A Student Request

“With the midterm fast approaching I am growing increasingly concerned about my progress in the class.  I am not fully grasping the concepts of the religions we have studied and I am afraid I will not do well on the midterm.  The readings are difficult and I am not getting an accurate comprehension of them.  Do you have any suggestions of how to break the book down on my own to help improve my grade?“

I thanked the conscientious student for writing and praised them for wanting to improve their understanding of the material as well as their course performance.  Then I answered:

Have the study questions in front of you when you’re reading the selection for class.  In my experience, this is the ONLY way to “break the book down on [one’s] own.”

a) Before I read something, I go over the study questions to give me some idea of what the reading is (supposed to be) about.  My first reading aims for a general understanding, along with how it compares with the study questions with which I’ve acquainted myself.

b) I ALWAYS read philosophical material at least TWICE:  the first for understanding things generally, the second for some thoughtful analysis.

My first philosophy professor insisted on this.  If we said we didn’t understand the material, he asked us, “Did you read it twice?”  If we said no, he was done with us.  If we said yes, he’d start in on other ground work:  did we have the questions in front of us as we read?  Did we try to write out the answers to the questions for ourselves?  Etc.

c) If we said yes to all of these questions and we still didn’t understand, then he’d go over it with us carefully in class.  Very rarely did everyone do everything they possibly could and still no one understood the material.

Item “c” points to the issue of understanding readings down on one’s own vs. gaining an understanding of the readings in connection with weekly class discussions.  Discussions can and sometimes do go off course, but with this preparation you will understand the material better at the end of a class than you did at the beginning of it.

In addition to carefully preparing every week on one’s own and participating in the class discussions to better understand the material, I recommend a third strategy:  find classmates outside of class and talk about what makes sense and what doesn’t make sense.  Can’t do it face to face?  Use the Blackboard discussion board.

If all of this sounds like an awful lot of work, congratulations – we’re on the same page.  There is only so much time, and (I have no doubt) some students will insist it is far too unrealistic to expect to accomplish these tasks in the amount of time available.  I’d respond, “Probably … but where there’s a will, there’s a way.”  (I’m full of clichés …)

Letting Go …

“Just thought I’d drop you a quick note to see how you’re doing.  I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to visit last week.  I was pretty whipped – and that other stuff seemed pretty complicated.

“Drop me a note, let me know how things are going:  I hope you’re doing well.

“Much love always …”  But was it more than I should have said?

I do miss her.  If she’s pulling away, it’s okay.  I don’t begrudge her that.  I had the perfect moment – even if it wasn’t what I thought I wanted.  I was able to tell her, with every bit of honesty I’ve ever known, that I really did want her to be happy.  I still do.

In that moment, on the edge of my worst fears and dread, when I was again afraid of that sting of rejection, the judgment that giggles at a poor sap playing way out of his league, I let go.  She didn’t laugh.  And I felt – wonderful.  I felt like she knew how crazy I was about her, and even though she didn’t feel that way about me, she respected my feelings, cared about them, cared about me.

And this time, it wasn’t that god-awful neediness that sucks the oxygen out of the room.  It was a moment of absolute calm, absolute bliss – a realization that I could be genuinely happy for her, and still know that I was going to be okay.

I hadn’t taken a chance on getting close to anyone for, oh, I don’t know, fifteen plus years.  When I opened up the office door that Saturday morning so long ago, I saw something in her eyes – something that said to me that this was someone I wanted to get to know, that I wanted to try again.

Looking back, what I saw was a genuinely kind, decent and loving heart.  She is smart, funny, honest.  She makes me want to be a better person.  Her love and friendship have saved me from myself.  She’s stuck up for me more than once, and it always amazes me when she does that.  Her love and friendship are absolutely fierce.  I am so lucky to have met her, to know her.

So if we’re at that point where I need to get out of the way, well, yes, it does sadden me a bit.  But only a little.  I want so bad for her to be happy, then okay:  I’m out of the way.  If I know her, I feel confident that she has already made her decision – she believes it’s best for both of us to give thanks for the love and joy we both know so well, and for both of us to get on with the happy lives that await us.

Thank you.  I’ll miss you.  Much love always …

This is Why People Don’t Talk to Me

Some time ago a student of mine wrote me with a request to respond to a personal survey.  They were upset that “someone” they cared about had called them vain, conceited and self-centered, so they sent a short survey to a few people whose honest feedback they could trust.  The survey asked, “Am I vain?  Am I conceited?  Am I self-centered?” – with a request to answer yes or no to each of these questions.  Ever my philosophical self, I replied:

“It’s not clear to me how the results of your survey will help improve your relationship with this other person.  Keep in mind, I don’t have clue one about who this “someone” is – and I prefer not to know! – so that my remarks can at least attempt to be as objective as possible.  Whoever this someone is, ask yourself:  “Will this survey and its results improve my relationship with this person?  Will it help bring us closer together?  Or will this survey only worsen that relationship?  Will it only drive us further apart?”  The kind of relationship YOU want to have with this person has everything to do what your survey means for that relationship.

“To be human is to be vain, self-centered, conceited, spiteful, nasty, mean, ruthless, disgusting, ignorant and rude.  To be human is also to be valuable, nurturing, humble, just, pleasant, joyful, caring, appealing, curious and polite.  And to be human is to be all of this, a walking, incomprehensible bundle of contradictions, and much more besides.  If we are human, we have to keep in mind that the shadows of our existence highlight, emphasize, and “make stand out” what is truly outstanding about this same existence.  In other words, until we can acknowledge and accept the failings and frailties of being human, we can never appreciate how human beings manage to overcome such obstacles again and again.  Our efforts, our struggles to prevail, give meaning to our lives and make them worth living.

“Clearly being out of the classroom for so long has caused me to preach endlessly!  Thanks for letting me ramble on.  As always, know that you have my care, concern, and support.  I look forward to hearing from you.”

I never heard back from them.

“Rinse and Spit”

I like dealing with the older ones, she thought to herself. Those kids can be such a pain – constantly squirming in the chair, never staying still. Cleaning their teeth is a real nightmare. Still, it’s a good job, and I’m glad to have it. Dental hygiene was proving to be a real growth industry: it took very little to keep your teeth decent, but it seemed people had lost interest in even the smallest tasks. Well, go ahead, let ‘em rot – job security never looked so good.

“Say Martha, could you check on Mrs. Manning? Number ten, distal – crown strength.”

“Right away, doctor.”

The day usually moved by fairly quickly. Dr. Snyder had a large, thriving practice: four hygienists, two lab technicians, and forty-three clients, most of whom were his patients for at least ten years. All kinds, all ages, all sizes, and patients who practiced various degrees of home care. Mrs. Manning was one of the more diligent ones: other than the root canal on the upper right, she had excellent dental health. My teeth should look so good, Martha thought – more out of pride than envy, of course.

“Hi Celeste, long time no see. Guess your brushing and flossing is keeping us apart.”

“Huh? Oh, hi Martha – yes, I suppose so.”

Hmm. Seems Mrs. M. is a little off her game today.

“Are you okay, dear? You seem a little distracted.”

“Well . . . I’ve been thinking about what needs to be arranged for this year’s Fourth of July celebration. Ever since the Donovans moved to Pittsburgh, I’ve been at a loss of who else the town council might call on to organize the parade.”

Please don’t ask me – please, please, please, please, please . . .

“Any ideas? We’re a little more desperate this year: we need all the help we can get.”

“Have you ever met Tom and Jenny Wilkins? Young couple, came here about six months ago?”

“Wilkins, Wilkins . . . Geez, I thought I knew everyone in town.”

“They’re an amazing couple. He volunteers at the food pantry twice a week, and she’s a part-time nurses’ aide at the hospital. They might be overextended already, though …”


I was born on a Friday at 4:35 PM in Detroit, Michigan.  My mom seemed to know more of the details and circumstances of some of the other kids’ births.    I do remember asking Mom what if anything she remembered about the day I was born.  Nothing really came to mind.  “What about the time of day?  Was I born in the morning, or the afternoon, or the evening?”  “I don’t really remember.”  Even seeing the time stated on the birth certificate, she said she still never would have even guessed it was at that time of day.

One of my earliest memories was brushing and combing Mom’s hair.  I guess I might have been four or five years old.  After the other kids had gone to school, she’d sit on the couch and had me sit on the top of the couch just behind her with a hairbrush.  She had some pretty thick black hair then – I think all I did was brush her hair from the front to the back of her head.  I don’t really remember talking with her at all – we might have, but I don’t remember.  I don’t know that I had any special feeling being with her brushing her hair then – but it was definitely one of the few times I ever had her all to myself, even if all I could do was stare at the back of her head.

Our house wasn’t all that big, especially with fourteen people living there.  The kitchen was maybe fifteen feet square (225 sq. ft.) – a good-sized kitchen.  The older brothers did a fairly extensive rehab of the joint in the mid 70’s or so – a nice update.  New cabinets, new sink, refrigerator moved from a corner to a wall.  If you pull up the house on Google Earth now, it’s just sad to see.  Maybe the pear and cherry trees are still in the back yard – it’s hard to tell.  Seven houses are left on the block – maybe half as many as there used to be.