Monday, July 1, 2013


"So when are you going to stop?" Next year will be my 30th at this particular Ivy League institution. It sounds like a nice round number, and with a new life in Italy, a first grandchild in Slovenia, and a 67th birthday looming, the question of retirement sounds logical. But it's more complicated than that.

Just recently a favorite student from a writing course I taught for the first time this year sent me a wonderful article by Jonathan Safran Foer on technology and loneliness.

After a quick first reading, I wrote back to her:
Thank you for sending me this eloquent and thought-provoking article. Except for the length, wouldn't it make an exemplary piece for our Daily Themes course?

When I first saw the title, as one of those self-identified anti-technology fools the author denounces, I thought, "Hmm...I can see why the article would appeal to Caroline, what could this have to do with me?"

I should have known better--that we now know each other well enough that such a question would be besides the point.

I have been reading it and am writing from the vantage of bed on what looks like the glorious, sunny Umbrian morning we have been craving. But the piece merits closer attention than a first reading allows. Even so, I will now share it with some friends and family whose first reaction may also be, "Why me?"

The truth of the matter:for a reserved person like myself who would have been unlikely to initiate a conversation with potentially intimidating people (and for an oldster who was dragged kicking and screaming into the computer generation), I owe to my ability to do email the opening of many priceless "conversations."

And now for a second reading...
Thank you again.--best, d

Because Caroline was one of my Daily Themes tutees, she and I spent a lot of time together--13 weeks of reading five pieces of hers per week and then discussing them together. The course was an intense and amazing experience for those of us on both sides of the desk. This student whose major is not even in the humanities is particularly adept at appreciating and creating what I call the “AHA!-THANK YOU FOR NOTICING THAT-I THOUGHT I WAS THE ONLY ONE” MOMENT.
That’s what I look for in good writing. One of her own pieces was a reflection on an essay from Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”:

What Didion masters…is the ability to pinpoint precise moments or concepts with utterly precise language. In the passage below, Didion captures quite a complex idea—the sort of begrudging disillusionment of passing childhood—in a handful of well-chosen phrases: “the conviction that lights would always turn green for me,” “a certain touching faith in the totem power of good manners, clean hair, and proven competence on the Stanford-Binet scale.” Her work never fails to conjure in me the feeling that she is writing about something I know intimately, yet could never express in such an elegant and exacting way.
            Though I love other voices, Didion’s has always been the one I aspire to emulate: calm, precise, toned. The secret to her writing is not an excess of fancy words or obtuse sentence structure; rather, it is the election of specific and evocative details that gracefully paint her picture. 

Joan Didion, “On Self-Respect”, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 1968

Although even the humorless nineteen-year-old that I was must have recognized that the situation lacked real tragic stature, the day that I did not make Phi Beta Kappa nonetheless marked the end of something, and innocence may well be the word for it. I lost the conviction that lights would always turn green for me, the pleasant certainty that those rather passive virtues which had won me approval as a child automatically guaranteed me not only Phi Beta Kappa keys but happiness, honor, and the love of a good man; lost a certain touching faith in the totem power of good manners, clean hair, and proven competence on the Stanford-Binet scale. To such doubtful amulets had my self-respect been pinned, and I faced myself that day with the nonplused apprehension of someone who has come across a vampire and has no crucifix at hand.
(There it is--that “AHA!-THANK YOU FOR NOTICING THAT-I THOUGHT I WAS THE ONLY ONE” MOMENT! Thank you, Caroline. And thank you, Joan Didion. We are on the same page.)   

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