Sunday, March 21, 2010

Going First

Someone I know recently died in an accident. It wasn’t the kind of accident that occurs during normal activities everyone does every day, like driving or showering or walking down the street. It also wasn’t the kind of accident that results from an activity so risky that no one is surprised when it goes wrong, something like white-water kayaking or flying an “experimental aircraft.”

My friend died doing something both dangerous and mundane, the kind of thing that makes parents declare that their children are trying to get themselves killed. He died from a skateboarding accident. He crashed his skateboard, hit his head, was in a coma for a long time, and then finally, just when chances for his eventual recovery had started to look up, he died.

Besides his death being incredibly sad on its own, it bothered me a lot that he had died skateboarding. Something about it seemed like suicide to me, like he had chosen to die on purpose. I couldn’t figure out why I felt this way. After all, he skateboarded everywhere, all the time. There couldn’t have been anything special about the day when he crashed; it was probably just an ordinary day, until things went horribly wrong. But I couldn’t get rid of this creepy feeling that he knew it was coming, that it was planned somehow.

I tried to shake the idea that there was some underlying significance to all this, that it was the end to some kind of parable or puzzle or syllogism.

“I suppose it could have been anything,” I said to a friend of his. “It could have been a car accident.”

“No,” said the friend, shaking his head vehemently. “It’s important that it was a skateboarding accident.”

That’s how I felt, too, but I didn’t like what this interpretation suggested. It meant that it wasn’t random, not a freak accident, that his death had meant something. But what could it mean, other than a referendum against the kind of life that we were all living, lives full of small dangers, unnecessary risks, hobbies and habits we all convince ourselves are safe, or safe enough?

Our friend was a brave guy. That’s one of the qualities that always struck me most about him. Without a hint of apprehension, he would do all kinds of things that to me seemed pretty scary: travel to China to study kung fu, practice crazy jumping back flips, spar on a raised platform with no protective gear, move to Guatemala on a moment’s notice when his ailing mother needed help, and, regularly, get on his skateboard and fly down Monte Vista, a street so steep it’s difficult to walk down without stumbling.

I had often been inspired by his bravery. When he returned from China during a time that I had been feeling ambivalent about sparring, the stories of his trip motivated me to face up to difficult challenges. Watching how easily he could pack up his life and travel, I reminded myself not to get too attached to my routines. If he can do it, I would tell myself, it must not be so bad.

His death reminded me of another one that occurred five years ago, when my coworker’s sixteen-year-old daughter flew off her dirt bike, which she was riding with her father, and suffered a fatal injury to one of her internal organs. I didn’t know her very well, but after she died, I learned she was another brave person, someone who, like my friend, inspired people around her to try to be braver themselves.

Just after she died, her mother told me that her friends were keeping her MySpace page as a memorial, and when I went to look at it, in addition to about a thousand heartbreaking messages from distressed teenagers, I saw her brief self-description, which included this:

I love my dirt bike, even though I seem to fall off it all the time!

The eerie foreshadowing of these words chilled me when I read them. Could she have known, I asked myself? As with my skateboarding friend, I imagined for a moment that she had chosen her death, or that it had been somehow fated. It just seemed so unlikely that she would specifically mention the falling off; why would she say that, if she hadn’t anticipated what it would come to mean?

Then I thought about the potential for creepy omens on my own online presences: so many jokes about getting beat up, getting hit in the face, so many pictures of injuries and bruises. It seems impossibly far-fetched that any of this would lead me to serious physical harm, just as the falls must have seemed reasonably safe to her. And they were; she was just really, really unlucky in how she fell. We can all be unlucky, whether getting thrown by a dirt bike or kneed a little too hard in the face or hit by a runaway bus as we cross the street. So it’s back to the car accident comparison. Are these deaths, which seem so particularly haunted, the result of the same kind of wrong-place-wrong time bad luck that causes people to die on the freeway or in the shower?

Is that the only lesson, I wondered, as I thought about these two deaths? That same old lesson we’ve always known, that you never know when it will be your time to go, that it can happen any time, in any way, for seemingly no reason at all? And if the brave people go and get killed doing things that are supposed to be safe, what lesson does that teach the rest of us? The implied message seems to be that maybe it’s not a good idea to be so brave—but that’s hardly an acceptable lesson to take from the lives of people who inspired those around them to be adventurous and take risks.

I looked back at the girl’s MySpace page this week, which would have been her twenty-first birthday. I saw that her friends are still writing notes to her on it, five years later. They tell her about their problems, and tell her that she is an inspiration to them, how they think of her as they enter scary new phases of their lives, starting college, moving away from home, dating. Some of them say that they imagine her as she would be now, as a young adult, and they look to her for wisdom about decisions in their own lives.

I reread her self-description and saw something I had missed last time. Below the part about falling off her dirt bike, it said that she loved softball and basketball, and, she noted, that she loved to play “full contact—it’s more interesting that way!” If I saw those words five years ago, I didn’t remember them, though if her accident had occurred during one of those sports, these words would have seemed as foreboding as the ones about her dirt bike. It turns out, she wasn’t psychic regarding her own untimely demise. She was just a brave girl who loved to do scary, exhilarating things, just as my skateboarding friend did.

The lesson I will keep with me from my friend is the same lesson I always learned from him, which is to be brave. I though at first that his death negated this message in some way, that it showed that taking risks does not pay off. But now, like the young adults seeking strength and guidance from their friend’s memory on MySpace, I feel inspired by my friend’s memory to be braver, even about the prospect of my own death. My friend did so many things that I found terrifying, and when he did them, they came easily, fearlessly, effortlessly. Death is far less scary to me now that he has gone through it. I think to myself, if he did it, it must not be so bad.
Adam Caldwell's drawing of Joseph in the hospital.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Joseph and Monica, both greatly missed.

Sunday, March 7, 2010


The student looked at me with a mixture of horror and awe. “But…you’re a teacher,” he said. “I’ve never heard a teacher say that before.”

What did I tell this student that scandalized him so deeply? Did I tell him that school is useless and he might as well drop out and get a job? Did I invite him to smoke marijuana in the parking lot? Did I admit to him that I think that guy in the back row—you know, the one who spends all of class text-messaging—is a total fucking asshole?

No, in fact, what I did was advise him to look up some information on Wikipedia.

But teachers hate Wikipedia, my students say to me whenever I suggest that they use the site.

My students are correct. Teachers discuss Wikipedia with that same edge of sickly distain they direct at all the institutions that are destroying American intellectual life: Reality television. Video games. Christianity. You can just see them shudder a little as they say it.

Just last week I was at a meeting about information competency—in other words, how to find, evaluate, and use information—and the other teachers and librarians there were predictably bashing the online encyclopedia.

“We want students to know where to find good information,” said one teacher.

Not Wikipedia,” said another. Everybody laughed.

“But there’s lots of good information on Wikipedia!” I said.

Everyone looked at me with patient tolerance, because they’re community college teachers and thus not allowed to show open scorn.

They explained grudgingly that Wikipedia is an okay place to start a research project but not good as a main source, a point that we could all easily agree with.

I know why teachers, and I suppose everyone else, makes fun of Wikipedia: because it’s unreliable. Of course it’s not a good source to cite for a research paper: the authors are anonymous and multiple so there is no accountability for the information in the articles, and incorrect information can be inserted accidentally or intentionally. But it’s a great starting place for all kinds of research projects.

It’s of course useful for finding the kinds of information that could also be found in a print encyclopedia:

I chose John Donne as the subject of my research paper because I really like one of his poems, but I don’t know anything about him—where do I start?

I’m supposed to write a paper on acupuncture, but I don’t even know what that is!

But Wikipedia’s extensiveness and inclusiveness also means it answers questions that would be difficult or impossible to find in a print reference source:

Our team is supposed to debate against Euthanasia, but all we can think of are religious arguments. Are there any other main arguments against assisted suicide?

Who were the pioneers of hardcore punk?

What kinds of awards are given for websites?

Wikipedia is great for finding out information such as this—information that is Internet or pop-culture related, that is very new or frequently changes, that depicts various conflicting viewpoints and thus might be seen as not objective enough for a traditional encyclopedia.

The ongoing ridicule of Wikipedia in American culture seems to me a deep form of self-hatred. I have to imagine that those mocking it still use it on a regular basis; even the librarians can’t be going to print encyclopedias or published articles every time they want to know a small piece of information like the capital of Mongolia or the year Pink Floyd’s album Wish You Were Here came out. I’m an English teacher with the skills to find all kinds of “credible” information, and I use Wikipedia on a daily basis. I hear an interview with an actor or author on the radio; as I listen, I scan Wikipedia to discover what movies the actor was in or what books the author has written. I meet somebody from a country I don’t know much about; Wikipedia tells me a bit about the history and culture of that country. Of course, the information I find is not 100% reliable; but neither is the information in a print encyclopedia, which is certainly less up-to-date and is also prone to author-based error.

Critics of Wikipedia point to its democratic nature as evidence of its badness. They decry it as an affront to the idea of expertise, to the valuing of credible sources of information. But much, or hopefully all, of what can be found on Wikipedia is created by experts. My friend is a biologist with special expertise on a genetic cause of cystic fibrosis; she contributed heavily to the entry on this topic. Another friend used to be in a punk band; she contributed enough information about the band to turn its page from a minimal stub to a full-fledged article. Both of these friends are experts: one in biology, the other in the history of her own band. And in both cases, their respective entries would surely be far more informative, detailed, and factually correct than their counterparts in a traditional encyclopedia, if such articles even exist.

The first time I used Wikipedia was for my job. I was showing the movie Crash (disambiguation: the 2004 film about racial tension in Los Angeles, not the 1996 film about people who are sexually aroused by car accidents) in one of my classes. The class had a lot of students who were recent immigrants, and I anticipated that they would have difficulty following film’s heavy use of slang and American cultural references. I decided that handing out a packet including character descriptions and a scene-by-scene synopsis would help students understand the film; however, I did not want to write them myself. I looked all over the internet, but could only find brief overviews of the film’s plot.

Finally, about to give up, I clicked on that link at the top of my search results page, the link I had been ignoring not only during this search, but during the previous five years since it had first started appearing at the top of every search I did.

So this is the evil Wikipedia, I said to myself, as I scrolled down the page and found, to my delight, exactly what I had been looking for. I printed the page and copied it for my students, saving myself approximately two hours of scanning through the movie, writing down all the details of its plot and characters. Needless to say, I was thrilled, and I began touting the wonders of Wikipedia to my students the very next day, as I handed out photocopies to my students.

Even in this early encounter, rife as the page was with awkward sentence structure and typos, I was viewing the work of an expert: in this case, one or more people who saw the movie and had the patience to write down the plot, which was all the expertise I required.

I have loved Wikipedia ever since. What I love about it most is that it centralizes the knowledge of all of these different types of experts: the scientist, the band member, the movie fan. These experts are everywhere, laying low, not admitting or even knowing that they are experts. But if, ten minutes before class, I want a list of the characters in the movie we’re about to discuss, or if, at eleven at night, I get curious what spin-off bands were created by the members of Spitboy, they are the best experts I could ask for.