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A Cemetery Walk on a Snowy Day with Lou Kelly

February 15, 2014 Leave a comment

LK BW3cIf you had known her as a child, maybe you would have called her Louise as it says on her birth certificate. But I doubt Lou has let anyone call her Louise since Franklin Roosevelt was president. She is 92 now, retired for a quarter of a century. Before that, she was the kind of teacher who would look up into the faces of the university’s least domesticated football and basketball players and tell them to get their lives in order and to take their educations seriously. And when students were serious, she would help them accomplish any worthy goal.

I was visiting for the day. After a nice lunch out, we drove in the country, then toured the town’s landmarks—the great bookstore, the peaceful river that raged through the heart of campus just a few years ago, even the town’s hilltop cemetery, where a huge bronze statue of a black angel has drooped its wings over a certain grave for a century. Our conversation leaped about in time—back to the decades of teaching and ahead to her planned flight out to California to see those beloved creatures she calls her grand-younguns. Lou mentioned her frustration that the university had recently changed her name on the retired faculty list to Louise. In the snowy cemetery I remembered the way she taught writing.

Lou believed that young people who reflected on their memories and values in writing would be in a better position to succeed in life. Talk to me on paper, she would say to her student writers.  Tell me what you’ve seen, tell me who you want to be. It was as though she was saying to each of them, I want to be called Lou.  Now you tell me who you are and what you want to be called.

Beyond the Black Angel, in a new section of the cemetery, Lou pointed out a large stone some distance from the road. She was determined to take a look, and I knew the power of her determination, so I offered her my arm. She held her cane in the other hand, and we headed into the snow and the rows of stones.

It was a highly polished black stone, about four feet tall, with the large portrait of a smiling man etched in gold on it, and his name and the words “Iowa’s First All-American Swimmer.” The thing was not so much gaudy as it was just plain odd and distracting. It bothered Lou because this was just inches from where her own stone would someday be. How is a visitor going to attend to her name and her memory with this crazy stone right there?

We turned and walked carefully along the rows. She was looking for a stone that might hold its own next to the black thing, something distinctive and substantial, maybe even a small sculpture that would someday proclaim, on her behalf, “This is who I was.” So we were, I realized, shopping for tombstones. I turned and said, “Lou, I’ll bet you a nickel that today you are the only 92 year old in all of North America taking a 100-yard cross-country hike in the snow.” She laughed her big laugh, and agreed. Back in the car, I cranked up the heater. We put the cemetery behind us, and conversation turned to her hopes for great-grand-younguns. That evening, as my visit drew to a close, Lou settled into the armchair by her bay window and watched the sun, which she loves, redden brilliantly through the trees.

Broadcast on 88.1 WVPE by Ken Smith on February 18, 2011.

School essays and the other kind

February 2, 2014 Leave a comment

I’m reading early drafts of short essays written for an English class. They are fine and will grow in revision, so I’m not worried. But they bring to mind the contrast between school essays and the great tradition of the essay as a literary form.

School essays show a teacher that a student was paying attention lately in class and often enough over the years to cough up a credible account of something. The credibility comes from obeying the formal school rules and proving you know the basics about the assigned topic. Nothing new is required. No fresh contact with the world of experience, no new ripples in the ocean of ideas. The product is fabricated in familiar ways out of pre-approved materials. If you succeed, you have gone a step further in earning your journeyman card in whatever trade you will someday pursue.

Essays in the literary tradition invent their own organization on a case-by-case basis. They count as evidence whatever the writer can persuade us counts as evidence. They generally take a closer look at an experience we tend to take for granted, and they see something new there that has implications in the ocean of ideas. They don’t have the last word about anything, though, because they aren’t pulling rank. They do persuade, however, because their sentences cut through common sense, cliché, and preconception to something fresh. It’s almost impossible to write this kind of essay without giving a reader a sense of who you are and how you think and feel, and so these essays are full of personality when they are done, as a side effect of doing the real work of the essay.

The two kinds of essays are profoundly different from each other. Nobody expects a school essay to be read again after the teacher has graded it. A literary essay, however, can remain alive for centuries.

A professional obligation

February 1, 2014 Leave a comment

In a key paragraph of a brief Guardian article, Dan Gillmor implies that academics and other kinds of experts should have not an option but a professional obligation to write regularly and clearly for a wider audience than their workplace peers:

  • Another is the value blogging brings to the creators when done right. Blogging has helped liberate academics from the publishing racket that does as much, in my view, to hide useful information as surface it. Its informal tone is readable, as opposed to way too much academic prose. Blogs can make sometime abstruse topics understandable for the rest of us who don’t know the jargon; we just want to learn something. Lawyers and scientists are great examples of people whose blogging demystifies their worlds. If we could only read their writings in journals and the occasional op-ed column, we’d know much less.
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