Unfortunately, I Give a F*ck

On Saturday and Sunday mornings, I rise and shine quite early, get myself dressed, usually donning shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, and drive over to a Barnes and Noble, the one located just off 410 and across from North Star Mall in San Antonio.  I do this to meet a Venezuela woman who wants to develop her conversational skills in English.  When we first started working together, she was pretty cryptic when I asked her what she was doing in Texas.  She said things about visiting family and wanting to be a tourist.  Slowly, she began to open up, and I’m now convinced—though she’s never openly said so—that she’s trying to leave her home country because of the chaos there.  I guess she thinks the political and economic situation in the US is better.

Of course, I frequently remind her that America is being led by one Donald J. Trump, Russian agent and head of a crime syndicate, as a way of subtly reminding her that she might want to think things through before making any rash relocation plans.

As usual, it’s taking me forever to get to my main subject.  I’m really hoping to blog about a book that I saw while working with my Venezuelan friend this morning.  It was shelved directly in front of the table we were sitting at.  Its title—one of the best I’ve seen adorning the cover of any book in recent memory—The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck:  A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life— immediately grabbed my attention.

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As soon as my English lesson ended and my student had taken off, I walked over to the shelf and got a closer look.  I saw that it was written by Mark Manson.  I picked it up, opened up to the first page, and saw a reference to Charles Bukowski.  (The author immediately scored bonus points with me.)  I then turned it over and saw that it was selling for $24.99.  Because I am a cheapskate by nature, I decided I’d see if I could find it at any of the libraries I have access to.  Free, in my way of thinking, is always preferable to $24.99.

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This is certainly a book I very desperately need to read.  For almost my entire life—I did have a brief “bad boy” phase that doesn’t count—I’ve given too much of a f*ck.  From just about the moment I exited my mother’s womb, people have used words like “conscientious,” “responsible,” and “meticulous” when describing me.  Of course, these aren’t necessarily bad things, but when taken to the extreme, such attributes can turn one into a neurotic perfectionist who obsesses about everything.  Such a person wakes up at 3 a.m. in a cold sweat because the water bill is due in less than five hours and the possibility that the online payment might not be processed in time fills him with existential dread.

Such a person is me.  That’s yours truly in a nutshell.

 

 

 

And Nothing But the Truth

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I received an odd piece of mail during the recent holiday period.  The return address showed that the sender was a “CHIEF CENTRAL JURY BAILIFF,” not the sort of personage I regularly keep in touch with nor the type of individual I expect a Christmas card from.  The all caps were a touch intimidating.  I began to relax as soon as I read the words “JURY SUMMONS” printed on the exterior of the envelope.  Still, I wondered, what’s with all the shouting?

To make a long story short, I was being asked to do my civic duty and show up at the Bexar County Justice Center, an imposing building located right in the heart of the city of San Antonio, Texas, at 8 a.m. on January 8th.  The Honorable Catherine Torres-Stahl, presiding judge of the 175th District Court, was requesting my presence at the place and time indicated.  When I flipped the summons over, just to see if there were some loopholes that might allow a pretty accomplished shirker a way out of appearing, I was informed, in quite clear terms, that failure to comply would allow the authorities to fine me “not less than $100 nor more than $1,000.”  Pronouncements of this sort are generally pretty effective in turning most of us into model citizens.

So I arrived early in the morning at an hour when many folks were still working on filling their daily quota of yawns.  They told us to go to the basement, which I did, where I found hordes of people being lined up and herded into a large room that resembled a holding pen.  The people kept coming and coming until all the chairs were filled and then the overflow were asked to stand in the aisles.  At one point we were informed that the room held no fewer than six hundred human beings.  Because I was astounded by the number of folks assembled, I took out my mobile phone and inconspicuously took a photo of a fraction of the throng only to be told, minutes later, that no sort of photography, other than selfies, would be allowed.  Of course, the absolute worst place to do the forbidden is anyplace where there are people with guns who’ve been given the authority to use them.

Eventually, my name was called with sixty-seven others.  They sent us to the third floor this time.  We huffed and puffed our way up flights of stairs where we were met with a bailiff with a gun on his hip.  Each one of us was assigned a number—mine was forty-eight.  He then lined us up in order and said, “Whenever we go into the courtroom—it could be five minutes or it could be much longer than that because, you know, there are lawyers involved.  Anyway, once we are called, we will enter in exactly the same order we are in now.  If you go in out of order, it means I haven’t done my job well.  I don’t like it when people think that I’m not good at what I do.  I know I sound mean, but I’m a man who has been married for twenty-five years.  That’s long enough to give any fellow a mean streak a mile or so wide.”  (Several people laughed at that, and it was clear he knew how to work an audience.)  Once the laughter had died down, he ran his fingers through his hair and said, “True story.  When I was a young man and just newly married, I was a sweetheart, but my wife, well, she’s something else and she has had her influence.  I won’t say she scares me, but do you see this gun, I sleep with it under my pillow at night.”  Again, there was some laughter but a little less this time.  Once it was over, he said, “Folks, I’m just kidding.  I don’t want to give anyone the wrong impression.”

The bailiff then disappeared and I began to wonder if he might moonlight at one of the standup comedy shops in the city.  I didn’t have long to ponder that possibility because we were soon called into the courtroom.  As luck would have it, I got a front-row seat, which allowed me to have an up-close-and-personal view of everything, including the judge at the rear of the room, the district attorneys (two youngish women dressed smartly in suits) and the defendant and her lawyer, a bald African-America who wore a wry smile through most of the proceedings, especially when he stood up and began to address the potential jurors.

The vast majority of my experience that day was humorous, in a sarcastic and tongue-in-cheek sort of way, except for when the judge read out the charges against the defendant:  Several counts of aggravated sexual assault of a child.  While the judge was saying all this, I watched the accused carefully.  She immediately turned her face away from us and toward the floor.  Tears began to well in her eyes and then flow down her cheeks.  At one point, I noticed she began to shake uncontrollably.  Possibly she found the courtroom to be a cold place, but I don’t think her shivering had anything to do with the temperature in the room.

It finally came time for the lawyers to ask us questions.  I was especially interested in the defense attorney.  While speaking, he paced some and was often standing no more than four or five feet away from me.  An interesting line of thought occurred as I watched him.  We Americans have a very romanticized view of lawyers and courtrooms.  This idea comes from Hollywood, but real lawyering—the kind I saw happening in front of me—looked a lot more mundane, like teaching, which I happen to do but for much smaller paychecks.  I could see that the attorney was running through his well-rehearsed list of queries and that he was sort of on autopilot.  There was no drama, nothing riveting.  Then, once those legal eagles had questioned most of us, we were made to go sit in the hallway where, once again, our bailiff tried out some of his best comedic lines.

My day ended not with a bang but with a whimper.  I was told that I wasn’t going to be seated as a juror.  In a way, this sort of bummed me out because I wanted to see how it would all end up.  I wanted to see if the defendant—a perfectly ordinarily looking individual who could have been a friend or relative—would walk free or spend a large portion of the rest of her life doing something a lot more confining.

 

LOOK

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I wrote this a little more than a year ago, but it seems, once again, very apropos…

***

I can’t believe I’m being dragged back into politics.  But that is exactly what’s happening.

In 2015 I quit visiting all the political websites that had held my interest for many years.  I stopped thinking about politics and discussing the topic with others.

2015 is also the year I left Egypt after living and working there for seven years.  During that time, I was very political, at least from 2008 to 2014.  In 2011, I witnessed the mass uprising against Hosni Mubarak and found myself swept away by the euphoria that followed his deposing.  Then, two years later, during the month of July, I watched in horror as Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, was overthrown in a military coup.  Some very scary characters referred to it as a “second revolution,” but the more apt term was “counterrevolution.”

The counterrevolution crushed my spirit but not because I was a Morsi fan.  I was devastated because I had seen how hard brave Egyptians had fought to free themselves.  And I saw the sacrifices they’d made.  Suddenly, though, they were right back at square one or even worse.  The only way I could survive such devastation was to numb myself.  So, I withdrew from politics and became apathetic, which takes me back to the point I was making about myself in the second paragraph.

I had a bit of a revival when Bernie Sanders decided to run for president.  The old political juices began to flow again.  From the moment he declared his candidacy, I felt the Bern.  Eventually, he built an incredible following and I began to see a glass that was half full.  Egypt had certainly lost its way but America, it seemed, was on the verge of finding its soul.

Then the Democratic Party machine decided that Hillary Clinton was somehow owed the nomination.  Bernie was treated unfairly and his supporters were pushed aside.  Many of us warned that Clinton was too compromised and therefore vulnerable.  Too few listened to those warnings.  Too many people were too certain about what they thought was a foregone conclusion.  There were many ominous signs for those with the ability to see and read them.  With Bernie out of the race and everyone saying Clinton was a shoo-in, I began to lose interest again.

But I never drifted entirely away.  That weird sense of foreboding I felt wouldn’t let me turn completely off.  The mood of the nation reinforced the sense of dread I felt.  It seemed all too possible that something catastrophic might happen.  And it did on November 8, 2016, a date that go down in infamy.

Now that the world as we’ve known it is in the process of vanishing, the old jump-up-on-a-soapbox Troy has reawakened.

I grew up during a period when Americans smugly believed that the nation and its people were somehow special—or exceptional.  They watched as other countries fell apart or came under the influence of evil powers but felt that such things could never happen in the greatest country the world had ever seen.  America would always remain the beacon.  It would always set the model for others to follow.

But just look where we find ourselves now.  Just look.  Look long and hard.  And while doing so, make sure not to turn your eyes away.  Don’t delude yourself into believing that what you see isn’t as bad as many are suggesting.

The truth is, it’s every bit as bad as people are saying.  We cannot know for sure how bad it may get, but it is already way beyond horrific.

 

Azza, Christmas Cooking, and the Great Aunt Jemima

From 2008 to 2015, I lived in Cairo, Egypt, and taught at The American University in Cairo.  In the spring of 2011, about midway through my seven-year stint in North Africa and only two months after Hosni Mubarak was pushed out of office by an enormous uprising of fed-up Egyptians, I met Azza, a born and bred Cairene and the woman who would become my wife less than a year later.

When I met Azza, she had a successful catering business, specializing in Italian food.  Now that we are living in the US—in interesting San Antonio, Texas, a place that feels a little like an American city with a whole lot of Mexico mixed in—my wife is once again considering starting her own enterprise.  This time, though, she’s looking at opening a home bakery.  (The Lone Star State doesn’t heavily regulate the cottage food industry, thus incentivizing those who wish run such a business out of their own kitchens.)

We just finished up with the Christmas holidays.  By the way, my wife is a Muslim and she just loves this time of year.  In fact, she single-handedly destroys all the ugly stereotypes that many close-minded people—I’m thinking mostly about the Trump Evangelicals as I write this—have about practitioners of Islam.  I bring all this up because she did a ton of baking in the run-up to the twenty-fifth of December, and as is usually the case, because she is such a professional in the kitchen, she wrapped a turban around her head to keep stray hair out of the food she was preparing.

One morning I saw her with such a wrap on her head and told her she looked like Aunt Jemima.  Knowing that wouldn’t understand such a reference, I tried to explain who this person was.  As luck would have it, I went to the grocery store a few minutes later and found the appropriate aisle—the one where they kept the syrups for pancakes and waffles and such—and took a picture of the label with America’s beloved Aunt’s photo on it, only to discover (and quite surprisingly too) that the Jemima of today bears little resemblance to the Jemima of old.

The conspiracy theorist in me immediately jumped to the conclusion that they took her turban off because it looked too much like a hijab.  I figured that Quaker Oats didn’t want to feature a character who looked too foreign or too exotic or too Islamic.  After all, this is Trump’s America and the rest of us are only living in it.

As it turns out, there was a reason for the company to modernize Aunt Jemima’s image, but it had nothing to do with them trying to make her look less like a Muslim.  I’ve included a video that explains the whole interesting story about the politics behind the revamping of the image of this cultural icon.

 

 

 

#NotMyPresident #TheResistance

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I have this friend named B*** S******.  We got to know each other while we were both teaching at The American University in Cairo.  I returned to the US in 2015 and he did so a year later.

When I came back, I got a pretty lucrative education and training job with the Department of Defense as a private contractor.  I was hired to work with foreign military personal—both enlisted and officers.  I had students from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Djibouti, Jordan, Mauritania, Togo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Georgia, Bulgaria, the Ukraine, Mongolia, South Korea, and Indonesia.  I might have left out a country or two, and I apologize if that’s the case.  Then, student enrollment declined, beginning in the springtime, and I got laid off exactly one year after hiring on, making me collateral damage which sounds a lot better than a bullet-riddled corpse that had been mutilated beyond all recognition.  It was the first layoff of my life and it came at the worst time imaginable.  In fact, it’s left me with ugly scars and something akin to PTSD.

B*** came back and got a job at a community college in some Podunk in the Midwest, an area sometimes called “flyover country,” and for good reason, because to land there puts one at risk of contracting a deadly form of ignorance, the sort that turns the brain to mush, making someone like Donald Trump look like a reasonable human being who might make a good president.

I might be giving my friend’s current place of abode away by saying it garnered national news a while back when the police arrested three scraggly, lily-white, neo-Nazi-looking guys who were in the midst of plotting to blow up a building inhabited by Somali refugees who had committed the heinous crime of leaving their troubled homeland to start life anew.  I’ll go back and look at the reports again, but I believe one Donald Trump, the fellow who froths at the mouth like a rabid skunk when you suggest he’s opened up Pandora’s Box of hate in the country, had been the rednecks’ primary inspiration.

To quote one of my favorite writers of the 20th century, a kinky headed dude named Kurt Vonnegut:  “And so it goes.”

B*** and I talk about politics on the phone from time to time.  During one of our pre-election conversations, I said, “There might be a silver lining to the election of DT if it happens.”

“What the hell would that be?” B*** asked incredulously.

“Well, in the short run, I agree it would be catastrophic, but in the longer term, it would likely be a powerful impetus to kick start a truly robust progressive movement the likes of which American has maybe never seen before.”

Do I see such a coming together of progressives happening now that we are living in the alternative universe known as Trump Reality?  Quick answer:  Hell yes.

The last time we talked—about two weeks after that very flawed presidential election—B*** was terrified.  (I could hear him quaking in his boots through the phone.)  His fear was that we were entering a phase where the fascist brutes, aligned with law enforcement, would just start rounding people up or mowing them down—whatever was most cost-effective and convenient.  I advised my buddy to get on Twitter and just have a look around at the pushback that was taking place against the Chief Nihilist of the US and his fascist minions.  If he did so, I exhorted him, he’d feel a lot better.

I have always felt that STEP ONE in the resistance of despotism can only come after millions of people have linked arms—this linking can start virtually, on places like Twitter—become comrades, and have declared a common goal.  This is happening as I write this.  If you’re feeling alone, hopeless, and isolated, reach out to others who are your political brothers and sisters.  Once you do this, you will begin to feel a part of something that is much bigger than yourself.  This will embolden and inspire you.  You’ll see that lots and lots of people have your back.

You will also discover resistance movements and find out about street protests and planned acts of resistance and civil disobedience.  Join one and become an activist.  Use your feet to move through the streets.  As your feet carry you along, your voices will rise up to say “No!”

My feeling is the fascists are really mostly bluster.  (It is no accident that the most obnoxious ones hide behind fake Twitter handles, afraid to show their true identities.)  Stand up to them.  Get in their faces.  And they will ultimately slink away.

My Recent Telephone Conversation with Mom about Trump and Trumpism

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My Egyptian wife and I left Cairo and moved to America in 2015 to escape political instability and the personal danger that comes with it.  And now, a little more than a year after arriving in what was supposed to be a sanctuary, we find ourselves in the same predicament, in a country that seems to be politically unraveling or exploding or just going to the fucking dogs.

This morning I had a long and heated telephone conversation with my mother, a septuagenarian who lives in a beet red part of a mostly backward southern state.  (By the way, calling a state both mostly backward and southern seems to be a tad redundant, don’t you think?)  The purpose of my call was to see if she’d read an editorial that had been published on DallasNews.com, the online version of the Dallas Morning News, a daily—one of those old-fashioned things composed of real ink that’s been printed on large sheets of paper—which is destined to eventually go the way of dinosaurs.  I’d emailed the article to her several days earlier and had introduced it by saying, “It has come to this in the US—that sober experts, people with real credentials, are actually writing and publishing this sort of stuff.”

By the way, I advise everyone to read the piece at the link and then follow the writer on Twitter @TimothyDSnyder.  Snyder is a well-known historian at Yale University who offers advice on what Americans can do to prevent totalitarianism from arising in the US.  The underlying premise of the piece is that such ugliness is on its way and that we all need to be planning how to resist it (or at least survive it).  If you do read the editorial, you might want to spend the next couple of evenings sleeping with all the lights on.  Otherwise, slumbering in the dark after such a reading might cause you to have really terrifying dreams.

My mother said, and I quote, the writer of that article, “has gone off the deep end.”  My mom is obviously one of those Americans (of a certain generation) who believe “It can’t happen here.”  Because Americans have grown up thinking the nation’s shit don’t stink, many of them can’t recognize seedling fascism/despotism/totalitarianism when it sprouts up right in front of their eyes.

American exceptionalism is something I’ve discussed with her before.  The idea is deeply ingrained in her that the nation is somehow protected by something resembling a force field.  This weird belief that the US is somehow “chosen” and special is a danger unto itself.  The more people who think this nation is immune from fascism and the like, the less likely they are going to be able to see danger and realize that the time to take appropriate action was yesterday.

My mom, it seems, is one of those who is trying to rationalize or normalize what’s happening.  For more on the dangers of doing so, listen to the podcast found at the link below.

https://megaphone.link/SM3064947354

Anyway, getting back to my conversation earlier today with my mother.  Toward the end of our exchange, she said, “I trust the American people to not allow anything like tyranny to happen.”

I asked her, “You mean you trust those same people who voted for a man who ridiculed a handicapped person, called Hispanics rapists and murders, talked about grabbing women by their pussies because his fame allows to get away with such, and has blurred the line between ordinary Muslims and terrorists?”

Of course, my query flummoxed her and thus she didn’t have an immediate comeback.  I then followed that question up with a declaration:  “Clearly, your faith in the American people seems to be a touch misguided.”

I do think there are good Americans out there and that many of them, like Professor Snyder, are bravely writing about what’s happening, making them something akin to heroes.  I’ll have more to say about such types of people in a future blog.

 

 

 

Forced Awakening

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I can’t believe I’m being dragged back into politics.  But that is exactly what’s happening.

In 2015 I quit visiting all the political websites that had held my interest for many years.  I stopped thinking about politics and discussing the topic with others.

2015 is also the year I left Egypt after living and working there for seven years.  During that time, I was very political, at least from 2008 to 2014.  In 2011, I witnessed the mass uprising against Hosni Mubarak and found myself swept away by the euphoria that followed his deposing.  Then, two years later, during the month of July, I watched in horror as Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, was overthrown in a military coup.  Some very scary characters referred to it as a “second revolution,” but the more apt term was “counterrevolution.”

The counterrevolution crushed my spirit but not because I was a Morsi fan.  I was devastated because I had seen how hard brave Egyptians had fought to free themselves.  And I saw the sacrifices they’d made.  Suddenly, though, they were right back at square one or even worse.  The only way I could survive such devastation was to numb myself.  So, I withdrew from politics and became apathetic, which takes me back to the point I was making about myself in the second paragraph.

I had a bit of a revival when Bernie Sanders decided to run for president.  The old political juices began to flow again.  From the moment he declared his candidacy, I felt the Bern.  Eventually, he built an incredible following and I began to see a glass that was half full.  Egypt had certainly lost its way but America, it seemed, was on the verge of finding its soul.

Then the Democratic Party machine decided that Hillary Clinton was somehow owed the nomination.  Bernie was treated unfairly and his supporters were pushed aside.  Many of us warned that Clinton was too compromised and therefore vulnerable.  Too few listened to those warnings.  Too many people were too certain about what they thought was a foregone conclusion.  There were many ominous signs for those with the ability to see and read them.  With Bernie out of the race and everyone saying Clinton was a shoo-in, I began to lose interest again.

But I never drifted entirely away.  That weird sense of foreboding I felt wouldn’t let me turn completely off.  The mood of the nation reinforced the sense of dread I felt.  It seemed all too possible that something catastrophic might happen.  And it did on November 8, 2016, a date that go down in infamy.

Now that the world as we’ve known it is in the process of vanishing, the old jump-up-on-a-soapbox Troy has reawakened.

I grew up during a period when Americans smugly believed that the nation and its people were somehow special—or exceptional.  They watched as other countries fell apart or came under the influence of evil powers but felt that such things could never happen in the greatest country the world had ever seen.  America would always remain the beacon.  It would always set the model for others to follow.

But just look where we find ourselves now.  Just look.  Look long and hard.  And while doing so, make sure not to turn your eyes away.  Don’t delude yourself into believing that what you see isn’t as bad as many are suggesting.

The truth is, it’s every bit as bad as people are saying.  We cannot know for sure how bad it may get, but it is already way beyond horrific.

I’m the Boss (and So Is Bernie)

I want to start by saying something that should be obvious to everyone:  I’m the boss of this blog.

Oddly enough, even though I’m the owner and CEO of Thinker Boy, Inc., it wasn’t entirely obvious to me, though.  My most recent posts, all of them personal reflections on my profession—I’m a teacher—had started to feel stale and I was growing bored while writing them.  Still, I hadn’t turned away from the topic because I had promised to complete the project.  Guess what?  I’m going back on my word.  I’m discontinuing the series of blogs I’d been calling “The Accidental Teacher.”

I blog a lot like I travel.  When I go somewhere as a tourist, I never make a plan before arriving at my destination, nor do I carry a guidebook.  I like to arrive in a state of naiveté, which assures that I’m going to be surprised as I roam around.  When traveling like this, I wander upon an interesting spot, one I’d never expected to find in the first place, and stop to look for a while.  When the time feels right, I turn my back and walk away.

I’m using this analogy to tell you that I’ve been looking at the topics of “education” and “my life as an educator” long enough.  I’m now ready to stroll away from them and make new discoveries.  I guess I could be a more focused writer if I were a more focused person.  Part of the reason I’m unfocused is that I have so many interests.  I’m all over the place and so is my blog.

One of my interests is American politics.  Lately, I’ve been obsessed with the competition between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.  (FYI:  The Republicans only interest me to the extent that their current crop of candidates are capable of disturbing my sleep by giving me nightmares.  One of them in particular—I think you know which one I’m talking about—seems hellbent on causing the whole sane world to have really bad dreams.)

I’m a Sanders guy and I FEEL THE BERN every day of my life.  If you want to follow my thoughts on the contest, go to my Twitter page and have a look.

My Egyptian wife and I live in San Antonio, Texas, and we are very active people.  While moving around and through Texas’ second largest city, we see many streets with houses that have Bernie Sanders signs in their front yards.  To date, I have not seen a single Hillary Clinton sign even though she won the Texas primary a while back.  Who are these Clinton supporters and where are they?  They sure seem like a shy bunch, at least in these parts.

In an attempt to get to the bottom of what motivates HRC supporters, Camille Paglia has written an interesting piece with a very provocative title—“Enough with the Hillary Cult:  Her admirers Ignore Reality, Dream of Worshiping a Queen.”  I wholeheartedly recommend that you read it.

Sanders is constantly calling for a revolution in America.  By this, he means we need to revolutionize our thinking.  Sanders, of course, would never ask others to do something that he hasn’t already done himself.  If you want to see what he means by this sort of thinking, watch the video below—it’s the speech he gave at the Vatican—and you will certainly see a politician who has embraced the sort of progressive ideas that many would find revolutionary.

When was the last time you heard a candidate for president talk about the weak and downtrodden and argue that America’s profits-before-people economic system is “immoral” and even “unsustainable?”  If you can’t hear the voice of saint—or a jewel of a politician—when Sanders speaks, you need to get your ears checked.  You might want to check your ticker too—to make sure you haven’t become heartless.

We in the 99% are those who Sanders is looking out for and talked about in Rome.  By running for president, he’s throwing us a lifeline and we need to be smart enough to grab it.  If we don’t, we may find ourselves sinking to the bottom of the deep, blue sea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Accidental Teacher: An Essay and Memoir (Part 9)

I have had a pretty unique job during most of my adult life.  I have been a teacher—for what seems like forever now—but I’ve never really been the sort who wanted my students to become more knowledgeable, which I associate with acquiring information.  Instead, I have tried to help them hone skills that promote wisdom or shrewdness.  In other words, I haven’t focused on what they should know but on how they should know.  “How” one knows is often referred to as thinking.

Most people believe that thinking comes naturally to everyone because we’re all born with brains.  It’s true we’re born with this organ, but there is a world of difference between run-of-the-mill thinking and critical thinking (or good thinking), just as there is a world of difference between the sounds made when my untrained fingers hit the keys of a piano and the music produced by a world-class concert pianist when his or her fingers touch the ivory.

There are a million things which interfere with good thinking.  At the moment, I don’t have time to get into all these factors.  The old saying, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” explains one of the most important influences on our intellectual development.  Most grow up thinking in the same way their parents did and thus believing in the same things too.  Our parents are our first models and their influence leaves a deep imprint.  To be able to “fall far from the tree” requires that we have to, at some point, question our parents’ way of seeing the world and this takes great courage.  In fact, there is no activity in life that requires more bravery than to think critically because to do so one must sometimes say “no” when important others (or maybe even the whole community or world) is saying “yes.”  Saying no when others are saying yes can be costly or even dangerous.  It’s certainly easier (and more comfortable) to just go with the flow.

I’m thinking a lot about thinking these days because that’s what I do.  Plus, it is campaign season in America and that means the news is full of stories about powerful and ambitious people putting their thinking on display in an attempt to get others to vote for them.  In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll just go ahead and tell you that politicians with the most progressive points of view generally tend to think a lot better—I’m not talking about their ideas, which I also find attractive, but about the methods they use to formulate their ideas and then state them to the public—than do conservatives.  Political conservatives—I actually like to call them “regressives”—make a lot of very classical thinking mistakes that many others might not catch because they aren’t trained to look for them the way I am.  In fact, regressive politicians often make arguments that simply leave me shaking my head.  The fact that so many Americans find such unskilled thinking attractive often makes me despair about the future of the country.

At this point I should probably tell you that I made myself a promise several years ago.  I promised to do whatever was necessary to become the best thinker I could possibly become even if this meant that I would ultimately have to embrace very unpopular ideas.  In my attempt to constantly improve myself intellectually, I often find myself butting heads with what is called “conventional wisdom,” which is mostly a first-rate oxymoron.

I want to conclude by reiterating something I said in a previous blog.  Critical thinking is a way of being.  It is a method of living life with great integrity.  It is not something I turn on and off at will.  It has become the way I conduct myself in this world.

The Accidental Teacher: An Essay and Memoir (Part 6)

There were ten of us in Professor Randall’s philosophy class. The room could easily have seated fifty, so we were pretty spread out. It’s likely most of us were trying very hard to remain aloof (and perhaps even invisible) by putting as many desks as possible between ourselves and our nearest neighbors.

I, on the other hand, chose a seat right next to a buxom coed named Linda Louise Gartman, a nineteen-year-old from Iraan, Texas (spelled just like the Ayatollahs’ place but with an additional “a”). Her daddy owned a hardware store there—or maybe it was a Dairy Queen?—and she was studying business to prepare herself to partner up with him someday. Most of the other students were male—snuff-dipping types who likely drove pickups that sported Confederate flag decals—and were majoring in agriculture or some such. As for me, I was “undeclared” which is a collegiate way of saying “confused.” I had no idea what sort of work I’d be doing in the future and would have been shocked silly had anyone suggested that I’d end up being a teacher a few years into the future.

I chose my place in class because I liked Linda’s dirty-blond hair and the way her shirts fit. On about the second or third class meeting I put together a masterplan which involved me telling her my name and then saying a few perfectly chosen words that would cause her to fall in love with me. On the day I was to put my scheme into motion, I arrived early to class, slid into the desk next to her, and then froze up. No utterance would leave my mouth no matter how much I tried to push it out. Still, the sheer possibility that I might speak to her made me so hot and bothered that I had heart palpitations throughout the remainder of the class period.

The book the professor had us buy was full of excerpts from the great philosophy texts of yore. Not long into the semester, she assigned a piece that contained the “Allegory of the Cave,” from Plato’s Republic, a text I highly recommend—I count it as one of the hundred most important books ever written. After reading and then discussing it, I could see that the ancient Greek philosopher had had people like me in mind when he wrote it. I was certainly one of those who’d been exposed, up until that point in time, to mere “shadows” flickering dimly upon a wall. In his allegory, Plato was arguing that philosophy can free our minds and lead us out of darkness and into the “sunshine” of greater enlightenment. The idea that I had spent my entire life living in a cave of ignorance caused my head to explode.

I’ve spent so much time on Dr. Randall’s course because it was pivotal. It was the beginning of the beginning for me. It was the class that inspired me to start thinking about what it might be like to live the life of a thinker. To do so, though, I’d have to continue to read texts that would challenge my existing worldview and so I’d have to register for other courses of a similar type. The class was also the end of the beginning. After my introduction to philosophy, there was no way I could remain an intellectual child. I was no longer willing to accept the conventional wisdom—passed off as genuine wisdom—that authority figures had been feeding me all my life.

The course was also memorable for two weird occurrences. The first happened when Dr. Randall asked me to read aloud in class on day. I started off fine, but once I began to take notice of my voice being projected out into quiet space of our classroom, I became queerly self-conscious and terrified in a way I cannot fully put into words. I began to choke up and could barely complete the reading. Luckily, Linda was absent that day. The second weird experience had to do with the young woman I’d been so attracted to from day one. Right at the end of the term, after nearly four months had passed without me saying much at all to the object of my desire, I made Linda an offer—I sort of blurted it out, really. I told her I’d be happy to drive her back to her dorm room if she was headed that way. She then smiled and said, “Would you really do that? That’s so sweet! Yes, I’ll take you up on the offer.” We then loaded up into whatever jalopy I happened to be driving at the time and took off.

After a short trip, I pulled up into a parking spot right behind what was called “The Women’s High Rise.” Linda gave me this telling look and said, “Thank you, Troy. You’re so sweet! I’m sorry I didn’t say this to you earlier,” shortly before leaning over and giving me a kiss on the cheek. Needless to say, I felt completely flabbergasted. After gathering my wits, I drove absentmindedly away. Because the term was almost over, I saw her once or twice more, but then, after the final exam, never again.