Jocks, Nerds, and Little Jemmy Madison

800px-James_Madison,_by_Charles_Willson_Peale,_1783December 15th marks the 223 anniversary of the adoption of our Bill of Rights. James Madison, considered the Father of the Constitution, was instrumental in the adoption of those first ten amendments that we now consider fundamental to the protection of our liberties.

Madison, one of the youngest of  our Founding Fathers, was considered by many of the Founding Fathers to be the most intellectual of the group.  He was also a nerd.  At least that’s what my daughter tells me. She was working on a middle-school project about the American Founding Fathers and asked me for a character sketch of the Father of the Constitution. After my brief description she concluded “Hmm. Sounds like a nerd to me.”

She’s probably right. James Madison was bookish, introverted, a hypochondriac, and not much of a fashion plate. And, what you may not know, is that he is still alive today. In the halls of middle schools across America, James Madison is routinely slammed into lockers when he walks down the hall.  He often elicits giggles in class.  The girls barely notice him. The teachers adore him. He’s brilliant, but socially awkward. You know the kid. In fact, you know most of our Founding Fathers. They can be found in middle schools across America today, just like the one my daughter attends. Perhaps you’ll recognize them from your own middle school days, if you only look a little closer.

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Graduation Day; Or, Onward and Upward

A version of this piece also appeared in The Houston Chronicle in the Gray Matters section on 15 December 2014.

It’s 63 degrees in December, and I am flying down the highway to Houston Baptist University.  I have left early, but I am still running late because I didn’t count on all the closed ramps around Clear Lake.  I am in a hurry because I will be reading the names of the graduates for the first ceremony that starts at 9 am.  That is, if I make it. Advice-to-graduates

I start to wonder what my explanation will sound like if I can’t make up the time on Beltway 8.  I start to think of all the people who might wonder where I am, what I am doing, and why I am late.  I start to feel a little sick, and I realize I don’t have the cell phone number of Linda Clark, the Provost’s Administrative Super Woman, who seems to handle everything with perfect ease. She is the easiest person to work with in the world, and I hate the thought of letting her down. For heaven’s sakes, we are a team at graduation!  I can’t just not show up! This isn’t like missing a class–there isn’t another one to make up.  Then I realize everyone–President Sloan, Provost Reynolds, the board of trustees, donors–will know that I have been unable to fulfill the one requirement I have today:  showing up.

It’s not like they are going to hold the ceremony for me–I mean I am not Lindsay Lohan. But I am starting to understand what she might feel like sometimes, with her ridiculous tardiness and lame excuses. Oh, Lindsay:  this is no way to live.

All I want to do is get on 45, but all I see are red tail lights, feeder road, and despair. Continue reading

Emily Dickinson’s Birthday; Or, This World is Not Conclusion


This piece was also published by The Houston Chronicle in the Gray Matters section on 10 December 2014.

Emily Dickinson was born on 10 December in 1830, but on Monday at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C., they celebrated early with a day-long marathon reading of her poems–over 1700 of them, in order.  How many other American poets would get this kind of birthday recognition?

Try zero.

I may be far away in Texas, but as Dickinson herself wrote, “There is no Frigate like a Book,” and I can be all the way in Houston and feel her angst (and joy) in my beaten-up, highlighted, and dog-eared collection of her poems.  Sometimes it takes awhile to wrap your mind around her poems, because she can turn on a dime, turn it up a notch, even turn on you–sometimes even before you know it.  Like all drama queens, she keeps it lively, even 184 years after her birth.

If you read her poems individually, you might think you could figure out her position on a few things.  The doyenne of the declarative statement, she can define things with confidence, letting you know that “Publication– is the Auction/ Of the Mind of Man–“, or that she would rather be “Nobody” rather than “Somebody” if it means that one is praised by “An admiring Bog.”  Yet, there is a wistfulness, a desire to be heard, by someone, maybe a better reader than most of us are, as when she wrote the famous Atlantic Monthly editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson.  She wanted to know if her poetry “breathed.”  In an age of click-bait and Buzzfeed, it might be hard to comprehend that she didn’t care so much about crunching the numbers or what would be the equivalent of “breaking the internet,” but that doesn’t mean she did not want to be heard at all.  Her poems were her “Letter to the World,” but she was also okay with selecting her own “Society.”  Dickinson has something to say to us about being “discriminating” before that word became so politically charged.

You cannot read her poems individually and figure out her final word on anything. You have to see her as a poet who can channel the contradictory emotions we all feel through the venue of the poem.  Think of the poem as her stage, and her words as the monologues that fit her mood at that moment:  it is great theater, something to see.  Just when you think she couldn’t be angrier at God (a “burglar” who makes her lose twice–and that is “in the sod”) then you witness her turning to God for inspiration–a way to define the divine, even if she is conflicted about it.  I know it sounds sacrilegious when Dickinson says “The Brain is Wider than the Sky” followed by “The Brain is just the weight of God”–but the point is her frame of reference is what she can imagine, and that changes.  For someone who claims she doesn’t like “Paradise,” she sure spends a lot of time thinking about it. And, through Dickinson’s queenly decrees, so do we. Continue reading

Tree at My Window, Window Tree

Originally posted on Reflection and Choice:

Emerson tells us “Nature is a symbol of the Spirit.”  My students and I excavate the sections of his essay Nature; we are diligent in murdering to dissect.  They read lines that make me cringe, because my head is so full of technology and Blackboard and advising and grading and commuting, that I realize I hardly ever think about nature anymore.  I feel like a lapsed Catholic having to read about Mass.  When I have my epiphany that I never think about nature, I don’t mean the notion of nature as everything outside of the soul–I mean like leaves and trees. I have to pencil nature in like yoga class and getting my tires rotated.  I have to seek nature out, it is so far removed from me.  

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