My Old Friend Hawthorne

It’s been a barn-burner of an academic year for me.  I retreated to an old friend and laughed at myself:

So little adapted is the atmosphere of a Custom–house to the delicate harvest of fancy and sensibility, that, had I remained there through ten Presidencies yet to come, I doubt whether the tale of “The Scarlet Letter” would ever have been brought before the public eye. My imagination was a tarnished mirror. It would not reflect, or only with miserable dimness, the figures with which I did my best to people it. The characters of the narrative would not be warmed and rendered malleable by any heat that I could kindle at my intellectual forge. They would take neither the glow of passion nor the tenderness of sentiment, but retained all the rigidity of dead corpses, and stared me in the face with a fixed and ghastly grin of contemptuous defiance. “What have you to do with us?” that expression seemed to say. “The little power you might have once possessed over the tribe of unrealities is gone You have bartered it for a pittance of the public gold. Go then, and earn your wages” In short, the almost torpid creatures of my own fancy twitted me with imbecility, and not without fair occasion.

It was not merely during the three hours and a half which Uncle Sam claimed as his share of my daily life that this wretched numbness held possession of me. It went with me on my sea–shore walks and rambles into the country, whenever—which was seldom and reluctantly—I bestirred myself to seek that invigorating charm of Nature which used to give me such freshness and activity of thought, the moment that I stepped across the threshold of the Old Manse. The same torpor, as regarded the capacity for intellectual effort, accompanied me home, and weighed upon me in the chamber which I most absurdly termed my study. Nor did it quit me when, late at night, I sat in the deserted parlour, lighted only by the glimmering coal–fire and the moon, striving to picture forth imaginary scenes, which, the next day, might flow out on the brightening page in many–hued description.

If the imaginative faculty refused to act at such an hour, it might well be deemed a hopeless case. Moonlight, in a familiar room, falling so white upon the carpet, and showing all its figures so distinctly,—making every object so minutely visible, yet so unlike a morning or noontide visibility,—is a medium the most suitable for a romance-writer to get acquainted with his illusive guests. There is the little domestic scenery of the well-known apartment; the chairs, with each its separate individuality; the centre-table, sustaining a work-basket, a volume or two, and an extinguished lamp; the sofa; the book-case; the picture on the wall;—all these details, so completely seen, are so spiritualized by the unusual light, that they seem to lose their actual substance, and become things of intellect. Nothing is too small or too trifling to undergo this change, and acquire dignity thereby. A child’s shoe; the doll, seated in her little wicker carriage; the hobby-horse;—whatever, in a word, has been used or played with, during the day, is now invested with a quality of strangeness and remoteness, though still almost as vividly present as by daylight. Thus, therefore, the floor of our familiar room has become a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other. Ghosts might enter here, without affrighting us. It would be too much in keeping with the scene to excite surprise, were we to look about us and discover a form, beloved, but gone hence, now sitting quietly in a streak of this magic moonshine, with an aspect that would make us doubt whether it had returned from afar, or had never once stirred from our fireside.

The somewhat dim coal-fire has an essential influence in producing the effect which I would describe. It throws its unobtrusive tinge throughout the room, with a faint ruddiness upon the walls and ceiling, and a reflected gleam from the polish of the furniture. This warmer light mingles itself with the cold spirituality of the moonbeams, and communicates, as it were, a heart and sensibilities of human tenderness to the forms which fancy summons up. It converts them from snow-images into men and women. Glancing at the looking-glass, we behold—deep within its haunted verge—the smouldering glow of the half-extinguished anthracite, the white moonbeams on the floor, and a repetition of all the gleam and shadow of the picture, with one remove farther from the actual, and nearer to the imaginative. Then, at such an hour, and with this scene before him, if a man, sitting all alone, cannot dream strange things, and make them look like truth, he need never try to write romances.

But, for myself, during the whole of my Custom–House experience, moonlight and sunshine, and the glow of firelight, were just alike in my regard; and neither of them was of one whit more avail than the twinkle of a tallow–candle. An entire class of susceptibilities, and a gift connected with them—of no great richness or value, but the best I had—was gone from me.

 

Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Custom-House.”

There.  Now I feel better.

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Notes

Why should I think artificial intelligence is on the near horizon when we can’t even make artificial animals?

Teaching is not like astronomy.  It’s like saddle-making.  You know, except with living beings instead of leather.

(Almost?) every child I’ve ever taught has or will turn out just fine.  Not all of them will do it at my school though.

Teaching grammar functionally is one of the most colossal mistakes American “grammarians” could have made.  It’s like teaching algebra before arithmetic.  Actually, now that I think of it, we have some pretty bad ideas about basic maths too.

Learning Latin would be a lot easier if my students knew English.

Justice is the state of affairs where I get my way vs. Justice is the habit by which I happily give others what is theirs.

Pokemon Go is going to be the downfall of human civilization.  Pure, unadulterated cupidity unchained.  At least we have the solar flares to save us some day.

One day I will have all the time in the world to develop notes into topics and write on them at length.

Hah!

Leading, Writing, Learning

Terrific article in the WaPo by Dan Steinberg on UMD’s new football coach.  It grabbed my eye initially because of its take on leadership (I was converting to school), but it’s also got some nice thoughts on writing process.  Definitely worth a read, and easily reached with some Google-fu if that link dies.  I hit it with the old C&P hex so I could sift it for quotes and ideas later.

I have toyed with the notion of keeping a “When I Am King” file that would be similar to this, except I have no delusions of grandeur (pertaining to running a school, at least!).  But still, I am inspired:

 

Durkin never discussed the spiral notebook he began keeping with that head coach, a guy named Urban Meyer. He didn’t discuss it with his fellow assistants either. As Durkin flew through the coaching ranks — from Bowling Green to Notre Dame back to Bowling Green, and then to Stanford and Florida and Michigan — his original notebook became two, and then four, and then 10.

The lessons from Meyer were soon supplemented with the thoughts of Jim Harbaugh and Will Muschamp, Tyrone Willingham and Gregg Brandon, and with observations from outside of football, too. The notebooks went in a bin that accompanied Durkin and his family as they moved around the country, with the most recent ones remaining in his office. And before he interviewed for the Maryland opening, Durkin did what he always figured he would: He took out his old notebooks to review those lessons about building a college football program he’d been storing up for 15 years.

“I’m going into a meeting and talking about how I’m going to run a program; I’ve got to gather my thoughts, and so it forces you to go back through some things,” the 38-year old Durkin said on a recent morning in his office. “It’s like: ‘Here are my thoughts, here’s what I believe in.’ … You’ve got to have a clean viewpoint in your own mind of how this thing’s going to go, a baseline of core values and organization that you’re always going to go back to.”

The lessons cover all sorts of topics: running staff meetings and dealing with players, handling recruiting and dishing out discipline, creating handouts and crafting talking points. He always has used his notes as a coaching reference point, but it’s happened even more frequently in the hectic months since his hiring.

Want to get good at something?  Write things down.

 

 

 

Doctor Doom, The Walking Dead, and the Common Good

This post contains spoilers for Seasons 3 and 4 of the Walking Dead (and a 50 year-old Marvel comic)

Let’s talk about sympathetic super-villains and ethics.

The likable villain is such an important commodity in modern story-telling.  The successful villains all make us wish they were heroes (Darth Vader), or spend time being heroes (Magneto), or are fallen heroes (Sephiroth).  We like understanding why they do what they do, sympathizing to a dangerous degree.  This heightens the drama for us.  Flat villains like silver-screen Dracula are just as uninteresting to us as Superman.  This is why we update classics to be more tragic (see: Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula) or repeatedly fail to reinvigorate them (see: endless string of bad Superman adaptations). Continue reading Doctor Doom, The Walking Dead, and the Common Good

Sick Men Tell No Tales

I have finally turned the corner on a gruesome cold/flu thing that brought me to my knees for the last ten days.  I had just enough willpower to drag myself to work each day and get my basic duties done; the rest was just not happening.

One of the most frustrating parts of being sick–and man, do the symptoms get uglier as you get older–is the loss of mental focus.  I had/have some decent ideas percolating for my current run of chapters in The Novel, but there was no way I could put pencil to paper.  There were a few days I could not even read on the train; it was a Skim the Express and Fall Asleep kind of week. Continue reading Sick Men Tell No Tales

Anaphora in Homer

In my Anaphora post back in November, I mentioned that Homer–the blind master of the muses, as I styled him there–does not seem too enamored of this literary device.  At the time I was going on spotty memory fortified with a quick Google search and in-office consult.

But there’s good news!  While running down Hector’s scenes in the Iliad, the better to make my comparisons in Orlando Furioso, I came across not one but two anaphoras!

The first was handed to me by Michael Gilleland over at Laudator Temporis Acti.  Follow him; he’s a wonderful font of classical citations and interesting arcana.  Anyway, he put up a nice post, titled Skill, on Nestor’s address to his son in Iliad XXIII. Continue reading Anaphora in Homer

NaNoWriMoWoes

Me and a thousand other hobby writers!

This was my first attempt at NaNoWriMo after telling the Darwins last year I was considering it.  For the uninitiated (like me, 60 days ago), the plan is to write 2000 words a day for 30 days and TADA! you have a novella.  It’s like the P90X of writing, except with Billy Blanks and a lot of cocaine.  Never edit!  Always add!  Your manuscript screams when you cut it!  Don’t hurt it!

billy_blanks_taebo
Back straight! Social media off! Feel those fingers burn!  Count it with me!

I actually cheated a bit and started early because I have not been writing for many years.  As November drew on, I stopped early to balance it out because 1) guilty conscience and 2) damn this is a lot of writing.  Being a dad and a teacher with a very long commute doesn’t leave a lot of time for the pen, and I didn’t have enough plotting and dreaming stored up to keep pushing much beyond the first quarter of the book. Continue reading NaNoWriMoWoes

Anaphora and Repetitio

I came across some advice about “vain repetition” in writing over at Derek Haines’s website (I follow him on Twitter so I get a constant stream of rookie advice while I write).  The short of it was that repetition lulls a reader to sleep and writers need a large repertoire of variation to avoid this.  This is undeniably true, although I can recall a misspent youth in which I contorted my prose beyond all reason to avoid even trivial repetition.  There’s an obsessive component to writing (and, apparently, to me). Continue reading Anaphora and Repetitio