Call and Response

“We seize the unrealistic question–the call–as an opportunity to formulate a response. Maybe my “call” and our “responses”–yours; mine; my students’–might be just enough to anchor us, to ground us, to keep us steady, and to keep us connected to what matters most.”

A few months before Daniel Boorstin retired in 1987 as the 12th Librarian of Congress, I had the honor to interview him. It was a rare opportunity. Armed with pencils and pad, I was readied with more than an ample number of questions, the answers to which I hoped might reveal new insights into the man whose prolific, prize-winning books included the trilogy: The Americans: The Colonial Experience (1958); The Americans: The National Experience (1965); and The Americans: The Democratic Experience (1973).

I still remember one of those questions.

I wanted to know, as preposterous as I knew the question to be, what book in the Library of Congress he would keep if he had to throw every book away save one.

I still remember Dr. Boorstin’s response. It stings as much now as it did then.

“Oh, I can’t answer a question like that. It’s not realistic.”

Of course, he couldn’t.  After all, the Library of Congress is the largest library in the world with more than 25 million cataloged books.

Nonetheless, he proceeded to respond to my unrealistic question.

“I might say the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). When dictators burn books–let me say the first books to keep are the books that would be burned by a dictator. I’m saddened that people in parts of the world … can’t read what they want. We should weep for our fellow human beings who can’t read whatever they want.”

You would think that I would have learned a lesson about asking unrealistic questions.

And I did.

But if you’re thinking that I learned not to ask unrealistic questions, you’re wrong.

What I learned is this: ask the questions even if they might be perceived as unrealistic.

And that is exactly what I have always done. And that is exactly what I will keep on doing.

It should come as no surprise, then, when I tell you that I love asking my students questions, even unrealistic ones.

Just last week, smackdab at the beginning of the semester, I tossed one to my Creative Writing students: 

“What important lesson have you learned during the pandemic?” Write a 500-600 word essay responding to the question.

I had no sooner given the assignment than Dr. Boorstin’s comment started reverberating in my memory. “I can’t answer a question like that.”

But after the echo quieted, I remembered that Dr. Boorstin responded to my question anyway, unrealistic as he considered it to have been.

And I remember so vividly that his response joyed me, thrilled me–not so much for the content (though I think that his selection of OED was a stellar choice)–but more because he graciously went right ahead and responded to a question that he had just stingingly characterized as unrealistic!

Truth be told, it wasn’t until just now–this very moment, actually–that I realized how successful I was with that interview. I went into the interview simply hoping that I might gain at least one new, unique insight into this acclaimed historian. And I did! By asking my unrealistic question, I gained a priceless response: Dr. Boorstin’s statement that the OED might be the one book from the millions of books in the Library of Congress that he would save.

Search and explore, if you will, all the published interviews with Dr. Boorstin, and I daresay that you will not find this little nugget anywhere other than in the September/October 1987 issue of Insights: The Library of Congress Professional Association Newsletter that published the full interview.

But I digress, as I am so inclined to do, as I so love to do when I’m fooling around with ideas and words.

Let’s get back to my students, wherever it was that I left them before my digression caused my moment of forgetfulness! Ah, there they are: I found them again. I usually do! It seems that they might be talking about how preposterous the topic is that I asked them to explore, how unrealistic it is.

If they feel that way, I get it. I feel that way, too. No doubt, you do, too. No doubt, we all feel that way because we have all gone through so much during a pandemic that has lasted for two years and that threatens to dog us into the future. Globally. Nationally. Personally.

How do we cope with the challenging times ahead, whatever they might be?

Maybe, just maybe, we make it through the same way that my students will make it through as they write about what they have learned.

Maybe, just maybe, we take a moment to pause.

Maybe, just maybe, we take a moment or three or more from all the busy-ness that so often prempts the genuinely important things in our lives.

We let our minds wander. We pause in wonder. We think about what we have learned. We reflect.

We seize the unrealistic question–the call–as an opportunity to formulate a response. Maybe my “call” and our “responses”–yours; mine; my students’–might be just enough to anchor us, to ground us, to keep us steady, and to keep us connected to what matters most.

I have no idea how my students will respond to the call–absolutely no idea. I am writing this blog post days before I will have seen their submissions. But I am confident that they will respond. And it won’t be because of a grade. It will be because they have an opportunity to sort through it all.

It will be an opportunity for them to explore a question that, perhaps, no one has asked them to explore before, especially with the requirement that they chronicle their explorations in writing.

As they sort through it all and share what they have learned, I reserve to them the right to preface their lessons learned with the same caveat that Dr. Boorstin used to preface his response: “I might say […].”

Tomorrow, my students might change their minds and explore another lesson learned. Actually, I hope that they do!

Whatever it is they might say, I will value, honor, and respect their responses. For they will have done what I hope each of us will do as we grapple with a pandemic that baffles science and scientists and that requires daily changes to the game plan.

Respond. Write. Distill.

Since my students have to grapple with and respond to my unrealistic question, it seems to me that I should have to do the same. It seems to me that I should have to sort through my own pandemic experiences and arrive at a lesson that I have learned.

And that’s exactly what I’m doing in this post.

What I have learned (re-discovered, if you will) is how much I love fooling around with ideas and words. It brings me great delight. It always has. As a child, I fooled around with ideas and words in the dictionary, letting one definition lead me to the next and that one to the next and so on, just as my mother ran reference in her Biblical commentary books. It was so easy to get lost running after ideas and words. Sometimes I even lost myself.

More important, though, sometimes while fooling around with ideas and words, I landed upon moments when a great calm washed over me and comforted me and made me believe that everything might be all right after all.

It’s akin to what Robert Frost observed about poetry and about love: “[Poetry] begins in delight and ends in wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. No one can really hold that the ecstasy should be static and stand still in one place. It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life-not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion […] Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting” (“The Figure a Poem Make,” Collected Poems, 1939).

I’d like to claim that thinking about today’s post began in delight. It did not. My initial thoughts were a mishmash of all that I have missed out on–lost, if you will–during the last two years. I won’t even begin to list my woes and heartaches and tragedies here because you know them all, already, all too well. I’m betting that yours have weighed as heavily on your spirit as they have weighed on mine.

I had to reign myself instanter. I had to shift my focus from lost to found. From lost to learned.

Ideas and words have always anchored me and held me fast during the raging storms of life, even before the pandemic, and they will continue to do the same long afterwards.

As soon as I made that much-needed attitude adjustment, my essay-in-progress–this post– started giving me delight! Then, I allowed impulse to take over, and I went with the flow as the essay rode along on its own melting.

And, by the time that it ended–as it is about to do–I had a moment of clarity– perhaps even a moment of wisdom.

I am delighted that I called on my students to tackle my unrealistic question.

I am even more delighted that I tackled it myself because in sorting through my own lessons–in creating my own “call and response”–my essay ran a course of lucky events, and I achieved my own Frostian stay against confusion, momentary though it might be!

The Final Drive

“Knocking? No. Pinging? No. Tapping? Yes. Tapping. A rhythmic tapping, tapping, tapping, growing louder and louder and louder as I climbed my mountain, homeward. Neighbors stared. Dogs ran. This was a palpable noise that required reckoning.”

My two-door Jeep Wrangler was a substantial investment. I took good care of it, hoping that it would last forever. I felt that it deserved the longevity that I desired, so I came up with a fool-proof, sure-fire plan.

I read the owner’s manual carefully and repeatedly.  

I vowed: never skip scheduled service appointments.

I pledged: always review the maintenance and service checklists, always review the safety checklists, and always review the fluids checklist.

Easy promises for something worth so much. Right?

I swore to review faithfully all the other checklists. Tires—pressure, tread, spare, jack/tools. Lights—headlights, hazard lights, park lights, and fog lights.

I even swore that I would check all the general things that need periodic checking: hoses, filters, batteries, and belts.

My fool-proof plan worked well.

My Wrangler aged over the years, but gracefully so.  

Fading headlights didn’t matter much since I don’t drive a lot at night anyway.

Failing sound systems mattered more. Silence is golden for some, but not for me. I figured out with great speed how to jerry-rig my iPod to a Bluetooth speaker. Voila! I had perfect surround-sound gospel music wherever I went.

The miles crept up and up and up. I couldn’t turn back the odometer, but I couldn’t stand to look at it either. So I opted to use just the trip-odometer to track single, solitary journeys. Those lower numbers comforted. But, in the back of my head, I was mindful that the real engine mileage was getting higher and higher.

And then came the day when I forgot to recharge my jerry-rigged sound system. Alas! No music.  

For once, I heard internal sounds, and they were not what I expected. I had never heard such reverberations before.

Knocking? No. Pinging? No. Tapping? Yes. Tapping. A rhythmic tapping, tapping, tapping, growing louder and louder and louder as I climbed my mountain, homeward. Neighbors stared. Dogs ran. This was a palpable noise that required reckoning.  

My local mechanic figured that heavier oil with an additive would reduce the friction and lower the noise. His concoction became a new part of my old plan to keep the Wrangler going.

Sadly, the remedy didn’t last long. The tapping grew louder and louder, even after I recharged my sound system and regained my soul music. I knew that it was time for my Wrangler to go back to the dealership, back to the manufacturer.

Off I drove.

It only took an hour for the diagnosis: faulty hydraulic lifters. My heart sank.

It rose again, though, when I heard the recommended fix: replace the lifters.  We all believed the old Wrangler still had lots of miles ahead.   

It took hours to get the job done. One led to two; two led to three; three led to four; and four led to saddened faces.

Yes. The lifters had been replaced, but the repair hadn’t worked. The problem was deeper. The whole engine had aged, had given away.

That was it. Finis!

Little did I know—when I drove my Wrangler back to the dealership, back to the maker—that I would not drive it again.

I emailed a friend about my dilemma.

“Does this mean your poor Wrangler is in the shop getting that rattle fixed? Or worse …???” she probed.

“Worse,” I answered. “It looks like the engine is shot.”

“Awww, I’m sorry. Wranglers are sort of human, aren’t they?”

“Yes,” I mused. “Both are wrangling for the final drive.”

The Power of Consistency and Persistence

‘Tis true there is much to be done […] but stick to it steadily, and you will see great Effects, for constant Dropping wears away Stones, and by Diligence and Patience the Mouse ate in two the Cable; and little Strokes fell great Oaks, as Poor Richard says in his Almanack, the Year I cannot just now remember.

Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard Improved (1758)

A few years ago, I bought a new indoor bike. I had to. The axle on my old bike snapped, just like that. I wasn’t surprised: I had biked 20 to 30 miles on it every day—seven days a week—for the previous eight years.

I was surprised, however, by the total mileage: 73,000. Actually, I was stunned. If I had biked from West Quoddy Head (Maine) to Point Arena (California)—the two most distant points within the mainland United States—it would have been 2,892 miles. Round trip: 5,784 miles. I had biked from sea to shining sea and all the way back again, the equivalent of 13 times. 

Incredible. Impossible. Yet, I did it, even though I had never intended to do so. All that I had set out to do was to bike regularly—no, faithfully, every day, seven days a week. 

I’ve been thinking about other things that I have done regularly.

Like the $25 Series E Savings Bonds that I started purchasing bi-weekly in the 1960s when I was in college and kept purchasing for decades. When the time came to buy my first home, I was surprised by my investment. Actually, I was stunned. I had a down payment for a row house in the shadow of the United States Capitol. My own piece of the American Dream.

Incredible. Impossible. Yet, I did it, even though I had never intended to do so. All that I had set out to do was to save regularly—no, faithfully, every other week. 

Or what about the pocket change I started saving daily when my niece/goddaughter was born? That first year, pennies. The next, pennies and nickels. Then, pennies, nickels, and dimes. Pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters followed. Finally, all of my pocket change. I saved it regularly—no, faithfully, every day, seven days a week. Seventeen years later, when it came time for Minnie to go to college, it was time for me to take all of my coffee cans—chock-full of daily pocket change—to the bank. I was surprised. Actually, I was stunned. The total? Nearly $10,000, not nearly enough for even one year’s tuition, but certainly more than enough for textbooks, computers, cell phones, and even a $500 Series EE Savings Bond. A future as bright as a shiny new penny.

I shared these examples and my essay-in-progress with my students. One emailed me later, “I think your essay would be marvelous. Your three examples are kind of unbelievable, but, of course, anyone could bike 13 times round trip across America or save up a down payment for a house or start a college fund if they tackled those goals a little bit at a time, fairly regularly.”

Yes, Bonnie: that’s my point, precisely. Anyone can achieve any goal—regardless of how impossible or how incredible it may seem—simply by tackling it a little bit at a time regularly and faithfully.  

Anyone can.

Anyone.

Thank You, Dear Readers!

” If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

We have all grappled with the age-old question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

No doubt, a physicist would answer with a resounding, “Yes. The existence of sound is objective and does not depend on its being heard.”

On the other hand, some philosophers might take a contrary view, arguing that sound is subjective, existing only in our minds.

I started thinking about that brain teaser late last night when I should have been sleeping. Instead of sleeping, however, I decided to look at the blog statistics for last year to see the extent to which it was an objective or a subjective entity! I guess I wanted some kind of evidence that the blog mattered even if I had not been as faithful to myself and to my readers last year as I wish that I had been.

I ended up with a confirmation. “You’re reading my blog! Therefore, it is! Therefore, I am!”

There! That settles it! It certainly settled it enough last night for me to lie down and sleep peacefully right through the night!

The blog’s statistics for last year make a far stronger showing than I had expected. Let me share some highlights.

Last year, the blog had 3,940 visitors. Twenty-five percent of those were from the United States. Seventy-five percent were from 40 other countries. I am delighted–simply delighted–to have such an international readership!

My most visited post last year was “Serendepity on Sullivan’s Island” going all the way back to 2013. I’m still pondering why that post would be so popular! No doubt, it’s because it deals with Edgar Allan Poe. The second most visited was “In Praise of Fruitcake.” No doubt because it is a recent post. No doubt, too, because folks wanted to see what claims I would make in praise of fruitcake! And, as an educator, it pleases me, of course, to see that my “Philosophy of Teaching” is another popular read.

Dear readers–whoever you are and wherever you are–I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for continuing the journey! Thank you for continuing to read my blog! You continue to mean the world to me!

Moving ahead in 2022, I have lots and lots of ideas tumbling around in my head–hopefully being polished and smoothed–headed your way, hopefully on a more regular basis!

As a teaser, I will share with you that one of the forthcoming posts will be a full exploration of what I will declare to be the Great American Novel. It is not Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. It is not Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. It is not Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. It is not F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I could continue to dismiss many other contenders, but I won’t. Let me say, simply, that it is a recent novel–one that has received considerable international acclaim–one that will be acclaimed, right here in this blog, to be the Great American Novel!

Hopefully, that teaser alone will keep you coming back for more!