Category Archives: political

“He asked Congress to pass legislation…”

This student was writing about the ’60s, so maybe she was talking about Robert or John Kennedy, or President Johnson, but it might have been someone else. Perhaps identifying the noun referred to by the pronoun is unnecessary here. Let’s go on:

“He asked Congress to pass legislation requiring public places to eliminate races.”

Okay, I knew what she meant. She was talking about Civil Rights legislation and the abolition of Jim Crow laws and de facto segregation, especially in the South.

I don’t think she meant to say that someone was asking for legislation that would do away with races in public places, even if she meant “races” to refer to human groupings defined by certain physical characteristics. “Race” is a societal construct, not an actual thing, and our lives would certainly be simpler and probably more just if we could eliminate the concept of race as an identifier and just appreciate people as fellow human beings. I don’t think Congress is capable of bringing this about, though—not even the Congresses of the ’60s and ’70s, when representatives actually tried to represent.

I’m sure she didn’t mean eliminating people of race, since that would be everybody, or at least everybody who ventured into a public place. Would government troops representing public places mow down all those defiant humans who dared to take a stroll in the park, or drive down a highway, or go to school? (There seem to be some people today who think the government has plans as dire as that, but let’s not discuss hysterical paranoia here.) A nation of voluntary and involuntary agoraphobic hermits doesn’t seem very workable, especially in the days before Facebook, iPhones, cable television, NetFlix, and online shopping.

Eliminating people’s races without eliminating the people would entail, what, various plastic surgeries and complete bleaching (or deep-dying) of everyone’s hair and skin to a uniform shade? A windfall for cosmetic surgeons and cosmetologists, perhaps, but not really practicable. And if “in public places” have to do the eliminating, then would that be public hospitals, or dye specialists hired by public entities and working al fresco? I’m not sure, anyway, that that would accomplish much. We’d find some other basis for discrimination, and meanwhile we would have lost all the varieties of beauty in the human family…

The sentence could also be referring to a termination of sports contests open to the public: the Olympics, perhaps? Just the racing events, of course. Diving and ski-jumping competitions, figure skating and gymnastics, weight-lifting and hockey—those would still be okay. I would probably enjoy the revised Olympics well enough, not being much of a fan of racing anyway. But I’m sure the lovers of speed, and the gamblers, would be mightily disappointed.

Seems to me she really was talking about Lyndon Baines Johnson and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It didn’t eliminate race, or races, although we might argue that it eschewed the concept of races, in favor of a recognition of our common human race—but it did bar discrimination on the basis of race in all public places and by all public entities. Only a hundred years after the Civil War. And nearly 50 years later, we still haven’t really gotten used to the idea that race cannot determine opportunity, dignity, or rights—or at least, if what we see in the media is an indication, a frightening number of Americans still haven’t gotten used to it. Maybe we’re going to have to call in the cosmetic surgeons and dye specialists after all.

I guess I shouldn’t worry that my students seem to be slow learners. Most of them “get” the material in a mere four months.

“The Deceleration of Independence”

Maybe AutoCorrect is to blame, and maybe not. It can’t be a sounding-out phenomenon: who would say “deck-ell-eration”? For whatever reason, I got this from TWO students. I do decelere. (Or is it “I do decelerate”?)

Considering our more-or-less trusty spelling conventions, the “c” is usually pronounced like “s” if it’s followed by an e or i. Perhaps this “Deceleration” thing is about a child’s refusal to join the family in eating celery?

On its face, this phrase is referring to a slowing-down of independence. Reading comments on news sites and political sites and general Facebook pronouncements, I see that a lot of people do seem to have slowed down their independence in favor of parroting rumors they don’t bother to fact-check or think through for themselves. Listening to the loudest of the politicians, I gather that a lot of people (other people? same people?) want to bring social, scientific, cultural, and all other change to a screeching halt, or even turn back the hands of time (as the old rock song had it), not decelerating progress so much as longing for the 1880s. (Amazingly, just as with people who have their “past lives” read, none of them would be a peasant, a laborer, one of the vast number of the underclass; in past lives and the fantasized Gilded Age, everybody’s a Tudor or a Rockefeller…or Cleopatra.)

I once met Art Carney in an airport. He was waiting for his rental car; I was waiting for relatives to arrive on a plane. My Uncle Joe thought I was mistaken and took me across the room to share the joke with the man I “thought” was Art Carney. The joke was on Uncle Joe. Mr. Carney talked with us for a good fifteen minutes, and most of the conversation, believe it or not, was NOT about The Honeymooners, or his fame; it was about the weather, his hopes about the rental car, my school, where my relatives were from, what was fun about traveling. How likely is such a meeting today? How likely is any meeting? Perhaps the deceleration of independence is due to how much time we spend on our personal computers and other “devices,” how many movies we watch in the solitude of our own homes, how much of our shopping is done online, how few houses have front porches, how infrequently we walk anywhere, and (a natural consequence of our solitude?) how frightened we are of strangers, of one another. How much of our fear of change is rooted in our fear of the unknown; and how much larger is the “unknown” because we don’t leave home to experience it? Last Sunday I was waiting for the train to New York when a group of five teenagers or early-twentiesers came up onto the platform. They stood together in a little semicircle as they too waited for the train; but every one of them had his or her eyes on an iPhone or Android or whatever, and no one spoke. On the train there was a little conversation in the air, but what predominated was people on cellphones and children watching cartoons on their own little computers. Across from us we had mother and child: mother on phone, child on computer. When I arrive at a classroom I find silence rather than the friendly hubbub that used to spill into the hall: everyone is doing something-or-other on a personal device. At the end of class, nobody turns to anyone else to talk on the way out; everyone whips out that personal device and plunges into cyberchat or Angry Birds.

What would Walt Whitman say? Who hears America singing? Who looks at his fellows and says “I am you, my brother”?

But I was talking about the Declaration of Independence, and by association about the Constitution. Those gentleman activists of the Enlightenment had some noble ideas that they were able to elaborate into a plan of action and then into a governmental structure designed to serve a whole nation (not just themselves) and flexible enough to change as the world changed. Their ideas, and others’ articulations and interpretations of them, continue to inspire everyone who actually reads and thinks about them. They galvanized individuals committed to the common good to devote their lives to serving that common good, or lay down their lives to achieve or maintain that common good: the freedom to build their own lives in a society where all had that same freedom and where all had access to the rewards of the society they were building together; where childhood was about hope, youth was about preparation, adulthood was about achievement, and all human life was about dignity. The Constitution refers to building “a more perfect union,” implying that the work goes ever on.

Let us not decelerate our work toward independence, dignity, and the commonwealth. Declare allegiance to it (the idea, that is). If you attend a parade today, notice that the procession, and the flag, moves always forward.

“Any woman with their own opinion resembles an American.”

This is in honor of Michigan’s State Representative Lisa Brown, and as a warning to the Michigan government and all others who consider women, or treat them as, second-class citizens or second-class anythings, or just want to shut them up. In honor of Susan B. Anthony, too, who on November 18, 1872,  was arrested for trying to vote in the Presidential election, and refused to pay the fine.

The thought is in honor of them, anyway, even if the sentence is hard going.

My student was writing about Fanny Fern, 19th-century American satirist, who was very much in favor of women’s speaking their minds.

We’ll try to set aside the number agreement between “woman” and “their.” I continue to fight this battle—particularly here: why choose the plural when the gender is perfectly clear and therefore the singular “her” would be both grammatical and logical? But like so many things in contemporary culture, an easy pandering to a concept is winning out over an effort at precise thought. The example here is particularly ironic, since my student actually knows how to spell the singular, WOMAN, rather than using “womEn” for one, two, or any number. It’s true that one determined woman can wield the force of thousands, but most of us can still count, and I can certainly tell the difference between one woman and a dozen even though an eye injury has left me with double vision.

I digress. This student chose “woman,” which goes with the verb. I suppose she could have written “Any women with their own…,” but then I’d quibble with the singular “opinion” and certainly protest the singular verb. I’d far prefer to leave the numbers as they (mostly rightly) are and scream about “their.”

And now of course we come to the verb. I can’t understand where “resembles” comes from. Does she mean that women aren’t actually Americans but when they have opinions of their own they are reasonable facsimiles? or that any woman, no matter where in the world, is like an American if she has her own opinion? or that Americans have their own opinions, and women with opinions are like that? Would men with opinions resemble Americans too, or are they the default mode?

Well, if she walks like an American and talks like an American (which would presumably mean having an opinion), she must be an American, quack-quack.

How might my student have expressed this thought without putting me in stitches? I think she’d have to think through her idea before committing herself to her sentence. A lot of students don’t: they hate to back up. She starts off “Any woman…” and is stuck. Clarifies it with “with their own opinion.” Well, what? Hurry up and finish! Can’t say “is an American,” because plenty of Americans don’t seem to have opinions, witness all those polls with the “no opinion” response in double digits. So what verb would work? There, alas, is the rub: no verb would work. “Seems to be”? “Is being”? “Is acting like”? “Must be”? “Is exercising the rights of”? Faced with that dilemma, she had nowhere to turn, and “resembles” is no farther from what she meant than any of the other choices.

Had I been writing the sentence, I probably would have begun back there with the Bill of Rights: “Freedom of speech, hence freedom of thought, is guaranteed to all Americans, and that includes women.” I really think my student wanted to say something like that.

And so do I. Hear that, Michigan?

“He finds the land of the Houyhnhnms to be a kind of utopian society where all is perfect despite its glaring flaws.”

“He” is Gulliver, eponymous hero of Jonathan Swift’s great comic satire.

And she, my student, has ruined a perfectly good observation by giving in to the itch to define a word she thinks her reader may not know.

How many English-speaking college students (and beyond) need the word “utopian” defined? Of those who might, how many wouldn’t turn to a dictionary for a basic meaning, especially now that dictionaries can be consulted via cellphone? Okay, well, maybe a lot. But I don’t know that my student should care about them. Certainly she shouldn’t interrupt a serious reader with unnecessary explanations.

Because she does want to interrupt me, she misplaces the adverbial phrase that is the point of the sentence: “despite its glaring flaws.” I believe (well, I hope) she meant that despite its glaring flaws Gulliver believes the land of the Houyhnhnms is a utopia, a civic paradise. That is a fair observation, although most readers would defend Gulliver’s gullibility because the flaws actually are not particularly glaring: Gulliver and his Houyhnhnm “master” compare notes on the many differences between the culture there and British society ca. 1700, and like Gulliver the reader is more and more convinced of the superiority of the former, based as it is entirely on Reason. Politics, religion, law, warfare, economy—Reason wins on every count. Only when the master’s complete indifference to matters like paternal love comes into the picture does the reader blink and begin to doubt. At that point, alas, Gulliver himself doesn’t flinch; he continues to believe Houyhnhnm society is the ideal, even after being ejected from the country and returning home to England, where he prefers to stay in the stable with the horses rather than in the house with the family who now seem like Yahoos to him.

So, flaws not so glaring, but significant once the reader sees them. The sentence could have stood.

BUT she decided to define “utopian society” with an adjective clause, “where all is perfect,” and that clause introduces a second verb into the sentence. The adverb phrase that follows, then (“despite its glaring flaws”) seems to modify “is,” not “finds,” and “its” obligingly consents to modify “all.”  The most accessible reading of her sentence is that in a utopian society all is perfect despite its glaring flaws. And that doesn’t make any sense. Moving that adverbial phrase would have fixed it. But she didn’t move it.

Sir Thomas More wrote Utopia about an ideal (imagined) place, and he named it Utopia from the Greek, “no place.” We sometimes use the term ironically, but More’s decision to announce in the name itself that the place didn’t exist would suggest that he was indeed trying to imagine a society that didn’t exist, a society without flaws, glaring or otherwise, no matter how many scholars debate whether he was writing philosophy or satire.

My student is right that Gulliver finds the Houyhnhnm society utopian. Gulliver believes the society to be perfect despite serious flaws that are obvious (eventually) to the reader. The Houyhnhnms themselves are pretty smug—with reason, ha ha—but they don’t put the label on.

In a self-styled utopian society, the residents might insist that all is perfect no matter how often its flaws are pointed out to them. This phenomenon can be found in certain areas and creeds in U.S. society, where the chant “We’re Number One!” substitutes for thought.

I believe that we wouldn’t call such a society “utopian”; I believe we’d call it a “fool’s paradise.” And I believe we’d be right.

“The 1800s was a time that I could not even imagine living in…”

It’s true, of course. We cannot really imagine ourselves living in just about time in the past. I remember when the “Second Woodstock,” or whatever they called it, was being planned, students of mine said they thought they would go, just to “see what it was like the first time.” They acknowledged that the weather might not be the same. I said the whole experience couldn’t be the same, because the people who were at Woodstock (I refuse to call it “the first Woodstock”) were living in the world of 1969; shaped by the events that preceded that year, they hadn’t yet had their lives and their perspectives affected by the events that followed. The people who might go to this one were shaped by those and ensuing events, and thus could never experience the innocent hopefulness and despair of 1969.

I am on a listserv for people interested in clothing history and costuming; a number of the members are reenactors, and they would be the first to say that although period-perfect clothing, a period-appropriate setting, and a well-researched knowledge of the history, culture, and social mores of the time can open a window into the lives people led then, the reenactors can never fully imagine living in that time: they know what came afterwards, and that means they can only visit—just as Barbara Ehrenreich’s courageous year of living on minimum-wage jobs could give her an understanding of that kind of life, but since she was planning afterward to return to the “normal” of the life she actually lived, she wasn’t really experiencing blue-collar poverty as her life.

Still, I knew what my student meant. Even English majors admit they cannot really imagine living in the times of the literature they study, beyond the moments of living in the text through the eyes of the writer.

But my student wanted to go farther, be more specific, just to show how completely different from his own experience life in the 1800s clearly was. And so he went on:

“The 1800s was a time that I could not even imagine living in, a time when things were more personal, when instead of sending an email or a text you had to go see someone face to face.”

I hope that he was only commenting on the speed of communication. But he seems to be implying that seeing someone “face to face” is in and of itself a chore, an unimaginable burden, something to be avoided at all costs (“had to go”). And beyond that is a vision of his present that saddens me enormously.

We’ve all seen people sitting together in a restaurant but talking (or texting) separately to different companions via cellphone. Arriving in class I used to be greeted by a buzz of conversation, students comparing homework or plans or complaints or gossip; now I arrive to silent classrooms, all heads bent, fingers madly texting to other people—roommates, friends from high school, parents. And students used to leave a classroom talking with one another, sometimes even about something that had been discussed in class, or to linger to talk with the professor. Now I conclude my closing cadence and all rise, whipping phones up to ears to resume their conversations with other people. I have actually overheard such vital pieces of information as “Yeah, class is over. I’m leaving the room now.”

Out in what used to be the public sphere people walk, heads bent so they can text, or stride along talking full-voice to thin air (I occasionally think I’m being approached by an emotionally disturbed person, until I spot the head-mounted receiver). I go to the movies and sit with the few other people who venture out of their own homes to see films on large screens instead of on their televisions, computers, or cellphones. The aisles at Trader Joe’s still seem crowded, but it’s true that I also see  PeaPod trucks in my neighborhood. With the price of gas one might expect fewer cars on the road as people turned more enthusiastically to public transportation or car-pooling, but I see just as many one-person-one-car voyagers in the traffic jams. No wonder the public discourse—especially the “comments” world of the Internets—is revealing such agoraphobia, or perhaps more accurately otherphobia: we are increasingly distrustful of our fellows, increasingly uncomfortable with “strangers”—increasingly willing to think the worst of them, to hate them. We seem, like my student, to find it hard to imagine seeing someone face to face—a way of life that he clearly characterizes as “more personal.” That’s some realization: that the more “individual” we become, and the more “connected,” the less personal life is!

I’ve been more and more horrified by the policies and practices of the political party whose intention seems to be to take the country back to the Gilded Age, the good old days of 1880 and thereabouts. But the 1800s did get a few things right. One of them seems to be being “personal.” Most of the 1900s had that too, despite the spread of that late-1800s invention, the telephone.

I am resolved today to “go see someone face to face.” Perhaps I’ll do it every day. If you do it too, people might think it’s a new form of the Alice’s Restaurant Anti-Massacree Movement. And maybe it is.

“Everything was gun ho for America.”

According to my notes, this Horror dates back to 1978, but it seems to get more and more interesting every year.

What the context is I don’t know. It could be referring to almost any moment in U.S. history when national spirit was high.

I knew perfectly well that what my student meant was that everyone was gung-ho. This phrase, for enthusiastic and active team spirit, comes from World War II Marine slang, an adaptation of a Chinese-language phrase. To read its interesting history you can go to a number of sites; most prominent is, of course, Wikipedia.

I don’t know when I first saw “gung-ho” written, but I heard it plenty of times, in plenty of contexts, while growing up, and I never thought it was anything but “gung-ho.”

My student, though, heard it differently. Again we have a case of alien sounds interpreted through the listener’s resident lexicon: “‘Gung’? How can that be a word? Must be ‘gun.’ Of course! Now, that makes sense!”

Alas, as a society we seem to be more and more gun ho. Snipers; drive-by shooters; Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., Pres. John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Texas Tower, Columbine, Virginia Tech, etc., mass attacks; domestic murders; police overreactions (Amadou Diallo); Gabrielle Giffords; Trayvon Martin. To this we answer: concealed handguns, assault weapons, gun-show purchases, armed vigilantes. Bills advocating weapons on campuses, in state houses, in bars, at public meetings.

Everything is gun ho for America. (About the word “ho” I will not comment, since I don’t want to offend the NRA….)

Funny mistake my student made, no?

This post is, among other things, in memoriam all those who have died as a consequence of being too close to someone who was gun ho.

“Newspapers should show both sides of a point of view.”

He wrote this long ago. I transcribed it into my Book of Horrors as an obvious absurdity.

How was I to know my student was not verbally inept, but prescient?

There is only one situation in which this student’s pronouncement can be aptly applied.

At the risk of seeming political (which, heaven knows, only those who know me might accuse me of!), I would have to say that since last night, that situation seems to have arrived.

How else to cover Mitt Romney’s campaign?

“In Salem the witch trials consisted of crude and unusual punishment.”

Salem never fails to provide us with bizarre student commentary.

I know what he meant. The urgent examination of people suspected of witchcraft often took the form of what we would certainly call torture: chaining head-to-heels, sleep deprivation, trial-by-ordeal (the sink-or-float trial by water, for instance, where drowning would prove Satan wasn’t helping you out), pressing, nonstop interrogation. I’m not sure we would call this “crude,” but it certainly seems cruel. The Puritans would also point out, I’m confident, that “punishment” can only follow a trial; the trial itself may be hard on the accused but isn’t itself punishment. They would also argue that since God’s forgiveness was contingent on confession and contrition, forcing a confession was benevolent on the examiners’ part: execution would follow, but the soul would not be damned.

Before we discuss crude punishment, let me hasten to exculpate Autocorrect and Spellcheck. I just typed “crule and unusual punishment” into a Word document, and Bill Gates gave me “cruel” right away. I had to go down four choices to get to “crude.” Of course he might have typed “crued” (I know whenever I try to type my friend Sam’s name, my fingers make him “Same,” and maybe my student’s fingers figured a letter following “e” and ending a word had to be “d”), in which case Bill would have supplied “crude.” Well, I’m going to assume that the intended word was “crude.” My young man may believe that the Constitution, written long after  the witch-trial craze had passed, protects us against “crude and unusual punishment.”

Of what would crude punishment consist? I suppose no methods we would consider sophisticated would be eligible; but a lot of the punishment (and torture) methods that strike us as weird or horrid or medieval or barbaric are perfectly sophisticated in their way. The Iron Maiden? The rack? The wheel? These were finely structured mechanisms that could be applied with exquisite precision.

Does “crude” mean “obscene,” as “crude language” usually means “obscene language”? By that definition, any of the approaches mentioned so far are “crude.” But that’s not the definition we generally associate with “crude” in relation to anything other than language.

We usually say “crude” when we mean “primitive” (snobby application that, as any artist would tell you), or “rough-hewn,” or “makeshift.” Piling rocks on the chest is a pretty crude substitute for, say, the Iron Maiden.

Cruel or crude: I don’t want it, and I certainly don’t want it before I’m found guilty of anything. If a trial consists of punishment, what could come after it? If we follow the Salem pattern, first comes suspicion, then arrest, then torture, then trial, then execution. Seems to me that the whole process is punishment, especially when the accused is actually innocent of the suspicion/charge. After those successive forms of agony, enhanced by the vicious scowls and howls of former friends and neighbors, the execution must have felt more like relief than punishment.

Unfortunately, left to themselves most humans will apply crude forms of trial and punishment on the grounds of mere suspicion. It isn’t easy to hold human hounds at bay; and once we do have a legal system that is designed to do so, we must make sure we don’t trash it when the next scare comes along.

“If the accused pleaded innocence…”

This is a good weekend to talk about unjust trials, scapegoating, and persecution of “outsiders.”

Yesterday was, after all, Good Friday. And the investigation of the killing of Trayvon Martin goes on (still with no arrest).

It’s also a good time to celebrate Connecticut’s decision to abolish the death penalty (the Senate has voted, and the House and Governor have already announced their intentions to concur). Certainly the residents of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692-3 would have been better off without it.

And here is my student, writing about the fear of witches in New England, including the Salem Witch Trials (in history and in Cotton Mather’s accounts).

Here’s the whole thing, a remarkable piece of what may have begun as reasonable thought but staggered through some misunderstandings and partial information and finally turned into garbled prose:

“If the accused pleaded innocence they would be ruled with an iron fist and sentenced to death or trial. If they were sentenced to trial they would either be drowned or crushed by boulders because in theory a witch was able to both breathe underwater and withstand the weight.”

We begin with his impression that “trial” is a kind of ordeal, which in some contexts of course it is but not when we’re talking about legal proceedings. He means “trial by ordeal”; the alternative is not a death sentence (at least not right away), but trial by process of court—evidence, testimony, judgment. The Salem trials did not include trial by ordeal; all the accused faced their accusers, or at least faced the “evidence,” in court; no one was thrown into the horse pond to see if the devil would enable her (or him) to float. (The court did admit “spectral evidence,” though—witches’ power could be “proved” via observable phenomena.)

I’m not really sure where the “iron fist” comes into the picture. The cases seem to have been pretty much decided in advance, and the judges meted out the death penalty with inexorable virtue (there had, after all, to be some way of stopping the devil from bringing the godly down). Perhaps the fist that piled rocks on the chest of Giles Corey could be called “iron.” The pressing of Corey was not, however, a trial by ordeal: it was torture plain and simple, intended to “persuade” him to enter a plea of either Guilty or Not Guilty of Witchcraft. If he pleaded Guilty, he would be executed and his lands and goods would be confiscated, but his soul would have a chance at God’s forgiveness; if he pleaded Not Guilty and was found guilty (pretty strong odds), he would be executed and his goods would be confiscated, and his soul would probably go to hell. BUT if he refused to plead, he could not be tried and so the government could not take his property; and that was what he was fighting for, for his descendants’ sake. Anyway, my student seems to think that the “boulders” were a test to see if Corey was a witch; my student is wrong. And certainly nobody, including the devil, helped Corey “withstand the weight”: he was crushed to death, still refusing to plead.

My student’s confusion of “trial” (which in ordinary parlance can of course mean “ordeal”) with “trial by ordeal” gives his statement a nice irony that he didn’t intend, since he seems to think that someone who claimed to be innocent would automatically face one of two fates: summary execution by that iron fist, or death in water or under boulders. In his version, there is no chance at a hearing in court: sentence follows plea. I would like to think he presented the situation in this way because he realized the actual trials were, to our modern eyes, farcical exercises in “proving” foregone conclusions; but his statement doesn’t make room for or hint at any possibly tacit commentary, and the confusion in the actual statement suggests that he had a hard enough time trying to say what he meant, without grappling with subtle implications.

Well, the arc of the universe bends SLOWLY towards justice. Seeing clearly what has been done in the name of justice in the past, we should be inspired to try to bend the arc more quickly. It’s not there quite yet.


“We must ask why unfortunate people do not kill themselves more.”

This is only an infelicitous phrasing of the question the Old Woman With One Buttock (daughter of Pope Urban X and the Princess of Palestrina) asks in Voltaire’s Candide. The victim of a string of catastrophes that are bizarre and extreme even in the context of this pretty bizarre novel, she says she has heard many people lament their sufferings and say they would be better off dead, but she notes that almost none of those people, including herself, actually kill themselves. She concludes that people love life too much to leave it, even when it seems awful. (At the end of the novel we find her concerned only that her newly safe and peaceful life not be boring.)

My student was writing about this old woman and the question she addresses when recounting the story of her life: subjected to such suffering, why go on? His phrasing, though, makes her question sound more like a suggestion for addressing the rising costs of health care.

I like the placement of “more”: my student should have put it before “unfortunate”—” why more unfortunate people do not kill themselves.” Maybe he was concerned that the reader would wonder whether he meant “more people who are unfortunate” or “people who are more unfortunate than others,” and with the picky instructor who he knew was his reader, maybe he would have been right to worry. Or he might have added “often” to the end of the sentence, to say “why unfortunate people do not kill themselves more often.” But the same picky reader might have commented in the margin, “MORE often? Isn’t once enough?” or “Do they only kill themselves slightly now?” (No, she wouldn’t have made either of those comments; but she might have thought of them, I admit. After all, I just did.) To satisfy me, he would have had to take a little more time and a little more thought: “why so few people who consider themselves unfortunate actually kill themselves,” perhaps.

Or he could have quoted directly from the text, where the meaning is unambiguous partly because it is distributed over several sentences.

I also would have appreciated his attributing the question itself to the old woman: “Why, she asks, do not more of the unfortunate kill themselves?” As he has written it, he himself is urging us to ask this question; and it isn’t a question I have ever before felt compelled to ask, or answer. I have never looked around and thought to myself, “Whine, whine, whine. Why don’t they just kill themselves?” or “Look at all these suffering people! Why don’t they just end it all?” That kind of thinking leads to the notion of “Death Panels”—boards of people judging the unfortunate: “Oh, SHE’s so unfortunate she should kill herself.” (There is NO SUCH THING as a “death panel” in the Affordable Care Act, but there are evidently a lot of people who dread being subjected to one to the point that they could be terrorized into hating the legislation for its imaginary sake anyway…)

Luckily, the old woman is right. Most of us love life too much to leave it over a bit of misery. I was having a good old inter-colleague grouse the other day on the subject of student papers: “Couldn’t you just slit your throat?” he asked, and I replied “Every day.” But neither of us did; and neither of us would.

I wish my readers all good fortune; but if you sometimes feel, or are, unfortunate, do take the old woman’s advice: Love life. Fear only boredom—which sometimes may also feel like an instrument of death (“This boredom is killing me!” “He bored me to death!”) but is not one that people generally turn on themselves.

I feel pretty safe: teaching writing may be exhausting sometimes, frustrating often—but it is never, ever, boring.