Tuesday, March 21, 2006
america is soft
before getting started on this rant, let me make a disclaimer. there is a picture taped to my wall of an american g. i. in fallujah. he could be nineteen; he can’t be more than twenty-five. he’s got the thousand yard stare, his face is a blend of stubble and dried blood. and he’s smoking a marlboro. the cigarette dangles from one side of his lips, causing his mouth to ever so slightly hint at a snarl. above this picture i have taped a quote from george orwell - "we sleep safe in our own beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm." clearly, there are americans who are not soft. and sometimes soft is good. i mean it doesn’t get much better than soft-serve ice cream. these facts aside, as a college professor, i never cease to be amazed at how soft the majority of my student population seems to be. A few examples:
* often, when the weather leans toward blustery, my students call my home and ask if class has been canceled. quite often, they are shocked - even angry at me - that a touch of wind and rain is not enough to call off a whole day’s worth of work. whether they truly are afraid of the elements or just lazy and want to avoid the heavy mental lifting of undergraduate composition and literature, the spirit of men like frederick douglass and joseph muir is woefully lacking in my student population.
* sadly, i have seen the same softness within the teaching profession itself. at a department meeting held to discuss new textbook adoptions, one faculty member gave a dissenting opinion of a potential textbook because, "it is too heavy." as it is not the 1960's, i assume the term "heavy" referred to the physical weight of the book, not the academic rigor of its contents. whichever was the case, as i was attempting to process this asinine logic, another colleague chimed in with, "yeah, and i would have to read the new selections and prepare new lectures." no wonder our students seem to want to do as little as possible to get by.
* the drive to succeed in athletics is so great that many of my students, both athletes and non-athletes, sympathize with and can relate to juiced-up sports figures whose bloated stats could never compare to the true natural athleticism of say - lou gerhig, barry sanders, or larry bird. as long as the lakers win, the memory of kobe bryant’s indiscretions are not only often overlooked, but are excused and even defended by some of my students. and, as a cowboys fan, while i cringe at the signing of a malcontent like t. o., many of my students think that dallas is smart to do whatever it takes to win as quickly as possible, regardless of character. sure the cowboys have been burned statistically by randy moss. but i gotta tell you, the day dallas passed on moss was one of the moments i was most proud to be a cowboy fan. doing the right thing, regardless of how the world perceives you, is hard. and soft folks are not comfortable making the difficult choices.
for those who look around and see too much that is soft in our fast food, instant gratification, linguine spined day to day existence, i recommend two books to serve as a bit of a salve. harvey c. mansfield, a professor at harvard, has written a book called, manliness. in the book, mansfield maintains that manliness is "confidence in the face of risk." he goes on to say that manliness "does exist, but it is underemployed." mansfield’s ideas reminded me of another book, the last american man, by elizabeth gilbert. gilbert presents a picture of eustace conway who was anything but soft. between surviving on fresh road kill (how does one tell if its fresh? by noting whether or not the fleas are still hopping of course!) and sewing up his own accidental chainsaw wounds, eustace seems an almost iconic throwback to an earlier time when self-reliance and tenaciousness were part of the very fabric of america. a time when anyone who wasn’t soft could choose to confidently face the risk of jumping on a trampoline without the comfort of a safety cage; a time when those just bold enough could roll the back windows of vehicles all the way down and dare to actually feel the stink of a bug splatter into his inner biceps as he hand surfed through the rushing air; a time when no one would have ever considered that there was a market for men’s skin care products like clinique’s happy for men - "a hint of citrus, a wealth of flowers. a mix of emotions. cool. crisp. wear it and be happy."