Friday, December 31, 2010

Everything You Thought About Success? You Thought Wrong.

I am loving Brene Brown (social worker, researcher, writer) and her TEDxHouston talk on vulnerability as being the key to leading a truly successful life.

Brown discusses what courage really means (whole-heartedness), and how people who are genuinely good at connecting with others (that's what life is all about, after all) are the ones who consciously choose to make themselves vulnerable and open. 

I urge everyone to watch this 20-minute talk. It's sweet; it's funny; it could change your life.

As I watched this, I thought how everything I tend NOT to like about myself has just been my unwillingness NOT to be other than I am. I let myself be vulnerable; I always have. I do this in part by sharing stories. Also, I speak the truth of the world because I must...even though I know (better than most) that it can make me vulnerable.

I was stunned the other day to find one of my kids saying, in jest, "I will sue you until you're dead and I will laugh! Mwahahaha!"

That's exactly what someone said to me this past March. 

First, I considered the need for family therapy as a result of the abuse I suffered (and thought I had kept from my kids); I already know I'm going to need it for myself for possibly decades.

Then I remembered that all I can do is remind my kids, "People should never say things like that to each other. Never."

I teach compassion to my children; I always have. Compassion starts at home. Compassion starts with each of us, in our hearts. We share compassion by listening to each other's stories and really hearing them. It is not compassionate to demand that someone be fired (and hope they die) because they do not agree with your politics.

Anyway--namaste. Be well. Happy 2011. Be more vulnerable this year and see what it brings you. I hope it only brings you good things and love.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Tragic Memoir: Ultimately Hopeful, Definitely Useful

Lately, I've been in contact with some wonderful writers who have been through terrible, tragic experiences. I very much admired their courage in telling their stories, as I told them, and I think they did public services, truly, by writing about their personal pain. These writers are also kind, giving, honest people, as I could tell from our correspondences, and I admire them for that, too.

Elizabeth McCracken wrote An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination about her son, Pudding, who was, heartbreakingly, still born a few years ago-see book shot on left; and Shirley Enebrad wrote Over the Rainbow Bridge about her son, Cory, who died at age nine from leukemia, but who left her with a lifetime's worth of lessons about love, metaphysics and mysticism--see book shot on right (the photo is smaller for some reason, but I can't change that).

When we've been through something that turns our life upside down, what is the best course of action? Is it forgetting about it, not talking about it, 'moving on?'

That's one school of thought. But honestly, sometimes the hardest thing to do is to re-live the experience by writing about it. To write about tragedy is probably the toughest road, but it is also, I think, the most worthwhile to travel.

Why? Because we can learn from each other's stories. If we do not share those stories, then we will never realize our profound connections with other people we don't even know. Those people will never realize, in turn, that they are not alone in their pain.  We will all just fade away, lonely and misunderstood.

Writing my own memoir about teaching and the hell I endured last year (most unjustly; I was nothing if not misunderstood in my quest to really challenge and hone thinking skills and open minds and help my students become bright, productive citizens of the world) has been very hard.  I did it because I know my words will eventually make a difference to other people, other teachers.  I did it not for me (because truly, I would rather not think about this most of the time) but for the world.

This past year, I have read so many disgusting, horrible, cruel and nasty comments that were written about me by, I assume, people who don't want students to have to think, who would rather they spout the bullet points they've been fed. Total strangers have speculated about me, calling me "immature" and much worse. People I don't know have told me, via comments, to "STFU!" I even saw a newspaper columnist write a sickening column about memoir writers who should "keep it in a diary."

Some people are very threatened by the truth, I guess. Some people don't want to see anyone else rise above their pain and share their stories. Why this is, I cannot imagine.

I am only glad that there exist brave souls who have put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and written down all the painful details, words that made them, I am sure, cry all over again, and even made readers cry, too.

It is not such a bad thing to cry. To cry can be cleansing. To cry means we feel and we are alive. 

We write because, mostly, we must. We also write as a service. If you get that, you are more highly evolved than some others who would prefer that you suffer in silence and "shut up."

Thanks, Elizabeth and Shirley and every other memoir writer I have loved. I hope to soon join your ranks as a writer with a painful personal (but important, if not nearly as tragic) story to share. 

Still, this is not about me; this is about writing about the pain we've all endured. Only by writing about it can we finally get past it--even if the fact that we've written our stories means people keep asking us about them, or, in turn, stop to tell us their stories, too.

Writers are inevitably teachers, but they are also students of the world--and everyone who retells her or his story is trying to share an important lesson.

I am listening for the lesson. Are you?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

All I Know is That I Know Nothing: Self-Directed Learning

"Inspiring people to become self-motivated and life-long learners is what I'm all about..."

Do you see that line at the end of my profile (on the lower right-hand side of this page)? I wrote that ages ago, but I meant it then, and I mean it now.

The other day, I was expounding on how impressed I am by D.R. Haney, author of SUBVERSIA and BANNED FOR LIFE, because he is an autodidact (see this blog from Dec 13, 2010). 

I remembered, too, how when I was a fresher in college (note the P.C. lingo--I am not a man, as in "freshMAN"), my Don (adviser) told me she loved that I always wrote down what she was saying to me.

For example: she mentioned Plato's Phaedo, and I wrote that down and I read it, and then, the next time we met, I discussed the work with her. I always did things like that.

That's self-motivated learning. It just came naturally to me, and I never gave it any particular thought before my Don noted how much she liked it and how unusual it was, but this trait, this desire to read and grow, is what I most admire in other people and students, and it's what I most want to inspire, if I can.

I saw a fabulous example of a reader/writer/blogger who exemplifies this when I was reading this morning. This is Bookslut's Jessa Crispin in a piece she recently posted for PBS' Need to Know, and which I found via Twitter.

Note how Crispin writes about one book inevitably leading to another, to one reference leading her to discover new works, new art, and new ideas.  This is precisely what I want students to do, and it's what all educated, thoughtful people should be doing all the time.

Wide reading, constantly striving to learn and know what we are talking about is essential to being a person who contributes to culture, I think--and to being one who may also motivate others. 

One of my favorite films, and one I saw when I was just a kid, 12 years old (my mother took me to see this), is Educating Rita, and it is about a character--an uneducated hair stylist in a bleak, British, pub saturated city--who desperately wants to be and know more. 

Filmed at Trinity College Dublin (which I later attended, strangely enough), this is an amusing, witty, important film about a burned-out literature professor who is brought back to life and purpose by an unconventional adult student who has a deep desire to learn and better herself.

I hope some of these words and ideas inspire someone else to read and do more.

What better time to read than a holiday? The holidays are coming; I hope everyone has enough books to read (I suggest E.M. Forster's Howards End, which Julie Walters' character describes as "crap," but it's definitely not) and films to view, such as Educating Rita.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Is There Anything Better Than a Fresh Book?

Fresh is brand new, shiny, clean, and enticing. Fresh is something you haven't had before. Fresh is, well, refreshing.

If you're looking for a fresh new read, may I suggest SUBVERSIA by D.R. Haney? This innovative essay collection is fresh off the presses as the very first (see, I told you it was fresh!) book published by the TNB imprint.

I love all things TNB (that's The Nervous Breakdown, a very interesting literary web site to which I occasionally post essays--see, and I love the work of D.R. (Duke) Haney, a fascinating writer who is very popular (far more so than I) as an essayist on TNB.

See here for book trailer:

See here to order:

To be honest, SUBVERSIA (conveniently, also his Twitter handle) is Mr. Haney's second book; for the first, see the excellent novel BANNED FOR LIFE, published by And/Or Press. 

Duke still needs a publicity push--who doesn't?--and he truly deserves to be read and appreciated. I hope that if anyone out there is looking to encourage an older teenager, a young adult, or a middle-aged adult to read something grabby, off-center and totally new, you will check out SUBVERSIA and BANNED FOR LIFE and order these books (I am especially pushing SUBVERSIA right now because of its newness and because--as a writer who is primarily an essayist, although I also write fiction--I love the content and I know how good Duke's essays are).

Most writers, even published writers, are struggling, and all artists need our support. Let's make this a merry Christmas for writers and get out there and buy some books, dammit!

One of the things that I think is coolest about D.R. Haney is that he is, as he once told me, an "autodidact." That means he is self-taught. He taught himself--and very impressively, too--all about literature and writing, among other subjects.

You see, he is in L.A. and was working hard in showbiz as an actor, screenwriter, etc. He read all the time; he studied all sorts of subjects, and I daresay he is far more educated than many of the people I know who've graduated from college and grad school. Duke is a wonderful personal example of someone who is self-motivated to always learn and grow, and I love that.

I want to spread the word now about his wonderful writing. When something is really good, it has to be shared. When a writer is very promising and already accomplished, he or she must be duly rewarded.

Remember: if you're looking for a great read for yourself or a friend or family member, order the brand-spanking-new SUBVERSIA and don't forget BANNED FOR LIFE, either (it's a read that will suck you in and not let you go for two days).

Highly recommended (and I don't say that lightly).

Happy reading and happy holidays,


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Confidence and Marshmallows

I have a huge, fluffy dog who has decided that his mission in life is to be next to me at all times. Wherever I walk, his head is glued to my hip (that's how tall he is). If I leave the room--even if he was just, a split second ago, sleeping soundly--he will follow. If I close the bathroom door, he lies down in wait just outside, never moving, even when the door opens and I try to push him gently away so that I can get out.

I have another dog, too, but she does her own thing (which is mainly sleeping). 

My big dog has long, wavy reddish hair (which is lovely), and the floppiest ears you ever saw. These ears are constantly getting infected (which is disgusting). I try to clean his ears at least once a week, but my dog, at those times, actually does leave my side and tries to get away. 

I don't want to hurt him, so despite the fact that I have to clean his ears, I usually just let him go.

But he needs them cleaned--and so today, I took him to the vet. The vet techs cleaned his ears so thoroughly I had to wince. My dog just stood there and took it, and I wondered how they could clean his ears, but I couldn't.

"Confidence," the vet said. "See Katie, our tech here? She just has this confidence. She sits right down and doesn't even consider for a second that the dog isn't going to let her do her job. You must be exhaling worry or something--and the dog can literally smell it. That makes him nervous, and so he bolts, even though you're trying to help him."

So I learned that today. I also learned that it helps to have marshmallows--the big, fluffy kind for my big, fluffy dog. I am not making this up about the marshmallows--and despite the wholistic, organic diet I feed my dog, the VET suggested the marshmallows.

"But he only gets a marshmallow after you clean his ears. Pretty soon, that guy will be carrying the bottle of ear medicine over to you, just so he can get a marshmallow," the vet said. I smiled, but I thought this was a slightly over-confident statement.


One thing I haven't been feeling all that confident about lately is my ability to make satisfying sense of the WikiLeaks stories.  At first, I just thought WikiLeaks was not a very catchy or cool name for a "news" source. Then, I wondered what Julian Assange's deal was. Then, I started to think, hmm. This is an interesting case. That Julian Assange is an interesting guy, making us all wonder what, exactly, he is up to. Is he just an incredibly smart, bored guy who wants to see what he can unearth? What is his true agenda?

Should I believe Assange's Op-Ed in The Australian, wherein he explains that he is performing a public service, especially as regards the wars? (Wars I hate; I hate those pointless wars; I hold nothing against members of our military, but I think it's awful that Americans and countless civilians have died so needlessly...and for what? What have we accomplished? I believe we were lied to, all of us, and that is not acceptable. The purported reasons for the wars were fabricated; war profiteers such as Halliburton have benefited, but who else has? Think about that).

Assange wrote that Americans deserve to know the truth; if we had known the whole truth in the case of the wars Bush got us into, the wars would not have been "sold" so easily to us. (And, as I note, maybe now we wouldn't be in such a financial hole, and stuck in a hopeless quagmire in Iraq and Afghanistan.)

I can get on Assange's side about that. Many others are doing the same, I noticed. It is, right now, pretty cool to back Assange. The only people who aren't backing him, it seems, are the ones who were embarrassed that he had them pegged, through his cables (and yet, even Hillary Clinton made a great joke about WikiLeaks, and I truly admire her for that; it's not as if, however, I ever thought for a second that back-room deals weren't being made, that diplomacy wasn't incredibly complicated. Nothing surprises me here. Nothing. What did Assange do wrong?).

Some have come out swinging against The New York Times, instead, for daring to disseminate the leaks, albeit in a digested, translated, well explained form.  I believe Joe Lieberman (Lieberman! Don't get me started) termed this possible "treason."

As much as I believe Al Gore would have been a very good president, I am glad we didn't have to deal with Lieberman...I feel as though he always tries to butter his bread on both sides, and that is so slimy. That's just ridiculous. Pick a side, Joe. Whose team are you on?

I hold nothing against the Gray Lady, either. I respect the Times. But hey: I consider myself a New Yorker, so there's that. You'll never get me to say anything bad about the Times, probably, or New York, which is definitely, without a doubt, the greatest city on earth.

We DO deserve to know the truth. I have been against secrets and lies (as Assange says he is) for decades, at this point (again, don't get me started--though I take exception to Assange quoting Rupert Murdoch about truth prevailing. That's a huge laugh. This from the man who inflicted Faux News and the new and increasingly repugnant WSJ upon the world). I will continue to think, however, that secrets and lies are poisonous, in all circumstances. 

If people know the truth, then they won't allow themselves to get fooled again. Knowledge is power. Knowledge helps us protect ourselves.

Good luck, Mr. Assange. I read somewhere that you seem paranoid, but I take that with a helping of salt. Usually, the paranoid have a reason to be paranoid. Everyone who has something worth sharing, something valuable, is usually paranoid at some point. It just means you're alert, and you're thinking ahead--good lessons in every respect.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Next Big Thing

I just spent many months writing like crazy--a blizzard of writing. I am pleased to report that my teaching memoir, tentatively titled TOO COOL FOR SCHOOL (that's tongue-in-cheek, believe me), is done.

Well, it's as done as I can make it right now (an editor may have other ideas), and in it, I have written hundreds of pages about my life as a teacher, and my experiences as a perpetual student. I also wrote many chapters full of helpful ideas for other teachers, and I charted the progression (up and down) of my fabled teaching career.

I can't tell you how it ends, really, but it's not what you might be thinking.

It's a very good memoir (sorry if that sounds egotistical). I spent years working in publishing, and I have read SO many memoirs both then and when I was in graduate school. I know this is a good one--at least, better than Keith Richards', which I leafed through last night in Borders!

TOO COOL FOR SCHOOL is funny, which you knew it would be, right? It's also frightening, infuriatingly sad, timely, unusual in its contemporary format, and--I think--ultimately motivational.

There are several parts to this potential book, and it includes something for everyone, really--my past students, fellow teachers, aspiring teachers, activists, and educational reformers (or just plain voyeurs).

Now that the words are out, I am--understandably, I hope--somewhat tired of the subject.

I can hardly bear, right at this moment, to think about teaching issues (and I may drop out of the educational side of Twitter; it pains me sometimes to read the ed reform Tweets; it really does). At the least, I need a break for a little while.

I tried my best to change education, to make school more interesting, fun, and relevant. I hope it happened, somewhat, on my watch.

I think I can mostly feel good about teaching, even if my brain is now elsewhere--on to issues of health and wellness, mostly--other ways in which I hope to help people.

I am passing the torch (someone please take it...unless you think it's cursed or something; I think it's probably clean). Ms. Collins has left the school building...

I pray that some really sharp new teachers take over now and keep moving all schools in the right direction, away from these annoying standardized tests and numbers-based assessments, and toward deepening creativity, inspiring (not boring) students, and truly preparing them for life in an ever-shrinking world. 

I hope that school becomes what students really, truly need it to be: motivating, fluid, able to serve everyone as individuals. Education needs to be more customized, not less, as I fear has been happening.

Teachers need to once again be free to honestly teach what they know. Those who have never taught need, most of all, to stop sticking their fingers into education and contaminating the soup...

My best to all teachers. I wish you boundless energy, strength, and curiosity. Life seems to be getting harder for teachers because of bureaucratic meddling and other issues, but perhaps that may soon change. 

I've done what I could to spur that change. The rest is up to you. At the risk of sounding preachy or prescriptive, I'll just add what I know is important: Don't let people come after you or other teachers; don't be afraid to stand up for your principles, and just keep moving forward, and keep working hard (as I know you all do), no matter what.