A Teacher's Writes

One teacher's thoughts on life, literature, and learning

Tag: essays

Missing the Point of the Flux Capacitor

In my AP English composition and language classes, we’re studying They Say, I Say, and my students are responding to a columnist or opinion writer as a way of practicing the skills we’re learning. This is an example I pieced together alongside them.

In 1982, 406 of 415 voters selected Hank Aaron to be a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. That made Aaron a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but as the career home run leader at the time (he hit 755 home runs), one wonders how or why nine voters did not select him. Truly, you can’t please everyone.  Which is exactly what I thought when reading Sheila Benson’s 1985 review of Back to the Future for the Los Angeles Times (‘An Underpowered Trip Back to the Future’). The film’s score at Rotten Tomatoes is just under Hank Aaron’s Hall of Fame voting percentage (96% compared to 97.8%), but Benson thinks it is “big, cartoonish and empty,” showing she missed the point entirely.

For Benson, the film’s premise is good but the execution lacks nuance. She chastises Michael J. Fox’s performance as “dangerously low on subtlety,” thinks Marty McFly’s mother having the hots for Marty has “a faintly rancid taste,” and complains that “an all-black band could never have played a small-town high school dance in 1955.”  Most importantly, Benson believes that when it comes to the plot and Marty McFly’s attempts to return to 1985, “there is, unfortunately, never a second’s doubt that he’ll manage any of these feats.” Essentially, then, Benson is upset over what she deems the unreality of the fun.

By focusing on the reality of the film, though, Ms. Benson completely misses its goals, holding it to standards it never sets for itself. In watching Back to the Future dozens of times (no hyperbole used), I have never once wondered whether Marty McFly would accomplish any of his tasks. Instead, I have always delighted in how he accomplishes them. I have never stopped to wonder whether it is possible to drive a car at 88 mph and hit a wire at the precise moment a bolt of lightning charges it, or whether a man can dangle off a clock face and catch a heavy cable by his wool trousers, or how a 50 year old man can still be 50 years old 30 years later. Instead, I have gloried in watching Doc Brown prevent Marty from being erased from existence. Similarly, I have never been foolish enough to view the film’s 1955 setting as historical artifact. McFly journeys not to the real 1955 America but to an idealized stereotype of it—where every building houses a successful business, where kids play in the town square, and where black Americans are on the verge of breaking free from their historic mistreatment. It’s intentional nonsense, which is why its not being the real 1955 never bothers 96% of viewers, and why Marty McFly’s not being subtle is not the point (Did she notice Doc Brown? The director was clearly not chasing subtlety). The point is that Marty is witty and spunky and fun. And that Doc is brilliant and loyal and significantly off-kilter. And that they’re both easy to root for. Amidst all that, we don’t imagine Marty will be stuck forever, we just wonder how he’ll work his way out.

In this 1985 review, Shelia Benson admits that for her the film contained early promise, and she hoped it might be “another ‘Buckaroo Bonzai.’” This, unfortunately for Benson, reveals precisely how off her calculations were. Though I grew up in the 1980s, I had to google Buckaroo Bonzai to know what it was (a sci-fi film, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, released in 1984). But Back to the Future? Oh, I think we all know what that is, just like all baseball fans know who Hank Aaron is: one of the all-time greats.

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Satire as a Narrowing Agent

“Does anyone know where my needle nose pliers are?”

I had not seen them since my children borrowed them. They had been making ornaments, I think–I don’t really know what they were doing but it involved wire and beads–and I hoped they hadn’t forgotten where they were.

“I put them away last time I used them,” my son declared with total confidence. He is eight-years-old and possesses an appetite for projects. I once walked into the garage to find wood and nails scattered across the ping pong table and my son far away, involved in something else. “This is not a work bench,” I explained after I caught up with him, speaking like a hotel clerk to a foreigner.

For this inquiry about the pliers, we were sitting at the dinner table, and in my disbelief at my son’s response my next words slipped from my lips as easily as unconscious thought. “Right. Like that’s ever happened.”

I mumbled the phrase quietly enough that he didn’t hear me, but his twelve-year-old sister did. She hears everything. And she remembers everything. And that is the problem.

Actually, the problem is multi-layered. The first problem is that my son is just like me. My primary difficulty with his taking and losing my things is that I am usually taking and losing my things; I don’t need his help at being foolish, and when he supplies it, I feel like I’m losing the game in a blow-out. Any frustration I harbor toward my son is frustration that, upon reflection, I harbor with myself. But even if I’m justified in my frustration toward him, even if I wasn’t carrying a log in my own eye, what does my comment accomplish? Does mocking my son motivate him to change?

So I’m ultimately wrong to complain and criticize him. But compounding my wrong is that while my son never even heard me criticize him, my daughter did. Thus, my complaint colored my daughter’s attitude toward her little brother, because she then knew he had frustrated Daddy, that his indifference about losing track of the pliers was Irresponsible.

I’ve been considering this exchange recently as I’ve contemplated the nature of criticism in our American moment, particularly our favorite style of criticism, satire.

It’s not possible to keep up with all the satirical barbs aimed at the current federal administration, though it looks like Americans are trying, since Stephen Colbert is riding his satirical wit to a resurgence, Trevor Noah is using Trump critiques to grow his audience, and The Atlantic is devoting repeated commentary to Saturday Night Live’s artistic choices for skewering the President and his administration.

It’s SNL that got me thinking, because Melissa McCarthy has begun portraying Sean Spicer. I know a bit about Spicer, but I have never watched him work with the press. I know lots of people have taken on watching news as a part-time job, as Tom Papa amusingly observes, but if I get to that point I will question what I’m doing with my life–what would Henry David Thoreau think of my watching a television with Sean Spicer on it? I’m not going to do it.

For me, therefore, SNL’s skits are coloring my perception of Spicer without my having engaged the real person. I’m consuming the satire without knowing thoroughly what is being mocked. And while the skit might also spur me to look into the man’s work, I admit it frames my view of him–will I ever see the real Spicer without feeling like he’s imitating SNL?

In his essay “On Satire,” Aaron Belz shares the insight of Henri Bergson, a French modernist philosopher, who points out that the context for comedy is “our ‘life in common.’”

What I wonder when watching McCarthy play Spicer or listening to Colbert’s live specials is how broad this common life is that I’m sharing. Is my absorbing the satirical version of reality without substantial reference to the original narrowing the breadth of my common reference? Am I cutting myself off from others via satire?

I’ve always been an apologist for satire, justifying Mark Twain’s work, for example, “as a corrective of human vice or folly” (to pull from M.H. Abrams’s Glossary of Literary Terms). In this sense, I realize I’ve portrayed satire as a tool for unity, describing satirical jabs as attempts to bring people back to a common and more virtuous vision.

I have therefore seen myself positively in Belz’s further explanation of Bergson’s idea: “One important way we know that we’re living life in common is that we laugh at the same things. We also recognize error together. The joke itself, the thing that causes laughter, is incongruous, but its very existence suggests deeper congruity and agreement.” In this way, the joke I share reveals my agreement with those laughing and those joking, so satirical jokes confirm our common vision and encourage unity.

But now I’m wondering what kind of unity it encourages. Is the satire I’m reading or watching reclaiming stray members through winsome persuasion or tightening the circle against infiltration?

Jordan Peele, a contemporary master of satire, suggests that the dark element inside humans gives us “the ability to scapegoat. Our fear can drive us to destroy somebody for fear of being on the wrong side of the mob.” What if our satire is, then, an act of sorting? Of setting borders of congruity and establishing the side of the mob? Are satirists encouraging wayward sheep to return to the fold or establishing which sheep are allowed in the flock?

While I admit satire makes me laugh, I need to ask if it is accomplishing good. Is it pushing me to love my neighbor, or is it pushing me to think he’s a moron?

With those needle nose pliers, I soon came to my senses and realized I should not be angry with my eight year old; I am sorry I was critical of him. My concern now is how my criticism affected the way my daughter thinks of her little brother. Have I encouraged her to love him? I don’t think so. Satire rarely accomplishes that.

Brian Phillips, master of the personal essay, captures the intangible draw of Wimbledon

I like watching tennis; though I wonder how much of the pleasant feeling that overcomes me when discussing the sport has to do with the sport and how much has to do with fond childhood memories of being at my friend Rickey’s house and Wimbledon playing on the TV in his little sun-room. Until I met my college roommate, Rickey and his family were the only people I knew who were serious about tennis. They taught me how to understand it (Rickey was too advanced to enjoy playing with me), and forever more the grass-surface tournament became a yearly fascination. I’ve never watched any other tournament–what other grand slam event took place while I was on summer vacation and dominated network TV coverage?–so for me Wimbledon is more than just the pinnacle of tennis, it is the whole of tennis.

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I know now that I am not alone in my strange attachment to the great lawn tennis tournament. Apparently, if Brian Phillips’s recent essays are an indication, many of us have grown attached to Wimbledon and England for myriad and personal reasons. Phillips is a far greater writer and more intelligent sports fan than I ever considered being, and in a series of five “dispatches” has attempted to articulate something about his own romantic but powerful attachment to Wimbledon. The essays, taken as a whole, are about as perfect an example of the personal essay as I might find. In sending links to friends I have had trouble determining which paragraphs are the best ones. Some are great for their insight into sport. Take, for example, Phillips’s explanation of the unified experience of the spectators at a tennis match:

Tennis, while still being pretty complex from the standpoint of physics, gives you virtually all the information you need to understand the action at first glance. Tennis draws you in. You can see, when Julien Benneteau is charging down a Roger Federer drop shot, how fast he’s moving versus how fast the ball is moving, whether or not he’s going to get there, what his options will be if he does, whether he’ll have to play another sliced drop shot or will get the angle to smack the ball cross-court. You can perceive, with a few omissions like degree of spin and sun-and-wind conditions, almost exactly what Julien Benneteau can perceive; you can play the shot with him in your imagination. And then you can play the next shot with Federer. And I think that’s just huge in terms of how tennis crowds act, why they seem so happy and friendly, etc. Some people want Federer to win and some people want Benneteau to win, but both sets of fans are jumping back and forth, imaginarily, from one guy to the other throughout each game. The fans are drawn together, with each other and with the players, because they’re all sympathetically sharing the players’ mental space. And if that sounds like nonsense, then I encourage you to come to Wimbledon, get seats anywhere on Centre Court, and wait for the first drop-shot gasp, that astonishing collective oooohhhhh of 14,000 people reacting as one to a shot they just barely saw coming. I submit that the drop-shot gasp is one of the most purely magical sounds in sports. It’s my favorite part, easy, of sitting on Centre Court.

Other paragraphs are wonderful for their complimentary and amusing insights into people. These kinds of paragraphs accomplish something few comedic writers accomplish today: they make the reader laugh at their subject even while they endear that subject to the reader. In this way, I think of Phillips’s description of Pam, “a funny, plump, Scottish ‘assistant sound person'”:

And the other thing I wanted to tell you about was Pam. Pam and I were in different booths (why not, when we had so much room?), so I could hear her but not see her, and let me tell you: Pam was not kidding about cheering as much as we liked. Her characteristic cheer, whenever Murray won a point, was this sort of raucous, piratical “yrrrrrrahhh!,” as though she’d just clean-and-jerked, say, 400 pounds successfully. I was rooting for Federer, who’s my favorite tennis player ever, but rooting for Federer tends to be an exercise in, like, 19th-century sensibility; it’s a quiet, abstract, inwardly transported sort of state. Pam was pounding the table and roaring “Andy!!” and urging “C’mon, Muzzah!!” and, when he started losing, saying stuff like, “He’s done sew well. I’m prewd of him. Just, what can you do when Federer’s playing like that?”

I liked Pam so extremely much, and her responses were so emphatic, that it was hard not to get carried away. When Murray gave his tearful speech after accepting the silver runner’s-up plate … well, again, I couldn’t see Pam. But there were some pretty wrenched-sounding squeaks from her booth, and I’m pretty sure those were Pam sobbing.

By the time I’ve finished these paragraphs, I wish I had been there to meet Pam. The paragraphs honor her and laugh at her, all at once, and the way Phillips does it doesn’t make the situation feel like a paradox.

The articles are built on these kinds of soft and kind observations: life is an interesting compilation of romantic assumptions that run up against real difficulties but also tangibly beautiful moments. It’s like he’s saying, “Yeah, I’m a sports reporter and that is supposed to be why I’m here, to write about this sporting event, but really I admit I’ve been drawn here by my own romantic notions about England and tennis and Wimbledon and now that I’m actually here, it’s just so wonderfully poignant and surreal that I want to share it with you.” This sentiment is often captured best in simple transition sentences. In one, he follows a quick recap of the mens’ singles final with a move to something totally different: “So — since I’m hardly out to bore you by recounting stuff you already know — what I want to tell you about is the sound of the tennis balls.”

Yet it’s not all poignancy. Humor is a constant companion to much of Phillips’s insight. I love the opening of Part 2, describing an overheard conversation involving two security guards, and the joke is played even better when he returns to it to as part of an observation about the ball boys. Also amusing throughout the essays are the situations and images involving the double decker buses and his own redundant assertion that “Everyone was very nice.” Yet if I had to pick a favorite moment, it might be the opening of Part 3, describing the toilets:

The toilets at Wimbledon are spectacular. Like all American sports fans, I grew up knowing sports-stadium bathrooms as sites of almost unimaginable psychic trauma, humid chambers crammed with alingual, porcine men pissing savagely into troughs. Places whose stained and broken floor tiles exerted a viscous, ropy stickiness. Places where civilization, properly construed, did not exist. Well, I’m happy to report that you can leave those preconceptions at the door when you book your ticket to the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. Yes, sir. The public men’s room outside my little, disused commentary booth at Centre Court would not be embarrassed to show its face at the United Nations, or in a restaurant that sold wine by the carafe.

I’m talking wood stall doors that go all the way down to the floor. Burnished steel. Big, high-fauceted, mathematically hemispherical sinks.

Like I said, the essays are wonderful. This link will take you to the fifth article, which has links to all five. Read them in order, read them all, and read them at a leisurely pace. They’re worth it. I’m going to piece them all together and assign them as reading for my advanced English 11 students. One hope I have for the year is that at the end of it students will be ready to take the AP composition and grammar exam, if they choose. What better way to begin a conversation about essay writing than with these five articles? Simply by asking the basic question that has consumed me: “Which paragraphs are your favorites?” I suspect we’ll have ignited a discussion about what makes writing interesting, insightful, and memorable.

Thanks for reading.

The weakness of the rubric: Lester gets an A- for a no-hitter

Lester\'s A minus performance

Jon Lester threw a no-hitter at Fenway Park Last night, and the Boston Globe‘s computerized report card gave him an A-. This, friends, is why rubrics–used blindly–are bunk. It doesn’t get any more objective than the system the Globe uses to rate the Sox pitchers, and it doesn’t get any more ridiculous when you don’t give a pitcher an A+ for tossing a no-hitter. The point of pitching is to get the batter out. Lester got all the batters out. That’s the point, no matter how he did it. Common sense must have the authority to override any rubric, which means that we should admit there’s a subjective element to grading and embrace it. That doesn’t mean we do not justify and explain our reasons for grading — but that doesn’t mean we should objectify the common sense right out of grading.

This year I’ve gone a little bit overboard in my enthusiasm for The World’s Greatest Essay Rubric — a rubric I designed to copy how my favorite prof. in college graded papers. It is subjective in parts, giving concrete feedback to students about what is weak and strong in an essay. I do not predetermine how to balance it all, however, because the final effect (the no-hitter) is what counts, and that totally depends on the balance the particular essay creates.