Jon Stewart closed his last show with a plea: If you smell something, say something.

I am a listener, a reader, a watcher. I don’t tend to interrupt others, or barge into conversations. As a teacher, a sometimes weakness I have is that I listen too much, too long, and don’t stop kids from telling their stories or asking their questions. I let the story finish. I let the questions be asked. I listen. And I often take notes and remember. And I take what I’ve heard into consideration when making decisions. A few years ago a student said, “Wouldn’t it be weird if we started writing the things you said down, like how you write what we say down?” Indeed.

I love the conversation. I love knowing the other sides and angles of things. It is a mistake, linguistically, to always refer to everything as sides. People assume I am on a SIDE when it comes to the gun debate, or whatever else. I’m not. I am on the side of educated decisions based on listening to all angles, based on considering many factors, based on evidence and historical understanding. It’s often not the OTHER SIDE, it’s ANOTHER ANGLE. I am on the side of considering multiple points of view, of making claims based on evidence, of honesty, of all those skills that should happen in a good English class or church.

And just when I feel like walking away from teaching, I realize how deficient our world and public discourse is when it relates to all those English Class skills I wish I could teach: viewing the world from multiple perspectives, understanding figurative language, logic, supporting claims with evidence, understanding genre, audience and purpose, writing a rough draft (or speaking one) before spouting your thoughts to the world, reading the book before going on television and talking about it, etc.

I listened to a writer I admire give a reading at Powell’s last year. He said something that I love. He said that many of the books he read, and people he listened to, he disagreed with about 70% of the stuff they were saying. But boy that 30% was really good. He said that required a level of nuance that was hard for a lot of people. This makes me excited and sad. I love nuance, and subtlety, and understatement. And I can love that 30% without demonizing the rest.

This takes work. There are certain names and organizations that I have a visceral initial reaction to. True, based on prior experience. But still. I’m sure you do too. And we might be thinking of different names or organizations. You can make assumptions on who I am and what I believe by who I quoted in the first paragraph. This is sloppy intellectualism though.

Our world is not a black and white, true or false, yes or no test. It’s not either or. Do you believe in guns or gun control? YES, and so do you.

* *

My son no longer wears diapers during the day, which means we periodically rush to public restrooms to take care of business. Parks, gas stations, restaurants, etc. And when we go in there, he says how nice it smells. He’s referring to the air freshener that is on a timer that pumps artificial fruit flavor into the room. It smells so artificial and chemically, it is almost nauseating. He thinks it smells nice. It smells like fruit. And to him it does. He says, before he runs into one of these rooms, how he likes how these rooms smell. He’s excited to go in there.

And so it is with so many other things. I keep hearing conversations, and listening to commentary, and I smell it. And they smell it too and they like it. Friend, I smell it too, but I don’t think it’s what you think it is. I feel compelled to explain.

And so…

An announcement, and a challenge.

Announcement: After it was clear that I couldn’t be Spiderman, or the Lone Ranger, or the next Ozzie Smith, I wanted to be a newspaper columnist. I’ve taken runs at this in the past, but it never quite worked. I am hiring myself to write dispatches on this website right here that nobody knows about or reads. These DISPATCHES are 800 word tryouts. If Steve Duin, Nicholas Kritstof, David Brooks, Thomas Friedman, Tim Egan, etc. need a day off, let me know. I got you covered.
Challenge: Salvator Rosa’s painting Philosophy has a Latin inscription that says: “Keep silent unless what you are about to say is more important than silence.” Judging each word through this rubric is a great thought experiment, and way of life. (So says someone about to start spewing words to an invisible audience.)


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