Friday, November 30, 2012

What Really Happened in President Obama's Private Meeting with Mitt

Yesterday, President Obama welcomed Mitt Romney into his private dining room at the White House at exactly 12:30 in the afternoon. One hour and eleven minutes later, Mr. Romney departed the premises, and the luncheon was supposedly one-on-one, with even elite members of the press corps not allowed inside. In the day and a half since the luncheon, speculation has run rampant about what actually went on, and official statements from both camps have been released.

All of it is wrong.

So today--after lingering long and thinking through my decision very carefully--I have decided to come clean. To confess. To spill the frijoles. To open the can of worms (even though many of you, like me, wonder why certain people derive joy out of canning worms; there's plenty else we could can: peas, carrots, perhaps thick marmalade, heck, even toe nail clippings--but worms, really?). To play the pied piper's tune (because I learned to play the pied pipe long ago (it's not much more difficult than learning to play a normal pipe)).

I was there.

I was there for the entire hour and eleven minutes, and after living with the knowledge of what those minutes held--caressed, nuanced, delicately balanced--I have decided to tell all.

First, the reason I was invited by both parties anyway. Many readers of this blog aren't aware of the fact that I am Ryan Gosling. Details of my life--like the fact that I "live" in York, England, am "married" and am a "father" to a four-year old son named "Tyler," am a "writer" and a "teacher" and I have a "real life history"--have all been invented in order to give me some level of secrecy. (As you can probably guess, I work harder than most other actors because of this need for a highly detailed fake life.)

But I am the Ry-master. And even though revealing that fact here (now) will undoubtedly make my life a heck of a lot more complicated, the Obama / Romney meeting yesterday has forced my hand (and I'm not even a card player).

Now, the meeting.

I could have tape recorded the entire thing on a tiny device that I happen to carry around with me everywhere. But I didn't. I don;t need that device, and I only carry it for purposes of establishing humility because I don't like to admit that I have a perfect photographic memory (which, in case you didn't know, also means I have a perfect phonographic memory (which, in case you didn't know, means that I can recall sounds and images at a moment's notice back to when I was three months old)).

Since one of the fake-details of my life is that I am a "writer," I decided to coat the big reveal with the cloak of my writerly self. Thus.

President Obama: Mitt, welcome.

Mr. Romney: Prez, thank you. Thank you very much. [Mr. Romney's hair is slicked back with copious gel, and I wonder if--perchance--he and I are consumers who zero in on the same gel brand at the store.]

President Obama: I hope you don't mind that I asked Ryan to join us? Members of your campaign staff assured me it wouldn't be a problem. [President Obama smiles wide enough to make me faint, and I don't faint easily.]

Mr. Romney: Members of my campaign staff assured me of a lot of things, too, Prez. [Mr. Romney pauses and when I gaze into his eyes, it looks as though he is lost in thought about why people ever decided to start canning worms, only to open up those cans at inappropriate moments. The more he thinks about this, the more he looks like he could cry, and it suddenly seems like his casting via media as a man without empathy might--perchance!--be wrong. Any man who can feel deeply enough about worms to practically tear up over their canning is an empathetic man in my book.]

President Obama: So, were members of your campaign staff correct? [President Obama shirts from foot to foot, and then finally throws his arm around me--a gesture of solidarity, for which I am thankful at this point. Because you can only think about the poor worms being canned for so long before you start to lose control.]

Mr. Romeny: About Ryan?

President Obama: About Ryan.

Mr. Romney: To be honest, I should have chosen Hilary Clinton. You and I both know that. We would have wiped the floor with you. No disrespect, of course, Prez. That Ryan guy--all he did for me was make me go to the extreme of Extreme Makeover.

President Obama: None taken. After all, this is still my private dining room, so you have permission to mourn your loss in any way you see fit. As long as it doesn't interrupt our agenda for the day. [President Obama winks at me. I wink back. Then I turn towards Mr. Romney and wink his way as well. I hate for anyone to feel left out. Mr. Romney winks back at me--the empathy this man has! And President Obama must interpret Romney's wink as directed at him, because he winks back at Mr. Romney and then Mr. Romney eventually winks at President Obama--only after a long, subdued, awkward silence.]

Me: My eyes are hurting.

Mr. Romney: [laughs]

President Obama: What's so funny, Mr. Romney. Haven't your eyes ever hurt before?

Mr. Romney: Never more than 47% of the time.

President Obama: Look, Mitt--I'm gonna call you Mitt from now on, okay?--I am really hungry and we're having an amazing Southwestern salad, so can you just tell me if it's alright if Ryan stays?

Mr. Romney: Yeah, yeah, the kid's alright. Bet he could eat fifty eggs and knock down a few parking meters if he wanted.

Me: I love that movie.

President Obama: Me too.

Mr. Romney: Well, let's get down to gold tacks and brass knuckles. The agenda. Does the kid know about it? [Mr. Romney wags his thumb at me and I feel slightly affronted. After all, I'm not that much younger than him, and we both use the same gel, and we both feel badly about the canned worms.]

President Obama: Mitt, Ryan is okay. In fact, he's solid. he's extremely solid in this area. That's why I asked him here in the first place.

[We all sit down at the table, on which glasses of water are already poured, seven pieces of silverware aligns the cloth in front of each of us, and chocolate Santa Clauses sit on each of our plates.]

Mr. Romney: Nice touch, Prez. [Holds up his personal chocolate Santa Clause.]

President Obama: You like that, do you Mitt?

Mr. Romney: I do, Prez.

[Awkward silence.]

[Continued awkward silence.]

[I decide to eat my chocolate Santa.]

[Awkward silence.]

[I decide to eat Mr. Romney's chocolate Santa.]

[Extremely awkward silence.]

[I decide to eat President Obama's chocolate Santa.]

President Obama: Ryan, please. I only had three of those, and they were especially made by a rare species of gnomes off the coast of Finland who work tirelessly day and night and produce a dozen chocolate Santa Clauses each decade.

Me: [Awkward.]

Mr. Romney: Aw, Prez, let the kid here off easy this time. He was famished after knocking all those parking meter heads off.

Me: I'm not Paul Newman.

Mr. Romney: Geesh, I know, I know. I'm, just saying.

President Obama: Salads please!

[A waiter rushes into the room carrying a tray on which sit three of the most perfect Southwestern salads I have ever seen in my entire human existence.]

Me: President Obama, were these made by those same gnomes off the coast of Finland? [laughing. Come on, it's funny.]

President Obama: Yes.

Mr. Romney: Checkmate.

Me: I don't play chess.

Mr. Romney: But did you ever think about the fact that maybe chess plays you? Bet you didn't. Maybe give that a think or two the next time you want to go our knocking parking meter heads off.


President Obama: Okay, gentlemen. It's about time we start with the real agenda for this meeting: Mitt's reading choices.

Mr. Romney: Look, when the guy from Time Magazine asked me, I didn't have time to prep--I couldn't think on the spot. You had time, Prez. You could expertly choose a few American classics, a few independent-spirit stuff, some Pulitzer winners. I didn't have the luxury of a whole team helped me narrow down my options.

President Obama: Look, Mitt, I didn't choose your campaign team for you--

Me: And I didn't choose to eat your chocolate Santas. It's a condition.

[Awkward silence.]

Me: But the thing about the reading choices--look, that's the real reason I'm here. And I'm here for BOTH of you.

Mr. Romney: [Aside] That and to knock off a few parking meter heads. [Laughs.]

Me: [Standing, flexing pectorals, biceps, and triceps] Cool it with the COOL HAND LUKE ALLUSIONS, MITT, OKAY!

Mr. Romney: [Sweats]

Me: [Suddenly this image comes to mind and I feel real bad about what I just did. The image is all these worms--nice, friendly, well-meaning worms--trapped in some can solely for the purpose of some rhetorical device in some silly blog post.] 

President Obama: Ryan, take a breath. Good, Now, can you just give us the reading list already?

Me: [I devour my Southwestern salad, and if there were any more of those gnomish chocolate Santas, I'd be hard pressed to not...] Okay. You ready?

President Obama and Mr. Romney: Yes.

Me: Well, you've got to check out MOCKINGBIRD  by Kathy Erskine. It'll seriously amaze you. And, yup, no way you want to miss THE SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK by Matthew Quick. Awwwwwwsome. And, you need to get your hands on a copy of Francisco Stork's MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD--it'll blow you away.

Mr. Romney: [Aside] The way you blow away those parking meters?

Me: [Deep breath, deep breath, deep--]

President Obama: Can we get the last secret chocolate Santa Clause out here for Ryan please?

Me: You've got to get Mike Jung's GEEKS, GIRLS, AND SECRET IDENTITIES--hilarious and deeply moving. And Lynda Mullaly Hunt's ONE FOR THE MURPHYS. Whew. Be ready to cry though, and to change your life. And, let's see...

[Waiter brings chocolate Santa and I devour it on the spot, while stealing a forkful of Mr. Romney's Southwestern, gnome-made salad.]

Me: Oh! A.J. Paquette's NOWHERE GIRL is freaking marvelous, as is Mitali Perkins' RICKSHAW GIRL and if you somehow missed Jonathan Kozol's SAVAGE INEQUALITIES and Ross Greene's LOST AT SCHOOL, man, you guys need to get yourself to your closest indie bookstore yesterday and pick them up, too.

Mr. Romney: [Aside] Bet there are a few parking meters en route to the local indie, ey Ryan?

Me: And can't miss Cynthia Lynch Williams's MILES FROM ORDINARY and Gary Schmidt's OKAY FOR NOW and--yes! yes! yes!--Emily Bronte's WUTHERING HEIGHTS.

Mr. Romney: You mean Charlotte Bronte?

Me: No.

President Obama: No.

Mr. Romney: Oh.

Me: And by all means, you have got to read Jackson Katz's THE MACHO PARADOX. Got to, gentlemen, got to.

[The room ebbs with the flow of my wisdom. It pulses the air in semi-equal reverberations of beauty and joy and truth.]


Me: And Natalie Diaz Lorenzi's FLYING THE DRAGON is a can't miss--as well as Johan Harstad's BUZZ ALDRIN, WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU IN ALL THE CONFUSION? and definitely Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich's EIGHTH GRADE SUPERZERO.

Mr. Romney: Who are you talking to right now?

Me: You.

President Obama: [Clears throat.] And me.


Mr. Romney: Sounds a little dramatic.

President Obama: Is it about testing?

Me: Yes--specifically about standardized testing and the pressure it entails and the way it forces teachers, students, and schools to focus on memorization over skill, rote learning over creativity is kind of like, kind of like...throwing a dozen gnome-made chocolate Santas right onto the cold, hard floor.

President Obama: [Gasps.]

Mr. Romney: [Considers the canned worms. The man does have empathy, so I decide to forgive him on the spot for his parking meter references. we're all human, after all.]

Me: That's probably good for now. Until our next secret luncheon?

President Obama: [Winks at me.]

Mr. Romney: [Winks at President Obama, whom he thought was winking at him.]

President Obama: [Winks back to Mr. Romney.]

Me: [I wink as fast as I can at everyone, including the waiter who now comes to clear the dishes]

Thursday, November 29, 2012

One True Thing from John Robinson: Passion and Memory

Many years ago, as a senior in college, I was about to undertake my student-teaching experience. I was told that I would be paired up with a high school English teacher near the college named John Robinson. Little did I know what that name would come to represent through the unfolding years of my life.

John and I in Room 106 in 2003 after a day of teaching
That year, John and I would sit together at the front of Room 106 in Hamilton-Wenham Regional High school. I laughed more than I've ever laughed in an English classroom. But I also learned things I'd never imagined before--that writers of the novels we ask students to read had led lives just as fraught with fear, hope, passion, vigor, depression, and joy as we do. That every short story, novel, poem, vignette we read with students houses the uncanny ability to both teach creativity and passion, and also to embolden the power of empathy and bolster the need for new perspectives. Whether John was teaching Ernest Hemingway or reading Girl with a Pearl Earring or exploring poetry, he showed me the ropes of teaching for passion and beauty. He showed me how to be myself in an English classroom, too, which all began with Jack Handey's Deep Thoughts.

These years later, I am deeply in love with literature and writing, and I still can barely make it through a Handy Deep Thought while laughing uncontrollably. I still love teaching--whether it's Public Speaking courses in adult education programs here in York, or public school middle and high school classes. John pointed to a path which held untold passion for writing and teaching, and he pushes open the door for me and showed me how to walk it with joy.

John's lifelong work as a teacher is coupled with his lifelong work as a writer, having published two novels, scores of short stories in literary journals like Ploughshares and The Sewanee Review and many others, and having seen reviews, essays, and journalism into print. Every day, John still makes the fundamental decision to sit down at his desk and pen new words, craft new stories and reveal new lives. Because true passions never wither; instead, they are perennial as tulips: drawing strength from cold winters to flower and flourish with even more resolve. John's passion as a teacher and writer is resolve itself, and I'm excited to share Mr. John Robinson's One True Thing here, today.

Passion and Memory
by John Robinson

Yesterday, on a cold and overcast late November day, I drove to a Mobil Mini-Mart in my hometown, Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  I was stopping to purchase a couple of bottles of chocolate milk, a soothing drink I often enjoy late at night.  On my way into the store, I was thinking--brooding really--about the good news I had just received that morning from a esteemed editor of a prestigious literary journal.  I had been informed that my short story had been accepted for publication in the spring.  Yes, I thought, it was good to have yet another story coming out in print, but because most literary journals have small audiences, my joy was somewhat subdued by the prospect of knowing that no one in town will ever know when it is published.  After a lengthy time of being published in many forms and in many venues, I believed I was destined toward that special obscurity reserved only for those whose efforts will be perceived by posterity as being tragically marginal.  Though I knew my work would remain in print long after I'd shed this mortal coil, I would not be remembered, I thought self-pityingly as I entered the store.       
I approached the check-out clerk, and laid the bottles on the small counter between us.  Unfortunately, they didn't have "low-fat" chocolate milk, and so instead--because I had no choice--I doubled-down on two bottles of something called "double" chocolate milk.  He was a man around my age.  But below a tattered baseball cap a wizened face--the result of attrition or neglect or addiction-- aged his appearance beyond his years.  He took one bottle into his hand and double-scanned it before announcing the price to me.
As I reached into my pocket for the cash to pay him, he looked at me and said, "Hey, aren't you the writer who was in the paper a long time ago?"
Long time ago?  He remembered that?  And what an understatement!  It was more like a quarter of a century ago, 27 years to be exact.  I was amazed he remembered my face from the article written so long ago.  The town newspaper had done a feature when my first novel appeared.
"There was a picture of you with your dog, I think," he said.
"Yes," I said.  "You've got a great memory."  And then after a moment, just before I left the store with my plastic bottles of chocolate milk:  "I'm honored you recalled the article."
Somehow the piece about me had moved him enough to remember my face when I entered the store.   The one true thing about organizing your life around your passion--if you're lucky enough to have one--is that for the rest of your life you'll always be rewarded and reminded--in some of the most unanticipated moments and ways--of your commitment to your dream.  It does not matter how small the audience--or how large the financial reward.  It matters only in the existential sense that it mattered to you, and to the few--or many--you unexpectedly reached by trying to become who you were all along.  In my case, a writer.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

What Beautiful Is

There is a stay-at-home dad I know who is funny and kind and gracious in conversation. He loves his two young daughters immensely. He writes about birds and trees in a large pad which he keeps in his back pocket at every playgroup. He also suffers from debilitating mental attacks and sometimes struggles deeply and intensely to cope with life and move forward.

This morning, I saw him. The man's smile could swallow an entire street. His youngest daughter walked beside him, her smile echoing his.

The great South African poet Dennis Brutus--who fought against the apartheid system and was even jailed at Robben Island in the cell next to Mandela's for his work--has two of the most beautiful lines I've ever read within his poem, "Somehow We Survive." Brutus writes, "Somehow we survive / and tenderness, frustrated, does not wither." 

To think of the horror Brutus watched unfold in his lifetime--both that subjected to others and to himself--and yet to still be able to write these lines. To still be able to claim the survival of tenderness, the endurance of beauty.

Many of us face attacks that come in all forms and circumstances. If you're reading this, then most likely you and I are similar in that we do not face imprisonment for our beliefs and our quests for justice like Brutus did. And yet, the battles my friend, the stay-at-home-dad, faces threaten also to wither tenderness.

And each of us experiences, perhaps a thousand times a day, the subtle assaults from both within and without that long to make us believe that tenderness withers. Beauty is not sustained.

And that is true if we allow for the world's definition of beauty. If we assent to the notion that beauty is perfection, that tenderness is only possible where no mistakes are made, then we're sunk.

But if we, like Brutus, are willing to fight back against injustice in small ways and large, then we begin to forge a claim on the definition of beauty, the true meaning of tenderness.

What Beautiful is appears after attacks have been mounted and weathered. Rather than throw our hands up in despair and rage, then, we open our hands in readiness--willing the future to be different from the past. Knowing the present is our only genre for writing new stories, we learn to smile wide enough to swallow a street. We learn that tenderness may be frustrated, but it does not wither. True beauty never can.

by Dennis Brutus

Somehow we survive
and tenderness, frustrated, does not wither.

Investigating searchlights rake
our naked unprotected contours;

over our heads the monolithic decalogue
of fascist prohibition glowers
and teeters for a catastrophic fall;

boots club the peeling door.

But somehow we survive
severance, deprivation, loss.

Patrols uncoil along the asphalt dark
hissing their menace to our lives,

most cruel, all our land is scarred with terror,
rendered unlovely and unloveable;
sundered are we and all our passionate surrender

but somehow tenderness survives.

Friday, November 23, 2012

One True Thing from Michael Reynolds: Everyone Deserves a Place at the Table

My second oldest brother, Mike, used to give me worksheets to do as a kid. He would exude teacherly joy as he described what I would need to do on the worksheets, then pass them out to his class (me) and then wait the appropriate time as I did my best. Mike would then collect the worksheets from the class and grade them, applying a large and quite sparkly smiley face sticker when I did well, and a You'll Get It! across the top when my work could--ahem--use a little improvement.

Mike & Tyler at Clifford's Tower, York
I was about six years old; Mike was ten. Since then, Mike's love of teaching and learning has taken him into the lives of wonderful students and school systems as both an elementary school teacher and a social worker. Even now, at the age of 35, Mike still uses sparkly smiley faces and stickers, and still offers gentle encouragement to others to keep working hard. Mike loves people with more grace than most of us can imagine. If you're white, black, brown, yellow, or any color of the magnificent skin-dyes this planet boasts, Mike is going to love you. If you're gay, straight, or anything else, Mike is going to love you. If you're rich or poor by any nuanced definition of the word, Mike is going to love you.

In high school, Mike volunteered with a number of super-cool groups, but it's his work with Special Olympics that is most powerful in my mind these decades later. I remember going to watch the sporting events where Mike would play alongside Olympians, sparkling smiles merging all around, and watching the gentleness, joy, and exuberant love for all around him just screamed from the playing field or basketball court. And as a kid brother four years the younger, watching this kind of role model was so deeply moving for me.

I'm really honored and excited to share One True Thing today from a guy I love deeply and whose example I will always admire and try to emulate.

Everyone Deserves a Place at the Table
by Michael Reynolds

Mike (far right) with brothers Matthew & I
in ancient Jorvik garb
Justice is rising. It is here. It is among us. It is within us. It is beyond us. This is one truth that gives me continual courage and hope. Not because it is an idea, or something to create in and for the future. But because I see it, hear it, feel it and experience it today. In the moment. In the present.

In the mother who chooses to keep a friendly and joyful spirit, while standing for what is right and necessary for her children, in the midst of the ever-present stressors experienced by her family, and many beyond her control. In the gathering of Catholics at "Call to Action's" National conference, standing as a people who declare through lived action and conviction that WE, all of us, are the church, and giving all an equal and valued place at the table of our faith and communion. In the laws and provisions that affirm marriage equality for all loving and committed couples who desire to share in this pledge of commitment. In the human spirit, that is alive and well, and stirring in us always, calling us to love more deeply.

For justice is love birthed, and justice leads us all to love more deeply.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

On Walls

The thing is, when Walls are broken, they don't often turn back to us--looking up from their rubble--and say, Thanks for breaking me apart. I know that I was pushing in on your life, working really hard to keep you from finding new freedom. But I really appreciate the fact that you've demolished me. Thanks! Let's do it again sometime.

But when I connect closely with close people close to me, in close vicinities encouraging closeness and vulnerability, we kind of confess to one another that Walls really say stuff more akin to: Dude! What the HECK are you doing? I mean, fine, I may be pressuring you into living according to loads of pressure and fear and shame and anxiety, but COME ON, DUDE. Seriously? Did you really have to go and knock me over so that I am now a big pile of Rubble? Rubble?! Is rubble really more appealing than me? Rubble can't even stand on his own feet.

Another thing, though, is this: Rubble kind of provides a clearing for something new to be built. Maybe something that isn't a wall. Maybe a home. Maybe a tree that's planted. Maybe a garden. Maybe a well for drawing water.

Usually, when Walls break, they don't cave. In fact, 90% of the time, they do not cave (even slightly). Instead, they phone their friends and enlist the aid of new walls, built with modern technology and financed by extremely lucrative venture capitalists who see the big bucks in wall-building. Then, the friends of Walls arrive in storm, making you and me and all us think that--surely!--this time we'll never break out. We were silly and courageous and maybe a little sleep-deprived the first time we broke down the ONE wall. But three?



However, if we enlist friends, too, and we all get together and have a Wall demolishing party, and then we immediately build stuff--like homes, and trees, and gardens, and wells--then Walls are kind of stuck. They don't really have anywhere to go.

Today, I'm choosing rubble that turns itself into fodder for new projects. And the faster I build--enlisting the help of others--the faster some really cool foundations for some really cool things can be laid.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

One True Thing from Jennifer Reynolds: You Are Enough

Okay, the truth: Jennifer Reynolds is about the most awesome person I've ever met in my entire life. She's my best friend. She's deeply committed to social justice. She can research some of the most harrowing details of human trafficking, and yet still manages to wake up every day and believe in hope, in love, in faith, and in fighting for a better world. Jennifer is the kind of person who dances with her four-year old son in the ancient ruins of Barnard Castle in the Yorkshire Dales. Jennifer is the kind of person who whip up an original, incredibly tasty soup from scratch. Jennifer is the kind of person who brings a book like The Sunflower Sword to life. And Jennifer is the kind of person whose pilgrim soul is ever on thew lookout for new possibilities, new ways of growing and changing both herself and the world around her. So I am beyond honored and excited and over the moon to have my wife share her One True Thing today.

You Are Enough
By Jennifer Reynolds

When Luke asked me to write my thoughts for “One True Thing” I laughed: not because I thought he was joking, not because I didn't want to, and not because I don’t know any true things. I laughed because it made me nervous to narrow down my thoughts and construct something interesting and original (especially within the “paragraph or two” suggested length!). But there was also something else, and it was a subtle sense that anything I came up with could never be just right or worthy of posting “out there”. It’s a battle I have faced for a long time, and it is one that I believe is shared by many others. It is a battle I have tried to put to words and have often come up short. You see, I love to write, to create, to research and to engage with social justice issues. And yet, it is when I am actually trying to pursue these ventures that make my little heart beat so fast that I feel most inadequate. It has left me puzzled time and time again.

So where does this leave me with sharing “one true thing”? Recently, I watched Dr. Brene Brown’s TED talks on vulnerability and shame, and felt something click. As she eloquently suggests in these lectures, there is power in imperfection and letting go of control. There is power in retraining our minds to think more about our passions, our gifts, and the blessings all around us rather than what other people think about our actions and decisions. There is power in recognizing that who we are is a gift in itself, and it is not egotistical, arrogant or self-centered to love ourselves (which is not the same thing as putting ourselves on a pedestal above others; rather, it is treating ourselves with kindness, compassion, patience and grace). This is essential if we ever hope to fully love others. And it starts with seeing and believing one true thing: I am enough. You are enough. We are all worthy of love and belonging…just as we are.

(For a brief talk from Dr. Brown on her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, see this clip which was featured on PBS:

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Bronte Sisters and the Wild Yorkshire Moors

When we first came to York, two years ago, I read Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights for the first time and was mesmerized. Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre found me 16 years ago, in class with Mrs. Ferraro at Windsor High in Connecticut. But today, both novels came full into focus again in powerful ways as Jen and I and Tyler rented a car for the first time, then left-sided it all the way to the village of Haworth and the Bronte Parsonage.

As the three of us walked through the Yorkshire moors where the sisters rambled, and later viewed the desks where they penned their novels, we felt so grateful. Great novels, like great moments, push past their pages and their timely stages and reach into realms where they take on an energy that is always present-tense.

 Today is a present-tense day for us. The journey, in photos:

Recuperation Rest after Tyler Was Stung by Nettles..
Jen and Tyler on the Path from the Bronte Home to the Reservoire


Made It!
The Bronte Parsonage
A Certain Special Shop in Haworth Village

"I've dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they've gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind."

--Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Empowerment Is...

After talking late into the night on the phone with Jaques Derrida, one thing became very, very clear to me: "Stand By Me" is an amazing song to sing with your wife while organizing a massive cardboard-box full of papers, letters, drawings by your four-year-old, contracts, scribbled love notes on torn sheets of paper that also contain: grocery lists and various truck sketches.

The thing is: you get to the bottom of that cardboard box. And you've realize that two years of life have afforded tiny moments that contain so much inexplicable joy in their complete normality you would burst if you tried to pretend they were pretzel sticks (in order to stick them in your ears).

When Derrida finally had to go, I did what anyone in my situation would do: I called the towering great, Ms. Harper Lee. She'd know what to make of the tiny moments. She'd know--yes she would--what to make of the fact that the cracks of the past two years have afforded the greatest heights. She'd know--Ms. Lee! Ms. Lee! She would!--what to make of the fact that the absolute highest elation came in the absolute most common moments.

Ms. Lee listened. "Yes," she said, eventually.

Eventually, all things come to that yes, too. Eventually, the cracks that remind us where the boundaries of our dreams belong--well, they open up and if we stand (securely) and look over their edges, we see opportunity rather than dissolution.

It was three in the morning, but those cracks-cum-canyons had gotten me riveted. I knew what I had to do. I picked up the Magic Jack phone which my mother-in-law had so kindly sent our way, overseas, so that Jen and I could make calls back to the states.

Even though I hesitated, the hesitation didn't linger longer than a hesitant moment. Then, the hesitation fled (after hesitating, briefly) and my momentum and determination returned. I pushed the secret digits of the secret number that had been secretly sent to me from a secret, unnamed source.

"Hello?" President Barack Obama intoned.

"It's time," I said, knowing full well that the secret which had covertly connected us in this moment in time would indescribably decipher itself and make the purpose of the Magic Jack phone call clear.

It did.

"Empowerment is finding that the cracks aren't terrifying; they're merely invitations, Lukester," the president said, his voice cracking with that subtle kind of confidence that only comes when you've walked down the canyons of your own life.

Hanging up the phone (non-hesitantly), Jen and I looked at one another. "I Got You Babe" by Sonny and Cher blared, and we sang along. But while we sang along, we also stared into the bottom of that cardboard box. Scattered around us everywhere in the room lay the normal mementos of everyday life for us--To Do Lists with items like Freeze or Use Cabbage and Herbs, and Princesses Tyler had colored in, and letters from friends, and love notes scribbled (yes) on grocery-list halves.

And while we sang, Jen and I silently sent this sentence backwards and forwards between us: empowerment is letting the cracks sometimes pull us apart enough so that we're no longer afraid of the canyons we encounter. 

We tried singing that sentence to the rhythm of "Stand By Me" and "I Got You Babe" but the syllable-count didn't quite match up. The next time I chat with Derrida, Lee, or Obama, I'll get some advice on what to do about that dilemma.

Until then, some deferred wisdom from them--albeit via me--to you: empowerment isn't seeking to evade the cracks of normality that fill life. Empowerment is relishing the normal moments so much that they become the stuff of dreams.

Friday, November 2, 2012

One True Thing from Chris Doyle: Ethics Trump Technique

I first met Chris Doyle as a brand new teacher at Farmington High School, in Connecticut. Immediately, Chris became both a role model and a mentor for me. His incredible passion for ideas, truth, ethics, and his insistence on challenging his students to think far beyond grades and status-quo celebration was deeply inspiring to me. Chris was always ready for an intellectual conversation that challenged my own thinking, and that encouraged me to become the kind of teacher I longed to become. Students in Chris' classes left his classroom with a more clear view of the world and the issues we face within--not narrowed down to sound bites but rather viewed in their full complexity and authenticity. Chris is the kind of inspiring thinker, teacher, and writer who is never satisfied with falsehood, ease, or empty standards based on the status-quo. Instead, Chris Doyle is a person who says, in the words of Socrates, "I prefer nothing, unless it is true." So I am very excited to share Chris Doyle's beautiful and thought-provoking One True Thing. 

Ethics Trump Technique
by Chris Doyle

Our culture prioritizes technique at the expense of goodness. Walk into a bookstore and you’ll see shelves full of self-help books, study aids, how-to manuals (“for dummies,” even), and guides to better eating, better sex, better personal finances. You might not find, however, even a single contemporary, secular, work devoted to ethics; if you want to read up on those, your best bet is the classics section. 

We wall off ethical discussion, often confining it to religion, where it can be embraced, or not, as part of one’s personal faith. Thus ethical debates go missing from public schools, universities, and civic life. The press might ask: “Can we win the war in Afghanistan?” The media rarely, if ever, questions whether that war is moral. I taught recently at a school whose articulated values included “efficacy,” that which produces a desired outcome. Absent from the value statement were words such as justice, love, compassion, wisdom, virtue, or fairness. 

I have learned not to be surprised when my high-school students stumble over fundamental ethical questions. They prize technique and the status that derives from it; that’s what they learn to value. I don’t think it has to be this way, though, and I don’t think it’s futile to replicate the kind of tough ethical questions that Socrates modeled. What counts as truth, beauty, wisdom, and love? How do we acquire such traits? In our world, these questions are subversive. They get beyond technique and undercut it. What would happen if pursuit of the good took center stage in American education reform? What would it mean, then, to “race to the top,” “leave no child behind,” “compete in the global economy,” or deliver “a world-class education?” I’m for trying to find out.