Friday, June 20, 2008


Every few years I lose almost everything I own.

I moved from Georgia to Arizona in 1997, from Arizona to Texas in 1999, and from Texas to Oregon in 2007. Each time, I packed up my books and shipped them, but otherwise took only what I could fit in a Toyota Corolla. A tiny Toyota Corolla.

And on a bunch of occasions I've done this or that stupid thing and managed to wipe out every document I had on my computer. That meant I had to rewrite all my lectures, all my syllabi, all my assignment instructions and activity materials, from a blank page. Sometimes I could reconstruct what I'd done before from memory, but more often I had to just rack my brains and do a total rewrite.

It's surprisingly liberating. I don't necessarily look forward to that ruthless culling that precedes a move, but once I get started, it's actually pretty painless. I tend to find out that much of what I've accumulated is just junk, and that when I'm rid of it, I feel proud of the accomplishment.

Same thing with the computer disasters. I'm convinced that they're a big part of why I've never fallen into a rut in my teaching. Instead of doing the same thing over and over again, I get to reinvent a lot of things, and put to work the lessons I've learned from teaching prior classes. And if I weren't forced to do it, I would never exercise enough initiative and discipline on my own to get it accomplished. It takes a catastrophic wipeout to make it happen.

That's been on my mind lately as I hear news about the floods through Illinois, Iowa and Missouri. I do feel a good deal of concern and compassion for people who are in danger, who are afraid for their lives, but I really have a hard time having much empathy with people who lose a lot of possessions, and then say something like "My entire life has been destroyed." Really? Your life is made of stuff? Stuff is just stuff. Stuff gets tiresome and can always be replaced. Even when they're talking about things like photos, I don't really get why they treasure them quite so much. I've been fond of a few pictures in my life, and have even managed to lose one or two that I really wanted to keep, but it's not the kind of thing I lie awake at night and stare at the ceiling about. In most cases, I can remember in great detail what the photo looked like, and that's good enough.

So I can't decide whether that's a failure in my own heart, or a distortion in other people's values. But I do know I'm not wedded to stuff, and to date it's been a pretty good way to live.

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