A Monday Disguised as a Tuesday and The Wisdom to Know the Difference

I watch from the curb as two people pull out onto the road, just past my broke-down Volkswagen. The passenger forgets that she set her tumbler filled with freshly-brewed coffee on the roof before she got in, shutting the door and putting on her seat belt.

“Ca-plop!”

Screeching to a halt, she pops out of the car and scurries to swoop it up. Realizing I’ve watched the sequence unfold just a few feet away, she tucks her pride in with her shirt before she gets back in the car.

“It’s a Monday disguised as Tuesday,” she quips. “Didn’t you know?”

I did.

I watch the speed-limit break as they pull away down the road toward Starbucks.

 ***

An hour before I watch the tumbler take a tumble, I pop down into my car, finally ready to cruise home and get some much-needed work done. In routine fashion, I slip the key in the ignition, turn around and hug the passenger seat, gazing out the rear-window before I back up.

I turn the key and nothing happens.

I look back and blink twice.

I try again. Nothing. Not a click, or a thud, or a sign of life. In fact, the key won’t even turn all the way. Rather quickly, I deduce that the ignition switch that I just had installed in my 98 Jetta must be frozen and that I won’t have a car for 24 hours. I wiggle the steering wheel; I put the car in gear; I hold down different combinations of clutch and break as I try to get the key to go full-circle.

Still nothing.

Having done this dance all summer—as the proud owner of what will soon be a licensed historic Florida vehicle—I get on the phone to AAA, grateful that I renewed my membership last week.

Not too much later the tow-truck driver arrives in a behemoth. Trucks like the one he’s driving could easily be featured on an episode of Ice Road Truckers and would be good for just about any roadside assistance…

…except for squeezing my car out of the caddy-corner spot on the narrow street it’s stranded on in the middle of rush hour traffic. 30 more minutes snail by and I sit on the curb drinking a Seagram’s Ginger Ale, before I see a smaller truck with a wench pull up, position itself accordingly, and hoist my car to salvation.

 ***

A few hours before the not-starting and hoisting, I’m sitting in Mikey’s Bakery and Café devouring a Reuben and a Diet Cheerwine. Their selection of “Old Timey” soda is second to none — an open invitation for me to make a weekly lunch date with myself. I’ve already finished the kettle chips, which were good, but not as good as the pasta-salad I had asked for.

It’s damn good pasta salad — enough to disappoint you when you don’t get it.

“How is everything,” asks the kid-who-works-there.

“Fine,” I say, with a mouthful of pastrami, too exhausted and worn down by the midday Tampa heat to complain.

 ***

Two hours before I sit down to sip on deliciously rendered cane-sugar soda and unrequested potato chips, I find myself sputtering around the neighborhood, making stops at every-other telephone pole. I’m armed and dangerous with a fist full of fliers and a heavy-duty stapler. Looking for strategic ways to display “Lost Dog” fliers is a sad day to spend an afternoon, particularly because I get acquainted with the other slew of missing pups whose banners, judging by their water-logged and sun bleached condition, have been flying for more than a few days. I start to wonder: who really gets lost when a friend is missing, furry or otherwise?

Telephone poles have to be the most analogue of mediums, seemingly incapable of the kind of feedback that soothes the soul in times of distress, whether by wood or by wire. We’re all lost when we lose a sense of confirmation that’s so vital to our being human in the world.

I get out every so often, leaving the car running in the middle of the road, undoubtedly agitating drivers on their lackadaisical lunch break who would rather not swerve out of the way. I whistle and yell, listening for a response, searching high grass in hope that out of nowhere the pup will show up. The reality is that my yells only beckon to other neighborhood dogs, all to ready to answer back in a language I can’t understand. I stand their clueless, wishing I could ask them if they’ve seen the little guy who went foraging on his own a few hours ago.

Stopping by my colleague’s new house, I ask if she’s seen him but looking at the tears in her eyes I know the answer before the words leave my mouth.

“I feel like I’ve lost a child,” she whispers, sitting on the stoop.

I’m all too familiar with the feeling. I reach out and give her a hug, telling her that everything will be alright, wishing I believed it more than I did. She smiles for a moment and we go back to sitting, staring straight ahead.

 ***

At 5 o’clock the evening before, I get home from school and say hi to Simba, my fuzzy white-and-tan Persian/Maine Coon buddy who greets me by the door every day. Dangling bags and holding books, I flop them on the couch as I reach down to pat his soft head and give him some love behind the ears. He does his usual sashay around my legs, wiggling his tail in excitement, as if to say his ready for treats and some brushing.

“Alright buddy,” I say, loud and in that tone he knows means he’s about to get what he wants. “Come on.” We both walk briskly into my office and he hurls his pantaloon-legs on the table I’ve put there specifically so he can watch me work from across the room. I lay out 5 treats in the corner, which he gobbles up nearly as fast as I devour a sandwich in the 20 minute break I get between classes. I gently scratch his raised back and softly pull his tail through my fingers as I head to the shower.

He follows and moves into his box, so I turn away to give him some privacy and slip under the hot water for a much needed after work-out rinse. A few minutes later, I turn off the water, step out, and see his tail. It’s in the same spot it was in before I got wet. He looks back at me, mixed up in distress and confusion, as if to say, “I don’t know Dad, it just won’t come out.”

In the next 30 minutes he moves back into the box three times, spending all of the time in between nursing the gap below his belly. It’s swollen and seems tender.

“Something’s not right,” I tell myself, grabbing the phone and calling a friend who knows more about illness and animals than I do. She tells me to keep an eye on him and give me the number to a vet.

“If he doesn’t get better in a few hours, you should probably take him in,” she says. “It’ll be expensive—“

“It doesn’t matter,” I tell her, cutting her off, “Simba’s the healthiest cat in the world. I don’t know what I’d do if something happened to him.”

“Well it could be nothing,” she tells me. “So don’t worry just yet. But let me know how it goes, ok?”

I hang up the phone worried and upset. Darting to my computer I find others who describe the exact same symptoms. “Get him to the emergency room right away because you’re cat might die” is the last thing I read before I snatch him into my arms and rush down the steps to my car, heading north and calling the Vet as I drive.

I’m frantic, on the phone, shifting gears and stomping on brakes through what’s left of rush hour traffic. “You’re doing the right thing,” the receptionist says. “We’ll see him as soon as you get here.” I drop the phone on my lap, shift into 4th gear and tear through cars, keeping my hand on Simba’s belly, telling him everything will be fine. Surprisingly he’s not worried, which makes me worry more and realize that I’m really talking to myself.

After a few hours in the emergency room — with the vet techs telling me that he’s the “best looking urine-blocked kitty” they’d ever seen, and me asking the same questions over and over again — I make it home and sleep for a few hours. In the morning I get the call that they’re going to keep him for another day to keep pumping fluids into him and insert a catheter. “Otherwise,” the vet says, “he should be alright.”

For the first time since I walked out of the emergency room I stop thinking about the “Do Not Resuscitate” form I signed before I left. I get off the phone and notice a text message from a colleague asking if I can canvas the neighborhood with fliers. “They’re in your email,” she says.

***

We can’t help what happens to us when bad turns worse. In times of trouble and grief, it seems like we can’t avoid the harrowing “Why” that points a finger at us, charging us to figure out in some narrative order what’s happening, how it’s happening, and what to do next. Most of the time it seems like the mundane everyday sequence of things—which always lead to more things good and bad alike—are nothing more than events that punctuate our experiences, building them up just so we can be let down. Sometimes the interconnectedness of those things that happen appear to be prearranged, unrelenting, or unfair, escalating the pressure we feel to perform the best version of ourselves in the face of uncertainty at the very moment when that best version is something we’re not.

Famous folks like to suggest that we should try to do everything in life, but only ever in moderation. In my experience, that’s an idealist’s version of the way things tend to transpire: Everything happens, and it happens all at once. So yes, we do everything, but moderating that everything is hardly ever a choice. It’s great to be an agent of destiny, which is truly a virtue in the world we live in, but time and time again we find ourselves resigned to a story not of our own making and a world of experience that tries our sense of dignity.

On the worst days—what for lack of more eloquent language constitutes the shittiest of days—we might find ourselves pinned down by an unforgiving universe when the “minor events of daily life [are] unsettled or unsettling” (Zaner, 2004, p. 113). Since we can’t help to make sense of these episodes of our lives as we live them, often times finding meaning in them right before of immediately after they happen, it’s as though we’re dammed to the eternal consequence of the chaos we find ourselves amid. Sometimes it’s unclear whether or not what we wish will happen will or can prevail (p. 122).

I can remember as a little boy, trying to ride a wave in the ocean that was too big for me—way over my head—and finding myself tumbling again and again under a breaking tide, fighting my way up only to grasp the air that would give me the ability to keep fighting through the surf for the rest of the day—or week, for that matter—or however long I had in the water.

That breath of fresh air, in the chaos, among the crashing wave that puts us in distress when one thing after another throws us down and pulls us into the undertow is what can remind us that we’re not totally lost. It’s the grace we find twisted up in circumstances of grief, illness, and escalation that can remind us that an essential part of life is its tragedy. It’s up to us to remember that tragedy is all too certain, just as it’s always starkly unfamiliar when we confront it. It’s up to us to “refuse to give up or get out of the way” (p. 126).

Those times when we live with the constant, face-to-face reminders of ourselves seen by others—of our failings and misfortunes—we don’t have to remain resigned to our seeming fate, despondent yet reaching for dignity. We can look to others and communicate in trust, undergoing a sort-of moral transformation that changes our perspective (p. 139). We hug, have a sincere handshake, or sit side-by-side with another, and it’s their presence that supplies the air we need to keep breathing, fighting through the worst of it so we can go on and struggle through the rest; so we can go on, hoping for the best.

When we find those moments of joy and pleasure—maybe in a day where nothing goes wrong—we can realize in hindsight that everything that happens—good or bad, tragic or comic, awe-filling or gut-wrenching—is proof enough that we live in spite of the persistent possibility that all could be lost at any moment, for any reason, or for no reason at all. Be it the case that we find ourselves completely lost, we won’t be around to know it anyway, so the tragedy is worth all that living it entails.

We need our pain to remind us of what’s good, and that means incurring trouble as it comes. Of course, the most we can ever hope for is a certain realxedness to experience, something someone else famous once said (Becker, 1973).

 ***

Sitting outside at 3 in the morning, I can’t stop the memories from pushing past the nickelodeon in my mind. I see all of the times I can’t recall otherwise, remembering all of the versions of myself that I’ve been, and realizing that Simba’s been the silent observer to it all. He’s never failed to be there at night or in the morning, always by my side, not worried about what I’ve done or what I’m going through, but constant in his resolve to love and be loved back.

I do nothing but hope he’ll be ok. The breeze picks up and the trees shutter for a moment just as I’m reminded of the prayer they teach those people who go to those rooms on Thursday nights, to help each other cope with a life full of trouble:

 Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.

References

Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York: Simon & Schuster

Zaner, R.M. (2004). Conversations of the edge. Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press

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A Monday Disguised as a Tuesday and The Wisdom to Know the Difference by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

The Digital Playground

We’re supposed to be playing games. We’re not. We’re starting a fight.

People argue and the rhythm beats against my skull. They toss ideas back and forth like a game of catch with a ball that’s easy to throw but difficult to throw back. The more that people argue, the less they mean and the more they attack one another.

I want to do something fun. That’s why I’m here—why we’re all here—to begin with. We’re supposed to learn through play. Instead, the back and forth of confrontation sails overhead, competitive, taunting, and demeaning. I put my hands against my temples, waiting for the ball, following along—annoyed but still attentive:

“I’m just sayin’.”

Someone yells, tossing the ball across the room.

I’m just sayin’!”

Louder, throwing with more force.

I’m just sayin’.”

It’s falls to the ground and someone picks it back up.

The ball passes in front of me, way above my blood pressure, making me tense. I’m not sure how to play when people fight. I’m a bigger fan of dialogue, where everyone plays along. When people contribute easily, included in the game—connecting with others as they share ideas, suspending assumptions. Playing fair and, for the most part, playing nice.

This is not that. This is people fighting over a ball…

Catch.

“But students aren’t that smart. They want things to be easy and they don’t want…”

Toss.

Catch.

“Do you know how ridiculous that sounds? Really, I mean you can’t honestly believe…”

Toss.

Catch.

“You can’t say that! That’s not necessarily true! Studies show that people don’t care…”

Toss.

Classes like this are ruined from the start by too many personalities pulling in every direction. Discussion is disruptive; dialogue is meaningful; but here learning is reduced to miscommunication. Though no one’s in charge, no one takes turns because everyone has something to say. And someone always gets left out.

In dialogue, when one person wins, everyone wins.

That’s just the way that it goes. I hate being the person who’s unsure if they’ll get to play. I make others know that I’m not going away. I assert my presence and take a firm stand. I struggle for attention among strong egos. The need to be hears comes before good ideas and competition trumps decorum. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m abrasive—that I get animated when I feel threatened. Motivated by malice and cursing under my breath, I look for ways to break the rules and stay involved, get my words in edgewise and find a way to throw the ball.

I get loud and speak out of turn. I interrupt just to digress. My chest is tight from my heart to my neck, suffocated with ambition, the empathy strangled out of my words. Hot with anger I hold my breath, biting my tongue in half at the sour taste as the room gets heated.

I realize that I’ve had it all wrong: This isn’t play; this is people fighting with guns

I grip my desk to control the expressions on my face. Someone takes a shot at me, pulling me into the fight. Thrust into the open, I’m mocked by a person who’s got a way with words—criticism with a real need to be “right.” On guard, I pull back, holstering hasty ideas, taking my finger off the trigger, thinking about escape and there’s bedlam in my mind, generating thoughts too raw to express, harboring words in steady production as I prepare to draw. It’s only a matter of time before things get loud and ugly and I don’t want to miss the point when I get my chance take my shot. Animosity is churned into gunpowder, held back with bated breath and the smallest spark of excitement is explosive enough set me off.

People draw and fire, the room filled with smoke—hot air pouring from the barrel of their tongues. Others take cover, taking shots at each other, not sure where their words will land. Good ideas are slaughtered and threads of conversation murdered—maimed into assertions with no conclusion or point. A few people throw out terms in a desperate measure of defense, hurling boulder-sized words like “agency” and “autoethnography,” struggling to get a grip on what they mean as they fight to survive. They kick up dust with forcible gestures, echoing no one but themselves in the absence of wisdom and commonsense.

“I can’t believe that you think this is a…”

Bang.

“You have no clue what it’s like to teach a class with a…”

Bang.

“How can you say that knowing that people don’t…”

Bang.

“That’s unbelievable! I don’t know where you get this kind of…”

Bang.

My vocal chords shake, ringing shots out like bullets, shattering broken silences with hammering arrogance, bigger and meaner than others. A shotgun loaded with aggression, blasting away, spraying everyone, everywhere, all at once, silencing the crowd, commanding attention in rapid fire, pumping out shot after shot.

“What you’re saying doesn’t actually mean anything! You haven’t said a thing this entire time! You just keep talking, over and over, repeating yourself, filling the air with noise…”

BANG. BANG… BANG.

Pairs of eyes left blinking, targeting me with uncomfortable glares, holding their ground but not firing until the smoke clears. I stare back, queer and awkward—exposed but steady and my voice reverberates in my mind, filling a moment of sudden silence as a small stream of smoke sneaks up my side. I see that I’ve missed the target. I see that I’ve shot myself.

Sigh.

For a moment, there’s silence and then calamity ensues again. Conversation buried in the sarcasm of some new untenable game. Balls fly and guns blaze, but I pay them no mind. I opt out and disengage, shut-off by the imaginary world I’m forced to inhabit in a class that’s gone wrong. It’s not a game worth playing or a fight worth fighting—not on this playground, anyway—and not with these kids.

There are other ways to learn and have fun.

I abandon the group to go off on my own, resigned to keep my thoughts undisclosed. Staying quiet, I notice a few others doing the same.

This is people playing alone, together

Sliding open my computer I close my mouth. A gust of air-conditioned air cools my face and bits of imagination fill the room. My attention shifts into the virtual ether as I focus online, soothing interactions that don’t provoke humiliation.

My fingers do the talking, translating angst into social commentary. I climb over rungs of posts. I perch atop wifi bars, connecting networks of discussion in a jungle-gym of information. I peer through the glass of my screen, sanguine as others argue and fight. I reflect on my thoughts and respond at my discretion, productive as I communicate with distantly intimate others, learning to play on my own.

I open Twitter to observe the class-feed—our back channel of the discussion. I check lists of followers, scroll through posts, tweeting once every few minutes. There’s affirmation in the network; it explodes with creativity—forming scores of information that swing by my mind. I monkey around with others online, retweeting interesting links as I go, playing follow the leader as we all climb back to where we started.

On Facebook, my newsfeed rolls and I explore the slow churn of “conversation.” Others keep pace from the far reaches of my network and classmates make room for each other as they voice their opinions. They’re see-saw encounters, falling silent in-the-flesh while speaking up out of body, finding a way to collaborate and even smile.

I post comments that I overhear from the argument still going, using classmates’ words in puns and metaphors. I’m the captain of a ship that sails through cyberspace, passing by computer screens—windows into the very classroom setting on every desk. Quiet jeers of delight keep us moving as oblivious classmates walk the plank. Status updates and newsfeeds wash over them, drowning their cynicism in virtual presence. Other typed voices chime in, playfully layering intelligent anecdotes with humorous quips, cheering me on. Together we’re a crew and a therapeutic subtext, escaping a mutual dissatisfaction in the creative commons of our own devices.

Voices fade into the distance as I ascend deeper into the blue and alabaster of Facebook, Twitter, and Google, finding footing in complex thoughts, pounding out responses on my keyboard in a field of text. I swing between applications, more invloved and emphatic, each time curling my feet behind my chair and pushing myself to new heights of participation. Tweets and retweets, posts and likes, all accumulate in affinity. Digital ideas re-place verbal accusations and typed enunciations elicit response. Fresh thoughts infuse with new discoveries, engaged in intellectual contention, swinging in tandem, building a cognitive surplus of trust, feeding ambient generousity that adds value to reality—freed from the bondage of the classroom, surrendered to the digital playground.

The same people are talking but fewer are listening, and everyone’s more engaged with themselves. I can see fingers moving, smirks on faces with heads bent as they type and press and drag their ideas across a screen, exploring new worlds in parallel play, meeting others they’ve never given a chance any other way. They play on the equipment—finally unafraid to get along. Clicks and ticks welcome the sounds of silence.

Images from the past flash across my mind…

I’m in a desk, in 5th grade, staring out the window on sunny afternoon. The teacher talks about something I don’t understand, but the wind has got my attention. I don’t want to understand him so I tune it all out; I don’t want to pay attention as much as I want to play. I’m longing to be outside, where it’s warm and air is clear; where the wind blows leaves with the smell of cut grass, and ants gather under swing-sets flexing in a rhythm. Others kids fly off of monkey bars as they hit the ground running, laughing and pulling at each other. People toss a ball, seeing who can throw the hardest, impressed at how good they all are. Friends on seesaws bounce and giggle as cops and robbers run around by.

I wish the classroom was the playground, or the other way around—and I want to understand why that can’t happen.

Light floods through the window, casting networks of shadows on the floor. And there’s no need to fight, just good reasons to laugh. We play hide and seek, moving on and offline, together bringing the playground into the classroom and the classroom online. There’s so much more out in the digital wide open—so much more we can do together  because play is the deepest lesson that we can learn.

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The Digital Playground by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

That Extra Little Push: Providing Technology That Does What It’s Supposed To

“Hey can I ask you a question?” I ask the unsuspecting student working behind the counter at the USF library.

She gives me an unsuspecting stare.

“Do you know if the new iPads that everyone seems to be checking out have a library app?”

“You mean an app for our library? No. Not that I know of. You just have to get on the website.”

“Aha. Thanks.” I walk away with my books, confused as to why, exactly, so much money was spent on a whole slew of touch-screen, mobile devices that serve no different purpose than the laptops you’ve always been able to check out.

Using an iPad without an app is, in a lot of ways, like making toast on a stove-top. Sure, it’ll work, but it takes longer and you might get burnt.

This is a typical problem, not just at USF, but one that’s observable most anytime new technology is introduced somewhere. The logic is simple: New technology may be all great and powerful – much like the Wizard of Oz – but if it’s not used for it’s potential, it’s introduction is undermined immediately. Like the man behind the curtain, the user finds that the smoke, fire, and other aesthetic wonders are just a gimmick.

Others, like Steve Wheeler, have said this better than me:

“The technology in any given school can be as high quality, shiny and compatible as you like. Technical support can be second to none, and all the support in the world on offer, but if the teacher is not convinced of its usefulness, forget it.”

If I had a dollar for every time he was right about technology and education, I wouldn’t have the immense amount of debt that I do today.

What he’s suggesting doesn’t just apply to teachers – it goes for University systems, administrators, and students commissioned to put technology in the hands of people who may need simple guidance on how to use it efficiently and advantageously.

Why not commission someone to design a USFLibrary app for the new fancy armory of touchscreen, easy-access tablets that countless tuition dollars were spent on? How about something that helps people navigate the stacks of (often) scrambled collections? Something that lets people collaborate with others in the library quickly? Place an order at Starbuck’s? Track the RFID’s that are already in all of the books, so they can be found when they’re lost in the oblivion of the sorting area? How about a real time map for the Bull Runner bus service? Or a weather tracker for the folks locked away in the upstairs dungeons studying hard for exams? How about a badge system that would encourage people to be better students, go to the writing center, or find other students in the library working on a similar topic so they could work together? Certainly USF has the financial and human resources to put something like this together without much effort. Certainly they have programming-savvy grad students who will kindly offer their indentured servitude for a deadline extension or a vitea line.

If you want to be a technology leader among Universities, that little extra push to make something work like it ought to work is what it takes.

iPads and phones – and other types of mobile technology – are not just about the “bells and whistles” or keeping up with the appearances; they actually do offer extended capabilities to students, staff, faculty that could so easily (and cheaply) enhance learner capacities, save time and energy, and disseminate information – which, lets be honest, would cut back on everyone’s stress level. Why take advantage of automation id we use it against ourselves?

All it takes is a little direction, a little know how, and a little digital literacy. Before you know it, the entire enterprise of going to a library, which is already disorienting and intimidating to many students, will change.

This much I know: Show anyone how to use an iPad once, and they won’t forget; provide them iPads that can be used the way they were intended to be used and you’ll start to leverage social media to an educational advantage.

How do I know? It’s already being done. Elsewhere.

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That Extra Little Push: Providing Technology That Does What It’s Supposed To by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.