Moral Victories

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A common claim that I’ve heard in various post-game interviews with NFL players and coaches is “There are no moral victories in the NFL.” (See here, or here, or here.) As someone who teaches moral philosophy and who is a football fan, this claim intrigues me. What does this claim mean, and is it true?

In one narrow sense, it’s obviously true. The NFL does not keep track of moral victories. There are no moral victory standings. There are no playoffs for the teams with the most moral victories. There is no Moral Victory Super Bowl.

What is a moral victory? The term “moral” is derived from the Latin word for character. Moral victories are often discussed when good character is displayed, even though in a losing cause. In a paradigmatic example from the first week of this NFL season, the Cleveland Browns fell behind early to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 27-3. They battled back in the second half, and ended up losing 30-27. After the game, Browns Coach Mike Pettine said, “There are no moral victories in this league, but I was proud of the resolve and the character that showed up.” What message is Pettine trying to send with this comment? He does express pride in the character of his team. He is complimenting his team for their willingness to keep battling, even when the game looked lost. This character trait is clearly a good one, not only in the context of sports, but in many contexts throughout life. Why not simply compliment his team and leave it at that? I take it that the worry here–the worry that leads him to add the “no moral victories” claim to his comments–is that he doesn’t want his team to be satisfied with putting forward a strong effort. His point seems to be that whatever pride is taken in a strong effort needs to be tempered by the fact that the team lost. He is guarding against complacency, against losing sight of the goal of victory.

We need to consider this goal of victory. In his poem, “Alumnus Football,” noted sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote:

For when the One Great Scorer comes

To mark against your name,

He writes–not that you won or lost–

But how you played the Game.

Is the “no moral victories” claim simply a rejection of Rice’s claim? Is the idea that the only thing that matters in the NFL is winning and losing, character be damned? This is certainly a danger with sports and games in general and with professional sports where millions of dollars are at stake more specifically. The drive to win can swamp the concern with character. Is Pettine saying that a moral victory, a display of good character, does not matter in the NFL? Is he saying that winning is the only thing that matters in the NFL? If this is all that is going on with this sort of rhetoric, I would have a hard time continuing to be an NFL fan.

A different interpretation of the “no moral victories” claim is available however. To start with, I agree with Aristotle that a crucial part of a good life for us is developing and exercising our capacities. (See Book I, Chapter 7 of his Nicomachean Ethics.) A major contribution that sports and games can make to our living a good life is that they can help us develop and exercise our capacities. We are fascinated by sports because of the peak human performances that they contain. We watch highlights from games in slow motion because we marvel at the physical feats on display. Sports have the capacity to develop and display good character along with physical excellence, however. Participating in sports can help us develop perseverance, teamwork, and a variety of other virtues. “Commitment to Excellence” is not just a Raider slogan; we engage in sports because they help us develop our excellences–excellences of body and of intellect and of character. If this is right, if developing human excellence is a central purpose of sports, then moral victories–those times when excellence of character is displayed in the course of a sporting event–certainly should be part of the NFL. Perhaps the claim that there are no moral victories in the NFL is simply a warped, misguided perspective on the ultimate purpose and value of sports.

Things are a bit more complicated, however. Even if we agree that a central purpose of sports is to help us develop our capacities, we need to consider how they do this. And one way they do this is by getting us to focus on a goal internal to the activity, the goal of winning. We set out an arbitrary list of rules. Those rules set out an arbitrary way of assigning points to various events in the game, such as touchdowns and field goals and safeties and extra points. Winning then gets defined in this arbitrary way by the rules of the game. By playing the game, the players commit themselves to this arbitrarily constructed goal, but doing this promotes the development of the skills and character traits that we might regard as the true goal of the activity. Imagine a coach who sees his role as encouraging his players to develop their capacities, including their character. Such a coach might have a team which has displayed a great deal of character in a losing cause. Such a coach might ask his team to stay focused on the (lesser and arbitrary) goal of victory in order to promote the continued development of their capacities. Perhaps the goal of developing the virtue of perseverance is well served by focusing on the goal of victory. Perhaps the claim that there are no moral victories in the NFL is one way of keeping players focused on the continued development of their capacities, which is the ultimate moral victory.

Discipline: The Good Life

Dear Outsiders–my last entry focused on the idea of self-discipline, and the price we pay for the privilege to WORK WITH WORDS in our daily lives. Lest we think that studies in the humanities is all work and no play, let’s shift gears today and affirm that while our chosen discipline entails a lot of struggles, we got into this gig in the first place in order to have…

FUN WITH WORDS!

Indeed, those who have adopted the humanities, the liberal arts–and reading and writing in particular–as disciplines have done so, largely, because we find them FUN. I shared the definition of “discipline” in the first blog this week, but we didn’t discuss the etymology. Remember, words are fun, so let’s take a look, courtesy of Dr. Google:

disciplineorigins

So there you have it–the Latin form focused on “instruction” and “knowledge,” but by the time the English got ahold of “disciplus,” they transformed it into discipline–the “mortification” or “scourging oneself” as in religious penance. Given what I outlined in my previous post–the self-torture we administer in order to WORK WITH WORDS, the English may have translated it correctly! Think of Reverend Dimmesdale–literally whipping the guilty weight off his shoulders at night with bloody straps while countless English students on any given night are figuratively “scourged” in their forced reading of the text! Of course, for many of us, such self-discipline (the reading of The Scarlet Letter, I mean) is not “work” or “torture,” but, dare I say, FUN?

In this sense we adhere to the final transformation of the word–we become “disciples.” Life-long learners. Followers of an extensive parade of teachers–in classrooms, in texts, in person, in mind, in spirit. And why hitch ourselves to such a train? Because it’s fun!

A few weeks ago I found myself in a cornfield outside of the north-central Nebraska town of Neligh, grooving with a wild mix of ranch kids, political activists, hippies and farmers, listening to Neil Young lay down some impressive reverb with Willie Nelson’s kid–guitar sounds the likes of which had probably not echoed in that cottonwood shelter belt in, well, forever. Young is one of my favorite performers, so I was digging it, of course–but even in that moment of pure joy, the English major emerged: I became a disciple, once again, of the words. When Neil sang an acoustic version of “Comes a Time”–a song of great personal significance to me–the tears poured forth. Then came his pump-organ rendition of “Mother Earth,” and the harmonica for “Heart of Gold.” Somber–self-searching moments. HARVEST THE HOPE CONCERTThen he plugged in and things got loud and funky as he played a series of numbers from his rollicking album Ragged Glory, a pre-grunge favorite of mine, before wrapping his short set with a call to environmental arms with “Who’s Gonna Stand Up (and save the earth)?”

Now that was FUN! And, deep. The context–those words, with that music, in that place–and the conversations engendered from that moment, the reflection, the ideas pulled forth from deep in that brainstem. Wordsworth had Tintern Abbey, where he proclaimed  “That in this moment there is life and food/For future years” and that “Thy memory be as a dwelling-place/For all sweet sounds and harmonies” to be recreated in moments of tranquil recollection, in the mind, or on the page, as I am writing this very moment… Not an ancient church being reclaimed by nature, but I think my corn-field concert is just as worthy of such thoughts “too deep for tears.”

Or, to slightly alter the lyrics of another cut from Ragged Glory, you’ve got to “Love to Learn.”


Late one night I was walking
in the valley of hearts.
A spirit came to me and said:
You gotta move to start
You gotta take the first step
You gotta crawl to be tall
And then she told me something,
something that
I’ll never forget.

You gotta love to burn. LEARN!
You better
take your chance on love.
You got to let your guard down
You better take a chance,
A chance on love.
(OF WORDS)

Well, that was a stretch–but experiences like Neil Young jamming in a corn field do it for me. I think English Majors and students of the Humanities have a special affinity for such moments. We love to get together and get deep, man–drive life into the corner, as Thoreau was telling my students this morning, and see what it is all about. This is one of the true JOYS of our discipline–the FUN we get to have by living in close association with serious readers and writers on a daily basis. My students may not agree, but I have a lot of FUN in classes–even in the hard work of preparation and grading. We have tremendous FUN in and around our offices just sharing some thoughts over a cup of coffee on the latest thing we read, taught or learned–and both the pleasures and frustrations attendant with our discipline.

And there are the perks. I’m looking forward in two weeks to attending the Western Literature Association conference in Victoria, British Columbia. The theme for this year’s conference is “Bordersong,” and we have put together a panel presentation–from little Chadron State College–that is going to rock those Canucks. Here is the composition of our panel presenting on Thursday afternoon, November 6:

Plain Songs with a Beat: Music and Walking as Spiritual and Social Journey in the West:

Matthew Evertson: “Escape Artists: Songs and Settlement in Three Nebraska Writers”

Steven Coughlin: “Finding a Voice: Thea Kronberg’s Rejection of Gendered Social Conventions in Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark”

Thomas Deane Tucker and Kathleen Woods: “Rucksack Revolution: Images of Walking in the West in Kerouac”

So notice the clever language used throughout–the alliteration and vivid imagery, the double meanings behind “Plain” and “Beat,” and the way we have integrated seemingly disparate themes and topics into one set of presentations? See how our panel aligns with the broader conference theme of “border songs”? What do we have here other than a shining example of FUN WITH WORDS?

And it is our WORK with words that allows us this opportunity–to travel to a part of the world we have never been. To mix and mingle with other lovers and workers of words. To attend several panels at the conference and continue to “love to learn.” (And, to skip several panels and learn more about Victoria and the region and the local taverns and restaurants).

For those of you planning to be future educators–such joys await (along with all the hard work). For our current students, you, too, can have FUN WITH WORDS. Two years ago our department helped to send EIGHT of our students to the Sigma Tau Delta International Conference in Portland, Oregon. (We sent students again last year to Savannah, Georgia).

Student trip to Porland, 2013

Student trip to Porland, 2013

Portland, 2013

Portland, 2013

Our students have not only attended such conferences, they have presented their work to much acclaim. If you are involved with studies in English and Humanities at CSC, you have many such opportunities: open mic events, field trips, writing workshops, fundraisers, etc… You can learn more about such opportunities by reading earlier entries in the OUTSIDEYOURSELF blog–just scroll down for insights from students who attended the Portland conference, for example.  One of these blogs outlines specifically what you can do to WORK WITH WORDS and have a good time doing it. Here it is: https://outsideyourself.wordpress.com/2013/08/22/work-with-words-get-paid-for-your-passion/

If you live and learn in this region, perhaps you have a chance to visit our big city to the North. Driving back from Rapid City, I’m always impressed as I round the curve of Buffalo Gap National Grassland–and perceive the wide open plains before me. You can see all the way to Chadron–and at night you can see the lights beckoning. You pass a sign. This IS the Good Life–not because of where we live, but how we live.

You’ve gotta love to learn, baby. You gotta take a chance…

Outside Your Self-Discipline

Hello Outsiders. Yesterday we explored the definition of “discipline,” and I posed the following question:

As English Majors and Minors, teachers and students, and general lovers of the written word–can we advance in our discipline without discipline? How much of our work within the discipline will involve “obeying” and “rules”? As a teacher or a student–how much do we enforce one to support the other?

We all love to read and write, for sure–but it can’t be all fun, can it? In posting midterm grades today, I was reminded of the cycles and seasons of the academic life. I love college so much, I never left–but for some reason I find myself surprised at various times each semester by the sheer volume of reading and writing we all choose to take up as practitioners of this discipline (as teachers, students and life-long learners). At times like this, our lives certainly seem governed by a lot of “rules” we have to “obey.” Are we crazy?

My wife thinks so. She teaches High School English–and there the pressure is even more intense. This past Friday found her grading essays when she got done with school, much of the day on Saturday and Sunday, then meeting with a colleague at 7pm on Sunday evening to go over grades to be shared with students the following day. When she was able to join her children and husband for a brief respite and linger over dinner (pizza is a sure-fired way to call her forth from the grading den), we barely recognized the stranger in our midst. She had bloodshot eyes and “grading elbow.”

Now that’s crazy. Yet we have more English Education Majors in our program than ever. What gives?

We love words. What else can be the explanation? (Well, to be fair, we may not “love” the words in that particular passage of the seventeenth essay we have graded that evening, the one with all the comma errors, but we know that, eventually, we will arrive at a passage that blows us away and takes our heads clean off, as Emily would say). Those of us working within this discipline take on faith that language will be our savior, at some point–every week, we will be vindicated in our chosen path. My students suffering through those long passages of Emerson will emerge from the Concord woods, transparent eyeballs ablaze, arduous midterm exam conquered,  and encounter a black bird sitting in their study, ready to creep them out and reaffirm their belief that, somehow, literature is fun!

raven

Our discipline requires of us a lot of hard work. Any professional career or course of study will, obviously–but are English majors special gluttons for punishment? As I chat with students this week of midterms, I’m reminded of just how much they have on their plates–all the writing projects and all the pages to read. I remember being overwhelmed many times throughout my undergraduate and graduate career, wondering just how in the hell I was going to digest all of that material! Let alone savor it, meditate on it–engage is slow reading, as Deane Tucker wisely advised a few blogs ago. How could I possibly get through it all. Sometimes (gasp), I couldn’t! I’d have to prioritize or “triage” which assignments across my courses demanded my attention first and foremost (hint to my students, it is always American Lit). When I was unable to complete a reading assignment, I would feel intense anxiety–not that the professor would call on me, or that I would screw up a quiz or exam–but that I was being left out of that shared reading experience of the class. I would sometimes get upset when the professor would CUT a reading from the schedule. How masochistic is that? I somehow felt, deeply, that motto you see emblazoned on bags from Barnes and Noble: “so many books, so little time.” But was it worth all the the 3am essays, the cups of joe, the frantic call of the inkjet minutes before class? Who would choose this?

And so I understand the near revolt of my students this morning who complained that we had set aside just ONE day for Edgar Allan Poe. (Trying to lure me into the catacombs for a nice draught of wine was a bit over the top, though). We are all addicted to reading–though we might not all pick the same poison. (For those of you going on to teach, when you get your own classrooms–you can assign as much Poe as you want. For now, let’s turn our pages to Walden…)

In short, we have chosen a discipline that does require, at times, a certain devil’s bargain. In order to get “paid” in good grades, diplomas and, eventually, salaries, we agree to live within a world of self-discipline. We will read a lot–and not always for pleasure. We will write a great deal–often, not for the fun of it. We will internalize the rules of acceptable usage and, when needed, obey them. We will prop open our eyelids and push through to the end of the chapter. We will tap tap on our keyboards until we reach that word count. We will assess the written work of others, many who won’t share our perverse love of language. We do this because we know no other way to fill our lives with what we love.

Words.

In this blog space a year or so ago, I penned a promotion for our program that sought to appeal to all you hopeless reading and writing addicts out there. WORK WITH WORDS became our mantra. It has that nice double-meaning that all English majors can appreciate: find a profession where reading and writing are integral, and where you get to literally “work” with language day in and day out. A colleague recently shared a link to a website that endorses this theme, helping us to imagine why we might want to study within the arts and humanities, and seek out those attendant careers. Here is a link to the website:

http://www.ah21cw.com/category/why-humanities/

You can make more money elsewhere, perhaps. You might have more free time to watch Big Bang Theory, or surf the internet. But at the end of the day, will your brain thank  you? Will you get outside yourself? Face it–you need words, and they need you. The sooner you accept this, the sooner you can turn the page…

 

 

In the Discipline: You can Leave Your Hat On….

evertsonDear Outsiders–this week the blog will focus on the concept of “discipline.” I hope to explore this idea from several angles: discipline in the classroom, self-discipline within your chosen field of studies, the work of building expertise within a discipline and, finally, the idea of integrating disciplines (or being “interdisciplinary”).

Part ONE: “You Can Leave Your Hat on…”

I often “discipline” my writing students when they begin a paper with “Webster’s Defines…” (insert topic or idea here). This is possibly one of the lamest ways to start an essay–but, as the maxim goes: do as I say, not as a I do:

Google Defines “Discipline” like this:

discipline

So what do you think? Many of you reading this blog are educators, plan to be educators, or are currently in classrooms with all sorts of educators attempting to impose “discipline.” What IS our role in regards to discipline the classroom–particularly the ENGLISH classroom, which (I know it is hard to believe) is not always the most enthralling environment for some students. What frustrates you in your learning environment–either as a student or (potential) instructor? Texting okay? Snapchat? A noisy classroom is a sign of “learning in progress” we are often told–is this true, or an excuse for chaos? Those students chatting in the corner–disruptive? Open debate and discussion with no ground rules–should we raise hands? Pass around a conch?

And what about that guy over in the corner with the hat on? (here I would link to the titular Joe Cocker song, but it will bring up a clip from 9 1/2 Weeks, which introduces up all sorts of disciplinary problems for this blog, and perhaps disciplinary action against the blogger).

The reason why I bring up the HAT is that I know some teachers who simply cannot abide such cover in the classroom–and it struck a chord with me this weekend when I listened to an episode of This American Life that was devoted to the idea of classroom discipline. Here is a link to the episode:

http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/538/is-this-working

In the opening anecdote, a middle school student has been asked to remove his hat. He refuses. Several teachers then share their views on how the situation should be handled–from a sharp look to throwing a shoe, and everything in between. The episode explores many issues related to classroom discipline–from what seems to be a pretty clear connection between race and discipline, to comparing and contrasting “zero tolerance” approaches vs. more discuss/redirect approaches. What is the best way for a teacher to manage a classroom? Listen to the program to find out. (Spoiler alert–there is no right or wrong approach…).

Which brings us back to Webster’s, er, Google–and that dictionary definition. In viewing the concept as a verb, we discipline our students, our classmates–maybe ourselves–by training to obey rules or codes of behavior, usually with some sort of punishment. As a noun, we think of discipline as that  “practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience.” Whether an action or a thing, neither one of these sounds too pleasant. But what of that second definition: “a branch of knowledge, typically one studied in higher education”? As English Majors and Minors, teachers and students, and general lovers of the written word–can we separate the two? Can we advance in our discipline without discipline? How much of our work within the discipline will involve “obeying” and “rules”? As a teacher or a student–how much do we enforce one to support the other?

“Tune in” for the next blog, which will explore this question further.

Dr. Evertson

Family Values

Here is a story by Maryah Harding written in our fiction writing class. The technique under focus was the use of setting in story. The assignment asked students to put a character in conflict with their surroundings and for that character to respond in an expected way.

Family Values

By Maryah Harding

            Light mist sprinkled across Adelaide’s porcelain skin, making it glisten with the icy drops. Her limp, midnight hair clung to her flushed cheeks.  The air was heavy around her as she walked down the abandoned road, the soft glow of the flame colored streetlights barely breaking through the harsh gray of the night.  Adelaide’s shoes made a gentle thud with each step as she bounded along the street.

“One pill, two pill, red pill, blue pill!” Adelaide sang out loudly, her lyrical voice sifting through the air like a bluebird’s song, the sound of cracking branches acting as a drum beat to her whimsical song.  Adelaide removed the bottle of pills from the pocket of her tattered coat and shook them, the rattle of the medication inside matching her angelic voice.

Adelaide stopped in front of the Clarence house.  The wind howled through the air and caressed her lightly soaked skin, the light mist turning in a drizzle of frozen kisses.  She opened the pill bottle and shook out the multicolored pills, letting them fill her palm.  She held them lovingly, like one would hold a fragile bird, frightened and alone. Throwing them into her mouth she swallowed them down, her tongue reaching for the droplets of water as the tightening in her chest began to fade and sweet ecstasy coursed through her small frame.  The looming house reached for her with open arms, shifting in the darkness.  Adelaide leapt through the dangling fence, the wood slowly rotting away from the abandoned house.

Adelaide’s girlish laughter tinkled through the roaring wind to the rotten front door and broken windows, the glass strewn across the damp floor boards.  The branches of the ancient trees scraped against the panes and drew black shadows across the ruined house, raking down the already scratched lumber.

“Mummy, Daddy, Cattie, I’m home!” Adelaide’s voice rang through the empty house, her creaking footsteps echoing through the house.  She gave a small twirl as she danced through her home, her fingers tracing the walls softly, like a man traces his lover’s delicate mouth with his rough fingers.  Adelaide entered the kitchen, her mother lounging in the antique chair, resting her head against the uneven table.  Adelaide skipped to her mother, wrapping her fragile arms around the older woman.  Adelaide gently kissed her mother’s crying eyes, the tears streams of red liquid on her wrinkled face.  She let go, watching her mother slump back into the position, her dress ripped and dried with dark stains, splashed in intricate designs across her body.

Adelaide left her mother to rest in the kitchen, humming one of the nursery rhymes her mother used to sing to her, “Here comes a candle to light you to bed, and here comes a chopper to chop off your head! Chip, chop, chip, chop the last one is dead!” Adelaide giggled softly as she waltzed into the living room, drops of water hitting the floor, leaking onto the moth ridden couch.

“Hi, daddy.  I’m home.  Guess what I learned today?” Adelaide prattled on as she curled up next to her father on the couch.  She leaned over and picked up her father’s ashen head and planted a kiss on his mouth, like little girls always do.

“I learned how to tie my shoes!  I did a good job! Teacher said so.” Adelaide returned her father’s head to his lap, his skin sagging against his brittle bones.  Her lips a darker shade of wine now as she ran her fingers through her father’s nearly bald head.

Adelaide left her aging father on the couch, making sure his head wouldn’t roll away like it had the tendency to do when she left him for too long.  She scurried up the steps to little Cattie’s room, making sure to skip the missing step.  Adelaide opened the door covered in ripped pictures drawn by careless hands, the absence of light hiding the content of the pictures from her smoky eyes.

“Cattie, are you sleeping?” Adelaide called out softly into the hushed room, the patter of raindrops hitting the window in a ceaseless pattern.  She crept softly into the room, stepping over the decaying stuffed animals, picking up Peter Rabbit Adelaide continued to her sister’s sleeping form.  Pulling the covers back slowly as to not disturb her resting form, Adelaide snuggled in next to her.  Lovingly she ran her fingers through Cattie’s matted hair, Cattie’s blue lips parted slightly as if about to say something.

As sleep enveloped Adelaide’s girlish limbs, she murmured against her sister’s deathly cold skin, “Don’t be sad anymore, Cattie.  Sissy will be able to play with you again tomorrow. And Mummy and Daddy will be there too.  I promise.”

The Curious Canine of Humbaker Street

I truly believe the best way to learn to write is to write and write and write, and then write some more. Gerald Brenan, activist and historian, agrees: “It is by sitting down to write every morning that one becomes a writer.” So, in each creative writing course I teach, students produce weekly exercises that utilize writing techniques we’re discussing in class. In the story below Holly Atterbury focuses on the technique of imagery. The assignment prompt was to use concrete, significant detail (imagery) to create a reality that is convincing—and yet literally impossible.

The Curious Canine of Humbaker Street

By Holly Atterbury

             In the town of Milforde, Pennsylvania, Bartleby’s Deli and Sandwich Shoppe sits just south of the intersection of 5th and Humbaker Street. The block is composed of brick-red buildings identical but for the furnishings and the color of awning. To the left, under the bright blue awning, is Pearl’s Salon and Spa; “spa” being a loose term for the cucumber-eyed, avocado facial Pearl will give you for the discounted price of ten dollars, if you spend twenty dollars for a haircut first. Nearly a year ago, the competition for avocadoes (of which Milforde already had a limited supply) led to the dissolution of anything that could be considered a friendship between Bartleby and Pearl. The shortage might have been bearable, harmless even, if the start of Pearl’s facials hadn’t coincided with Bartleby’s first and final Avocado Festival. Henry Davis, who used to deliver fresh vegetables to Bartleby’s Deli and Shoppe recalls the fiasco in occasional nightmares and describes it “like two people trapped on a desert island who suddenly realize that there isn’t food enough for the both of them. Or something like that.” To the right of Bartleby’s, underneath the weather-stained red awning with a small hole in it, is Free Expressions, a tattoo parlor, where owner Ralph Luftraedo’s style of tattoos stagger across customers’ skin like the drunken, first attempts of abstract drawings. Ralph and Bartleby have yet to find a reason to irreparably harm their relationship; although, if Ralph’s son keeps looking at Bartleby’s daughter like that (and she keeps looking back), people will begin covering their tattoos upon entering the Sandwich Shoppe, just as everyone knows you don’t grab lunch next door directly after getting a haircut.

As the citizens of Milforde watch the conflict escalate by degrees, mimicking the slow, upward crawl of the thermometer as the days lengthen into the summer months, they wish Nikola was still capable of negotiating a truce.

Nikola was formerly known as the short, jovial Italian man who owned and ran the Italian bakery directly across the street from Bartleby’s. Nickola was a generally agreeable person, who devoted much of his free time to tending the purple regal geraniums he planted in large, rectangular stone planters on the sidewalk in front of his bakery, smiling and waving to passerbys with the hand that was not occupied with his bright yellow watering can. He was the mediating force between Pearl, Bartleby, and Ralph, most famous for settling the Chalkboard Sign Crisis of 2012. Each shop owner had simultaneously, unbeknownst the others, purchased a standing chalkboard sign for the sidewalk in front of their shop. Each sign would, in turn, be vandalized by what each owner believed to be his or her neighbor; from Nikola’s vantage point, however, it was eventually discovered that the culprits were Sierra Hult and Calvin Resden, who found the feud between the three hilarious, saw an opportunity, and took it.

Indeed, it was agreed that if Nikola still possessed his proper form, the current tensions on Humbaker Street would have faded back into that of the normal levels of annoyance commonly experienced by neighbors in close proximity to one another. But Nikola is of little help nowadays. The Bergamasco pads around town, coat swaying with every step, looking like a dirty mop that grew four legs, a slimy pink tongue, wet nose, and a wagging tail.

One might wonder how a human man could transform into an Italian sheep dog known for its naturally matting fur that dangles down from its body like thick strands of yarn and believe such a thing to be impossible, but the citizens of Milforde, Pennsylvania, have no doubts that the canine is Nikola.

“That’s Nikola, alright,” says Jolene Spitz, who can often be seen sitting on the lone bench in Attwood Park reading mystery novels. “Nice guy. Even nicer as a dog, but he seems kinda sad. I miss his baking.”

Several residents were witness to the clear afternoon of August 22nd, 2013, when Nikola made the transition from man to dog. “He was outside, watering those flowers, and he just sort of…stopped,” Philip Gurth says. “He stopped what he was doing, just froze. Like a statue, almost. Or like when you see a big wasp.”

Evelyn Hult (Sierra’s mother) continues, “I thought he was going to throw up. He had that look on his face, you know? He twitched, like he was trying to move forward, and then in a blink he was gone.” She snaps. “Just like that. And in his place was the weirdest-looking dog I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Bewildered witnesses slowly approached the dog, who appeared to be staring forlornly through his thick, dark bangs at the toppled yellow watering can. Humans and canine alike watched the water twinkle across the dull gray of the sidewalk and over the curb, until the stream slowed to a halt, leaving a darkened line on the concrete. According to the reports, Nikola the dog had then given a great sigh, looked at the people gathered around, picked up the watering can between his teeth, and walked back into his bakery. Now he roams around town, patrolling Humbaker Street in particular, trying to keep the peace and tend his geraniums as best he can given his current situation.

“It’s a real shame,” Bartleby says as his cleans the front windows to his Shoppe. “Only decent guy on this street turns into dog. That shouldn’t happen to nice folks. If it’s going to happen to anyone, it should happen to awful people. Like Pearl or that lazy son of Ralph’s.” Pearl comments that, “If Bartleby were to turn into a dog, he’d be the ugliest dog in the world.” Ralph, who doesn’t say much, just shrugs and says, “Yeah, Nikola was a good guy.”

No one knows who, if anyone, turned Nikola into a dog over a year ago, or if he’ll ever turn back.

Required Reading for Young Writers

Below is the speech William Faulkner gave when he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. His words remain true for anyone who wants to be a writer. Click on the link to hear him read it.

http://www.nobelprize.org/mediaplayer/index.php?id=1397

Ladies and gentlemen,

I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work – a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. So this award is only mine in trust. It will not be difficult to find a dedication for the money part of it commensurate with the purpose and significance of its origin. But I would like to do the same with the acclaim too, by using this moment as a pinnacle from which I might be listened to by the young men and women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will some day stand here where I am standing.

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.

I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.