of my students who stare up at me as I try to dish out some wisdom to help them in their journey through life.

It’s a tough job, and I’ve given it what I could over the years. One consolation I’ve always had, however, is that if I do a poor job one semester, I could always improve the next time around. This semester is different, though. There is no next time. Does that mean I’ll finally get it right and teach well this term? The answer has become clear over the past few weeks. This semester will be like all the other semesters I’ve had: some successes in the classroom, but many more failures. I’m satisfied that I’ve made the right decision, though. It’s time for someone else to step up and try their hand at this job. I’m ready to take my ball and go home, even if that means that I leave a career I love.

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Guest Post from Kelly Suter, RN, Medical Relief Worker and Writer

I always say that I have the best students in the world, and it’s wonderful when they keep in touch with me after they leave my classroom. This holiday season, I’m extremely lucky to be able to present for you, my blog readers, a guest post by Kelly Suter, R.N., a former writing student (yes, nurses do have to know how to write!) and a nurse engaged in the battle against Ebola. Kelly has spent significant time doing medical relief work in Haiti, Sierra Leone, and Liberia and has been interviewed on 60 Minutes in the story “The Hot Zone” (to see the segment, just click on the link at the bottom of this page).  Moreover, Kelly is one of those rare, special people who, at a very young age, has found her Work.

Here are Kelly’s thoughts about writing and its importance in our world:

If you are like me,  English was one of your least favorite subjects growing up.  Language, in general, seemed cumbersome and inconsistent to my young and obstinate mind.  Despite my initial aversion, I would come to appreciate and respect language–especially in its written form. I gradually came to understand that the written word does not exist solely to act as an accessory to the spoken word; the written word is an art form unto itself.  In music, sounds and words are arranged in such a way to elicit a reaction deep within the human soul.   Similarly, in writing, words are arranged to the same effect. The more beautifully and carefully those words are arranged, the more powerful the effect–the deeper that message resonates and the more clearly it is understood by the human spirit. As I became more acquainted with writing, I also came to realize that the written word is a powerful tool.  A simple phrase can inspire great hope, courage and love.  Alternatively, it can also cause great pain, destruction and fear.  I decided early on that I would use any talent I possessed as a writer to inspire as much good in this world as possible. Writing has now become my faithful companion and weapon of choice in a world plagued by suffering.  In my years of medical relief work, writing has given me a means of sharing my experiences and–more importantly–the stories of those most of the world would rather forget. From the child that was buried under the rubble of his family home after the earthquake in Haiti to the elderly woman who walked for three days with her grandchild–sick with cholera–strapped to her back to find medical treatment in rural Haiti. From the malnourished twins in East Timor to the young student who was murdered by firing squad for simply being born of the wrong tribe in South Sudan. From the man who lost his five-year-old son to Ebola in Liberia to the gravedigger who wants to do his part to save his country from Ebola in Sierra Leone. Writing has allowed these experiences to be a positive motivating force in the lives of many, rather than in the life of only one.

The written word gives us the power to cross oceans, climb mountains, and break through barriers. It gives us the ability to inspire, create and encourage. Most importantly–it reminds us all that we are human and that we are all interconnected.

60 Minutes: “The Hot Zone”

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The Best of All Possible Worlds

As I sit at my desk, waiting for papers to trickle in, I take a few minutes to contemplate the teaching life. Don’t worry–this won’t be a political post decrying the impossible demands placed on teachers in the United States, the lack of professional respect for them, or the very real difficulties involved in creating a career in teaching, although all of those topics do bear talking about. Today, rather than craft a careful argument about the demise of education and its consequences for our culture, I’m just going to indulge in some personal reflections on the teaching life, offered by a community college professor who is still in the trenches, hands dirtied with run-on sentences and flawed thesis statements, fingers wearied by clutching a rapidly fading red pen.

It’s at this point that I look back on the semester and consider all the work my students have done, reflect on all the goals I had for them and myself, consider where we are and how we’ve gotten here, and think: “What an awful job I’ve done! How miserably I’ve failed them!” The truth is, I always feel rotten, simply miserable, at the end of the semester. No matter how many students tell me what a good semester they’ve had, I always think about the fact that I could have helped them more: engaged them in more discussion, made more comments on their papers, asked more about their personal lives, and generally been more of a mensch and less of a schlemiel.

This is not a cry for sympathy, however, or a self-deprecating appeal for someone to contradict me. I’ve been teaching pretty much all of my adult life, and I’m not young anymore. I’m used to this feeling, and, like many other feelings I have that are not particularly productive, I acknowledge this one and pass it by, much as a man in the 1950s would tip his hat at a passing acquaintance on the street and continue walking down the block. Part of this refusal to give in to the feeling of desperate failure as a teacher comes from simple familiarity with it. I expect many, probably most, teachers feel this way. Part of it may come from simple inertia; but part of it comes from the knowledge that my students will have to survive many mediocre teachers throughout their academic career, and if I’ve been one of them this semester, it’s part of the experience that they will need to have in order to succeed as students. Like a refrain from Candide, I can say, “It’s all for the best. They need to learn to teach themselves, and if I’ve failed them this semester, perhaps they’ll learn how to do this all the more quickly.”

So, today, as the semester draws to a close, here’s to all the teachers, professors, GSAs, teaching assistants, and instructors who have done the best they could with what they had and emerged relatively unscathed from yet another semester. After all, the best thing about being a teacher is that, unlike the students we teach, we always get a chance next semester to do it right.

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Everything You’ve Been Taught to Think about Shakespeare Is Probably Wrong

After teaching an intensive Shakespeare class week, I have to admit it: Shakespeare is difficult. It’s hard to understand the plays and poems he wrote, but apparently, it’s of the utmost importance that we all do—after all, knowledge of Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar is what separates the educated from the uneducated in the United States. That’s why we make our high school students spend so much time on these plays: we want them to be educated and knowledgeable about their culture, and Shakespeare is about as cultured as you can get in high school.

There’s only one thing wrong with this picture, which is just about everything.

I’m not going to get into the argument that plagued higher education a generation ago, when scholars argued about whether it really was important for students to know and understand the plays of a dead white male that were written about a time long past. You can read about that debate here, if you’re interested in it. Today, I’m not concerned about whether we study Shakespeare at all, but rather about the ways in which Shakespeare is distorted to fit into the high school curriculum.

There are several reasons for this distortion. First of all, the study of Shakespeare in American high schools is fraught with shame, and this shame has nothing to do with the content of the plays (although we will talk more about that in a moment). Think back to your high school days–if you’re a high school teacher, think back to the last time you had to teach Shakespeare. In all likelihood, there were parts of the play you did not understand. Whether it was the difficult language or the confusing character names (really Shakespeare? Grumio and Gremio in the same play?), or the convoluted plot, there was something you just didn’t get. When this happens, as it does all the time, even with college professors and scholars, we tend to cover it up, ignore it, pray that no one asks questions about it. As far as Shakespeare goes, we are taught early on to play the emperor’s-new-clothes game. If we don’t advertise the fact that we don’t get the play, don’t understand the language, and don’t see why Shakespeare is so important, then maybe we can pass for a truly educated person. The problem with this is that while high school students aren’t incredibly quick to understand Shakespeare, they are very quick to identify our discomfort, and it distances them from the pleasure of reading and understanding Shakespeare.

Secondly, high school is apparently not a suitable place to study Shakespeare–hence the censorship that Shakespeare must undergo in order to make the plays fit for consumption. All of Shakespeare’s plays deal with sexuality in one form or another–every single one of them. We are hypocrites when we say that teenagers should understand Shakespeare all the better for this but refuse to identify the truly raunchy parts of the plays for them, passages which go unnoticed because of the archaic language and difficult references. A poem like Venus and Adonis is, after all, intensely erotic, pretty much soft-core porn, and would engender numerous complaints if it were placed on a high school syllabus. Until we can deal effectively with the problem of censorship in our high schools, Shakespeare will continue to be despised by our students. High school will continue to be, in the words of a wise student of mine, where Shakespeare goes to die. (Thanks, Jordan!)

But maybe you are one of the lucky ones. Maybe you made it through high school and even college without conceiving a distaste for Shakespeare. Congratulations! But even so, you may still face a serious problem with Shakespeare, and that’s that most of his plays are completely misunderstood today. Here are just a few examples: Julius Caesar, which we all suffered through in 10th or 11th grade, is not about Julius Caesar, a throw-away character who dies before the play is even half over. And Mark Anthony is not the hero of the play, as he is so often made out to be: he is a wretched opportunist who capitalizes on his patron’s murder. The play is really about Brutus; it’s about how difficult it is to respond to tyranny in a truly humane and civilized way. Likewise, Romeo and Juliet is not just a play about love; rather, it’s really about rebellion. I don’t think we are meant to feel heartsick about the ending of the play, as we do about its modern counterpart, West Side Story. The ending of the play should, if done correctly, make us feel angry at the insipid young lovers and the utter waste of life they leave scattered in their reckless–and rebellious–wake.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Shakespeare has been taught all wrong for too many years. Whether it’s worthwhile to study works from a period and a culture so distant from ours is up for debate, but surely  it cannot be right to study them in a way that distorts their true meaning, fostering disdain, shame, and disinterest among so many of us. As for me, I look forward to a time when we can openly admit our confusion about Shakespeare, when we can be honest about the raucous and delightfully filthy language in his plays, and when we can challenge the stale interpretations that have been handed down to us, replacing them with our own outrageously creative readings.

 

 

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Confessions of an Amateur Musician

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A rare portrait of the author in a preposterous band uniform, ca. 1977

 

At 53, I am ridiculously—to be honest, pathetically—devoted to learning the clarinet. While most people my age are discovering the joys of gardening, genealogy, or golf, I spend too much time and money on a hobby that makes no sense. I haven’t always been this enthusiastic about music, either. Years ago, like many other high school students, I played in my school band–I even have a nice white sweater with a gold “S” (for Spring Woods High School) affixed to the pocket to prove it, a sweater which I’ve saved throughout the years, despite many cross-country moves. Please note, however, that I make no claim to have actually played in the Marching Band. I was a miserable failure at marching, and, consequently, I sat in the stands every Friday night during football season throughout my senior year, an alternate marcher, to be used only in case of dire emergency. Thankfully, it was never necessary for me to go on the field, and so I was allowed to sit there, alone, munching on cookies I had stowed in my tall busby helmet, watching the show. Although I was a horrible marcher, I was an average clarinet player (despite my inability to count), which was why I was allowed to stay in the band and why, ultimately, I scored that lonely varsity letter.

Years passed, and in my mid-forties, I took up the clarinet again. Since then, I’ve been on a quest to be able to play without making people around me cringe. I am improving, but every now and then I stop and ask myself why I’m doing all this–spending an hour or so a day about five days a week (on good weeks) practicing scales, pushing my poor, age-befuddled brain to learn about intervals and minor chords, perfect fourths and blue notes, and playing in a variety of community bands. The $64 question is, why do all this when the return on my investment will be, in practical terms, so small?

I have faced the following facts: I will never be a great, or even a pretty good, clarinet player. I will never zip up and down scales, double-tonguing effortlessly and gliding with ease through cadenzas, pulling emotions out of world-weary listeners. I will never be able to improvise freely with other musicians, transposing on the spot so I can play my clarinet with guitarists and piano players. I know that at this stage in my life, I will never attain more than “decent” amateur status–and I am not being falsely modest when I say that. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last few years, it’s what good music actually sounds like, which in turn means that I know what my own limits are.

Yet I continue to push against these limits, worrying at them like a dog chewing on a nylabone.

I’ve been pondering this question the last few months. The closest answer I can come to is this: Music adds beauty to my life. Even if I can’t be the musician I would like to be, the study of music is, for me, a celebration of art, and that is in many ways a celebration of life. It’s a way to stop the busy swirl of work and social obligations, to bask in the glory of one single note at a time, and to concentrate not only on the here and now (the moment of playing), but also on the there and then (the moment of composing). Playing the clarinet allows me to interpret music—limited though my understanding of it may be—and to put my thoughts, emotions, and what skill I have into my playing. It’s also a way for me to devote myself to a discipline I have neglected throughout most of my adult life. Think of it this way: most of us give up music right after high school, selling our dented and scuffed horns and concentrating on our college majors and professions. This means that at the very time when we understand what it means to be disciplined, when we have finally learned how to devote long hours of effort to attain a degree of mastery, we have already given up on an art form that might just afford us exquisite pleasure. In a way, that’s a real shame.

So that’s why I keep at it. I no longer expect to be that good, and I try not to compare myself to the people who have studied music professionally. I work hard not to wince when I hit wrong notes or get lost in difficult (or even not-so-difficult) phrasings. And I realize that while there are many people who play much better than I do, that is no reason to give up on the clarinet. I love the sound it makes, even when I play it myself, and I love the fact that slowly and surely, I am improving. If practicing scales and occasionally playing obligato with YouTube recordings of Coleman Hawkins are my way of paying homage to the art that is music, and if doing so makes me feel alive and appreciative of those who play better—and of those who play worse—than I do, then what other excuse do I need? Music is for everyone, even for those of us who play imperfectly, who squeak when we mean to dance our way through the highest notes, who get lost amid sixteenth note runs, who are tripped up by our own desire to make beautiful sounds.

And this is why I continue to play. It makes me feel alive; it gives me something to work towards; and, once in a rare while, I hit that one beautiful note, which, whether it is an accident or not, is so fitting, so right, that it brings tears to my own eyes. With that kind of allure, even my own nagging fear of failure isn’t enough to make me give it up.

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In Praise of Lost Work

Every semester, I have students come to me with anguished faces: their work is lost, sent into cyber-oblivion by an ill-timed and unexpected computer shut-down. I take a moment to sympathize with them; although I am a professor, that doesn’t make me a monster who deals and delights in schadenfreude. But I don’t allow the pity party to continue very long. Buck up, I tell them. You wrote that paper once; you can write it again, certainly. They look at me like I’m crazy. “What? Write the whole thing again? Do you know how long it took me to write it in the first place?” I shrug, unimpressed by their misery, and that’s where the trouble starts, and why it’s important for me to take this opportunity to make my point clear.

I know what it’s like to lose an important piece of work. Over the past five years, I’ve had at least as many computer melt-downs. The IT people at my college have begun to look at me with suspicion, in fact, because I have had so many catastrophic computer failures. Maybe that’s why I’ve become pretty blase about lost work; it’s also why I have an external hard drive that I use frequently, why I save my work all the time, and why I often email myself multiple copies of important files. But the truth is that some of what we lose is not worth saving. Sometimes it’s good to lose things–and not only because it builds character. When I point this out to my students, they begin to protest, and then I take them through a tour of lost literary works.

Two examples: Some of us may have labored through Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution: A History (published in 1837), which he worked on for well over three years before giving  it to his friend John Stuart Mill to read before publication. Like any good writer, Carlyle wanted feedback from his respected colleague. Unfortunately, Mill’s chamber maid, who was illiterate, mistook the manuscript for a pile of used paper, with which she started Mill’s bedroom fire. Here is a rather whimsical picture of the tragedy by an unknown Japanese artist:

Image from "The French Revolution: A History," in Wikipedia

Image from “The French Revolution: A History,” in Wikipedia

Carlyle didn’t sit and bewail his fate, nor did the sad event destroy his friendship with Mill. Instead, keeping in step with his own philosophy, Carlyle sat down and wrote the whole damn thing again–all three volumes of it. The French Revolution: A History went on to become, if not a best-seller, a well respected work that made Carlyle’s reputation. Charles Dickens used it (as well as a wheelbarrow-load of other sources delivered by Carlyle himself) when he wrote A Tale of Two Cities.

Of course, another excellent, and more recent, example of lost work is that of Ernest Hemingway, whose wife Hadley lost an entire suitcase of Hemingway’s work in 1922 while traveling to meet him in Geneva. She had wanted to surprise him by bringing all of his work with her so he could work on it while in Geneva; unfortunately, it went missing in the Gare de Lyon. Only a few, previously published, works survive from before this period as a result. Some scholars believe Hemingway, who took the next train back to Paris to double-check for carbon copies in his apartment (there were none–Hadley had brought them, too), blamed his wife; they feel this may have been the first rupture in a marriage that was destined to end some three years later. However, the couple look pretty happy in this picture, apparently taken a short time after the incident:

Ernest and Hadley, in Chamby, Switzerland, 1922. From Wikipedia.org

 

The truth is that Hemingway set out to replace those stories with others, and now, so many years later, we feel no sense of loss at their disappearance–only a mild curiosity and bemusement, as well as admiration for a writer who, faced with the loss of a great dea of his work, set out to recreate it, and, with characteristic courage and determination, to surpass it in quality.

I hope all my readers understand what this means. Losing a manuscript, or a document, or a whole slew of documents, isn’t the end of the world. Sometimes, it can even be a good thing.

In addition, it means that somewhere in Paris, in some old  grenier or cave,  is a valise full of first-edition Hemingway stories, and they’re probably worth millions.

Stock image from http://thumbs.dreamstime.com/z/old-valise-15409839.jpg

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