The day after Thanksgiving, in the wee hours of the morning, lighting a wood stove, I turn to The New York Times and find this incredible contrast that certainly defines our harrowing age:
What can we say?
The day after Thanksgiving, in the wee hours of the morning, lighting a wood stove, I turn to The New York Times and find this incredible contrast that certainly defines our harrowing age:
What can we say?
I want to thank all of the teachers that brought me to the place in which I now find myself. I want to thank all that have loved me and held me together so that I can do what I do today. I want to thank you for putting up with me – all of my nonsense.
I thank you
In giving thanks, I thought about Walking & Talking… and wrote it as a way to give back.
I must acknowledge a distinct pleasure in my life: walking with students across Middlebury’s bucolic campus. Here I am, thinning white hair, not moving as spiritedly as the 18 year olds beside me, two or three students to the left of me, the same to the right, and sometimes one a bit in front of the flock, turning to say something. We part a sea of students in motion—bikes maneuver around us, others with cell phones in hand abruptly realize we’re a single mass and weave and bob by, there’s laughter, students call out to each other. Hey. Hey back. Polite nods at one another as we pass. A predictable stream switching classes.
– See more at: http://communityworksinstitute.org/cwjonline/essays/a_essaystext/vila_walking.html#sthash.sgHs1Ddr.dpuf
I don’t know how I got here. But I do know that what I do has meaning because it’s real—life and death. I’ve put myself inside a dead animal and extracted life out of it. And when I enter a classroom at Middlebury College, my only instinct is to reach for the students’ hearts because, after all, this is where life begins and ends. The farm is hopeful. Students are hopeful. The farm and the college are the same; they are fields that can be joyful if we’re true, honest, nurturing. The work is in moving aside the manure, using it for something better. That’s what I know to be true. That and death. In between there are choices; these depend on listening and experience. It’s not an intellectual exercise; that comes after all else is exhausted. – Read more of On Being: Something Grand and Strong @ Community Works Journal …
I’m often asked what I do for a living. “I’m a teacher of writing,” I say. That’s what it’s turned out to be. There’s a freshness that arrives when you know what you are, who you are. My wife, Nina, chimes in: Why don’t you ever say you’re a professor?
The culture is large and powerful, and always challenging notions of who you think you are. In New York City Public colleges and universities, and in New Jersey’s, I was Doctor. Doctor Vila. Too presumptuous, but I learned essential in a world where signification builds street cred. In urban educational environments the code of the streets applies.
In private schools, Professor is customary, a softer adjective that marks a rise, for the student and the teacher, in an invisible but powerful hierarchy of knowledge we assume can only be held in the hands of right-minded apostles. These heralds hold the rank of Professor. Professor is a place in the culture; an event, the donning of colorful robes that signify the anointed. In my mind, I’m far from that. Just the opposite. I tend to work as a counter weight to the significance afforded these distinguished vestments…
– Read more at: Community Works Journal …
What is a memory? What is a memorial?
A memorial is something to preserver a memory – but of what?
The image on the left is the prophetic shot of Don DeLillo’s great novel, Underworld. Published in 1997, the Underworld was immediately recognized as one of the best American novels ever written – in fact, recently, viewed in the top 5. Post 9/11 readers by the droves were drawn, first, to the ominous cover, second, to the narrative’s harrowing picture of American culture, the world, and where we might find some semblance of hope – or not. Somewhere between our waste and commodification, we struggle for hope, for a better future. Peace, as DeLillo ends his novel.
The image on the right was just captured by my son, Carlos, a professional photographer living in Brooklyn, NY. In many ways, Carlos’ image is also a memorial – to the days of DeLillo picture, to the harrowing events of 9/11, and to our current malaise and sense of hope and vulnerability.
Carlos’ image is very much a vulnerable one: will we experience 9/11 again? Given the conditions in our world, are we, like this image, in a fog we can’t get out of? Is this a memorial to a time we’ll never get back, yet we hope for something more?
I’ve been talking to other teachers, conducting workshops on teaching, and the notion of “influence” has come up: Why do we teach the way we do? What enters into our pedagogy? Who are the unseen forces that stand with us in classrooms? Teacher’s voices are hardly ever heard; we are never really considered in all this chatter about education reform. I’d argue that we need to have more teachers speak; we need more teaching voices telling their stories. To that end, I submit to you “Out of Life, Out of the Past,” which is the third chapter of my book, Life-Affirming Acts: Education as Transformation in the Writing Classroom.
If you’re a teacher – or you remember teachers – and are so moved to tell your story, please use the “Comment” feature here and we’ll compile these … Thank you.
It’s inescapable that when we speak about education we speak about pedagogy. And when we speak about pedagogy, we actually never speak about pedagogy at all—that is to say, never in meaningful and significant ways. Instead, the language around the method and practice of teaching is rife with utopian aspirations, anxiety and discontent.
Thus is pedagogy’s paradox. Or to state it another way: pedagogy is a form and in this form there are at least three postulates that create its meaning, and our confusion and uneasiness, even displeasure, with education writ large. – Read More …
The most disconcerting lines in modern fiction, the opening of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, perfectly capture our condition, today; it’s what we’ve become: “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”
It’s the tone of the lines that gets to us; its matter of fact, almost as if half-expecting this metamorphosis; it’s as if becoming a “monstrous vermin” is not shocking. It simply is. To simply be means that it has always been; it’s not sudden, new, shocking.
“What happened to me?” thinks Samsa. “It was no dream,” he realizes. Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman, looks over to a table, on top of which he’s placed a picture of a young lady “done up in a fur hat and a fur boa” inside “a pretty gilt frame.” He has no one; he’s alone, fantasizing plastic dreams that will never come. Nothing is real; and the nothing that isn’t real is his life. The unreality is the reality. The illusion is what he’s living. Truth and illusion are interchangeable.
What’s real? asks Kafka.
Gregor Samsa tries – or rather, he thinks about going back to sleep, but can’t. In his present state he can’t sleep on his right side, which he prefers, because he “always rocked onto his back again” and could then still see his “squirming legs.”
If we turn away from something that is, does it cease existing? Is turning away possible, real, more real than the “squirming legs”?
Gregor Samsa can think of nothing else but the “grueling job” he has, “Day in, day out – on the road.” The reality that he’s a vermin is less important. Gregor Samsa, “a tool of the boss, without brains or backbone,” is more concerned with getting to work on time than he is about his new condition. Samsa is anxious about his responsibilities. Vermin or not, he’s not going to lose his job, his footing.
But is Samsa’s condition new? And is Samsa’s condition our very own? Kafka is telling us that Gregor Samsa’s acceptance of his “monstrous vermin” state is something long in the making. Acceptance of horror takes time to enter into a culture. It doesn’t happen over night.
In the opening scene of another Kafka piece, In the Penal Colony, examining a “remarkable piece of apparatus” to be used to kill a condemned man, we learn that the “condemned man looked like a submissive dog that one might have thought could be left to run free on the surrounding hills and would only need to be whistled for when the execution was due to begin.”
The dominion that builds gradually and unconsciously to the point that we don’t even notice our transformation into submissive subjects – vermin, the condemned- is key to understanding Kafka – and ourselves.
In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a “hot” book everyone seems to be talking about, though quite clearly chewing at the edges – as Gregor Samsa does when he experiences his altered state – Thomas Piketty says, “…that the dynamics of wealth distribution reveal powerful mechanisms pushing alternately toward convergence and divergence. Furthermore, there is no natural, spontaneous process to prevent destabilizing, inegalitarian forces from prevailing permanently.”
Our systems push and pull; merge and deviate, detour; and there’s no “natural, spontaneous process” to prevent damaging and undermining, undemocratic forces from, eventually, reigning. In other words, we’ve awakened into a state – as in a dream – we have a hard time understanding, never mind getting at the root causes of why we’re here.
So what do we do?
We accept. We’ve authorized – a nice word for this – the move toward the ongoing merger of financial and military spheres that diminish our authority, for instance; we’ve approved the move away from a substantive global democracy; we’ve endorsed the humanization of the corporation. In all this, we’ve established our de-humanization. We prefer not noticing.
The deaths of Gandolfini, Hoffman and Williams, for starters, suggest that even at the highest socio-economic levels we don’t understand suffering; we don’t understand the conditions in our lives that may cause us stress and harm; we don’t understand how we might help one another, collaborating and cooperating, sometimes across differences, which is the only way to prevent becoming Gregor Samsa. We seem to be okay letting people go – or at least, okay that this is how things go.
Iraq, ISIS, Syria, and the horror that was the murder of journalist James Foley are characteristic of an age that has grown cold, unsensual, dismissive and callous. It’s hard to argue against this. It is a world that – it should be obvious by now – looks to the short term rather than the long view. And compressing all experience into tight, corporate mediated narratives that leave no room for questions and dialog. Iraq, ISIS, Syria and James Foley are horrible unintended consequences of a world – like Kafka’s – where the gruesome apparatus for death is a machine we just have to look at; “it works all by itself,” Kafka writes. We approve that the mechanisms of death work by themselves.
The rise of evil and violence is directly related to our incapacity to engage our world – and each person in it – in ways that address our interconnectedness – because, as Don DeLillo says in Underworld, everything is indeed connected. There’s no escaping this fact. The murderers that ended James Foley’s promising life know this; 9-11 was all about the relationship between blindness and interconnectedness, something we still yet deny. Disconnected people, cultures, societies react – they have to.
Ferguson, for instance, appears to us as a shocking reminder that we are not a post racial America; yet we can’t seem to find the language to try and understand the piercing reality that Ferguson has been festering for quite some time, and it’s been smoldering across our land. People in Ferguson – and many, many places in the US – are feeling very disconnected. Ferguson is a sign. We could move towards greater freedoms or we could move towards greater oppression.
Unobstructed mechanisms work to ensure that this is how we live: Propaganda and Ideology. They work in tandem. One needs the other.
Propaganda, says Jacques Ellul, “is scientific in that it tends to establish a set of rules, rigorous, precise, and tested, that are not merely recipes but impose themselves on every propagandist, who is less and less free to follow his own impulses. He must apply, increasingly and exactly, certain precise formulas that can be applied by anybody with the proper training – clearly a characteristic of a technique based on science” (Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes). This happens by analyzing environments and individuals; it’s thought through. And it works in business, as well as in government, affecting political speech, for instance. A key characteristic of propaganda is that “the individual,” says Ellul, “is never considered as an individual, but always in terms of what he has in common with others, such as his motivations, his feelings, or his myths.” A key characteristic of popular media – the assumption that we’re all one.
Enter Ideology. An ideological apparatus or mechanism in any given culture works by ensuring that each individual see himself as an other, as with others. In other words, one’s individualism, through a propaganda model set in an ideology, say grounded in capitalism, is used to actually justify what Slavoj Žižek calls a “vast anonymous power” that works unconstrained, “without any democratic control” and which regulates our lives (Demanding the Impossible).
What has happened?
How we measure balance, virtue, truth has changed; our very measures of what is extreme have changed. When we look around – Gandolfini, Hoffman, Williams, James Foley, Iraq, ISIS, Syria and Ferguson – we fully realize that these are extremes. But, like Gregor Samsa, these are metaphors, today, of the hard shell we wear and that keeps us from moving as we might like; and like Samsa, when we begin to feel “a slight, dull pain,” something we’ve never felt before, we think about our grueling jobs, the challenges of just getting to work on time, not losing time, not losing our step in the illusory game of our own private enterprise to succeed. And go to happy hour or rush to ESPN.
The long-run evolution of capital, I’d argue, has lead to our awakening in a vermin state, though like Gregor Samsa, we half expected it so we rush to social media, we rush to screens and rapid fire texting and calls to check on one another, not saying anything meaningful, mind you, just merely acknowledging that we’re alive amidst all this pain and suffering we’ve allowed to grow and flourish, and which, sadly, we accept as ongoing.
A great darkness hangs over us now.
Rebecca Solnit ends her letter, (though it was published, online, in The Guardian, on October 15, 2012, I’ve just run into it and find it – still – relevant for many reasons, which I’ll try to capture here), by saying the following :
There are really only two questions for activists: what do you want to achieve? And who do you want to be? And those two questions are deeply entwined. Every minute of every hour of every day you are making the world, just as you are making yourself, and you might as well do it with generosity and kindness and style. That is the small ongoing victory on which great victories can be built, and you do want victories, don’t you? Make sure you’re clear on the answer to that, and think about what they would look like.
Solnit also says:
There is idealism somewhere under this pile of bile, the pernicious idealism that wants the world to be perfect and is disgruntled that it isn’t – and that it never will be. That’s why the perfect is the enemy of the good. Because, really, people, part of how we are going to thrive in this imperfect moment is through élan, esprit de corps, fierce hope and generous hearts.
Solnit is, for me anyway, trying to channel, (to some extent and falling dramatically short), Slavoj Žižek, the Slovanian Marxist philosopher, psychoanalist, and cultural critic. (To directly cite Žižek would be disastrous for her, I’m sure.) Read more …
In his column, Order vs. Disorder, Part 2, Thomas L. Friedman, of The New York Times, says that, “The Israeli-Arab conflict has become a miniature of the most relevant divide in the world today: the divide between the ‘world of order’ and the ‘world of disorder.’
Friedman’s muse for his sense of order and disorder as defining our world, and reaching back into his Part 1, The World According to Maxwell Smart, which I wrote about here, is Wallace Stevens‘ Connoisseur of Chaos :
A. A violent order is disorder; and
B. A great disorder is an order. These
Two things are one. (Pages of Illustrations)
Stevens sees this as “the pretty contrast of life and death” which “Proves that these opposite things partake of one,/At least that was the theory when bishops’ books/Resolved the world. We cannot go back to that.” Yet even Steven concedes – and this is what I think Friedman misses completely and thus stops short in his analysis – that, “The squirming facts exceed the squamous mind.”
We bump along with minds indeed covered by scales, squamae. Thus we protect our vistas from penetrating horrors; but we’re also prevented from reaching beyond the accepted notion that we live in a world defined by order vs. disorder. “The squirming facts” escape us; we view the world without concern for history or historical development. Our ahistorical reality is caused by the role ideology plays in our confusion.
Friedman acknowledges this confusion, a world, then, of contradictions – which we accept, that we see as normal and amidst cries of horror, we turn away:
Israel faces nonstate actors in civilian clothes, armed with homemade rockets and drones, nested among civilians on four of its five borders: Sinai, Gaza, Lebanon and Syria. And what is most striking about this play is that the traditional means of bringing order seem ineffective. Israel, a mini-superpower, keeps pummeling the ragtag Islamist militias in Gaza with its modern air force, but the superempowered Palestinian militants, leveraging cheap high-tech tools, keep coming back with homemade rockets and even a homemade drone. You used to need a contract with Boeing to get a drone. Now you can make one in Gaza.
Nothing is, in Friedman’s mind, as it should be – “the traditional means of bringing order seem ineffective.”
We see this same confusion – or uncanny consternation – when looking in on the Russia vs. Ukraine, NATO, and Western ideology debacle. We also see this in the Ebola Crisis where now, 2 Americans infected with the virus are heading to Atlanta – the first Americans to be treated of this virus in the States.
What’s going on? What’s lead to a world, in Friedman’s critique, that’s arranged as a destructive binary, order vs. disorder?
“When all the old means of top-down control are decreasingly available or increasingly expensive (in a world of strong people and strong technologies, being a strongman isn’t what it used to be),” argues Friedman, “leaders and their people are going to eventually have to embrace a new, more sustainable source of order that emerges from the bottom up and is built on shared power, values and trust.”
He’s wrong, of course. He’s merely supplanting one ideology for another that, if we look a little deeper into language such as “new, more sustainable sources of order” and that romantically “emerges from the bottom up” and “built on shared power, values and trust,” we see the expected, the politically correct, neoliberal viewpoint that is meant to uphold the current balance – and imbalance – of power by gesturing almost comically to the way things are, which is the world we’ve had a hand in creating. Friedman’s rather comical, even cartoonish solution is also part of the problem because it fails to see the real.
“What to do?” as Friedman asks.
We need to go deeper; we need to dig further, inquiring into our current incapacity to use language to describe what we are and who we are, and why we fall, as Friedman does, into cliché – or bad poetry.
We can begin this inquiry by turning to Stevens, again, and jumping off from here:
A great disorder is an order. Now, A
And B are not like statuary, posed
For a vista in the Louvre. They are things chalked
On the sidewalk so that the pensive man may see.
The pensive man … He see that eagle float
For which the intricate Alps are a single nest.
Friedman feigns the “pensive man,” but he’s concerned only with the surface structure of things, an analysis solely of the spectacle. In fact, it is about the spectacle, only; it is the most important reality in our lives because it synthesizes our mysteries, our crises, and our solutions, too. The spectacle, in fact, is hope – the greatest and most profound fallacy. And Friedman is one of the analysts – and mouthpieces – for the ruling ideology of the day that is essential for buttressing the spectacle, arguing, first, that there is a problem – order vs. disorder – and then dissimulating a solution, a “more sustainable source of order that emerges from the bottom up and is built on shared power, values and trust,” which is delivered to us as if it’s viable, though confounding: “Leadership will be about how to cultivate that kind of order. Yes, yes. I know that sounds impossibly hard. But when isolated Gazans can make their own drones, order doesn’t come easy anymore.”
In the spectacle, we are always told – and must embrace – the notion that things are bad and that solutions, the viable ones, are difficult, and because of these difficulties nearly unreachable. The spectacle, then, is a dream – a dreamscape; a place where dreams and nightmares live together.
Infusing this ideology are several gestures that are systemically well organized, so much so that we accept these ideas – and methods – unconsciously; we are thus indoctrinated into a fallacy built on binaries, a vital component of the spectacle: 1. there are a multitude of critical, almost unsolvable problems warring with each other; 2. these crises are both unacceptable but normal; and what’s normal is suffering since not all crises can be addressed – it’s the way of the world, the acceptance of brutality; 3. there are reasonable ways through the crises; 4. these are dependent upon an order that comes through the hierarchical value systems delivered to us from our most powerful institutions – government, finance and its marriage with the military and education.
For Stevens, only the “pensive man” can see this; only we live in a time where compression of experience is essential for maintaining and ensuring our understanding of an order that requires our acceptance of the binary, order vs. disorder. The “pensive man” is obsolete – and if not, then he’s overly romanticized to the point that he’s rendered helpless. This is how ideologies function.
Ideologies are the destructive force of civilization; they blind and bind; they keep us from seeing “that single eagle float.” Ideologies give us an artificial view of the world; give us a prescribed language; and in this artificiality, the only real thing that can exist is materialism as hope and value. This is where the corporation comes in, the major engine behind the spectacle.
As John Ralston Saul says in The Unconscious Civilization, we are a society addicted to ideologies. The most dominant ideology is “corporatism.” “The result,” argues Saul, “is a growing imbalance which leads to our adoration of self-interest and our denial of the public good.”
Now, look again at Friedman’s Israeli-Arab conflagration; look again at Russia vs. the Western world, Ukraine as the vessel; look again at the Ebola crisis, the result of this gross imbalance brought about by ideologies consistent with plunder. In short, we live in a symbolic ordering of our world – and our crises – that point in two directions simultaneously: a disordering, a dissolving of our conditions, and likewise a possible rebuilding that’s based on commodity culture, global capitalism, the edification of systems of power that marry finance, the military and education. In essence, and following Slavoj Žižek, “the main point is to see how the reality itself cannot reproduce itself without this so-called ideological mystification.”
That’s Friedman’s solution – and his take on the Israeli-Arab crisis – “ideological mystification”; that’s why, in his own words, his solution “sounds impossibly hard,” which then requires a mystifying, and accepted, cliché, a gesture towards the incapacity of escaping our ruling ideology-creating apparatus, “order doesn’t come easy anymore.”
The world we have today is not a binary, order vs. disorder, wrongly argued by Friedman. It’s a world of little knowledge and, not vs., a world of even less knowledge, all of it hanging by a thread – yet complacent – in the animated, antiseptic and artificial spectacle we call the real.
In his opinion piece, “The World According to Maxwell Smart, Part 1,” Thomas L. Friedman, who is someone I enjoy reading, because I learn, though I don’t necessarily agree with him all the time, says the following:
You can’t understand the spread of ISIS or the Arab Spring without the relentless advance in computing and telecom — Moore’s Law — creating so many cheap command-and-control Internet tools that superempower small groups to recruit adherents, challenge existing states and erase borders. In a flat world, people can see faster than ever how far behind they are and organize faster than ever to protest. When technology penetrates more quickly than wealth and opportunity, watch out.
The combined pressures of the market, Mother Nature and Moore’s Law are creating the geopolitical equivalent of climate change, argues Michael Mandelbaum, author of “The Road to Global Prosperity,” and “some familiar species of government can’t survive the stress.”
In other words, as I, myself, argued recently in “How Fútbol (not soccer) Explains the World – If Not How it Explains Immigración En EEUU (USA),” we are losing borders – they’re murky at best – and money is not restricted by man-made demarcations, just the opposite is true:
Immigrants and multinational corporations follow the flow of money; it provides hope and potential – a future. The flow of capital knows no boundaries – everyone, especially people suffering in different parts of the world, know this. We, “the EEUU,” (after all North, South and Central Americans are ALL AMERICANS), have a hand in creating possibilities, as well as destruction…
The point is this: when it suits us, we’ll cross any border; we’ll invade; we’ll destroy. Immigrants, witnessing this way of being, follow suit – then we prosecute them.
Friedman is interested in showing how complex – and interconnected – our world order (and chaos) really are; that blaming Obama, though there’s plenty to criticize here, fails to see the challenges we face; and, that there are “huge forces acting in these countries, and it will take extraordinary collaboration by the whole world of order to contain them,” the promised subject of Friedman’s Wednesday’s column.
In order to emphasize this point – again and again and again – I’ll use two authors I frequently turn to on this subject (sorry, again and again for repeating the always already obvious – that which we turn away from): Edward W. Said and Homi K. Bhabha, two professors experts on this subject.
Here’s Bhabha, from his now essential The Location of Culture, which I’ve used before in these pages, but needs repeating:
Our existence today is marked by a tenebrous sense of survival, living on the borderlines of the ‘present’, for which there seems to be no proper name other than the current and controversial shiftiness of the prefix ‘post': postmodernism, postcolonialism, postfeminism
…Beginnings and endings may be the sustaining myths of the middle years; but … we find ourselves in the moment of transit where space and time cross to produce complex figures of differences and identity, past and present, inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion.
Friedman’s “figures of difference” are the likes of Boko Haram and ISIS, for instance. Friedman adds:
NATO decapitates Libya’s regime and sets loose a tribal-militia war of all against all, which, when combined with the crackup of Chad, spills arms and refugees across African borders, threatening Tunisia and Morocco. Israel has been flooded with more than 50,000 Eritreans and Sudanese refugees, who crossed the Sinai Desert by foot, bus or car looking for work and security in Israel’s “island of order.”
And, just since October, the U.S. has been flooded with more than 50,000 unaccompanied children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.”
In other words, the compression and extensions of globalization are producing frightening figures, great violence and a dispersal of people. The world is, indeed, borderless; these are simply man-made construction that are continuously being pushed aside. This, in turn, is producing a world in which many have to live in dehumanizing exile.
Said is best here:
Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement. The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever.
Said’s first line says it all, defining the world Bhabha so eloquently describes as “tenebrous” because, in fact, it is “on the borderlines.” Exile, then, is a terrible experience that permanently houses an individual in the “unhealable” space of in-between, between “a human being and a native place, between self and its true home.”
The exiles we create – and we do have a hand in creating exiles, all of us do; responsibility for our world is all of ours – are forever lodged in a suffering place all because we cannot seem to understand that incredible false sense of borders and demarcations we’ve given the Other – those we don’t want to acknowledge, those that are different, and always will be, those that ask us to reconsider our privileged vistas, our biases and prejudices.
As I write, we’re amidst the NBA Free Agency Period, 2014: Carmelo Anthony is touring Chicago, Houston, Dallas and Los Angeles (where he, too, has a home), while still holding on to the Knicks – at least on paper; the Houston Rockets have “ramped up their pursuit of Chris Bosh”; and King James is on vacation while his agent contemplates offers.
“Who owns this body, this body of work?” Indeed.
Answer: “Networks televise the game. Advertisers buy the games. Fans support the games. Players are the game (italics mine).” Rhoden, consistent with his seminal work, Forty-Million Dollar Slaves, continues:
Anthony should keep that in mind and not accept a nickel less than he feels he is worth. Athletes are conditioned early on to feel grateful to be on the team. The reality is that their schools, and, later, their franchises, depend on the athletes to have a program. Athletes are the show.
If the Knicks ask Anthony to take a pay cut, or when Pat Riley appeals to James’s sense of loyalty, the Clippers’ pending sale should be a glowing reminder to say no.
In an often coldblooded industry focused on the bottom line, players still invariably lead with their hearts, often to their detriment. The new rules of engagement should be, simply, money first.
Who owns the body – and the game? Players.
This a decisive moment in the business of sports, particularly the NBA. For us, the fans, the spectators of the modern age, we began to see this change with “The Decision,” LeBron’s move to Miami, which, says Rhoden, “showed how valuable he was not just to his team but to an entire region, with Cleveland’s economy seeming to take a hit.”
We’ve seen this kind of thing when Tiger Woods plays golf – or doesn’t and TV ratings take a hit; we see this in tennis, too, when the Williams sisters cherry pick which tournaments to play, unlike any other player on the tour, including the top names.
We saw this in the great Muhammad Ali who, says Rhoden in Forty-Million Dollar Slaves, “brought home the concept of principle, that there was something greater in life than wealth, though wealth has its place; something greater in life than fame, though fame has its place. And he taught [me] that in the right hands wealth and fame, the fruits of athletic success, could be used as a tool in the ongoing struggle.”
This is where we are – an ongoing, historical process. We’re fixated on tweets and on headlines, going back and forth between salary caps, salary commitments, how much is this guy or that guy leaving behind, but failing to see that we’re moving into uncharted territory where ownership of the game, by star players, is dominating.
The Decision II – yet to be made as of this writing – will put a hole through the old plantation model. What commentary is missing, but, I think, management realizes, is that, “the history of African American survival in the United States is the history of teamwork and a history of individual expression within the context of the larger group,” as Rhoden tells us.
We’re witnessing an unprecedented amount of teamwork – at the business level; in turn, the business of basketball is showing how powerful these great players really are. I agree, these players own the game. They’re moving into ownership without knocking on doors – something Michael Jordan tried with the Wizards in 2000 and was rejected, even fired; they’re simply walking through, commanding leadership roles that will determine the future of the game.
When John Oliver took on the broken immigration system on his HBO show, Last Week Tonight, calling it the universal crazy maker and saying that it’s great here, so how can people be blamed for wanting to live in the USA, carefully explaining right-wing fallacies, he never touched on how fútbol and The World Cup of the beautiful game actually explain how totally ironic – and extremist – the immigration fiasco is in America.
Oliver says that many people who would like to see a change in our doctrinaire immigration policies are “drowned out by a lot of opinions unsupported by documentation.” These “undocumented opinions,” says Oliver, need a “fence of facts” around them to protect us. One such “undocumented opinion,” which is not true but “feels like it might be,” he says, is the notion that undocumented workers are here to take jobs from Americans. The American Enterprise Institute, for instance, a private, conservative, not-for-profit institute, says that there is no evidence that undocumented workers are taking jobs from Americans. Let me repeat: this is coming from a conservative institute about “Freedom. Opportunity. Enterprise” (the periods theirs). John R. Bolton is a resident scholar, as is Lynn V. Cheney. Get the drift? Okay, so let’s go a bit further and follow the American Enterprise Institute’s thinking in their own words:
Even among less-skilled workers, Americans and immigrants tend to work in different fields. Low-skilled Americans are twice as likely as low-skilled immigrants to work in offices or administrative support jobs. They’re also twice as likely as immigrants to work in sales. In contrast, low-skilled immigrants are three times more likely than low-skilled Americans to fill farming, fishing and forestry jobs.
And they’re more likely to be in those office buildings cleaning and removing garbage. It gets better yet:
Less-skilled Americans work in difficult conditions – outdoors, on their feet, in jobs that require repetitive motion and expose them to contaminants. But less-skilled immigrants work in jobs that are even dirtier, more dangerous and more difficult.
Immigrants are not smuggling drugs either, another undocumented opinion; they don’t add to crime. And Obama, by addressing the immigration issue, is not trying to make sure that the Republicans never win the White House, as Michele Bachmann contends.
John Oliver’s solution: What if you just tried treating them better... Maybe as if they’re human beings who might hypothetically contribute something.
Fútbol has embraced John Oliver’s idea – fully. Even the US National Team abides. You see, fútbol tells us another story – it has for years, only nobody calls attention to it. Fútbol is an example of where societies will go – or need to go.
The fútbol story is about how different people, from different nationalities, collaborate; it’s about how globalization works; how money floats to where there is least resistance; how multinational corporations look for smooth, quiet rides into areas of least resistance, cross borders and blur boundaries and speak a totally different language than that spoken in Washington D. C.’s inner sanctum of confusion.
In his book, How Soccer Explains the World, Franklin Foer, says that, “You could see globalization on the pitch: During the nineties, Basque teams, under the stewardship of Welsh coaches, stocked up on Dutch and Turkish players; Moldavian squads imported Nigerians. Everywhere you looked, it suddenly seemed, national borders and national identities had been swept into the dustbin of soccer history.” Foer cites Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, to show how the beautiful game follows the premise of globalization: “The inexorable integration of markets, nation-states and technologies to a degree never witnessed before – in a way that is enabling individuals, corporations and nation-states to reach around the world farther, faster, deeper and cheaper than ever before.” Fútbol, like global markets, is a world-flattening enterprise that confounds boundary-making. The only boundaries that matter are evident only on the pitch; creativity is what gets you through – in 90 minutes. To win, then, we do anything, even push through warring ideologies and national debates. That’s one of the beauties of the game today.
Evidence of this is overwhelming. We need to look no further than the great commercials airing during the 2014 World Cup ,Oliver Stone’s commercial, which teams him up with Rodrigo Prieto, the Mexican cinematographer and, of course, the US National Team to understand how truly bigoted, misinformed, costly and inhumane US immigration policy is.
The commercials are easy; these represent the most notable multinational corporations in the world: Samsung, CocaCola, Verizon, AT&T, Apple, Honda & Hyundai, Volkswagen & Mercedes, Yingli Green Energy Holding Co of China, and so on – the list is very, very long. Okay, more: Anheuser- Busch, Corona, Bacardi, McDonald’s. The point is that brands are seeking a global reach and they don’t care what language the message is in or where their customers are; companies expect their costumers to be everywhere. They’re not taking any chances and spending lots of money to ensure their reach. But the largest group of customers – and growing – is Spanish-speaking, many of who are in the USA.
(When Mexico beat Cameroon in a very dramatic game, at the end, cameras cut to Mexico City AND Los Angeles – the crowds nearly equal in size. This suggests that for stations covering the game – ABC, ESPN, Univision and Canadian TV and radio – it’s always already known that large numbers of Spanish speaking immigrants – legal and not so legal – reside in the USA; that these Spanish folks love the beautiful game, they’ll be caught up in it – and all the implications that come from mediated sports experiences – and find, hopefully, their products as alluring as the game, after all, spokespersons are Messi, Pepsi and creativity and community, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar , Rooney, Zlatan, Iniesta in the Nike Commercial 2014: The Last Game – risk everything – quite a message about living lives on the borders of existence, forgotten heroes returning as saviors.)
Immigrants and multinational corporations follow the flow of money; it provides hope and potential – a future. The flow of capital knows no boundaries – everyone, especially people suffering in different parts of the world, know this. We, “the EEUU,” (after all North, South and Central Americans are ALL AMERICANS), have a hand in creating possibilities, as well as destruction. Iraq comes quickly to mind where we’re now witnessing the devastation that evolved from the massive Bush-Cheney lie that is accepted as truth in neocon/neoliberal circles. We can go back to Iran – Contra, when senior administration officials in the Reagan Administration secretly facilitated the sale of arms to Iran, the subject of an arms embargo; and there are Gary Webb’s stories, in the San Jose Mercury News, which shaped his 1999 book Dark Alliance: The CIA, The Contras, and the Crack-Cocaine Explosion about the role of the CIA and the Department of Justice in cocaine trafficking in South Central Los Angeles. (On December 10, 2004, Gary Webb was found dead from two gunshot wounds to the head. Sacramento County coroner Robert Lyons ruled that it was suicide, noting that a suicide note was found at the scene. Two shots to the hit? How do you do that to yourself?)
“The major task,” says Edward Said in his essay Movement and Migrations (in Culture and Imperialism), “is to match the new economic and socio-political dislocations and configurations of our time with the startling realities of human interdependence on a world scale…But we need to go on and situate these in a geography of other identities, people, cultures, and then to study how, despite their differences, they have always overlapped one another, through unhierarchical influence, crossing, incorporation, and recollection, deliberate forgetfulness, and, of course, conflict…The fact is, we are mixed in with one another in ways that most national systems of education have not dreamed of. To match knowledge in the arts and sciences with these integrative realities is … the intellectual and cultural challenge of moment.”
The point is this: when it suits us, we’ll cross any border; we’ll invade; we’ll destroy. Immigrants, witnessing this way of being, follow suit – then we prosecute them. For instance, the children that are now crossing into the USA from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are doing so, less because of confusing rhetoric from the Obama Administration, and more because they are escaping horrific violence in their countries. We confuse everything. The rest of the story is that this fertile ground for killing, the drug cartels operating in these parts of the world, and the despair are remnants of our US involvement in Iran-Contra; these gangs, too, operate with impunity in the USA (see The Gangs of Garden City: How Immigration, Segregation and Youth Violence are Changing America’s Suburbs, please, a terrific study by Sarah Garland.).
What we perceive as the truth, isn’t. The world is upside down. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn once wrote, “Men, in order to do evil, must first believe that what they are doing is good.”
Truth, today, ironically, can be found in fútbol. Let’s take a look at the US National Team and let’s start with the manager, Jurgen Klinsmann, the great German striker who went on to coach the German National team 2004 -2006 (He faced his protégé on Thursday, June 26, 2014 – and lost 1-0). When games begin, we can see Klinsmann singing the US National Anthem as he presides over a team that’s half German. (Before the US vs Germany game, Klinsmann refused to answer questions in German.) One commentator called the game between Germany and the US the Germans vs the half Germans.
Jermaine Jones, for instance, who is still learning English, has lived for most of his life in Germany. The son of an American father and a German mother, born in Frankfurt, who lived in the US as a boy, moved to Germany when his parents separated. In 2008, he failed to make Germany’s squad for the European Championship. He surmised that his best chances to make it to the World Cup – and the grandest of all spectacles – was to use his dual citizenship and try out for the US National Team. His bet worked. He’s not the only one.
True, Jones and others on the team – Diskerud is from Norway; Chandler, also from Frankfurt, Germany; Johnson, Munich – are dual citizens; but the point is, just as we can’t stop cross-border, cross-cultural love, as in these cases, we can’t stop the flow of capital and the pursuit of happiness that today is synonymous with the pursuit of some sort of wealth.
Another poignant example is the French National Team. Here we see one of the best teams of this year’s World Cup – and the result of French Colonialism. This is what we learn from Europe, Sport, World: Shaping Global Societies, edited by J. A. Mangan:
The fact that France is currently the most
popular destination of African migrant footballers says much about the strength of the link between football migration from Africa to Europe and broader socio-economic processes associated with colonialism. The expropriation of African players to play their domestic and international football in France during the first half of the twentieth century can clearly be interpreted as an extension of France’s colonial policy of Gallicization or the assimilation of the local population into the citizenship of the motherland.
The result, in 2014, is an incredible French team. For the USA, it’s another version of Manifest Destiny, which justifies that we intervene in this or that aggression since World War Two; it also suggests, for us, that there is a “pure” American, which couldn’t be further from the truth since all Americans are Americans hyphen. Ironic, of course, since the San Antonio Spurs won the NBA title with two foreign players, Tony Parker, French, and Manu Ginóbili, Argentininian. But this is what we always do: look the other way when we need highly qualified foreign nationals, as we learn in The Real Odessa that tells the story of US involvement in smuggling German- Nazi scientists and engineers, through Argentina, Mercedes-Benz the proximity, with the help of Juan Perón, to come to the US to develop our military industrial complex. No one is clean; no one is innocent.
The real problem is how we’ve approached immigrants, accepting those we want, discarding those that will hold up, on bended backs, the world we want.
So where are we? What have we learned about this yet to be named nebulous period in our global history?
Let’s go back to John Oliver – What if you just tried treating them better... Maybe as if they’re human beings who might hypothetically contribute something.- we can see some solutions:
This is, in fact, the fútbol model. Let’s embrace what is already surely to happen and concentrate on what we know and not on “undocumented opinion” that does nothing but keep us apart.
Part 2 of What Matters in Education? has been published by the Community Works Journal, which supports teaching practices that build community. They’ve been around since 1995. The original title for my piece was “An Unrealistic Proposal.” Now it’s “Considering Technology and the School Experience” (I added the unrealistic bit for this blog).
I. An Unrealistic Proposal
Let’s think BIG: The moral imperative is to focus the K-12 curriculum of tomorrow on 2 large areas: Health and the Environment. End of story.
Health and the Environment is a rich, complex, overarching curriculum that covers history and philosophy, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and all forms of literature and the arts, as well as sociology, economics and political science; it covers the classics (is not Plato about health and the environment – literally and symbolically?). This curriculum connects “learning to social change and fosters modes of critical agency through which people assume responsibility for each other”; morality and ethics are the driving engines.
Our health and the health of the planet are our greatest challenges, but just as significantly surely to affect generations to come if we don’t act now, creatively and with force. A curriculum focused on Health and the Environment is about a long view, not tomorrow’s standardized test scores; it disrupts the move towards authoritarianism.
This curriculum can only be created by a meaningful K-16 collaboration that enables “education hubs” to emerge nation-wide: interdisciplinary centers of study focused on children, first and foremost, with appropriate teachers and mentors, counselors, and medical care up and down the system. Secondly, this new system privileges experiential learning: how to put into practice ideas and theories; how to test what we perceive; how to step away, reflect and describe what we’re doing and how what we’ve accomplished may affect the future.
Necessity is an evil, but there is no necessity to live under the control of necessity.
A new Gallup-Purdue study that looks at links among college, work, and well-being has generated a lot of conversation – in and out of the academy. Much of the chatter is about some of the study’s top findings: 63% of the students said that they “had at least one professor at [College] who [excited them ] about learning”; 27% found that their professors cared about them as a person; 22% found a mentor that encouraged them about pursuing goals and dreams.
Most notably, “The study found that the type of schools these college graduates attended — public or private, small or large, very selective or less selective — hardly matters at all to their workplace engagement and current well-being. Just as many graduates of public colleges as graduates of not-for-profit private colleges are engaged at work — meaning they are deeply involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work. And just as many graduates of public as not-for-profit private institutions are thriving — which Gallup defines as strong, consistent, and progressing — in all areas of their well-being.”
“The report,” says Charles M. Blow of The New York Times, “has a strong message for students who are asking about which school to attend, for employers who are deciding which people to hire and for colleges that are negotiating their curriculums.”
Google agrees. “Google’s head of people operations Laszlo Bock told the New York Times that top graduates can lack “intellectual humility,” and that schools frequently don’t deliver on what they promise”:
A new Gallup survey finds that in hiring decisions, only 9% of business leaders say that the school on a candidate’s diploma is “very important,” compared to 84% assessing knowledge in the field and 79% looking at applied skills.+
The challenge, of course, is that higher education mirrors our socio-economic system. And we embrace that, instead, and shy away from whatever Google and Gallup are suggesting. This is because, as reported in Quartz, “School rankings have been found to matter when it comes to pay, an effect which rises over time. Graduates of elite private schools in particular get paid more according to a report from the Century Foundation (pdf). Elite industries like professional services and finance put more weight on top schools in hiring decisions.”
We need not go far to prove this. Let’s look at the distribution of faculty salaries. Reporting for the Huffington Post, Tyler Kingkade, writes that,
The average pay for all types of professors, instructors and lecturers is $84,303 for the academic year 2012-13, but the report noted a big difference between public and private colleges. At public institutions, the average is $80,578, while at private schools, it’s $99,771.For a full professor, the average salary at a private university this year is $139,620, a notable hike over the average $110,143 at public colleges, and that difference has been growing. This public-private gap has increased from 18 percent in 2004 to 24 percent in 2013, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
These disparities help create a provocative narrative: it does matter where you go to school – even though you may not get a single soul to pay attention to you at the most elite institutions.
The Gallup-Purdue study calls into question our ruling narrative about the value we place on an institution’s brand versus the care an institution may give individual students, their dreams and their needs.
It’s what goes on inside, behind the hallowed ivy, that counts and not how significant – and marketable – the brand is.
It’s not difficult to see how celebrity culture has a hand in this, too. The narrative concerning the significance of one school over another is manipulated by the tools of advertising and management rather than by what data – and reality – tend to show. We have celebrity schools to go along with our celebrity mindset. It’s not surprising, then, to see how much the University has been totally transformed into yet another corporation that comes with its own story – and is never to be questioned.
“The corporation has the power to determine identity,” writes Chris Hedges in Empire of Illusion. “The corporations tell us who we are and what we can become. And the corporations offer the only route to personal fulfillment and salvation. If we are not happy there is something wrong with us [italics Hedges]. Debate and criticism, especially about the goals and the structure of the corporation, are condemned as negative and ‘counterproductive.'”
We see this model stretching from government to the private sector to education. Don’t be counterproductive. Go along.
In another view of academia, a survey done at U.C.L.A. that looks at shifts in our culture over time, according to David Brooks of The New York Times, says that values have changed. “In 1966, only 42 percent of freshmen said that being well-off financially was an essential or very important life goal. By 2005, 75 percent of students said being well-off financially was essential or very important. Affluence, once a middling value, is now tied as students’ top life goal.”
It’s not surprising that professional admissions coaches and special tutors have become critical for gaining entrance to top schools – and we know who can afford this luxury. We’ve created a race – an anxiety filled race, says Brooks:
As the drive to compete intensifies, other things get streamlined away. In 1966, 86 percent of college freshmen said that developing a meaningful philosophy of life was essential or very important. Today, less than half say a meaningful philosophy of life is that important. University of Michigan studies suggest that today’s students score about 40 percent lower in measures of empathy than students did 30 years ago.
Epicurus’s necessity is now synonymous with affluence - we can’t seem to break from it. If we are creating a world that is less empathetic – and doing so by introducing a mindless competitive model that makes commodities (read slaves) of us all – then we’re definitely creating a world where Evil has found its niche. I’m moved by Epicurus these days – and here’s something else that fits our age: No one when he sees evil deliberately chooses it, but is enticed by it as being good in comparison with a greater evil and so pursues it.
Isn’t this where where we find ourselves today?
As of 2012, the last year we have of available data pertaining to the College where I teach, Middlebury, the most popular major (10%) was Economics – it still remains so. Students I see in this major have one goal: Wall Street and gold. According to the Princeton Review, of the top 10 majors, the top three are Business Administration and Management/Commerce, Psychology and Nursing. Economics ranks a surprising 7, after English Language and Literature, Education and Biology/Biological Science. Accordingly, English is one of the two top majors for gaining entrance into law school; the other is Political Science. And Catherine Rampnell, of The New York Times, in “The College Majors That Do Best in the Job Market,” says that the major that “produced the most graduates in jobs that required degrees was education and teaching; 71.1 percent of this discipline’s alumni had jobs for which a bachelor’s was a prerequisite.:” Yes, many graduates go on to teach – but education is under attack and not hiring as it once did; however, many do not enter teaching, suggesting that education studies makes for great job training – students are organized, can work within tight time parameters, and communicate effectively.
Being an efficient undergraduate that develops a picture of “success” is therefore key; demonstrating that nothing has been “wasted” while in college is important. Not much else matters; the competition is fierce.
“I’m not sure if students really are less empathetic, or less interested in having meaning in their lives,” writes Brooks, “but it has become more socially acceptable to present yourself that way. In the shadow of this more Darwinian job market, it is more acceptable to present yourself as utilitarian, streamlined and success-oriented.
I’m not so sure that Brooks’ use of Darwin is correct, particularly following Edward O. Wilson’s quite cogent argument, in The Social Conquest of the Earth, that societies evolve in direct relationship to their capacity to embrace altruism, the unselfish concern for or a devotion to the welfare of others:
…human groups are formed of highly flexible alliances, not just among family members but between families, genders, classes, and tribes. The bonding is based on cooperation among individuals or groups who know one another and are capable of distributing ownership and status on a personal basis. The necessity for fine-graded evaluation by alliance members meant that the prehuman ancestors had to achieve eusociality in a radically different way from the instinct-driven insects. The pathway to eusociality was charted by a contest between selection based on the relative success of individuals within groups versus relative success among groups. The strategies of this game were written as a complicated mix of closely calibrated altruism, cooperation, competition, domination, reciprocity, defection, and deceit.
Empathy is key. But we’ve turned away from the characteristics of meaningful evolution and focused our attention solely on domination and competition – not altruism, cooperation and reciprocity. Eusociality is a balance, a dance we don’t now enjoy.
Presenting yourself as “utilitarian, streamlined and success-oriented” (here meaning: profitable), leads to the commodification of the self, but of experience too. Which is to say that we are headed totally in the opposite direction – a straight line to damnation.
What matters for me is that Education, which I’ve been a part of for nearly 30 years, has had a very strong hand in ensuring that this model goes unquestioned. The utilitarian, streamlined and success-oriented model says that we have bought hook, line and sinker into the idea that education is about training and monetary success. Learning to think critically and to question – given plenty of lip service – are nowhere to be found in our actions.
What matters to us most?
In Part 2 of What Matters in Education? I will describe an education model for a renewed commonwealth.
Had fantastic news this morning from Joe Brooks of the Community Works Institute & Journal: I’ve been selected to be one of the four “Regular Contributors.”
Joe and the Journal re-published my Final:Lost in the Funhouse after viewing it on my blog. Truly and honor – and humbling. Here’s a link to my new page in the Community Works Journal (yes, I agree with my wife, Nina: I have to do something about that picture, taken in Paris two years ago in front of the Opéra National de Paris.).
NOTE: A word about the “Final” in my title: this refers to my final posting for our little experiment, Getting Lost (I wrote 8 pieces for this trial and don’t see the need to write more).
Thank you all, readers, for your continued support – and patience…
Sometimes gaining and losing are more intimately related than we like to think. And some things cannot be moved or owned. Some light does not make it all the way through the atmosphere, but scatters.
I have a simple job. I’m a teacher. Yes, believe it or not. It’s simple. Very. That’s right.
To Teach: to show or point out; to present or offer a view.
To show what? Point out what? Present and offer what?
The answer is the simple part: the heart. To show and to point out, to present and offer the heart of the matter; often this matter is in a text such as Solnit’s: “Sometimes gaining and losing are more intimately related than we think”; that “some light does not make it all the way through the atmosphere, but scatters.”
We can lose something, even painfully so, and gain by it too – a terrible beauty is born, writes Yeats in Easter 1916. And when light scatters about – but particles – it’s very difficult to find the meaning in the loss that will release us from the guilt of gaining.
Too long a sacrifice/Can make a stone of the heart./O When may it suffice? wonders Yeats. Indeed.
Most times the heart is the student’s a teacher aims for – compassion, empathy, understanding and, most of all, full spectrum realization. And yet other times it’s my own that I’m reaching for trying to connect my heart to the student’s.
But the simple act of teaching is challenged: In this world, one where light scatters, “The present state,” says Guy Debord in The Society of the Spectacle “in which social life is completely taken over by the accumulated products of the economy, entails a generalized shift from having to appearing: all the effective ‘having’ must now derive both its immediate prestige and its ultimate raison d’être from appearance.”
Appearance: the action of coming forward into view or becoming visible (c.1400-1869); the action of coming before the world or the public in any character (c 1671-1880); that which appears without material; a phantom or apparition (c. 1488-1834); money paid to a (leading) sportsman or sportswoman for participating in an event (1977-1981).
The privileged place of Appearance makes any straightforward attempt to reach for the heart a challenge because the mere materialization of social power, which has assumed a social character and makes individuals dependent on it, transforms, into real beings, images, figments and behavior. Illusion becomes the norm, how we experience the world – and each other. No truth evident here. Nothing is real.
Instantly, teaching becomes difficult; it becomes complex, challenging, strange given that material reality is wedged between the student’s heart and the teacher’s. Reciprocity, which is essential for happiness, is lost and hostility takes over since it is the prodigal child of aggressive self-interest. Self-interest is the sole arbiter of success and value in the academy that feeds the culture: the professor that thinks his is the only course students take, so students are overworked, mindlessly responding to carefully orchestrated questions meant to solicit a single answer or two – busy work; the student that believes she merely has to get through, not worried about learning, rather about finishing, while reaching for the next rung that will get her ever closer to the penthouse at the helm of the economic system. A conveyor belt that privileges a move away from the heart and towards material reality.
Materialism and self-interest go hand-in-hand; all else, including people, must be shunned – and there goes reciprocity. Thus we find ourselves lost, floating in an open sea of confusion, living lives on the boundaries of meaning, never quite getting there, never quite getting at truths, comfortable numbing our haze. Welcome to the Aderrall Generation.
“Whether Adderall is a life-changing medicine or an unfair performance enhancer depends on whom you talk to” writes Kyle Fink in the first of a two part series, “Living in the Adderall Generation: Part 1,” in the Middlebury College Campus. “What is clear is that we are now living in the Adderall Generation, a reality that is rarely talked about but apparent just below the surface. You may not have a prescription or snort the drugs on weekends, but psychostimulants are here to stay, and they have the potential to affect nearly every aspect of life at the College.”
In Living the Adderall Generation: Part 2, Fink tells us that, “While most students the Campus talked to began their psychostimulant usage at the College, [Dean of the College] Collado pointed to a new wave of applicants who are being stimulated and pushed to their maximum from young ages,” suggesting that this is a larger problem in the culture; however, since many – if not most – of the students attending elite, competitive schools such as Middlebury are from the upper socio-economic strata of society, this might suggest that the early pressure is manufactured by the need to locate the student in an appropriate – and socially mobile – rung in a vituperative economic system.
This also suggests that the focus of learning is not the student – and not learning at all – rather it’s where the student might end up, socio-economically, years down the road; part of this pressure comes from the realization that, as systems go, ours is fighting for a dwindling piece of the resource pie. Not healthy.
Where we now also see this unhealthy pursuit of unhappiness is in the current light being shed on sexual assault on college campuses. Naturally – and reasonably – these discussions are focused on the safety of victims while also urging others, who remain silent, to come forth; the purpose being to get accurate data about how pervasive this condition is. We want to help victims, educate, and change the climate of violence and fear. But it’s not surprising, given our aggressive self-interest, that these violent, tragic occurrences happen when drugs and alcohol are in the mix. It’s not surprising that this violence happens in a culture where violence is privileged at every step – in the media, in politics, in economics, you name it.
So, at a time in one’s life when self-discovery should be one’s focus, self-interest and the need to ride the conveyor belt towards increasingly better social mobility take precedence; psychostimulants and alcohol, sometimes taken together, become ways of getting through the system and coping mechanisms. Aristotle on happiness doesn’t seem to cut it; Shakespeare, for get about it. The text is gone; pharmaceuticals are in. It’s not about knowing and learning; it’s about doing and moving on, always transitioning upward to an elusive reward.
Amidst all this is a very large and critical dialog occurring on campuses across the US about, specifically, the cost of higher education and, in the case of many elite colleges and universities, the viability of a liberal arts education (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/19/arts/humanities-committee-sounds-an-alarm.html;https://chronicle.com/article/The-Humanities-Declining-Not/140093/; http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/30/the-real-humanities-crisis/;http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/12/the-real-reason-the-humanities-are-in-crisis/282441/).
Everything from an over emphasis on science education to the humanities moving away from a search for the self and into race, class, gender and semiotics, cartoons and television, plastic surgery, to the humanities being just boring and with little relevance have been used to blame the apparent decline – and if not decline, then lack of interest.
How ironic, no? Do we really know what’s going on? If you read any of the above articles linked for you, there is a theme: we don’t know what’s going on; we have less of an idea about who our students are; and we may even know less, with our PhD’s, about the world we live in and that’s constructing our students, our lives. We educators have a hand in this.
Dante is not cutting it. Socrates is not cutting it. Academic language, with its uptight vernacular of disdain, is cutting it even less. Pharmaceuticals and violence, sports, the palatial grandeur of an institution’s geography, food, and who knows who is seemingly more important. Today, I’m less a professor and more a concierge helping students navigate the nebulous halls of an academy that, like the world we live in, appears lost in confusion.
Management is more important than learning about one’s self; systems of efficiency clearly dominate; technology, connectivity – always on – and surface communication and production de riguer. Humanity, talked about all the time, is less important. Matters of the heart? What’s that? I’m always asked.
“You know the usual story about the world,” writes Solnit, “the one about ongoing encroachment that continues to escalate and thereby continue to wipe out our species.”
We humanists, in our zeal to make even the most obvious complex, may be a large reason why students, who already come from a system that overvalues performance and results over knowledge of the self and others, find themselves, at some point, wondering what has become of them. It may be why I continue to receive emails from alumni wondering about the critical questions in life: why, how, who, what for? These weren’t even mildly approached during their very expensive undergraduate lives.
Humanity today is like a waking dreamer, caught between the fantasies of sleep and the chaos of the real world. The mind seeks but cannot find the precise place and hour. We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.
Our students thrash about because we do; students are terribly confused because we are; we are all a danger to ourselves. And, as far as I am concerned – in one humble opinion – we dutifully adhere to the most medieval institution, the University, without realizing that, before our eyes, it has metamorphosed into an exotic multinational business like any other – and students are our last concern.
We are in a dreamlike state. These are the saddest times.
This is the final movement of the first section of The Edge of Sorrow, “Bending.” Again, if you want it from the top:
Enjoy the ride. The next section, which will not appear on this site, is titled “Twisting.”
Thank you for following this to here. Comments are more than welcome. Do you want to know what happened?
The Next Day: July 21, 1996
Somewhere in SoHo, New York City
Put a sprig of coriander on anything and it’ll taste good. You can conceal any bad taste – even rot.
Raul’s father taught me how to find something to say that would perk someone’s interest like that. “Keep your ear to the track, as my grandfather used to say,” Professor Javier Sicard instructed. “An old gaucho trick,” he said. “You can hear the train coming miles before anyone else. That’s a writer’s secret – the ear must be on the track at all times so you can be the first to know what’s coming down the track.”
I search and search for something I’m ninety percent sure a person hasn’t heard – something that doesn’t seem true and it’ll twist a person all around but is true. In the end it’s true.
I’ve not stopped looking for gems that can peak your interest since he told me. I write them down in a small black notebook that fits in my pocket – like he carried. I keep it handy. Think of a gunslinger in a western. It’s like right there by my side ready to be drawn. Identical to his notebook, except I hold mine together with a thin piece of purple cloth and he held his with a wide rubber band – and he stuffed leaves, business cards, train tickets, anything he thought memorable into it. I write these things down as soon as I find them, immediately. I write other things, too, but I love it when I find something like that, so exact – put a sprig of coriander on anything and it’ll taste good, no matter what it is. (I added the ‘conceal any bad taste – even rot’: poetic license.) I don’t know where I heard it first, but I wrote it down right away. Then waited. I waited for the right place to use it, the right time. Waiting and knowing are the key. Waiting for the right time, the right place to drop it in. Something will come up and you can use it. That’s a writer’s work, he told me. Fill notebooks, he said. Fill them. “You want to write,” he yelled. “Write. Write god damn it.”
Put a sprig of coriander on anything and it’ll taste good.
“That’s a lesson he gave you that he never gave me,” said Raúl, smiling. “He probably knew that I was heading in a different direction. I don’t know. But I keep a notebook. I do. Really. Maybe it’s a habit I picked up unconsciously.”
“He didn’t have to say it to you. You lived it with him.”
When Raúl smiles, there, in the corners of his mouth – they sort of turn up like, gently, and his eyes light up; it’s so attractive, magnetic, you know, and you just want to stay in it, the smile. Like I could see his father. I smiled back.
We looked down at our beers and let the memory settle until the void enveloped us again, waiting, as it does, for our guard to go down, for us to be weary of memories that are like a vapor that one can hardly hold.
We were somewhere in SoHo, the day after I came to meet Raúl in his apartment for the first time. It was strange because it felt like I’d known him for a long time and we’d only been together twice now, and briefly. We hugged and held each other and kissed and sat down and anyone passing by would have thought, what a nice couple.
He ordered a couple of Brooklyn Lagers without asking what I preferred – and I felt fine with that. Usually I’m not. I insist. At that moment, like I was fine with it. It’s probably because of the familiarity, the energy between us. It seemed as if a lifetime passed and we’d spent it together somehow and we were both looking back through the long tunnel of time. It’s a funny thing how two people can meet and the intensity of the moment brings them – us, like we seemed – instantly close. The bitterness that follows a tragedy brings with it unexpected intimacy. It was my first experience with it. I was confused because my heart was heavy but I liked the feeling – the sense that I’d known Raúl practically all my life. I can’t explain it – either can anyone else, I don’t think.
It was hot and muggy, really thick and sticky, and I was crashing with a bunch of friends — five girls – that graduated from Adams the year before and were busy working fourteen hour days on Wall Street – Lehman, Smith Barney, Goldman, Bear Sterns. The standard bearers. (I didn’t want to be with my parents – I couldn’t really, not after all this – on the Upper East Side so I stayed with my girlfriends.)
My friends were herded together fast tracking to millionaire status before they turn 40 – that’s the game. They’re willing to do anything to get there; once that happens, life begins. Everything is on the back burner – even children and family. They can be gotten at any time; they’re afterthoughts. We have choices, they told me; we can do this with or without men. So guys, well, they come and they go, you know. The college hook up on a wild weekend night has moved to suits at happy hour in a chic oak bar after a grueling week forecasting the ups and downs of the market, the hedging, the betting for a million. All one big roulette game, even the sex. Blame it on Sex and the City, they said. It was our bible, they said. Like a How To manual.
The five girls live all cramped up in a West Village loft. Having a great time, they made a point of saying, sardonically. I wasn’t sure whether they said that because we’re all suppose to be successful and have a great time after we graduate, especially from Adams because it puts such a premium on success, whatever that means, and they weren’t having the best of times, not really, and they were hiding it – or maybe they really were having a great time, I don’t know – but it didn’t make sense to me since their work had simply replaced school work and they were still laboring the same amount of hours, still hitting the bars Friday and Saturday nights and getting wasted, just like we did at Adams. Nothing had changed. I slept on their studio floor on a bogus mattress – like I did back at Adams when I stayed overnight in one of their rooms. Nothing had changed.
But everything had changed for me. They didn’t even ask about Professor Sicard. “Shit, too bad about the prof on that plane. Imagine that,” said Alexia, a blond, with shoulder length hair. Alexia had the perfect body; she worked out incessantly, which compelled her to seek out reflections of herself on any surface – windows, stainless steel trays, glass doors. Remember American Psycho? She’s the female version. Like she’d purse her lips and move her head around to find the right look as if she was auditioning for a part and she needed to strike the right pose. She flexed her biceps and said, “I can’t imagine the luck. Shit. We just never know. That’s why we have to grab it now. We just never know. Never had him. I can’t even tell you what he looked like.”
I told Alexia that I had him and that I really liked him.
“Oh. Shit. Sorry,” she said. She quickly went on to something else altogether different – like the guys she met at work, who was cute, who was an asshole, last weekend in the Hamptons, the new clothes she just bought on a shopping trip to Paris with her mother who was always keen on dressing her.
I needed Raúl; he was the only one that could understand what I was feeling. The only one. Shit is right.
Raúl and I agreed to meet for a beer the afternoon following my visit to his apartment because, he said, he was going to work for a few hours just to make the first move back to some sense of normalcy. But I don’t think it possible. I don’t. To be normal again. I told Raúl that. I also said that maybe – just maybe – the lack of normalcy was already in place way before anyone noticed. Like I feel that, you know. I felt it looking back at the year – his last year. Normal is a creation anyway – just like success is. I took Sociology courses. I know all about constructions of this and constructions of that (but it’s so boring always to have the same argument, no?) What is normal? Success, what’s that? How do we measure these? Things seemed totally out of whack. Perverse and confused – and maybe that’s what normal is. The only normal. The new normal, people like to say when things get turned around and are all shitty and there are no answers, no reasons why; like we simply change the meaning of a couple of words to coincide with how shitty we’re feeling, how inconsequential we are, how irrelevant and call it the new normal. How things get twisted this way and that. Normal is a moving target.
Right at that moment, meeting with Raúl, I was more anxious then anything, like something was eating at me and I was totally unprepared to deal with it so I was hoping he had some words of wisdom – or maybe he was seeing what I was seeing, though I don’t know how since he wasn’t at Adams last year. But maybe his father mentioned something to him in passing and whatever that was, it seemed odd, strange, like it could be something that may explain a life so gone, just like that, as if no one cared. So gone. A snap of the fingers.
Life is cheap, I realize now. I told Raúl that I’ve come to believe this like nothing else. And how his father stressed this but I was too naïve to understand it – yet. I’m beginning now. Life is cheap and the pace of life helps it along. We move on much too quickly past someone’s life. We cheapen life, I said as if all this time I’d been living in the clouds or beneath some fake cover or something unreal and even fake and, like, suddenly, after Javier’s death the curtain lifted and voila, there it was: we—cheapen—life. By how we live it, that’s the irony. It’s no longer a life journey; it’s a race, a sprint to the gold, a springing forth onto something that makes no sense, something, I don’t know, immaterial. Like a jaguar leaping onto its prey, mouth open, teeth showing, we latch onto irrelevance and hold on for dear life. But we come up empty. I don’t want to come up empty. I didn’t want to be one of God’s little children. That’s why I wanted Javier Sicard to be my mentor; that’s why I went to see him that day before school started; that’s why I changed my life away from the family business, money. That’s why, now, I’m more confused then ever because I suspect that things are more complicated. But I wanted to know more and I needed Raúl for that.
Raúl met me at some nameless place that had outdoor seating. We wanted to be outside, away from the maddening crowds sopping up happy hour. The place was like all other places – dark bar, black and white tiled floor, Latinos in the kitchen and a gregarious Irish bartender – an ox of a man – that poured indiscriminately when someone asked for a drink. (I couldn’t tell you the name of the place. I may not even be able to lead you back to it.)
The place was crowded with folks that knew each other, knew the place; it was an oasis – you could tell – their place to come to and slow things down a bit, stop the rush, check in with someone that would recognize them. A place to go to, check in and know that you’re okay – it’s not you, not your fault, things are what they are, and everyone agrees. That kind of place. I think it was on Bleecker near Broadway – no telling for sure. Somewhere. But its where the indifference that’s so hard to understand about life passed by incessantly, and its recognizable – and we sat outside and tried to slow things down a bit, too, and see if we could bring him back. To us. Just for us. Even for a moment.
I told Raúl that I had come to a conclusion: “We can’t trust anything – or anyone for that matter,” I said.
He looked startled and leaned back as if I’d pushed hard against his chest.
“I’m not a religious person and I’m not a believer and you must understand why,” I continued. “You must. Even your science is questionable.”
“Maddy,” he said. “Maddy, we can take science up to a point. I understand that. But we can use it to see. It helps,” he said. “It does. It’s the one instrument we have that can explain so much.”
“Science can’t explain what happened to your father,” I said. “Everyone is confused. All those experts. What happened to that plane? No one has an answer – just more questions. Terrorism? The military? A malfunction? What? A bomb? Who knows? Will we ever know? There’s your science. There you have it. So much for science – eventually it’ll be manipulated to suit the story. Science is a sprig of coriander. It covers over the nasty things beneath the surface. It tries to make everything sweet again so we can go on our merry way totally unsuspicious.”
“Science is a sprig of coriander that conceals the ugliness,” he repeated. “I see. A sprig of coriander. Something – you’re saying to yourself – is being concealed beneath the spectacle of science. What? That’s why you came to my apartment yesterday. Isn’t it? That’s what’s been eating at you.”
“Well, yes. That – and like I wanted to finally meet you. You’re his son,” I said and continued, reluctantly. “I’m not a religious person and I don’t believe because everywhere we turn there’s a lie. I’m convinced that he died because of lies. You can’t tell me otherwise. Call it intuition. Something happened to him and I’m trying to put it together. Help me put it together, please. I’m pleading. Can’t you see? I was there last year at school. It’s been strange looking back. A little confusing. No. A lot confusing. Things happened. I’m sure of it. And I’m scared now. I don’t know why but I’m scared. Like intuitively, I’m scared. It’s a feeling, you know. Deep inside. I need your help. Help me. We’re told so many stories; we’ve twisted so many different perspectives and ideas and histories and tied them together so tightly that we no longer know one story from another,” I said and I was leaning over my beer, hunched over, passionate about my confusion – and fear. “What we do know for sure – a certainty in life I’ve come to – is that there is no truth to anything, not even to what we see. Not even to death. Not his, anyway,” I said and I leaned back and took a sip of my beer. I’d gotten it off my chest. There. I felt better for the moment. “Trust me on this one,” I said having finished my beer and looking around as if sensing that someone was watching. “Trust me,” I whispered as I leaned towards Raúl, again. “I know. After all this, I’m learning. I – am – learning. For sure.”
“You spent a lot of time with my father. You sound like you’re channeling him. You do. But Maddy … Maddy, it’s terrible when at such a young age you come to this,” said Raúl. “Terrible. Even if it’s because of what’s happened. Maybe it’s even terrible if it’s true. Probably worse if it’s true because someone so young shouldn’t see so much.”
“I just turned 21. What are you 30 – 32 tops?”
“Thirty. I’m thirty.”
“What’s the big difference? You’re not going to give me some shit like, how can someone so young know so much, are you? Mr. thirty-year-old-doctor. At some point our ages are simply another construction and have little meaning – if any meaning at all. What, I’m not suppose to know certain things because I’m just 21? I can’t see certain things because I’m 21? After 30 – I suppose you think – like a magic wand is waved and just like that we can reason through things much better. More wisely. Nonsense. A little magic dust and you’ve arrived? That’s not how your father thought. Not at all. I’ve had professors that are total idiots, white haired imbeciles with PhD’s. They know nothing about me. Nothing about what’s really going on. Explain that to me. I’m sick of that way of thinking. Today, all bets are off. All of them. Don’t ask me to accept someone else’s shit for my reality. No way. I don’t see any difference between us – not really. Except that you’re done with school.”
“And graduate school,” he said, again with that smile that made me smile, too, sort of, because, like I didn’t want to let him know that he got to me with that last remark. It was funny – but true. He was talking about durability. Resilience. What age is after all. All the more reason why his father’s time wasn’t up.
Raul’s blue eyes were gray now, as if a film covered their usual splendor. They seemed tired, worn, suffering. The result of relentless tearing. But beneath them was that smile. He was learning how to live with two lives, his and his father’s lost for eternity.
A young, muscular guy was locking his navy-blue Cannondale to a No Parking sign right near our table; an aristocratic looking couple was looking at Durham sofas in the window of LUXURY FURNITURE across the street.
And something Javier Sicard said came to me: Truth has been made to suffer as a consequence of our unbridled actions. I told Raúl that his father said that.
He didn’t respond to me immediately. He took it in, carefully, as if he was tasting a fine wine for the first time and he wanted to experience it all, slowly, distinguishing every particle. He repeated it: “Truth has been made to suffer as a consequence of our unbridled actions.” And he followed it up: “Yeap. That would be him, mi viejo,” he said. “That’s just like my father. He would likely then say that unbridled actions become the truths we abide by.”
“He didn’t say that. But it sounds like him.”
It was one of the first sentences I heard him utter that September, last September, when I took his seminar. Truth has been made to suffer as a consequence of our unbridled actions. That’s how he began the class – that’s how it all started I’m thinking now. Or it was right around then – with the convocation, which made the hairs on my head prickle. The confusing year.
We were seated around his seminar table. Quiet. Expectant. Waiting. And he’s just there, a shit eating grin on his face looking at all of us. I don’t mean just scanning the room. His Roman nose, the square jaw, the clear, wide forehead, all of him larger then life – and with that grin he’d fix those forest green eyes on each one of us, wait till we looked away, and move on to the next person. There were fifteen of us. All silent, and very still. We didn’t dare move. You could hear a pin drop. When he got to me, I didn’t look away. Everyone else did. I didn’t. I smiled back instead. And he nodded approval – ever show slightly, like almost unnoticeable. And then he ran one of his bear hands over his short white scalp and leaned back in his chair. And he said it. Just like that. And he looked at each of us again. Then pushing on he said, Alexander Hamilton said that ambition must be tempered by ambition.Followed by a long pause. Ambition tempered by ambition, he emphasized again, repeating it twice. Ambition tempered by ambition. He made us dwell on that. I’m still dwelling on it – personal ambition and the collective ambition of society, others, institutions. How it all works together – or should. Something like that. I’m still thinking about it. I still don’t know.
“And maybe … Finding the virtue in ambition, no? How we value ambitions. What it is.”
I found it uncanny how much like his father he sounded, I told Raúl. It was unreal that his father knew so much about American history and philosophy and literature. More then most Americans even – and he was from Argentina. How does that happen?
“By chance, Maddy,” said Raúl. “By chance. Like you coming to my apartment after what happened. Who could have seen any of this coming? Any of it? That’s randomness and it’s always at play in the universe – by design.” He paused, searching for something he kept buried in his mind, his learning. “You know what Darwin said?”
I nodded “No”.
“He said we – man that is – can neither originate varieties, nor prevent occurrences – he can preserve and accumulate. That’s all we can do. We can preserve and accumulate the wrong things, you know. That’s the trap, I figure.”
“What does that have to do with anything? I don’t get it,” I said with some embarrassment, a feeling that, early on, came over me when his father spoke like that too. Sometimes Javier spoke as if the meaning he was after was universal, obvious – quite clear. The truth, I always assumed. This is how the truth gets told, I remember thinking, when it’s in you, your DNA – but when you’ve not experienced it like this before, it’s paralyzing. Raúl brought me back to that uncomfortable feeling. I was suddenly vulnerable. Sat back, looked away, drew on my beer, trying to make it all go away.
“How do we make order, Maddy? In a Godless universe, how do we do it? How do we know we’re really alive?”
“I don’t know. Maybe we bargain for it,” I said, guessing.
“We’re always working with what already is – what exists – and we had nothing to do with it. That’s what burns us. And when we work like that, artificially, we are exposed to new things and change. Darwin – my man. Yeap. Inescapable. That’s what he was thinking about. We’ve all been affected ever since,” said Raúl. He laughed and said, “I pulled that out of my undergraduate years. I don’t know how it popped into my head. Maybe you pushed it. Randomness is complex shit, Maddy, and it fits and we adapt where and when we can. If not, well, you know.”
“So you mean to tell me,” I said to Raúl, “that Javier’s father, your grandfather, a captain in the Argentine Air Force, fighting in a revolution against the lies of Juan Perón – that’s how your father told it – gets shot down. Dies. And there it is again. There you have it, the lies – tight fitting lies, you’d probably say, traveling through time, over and over, always the same lie visiting us, maybe even in different forms, and bringing damnation. But lies anyway. The same lies.”
“And fire and brimstone,” says Raúl. “Don’t forget fire and brimstone come before damnation. They’re essential for the religious story. All that exists in defiance of what is natural and diverse.”
“So your grandmother moves them, right – her and your father – to the U.S., and like that, that’s how we have one of the great minds of our time? Chance. Randomness.”
“How else can you explain it? Death shall have no dominion, said Dylan Thomas. See, I know some literature. After years with my old man, something’s rubbed off.”
“It seems that you’re simply saying that self-preservation is valued above all. Like, that’s disorienting – and stressful. No? Where do we find the laws of the world? And make things work.”
I opened my black notebook and I had dog-eared the page I wanted to share with Raúl because I knew that I’d turn to this over and over again. I quote it when I can. Say it to anybody. It seems to make sense to me, especially now. The more I read it, the clearer it becomes. I said to Raúl that his father would tell us that there’s nothing else but the here and the now. No past – it’s gone, left to weak memories. No tomorrow. It’s only about now. This – is – it, like Javier used to say. (But as I was saying this, I got the sense that Raúl knew all this about his father already. How could he not?).
“The rest of the game,” I read from my black notebook exactly what I had hurriedly taken down in class intent on catching every word Javier said, “involves merely ensuring that we make people into compliant individuals. That’s all. The ultimate bargain. A collective that complies with the wishes – and perversions – of those that dominate. Just don’t look down – the abyss is daunting. And alluring. Rot wins. Shit rises,” I read, looked up and stared into Raúl’s blue eyes – and I grinned.
“Maddy, listen to me. I love my father. Dearly. You know that. You know I do. I don’t have to tell you that. The pain I feel in my heart I feel to the bone. But you. You Maddy, so young. Beautiful. Really beautiful. So intelligent. Such promise. You can’t be so pessimistic. You can’t have such a nihilistic view of things. No, please. He didn’t. My father didn’t think that way.”
I wanted to disagree with him because Javier did have that view – I got it from him, he lead me to it – but I got hung up on beautiful. It took dominion. Everything stopped moving. Beautiful held me captive. The way it came out of his mouth – easy, softly. Like it had been there for some time and he was contemplating it, aging it, waiting to see when to let it out. Beautiful. Soft like that. It didn’t say that I’m good looking. It didn’t speak to me like that. He didn’t. I am good looking. I had on an earthy yellow tank top and a short skirt – light brown – and my thighs are perfect. Tan. So are my ankles. Raúl could see that. Maybe I was showing him – I don’t know. Maybe that was troubling me – that I wanted him to see me. I’m short but I’m long, too, because I’m skinny and strong. I have definition. I know that. A straight nose. Full lips that some idiots at Adams can’t take their eyes off of when they talk to me – so annoying. I hate that. I know all that about myself and I could see Raúl, here and there, even when I first met him, looking here and there – but gracefully not like some of the boys at school that stare at you as if they’re ready to eat, bib on, knife and fork in hand. Pretty girls experience this all the time. All pretty girls know this – we don’t need a mirror. Like we’re told from the start: You’re so beautiful. We’re recognized. The looks we get are different. It’s accepted that beauty is this or that and that the culture pursues it with a vengeance. Whistles follow. Guys on the street grabbing their balls and licking their lips. Other men just look and smile – the educated ones. And there are those educated ones, like at Adams, that are way too young and think their shit doesn’t stink, those blond, blue-eyed Ralph Lauren wanna be types that saunter over and say something really fucking stupid, “Hey beautiful, I can cheer you up. I can wipe away your gloom.” Ugh. Some educated men can be so school smart and know absolutely nothing. A sprig of coriander won’t help here.
Beautiful. His beautiful said something else. More. It said more. It worried me, frankly. It said that there was something there between us. Some thing. I worried that it had a strange connection with his father; that I was somehow a way for him to, I don’t know, return to his father, like get him back; that I was a therapy; that I could help him through this darkness that was so thick we could both feel it, taste it, touch it; that at some point – this I feared the most – when all was said and done and he was over this moment and onto the next I would be shown the door, thank you very much, adios, good-bye, all done.
I’m not going to go through life with people thinking that’s all I have to offer.
“Maddy. Maddy where are you? Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“When I think about last year,” I said snapping back into the moment, though the comment about beautiful remained with me – a dull humming noise. “Like when I now think back, I don’t know, I was engaged or something because I took notice – of something. I did. There was something – I’m not sure – strange, tragic events that sprung up right at the beginning of the year,” I said to Raúl. “I took notice. How could you not? Like I don’t know what. I took notice – and I’m feeling it now. There was more to it. More beneath the obvious. It was convocation. It was then when it started. The curtain began to be pulled back … I don’t know … Like I began to notice … things. Things. Things that don’t add up. Or maybe they do – I’m not sure. This is why I’m here, why I came to you.”
It began like this: students marched two-by-two to Mather Chapel. It looked like a picture, the gentility, the privilege that abounds at Adams. Nothing out of the ordinary. On the contrary. The sun was high, the skies cloudless that day last September, a few days after I visited the great Javier Sicard in his office and pleaded my case to be in his seminar, right before the start of school. The sky, the air, the sun – it was all perfectly harmonized for the Convocation, the welcoming of the new year. Like it was ordained or something – it had to be like this, anyone would think. What could be better, right?
The faculty gathered near the library. All in their colorful regalia glistening in the afternoon sun — the reds, the golds and the greens, the purples, even the black had a spectacular glow. The beginning of another school year. Every year, at the start of the year, we follow ghosts that obediently marched into chapels, just like we were doing, in ceremony, the attired disciples laid out for God to inspect and sanctify. We have to understand that. That’s what I was thinking. We are the anointed, the select. Privilege in the air – our destiny. God’s will. All that shit in our favor. All of it.
I hadn’t been to a Convocation since I was a first year and had to go – and maybe it’s that I didn’t know any better then. The naïve new student, you know. But I was junior and I wanted to start gathering memories of the place, the rituals of academia that make the ground hallowed and after my meeting with Professor Sicard, I decided to attend this time, one last time, knowing full well that as a senior I wouldn’t want to go because I’d be too tied up deconstructing the nature of such a spectacle, the way professors in their robes love to play hide and go seek with their fancy language and their idiosyncratic knowledge.
I wanted to go and look for my Professor Sicard, too, hoping I wouldn’t find him in the procession. He told me he hated all that dressing up, the disguises, the theatre, the circus of it all – and that we had enough of that in academia as it is, so he never went to the ceremony. Not even to graduations. He doesn’t attend those either. I looked for him anyway to see if what he said to me was true; to see if I could hold him to his word. I didn’t know him yet. And I guess, secretly, I wanted to see if he would show up last minute or something. That would say something.
Professor Javier Sicard and I were somehow preternaturally connected already.
At the rear of the faculty parade, lagging a good ten steps behind, alone, there was Professor Dickenson. He’s a classics professor. Was, I mean – he died that fall. Heart attack they said. One of the confounding truths, I think. I noticed him because the sun bounced off of his Harvard red and it looked like a spot light was on him and he was about to give a soliloquy. He looked resplendent. An image for all time center stage. Yet he also seemed aged, haggard, having some difficulty keeping up. He was hunched over, as if he could hardly stand and he walked slowly, laboriously, and from where I was it appeared as if he was talking to himself. But we all knew that he talked to himself often – nothing new.
I was off to one side in the middle of the quad, the history of the place written into the gleaming marble all around me standing in judgment. I never felt Adams like that before, never noticed Adams in such a strange and foreboding way. It felt as if it was actually looking right through me – all it stood for, all it was, all it would be forever leering at me. I turned three sixty and felt so small, Stanhope and Whitman and Adams and Franklin, all of them scowling. My only respite, ironically, was to run to Mather Chapel. Driven there by the school I never imagined. I didn’t know why, either. I don’t know why at that moment I felt so alienated from the place my entire family attended – and where future generations of our people would go too. It was as if I was standing outside myself, watching myself be; it was like I was seeing myself doing myself, really seeing myself for the very first time. And I didn’t know what I was feeling, not at all. Premonition maybe.
But I quickly let it go and stuck to my plan: wait for the first years and the faculty to enter Mather Chapel – and go in. Sit near the back, that way I could exit unseen and quickly if it got too boring.
But my attention was taken by Professor Dickenson, hunched over, troubled and losing ground as the faculty chatted with each other while strolling in a fine line towards the chapel’s large oak doors that were opened wide, like outstretched arms waiting to embrace the arriving flock.
And as if out of nowhere I noticed him: Javier Sicard, there – “Your father,” I said to Raúl – edging out from behind the stand of pines that sits on the way to the knoll before the chapel. He was wearing a black t-shirt and jeans – that’s all. No regalia. He moved quickly, gracefully towards Dickenson, catching up to him from behind, putting his arm around him and turning him and leading him away from the procession.
As they walked away they seemed to be talking. Professor Sicard kept an arm over Dickenson’s hunched back. From where I stood, it looked as if Sicard was holding him up. Dickenson would raise his head towards Professor Sicard, look at him intently and say something, waving his arms. I could see Professor Sicard pat him on the back, like consoling him. He nodded, agreeing with Dickenson for whatever reason.
Javier turned and looked back at the procession heading to the chapel. That’s when he saw me; he caught my eye. He kept walking and listening and staring at me standing perfectly still and totally alone in the center of the quad. For some reason, I thought of myself as Christina – Andrew Wyeth’s Christina Olson crawling to her house. I don’t know why. The starkness of it maybe; the color, the gold rolling to the steel horizon; the aging house on a hill. Christina, the wide expanse before her, the solitary house on the hill, lonely, perfectly still in a universe that’s moving, constantly changing and she can’t keep up. Like a buoy bobbing in open ocean, holding time, a record of us, for us to know.
I was torn: whether to go into the chapel and hear some rapturous speech about Adams’ heritage, how it’s the pinnacle, the summit of success for all who aspire to be leaders – or follow Dickenson and Sicard as they slowly made their way back to their offices in Whitman.
“What did you do?” asked Raúl. And he ordered two more Brooklyn Lagers.
I remained true to my mission and went to the Convocation because, if I followed Dickenson and Sicard, I wouldn’t be able to explain my spying. To be true to the story, I didn’t think twice about it – perhaps Dickenson was sick, perhaps he was growing senile, something we all thought since he lost his wife.
“But my father, he was waiting. He knew something was off with his friend. And he already knew you saw him with Dickenson.”
“That’s why I made sure. I waited for him to turn towards me one more time – I knew he would – and when he did I walked off towards Mather.”
I wanted to be one of the last in and first out. That was foremost on my mind, being a typical student. I never gave Sicard’s sudden appearance from behind the stand of pines a second thought. I never thought about Dickenson, other then his decrepitude making sense to me. He was fragile. I thought that the logical path from Whitman to the parking lot was also the path of the Convocation procession so Javier wasn’t out of place either. He was leaving. But I did turn quickly, right before entering Mather, to see if he was still watching me. He wasn’t. Javier and Dickenson had disappeared.
It all made rational sense to me. Everything was in order, as it should be. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t at all.
Once I heard the Convocation speech, I began thinking – not just then, mind you, not at that precise moment. At the moment I heard the speech I was affected by it because it was all off, strange, out of place. I didn’t know what I was thinking, really; I didn’t know what I was feeling – other than it was an affront to my mentor. That troubled me. And now I’m thinking that the Convocation was some sort of message – they always are; but at the time I took it personally. An uncontrollable urge came over me to protect Javier, to shield him from what I was hearing – and the forces I assumed were behind the vitriol – like my father. It was an overwhelming feeling; it was almost immediate. This strange feeling, something new, even mature maybe, came over me right from the beginning, from the first utterance of the familiar words. And all I wanted to do – and thought about – was to protect him.
July 20, 1996, 3 Days After Flight 800 Exploded
Upper West Side, New York City
Raúl hadn’t been able to move from his couch. It seemed to hold him against his will. He was coiled, knees up to his chest and arms over his head as if trying to hide.
The TV was still on – a specter in the dark whispering to him what he didn’t want to hear. But he couldn’t pry himself lose from the unreal words twisting through.
Pilots from other planes circling to land report they saw flashes of light streaking from the ground toward the Boeing 747. Two unnamed FBI sources suggest that what looked like two missiles hit TWA Flight 800.
He was unable to bring himself to his lab at Columbia Presbyterian, either. He didn’t even reach for his window to look out at the Hudson River, the intimate horizon that was his respite in another life. Now dull remembrances. His place in the order of things was vague and incompatible. There was nothing he could diagnose, nothing he could quantify and make understandable, nothing. As far as Raúl could tell it was now a life of nothing. He was learning to embrace the value of nothing, something deep in his soul, a ruthless weight.
He whispered a prayer: “Nothing who art everywhere hallowed be thy nothingness. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Nothing. Give us this day our daily Nothing. And forgive us Nothing as we forgive Nothing, who sin Nothing, and deliver us from Nothing for thine is the kingdom of Nothing, the power and the glory of Nothing.” And laughed uncontrollably, until the harsh irony lifted and, on the couch, a forearm over his forehead, he stared at the insensible ceiling, taken up by its blankness, seeing it for the very first time – its creases, cobwebs in the corners, its dullness.
He dozed off from time to time, sitting up only to sip the bourbon beside him on the coffee table.
It took him just two days to go through the first bottle of his father’s favorite drink, Wild Turkey 101, after he ran out and picked up another.
He locked his apartment door, closed himself off and sat at the edge of sorrow.
For three unforgiving days and nights he laid there in a knot and sipped until the Wild Turkey pushed him into uneasy dreams of airline seats floating aimlessly in open ocean, bobbing out of place, incompatible to the world. He was buckled into an airplane’s seat, the stars and the darkness all around him and he was falling, spinning and falling, alone, and not a word came from his mouth. Not a scream. He just fell like a stone into the embrace of an immense darkness, empty seats all around, hundreds of them, dipping and rolling in the immeasurable sea. Ghostly sirens of absurdity. No hint of life. Not even a whisper, a smile – not even an I love you. No sense of a history, of having lived. No evidence. No body. Nothing. Nothing who art everywhere hallowed be thy nothingness. He fell and fell and spun and spun, round and round. He kept falling until he couldn’t stand it any longer, the enveloping irrelevance of life, the pregnant silences endured until life ends. The power and the glory of Nothing. Amen.
He envisioned himself in a dark hole, a coffin, closed in, unable to move – an anonymous being with life no more yet aware of his end, that there would be no one touching him, kissing him; no more sound – except for his empty breathing going nowhere. A sarcophagus of eternal loneliness. That’s what death is, he thought as he tried to see himself like his father in the blackness of space forever gone. An impenetrable irony, that’s what life is, he told himself. A god-awful paradox, inconsistencies everywhere.
“What’s the point,” he said to no one. “What’s the point?”
That was Darwin’s epiphany after all, Raúl concluded, from a tiny cell to unbeing. That’s life. A profound tragedy, a joke. No reconciliation whatsoever. That’s it, regardless of what those little tiny squiggly lines screamed from the stage of a noble microscope that is already perversely designed to look like a question mark.
He sat up and sipped some more – until the Lawrenceburg elixir pushed him down again. He heard things through the fog.
Flashes of light. Streaks from somewhere below hit the plane. Radar reports that a small boat raced away at 30 knots in a direct line away from the crash site. Other boats rushed to the crash site. Explosive residue.
Nothing in Raúl’s dreams foreshadowed this future – and he wondered whether his father’s dreams told him anything before his end. Who would know? Where was the record? There were no witnesses. There was nothing in Raúl’s past that hinted at the suffering and sorrow of this moment, the Wild Turkey just about gone. Disaster came unexpectedly, as it always does, and what mattered most in that precise moment was another trip to the liquor store. All death is unnatural – that’s how we experience it anyway. Unnatural and unforgiving.
Which is when his apartment’s front door buzzer rang – and he suddenly became aware that it must have been the third, maybe the fourth buzz because, this time, the person buzzing hung on and pushed the buzz through the foyer where his lab coat lay and into the kitchen to the living room where he was – and it kept going. The annoying electric infuriation traveled to his bedroom, bounced back, exasperating him even more. Or was it the booze and the buzzing, both, that irritated him to a point where he wanted to do violence?
“What? What the fuck? Fuck you,” he yelled at the incessant buzzing.
But there it was again the trying pain, the coarse frustration. Fuck.
“What …” he yelled and staggered to the speaker on the wall next to the apartment’s front door.
“Professor Sicard’s son. Raúl Sicard. His son. The professor’s only son. Is it you? Don’t cut me off. Don’t. Wait. Wait. I need to see you. Wait. Don’t. The professor’s son. Please. Talk to me. Please. We need to talk. You are him, yes?”
Raúl leaned against the wall and shut his eyes. And hit the buzzer to open the street door to the building and cracked open his apartment door and staggered back to his couch for another bourbon.
It was early evening. The setting sun was leaving behind a thick haze. The dog walkers and the Haitian women pushing their Cadillac strollers had long retreated from the murk. Riverside Drive was quiet, except for an occasional honking of a car horn. Impatience in people is persistent, no matter what.
Maddy Sachs hesitantly eased into Raúl’s solemn apartment and standing just inside, mouth agape and wide eyed, she scoped the dark kitchen, the rumpled lab coat left on a chair by the entrance and looking like someone in a hurry threw it there with some indifference. Keys in a bowl. Mail.
Raúl was outstretched on the couch, an arm over his eyes. He didn’t budge. His other hand held a bottle of Wild Turkey 101 as if it was a life preserver on the coffee table beside him.
“Hi,” she said softly, cautiously approaching the couch. “Hello … Hi … Sorry …,”
Raúl managed to raise himself to his elbows and said, “Who the hell are you? I don’t know you. Who are you?”
“I’m … I’m sorry for your loss …”
“My fucking loss? Who are you? What about his? He lost. His loss. He lost big time. The whole game. He lost. Fuck me. Sorry for him. No one can say that to him now. No one. What do you want to do, pray for him now? Is that why you’re here? Shit. Who the hell are you?”
Raúl labored to sit up and put his head in his hands and said, “Memory is suffering. It is. No one tells you that. Memory is suffering.” And he looked up at Maddy.
“Yes. I know. I know. Yes. I’m sorry. Still.”
Raúl eased back down and shut his eyes and said, “Wanna drink? It helps.”
Maddy thought about the first time Javier said that to her, just like that. “Wanna drink?” They were in an Adams hamburger only joint and he was alive and vibrant, jocular, his forest green eyes bright and smiling. It was all about tomorrow, no darkness visible anywhere. And the waitress came over. And Javier said, “I’m having a bourbon. You?” And she ordered what he was having wanting to be like him, wanting to be as close as she could be to his way of seeing things, his way of experiencing this journey. “I’m under age,” she said when the waitress walked away. “Bullshit,” he said. “You’re mature beyond your years. Anyway, you’re with me. There won’t be any questions. We’ll make believe we’re in Europe – or Latin America. Anywhere but here.” When the waitress returned with the drinks, he grinned. “Well?” he asked, raising his glass and sipping. “Tell me what you think. Slowly,” he said and he placed his large hand on hers as Maddy drew the short glass to her lips. Javier stared at her and smiled. “Wet your lips first,” he said, keeping his hand on hers – something she was used to by now – until the glass touched her lips. “Lick them after. Get a feel for the taste. And then take a sip – a tiny one so that you can really experience the heat go down, inch-by-inch. Go ahead.” She did as instructed. “That’s it. Good. Nice.” And she felt the heat of the golden rod ooze, tickling her, igniting her. She grinned and said, “Thank you,” not quite sure why.
“I’m Maddy. Maddy Sachs. And I’m a student. At Adams. I go there. I loved your father. Still, I love him still,” she blurted out not knowing why or where her words came from, but she was sure the sentiment came from somewhere deep in her soul. “I loved your father,” she said again. “I was his student. He was my mentor. That’s what he was. He was everything to me. Better then a father. More than that.”
She went to the kitchen and searched for a short glass and Raúl, on his elbows now, studied her. As she poured herself a drink and sipped, Maddy told Raúl about the first time she had a bourbon with his father. She told him that they met to talk about her writing because she was doing an independent study that Spring, following his Fall seminar, Life and Death in an Unconscious Civilization: A Survivor’s Guide. “It was unreal,” she said. “The class was totally unreal. No one talks like that, like him. At least I never heard anyone. Say things like he did. As they are. The truth, you know? Like that. No one’s around like that,” she told Raúl who didn’t move. “We are asleep to change, he told us right off the bat. You’re here, in this class, now, to discover that you’re all sheep being lead to slaughter. He boomed it out. Like we were his shinning knights and he our Arthur. We sat at his round table. All so eager to please him. We’d do anything for him. Like anything. We felt safe with him. He made it that way. He spread himself over us – like a warm blanket or something. He challenged us – but he made us feel good, like we meant something.”
She took another long sip, as Javier taught her, and said, cautiously, “I … I’m not sure how to say this … I …”
“Just say it,” said Raúl, now sitting up, forearms resting on his thighs so that he could really get a good look at Maddy for the first time, her blue eyes, her uncombed, long blond hair. She stood over him like an angel ready to announce something or other. Make a declaration about the world he was to inhabit. Or give him a warning. Maybe she was going to describe a picture that would tell Raúl how things would be from now on.
“Just say what you need to say. My father and me, we’re alike that way. It’s best to just say things and let the cards fall where they may.”
“I’m … I’m not sure what happened. I mean. I’m not sure. Not sure why things have come to this. I was there last year. At Adams. That’s what I’m saying. I was there with him. All sorts of shit went down. But I’m not sure what I saw. Can anyone bare witness? Who can tell? Who’s there to verify, like things, you know? What you see, right? I don’t want to be petrified after I confess what I saw. It’s all so strange and confusing. I can’t put my finger on it. I feel this thing. I don’t know. In the pit of my stomach. An ache, like nausea, something. Like I want to throw up all the time.”
“Ah…That. I don’t know either – and I’m suppose to know these things. How lives adapt – or not. I’m not sure of anything anymore. My world is upside down and I’m having a hard time seeing. Maybe I should take up praying – but he’d find that absurd. I can’t focus. On anything.”
“Me too. Like I can’t either. I don’t know… I’m not sure of anything anymore, either. I’m not sure what to do. The dead. They never really go, do they? Death seems to be just another form. I see him everywhere. They don’t depart, like we say, do they? They do something but they don’t leave. Like he’s pushing me now. I can feel it; it’s coming from him. What does it mean, to die?”
“All I seem to understand is that we don’t ever really know why lives end. I can give you all sorts of scientific reasons – lack of mutation, no adaptation, deterioration, environmental causes, diseases and where they come from. All that shit. I can give you all that. All the reasons in the world. With a capital R. But – fuck – it doesn’t seem to help. At one time. Before this. Before this thing, I thought that science was enough. All I needed to believe. Now I’m not so sure. Now I’m totally out of it. I see science. I get it. But all it’s telling me is that we’re not even sure what it is we’re suppose to do with the life we have. The purpose of a person’s life is lost on us. It happens all too fast. And time, we’re left with time. Time is mourning. Time mourns. We spend our lives conjecturing about the meaning of someone else’s life instead because we can’t stand the fact that time reminds us of loss, always. So we’d rather study lives. We spend so much time quantifying every single little aspect of every single moment of our time on earth, the minutia, that we forget to live. Then it’s gone. Over. Just like that. Gone. Time wins. It constricts. It gets narrower. We forget what living is – or should be. Maybe that’s what we mourn – ourselves. That we lose ourselves in time.”
“He had a purpose. He wasn’t like that. He knew how to live. That’s what was so attractive about him. Why we were so drawn to him. So nothing makes sense to me. That’s all I know. I’m not sure of anything anymore. Nothing. It’s as if his reason for being was denied – taken away. It seems like an irony of the most tragic proportions.”
“And what was that, Maddy? His purpose.”
“To be who he was, how he was – even for a short time. He used to tell me that I was an old soul – but I think he was. He was the oldest soul I’ve ever known. So wise. He made me, you know. I believe that. He did. Like he helped make me. He gave me purpose. Shaped me somehow. I know it. I knew it every time we were together. I felt different afterwards. Even after class. Always. Like after every talk, I could see how the world changed for me. It was as if every time we spoke, he…he like lifted another veil, peeled back the onion a bit. Then another layer. And another. And it all suddenly stopped. Just like that. The suddenness worries me. The unpredictability.”
“He probably made you, too. Right? Something about you. I don’t know. Something beyond just having people be frank and honest.”
“So we’re his adaptations.”
“I don’t know what you call it. But I do know that he’s still with me … and … and … I don’t know. Like I’m running this past year through my head. Over and over, you know. I’ve been doing this all along since … And I can’t get this past year out of my head and … like I can only conclude that something happened … Something happened and it lead to this – to me here; you – and I can’t put my finger on what it is. Something happened. I know it. It’s all twisted together. Connected like to this point. Because things aren’t suppose to end like this. Not his life anyway.”
“You’re young Maddy. Thinks like this happen all the time – just not to us. That’s what we think. It’s why we feel this way. It’s the stuff we read about – see in movies. But it’s never about us. Never. That’s the fallacy.”
“I just can’t see the signs yet. But something happened. I swear. I’m looking hard because something is not right with the universe. He’d say that. He used to say that. But now I can feel it. I know what he meant. He would feel it, I think. He’d think the same way. I’m sure of it. He’d think that.”
“Yes, he died. He’s dead. My father … My poor old man … Mi viejo is dead. That’s what happened. That’s not right. Yes. That’s not right. An unfortunate sudden death, along with many others. An epic tragedy. And we’re asked to move on. Leave them behind. That’s what we’re asked. Life goes on. That’s what makes things feel so – I don’t know – out of place. Strange life goes on and a tragedy grows and simmers. And the days continue. Morning to night. Birds sing, the sun rises and sets, the grass grows. Again and again. Time elapses. Criminals rob, stocks go up and down, dogs shit on the streets. Life – the movement of it, you know – goes on.”
“A terrible beauty is born,” Maddy blurted out.
“Yes. Indeed. Nicely put. That says it. A terrible beauty.”
“That’s not me. It’s Yeats. It just came out of me – like it was the only thing I could say and I couldn’t stop it.”
“And the distance becomes greater – it widens. A terrible beauty is born and we learn to live with it when we gain some distance. We write poems about it. A sort of coming to terms with how perverse it is. An unexplainable understanding that words can’t describe. How this thing we can’t name eased in, slowly. We can’t explain a thing. So we go on because we can’t face the fact that we have no record of his life. There’s no body. No sign of him. No evidence. Nothing. No last words. No good-byes. No memorials. No comforting words from Jesus saying something about preparing a place for us when he comes knocking. Nothing of the usual we see in movies. No answers. Just dull recollections. And we’re all twisted up in knots. Take another sip of your bourbon, Maddy. It’ll help.”
She did and said, “We have his books.”
“When people die we want to see them. We want to touch them. Say something. See them off. When they die prematurely and we don’t have evidence, things are much worse. Much worse. We go into a tail spin.”
“I’m worried,” said Maddy, taking another sip of her bourbon, shutting her eyes so as to better feel the slow burn, and pursing her lips.
“I’m worried. That’s all. I’m not sure how to explain it,” said Maddy and she walked over to the window Raúl always used as his respite and stared out, as he once did, at the Hudson River and the graying Palisades. “You have an incredible view,” she said. The sun was easing into the horizon, releasing the earth from the indolence it brought forth.
Raúl lifted himself off the couch as if he was bearing a great weight and for the first time in three days went to his window and stood next to Maddy. And he recognized things.
“It’s all new. It seems new. All of it. But I recognize it. Like I’ve been here before some other time. Another life, maybe. I don’t know anything anymore. I don’t know what will happen next.”
“I have an uneasy feeling,” said Maddy. “I’m scared. I don’t know why but I’m scared. I have a pit in my stomach.”
“It’s just that this thing is fresh. It’s opened up new feelings we don’t understand. Maybe never will.”
“No. I don’t think so. I understand what you’re saying. I realize I’m feeling love for him – and I can’t express that to him. It’s too late for that. I didn’t tell him when he was alive – but like I think he knew. I have this feeling of tremendous loss. I wasted that. I can only blame myself. I should have done something about it, let him know – something. I should have and I hate myself for that. I wasted it. But no. It’s not that.”
Raúl turned to Maddy. He saw what his father saw – the muscular shoulders, the strong jaw and her full lips. Her surety. And he felt as if he had known her for a long time, as if her appearance came with an unannounced expectation of long ago. He recognized something in her but he couldn’t quite put a finger on what it was. They knew each other. Maybe it was his father that he was seeing in her. He recognized him, there, in her. His imprint.
“Are you done with school?”
“No. I have a year. I don’t know how I’m going to do it. I have so much on my mind. I … I just don’t know.”
“Tell me,” he said.
Maddy turned to Raúl and looked up to his blue eyes like the sky. “You look like him,” she said. “You know. You do. Like I can see it. You’re like him, too. I can see that too. He’d push aside anything that would be an obstacle to us. You just did that – and at such a difficult time for you. I appreciate it. I do. Thank you for listening. For reaching out. He was like that. He was like that from the start. With everyone. Even when I first met him. He didn’t have to talk to me. But he did.” Maddy paused and looked down at her glass. Sipped. “Maybe he’s right here right now,” she said. “Wouldn’t that be something.”
“Something,” said Raúl. “Something.”
They stood like that, looking into each other’s eyes and didn’t say a word. Raúl reached for Maddy and put his arms around her and drew her in and held her. He could feel her body give. She cried, as if pulling her to him gave her permission to feel the deep sorrow she carried beneath her stoicism. He held her tighter and stroked her head and kissed the top of it, inhaling her every time. She buried her head even deeper into his chest. He encircled her neck with his right arm, his left arm across her back, and drew her even closer, wishing that she could pass through him at that moment – he through her. And somehow, together, his father, Javier Sicard, would become something else like this, another form with them. A life without end in the darkest of places where the heart aches and bends.
“Providence sometimes foreshadows the future of men in dreams, not so that they may be able to avoid the sufferings fated for them, for they can never get the better of destiny, but in order that they may bear them with the more patience when those sufferings come; for when disasters come all together and unexpectedly, they strike the spirit with so severe and sudden a blow that they overwhelm it; while if they are anticipated, the mind, by dwelling on them beforehand, is able little by little to turn the edge of sorrow.”
Achilles Tatius in The Adventures of Leucippe and Clitophon
To say it less sublimely, —in the history of the individual is always an account of his condition, and he knows himself to be a party to his present estate.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Conduct of Life
DNA is a relatively rigid polymer, typically modeled as a worm-like chain. It has three significant degrees of freedom: bending, twisting and compression, each of which causes particular limitations on what is possible with DNA within a cell. Bending or axial stiffness is important for DNA wrapping and circularization and protein interactions. Twisting or torsional stiffness is important for the circularization of DNA and the orientation of DNA bound proteins relative to each other. Compression or extension is relatively unimportant in the absence of high tension.
PART ONE: BENDING
July 17, 1996
New York City, Upper West Side
Life’s din diminished some in the small moment when he pulled open his apartment window with such expectation that the last few inches the window flew up knew only his eagerness. But on this day, July 17, 1996, the window got stuck halfway up. He stared at it, hands on his hips, perturbed at the window’s unexpected stubbornness. He loved watching the window reach its conclusion without him. Humidity, no doubt. Summer in the city.
He smacked it with the heel of his hands and muscled it open the rest of the way.
He placed his palms on the external, coarse sill and exhaled his frustration and leaned into the horizon – the Hudson River and the Jersey Palisades across the way and the George Washington bridge just north beaming a dull evening gray.
He waited all day to tilt into the picture. He loved the patience evening brought, especially in mid summer when the heat and humidity pressed against him. He arched his back and stretched and inhaled the tide’s dank odor.
He panned down six stories and set his eyes on an incongruous dance of Poodles and Labradoodles and French Bulldogs and a Great Dane and a German Shepherd and a Chihuahua and a couple of Golden Retrievers held easily by a dog walker in a weathered Yankee baseball cap.
The dogs sniffed the smells coming from a square earth and lifted their legs to trees and squatted when they recognized something. The dog walker was graceful, never entangled in the leashes held to one hand, then the other, the exchanges fluid and experienced as if it was all meant to be like this.
The Great Dane and the Chihuahua and the Bulldog dumped together, responding to some great secret unknown to man. The rest waited, and the dog walker studied them.
A country dog doesn’t lift his leg to a tree, not always, not necessarily, thought Dr. Raúl Sicard. There’s no reason to, no threat to its territory. The country dog roams unencumbered across a larger earth and squats.
Dr. Raúl Sicard wanted to believe that there was some luck to his life. That would be romantic. But luck had little play. His life was ordained, a design with some options guided by the instinct to survive. He was sure of it. He was certain Darwin was right. Adaptation and creativity go hand-in-hand and life is one large adaptation atoning to the unforeseeable – otherwise extinction follows.
Dr. Sicard, Raúl, often thought about his responsibility – the study of gene-environment interactions and how selection evaluates these relations. For over a year – since his doctorate in Genetics, Stanford University – Raúl examined ecologically important genes in a shimmering lab at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in the upper west side of Manhattan.
During his breaks, when he managed to will his head up from a microscope, Raúl strolled to the George Washington Bridge to study its scars. He went to the bridge to be away from the lab’s sterility, its shiny evangelical promise, and smell the clammy mid summer air, feel the earth beneath his feet, perspire like everyone else pushing through lives.
He studied the wounds on the bridge’s underbelly to see if they said anything about the fifty-five forgotten men left to the silence of time. He craned his head until his neck pained him and stiffened, and wondered.
It helped keep his head focused on where things come from and maybe he could make evolutionary predictions, establish principles. At Columbia Presbyterian, Raúl wanted to understand what reproductive strategies must be used in the future to minimize stress on our tired biosphere. He depended on histories. He looked for stories in the smallest of things, cells. He looked for sure signs.
But when he pulled open his apartment window and stepped into the frame he didn’t want to continue thinking about limitations and outcomes. He was done with the censors and motivators that exist in the brain and that deeply and unconsciously affect ethical premises. The day was over. He wanted to leave it behind.
He wanted to lose himself in the dog walker – an adaptation, an offspring that survived it all so far. A ancient herdsman, perhaps, like the ones we see on elysian fields in travel brochures to Scotland and Ireland and France, now a dog walker.
Haitian women rushed stately blue strollers with large white wheels around the dog walker scooping up the steamy remains with a hand gloved in a baggie. The other held the dog web.
Up and down Riverside Drive and across Joan of Arc Park, in the promising glow of summer evening, went these intertwining objects – the dog walkers and the Haitian women and their stately strollers.
When the phone rang and the sadness arrived and pushed aside everything familiar to him and stopped him from stretching as far as he could into the picture of the Palisades knocking at him.
He held the grainy sill and turned to the ring that tempted the faith he found in his routines.
There was a weight in the room that came out of nowhere – yet it was old and familiar, in the pit of his stomach, a sense of things lost, gloom.
Raúl faced the phone. He held the sill with his left hand, unable to give it up all the way, and leaned in.
The knots in his spine that would otherwise crack and unwind the fatigue that amassed from hours curled over a microscope deciphering the nucleic acid that contains the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms tightened.
The sadness multiplied. He had no explanation for it, dumbfounded. He liked knowing where things came from, how they evolved, what changed them, how they appear. How things appear even suddenly like the ring of the phone that hung in the air with the sadness.
He traced his steps for signs. Just a few moments before the first ring he entered his apartment and dropped the keys in the bowl on the table beneath the mirror near the front door and draped his lab coat over the chair meant just for that otherwise it would be useless. Grabbed a beer and turned on the TV for noise. But at some point that day, the sadness must have begun to set in unnoticed. Maybe the sadness had been there all along.
The phone rang again.
He could consider the ring’s origin or rather the origin of the intuition he had that came with the ring and told him that something happened and he was involved. But that was too much, too far to go.
Something traveled the distance and found him and opened a black hole and he didn’t want to be present. He didn’t want to be sucked in. Know its spiral history. This is what humans do, he thought, run for cover – and wait and adapt slowly, hopefully. Those that can’t adapt don’t make it, ever. They have no hope. Hope grows from adaptation. It’s the single most important characteristic of evolution, adaptation. From here, all springs forth – but especially hope. No hope, no survival. And the end, the true end of everything.
Raúl looked out the window and off in the east the moon was already there.
“It’s always already there,” he said, pushing out a whisper, a way to test his voice and see if he wasn’t dreaming. “Like everything else. Six inches from our noses. Always.”
The ring told him that events had unfolded and suddenly just like that he was in. He had been on one side of the looking glass and now on the other side nothing was recognizable. A chill ran up his spine. He felt bound. In the lab life laid down road signs, roots to instincts that he could quantify. There was nothing to measure here.
He turned and inhaled again, just to take a final whiff of the thick, clammy air. Maybe, just maybe what he was feeling was all an illusion, a figment of his exhausted imagination. But nothing. He lost the scent.
He retraced himself. But there was no way to revise the day, see it fully in memory’s half-light. The phone pawed at him trying to get to where the heart is.
After working in the lab he and friends sat in a sidewalk café across from Lincoln Center and had Brooklyn summer ales and dreamt of things that may never come to pass. On a cloudless bright day, they descended into the murky subway station on 161st and took the train to 72nd Street and strolled to 64th. It was a who cares and so what moment, he called it, because in the design of things, who knows – really – what the next moment can bring. It was important to have a philosophy, something to hold him up.
When everything is touched by the human hand, he believed, randomness takes on a whole different meaning. It conceals the real order. It assumes a privileged place. But randomness itself is part of the order of things. He knew that – that’s what he saw swimming on a microscope’s stage.
Wednesdays are halfway moments between the noise that is and the noise that was. And the noise that’s yet to arrive unannounced is always there too. That’s how Raúl saw things. But we never hear the noise that’s yet to come, ever.
He allowed himself a smoke on Wednesdays, a Marlboro Light. Often more then one. He dangled it from his mouth like his father did – “It’s just social,” his father said. Raúl took his time with it, sat back and rubbed his right hand across his unshaven face all in one smooth motion. He liked nothing better than not shaving on days like this because it showed that he was in the thick of it, living. He rubbed his hand across his face and chin a couple of times. There was comfort in seeing himself like this, not saying anything of importance, pointing to interesting passersby, with each puff challenging alterations deep in the nomenclature of life in the helix. But it didn’t matter. Everything is already determined. Everything. We fool ourselves thinking that it’s not.
A Guatemalteco on the corner selling dolls with bouncing heads, a Jamaican next to him selling antique copies of Paris Match and Look and National Geographic in several languages, the skinny invisible woman with tattoos of crosses and peace signs on either hand and barely able to stand on the corner waiting for pedestrians to push by and she’d mumble spare some change as they forget her, a picture of an extinction, something that no one wants to see intimately, the end of an adaptation. Someone’s daughter. A failure to create. She was being run over by the evolving. She would not be. It’s been determined like this, how it all goes. No second chances. No overtime.
When the phone rang he was having a beer in his apartment and getting ready to meet friends again that night to ogle girls in a bar somewhere near Columbia University. No commitments, just ogling. Everyone on the same page gauging each other’s reproductive investments.
He tried ignoring the third ring, its persistence. It came from somewhere deep in the coil, he was certain of that too. All things do. That’s the design. Wednesday, July 17, 1996 was determined long ago.
He turned to the hum of the TV. It helped him think and it distracted him, made his life noisier even though it wasn’t his. Now it was his life. He grabbed his beer, waiting for the phone to ring again, wondering whether to answer or to let the answering machine do the work and buy him time. He gulped his beer.
On the TV, a voice over a static map of Long Island filled the room with sadness. That’s when the phone rang a fourth time, its red flash igniting the papers on the desk next to it and the bills waiting for another week. An inexorable eye looking back at him.
Nothing mattered now. Except the fifth ring. Its sound hung in the air, hollow. The phone and the TV. Wednesday’s safety was gone.
…At 8:45P.M, eleven minutes after take-off from Kennedy International Airport, TWA flight 800, bound for Paris, France, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Long Island. Witnesses say they saw a bright flash in the sky. But nothing is certain. There are no causes known at this time. The Coast Guard responded immediately, dispatching numerous search and rescue vessels. The New York City Police Department, the New York State Police Department, and the Suffolk County Police Department have all responded as well. The National Transportation Safety Board has dispatched a team from New Jersey. And we’ve been informed that numerous private vessels are also involved in this initial search and recovery effort…
The phone rang again.
“Papá,” he whispered.
Raúl said it just to hear himself say it, to test its feel and the emptiness that arrives with flashes from a life lived, rattles you and tempts your faith, a specter that arrives in the weak light of suffering memory.
“Papá,” he whispered again.
It filled the room, repeating itself, over and over again and again, dying to reappear, always.
It overwhelmed everything. The sanctity of his routine, the lab, the dog walkers and their dogs crapping and the Haitian maids and their Cadillac strollers.
He picked up the phone and staggered.
He felt him there, the ghost of his father standing beside him as still as recollections tend to be where light suddenly is as darkness and the darkness is where we are and where we will be. Where the problems of the heart live. The sadness was new and full.
She places her chin on my desk. She leans over, arms on her thighs and rests her chin on my desk.
“Professor, I don’t know.” “I… I don’t feel anything.” “I …I’m indifferent. I don’t feel anything. I don’t. I just don’t feel anything.” She walks into my office with a big smile.
She wears a white wool turtleneck and her silky black hair, parted off-center on her left, falls around her face and over her shoulders like a frame calling attention to her lively eyes—and her smile.
– See more …
The beginning of Imagining Amsterdam can be found here. Below is what follows, the second section, which I’ve titled, for this exercise, “The Secret in the Mirror,” to comply with our work/play/reading of Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost.
For Hannah and Leah, who brought this story to me. And for Karen who has always been there, caring and interested and thoughtful.
Some ideas are new, but most are only recognition of what has been there all along, the mystery in the middle of the room, the secret in the mirror.
Rebecca Solnnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2005)
In a story such as this, the full view is necessary. Otherwise it won’t work. I don’t want false impressions.
I’ll start with a wide angle shot and push in so you’ll experience what I did when I finally got to Amsterdam in mid May, after I called him, and the city came to me. As he did. Slow like. An animal crouched low. And they rose up. First this city that proved everyone wrong, which is what he used to say – and he not far behind. They arrived together.
In the “tangible landscape of memory,” as Rebecca Solnit calls it, on one end is the primal scene of my father’s first instance with disease that keeps repeating itself in my life, and the life of my family; on the other end resides the “unseen bodies” that are at work, like strong winds that can be felt but not seen. Read more here…
So grateful for Joe Brooks and the Community Works Journal for, once again, doing me a solid and reissuing my essay, “Breaking Out of the Factory Model.” (Evidently they’ve gotten lots of ‘hits’ on this one.
There is a lot of talk about education reform, but there is little conversation about what teaching actually is — and who the teacher is.
What are the elements of teaching?
There is a singular demand on education today, namely that it develop producers—students that will mature to be workers and consumers. This single demand is blind to the sources of this production model, the teachers, and the nature of human interactions that comprise our culture.
– If I think back, I’d say that some of our most moving times together were when you thought you were about to leave behind something of yourself, he said over the phone. And … I don’t know, maybe sometimes you couldn’t. I don’t know. Or wouldn’t. You’d hold on. Tight. You’d hold on tight. To everything you could. Until you couldn’t.
I don’t know why I reached out to him after so many years. But I did. And here we were.
– There’s something of that now, I’m guessing, he continued in a soft tone. He paused, and waited.
It feels good to learn that something you’ve written is appreciated; it’s doubly great when the piece is re-issued because more teachers want to read it.
Here it is..
Ordinarily, when speaking about the teaching of writing, I’d address my remarks to an audience of my peers—teachers of English (Lit too), and composition and rhetoric teachers. But I’ve chosen to do otherwise, feeling that I want to try to communicate directly with you, instead. – See more at: Community Works Journal
I’ve navigated the teaching profession intuitively, always gravitating to what I sensed were voids in the system that, more often than not, compromised students. My rewards have not been monetary, nor have there been accolades showered on me – a special chair, a title, the such and such professor of. No. I’m nowhere near a think tank and the leisured life of, well, thinking and writing. None of this has happened. Mine has been a bumpy road – humbling in many respects. Some might even say I live on the boundaries of academe, shunning careerism – no publishing in obscure journals, no writing unreadable books, no clawing up the expected ladder to obscurity. I’ve done none of it. I’ve focused on students instead – and there’s a price to be paid for that.
But the rewards for this focus occupy my office shelves —objects the students have given me over the years. They are testaments to the significance of shared learning moments otherwise muted by the hallowed ivy.
Objects are aesthetic records of the deeply emotional link between the past and the present. Objects say something of our need to regain something of ourselves – something lost, perhaps, what memory is; they’re even about something we yet don’t know we’ve lost, something of a nature we’re yet unsure of. Something needing discovery. Objects point to the past, but to the future as well. And they emphasize how ephemeral time is.
Yet – while these objects are incredibly intimate accolades, they also signify how my dreams were held in check by my sense of responsibility to others, to the commitment one makes to someone else’s desires – a young dreamer’s. In these objects is a teaching life; they are portals into the difficult work of helping young minds integrate into culture – and of how a teacher evolves with students.
Life is Just a Bowl of Varies – Sid was an older gentleman that followed me around from course to course. And one day, when he was done with his schooling pastime to idle away hours in retirement, he handed me a bowl comprised of various dice. LIFE IS JUST A BOWL OF VARIES was printed on a card – that’s all. He was telling me that life is varied, diverse – and that it might diverge from my plans.
I sensed this. I fell into teaching; it was never planned. Many people don’t plan on becoming teachers – at least none that I knew while at grad school. Some go into it because it’s the final, common denominator; others continue down a path (mine was “the writing life”) unaware that the teaching profession would grab hold of them, a safety net of sorts. I thought I was going elsewhere. Sid must have navigated many divergent paths. He taught me something – something to expect.
Sid sat in the back of the class, usually next to other retirees that came to listen. I had no idea whether they read the material or whether they’d read the material in another life. Seldom did these folks say anything, giving space to the young undergrads that had to take my course. It was after class that one or two of the retirees would come up, thank me for the lecture and tell me whether they liked it or not. It was good today. This is when Sid, one day, came up and said, You’re an iconoclast. I smiled. I wore it like a badge of honor, a purpose for my teaching life.
I started teaching in 1985. I taught at SUNY College at Purchase from 1987 to 1996, two nights a week, three hour classes, and sometimes a three hour day class. I had to work to pay the rent, so SUNY was how I read the texts I needed to complete my PhD (I also taught at Manhattanville College at the time – 1986-1995. The life of the adjunct.). Introduction to American Literature. Literature of the Modern Age. Sexuality, Morality and Aesthetics in English Literature – 1880-1923 (drew a strange crowd, especially at night). Literature of Discipline and Punishment. Poor Sid, looking back, sat through most of these and watched an inexperienced teacher stumble his way through. I suppose Sid saw something, which prompted him to give me the dice – LIFE IS JUST A BOWL OF VARIES.
It’s turned out to be true. Everything for me has been about change and adaptation. Sid was right. I keep his bowl prominently displayed.
The Compass – Leah, in the picture, now a teacher and a tennis star, too, sent me, most recently, the antique, Stanley London, brass compass. Inscribed inside the top of the compass is Robert Frost‘s The Road Not Taken (1916). You know it.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Leah sent me The Compass not long ago. It sits opposite Life is Just a Bowl of Varies. The space between them is a traveled life.
I joked with her and said, “What, you think I need a compass?” We laughed. And she said, “No, you seem to be always finding paths for people.”
I think it’s both: in trying to find paths for students to fulfill dreams, I’ve found my own. We’ve both used the compass. We still need it.
Then there’s Frost. Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – / I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference.
When I’ve traveled down a path a frightened student puts forth, this has been a road that diverges. I’ve gone down many a scary road with students; we held on. Eventually I’ve tried doubling back. But that’s been impossible. “Back” is never a return; it’s a moving away, sometimes with regret and sorrow, always with something new in the horizon. It’s good to have a compass.
Heraclitus said, “Things keep their secrets.” The challenge with objects. Dice are small throwable objects with multiple resting positions. Like us, humans. Only we seem to land in random places, occupying arbitrary positions. We need navigational instruments that show directions and give a frame of reference.
Heraclitus also said that, “Whoever cannot seek/the unforeseen sees nothing,/for the known way/is an impasse.”
Object lesson 1: the objects of my teaching life represent a rejection of the “known way,” an understanding that we are always in “an impasse” – but that at least two are needed to break through the gridlock, the predicament, the jam. The hats and scarfs from Afghanistan, the elephant from Sri Lanka, Chinese objects, cards from all over the world – Thank You! Professor – all of these objects hold time. They speak of the impossible. Scary journeys taken side-by-side when no one was watching. These objects are symbols of always diverting plans that asked for different commitments, and once the commitments were made, as Frost says, I doubt if I should ever come back.
“Beauty is often spoken of as though it only stirs lust or admiration,” says Solnit, “but the most beautiful people are so in a way that makes them look like destiny or fate or meaning, the heroes of a remarkable story.”
This is who she is, this young woman – beautiful like this. Fate and meaning. Something remarkable she yet quite doesn’t understand and is terribly frightening. We’re invested in the plight of humanity and “exceptional beauty and charm,” as is hers, “are among those gifts given by the sinister fairy at the christening,” says Solnit. Humor and irony – and darkness. The child, at christening, never knows and spends the rest of her life trying to know – sometimes in fear. [ read more … ]
“I don’t know if I can trust you,” says to me one day, this very tiny, witty and very wise 19 year old student, a young woman.
She’s in my office for our weekly, hour long meeting. It’s near the end of the fall term’s 12th week, 2013. We speak about her magnificent writing, about writers and their lives – until life itself comes into the fold, something that always happens with this particular student. She’s always digging deep, searching.
When speaking about life – her view of it based on her experiences – she likes resting her head on my desk, crossing her arms and resting her chin on the backs of her folded hands. She slows down, becomes more contemplative. The sides of her long, black silky hair, carelessly pulled back and held by a band, fall over one side of her face or another. She leaves it, as if she hasn’t noticed it cascading over the side of her mouth. From here, this position, she comes up with the most uncanny of things.
“I don’t,” she repeats – and grins sardonically, a hallmark of hers when she’s lining me up for something. “I don’t know if I can …”
“After all this time, this is what you say to me? Why not?” I ask somewhat confused, wondering where this was coming from – and where we’re going.
“Well, the other day the girls in our class, we were like talking, you know. We were talking about you. And one of them said that you’re hot,” the hot rolling off her tongue as if suffering from too much neon, almost an accusation. “I don’t know if I can trust a hot, old professor,” she says – and laughs, sits up and leans back, hair in her face, which she pushes back behind her ears.
What does one do with something like this? When I was her age it would have never occurred to me to speak to a professor like that – but the audacity of today’s students is incredible. No fear. They don’t hold back. Titles, status, age – nothing phases them. We, the gray-haired, old professors live in a world that doesn’t exist to them, the young students of today. What does hot even mean in her vernacular?
There I sat, somewhere between a momentary dalliance with vanity and the treacherous phenomenon of aging. And here I am. 60. That which has been kept at bay has leaped onto my back and won’t let go. Hot quickly dissolves into dark irony. “Old man,” my youngest son calls me. “El viejo,” say my kids mirroring the term of affection that is so much the idiom of the Spanish and I used for my father. Like father, like son.
In Men Over 55 I lamented how we men exist in a kind of fog; in Coming to 60 (Reluctantly and with Some Help), I bemoaned the mathematical conundrum: there’s less time. Now 60, I’ve signed my AARP card, charmed by the organization’s promise: “Real Possibilities.” Another 30, 40 years? I’m reaching for anything – what the hell.
The young student rattled this old man. Hot points back to time gone – if there ever was a time when hot was real – while signaling less time to come. A slow, long sunset. “An aged man is but a paltry thing,/A tattered coat upon a stick,” says W. B. Yeats in Sailing to Byzantium.
Paltry: ridiculously or insultingly small; utterly worthless; mean or contemptible – minor, slight, insignificant, inconsiderable.
Did the student tell me the story to make me feel small – to have me come face-to-face with my insignificance? Or was it to make me feel better about feeling slight, utterly worthless? Was it a kindness?
Tattered: ragged, torn to pieces – hanging loosely from the main part.
Is a 60 year old man a ridiculous thing barely hanging on – loosely – to life itself? And so the “hot” problem doesn’t make you feel better or good, rather it accents the ragged part, the insignificance I’m becoming until, well, I am Nothing – a page left for posterity on Facebook.
A prayer at 60: Nothing who art everywhere hallowed be thy nothingness. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Nothing. Give us this day our daily Nothing. And forgive us Nothing as we forgive Nothing, who sin Nothing, and deliver us from Nothing for thine is the kingdom of Nothing, the power and the glory of Nothing.
“Once out of nature I shall never take/My bodily form from any natural thing,” Yeats says. Of course not – how can that be possible today when we’re already so far from – and out of – Nature that we are confused – and battered – by mere snow storms and Arctic blasts, surprised by their voracity? We’re left pining for something else – something “Of hammered gold and gold enameling,” perhaps, that will take us into posterity and be worth something.
How far will hot take me – not even “hammered gold”?
The student’s story is “Of what is past, or passing, or to come,” as Yeats says. Once, maybe, you were hot, she may be saying; there’s an inkling of it, she says. Barely visible. But it’s the past and the fact that at least one of the students recognized this, it’s passing, transitioning towards the Nothing. The hallowed nothingness “to come.”
This is why men over 60 grab at straws – the end is near and the way there is a dramatic decline, a decay visible before our very eyes. Hot is not even a straw to grab at since vanity is fleeting and you’re left recognizing that the decline has come about slowly, assuredly, strong – a mysterious animal hiding in the high grass, waiting, time on its side. Until time no more.
Somewhere inside this confusing noise is the truth; somewhere here is the story of the hot, old professor, I think. Hot means virile, too, no? But uncovering the truth about one’s own sense of self while aging is difficult – and not just because the noise is deafening; it’s because no man raised in a culture like ours, where the male is privileged and lionized, can actually conceive himself unmanly, not virile. Hot.
Men’s virility is today’s problem du jour, says Marc Lallanilla, Assistant Editor of livescience, in “Low T: Real Illness or Pharma Windfall?”. My young student perhaps knew this, heard this in the noise, and she made light of it. Men are teased, even admonished, for having too much testosterone; now we’re told we don’t have enough T – either because we’re facing the winds of our misfortune or because of real biological challenges. Hypogonadism, testicular cancer. Not pretty.
I’m listening more intently to issues concerning us older guys. But when you hear hot, you lose sight – a momentary reprieve – of being “sick with desire/And fastened to a dying animal” that “knows not what it is.” Yeats again, perfect on aging.
And perhaps that is the moral of the little funny story: I don’t know what I am. I don’t what “it is,” this “dying animal,” looking back, taking inventory, seeing what’s amassed – if anything.
I was an exile before I had time to reason.
I was an exile before I understood the feeling of banishment.
I was an exile before I could gain insight into the morphology of political systems that are always already expelling one’s consciousness.
Exile first arrived, unannounced, quiet like a lion in the bush after his prey, through family – a father out for weeks making napalm, a mother ironing the family clothes with a revolver strapped to her side, a machine gun parked in the front yard, gun fire, deafening rockets overhead, sleepless nights, whispers and apprehensive glances.
To a small boy hiding beneath stairs the powerful surge to push him out and away is not that; it’s more immediate, more frightening, more resolute. Textured hostility. A bully in the schoolyard. The authoritative forces that expel a person from his place are far from one’s life; they are nebulous and foggy and distant from one’s dreams and desires. Which is why exile is so profound. Read More …
The world is blue at its edges and in its depth. This blue is the light that got lost. Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the the sun to us. It disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water.
Thus begins the second chapter in A Field Guide to Getting Lost,“The Blue of Distance.” Is it the blue of creation? Of that always already first moment, repeating itself in the unknown (unknowable?) of time when we were yet to be? And like that blue end of the spectrum that disperses, is that what happens to us – we disperse? And at some point are we nothing? Is the greatest fear of all changing into nothing? Is this the why of Facebook – social media?
We move through space and time, but in a constant sort of scatter, picking up pieces of matter and sound, dispersing others through language, art, manifestations and epiphanies we’d like to share in the silence of it all.
Yesterday, Sunday, February 2, 2014 was a strange day in that silence of it all. As I write the date I’m cognizant of how distant it is; or rather, I am aware of how unsure I was, yesterday, lodged somewhere in the noise that carries us along somehow, mysteriously, as if we’re both a part of it and not. Read more…
Several of us, motivated by Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, have created Getting Lost, a blog that asks a simple question found in Solnit’s book: “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?”
About Getting Lost tells the seed for this blog – and invites all of you to participate. It’s indeed open to all and we want to see what kinds of stories, essays, images, etc., are generated around the notion of getting lost.
Please visit us – an intro post is already up, “Lost in the Most Unlikely of Places…” Enjoy. A new experiment. Take the plunge…
I’ve not written on the blog in some time, waiting to see what would move me and I’ve been mulling over a few things – some may come later.
But for now, here it is … I’m currently reading, among other things, Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost (Penguin, 2005). How I came about to Solnit’s book is this: I was sitting in what’s left of what I can say was SoHo, once, Fanelli’s where, in my grad school days, you could be having a beer and a burger and chatting it up with, say, an unassuming Jim Jarmusch.
This world no longer exists in the mall-like SoHo – which is one of Solnit’s points: how can one get lost in the tightly constrained world we’ve manufactured?
Here I am trying to re-capture the lost, double Eagle Rare Single Barrel bourbon 10 YO Whiskey – and a Brooklyn Lager – and this large, well built young man in a t-shirt (about 30), bald, is sitting next to my wife, Nina, and she and I are excitedly discussing the film La Grande Belleza (Italian; The Great Beauty: ), which we’d just seen at the Angelika down the block from Fanelli’s. It must have been the during the second Eagle Rare and the guy – like in my old grad school days – jumps in. No. Let’s try this again: he smooths into the conversation, which quickly went from contemporary film (not movies) to art to design to technology to literature and so on.
The guy is J.P. Hollis – a very cool, bright self-made designer, writer, literary person, etc. Really a New Yorker, though not from New York, and a prototype of the hybrid individual of tomorrow, which got us talking about women – prompted by my wife, Nina (her favorite conversation) – and relationships. He’d recently broken up with a young woman who then headed for LA – another mecca of sorts. Which is how we got to “wandering” and “finding one’s way” and “careers” and “the future” and “what am I going to do with myself if I DON’T get the RIGHT INTERNSHIP – Holy shit!!” Which is when we were all laughing away and we decided to connect and continue chatting and so on, primarily because his technical background – his history – is almost identical to mine and I thought, “Hey, here’s this 30 year old that 30 or so years after me, he’s done almost the same thing. Why not chat and maybe we can do something cool?”
This is when he proposed I read Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. So I’m reading and I’m only thru Chapter 1, the “Open Door,” and I can’t help but think of all might students, each and everyone that places such high significance, such importance on what’s really a manufactured reality and have bought lock, stock and barrel the notion that there are “correct” ways and “not so correct” ways of doing things (mostly about the attainment of material possessions and social capital) when, in reality, every step taken is (a) unknowable and fraught with error and (b) the goal is actually to reach towards those areas, those things that (a) scare a person and (b) the person feels scared about because s/he knows nothing, in the end (I know less now than when I was your age – which should scare all students that have sat in my classes).
To this end, Solnit quotes the pre-Socratic philosopher Meno, who says, “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” Solnit copied this down and carries it around. I’m doing the same thing and I’m going to start asking students this all the time. I’d simply add that each person must pursue that which is totally unknown with great passion.
In the end, well, it’s the end, no? Whose life is it anyway? Goldman Sachs? Whose?
We fear getting lost because, in our view of things, we’re not suppose to, not if we’re following. But the point, here, is not to follow, is it?
Later Solnit cites the great philosopher, Walter Benjamin, which really hit home when I think of my students – but primarily when I think of those students in New York City, Washington, D.C., Bombay, Hong Kong, and Afghanistan. “Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance – nothing more,” says Benjamin. “But to lose oneself in a city – as one loses oneself in a forest – that calls for quite a different schooling.” Ah ha! That’s it, really. Solnit adds to this: “To lose yourself: a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away.”
How true and how wonderful – and requiring much discipline. A “voluptuous surrender.” Say it a few times. Let it slide off your tongue, slowly, effortlessly, seductively – and you’ll begin to ask the right questions. Focus on the surrender part first. None of us feels comfortable “surrendering,” but it’s essential. We never talk about surrendering. We talk about “warring”; we talk about “conquering”; we talk about “next steps,” as if somewhere – and somehow – they’re enumerated and all we have to do is “fit in.” We we talk about “efficiency” and “accountability” and “excellence.” We talk so much, and so jingoistically, that the individual’s desire for a self is immediately fogged in, trapped into believing that the jingles are somehow true, a reality.
“The word ‘lost’ comes from the Old Norse los,” says Solnit, “meaning the disbanding of an army, and this origin suggests soldiers falling out of formation to go home, a truce with the wide world.”
Go home. Find a truce with yourselves and the world.
In the end, Solnit worries about my students’ generation, and says, “I wonder what will come of placing this generation under house arrest.” Which is to say, what will come of a generation that has been “housed” in program after program, system after system, each of which are designed to create a moral consciousness – a spirit – from the outside, not from the inside, which is the only way to create a meaningful identity.
The unknown – not about futures, not about “what am I good at?” – scares us the most; it is an unknown about who you are and the fear is in what you may find. The French call this l’avenir - that which is to come, the real future, not the plans, the programs, the penciled in events.
You can run, yes; you can join up; you can be a part of “it”, what Chris Hedges calls the “spectacle,” which in his hands is the grand illusion parading as reality. Or you can get lost, literally, metaphorically, and philosophically and spiritually. Then you might find some answers.
I’m just reporting or, better, re-sharing these 2 great pieces, worthy of a profound reading, a careful reading.
The first, Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene, Roy Scranton argues quite effectively thatthe end is inevitable so we better adjust, ask the right question and learn to live with our deaths – individually and as a civilization:
The biggest problem climate change poses isn’t how the Department of Defense should plan for resource wars, or how we should put up sea walls to protect Alphabet City, or when we should evacuate Hoboken. It won’t be addressed by buying a Prius, signing a treaty, or turning off the air-conditioning. The biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront this problem, and the sooner we realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality. Read more …
In Chomsky’s right…, a piece that is likewise linked to Learning How to Die, but not in obvious ways, rather in subtle ways since Patrick L. Smith basically discloses how The New York Times tells only half-truths and is thus complicit with neoliberal – and disastrous – approaches to foreign policy – or any policy, including climate policy, for that matter:
In my view, we are amid a pandemic of misinformation as to our global behavior. The dishonesty with which we are given the world — an essentially fantastic version of it — is becoming abject to the point of danger. And it is frighteningly willful. Here is the paradox: We cannot bear to see things as they are because things as they are constitute a refutation of our dearest mythologies, but we must see things as they are if we are to make sense of ourselves in the 21st century. Read more…
You really can’t make this up, which is why I am humbled by these 2 articles and can only pass these on in hopes that we may begin, somehow, to get our heads out of some deep dark hole.
In Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Rob Nixon says “that we we urgently need to rethink – politically, imaginatively, and theoretically – what I call ‘slow violence.’ By slow violence I mean a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all…We need, I believe, to engage a different kind of violence, a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous, but rather incremental and accretive, its calamitous repercussions playing out across a range of temporal scales.”
Post, is “a third-year Afro-American studies student who identifies as black, Cherokee and Chinese.” In a video about UCLA having more NCAA Championships than black male first year students, Stokes “recites a spoken word poem in the video, citing blaring statistics about the university’s diversity issue.”
According to the school’s enrollment statistics, African-Americans make up 3.8 percent of the student population. In the video, Stokes points out that black males make up 3.3 percent of the male student population, and that 65 percent of those black males are undergraduate athletes. Of the incoming men in the freshmen class, only 1.9 percent of them were black.
In an interview with the Daily Bruin, Stokes said he almost dropped out of UCLA during his first year because he felt isolated and uncomfortable. Although he eventually found his niche in the minority community, he said he wanted to raise awareness about the school’s lack of diversity before the university’s application deadline on Nov. 30.
“We had to do something to put our issues on the map,” Stokes said.
Also see VIDEO HERE.
Well, well, well … seem to be on the same page with Edmundson – great.
Education has one salient enemy in present-day America, and that enemy is education—university education in particular. To almost everyone, university education is a means to an end. For students, that end is a good job. Students want the credentials that will help them get ahead. They want the certificate that will give them access to Wall Street, or entrance into law or medical or business school. And how can we blame them? America values power and money, big players with big bucks. When we raise our children, we tell them in multiple ways that what we want most for them is success—material success. To be poor in America is to be a failure—it’s to be without decent health care, without basic necessities, often without dignity. Then there are those back-breaking student loans—people leave school as servants, indentured to pay massive bills, so that first job better be a good one. Students come to college with the goal of a diploma in mind—what happens in between, especially in classrooms, is often of no deep and determining interest to them.
In its refusal to identify anyone by name or job title, this four-hour film — Mr. Wiseman’s 38th institutional documentary since 1967 — makes a profound statement about democratic participation. It’s not the “me, but the “we,” that keeps democracy alive. From the humblest janitor to the most esteemed professor, everyone belongs to the same community and is equally important. The modern university is a complex organism that, to function efficiently, needs every component, including someone to cut the grass.
Detachment and Education go hand-in-hand. Education breeds detachment and detachment is what students feel. And teachers, we increase the feeling of separation and disengagement, of being disunited.
In the Symposium, Plato argues that “you cannot harmonize that which disagrees.” If we look closely at education’s physical plant, from the most downtrodden of examples to the most luxurious – the top of the heap – a kind of disinterestedness,aloofness, permeates the environment, as does loneliness. We can of course see this in the architecture, from the most modern and advanced along the romantic Charles to the very old and decrepit alongside industrial sites; we see this is in the efficient militarism of classrooms – the neat rows that force innocent eyes to look up at intimidating images of poets and scientists, famous quotes that dictate accepted understandings of knowledge and culture, and discredit others. These settings that on the surface inspire accord and pleasing arrangements are in fact focused on the law of competition which is, in short, the law of war.
The environmental oversimplification of an extremely complex and subtle experience – teaching and learning – requiring safer, more open spaces, is determined by economic determinism, a harsh, modern version of oligarchy.
“One does not do the work that one chooses to do because one is called to it by Heaven or by one’s natural abilities,” Wendell Berry tells us in What Matters? Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth,”but does instead the work that is determined and imposed by the economy…Among the many costs of the total economy, the loss of the principle of vocation is probably the most symptomatic and, from a cultural standpoint, the most critical. It is by the replacement of vocation with economic determinism that the exterior workings of a total economy destroy human characters and culture from the inside.”
A vocation is a calling, a strong inclination, which is very difficult to find in an environment that inspires competition and detachment through discipline. Learning requires a soft touch because the learner is always vulnerable. Vulnerability can be a strength but it is, in the educational architecture of detachment, taught as weakness.
The most recent, horrific incidents involving hazing in our schools are examples of how our culture promotes the violent extraction of vulnerability from anyone that is perceived as different. Thus Detachment and Education have effectively eradicated Love from teaching and learning, which is, ironically, the foundation for collaboration and cooperation.
Let’s listen to Plato’s wisdom, again …
Evil is the vulgar lover who loves the body rather than the soul, in as much as he is not even stable, because he loves a thing which is in itself unstable, and therefore when the bloom of youth which he was desiring over, he takes wing and flies away, in spite of all his words and promises; whereas the love of the noble disposition is lifelong, for it becomes one with the everlasting things.
Economic determinism requires that we concentrate solely on the short term, not the “noble disposition” that is “lifelong”; we don’t want to imagine “everlasting things,” waging that immediate profit is more beneficial, though in Western Culture, since Plato, we’ve known that “being overcome with the love of money, or of wealth, or of political power, whether a man is frightened into surrender by the loss of them, or, having experienced the benefits of money and political corruption, is unable to rise above the seductions of them,” and a rejection of the soul’s calling for permanence.
In essence, the exclusion of Love from the educational endeavor ensures that we’re not teaching for everlasting things; rather, we are teaching for the short term. And in the short term, there is only “love of money, or of wealth, or of political power.”
How’s that working out for us?
Wendell Berry calls this “limitless selfishness.” He says that, “In our limitless selfishness, we have tried to define ‘freedom,’ for example, as an escape from all restraint. But … ‘free’ is etymologically related to ‘friend.’ These words come from the same Germanic and Sanskrit roots, which carry the sense of ‘dear’ or ‘beloved.’ We set our friends free by our love for them, with the implied restraints of faithfulness or loyalty. This suggests that our ‘identity’ is located not in the impulse of selfhood but in deliberately maintained connections.”
No, not Facebook – though students tell me that We know what we mean by friend. We don’t need to know a word’s roots. Words are not that important – not like that.
Love, in this world, has gone by way of the Internet, though, and has metamorphosed into an “illusion,” as Chris Hedges notes in Empire of Illusion. In Hedges’ hands the illusion of love is best expressed in porn, which “reflects,” he says, “the endemic cruelty of our society. This is a society that does not blink when the industrial slaughter unleashed by the United States and its allies kills hundreds of civilians in Gaza or hundreds of thousands of innocents in Iraq and Afghanistan…The violence, cruelty, and degradation of porn are expressions of a society that has lost the capacity for empathy.”
Empathy, community, cooperation and collaboration are the hallmarks of a healthy society; these are likewise the essential qualities that must be at the heart of any educational endeavor. If Education is not healthy, society can’t be either. But in order to get at empathy, we have to get at vulnerability; in order to get at vulnerability we have to connect our brains to our hearts and souls – an endeavor antithetical to education that privileges only Reason, not sense, not sensibility, not, essentially, Love.
In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman‘s 1985 book, he concludes that,
Today we must look to the city of Las Vegas, Nevada, as a metaphor of our national character and aspiration, its symbol a thirty-foot high card-board picture of a slot machine and a chorus girl. For Las Vegas is a city entirely devoted to the idea of entertainment, and as such proclaims the spirit of a culture in which all public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment. Our politics, our religion, news, athletics, education, and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice.
In this world, Detachment is the consequence of an Education guided by economic determinism; in turn, lust, not love, sits center stage so that a work of art, say, such as one makes of one’s life, has no purpose but to itself. It should be of no surprise, then, that what we are experiencing today is a gross example of the violence that competition breeds since, by definition, we are laying out the conditions of war; unfortunately, this war now exists among ourselves, between us.
Ordinarily, when speaking about the teaching of writing, I’d address my remarks to an audience of my peers—teachers of English (Lit too), and composition and rhetoric teachers. But I’ve chosen to do otherwise, feeling that I want to try to communicate directly with you, instead.
My reasoning is simple: the teaching of writing allows for a particular way into a student; it’s a way of seeing a student quite differently and through language— the student’s language. Language is a gateway to the soul, one of just a couple, which requires that I too change my language in order to address you, an audience quite different from that found in the journals about the “craft,” more inclined to “theorize” and conjure the ghosts of Bahtin and Vygotsky ad nauseam.
The Black Atlantic explores the earliest Africans, both slave and free, who arrived in the New World. Through stories of individuals caught in the transatlantic slave trade, we trace the emergence of plantation slavery in the American South. The episode also looks at what that Era of Revolutions — American, French and Haitian — would mean for African Americans and for slavery in America.
Podemos aprender bastante sobre nosotros mismos examinando una sola palabra: trabajo. Nuestro sentido de esta palabra simple ha experimentado un cambio sÃsmico â€”y nosotros hemos cambiado junto a ellaâ€”.
via Cronopio U.S.A..
I write because I’m confused. I turn to writing because it’s a way for me to undo the confusion.
A young student sitting in my office says, “I’m tired of competing for grades in school. I’ve been doing it for years. And I’m tired. I was once a creative person and now I feel as if education has sucked it all out of me. I don’t think I can do this anymore.”
In a writing class, in front of everyone, yet another student, lazily leaning his head in the palm of his hand, declares for all to hear: “I hate reading. I really, really hate reading.”
I’m flummoxed – scared too – because I sense that these two students’ assertions are connected and point to a systematic, institutionalized process of disturbing the natural inclination to express one’s sense of self creatively; and that this systemization has replaced the instinct to imagine with an illusion – that competition and material gain are the road to success and happiness.
I am writing because I want to see if my imagination can go inside these students’ statements to discover if, indeed, these young minds, these innocent minds see themselves as they do because they were placed on this conveyor belt to happiness and left to their own devices to fend for themselves in a world that has been constructed vertically, competitively.
I’m wondering whether somewhere along their respective journeys, these students – many are like them – have intuitively felt that they were somehow conceived as just more raw material, inert and indifferent, and ready to be used for anything at all?
If student “A” is tired, then her education has never focused on her needs. On what though? Student “B”, in his exclamation, which was met with smiles, nods of agreement and some laughs, fails to see that his statement (1) comes from a position of incredible privilege, (2) that it disrespects his fellow classmates, many of whom don’t have the social safety net that enables him to feel that reading and thus education are a chore, something to be tolerated, and (3) that he’s giving us a snapshot of his family, which he also disrespects since they are the ones affording him the luxury of an elite education – to say nothing of the fact that he’s providing for us a sense of the values that have been instilled in him by family, community and education.
Both students are being groomed to be stalwart contributors to our systems of power and production. Each
“For a long time now,” continues Berry, “we have understood ourselves as travelers toward some industrial paradise, some new Eden conceived and constructed entirely by human ingenuity. And we have thought ourselves free to use and abuse nature in any way that might further this enterprise.”
We have mobilized great support for this enterprise – and in the process insinuated a certain category of human existence: surplus people. Student “A” and student “B” are two extremes of this existence: “A” is reluctant, tired, looking for answers that the system can’t provide; “B” is cynical, completely, but held up by wealth, which gives him the impression that he just has to get through this impasse – reading, writing, schooling – and he’ll get to a better (meaning: richer, brighter, wealthier) future. Both students are bored, though student “A” understands that there may be a more creative approached.
We have accepted these conditions as life itself. That these two student types exist is warranted by an ideology held together by a mythology that promises an illusory, gilded future while concealing the powerful monopoly behind the myth-making apparatus. Students – perhaps all of us – are helpless here.
Since 1990, a wave of massive deals and rapid globalization have left the media industries further centralized in nine transnational conglomerates – Disney, AOL Time Warner, Viacom (owner of CBS), New Corporation, Bertelsman, General Electric (own her of NBC), Sony, AT&T – Liberty Media, and Vivendi Universal. These giants own all the world’s major film studios, TV networks, and music companies, and a sizable fraction of the most important cable channels, cable systems, magazines, major-market TV stations, and book publishers.
As Herman and Chomsky tell us in Manufacturing Consent (2002 edition), this massive control of media experience enables easy transmission of a ruling ideology; it’s a constant barrage of the same. The original text, by Herman and Chomsky, was published in 1988 ; since, their description of the Propaganda Model has held up (perfect proof here). In 1999, approximately ten years later, Robert W. McChesney publishes Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times. McChesney argues that “media have become a significant anti-democratic force in the United States and, to varying degrees, world-wide. The wealthier and more powerful the corporate media giants have become, the poorer the prospects for participatory democracy.”
This intense concentration of the myth-making apparatus affects all areas of our culture, not least of which education. If we add the Internet and ubiquitous computing, we have a distributive model whereby a ruling ideology is delivered unimpeded through almost infinite numbers of portals. In other words, it’s relentless. And the message is clear, as McChesney points out: “the bulk of the population is depoliticized.” Thus student “A,” dispirited and not sure why, and student “B,” indifferent, uncaring, bored, are born.
By 2004, Robert W. McChesney produces yet another look at our dependencies on media, The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communication Politics in the 21st Century.
“The political nature of the problem of the media in democratic societies is well-known; virtually all theories of self-
government are premised on having an informed citizenry, and the creation of such an informed citizenry is the media’s providence.” The problem, however, is that, “The crucial tension lies between the role of the media as profit-maximimizing commercial organizations and the need for the media to provide the basis for informed self-government.” This tension is what concerns citizens; it is also what produces an exhausting, dictatorial or totalitarian form of behavior, particularly in its use of people and nature, reinforcing the inevitable creation of student “A” and student “B,” both of whom see themselves as trapped.
What is being sacrificed is health for productivity. Where we need atonement, we have moved – and continue to do so – far from any appropriate measures that might in fact produce a more exceptional human being that is at one with his and her immediate world. This requires a greater concentration on where one is now, the space each person occupies – and an examination of the problems existing in that space. Countering this very basic, human need is the world Herman, Chomsky and McChesney describe because it is always already focused on the future, an illusion of course, but nevertheless fabricated for us as real. The focus on an illusory future breeds competition since this future is consistently challenged by dwindling resources. So there is a future somewhere out there in the distance – but the message is clear: not all will make it.
This is supported by a competitive, vertically structured educational system comprised of elite schools that are buttressed by elite communities. Not everyone can play. Students “A” and “B” are rebelling, primarily because they intuitively feel that they’re not the special interests that ruling elites require to survive.
Thus I write because I’m confused. I am totally confused by this idea of surplus people that, indeed, is divided along socio-economic lines but also includes the children of the elite themselves because the narratives of our time that give us a sense of the world we inhabit have categorically removed the free exercise of the imagination, particularly when this is tied to will. We have taken away will, which is why kids – all of us – feel exhausted; we have taken away our natural need for atonement.
“In a conversation,” says Wendell Berry, “you always expect a reply. And if you honor the other party to the conversation, if you honor the otherness of the other party, you understand that you must not expect always to receive a reply that you foresee or a reply that you will like. A conversation is immitigably two-sided and always to some degree mysterious; it requires faith.”
Conversation like this, faith and mystery, responses one may not like, all these things Berry points out are antithetical to the parasitic nature of the corporation; in turn, the corporation, which today includes education, particularly higher education, has removed conversation from the equation, thus students “A” and “B” wallow and serve – a life of servitude is what scares them. Servitude as a way of life requires the removal of imagination from the culture. You can find this happening in Education.
Once consequence of the pursuit of an expansive power imaginary is the blurring of the lines separating reality from fancy and truth telling from self-deception and lying. In its imaginary, power is not so much justified as sanctified, excused by the lofty ends it proclaims, ends that commonly are antithetical to the power legitimated by the constitutional imaginary. At present, according to one apologist, “empire has become a precondition for democracy.” The United States, he continues, should “use imperial power to strengthen respect for self-determination [and] give states back to abused, oppressed people who deserve to rule for themselves.” Thus, instead of imperial domination as the antithesis of democracy or of imposed government, we have a fantasy of benevolence, of opposites harmonized through the largesse of a superpower (20).
Along these lines, on Democracy Now!, we learn that, “New research shows many so-called experts who appeared on television making the case for U.S. strikes on Syria had undisclosed ties to military contractors. A new report by the Public Accountability Initiative identifies 22 commentators with industry ties. While they appeared on television or were quoted as experts 111 times, their links to military firms were disclosed only 13 of those times.”
Of course, this is how inverted totalitarianism works: pundits, politicians and, as we see here, US Foreign
More importantly, this is the exercise of a worldview that narrows Democracy’s aim and supplants it with a worldview that’s an illusion.
To say that we’re deeply in trouble is an understatement.
Christina Hoff Sommers, covering the event, writes,
Last week I attended a debate at American University between dissident feminist Camille Paglia and AU gender scholar Jane Flax. The topic: “Gender Roles: Nature or Nurture?” Flax gave a polite and respectable defense of an exhausted idea: “gender is a social construction.” But Paglia stole the show. She deftly reminded the audience that Mother Nature tends to get the final word—and is not a feminist. I watched the faces of astonished and fascinated undergraduates as Paglia shattered the sacred icons of contemporary gender studies. By the end of the evening, even three sullen hipsters sitting next to me seemed to be won over.
Paglia, a professor of humanities, is that rare intellectual who knows and loves high culture but also appreciates rock stars, drag queens, and soap operas.
Paglia herself comments that
Women’s studies programs were rushed into existence in the 1970s partly because of national pressure to add more women to faculties that were often embarrassingly all-male. Administrators diverting funds to these new programs were less concerned with maintaining scholarly rigor than with solving a prickly public relations problem. Hence women’s studies was from the start flash-frozen at that early stage of ideology. . . . No deviation was permitted from the party line, which was that all gender differences are due to patriarchy, with its monolithic enslavement and abuse of women by men. . . .
In her opening remarks, Paglia, said,
My own thinking on this issue of innate versus learned traits is heavily indebted to Romanticism. But I take the Late Romantic view, associated with mid to late nineteenth-century Decadents like Charles Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde, who saw nature as a beautiful but tyrannically mechanical force that we are obligated to resist and defy through the ever-evolving
permutations of culture. The precursor in this strain of perverse Romanticism was not Rousseau but the Marquis de Sade, whose voluminous writings had vast influence, including on Nietzsche, whom Michel Foucault, the deity of poststructuralism, claimed as his model.
I have argued, as in my first book, Sexual Personae, which was an expansion of my doctoral dissertation, that the historical and mythological identification of woman with nature is true—based on biological facts that we may find unpalatable in these emancipated times but that cannot be wished away or amended as of yet by science. But arriving at that highly controversial position was the result of a long process of observation, investigation, and reflection. Indeed, during my adolescence in upstate New York, I had angrily held a completely opposite point of view, which I was eventually forced to relinquish after the extensive research I did into both biology and anthropology for my dissertation.
I highly recommend this engaging intellectual and her entire talk can be located here.
Part of what informs my life is my ongoing assimilation into American culture. The journey began in 1961.
It was cold and snow was piled high on the tarmac of Idlewild Airport (now JFK International) and on New York City street corners. For a wide-eyed, frightened, young boy, but 7, and who didn’t speak a word of English, the City was something out of an epic, something only imagination can conjure in big terms, colossal, I don’t know, something seemingly impossible though there he found himself in Herald Square, W34th Street, in 1961.
What I didn’t know is that to take in a powerful culture like this, I had to give something up – and if not give it up entirely, tuck it away somewhere.
The first change, the one aspect of my life I had to immediately push away was fútbol. Not the game, rather the word. In it is a world. Only this world is not the U. S.’s. No longer would it be fútbol or even futbol, the name given by Spanish speaking countries to the universal game.
Football originated in England. FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) lists 43 affiliated nations that use fútbol and futbol. The United States and Canada are the only two members, of a total of 45, that call the game soccer. Soccer has been the prevailing term for association football in the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, where other codes of football are dominant.
An initial code of football involves the helmet. When this kind of protection becomes central, the culture, unknowingly, adjusts its gaze on that one vital component. This change, this new point of view, is fraught with implication; it changes the values of a culture, an important factor in determining the meaning of football.
The head in fútbol is used for thinking, planning – and heading. The head is a weapon in football. The critical thinking happens on the sidelines and in booths, thinkers assisted by technology – computers, cameras, software, communications technology – that reflect our very own condition, the fan looking in, the fan trying to read the very confusing kernels of information streaming from various points of origin, most of which are unknown. This is not to suggest that there’s no thinking on the Gridiron. There is – but it’s short lived, reactionary, compressed, almost ephemeral, fleeting – gone once territory is captured. Followed by chatter. Followed by next. In-between a beer maybe.
Violence, the taking of territory, anxiety over time – the defining characteristics of football that pushed aside the grace of the world’s game, fútbol. Instantly I learned that force is privileged in this foreign place. Force and violence, that is. The taking of territory by guile and violence, all neatly wrapped in a spectacle that generates huge amounts of money in a merciless, vertical economic reality. You’re in or your out. That’s it. Play or go home. The message, as a young boy trying to take it all in, was clear. Totally. Riches reside at the top, the penthouse – or in the case of football, the luxurious owner’s box. On the field the bodies lay wounded, forever changed in a quid pro quo: money for your body. A football contract is about the value of a player’s body – that’s it.
Heavy snow fell the night before John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, January 20th, 1961. We flew into New York a few days before. The election of 1960 had been close, and the Democratic Senator from Massachusetts was eager to gather support for his agenda. Kennedy attended Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown that morning before joining President Eisenhower to travel to the Capitol . The Congress had extended the East Front, and the inaugural platform spanned the new addition. The oath of office was administered by Chief Justice Earl Warren. Robert Frost read one of his poems at the ceremony.
Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
Kennedy’s image was grainy on the Martinique Hotel’s TV. But I listened and my father translated.
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
In 1961, the AFL and NFL agreed to merge together to create one “Super League” called the NFL. In this agreement between the AFL and the NFL they arranged to begin playing a championship game between two conferences the AFC and NFC after the 1966 season. Originally the Championship game was named the AFL – NFL Championship, but it was soon nicknamed the Super Bowl.
The first Super Bowl, though, between the NFL’s Green Bay Packers and the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, wasn’t so eagerly anticipated. With Green Bay’s perennial dominance the only question seemed to be was how large would Green Bay’s margin of victory be. Even though the tickets cost only $12, the game still wasn’t a sellout.
The NFL machinery was in motion. The spectacle was born. I was terribly excited – all 7 year old boys, mostly Irish and Italian at St. Gabriel’s School in Riverdale, Bronx, New York, played out their athletic fantasies in the schoolyard. I was looking to find ways in, trying to understand and learn English – until I heard someone call out, Spick. Spick. I didn’t have to look long. My way in was fighting, just being tougher then someone else, not backing down. Respect.
Unconsciously, I was taking in a world awash with violence, anger and confusion. It came from all sides. The body of Christ, I heard the priest say in front of a crucifix held high for all to see the suffering. A political movement for equality played on TV, harsh images of German Shepherds attacking Black people.
The Cuban Missile Crisis paralyzed the world for 13 days, a confrontation between the Soviet Union and Cuba on one side, the United States on the other. From October 14 to the 28th, 1962, the world stood at the brink of nuclear war; it was the very real moment when we first understood mutual assured destruction.
How long do I have? I began thinking then. How am I going to live with this? Certainly not abide. If I’m going to go, I’m going to go my way. Everything around me told me as much.
On November 20th, 1963, at 12:20PM, in Dealey Plaza, in Dallas, Texas, the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated. On February 21, 1965, one week after his home was firebombed, Malcolm X was shot to death by Nation of Islam members while speaking at a rally of his organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom in New York City. On April 4, 1968, at the age of 39, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. And on June 6, 1968, while campaigning for the presidency, Robert F. Kennedy, “Bobby,” was assassinated in the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, California.
All of this was regular television.
We were in the thick of things in Vietnam, which lasted until the fall of Saigon, April 30, 1975 – three years after I first registered for the draft and missed being sent when I was 15 numbers off in the lottery. Richard Nixon was inaugurated as president on January 20, 1969, sworn in by his onetime political rival, Chief Justice Earl Warren. On January 5, 1972, Nixon entered his name on the New Hampshire primary ballot, effectively announcing his candidacy for reelection. At some point in the spring, I think it was, Nixon came through Garden City, Long Island, a Republican enclave in Nassau County, and I managed to shake his hand. He didn’t get my vote – no one did that year. I didn’t vote. By June 17, 1972, The Washington Post was breaking the Watergate Story.
The murders of the Kennedy’s, King and Malcolm X, the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, Gay Rights – and Nixon – were a perfect storm that changed the semblance of America until our very day. We haven’t recovered. We haven’t fully realized what materialized since.
But the spectacle of violence was in place – and getting stronger, growing exponentially with broadcast technologies. Football was fast becoming America’s game because America was fast becoming a media-centric society. And our attention was narrowing.
The Sports Broadcast Act of 1961 was passed in response to a court decision which ruled that the NFL‘s method of negotiating television broadcasting rights violated antitrust laws. The court ruled that the “pooling” of rights by all the teams to conclude an exclusive contract between the league and CBS was illegal. The Act overruled that decision, permitting certain joint broadcasting agreements among the major professional sports.
Football’s potential was in its infancy. The road ahead was clear. It’s been television that’s brought the NFL to prominence, along with a spectacular way of passively transmitting the dominant culture’s ruling ideologies. Since then, NFL broadcasts have become among the most-watched programs on American television, and the financial fortunes of entire networks have rested on owning NFL broadcasting rights. This has raised questions about the impartiality of the networks’ coverage of games and whether they can criticize the NFL without fear of losing the rights and their income.
Monday Night Football first aired on September 21, 1970, with a game between the New York Jets and the Browns in Cleveland. This brought ABC Sports producer Roone Arledge’s dream of creating an entertainment “spectacle” as much as a simple sports broadcast to fruition. Advertisers were charged $65, 000 per minute by ABC, a cost that proved to be a bargain when the contest collected 33 percent of the viewing audience.
Before we knew it, the spectacle became how we experienced life in the U.S.. Programs such as the Kardashians and the Real Housewives of (fill in your city) were born then. They all work on the same soap opera narrative model, something NFL coverage excels in.
Monday Night Football ushered in a new era of television and I was further away from fútbol than ever before, though I was playing in a small community league, coached by a Scotsman. It was soccer all the way. The Scotsman tried playing an orderly game, a military-like, precision game of mid-range passes, very little flair and solid fundamentals. It didn’t sit well with me. Remember: I was going to go at this life my way. Soccer in a football culture.
I was a foreigner, undocumented, except for a passport, until 1972 when I followed my father into Naturalization. See, because before I wasn’t Naturalized. I felt the Other – foreign – on and off the field.
By now, 2013, amidst scandal pertaining to concussions, exposed in the Frontline documentary, League of Denial, where the NFL is compared to the tobacco companies, the National Football League will have revenues “somewhere just north of $9 billion, which means the league remains the most lucrative in th world.” That is up 5.6% – or $500 million – from the previous year, and $1.8 billion (23.4%) more than Major League Baseball ($7.7).
This is the America in which I find myself and I’m not sure what I think. If NFL player contracts are about the player’s body – how long will it last? – then how much is a body worth?
An NFL game is about crisis and the drama that can be built around this with careful narrative strategies – as in politics. Television and now the Internet have forced new narrative lines to appear, across all professional sports, in order to capture the fan’s gaze. By now I’m wondering what’s left of that wide-eyed 7 year old boy? The violence and brute force that initially overwhelmed my conscience have metamorphosed into an experience that is highly compressed. Reacting to violence, which seems to be so prevalent – and promoted – is, as I write here, now, a major obstacle in every aspect of my life, and I suspect other’s as well.
The grace of fútbol is gone from my life – except when I catch a game (hopefully it’s Messi and Barcelona) on TV. Not enough time, a tighter field in which to do open field running, abundant crisis – these mark our lives today. Which is a road to what? Where are we going?
I haven’t watched any football this year, except to watch Middlebury College defeat Williams College, 21-14, on October 12, 2013. Perhaps a final act of assimilation into humanity.
JG: Do your findings kill off the character of the middle-aged man full of existential angst?
OR: Not quite. The research suggests there may be something to it. While men in their 40s are no more likely to have a crisis, those who do are more likely than other groups to see it as a negative without any subsequent benefits.
JG: What practical use do these results have?
OR: They help frame life difficulties in a way that shows they are part of normal life. Not having a crisis at any point in your life was extremely unusual—only 4 percent of respondents aged 50 and over said they had never had one. There is this subtle but fairly insidious tendency, especially among young adults, to think that adulthood will be a fairly easy ride, like living in a glossy magazine. So when the hard times hit they are not prepared for it. We hope this helps change that.
Age 60 is when it takes a man all night to do what he used to do all night.
At 60 years old, your birthday suit requires regular ironing.
At 60 you can still chase women, but only downhill.
At 60, two of the most important things in life are bowel movements and nose hair.
Everywhere I look – even though it’s customary to say, 60 is the new 50 - there’s the daunting accuracy of Mathematics: Coming to 60 means less time. That’s all. It’s inescapable. Less time it is.
Oscar Wilde said that, “The old believe everything; the middle-aged suspect everything; the young know everything.” True. I knew everything once, now, somewhere in-between believing and suspecting, I know very little, but I’m sensing that this is how it goes, how everything goes. “Age is a high price to pay for maturity,” said Tom Stoppard.
Maturity is gaining (some) self-knowledge while falling part – a final irony on top of life’s other contradictions.
An aged man is but a paltry thing, writes W.B. Yeats in Sailing to Byzantium. A tattered coat upon a stick, he is. In The Tower, Yeats tells us that, Everything that man esteems/Endures a moment or a day. Shit. That’s all I can say. A moment or a day - that’s it? Shit.
I’m but a flash. But looking to Yeats again for solace, he says, Whatever flames upon the night/Man’s own resinous heart has fed. So maybe there’s hope that even when 60 candles are being lit on my birthday cake, and by the time the last one is lit, the first twenty have already burned out, the first two thirds of my life may account for something.
I’ve tried to flame upon the night, really I have, passionately so. But it’s that resinous heart I wonder about.
Did I make enough noise? Has my heart been big enough, resplendent enough to leave even a little bit of residue upon the night? When night comes, what remains? I wonder.
The inherent tension found at 60: there has to be meaning – has to be; but there are no real witnesses to give my meaning its due. Sure there are loved ones. Of course there’s family. Yes. But in the end we travel alone; we face trials alone, even when loved ones say, I’m with you. An end to something is an end. That’s it. Time’s up. And only the person experiencing this end, this coming to, can verify the experience. No one’s seen everything, experienced everything as I have. The final irony is that only glimpses of me will be left – Tweet feeds, moving images here and there, maybe even Facebook pics and news updates, scribblings for posterity, all will hang in a digital limbo until someone needs the space and, well, DELETE.
Recognition for a life lived comes late – if at all. DELETE. The rugosity on my face and hands is known only to me. The scars that tell the story of me will disappear with me, deleted for eternity.
I awaken from this dream with a jerk and find my wife’s nose up to mine.
“You’re asleep. You’ve been asleep. I heard you snoring. You woke me. I was sound as asleep. Let’s go to bed.”
Watching Orange is the New Black, two glasses of wine proved the better of me (it didn’t use to be – I have witnesses, trust me I do for this), even while contemplating opening a second bottle. I was snoring, I guess. I nodded out, I guess. My cell phone read: 8:30PM
“I’m not tired,” I declare.
“You were sound asleep,” says Nina.
“I’m not tired.”
“You’re an idiot. Why would you always do this – deny snoring? You were sound asleep. I watched you. You jerked. You were dreaming, dead asleep.”
She did, she watched me. But I can’t relent. “I’m not tired,” I say and ridiculously keep to my story.
“You’re being stupid.”
“But it’s only eight-thirty. I can’t go to bed. Besides, I’m into the show. I love Alex (Laura Prepon). I love her voice.”
“Oh yeah, what just happened? Tell me. What just happened in the show?” asks Nina, getting up and marching out. “Turn it off and let’s go to bed.”
I can’t even seduce her with a chic flick conversation about Alex – her voice, her looks, her character; couldn’t even get to the relationship between Alex and Piper (Taylor Schilling) – and in a prison for women no less. What fun. I could then exploit my understanding of popular culture, the significance of Orange is the New Black, which some call The Maids in prison. None of that would happen. What I think – what I want, something like stopping time – quickly becomes erased, inconsequential. It must be how everything goes.
I follow Nina to bed. The Golden Retriever, Chief, is already in his ottoman.
Coming to 60, do men turn into chicks? I wonder. Which is fine. At 60 I’ve lost all rights to judge and critique; I can only accept and tolerate.
Maturity must mean abiding by all conditions outside your control; it’s acceptance, a kind of adaptation, I figure.
Coming to 60, whatever that means, is indeed a Math problem. It becomes an organic rather then a mechanical approach; time differs now, no longer tied to industry. Life depends on how poetic I can make it. Its structure resides in the felt relationships I still have.
As I do sometimes when I’m in a questioning, searching mood, I turn to Uncle Walt, Walt Whitman, right before laying my head down, thinking that this is how it must go – what sleep is, and read:
Forever and forever – longer than soil is brown and solid – longer
than water ebbs and flows
It must go like this.
I stand in front of people day in and day out and pretend to know what I’m talking about.
Teach: to impart knowledge or skill; give instruction – enlighten, discipline, indoctrinate. It’s a verb, action. The teacher is the noun. The teacher acts, and s/he’s acted upon too. We pretend not always being slightly off-center because of it. Teaching is pretending to be the authority while standing on thin ice; it’s walking a tightrope over a ravine while negotiating our influences and the ever present, ever changing needs of students.
Gaining dominion over a class is a creative struggle between what you know, what you feel and what you see in front of you; it’s the teacher’s sense of her place in the world. This requires an opinion about the world, its history and how it manifests itself today. The place of authority is therefore assumed – it must be so; it is given to the teacher by the cultural positioning of education, first, the teacher, second. Thus the institution and the teacher are one and the same in the mind of the student; authority from the State to the Institution to the Citizen is translated this way. It disciplines and orders. The teacher is forever pretending not to be this socio-political-economic force, which renders her insecure about her sense of self in the institution. So teachers seek out models.
Like writers, painters, musicians, and filmmakers the teacher considers authorities that have come before – honored representatives of knowledge and methods. In the West, the archetypal teacher is Socrates – until we get to Paulo Freire, for instance, who then articulates the way oppression infiltrates the perfect model. “To educate is essentially to form,” says Freire in Pedagogy of Freedom.
In considering the practice and the knowledge that has been placed in my hands by generations of teachers before me, I’m forced to measure their influence, the consequences of what I believe to be the truth in what I think I’ve learned, and look for expressive ways of re-delivering this to new, ever changing audiences. I take in, I filter and edit, and perform knowledge as I see it. It’s not the truth, but a version of it, hopefully. I am the authority. But for a brief moment. Education has formed me, the good and the not so good; and education forms others through me. It’s a classic performance: the teacher imparting knowledge; knowledge, in turn, comes from highly subjective instances of expressions about humanity’s ongoing search for purpose and happiness.
These days, as I look around, do some math – I’m coming to 60, how much longer do I have? – I’m somewhat off balance. I’m a necessity – that’s my value. And how much I’m valued depends on many factors: my academic pedigree, my institutional experience, my current place behind the hallowed ivy – my age. These are harsh truths about education – hard to accept. Education is both a commodity and a necessity. Here lies the tension between teachers and the institution, students, parents and the institution. It’s a cultural tension concerning the ambiguous place of the teacher and how we appreciate – or not – knowledge. Is it knowledge for my benefit? Is it a benefit for humanity as well? This means that I’m essential and property. I can be routinely dismissed, many hungry mouths eager to replace me with their own versions of how to perform their understanding of our time.
I look down and around a seminar room. I’m talking and students are writing. They’re writing what I say. It’s incredible to think that young minds are recording my performance; that they’ve come to understand that because I am the institution I’m worthy of trust. I stand before them and pretend to know what I know. This is the commodity space: students pay and I impart – quid pro quo. I’m useful now, in the moment, re-vitalizing old knowledge.
But how long will this newfound knowledge last? Am I saying anything at all that makes a difference – anything? Has the performance turned into a pantomime? Do I want it to because maybe, just maybe, it might be more effective, a dramatic pantomime?
“Let us examine the question of man,” argues Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth. “Let us reexamine the question of cerebral reality, the brain mass of humanity in its entirety whose affinities must be increased, whose connections must be diversified and whose communications must be humanized again” (Richard Philcox, trans. 2004).
Over fifteen years ago, a student that took 3 different classes I taught, a carpenter finishing up his B.A. in night school, comes up to me and asks, “Professor, would you write a letter of recommendation for me, please? I’m applying to Lehman College to finish up because I want to do what you do.”
I chuckled and said, “Why would you want to do that?”
He critiqued my performance romantically with words like inspirational, knowledgeable, courageous. Yet, knowing that what humanity really needs is a re-examination of itself, of what it means to be human, as Fanon teaches, I was certain my performance fell short, focused on canonical texts, instead, reading them as they’ve always been read, and not challenging the consequences of doing so, blindly and obediently following a school of thought without question.
Yes somewhere in this performance I meant something to this young, American working class hero. Maybe it had something to do with how my performance enabled him to assume a proximity to a knowledge he felt somehow residing outside himself – and me – but reachable, something he needed to touch and he was willing to work late into the night for this ambiguous future imparting knowledge of himself to the unknowing.
I stand in front of people day in and day out and this is all I know.
Overpopulation is Not The Problem, by associate professor of geography and environmental systems, at the University of Maryland, Erle C. Ellis, is definitely an important piece to read – and not just because of the argument – “The conditions that sustain humanity are not natural and never have been. Since prehistoric, human populations have used technologies and engineered ecosystems to sustain populations well beyond the capabilities of unaltered “natural” ecosystems.”
In the argument, we thus must also ask about how we’re educating ourselves – and those to come – so as to follow data, science, principles and ethics and humanisms wide reach, thus ensuring that we’re moving towards a more pronounced technological future with empathy and care. The challenge, according to Ellis, is here:
The science of human sustenance is inherently a social science. Neither physics nor chemistry nor even biology is adequate to understand how it has been possible for one species to reshape both its own future and the destiny of an entire planet. This is the science of the Anthropocene. The idea that humans must live within the natural environmental limits of our planet denies the realities of our entire history, and most likely the future. Humans are niche creators. We transform ecosystems to sustain ourselves. This is what we do and have always done. Our planet’s human-carrying capacity emerges from the capabilities of our social systems and our technologies more than from any environmental limits.
Since we are “niche” creators, the danger, of course, is in creating a “niche of terror and devastation,” a niche, for instance, the excludes others, that, as Chris Hedges argues, creates “sacrifice zones.”
“a great darkness hangs over us” – doesn’t it?
Originally posted on The Uncanny:
The most disconcerting lines in modern fiction, the opening of Franz Kafka’sThe Metamorphosis, perfectly capture our condition, today; it’s what we’ve become: “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”
It’s the tone of the lines that gets to us; its matter of fact, almost as if half-expecting this metamorphosis; it’s as if becoming a “monstrous vermin” is not shocking. It simply is. To simply be means that is has always been; it’s not sudden, new, shocking.
“What happened to me?” thinks Samsa. “It was no dream,” he realizes. Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman, looks over to a table, on top of which he’s placed a picture of a young lady “done up in a fur hat and a fur boa” inside “a pretty guilt frame.” He has no one; he’s alone, fantasizing…
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By pop demand, yes, indeed: “A prayer at 60: Nothing who art everywhere hallowed be thy nothingness. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Nothing. Give us this day our daily Nothing. And forgive us Nothing as we forgive Nothing, who sin Nothing, and deliver us from Nothing for thine is the kingdom of Nothing, the power and the glory of Nothing.”
Originally posted on The Uncanny:
“I don’t know if I can trust you,” says to me one day, this very tiny, witty and very wise 19 year old student, a young woman.
She’s in my office for our weekly, hour long meeting. It’s near the end of the fall term’s 12th week, 2013. We speak about her magnificent writing, about writers and their lives – until life itself comes into the fold, something that always happens with this particular student. She’s always digging deep, searching.
When speaking about life – her view of it based on her experiences – she likes resting her head on my desk, crossing her arms and resting her chin on the backs of her folded hands. She slows down, becomes more contemplative. The sides of her long, black silky hair, carelessly pulled back and held by a band, fall over one side of her face or another. She leaves it…
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I wrote this when Obama took office in 2012. Now where are we? Damn … Follow the money. Just follow the money and you’ll see how off we are, really.
Originally posted on The Uncanny:
Whether Obama retains the White House in 2012 or a Republican wins, nothing much will change. The evidence is overwhelming.
It no longer matters who sits in the Presidential seat or in Congress — unless, of course, the Republican is Newt Gingrich, the extremely nasty former Speaker of the House who wrote a doctoral dissertation excusing the brutal colonization of the Congo, or the absolute dizzy opportunist, Michele Bachmann , who is convinced that CO2 is a natural byproduct of nature.
But even if the intellectually challenged Sarah Palin were to win, all candidates will succumb to the law of the land: the state and the corporation are the main sponsors and coordinators of an “unprecedented combination of powers distinguished by their totalitarian tendencies, powers that not only challenge established boundaries — political, moral, intellectual, and economic — but whose nature it is to challenge those boundaries…
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This story in the Times, “New Scrutiny of Goldman’s Ties to the New York Fed After a Leak” started a long time ago as is obvious in this post of mine…
Originally posted on The Uncanny:
for Adeeb and his fellow classmates, and others who live these ideas and topics in our troubled times
I often cite Napoleon’s famous words to my students, “Dress me slowly I’m in a hurry.” Students, particularly American students, often look puzzled. What does that mean? How can you go fast by moving slowly? How does approaching the world by proceeding with little or less than usual speed or velocity, requiring a comparatively long time for completion and contemplation, enable better solutions to immediate problems?
American culture is addicted to many things but mainly to sugar and speed, anything labeled “new” and deception. William Burrough’sNaked Lunch was viewed as obscene and censored not because of wild pictures of dark characters shooting up but because it demonstrated American’s obsessive compulsive addiction to anything. Power, sugar, horror, violence and destruction, speed, the “new” as well as the decadent, and corruption.
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Still holds up, a few years since. Something I’d still like my students, today, to consider.
Originally posted on The Uncanny:
For my Students in the Fall 2012 First Year Seminar, Voices
and for Jon
I don’t know how I got to where I am, where I’ve arrived. At my age, soon to be 59, we’re suppose to know, have some answers. I don’t. It’s as if life just happened and I went along, foggy.
Did I direct my life or was it directed for me? Who’s the director of my life? Anyone’s, for that matter?
My first instinct is to turn to literature for answers to questions like this; literature is our keystone, the arbiter of confusing dreams. Literature and art have been with me all my life, they’re friends, guides.
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