“… Whose the Forest of Them All?” See What I Did There?

Imagine somebody offers you a friendly smile, but you snarl back. What might be their next reaction? Would they be amused and take it as a friendly jibe, just typical “you”? I suppose that would depend on how well they knew you. Would they be bemused because they don’t know you so well? Really, snarling at a friendly smile…? We’re perfect strangers, for goodness’ sake! Would they be confused because they’re not from around here and just can’t reckon the response in any way? A person’s reaction to your snarl might conceivably be anything—it depends on so many factors, and even in these three suggestions, one can find how-many-more details, nuances, and possibilities that take things further. Any “next reaction,” you might finally conclude, just depends on the person.

That response, “it depends,” is often criticised as merely wishy-washy yet, apparently, there’s an ironic ring of absoluteness to it, like the postmodern clarion call that nothing is true except for this statement. The reason I pose the scenario at all is to consider who really provides us with our sense of self. Supposing this person smiled at me, I might snarl in the first way, as a jibe, because I’m sure they’ll get the joke. But what if they don’t get it? What if this person even knows me pretty well, and they just don’t get it, not this time? Or what if they feel this just wasn’t the time for joking around? Their next reaction will depend on these and / or plenty of other factors. But again, I raise the scenario to consider how we gather—or, no no, to consider who really provides us—with our sense of self.

And there you have it, the issue: do we each gather our own sense of self, internally, or do others provide us with our sense of self, externally?

I don’t want to revert simply to the nature-nurture argument or chicken-and-the-egg. We seem inescapably bound to considering these by degree—hence, the absolutism that it depends. So, then, to consider by degree… the metaphor I have in mind is that of a mirror. Something someone does induces a response from me, and subsequently, what I provoke in that other person can tell me something more about myself, so long as I’m willing (and able?) to discern my self—myself?—from what they reflect. Whatever next reaction of theirs follows my snarl, this other person’s reaction serves as a mirrored reflection of me, at least insofar as this other person is concerned. If they laugh at my snarl, then hey, I guess they affirm me as a friend with an appropriate sense of humour; the jibe is appreciated, and maybe we’re even a little closer friends than before. Their positive reaction is my feedback, like looking at myself in a mirror, and my sense of self is in some way provoked on account of them by what they reflect.

I suppose there’s room to discuss a lack of empathy, here, even sociopathic behaviour—these seem also to be part of that endless list of details, nuances, and possibilities. But in acknowledging them, let’s leave them for another day.

If my snarl induces a frown from the other person, or some kind of puzzlement or disapproval, then what they affirm for me is less friendly or wonderful, yet may be just as clear—maybe they snarl back, even more fiercely, or maybe they stomp away with clenched fists. Maybe now I feel worried, in which case my sense of self could suffer from insecurity or dismay—oh dear, they didn’t get the joke! Or maybe they are saddened, and I feel smug—take that, you deserve it—or hostile—get lost, I never liked you anyway—which reinforces my sense of superiority, some kind of self-importance. The list of possibilities goes on—it depends—but, in any case, I’m able to find myself reaffirmed by that other person’s reaction. “Able to” because my snarl clearly exposes my stake in how this other person influences the way I consider my sense of self: why would I even take notice of them in the first place, much less snarl, much less take concern of their next reaction, if they meant nothing to me?

The point is that the other person’s reaction provides me a measure, a reason, a reflection by which to gauge my self as myself. Basically, thank you, because I couldn’t do it without you and everybody else, and you’re welcome because neither could you without me, or everybody else.

Now, pretend there are no other people—you, alone, exist as the sole human being. You happen to be walking through a grove of, say, birch trees, obviously getting no reactions as we’ve just considered about smiles and snarls. But as the wind whishes by, fluttering leaves and swaying branches, you take in the world around you with a relative means of judgment that wades through various combinations of reactors provoking reactions from reactees: Are the trees reacting to me? Is the wind reacting to me, or the trees to the wind? and so forth. You can see all sorts of things happening, but how can you be sure what provokes or reflects what else? Some songbirds are flitting about, high up in the branches: Are they chirping at me? You might not even call them “song” birds (that is, if you even had language—what need for language, really, as one sole person?) For all we know, the birds would actually scare you, and you might rightly call them “scarebirds” or something—in this pretend scenario, with you the sole human being, we’re also pretending that you know nothing in the way of biology or flora or fauna. These are ways of understanding the world developed in the real life community of human beings, not in some pretend scenario of solo existence.

In that land of pretend, after weeks of sunshine, what might be your sense of self on the day it rained, or on the day the leaves yellowed and fell to the ground in heavier, colder winds? Would you even be considering your “self” apart from the entirety of what surrounds you? Here we are, again, at nature-nurture, only this time you might conceivably consider the two in synthesis: not as separately discrete influences—there is nature, and there is nurture—but as one-and-the-same, naturenurture, thereby placing you into the world of existence as part-of-a-greater-whole. Your sense of self could conceivably be more cosmic, in that literal sense of orderliness, and more holistic, in that sense of connectedness. To mix metaphors, you might feel a mere cog in the wheel, a mere wheel of the gears, yet entirely necessary, just the same. Or how about this: I wonder how imperative my right hand feels, as compared to my left, when I write with a pen, but they’re both pretty important when I play golf.

We can conceivably warrant our selves to ourselves, but—as we step back into the land of real life and other people—we cannot live in total oblivion of the people around us. I grant the possibility of living within ourselves as our selves, rendering the responses and reactions of any one and those alongside as nothing other than colliding self-interests, but still… That other people can authorize our sense of self—your sense, my sense—seems as inescapable, as definite, as did nature-nurture or chicken-and-the-egg.

In this little thought experiment, I’ve been wondering whether we each sense our self as reflective of the reactions we induce, e.g. the feedback we get after snarling at a friendly smile, seeing that other person like staring at ourselves in a mirror. And, if so, whether that means we’re each of us necessarily, essentially, and thereby compellingly part of a greater whole, like trees of a forest, or cogs in a wheel, or limbs to a body. And, for all this, maybe it’s only an issue because we’re able to raise the question, to begin with.

‘Tis the Season to be Silly!

Here’s a curiosity… I wrote this thirty years ago in Grade 12 for – wow! wee! – the high school newspaper. Good lord, thirty years. When you’re able to say such-and-such happened thirty years ago, and remember it…

!!!!!

Sigh. Beats not remembering, I suppose. While we’re at it, how about a wow-wee for thirty-year anniversaries: diamonds, pearls… joy buzzers? Better watch your back at the reunion, folks.

So what do I remember? My Journalism teacher, Mrs Sullings, had been waiting for me to overcome writers’ block and finally granted me an extension until the following issue, figuring I’d never make the deadline for end-of-March.

I really appreciated that from her but now felt all the more determined (and a bit guilty, too!) to meet the deadline the next morning. I remember sitting on my bed later that afternoon, struggling woe-is-me, and finally just flipping through the thesaurus as some desperate chance-worthy way of inspiring an idea. I think it was “rapscallions” that got the ball rolling, and from there, as the saying goes, the thing just wrote itself! Then it got buried on page 7 because every newspaper has a layout crew. Joke’s on me, I suppose.

Fringe benefit, though… the next time I nearly missed a deadline, for the June edition, Mrs Sullings wasn’t nearly so concerned. She left that to me, that time.

I’m pretty sure this is the second piece I ever wrote for a public audience, as in something actually published somewhere, out of my hands. Boxing Day - Humbug!.jpgThe first was a few months before, this Boxing Day editorial for the December edition, although officially my class hadn’t switched over yet – you either went from Journalism to Creative Writing in January, or you were vice-versa like us. Admittedly, neither piece is rocket science, much less brain surgery, but hey, every piece does more than just fill its own space in the puzzle. A curiosity, like I said.

So here ‘tis! a piece from the past, yet as much for posterity inspired! O Come, all ye Jokesters, unite!

(If you’re interested, click here, here, or here to learn a little more about the history of April Fools’ Day.)

 


‘Tis the Season to be Silly

March 1989

With the end of March comes the eagerly awaited Spring Break, and with Spring Break there is invariably April 1st – All Fools’ Day.

April 1st is the pressure release for everyone whose desire to become a practical joker just can’t be contained another side-splitting minute. Jokesters, jesters, and clowns alike all join together in an harmonic convergence of comedy, where conventional precedents of whimsy are discarded, long-established antic-morals know no bounds, and the quest for the ultimate in rusing excellence reigns supreme.

But as one may expect when the wells of witticism have run dry (as is the case in the world now), spotting any sort of Page 7.jpgexuberant attempt at outlandish tomfoolery proves more difficult than raking wet leaves with a plastic fork. And the Ministry of Education has hardly accommodated the desires of those jovial few desperately striving to keep April 1st, the Prankster’s Paradise, from losing all significance in this once derisory society of ours.

In its infinite wisdom, and unquestionably sound methods, the Ministry has conveniently arranged things so that April Fools’ Day occurs in the middle of the holidays, thus eliminating any hope of school-time merriment. In all fairness to the government, though, they (unlike you or me) wouldn’t recognise a cavorting rib-tickler if it walked up and shook their hand with an electric buzzer. Because of this, school must be dropped as the hostel of hilarious high-jinks.

Where, then, can one perform those pie-in-the-eye shenanigans and still achieve slapstick perfection? Home seems a logical place to start. And why not? For the abundance of potential targets, direct family ties keep anger broiling at a constant low, which is a major determining factor when dealing with the art of rabble-rousing, as are the many options open to the aspiring mischief-maker while on a mission of mirth.

There are the obvious escapades like exploding cigars and fake barf, or such monkey tricks as switching the salt and sugar, baking chocolate EX-LAX brownies, or stretching Saran Wrap over the toilet seat. As well, there are some old favourites to fall back on during instances of carefree nostalgia, like the bucket perched above the half-open door, or replacing the shampoo with NEET. Even the family car isn’t immune, as some skylarking rapscallions decide that switching on the radio to full volume, the windshield wipers to maximum speed, the air-conditioning to its coldest setting, and just about anything else located on the dashboard before the ignition is started, can provide for boisterous buffoonery in the highest degree.

Frozen Bunny.jpg

If this doesn’t tickle your fancy, then send someone you know a letter filled with sneezing powder – make sure it’s post-dated April 1st. You may try soaking your mother’s underpants and then freezing them overnight. Or remove the Sani-flush from the toilet and put green food colouring in the toilet bowl. When the shocked victim flushes the apparent “algae,” it is replaced by red-stained water from the toilet tank, which you have surreptitiously prepared the night before, in the name of all that is hallowed and holy amongst the flamboyant heroes of comedy whose Day you’re helping to celebrate.

Obviously, April 1st – All Fools’ Day – is one of the most important events of an otherwise blasé year, breaking the cat-gut tension with its relaxed, devil-may-care attitude. It is a time for everyone to get, get gotten, and be a good sport about it, either way.

Enjoy your April 1st this year, and if you’re one of the fortunate few to succeed in your sally – CONGRATULATIONS! You can appreciate the hearty effort undertaken by all those looking for an April Fools’ Fest.

And if you’re one of the unlucky targets of this annually occurring “puerile idiocy,” just grin and bear it, because half the joke is watching the victim’s reaction. Stay calm, laugh along with them… and then start plotting for next year.

Thu Pham.jpg

On Love

The word love has a long and layered etymological history, which I encourage you to get started tracing for yourself.

“Love” has lots of connotations in English – among them are affection, fondness, friendship, comradeship, selflessness, exhilaration, elation, narcissism, and of course, romance.

And, of course, Valentine’s Day is the go-to celebration for all things Cupid, or Eros, or whichever cherub happens to be your persuasion. After all, love just may be the most important quality we share… even if things these days seem to have two-stepped just a little closer to Hallmark than to holiday. Still though… any excuse to party, and all. Keep those bars and nightclubs full.

There might be an ironic reference to be had here about the two “al”s – alcohol and Al Capone. There are also more sobering references to be had here about the kind of culture that we seem to value. But I digress.

You can find lots of explanations for the observance of Valentine’s Day – maybe as many as the types of love – although they don’t all seem nearly as sweet as a box of chocolates or a heart-shaped cut-out. But hey, being human means being rhetorical, Big Four Bridge, Louisville, KYand the Rhetorical WHY is nothing if not sentimental, so…

Just for you, St. Valentine, a meditation on love.

 

 


On Love

The foundation of love is lasting friendship, which itself has as cornerstones trust and respect. First, take the Golden Rule as a straightforward way to understand respect, and second, we trust that the person we love will treat us respectfully, under all circumstances. Without trust and respect, relationships can’t properly recover or grow more healthy from struggles that inevitably arise. A good thing about trust and respect: they tend to reinforce each other with time and familiarity, cementing what’s good, growing impervious to what’s not. Another good thing: they can go missing, then be rediscovered later, and still be influential; it’s never too late to repair and grow relationships, as long as both people are willing. And if you had them before, you know what it looks like, for later. Clearly, there’s more to being friends, but the basis of trust and respect is essential. Without it, there will never be real or lasting love.

Love enables you to forgive without strings, without second-thoughts, unconditionally… or maybe it’s better to say that love is “how we forgive without strings.” Love makes you willing to forgive because, in the greater scope, you’d rather save and build and love the person who’s important to you than risk having things with them suffer or waste away. Not to say that people don’t get angry or have trouble forgiving; we do, nobody’s perfect, so this is the “how” thing from above: say you’re angry with the person you love, yet you find a way to forgive them because you love them, and you see that what’s long-term matters more than whatever happened just now. In life, any fight or dispute requires somebody to break the impasse and offer peace, and I think the point to take here for relationships is that love propagates that ability, that strength to step up and forgive, to let go of ill feelings. From the one side, avoid grudges and guilt-trips (and maybe even take one on the chin, whether you think you deserve it or not). From the other side, don’t suspect grudges and guilt (and don’t throw one to the chin carelessly). All of which takes you back to trust and respect, mutual trust and respect. With that said, forgiveness does not mean being weak and letting someone walk all over you – being humble is not being weak, and in that sense, forgiveness requires confidence and strength-of-self. But here, too, the person you love aids your confidence because you are comfortable being honest with them, being yourself with them, as they are with you, whether things are blissful, or stressful, or anywhere in between.

Love provides the encouragement to resolve something that’s wrong – a fight or whatever – because what’s so good ultimately just outweighs whatever’s bad. It’s what is meant when people say relationships take effort or work: you can be upset, even hugely upset, with someone you love. (Sometimes love is why they upset you the most!) Yet you find a way through; somehow, you want to. You’re willing to struggle through the issue because you know your relationship is worth fighting for, not against, the person you love and everything that you are together. It’s desirable work, not laborious work, and at later times, you might even find that you crave the collaboration, the synergy, that accompanies the facing of challenges. You grow to trust it and rely on it because it works. As a pair, you work.

Love also encourages two people to share equal voice on matters… important matters, and not-so-important, too… no sense of competition even enters. It becomes not a question of one or the other having to say, “Listen!” or “Give me a chance”; the equality is natural, and the first person just wouldn’t move forward without having heard from the second, just wouldn’t, as a matter of respect, until they’d heard from the other, trusting that both must speak in order to make valuable contributions that help everyone.

Love helps you to be patient. Maybe the person you love needs to learn or discover something in their own time. Maybe you want to say something, but it would be premature before the full context is there for complete understanding. Or maybe you just need time to keep a nice secret or plan a surprise. Patience can be a hard thing because it always involves curbing your own interests in favour of the person you love.

Love enables tolerance. The person you love might need a chance to vent, and even if it’s unpleasant to listen, they still might need the chance. Or say one person enjoys something that the other doesn’t… but whether you participate or they go it alone, you still put up with it, for their sake (as long as it’s not destructive or harmful), because you know it makes them happy, and you want them to be happy because you love them.

Love will require sacrifice. Sometimes loving somebody means behaving in the opposite way, doing the opposite to what you want or even need. This may be because the person you love asks you to sacrifice. Or the person you love may not understand why you sacrifice and resent you for it. You can see, then, where sacrifice, tolerance, and patience connect when it comes to love. Time can clear things up, but not always, or else not in enough time for things to get better between you before they got worse. But that’s not to say love is lost. But it will take the trust and respect of the original friendship to take on the work of recovery, which is what makes being friends beforehand so much more valuable. So you can see where friendship and forgiveness connect when it comes to love, too. Sacrifice involves so many aspects of love and thus is maybe the harshest test for true love to endure, but if it is true love, it will endure.


 

“… the real current of what love is [is the] opportunity for mutually pursued spiritual growth, its potential as THE transformative force available to us which I, too, have often thought is the true nature of love and partnership.”

– Kathleen Gyurkey, Parlor editor

 


Love incites a genuine willingness within you to try new things or change old ways, based on what you find yourself learning and experiencing with the person you love. This is not the same thing as, say, when resentful friends mutter “Ball-and-chain” or “Ever since she started seeing him, she’s so different.” The changes I’m talking about are more positive, more admirable – even something as simple as trying new foods or exercising more. What Gyurkey explains above in the quotation I’ve found true, too: this transformative nature of a loving partnership – specific to me, my willingness to try new things, to change old ways, and generally to have a more ready, unsummoned conscientiousness, I guess like a kind of empathy. My experience was all these things, a willingness to become somebody else, somebody new, as compared to all I’d been up until then. And the prospect of change was exhilarating! I felt most honestly, vulnerably willing to be and think and do things anew… almost even surrendered to it although not from duress, not at all. From inspiration. I was excited to see who I would become, to see where her influence and our relationship might take me and, thereby, her and us. I looked forward to the future, to time together, because of what it promised. Separate to romance and couples, I think a good dramatic example of what I mean is Ebenezer Scrooge, whom love changed for the better, long-term, in a way that everybody else could see and appreciate.

Love needs balance. The one person can’t be always giving and the other always receiving, the one always complaining and the other always consoling. If one cooks, then have the other do the dishes. At the extreme, just to carry the example, if one says, “Love, I will die for you,” and the other replies, “As for me, I’m not so sure,” then this relationship will not work. But wait, don’t fault only one side. The first person speaks passionately but only ought to make such a committed pledge being reasonably certain the second will reciprocate. The second person should reconsider (a) whether they’ve truly been appreciating their partner’s amazing love or just consuming it, and (b) whether this relationship is what they want at all if – as (a) would suggest – return-sacrifice just hasn’t been happening. Hmm, this is not the greatest example since no one would rationalize, “Well, since they are willing to die for me, I’d better return the favour”; two people who are willing to die for each other just are, they would just do it, and likely, it would simply be one of those deeply felt but unspoken things. Anyhow, I think the point is clear.

Love can induce ridiculous irrationality, whether as acute panic or burning more slowly over time. The clichés are out there, “crime of passion” and “temporary insanity” being of the acute nature, and “love is blind” being slower. These tend to be negative clichés, too, but I don’t mean to say that irrationality is only negative. Essentially, love can make people do or say things they may not otherwise have done or said. I stress “may not” because, without a situation, it’s hard to know consequences (as in, “He did this because of the consequences,” or “No, she did this in spite of the consequences”). And hey, obviously, everything has consequences, but if we act in search of certain ones, or if we act at the risk of certain ones, either way we might look irrational. Hollywood uses irrationality as a sympathetic character trait – “Ah, they did it for love!” – and it usually pays off with the Happy Ending, where everybody else smiles at each other, as if to say, “Gosh, do you feel as silly as me now for judging them?” It’s ironic that I turn to Hollywood for my positive-cliché counter-point, and hey! if only life were that simplistic every time… but I think the larger point is about the kind of judgment we level upon people – people we label “irrational” – who are acting out of love. I guess I’m saying (again, as long as it’s not destructive or harmful) that we ought to afford such “irrational” people a little empathy and patience before judging them.Riverfront, September 2006

Love develops your empathy. What’s more, you grow not just more willing but more able to see matters from the perspective of the person you love. And what’s more, your empathy will grow stronger with the passage of time, as you grow closer and more intimately connected with that person: seeing through their eyes, thinking with their thoughts, eventually becomes as natural to you as seeing and thinking with your own. You wind up sharing in a way that’s inseparably connected, where the two people together sort of take on the qualities of a shared, mutual person. It’s part of (but not all of) the whole two-become-one thing of marriage.

Sex alone is not love. Sex is a physical act, an actual connective joining of two bodies, and any pair of people can have sex – physically gratifying (perhaps not even) but either way, over when it’s over, regardless. But when two people who love each other, who share all these other, profound aspects of love between them, when they physically, sexually connect, yes, it’s still something physical, but I think what’s physical must be transcended, mentally / emotionally / spiritually. The physical act becomes something so much more than just the physical joining; gratifying in so much deeper a way, exponentially better than some orgasm-finish. In fact, sex between two not-in-love people eventually can drive a wedge between them, and while I’m not sure why, I can guess part of it is because it never gets any better and maybe even gets dull.

There’s also an emotional destruction that I’d argue results from sex between two not-in-love people, which is harder to pin down other than to say it happens. Maybe it’s because sex is so personal – even in a one-night encounter, to have sex is to join, and that reveals an intimate part of yourself to somebody else; you really leave yourself open and vulnerable. And if you’re that intimate and open with this somebody else how-many-times over, having sex without love, paying for the cost of fleeting orgasms with vulnerability, there’s bound to be a devaluing effect on you eventually. Perhaps you’ve witnessed this or, unfortunately, experienced it – I suspect I have. But we need love if we want a lasting, meaningful relationship that includes sex. Love keeps sex fresh and enticing, and love gives sex a reason, one beyond your ‘self’. That might sound strange, a ‘reason’. Love gives sex a context – that probably sounds strange too! – where the climax way surpasses physical pleasure. Love makes sex meaningful, and beautiful. Finally, if you were to substitute here for “sex” any other intimate physical encounters, clothes on or off or whatever, I think it’s fair to say all this still basically applies. Or how about this: whatever the case may be, intimate encounters between two people are only as meaningful between them as the time they’ve spent developing their friendship first and, subsequently, their love. But romance, intimacy, whatever to call it, needs time and can’t be rushed. It has to work for both. It might develop for you. It might not.

Love needs passion. Passion is its fuel, or no, better to say, passion is the hi-test / premium-grade fuel, the stuff that burns the hottest, the most efficiently, and (therefore) the quickest. For that reason, passion needs to be replenished more frequently. When it’s not, things grow stale, fun fades, a relationship becomes diluted by mundanities and same-ol’ same-ol’. Passion is also infectious, contagious. Your passion for the person you love excites them just as theirs excites you, and it’s a mutually-perpetuating cycle… but so is the lack of passion, which means it’s up to both people in a relationship to share the renewal of that burning passion where they found their love for each other in the first place. That’s where the other facets and benefits of love come in. If all the other facets contribute, a couple feels all-the-more exhilarated, thrilled, rewarded, making two people, deeply in love with each other, pretty motivated – selfishly, yes (as in, ‘If I do this for the other, it will give back for me because they will make me feel good’), but selflessly too (‘I appreciate all they do to make me feel good, and I want to give back to them, which will then return to me, which then I will appreciate’, and so on in the mutual cycle, without a necessary end).

I would often say, “I like who I am with you,” utterly sincere, feeling it as much a compliment for her as truth for me, something motivating and feel-good for her in return. Helping me to be a better person and feel better about who I was, she lifted me, made me genuinely happy. It was the most free, uninhibited, willing-and-able-to-be-myself experience I’ve had in adult life. And I tried my best to be something she could feel happy about; something visceral and transformative for me was a return for her, investing that part of myself into her and, so, into us – helping the other helps you, which helps you both. Win:win, and ever onwards, self-propelling. Passion. I suppose I can only truly say I had begun to commit everything of me to her, going the other way. I have never been more genuine or vulnerable with anybody as I was then, with her. I offered all of me, all I had, without pretension – that was how genuine I felt, and confident, and comfortable, and safe, to be utterly myself and feel accepted and appreciated for it. To feel loved: as motivating as motivated. I trusted her absolutely, and I offered her me, the most true love I had or even knew how to give.

Love is wondrous. Who wouldn’t want to feel all these good things about themselves and the other, especially knowing that it’s all felt thanks to themselves and the other? People are social creatures, and being alone is not how we’re built to flourish. Love and all its facets together are proactive, which makes love self-sustaining, but self-sustaining is thanks to the effort and existence of the two singular people, together in love, if that makes sense. It’s not dependency for either person, but maybe the love itself is dependent on the willing effort of the two people – to exist, love needs both people contributing and committed to each other. Love is dependent upon the two people to sustain it: willingly, mutually, lovingly. You want to do things for the person you love, it wouldn’t even cross your mind to think twice…

 

“I am doing this for the person I love.”

“Really, why?”

“… um, er, because I love them!”

 

There’s that irrationality, basically a logical fallacy of cyclical reasoning. But it works. For all its illogic, it’s human, and it works. And for that, love and all its facets are to be valued, enjoyed, and treasured, and accepting of idiosyncrasies, annoyances, or even character flaws that the other person might have: “I love this person!” But understand: love is not blind, and not a dependency; neither of these is love. Love is not love “in spite of” the partner’s flaws, or your own. What’s good about the person you love, and what’s good between you, together, diminishes negatives as “not worth troubling over.” You may not even notice some negatives. Or, hmm, not to say we don’t notice things – foibles, irritations, worse – but some of what we notice we grow accustomed to, perhaps even fond of! But, at the core, you love that person (a) because of who they are to you, (b) because of who they are for you – and yes, I think (a) and (b) are different – and (c) because of who they help you to become, who they make you want and strive to be. As you strive both for yourself and for them in return, you complement each other – the hand-in-glove, engaged in what is really the ultimately perfect mutual trade-off of taking for personal growth and giving for relational health. Well, maybe that last bit sounds like an advert or magazine sidebar, but I still think it’s true.

Love can leave us vulnerable… even in a blog post. I think that comes from being honest, which maybe doesn’t seem so odd to say while posting on-line – how many might read this whom I have never met? It’s a big, big world, and even the most popular could still be said to live in a world of strangers. And if we haven’t been taught along the way to be wary of strangers, to not trust just any old person who comes along, then surely we’ve learned that lesson the hard way. We ought to respect everybody, fundamentally at least, if not any more than that. But I agree and think it’s prudent not to trust everybody.

Yet if we stop to consider what our vulnerability can teach us about trust and respect, and about friendship – perhaps, in our honesty, we might yet find we’ve learned a lesson about love.

Fraser River Shore, July 19, 2005

… of Robbie Burns Day

The best-laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley…”

In observance of Robbie Burns Day and, thereby, of John Steinbeck‘s novella, Of Mice And Men, I highlight this thoughtful character study of Curley’s wife, by Leighton Meester for The Huffington Post, based upon her own stage portrayal of that character.

Perhaps above all I appreciate Meester’s nuanced intuition about the audiences who judge Curley’s wife which, beyond their relationships to the characters in the story, might suggest something about their own – our own – blind spots and hypocrisies. How often we live with daily nonchalance, oblivious to the interiority of those we encounter, and of those beyond. How much we rely on our affirmed belief of our selves.

If confronting ourselves is art’s great authenticity, then Meester’s perception is spot-on: in Curley’s wife, Steinbeck subverts our conceit – whether he intended to or not. Indeed, the best-laid schemes…

The Conceit of A. I.


 

From a technological perspective, I can offer a lay opinion of A.I. But check out some more technical opinions than mine, too:

MIT: The Seven Deadly Sins

Edge: The Myth of AI

The Guardian: The Discourse is Unhinged

NYT: John Markoff

Futurism: You Have No Idea…

IEET: Is AI a Myth?

Open Mind: Provably Beneficial Artificial Intelligence

Medium: A Critical Reading List

AdWeek: Burger King

 


The Conceit of A.I.

Time and energy… the one infinite, the other hardly so. The one an abstraction, the other all too real. But while time ticks ceaselessly onward, energy forever needs replenishing. We assign arbitrary limits to time, by calendar, by clock, and as the saying goes, there’s only so much time in a day. Energy, too, we can measure, yet often we equate both time and energy monetarily, if not by actual dollars and cents: we can pay attention, spend a day at the beach, save energy – the less you burn, the more you earn! And certainly, as with money, most people would agree that we just never seem to have enough time or energy.

Another way to frame time and energy is as an investment. We might invest our time and energy learning to be literate, or proficient with various tools, or with some device that requires skilful application. Everything, from a keyboard or a forklift or a tennis racquet to a paring knife or an elevator or a golf club to a cell phone or a self-serve kiosk or the new TV remote, everything takes some knowledge and practice. By that measure, there are all kinds of literacies – we might even say, one of every kind. But no matter what it is, or how long it takes to master, or why we’d even bother, we shall reap what we sow, which is an investment analogy I bet nobody expected.

Technology returns efficiency. In fact, like nothing else, it excels at creating surplus time and energy, enabling us to devote ourselves to other things and improve whichever so-called literacies we choose. The corollary, of course, is that some literacies fade as technology advances. Does this matter, with so many diverse interests and only so much time and energy to invest? How many of us even try everything we encounter, much less master it? Besides, for every technological advancement we face, a whole new batch of things must now be learned. So, for all that technological advancement aids our learning and creates surplus time and energy, we as learners remain the central determinant as to how to use our time and energy.

Enter the classroom what’s lately been called Artificial Intelligence (A.I.). Of course, A.I. has received plenty of enthusiastic attention, concern, and critique as a developing technological tool, for learning as well as plenty other endeavours and industries. A lengthy consideration from The New York Times offers a useful, broad overview of A.I.: a kind of sophisticated computer programming that collates, provides, and predicts information in real time. Silicon Valley designers aim to have A.I. work at least somewhat independently of its users, so they have stepped away from older, familiar input-output modes, what’s called symbolic A.I., a “top down” approach that demands tediously lengthy entry of preparatory rules and data. Instead, they are engineering “from the ground up,” building inside the computer a neural network that mimics a brain – albeit, a very small one, rivalling a mouse – that can teach itself via trial-and-error to detect and assess patterns found in the data that its computer receives. At these highest echelons, the advancement of A.I. is awe-inspiring.

Now for the polemic.

In the field of education, where I’m trained and most familiar, nothing about A.I. is nearly so clear. Typically, I’ve found classroom A.I. described cursorily, by function or task:

  • A.I. facilitates individualized learning
  • A.I. furnishes helpful feedback
  • A.I. monitors student progress
  • A.I. highlights possible areas of concern
  • A.I. lightens the marking load

On it goes… A.I., the panacea. Okay, then, so in a classroom, how should we picture what is meant by “A.I.”?

Mr. Dukane
“Anybody remember Mr. Dukane?”

Specific examples of classroom A.I. are hard to come by, beyond top ten lists and other generalized descriptions. I remember those library film-strip projectors we used in Grade 1, with the tape decks attached. Pressing “Play,” “Stop,” and “Eject” was easy enough for my six year-old fingers, thanks to engineers, who designed the machines, and producers, who made the film strips, even if the odd time the librarian had to load them for us. (At home, in a similar vein, how many parents ruefully if necessarily consider the T.V. a “babysitter” although, granted, these days it’s probably an iPad. But personification does not make for intelligence… does it? Didn’t we all understand that Max Headroom was just a cartoon?) There’s a trivia game app with the hand-held clickers, and there’s an on-line plagiarism detector – both, apparently, are A.I. For years, I had a Smart Board although I think that kind of branding is just so much capitalism and harshly cynical. Next to the Smart Board was a whiteboard, and I used to wonder if, someday, they’d develop some windshield wiper thing to clean it. I even wondered if someday I wouldn’t use it anymore. For the record, I like whiteboards. I use them, happily, all the time.

Look, I can appreciate this “ground-up” concept as it applies to e-machines. (I taught English for sixteen years, so metaphor’s my thing.) But intelligence? Anyway, there seems no clear definition of classroom A.I., and far from seeming intelligent to me, none of what’s out there even seems particularly dim-witted so much as pre-programmed. As far as I can tell, so-called classroom A.I. is stuff that’s been with us all along, no different these days than any tool we already know and use. So how is “classroom A.I.” A. I. of any kind, symbolic or otherwise?

"... so whose the Sub?"
“Hey, so whose the Sub today?”

Symbolic A.I., at least the basis of it, seems not too dissimilar to what I remember about computers and even some video arcade favourites from back in the day. Granted, integrated circuits and micro-processers are a tad smaller and faster these days compared to, say, 1982 (… technology benefitting from its own surplus?). Perhaps more germane to this issue is the learning curve, the literacy, demanded of something “intelligent.” Apparently, a robot vacuum learns the room that it cleans, which as I gather is the “ground-up” kind of Symbolic A.I. Now, for all the respect and awe I can muster for a vacuum cleaner—and setting all “ground-up” puns aside—I still expect slightly less from this robot than passing the written analysis section of the final exam. (I taught English for sixteen years, so written analysis is my thing.) It seems to me that a given tool can be no more effective than its engineering and usage, and for that, isn’t A.I.’s “intelligence” more indicative of its creator’s ingenuity or its user’s aptitude than of itself or its pre-programmed attributes?

Press Any Key to Begin

By the same token, could proponents of classroom A.I. maybe just ease off a bit from their retcon appropriation of language? I appreciate getting caught up in the excitement, the hype—I mean, it’s 21st century mania out there, with candy floss and roller coasters!—but that doesn’t mean you can just go about proclaiming things as “A.I.” or, worse, proclaiming A.I. to be some burgeoning technological wonder of classrooms nationwide when… it’s really not. Current classroom A.I. is simply every device that has always already existed in classrooms for decades—that could include living breathing teachers, if the list of functions above is any guide. Okay then, hey! just for fun: if classroom tools can include teachers who live and breathe, by the same turn let’s be more inclusive and call A.I. a “substitute teacher.”

Another similarly common tendency I’ve noted in descriptions of classroom A.I. is to use words like “data,” “algorithm,” and “training” as anthropomorphic proxy for experience, decision-making, and judgment, i.e. for learning. Such connotations are applied as simply as we might borrow a shirt from our sibling’s closet, as liberally as we might shake salt on fries, and they appeal to the like-minded, who share the same excitement. To my mind, judicious intelligence is never so cavalier, and it doesn’t take much horse-sense to know that too much salt is bad for you, or that your sibling might be pissed off after they find their shirt missing. As for actually manufacturing some kind of machine-based intelligence, well… it sure is easy to name something “Artificial Intelligence,” much less bestow “intelligence” by simply declaring it! The kind of help I had back in the day, as I see it, was something I just now decided to call “S.I.”: sentient intelligence.

Facetiousness aside, I grant probably every teacher has spent some time flying on auto-pilot, and I’ve definitely had days that left me feeling like an android. And fair enough: something new shakes things up and may require some basic literacy. There’s no proper use of any tool, device, or interface without some learned practical foundation: pencil and paper, protractor, chalk slates, the abacus. How about books, or by ultimate extension, written language, itself? These are all teaching tools, and each has a learning curve. So is A.I. a tool, a device, an interface? All of the above? I draw the line where it comes to classroom tools that don’t coach the basketball team or have kids of their own to pick up by 5pm: the moniker, “A.I.,” seems more than a bit generous. And hey, one more thing, on that note: wouldn’t a truer account of A.I., the tool, honour its overt yet seemingly ignored tag, “artificial”? R2D2 and C-3PO may be the droids we’re looking for, but they’re still just science fiction.

Fantastic tales aside, technological advancements in what is called the field of A.I. have and will continue to yield useful, efficient innovation. And now I mean real Silicon Valley A.I., not retcon classroom A.I. But even so, to what ends? What specifically is this-or-that A.I. for? In a word: why? We’re headed down an ontological road, and even though people can’t agree on whether we can truly consider our self, we’re proceeding with A.I. in the eventual belief that it can. “It will,” some say. Not likely, I suspect. Not ever. But even if I’m wrong, why would anyone hope that A.I. could think for itself?

Artificial Intelligence
10. Be “A.I.”    20. Go to 10     Run

Hasn’t Heidegger presented us with enough of a challenge, as it is? Speaking of time and energy, let’s talk opportunity costs. Far greater minds than mine have lamented our ominous embrace with technology. Isn’t the time and energy spent on A.I.—every second, every joule of it—a slap-in-the-face of our young people and the investment that could have been made in them? It’s ironic that we teach them to develop the very technology that will eventually wash them away.

Except that it won’t. I may be out on a limb to say so, but I suspect we will sooner fall prey to the Twitterverse and screen-worship than A.I. will fulfil some sentient Rise of the Machines. The Borg make good villains, and even as I watch a lobby full of Senior Band students in Italy, staring at their iPhones, and fear assimilation and, yes, worry for humanity… I reconsider because the Borg are still just a metaphor (… sixteen years, remember?). Anyway, as a teacher I am more driven to reach my students with my own message than I am to snatch that blasted iPhone from their hands, much as I might like to. On the other hand, faced with a dystopian onslaught of Replicants, Westworld Gunslingers, and Decepticons, would we not find ourselves merely quivering under the bed, frantically reading up on Isaac Asimov while awaiting the arrival of Iron Man? Even Luke Skywalker proved susceptible to the Dark Side’s tempting allure of Mechanized Humanity; what possible response could we expect from a mere IB cohort of inquiry-based Grade 12 critical thinkers and problem-solvers?

The Borg
“Resistance is futile.”

At the very least, any interruption of learners by teachers with some classroom tool ought to be (i) preceded by a primer on its literacy, i.e. explaining how to use that particular tool in (ii) a meaningful context or future setting, i.e. explaining why to use that particular tool, before anybody (iii) begins rehearsing and/or mastering that particular tool, i.e. successfully executing whatever it does. If technology helps create surplus time and energy, then how and why and what had better be considered because we only have so much time and energy at our disposal. The what, the how, and the why are hardly new concepts, but they aren’t always fully considered or appreciated either. They are, however, a means of helpful focusing that few lessons should be without.

As a teacher, sure, I tend to think about the future. But that means spending time and paying attention to what we’re up to, here and now, in the present. To that end, I have an interest in protecting words like “learning” and “intelligence” from ambiguity and overuse. For all the 21st century hearts thumping over the Cinderella-transformation of ENIAC programmable computation to A.I., and the I.o.T., and whatever lies beyond, our meagre acknowledgement of the ugly step-sister, artificiality, is foreboding. Mimicry is inauthentic, but neither is it without consequence. Let’s take care that the tools we create as means don’t replace the ends we originally had in mind because if any one human trait can match the trumpeting of technology’s sky-high potential—for me at least, not sure for you—I’d say its hubris.

Another fantastic tale comes to mind: Frankenstein’s monster. Technological advancement can be as wonderful as horrifying, probably usually somewhere in between. However it’s characterised or defined, though, by those who create it, it will be realised in the end by those who use it, if not those who face it. For most people, the concept of cell phones in 1982 was hardly imagined. Four decades later, faces down and thumbs rapid-fire, the ubiquity of cell phones is hardly noticed.

A Kind of Certainty: V. Fleeting Uncertainty

Click here to read Pt IV. A Kind of Faith

 


A Kind of Certainty

5. Fleeting Uncertainty

Like a vast sea of experience is all that we know and learn and encounter every single day. We are but tiny ships bobbing and rolling upon its waves, its currents steering us here and there. How on earth do we discern and decide what we value, what we believe, in order to collaborate with others in meaningful curricular relationships? (I almost wish I could just be waylaid by pirates, or something.) For me, one way to decide is to consider our shared motives, and find incentives to collaborate from there. Notwithstanding the degree to which people are educated, or by whom, everybody has motives.

But we do not all necessarily have a particular destination or a future port-of-call. So the aim for curriculum appears to be that of shaping motives to coincide with the current state of affairs such that, in a broad sense, people can (a) function – a measure of the self-ful[1] – and then (b) contribute – a measure of the selfless. Upon this vast sea, we are not so much bound for any one destination as we are bound to assist each other, each underway to wherever best suits our particular circumstances at that time – yours for you, and mine for me – and let the tangents direct us as they will.

Education, I have come to learn, is learning to have more than a destination or purpose of my own. It is to convoy with others and have faith that they do the same for others and for me, and putting in to decidedly worthwhile ports-of-call on the way. On the way, we chart our courses, but as similar as the ocean might look any given moment, wave after rolling wave, no two moments are ever exactly alike. To that degree, everyone must chart on their own. How intentionally we aid each other, how much or how little we trust, how sincerely we navigate, it is our shared curricula that will determine how effectively we undertake any particular decision we are ever likely to face, alongside whomever we find ourselves. The more we convoy in earnest, the safer we will be. With that kind of support, what is it that would sink us?

One final cautionary note: if and when some finally do make landfall somewhere, with certainty to their decision, we must acknowledge that their perspective will shift dramatically from those others who remain, however more or less certain to remain, at sea. Not everyone wants to remain at sea, and such variances our curricula are obliged to accommodate, if not fully comprehend or appreciate. There on that solid shore might be a tighter homogeneous culture that yields a more one-sided – or dogmatic? prejudiced? – communal certainty all its own. On that shore we might find a trade-off that sets the communal trustworthiness of the bobbing convoy against the stable individual footing of landfall. Yet somehow we all must sustain what we share, no matter the differences that may arise between sailor and landlubber – and why?

Because what remains the same amongst us – indeed, that which makes us who and what we are – is what we have in common. Common to all of us is being alive, being a person, being a human being, someone deserving of a basic respect for human dignity. Each of us, all of us, every one of us. We are all people. In this regard, really all that differs between us is where we are, and when. For people to think in any way differently than this about other people is narrow, delusional, perhaps cruel, and flat-out wrong. That may hardly feel a satisfactory closing, maybe even anti-climactic, but who ever said learning was meant to be entertainment?[2] Learning’s the thing wherein we catch the conscience of each other.

 

Click here for the Bibliography

Click here to read Pt I. An Uncertain Faith

 


Endnotes

[1] Forgive the invention, “self-ful.” I hesitated to use “selfish,” which tends to connote self-seeking and self-aggrandizing behaviour (in that colloquial sense of “No, you can’t have any of my ice cream”), and taking inspiration from the Bard, I just made up a word of my own. Likewise, I do not use “selfless” in some altruistic way so much as simply to counter “self-ful”; as a pair, I intend them to signify simply the notion of there being, for each of us, an intrinsic “me” and plenty of extrinsic “not me’s.” Further, with my students, I would liken self-fulness to each one’s academic efforts and scholarship, and selflessness to voluntary service and community stewardship of whatever kind. The longer-term idea was teaching students to balance these as required by kairos, by circumstance – an appropriate time for each, and the wisdom to know the difference.

[2] Or maybe, just maybe, there’s a curricular role for those gnarly amphibious surfers, after all.

Hawai'i Summer 2008
Teacher at work: catch a wave to catch the conscience?

A Kind of Certainty: III. A Scripture of Truth

Click here to read Pt II. Curriculum, or What You Will

 


A Kind of Certainty

3. A Scripture of Truth

Motive is the key, I would suggest to students: to know motive is to know the truth. And I offered this suggestion knowing full-well the timeworn joke about the actor who asks, “What’s my motivation?” Whats the Motivation Just as we can never cover it all and must go with whatever we decide to include, we also cannot (nor should not) try to present it all, ask it all, or attempt it all in one go. Yes, the odd non sequitur can break the monotony – everyone needs a laugh, now and then. But as with all clever comedy, timing is everything, and curriculum is about more than good humour and bad logic. In that regard, given what has already been said about spotting pertinence, curriculum is about motives: to include, or not to include.

And we must try to comprehend this decision from more than one perspective; each in their own way, both teacher and student ponder what to include and what to disregard during any given lesson: “Teachers are problem-posing, not just in the obvious sense that they require students to doubt whether they know something… [but] implicitly [asking] them to question their understanding of what counts as knowledge” (Beckett, 2013, p. 54-55). People generally will not doubt themselves without good reason, or else with a lot of faith in whoever is asking. Challenged to reconstruct or reorganise an experience (Dewey, 1916), more than likely we will want to know why. Curriculum addresses ‘why’.

Why! take Hamlet, for instance… deigning to know a little something about role-playing, he offers some curricular particulars while lecturing the Players ahead of the Mousetrap performance, although really this is to say Shakespeare offered them. Writers famously cringe as rehearsing actors and directors dismember their carefully worked dialogue – or is that another hackneyed joke? In any case, Shakespeare opens Act 3 with some forty lines of advice from Hamlet to the Players, whose replies are little beyond short and polite (although ‘why’ has evidently been left for you and your theatre company to ascertain). These follow some forty lines in Act 2 during an exchange between Hamlet and Rosencrantz about theatre companies, all of which could simply be played as a dose of comic relief amidst the far “weightier matters” of the play (Guyton, 2013). Tried another way, Hamlet’s lines about acting embody the very perplexity of his prolonged tumult: he takes for granted that his listener will attempt to reconcile what he says with whatever uncertainty they might have. What better job description, a “teacher”? Otherwise, why even bother to open his mouth?

What need to teach when we trust that we are all alike, that all around is 100% certain? As it pertains to telling the Players about acting, Hamlet wants no assurance that his audience must bridge some gap of certainty over his trustworthiness, not so far as he is concerned.[1] Indeed, common to live productions that I have watched, he is as relaxed and certain in offering his advice as the Players are in hearing it, like preaching to the choir.[2] Their relationship, apparently going back some time, suggests mutual respect and a shared faith not merely to listen but to understand in listening. It suggests a kind of shared attunement, something mutual, like a kind of curriculum founded upon trust. For all we might want to trust those around us, for all we might want some certainty that we are respected by others – or, perhaps more so, that we are believed – what a torment life would be if our every utterance were considered a lie. Then the only certainty would be the assurance that no one ever believed you, and if that still counts for something, it is dreadfully cold comfort.[3]

We citizens of 21st century post-modernist [your label here] North America may not have descended nearly so low although Klein (2014) does presciently discuss politics, the national discourse, and an observed decline in public intellectualism (Byers, 2014; Coates, 2014; Herman, 2017; Mishra & Gregory, 2015). Where Klein encompasses individuals and the processes, systems, and institutions that they innervate while going about their daily lives, he describes Dewey’s “conjoint communicated experience” (Dewey, 1916, p. 101) and implicates “an extraordinarily complicated conversation” (Pinar, Reynolds, Slattery & Taubman, 2006, p. 848), one that occurs everyday and includes everybody. But since we are forbidden to compel but only persuade the beliefs of free thinkers, we realise that all our perceived uncertainty can only be bridged by a kind of faith: we depend either upon others to see things as we do, or else we depend upon our rhetorical skill to persuade them toward our way. Or we live tense lives full of disagreement and antipathy. ’Swounds, but life would be a lot more stable and certain if we all just believed the same things!

Hamlet craves certainty, to the point where the dilemma of his doubt halts him so dead in his tracks that he is prompted to question existence itself. Where it comes to enacting vengeance – but, really, where it comes to everything we witness in the play – Hamlet – and, really, every character[4] – craves certainty and assurance while suffering from uncertainty and reluctance, which means, of course, that he craves and suffers from both ends. Indeed, a piece of him is certain. But comprising “one part wisdom and ever three parts coward” (4.4.42-43), he wages an unequal battle against himself. He wanders from room to room searching to free himself from his purgatorial tesseract, challenged not simply by one retrograde faith but by several, the consequence of conveying curriculum from Wittenberg back to Elsinore where, previously, he had received, to say the least, an impressionable upbringing. The upshot, given the conflicting decisions he faces, is that Hamlet would rather renounce any mutual faith of any sort and rely upon a certainty all his own: himself.

Yet he even doubts his ability to self-persuade, just as he holds no faith in anyone whose judgment he fears. As a result, he is rightly miserable and lives an exaggerated moment-to-moment existence, “…enraptured with, submerged in, the present, no longer a moment in but a suspension of time, absorbed by – fused with – the images in front of [his] face, oblivious to what might be beyond [him]” (Pinar, 2017, p. 12). Pinar describes a kairos moment of chronos time, as if Cecelia, while watching The Purple Rose of Cairo (Greenhut & Allen, 1985), could press “Pause.” He may not have been Woody Allen’s modernist contemporary, but Shakespeare still appeared to possess enough prescience to machinate a rather, shall we say, enlightened viewpoint; many consider The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark to be the Magnum Opus of English literature, not just Shakespeare. Evidently, he knew exactly how to craft such a rich and roundly individuated protagonist, one certain enough to persist for over 400 years. Certainty the Bard found within himself, and that he bestows (albeit perversely) upon Prince Hamlet, who “[knows] not seems” (1.2.76). Faith he found within himself, too, but that he saves for his audience, trusting them, freeing them, to spot it when the time is right, rendering what they will get unto those who will get it.

By the same token, may the rest get whatever they will get. As far as curriculum is concerned, one size has never fit all, nor should it ever be so.

 

Click here for the Bibliography

Click here to read Pt IV. A Kind of Faith

 


Endnotes

[1] I always suspected a handful of my students were just humoring me – have I mentioned they were brilliant?

[2] Sometimes, these lines have even been cut, to help shorten the play from its typical four-hour length.

[3] Elsinore seems just such a place. But they are wise who “… give it welcome” (1.5.165) since at least, then, you can get on with functioning, knowing where you stand relative to all the other prevaricating liars and weasels who inhabit the place alongside you.

[4] Every character, that is, with the possible exceptions of the Gravedigger, who apparently is most cheerful and self-assured, and Fortinbras, who suffers perhaps not pains of doubt so much as loss, and then always with something up his sleeve. I might also include Horatio in this reflection, but I fear, then, the need for an endnote to the endnotes, to do him any justice.