About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Memory Project

           This is a change-up from my typical posts lately, a piece of writing from a project I began in late 2003, about one year after my mother died, and that I worked on intermittingly for about ten years. It was deeply personal, an exploration of lineage and memory through writing. My original title was Pencil and Paper: A Love Story, but then I found that there were other books with a variation of that title (for example, Drinking: A Love Story), so I gave up on the title but pursued the writing. It would turn out that I could never find the right shape for the book, a narrative structure that worked—maybe I jinxed myself with my ill-conceived title. I’ve been looking again at what I did write, however, and thought I’d pass some of it along, subjecting the readers of this blog to it. This segment is titled “The Memory Project” for reasons that will become evident. I hope you like it.


Not too long after my mother died, one of my students gave me as a gift an Italian leather notebook, 8 by 6 inches, thick, leaves embossed on the cover. It had a substantial feel to it, cupping it in my hand, smelling the oaken leather, wondering what I would put in it that would be worthy of it, opening and closing it for weeks. Finally, I wrote the first sentence, a commitment: “I’ll use this book to talk to my mother, to have her help me figure out how to live the rest of my life.”

My father had died long before, when I was a teenager. But when my mother died, I felt strongly what I have since heard others describe: that recognition – almost a physical awareness more than a thought – that I really am on my own in this world, alone, no one reaching that far back in my life who is also standing out in front.

My mother was sick for a long time before she died. Congestive heart failure and a lot else. Her last year or so was awful; her doctor said she hung on through sheer determination. Rosie never backed away from anything. During the final week, she went in and out of consciousness, couldn’t talk because of the tubes. But when she was alert, I would talk, and she would nod and even smile when I held her gaze. Finally, the nurses tilted her bed backward to give one final bit of aid to her failed heart. But her systems shut down, and she died swelling with fluid. The nurses removed all the tubes and IVs and disconnected the monitors. They moved her into a resting position and smoothed out the sheets and let me stay with her for hours, the door closed, everything quiet except for me talking to her.

The loss of his wife was so painful to my stepfather, Bill, that he couldn’t bear to have any reminders of her in the house. She had piles and piles of photograph albums, for she rarely missed a chance to grab onto a memory. (During my cousin Bobby’s wedding she, honest to God, walked up on the altar by the priest to get a better shot.) If I didn’t take the albums, Bill was going to throw them out. The same with three or four scuffed boxes filled with her memorabilia, some going back to her twenties: my baby clothes folded in with jewelry, old wallets, snapshots. He even pulled the photographs of her from the mirror on the dresser. Not a picture remained in the house.

Their history was, of course, on every fork and towel, across the floor, in the silence between rooms, and it pressed him down into his chair, which he barely left for months. I didn’t see him smile—a slight one at that—for at least a year after her death. He never wanted the pictures back.

The second entry in my notebook is telling: “I thought I’d be able to sit with this book and write to Mom, or take it to the grave site maybe, leaning my head against the crypt – an awful word. …” As it turned out, it was a whole lot harder than I thought to write as though I were talking to my mother. The sentences I formed in my head felt artificial, forced, like whatever I wrote better be weighty. If nothing else, it was awkward trying to keep the notebook bent open, standing in front of her grave, attempting to write something … lofty. Talking with Rosie could be funny (my cousins loved being around her), exasperating, heart-rending, and you’d be taken with her shrewd gumption. But lofty? She’d think you were a bullshitter.

So there’s a gap of about a month and then a short entry recording a Hassidic (I think it was Hassidic) tale a friend told me about a flute player who was always out of tune – then one day the sky opens up and he’s playing in harmony with the angels. Other entries follow. A few song titles. A quotation from novelist Pete Dexter on violence, how “it never unfolds as you think it will.” A statistic: The severely poor in the U.S. have grown by 30 percent. An overheard conversation on the street, a big guy on a cell phone leaning against his truck: “Tell them to fuck off. As long as she can say ‘Hi, how are you?’ we’re not pulling the plug. Fuck that.” A dream of my mother at a typewriter typing something I wrote. A few ticket stubs. A description of an orange moon, fat and low in the sky; of morning glories covering a collapsing shed. Guitarist Django Reinhardt’s base player: “Django was the music made into a man.” Another dream: My mother in a white linen bed, the rear of the house broken out, a garden of ferns and palm trees, a glistening fountain in her line of sight.

I continued to use the notebook this way, a gathering place for the things of the day, a more modest goal than discourse with my mother on how to lead my life. It didn’t hit me until the book was nearly full that it was, after all, providing a way to talk with her now that she’s gone, at least to let her know what I’m seeing and hearing, some of which – like the guy on the cell phone or the statistic about poverty – would have been interesting to her.

Several months after those first entries in the notebook, my publisher asked me to put together a collection of research I had been doing for many years on writing: the cognitive processes involved in writing, the problems people have writing, how to teach writing, and broader social and economic conditions that limit the opportunity to learn to read and write. So scattered among vignettes from the street, and ticket stubs and quotations and dreams or visits to the grave, a lot of entries follow on possible ways to organize and comment on those years of work. I tried to put myself back into the time of the writing, reading some of the books and articles I was reading then, going through old notes and letters, digging up photographs.

I don’t know if this retrospection jumpstarted it, but it wasn’t long after that I began watching movies and television shows I had seen as a kid. I never watch movies alone, but there I’d be, the notebook on my lap watching the steamy melodramas that once played for a quarter at the Balboa Theater down the street from my house – The Barefoot Contessa and Fire Down Below – or Doris Day movies, or The Invasion at the Body Snatchers and the giant radioactive ants in Them, which had scared me for days after. I got vintage videotapes of 50s T.V. – Make Room for Daddy and Superman – and pushing it back to the edge of my memory, movies I saw with my mother before my father got too ill, The Third Man and Singin’ in the Rain.  

For much of my adult life, I’ve been interested in my family’s past, maybe because we knew so little about my father, maybe because I grew up hearing stories about the grinding life my mother’s family had in the railroad town of Altoona, Pennsylvania during the Great Depression, giving up bedrooms to take in boarders, working dangerous jobs in the train yards. As I got older I read about their wave of immigration and about the Rust Belt industries where they worked. And I would eventually write about this history and about my own childhood, growing up poor, trying to find my way in the neighborhood and in school. But this whole movie-T.V. endeavor felt different. It wasn’t an attempt to understand the fifties. And it wasn’t nostalgia; I certainly had no desire to return to those difficult days. It was, well, almost clinical, a memory experiment. Proust with a remote control. I was curious about what I might recall, storylines, moods spawned by the viewing, details of specific scenes. I’d make a quick note when, say, the first giant ant, preceded by eerie screeching, juts up from behind a dune in the New Mexico desert, or when Gene Kelly tap dances around a light pole in the pouring rain.

Though the dramatic scenes were pure Hollywood – Rita Hayworth twirling seductively through a crowd – and the monsters cheesy as all get out, and though memory had been confounded by so many years, watching these movies stirred up a recollection of fear or longing or delight – not fresh emotion, but an echo of feeling, a 12-year-old’s terror when the hero’s girlfriend abruptly wakes up with the blank stare of the body snatchers.

When I started writing in the notebook, I thought I’d be constructing a future; instead, I was on a mission to trigger memory and record it. I had a closet full of my mother’s memories close by; in one spasm of grief, my stepfather could have destroyed them. When I finished that first notebook, I started another, then another, six in all. And I consulted that closet more and more. Though I lost my father at a relatively young age, my mother was there to remind me about him, and even though I had heard most of the stories before, the telling of them kept the past in the present, voiced it. With my mother gone, maybe I was trying my best to retrieve what I could of my own past. Looking back on it, I see that this whole pursuit was a little odd, this attempt to reclaim memory with a notebook and a stack of video tapes. A fool’s errand, I suppose. But it’s shaky scientific merits aside, it had a sweet heft to it, and soon became a solitary pleasure.


There were three of my mother’s diaries in those cardboard boxes, small books with black cardboard covers pressed to look like leather. The inside covers offered brief epigrammatic advice to the diarist: “Memory is elusive—capture it,” and “…you will turn aside the veil of forgetfulness.” The diaries begin about six months before my birth and extend sporadically until my parents leave Altoona for Los Angeles, my father in poor health, a few hundred dollars to their name.

Along with the diaries there was a worn wallet of my mother’s crammed full of pictures of Altoona and her brothers and sisters. There was also a small notebook in which she had written the dates that preceded her: when her parents married, when they immigrated, the name of the steamship that brought them to America. And there were tattered manilla envelopes full of photographs. I had seen some before—seen them on and off for much of my life—but a lot of them were new to me, familiar faces in unfamiliar settings or strangers on an Altoona landscape I vaguely recognized. All this would take me closer to the city where my parents started their lives in America, following the detailed trail left in the diaries, gaining more images and a better feel for things from the photographs. With my mother’s memorabilia in hand, I returned to Altoona, to the stories, to my own writing about the city, returned early in the morning paging through the diaries, in the middle of the night waking from a dream, returned without Rosie, using what she’d left behind.

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