The Not Do-It-Yourslfer

bent nail 2


I’m no good at hammering nails

or sawing straight, presaged

in kindergarten by my inability

to color inside the lines —

My Friend Flicka’s brown coat

zigzaggingly asymmetrical.

Pressing down too hard,

clutching the crayon as if someone

might try to snatch it away,

too much in a hurry,

I would give up and flip the page,

start anew, scribbling colors,

blunting the tips of the crayons.

Now I beat the bent nail into treated lumber

to protect barefooted grandchildren.

Unusual high tides have lifted

dock planks divorced from rusty nails.

Bang bang bang   bang         bang.

That’s it: it’s time to call a handy man.



Evening All Afternoon



I don’t know why these lines from Wallace Stevens have always moved me so:

It was evening all afternoon.

It was snowing

And it was going to snow.

The blackbird sat

In the cedar-limbs.

The day before yesterday, a student at my school, a junior, a beautiful impatient boy, died.

Adolescents are more or less flat-liners when it comes to perspective. In my acne-ridden days, I remember all too well stupidly thinking all too much depended on something that might happen at 4th period, or not, or after school, or not. Breaking up equaled deserts of vast eternity.

Back then, I was eaten up with Romanticism, could not imagine the longer view that year piled upon year provides, could not imagine the joys of a post-adolescent life, of discovering an intellectual passion in college, of meeting and marrying a soul mate, of producing children, of singing lullabies to them:

When you wake, we’ll paddy-paddy cake

And ride the shining little pony.

Today, weather-wise, it was evening all morning and evening at noon and even evening early in the afternoon. Outside my classroom windows, at nine a.m. the dense cloud cover made the morning look like nightfall. It was so dark streetlights were illuminated.

I was teaching Wallace Stevens. The students seemed to get it. “It’s like a cubist painting,” one of them said. “Different perspectives.” They had momentarily forgotten.

When the blackbird flew out of sight,

It marked the edge

Of one of many circles.


Cults of Personality, Similarities between Trump and Sanders

The Scream

Alas, it seems as if the revolution Bernard Sanders has tried to foment has devolved into a prolonged elitist temper tantrum.

Certainly, the impoverished of our country, the “32.8 million adults” who live in “food insecure households,” have not shown up in sufficient numbers at caucuses or voted in primaries, as Sanders himself has acknowledged, bemoaning the fact that “poor people don’t vote.”[1] To make matters worse, when they do, they don’t vote overwhelmingly for him — at least according to the Washington Post:

“Sanders has lost Democratic voters with household incomes below $50,000 by 55 percent to 44 percent to Clinton across primaries where network exit polls have been conducted.”

Sanders has, on the other hand, done a bang up job with younger voters, undergraduates and college-educated millennials, who, if they haven’t actually read Das Kapital themselves, have had it sympathetically explained to them by liberal high school and college instructors.[2] The bad news is that a minority of these supporters have taken “the revolution” rhetoric a bit too much to spleen and turned violent, most notably hurling chairs in general and the c-word in particular at Barbara Boxer during last week’s Nevada Democratic Convention. Afterwards, Bernie supporters bombarded the state chairperson with obscene and threatening voicemails, including a threat to kill her granddaughter, and vandalized the venue where the event was held. Unlike the thugs associated with Trump, who can be identified by their baseball caps and Gadsden “Don’t Tread on Me” tattoos, vulgarians of the Bernie brigade tend to sport pork pie hats and Tibetan mandala ink. Otherwise, you really can’t tell them apart from their behavior.

And, not to put to fine a point on it, despite their antithetical ideologies, Sanders and Trump themselves share remarkable similarities in their MOs.

For example, both propose grandiose policy initiatives without providing details about how these policies would be implemented. Trump, famously, will make America great again by somehow getting Mexico to build and finance a gigantic wall on its side of the border and by coercing China into changing its monetary policy. How, you ask? Don’t ask; trust. Likewise, Sanders will break up banks “too big too fail” and provide free college tuition for American citizens. How you ask? Don’t ask; believe.

What we essentially have in both cases is a cult of personality.

There is a one significant difference, though. Trump condones if not encourages violence at his rallies:

There may be somebody with tomatoes in the audience,” Trump warned people at a rally in Iowa last month. “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously. Okay? Just knock the hell — I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees.”

On the other hand, Sanders doesn’t actively condone violence, but rather, merely rationalizes, makes excuses:

“Our campaign of course believes in non-violent change and it goes without saying that I condemn any and all forms of violence, including the personal harassment of individuals. But [my italics], when we speak of violence, I should add here that months ago, during the Nevada campaign, shots were fired into my campaign office in Nevada and apartment housing complex my campaign staff lived in was broken into and ransacked.”

He could, for example, have said something to the effect of “the behavior of a minority of my supporters at the Nevada caucuses was unconscionable, and I want to emphatically condemn it and express my regret that it was done in my name and to make it unequivocally clear to any follower of mine behaving in such a manner that you’re hurting, not helping, our campaign.” He could have also added, “It’s Hillary Clinton who espouses violence as a solution to geopolitical problems, not us.”

I’m not going so far as Josh Marshall and claim that “[t]he tone and tenor of a campaign always come from the top” and “knowledgeable sources” claim “in the last few weeks anyone who was trying to rein it in has basically stopped trying and just decided to let Bernie be Bernie.” However, a lawyer for the Democratic Party in Nevada offered this characterization of the convention violence: “At no time did any Sanders representative make anything more than token gestures towards peace in the hall, and at the times of most intense crisis offered little more than shrugs and smirks.”

Whatever the case, the New Yorker cover artist this week could have replaced the caricature of Trump with Bernie and replaced the elephant with a donkey, and we would have essentially the identical message. It’s not mere happenstance that Chris Matthews interviewed Ralph Nader in tonight’s edition of Hardball.



[2] In fact, I’m talking about myself here.


An Approach to Teaching 1984

1984 email imageHaving just finished teaching Orwell’s 1984 for the first time in twenty years, I thought I’d share my approach with anyone out there interested in tackling the novel. I find covering novels during a school year very challenging because of the time involved, and limited reading assignments make coming up with lessons difficult because students don’t know the complete arc of the narrative. In this case, my victims are high-achieving 9th graders.

What struck me when rereading the novel is its high artistic achievement.   For whatever reason, I remembered it as being more polemical than artistic; however, I now consider 1984 as a beautiful synthesized work in which setting, character, plot, symbolism all reinforce one another to create a devastatingly powerful whole.

But where in the hell to begin? There’s so much there: the geographic dynamics of the three superstates, the concept of doublethink, the linguistics of Newspeak, the pervasiveness of totalitarianism, the structure of the novel — not to mention characterization and symbolism.

Part One

I begin with characterization, with Winston, the protagonist. The first reading assignment is short, the first seven pages of the Signet Classic edition, the assignment ending when Winston writes the date April 4, 1984 in his diary.[1]

In our close reading, we focus on Winston’s fragility, how his overalls symbolically swallow him, much as his dystopian world has swallowed him. We discuss the setting and especially the tone.

The second assignment is to finish “Part 1.” In the subsequent class, we focus on O’Brien, who, of course, takes over the narrative at the end of the novel. I especially note the initial description of O’Brien’s person:

O’Brien was a large, burly man with a thick neck and a course, humorous, brutal face. In spite of his formidable appearance, he had a certain charm of manner [. . .]. Winston had seen O’Brien perhaps a dozen times in almost as many years. He felt deeply drawn to him, and not solely because he was intrigued by the contrast between O’Brien’s urbane manner and his prizefighter’s physique.

Note that prevalence of negativity in that ambiguous description and how O’Brien’s very appearance calls to mind doublethink, the paradoxical juxtapositioning of antithetical elements.   WAR IS PEACE. O’BRIEN’S UGLY MUG IS ATTRACTIVE. During Winston’s interrogation near the end of the book, we return to this passage. Obviously, Winston “misread” O’Brien.

In the passages describing “the flicks” and the Two Minutes of Hate, we explore how the violence involved in the movies and the “two minutes” might negatively condition even intelligent contrarians like Winston, which sets up later revelations like his regret over not killing his wife when he had the opportunity or his blithely promising to throw sulfuric acid into the face of a child. Of course, contemporary phenomena like violent video games offer correlations students can relate to.

Sections 3 and 4 provide elaboration and an opportunity to discuss the modus operandi of the State, the barbarism of the children, the undermining of basic human instincts like filial love. We also discuss the ubiquitous surveillance of Outer Party members and how telescreens and hidden microphones create paranoia and why a paranoid populace would be less inclined to rebel.

In Sections 4 and 5, we tackle Newspeak. I encourage students to record Newspeak vocabulary in their notebooks, and on our once-a-week block day (85 minutes as opposed to 45), I have them translate the first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities into Newspeak.

What a wonderful opportunity to discuss language and how the specificity of vocabulary sharpens perception. We talk about the role that language plays in shaping what we call reality. I ask them to visualize an oleander. If they don’t know the word, I tell them an oleander is a bush. Then I compare descriptions between a student who knows what an oleander is and a student who describes a bush. (Or you could have one student sketch an oleander and another a bush). We discuss how eliminating words and simplifying vocabulary help to restrict thought in Oceania.

Section 8, the last section of Part One, is particularly important as Winston enters the prole ghetto, visits a pub, and discusses the past with a senile old man. We debate the pros and cons of being a prole versus a party member. Here also is a chance to question the relationship between human cognition and our understanding of history.

At the end of Part 1, I show the movie trailer for the 1984 version starring John Hurt.

Part 2

Part 2 deals with Winston’s and Julia’s love affair. Here we have the dichotomy of thoughts versus feelings highlighted by Winston’s inner proclamation at the very end of “section 7”:

They could not alter your feelings; for that matter you couldn’t alter them yourself, even if you wanted to. They could not lay bare in the utmost detail everything you had done or said or thought; but the inner heart, whose workings were mysterious even to yourself, remained impregnable.

Obviously, a comparison and contrast between Winston and Julia is a potential subject for discussion or a paper.

Although I’m a frequent quizzer, I don’t quiz them on the contents of “The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism,” the treatise written by Inner Party Members but attributed to the fictitious Emmanuel Goldstein. This part of novel is not nearly as popular with the students and difficult for many of them to comprehend.

We do discuss the geopolitical configuration of the planet, but spend most of our time exploring how the ubiquitous slogans (IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH, etc.) work as paradoxes that can contain some elements of truth.


At this point, on Block Day, I divide students into groups and have them discuss the following topics and to record in writing their conclusions:

  1. It is vitally important to the Inner Party that the people of Oceania be kept in a perpetual state of paranoia. Discuss how this is achieved and, most importantly, why it is so important to the party’s system of control.
  1. Discuss the use of technology to control public and private behavior in 1984.
  1. How does Newspeak enable the Party to control thought and limit emotion?    How important is Newspeak in the plan for perpetual Party power?
  1. Would you rather be a prole or a Party member in 1984? Why or why not? Provide examples from the novel to support your argument.

I allow students to choose whatever topic interests them the most, and at least this year, the groups broke down remarkably well into units of three and four. These topics end up being the basis of a writing assignment, which I’ll reproduce at the end of the post.

Part 3

In Part 3, I introduce students to the three elements Aristotle’s rhetoric: ethos, logos, and pathos and argue that O’Brien’s interrogation is an act of persuasion that utilizes these three elements. Here, I’m indebted to Emele Brax’s dissertation “A Rhetorical Reading of George Orwell’s 1984,” which you can find here.

We discuss how O’Brien establishes his credibility and Winston’s ambiguous feelings toward him (ethos), how O’Brien manipulates logic to convince Winston that Winston is wrong (logos), and how appeals to pathos, i.e., comfort, protection, and family[2] help to convert Winston into a believer.

We also talk about O’Brien’s contention that reality only exists in the minds of right-thinking Party members. I introduce them to the concept of existentialism.

Wrap Up

Once we have finished the novel, I go subversive and claim that it has a happy ending, that the protagonist’s conflict is successfully resolved in a way that makes him happy. After all, “two gin-scented tears of joy” are “trickling down” his cheeks as we learn that Winston “had won the victory over himself.”

Of course, the students disagree, so I take on O’Brien’s persona, hold four fingers up and ask how many they see, explain to them they’ve been brainwashed by Western humanism.  I ask them to imagine that they’re North Koreans and how might their interpretations differ if that were the case. This play acting leads to a summing up discussion, so all that’s left is the paper.

1984 Essay Assignment

Your first sentence should mention the title and author and convey that 1984 is an important dystopian work about totalitarianism.

The next three or four sentences should provide a short summary of the culture of Oceania.

Then depending on your topic, you should pivot towards your thesis.

For example, for topic number 1, you might say something to the effect that because of constant surveillance and the tendency for neighbors and children to inform on their parents and friends, paranoia runs rampant among Party members.

The thesis comes next.

For number 2, you might say something to the effect that being under constant surveillance controls both public and private behavior, which makes rebellion next to impossible.

The thesis comes next.

For number 3, you’d mention Newspeak as a major factor in limiting Party members ability to reason and experience emotions before stating your thesis.

For number 4, your pivot should mention the distribution of the prole and Party population and how they’re treated by the Inner Party before stating your thesis.

Each body paragraph’s topic sentence should reflect an idea in your thesis and should be debatable (in other words not a statement of fact). You need to demonstrate that the topic sentences are true by providing examples from the novel via direct quotations.

  1. When incorporating quotes, provide context (where and when the quote appears, and if it comes from a character, tell us who says it).
  1. Fluidly incorporate quotes into your own prose.

You don’t want long quotes but to break quotes into small segments and “sandwich” them into your analytical sentences.

For example, rather than writing, “Party members have it better than proles. ‘They were born, they grew up in the gutters, they went to work at twelve, they passed through a brief blossoming period of beauty and sexual desire, they married at twenty, they were middle-aged at thirty, they died, for the most part, at sixty,’” it’s better to slice the quote into more digestible bites like this:

All Winston seems to know about proles is that they grow “up in the gutters” and go “to work at twelve.” Even though they enjoy “a brief blooming period of beauty,” they end up “middle-aged at thirty” and “dying for the most part, at sixty.”

End your paper with a conclusion that doesn’t merely summarize your argument but pivots to another related aspect of the novel. For example, if you argue that being a Party Member is better than being a prole, you might end the paper by discussing what a terrible choice it is because Party members lead wretched lives given that . . .


[1] 4 April was coincidentally the day the reading assignment was due.

[2] Both O’Brien and Big Brother are father figures.


Let’s face it, nuance went out with the rise of cable news.  Not only do politicians not reach across the aisle to seek compromises, but they essentially don’t associate with members of the other parties.  Gone are the days when polar politicians like Orrin Hatch and Teddy Kennedy could become bosom friends, when Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neil could “after six o’clock” be friends.


No, nowadays, middle ground is no man’s land.

Yesterday, as I was showing my tenth graders a clip from Apocalypse Now in conjunction with teaching Heart of Darkness, it occurred to me that the photojournalist’s speech to Willard as Kurtz reads from TS Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” is a superb commentary on contemporary American politics.  I offer it without comment except for the tidbit that one of the epigraphs for “The Hollow Men” is “Mistuh Kurtz – he dead,” so essentially Kurtz is reading a poem in which he appears.


The Hollow Men

Mistah Kurtz-he dead
A penny for the Old Guy


We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us-if at all-not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.


Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death’s dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind’s singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.

Let me be no nearer
In death’s dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer-

Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom


This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man’s hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.

Is it like this
In death’s other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.


The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death’s twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.


Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o’clock in the morning.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

art by Claire Lambe

art by Claire Lambe


Vanilla Pudding’, Suburban Rapper

Vanilla Puddin'

Vanilla Puddin’


I have 99 Problems, but Disposable Income Isn’t One of Them



Vanilla Puddin’ is my name,

And rapping is my avocation,



Jay-Z can’t rhyme better than I,

So ‘cuse me while I kiss the ground,



I own a late model Volvo with leather seats and air bags.

You know I don’t like to boast,

But that Volvo’s paid for,



An officer pulled me over for rolling thru a stop sign,

Then asked me for my registration,

Which was up to date and everything,

So you can kiss my alabaster derriere,



I have 99 problems

But disposable income isn’t one of them.


So dig it, fellow homeowners!