Sunday, August 24, 2014

My 10 Favorite Books About Teaching (So Far)....

I've only been a teacher for five years, but in that time I've been offered--handed, recommended, told to read--at least a dozen different educational textbooks, all of them supposedly written to make me a much more effective and engaging teacher. (Keep in mind, this happened after I graduated from college.) These massive, technical tomes came tattooed with their authors' accreditations, were filled with erudite prose and complex vocabularies, and bore titles that seemed just as long as many of their chapters:  The Art and Science of Teaching: A Comprehensive Framework for Effective Instruction, Enhancing Professional Practice: A Framework for Teaching, and Classroom Strategies for Interactive Learning, among others.

I'll be honest, I've never read a single one.

Sure, I may skim the pages for a while, maybe even read the first paragraph or two of a chapter that is specific to my subject area, but inevitably the reading becomes too weighty for my tastes. The writers, almost all of them career or tenured professors with very little experience beyond their lecture halls, write as though their ideas are educational ambrosia and should be treated as such. What's more, they attempt to prove their points through charts, graphs, and statistics they have gathered over years of firsthand observations and analysis--a pursuit that is as misguided as it is counterproductive. To take data from a select few schools and attempt to apply those results to tens of millions of students across the country, regardless of the inherent individuality of every child and district, is downright dangerous. It would be like visiting a half-dozen zoos, observing the animals from a distance, and then writing a textbook on animal studies.

Instead, I find inspiration in other books, some of them quite unusual. And now, as the new school year approaches--my sixth--I find myself returning to many of them again, as part of a yearly ritual marking the end of summer vacation. None of them are based in statistics, nor are they part of the ridiculous sub-genre of memoirs in which a lowly but good-hearted teacher draws out the inner beauty of scorned misfits. In fact, most of them are straightforward in their messages about teaching, even when those messages aren't pretty. I don't claim that these books work for everyone, but they've helped me understand myself and my role in the classroom in ways that no textbook ever could, and for that they deserve at least a little recognition on my part.

10.  Teaching with Love & Logic: Taking Control of the Classroom by Jim Fay and David Funk.
This is the unquestioned champion of books for teachers, and with good reason:  it exorcises the demons of pedagogical past, including the persistent adage that teachers should "never smile until Christmas," and instead advocates for love, compassion, understanding, and patience. From a distance this would seem like common sense, but sadly there are thousands of teachers who are trained to see the classroom as a battleground between all-knowing adults and inferior students. To them, teaching is about control instead of education, fear instead of encouragement. Fay and Funk understand that there will be conflict in any classroom, but they also know that our fallback responses--yelling, threats of detention, embarrassment--are cruel, counterproductive, and only lead to more problems. Instead, they want teachers to see their students for who they are and will be--adults in training, you might say--and as individuals who benefit from calm correction and discipline rather than anger and punishment.

Quote:  "One of our strongest desires is to be loved for who we are, not for how we perform. The most influential love is unconditional. If we have the sense that our magic people--those involved in our caretaking and learning--love us unconditionally, we feel established as being worthy in our own right, regardless of our abilities, behavior, or other characteristics." (128-129)

9.  Educating Esme: Diary of a Teacher's First Year by Esme Raji Codell.
In the first education class I ever had, our professor--a wonderful and encouraging woman named Karen Bircher--read us chapters from this book, the memoir of a first-year teacher in the inner city. Esme's problems were many, they sometimes came from beyond her classroom, and they often consumed her. To those of us just dipping our toes into the vast ocean of capital-e Education, this was a startling idea--that we might fail, fail publicly, and fail miserably. But presented in such straightforward prose, and by a teacher whose love for her students and profession overshadowed all else, it was the best introduction we could have asked for, even if few of us actually realized it at the time.

Quote:  “This is my destiny, to have this group of children before me. As they were growing, aging to be fifth graders, I was training, and now we meet, in this unique place and time. The moment felt holy.” (26)

8.  Setting Limits in the Classroom by Robert J. Mackenzie.
It's dull title and lackluster cover disguise just how indispensable this book has been to me. Where Teaching With Love & Logic focuses on how to bring compassion and cooperation into the classroom, Mackenzie's book focuses on how to establish order without disrespecting your students or making creativity, trust, and self-expression impossible. The advice--based entirely on scenarios Mackenzie himself lays out--is simply stated and explained without condescension or exception, and Mackenzie's differentiation between punishment and discipline is one of the most important distinctions any teacher needs to make, and one that many don't.

Quote:  “Freedom without limits is not democracy. It’s anarchy, and children trained with anarchy do not learn respect for rules or authority or how to handle their freedom responsibly. They think primarily of themselves and develop an exaggerated sense of their own power and control. The examples of a failed experiment are all around us.” (35-36)

7.  Teacher Man: A Memoir by Frank McCourt
I read Teacher Man during my first snow day. In two hours. Without once putting it down. To this day I'm not sure what drew me to the book in the first place--possibly because it was written by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and contained the word "Teacher" in its title--but regardless of the reasons, the epiphanies were instantaneous. Here was a man whose thick Irish accent made understanding his lessons difficult, if not downright impossible, and who preferred telling long stories of his depressing childhood to actually following the set curriculum. But in his capacity as a teacher of creative writing, he allowed his students to explore ideas they had never considered before and to understand themselves in new ways, none of which were possible in classes where teachers followed the rules and all accents were local. The book's best chapter, a fifteen-page memory of music and cookbooks, encompasses every fragile and fleeting emotion that comes with teaching, from the way teachers compare themselves to one another in fits of self-pity to innocent on-the-spot assignments that blossom unexpectedly into something heartfelt and unforgettable.

Quote:  "The classroom is a place of high drama. You'll never know what you've done to, or for, the hundreds coming and going. You see them leaving the classroom: dreamy, flat, sneering, admiring, smiling, puzzled. After a few years you develop antennae. You can tell when you've reached them or alienated them. It's chemistry. It's psychology. It's animal instinct. You are with the kids and, as long as you want to be a teacher, there's no escape. Don't expect help from the people who've escaped the classroom, the higher-ups. They're busy going to lunch and thinking higher thoughts. It's you and the kids. So. there's the bell. See you later. Find what you love and do it." (155)

6.   Gunn's Golden Rules:  Life's Little Lessons for Making It Work by Tim Gunn.
Tim Gunn, who co-hosts Project Runway, is the consummate teacher. He watches over his students as they study and execute some of their first designs, offering both compliments and criticism when deserved, and encourages them to believe in their own skills and ideas, even when it seems like no one else does. His motto "Make it work," intended to push designers toward success in the face of seemingly insurmountable difficulties, can be applied to almost every situation--a cry of strength and perseverance above the tempestuous din of life. And while there are some aspects of Gunn's books that are difficult to transfer from design school to high school, the very nature of Gunn as a teacher--stern but caring, honest but respectful--makes this book invaluable.

Quote:  "I will always be there in the wings saying, 'You need to be good to people. You need to take your work seriously. You need to have integrity. You need to work with what you've got.'” (3)

5.  The Epic of Gilgamesh by Unknown
King Gilgamesh is the first true literary hero:  the builder of an empire, antagonist of the gods, defender of his slain friend, and traveller in search of a greater truth. He is also a complete and unapologetic asshole--something nobody likes to point out, especially in classrooms where students are told to revere classic literature without question. When I was first taught Gilgamesh in college, my professor fawned over its stunning passages, its rich characters, and how its many symbols and motifs would be mirrored by other works of art for millennia to come. Only when I was responsible for teaching it myself did I read beyond the adulation and discover the truth of King Gilgamesh:  his raping of virgin brides, his unparalleled ego, and a quest so selfish and blind that it takes him away from his kingdom--and endangers his people--for what could be years. But Gilgamesh does learn his lesson at the end, when he returns home a beaten-down and defeated old man; there, just beyond the walls to his kingdom, he is told that he need not seek out eternal life when he's already built himself a legacy that will endure long after he's passed away--his empire, where people flourish. The Epic of Gilgamesh is first and foremost a reminder to always be honest to your students, even if it means disparaging something that is almost universally respected, and to understand that our own legacies--as teachers--have nothing to do with lesson plans, state standards, or test scores.

Quote:  "O Gilgamesh, this was the meaning of your dream. You were given the kingship, such was your destiny, everlasting life was not your destiny. Because of this do not be sad at heart, do not be grieved or oppressed; he has given you power to bind and to loose, to be the darkness and the light of mankind. He has given unexampled supremacy over the people, victory in battle from which no fugitive returns, in forays and assaults from which there is no going back. But do not abuse this power, deal justly with your servants in the palace, deal justly before the face of the Sun.'"

4.  Why Are All the Good Teachers Crazy? by Frank Stepnowski.
Frank Stepnowski is an imposing figure in the most literal sense of the word. Every photograph of him shows a bald-headed, thick-armed, Marine-like figure, his massive biceps covered in tattoos. Rarely is he smiling. And yet, his thoughts on education--his stories about teaching--are funny, absurd, vulgar, and some of the most brutally honest there are, and it becomes apparent almost immediately that Stepnowski's love for his students is boundless. From teaching in a run-down trailer behind the actual school to sitting with his administrator while he sells lemonade to raise money and even acting out a bizarre improvised skit intended to shock racist neighbors, Stepnowski is one of those teachers who goes to extremes--the proverbial ends of the Earth--to not only educate his students but make sure they know just how much he cares about them. The book's most unforgettable moment? When an incarcerated father shows up to his son's graduation in handcuffs, confronts Stepnowski, and thanks him for helping "my son become a man."

Quote:  "I did Shakespeare with my guys just because everyone else said it was impossible, and when they said they wanted to learn biology, I hit the books and relearned biology so I could teach it to them. Of course, many teachers would say, 'I'm not going to spend all that time learning new material, or relearning old material, I'm sticking to what I do every year because that's what I get paid for.' That's why you suck." (230)

3.  The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch.
Do yourself a favor:  skip the book and just watch the YouTube video. Honestly. There's nothing wrong with the book, per se, but the video is exceptionally better, and you get the added bonus of seeing Pausch himself delivering his lecture to a standing-room-only crowd on the Carnegie Mellon campus. Given when Pausch retired from his teaching post because of pancreatic cancer, it's more than just reflections on a life well-lived:  it's a manifesto on how to be a good teacher. Throughout his career, Pausch pushed his students to go further than even they thought they could go, to imagine what was once considered unimaginable, and to have fun...a word that seems to have all but disappeared from classrooms across the country. And why shouldn't learning be fun? (As Pausch himself says, "I'm dying, and I'm having fun.") The precocious, ever-curious ten-year-old in Randy Pausch never faded with age, as they often do with so many other adults, and that allowed him to understand his students better than many of them understood themselves. When he passed away, we lost more than a fantastic human being, a devoted husband and father--we lost a man who woke up every morning, saw the world for the promising and beautiful place it truly is, and devoted himself to making other people see this, too.

Quote:  "Brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want something badly enough. They are there to keep out the other people."

2.  To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
There is no greater teacher in all of literature than Atticus Finch, an Alabama lawyer who stands up against the people of his town to defend a man falsely accused of rape--a challenge that even he admits will not be won. But he does it anyway, and for no other reason than because it's the right thing to do--an idea that, sad to say, seems almost foreign to many people. In the process Atticus earns the respect of those around him, including his children, and exposes not just the ugliness of human nature but also its unexpected beauty. Those lessons--about standing up for the oppressed, being confident in your morality, choosing what's right over what's popular--are perfect for children and teenagers alike, but they're relevant to teachers, as well. We often forget, as we stand in front of our classes or mark up stacks of paper or mindlessly enter grades into the computer, that we're teaching the next generation, and it's our duty to help make them into the kinds of adults we want them to be.

Quote: “When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness sake. But don't make a production of it. Children are children, but they can spot an evasion faster than adults, and evasion simply muddles 'em.” (96)

1.  Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire:  the Methods and Madness Inside Room 56 by Rafe Esquith.
To be honest, any Rafe Esquith book would suffice here--the man's wisdom is endless, and even when he's repeating stories he's told in other books, the message seems fresh. But I prefer Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire because it's the first of Esquith's books that I read--something left behind by a previous teacher at my school--and to this day it remains my favorite. An elementary teacher for more than 30 years, Esquith has received worldwide recognition for taking students who live in difficult circumstances--almost all of them live below the poverty line and do not speak English as their first language--and raising their test scores beyond those of the average fifth-grader. At the same time, he teaches them skills they will need in order to succeed beyond school, skills that no curriculum or set of standards has ever given priority, like independence, responsibility, accountability, and self-control. Every student in his classroom is given a job, which underscores the social importance of having one as an adult, and every student must also "pay" for their desk and chair--the first of Esquith's many lessons in personal finance and responsible spending. They stage an unabridged Shakespeare play every year, and in the Bard's original English; create time-consuming works of art, which teaches them the importance of patience; and travel to Washington, D.C., where they are responsible enough to stay in a hotel without any additional supervision. In Esquith, we find someone who has balanced the two opposing forces of public education--the needs of the government and the needs of student--with such skill that everyone benefits, including his students and himself. (Even so, Esquith is also honest about his profession, expressing his belief that all teachers are subpart their first few years, so they should learn more and improve rather than beat themselves up or quit; that family is the most important factor in a child's life, not their teacher, though teachers are certainly important; and that some students are bad students. Very few pedagogical textbooks would ever admit to any of these.)

There are days when I watch videos of Esquith or listen to radio interviews with him and wait for the proverbial other shoe to drop--the day we find out he's not the great educator we've all been told he is, that's it's all been a grand sham. This is not a condemnation of Esquith; instead, it is an indictment of an education system in which a teacher who can accomplish so much seems like an impossibility rather than a reality.

Quote:  "Whether your kids are giving an elaborate concert or putting on the tiniest of skits, we adults need to get the hell out of their way." (109)

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Punishment ("Gruesome Spectacles" by Austin Sarat)

On April 29 of this year, Clayton Lockett was led into the execution chamber of the Oklahoma State Penitentiary to be executed. The breadth and brutality of his crimes were undeniable--kidnapping, rape, forcible sodomy, assault and battery, and murder, all committed against a 19-year-old woman named Stephanie Neiman--and his execution on that night, which was done through lethal injection, marked the end to almost 14 years of Lockett sitting on death row. After he was strapped to the gurney, the penitentiary staff attempted to find viable veins in both of Lockett's arms but could not; instead, they inserted a single IVs into his groin, which they then covered from view. Lockett was then injected with a cocktail of drugs that had never been used in an execution before; in fact, the names of the drugs being used, as well as the amounts of each, had been kept secret from the public, including Lockett's own lawyer. Ten minutes after the execution began, Lockett was declared unconscious. Soon after that, Lockett began to speak, move, and breathe heavily. Unbeknownst to the penitentiary staff, the IV needle had never entered Lockett's vein, and the unidentified drugs were seeping into his tissue instead of directly entering his bloodstream. This continued for another half-hour, until Lockett suffered the heart attack that finally killed him.

The following day, Stanford University released Gruesome Spectacles, a short but concise history of botched executions in America between 1890 and 2010. This coincidence lends itself easily to commentary, and it's tempting to remark on how prescient it would have been had Austin Sarat's book been published even a few weeks earlier. But the truly noteworthy aspect of this coincidence is that there is no coincidence:  the death penalty in America is such a flawed and dangerous practice, and executions are botched with such staggering consistency, that any book on the subject would have inevitably arrived within weeks or even days of such an example. In fact, Sarat concludes Gruesome Spectacles with a thirty-page chronological index of all "botched" executions in those 115 years--a number totaling more than 250 men and women who suffered burned flesh, misplaced IVs, strangulation, dislodged syringes, repeated jolts of electricity, drunken executioners, incompetent medical staff, and even decapitation. These failings persisted regardless of method--hanging, electric chair, gas chamber, lethal injection--and in compiling examples of such horrifying outcomes into a comprehensive and readable book, Sarat hopes to expose the reality of the death penalty and how we use it.

Some may read Sarat's book, not to mention the extensive index and any mention of "suffering" on the part of these men and women, as misdirected liberal pity or the recasting of perpetrators--the murderers, the kidnappers, the rapists--as victims. In fact, in the aftermath of Lockett's botched execution, voices rose in support of the Oklahoma penitentiary and capital punishment in general, announcing that Lockett's suffering in no way matched that of his victim--one of the few undeniable truths of the situation--and that those lamenting what had happened were turning a murderer into a martyr. In their own way, these voices were arguing that those who commit the most heinous acts should not be given any comfort, some even going so far as to say Lockett and those like him deserve the pain they receive. These sentiments are easy to understand, especially when expressed by victims' families and friends, as well as those who've suffered under similar crimes, but substituting emotional impulses for ethical clarity undermines the very foundation of the American judicial system, not to mention our own collective morality.

When we execute a criminal, regardless of the severity of their crimes, we are submitting to the very same ideologies that drive those criminals--namely, that committing violence against someone is justifiable. It is preposterous to think that killing someone will demonstrate to the rest of American society that killing is wrong--a sort of strange American doublethink that, as statistics demonstrate, does not actually reduce criminal behavior. If we followed this logic, courts would also order the homes of those convicted of arson to be burned, those convicted of raped to themselves be raped, and so on. But we do not follow this logic, and the reason is because it's not logical. By using the death penalty as a punishment, we are acknowledging our own inability to address the causes of crime, and instead we remove the effects by ending lives.*

At the same time, we believe that no one should endure "cruel and unusual punishment," even though the Supreme Court has steadfastly refused to define the criteria with which we might assess whether a form of capital punishment is either cruel or unusual. To most people, the idea of strapping someone to an electrified wooden chair, placing a damp sponge on top of their head, and pulling a switch, all in full view of an assembled audience, would seem both cruel and unusual, as would injecting unspecified poisons into a man's groin or gassing them in a room designed and built specifically for that purpose. Similarly, our entire judicial system operates on the idea that everyone is innocent until proven guilty, often by a judge or jury, and yet the flaws in that system have been exposed to us over and over again. Since 1973, more than one hundred death-row inmates have been released from prison following the introduction of new evidence, recanted witness testimony, or DNA testing--innocent people who might have been executed for crimes they did not commit, and by a system of punishment prone to torturous failings.

When we advocate for capital punishment, we do so without ever acknowledging the flaws inherent in America's courts and prisons, both of which succeed only when those entrusted to run them are infallible and without prejudice--an impossible expectation for any system. And when we accept the execution of a man or woman, regardless of their guilt, we debase our own morality until we are level with those who commit the very crimes we claim to abhor. We declare that capital punishment is the natural end for those who commit the worst of crimes--that it is the final, ultimate step toward justice fulfilled--and yet we refuse to ensure that the men and women being executed are actually guilty, that we're not personifying the worst aspects of human nature in a foolish and futile attempt to change human nature, that we're not confusing justice with revenge.

In addition to the 30-page index, Sarat also includes a one-page statistical summary of which methods led to the most botched executions between 1890 and 2010. And while the overall picture is somewhat surprising--for instance, there is no relation between an increase in the use of a particular method and the number of those executions that are botched--the most startling realization is that, according to the data, there is one form of capital punishment that had a flawless record during those 115 years, one that Sarat never discusses in the short entirety of his book:  the firing squad. Of the 68 people who were executed in this manner, every single one was killed outright and without apparent error. Which makes you wonder why proponents of the death penalty refuse to support and utilize a method that is, in a perverse way, so efficient and so practical. (After all, the cost of a half-dozen bullets compared to surging electricity, gas, or drugs more than undermines the statistical arguments about the cost of capital punishment compared to lifetime incarcerations.)

The truth of why is also the truth of capital punishment:  besides being the most effective method, at least according to the statistics, firing squads expose the hypocritical nature of capital punishment by coming closer than all other methods to staging what looks and feels like actual murder. With electric chairs, a switch is flipped, and the man or woman being executed dies far from others; with a hanging, they fall through a trap door and have their necks broken by a rope while those who tightened the noose and pulled the lever are out of frame. Similarly, with lethal injections and gas chambers, the penitentiary staff are given distance, allowed to stand back and hand over responsibility to buttons, tubes, and needles. All four of these methods are unnatural, requiring special tools and locations constructed especially for these events--a gallows, an electrified chair, chambers, and so on. But a firing squad is direct, naked, and universal:  a small group of men load guns, aim them, and fire. There are no switches or catheters, and the execution takes place in the open, without gurneys or specialized rooms. And when you consider that many of those who were executed by firing squad were condemned to death because of crimes committed in much the same manner--with guns, close up, against strangers--it blurs the line between crime and justice to the point where you're left with only one conclusion about the nature of capital punishment, the truth of what the death penalty really is.

*Throughout Sarat's book, we are offered condensed biographies of men and women who have been executed by various methods over the last 125 years, and in reading them a common thread soon emerges:  troublesome personal experiences. This includes abusive relationships, persistent drug use, or unaddressed psychological problems. If elected officials were looking for ways in which criminal activity could be decreased, addressing these pressing social issues--poverty, the lack of a good education, drug abuse, readily available mental health screenings--would be a much more effective route than using capital punishment as a supposed deterrent, which is reactive rather than proactive and much more appealing to a scared constituency.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

History ("The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl" by Arthur Allen)

Imagine a pocketwatch. Taken in its functioning state, the watch seems simple and singular: a solid round case, a numbered face, two moving arms, a glass dome, a winder, and a chain. Pry away the back of the device, however, and you discover another layer: an assortment of cogs, winches, springs, wheels, screws, regulators, stones, jewels, wheels, and clicks. Without these smaller pieces, the larger machine could not function; even if only one of the many parts broke or malfunctioned, the entire apparatus would immediately become unusable. Begin removing these surface pieces one at a time, and even more layers reveal themselves. The more intricate, advanced, and expensive the watch, the more developed its inner workings.

Studying a historical event is like examining a pocketwatch. At first, we see only the overriding whole: the war itself, the results of an election, the man setting two feet on the moon. When we begin to dig, however--through memoirs, articles, interviews, diaries, photographs, memorandums, letters, video--we see the smaller parts, the machinery. Each demands a thorough study all its own, until the story of this one event--this metaphorical pocketwatch--becomes the story of several events and several pieces, to the point where scrutiny and interest narrows until it has focused on the tooth of every cog, and one large narrative is suddenly one hundred or one thousand. Some of these pocketwatches are small and disassemble easily; others continue to reveal their deeper layers and smaller pieces centuries after the fact.

Such is and will forever be the case with the Holocaust. There is no event comparable to it in breadth, scope, relevance, horrors, contradictions, and unanswered questions; and such was its magnitude that every major catastrophe, every condemnable human rights abuse or genocide or ethnic cleansing, is held up against the Holocaust and compared, as though it were now the one true measure of our own inhumanity. Nothing has ever come close, and just as we threaten to forget, it offers up more of itself--another layer of its being. An unmarked grave, perhaps, or a forest that has flourished around hundreds of bomb-craters. A house goes up for sale, is inspected, and reveals hideaways, transforming the collective emptiness of those crawl-spaces into something haunting and unresolved. A search through storage or archives reveals a manuscript or box of letters that has gone unseen in six decades--another life confirmed, another experience ready to be told. Every life taken is a story unspoken, and every unspoken story is another chapter of history that will forever go unread--a piece of the watch that has fallen away and cannot be replaced.

Arthur Allen's book The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl is the story of two scientists--two pieces of that great historical pocketwatch--whose determination to find a cure for typhus was threatened by World War II and the Holocaust. Both men followed separate paths--Rudolf Weigl operated his lab in the heart of Lwow, while Ludwik Fleck worked in Jewish ghettoes and eventually the hospitals at Auschwitz and Buchenwald--but pursuing the same goal. Along the way, they faced threats of violence and death, as did the hundreds of men and women who worked alongside them. Some of them, unfortunately, would not survive the war, but the majority did, and they were able to say that it had been because of two men whose research--invaluable to the German army, as their troops were at the greater risk of contracting typhus, and the infected populations of the ghetto threatened to spread it beyond their confines--offered a refuge when there was none. In fact, Weigl and Fleck did their best to help the subjugated and innocent over the violent and destructive:  Weigl protected his employees by giving them safety in his lab, and his employees smuggled extra vials into the ghetto while under-developing the vials set aside for Nazi inoculations; and Fleck devised a false cure for the Nazi officials of the concentration camp while replicating the real cure for its prisoners. At war's end, both men had saved lives--on top of creating a legitimate cure for typhus--while working in a system that had done the opposite. And while some have argued that both Weigl and Fleck compromised their ethics by working under Nazi leadership rather than refusing, which risked certain death, that compromise had a much more positive and lasting effect than dying as martyrs, since they could use the isolation of their work to heal and protect others while undermining those in power.

This story is a small wheel in the entire record of the Holocaust--one chapter among millions that work together to tell the whole story. And within the story of these two modest scientists are others, both good and bad, that are just as worthy of elaboration:  Erwin Ding, head of the Buchenwald hospital, whose pathetic self-image weakened him enough that the prisoners working under him could manipulate him with ease; Hermann Eyer, the Nazi overseer of Weigl's clinic, who understood what the doctor and his staff were doing with their vaccines but chose to turn a blind eye; Hans Baermann, a Buchenwald inmate who boiled the rabbits from typhus experiments and fed their meat to other prisoners; the various men and women whose dedication to curing typhus--and helping those in the ghettoes and camps--required letting thousands of lice feed on their blood every day, a process based on symbiosis at a time when savagery was the norm; and so on. Remove any single one of these people, and the entire story changes. Whether it shifts towards better or worse is not for us to say--time would have continued on, the watch would have kept up its tick-tock--but the fact that we know this part of the past exists is a victory in itself.

There is another reason why the pocketwatch serves as such a fitting analogy to history. Beyond their shared intricacies and the delicate ways in which each functions, there comes a point when even the finest and most reliable of timekeepers goes still. No watch is immortal to aging, and its pieces can only be replaced so many times before it's no longer the same tool it once was. Such is history. There will come a point in the not-too-distant future--in my lifetime--when the last living survivor of the Holocaust passes away, and suddenly we will be without witnesses. We will have lost our connection to that event, to a reminder of what happens when we give in to our lesser selves. We will have lost the muscle of our conscience. In the years after, there will be discoveries and reviews--unseen interviews, untranslated memoirs, forgotten letters or unsealed documents--and those will do much to finish a few of the unfinished chapters, keeping the connection alive for just a bit longer. But it will be a weak connection, like a story shouted across the sea from shores that grow ever more distant and enveloped in fog. We will replace our reliance on these witnesses with records, videos, analyses, but they will not be the same as sitting across from them, human being before human being, and allowing their existence to confirm the existence of so many millions of others who do not have the luxury of being heard.

Books like Allen's will not cease to be written when the pocketwatch goes still, nor should they be, and he is neither the first nor the last to write about this subject--the more that is learned, the more that needs to be written. But there will come a time when the research will become final, and there will be nothing new to write about--not because the literature will have been exhausted and the witnesses will all have told their stories, but because there will be no new literature and no more witnesses. It is vital that the shelves of Holocaust research continue to expand, because there will come a time when those shelves will hold all we have. And when the history of an event stops growing--when our knowledge suddenly has boundaries, when winding the pocketwatch has no effect--we will be lost and left without voices to guide us home.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Alive ("Shocked" by David Casarett, M.D.)

In a 1998 study from Johns Hopkins University, doctors were given a list of eleven life-saving measures that are commonly used in hospitals and emergency rooms--ones they themselves had undoubtedly used hundreds of times throughout their careers--and asked which of them, if any, they'd want used on themselves if they should ever be in need of immediate care. All eleven of the choices were standard practice, ranging from CPR and IV fluids to chemotherapy and dialysis, and all eleven were used to treat millions of patients every year without second thought. But when results from the survey of doctors were compiled, the results were surprising, to say the least. Over 70% of doctors surveyed did not want a blood transfusion, feeding tube, or invasive testing; over 80% did not want surgery, chemotherapy, dialysis, or ventilation; and 90% of those surveyed did not want CPR. It is that last statistic--the highest percentage of negative responses of all eleven choices--that is the most startling, as CPR is the most basic of life-saving measures:  it does not involve any electrical equipment or medical instruments, can be done by almost anyone with a half-hour of training, and is perhaps the most personal, involving physical contact--hands, chest, neck, mouth--between the living and the dying. In fact, at just over 80%, the only measure that doctors actually wanted was pain medication. In other words, most doctors did not want to be resuscitated or kept alive; they only wanted to die comfortably and without pain.

This 15-year-old survey reveals an uncomfortable truth about our mortality: the people we will someday entrust to keep us alive view these life-saving measures from a different perspective, and they do not like what they see. For all the fantastic depictions of hospital procedures from television shows and in movies, medical practitioners known the reality behind them, and the reality is filled with pain, death, and fear. Take, for instance, CPR--one of the many subjects of David Casarett's Shocked, a book on ways in which the dying and dead can be brought back to life. In order to do CPR successfully, the patient's chest must be pushed down at least two inches, and it must be pushed down 100 times a minute. (The BeeGee's "Stayin' Alive" is a similar tempo and can be sung to help set a consistent pace, though, as Casarett laments, most people under the age of 30 have never heard this song before.) You must stop every 30 compressions in order to breathe into the patient's mouth and inflate the lungs, then return to pushing down on their chest. After a minute, your arms will grow tired, and the compressions will grow weaker and further apart. You will need to be replaced, but even then there's little promise that CPR will actually work without the intervention of trained professionals or medical equipment; in fact, as Casarett reveals in the closing pages, we know very little about how CPR is even supposed to work, and the guidelines for how to perform it successfully continue to change. (Years ago, the breathing was considered the most important aspect; now the chest compressions are advocated over the breathing, even though some wonder if the simple rocking of a body--the sloshing of blood--would be enough to restart the heart.) Even when CPR does work, there may be further damage to the patient, or they might be rendered permanently unconscious and hooked up to ventilation for the rest of their life.

Regardless of how little we understand CPR, it's still favorable to older methods of resuscitation. As Casarett lays out, primitive treatments for drowning victims included rolling them back and forth on a barrel, placing them near a fire, sliding a feather down their throat, and blowing tobacco-smoke up their rectum. Which is the nature of medicine--it is not a perfect art but an evolving one, changing with every patient and study. The medical advances of fifty years ago might be seen today as outdated, laborious, even dangerous, just as the standard practices of today--CPR, chemotherapy, dialysis--might be reviewed with scorn and disbelief fifty years from now. We don't know for sure, but we are at the will and whims of our eras. Thankfully, Casarett spends much of his book investigating new, interesting, and sometimes controversial research that promises--if medicine can do such a thing--to be even more successful at keeping us living healthier and longer.

By far the most interesting of these asks whether it's possible to induce long-term sleep in a human being so they can more easily stabilize after a serious event. In other words, can a person who has suffered a major attack, such as cardiac arrest, be placed in a controlled hibernation so their body can heal and the doctors can better prepare treatment? (This is different than a medically-induced coma, as this would involve the rapid cooling of a patient in lieu of CPR.) To answer this question, researchers must first uncover how blood and organs respond to extremely low body temperatures, its effects on the medical problem compared to other treatments, and any effects it might have on the body. The specific details are grisly at times, but the tests behind this research, which involve enough diverse wildlife to fill a sizable petting zoo, are fascinating, especially when you consider that many of the animals forced into this kind of hibernation are essentially--at least by a layman's standards--dead.

Much of Shocked reads like deconstructed science fiction, and at times it's tempting to submit to childish fantasies by imagining the possibilities inherent in, say, suspended animation or cryogenic freezing. These are fantasies that allow us to comprehend complex possibilities related to our own bodies, sure, but they also give us some distance from thoughts of our own death, which are uncomfortable to consider but also necessary. We shudder at the thought of being kept alive by machines in a hospital bed for weeks, even months, while our family  members debate what to do next. We are told to make plans, write up instructions in the case of a debilitating illness, decide if we'd even want to be resuscitated--or given a feeding tube, or administered pain medication--if that decision should ever need to be made, and yet we avoid these discussions until it's too late. We don't want to think about all the terrible paths our lives could take, especially when those journeys are beyond our control while also paradoxically caused by our own bodies. This is the fact that physicians know, and they're more likely to have made these plans, because they see what happens when those decisions are put off too many times. What's more, they see this multiple times a week--an experience that builds up over a career and leads to a much different perspective than what the average person has. Doctors, we say, know best, but that's only because doctors know more than we'd ever want to. They live their knowledge day after day, and given the opportunity to understand what they do, we decide instead to live--and die--in ignorance.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Truth ("The Scorpion's Sting" by James Oakes)

Twenty-five years after the end of the American Civil War, small groups of Southerners arose to rewrite its story. Led--but in no way started--by organizations like the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the United Confederate Veterans, the movement's goal was simple: scrutinize school textbooks and demand a more sympathetic view of the South, its attitudes toward slavery, and its reasons for fighting the Civil War. This was an almost direct extension of the pro-slavery propaganda promulgated by elected Southern officials during the war, who had depicted Union soldiers as elements of an unwarranted full-scale invasion and the emancipation of their slaves as the theft of lawfully-protected and God-given property. Unlike this propaganda, however, the crusade to indoctrinate children through revisionism was done to justify and expunge the sins that had led to war in the first place, and to make sure that false information was passed down as fact in the generations to come.

As recounted by historian James McPherson, some of the most overt examples of revisionism from the post-war South could be found in textbooks and the recommendations of grassroots committees. There was Susan Pendleton Lee, whose history of the United States included a justification of not only slavery--after all, she said, "hundreds of thousands of African savages had been Christianized under its influence"--but the Ku Klux Klan, which she claimed to be necessary "for protection against...outrages committed by misguided negroes.” There was also Mildred R. Rutherford, whose criteria for the instant rejection of a textbook, according to McPherson, included any book asserting that "the South fought to hold her slaves," that "speaks of the slaveholders of the South as cruel and unjust to his slaves," or that "glorifies Abraham Lincoln and vilifies Jefferson Davis." (Even more ridiculous, the recommended corrections for these alleged errors included an attempt to depict the Southern slave-owners as victims: "Southern men were anxious for the slaves to be free. They were studying earnestly the problem of freedom, when Northern fanatical Abolitionists took matters into their own hands.")*

This kind of revisionism, now referred to as "neoconfederate," has remained strong in the 150 years since the war ended, and in many cases the lies have remained exactly the same:  that the North was the aggressor and the South was simply exercising "state's rights," which was guaranteed by the Constitution; that secession was about taxes instead of slavery, and that the South was embracing the same civil disobedience of the Founding Fathers when they broke away from England; that slavery was already a waning institution, one that should have been "allowed" to die a natural, free-market death; and that Lincoln could have bought Southern slaves their freedom with federal money, sparing the nation the great costs of the Civil War.

It is these last two ideas--that the Civil War could have been prevented with proactive measures--that historian James Oakes hopes to debunk with his own short study of the subject, which traces the political and social discourse leading up to the Civil War. In 180 pages, Oakes demonstrates just how immovable the two opposing sides were when it came to slavery, with abolitionists arguing for full emancipation and the pro-slavery factions basing their arguments on a misreading of the Constitution, passages cherry-picked from the Bible, and bigoted ideas about the inferiority of other races. (Oakes makes sure to points out that many Northerners held these same despicable views on racial superiority, though these attitudes were much more widespread in the slave states.) Believing that a compromise could have been reached to avert the war, even after so many previous compromises had only exacerbated the issue, is foolish; after all, if you believe that your ideas are ethically and Constitutionally correct, why would your side bargain them away?

Oakes further discusses the long history of emancipation through military intervention--that is to say, during war--as a viable military and humanitarian strategy and not the "theft of property," thereby disproving the idea that slaves were anything other than subjugated human beings. Even during the Revolutionary War, before our nation's misguided belief in slavery was enshrined into law, military leaders on both sides understood the importance of slaves to achieving decisive victories, and promises of freedom were extended in order to gain loyalty and manpower in the fight over colonial control. (In the end, slaves who fought for the British were taken back to England by the thousands, where they could live in a society that had already abolished the practice.) Because the Confederacy was so devoted to the idea that slaves were property, they did not follow suit and offer freedom in exchange for military service, even though, as Oakes points out, a quarter-million conscripted slaves could easily have changed the dynamic of the war for the South; and counting as only six percent of the overall slave population, their freedom after the war would have had a negligible effect on the South. (This is an admittedly perverse way to think about history, but it's also factually sound and demonstrates once again the severity of the Confederacy's racism. What's more, a thought experiment, especially when supported with statistics and used only to highlight an important point, is still far more acceptable than revisionism.)

Oakes' book is in no way a comprehensive refutation of Civil War revisionism, and at times his research suffers from a narrowness that takes the speeches and writings of a few and applies them broadly across both sides. This is a worrisome, albeit editorially sound, practice only because it mirrors the very same strategy of neoconfederates when they take the words of a half-dozen minor historical figures and conflate them to give the appearance of a majority viewpoint. That's not to say Oakes should have quoted or cited as many politicians as possible, and the people he does cite are some of the most important from that era--Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, Thaddeus Stephens, and so on. But this book--based, Oakes states at the end, on a series of lectures he delivered--could and should have been much longer. A cursory look online reveals that Civil War revisionism has not been given the due scrutiny it deserves, at least not in book form. (Even the McPherson text I quoted before is derived from an essay about the Civil War rather than a fully realized book all its own.) Neoconfederate writings and viewpoints have not lessened with the passage of time, and they will not lessen in the years to come; someone needs to debunk as much of the mythologized South as possible, and Oakes comes awfully close. Where history is concerned, however, close is not good enough.

*All of the information on post-war revisionism and textbook committees comes from the work of James McPherson, a portion of which can be read at the blog of Kevin Levin. The information I have presented herein is either quoted directly from McPherson's work or are summaries and paraphrases presented by Levin.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Haunted ("Last Stories and Other Stories" by William T. Vollmann)

In his forward to Last Stories and Other Stories, William Vollmann announces that this will be his last book:  "Any subsequent productions bearing my name," he writes, "will have been composed by a ghost." Taken literally, this is patently and laughably false. Vollmann is, after all, one of the most prolific writers working today, and the one or two books he publishes every year--novels, nonfiction, travelogues, short fiction, histories, photography, reportage--are always voluminous in breadth and depth. For example, his "thoughts" on violence were published in 2003 as a seven-volume treatise entitled Rising Up and Rising Down, which ran for more than 3,300 pages and contained more than 8,000 footnotes. (The 2005 "abridged" version, which Vollmann readily admits doing "for the money," is over 700 pages long.) His novel Europe Central, which won Vollmann the National Book Award, is more than 800 pages, and his book about Imperial County in California is around 1,200 pages. And all three of these works were published within six years of one another, along with three other books. And that is why the idea that Vollmann would have a "last" book--that he would, at age 55, retire from writing--is humorous.

Taken figuratively, we see that Vollmann is committing an act of recognition. Each story in his collection concerns itself with ghosts, though they are far from the demonic, Amityville-style ones with which we are familiar. Instead, Vollmann's ghosts are Dickensian in nature:  they exist in the human world with ease rather than as objects of fascination and fear; they speak to the living, hold them, touch them, have sex with them and even cry with them; they can rise from the grave, only to die again, this time more permanently; and we are haunted by them in the same way we are haunted by a painful memory or regret. The either-or background of ghosts stories--either you are one of the living or one of the deceased--is ignored here for its simplistic accommodation of our own discomfort with death, and many of Vollmann's ghosts take on a third state of being that is neither alive or dead. For instance, in "The Two Kings of Zinogava," one of the collection's better stories, we follow an innocent man as he is trapped in a Dumasian nightmare:  imprisoned on an island surrounded by sharks, and with a half-dozen men who rape him nightly, he slowly loses his innocence and compassion--personified here by a mute Indian who is also a fellow cellmate--until his soullessness enables him to achieve retribution against all those he despises, a campaign that is led by Satan himself. (These events also read like the extended delusions of someone whose sanity has become compromised and exists now solely in a fantasy world, which would also make him a ghost.) In another, the 70-page "Treasure of Jovo Cirtovich," a rounded piece of glass gives the titular character unending fortune, including the ability to know if something--or someone--is about to harm him, but costs him the trust and love of his family, who grow more envious of his heirloom, as well as the independence of his intelligent and worthy daughter, who passes the rest of her life as yet another repressed old woman. In both, the isolation--of prison and abuse, of wealth and invincibility--leads the protagonists to become ghosts in their own lifetimes, until they disappear into themselves and become something less than human. They become, for lack of a better term, the walking dead--a paradox redefined.

In each instance, to be a part of this third state of being--this limbo between life and death, between being and not being--is to live in a purgatory spun from the hands of men rather than the will of gods. It is an existence spawned from misery, unfulfilled dreams, regrets, war, revenge, compromise, mourning, and a slew of other causes that are inherently human and, by their very nature, unnatural. The ghosts of two lovers exist as such because they were shot and killed on a bridge that offered them an escape from the ethnic cleansing of Sarajevo. The ghost of a man's high-school sweetheart wants him to keep visiting her grave because the night is lonely and he holds the key to who she once was; in return, she offers him the comfort he will soon need when the tumor creeping towards his brain finally kills him. An immigrant couple is willingly escorted to Hell because they're blinded by the empty promises of "hope," a gem that their guide unceremoniously turns into a dark and cold stone. The ghosts of Vollmann's stories, much like the ghosts of Victorian literature--those of Dickens' Christmas Carol or Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights--exist with one foot in the human world they have yet to depart, their reasons connected to the frail and complicated nature of people. And by saying that he himself has become a ghost, Vollmann is far from being morbid or provocative; instead, he is confessing to a revelation about what it means to be human--that he is a damaged person, prone to missteps and transgressions, and as such he is like the characters of his stories, forever unworthy of salvation while also burdened by the skin in which he lives and the mind that defines him.

After all, it Vollmann's his mind--referred to in one profile as "dangerously uncorrupted"--that has defined him for decades. Known as much for this prodigious output as his eccentric (by our standards) lifestyle, Vollmann is one of the most difficult writers--and people--to characterize in words, an almost comical irony for someone who finds it so seemingly easy to characterize the people around him. He does not own a television, use the Internet, have credit cards or a checking account, utilize a cell phone, or drive. He travels to warzones as if they are amusement parks and was suspected of being the Unabomber by the FBI. (His FBI file is over 700 pages long, three-fourths of which he isn't allowed to see.) He has admitted to smoking crack and professes a love of the Second Amendment; in fact, one of his first dust-jacket photographs was of him holding a gun to his head, his face devoid of emotion. In an author-talk posted on YouTube, he invited all those assembled to join him afterwards at a nearby bar for drinks, and he enjoys painting the anatomy of naked women--artwork he relishes but rarely sells. His studio, an abandoned Mexican restaurant in Sacramento, is protected with razor wire, and he inexplicably owns a parking lot. In this way he seems to be a man from another era, much like the characters in his stories. (The only modern convenience throughout his newest book's 680-page entirety is a "mobile phone," which appears just as quickly as it disappears. Otherwise, the pages are populated by old ships and horse-drawn wagons.) He is one of the most unpolluted writers we have, and his mind is able to understand our place in the world as no one else can, and it's this truth that Vollmann's stories hope to convey:  that we are not perfect, that we live for objects and grand ideas rather than one another, and that death is not as final or as definite as we believe--or fear, or want--it to be.

That's not to say that these stories are an easy read. In fact, as is the case with almost all of his work, much of what is contained herein is so allusive that if often becomes impenetrable. Vollmann's fiction exists in a Borgesian library where books grow into one another like forrest roots and the most obscure works of philosophy and poetry--not to mention mythology, artwork, folk literature, history, and psychology--can be accessed and referenced with the same ease as a worn-down idiom or cliched metaphor. In reading Vollmann, you marvel not only at the scope of his interests but his ability to retain what he has studied and apply it to otherwise ill-fitting mediums. (His twenty pages of notes and footnotes at the end provide little assistance. In one, he ends a notation on the sex-based killing of fox spirits by stating, "As for me, I am a virgin"; in another, he completely rewrites the opening paragraph of his longest story so that we can understand it from a more modern perspective.) He is a curator of human history, one written not about grand events or important figures but of the faults and failings of our predecessors, laid as they are in graves beneath our feet, left to rot in the dirt while simultaneously standing among us as we toil away at the same problems they faced, only centuries later and no closer to a resolution.

*I am indebted to Tom Bissell's profile of William Vollmann for much of the biographical information presented here. As a side-note, Bissell is himself a phenomenal writer, and his essay collection Magic Hours--about those who create and subvert art--was my favorite book of 2012.