What It Was Like Grading High School English During COVID-19

The grades are in, the paperwork signed, the end-of-year meetings attended, and the books and materials needed for summer work taken home. From behind masks at the school building, from a screen at home, I’ve (mostly) said goodbye to my colleagues and my students. It was a strange, confusing, maddening time, and revealed much about what are reasonable and unreasonable expectations of students and parents during a time of crisis.

The last day we were in the building all together was March 13th, a Thursday more than three months ago, the end of a four-day week. Our new superintendent was looking forward to the bonding and professional development of that Friday’s Superintendent Day. But it was cancelled and we were soon navigating an increasingly shifting and complicating line of procedures to follow and rules or guidelines to stick to with attention and alertness. The school building was closed, but we were still employed. It was like following trail posts on an expedition through a wilderness which had suddenly sprung up out of ground we thought was so cultivated and tame. Our sense of direction, muddled, and our patience and values, challenged.

Through it all, we yearned, yearned to return to a paideia-stasis, to imagine this was only a passing stretch of territory. Many of us aimed to “make up” for the lost time in our classrooms with packets and packets of mailed or delivered work, with Zoom meetings day-after-day near the same time they would’ve been in our classrooms, or with an undiminished rigor of instructional videos. The gauntlet brings me to last week, when the deadline for grades was Tuesday afternoon. As I sat through both Wednesday and Thursday until the early morning hours considering, re-considering, calculating, and re-calculating, the fate of some 70-odd 9th, 10th and 11th graders taking English at a rural, upstate, public high school in New York, I wondered: Who or what was this all really for? The reaper hanging his scythe over all of us.

But the grades needed to be, despite what current research shows about the relative value of grades for students. The letters and numbers given by teachers for student work are still so strongly believed in as a true measure of their ability, performance, or mastery by ourselves, parents, and the students. It is one of the more slippery subjects to take up with colleagues and administrators, as this belief is firmly rooted in them as well. As our 4th quarter finished up, marks were entered and students were not a-u-t-o-m-a-t-i-c-a-l-l-y passed into the next grade because of this crisis. They were assigned work, they were expected to do it, were given opportunities for help and support, and it was collected either digitally or from a bus route pick-up coordinated by our principal. For my part, I pulled way back on the final quarter. Only 2 works of literature were read and only 2-4 assignments were given, depending on the grade level. This amounted to roughly 20 minutes of work in English each day.

The results: A little more than half of my students returned some or all of their work, approximately 45 out of 70 students.

Our board of education had the final decision about grading, but after they were delivered a survey sent to all faculty by our supportive superintendent. The majority of us in the high school desired to give a Pass/Fail option based on their academic effort. After deliberating awhile (I watched this live on Zoom) they decided that numerical grades would still be given, and that evidence of learning would be the language employed to answer the question “How are we going to be able to equitably grade students on an individual basis?” Their reasoning was that students who do continue to work through the crisis ought to be rewarded for their efforts, since giving out P/F marks does not either positively or negatively affect the final grade. In this case of course, they meant positively for the students who they were advocating for with their decision – the students who could do the work, do it well, and turn it in, i.e., less than half our students.

But why less than half? Working in a rural school, many students had unreliable Internet connections and/or a scarcity of devices. The specific board response, that all students who show evidence of learning will receive a final grade that can be no lower than the average of their first three quarters, was seen as fair and just and the bottom line when it comes to how we as educators were to evaluate our students. But it did not factor in students, from my reckoning as much as 35-40%, who lack not only the above but possibly at-home support, a quiet place to work, or even the time. At least a dozen of my students were put to work, likely helping their families during the crisis to bring in funds.

Regarding equity, my mentor put it best that the evaluation of a student goes beyond the rubrics in a grading policy. Luckily, another option was given (which I took up) to give an incomplete to a student who turns in nothing, then an additional two-and-a-half weeks to contact their teacher and get work in. I’ve heard back from two parents thus far – and then the grades will finally be given. A measure of success? Perhaps. Or maybe a measure only of the belief that schooling is real in a strange and deadly global mist which is muddling all standards, educational or otherwise.

Tertius Amanuensis: high school, pt. 4

Bobby Hill Quotes_ QuotesGram.jpg

I believe I can remember the very week in 1997 when Mike Judge’s King of the Hill came on the air and into our living room. My father became enthused, loved the show immediately – his Texas accent all-of-a-sudden came out in imitation of all the characters who had a thick, prevailing drawl which colored their speech, even after the show’s episode was over. He affirmed out loud to us the truth of Judge’s representations of his home state’s proud culture and the people of the region he had grown-up around. He also laughed at the fun with which Judge poked at it all, a fellow Texan, who turned a critical eye on his own upbringing. He had stories to tell us about people “just like” so-and-so, just like the show.

We all liked King of the Hill, especially since The Simpsons had long been part of our staple after-dinner-family-time-at-the-TV. The FOX network knew it would ride that series’ rising wave of adult-cartoon popularity (and hey, it had Simpsons writer Greg Daniels co-running with Judge). Texas was on TV, and maybe I took it to give or purporting to give a window into my father’s past. Of course, this was while we were still living in Oregon, about to move to Western New York, and years before we actually all lived together in the damp, constricting heat of North Houston, among the people who were up until then only characters on television, and stories my dad told. That gave me new insight into what kind of environment ‘Bobby’ grew up in – but Bobby Hill on the TV wasn’t one of my dad’s stories. I knew he was actually one of mine.

Four months into this project, the window of his memoir continues to widen, maybe not much more than the 18″-24″ we had for a boxed television set. The stories are flowing, but I become more unsure of the perspective it’s actually granting me. His two chapters on his high school years are cloudier than the first three chapters – in the sense that they suggest shapes of experiences rather than describe them. They have less detail and are washed out, possibly from his own admission of the beginning of drug and alcohol use.

The relationship between his adoptive father and him heightens and becomes more complicated. For instance, there is a “nemesis” older boy that he is forbidden to fight with, someone who egged him on in intermediary school and who had moved on to Stroman High School, where my dad spent his first two years. So, on becoming a freshman, this boy was a junior, and the antagonism begins again. My dad doesn’t really explain why this is a wish he acutely respects of his father’s, whereas other demands of his time & energy by parental authority are challenged. Later, he does admit, that his physical stature always presented him with “social difficulties” (6’2 and 245 lbs.) but he doesn’t explicitly connect this problem to his family or friends – or his rival, who may just have been intimidated. It is a factor he cites with the opposite sex, whom he figures are intimidated by his size, which causes him to be “friend-zoned.” The memoir is a preoccupation with not receiving love and attention and not being free enough to choose – not that one gets to choose one’s body. What he is really receiving (or not receiving) is unclear, scrambled like snow, the image beneath a kind of phantom of psychic energy…

And here I am, again, summarizing and trying to tease out and explain how things add-up, why connections are or aren’t made, wherein the truth my father supplicates before manifests, or not, by the words he has written via the muse, spirit, inspiration. An excerpted sentence:

I was a miserable kid. I was angry and tired of the life I was living, and I know that not one soul cared. I have to be real and reflective about these matters.

Switching from the past tense to the the present in the second sentence is a chief example of the style throughout the memoir. Someone living with PTSD is often unable to know the one from the other, which is one of three of my father’s diagnoses.

Bobby Hill, in the above captured still, asks his father Hank the question “Why do you have to hate what you don’t understand?” I don’t actually know the episode it is from, as I searched through many screen grabs of Bobby, the very same nickname my father was given as a young man. But as I mentioned above, Bobby represented for me how unknown I felt in the shadow of my father. The man lacked empathy, writes how he was unable to develop it, but does not have much in the writing itself, though he claims that now, at 60, he has been able to develop it. I wish I could see that in this writing, instead of the hate which is turned towards that which he doesn’t understand.

It’s really self-hatred that isn’t addressed, but is the next step after a hatred of the life one is living. Internalized, how can one ever get away from that purgatorial cage? How does one begin to understand another if they are always potentially an object of hatred?

I have finished transcribing and am collecting my thoughts for the final post.

Tertius Amanuensis: intermediate school, pt. 3

 

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Worf, you’re a daddy now

 

If you move an average of 2-3 years growing up, one begins to self-identify with a deeper and more transient nature than what our culture prescribes as the aim of one’s material life. After all, to be sedentary is to be rooted, to grow into a place, to invest time and energy and love and devotion to the cause of peace and to the idea of shared, communal space.

If there is a nomad within you where there is for so many others a stolid and principled settler, your movements in life aren’t periods but phases of huntings and gatherings for sanctuary, for shelter, for brief connections and the restocking of goods, before moving on to the next place, and the next, and the next – never quite at peace, never tied down, not really belonging anywhere. The latter was my experience as a child and young man – always the new kid, the odd face, the unknown variable in a formula of constants.

I look up from the pages of his memoir and think how this upbringing provided to me was so unlike my father’s own formative and sedentary years in southern Texas. Now that we are two decades into a new century of upheaval and displacement, I’ve simmered down my own frustration felt about being so transient. To be certain, 10 years of staying put in one place (Portland, OR) helped ease and soothe my sore joints, but I soon picked up again, headed back east, and have worked on myself towards a realization that I actually received some form of grace, an adaptation’s blessing, with my upbringing – though very tired and worn down has it made my spirit. In a world that will become more and more migratory, displacing its people like sand dunes, eroding cities with the oceans’ leaping tides, Global Climate Shift will wear down those who remain sedentary and never listen to that inner nomad.

It is now wearing down our material livelihoods with a current pandemic circling the globe. The planet demands we become more amenable to the compass, deep within. Where will it take us for survival – and how can examples from the past temporarily guide us while we find our way?

Meanwhile in the 1970s…

It feels kind of like paving-over his narrative to give a summary, if that’s indeed what I am proceeding to do in these posts, of those stretches of years which encompass each chapter of my father’s memoir. The preface itself was a sketch of 60 years with a fairly rough chronology; the private, Episcopalian, primary school years have few reminiscences before mentioning quickly intermediate, secondary, college and so on, in very broad strokes, “just the highlights” Bob has said over the phone. What is established in Chapter 1 is the main idea, which is all predicated on “the lack thereof,” from the hypothetical reader’s point-of-view.

These include but are not limited to: The lack of social and emotional skills, the lack of recognition of his intelligence, the lack of close friends, the lack of parents who took him seriously when he reported familial abuse, the lack of empathy, and the lack of trust in others.

As reader number one, I struggle to ask what I am left with, reading and typing out this personal record. Do I begin to find truth in Wordsworth’s line “the child is father to the man”? Something like this is what I tell myself, and I attempt to take a step back. This is like archaeology, and in that discipline, geology must be reckoned with first. There are layers within which the pieces of one’s identity are settled. Those layers have to be brushed away. But also, this is a story of his life, and few else can verify the details, as his parents are dead and friends are far-flung. I have to take him at his word.

It is as if an ancient Trojan were present at Hisarlik with Schliemann on his historic dig, saying “Disregard these other layers and those objects – here, these are the ones which tell my story.” No one but the bard Homer being able to confirm anything from that period, whoever they were, whenever the lines were set down.

I type again – the things which remain are what Bob composes as his life’s theme. He had the gift and power of intelligence, smarter than anyone else around him in fact, and this was used to help his purpose. This purpose, however flawed, fueled his life: he would make his parents as angry as he was, to bring their attention to him (which he claims was only involved in managing their own outward public perception, a symptom of Adult Children of Alcoholics, which is in line with the ACA’s Laundry List) and also, not to fall into the suicidal trap of self-hatred which he was feeling. In the ACA, anger is known as “emotional intoxication.”

My father attempted throughout his pre- and early teen years to shift this tendency to more healthy activities with efforts in scouting, choir, and church service, though each of these things acted as more of an escape. Two natures were at work within him – one that told him what he had was enough and to stay put, the other that he needed to leave Victoria as soon as he was able to, but at least with a high school diploma.

“There are things I have yet to put closure to.”

I believe in what my dad has felt, but I’m critical about his reasoning process and where it took him, which I don’t think he could have predicted. As an adult his own faith in the logic of his intelligence, and the conclusions they brought him to, made my mother nickname him ‘Spock.’ Indeed, Star Trek was often on the television at home, whether it was the syndicated Original Series, the 6 movies with the TOS cast on VHS, or new episodes of TNG, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager. Yet, as a child, the Star Trek character I saw most in my father was not Spock the Vulcan but Worf the Klingon. Worf is a complicated but easily flattened character in TNG and DS9. However, many episodes are centered around his chief feature – Worf is a character between cultures, between the codes of his people and his duties to Starfleet. With this came struggle and friction, and it would be true to say that my father was also angry, adopted, and like Worf, from a family that by other’s estimation, ‘lacked honor.’

Because of these and other factors, my father was distant and didn’t show much affection towards me or my accomplishments, seemed bothered and/or upset at most anything my siblings and I did and was prone to fits of anger and depression. Worf’s son Alexander, who is introduced to him about the same age as I was to my father, is so intimidated by him, whom he barely knows him when they first meet. When Alexander eventually comes to live permanently on the Enterprise-D with Worf, he has a difficult time in his new environment and is likewise angry at his father.

I was too, all my childhood, and now, reading his memoirs, I become more aware of the patterns which are passed from the father to the son when there is a true lack of attention and conscientiousness of the self and others.

Interlude: Three ways of dealing with a madman

TERRY GILLIAM JONATHAN PRYCE
Actor Jonathan Pryce and Director Terry Gilliam during the filming of 2018’s long-awaited epic The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

When Don Quixote first sets out as an adventurer, sans Sancho Panza, his primary encounters before returning briefly home are with an innkeeper, farmer, and merchant. Each have a distinct reaction to Quixote’s presence as a “knight errant.” These reactions can roughly be equated with all further subsequent encounters Quixote has on the plains. And to critically extrapolate even further: there are 1 of 3 ways of dealing with any madman.

The innkeeper’s way

The innkeeper recognizes Q.’s madness, and knows enough about chivalric romances not to upset Quixote, and so, he is kindly, humors him (as do the prostitutes at the inn who are made into ladies) and with good-nature plays along and Q. is knighted, if only to help the innkeeper send him on his way. During his visit, two muleteers are hit on their heads who interpret Quixote’s watch over his armor as nothing but an act.

So, the innkeeper’s lesson is: There are harmful consequences in taking what seems to be fantasy to you for what is reality to another – and pleasantries if you entertain their fantasy.

The farmer’s way

The farmer recognizes no madness, but humors Q. as he would any figure that seems to be of authority – by agreeing with him outwardly, then ignoring his proscriptions. The farmer further abuses the boy who is being flogged, the injustice which first drew Q.’s attention. He gives him no wages, and implores him to go back to Quixote and tell him what was done, knowing nothing will come of it.

The farmer’s takeaway is: There are no consequences to not upholding a man’s word if you have no belief in their power (or madness).

The merchant’s way

The merchant (and gang of merchants) does not care whether Q. is mad or of authority. They see only an out-of-fashion boob, a man who takes himself seriously and so, can be taken advantage of. It’s during this third encounter which does the most harm to Q. – they demand to see an image of Dulcinea to prove to them her beauty. He rushes at the merchant, lance in hand, and Rocinante falters, he falls. He is beaten, his lance is shattered, and is left to ache in the dust, blaming his old nag.

And so, the merchant’s rebuttal is: Those who are weakened by their own fantasies will be crushed with the bleeding and bruised proof of the real.

Tertius Amanuensis: the preface, pt. 2

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Teen-doppelganger-me on TV: actor Michael Maronna as ‘Big Pete’ from Nickelodeon’s The Adventures of Pete & Pete

On the carpet

I grew up on the living room carpet, whatever cheap gray or brown weave the apartment complex had installed in the 3-bed/1.5 bath five of us would occupy in the western, southern or eastern part of this country, depending on the year. Anyways, I was often on the carpet at the foot of the center of the living room: the television set with its accompanying VCR for our modest collection or video store rentals. The weave of the carpet would imprint itself into the skin of my elbows and arms, with the kernels of popcorn or shells of sunflower seeds or whatever else detritus sticking to me falling away when I got up after hours of the tube. When we spent time together as a family, it was either in one of three places – at Sunday service, our dining room table, or in front of the television. I wonder if everyone else in the family would agree, if Bob has written about this later in his memoir, but to my memory, gazing up at the images of the TV set together were some of the most peaceful and civil moments we shared as a family…

Anyhow, Tertius here reporting that I’ve finished transcribing the preface – at least that’s what I take it to be. My father (I’ll use this term when writing about the voice in the text – I’ll use Bob when reflecting on him as a writer of the text) explicitly states in the opening paragraphs of his memoir that the main “takeaways” he’d like a reader to receive at the end of his story are the following, and I quote:

  1. There were certain skills lacking in this boy’s upbringing
  2. His social environment would not only cause him to insulate from others while trying to reach out in normal and age-appropriate ways, and
  3. Part of his normal response to his environment, given his lacking set of skills, would be to do things to make him think more highly of himself

If you re-read these takeaways, as I keep doing so, you’ll begin to get a preliminary sense of the intentions behind writing this memoir – not to leave the story of a man, but of a boy; not an opening out, but an insulation; not what was gained in life, but what was lacking. Lastly, what Bob even writes on the same page (still in the third-person), is that it’s about things he has done to “think more highly of himself.” He admits it is the consensus of psych professionals that these tendencies are “borderline narcissistic” – the ego’s defensive result of “the amount of people who kept trying to destroy me.” For the record, Bob does have three mental diagnoses, but to those who know the whole story (the psych professionals do not) are paraphrased as saying “It’s a pure miracle that you’re still alive!” and on later pages of the preface, gives the explanation that “I had to lie to myself to maintain enough psychological subtlety to not kill myself at an early age.”

Spurs dug into me when I first read the sentence which begins “In the words of the few people who know my whole story…” I frantically searched my mind but found I have no idea who these people are. I thought maybe that I was one of those people, but as I continue to transcribe, I am beginning to have my doubts. Perhaps my sister, who is eager to read this work and could clarify what is cloudy. Growing up with Bob was complicated because so many of the stories he told he told so often, often enough that you began to believe that they really happened. When I was a teenager he admitted that many of the stories he told didn’t happen to him, that they had “sounded better told in the first person.” A shock, but not a surprising one. Don’t we all fashion ourselves and embellish with vanity and pride the aura which we project socially? Except, this was a family member, the man whose name I bore, but one who became more of a stranger.

Even before this revelation, which at the time made me angry and confused, there was a shroud over his past. We learned the essential things early on from our mother and grandparents: he had been married before, he was adopted, he was a convert, and he was disowned because of his conversion to become a Saint. There was a kind of admiration in this which needed to be paid to him, that he felt needed to be paid to him, a respect which my brother and I were hard pressed to show. Later we learned from him that he had lived through several kinds of abuse, grave misunderstandings, subtle coercion or trickery, a kind of spiritual injustice, the sins of the father, etc. – in short, he had suffered. These were harder to show respect to because it involved too much pity and sorrow. Even with these new facts it was difficult to know the truth about Bob. I’m not sure I’ll even get the truth about him from this memoir.

The preface tracks his life from birth, adoption, early years in Victoria, to the end of his time at the elementary school he attended at Trinity Episcopal, ending at fifth grade. According to the U.S. Census from 1960, Victoria had a population of 33,047 people and was considered an urban place. His family attended, or were affiliated with, Northside Baptist, and this difference in religion taught at school v. religion taught at home is sharply contrasted – indeed, my father converted two more times in his life, baptized again into a non-denominational church, then confirmed a Catholic (He now attends another non-denominational church in Portland). It’s curious that he doesn’t mention his father’s occupation, owner/operator of the now defunct Red Bird Hot Shot Service, an out-of-normal delivery hours trucking company. He doesn’t mention his brother’s name, which is understandable considering the abuse he endured from that also adopted son. But he also leaves out mentioning one of his sisters entirely, and doesn’t say anything about both of them being intellectually disabled, the blood progeny of his parents – the very reason why they adopted him and his brother.

What isn’t there, what is lacking – perhaps this is what makes a person who they are. Conditions are key factors: the woman’s health who birthed you, the family you grow up in, the community you are a part of; the losses however, leave places that need filling. My father appeals to God, the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, to “open my memory to completeness” and that by the time he is finished with this project he will “either be a pastor and trying to fulfill my life’s calling or dead.”

The last pages will be mailed to me soon, and we are still talking over the phone.

Tertius Amanuensis: the preface, pt. 1

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My father, leaning in the foreground, as an extra in the 1994 TV mini-series adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand

You don’t have to do this

The above was said with love by the two women closest to me and this project, my partner and my mother. They meant well – they would like to save me the taxing emotional work and efforts in time & energy that this project will cost. I’m choosing to do it anyway, based upon what I define as obligatory, believing obligations are not always dissimilar from the responsibilities incumbent upon us as members of a community, or a workplace, or a family. Sometimes they are different, and in that case, yes lover, and yes mother, they don’t have to be done. One can choose to accept it or not accept it. For good reason though, I feel that this project both is and is not my choice. It’s an obligation I have no choice about but also, a responsibility I choose to accept.

This project began after a few phone calls lead to a manila envelope of loose pages arriving in my mailbox in the late fall of 2019. It had six forever stamps in the top right corner, each bearing the word “CELEBRATE” among balloons that were brightly contrasted against its black rectangular background. After another, thicker, envelope arriving just before the unprecedented virus-related interruption of all our regular day-to-day activities and work lives, I am now continuing into the spring of 2020 after having completely transcribed the first envelope’s contents.

Compared to planning lessons for six sections of high school English, co-creating a presentation on the changing ELA standards in NY state, or attending multiple weekly team meetings, this is relatively simple work – being an amanuensis. I spend an hour here and there away from my life situation and those aforementioned responsibilities to sit at a desk, slowly turning over sheets from yellow legal pads numbered at the top left corner in a ragged scrawl, typing the deciphered script into a file on an aging laptop. This project holds no payment at the end – it’s not business, but personal. I’m working to transcribe my father’s memoir, a memoir he has entitled:

A Seemingly Wasted Life

My father has planned this project for at least the last decade, a decade in which his health has gradually worsened from strokes, heart attacks, sepsis, and amputations. Feeling the reality of his mortality, and following his 60th birthday last year, he began to speak seriously during our phone calls from his nursing home in Portland, Oregon about the memoir. This precipitated an exchange between us, and last week, a little over a year since he began writing, he’s said that writing has finished and he will send the third and final envelope soon. In fact, he sends me the only copies in existence of his story across the country to my current home in upstate New York, entrusting to the US Postal Service, and then to me. The story of his life figuratively and literally spans the continent – a story that as I read and transcribe will soon include his story of my childhood.

Knowing this complicates the role I’m playing as Tertius of Iconium to his Paul the Apostle. I am not writing down an epistle to the Romans, but also, Paul wasn’t Tertius’s father – at least not biologically – but nor is my father my biological one.

I should explain: I met my father when I was three or four, my brother was a toddler, and my mother was recently divorced. We were all living under the protection of her parents in her childhood home on Lake Ripple in Grafton, Massachusetts. My mother was depressed but seeking, seeking a father for her sons, seeking a love that would last. My grandparents in kind were looking for a new husband for their daughter, and the church – The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – had the same faith-based reason to search as my grandparents: families are forever, therefore if fractured they need to be made whole. When they married, both had had previous marriages, and so once they were wed they were committed to making their second one work.

My biological father was not a native New Englander, nor is my father. I remember my father as a man of stature and girth, a Texas Goliath of red hair and freckles, a loud man, a man of strong opinion, of sharp intelligence, and much more I didn’t perceive until I grew up and began to see him as an equal. I have no memory of my biological one, but I must have had some impression of the man who I had first beheld, coming out of the womb with eyes wide open. Perhaps a remnant of him was there when I met the man who was to become my father, who began to spend more time with us sitting in the pews at church, then at home at the dinner table. Before forging a relationship with my father as an adult, we had great difficulties as father and son, and I expect to see that reflected in his writing. However, I could also be surprised – the clarity of memories are often as a frosted glass: somewhat transparent and somewhat opaque.

Amanuensis

This word has Latin roots, Roman, meaning “within hand’s reach” – which I cannot be present for my father, except through his manuscripts, and by our connection maintained over the phone. He mentions the Romans and early Christians so much in his preface, it would be a mistake not to mention them here in my own, what I hope to be a record of this journey as his amanuensis, and a reflection on his faith, his memories, and his life. My next post will be a reflection on the preface, which has been completely transcribed, awaiting corrections and clarifications from Bob, my dad.

Guest Post at the Bard MAT Blog

Molly Albrecht of the Bard MAT program invited me to write a guest post at their Voices From the Classroom blog on my “why” – why I teach, what gets me out of bed in the morning, and keeps me in the classroom as a new teacher.

During a long-weekend reflection and needed break from beginning my second year of teaching, I ventured to NYC to attend a staging of Peter Brook’s new play (ironically titled Why?), and began to compose the following upon my return:

https://blogs.bard.edu/mat/2019/11/06/a-bard-mat-alumnus-shares-his-why/

New Work at Esopus Freak

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Reading at The Lodge in Woodstock, NY, early 2019 (?)

https://esopusfreak.myportfolio.com/gary-dale-burns-1

Follow the above link to read several compositions (and an original photograph) from my unpublished chapbook titled Diamondbody Poems (2016-2019) which have made their appearance in the digital magazine version of the forthcoming Hudson Valley journal, Esopus Freak

The editors of Esopus Freak are both local and transplanted creatives to Catskill, NY who have backgrounds in art history, fine art, fiction and photography. The magazine will feature all of the above and more, so stay tuned and follow their feed on Instagram here

Returns: MST3K, Twin Peaks and the Inertia of Nostalgia

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*DISCLAIMER* This post originated with a coincidental connection between the two series of the title of this piece in one actor: Robert Forster, who plays Sheriff Henry Truman in Twin Peaks: The Return. He appears alongside Mia Farrow and Rock Hudson in the third episode of MST3K: The Return with the disaster film Avalanche! The synchronicity of his appearance in both shows planted a little seed of an idea. The following is a narrow, tight-rope walk a few inches above the ground. The reader can fall off at any moment and still be safe. A metaphorical sprained ankle is the most harm that could come to you.

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First, a few provisional, expository passages on the theory of nostalgia at work in the entertainment industry, and the possible results of its effect on the human psyche:

In 1989, Cameron Crowe penned and directed Say Anything. At the beginning of the film, Ione Skye’s character Diane Court memorably proclaims in her valedictorian speech to her fellow despondent Class of ’88 (with the exception of Lloyd Dobler of course!)

Having taken a few courses at the university this year, I have 
glimpsed our future, and all I can say is... go back.

Sure, Diane’s dad Jim is all laughs, but the line falls flat on everyone else. We might also sit in silence like those in the audience, confused and unsure about what she means. If not for a party to look forward to in the evening, we might become fidgety, uncomfortable, and mistake her advice as a suggestion to turn away from our present-facing-future, wandering back into a mire of child-like nostalgia with almost-adult bodies…Nevermind, party time!

If you were taken by her speech to “go back” inside your body, inside your psyche, there is an excellently comfy armchair with the brand name Nostalgia. A ghost of love haunts it, guarding access and relief, necessitating an homage from us to an old and well-known form. It wants a sacrifice of the two things worth more for their usefulness to our existence than anything else: time and attention. When we take a seat and sit back, this kindest haunting occurs in our thoughts and feelings: we return to better times. Ahhh…we are no longer reaching for comfort in our awkward bodies. We calm ourselves before that something-scary-and-new and like a late-night visit in a kitchen of worry, we nurse from a plastic teat of childhood milk.

Is this what she meant by going back? As Say Anything moves along, quick relief comes from “go back” when Diane Court’s speech passes and the narrative brings us to the party. However, throughout the party that night Lili Taylor’s character Corey Flood is strumming her sad and angry songs about the toxic dude Joe who “rapped” before Diane’s speech (and who later gives Lloyd woefully terrible and misogynistic advice). Corey states she is going to play all 65 songs of pain that she wrote about Joe, but not to go back and stay. She goes back to go through her grief and emerge she-knows-not-who (this is a Jungian reading, to be sure). She faces Joe when he approaches her alone in a side room and though scared of what comes next, she’s able to walk away from his sap-trap. Most of us forget Corey’s living example in word and song of Diane’s speech. We just remember that image of John Cusack holding up that boom box playing Peter Gabriel.

[To acknowledge my composite image of film and television above] Skye’s bit of dialogue as Diane is just as metaphorical as Matthew Fox’s character Jack Shepard from ABC’s LOST (2004-2010) when he crazily screams to Kate at the end of Season 3 that “We have to go back!” How is this different from an escape into nostalgic feeling and an avoidance of our present-facing-future? We can just as well lose the sense of ourselves at the gates of the future as in the ruins of the past. Whether we’re graduating from high school with unrealistic ideas about college and careers, or hopping planes day after day at the end of our rope waiting for the miracle to come, we can (if we’re lucky) be stopped by these experiences which we stumble over and have no place for in our lives. The lack of place, which is what is common in Diane’s speech and Jack’s desperation, is the arresting feeling that can imprison us in our wish for indulgent rests in Nostalgia’s armchair. Go back, but go back to go through – remember Corey’s songs, not “In Your Eyes.”

While the future is unwritten, LOST is exceptional in that it agitates the heart and the mind to turn reflexively away from the screen and to look in on our own lives (but perhaps not for every viewer, as its nostalgia holds true with new podcasts popping up devoted to re-watches and analyses even after close to a decade since its final episode). Like Jack, we can’t return to the same place to begin something new – we have to undergo some kind of journey. There is no new birth in nostalgia itself, as its inertia can keep one fixed like a mirage seeming to offer a familiar destination. Speaking to the human psyche as an individual, albeit a social individual, what could actually benefit one is a return to the paths and places-not-yet-set where we felt uncomfortable, where our nostalgia did not hold us in a Stockholm syndrome-like hug. It is possible to grow where time and attention are available to us without the crippling discomfort of the unknown. This is how we can find footing, and begin to progress beyond the state of the fool.

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LET US NOW SLOW our narrative of the utilization of nostalgia and our challenge against it by focusing on two recent but very different shows that have promised to “take us back,” both using the subtitle or tag line “The Return”: Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) and Twin Peaks. The high contrast between these two television shows in form and in content is intentional, and can illustrate a number of things to us as audience members of streaming television in the early 21st century. Initial considerations are purely contextual:

  • Twin Peaks was brought back by Lynch and Frost following conversations in August 2012 between them and later in 2014 with exec Gary Levine, who was at ABC during the show’s original run, resulting in a drafting and developing of another season for Showtime; MST3K’s original creator Joel Hodgson secured funding for their return with a Kickstarter campaign (the most successful to-date for a TV/Film production at $5.7 million) after reacquiring the rights to the show with the help of Shout! Factory.
  • Twin Peaks was released part-by-part in 18 weekly installments (with occasional breaks) by Showtime through multiple streaming services just as the first two seasons were classically aired on ABC; MST3K was dumped as a fully-watchable season on Netflix, as the streaming service and original content provider does so with all of their new shows.
  • Lastly, just beyond the horizon of the contextual, Twin Peaks has been a highly influential sci-fi/mystery/horror show to the writers and producers of many subsequent productions, such as The X-Files, LOST, and scores of others; MST3K has had a different kind of cult influence – as a spoof on sci-fi and a riffing comedy that mocks and lampoons (with endearment) “the worst films ever made.” Indeed, Hodgson and Lynch/Frost couldn’t be more diametrically opposed, at least on conceptual and demonstrative grounds, as creators in the medium of television.

Despite these contrasts, both shows inspired and fed strong fan bases. Through the rallying of their support, each show was revived during their original runs to continue more episodes – in the case of MST3K on another network (the SciFi [now SyFy] channel) and for Twin Peaks a final number of episodes added to their second season on ABC. In this way, the idea that each are now “returning” is a wondrously nostalgic trick. These shows were brought back, and now it is happening again – the exact tagline of Twin Peaks: The Return. Each are returning with the creator’s own awareness that they are returning with all the accompanying fandom expectations and comparisons to their “original” forms. Each show navigates these treacherous waters in their own way with callbacks and references, continuations of plot threads, and bringing back characters who have disappeared long ago. In the case of Twin Peaks: The Return, even characters who have long since died (David Bowie’s Phillip Jeffries, Frank Silva’s BOB, Don S. Davis’s Major Briggs, and a few others) somehow make an appearance. Television is a dark magic.

There’s nothing really new in what I have to write here. The phenomenon of returns has fast become a trend in television in this second decade of the 21st-century and does not seem to be slowing down. It follows the same commercial trend of film sequels and re-boots that are regularly green lit in Hollywood. What differentiates both MST3K and Twin Peaks in their format is that each of these returns are intentionally limited in their release and their short burn is a trademark of how nostalgia, despite being so useful to gain our time and attention once more, is unsustainable over long periods. MST3K has quasi-challenged this statement with their second (shorter) return season called “The Gauntlet,” marking the 30th anniversary of the show’s debut on Thanksgiving Day in Minneapolis in 1988 – but David Lynch and Mark Frost have no intention of continuing Twin Peaks with another season. The fan base for the show has only a reading left for them of Frost’s publication Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier written from the perspective of the return season character Agent Tammy Preston. While this writer thinks it is a bookend worth checking out, some fans feel that this book and Frost’s previous The Secret History of Twin Peaks are non-canonical works from the series co-creator, you know, the-one-who-is-not-David Lynch.

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LET US ADMIT that the demand to produce continual, original content, updated like software, is no guarantee of a quality experience because of re-investment in our nostalgic memories. Both return seasons are their own new shows, but viewers undoubtedly draw on their feelings and impressions of a past nostalgic experience with their predecessors – and compare. Audiences are mixed in their reactions but nonetheless these productions guarantee spent time and attention (and money earned). On the other side of the screen, the actors who are paid to be a part of the return can be less than enthusiastic to re-inhabit their past roles.

ANOTHER CASE in point, the two return seasons of The X-Files. Each sorely lacked the depth and vision of the original series, and are unarguably weak in their conception and demonstration of an earlier millennial (the time, not the generation) style and flavor. Interestingly, David Duchovny’s revival as Denise in Twin Peaks: The Return is full of life, but as Mulder he is a kind of Casper the Friendly Ghost – there-but-not-there – and the dramatic weight falls on Gillian Anderson and the supporting cast to carry any of what little coherence the writing has for them. Anderson’s character arc as Scully has been the focus of the show since the last few seasons (and arguably the films as well) and in the case of their return seasons, has portrayed Scully with care, maturity and skill. Unfortunately, Duchovny overburdens and isolates her dramatic force much too often with lethargic deliveries and detached affect. Combined with the weak writing, it’s a slough to get through. SPOILER ALERT not SPOILER ALERT: The Cigarette Smoking Man is still trying to pull all the strings and it’s just about as interesting as watching people recycle their glass and cans at a grocery store.

When it comes to MST3K‘s return, Joel Hodgson and his team of writers have the benefit of new characters and a new scenario that mirrors the first incarnation and plays with strange combinations and guest stars. It’s moderately amusing and there are some quality riffs and jokes. Twin Peaks however must (and I believe, does) deliver the relish of newness with the trick of a return, gifting us memorable new characters and in some cases the wondrous evolution of our old favorites. Lynch and Frost have been sensitive and highly aware of the expectations of the fan base’s secret wishes, and the use of the alternate-Coop and “Dougie” can be seen as the very reflection of the frustration to get back the Agent Cooper they left in a different kind of armchair at the Black Lodge. Like the finale of LOST, it has divided fans new and old – but much like anything truly worthy of our time and attention, we are left on the other side of the screen with the question “why?” – which we can choose to pursue, or not…

This writer feels he must pull back as far as he can and see the whole project of Twin Peaks: The Return in the round as a journey through the nostalgia of its own fandom, the mythology of the original show, as well as Lynch’s entire on-screen canon. The utilization of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me as being integral to the substance of the story arch of The Return in particular is a brilliant move and so inimical to the desire for us to sit down in our armchair – almost as if like William Castle, Lynch and Frost have placed an electric buzzer there to go off whenever we find ourselves too comfortable in our assumptions about what is happening and how things are going to unfold with our beloved characters. In this, there’s a lesson for us to internalize, and for Hollywood and the streaming giants of Hulu, Amazon and Netflix to consider when they soon gift us with another project that promises to take us back.

Shared Weltanschauung?

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Bubbles are beautiful. They reflect light, yet you can see through them. They are colorful and also translucent. They are created and contained by the pressure of the air and maintained by the strength of the structure of itself. The physical science of the bubble is that “it is the shape that minimizes ​the surface area of the structure, which makes it the shape that requires the least energy to achieve.” Scientifically, its beauty lies in the economy of its geometry. And then, it pops as fast as it was made and ceases to exist.

Once that structure *pops* one can always make a new bubble with soap, water, and a ring which gives you enough time to blow or pull some air through. The sight of a sphere or form floating, contained, yet free and angelic in its lightness, speaks to us from childhood and into adulthood as somehow connected to our own lives – as if we were also spherical in our being somehow. Maybe we see a reflection of the blue marble we live upon, the eyes in our heads, perhaps, in the very conception of ourselves in the sphere of the womb.

The above frame grab from Honey We Shrunk Ourselves (1997, Dir. Dean Cundey) presents an entirely different take on the bubble – that within the bubble is a horrifying containment. If one were to imagine sharing a single bubble with another being, you’d probably feel like the characters from that unfortunate straight-to-video film. You’d be sure that your existence together would last so briefly before the inevitable pop. You’d live in fear of each other’s movements, of each other’s voices, of each other’s slightest miscalculations, knowing that the structure that contains you both cannot by its very nature last long. You’d be hoping beyond hope that by the hand of Providence (forgive me this anachronism) your lives would be spared and you’d never have to share another moment like that with someone again. The film was a comedy but the situation isn’t funny.

This prolonged parable about you-and-the-bubble-from-the-outside being so dissimilar from us-and-the-bubble-from-the-inside is an attempt to visualize more completely an observation about differing world-views between oneself and others. While we can admire, lawfully explain, or observe other world-views, we don’t share our own Weltanschauung (Ger. “overall philosophy of life or worldview”) without running the risk of popping theirs. When we are fast becoming adults, first beginning to form a worldview, the risk and hazard that comes with searching for one is a necessity for our lives and its growth. We first seek in others what we wish for ourselves, usually by imitation. This feeds a strange void of dialogue between generations, political affiliations, religious dogmas, and ways of living because of the risk of difference when imitation ends and our own worldview develops. Regardless, we require challenges to keep from falling back into the hypnotic sleep which seems to blanket the planet, to become a little more awake and conscious of our behaviors and actions, and to maintain our worldview when we find ourselves in it. When it becomes our world, we define ourselves by it and with the others who inhabit it.

When we do share the same worldview with someone else, when we find ourselves in the bubble we’ve been admiring and seeking to experience, an alarming expectation arises: to continue to have consistent and reliable behaviors and reactions in order to keep one’s new bubble from popping. The tension which maintains the surface area of a shared worldview is also a tension which maintains the limits of its horizon. You can’t challenge the horizon – you accept its limitations, or, *pop* – it disappears. It becomes better to respond in-kind and make certain to yourself and to others which side of the bubble you’re on. Otherwise, argument, dissent, division – *pop*.

This parable is much too simplified and falls far short of the kind of synthesis of philosophical history/history of ideas which Peter Sloterdijk’s Spheres volumes addresses (one review at Huenemanniac). This brief parable-essay is trying to reach for something that keeps eluding this mind when thoughts are stretched over a topic or issue. My concern (to be transparent) is with the incompatibility of differing world-views as well as the difficulty of sharing a worldview with another. As a nation, it does not seem to me to be true that the facts of an event or person are anchored in the material knowns of the world. The laws without are not the laws within – that takes an extra step, a kind of world-maintenance. We can’t make a beautiful and good worldview and expect that once a person inhabits it they will do everything they can to maintain it. We are constantly challenging our horizons. Look at the history of the assembly of the Space Station or the recently completed solo trek across Antarctica by Colin O’Brady. Bubbles pop and new ones are formed – we ought to take comfort in this instead of fearing the inevitable loss of a structure that is only formed because it “requires the least energy to achieve.” A worldview that demands to be maintained neglects the fact that there are other bubbles, and other worlds, each with their singular, unknown interiors. Some as big as a globe or as numerous as sea foam.

This piece of writing pops because it also tries to make a bubble, to encapsulate some kind of idea or opinion about Weltanschauung, using the metaphor of bubbles to represent a person’s or a collective people’s conception of “worldview.” It tries to be the stroller in Grandville’s “Ring of Saturn” (1844), bridging one world to the next and the next. It gives the impression of worldview as fragile when they are in fact much stronger and are filled with much more than air. The causes and concerns that are shared in a worldview are not to be taken lightly. History proves this to be true – people battle or judge, die or execute, over a worldview…but it seems that since we live in a period that some call post-historical or post-truth, that we ought not to fear popping more of our world-views. Taken further, we could be our own worldview, with no need to *pop*.

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