‘What did I used to think was here?’: Notes from the last 2 weeks

First quote of the new year was 1 January. My wife, as we considered leaving our diner after breakfast, said, “I’m still enjoying my various fluids,” her coffee and her diet soda.

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Can I punch somebody in the face with my foot?” asked my young friend Amin, definitionally. 1 Jan.

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Are you giving me dirty looks? They don’t affect me — I teach middle school,” said my young teacher friend Nina. 1 Jan.

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Cold day, country road. Steam clouds from nuclear generating station. 4 Jan. 2016

Cold day, country road. Steam clouds from nuclear generating station. 4 Jan. 2016

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Nobody should have to face this kind of boringness alone,” said my wife as she stayed by my side as I watched an online training video about the ADAAA. 3 Jan.

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I’m as particular a person — as biased, judgmental — a person now as I have ever been. My point is that, while I hope to become wiser and make fairer judgments as I get older, I can’t claim to ever achieve some perspective beyond the particular circumstances of my mind at any particular time. 4 Jan.

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Perhaps there is no meaning to any experience or any physical event until a person makes (thinks, says, or writes) language, until one puts together an interpretation of the experience or event. Meaning is more made than found. 5 Jan.

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Felt a bit of sadness at last night’s sunset (over the prairie grasses and trees where I walked my dog) — but it’s just a mood. Perhaps the sadness was that it’ll still be winter for quite a while yet. 6 Jan.

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Ideas as mental states that exist only once. To write down a thought and later read it back, that’s a different experience than the original thinking — for myself as well as for others who might read and experience the idea. 7 Jan.

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How long it takes to come to terms with — to accept — my own life, with its particulars and limitations. I don’t mean this in a sad way; rather, that it’s taken me years to overcome the ambitious, self-aggrandizing ideas I had for whom I should be, how I should live, etc. 8 Jan.

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As I walked my dog in the street, I saw through a neighbor’s kitchen window that I could see his wooden cabinets. I had heard that this neighbor might have a terminal health condition, and I thought how he may be able to look at his own cabinets now but perhaps one day, he won’t be able to. Of course, he’s not always in his kitchen; he’s often somewhere else. But being dead means one will be “somewhere else” to every place. 8 Jan.

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From now on, order your OWN food,” said my mother-in-law to my father-in-law, after he complained about cheese being sticky in the baked mostacciolis that he shared with her. 8 Jan.

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Are you HERE?” said my mother-in-law to my father-in-law, after he asked about something that had just been said. 8 Jan.

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You don’t lie to people, that’s rude,” said my friend Nina as she related a story about how her grandpa came to the U.S. before she thought he had. 8 Jan.

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At our diner, Ashli Waitress asked if everything were good. “As good as YOU can make us,” my wife said. 9 Jan.

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The more I can get, why not?” said Ashli Waitress of some woman who may have been hitting on her. 9 Jan.

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What did I used to think was here?” my mom asked of her smartphone home-screen after my wife and I changed her settings from “easy” to “standard.” 9 Jan.

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In a Slate interview, Dean Strang, a defense attorney in Making a Murderer, is quoted as follows:

shows like CSI foster …  an illusion that courtrooms are places where scientific certainty often can be attained, that it’s the norm to be able to come to scientific certainty in a courtroom. And it’s not, of course. Courtrooms usually are not places where we can come to anything like scientific certainty, where we’re dealing with much more uncertainty even after we’ve heard everything.

After reading that, I thought that science deals with generalizations about things that can be repeated, like how certain chemicals will react when combined in certain conditions. These chemicals always will react this way under the same conditions. But of course, in a crime case, there are not general materials, but particular samples, gathered under unique and particular circumstances — and these are not repeatable at all! Even if a certain blood sample contains a DNA match to a defendant, we don’t know how or when the blood got to the place it was found. There’s far more interpretation required to interpret the data from scientific tests from a crime scene than from a lab setting — basic science seems far simpler in comparison. 9 Jan.

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When English teachers present their students with the definitions of certain terms, and then ask students to classify literary samples by applying these terms, that seems like an Aristotelian autopsy — which is to say, that’s a classic approach, but also a backwards one. As a writer myself, I suspect that most other authors do not write by stringing together a bunch of literary terms and rhetorical structures and calling it a text. Writers don’t start from analyzing but from having an idea or hearing a voice, and I (and, I’m sure, others) write out the words that come to mind, and some of these may use rhetorical devices, but not consciously so. Also, when I write something, it’s because I’m excited to do it, because I feel passion in the doing. I write what I like, and I read what I like. When we ask students to apply terms to texts they don’t really care about, I suspect it’s alienating students from their own passions, their own feelings. This makes me sad because it took me years after completing my collegiate education to learn to trust my own mind, to learn that my own interests and my own ways of using words are good enough, and that this trust and confidence are the real foundation for my intellectual explorations. 11 and 17 Jan.

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Learning who I am from others’ reactions to me, at least partly. Since I was a boy, others told me I’m smart, and I believed them. It’s easy to see how others, defined differently, might grow up to play different roles, and some of these may not be healthy, of course. 13 Jan.

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Illinois floodplain snowstorm. 9 January.

Illinois floodplain snowstorm. 9 January.

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We need cheer elves to clean our mats,” said a cheerleader student of mine. 13 Jan.

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As I was reading this article at The Atlantic, I focused on this quote:

Why would the brain evolve such an inaccurate, simplified model of the world? The reason is efficiency. The brain didn’t evolve to get all the scientific details right. That would be a waste of energy and computing time. Instead, it evolved to process information about the world just well enough, and quickly enough, to guide behavior. All the brain’s internal models are simplified caricatures of the world it models.

and this:

The brain processes information. It focuses its processing resources on this or that chunk of data. That’s the complex, mechanistic act of a massive computer. The brain also describes this act to itself. That description, shaped by millions of years of evolution, weird and quirky and stripped of details, depicts a “me” and a state of subjective consciousness.

I’m not sure I share the author’s optimism that these descriptions actually make consciousness “not mysterious,” as the article title claims, but after reading this idea of the brain as having internal models, I thought about maybe the “ego,” the sense of a “me” (as author says), is a program that can get shut down when people meditate or have weird sleep or take certain drugs, such that some of the feelings of “all-is-one”-ness that some people report after meditating is not transcendently true, but is just a different way of experiencing the mind. 14 Jan.

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It’s nice outside. What the heck — I’m skippin’ work,” said a high school girl after school in the student parking lot. It’s nice to know that it’s not just school but also work that receives consideration of whether to skip or not. 14 Jan.

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I could tell my sophomore English class students to hold two ideas in their minds as we read published literary essays: 1., there are no right answers, and 2. keep trying to find right answers. Also, as both a teacher and a writer, I find myself valuing openness (not being attached to any particular idea, argument, or perspective) as a higher value than particular idea I might advocate. 15 Jan.

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Also, what we’re trying to teach students can be more vague in a literature-and-writing class than in, say, a science or math class. But then, what we’re asking students to do is more fundamental: make meaning. As a teacher, I’m trying to get my students to think, to say interesting things about the texts we read. I want these teenagers to move toward, though they won’t likely arrive at, having the abilities to analyze and create that I, as an adult, have. Of course, my ability to do this has taken me nearly 40 years to develop, and I’m far from perfect, and I don’t exactly know how to teach this, but helping my students develop this ability seems much more a useful goal of education than simply asking students to memorize certain things. 15 Jan.

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Photos are framed and/or cropped so as to remove context. 15 Jan. (See related idea here.)

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Red sky in evening. 14 Jan. 2016

Red sky in evening. 14 Jan. 2016

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I see where your priorities are,” said student to classmate, as a form of what I called “nerd-taunting.” 15 Jan.

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At a scholastic bowl competition, a boy about 12 years old said to a competitor (who may have also been his older sister): “Lexi, can you graph pi?” She responded, “yeah, it’s a straight line.” The boy said, “Nice!” 16 Jan.

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Later, that same Lexi told her teammate Eric, “You just said the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me” and as she retold this anecdote to someone else, she said, “He was like, ‘I wouldn’t say you’re ugly.’” 16 Jan.

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