No Real Plot.

Month: November, 2014

[WARNING] Grown-up Life May Trigger Upsetting Thoughts

Thank you, Jennifer Puryear, for including me in your tasty book club!

Guest Post from Laura Cooper:

IMG_4966Regular Bacon contributor Laura Cooper and husband John have spent much of the fall “coming to grips with the (happy, but still!) fact that our boys are really growing up.  It can’t be said at all that we have small children.  We find ourselves almost frantically attentive to the job of making them good grown-ups, knowing our time is running out (just imagine how much fun that is for THEM!).  But it’s also letting us recall and reconstruct what grown-up life was and will be again for us, too.  Kind of a rich, amazing time.”DSC09938

To that end, she and John “chucked our pre-holiday to-do list last week and ran away to Miami, where we had three wonderful, lazy days of NOT rearing boys.  Bliss!  And a convertible even!”

I’m not sure I believe that Laura spent much time being lazy.  I know she must have been glowing with the knowledge that she had a guest column coming out in the Washington Post this Monday! Check it out while you take a deep cleansing breath:  “Parents: We Need to Get a Grip on Our Own College Application Anxiety”.

She’s thinking a lot about college and life beyond, for her boys and for herself.  In today’s post, she thinks about what it means to live a good – and grown-up – life.

From Laura:

Ever watch super-high-octane action movies?  Play pinball?  Or ride the thrilling haunted-house roller-coaster at your favorite amusement park?  Then I bet you’ve seen this sign: “Flashing lights may cause seizures in some viewers.”

That’s a trigger warning.  It lets unusually sensitive audience members choose to avoid an experience that might trigger a physically harmful seizure reaction.  Sensible and humane, right?

Now consider this.  Students at a growing number of U.S. colleges are demanding “trigger warnings” on school assignments and classroom activities that might cause them to experience upsetting thoughts and feelings about hard topics.  The Great Gatsby? [TW: suicide, domestic abuse, and graphic violence].  Mrs. Dalloway? [TW: suicide].  The Merchant of Venice? [TW: anti-semitism].

Online, reliably, the movement’s even sillier.  Which topics should carry trigger warnings?  Try blood, insects, alcohol, pregnancy, bullying, the rapper Chris Brown, and – I’m not kidding – certain plot lines on Downton Abbey.

To be fair, the Trigger Warning movement first targeted graphic classroom material (and online chat topics) that might foreseeably trigger actual post-traumatic stress symptoms in those who have suffered rape or battlefield trauma.  Fair enough.  That’s sensible and humane, like strobe lights and epilepsy.

But at Oberlin College, administrators urged professors to put trigger warnings on all class material that might “disrupt a student’s learning” or “cause trauma,” including anything that depicted “racism, classism, sexism . . . and other issues of privilege and oppression.”

Never mind, by the way, that sexist privileged men once barred women from prestigious universities altogether – including law schools – because they claimed we were too fragile, and our intellects too tender, to grapple with the full range of human experience found in the traumatic real world.  As Justice Bradley wrote for the U.S. Supreme Court in 1872, ruling that the Constitution didn’t require States to let women join the Bar: “the natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for the practice of law.”

Is it really progress for college students to demand the right to exempt themselves from the trauma of serious adult discourse, for the same reasons?

So the college Trigger Warning movement just makes me sad. How did it become hip to be so intellectually fragile, so in need of protection?  So unfit for grown-up life?

Unknown-6If that bothers you too, I offer an antidote: Stoner, by John Williams.

Published in 1965, Stoner is a novel for readers determined to be full-fledged adults.  It tells the life story of William Stoner, a dirt-poor Missouri farm boy who, in 1910, enters the University of Missouri to earn an Agriculture degree.  Stoner moves in near the college with his mother’s distant cousins, where he gets meager room and board in exchange for harsh farm labor morning and night.

Stoner’s life transforms when he takes a required survey course in English literature.  The enigmatic professor prods his farm-boy student until he opens his heart to Shakespeare’s sonnets, and then to philosophy and history, Latin and Greek, Chaucer and beyond.  Stoner abandons Ag school, earns his BA and Master’s in literature, and then stays on, as World War I erupts, to teach English and work on his doctorate.  Decades later, he dies just days after teaching a last class in that same University, a man who’s spent his life immersed in the literature that first captured his heart.

Sound idyllic?  Well, novels about university life tend to follow one of a few well-traveled paths.  They can be funny and wry, like David Lodge’s Nice Work.  Or they’re dark and eventful, like Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim or Philip Roth’s The Human Stain.  Stoner is something else again: in outward form, at least, Stoner’s life is a relentless, largely joyless march into disappointment and grinding obscurity.

He marries an unstable, spoiled woman.  She spends their long, unhappy marriage thwarting him emotionally, and alienating him from their only child. At work, the power-hungry department chair becomes Stoner’s lifelong enemy, blocking his promotion and crippling his scholarship.  Stoner does find true love – real, true love – with a young woman scholar, but poisonous faculty politics destroy that, too.

Indeed, John Williams opens the novel with the fact that, after 46 years at the University, Stoner has died without making any kind of mark that anyone would ever recognize.  His “colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all[.]”

And yet, twenty years after publishing Stoner, and nearing the end of his own career, John Williams called Stoner a “real hero,” a man who “had a very good life.”  How can that be?

Maybe it’s because William Stoner is, at the core, a true grown-up.  He finds the things in life that he can love – his teaching, his reading, his daughter, his one great affair – and he loves and tends them despite the disappointments and frustrations, the quite brutal traumas, that crowd in with them.  He loves and tends them even when they fail him, and reject him, and even when they bring him little more than the plain long years of keeping them company.  He digs in and hangs on; he endures, and he does his job.  In John Williams’ later words, Stoner “kept the faith.”

Reading Stoner isn’t easy.  Williams writes with such clarity, with such a cool and unclouded gaze, that much of Stoner’s life is painful to watch.  And yes, reading this novel will surely trigger upsetting thoughts, if you’re paying attention at all.

But if you make it through to the end, to Stoner’s own final days and hours, you might find yourself sharing the state of rhythmic, patient being – not resolution, not revelation, just patient being – that John Williams grants Stoner at the last.

A gift to you, from one determined grown-up to another.

To read this post in its original form, see:

And For more of Jennifer’s delicious picks and posts, visit her here:

Parents: We need to get a grip on our own college application anxiety – The Washington Post

My new essay — in the Washington Post!


Parents: We need to get a grip on our own college application anxiety – The Washington Post.

By Laura Fitzgerald Cooper November 17 at 12:47 PM

My oldest son just turned 15.

His birthday slid by, nothing like a milestone. He’s been a teenager for years. He won’t vote for ages. Kind of a holding year, right?

But, actually, something’s going on. Like the matter of his birthday cake. He wanted just a plain homemade one, not the bakery-bought extravaganza we’ve had for years. No 3-D dioramas built out of icing? No. Apparently not.

He cleaned out his room and carted boxes of dusty action figures to the attic. He’ll give me a hug without being asked. He even had a Homecoming date.

And then came College Night. I almost didn’t catch it on the 9th grade calendar, so unaccustomed am I to considering him – or myself, for that matter – far enough along to start the college chase. Yet off we marched, and there we encountered the Dreaded Graph of Harsh Reality, displayed for us all to see:


Yes, you’re reading it right. All those red dots? Pretty much every kid below (and many above) a 3.5 GPA? Denied.

And then there’s Princeton:


Look closely at that clot of 4.0 Denials. Now shut your eyes and picture all those Red Dots up late perfecting homework, school night after school night. All those urgent anxious heart-to-hearts with Moms and Dads who just knew that Red Dot was capable of more than he was producing. It’s actually a compliment that we push you to aim so high. Now, off to your test-prep tutor.

To be fair, my son’s school made a heroic effort, there at College Night, to stress the well-rounded application. The sports, the community service, the extra-curriculars. Essays, teacher recommendations. They joked it helps if your last name’s also what admissions officers call the college library. Funny.

But once they shoot the Dreaded Graph of Harsh Reality up on that giant auditorium screen, it’s hard to think about all the other intangibles, those pieces of your child’s intellect – of your child’s heart – that are random, unquantifiable, ungraph-able. The pieces that emerge in fits and starts, the quick passions so quickly abandoned, the restless curiosity chased by bland inertia. All the spiky, tangled bits that can’t be groomed, that simply can’t be curated, to please an admissions officer down the road.

Infuriating? Terrifying? Absolutely, yes, to the parent facing down the barrel of the Dreaded Graph. I looked up behind me, at my son sitting with his lovely, goofy classmates. Do we really need to launch this race? When he’s just started the pivot from childhood to, well, whatever comes next? When he’s just slowed the gyrations of adolescence enough to begin the practice of introspection, self-inquiry, self-knowledge? When he’s just given up diorama birthday cakes?

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing recently about what should be the purpose and goal of college education, especially in the elite schools rejecting all those Red Dots. Last July, William Deresiewicz threw the first bomb, charging, in The New Republic, that our top colleges doggedly seek, and then relentlessly promote, “people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.” In other words, “excellent sheep.”

Predictably, the Empire struck back. No, complained Harvard Professor Steven Pinker, the real problem with elite college admissions these days is that they’re too soft, too “squeamish” to rely heavily enough on what he calls that “magic measuring stick”: standardized testing.

And, by the way, elite employers should hire college graduates that way too, using more “magic” standardized tests. Others waded in, guns blazing. If elite colleges shouldn’t simply spot and polish highpowered hoop-jumpers, those most “excellent sheep,” what should they try instead?

From where I sat at College Night, under the glare of the Dreaded Graph, all that talk sounds almost fantastical. How can we seriously discuss what our children should learn in college – once they’ve won the race to that starting line – until we address how distorting and disabling the college race itself can be? Must I really let that Graph direct the rich years my son and I are entering together?

It’s not like his heart and mind will re-bloom, start fresh, the day I drop him in some freshman dorm.

I can’t say for sure what college should teach its students. But I do know one thing about the mad sprint to get in: parents like me need to slam on the brakes, and get a grip on our own anxiety. It’s time to question our own devotion to the hoop-jumping path, and give up our own ambition, however dark and secret, to join the best possible flock come that first Parents’ Weekend.

So I have a plan. Not for my son, but for myself. Sure, it’s fine for me to push him to work hard, take school seriously, and do his best. I can insist he treat standardized tests like any other essential skill he must work to improve, if he’s not a natural. I can rant when he lets cross-country interfere with Geometry homework. I’m cleared to reward him when effort earns a good grade.

But I also promise to watch closely for the signals his own heart and mind will send about what the real purpose of his life might be. I promise to stay alert for signs and hints of his authentic strengths and interests, not just the ones that might game the Dreaded Graph someday. I won’t skew his college search to the highest-ranked schools that his numbers make possible. And I’ll listen more to what he wants to learn there than to how many alums are hedge fund billionaires or high officials in the White House. I swear I’ll dig deep for enough imagination to picture him on paths without traditional college if it comes to that – quite a dramatic leap for this former academic. I pray he learns to think this way about his own life, too.

Just let it not be me who’s the most excellent sheep of all.

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