THE BEST BOOKS I NEVER READ BUT SAID I DID

 

Ulysses James JoyceIt starts in school when they give you lists of books to read. I was always a reader. Most of the time, I’d already read most of the books on any reading list. Most others were not big deal. Reading a book was not normally a problem for me. After all, I love books.

But literature courses inevitably include a lot of books that I would never read voluntarily. Maybe books that no one would voluntarily read. How about Silas Marner? When was the last time someone read that because it sounded like a fun read?

Despite current trendiness, Jane Austin was nobody’s favorite author in high school. I read it, but I didn’t have to like it. Pride and Prejudice was the only book I ever threw in a lake. There, I’ve admitted it. I do not like Jane Austen. Not then, not now. Neither does my husband. We also don’t like the movies made from the books.

By the time I got to college, among the many books I did not read was James Joyce’s Ulysses. Not only didn’t I read it, I barely got through the Cliff Notes. But I got an A on the paper for my “unique understanding of the characters and motivation.” Good Cliff Notes, eh? I did read Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man and thought it wasn’t half bad. At least I could discern a plot and everyone in it wasn’t a prig — as they were in Austen’s novels.

I slogged my way through all of Dostoyevsky books. It was voluntary, but I still couldn’t tell you why I did it. Maybe to prove I could?

I read all 1800 pages of Romaine Rolland’s Jean Christophe because my mother loved the book. She also had me read Growth of the Soil, Knut Hamsun’s depressing tale of grinding poverty and despair in the Norwegian highlands. I barely made it through Madame Bovary and War and Peace was a non-starter.

Growth of the SoilI never made it through anything by Thomas Hardy. Or Lawrence Durrell. I loved Larry’s brother Gerald Durrell. He was hilarious and wrote about my favorite subjects, animals. I slogged my way through Lady Chatterly’s Lover only because everyone told me it was hot. I thought it was dull. My brother had some books stuffed under his bed that were a lot dirtier and more fun.

I never owned up to not reading those important, literary masterpieces. When the subject came up — which it did when we were students and even for a few years after that — I would try to look intelligent. I’d grunt at the appropriate moments, nod appreciatively.

So yesterday, I was looking at a review I wrote last January about Dahlgren and realized I was lying about literature again. I hated the book. I didn’t merely dislike it. I found it boring, pretentious. It had no plot, no action, and as far as I could tell, no point. I mealy-mouthed around my real feelings because it’s a classic. Everyone says so.

So my question is: who really read that book? Who really loved it? Did everyone pretend to love it because they heard what a great book it was? How many people lie about reading great books when in fact, they never make it past the preface before falling into a coma?

I’m betting it ain’t just me.

A SMART USE OF TIME: CYBER FRIENDS ACROSS THE WORLD

What do you have time for?

Unlike my fictional character Harold (Soup and Sandwich), who I have brought by for a few visits, I’m not particularly well-organized. I wish my apartment could be as neat and clean as the one I attribute to the Commander of Clean, Director of Dishes and Lord of the Laundry. Instead I am King of Clutter. No matter how hard I fight, I am losing the battle against my possessions.

Even so, I try to effectively allocate my time. Certain times should be assigned to particular activities. Work and commuting take a big chunk of life. While I ride back and forth in my General Motors car which has miraculously escaped recall, I think about ways to fill the other hours including the topics I should let loose on Word Press. What adventure, or misadventure Harold should have next.

Entry to the College

When I sat down at the computer to coördinate all the thoughts running around in my head, I got a message on Skype.

“U there?”

It was a guy I’d never met in person, but had talked to often.

He lives in the middle east. I’d met him on the language learning site, Livemocha, when it was also a social site. Its members helped others learn the language they already knew by correcting exercises and chatting in text and voice.

During the past two years, we’ve become friends. Our talks have covered a wide range of topics. If you think you have it tough, talk with someone who lives where the power goes off each day at 6 am and stays off until 2 pm. Obviously, there is not enough power to go around in his homeland.

The differences of our personal circumstances is offset by the similarities of our ideas and concerns. We both can see futures we would like to have. It seems that when you have a computer and some power, no matter how fleeting, you can dream as big as cyberspace itself.

So instead of spending my Saturday evening creating great thoughts for this site, I spent more than two hours helping my friend study for his English competency exam. He sent me pages of text to read and questions to ask. He sent audio passages to go with the text. He reported to me in his timed responses what the text and audio where telling us. We moved past grammar, on to reading comprehension, then conversation. He has a week until his exam. That week contains his hopes of moving on as a language student.

Why would I give up my Saturday evening for this? Why would I spend hours reading passages and questions out loud to this young man? He is a nice person and I have enjoyed our talks, but I’ve never met him, maybe never will.  And I really wanted to do something else.  My mind was set on a particular activity, and it was not English grammar.

Yet, he is a friend. He reaches across cyberspace to ask me to lend a hand. Nice to know I can contribute to someone’s education. Education is the most valuable thing we can ever have. Even if you win the lottery tomorrow, your knowledge will remain your most precious possession.

If my friend benefited at all from the few intense English sessions we had recently, I think I got the better of the deal. He showed me what life is like in a culture different from mine. I am patient as he goes through his exercises. He is patient with me as I ask questions about his life. Some of my questions are no doubt naïve, but I’ve learned so much by asking them.

If he’s successful and becomes a language student, I hope we get to meet. He has taught me an enormous amount by asking me to read aloud and pose questions from an English textbook.

So, how did you spend your Saturday evening?

DREAMY TEACHERS IN THE REAL WORLD

Dream Teacher

You can choose any person from history to teach you any topic you want. Who’s your teacher, and what do they teach you?


I don’t need to find some historical teacher out of history. I had real-life, real-time teachers to whom I will be eternally grateful. They taught me to learn, to love reading, to make up stories and write them down. To write non-fiction that was complete, accurate and unbiased. To find humor in physics. To love history, religion, archaeology, philosophy and all the mysteries of our world.

P.S. 35, Queens

P.S. 35, Queens

They encouraged curiosity, imagination and creative thinking.

Mrs. Schiff, 4th grade teacher at P.S. 35, who suggested I write “diaries” of historical people and learn to put myself into their worlds. Thank you. You made me feel special and talented and those lessons have traveled far and wide.

Dr. Silver, who taught English Literature and Linguistics at Jamaica High school. He forced me to parse sentences and respect punctuation and grammar while making me laugh. His doctorate in Linguistics helped him make our language intriguing, like a giant mystery to unravel. I’m still unraveling it.

Jamaica High School

Jamaica High School

Mr. Wekerle, head of Hofstra University’s Philosophy department. He believed in me. He taught phenomenology, History of Religion, Philosophy of Religion, but more importantly, saw through my bullshit. The first — and ONLY professor to give me a grade of D-/A+ … D- for content, A+ for style. He didn’t let me get away with anything. He made me fill in all those leaps of logic even though I whined vociferously that “everyone knows that stuff.”

Wekerle said “No, they don’t. You know it. Now tell them about it.”

And I did and from that I got a 40 year career.

Hofstra_University_5 (1)

Hofstra University

Dr. Feiffer — my high school physics teacher — taught me even I, the least mathematically inclined student ever could be fascinated by science.

I never got together with numbers, but I learned to love science and I still do. The logic of it, the truth of it, the importance of it have stayed with me an entire lifetime.

I didn’t and don’t need teachers from the mists of time. I got what I needed from dedicated teachers who worked for crappy salaries to teach dunderheads and wise-asses like me to think, write, research and love learning.

Bless them all. The gifts they gave me were precious beyond words!

IF YOU WANT IT BAD ENOUGH

The biggest and most damaging lie we tell our kids is this:

“If you want it bad enough and work really hard, you can achieve anything.”

We all bought into it as kids. Even though life has taught us it’s not true, we still try to sell it to younger generations. It’s the worst kind of lie. True enough to sound inspiring, yet deeply misleading.

You can try until your heart breaks, but to succeed you need more than a dream and determination. You need the right skill set, the right instincts, and actual talent. Luck helps too.

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We cannot always achieve what we want because we want it a lot. You can’t be a blind artist. You can’t be a tone-deaf musician. You can’t write without a gift for words. Some things can’t be taught. Yet these days, anyone who objects to the lie that hard work alone is always enough is called defeatist — or elitist. I am neither, but I am a realist.

I don’t know when realism became politically incorrect. It’s cruel. It takes people with potential and makes them feel like failures, not because they can’t succeed, but because they are doing the wrong thing.

When someone tells me I shouldn’t give up whatever because if I keep trying, I will surely succeed, it annoys me. I’m a very hard worker, but I’m old enough to know that hard work only takes you so far. I would rather work on something at which I have a chance of succeeding.

Yet we keep hearing the same enticing lie. “Don’t give up your dream! You can make it happen!” We always read about the successes. What we don’t hear about are the myriad failures, those who tried their hearts out and were defeated. We waste years trying to achieve the impossible while dismissing the achievable. We ignore real gifts in favor of magical thinking.

Creating a good and satisfying career should be part of everyone’s life plans. First though, we need to figure out what we do well, then focus on it. Hone talent and build a future that works. We need to help our kids do the same. Then network like mad and hope to get the Big Break because the wild card in the mix is always Lady Luck.

Don’t buy a lie and don’t foist it off on your kids. Help them be the best they can be. Help them succeed.

COME BACK, MR. CHIPS! – Garry Armstrong

No more classes, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks!

The refrain will be familiar if you’re of a certain age. The end of another school year is imminent in the United States.

There are still final exams, prom plans and other rites of spring, but many students have already packed up their computers, iPads. Stored away their shoulder and back packs. They’re ready for summer and memories of the academic year are quickly becoming a blur.

While a number of students relegate the past year to computer trash bins, some teachers wonder if there’s any point to returning for another year. Many feel their courses are doomed for those trash bins before the next class or new year.

Those of us who remember wooden desks, ink wells, pens, pencils and composition books also recall at least a few teachers who made school interesting. They took us beyond dull text books to bring to life flesh and blood people, characters who were part of the past. If the teachers were really good — and some were — we could imagine ourselves living in those days, usually seen only in movies.

Marilyn 6th Grade class

I called one of my teachers Mr. Chips. He reminded me of the idealized teacher in the movie, Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Mr. Rich was my Mr. Chips. He was my history teacher for several grades in elementary school. Mr. Rich would frequently have us close our text books. Then he would tell us stories about George Washington and Abe Lincoln’s struggles with other politicians and the news media. He shared stories about the Civil War, the Great Depression and the two World Wars as if we were sitting in our secret club house talking about sports and girls.

It was stuff I’ve never forgotten. Like the fictional Mr. Chips, Mr. Rich inspired me to read almost anything I could find about history. My grandfather, per Mr. Rich’s suggestion, filled me in on lots of first-hand historical events and the surrounding social climate. The early part of the 20th century became very real to me.

P.S. 35

Sadly, the time came for me to say goodbye to Mr. Rich. We were cutting the cord as I moved on the exciting new world of junior high school. I would return to see Mr. Rich several times over the intervening years. He never forgot me. He said I was one of his boys, part of his family. There was no underlying cynicism about those words when my world was still relatively young.

I would think about Mr. Rich often in the years to come. His words fueled my passion and curiosity for knowledge beyond books and newspapers. Mr. Rich was with me as I pursued my career as a radio and TV news reporter. When I was praised for my diligence in dealing with formidable establishment figures, it was really Mr. Rich whispering in my ear.

It never gets old.

A few years back, working as a substitute teacher, I was appalled at the lack of interest and knowledge in students. To be fair, the curriculum was less than interesting and the text books were very old. I dodged the usual fate of sub teachers and morphed into my engaging TV reporter character. Recalling Mr. Rich’s approach from long ago, I shared the story of the Pilgrims’ transatlantic voyage to young America. It was ripped from today’s headlines!

I spun a tale that could’ve been boat people trying to make it to U.S. soil from Cuba. Some of the pilgrims might have been aspiring baseball players, driven by the lure of free agency and the fabled streets of gold to be found in the new land. I whispered gossip about some of the folks aboard The Mayflower. I also told the students that descendants of those pilgrims try to cover up what happened. Just like TMZ. Mr. Rich would have been proud!

Alas, my sub efforts were not favorably received in some administrative quarters. But, to this day, former students stop me and thank me for getting them interested in history. That’s just from a handful of sub classes.

It’s sad to see young people with little interest in history today. Sadder still to see talented teachers give up in frustration and move elsewhere. Every time I watch Goodbye, Mr. Chips, I think of all the Mr. Riches in the world. I think of today’s young people and the generations to come.

Come back, Mr. Chips!

REMEDIAL NATIVE AMERICAN HISTORY – THE INCONVENIENT INDIAN

THE INCONVENIENT INDIAN – A Curious Account of Native People in North America

By Thomas King

University of Minnesota Press
Publication Date: September 1, 2013

272 Pages

Before starting it, I was a bit dubious about the book. The title seemed just a bit … I don’t know. Off-center? I wasn’t sure if I was about to read history, anecdotes, opinion, humor or what.

It turned out to be all of the above and more. This is an entertaining book — humorous, elegantly written and witty. It’s also serious, but the seriousness is somewhat cloaked by its style. Unlike so many books written by oppressed minorities that aim — almost exclusively — to make one feel guilty for not being one of the oppressed, this book helps you help see the world through the eyes of Native Americans. What we see is beauty, horror and hilarity … a mad world in which you can’t trust anyone and you have to make your own rules because that’s the only way to survive.

We have slaughtered our Native Americans. Hated them, admired, adulated, tortured, enslaved, jailed and utterly misunderstood them since our first encounters.

The single thing we non-Natives have never done is accept the Native American claim to this country as more legitimate than ours. At the core of the relationship between Native peoples and the white “settlers” was and will always be land. It was theirs. We wanted it. We took it. They objected. We killed them. And we kept the land and tried improve our position by slander and slaughter.

These days, feelings towards Native American runs the gamut from awe, to bigotry and loathing. Despite the passing of centuries, there is little understanding. That the Native community is less than eager to let outsiders into their world should surprise no one. Their experience with us has not been reassuring. To quote Calvera from The Magnificent Seven: “Generosity. That was our first mistake.”

For anyone interested in discovering the meaning of cognitive dissonance, growing up Native in today’s America is a good start. Natives are by no means the only minority to have to hold completely incompatible world views simultaneously, but Natives have a legitimate claim to first place for the most cock-eyed and complex relationship with the larger society in which they must live.

This isn’t exactly history. It isn’t exactly not. It’s stories, history, opinions and anecdotes presented in a non-linear, almost conversational style. It is easy to read, lively and not at all pretentious. It shouldn’t surprise anyone, but probably will. Logic would dictate that our Native population regard us with at the very least, skepticism and possibly deep-rooted hostility.

This isn’t a deep analysis of the history of this relationship, though for some I suppose it would be revelatory. I would call it “Native American History Lite.” It is a good starting place for those who don’t know anything — or know a lot of things, all of which are wrong.

About the author:

Thomas King is an award-winning novelist, short story writer, scriptwriter, and photographer. His many books include the novels Medicine River; Green Grass, Running Water; Truth and Bright Water; two short story collections, One Good Story, That One (Minnesota, 2013) and A Short History of Indians in Canada (Minnesota, 2013); nonfiction, The Truth About Stories (Minnesota, 2005); and the children’s books A Coyote Columbus Story, Coyote Sings to the Moon, Coyote’s New Suit, and A Coyote Solstice Tale. King edited the literary anthology All My Relations and wrote and starred in the popular CBC radio series, The Dead Dog Café. He is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Western American Literary Association (2004) and an Aboriginal Achievement Award (2003), and was made a member of the Order of Canada in 2004. He has taught Native literature and history and creative writing at the University of Lethbridge, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Guelph and is now retired and lives in Guelph, Ontario.

The Inconvenient Indian is available in Kindle, Hardcover and Paperback and worthwhile in any format.

UNDERSTANDING GEN X AND Y … SAY WHAT?

Daily Prompt: Generation XYZ

I’m Gen W. So I assume my parents (may they rest in peace) were Gen V, which generation is pretty much gone. My generation — aka The Baby Boomers — have become … trumpets and drumroll … The Older Generation.

My 6th Grade class.

This is so weird. I was always the youngest kid in my class, the wunderkind, mature for my age. Now I’m just mature. Or at least old. I don’t know about mature. I think I’m still a kid wrapped in a messed-up body. When I look in a mirror, I don’t see the me I am. I see a composite of all the mes I’ve ever been.

Gen X, my son’s group, are now in their late 30s and early to mid 40s. What an odd bunch they are. So many of them grew up convinced they were destined — and deserving — of everything. Some of them got the message that to achieve that glorious destiny, you had to work. A bunch of them, including my kid, didn’t clearly hear that part of the message … or, having heard it, felt they were exempt. Probably my fault. Everything is my fault, right?

I provided a good example. I worked hard and long. The kid’s father worked obsessively. All the adults these Gen X-ers knew as they were growing up worked long hours. We collectively believed in education and work. It would redeem us. We were willing to serve our time as grunts before expecting to be promoted. Yet I remember hearing my son say “I don’t want to waste my life working all the time like you, my father and Garry.” Say what? That was when I knew we had a serious disconnect. Garry was insulted. I was too but hey, he’s my kid. I can’t stay mad.

96-KKCheer-3a

Well, he’s sorry now. A lot more than a dollar short and many years late. The “success will come because I want it” didn’t work out and belated quick-fix education became worthless when the economy collapsed. I tried to warn him. I have friends with similar kids. We all tried.

As for Gen Y, my granddaughter’s age group? They think it’s all about their personal happiness. They are entitled to a stress-free life. Anyone who forces them to do anything which doesn’t give them immediate satisfaction is a bully or an abuser. Not to put too fine a point on it, but they are clueless. It’s scary the nonsense they believe.

Clueless or not, reality will bite them in the ass. We will pass away. So will their parents. They won’t be able to run to mom for comfort when the mean boss tells them they have to work weekends. Or find themselves working a lifetime of minimum wage jobs and living in grinding poverty.

It makes me sad. There are so many who are doomed to disappointment and failure because they don’t get it. It must have been me, us, our generation. We wanted to help them have a good life but somehow omitted the connection to achievement through personal effort and dedication.

Who knew it would backfire in such an awful way?

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