Better Read Than Never: John Updike’s SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS

(10-minute read)
(If 10 minutes is disheartening, I just took a shorter look at a particular section of Self-Consciousness, the one addressed to his biracial grandchildren, in my He Said/She Said compendium of pithy quotations. It’s about growing up Black in America, by a loving White granddaddy.)

I haven’t been a huge John Updike fan, but he’s growing on me. Naturally, I read Rabbit Run,

My local library's edition.

My local library’s edition.

the first of what became the “Rabbit” tetralogy following the life course of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. For me, it was pretty much required reading, since the protagonist had been a high school hoops star and basketball profoundly colours his youthful experience. I liked it, though I wasn’t crazy about Harry. Despite periodic and ephemeral resolutions, I never did get to the subsequent novels. I will. The closer in age that I get to Rabbit at Rest, the final chapter, the more Mr. Angstrom seems like a character I should know better.

The second Updike novel I read, The Centaur, really was required reading: to keep my brain alive during a period of professional drudgery, I took some Lit courses at the University of Ottawa. Unsurprisingly, Updike appeared on the American Novel course, though the choice of The Centaur was less obvious. Perhaps because I read and re-read and wrote about it¹, I love and know that novel better than the one about the basketball hero-turned-typically-jaded-American. My affection and enduring memory of the thing might have had to do, too, with the father-son tension and the high school cum mythological dream-park setting; sonsRUs, certainly, and I still haven’t finally left the halls of eternal adolescence. I coach high school hoops still, after all.

¹ It’s academic stuff, but not terribly unreadable. However, I have placed electronic drones around the text in case some undergraduate thinks to plagiarize. You will be shocked, assimilated, and outed to the Weenyverse, if you do. Reading the essay won’t hurt, though. Reading the NOVEL would be downright healthy.

But recently, not long after seeing the great and gracious radio voice of the superb literary interviewer, Eleanor Wachtel, embodied on an Ottawa stage, I heard her 1996 interview with the famously media-shy Updike. (He died in 2009, at 76.) Wachtel interviews are always extended, thoughtful, generous expositions of the minds and hearts of many of the greatest writers we’ve had. John Updike was no exception, though I was mildly surprised to find what a humble, gracious and thoroughly engaging voice his was.

Young, and with yellowed fingers.

Young, and with yellowed fingers.

Perhaps I’d been swayed by some of the backlash against the privilege of the white male Authorial Voice of the mid-20th century. One of the nastiest was the dismissal of Updike as merely “a penis with a thesaurus”, but a pervasive view is that, though a big-seller among literary fiction-writers, he was over-rated simply because the voices of women – especially women of colour – had been suppressed. Time will tell, I suppose, but this cuts two ways. As unpopular as it may be to say it, there must be certain much-praised contemporary writers who benefit from the opposite current: the explosion of interest in and production by the previously under-published and under-privileged, those other voices from other cultural rooms that we now (wonderfully) get to hear more from. Some of these, I suspect, will have their ecstatic reviews and audience responses tempered by the sifting hands of critical hindsight. There’s nothing wrong with that.

To return to Updike, his was a voice that I was moved and inspired to hear, and hear more. He didn’t do many interviews, certainly not such revealing, appealing and lengthy ones as he had with Ms. Wachtel. I was moved particularly by a thread of their conversation in which he shyly but eloquently offered that he had always been interested in unnoticed little corners of life: odd bits of geography, obscure perspectives, his childhood view from under the kitchen table. (The ego-mad writer in me, inevitably I suppose, thought Hey, I got me some corners. But then, who doesn’t?) It was a gentle, humble, profound, a personally revelatory reverie, and I also felt that it was part of Wachtel’s genius that got him to speaking about it. I thought I heard a little wonder in his voice, that he’d been nudged to notice a slightly new perception of his own work.

That could’ve been sheer imagination, but it was one of several minor heart-quakes that urged me to read more Updike, especially his 1989 Self-Consciousness: Memoirs. It goes to odd corners. It is no standard autobiography,

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SIV: Germanwings, High School, and Islands

Yes, and you may have heard of Stubbornness Is Virtue (SIV) week, self-declared and self-extended, in which I have granted myself executive authority to Get Stuff Done, no matter how ‘last month’ it might be. This week, we have heard more from the investigation of the Germanwings air disaster, more on the sordid rehearsal that CopilotBoy did for his all-too-sadly-inclusive march into oblivion. I wrote, quite bitterly, about this unnameable coward earlier, but here was my first (pre-empted) reaction, now finally finished — rather like my lengthy high school career.

I was in high school for a LONG time.

It was five years, at first, back in the era of Ontario’s Grade Thirteen. Five years of education and some factory/retail time later, I did some teacher prep-time in a few southern Ontario elementary schools, and then resumed what seemed to be the endless walk down the halls of eternal high school. I was a full-time Creature in my 20s, and was still barking and grinning, cajoling and joking and explaining and teaming my ever-lovin’ head off ‘til I was deep into my forties.

Then, in China, I taught university students, but it didn’t feel much different. (The kids, so sheltered by the abrasive cocoon of high-pressure study – and so charming in their child-like forays into English – seemed younger than European and North American kids. Less experienced. Less jaded. The freshmen inevitably reminded me of ninth-graders, the girls beginning to dress for the male gaze, the boys pretending not to notice.) And even now, having retreated from that consuming, exhausting gig, I hang with high-schoolers all the time. Two of ‘em live with me, and I chase many more of them around gyms, with a whistle and incessant roundball counsel. (It’s no way to make a living, but I feel lively when I’m doing it.)

There weren't enough candles in the world to brighten that day. (photo from

There weren’t enough candles in the world to brighten that day. (photo from

High school is where I live, still, with much of my heart. No surprise, then, that when the Germanwings airliner went down, and my morning dose of Bad News at Home and Abroad muttered that “…eighteen of the dead are from one German high school”, my heart ached more than usual. The last time I felt this way – like a bombing near-miss, where I’m assaulted by the carnage but haven’t a scratch myself – was the bit-by-bit unfolding to me of the costs of the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, especially in the lives of children buried in shoddily built schools.

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Rebecca Solnit (on the lie of “the best years”)

I don’t always read out-of-date stuff. In fact, Discerning Reader, the April 2015 issue of Harper’s magazine just found its way into my grocery cart. This issue has pieces on the basketball exploitation of young Africans, a climate change travelogue, and the cover story on the virtues of solitude. I was already sold when I saw reference to an editorial piece by Rebecca Solnit called “Abolish High School!”

Now, high school is where I have spent more time than in any other venue, five (yes, 5) years as a student and nearly another 25 as one of the dreaded Creachers. (English Lit and Writ, some French, a little Phys. Ed., and about half again that much time invested in extracurricular madness.) I believe in public education, though its limitations and squareness aren’t lost on me. I was eager to read Solnit on abolition, and while there’s some element of over-idealistic assaults on windmills, she’s thoughtful, sincere and a wonderful wordsmith.

Somehow, she avoided high school completely, and didn’t miss it a bit. Much of her argument proceeds from the inevitable peer-hazing that happens when a narrow age-range of people are processed within a semi-industrial system of “efficiency”. Solnit figures she’d have been a prime target for ridicule and isolation, and wonders why we so blandly accept this personality-warping pain as a necessary element of growing up. This writer is a long way from boxed-in thinking.

Towards the conclusion, Solnit treats the opposite effect: what about the high school winners? Do they really?

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What, So We’re a RUGBY Family Now?

UPDATE: A revised and condensed version of this sportsy meditation on sonship and daddery appeared at the on-line long-form sportswriting site The Classical on November 26, 2014. I still like the sprawling ME-ness of this piece, but the tighter form @Classical has lots to recommend it, too, even apart from costing you less time!

The thunder began at 5:45 a.m. The shower is next to our bedroom, and Rugby Boy was in it. (Spoiler alert: this time, he did not flood the bathroom.) I tried to imagine myself back into dreamland, but I fear the thunder. 6:13: Size 11 hooves rattle the beams as a herd of buffalo thunder manfully to the kitchen. (Wow, I think. Half an hour from bed to breakfast. He’s getting faster!) It didn’t look like dreamland was an option, but after a few more rumbles of downstairs thunder, I heard the sonic boom of the front door banging shut. 6:45! Wow the second. He’s going to be early for practice! What had gotten into my son?

Where it started: Rugby School, England. Young Ellis picked up the ball and the rest is rugby.

Where it started: Rugby School, England. Young Ellis picked up the ball and the rest is rugby.

I’d thought that I might get out of bed and bike over to see Thunderhoof and His Flailing Limbs on the high school rugby pitch for his 7:30 workout. Meanwhile, I continued doing what a tired old coot-of-sporting-colours does when sleep is hopeless: I thought about basketball. Rugby isn’t my game, and never was. Back in Canada, I’m a wanna-be hoops guru again. I’m reading and noting, observing practices and networking, and obsessing over possibilities and plans, to say nothing of all the technical adjustments and teaching points my stormy brain whips up for imaginary teams. (Fire in the belly: sometimes it feels more like heartburn.) I want to blame Thunder Bunny the Rugby Boy for my broken sleep, but his crashing about only punctuates my sentence of wakefulness. Besides, going to rugger practice with him might be <yawn> fun.

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Catching Up: Portrait of the Activist as a Young Woman

Maybe you’ll like this. I did, when I dredged it up from a subterranean file of writing I’d forgotten about. I didn’t forget this girl, though.

A.T. was a favourite student of mine, and Number One Babysitter of Son the Fourth when he was “the world’s happiest child”. In a writing class I was taking, not teaching, I was assigned to interview somebody interesting, and I chose a chubby, bespectacled grade 11 with a great brain, lovely brown eyes and a lethal wit. She still writes, but the activist appears to have won out: she’s spent the past half-dozen years doing development work with an NGO in Africa. She’s come a long way from Caledonia.

I always wanted to be Jann Arden”, says A.T., a 16 year old high school student, “but I can’t sing.  I guess I’ll be a writer–what else can I do?” A. even looks a little like Arden, and has the same intelligence and self-deprecating wit, although her self-possession suggests she will not have to go through the same depressing chemical adventures in seedy bars. Here’s hoping, anyway.

An only child (a gentle iconoclast right from the womb), she nonetheless has loads of family history, blithely speaking and writing about her father’s recent marriage to “the fourth Mrs. J. T.”.

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And Another Thing! Heels Over Head In China

Yes, and sometimes they ARE upside-down. And BENT.

I posted, a few days ago, about the ways in which China is upside-down, at least from a Canada-centric point of view. I missed an obvious one.

Here’s the ‘nother thing: people here don’t sing sentimental anthems, a la Bryan Adams, or make nostalgic carpe diem speeches to adolescents, saying that university and especially high school are “the best years of your life”. (Lies the Adults Told Us. I could go on and on, and often did with my students  back home, but let me say this: high school is a painful and confusing period for many Canadian kids, and those early-bloomers for whom those really were the best of times are doomed to chronic disappointment.) China is really upside-down about that whole wish-I-was-young-again thing. They don’t miss high school a bit!

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Farewell to ENG 2D

Here’s an end-of-term bit of old-fashioned letter-writing — hand delivered, mind you! — to a group of kids champing at the bit to feel free of all the literacy I forced upon them. I just had a couple more things to say, and hope that 2 in 28 paid attention:

Friday the 13th
(Lucky us!)
June ‘08

Well, 2D,
(2D, or not 2D / That is the question.) (Sort of.) (Okay, not really, but it rhymes…)

Many a Journal has been written this semester, but not a one by me. Time to change that, ‘though as the photocopier hums merrily along behind me with last-day-of-class exam preparation sheets and other items of ground-wobbling importance, I’m not sure I’ll be able to complete the required full page. But it’s a start. After writing Journals quite madly for years – including, often, those written alongside my sweating students as they scribbled theirs – I’ve been in a Journal Drought. I’ve written many another thing, and some of ‘em were green and growing, but my personal coil-bound thought sanctuary has been a desert.

So this rambling scramble of a letter is my first baby step toward the restoration of my own private record-life-as-it-happens-so-I-learn-and-remember habit.

‘Cause that’s what a Journal is, besides its obvious value in helping/forcing you to get better and easier in putting your thoughts and feelings down on paper. (How can I know what I think ‘til I see what I’ve said? one writer asked.) For most of you of you, by now, getting it down is something you do easily and well; I wish I’d had more time to read and respond to the thoughtful, wonder(ing)ful, funny or frustrated things you spun out of your own life and intelligence. What’s more important, though, is that YOU will read what you’ve written, sometime down the road. There’s a vivid portrait, in words and exclamations and marginal scribbles, of yourself in there, one that you should value and that you should keep, right alongside your yearbook, maybe. (Great idea, sir!)

I wish you all the best, including a summer full of reading: the Best Single Thing you could do for your educational future, I say, AND for those quiet hours when only a book will do…

Peace and progress,
Mr. H.

Return of the Creature

(An item recovered from a memory stick, frosted white while lost in the chalk tray…)

A year ago last September, I wrote a short on-line meditation about the slight disorientation I felt, after many years of trying to make classrooms live, at NOT being chalk-stained and eager at that time of year. Part of it went like this:

 (September 6, 2006) “It’s Labour Day Tuesday and, for the fourth straight year, I am skipping school. It’s about 2:30 p.m., and in the olden days I would have been well into the last teaching period of the day. The Teacher Dreams – can’t find my classroom, can’t find my clothes, don’t know what subject I teach – are over. The performance anxiety – can I still DO this? – evaporated two minutes into period 1, and I would now be feeling the great fun of a new beginning (even though the marking pile already grows thick) and the eagerness to find out who these kids are and what we’ll be able to do together.

“I would be in my element. I might be sitting at my desk watching them write their first journal entry (“All About Me by Me” or “What Am I Doing Here?”) or exercise or assigned reading, but more likely I’d be strolling about, interviewing students, offering random observations, observing the various adolescent species in their (un)natural environment. Or maybe I’d be standing at the front, leaning slightly against the chalk ledge, right ankle crossed over the left, rambling on. (The horizontal streak of chalk dusting my butt didn’t concern me; at least once, though, the grommets on my right hiking boot hooked the laces on my left, so that a particularly animated point I wanted to step up and make vaulted me face-first into the legs of the front-row desks. That was a good one. I bowed deeply, grinned maniacally, and blushed quite redly.)

“By this time, I would already have forgotten to send down the afternoon attendance check, so a (usually) cheery secretary calls to try again to get Mr. H. properly trained. But there are no staff meetings, no reporting deadlines, no rebellious kids (yet), no sense of depletion or the (inevitable) frustration of my most dearly held intentions. Hope springs in an educator’s autumn. This was always a great day to be a teacher…”

And on February 1, 2008, I had another one of those fine, hopeful, we-can-do-anything-together days. It wasn’t quite typical, because at my new school they send their students through their Semester 1 timetable in the morning; I didn’t see my new kiddies until the afternoon, and then only for a shortened period. With that, the in-flux timetables and the game-players who didn’t bother showing up the first day – and no, they actually didn’t miss much, except for me at my most charming and fun-loving! – we didn’t do much that was even vaguely curricular. But I started a relationship with students, got a few of my basic expectations across, and shed a little of my teaching rust.

By Monday, I was teaching my fool head off at Merivale High School, a southwest Ottawa academy that was surrounded by fields ten years ago and which is now boxed in by big box stores and malls and fast-food emporiums. (In other words, it’s a typical student’s dream, and a good spot for shopaholic teachers, too.) We are the Marauders. As a former student of McMaster University, that name and the colour maroon are more than comfortable. In fact, I told several people that I was feeling simultaneously disoriented and right at home.

I didn’t know where the photocopier was or have an office space to work from when I wasn’t teaching. I was teaching a course in Careers that I’d never taught before, and hadn’t yet realized that there IS indeed a textbook for it. I was always surprised by bell times and running head-first into Merivale routines — not to mention colleagues and students — that were new to me.

But at the same time, I was doing what I’ve done for awfully close to ever. Though I was foggy on lots of particulars and incidentals, I knew right where I was and exactly what I was doing. I was, once again, a full-time, ultra-dedicated, in-it-to-win-it educator. Thomas Wolfe famously said you can never go home again, but I’ve found that, if you don’t mind some of the rooms being re-arranged, you sure can. And I like it.

Where ARE You Guys?

(This piece, or something like it, appeared in the weekly column I write for my down-home weekly newspaper in July. It concerns graduation ceremonies at an Ottawa high school, but my observations, I’m quite sure, apply to schools all over North America. At least. And here we go again with another school year, and worries that only get more pronounced.)

I was sitting in a warm gymnasium on a bum-squaring chair, draped neck to knees in a black polyester academic gown, sweating and watching 112 kids I didn’t know make their final pass across a high school stage. It was Commencement at the east Ottawa high school where I drilled (and thrilled?) suburban grade nines in literature, life and verb tenses, from early May until late June’s parole. I had spent many a stifling June evening — this was my first morning graduation exercise — sitting in similar high school auditoria and gymnasia (and one cafetorium!)

My most recent school is named after Canada’s first woman Senator, Cairine Wilson. CWSS started its school day at 8 a.m., and maintained its morning persona by holding its graduation exercises at 10. Whew! One mixed blessing of that unusual hour is that the city councillor, the MPP, and the federal Member of Parliament were all present for the ceremony and, naturally, all had something to say. Fairly painless, though my fellow staff, who were buying squares on the how-long-will-this-take lottery, might not agree. The speeches were gracious and not overly long, and the MPP made a rather stirring appeal to the young people to be adventurous global citizens, to truly change the way the world operates. Nice!

The principal, an earnest, energetic and hardworking young man – yes, I’m getting to the stage where my bosses and my doctors seem like upstarts to me – was surprisingly nervous and bland in his speech. Still, there are always nuggets for a word nerd/performance geek like me. He told the students that “you are the gifts from our hearts to the future”. Perhaps a tad overheated, but still I found it sweet. Among his (too) numerous quotations was this soaring, simple truth from the saintly Mother Teresa: “There is a greater hunger for appreciation than for bread.” I love this statement, even more true in our well-fed part of the world than in Teresa’s Calcutta.

GIRLS. BOYS. There’s another truth that I expected to find at yet another high school graduation, and I did. It’s the same story as when I started keeping statistics at my former high school, somewhere in the mid-nineties, about the relative achievement levels of boys and girls. Looked at through my Advancement-of-Women lens, it’s a happy story: females are the majority in nearly every university faculty, including medicine and even law in some places, because they are absolutely kicking the boys’ arses in high schools. Wow! I say, “You go, girls!” But while I don’t blame the boys, I am worried about them. Despite our prosperity, things are not easy for the kids today, and it seems clear to me that there are far too many guys being left behind. I’ve been keeping statistics for years now, and the recent numbers were a confirmation of what I’d seen back home.

A few numbers for you. (Hey, what can I say? It made two stuffy hours pass more quickly.) Graduates? 62 girls to 50 boys, not a huge spread but significant. Top students in the various subjects? 24 girls to 5 boys, including a 12:2 ratio in maths, sciences and physical education, for goodness’ sake! Ontario Scholars? 23 girls, 8 boys. French immersion certificates (bilingualism being SO valuable, especially here in Ottawa)? 19 to 6. Students averaging 90%? 5-0. Shutout.

There’s a lot more scribbled data where that comes from, but that’ll do for now. I wish I had thought to add up the tens of thousands of dollars by which the scholarship awards to girls exceeded that given to the guys. (I’m old-fashioned enough, or something enough, to still find this public announcement of scholarship amounts slightly déclassé.) There are plenty of reasons and theories behind this clear and growing gender gap, but I’ll bet that whatever high school you know and care about most had similar numbers. I just think we should be noticing these things and talking about them. Are we letting down the lads? Is there anything we can do?

Return of the Chalk Monster

Sorry to have been so long since the last post. (Hmm. The Last Post. What a mournfully gorgeous thing that is when played on a trumpet. November 11. Remembering the cause of peace, honouring the sacrifice, praying for the dead and the eternally changed. That is a thousand leagues from my recent inability to publish my tiny cerebral explosions.) As for my Web site silence, I can only say that education is to blame.

I am now, and again, a fully-fledged High School Creature. After months of substitute gigs in several Ottawa schools, I have taken over a position at a suburban educational emporium. (Cairine Wilson Secondary. Know who she is?) I’m not sure who has been more challenged and distressed by the change, me or the ninth and tenth graders I teach. (Okay, it’s the students. Who am I kidding?) Administratively, organizationally and interpersonally, it’s been a fair upheaval. For one thing, this place begins its classes at 8:10 a.m., so that my bride has had to adjust her morning routine in order to get Junior to his bus, which had been my job. And yes, I got a little lost on the way here the first day, and there were computer problems, key problems, and behavioural problems (not all mine!). Curriculum, planning, materials, mindset – all of this has needed considerable massaging and headscratching.

But for all that, and though many of the students have been reluctant to accept graciously the new Ogre in room 222, I feel at home here already. I still don’t know where a lot of things are in this funky, ‘70s-designed school layout, but I’m getting there. But being in the language classroom again – two French classes, one English – feels fine. Last Friday, after perhaps the most frustrating day of trying to get my new kids on the same page as me, was a turning. There were more smiles. There were glances that said, Hey, maybe this clown won’t be so bad after all. I could lower my shield and sword, bring some energy and animation to what was being taught, and not worry about losing the kids to side conversations and general distraction. Cool!

My writing schedule is completely thrown off, though. Not only have I not been posting to my Web site for the last two weeks, but the less visible writing projects that I’ve been trying to nourish lie in a dusty, chaotic heap in my home office and in foul-smelling corners at the back of my mind. Forgotten, but not gone, I hope.

The most urgent reason for returning to education was a financial one. I had a steady and adequate salary when I was writing for and with the former Governor General, Adrienne Clarkson. As an independent flogger of my own ideas, though, my income has been, well, less than stellar. (If I was a more confident/arrogant writer and weighed a little less, I might have called myself a “starving artist”.) After a year and a bit of literary exploration, I have had to bow to economic realities. (Can’t stand economics OR realism!)

Less urgent, but more important – at least to me – was that even during the best periods of my exclusive writing life, something was missing. It was my Teaching Jones. I love that whole relationship: Educators and Those Who Need Them. I love being at the centre of a community of learners, of which I am one. Sometimes high schoolers don’t recognize their own hunger to know, blunted as it can be by distraction and the habits of enforced ignorance. (And, I’ll say it, by poor teaching.) But when those coloured lights start to sparkle and glow, there’s nothing like it. I often felt, even when I was writing speeches for the visit of Heads of State or for national honours to the greatest of Canadians, that I was likely doing less for the world than I had done as a chalk-stained wretch or whistle-toting basketball guru.

And so I’m back in class. I surely hope to balance this return to Shakespeare and the passé composé with my ongoing quests as a writer. But if my next school needs a basketball coach, I don’t know how I’m going to keep all those ducks in a row. So many darned ducks!