College Placement

Growing up, I had an ongoing war with education. Not the content of it so much as the method of transmission. I hated school. Hated being there, hated being held accountable for failing to meet its requirements, hated the monumental waste of time I considered it. My continual demand was to know “what is this for?”

As for the content…well, judge for yourself how I may have felt about that. Clearly I have suffered from the inattention I paid my classes.

This recent scandal about celebrities bribing admissions officials to get their kids into pricey schools underscores something I came to believe and explains one of the reasons I never got an answer to that “what is this for?” question. It also explains—demonstrates—how the American class system operates.  (What, you really bought that stuff about this being a classless society? I bet you did well in school, too.)

Teachers seldom give answers to that question because they suspect, if not outright know, that what it is for is nothing but a lottery to see where you place upon exit in the hierarchy of society. The content of the lessons is less important than the status bestowed by matriculation from certain institutions which can grant a Good Housekeeping seal on students that says “These are acceptable.”

It’s hard to see it in the chaos of social interaction, but for anyone on the receiving end of the snobbery and elitism endemic to the process, you can’t help but know this is how it works.

Usually we’re aware of it with regards to athletes who get special treatment in order to keep them playing for the school. (I suspect it happens far less than advertised, but it doesn’t take but a few to stain a whole system.) Now we have the evidence that something has been going on in general, all tied to money.

A couple of things may be inferred from the two big-name actresses who got caught trying to buy into the system and cheat for their offspring. One is, what does this say about the kids in question? Did they fail just to get into these schools or did they not come up to scratch anywhere? (One wonders if they asked for this “but my best friend is going there!” begging.) Or is it just that mommy knew that the prestige of the school was far more important than any actual education being offered. That a degree from that school would open more doors than one from this school.  (For all the less well-off kids who simply never have that kind of choice and have to make do with what they can get, this must seriously grate.) And what does this say about our (shopworn but not altogether ragged) pride in merit and ability?

In grade school, around fifth or sixth grade, we started playing a game at lunchtime. I don’t know if it has any other name, we called it “Initials.” The rules were simple: name a category, give the first or/and second initial, and then guess the thing being named. It started with movies and tv shows, but over a few months it grew into a rather elaborate thing that included historical figures, geography, ships, cities, cars. Four of us became very involved. We were going home and doing research for this game.

The principle stopped it. Just shut it down. He thought we were spending far more time and energy on it than on our “studies.” Well, we were. It was fun, but more than that, we were learning. He didn’t see that. He stopped it in order to preserve the form of education, which was not fun.

I mention that because later, when I looked back on it, I found it supported my view that education is only tangentially related to the content of a subject. The purpose it to make citizens. Failing that, it is to enforce conformity.

Which, by the time you get to the college and university level, is a game of associations. You go to these schools to make these connections which will serve you far more effectively in work life than what you might actually learn along the way.

No, I do not believe that is all there is to it, and I do believe actual learning takes places, otherwise all those “associations” would do nothing but show us who to blame when nothing works anymore. But clearly that part of it is far more important than we may be willing to admit and obviously Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman believed that.

And whether we want to accept it or not, the flip side of this is demonstrated by those parents with no money who are doing serious jail time just for slipping their kids into different school districts for a presumably better education. (Even if you accept my premise, that association matters more in this system, then the disparity is clearer still.) Who am I talking about? Kelley Williams-Bolar in Ohio and Tracey McDowell in Connecticut. There are probably others.

In any case, when wondering about privilege, well, here’s another example. And it damages far more than just the reputations of a couple of entitled celebrities and a couple of school admissions officials. It erodes trust that often finds definition difficult. The whole notion, never true or at least true enough, that all anyone needs is hard work to get anywhere desired, is corrupted by this kind of thing.

I am not surprised this happened. It has doubtless been happening for centuries to some degree. Gentry have always tried to smooth their descendants’ paths through life and if they had the money, they used that, regardless of what talents and abilities the beneficiaries brought to the game. For them, it is a game.

For too many, it’s a violation.

Elizabeth Warren is calling for the blanket forgiveness of student loans. She wants college to be free. I have some quibbles about this, but in principle I support it. If the road ahead is to be navigated by those with the knowledge, charging a toll for that knowledge would seem the opposite of any democratic sentiment. And since college enrollment has risen in the last four decades precipitously, obviously a lot of the “wrong” people are getting in. The best way to shut the out of any advantage is to keep charging them more for the ticket. Forgiving the debt might be the right thing to do, but then the upper crust would have to actually compete for those choice positions and the perks that attend them. Free college would not level the playing field, but it would at least make the game more honest by allowing for genuine ability to compete.

And if college is free, how could anyone bribe their way in? (Well, there will always be ways, but it would be harder—and over time, maybe pointless.)

Just some thoughts.

True Belief

For several years, we have seen shots across the bow from advocates of either pure capitalism or some form of socialism, and except for a few instances of informed theoretical discussions based on a thoroughly de-romanticized view of history, we are treated to schoolyard fights between factions that never seem to care for reasoned discourse, only for planting flags and claiming loyalty.

This is not religion, but for so many people it gets taken as such, and the results are rarely edifying. What is amusing (in a tortured way) is the assumption by such advocates that any move toward the reviled system will somehow strip us of our intellect and render us stupid, incapable of managing things to our benefit. That, for example, “socialism never works” must be based on the same assumptions made during the Cold War that communism somehow turned its followers into mindless robots. Of course, the inference here is that Capitalism does not.

“Look at Venezuela!”

As if that is the only indictment necessary to discredit what is essentially an economic theory that in no way demands to be taken as an all-or-nothing proposition.  Look at Norway. Or Sweden. Or any of the other modern states that have taken socialism and applied it as needed to alter a social contract between the state and its citizens to the benefit of both.

Venezuela is suffering the consequences of decades of corruption and elite pillage, which can happen in any system. The reason we here are not facing a similar meltdown is more a tribute to the sheer size of our economy and the fact that we have adapted certain mechanisms which, depending on the decade, have been decried as “socialist.” But in fact, we are experiencing pillage and have been since we shifted Right in the 1980s. Systematic, legal, well-sold pillage. Every time a tax cut goes to the benefit of the upper 10%, it has to be paid for, either by a commensurate decrease in services we all use, or by borrowing against future securities the cost of which comes out of everyone’s pocket. In time, the effects should be obvious, and they are, but we are still so big and in many parts so comfortable, that we can’t seem to muster sufficient, useful outrage to do anything about.

Right now, because so many of us think the alternative is Socialism, which has been made to appear the end of any kind of civilization we consider good.

This is religion. “You can’t credit Them with a just argument because they are the forces of evil!” Why? “Because they are not like us!”

To which, the question must be asked, “And what are we?”

But to my original point: the assumption seems to be that A System is pernicious, that it has a mind of its own, and once engaged it has certain inevitable consequences that our only defense is to reject it. Utterly.

If true of Socialism, why isn’t it true of Capitalism?

It’s an absurd argument not because it’s so wrong but because it’s so ignorant. I mean “ignorant” in the precise meaning of the word, which is not, in spite of a century of misuse, “stupid.” Ignorance is a condition of lack of knowledge, information. Being ignorant is a curable condition, entirely addressable by becoming informed.

But I do not believe on the level of individual citizens the debate has much of anything to do with the efficacy of systems. In order for that to be the case, a fairly solid grasp of those system would be required, and economics is not amenable to casual understanding, not at this level. Instead, it is entirely personal. it is born out an apprehension of threat and a promise of salvation. Examples are given to bolster shallow arguments, but examples with considerable apparent weight, which would require equal study to see as anything but mythic constructs arrayed in battle for the soul of civilization.

In short, religion.

Now, I use the term Religion in the sense of a system.  (Again, systems.) Religion, questions of deities aside, are systems of organization designed to bring people together in an aesthetic cohesion around a statement of rightness. Rituals, arcane texts, sophisticated propaganda feed into a broad community-based set of practices that identify people to each other as sharing beliefs and preferences in behavior. Once you extend past the village level, it becomes a System. People can sign on to participation by agreeing to acknowledge the forms and refrain from questioning the underlying premises. This has benefits to the group primarily, but for the individual as well.

What it does not require to operate is broad understanding of the components, justifications, or origins. It is designed to operate without that. A hierarchy is in charge of the “mysteries” and the actual decisions on how to apply it all, but the populace in general need understand little.

Economic systems are similar.

And the results are very much the same—average people, admittedly or not, treat the system as if it were some kind of natural phenomena, correct and good. Who in their right mind would question it?

The chief beneficiaries of such a system prefer people feel that way.

The question, though, is why such persistent dedication when there is no justification for it? I refer now to people who benefit little from maintaining a system that they understand poorly at best. Not that they couldn’t understand it, but seem unwilling to even crack a book to check whether the barbed euphemisms handed to them by politicians and pundits hold any value.

According to Edward O. Wilson, in his recent book, Genesis: The Deep Origin of Societies, it’s tribal:

For most of history, organized religions have claimed sovereignty over the meaning of human existence. For their founders and leaders the enigma has been relatively easy to solve. The gods put us on Earth, then they told us how to behave. Why should people around the world continue to believe one fantasy over another out of the more than four thousand that exist on Earth? The answer is tribalism…Each of the organized or otherwise public religions as well as scores of religion-like ideologies defines a tribe, a tightly knit group of people joined by a particular story….The members of the tribe are inspired by the special status the story gives them.

A telling phrase in that is “religion-like ideologies.” This would include all nationalistic creeds as well as less politically determined programs that serve to tell us who we should be in order to find conformable situations within a group. Economic systems, for instance, which is relatively new on the scene. Marx arguably set the terms of this new ideological initiation by making everyone aware that such systems not only serve to enable trade along rational lines and distribute goods and services in more or less efficient ways, but come to define us in terms of class and status and, eventually, popular philosophical disposition.

Whether or not a given system “works” better than others has become less important currently than our allegiance to it, which serves to separate us into easily-identifiable subgroups. The battle is not now over what might work “better” but over identity. We here saw this as a flaw in the soviet system, because so much of it failed to work to the benefit of the people, but recognizing the apparent blindness in others has not allowed us to see it in ourselves.

Because it aligns with another oft-unacknowledged blindness, which is the need to feel superior. Or, at least, not feel inferior.

We could certainly adapt aspects of Socialism to our system and make it work for us. We already have. It was called the New Deal. It worked well enough and the only reason to tear it down was that it threatened someone’s sense of importance and security of power. So we already have evidence that it will not eat us alive like some cancer and there is evidence available from all around the world. What we see when we look at it is a mixed bag, ranging from very workable to a shambles. But usually the broken examples are broken from a multiplicity of problems not necessarily inherent in Socialism. Any such system can be made to work badly.

But then we have to ask what we mean by that. Work badly for whom? It can be argued that certain groups in such systems may benefit tremendously by the apparent failures to work as advertised. It’s interesting that we assume a system fails when it injures the general population. The application of it certainly fails a large demographic, but I think it is an error to see this as a failure. Someone got just exactly what they wanted and for them it was a raging success. It’s more interesting when we fail to recognize the same kind of “success” going on here.

Every time the argument is made that communism “never” works, it is fair to ask where and when communism has ever been honestly applied. If the state in question ends up with an autocratic governing body or even a dictator, then it is equally fair to say that is not communism. So the “failure” of communism, in my opinion, has yet to be demonstrated because I have yet to see a single example of it at the state level that was little more than a set of promises to allow a new king to take the throne. That’s not communism.

But I’m not here to argue in favor of it. I’m more interested in urging people to stop giving blind allegiance to what amounts to a set of recommendations that require tweaking as circumstance dictates. Adapting an economic system whole (which is another assumption that requires examination, that any country could just adapt a system wholesale and wake up tomorrow with it in place) is not likely to work any better than denying the possible benefits of mixing and matching multiple systems. It depends on what you think you want done.

What we do have, because we operate tribally, is a set of prejudices that predetermine not what system would be best for people, but what kind of people would best suit a system. We aren’t, apparently, interested in economic justice or community care or rational monetary policies—we’re interested in sorting people into groups and shutting out those we feel do not conform to what we believe. Too many people don’t want to hear arguments about universal health because some of them think there are people who shouldn’t be allowed to have it. Same thing with fair housing practices, education, and even universal franchise. Finding the best system which is the most inclusive may be what we claim to want but in practice a lot of people want the opposite.

Since it’s illegal these days to discriminate on traditional bases, we use financial status to do so. Changes in that system which might lead to closer equity and broader civil rights threaten the status of enough of us to trigger irrational arguments over things poorly understood.  For the time being, a large segment seems quite content to see the upper 1% get more of the pie as long as it keeps the supposedly less deserving from getting anything at all.

For what it’s worth, in my opinion those folks are going to lose in the long run. But until they do, this is going to be frustrating, bitter fight, one made harder by tribal pride and a kind of sacred ignorance.

 

Time Allocation

It’s been obvious to me for some time that I have a time management problem. I need to be working on fiction. (Right now, like while I’m doing this.) The urge to write is something every writer understands. The trouble is, the urge is sort of undifferentiated. It doesn’t care what you write, just that you do.

And it is so easy to do these things rather than chip away at the short story that currently defies completion.

Not to mention all the other pesky things that gum up the well-intentioned schedule you’ve made for a given day.

I should listen to no news. I should stay indoors, holed up with provisions for a siege, turn off my phone, never venture away from my computer until the new story is submittable.

Should and will rarely intersect.

I’ve been having technical issues with my WordPress account lately. I’m writing this by a somewhat tortured backdoor method that requires using a pathway from my other blog. I intend to use it as a good excuse to work on other things until the next major upgrade comes down the pike.

So I have not been posting as frequently as I once did and plan to continue not posting that frequently. If the world implodes, the president resigns, or glaciers begin reforming, let me know. I have fiction in the pipeline.

On Down The Road

So, given the last week’s worth of utterly unpredictable news…something that expresses my feelings about the future.

Neighborhood Fog, February 2019

…and another one…

I bought the lens. The weather subsequently turned crappy and I’ve only gotten a chance to shoot with it once. So, I’ll use what I have till the elements decide to let it be nicer.

(Hey, I’m older, I don’t need to put up with rain, sleet, snow, and freezing cold for art if I don’t want to.)

New Lens

I feel Complete once more. I bought my digital SLR back in 2011, a Canon 60D. I have had no complaints with it. But I have been limited to one lens (18 to 135 mm), which hasn’t been a tremendous hardship, but I’ve been wanting to get a second lens for a while. I finally did, a Canon 70 to 300mm. So I have a good range now.

Naturally, as soon as I could I did some test shots. A sample:

On Writing

I enjoyed a brief conversation yesterday on the subject of writing. The act of it, the discipline, the challenge. The prompt was “writing every day.” Somewhere along the way, we who do this as—well, as more than a hobby, but often less than a profession (even if we have pretensions in that direction)—receive that bit of advice: write every day. Even if it’s only a sentence.

Partly, this is a matter of discipline. Partly exercise, like working out. Mainly, though, it’s a combination of establishing a habit, so it becomes automatic, and creating a space in one’s psyche where this thing happens.

I know, that’s imprecise. Everyone has such a space, though. It’s where we store all the processes and associated tools for a task we do all the time but is in some ways apart from who we consciously are. We label it the Creative Process, among other things, but have no real handle on what exactly it is.

Where it comes from, though, is less ethereal. It comes from engagement. It comes from doing. It comes from repeatedly demanding of ourselves that something cool be produced and put into the world. As a kid hunched over a blank piece of paper, pencils and crayons at hand, trying to draw, maybe even make a comic, scrawling sometimes because there’s a shape you want to make but it just won’t appear. You don’t have the skills, not yet, just the urge (and the urgency) and some time. (Time, that intangible we have so much of at five that when we’re thirty-five has become naggingly scarce and at sixty-five is more precious than anything but love.) Some, maybe most, give up when it proves too difficult. They can’t control the pencil, they haven’t got a “knack” for it (which is a way of saying it may be a skill requiring far more time and attention than they’re willing to commit), or they can’t quite visualize what exactly they want to create. Others yield to distractions—games, media, friends who want to monopolize even that bit of time, chores, or the mine field of living a less than nurturing life—and some never feel the urge in the first place. Other things attract their obsessive attention.

When we’re children, we don’t recognize “practice” as an intentional effort to improve. We practice walking, but it doesn’t feel like that. We practice talking. We practice social intercourse. We practice reading. If we’re enjoying it, having fun, or simply doing something that seems like the thing to do, it doesn’t register as practice. Not until we consciously acknowledge that we’re trying to achieve a specific goal. Once walking and running become either sport or turn into dancing and we realize there are skill levels we need to achieve, then we understand the idea of practice.

It’s odd, then, to realize that so many people assume that when it comes to writing, expectations are different. The idea of practice comes as a shock. After all, they’ve been reading since they can remember and they’ve had to write papers through school (presumably) and all this, if done at all diligently, no longer seems like work. (Reading, especially. We don’t usually think about practice when it comes to reading, it’s something we just do, like breathing. At least some of us. And for those for whom it does not come easily, it seems never to occur to many of them that they could practice it and get better. It’s something we either do or get by without.) You see this surprise in people who attempt to write—a novel, a memoir, a history—without ever having undergone any of the preparatory work to learn how, and are then told “You don’t know to write.”

There is a point when all of us who want to be writers suffer this realization. Some less than others—there really does seem to be a “natural” facility in place for certain people, but it’s an illusion; dig deep enough you will likely find long periods when writing as practice was going on, either in journals and diaries or personal essays—but no one is born with a “gift” that allows us to produce masterful work at first attempt. We have to learn. We have to practice.

And carving out a regular space in which to do that is essential. Hence the “write every day” dictum. You do it till it becomes a habit. You get to a point where you don’t feel quite right if you don’t.

But then, once established, you practice.

When I announced my desire to become a photographer (at about age 15 or 16) my father bought me a lab, I acquired a decent camera, and then took it everywhere. What dad then did suggests he understood this concept of practice even as it applied to art: he bought me a case of film (about 250 rolls of film at that time) and told me to blaze away. When I worked my way through all that film, I knew something about photography beyond the mechanics.

Almost none of those pictures was worth a damn as art.

Ansel Adams once allowed that an artist is good in direct proportion to how much he or she has thrown away.

Learning to write is a long process where, having carved out the time and space to do so, you write. A million, two million words, which you then pretty much discard.

You can be taught grammar. You can be taught formatting (though, from some examples I’ve seen, this seems to be one of the hardest lessons to learn). You can learn many things having to do with craft (limiting adjectives, using an active voice, eliminating said-bookisms, point of view).

You cannot be taught the art, that is finding what it is you want to say and honing it to where it actually emerges from the words. This is the thing you bring to the endeavor that is yours. It cannot come from outside.

But you have to practice until it emerges.

A million, two million, three million words. The muscles ache but build, the synapses interconnect, the hidden pathways become clearer.

It can’t be taught because what I’m talking about is personal. You can be guided. It can’t become something other people might want to read in complete isolation. You write, someone reads, hands it back puzzled. Questions. Try this. Better? No, that’s not what I’m trying to say.

A million, two million…

Observation. Most visual art is observation. Look closer. Stop being overwhelmed by the distractions, the colors, the shifting shapes, the preconceptions. We see what we expect to see most of the time. Learn to filter. The artist extracts from the expected what it actually there to be seen. (I often heard from people looking at my photographs “Damn, I would never have thought to take a picture of that.” Which usually meant they would never have seen that. And even then, it was not so much the thing but the way it is presented, so that it reveals. “But what are we revealing in writing that requires that much attention?” Everything that is important. “But how can I tell?” Look closer. Write more.)

Start by making that space.

I do not write every day. Not anymore. I try, I intend to, and when I don’t I feel uneasy. But I used to, sometimes necessitating being something of an ass to the people around me. (You can tell when people don’t understand the idea of practice when it comes to writing by how many will interrupt a writer with the assumption that they aren’t actually doing anything.) Over years, the words took on heft, weight, concrete meanings. The configurations did things to readers. The descriptions became windows or doorways rather than blueprints. It happens gradually, sometimes glacially, and before you get there it can be profoundly frustrating.

“I read this and that and tried to write that way and it still doesn’t come out the way I want it to.”

Practice.

The other benefit of that million or two of discarded and buried wordage is that obscure goal of Finding Your Own Voice. Like most aphorisms about writing, it’s a tantalizing idea that says too much and too little. Those dispensing it know what it means, but those needing wisdom might not get it.

Your Own Voice, on the page, is not the voice with which you speak in everyday exchanges. Like everything else on the page, it is entirely artificial. That does not mean fake, which too often is what we hear when discussing art. We place a premium on “honesty” and “sincerity” as if that’s all we require, unconsciously (and sometimes ostentatiously) rejecting artifice as somehow impure, when in reality learning the craft and honing our art—becoming good artificers—is the only way to reach the levels of truth we seek to convey. Finding your own voice is a consequence of learning how to say what we feel and observe, and that requires skills which are learned, practiced, and built over time.

Frank Lloyd Wright joked once, when he was in his eighties, that he had designed so many buildings that he could just “shake them out of my sleeve.” He meant, of course, that he had acquired a level of craft and skill which channeled his visions as a matter of course. He had become, over decades of work, so adept that when he imagined something he could just sit down and do the technical end almost by second-nature.

The first step in reaching that level is making that space wherein the practice occurs.

We practice all the time. (John Lennon said, speaking of their early years playing clubs, “We played so regularly we never needed to practice, we were practicing on stage.”)

Writing is one of those endeavors that we seem to require inspiration to do it. The thing is, when we teach our subconscious that it can have its own time and space in which to do this, eventually it will sync up, and when our Writing Time rolls around, our muse shows up. This is also a result of practice. We train our imagination and our subconscious to cooperate with our discipline.

Not always. We have wordless days. But over time, with diligence, those days become the exception.

One last thing before I conclude. Don’t believe that everything you write, even when you reach the point of reliably putting words down every day, is supposed to be epic. Editing is the other part of this process and that is a different process and a different set of expectations. And sometimes you throw out even good sentences, because they will not serve. The surest way to block yourself is to have unreasonable expectations. If you think after that million or two million words you should be producing Great Work every time you sit down to write, you will cripple yourself.

Just write.

Practice.