Poem by Amy Lowell

September, 1918

This afternoon was the colour of water falling through sunlight;
The trees glittered with the tumbling of leaves;
The sidewalks shone like alleys of dropped maple leaves,
And the houses ran along them laughing out of square, open windows.
Under a tree in the park,
Two little boys, lying flat on their faces,
Were carefully gathering red berries
To put in a pasteboard box.
Some day there will be no war,
Then I shall take out this afternoon
And turn it in my fingers,
And remark the sweet taste of it upon my palate,
And note the crisp variety of its flights of leaves.
To-day I can only gather it
And put it into my lunch-box,
For I have time for nothing
But the endeavour to balance myself
Upon a broken world.

Amy Lowell, “September, 1918” from The Complete Poetical Works of Amy Lowell.

Working Class Dog: Why Rick Springfield wasn’t jealous of Jessie

Communicating can be a humbling experience. The potential for being misunderstood is great and the fear of such misunderstanding can be the cause of much anxiety. Sometimes we don’t have enough time to fully explain what we mean, and sometimes we simply don’t know how to say what we mean. The people we are communicating with have more or less capacity to understand us and the confusion levels increase as you add more people to the equation. Making this even more complicated is the fact that some words don’t mean what we think they mean.

The word jealousy is now used almost exclusively as a synonym for envy. Your friend has a new phone or has tickets to Hamilton on Broadway or sends you a picture of her tanned legs stretching out to white sand and blue-green ocean and you text back, “Jealous!” It would probably sound odd or maybe even pretentious to text back, “Envious!” Except, that is what you are. You are envious, not jealous.

The word jealous actually means (or used to mean?) to desire to keep the thing you have from other people. How about some context? Let’s compare God in the Old Testament to Rick Springfield from his 1981 album Working Class Dog.

In the Bible, God is often referred to as a jealous God. The idea is that the Israelites are God’s people. God doesn’t want to share the Israelites with any other gods. In a similar way, you might jealously guard your influence and reputation, your position at work, land, relationships, etc. Jealousy has a complex set of implications, which can be healthy or unhealthy. The “consuming fire” can be turned outward in affection and care or inward in self-centered possessiveness. Jealous isn’t a simple word.

Rick Springfield, on the other hand, was envious of his good friend Jessie. It would sound more poetic if we could say he was jealous of Jessie, but we don’t always get what we want (sorry to complicate things with a Stones reference). Rick may be content with finding “a woman like that,” but it is difficult to ignore his constant repetition of “I wish that I had Jessie’s girl.” He wants what someone else has. That’s envy.

Side note: It isn’t clear from the song or video if Jessie is a jealous boyfriend. For the purposes of this blog post, that point is probably moot.

Here’s the turn back to something like a point that isn’t moot, thanks for staying with me.

When words like envy and jealousy are conflated, we lose the capacity to communicate clearly and specifically. I would like to suggest that all of us can work harder and think more deeply about how and what we communicate. Having been humbled enough over the years by my own miscommunication, I would also suggest that we offer significant latitude to others as they try and try again to work out what they mean. Words aren’t as simple as they seem.

Certainly, the distinction between holding tightly to the thing we have and grasping after the thing someone else has is significant, and knowing the difference is potentially critical to our development as persons. It is also important to understand the nuances of the words we use because they reveal the even more nuanced desires and motivations in ourselves and others. Recognizing these nuances can, like a small flashlight, illuminate a bit of the path forward and maybe reduce the number of times we stumble in the darkness of what we call communication. Ain’t that the way love’s supposed to be?

Battlefield Promotions: A call to action for medical students

I was deeply move by Aaron Kheriaty’s recent message to students at the University of California Irvine School of Medicine, where he is director of the Medical Ethics Program. Kheriaty is guiding his students through two simultaneous disappointments: the loss of well earned rights of passage (commencement, residency matches, etc) and the frustration of being sent home from clinicals for the time being. Kheriaty’s message:

“Now is the time to focus not on our own individual interests ­but on the common good. Realize that you are not being sidelined for the long term but kept on reserve in the short term: We simply cannot have too many health care workers getting infected at once. You will soon be needed for tasks that could not be more urgent and important.

Hear what is being communicated? These students are saying they want to serve. Kheriaty goes on:

“This is why you are becoming doctors. Just as firefighters go into burning buildings when others run the other direction, so physicians go where the sick are when others try to avoid them — using all available precautions and training, of course, but still putting the needs of the patients ahead of our own convenience.”

I have been thinking of all of my friends and former students who are medical professionals. Some of them are going to experience battlefield promotions soon. This pandemic is nothing that these students could have anticipated when they started med school and yet they are anxious to get to work. I deeply admire them for their commitment to serve. You can see Kheriaty’s full message here at The New Atlantis.


Teaching Engaging Classes Online: A Tutorial and Discussion

This is a general PSA for those of us who are educators and find ourselves in uncharted waters.* I’ve been following Dr. Cory Olsen (known as the Tolkien Professor) for a number of years now. He founded Signum University, a fully online university which currently offers masters degrees in Language & Literature.


Dr. Olson offered an excellent session yesterday on Teaching Engaging Classes Online: A Tutorial and Discussion. Signum is also offering to share their collected wisdom with educators by providing consultants.

* I realize that pretty much everyone is in uncharted waters. Also, I wanted to say a bunch of stuff like “Water, water everywhere…” and “Beyond here be dragons” but didn’t want to clutter up the actual post with my nonsense.

What Work Is

“Forget you,” says the poet Philip Levine in his poem “What Work Is”. I used to read the poem with the stress on forget which makes those two words dismissive. A few years ago, I started to stress the you which, I think, makes them an admonition, an opening to the possibility of knowing the real work of life. I decided to name this blog What Work Is because it seems I’m constantly in need of reminders of the real work of life.

I’d like this venture to be about affections more than frustrations. Who and what do I love, think is admirable, and wish to share? It isn’t hard to find the objectionable, the frustrating or the hateful. Certainly, I don’t think we should look away from such difficult, tragic, immoral, or unethical things. That is also the real work of life. However, I’m hoping to use this blog to prompt my imagination and maybe the imagination of others toward the work of loving. In his 2012 Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment of the Humanities, Wendell Berry says, “By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place. By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.”

So many of my friends and acquaintances (writers, artists, leaders, teachers, thinkers, caregivers, and so on) have shared their loves and affections with me over the years. I hope this effort (incomplete as it is likely to be) is an opportunity to show my gratitude by giving back.

In the poem, Levine’s character is standing in line in the rain, waiting to be told that there isn’t work today. Levine’s characters are often doing this sort of thing. Edward Hirsch called him “a large, ironic Whitman of the industrial heartland.” I have an affection for these kinds of characters and poems. The young man’s glasses blur his vision and he mistakes a man in line ahead of him for his brother.

How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,   
just because you don’t know what work is.

Let’s do some work.

PS: I’m going to come back sometime and write about that little phrase “open your eyes wide.” It makes me uncomfortable so it seems like something to think about.