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I’m no sage, but I suspect we’ll hear a version of this refrain over and over again in 2012: People should get more involved!

It’s one of those unquestioned axioms of modern life that people should be involved, that they should be engaged in the world around them. Apathy, we are told, causes problems and allows them to fester. It’s much better to be on the problem-solving side of the street.

But what if the opposite is true? What if people are simply too involved, too engaged? What if that is the real problem? We insert our two cents wherever they’ll fit. If they don’t fit, we’ll make them.

Of course, that’s an easy thing to say from a position of relative material comfort. But think about it for at least a second or two. What if we let things be instead of trying to always make them what we think they should be?

Let it be. It works as a song, but it would be a piss-poor campaign slogan. Or would it? We think of the phrase as implying some kind of hands-off approach: “Oh, just let it  be, will ya?” Economists may be familiar with the French version: “laissez-faire.”

But if you listen to the words (the English ones), they suggest a more active result: Let it BE. In other words, let it be what it is, or what he is or she is or they are. Our temptation is always to meddle, to control, to impose our will, to give our advice.

There’s no good time to stop, to resist the temptation. There’s just the courage to try.

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So I’m going to use the question of “What is Happiness?” as an intro into teaching freshman writing this spring. I wonder why I never thought of it before, and I’m curious to see how it pans out. Aren’ t you?

Euthanasia and euphemism are closely related. One kills people, the other kills language.

We are now delivering to government the same message that many hardworking Americans are being forced to internalize  in their own lives: learn to live with less. I’m not sure what our country will look like when the lesson is fully learned. But, if you are willing to start educating us, www.livewithless.com, dear reader, appears to be yours for the taking.

If I squint, I can just about see both sides of the debate over allowing guns on college campuses. But I’ll admit I sympathize with those who would rather keep them off.

That said, my reasoning may be a little less reliant on preserving the notion that campuses should be scenes of peaceful debate. I highly doubt that students arguing about Plato’s Republic will end up settling their differences through a duel at high noon on the quad.

One part heat, two parts lightning.

What worries me instead is the potentially fatal brew of guns and alcohol.  It strikes me as mildly insane, at the very least, to ignore the risks of guns being mishandled, misused or misfired.

College students, convinced they will live forever, do all kinds of stupid things while drunk. Guns may become just one more tool to inflict self-harm–or worse.

And I get it that 18-year-olds are packing heat in Iraq and Afghanistan. But, uh, they go through something called training. I haven’t seen anyone require that of gun-toting college students. Perhaps, before it’s too late, someone will figure out a way to attach a breathalyzer to the trigger.

My goal today is to get better at sitting and typing even if I have nothing to say, hence the title of this post. Really, things could go either way. I could produce a placebo, or I could plumb some unknown depth.

The wrench is both a help and a hindrance to thieves.

Then I began looking for pictures, and wrenches seemed to predominate. So, they call the work plumbing, yet it involves a lot of wrenching. That seems fitting, somehow. But it doesn’t offer me any place to go. So, I will move to another interesting chapter in Tales of a Pathfinder, the 1920 memoir of highway pathfinder A.L. Westgard.

In this particular chapter, Westgard spills a great deal of ink describing the many languages he encounters in hamlets and towns across America. Here is his take on a Norwegian man, living in western Illinois, who spoke no English:

The wonder of it was that he had lived right on that land for forty-two years. As the country was settled almost exclusively by his countrymen, he had never learned English, though he had been a productive citizen for a generation and voted regularly at every election.

Westgard, an immigrant himself, was undoubtedly a sympathetic audience not given to flights of outrage over someone voting yet not being able to speak English. Ironically, however, Westgard’s work as a highway pathfinder helped connect those pockets of people speaking Norwegian, German, Italian and Spanish–no doubt ratcheting up pressure for everyone to learn English.

 

 

 

Note the absence of operating instructions.

Today’s college students are tech-savvy, sure. But here is how I would boil down my experience of digital natives trying to navigate the Internet:

People may grow up in a forest, but that doesn’t mean they know how to climb trees.

I resisted talking about the murders in Tucson because I didn’t think I had anything to add. I’ve also been happy discussing the highway pathfinders of early 20th-century America. But I changed my mind yesterday after lunch with a friend.

My first instinct was to raise questions about why people seem to develop schizophrenia in their 20s. But that’s what science is for: and the consensus seems to be that the sickness, like many other things, results from a combination of genetics and environment.

I forgot the question, but I'm sure that more medication is the answer.

So, we can’t really change our genetics (at least without risking world war). So that left me with questions about the environment.

The politico-pundit class seems focused on the political environment, the allegedly toxic rhetoric that spurred Jared Loughner to act–or at least gave him a road map for his murderous rage. The debate, no matter how long it lasts or what twists it takes, will end with a pox on both houses, a call to civility, a look ahead, and a return to bliss.

A key station on this path is the recognition that insane acts are ultimately random and unpredictable, even when the insane give off flashing red lights, as Loughner appears to have done. Our stop at this station includes commentary on what friends, family and institutions could have done better. It’s a perfect echo of what we heard after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, Columbine High in 1999, and the list goes on.

What emerges mostly unscathed in all this analysis is the economy, and by that I don’t just mean the last two-plus years of devastation. I mean the structure itself, which seems to put an inordinate amount of stress on young people. Every 18-year-old hears that college is the surest path to economic comfort (despite abundantly clear evidence to the contrary).

What if you find you’re not ready for college, or you’re just not cut out for it? Our culture offers limited options. You flounder, you flunk, you bemoan the alleged scam of higher education–and you prepare to face your own personal economic doomsday. You may even act out in bizarre ways and, if you happen to have some genetic glitch in your system, well…

There’s a powerful force that quashes this line of thinking about economics as environment. We tend to see the economy as a stage on which all actors are presumed equal. It is summed up in the widespread belief that any American can be the next Oprah Winfrey or Bill Gates if they just work hard enough. The onus is always on the individual, never the system. And I’ll bet, if I look, I’ll find this belief among highway pathfinders of the early 20th century. So I’m back where I started, at least for now

I’m just going to start typing this year and see what happens. It’s the least I can do. A wise writer told me on New Year’s Eve that I shouldn’t wait for the right time, and I’ll add that I shouldn’t wait either for lightning flashes of inspiration.

Inspiration is a momentary shaft of light shining through some tiny crack in the walls we all erect around our true selves. The light is useful for the illumination it provides. But it doesn’t, in the end, tear down that wall. And that is the end goal, n’est-ce pas? That takes something more substantial, something more like work.

So here is what I want to work on this year: a story about a couple that drove across country in a GMC truck in 1916. It took them more than a year to get from Seattle to NYC and back again.I believe they kept a diary and that the diary is somewhere in Seattle. So, one of my first calls of 2011 will be to hunt that sucker down.

The writing teacher in me wanted to write “hunt down that sucker,” since you shouldn’t separate verb phrases. But what the heck. It’s a new year.