Friday, March 8, 2013

Solipsism - We're There

My students don’t know who Alfred E. Neuman is.  This is painful for me because I cut my literary teeth on Mad Magazine.

For solace, I make them do a web search and cite their source, along with a list of other things they should be familiar with.  There are reasons for this exercise.  First, it helps them understand the need to cite their sources.  It’s also a good way to build a ‘Works Cited’ page according to MLA standards, and, finally, it illustrates ‘seek and destroy research’ (not to be confused with other types of research).  That sound good, doesn’t it?

Secretly, it’s just me keeping Alfred E. Neuman out there, lurking, in their brains.

On Saturday I went to Wal-Mart.  A man my age should know better, but I needed beans and I needed a ream of paper.  Ergo, says I, where can I go to buy both things while making one stop?  Thus, cogito ergo Wal-Mart.

I fight my way through the angry cart riders, the fussy shelf re-stockers (why they restock shelves on Saturday afternoon I know not), the screaming children, and the mothers desperately ignoring the screaming children; some stereotypes are born of reasoned observations.

I find the beans.  Been there, done that – neural pathway in place.  Then I navigate to the electronics and look for printer paper.  Not finding any, I ask one of the friendly workers, “Do you sell reams of paper.”  She gives me a look.  I think she thought I said something vulgar.  We stare at one another a moment and she dashes around a corner, without a word.  And I’m like, “Ok…”

But all is not lost because in a moment she returns with a manager.  He says, “What did you ask her for?”

And I ask, “Where are your reams of paper?”

He too gives me a look, though his is born of confusion.  But eureka, like Diogenes, I find an honest man!  Diogenes was the guy who noted that since we have two ears and one tongue, we should listen twice as much as we speak.  He asks, “What’s that?”

I answer, “Typing paper,” to which he points me in the right direction, and I am on my way, pondering the unique situation of finding two people in a row, one older than myself and one younger, neither of whom knows what a ream of paper is.

Now, can’t fault someone for what they don’t know.  That’s just ignorance and I’m as ignorant as the next fella.  I know about my interests, nothing more and quite a bit less.  Say, if I were interested in famous U-Boat captains or extinct forms of algae, by golly, I’d learn about it.

But what can be faulted is a lack of interest in just about anything.  This is about frame of reference.  My mistake was, I assumed everybody knows what a ream of paper is.  Lesson learned: don’t talk about reams when assuming (there’s an off-color joke in there somewhere).

And my students who do not know who Alfred E. Newman is also do not know who the mayor of their hometown is.  Some of them do not know who Joe Biden is.  As I age I struggle for relevant references.  When I talk about iambic pentameter’s presence in some of Eminem’s lyrics, little lights sometimes flicker.  And sometimes, they don’t know who Eminem is.

We’ve got to ask ourselves what are we interested in?  And what are we doing about it?  For example, if people are not interested in the fact that the President of the United States wants to use drones to target and kill United States citizens without a trial, who do we have to blame when such powers are granted to him?  It’s little things like that keeping me up at night.

What happened to that little kid (and we were all that little kid) who asks how and why about four dozen times a day?  Ever notice how little kids want to know everything?  And then, they pop out of the public school system and don’t have interests in anything?  It’s like a meat-grinder for our innate curiosity.  Where does it go?

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