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    My daily writing--emails, journal entries, marginalia, more emails, blog posts, and tweets--shapes me as a writer, helping and hindering the big stuff I'm trying to accomplish. Every word counts.

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Basic-Level Stretching

Long before today’s obsession with counting down pivotal moments in sluttiness and corruption, there was a weekly radio program called American Top 40 devoted to counting down the top 40 pop songs in America. During my early teens, I listened to it religiously, writing down every song, tracking the movement of each from week to week. A sexless closet case with no athletic skills, I had nothing better to do.

Yesterday, I heard one of the episodes, from June 1984, replayed on an XM radio channel. It was a strange experience, not as if I were living it all over again, but I kind of remembered that particular episode. Madonna’s “Borderline” fell significantly, and would probably fall below 40 the next week. Meanwhile, “State of Shock,” a collaboration by Mick Jagger and The Jacksons, jumped into the top ten; I barely remembered it and by the second verse wished it would fade out. The number one song was “When Doves Cry,” by Prince and the Revolution–still a great song.

The song that really threw me off balance was “Dancing in the Dark,” which was stuck at number two for the fourth week. It’s a decent song, but I was surprised by how boring and dated it sounds. And even though I’m not a major Bruce Springsteen fan, I think of his music as timeless or, more important, enduring. Whereas some artists captured the musical moment, 1984 was just a stop on a long journey for him. The keyboards on that record sound as resonant as I sound when humming through my nose, undermining the beauty of the song’s main point: “You can’t start a fire without a spark.”

Sometime between now and then, I made Mr. Springsteen the centerpiece of an essay I wrote in one of my high school writing classes. The text is not extant, but I remember the basics. I had to persuade my reader to agree with me about a topic of my choice. So I chose to argue “Why Bruce Springsteen Really Is The Boss.” As I remember, I earned a B or B+ for that assignment. Knowing my teacher, Ms. K, she probably was not distracted by the fresh-from-MTV’s-headlines topic and simply made sure I fulfilled the assignment, as if I’d written about something as important and obvious as why nuclear disarmament was crucial to world peace.

This was the same teacher who required us to select a novel to study and, once again, make an argument about it, only this time we’d present the argument to the class. She wanted to approve our choices to make sure we had a plan. For some reason, I selected a novel about cops, crime, and corruption (which was, decidedly, outside my comfort zone). She also required us to quote the book directly. I asked her if I’d get in trouble for selecting quotes with cuss words. She said as long as it was necessary to make my point, it was acceptable. By the time I did my 10-minute presentation to my class, I’d made sure that my main point would require the use of quotes that would, in total, allow me to say “fuck” three times. I aced that assignment.

Maybe I had an ability to make credible arguments regardless of the topic. I don’t mean to overstate any alleged ability I may have had. These assignments were for a high school class, I realize. And although I believe Ms. K was an effective teacher (not merely because she gave me a lot of latitude), I’m sure she enjoyed that I was unusual: a student who took her assignments seriously and wanted to test limits, not merely break rules.

But I took the assignments too seriously. I did not, as they say, know how to pick my battles, and foolishly fought on two fronts. When I wasn’t fighting authority in my own small way by giving in to my strange, geeky instincts, I fought against those instincts, wanting so badly to be popular. As Casey Kasem, host of American Top 40, advised, I kept my feet on the ground and reached for the stars. Follow this advice only if you’re in need of a basic-level stretching exercise.

Meanwhile, my impulse to to explore various topics and to challenge authority in low-stakes ways would only frustrate me as I tried to figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up. In an age of specialists, I am a devout generalist. Experts are given too much power sometimes, which generalists supposedly lack authority to challenge. Experts are invested in subjects, which can be good, but what’s wrong with questioning their authority?

A non-expert can offer insight, too, by approaching the topic in question from a new angle. I certainly taught my classmates something. I had practiced to make sure I said “fuck” as calmly and naturally as I would say any word. Nevertheless, most of them stared at me with a look of shock. I doubt I taught them much about crime novels, although maybe they felt like witnesses of a crime, a premeditated but brief spree of f-bombing. All of this happened while the teacher sat by, looking at me, then down to jot some notes. For a moment they must have wondered if it was an inside job. They may have even wondered if what I’d done was acceptable, and if so, if I’d still get away with it.

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One Response

  1. That’s right…I remember when you had the subscription to Billboard!

    Ms. K. was OK with the”f-bomb.” She used it in class when we studied Catcher in the Rye, when all the other teachers said “eff you.” And I always respected her for it, and resolved to treat teenagers in the same fashion when I was older.

    Strange – here I am.

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