Just Because We Don’t Like It Doesn’t Mean We Won’t Remember It

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Click to view music video by Bowling for Soup

Hollywood has been telling us for years that high school might very well be the most important time of our lives. While there are movies about college years, those films really just take the high school concept (jocks, nerds, princess, criminals, etc) and add legalized drinking (as opposed to the illegal drinking that takes place in high school movies) and at least one snobby college professor. It is the high school movie, perhaps best exemplified by movies like Dazed and Confused, Napolean Dynamite and Breakfast Club (although I’m sure any one of us could come up with our own list) that has the ability to capture a more universal, American idea. In theory, we all go to high school; hence, we all have a place in the high school movie.

Obviously, Hollywood plays on stereotypes, often neglecting some issues in order to focus on sex (American Pie for instance), but the basic concept is that who we are in high school largely shapes and predicts our future selves. For a 4 minute refresher on the high school experience, one need go no further than Bowling for Soup’s “High School Never Ends.” The notable exception, it seems, are the “princesses”– those girls who found self-esteem and popularity in their beauty– become less confident the older they get and the “brainy girls’ grow more confident the older they get. (See the link below for more on this difference.) For the rest of us, well, high school never ends.

Now, as is often the case, neuroscience is catching up to popular ideology. Not only is our self-image especially “adhesive” during this time, “the prefrontal cortex–the part of the brain that governs our ability to reason, grasp abstractions, control impulses, and self-reflect–undergoes a huge flurry of activity.” The net result–“During times when your identity is in transition, . . . it’s possible you store memories better than you do in times of stability.”

Our adolescent years, science tells us, offer us great opportunities to learn. We shape our identity, we develop our capacity for social engagement, and our brains are, quite literally, growing by leaps and bounds. Unfortunately, we also are a hormonal mess of conflicting emotions and we have limited a limited capability to understand what we are learning. It’s why every parent has entertained, at least once, trading in the 15 year old for a newer, more improved model. (Or, perhaps, for the younger version that was sweeter, kinder, and a tad bit more predictable emotionally.)

Regardless of our emotional stability, the memories are being stored whether we like it or not.

I’m not going to pretend, in a thousand words or less, that I can offer a cure for what ills our educational system, but I do think we have to recognize the extraordinary possibilities available when we work with kids whose brains are in transition. First and foremost, we must recognize that these kids are soaking up information and creating memories regardless of their desire to learn. While we all want active, engaged participation and such students definitely master the material, we also have to remember that exposure matters. Life, as I tell people all the time, is a marathon not a sprint.

I’m under no illusions, either, that we can create a sea-change to the social culture at the high school level. I’m sure there are things we can do to ameliorate things, but high school reflects our larger social construct. Pretty people get more stuff. Athletes are more popular. We have a certain cultural distrust of intellectuals and people who play the trombone. Our high school students, quite frankly and for better or for worse, are taking their social cues from the adult world.

But we can use these formative years to build a catalogue, a rolodex if you will, of memories for our students. Many years ago, I used to use a pop culture reader in my freshman composition classes. The idea, simplistically enough, was that the topics would be interesting to my students and, as such, they would be more engaged. We could talk about music, film, tv, sports, and other contemporary topics and those conversations would create intellectual growth and curiosity.

What I found, however, is that my students were so poorly versed in anything outside of themselves and their own self-interests that they had almost no ability to dig deeper than the surface. They had, quite frankly, just spent the last 8 years of their education studying things that interested them and their only reference point educationally was their own ego. Critical thinking amounted to a “It sucks” or “It’s cool.” Or, when they couldn’t decide, they would tell me “It’s all good.”

What we know, if we watch enough John Hughes films and read enough neuroscience, is we must change the way we approach adolescent education. Our students need reference points outside their own experience whether they are interested or not and regardless of whether they “use” that experience in their 9th grade class or on a standardized exam. I’m not advocating we stop teaching certain skills or that we stop using popular culture references. But I am arguing that we force our students to read, see, and listen to works of art that influence the contemporary moment in which they live even if they aren’t a part of that student’s lexicon. I don’t care anymore if the Iliad is boring (and Troy with Brad Pitt more exciting) and it doesn’t bother me if Picasso’s paintings are weird looking.

They may not like it and they may be bored, but education isn’t just about that moment in time. What neuroscience tells us is that what we experience in 1985 is relevant in 1995, 2005, and all points in between. We may not know when it matters, but the memory is there and available. Let’s stop worrying about skills we can measure in a specific place and time, and start focusing a little bit more on the kind of memories we want these kids to store.

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The Hard Work of Being Human

booksWhen I tell people I teach English, there is often a pause, followed by a palpable silence. I can see the gears at work as people try to remember junior high English, SAT vocabulary words, or the name of at least one novel they have read (or heard about). I could try to set their minds at ease by saying something grammatically mangled. “Ain’t” is a good word to just throw out in conversation. “Ain’t nothin'” is better. Mostly, I want to tell them I have no plans to judge their speech and I don’t carry a red pen around. The goal of communication is to articulate ideas and there are a variety of paths we can follow to achieve such a goal.

While I’m no grammar nazi, I do appreciate a well-turned phrase and precision in language. I teach my students that they have to master grammar first, then they can go forth and pervert it all they want. The key is control. Know you are writing that fragment. Understand the impact of the repetitive sentences. Recognize the value of pronouns and antecedents.

It doesn’t even bother me when my 15 year old tells me he hates English. I’ve seen the assignments and I’m fairly certain I would hate the class, too. They once spent 6 weeks reading Frankenstein. Shelley probably wrote it faster than that. They read Julius Caesar but didn’t finish the play. He had to find quotes (that’s good) but he had to match them with photos and pictures independent of the play (that’s not good). He’s drawn pictures, pretended to be a contemporary of the author, filled in worksheets, but they rarely discuss the work or try to understand why we might find Shakespeare worth reading in 2013. Worse yet, there were far too many questions asking my 15 year old son about his feelings (because what 15 year old boy isn’t excited about sharing in class?) and not enough questions asking him to actually look at the text.

Even more problematic to me: any writing they do is independent of discussions about, well, writing. Conversations about choosing words, manipulating sentence structure, and rhetorical strategies don’t seem to ever take place. Note that I have a great deal of sympathy for my son’s English teachers. They have too many students and too many external agencies telling them what to teach and what to test. In many ways, we have placed the burden of the arts at the feet of overworked and underpaid teachers while we simultaneously tie their hands with unwieldy mandates by legislators, teachers unions, and parent-advisory groups that are far too often politically motivated.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not someone who has unrealistic expectations regarding reading and writing. Both are time consuming and require an interest in vocabulary, historical understanding, a willingness to engage the language, and practice. I don’t, quite frankly, buy any arguments that contend we can turn all of our students into lifetime readers and lifetime writers. Communication might be an innate element of humanity, but writing and reading are not.

It is no surprise, then, as we begin another semester that many of my students tell me they don’t like to read or have never had to read. (I am always surprised they feel compelled to tell me they don’t like to read, as if somehow that will excuse their future performance. They often also tell me when they turn an essay in that “It’s probably not very good.” I like to respond, “Thanks for letting me know. The grading will go quicker. If it’s not very good, I’ll just slap a D on it and be done.”)

What does bother me is that we have,  in the name of practicality or employment, stopped fighting for the value of the humanities. Sure, we can make the case that every job a college graduate wants requires communication skills. We might argue that literature and art helps us interact with our fellow humans, thereby increasing our ability to survive office politics. Poetry can benefit the professional, they tell us.

But I’m a little tired of listening to those arguments. The value of the arts, quite simply, is that it challenges our expectations of reality by forcing us to simultaneously be introspective within the context of our daily lives while considering our larger social and historical place in the world. We read Shakespeare, I tell my students, because he has the ability to capture his moment in time while also transcending that moment. Good literature reminds us what it means to be human. It’s no accident that much of our early written literature spends an inordinate amount of time showing us mortality. We are not, the ancient texts remind us, god, nor are we meant to be.

Literature and the arts take us on an epistemological and ontological journey where we struggle with how knowledge is passed and where we exist within that transfer. This journey, one that requires both introspection and attention to detail, forces us to dedicate ourselves daily to being a human being. That is our first and most noble identity. Being a banker, teacher, journalist, or our work identity should always be secondary and subservient to our humanity. Our philosophical ideology must be realized in the concrete reality of our daily actions regardless of whether we earn a paycheck.

Being human should be hard work. When we cede our responsibility in the name of practicality or simplicity, we forfeit the very traits that separate us from the other animals on the planet. Blind allegiance, unchecked lust, ideological laziness–these are the signs of a world that stops valuing the arts. Literature isn’t about escape or visiting other worlds: literature is about digging in and getting dirty in the soul of humanity.

And, yes, this will be on the test.

 

Stop Telling Me I’m Under Attack

noWhen my kids were little and we told them no, they would often complain that “all their friends were allowed to do it.” Like most parents, we pulled out the old “If all your friends jumped off a bridge” fallacy. Interestingly, such a comment was instinctual and required no real thought on our part. (You would think that parents would have come up with a better statement by now.) My sons, as smart kids are wont to do, pointed out that he wouldn’t be friends with anyone who would willingly jump off a bridge.

Eventually, the kids would point out, as if it was their ace in the hole, that since their friend’s parents said yes so should we. They would get that little gleam in their eyes as if they had entangled us in some Gordian knot. The clear implication was that we are so far out of the mainstream we better change our minds or risk being ostracized. No more neighborhood picnics for us. I guess they imagined us cowering in the corner, worried what little Billy’s mom will think of us.

The goal for the little darlings was to create doubt, to chip away at our confidence, and to portray us as somehow outside the mainstream. We were (and probably still are on some days) the worst parents ever and a threat to their own future as human beings, they might tell us.

Raising kids, as any parent knows, is a bit like playing chess. (It’s also exhausting like watching chess.) The kid opens with the classic Ruy Lopez move and the parents counter with the Caro-Kann defense. Can’t you just hear the announcers whispering commentary? “Look at the brilliant end-around he employs be texting the grandmother,” the British (because it would have to be) announcer might say.

Except, at some point, logic and reason give way to our inner-middle schooler, and we counter the obvious “peer pressure” gambit from our kids by noting that when their friend’s parents start paying the bills around our house they can start making our parenting decisions. Unlike chess, though, these games only last about two moves in our house before I lay down the “Might Makes Right” move: “Because I said so, damnit! Now go get me a beer and leave me alone.” (I don’t actually say the second part but I always want to.)

What we really try to explain is that we have to make decisions based on what we think is right. “While your friend’s parents might think letting their 14 year old son have unlimited access to the internet on his phone or in his bedroom is a good idea, we don’t think you are ready for the responsibility and we aren’t prepared for the expense.” At least that’s what my wife says. I tend to blurt out things like “I’m not giving you unfettered access to pornography in the privacy of your own room! If you want to look at naked women, your going to have to earn it old school. Make friends with someone who has an older brother. Hang out behind Hastings when they throw out old magazines. Sneak into rated R movies. But I’m not paying for it. And get me a beer!” (I don’t say that last part, but it would be fun.)

The essence of the conversation is obvious. We try to teach our kids that raising them is our responsibility (whether they like it or not) and we will make decisions based on our values and our goals for our children. We fully expect their friend’s parents to do they same thing. While their permissiveness might make our house a little more uncomfortable at times, they aren’t a threat because we aren’t going to parent based on neighborhood polling data. In fact, there are times when what other parents do is a great opportunity for us to reiterate and explain our values and ethics. “We say no because . . . ”

These are, in the popular parlance of the day, teachable moments.

And so I’m always amazed when I read comments from people like Jonathon Saenz, president of Texas Values, who argues allowing gay parents to both be listed on a birth certificate is an attack on “mothers and fathers.” The gay community, Saenz claims, wants “special treatment” because of their different lifestyle.

If a birth certificate was solely for determining age and genetics, one might make an argument that only the biological father and biological mother were appropriate. In such a case, a birth certificate would always have the birth mother (regardless of birth option or adoption) and birth father (regardless of circumstances) and nothing else.

But, a birth certificate notes legal and genealogical responsibilities, also. It serves as a tool by which families bind themselves together to create shared memories and long- term identities. Birth certificates define our nationality, our eligibility for certain social and civil programs, and, in many ways, establish our place in the world.

More importantly, the people listed on the birth certificate are supposed to accept the sacred responsibility to help the child grow and become an adult. These guardians agree, by placing their names on the document, to feed, to love, to teach that child regardless of the biological history. They agree, in essence, to be a family. I might disagree with some of those values just as I fully expect them to disagree with some of mine. But unless they are raising their kids to eat other children for breakfast, I’m fairly certain it’s not an attack on me as a parent.

And I’ll thank the self-professed values monitors to stop telling me I’m under siege. If I want someone to comment on my parenting skills, I’ll talk to my teenagers.

I’m Glad I Didn’t Know Then What I Know Now

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Click to view George Burns sing.

It’s often a popular sentiment to imagine “If I had only know then what I know now” and to re-vision how much better that moment in time might have been. We’ve all done it:

If I had known how long it takes to pay off student loans, I might have borrowed less.
If I had known how important networking was, I would have joined a fraternity.
If I had known that tattoo of a naked lady that hula dances when I tighten my fist wouldn’t be as amusing when I was sober . . .
If only I had known, we might say, she was about to move, I would have expressed my undying love.
If only I had known my rock hard abs would be hidden under a middle age paunch, I would have  . . . If only I had known how important commas were I might have listened to my English teacher more. (Well, that one’s just kind of wishful thinking on my part.)
If only I had know the carefree days of youth wouldn’t last, I would have . . .

I often imagine that the best expression of this idea of our lost youth, because that’s what those statements really point to, is expressed in Sonny Throckmorton’s “I Wish I Were 18 Again.” It’s a beautiful sentiment and seems so innocent. Who doesn’t like nostalgia? The older we get, we tend to imagine our youth as a more idyllic, less stressful, more carefree time that we can only appreciate in hindsight. Lord, we might say, I long for the days when I didn’t have to figure out taxes, insurance, house payments, or tuition bills. Those were the days, we say.

I’ve been thinking a good bit about such things this week because my oldest son turns 18 this week. He’s filling out college applications, winding down his high school years, and, perhaps most agonizingly annoying to me, he can eat anything on the planet and never gain a pound.

Yet, I’m darn glad I’m not 18 again.

Throckmorton’s song, so nicely sung by George Burns in the video above, laments that he’ll “never turn the young ladies heads” (not true, of course, the young ladies heads just turn the other away) and that life goes so fast. I don’t disagree, and maybe I’m just not old enough to have forgotten, but the egotistical joy of seeing heads turn our way is, I seem to remember, accompanied by a corresponding neurotic worry about why the heads turned. Do I have a huge pimple? Is my hair sticking up? Is there toilet paper hanging out my pants? Do I know them? Is my zipper open?

While dreams and desires for those things we wish we could do or those things we still want to do might be healthy and a reason to get out of the bed, looking backwards and wishing we had done things differently strikes me as a dangerous reflection of some dissatisfaction with our contemporary space in this world. Regrets and those ever ubiquitous “I wish I had done/known X” statements, implies that we aren’t happy with our current life. Simply put, we can’t go back and change those key moments (because no one says “I wish I had known brown socks didn’t go with blue slacks”–unless you imagine such a mismatch cost you a job) unless we also want to change our current lives. These things are connected. If you turned right way back when, you would have gone a different direction in life. I’m glad I didn’t. My life isn’t perfect. I’ve known illness, loss, and sadness. I’ve been smart and I’ve been a dumb-ass. I’ve helped people and hurt them. But I wouldn’t trade this life for a different one.

And as my son turns 18 and gets ready to move on to the next phase, I hope he never looks back and wishes he had done things differently. This doesn’t mean I want him to adopt some carpe diem philosophy and simply follow the whims and desires of an 18 year old not fully developed frontal lobe. It doesn’t mean he can’t look back and realize he has made mistakes and he should (and hopefully we have taught him to do so) learn from the past. I hope he realizes how the things he did yesterday have led him to where he is at that moment.”Hey,” he might tell himself, “I don’t think I’ll do that again. Drinking a fifth of whiskey in one sitting is a bad idea.”

I want him to be satisfied in the moment and know that those mistakes, those victories, and those moments of decision and indecision have led him to that spot. I want him, simply put, to live in that moment and recognize it is the best moment he’s got. It doesn’t have to be a perfect moment, but I want him to see it as his moment. I’ll be long gone when he’s “three quarters home from the start to the end” but I hope that when he’s there, he’s not looking backward, regretting his past, wishing he had known then what he knows after.

I’m Not an Economist but I Will Play One in Court

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Click to view Holiday Inn Express Commercial: It’s really funny.

If it’s budget time in Texas, the solution to school funding must be vouchers. Or, at least, that seems to be the solution according to Joseph Bast, president and CEO of Heartland Institute, a witness for Texans for Real Efficiency and Equity in Education, or TREE as they call themselves. I’m assuming Real Efficiency (not fake efficiency, mind you) involves not using all the letters of your name in your acronym, but I guess that beats spelling Tree with three E’s and then pretending you care about education. Plus, your business cards are cheaper if you use fewer letters.

For those of you who live outside Texas, every 10 years or so, our school districts sue the state in the hopes of getting fair, equal, and adequate funding for public education and every 10 years our legislators moan and groan while they let the courts make all the difficult decisions. They then campaign as victims of activist judges who have removed local control and, since Texas believes in grossly under-funding most essential services at the state level (forcing local governments to raise taxes or do without), they travel across the state and social media touting school vouchers and school choice as the pathway to efficiency. Let education, they tell us, be market driven. Taxpayers fund the lawsuit, the lawyers get rich, and our funding mechanism remains a mystery to the rest of us.

I’m not opposed to the basic concept of school choice, vouchers, or charter schools. In fact, I’m pretty much in favor of the charter school concept mostly because it allows educators to open a school independent of many state regulations that force our public school principles to wade through a river of paperwork every day. Administrators in charter schools have the ability to hire and fire teachers, develop their own accountability systems, work outside the demands of standardized testing, and they have greater budget authority. Hell, if we gave public schools those things we wouldn’t need charter schools or vouchers.

And we clearly need to do something about using property taxes to fund public schools. We don’t need a lawsuit to tell us such a system creates massive inequities in per student spending.

But I’m not writing about vouchers or charter schools today. I’m writing because Mr. Bast, president and CEO of the Heartland Institute, serving as a witness for TREE (E), a group that is not a plaintiff in the case, “has not graduated from college and holds no degree in economics, though he considers himself an economist” and he admits that “neither of the two reports he co-authored, which were entered into evidence, have been peer-reviewed.” In essence, Mr. Bast isn’t qualified to be a credible source on a student research project but he is allowed to testify in a Texas courtroom because, without any credentials or evidence to the contrary, he has declared himself an economist. He may not be able to solve public education’s funding issues, but he just solved our higher ed problems. No more pesky classes, tuition, or professors: we will grant degrees by personal fiat. Today I am a (fill in the blank). If you spell the career choice correctly, you can grant yourself the degree. Have a party this weekend, smoke some dope, and you can have the college experience before your parents turn your room into an office.

And, in a state that loves school vouchers and grasps at anything that will cut funding to social programs, Bast admits “no government entity in the state of Texas ever has agreed with [his] analysis of savings.”

So. If I have this correct: he’s not qualified, he hasn’t submitted his ideas to review, and no one agrees with him. He’s the perfect witness. I’m just not sure for which side.

We wonder why our funding models are so awful? Shame on Judge Dietz. Shame on TREE (E–just add the damn E!). And Shame on Mr. Bast. A court is no place for amateur-hour.

Perhaps, if I might be so bold as to suggest, if we only allowed witnesses with some measure of expertise to testify the trial would go faster, we would save some money in legal fees, and we could funnel those dollars into the classroom. Just spit-balling that idea.

And, more importantly, next time Mr. Bast wants to act the expert, he can just start a blog like the rest of us.

Shop till You Drop

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I don’t look like this so why can’t I find clothes that fit?

I am differently shaped. Or, at least, I’m not built in a manner consistent with clothes sold in San Angelo.

I make this confession not to elicit sympathy or suggest I’m treated badly. In fact, my shape is directly related to my consumption of beer, chocolate, and various other other edible foods. (I make it a policy to avoid inedible foods like rutabaga, artichokes, and brussel sprouts. Sushi not real high on my list either.)

I’ll even admit that my size is proportionate to the the deepening indention on my couch. I’m no victim.

But still. While I might not win a best chest contests any time soon and I’m barred by my family from wearing those form fitting compression Under Armor shirts in public (or anywhere), I’m not fat, obese, terribly overweight, or grotesquely out of shape. At 5’10 (and 3/4 no matter what my family says) and 185, I’m the same size as Asante Samuel, CB for the Atlanta Falcons. My 185 might be distributed differently, but I’ll bet my knees hurt less and I don’t get concussions at my job.

My disfigurement became painfully clear Sunday afternoon while shopping for some new shirts. Those who know me will tell you without hesitation that I’m no clothes-horse. Most of the shirts in my closet, and many of the pants and shorts, just appear magically. I reach in the closet and presto-chango there’s a new shirt. For a long time, I imagined there was a little elf-tailor sewing away all night. I could imagine his little sewing machine and a tee-tiny needle. Or, as my wife pointed out, they could come from Goodwill. Yes. She’s the one who told the kids about Santa Claus.

I appreciate good clothes, but I don’t appreciate paying for good clothes. And the whole matching colors, getting the right belt, to pleat or not to pleat–and I can never tell if it’s navy blue or black (reeking havoc on sock selection). If I were rich, I tell my wife, I would buy really nice stuff, but I would also pay the salesperson to make a chart showing which shirt I could wear with which pants. Or I would just buy 5 sets of the same clothes. That’s what Einstein did. At least I could have something in common with him.

But, alas, I had to be a grownup the other day and buy some decent shirts. My Salvation Army specials were showing their age: frayed collars, seams splitting, buttons indiscriminately popping off (and always at such opportune times!), and little mystery holes in very odd places. I’m starting to wonder what my shirts do when I’m not wearing them. It’s time, I told myself, to stop dressing like a graduate student. Dress like your student loans are paid off, I thought.

And so I found myself at the mall on a beautiful Sunday afternoon trailing after a bunch of juvenile delinquents and old people who clearly had nothing better to do than stroll around inside while I listened to my wife, basically, tell me to stop being such a cheap bastard and buy some decent clothes.

Don’t get me wrong–I’ve shopped for clothes before. I refuse to wear used underwear, socks, or shoes. (And I’ve reached a point in my life where used couches and mattresses are a no-no also.) But I know my size. Easy in and easy out. I’ve always been the parent who takes our boys shoe shopping. If you can’t find what you want in 15 minutes, we’ll buy some duct tape and fix the old ones.

When I do shop for clothes, I make a bee-line for the clearance rack. Not only is it cheaper, but I’m assured no one else in town will have the same shirt. It’s on the clearance rack for a reason.

But not this time, my wife said. Be an adult and buy grown-up clothes she told me. For those of you who shop more often than me, which makes up a pretty healthy segment of the population, you probably already know that clothes are expensive and good clothes are really expensive. I tried on a couple of shirts that felt awful nice on my skin, but for the price I should have been smoking a cigarette and getting sleepy after I took them off. And waiting 15 minutes before putting on the next one, if you know what I mean.

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I don’t look like this either, much to my wife’s chagrin.

And today I have self-esteem issues. Evidently, my arms are too short for the circumference of my stomach. Or, I guess I could say my stomach is too ample for my arm length? All I know is the wrong parts of my body are shrinking while the other parts grow.

What amazes me, though, is I’m thinner than half the people I saw trying on clothes and I’m as tall (if not a little taller) than the average male in America. So why is am I having a hard time finding clothes?

Admittedly, I like my clothes a little loose fitting (which is probably why I didn’t realize my middle was aging), but l can’t be the only man in America who doesn’t want a form fitting shirt that’s formed like a bowl. As I was pulling shirts off the rack, I found plenty of clothes that would fit me if I was 250 pounds and even more that would work if I ate once a week while jogging 10 miles. But when did they start making “slim fit” shirts? Who thought this was a good idea? Are the shirt people in bed with the Weight Watchers people? And don’t get me started on the colors. When did we start dressing like easter eggs?

Three shirts, a pair of shoes, and three hours later, I finally plopped on to my form fitting couch, happy, at least, that something still fit.

Riding the Highways of McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men

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Click to view clip

I have to admit that my first reaction to McCarthy’s 2005 novel No Country for Old Men was a tad bit negative. I titled my early review of the novel “This is No Country for Old Men, And Let’s Go Ahead and Get Rid of the Skanky Hitchhiker, Walmarts, and Mobile Phones, Too.” I guess I was worried someone might get confused about how I felt. Don’t get me wrong: I love Cormac McCarthy’s works. I’m a parasite who has built a career, earned tenure, and bought a house because McCarthy is a creative genius.

But when my friend from the Biology department calls and wonders if No Country for Old Men was ghost written, the beer isn’t quite as cold and the couch not quite as soft.

Even now, much as it may pain me to admit, I like the Coen Brothers film version of the novel better than the novel itself. However, I can assure you it pains me even more to admit that I might have been wrong about the novel. (A professor in graduate school once told me the three hardest words for a college professor to say are “I was wrong,” followed closely by “I don’t know.”) I still have some issues with the novel.

There are plot holes big enough to drive a Dodge Ram through and occasionally the dialogue seems straight out of the cliché warehouse. You can follow Llewelyn Moss, Sheriff Bell, and Anton Chigurh’s routes. McCarthy’s knows how long it takes to drive those roads and he knows which small road to take. He places Bell on the Devils River Bridge while he’s hunting Chigurh, Satan personified in West Texas. That’s beautiful. There is an accuracy that usually blinds us to any possible historical anomalies.

And that’s why the gas chamber he mentions on page one matters to me. Forty-five minutes up the road from Houston you can visit Old Sparky in the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville. You can look at East Wall Unit near the county courthouse and imagine the inmates who lived there back when death row was housed in town. You can drive out over to the Ellis Unit and stare at the walls, wondering how the men felt when they took the long walk to the room for the lethal injection, something the state started doing in 1982. Prior to that, Texas used the electric chair until 1964.

Never a gas chamber. Surely, Bell knows this. He visited the boy on death row, tried to rescue a guilty man late in the novel from becoming a statistic many Texans are proud of. It’s not just the gas chamber, though. Wells gets an ATM card to use on the border, and Chigurh pulls Wells’ mobile phone out of his pocket when Moss calls. That must have been one hell of a pocket. It’s supposed to be 1980. I’m just glad Chigurh didn’t pull a laptop out and e-mail someone.

These inaccuracies begin to add up so that when the Sheriff comments that the hitchhiker was “Kind of a skankylookin little old girl,” I acted like my professor who threw Faulkner across the room. Tell the women and children to duck, dad’s reading a new novel. Skanky, according to the OED, comes into popular use in 1982 by Valley Girls and McCarthy wants his Van Horn sheriff to be that hip to the slang out of California? Maybe he was watching MTV, except MTV didn’t launch until 1981. Did I mention the novel begins in 1980?

But, the closer I get to being one of those old men worrying about country, the more I begin to appreciate other parts of the novel. The novel has become an acquired taste in the same way I can only appreciate a David Lynch movie after I am haunted by various scenes and characters. Lynch’s Lost Highway is largely incomprehensible (why in the world is Robert Blake wearing whiteface?), but I can’t drive at night anymore without imagining I’m Bill Pullman swerving down the yellow stripe. McCarthy’s novel has started working the same way. Every time I eat a steak, I wonder if they killed it with a cattle gun. (That’s a joke. I really just wonder where the steak sauce is sitting.) It is not a joke, though, to say that when I flip a coin, I always think of Chigurh and fate.

Now when I read the novel, I spend twenty minutes on the opening italics, pondering language that reminds me of the Crossing and opening comments that make me see even more clearly McCarthy’s debt to Dostoevsky. The italicized comments from Bell, coupled with Moss’ story, remind me of Hegel’s ideas of narrative. The performative act is important for Bell. He tells us he will not sacrifice his soul to pursue Chigurh and then proceeds to show us why not sacrificing matters to him. His internal angst becomes externalized narrative. By the end of the novel, he knows he’s beat and that is sad. There is no dramatic, romanticized cowboy death when this novel ends. In McCarthy’s world, we’ve already seen that those deaths don’t stop progress.

Unlike his other novels, though, NCFOM doesn’t show us a bunch of boys tooling across the country-side on horseback. It’s 1980 and the characters are largely bound by the state highway system. If you pull out your Texas state map, you can track the journey along state highway 90. Virtually, the entire novel takes place in the confines of West Texas, with a brief foray to Houston and one short hospital stay in Piedras Negras. This is an important shift in McCarthy’s world. It’s not, as some critics contend, necessarily because McCarthy has turned into a grumpy old man. I suspect McCarthy was grumpy long before this novel.

Like his other works, the landscape creates the story. Terrell County in Texas covers 2,358 square miles with a population of about 1,000 people. That’s almost twice the size of Rhode Island and Rhode Island has 1,050,788 people. They say it’s easy to hide in plain sight. It’s a lot easier to hide where there’s no one to sight you. Yet, with all the open spaces, Moss manages to find a drug deal gone bad as he hunts. When Moss runs, he doesn’t head for the mountains in Mexico. He puts his wife on a bus to Odessa and hits the highway for Del Rio and Eagle Pass. He spends in the night in motels and the only tent supplies he purchases he uses to hide money in the air vent at the Trail Motel in Del Rio. Moss is the domesticated, 20th century cowboy. He could be Lonnie Bannon from McMurtry’s Horseman, Pass By, grown up and a Vietnam Vet. Of course, at times he also seems like an odd mix of Budd Davis from Urban Cowboy and Travis Henderson from Paris, Texas.

However capable he may seem, though, Moss can’t live in the contemporary southwest. For McCarthy, the landscape has changed just as the people have changed. Motels and roads make life convenient. Men can hunt in the morning and return to the trailer at night. If you lose someone, there are transponders that beep. Pathetic as it may seem, Moss’ death at a motel in Van Horn, TX seems a fitting end. The kid dies in the jakes, John Grady Cole dies in a cardboard box on the street corner, Billy Parham goes to sleep in a room off the kitchen, and Moss dies in the door frame of a cheap motel in a town off the freeway.

Motels, hospitals, skyscrapers—this is the new southwest for better or for worse. Trucks have replaced horses, clichéd as that may sound, and our experience of the land is at 55 miles an hour (70 in adjusted speed limits). We stop at the motel and establish temporary housing before gassing up and moving on. Moss tries to run but he’s trapped by the highway system that takes him up and down the border and unlike other McCarthy characters, he can’t get lost even if he wants to.

Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

FiveThirtyEight

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Scott Adams' Blog

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)