20 Unsatisfying-To-Read Stories

Many popular stories — in everything from fairy tales to Hollywood movies — have stories that depict low-probability outcomes: the hero saves the day at the last minute, the lovers overcome all obstacles to be together, and the world is a place of cosmic/karmic justice. Sure, I get that there’s something satisfying about long odds being overcome, and yet I also get a little tired of how predictable these story conclusions are. There ought to be ways of telling stories that aren’t simply about the unusual, infrequent circumstances. Below, then, is a list that is not meant to be cynical (even if  some of these scenarios may reflect real-life experiences), but is meant to demonstrate stories that are not often told (in fiction or nonfiction):

1. The better team wins, and the score’s not even close.

2. Two people meet, and are polite to each other, and that’s it.

3. Both combatants act unethically.

4. Someone dies in a car accident and it’s not his fault.

5. An attractive couple has a wonderful house, adorable children, satisfying work, and long lives.

6. A father tells his daughter to marry a man she doesn’t love because, her father says, the man will be a good provider. She marries the man and is provided for but never loves him.

7. A species goes extinct, and nobody is able to save it at the last minute.

8. The bully/criminal/abuser/harasser gets away with it.

9. Scientists warn that human activity will, in coming years, radically change conditions across much of the planet, and most of the population seems uninterested in trying to prevent it.

10. The conflict was never necessary and was joined because of a lack of imagination, wisdom, or patience on both sides.

11. Grass grows; paint dries; taxes accrue; people die.

12. The first person to die in an action story narrates the story, and stops narrating when he dies, and the story stops there.

13. Readers see a few moments of stream-of-consciousness of every person at a public event, like a concert or a football game.

14. A war is going on, but it’s meaningful only to the humans involved. Animals in the war zone go about their business, and we see the story from the animals’ P.O.V.

15. The writer stops telling the story and never finishes it.

16. The characters in a book are revealed to be merely ideas and not really relatable to real people at all.

17. The story, if indeed there is a story there, never quite gets conveyed by the words that make up the text that purports to tell the story.

18. The would-be writer stops thinking of his own life as if he were the main character of a novel.

19. The characters resist the author’s directorial control and refuse to carry out what the writer writes.

20. A reader sits in the grass and realizes that the story was all just made up B.S. anyway.

P.S.: I’ve got a theory lately that there are two kinds of stories: those that show characters getting the consequences they deserve, and those stories that are about story-form itself.

Funny sports writing: Bill Barnwell on Charlie Whitehurst

This piece by Bill Barnwell at Grantland, describing the charmed career of backup QB Charlie Whitehurst, amuses me:

Just for a moment, let’s go back and run through Whitehurst’s career:

• Whitehurst grows to 6-foot-5.

• He spends four years at Clemson, during which he fails to complete 60 percent of his passes (ending at 59.7 percent) and throws nearly as many interceptions (46) as touchdowns (49). The Tigers go 30-19 during his time in school.

• The Chargers draft Whitehurst in the third round of the 2006 NFL draft.

• Whitehurst spends four years as the third-string quarterback in San Diego behind Philip Rivers and Billy Volek. He does not attempt a regular-season pass. His only experience comes during the 2006-09 preseasons, during which Whitehurst goes 104-of-197 (52.8 percent) for 1,031 yards (5.2 yards per attempt) with five touchdowns and seven interceptions.

• Seattle’s new brain trust of Pete Carroll and John Schneider targets Whitehurst in a trade, getting their man by sending San Diego a future third-round pick and swapping Seattle’s second-round pick (40th) for San Diego’s (60th) in the 2010 draft. They also immediately give Whitehurst a two-year, $8 million contract extension.

• Whitehurst enters into a quarterback competition with 35-year-old incumbent Matt Hasselbeck.

• Whitehurst loses that quarterback competition.

• Whitehurst plays in nine regular-season games over two seasons with Seattle, starting four, most notably the division-clinching win over St. Louis in the fail-in game on Sunday Night Football in Week 17 of the 2010 season. He is benched in his last start after seven pass attempts for an already-injured Tarvaris Jackson. Over the two-year span, Whitehurst goes 84-of-155 (54.2 percent) for 805 yards (a terrifying 5.2 yards per attempt) while throwing three touchdowns and four picks.

• Returning to unrestricted free agency, Whitehurst signs a two-year, $3.05 million deal with the Chargers, including a $1 million signing bonus.

• Now 30 years old, Whitehurst spends 2012 and 2013 as the backup to Philip Rivers without throwing a regular-season pass. He takes 12 snaps during his stint with the Chargers, producing six handoffs and six kneel-downs for a total of minus-5 yards.

• Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt takes over as Tennessee’s head coach and brings Whitehurst along for the ride, giving the now 32-year-old a two-year, $4.3 million deal with $2 million guaranteed.

There are virtually no reasons to think that Whitehurst has any aptitude as an NFL quarterback. He wasn’t especially good in college. He didn’t impress anybody against third-stringers in the preseason. He was downright awful during the brief time he had as a starter, and that came and went nearly three years ago. The most obvious reason Whitehurst has continued to be employed as an NFL quarterback is that he was previously employed as an NFL quarterback.

For that résumé, Whitehurst has earned in excess of $15 million during his time in the NFL, with more than $1 million to come in 2015. Whitehurst is the definition of a replacement-level quarterback; in a totally free market, I suspect you could have offered him $35,000 a year (with serious playing-time incentives) to do the same job and he would have happily taken it.

This may sound like I’m jealous of Whitehurst or bitter about his success. I’m only jealous of his hair. In general, I’m wildly happy for Whitehurst, who is apparently an incredible hustler and a really nice guy, because you don’t get cushy backup quarterback jobs if you’re a dick. Whitehurst has lived in some of America’s most beautiful cities and collected millions of dollars almost exclusively to practice and serve as a de facto coach. God bless Charlie Whitehurst.

More Barnwell on Whitehurst here.

What length a book?

In this essay, Ben Yagoda complains that some books are too long. Yes, this seems like a pretty arbitrary complaint (not unlike Grampa Simpson’s that there are too many states; please eliminate three).

He writes of one book’s length, “that’s not just excessive but rude, willfully ignoring the fact that the reader has other things to do besides reading this book,” and he also writes of another book “since about the halfway point, I’ve been reading on with the clenched jaw and grim middle-distance stare of someone who’s been dared to complete a long and tedious task and damned well is going to do so.” It seems fine to me if the man wants to dare himself to read a book, but then why complain about the book or the dare? And to say that a certain length of book is “rude”?

I’m not sure what kind of personally optimized experience he wants. (Maybe he doesn’t, either.) I get the sense that Mr. Yagoda is not the kind of person to walk away from a book. It’s a pretty empowering experience, by the way. Why force yourself (or anyone else) to read a book?

But I’m blogging this not just to point out the silliness of another person’s complaints, but to build upon his question of book length. He points out that:

since the market, as it’s been defined for a pretty long time, doesn’t have a place for novellas and 25,000-word nonfiction works, ideas that would work best at such length get artificially bulked up, like an offensive lineman on steroids. E-books are a promising receptacle for shorter texts, but the form has a ways to go before authors and readers alike are comfortable with it.

And that’s probably a valid point about marketability of the length of certain texts. But in the abstract, I would argue that books don’t necessarily need to have “the extraneous” cut out, as Yagoda advises, because what makes something extraneous? Does every book need to be a swift plot-driven fiction or thesis-driven nonfiction?

I would suggest that part of the value of any book is that it’s a chance to listen to the author’s voice, to spend time with the author’s consciousness, and so why not have some discursive, digressive parts? Comedian Bob Odenkirk has written a book that’s

a bunch of pieces that I had sitting on my desk because I was collecting them for a book one day down the road. … I thought that you could make a book where there doesn’t have to be a unified concept outside of cracking it open and reading one piece and getting a laugh. It doesn’t really matter what form it’s in.

Odenkirk, in this interview, also refers to books made of short pieces like Steve Martin’s “Cruel Shoes,” Woody Allen’s “Without Feathers,” and Peter Cook’s “Tragically I Was an Only Twin,” a book he says “has autobiographical sketches in it and other various things — literally transcriptions of comic bits that he improvised on the radio and stuff. I enjoyed picking it up and looking at any page and reading it.”

I’ve also been considering the format I might use to write a book. It would also be something made of distinct smaller pieces, rather than being something of narrative or thematic unity. I too like the idea of opening a book and reading just a section, a few pages. It’s not that I’m too busy to read a whole book; it’s more that a book would have to be pretty compelling, and I just haven’t found a book I’m that interested in committing to.

This will sound arrogant, but so be it: I feel I’m at a stage in my ongoing learning and thinking career where I’m not as likely to find answers from others as I am likely to find answers myself, answers that come out of my own writing. “Answers” might not be the right word. But I feel what I need to do now is spend my mental energy creating rather than reading.

And one of the things I enjoy thinking about is forms of writing — and the long-narrative form, and the extended argument-thesis form don’t feel compelling to me now. It’s easier to reject something than it is to replace it. But I would like to try different kinds of writing, different approaches, and these need to feel like they came out of my own process. Even if there are “answers,” ideas, others have already had that could help me, I feel like I need to find these answers on my own, organically from my process, as it were.

Programming Our Students: Standards-based teaching as dehumanizing

Yesterday I saw a presentation by Anne Weerda about measuring how much students learn while they are enrolled in our classes (“student growth” will soon be part of teacher evaluations in my state). This presentation was thorough and systematic in a way that many presentations I’ve seen about standards-based teaching and testing have not been.

As I engaged with this presentation, I started to see the “big picture” values and assumptions of standards-based teaching, a particular philosophy of and approach to school reform that that has been ascendant during the last 20 years or so of school reform. Standards-based teaching can be summarized as:

1. Telling students in great detail what they should be doing.

2. Seeing if they do it.

Of course, there are more-complicated ways of saying this, such as this from an introduction to the national Common Core standards:

the Common Core State Standards establish clear, consistent guidelines for what every student should know and be able to do in math and English language arts from kindergarten through 12th grade.

And there’s this statement:

Standards-based schools develop clear rubrics that describe what partially meeting a standard looks like, what mostly meeting it looks like, and what actually meeting it (the goal, after all) looks like. Any student should be able to meet that goal with enough time, hard work, and coaching.

A there’s this definition, from this document from Illinois State Board of Education:

It is widely understood today that broad goals, while useful, are not sufficient to define student learning. Clear and specific standards communicate to students, teachers and parents exactly what is expected for students to learn. Specific standards make clear the types of tests and measures that accurately gauge student progress. Data from these tests inform educators and the public about student progress and where improvements are needed.

The epiphany that came to me yesterday is that this is only one system (among others) of teaching, and that this approach requires students to do exactly what, and only what, the teachers ask for. For example, if I want my literature students to read a novel and respond by writing an essay about the theme of that novel, the student must write an essay, and write it according to my specifications. Of course, in reality, there are lots of ways that a student might respond to a novel: she might write a different kind of essay, or she might respond with a poem, or a painting, or she might not feel moved to respond at all. Furthermore, when I teach creative writing, I give not detailed instructions but vague requirements. I don’t want students to give me what I expect — I want them to surprise me.

In work that is truly creative, the whole point is to question assumptions and standards and to go beyond them.

Sure, there are times when I do want my students to be able to do well-defined tasks. In my sophomore English class, we’re currently writing research papers, and this is a fairly rote, mechanical process that students will be expected to do in future classes and in some careers. When I assign students to write projects like this, I give them outlines to fill in and model papers to follow. In other words, producing this kind of work is less like open-ended writing and more like fill-in-the-blank work.

It occurred to me yesterday that I could be giving students even more explicit instructions about what I expect them to do, in the form of a rubric. In attempting to measure student growth, it is desirable for grading of student work to be reliable, meaning repeatable. Ideally, when a rubric is used to assess student work, the teacher using the rubric should apply it the same way over time to every student’s work, and even different teachers using the same rubric should apply it in the same way. This means “rubrics must be created and implemented so that the grader(s) have very specific understandings of what each level of the rubric means.

As I thought about what my “very specific” essay-grading rubric would look like, I realized that it would essentially be an algorithm, which could be written as a computer program. If a rubric is to be independent of the particular teacher using it, then it cannot require any subjective judgments, which means that it would be objective and could thus be computerized. Computers are already grading essays, although there is the problem that computers can’t check for lying, so a human mind may still be needed for language interpreting.

So a computer could be used to grade an essay, as long as the essay fits the particular form the computer expects. (Computers process information quickly, but they need information to be input within a narrow range.) And students will be writing essays to these narrow, particular forms, if we explicitly tell them what to do via our standards.

In other words, when we explicitly define the tasks that students are supposed to do, we are, in essence, writing programs that we expect them to follow. Standards are programs we expect students to run.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that we, as a society, have ended up here. I’m reminded of an idea I heard long ago, that people shape our tools, and then our tools shape us. Once we started programming machines to do work for us, maybe we started thinking that we could program our students in a similar way. If we can break down complex tasks into simple, well-defined tasks, anybody and everybody can do them.

The problem with this as a model for education is that we don’t need to make our students into computers. We already have computers that are much faster and reliable at carrying out well-defined tasks than humans are. Many jobs that can be automated are in danger of being automated, which seems to suggest that we should educate our students to do those things that computers can’t do — create new ideas and things, solve new problems, and, just maybe, see ourselves as beings who are more than what we can contribute economically.

What my insight yesterday reminded me was that there are always other philosophical systems that are alternatives to the currently popular system. While I am required by state law and supervisor directive to run my classroom within the dictates of the standards approach, I can reassure myself by remembering that there are always alternatives. Just because one idea is widely shared doesn’t make it permanent, or even correct. I sometimes feel trapped within the idea of standards, that somehow the only philosophy in education is standards. But then I thought of standards-philosophy as not being the whole world, but merely being a house in which I currently reside, and that I can lift up the curtain and see that there’s a whole world of different philosophies outside.

No philosophy is perfect. One of the problems of standards-based teaching is that of student motivation. Why, exactly, would students care about completing my standards-based assignment-programs? Computers don’t need to be motivated; they have no emotions or desires or biological limits to carrying out programs. People, on the other hand, want to know why they are doing what they are doing. (And here’s at least one place where people can’t be replaced with computers: some people find that having a teacher to answer to in person motivates them better than having a teacher available only online.) The Common Core standards hold out as motivation a promise of adequately guiding students to employment, which is, of course, arrogant bullshit.

What the standards overlook is a fundamental difference between humans and computers — that humans are curious, that we enjoy things, that we can be self-motivated to pursue our interests and passions. These things — curiosity, enjoyment, passion — are things that teachers can inspire in our students, but these are not things that can be standardized or predicted. (Perhaps the standards not only treat the students like computers, but also the teachers as interchangeable machines.)

And, of course, what I love doing (and perhaps was inspired by my teachers to do?) is having new insights, experiencing epiphanies, revealing connections, analogies, and metaphors. This creativity is not something that any set of standards can demand or measure, but this is partly why I’m a teacher, and it’s one of the things I’d hope my students get from me: the ability to think for themselves, to seek their own philosophical understandings, and to realize that they are more than merely computers or employees.

P.S.: I don’t mean to criticize the presentation I saw yesterday. Anne Weerda did a fine job of explicating what, given the assumptions and philosophy of standards-based teaching, the implications and consequences for teaching and testing would be. Seeing this presentation made clear to me some of the assumptions and values of this philosophical approach.

At the diner: ‘Who needs a spanking?’

Sunday morning, Sunrise diner. A local Realtor(tm) walks up to a table of younger adults and children and says, “Who needs a spanking?” To one girl of about seven years, he says, “I KNOW you do.” He leaves, and a couple minutes later, a white woman comes to the same table and says, “Is everybody behaving over here? Or did my husband already get that taken care of?”

Also this morning: the classic Old Farmer conversation at the diner about The Price Of Corn. I had to pinch myself: two adult white men unironically using phrases like “three – dollar corn” and “some politics in there too.”

Links on writing, poetry

1. Word sounds and food tastes: Small, thin things get front vowels; creamy, heavy things get back vowels.

2. An article explaining how meter for Greeks wasn’t measured in stresses but in long-and-short vowels.

3. Writing may improve health.

4. Explaining rap to U.S. Supreme Court justices.

5. Jeff Tweedy writes mumble-lyrics before putting in real words. He says he doesn’t want to have the words get in the way of the melody.

6. Rhyming in sign language.

‘Game of Thrones’ Theme Stylings

Smooth Jazz:

And, using this music, the Saul Bass-style intro credits:

Traditional Jazz


Marching Band

(hat tip to Slate)