Rabbit Trail: In Defense of Being Average

There are a few book reviews in draft for next week, including The Two-Income Trap, of which I offered a preview some time back.  In the meantime, I ran across this piece from Mark Manson that really struck a chord with me. Manson makes the case, complete with his characteristic smattering of colorful language, that our current cultural obsession with being exceptional has caused most people to lose sight of the glaringly obvious: most of us are average Janes and Joes. And that’s perfectly okay.

We all have our own strengths and weaknesses. But the fact is, most of us are pretty average at most things we do. Even if you’re truly exceptional at one thing — say math, or jump rope, or making money off the black gun market — chances are you’re pretty average or below average at most other things. That’s just the nature of life. To become truly great at something, you have to dedicate time and energy to it. And because we all have limited time and energy, few of us ever become truly exceptional at more than one thing, if anything at all.

We can then say that it is a complete statistical improbability that any single person can be an extraordinary performer in all areas of their life, or even many areas of their life. Bruce Wayne does not exist. It just doesn’t happen. Brilliant businessmen are often f*ck ups in their personal lives. Extraordinary athletes are often shallow and as dumb as a lobotomized rock. Most celebrities are probably just as clueless about life as the people who gawk at them and follow their every move.

We’re all, for the most part, pretty average people. It’s the extremes that get all of the publicity. We all kind of intuitively know this, but we rarely think and/or talk about it. The vast majority of us will never be truly exceptional at, well, anything. And that’s OK.

Which leads to an important point: that mediocrity, as a goal, sucks. But mediocrity, as a result, is OK.

Few of us get this. And fewer of us accept it. Because problems arise — serious, “My God, what’s the point of living” type problems — when we expect to be extraordinary. Or worse, we feel entitled to be extraordinary. When in reality, it’s just not viable or likely. For every Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, there are 10 million scrubs stumbling around parks playing pickup games… and losing. For every Picasso or DaVinci there have been about a billion drooling idiots eating Play-Doh and slapping around fingerpaints. And for every Leo {expletive] Tolstoy, there’s a lot of, well, me, scribbling and playing at writer.

That last bit gave me quite a chuckle, as an aspiring writer myself, but I know he’s right. Thankfully, I’m depending more on my message than the medium should I finish what I have begun to write. Nevertheless, Manson is spot on. We live under what could almost be described as the tyranny of exceptionalism:

So here’s the problem. I would argue that we have this expectation (or this entitlement) more today than any other time in history. And the reason is because of the nature of our technology and economic privilege.

Having the internet, Google, Facebook, YouTube and access to 500+ channels of television is amazing. We have access to more information than any other time in history.

But our attention is limited. There’s no way we can process the tidal waves of information flowing through the internet at any given time. Therefore the only ones that break through and catch our attention are the truly exceptional pieces of information. The 99.999th percentile.

All day, every day, we are flooded with the truly extraordinary. The best of the best. The worst of the worst. The greatest physical feats. The funniest jokes. The most upsetting news. The scariest threats. Non-stop.

Our lives today are filled with information coming from the extremes of the bell curve, because in the media that’s what gets eyeballs and the eyeballs bring dollars. That’s it. Yet the vast majority of life continues to reside in the middle.

You really should read the entire piece. The bell curves are informative, the graphics are entertaining, and the videos are funny.

I actually love my average life, as I have come to greatly appreciate a life filled with love, but there is one area where I am definitively on the right side of the bell curve: I’m 5 feet, 9 inches tall!

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Y’all have a good weekend, and if your father is still with you, show him that he’s exceptional to you.

Happy Father’s Day to the dads who honor this little blog with your time and attention.

Content advisory: Manson drops the occasional f-bomb. If you hadn’t noticed.

 

Continuing Education Adjustments- Writer’s Edition

Juggling the student ball with wife and motherhood balls is a delicate balancing act. I assumed that enrolling in Local U. via online classes would significantly reduce the need to carefully schedule my life. I was mistaken. I thought having done this before, I knew what it would be like, but my life is much different now than it was the first time I went back to college.

Back then, I had three children rather than five, and those kids were in school from 8AM-3PM, freeing up many hours to take care of everything that needed to be taken care of, without much interruption. Even when I accounted for my school volunteer time, I had at least 20 solo hours a week to dedicate to studying, housework, and self-care without missing very many beats.

This time, I have two children with me all day, every day, and I am responsible for their education as well as my own. It’s summer, so the demand is significantly less, which is why chose a summer session, but there are still demands to be met alongside the time I spend doing class work and participating on class discussion boards. My husband, the driving force behind me finally taking the plunge and hitting the books again, has been extremely helpful, as have our older children, but at the end of the day, I’m still the mistress of this little domain. As such, I always feel the pressure to make sure that I get done what needs to get done. Overall, it’s going quite well.

As an aspiring writer, I decided that current knowledge of industry information was paramount to accomplishing my goal. I’m not particularly interested in typing out my random thoughts, checking the grammar, and then self-publishing. There are millions upon millions of books out there which meet minimum standards of readability, but I desire to do more than that. And while I have heartfelt appreciation for the many people who have encouraged me over the years that I write well, and have something worth saying, even the roughest diamond needs a lot of polishing. When I write what is in my heart, I want it to shine.

One area of knowledge I believe is important is a thorough, working knowledge of current copy editing standards. The first round of classes I am taking will leave me with the certifications I need to be proficient as a professional copy editor. Anyone who has read my blog for any length of time has noticed that my writing is often riddled with typos. Training my eye to see mistakes quickly, to notice deficiencies in syntax, and to make the most of my writing style can only help me as I combine my thoughts into something worthwhile.

The surprising thing about this new excursion has been discovering that I know much more than I realized. There have been moments, even in the scant three weeks since I started the first class, when I have felt woefully over prepared. I did well on my pre-assessment, when I expected to do much worse considering the years I’ve been out of the classroom- as a student. I haven’t run into any major difficulties yet. The temptation is rising in me to coast and not put in the effort to excel. I’m not sure if any real effort will even be required for me to excel. The area which has required the most mental diligence is the study of specific publishing indutry standards, of which I am woefully ignorant. This experience is teaching me something valuable.

My years out of the classroom (as a student) and at home, haven’t been void of learning, growth, or intellectual stimulation. Homeschooling my cildren, as well as teaching the children of other homeschooling families, has kept me sharp and up to speed on a lot of things I may have otherwise lost along the way.

Investing the time and treasure to pursue this continuing education is worth the shuffle. Whether I succeed at writing an inspiring tome, or simply make a few bucks as a freelance editor, this will, I pray, prove to be a rewarding encounter for years to come.

A Logophile’s Educational Musings

I really enjoy word games. Whether Words with Friends, Word Cookies, or Word Cross, they can keep me entangled and unproductive for longer than I care to admit. I love words in general, and my children have inherited many of my logophile ways. Grammar, turns of phrases, and puns are regular sources of conversation for us; as well as the origins of many idioms and axioms. Words fascinate me. More than fun or even useful, words are also powerful.

We throw them around far too carelessly, forgetting that words can be agents of uncommon inspiration or destructive demoralization. I am among the aforementioned we.  I’m not always careful with my words either. I’d like to think that as a lover of words, I’m more careful than most, but a subjective analysis isn’t worth much.

In a culture where nearly everything is dumbed down to its base level, is it any wonder that great ideas, expressed in beautiful prose, are lacking? Where does the ability to express ourselves and encourage others come from, whether verbally or in written form? If “intellectual stimulation” is gathered mostly through Twitter, television, YA fiction and Facebook blurbs, it doesn’t offer much to draw on for discussing big ideas.

Lindsay Brigham Knott examines what this means for helping students to develop as writers in her recent offering at Circe Institute’s Apiary blog.

Amongst the greatest gifts a classical school can bestow upon its students is the opportunity to become skilled in the use of words.

“Opportunity,” not “ability,” for no institution nor teacher nor curriculum can make good writers any more than one man can convert another: the student himself must labor to train his hands for the task, and pray for the Muse to animate them. But it is incumbent upon classical schools—which aim to make students more human, tend all their natural capacities into full blossom, unshackle their desires and discipline their wills towards the wise use of leisure time, and enable them to know and live “the good life,” all by nurturing them in wisdom and virtue—to commit a large portion of their and their students’ energies to word-training.

In other words, words and their usage are vitally important. A cursory glance or slightly perked ear easily reveals how words can be used to manipulate everything from our spending habit to political policies to social and cultural mores. She adds:

It’s in attempt to communicate this vision that I often begin writing classes by asking students to consider all the parts of their lives that involve words. By words we commune with family and friends who give our days meaning; by words we decree the rules and call the plays of sports that delight our bodies and imaginations; by words we advertise the commodities that flood the markets and saturate our desires; by words we scribble out daily lists of chores, assignments, groceries, goals, dreams that form us down the years; by words we struggle to illumine the murky impulses of our own mysterious souls; by words we receive God’s scriptural self-revelation and respond in prayer and praise.

The question this author poses is whether or not those of us committed to classical education are seeing the fruits of our labor as graduates from classical schools and programs are launched into the world. Do the students reflect a level of thoughtfulness in their use of language which reflects years of studying St. Augustine, Homer, or Spenser? She determines that the answer is negative, but that most of us barely notice or see this as a problem. After all:

…they made good grades in their classical schools. Their college professors compliment their uncommon ability to express individual opinions and formulate intriguing thesis statements. Their essays ruin the curve for the rest of the class. They do in fact use words well . . . in the supremely limited context of academic writing and speaking.

This dichotomy suggests that classical school students are, in fact, mastering what their schools give them opportunity to learn about using words—but that schools themselves may not be shaping those opportunities as holistically as they could. Consider: most classical schools do prioritize training in language. Indeed, many schools of the Classical Renewal so emphasize the subjects and sequence of the Trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) that some onlookers may equate “classical education” with “linguistic and literary education,” consisting of lots of Latin, lots of old books, and lots of essays. But by and large, curricula and classroom instruction suggests that skill with words means merely correct grammar, proper essay structure, varied diction and syntax, and a tasteful sprinkling of rhetorical flourishes, for that is what they teach and assess.

In other words:

I wonder whether classical schools, in their laudable zeal to train students to write well, have unconsciously adopted a model of writing instruction that does not in fact cohere with their larger aims for students—humanness, rightly-formed desires, the good life, wisdom and virtue. Too often they have taken the best of the writing instruction that non-classical schools use, focusing exclusively on academic writing like persuasive essays, literary analysis, or research papers, and married it to classically-influenced content of old books and rhetorical terminology. The fruit of the union is a program that is more college preparatory than classical, and graduates whose skill with words differs from that of their peers only in the classroom.

You should read the whole thing.

What Mrs. Knott describes is the perpetual challenge homeschoolers of every stripe must overcome. For those of us who were traditionally educated, the tendency to transfer the strategies, pace and benchmarks to our kitchen tables –while using better literature- is a constant temptation. Old habits die hard and all that.

These habits, coupled with unhealthy media consumption and reading habit, don’t only create writers with less appreciation for using words well, they also fail to inoculate emerging adults with the foundational ideals necessary to counter the onslaught of propaganda and clever use of words they’ll encounter throughout their lives.

Words, read, spoken, and written, are powerful. We forget this to our peril.

Stretching Creative Limits

As I embark on this nonfiction version of the NaNoWriMo challenge, thoughts about stretching my creative limits are floating to the surface. The thoughts are so vivid and constant that I was reminded of a conversation I had with my gifted composition teacher in high school. At that time, they called gifted students “gifted”, a statement of aptitude, rather than the more palatable “AP” which indicates that the placement is chosen rather than endowed.

That morning, I realized I’d forgotten to write a short essay that was due. In a mad rush, I wrote it on the school bus and before class, had a fellow gifted English student read over it and tell me what he thought. He said it was “really good. I never would have known you wrote this on the bus in 20 minutes if you hadn’t told  me so.” Confident that I had an A (or at least a B), well in hand, I submitted the essay to my teacher with relieved confidence. It was a confidence that she decidedly shook in a good way, although it would be years before I understood or appreciated it.

She returned the paper with a C, and I was moved to question her, which was very uncharacteristic of me. When I questioned her assessment of my work she said that the essay was good, and had another student written it,  she would have given it an ‘A’.

However, over the course of the school year, she’d read enough of my writing to know that that paper could have easily (I’m not kidding!) “been written on the bus on your way to school, so it’s not an A paper for you”.  I still felt I’d been done wrong, but the prophetic accuracy with which she’d nailed my lack of effort sucked all of the wind from the sails of my argument.

I was reminded of that moment last night as I slogged along trying to get the 1000 words I’d committed to on “paper”. We had a minor plumbing emergency in out house this week on top of our usual busy schedule, which has hindered my creative energy. I found that I was more concerned with meeting the word quota than writing something really worth reading. The effort wasn’t a total waste however, as there are some insightful thoughts waiting to be made readable with attentive editing.

What I have learned this week was that it’s important to remember not to coast while doing this. I need to give it the same level of care that I give would give while making my husband’s favorite recipes, or to anything else I would give extra thought and care. The fact that words come easy to me means I need to stretch myself in ways that produce better results. I should and I must, because I can.

I will say though, that creativity and enthusiasm in the kitchen which produces results in 2 hours or less is far easier and often more enjoyable.

NaNoWriMo 2018 continues…

NaNoWriMo, but non-fiction?

It’s November, that month where many writers, would-be writers, never-will-be-writers, and bloggers who write about writing promote National Novel Writing Month. I enjoy good novels, and have been encouraged over the years that my gift for the written word should be shared in ways beyond online forums. Writing fiction however, has never interested me. My imagination just isn’t that great. When and if I ever accomplish my desire of publishing something others are willing to pay to read, it will have to be non-fiction.

My beloved, having supplied me with the tools  to transfer my “profound” ideas and insights to the written word, has once again encouraged me that anything I need, including time and space, he will make available so that I can fulfill this longing. The only thing comparable to being well-loved is being believed in. As an act of appreciation for his faith, I’m putting a  personal spin NaNoWriMo, committing to writing every day for next 30 days. Should all go according to plan 30,000 words will be transferred from my head, to the keyboard, and onto paper by years’ end.

Even as I type this, my mind is fighting: “You are hosting Thanksgiving for 20 people this year”, “You are teaching this semester and need to prep for the next”, and the perpetual nagging thought, “You have more important priorities to focus on as a wife and mother.”

The struggle of balancing duties with desires can be a never ending one. It’s so often why most people simply choose one or the other, duties or desires, and let the chips fall for better or worse. Because we really can’t do “it all”, but we can do some of it.

I have concluded that writing 1000 words a day is doable, and not an all-encompassing,  overly time consuming task. It is just enough to hone one’s craft, but not so much that it steals time best devoted to other things.

We’ll see how this goes.

 

You can return bad Kindle books.

I never really considered before this past week whether or not it was possible to return Kindle books once they’ve been purchased and downloaded. It makes sense now, but until someone recently  informed me otherwise, I just assumed I couldn’t return them. I am grateful for that education.

While attempting to write 40,000 words and hitting a creative wall, I decided to do some research on the topic on which I was writing in the event that my entire project is an exercise in redundancy that someone else may have already done before, and better.

By the time I reached the 12% point in the book, I’d read what amounted to a long and windy bit of information unsuitable for anything other than a women’s study dissertation. Despite the gnawing feeling that I’d wasted a perfectly good $15, I forged on, despite wondering if my head would explode at one more sight of the words intersectionality, oppression, or patriarchy. By the time I reached 20%, I knew there was no point in reading further.

On the one hand, I was fairly certain that the book I was reading wasn’t in any way related to the book I am writing, which was good. On the other, I’d wasted my money, or so I thought. Thankfully someone informed me that Kindle books can be returned, refunded and removed from my device. I quickly returned the book, and bought another related one which I hope is in some way insightful. I also hope it doesn’t render my efforts redundant and unnecessary. I don’t think it will, as my particular take is unique and goes against the cultural grain, but we’ll see.

Consider this a PSA informing you in case you didn’t know, dear readers, that you’re not stuck with a bad book purchase just because you bought it on your Kindle device.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

frederick douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, by Frederick Douglass. Kindle Edition. Original work published in 1845. Paperback edition, 82 pages.

I hadn’t planned to re-read this autobiographical work by the famed orator, abolitionist and escaped Frederick Douglass. It wasn’t in my queue for the fall. However our kids were assigned excerpts from it in a lesson on persuasive literary techniques and in the 20 years since my first reading, there were large portions I’d forgotten.

When unforeseen events found us on a road trip this weekend, I purchased the Kindle version of The Narrative for 0.99, using the travel time to reintroduce myself to Frederick Douglass’ brief but passionate recounting of his life in slavery, from his early years to his eventual escape and rise to prominence as a free man and respected abolitionist speaker and writer. I’m glad I reacquainted myself with it.

For myriad reasons, I long ago made the decision not to expend significant time reexamining nor ruminating on the history of slavery in America. To the extent that we want our children to understand the fruit of human sin as well as the blessings they now enjoy, we teach them the history of their ancestors, including those ancestors still among us who haven’t always shared the freedom they enjoy.

It means teaching the good as well as the bad. Those lessons however, are always balanced with the truth that they have enormous amounts of opportunities available to them as a result of earnest attempts at redress, no matter how imperfect. Their mission, should they choose to rise to the challenge of morality, industry, and integrity, is to seize it.

Frederick Douglass, with no opportunity, and only bitter yokes of oppression somehow seized the reins of his destiny and emerged not only successfully, but triumphantly. He wasn’t content with the achievement of his own freedom. He had a deep Christian faith which sparked in him the desire to see all men be free.

That is the moral of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, alongside his fervent abolitionist message. And his narrative is indeed an excellent example to use as a tool to teach the principles of persuasive writing. To that end, I will keep this short and sweet by ending with a few persuasive and eloquent quotes from Douglass’ narrative.

On how his master unwittingly sparked his passionate desire for knowledge and freedom when he was a young boy between 8 and 10 (Douglass never knew his exact age or birth date). His master discovered that his mistress was teaching him to read:

Now,” said he, “if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.”

These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty — to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I the least expected it. Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained.

On the importance of keeping the mind of the slave in captivity. This quote feels especially apt in our current cultural climate, regardless of race:

“To make a contented slave, you must make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate his power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery. The man that takes his earnings, must be able to convince him that he has a perfect right to do so. It must not depend upon mere force; the slave must know no Higher Law than his master’s will. The whole relationship must not only demonstrate, to his mind, its necessity, but its absolute rightfulness.”

On the unprecedented and unparalleled cruelty of those oppressors who claim to be Christians:

“For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others.”

Further:

“We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen, all for the glory of God and the good of souls. The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave trade go hand in hand.”

None of this spoiled Douglass’ fervor for and belief in Christ and the Christian faith:

“I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the
corrupt, slave-holding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical
Christianity of this land.”

This indeed is an excellent piece for exploring the power of persuasive rhetoric, and a powerful narrative of an important period in American history. I could go on, but the only other option is to paste the whole narrative here, which I don’t think is feasible.

It’s worth a read.

5 out of 5 stars.