A few weeks ago, I was invited to come and speak to a local Kiwanis group–my inviter told me I could speak on any subject I wanted to, so this is what I eventually landed upon for my address this morning.
When John invited me to come and speak to your group a few weeks ago, my first question was “Well, okay—but what should I talk about?” “Anything you want,” was his reply. “We just like to have interesting people from the community come and share with us.”
Interesting. Now that’s a funny word. Usually, the words “interesting” and “English professor” are only found on people’s lips with some sort of negative in there somewhere. “Oh, an English prof, eh? How iiiinteresting.” “Oh, you teach English? I just hated English in college. I don’t like to read and I’m not very good at writing.” “You’re an English professor? I thought Shakespeare/Tolstoy/Mark Twain was dreadfully hard to read. It’s just not that interesting.”
And I suppose that my definition of interesting is probably a bit off-kilter from most people. For example: I find it completely fascinating that the words for meat while it’s still ‘on the hoof’ are swine, cow, and sheep—close derivatives from the old English swin, cu, and scep—while the words for meat on the plate are derived from the French porc, boef, and mouton. Fascinating that our modern English still tells a story from the 1300s, that of the difference between the English-speaking peasants’ experience and French-speaking aristocrats’ experience of the exact same animals. “Low” words almost always have Germanic roots (sweat) while “high” words have Latin or French ones (perspire). The linguistic results of the Norman invasion of 1066 are incredibly interesting to me. But if I start talking about etymologies and lexicographic outcomes to my family (or a good portion of my students), their eyes quickly glaze over.
Another thing I find interesting that rates pretty low on the scales of others is folk music, the real stripped-down low-fi three-strings and a turned-over steel bucket for a drum, singing in a minor key with a sour-smelling banjo player about oil fields and midnight trains and cornbread and long-lost-maybe-is-he-dead?loves kind. This is a recent interest for me, something that’s always been lurking in dusty corners—I remember my grandfather, for instance, who played the boom-ba (a funky spring-loaded stick with cymbals, bells, and a tambourine attached)—but it’s an interest that I’ve never really dealt with honestly until the last two years. It’s spawned the purchase of a cheap ukulele (on which I can crank out at least a little Hank Williams and the old rags “Red River Valley,” and “Big Rock Candy Mountain”) and most recently a weird little instrument with a long history and far, far too many names. Jaw harp, trump, gewgaw, juice harp, mouth harp, Ozark harp, “jew’s harp,” and about twenty or so others in more languages than I care to list. It’s a simple little doodad, just a flexible metal tongue and a stiff metal frame, and it’s thought to be among the very oldest of instruments. It makes a curious kind of music , and is used in cultures across the world—from Hindu meditation rituals to modern folk festivals in Montana. I love it—it’s simple and fun to play, very easy to sit around and jam with a group of other like-minded musicians. My six-month old daughter also loves it. But whenever the two-year-old sees me get it out, the “stop, Daddy!” litany begins forthwith. And you can imagine the eye-rolls from my dear and lovely wife.
I’ve also let flourish an interest in do-it-yourselfism—to nearly disastrous results. After picking up a copy of “Made By Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World” for myself for Christmas, I resolved to live my life in the spirit of that book. I wanted to consume less stuff and do more things for myself. I already garden and do a little bit of very amateur woodworking (a shelf/blanket rack here, a house-shaped lamp there), and am in general a fairly handy person. I know the difference between a crescent wrench and a channellock, can hang a ceiling fan without breaking a sweat (or zapping myself), and have participated in more than one major construction projects. So why wouldn’t a quick hot water heater reinstall be easy? Three trips to Home Depot, one trip to Lowes, three water heaters (three installed, two returned), a LOT of filling and draining and grunting and heaving and a final sad call for a plumber later, I’m still interested in doing it myself, but it’s tempered by recognizing that there’s something to be said for leaving certain jobs to the professionals, who can tell the difference between a bad water heater and a hot water leak under the foundation in five minutes.
I find lots of other things interesting, too—gardening, the first quarter of the 20th century, the history of writing, Facebook, poetry, John Steinbeck, both presidents Roosevelt, food, and how organizations use social media to present themselves and their cause. As a good English teacher, of course, I’ve read books about them all—something that in itself I find interesting, and an interest that I know a great many people share.
Over the last week or so, as I was trying to figure out what I’d come and speak to you about, I decided to do what all my students do when I ask them something (today’s the first day of school for us at McMurry): I googled it. I looked up the Kiwanis to see if I could mine any hints from the organization’s web site. I came across the “six permanent Objects” of Kiwanis international, which delegates in Denver approved in 1924. They read as follows:
• To give primacy to the human and spiritual rather than to the material values of life.
• To encourage the daily living of the Golden Rule in all human relationships.
• To promote the adoption and the application of higher social, business, and professional standards.
• To develop, by precept and example, a more intelligent, aggressive, and serviceable citizenship.
• To provide, through Kiwanis clubs, a practical means to form enduring friendships, to render altruistic service, and to build better communities.
• To cooperate in creating and maintaining that sound public opinion and high idealism which make possible the increase of righteousness, justice, patriotism, and goodwill.
It was the first principle that struck me as interesting—“to give primacy to the human and spiritual rather than to the material values of life.” In sentiment, it’s mildly familiar of McMurry’s own mission statement: “The mission of McMurry University is to provide a Christian liberal arts and professional education that prepares students for a fulfilling life of leadership and service.” A fulfilling life. Interesting.
When I was an undergraduate English major (at McMurry, which is not only my employer, but also my alma mater), I went on a trip with a group of other English students and a few of the faculty to a Shakespeare festival (we saw Hamlet performed as a three-man show. It was… interesting). For an assortment of reasons, most of the group was going to stay the weekend there in Georgetown. That left myself, another student named Liz (who went everywhere in bare feet), and a professor, Doctor Miller, to take the long ride back to Abilene in the 15-passenger van. Liz quickly curled up in the back of the van and went to sleep, leaving me and stern, old-maid-ish Dr. Miller to fill the silence. We talked about Shakespeare, and since I was taking an 18th century British literature course from her, we conversed about that, too. And, as conversations between professors and students usually do, it turned to the big picture. I remember the moment pretty well—it was raining (though not too hard) and very dark. I think we might have been somewhere around Bangs, TX. “So, Chris, why do you want to study literature? What is it, for you?”
Well, I had to think on that a bit. But my answer stuck with me. I was an English major (and would go on to graduate school in literature and eventually rhetoric and technical communication) because I had a sense that texts (read or written) really get at something important about the human experience. Our writing—whether literary or political, technical or mundane, personal or public—speaks out of and speaks to the things that make us who we are, and we can see who we are through our texts, through the stories we tell and the ways we tell them. In the end, it’s all so very human. And that, to me, is interesting. Seeing how humans create themselves with language, that was and is the thing that I really find interesting. Thinking about it today, my answer sounds pretty close to that first principle—the one about “the human and spiritual.” The things that matter, the things that are really interesting, the things that offer true fulfillment, aren’t the material things. They’re the things like language or history, like music or culture, like doing stuff with your hands that get at our spirit, the things that make us deeply and richly human.
So that’s interesting. It was to me, anyhow. I hope it was for you. I guess if I had to sum all this up into something that will stick (or is it “adhere”?), I’d offer the following: What’re you interested in? Just go for it. It’s part of your story. It’s your fulfillment. It’s human.
I’m not a big fan of pithy endings, though, so I’ll really leave it with this. I think the greatest pursuits of humankind are the ones that spur from genuine interest—the fascination and childlike engagement with a game, a process, an object, a person, an idea. Anything we can do—whether as people who serve in community organizations, or as people who fill myriad other roles in our daily lives—to try to inspire and welcome genuine interest from those we are helping can only bear the richest and most spiritual fruit. The most human.