The Edge of Sorrow – Third Movement

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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?

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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.

The Edge of Sorrow – Second Movement

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(First Movement is here)

 

July 20, 1996, 3 Days After Flight 800 Exploded

Raúl’s Apartment

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 …,”

she said.

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.”

“Sudden death.”

“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.

“About?”

“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.

The Edge of Sorrow

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“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.

“Papá.   Papá.”

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.

********************

Continue Reading:

Edge of Sorrow – Second Movement

Edge of Sorrow – Third Movement

 

“Abandon”, from our Getting Lost experiment, goes professional …

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“Abandon” was picked up by the great, supportive folks at the Community Works Journal.

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 Secret in the Mirror, from the Getting Lost blog

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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.

 

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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.

Read more here…

From Getting Lost: Anecdote of the Gloves – must see …

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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…

The Ecology of Teaching: Breaking Out of the Factory Model

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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.

Teaser:

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.

- See more at: http://www.communityworksinstitute.org/cwjonline/essays/a_essaystext/vila_ecology.html#sthash.dYBi2hW2.dpuf

From Getting Lost: “Imagining Amsterdam”

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– 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.

Read More … 

Re-issued by popular demand (literally): Writing as a Transformative Experience

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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

Object Lessons: Life is Just a Bowl of Varies

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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 – publishing in obscure journals, writing unreadable books, 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 pay for that. My rewards for this are found in the objects students have given me over the years and that occupy the spare shelves in my office (I’m a minimalist when it comes to office decor). 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.

Life is Just a Bowl of Varies

Life is Just a Bowl of Varies

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.

Stanley London Brass Compass

Stanley London Brass Compass

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.

Abandon – from Getting Lost

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“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 ... ]

Fastened to a Dying Animal: Hot at 60?

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“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?

The Family

The Family

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.

From Getting Lost Blog: Exile on Mainstreet: Lost on the Boundaries

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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 …

Lost and Found in The Blue of Distance – on Getting Lost

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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…

On Getting Lost, a new blog … and an invite

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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…

Lost – or The “Voluptuous Surrender”

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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.

Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene & Chomsky’s right: The New York Times’ latest big lie

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I’m just reporting or, better, re-sharing these 2 great pieces, worthy of a profound reading, a careful reading.

 

Flashmob die-in protest - Bourke St Mall Melbourne

Flashmob die-in protest – Bourke St Mall Melbourne (Photo credit: Takver)

 

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 …

 

English: A portrait of Noam Chomsky that I too...

English: A portrait of Noam Chomsky that I took in Vancouver Canada. Français : Noam Chomsky à Vancouver au Canada en 2004. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

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.

 

An Incredibly Powerful Video: UCLA Has More NCAA Championships Than Black Male Freshmen

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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.”

I believe this too. So do some black students at UCLA, so does Sy Stokes, who, according to The Huffington

UCLA_vs_Oregon,_Pasadena,_2007

UCLA_vs_Oregon,_Pasadena,_2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

ISSUE 74: Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here? by Mark Edmundson

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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.

 

Read more of what Mark Edmundson has to say in the Oxford American …

 

an evening with , June 13th, 20005. http://www...

an evening with , June 13th, 20005. http://www.cityarts.net/n.wiseman.html (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

And, along these lines, Frederick Wiseman‘s new documentary, “At Berkeley,” may prove to be quite interesting.  Here’s tidbit from a review in The New York Times by Stephen Holden:

 

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, Education and Looking for Love

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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.

English: The School of Athens (detail). Fresco...

English: The School of Athens (detail). Fresco, Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.”

Facebook?

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.

Writing as a Transformative Experience

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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.

- See more at: http://www.communityworksinstitute.org/cwjonline/essays/a_essaystext/vilaonwritingoct13.html#sthash.DCtnNV74.dpuf

 

The Black Atlantic (1500-1800) – Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Explores

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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.

EL TRABAJO DE HOY Y LA PÉRDIDA DE LO SUBLIME

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Podemos aprender bastante sobre nosotros mismos examinando una sola palabra: trabajo. Nuestro sentido de esta palabra simple ha experimentado un cambio sísmico —y nosotros hemos cambiado junto a ella—.

via Cronopio U.S.A..

The Conveyor Belt to Happiness

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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

Cover of "Bringing It to the Table: On Fa...

Cover via Amazon

represents two sides of a singular problem: their fate has been decided, as Wendell Berry says in Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food, “by a gigantic politics, economics, and technology.”

“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-

Cover of "Rich Media, Poor Democracy: COM...

Cover via Amazon

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.

Syria, the US Military, Pundits and Inverted Totalitarianism

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Democracy Now!

Democracy Now! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Democracy Inc.: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, Sheldon S. Wolin says the following:

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

Policy, all work together, guided by the industries that make up the military industrial complex‘s necessity for profit.

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.

Camille Strikes Again, this time At American University

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Camille Paglia

, 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.

Assimilating into American Culture 1.0

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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.

Carlos Vila Photography/Cityscapes

Carlos Vila Photography/Cityscapes

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.

Ray Lewis

Ray Lewis

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

Monday Night Football

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.

What’s the Best Age for a Midlife Crisis

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This is a great follow-up to my last post Coming to 60, from SLATE, It’s Always Time for a Midlife Crisis by Jessica Griggs.

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.

Coming to 60 (Reluctantly and with Some Help)

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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

Oscar Wilde

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.

W. B. Yeats

W. B. Yeats

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.

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

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:

The soul,

Forever and forever – longer than soil is brown and solid – longer

than water ebbs and flows

It must go like this.

Orchard Grass Farm

Orchard Grass Farm
New Haven, VT

The Great Pretender

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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.imgres

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.

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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).

imgres-1Over 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 and the Anthropocene

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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.”

The Death of 11058

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My day, last Friday, began with a burial. I buried ram number 11058, his Animal Identification Number (AIN) tagged on his left ear. He was but 7 months old. To us, he was not 11058, rather he was “Manru,” named after a character in one of my son’s dark comedic scripts. Only Manru’s end was anything but comedic.

A few days prior, almost overnight, his jaw became swollen, a sign that parasites had overtaken him. (The vet informed me he had 35,000 parts per gram; 500 parts is the limit. He was hit hard.) White Dorpers , which originate in South Africa and considered the best meat, are quite resistant to parasites. Not Manru, though; he showed a predilection.  They are a warm, easy breed that doesn’t have a problem grazing around one’s legs and rubbing up against you. I often ran my hand over Manru’s shoulders and over his head; he seemed to like it and he’d stand for a bit taking in my touch.

Manru Swollen Jaw

Manru Swollen Jaw

When the weather changes, here in VT, at dusk it’s cooler and the sheep are a bit friskier. Manru took to practicing what eventually would be his duty. The ewes didn’t mind; they just kept eating as if Manru was but a fly on their backs. But he tried. Manru always tried.

In his last week, along with multivitamins, vitamin B Complex, safeguard, RedGlo, and sheep drain, I fed him by hand, 3 – 4 times a day, a blend of organic grain and grasses and molases. After a feeding session, where I held his little head in my hands as I stood over him, he’d collapse from exhaustion. I placed water in front of him, but he hardly had energy to draw.

Aldo, our Maremma livestock guard dog, as things progressed, laid next to him, close enough to buttress him. When the other sheep grazed, Aldo laid in the cool grass between them, as if he was doing double duty watching out for the most vulnerable. After a feeding, I placed food near Manru just to urge him to try for more, and Aldo remained near, never touching the food. Aldo’s instinct humbled me – such knowledge, such understanding, something we can all learn from, I thought.  Total trust in what he understood; there were no questions, just surety.

Then early Friday morning – it must have been 1:30 – 2AM – we heard Aldo barking in the barn. Aldo’s bark was different. When he’s guarding the sheep, especially at night, his bark is ferocious, chilling. But this morning’s bark was mellifluous, longer and it lasted for about 20 minutes. Then silence.

My wife, Nina, turned to me in the dark and whispered, “Manru’s dead.” She heard the signs. I didn’t say anything. I knew what Aldo was saying – that instinct I trusted too. Aldo was calling out to us, telling us something had happened.

On this humid day, gnats already flying about, I slid opened the barn doors. It was 6 AM.  Usually, the sheep are resting, still lounging about waiting to see what I’m going to do. Instead they were all gathered as if in a waiting room; they looked like a group in deep discussion. The sheep like to hang in one large stall, one of 4 – but not today. The were all hovering in the center of the barn.

Aldo and Ewes in Barn

Aldo and Ewes in Barn

Aldo came to greet me and quickly turned and ran through the sheep, opening a path to the stall – but he didn’t go in until I did, then he stood a few steps to my side and behind me, watching me and Manru.  I looked at Aldo.  He has an uncanny gift for a dog: he looks back right into your eyes. He looked at me, then at Manru and I got the strangest feeling that he was watching to make sure I was going to handle this correctly.

Manru was in a corner leaning against a wall.  He was stretched out.  He was soft, restful.  His eyes were gray, as if covered by a film. I knelt and ran my hand over his head, as I used to do, and then down his body. I felt his legs – then back again. And I placed my hand, finally, against his side.  I knew I was touching what once was Manru; just as I knew that I was touching death, what death feels like. The silence, the image of what once was and is no more.  That’s what death is, a memory, something you can’t quite have again, not fully and completely, not as I once had him up against my leg grazing as I scratched behind his head.  No. That was over. That’s death.

The sheep gathered at the stall’s open door but wouldn’t come in – they just stared.

Aldo and Ewes

Aldo and Ewes

Manru was about 90 pounds and I lifted him onto a wheelbarrow and brought him to the back of the paddocks where I have a cemetery. Farms have cemeteries. Life and death are constant on a farm, something we rarely even consider.  But we never get accustomed to seeing death face-to-face; we accept it, but it’s never something that’s welcomed.  It is, however, understood.  The supreme commander.  The end of everything known.

Just the other day, an acquaintance, knowing what had happened, said to me, “I could never raise livestock. It’s too painful.” I of course wondered what she thought was on her dinner plate when she ate meat and poultry. Death is even prevalent on vegetable farms; it’s an ongoing cycle of life into death and back again. One informs the other. Only we forget that.

We’re scared of death when it’s up close; we’re even frightened of it when it’s off at a distance. We’re also very scared of what’s real; that is, we’re scared to know what it takes to raise an animal so that it completes its lifecycle, helping you complete yours.  They’re cycling through too.  We’re all so interconnected – everything is connected. This is one reason why industrialized farming has gotten out of control. We have been educated into not wanting to know, not wanting to see, not wanting to experience. Of course, this way of existing has tentacles and it reaches all aspects of our lives – then we say things like, Well, it’s the new normal, or, Well, I’m lazy I don’t want to know, I prefer not to, or, Well, I’m glad someone’s doing it, just not me, or, perhaps one of the worst, I don’t want to know what’s on my plate. I do.  I want to know.

I’m reminded of the old Holiday Inn ad. Remember? What’s so great about the Holiday Inn, said the ad, it’s the same place wherever you go. That’s what we want. No surprises, a prophylactic that’s called sameness; it’s why fast foods are so popular – a McDonald’s in New York is the same as one in Los Angeles, and points in-between.  We don’t want variation because it requires we become acquainted with change – and we’re always changing, cycling towards death. That’s too much for a culture that’s embraced the spectacle as life itself.   A constant diet of this leaves a residue, a kind of heavy resistance for what’s real and natural; it’s an act of collective repression that annihilates inquiry, critical thought and dialog.  It also creates a culture that’s easy to deceive.

The ground was heavy with tall grasses and rocks as I shoved my shovel into the soil.  I was drenched in sweat by the time I finished the hole for Manru – 3 & 1/2 by 3 & 1/2 by 3 feet, deep enough to deter coyotes, foxes, wild dogs from wanting to dig him up. They’re cycling through too.  We’re all so interconnected. I looked up and realized that his resting place was 10 feet from Amos’, our German Shepherd that passed 4 years ago.  And he was just a few feet from George, the 3 legged cat.  The cemetery.

I placed Manru in his hole – no other way to really say it.  His hole.  Our hole.  A hole – just that.  Earth to earth, right?  The dark hole of eternity.  I covered him over, placed some rocks over the mound so I could go back from time to time after the dirt settled, and I walked off and gathered the sheep and moved them to a fresh paddock for grazing.  Life doesn’t stop.  It just changes a bit every so often and we’re tested – can we adapt to the changes, can we adapt to the surety of where we’re headed? How are we spending our brief moment here? What do we value and why?

Grazing - a New Day

Grazing – a New Day

College Affordability and the Order of the Day

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The other day, speaking at Binghampton University, in New York, President Obama said the following:

“But…let’s assume that we eliminated all discrimination magically with a wand, and everybody had goodness in their heart, you’d still have a situation in which there are a lot of folks who are poor, and whose families have become dysfunctional, because of a long legacy of poverty, and live in neighborhoods that are run-down and schools that are underfunded and don’t have a strong property tax base.”

Concomitantly, as it so happens, Noam Chomsky, speaking in Bonn, Germany, at the DW Global Media Forum about how the United States is not behaving anything like a democracy, said the following:

“Well, another important feature of RECD [really existing capitalist democracy; it has several daunting characteristics described in Chomsky's talk] is that the public must be kept in the dark about what is happening to them. The “herd” must remain “bewildered”. The reasons were explained lucidly by the professor of the science of government at Harvard – that’s the official name – another respected liberal figure, Samuel Huntington. As he pointed out, “power remains strong when it remains in the dark. Exposed to sunlight, it begins to evaporate”.” [inclusion of brackets mine]

We can’t have it both ways. Which is it? Are we indeed moving towards a classless society where social justice, compassion and empathy – and opportunity for all – are at the heart or are we moving towards a society where more and more, each day, we are “herded” further into “bewilderment” and unknowing, which is very quickly followed by apathy, the sense of giving up, because nothing will change so we have to go along with the plan that we don’t see?

We can find an answer to these questions in President Obama’s most recent bus tour to promote his education policies – college affordability - meant to extend the opportunities for those that graduate from college. These policies, interestingly, run parallel to the Administration’s Race to the Top, the K-12 program (more on this below).

A way to end poverty, says President Obama, is to ensure that all citizens that want access to affordable higher education should have it.  Makes sense. Good idea. Obama’s plan is to grade institutions of higher education by matching outcomes to costs. Presumably, then, somehow the cost of higher education will be measured by where graduates land jobs, what they achieve and how these achievements can then point to a profitable, worthwhile future for students and the country. Okay, very dreamy.

But what this proposed plan will undoubtedly create is the following:

  • A stronger demarcation between the haves and the have nots, a more stringent hierarchy.
  • A greater concentration of power among the few, but particularly among those that will follow the path of banking (see Chomsky, above), which is where wealth is being made today.
  • A greater concentration of power is always followed by tighter surveillance, tighter policing and a further reduction in civil liberties; it’s also followed by a more nationalistic approach to foreign policy (isn’t it ironic – even uncanny – that a rise in racial profiling, an increase in drone terrorism and greater power given to Wall Street all happened while the first African American president presides over the nation? never mind the diminution in civil liberties …)

Why do I say these things? Because while the Obama Administration is looking to use outcomes as a means to curtail education costs, a reason for the high cost of higher education is not outcomes, but rather, inputs.

Here’s what I mean: the best colleges and universities – Harvard, Princeton, Yale, so on – make sure to attract the best – and best known (read: best published) – professors; this entails paying well and having personalized budgets for the professors’ respective research projects. In turn, these luminaries attract money from all sectors of our society – military, technology, science and medicine, and business. Money begets money.

Students in the best colleges and universities work closely with some of the best minds in the country; students are connected to future work through research, internships, and simple face-to-face meetings at conferences, and so on. In other words, the best students are carefully groomed to be on the cutting edge stage.  Also, these great schools have tremendously powerful and well connected alumni groups that take on as their responsibility the promotion of young, up and coming undergraduates and graduate students. It’s a conveyor belt to wealth and power. The reward is of course a wonderful life, material security, and great fun without needing to worry about the rest, those left behind.  This is not going away; it’s only going to get stronger.  And no one in this world is going to give this up – that’s for certain.

This conveyor belt wants participants to enter into different nodes in the current production system. This system does not want game changers, people that will come up with changes to level the playing field – President Obama is a prime example. In fact, this system works because it relies on the very notion that education is hierarchical and the different nodes in the system are synonymous with the inputs elite colleges and universities have put into place with donor funding.

The outcomes Obama wants to measure are easily done by these elite schools – in fact, they’re already doing it: go to the leading industries in this country – the military, government and Wall Street, technology – and you can see who is sitting where, wielding power and making policy: they all come from top schools – say the top 20 -50 schools. Take a quick look when college seniors look for work in powerful enterprises and you’ll find that the most profitable industries already have in place a method for hiring – and it starts with the Ivies. The back rooms on Wall Street are filled with students that have attended second and third tier schools (Of course there are exceptions, but generally speaking, this is par for the course.)

If we then add Obama’s K-12 plan, Race to the Top, we can note some parallels. Take New York City, for instance. Those students and families that have enough understanding of the system, are moving to charter schools and elite public schools such as Bronx Science and Stuyvesant. What’s happening in NYC is that those kids that don’t have family support, that don’t have the proper preparation to take entrance tests, and so on, are left behind in some of the more challenged, large, urban public schools. It’s difficult to get ahead. In turn, the best colleges and universities, whether working through special programs in the inner city or looking at individual students, first go to the best schools because, naturally, they want students to succeed; their success turns up on the bottom line.

So where are we?

We are where Chomsky says we are: a nation where power is easily kept hidden from the majority; where the majority are too easily sold programs and ideas by people that have other notions in mind – namely to maintain the status quo. Power, kept this way, is deeply rooted; it’s ancient and therefore hard to move – if at all. This is not pessimism, rather the way things are. We live in a spectacle society because it’s essential; it is a means by which powerful entities claim to have answers, color these answers – college affordability - in dreamy language, when in fact what’s happening is a deeper, more powerful entrenchment of the (historical) ways power is kept. Education is – and will be – a very powerful way to ensure our means of existence stay just as they’ve always been. Education is another arm of power.

Chomsky: The U.S. behaves nothing like a democracy

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I need only provide this poignant paragraph from Chomsky’s speech on the

Chomsky: The U.S. behaves nothing like a democracy

It says it all.  The 2016 Election will be a perfect storm in the U.S., probably might next post.

“In short, Really Existing Capitalist Democracy is very remote from the soaring rhetoric about democracy. But there is another version of democracy. Actually it’s the standard doctrine of progressive, contemporary democratic theory. So I’ll give some illustrative quotes from leading figures – incidentally not figures on the right. These are all good Woodrow Wilson-FDR-Kennedy liberals, mainstream ones in fact. So according to this version of democracy, “the public are ignorant and meddlesome outsiders. They have to be put in their place. Decisions must be in the hands of an intelligent minority of responsible men, who have to be protected from the trampling and roar of the bewildered herd”. The herd has a function, as it’s called. They’re supposed to lend their weight every few years, to a choice among the responsible men. But apart from that, their function is to be “spectators, not participants in action” – and it’s for their own good. Because as the founder of liberal political science pointed out, we should not succumb to “democratic dogmatisms about people being the best judges of their own interest”. They’re not. We’re the best judges, so it would be irresponsible to let them make choices just as it would be irresponsible to let a three-year-old run into the street. Attitudes and opinions therefore have to be controlled for the benefit of those you are controlling. It’s necessary to “regiment their minds”. It’s necessary also to discipline the institutions responsible for the “indoctrination of the young.” All quotes, incidentally. And if we can do this, we might be able to get back to the good old days when “Truman had been able to govern the country with the cooperation of a relatively small number of Wall Street lawyers and bankers.” This is all from icons of the liberal establishment, the leading progressive democratic theorists. Some of you may recognize some of the quotes.”

A New Consolidation of Power

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This piece was sent to me anonymously.  It was written by an old colleague, Javier Sicard, now diseased.  It’s a piece that now resides in a yet to be published book on the story of how the tri-border region, Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil, along the Iguazu falls, became a nexus for terrorism’s easy border crossing.  Sicard was visiting the area and following new investments in the region.   In fact, after 9/11, when I visited the AMIA, in Buenos Aires, I was told that the CIA immediately visited them to inquire about what they new about this porous border.

I, here, copy the entire piece by Javier Sicard, once a noted scholar, A New Consolidation of Power.  What do you make of it?


A New Consolidation of Power

Javier Sicard                                                                                           November 30, 1995

Since the Cold War (1947-93), there has been an increasingly open cohabitation between the corporation and the state.  As the state’s ambitions have grown more expansive and more global, corporate economic muscle has become its basis of power, a reliable strength that, in the minds of governments, assures dominance.  The corporation is the main sponsor and coordinator of the powers represented by science and technology – a way to dominate.  These unprecedented alliances – and combinations – are challenging established political, moral, intellectual, and economic boundaries; they are re-inventing and disseminating culture – and notions of pleasure, privacy, and consumption, eagerly creating a politically passive citizen.  We find ourselves slowly transcending into an imperial culture that is less democratic, less republican in the eighteenth century sense.

Nowhere are these new alliances more noticeable then in the University.  The University has literally been transformed.  Up until now, the University’s raison d’être has been to determine and nurture the national cultural mission; however, given the state’s ambitions and the corporation’s predatory nature, new alliances with governments, in the US and Europe, have definitively separated the University from the idea of the nation-state.  The University is a different kind of institution, no longer linked to the destiny of the nation-state, and a powerful protector of economic globalization, which brings with it a relative decline in the nation-state as a prime instance of the reproduction of capital around the world.  The University is complicit in creating a world where the nation-state is governed by the corporation.  Those of us who are the professors in the University have been relegated to nothing more than administrators producing yet more able bodied managers that will enter into the different nodes made available by the flow of global capital.  We are like a concierge in a grand hotel ushering guests towards new luxuries.  We are the gatekeepers to the moneyed gentry – nothing but policemen cleaning up the next wave of managers that will maintain all our systems as they are.  The University, today, is no different then AT&T, McDonald Douglas, Triad Management – or any other Wall Street enterprise fixated on excellence (read: efficiency) and accountability.   The University cleans money; it takes it in, allocates it to fund managers, that in turn reap their own rewards from the exchange of capital, after which they return a healthy profit for the University. The University is another way to move wealth.  It’s quiet.  It’s unseen, masked by its mythological – and historical – past.  The centrality of the humanistic disciplines are no longer assured in the University; accounting and management are the new guides that acquiesce to new and dynamic systems of power, control and discipline.

The historical project for the University, a legacy of the Enlightenment, is the historical project of culture.  The University is no longer a participant in this project.  We may be witnessing the end of the University as traditionally known.  The aim of the University is to indoctrinate its participants into the deep structure of postmodern industrialization; that is, the project is to industrialize thought.  No critiques from the left, no one from the boundaries is allowed in.  The University ensures that the illusion of the truth – now called reality – is widely accepted.  Stripped of its grand narrative, the University’s overall mission is not cultural, it is corporate.  It is a conduit integrating individuals to industry, accomplished by becoming depositories (think endowments) of global capital.  In this relationship, Universities have become banks that answer to Wall Street, for starters, and must acquiesce to the whims of an ideology synonymous with corporatism.   This is a great leap backwards, a denial of a growing imbalance which leads to our adoration of self-interest and our denial of public good, as my friend John Ralston Saul likes to say.

This new concentration of power has evolved into a society-dominating technocracy; in this brave new world, we in the University teach that management is, indeed, doing.  New communication technologies are canonized, financial speculation is praised – and promoted – and we glorify the service economy.   Consequently, we interiorizing an artificial vision of civilization that comes from hundreds of specialized sectors that carefully measure outcomes.  Truth, therefore, does not exist since it is measured by professionals while citizens are busy interiorizing a synthetic world that really doesn’t exist and liable to break apart at any moment.

War is common place and widely supported by these powerful relationships.  The massive killing of people is a sort of efficiency model; and greed, the prodigal child of hyperindividualism, is systematically created and delivered from one world to the next, from the First World to the Third World; it’s our outreach, our foreign policy.   That means that some worlds – take Latin America, for instance, where my own country, Argentina, can serve as an example – exist to be conduits for this greed, facilitating it, enabling insincere transactions that, in order for these to come to fruition, a certain part of the population must be de-humanized, marginalized, sent off into an existence marked by nomadism, a new reality for the weak and the poor, the disenfranchised that are made to run from depravation, famine, and violence and towards simple subsistence found elsewhere, sometimes only on the side of a desolate road to nowhere.

The new consolidation of power makes us vulnerable, not more secure, though we’re lead to believe that everything is just dandy, going along smoothly.  We’re better off, we are told.  Yet we find ourselves more susceptible to everything from diseases (some unknown) to terrorism to climate change and environmental degradation, the mechanical fluctuations of machines that run global markets.

We can lay blame for this world on the doorsteps of the most elite Universities, and we can lay blame, here, to the most accomplished minds that have created an allegiance with the predatory nature of corporatism, the mechanism by which power has been consolidated and government made to serve it, not us.   The University is the newest member to this world order.   The University is the entry level institution to this new consolidation of power.

Work Today and the Loss of the Sublime

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We can learn quite a lot about ourselves by examining a single word: work. Our sense of this very simple word has undergone a tectonic shift – and we’ve changed right along with it.

In The Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that, “Every art and every investigation, and similarly every action and pursuit, is considered to aim at some good.” Thus we have work’s dialectical structure: art and investigation – a study, the creation of a thing, a building or a bridle, a poem, music, and so on – and the moral action that binds these in relation to a justification. This is a covenant between the pre-knowledge or desire that motivates one to an art or an investigation, the art/investigation itself and the result, some good, which is a moral bind. Skills are good; nurturing the “faculties,” as Aristotle calls medical science, military science, arts and sciences – our academic disciplines today – is good.

For Aristotle, the responsibility in maintaining a healthy, meaningful covenant resides in the individual. S/he must never neglect her/his work; doing so will hinder one’s journey toward self-fulfillment and a more complete self. Neglect would also hurt the community because, says Aristotle, “For even if the good of the community coincides with that of the individual, it is clearly a greater and more perfect thing to achieve and preserve that of a community; for while it is desirable to secure what is good in the case of an individual, to do so in the case of a people or a state is something finer and more sublime.”

Sublime: elevated or lofty in thought, languageetc.; impressing the mind with a sense of grandeur or power; inspiring awe, veneration, etc.. That’s the supreme goal, the ultimate good.

But we’ve abdicated our responsibility to a covenant with work to the detriment of our communities and ourselves. We’re not in control of our destiny, which is key to Aristotle – and later to Aquinas.

The major shift in our appreciation of work is this: we have moved far from work as sublime, something finer for the greater good of the community that, in turn, would elevate each and everyone one of us towards a higher, more enlightened sense of self, to the sense that work is practical, for survival, for riches and comforts – something we have to do, earn a living. Work is subjugated by earning.

Work has moved away from its more philosophical, moral origins and presently complies with the needs of individuals, first. Understood this way, work cannibalizes rather then nurtures; it pits one against the other in fierce competition; and it undermines, ironically, the actual legitimacy of the individual because the worker must comply, not with dreams, aspirations and creativity, but with ruling ideologies. Ideologies have redefined work by colonizing consciousness. “The result,” says John Ralston Saul, in The Unconscious Civilization, “…is a growing imbalance which leads to our adoration of self-interest and our denial of public good.”

Work is exhausting, drudgery, uninspiring. College students choose courses that will pay off, not spiritually, not even intellectually, but rather financially, complying with some imagined future full of material possessions. Despair reigns among those seeking employment: far too many young people are either not employed or under employed. “I’ll take just about anything right now,” we hear. Current unemployment is at 7.4%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Take a tour of vacation advertisements, too. Three days here, there; 5 cities in 7 days; bungee jumping, scaling mountains in a day; Hawaii today, Alaska tomorrow – see nature’s wonders, run past a bear feeding on salmon. A quick picture with a cell phone. Onto Facebook. These vacations, meant to release stress, create it and openly promote the conveyor belt psychology that privileges “growing adoration of self-interest.” It’s solely about me.

If we think clearly, we shouldn’t need – or want – a vacation from work that’s sublime, should we? We wouldn’t want to leave it, rather we’d want to take it with us wherever we go because we’re nurtured by it, we grow with it.

Our understanding of work, in part, has lead to the existential crisis we’re experiencing as Americans – who are we? where are we going? why?

What is happiness today?

And where should work fit into a sublime journey of self-discovery, which is, after all, what life is – a journey in which each stage moves us deeper into an understanding of our relationships with the world around us – and prepares us for a dignified death, our final life experience? It’s suppose to lead us to greater empathy, rather then away from it. Work like this is spiritual in nature. But there are many obstacles.

We can date this change, and begin to see the obstacles, by looking at three seminal texts that mark a societal transformation towards hyper-individualism, away from the greater good and towards a more intense – and systemic – narcissism: Joseph Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness (1899, published in seriel fashion in the 1000th issue of Blackwood’s Magazine; in 1902, included in the book Youth: A Narrative, and Two Stories), Henry James‘s The Turn of the Screw (1898), and the text that opens the floodgates, Sigmund Freud‘s The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) .

These three crucial texts, at the doorstep of World War I, announce the individual’s retrieval from a sense of the public good – even from the public sphere – and towards a perverse solipsism that pushes aside any notion that work is somehow linked to sublimity.

Truth is hard to come by as we transition into industrialization, physically, spiritually and emotionally. Conrad, James and Freud chronicle a veering in our understanding of work and point to an increasing need for reclusive spaces to rest, think and create. Even in Freud we see that the artist, for instance, retreats, leaves society, the community, to create. And we see the need to work through objects in order to get a better sense of the world, some grounding – be it Marlow in Conrad or multiple storytellers speaking simultaneously in James so as to highlight the artificiality of the world.

It’s important to understand that as these texts are acclaimed and debated publicly we are marching towards the first mechanized war, a terrifying thought that was held only in the imagination then. But we now know better. From World War I to the present, we transition from tanks and mustard gas to drones and satellites, post-modern prophylactics for killing, a more nuanced, perhaps, repression of the moral conditions of our times. Besides cultural, political and financial unrest throughout Europe signaling the encroaching storm of war, also bringing this period to the forefront is the Paris Exposition – Exposition Universelle – of 1900, which celebrated the achievements of the past century and ushered in the new – escalators, the Eiffel Tower, diesel engines, film and telegraphones.

The individual finds himself in nebulous times at the turn of the century; insecurity is made even more pronounced by experimentation in art and music, as well. Think Stravinksy‘s Rise of Spring, which premiers in Paris in 1913; Baudelaire is tried for obscenity for certain poems in Le Fleurs du mal (1857); the transition from the Impressionists and van Gogh to Picasso, who says that, “through art we express our conception of what nature is not.” This a very confusing challenge to one’s sense of self – another turn of the screw, we might say. The artificial becomes the norm, even a religion. Composer Hans Pfitzner describes “the international a-tonal movement” as the “artistic parallel of the Bolshevism which is menacing political Europe.” The avantegarde assault on the senses is confusing because art is based on structures, order, not disorder – yet the individual, aesthetically, politically, and spiritually is being dislodged, asked to re-think “the Order of Things.”

“In our dreams,” writes Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy, “we delight in the immediate understanding of figures; all forms speak to us; there is nothing unimportant or superfluous. But even when this dream reality is most intense, we still have, glimmering through it, the sensation that it is mere appearance.”

It is this sense of reality as illusion that parallels our own age; it taints one’s journey towards an understanding of the self; and it skews the philosophical, moral and spiritual classical understanding of work, since the purpose of work, in 1900 and now, is for something outside the self. The individual is expendable.

Heart of Darkness can be accepted as a journey into the bleakest of recesses of the human condition – but only on the surface; it is the illusion of historical documentation. Anti-colonialism, the idea of individual freedom and a fidelity to the work ethic as salvation are traditional readings of Heart of Darkness. But if we approach the text as Marlow, our narrator, does, we find that blindness “is very proper for those who tackle a darkness.” In Heart of Darkness, Conrad speculates that in a mechanical universe what is flesh or body, no less soul? All seems already lost. Hard things, resistant things – metal, mechanization – have superseded softness, flexibility, humanity itself. The individual, in Conrad, is tempted to become unfeeling, tough and durable in order to survive. Work, tough work, keeping a distance from any emotional connection to one’s work, is a part of it all – and a violent turn from Aristotle. In Conrad’s story, therefore, human waste is pervasive, the ivory being the central symbol here. The ivory – men work and die for it – is solely for the rich, a luxury, like art. The world of work and who benefits from the means of production have been successfully established.

In Heart of Darkness we transition into the dark side of Modernism and point to our post-modern narcissism. Where else can we go after such terrifying emotional conditions? But before we get to us, we must pass through Hitler and his most radical and unacceptable way of getting rid of Modernism – vehemence, hatred, and violence – mindless persecution. The world, post World War II, then, is forever tainted, having experienced the “daemonization,” as Harold Bloom calls it, of all academic conditioning and the pervasive evil leveled against anyone who supported Modernism. The world after World War II struggles to become more homogenized, more hierarchical and conservative.

For this to succeed, the individual has to be effectively removed from the self. Nowhere is this more evident then in James’s The Turn of the Screw, which begins with a confusing narrative, voice over voice trying to pierce the artificiality of the tale. The story is, ironically, an “apparition,” doubling as a mirror of reality, the Nietzschean sense of “the sensation of mere appearance.” Only this “mere appearance” has repercussions; a “ghost of a dreadful kind” alters the sense of what’s real and what’s not. All known systems of knowledge – reason especially – have broken down.

In Modern and Modernism, my mentor (NYU), Frederick Karl, sees this as a history that exists in the seams of the text, “a secondary apparatus”: ” a way of suggesting how uncertain and discontinuous evidence is; which is another way of saying irony undercuts not only our views of characters but the every day world.”

God is dead. Science is to be questioned – a suspect. Social structures are breaking down. And institutions, though formidable, cannot be trusted. But more importantly for us, the Aristotelian meaning of work is completely lost. We’re looking for the spiritual in artificiality – reality tv, the Kardashians, mediated sports, etc..

Enter Freud and The Interpretation of Dreams. Where else could we be but in a place whereby, as Freud says, “every dream reveals itself as a psychical structure which has a meaning and which can be inserted at an assignable point in the mental activities of waking life”?

Peter Gay, in Freud: A Life for Our Time, suggests that The Interpretation of Dreams is, “in short,” he writes, “undefinable.” In keeping with the times, Freud’s Dreams is an autobiography, a survey of psychoanalytic fundamentals, “sharply etched vignettes of the Viennese medical world, rife with rivalries and the hunt for status, and of an Austrian society, infected with anti-Semitism and at the end of its liberal decades.”

But key to our discussion on work is what Freud says about “resistance”: “Whatever disturbs the progress of the work is a resistance.” In some ways, Freud returns, through psychoanalysis, to Aristotle’s dialectic [on work]; here, it is both the work of psychoanalysis – patient and analyst working together – and the resistance evident in the patient when attempting to work at defining – or approximating – the repression proper, the first instance that began the reason for the need for analysis.

What is also critical in Freud is the picture we get of psychoanalysis: an affluent client on a leather couch, reclining in a room amidst classic pictures and sculptures (Freud kept these objects on his desk), seeking to find herself or himself; Freud sitting just off the shoulder, unseen by the patient, pipe and pen and pad in hand, scribbling his notes. This is spiritual work removed from the church, by now dead. Here, we also see Conrad’s hard, mechanized world, as well as James’s layered structure of the world – elusive, and an illusion. This is not work in the traditional sense, though I’m aware that I’ve said that Freud returns us to a sort of neo-Aristotlean sense of work.  This is heady stuff, the work of the soul in an increasingly secular world.

For Freud, being that Dreams is his most significant work – not just in psychoanalytic terms, but also in terms of style, literature – it is important to understand that professionally – the world of work – he is trying to “normalize” psychoanalysis. In other words, he is trying to mainstream the work of psychoanalysis. Our collective acceptance of “therapy” as legitimate work begins here.

Peter Gay: “One irresistible discovery, which forms a central theme in The Interpretation of Dreams and of psychoanalysis in general, was that the most persistent human wishes are infantile in origin, impermissible in society, and for the most part so adroitly concealed that they remain virtually inaccessible to conscious scrutiny.”

Thus work is mired somewhere between “persistent human wishes” that “are infintile in origin,” (we need only think about Anthony Weiner here, and Eliot Spitzer), mechanization/technological speed, progress and alienation (we need only think about a couple having dinner while looking into their cell phones), and the chasm between the sublime nature of work and its current, materialistic driven nature (and, here, we need only look at our current political climate to note the disconnect between service for the good of the community vs service to me and my own).

Here we have the nature of work today – nothing we educate people about; we just put our heads down, nose to the grindstone, and persist to the detriment of ourselves and others – and the future. In this example, the story is 115 years old, approximately.

Where will it go, I wonder? Do you know? Can you guess?

Life At 60: Looking for Completion

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I’m contemplating my birthday this coming year (January), not because I want to, rather because I’m being reminded: You’ll be sixty this year, right? Wow, how does it feel?

I’m being forced into simple mathematics: How much longer do you think you want to keep working? I’ve been asked this past year. Economic outlooks suggest that I better stay healthy because I’m going to have to work for a very long time.

How much longer do you want to stay in your house? someone asked just the other day. What’s that suppose to mean? How much longer? That my house is somehow too much for me? How am I suppose to take this?

My father died when he was 82, almost 83, but he had polio and diabetes, though he lived an extremely disciplined life – much more then mine. My mother, a very independent woman, is 86 and going strong, driving around in her convertible VW, exercising, living right. You come from good stock, said my doctor recently. Now we’re down to stock – supply on hand, outstanding capital, a quantity of something (health?) accumulated for future use. But my stock has been chipped at by different stresses, more powerful forces, those that dictate our methods of negotiating with each other in this common era we like to call the age of knowledge – though I’d call it, in keeping with stresses, an age of transition, an age where we’re learning to understand that change is the most powerful constant and that what we, as humans, have done is accelerate it, though we work very hard — and get more stressed — at denying this.

Just how much of a future do I have – does anyone have? And does knowing matter?

What I have noticed are the people – some my age, some younger – that drop off. James Gandolfini was but 51. Dennis Farina was 69, a recent blood clot in his lungs, says his publicist. Notice these are men. A friend, a bit older, has but a few months to live; another, even closer to my age, Alzheimer’s and soon heading for special care. It’s hard to walk around these realities, especially since the suffering is close, so close that an entire community picks up on it. We want to ask the age old existential questions – why? what for? when? who? and so on – but we don’t dare because they seem so utterly ridiculous. We just go on. People drop off, become relegated to memory, and we move on. As W.B. Yeats says, “A terrible beauty is born.”

I find some solace in Woody Allen, 77, because he is still going strong, his latest release, Blue Jasmine, (July 26, 2013). I go back, over and over, to Henry James’s biography and re-read the chapters about his death and how, at the very last moments of his life, he was still writing, still dictating his next story to his faithful secretary. My mother says we have to die healthy. I think that’s key.

I found The Joy of Old Age, by Oliver Sachs, uplifting and hopeful. He’s still practicing at 80. “Eighty!” exclaims Sachs. “I can hardly believe it. I often feel that life is about to begin, only to realize it is almost over.” This is exactly the problem – or perhaps the quandary of aging, if done well, I think: when you do the math – what, maybe I have 25 or so years left, on good terms – I can’t believe that it’s coming eerily close to an end, fin, basta.

Psychologically, more often then not, my wife will say, You’re such a child. Will you ever grow up? To which I answer, I hope not. When I look into that damn thing we call a mirror, it’s telling the truth – white hair, almost gone; weird hair growing from the ears and too long out of the nose; shoulders and arms not as defined; paunch. And then there’s the lack of desire to exercise, though I do it, but not with gusto. Younger, sports are the exercise; the team mediates the anguish of hard, physical work. Older, you’re all alone to do this. Younger, the school bell marked the beginning of the afternoon and athletics; now you have to set your own schedule, force it upon yourself.

I’m not a joiner. I don’t like teams, clubs, groups that join up to run, bike and hike and swim. Besides, I can’t understand that strange desire to dress up like you’re in the Tour d’ France, belly over thighs, riding around with a bunch of guys, chatting it up. Just the notion of sliding into those tight, overly colorful – let’s say loud – outfits, is enough to send me running for the hills. I’m not a marathoner. I’m not a triathlete. I prefer to work alone – and I suppose that makes it even harder, to which you, fine reader, might say, Get over it. Join up. I can’t.

I’ve come to realize that part of this “stock” idea has to do with one’s very nature. By nature, I love to be alone. I love to be alone to read and to write. I love to work alone. The only great fun I have – and great interest – is to be among students and my sheep.

I live on a farm, which makes exercising easier. There’s nothing like a shovel, an axe, a mallet to build some strength; it’s natural too. There’s nothing like grabbing sheep, sitting them up, and trimming their hooves. No matter when it’s done, you’re drenched in sweat. Still, though, the question, How much longer do you want to stay in your house?, hangs over my head and sets me off wondering how much longer can I, indeed, do strenuous physical work?

I find myself studying local Vermont farmers, especially the older ones. I know a 78 year old sheep farmer with hypertension, though he’s never taken a drop of medicine. I know an 80 year old that raises Belgian horses – and if you’ve ever been close to one of these 2000 pound giants, you know you need strength and wit.

I see old farmers chopping wood; I see them on tractors, milking cows, gardening commercially. They may be a bit hunched, with gnarled hands, but they have a particular strength in their core. I take it to be a strength that comes from their commitment to stay connected to the earth, to the work of the hands, the challenges of climate change. It’s a kind of life guided by dead reckoning, I think. It’s a frontier spirit: what’s yet left to be discovered in something deep and abiding that remains ever so secret but that, nevertheless, beckons from within.

Oliver Sachs says, “I feel I should be trying to complete my life, whatever ‘completing a life’ means.” I feel the same. I feel I have yet to complete my life, whatever completion means. This is why I teach, and why in my teaching I try to be fresh year in and year out, day in and day out. Working with 18 – 22 year olds is refreshing – it can also be frustrating; in it lies a sense of life never ending though, that there’s a spiritual connection between them, my students, and me and that somehow, mystically, they’ll carry me, that they may carry me onward even after I extinguish.

While maybe forced into arithmetic calculations about duration, my hands wrapped around a shovel, digging away, and my mind and soul actively engaged in the creation of identities – not least of which is my own – enables me to keep searching for the ineffable.

Would You Let Your TV Watch You? Way TOO Orwellian!

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Strictly re-reporting about a program I heard yesterday, on Here & Now, since I’ve talked about surveillance before: “Is it possible that your cable and phone companies are watching you at home? The technology already exists to allow those companies to watch us, and the information they could get from that could help advertisers target us.”

This, of course, is amazing and very uncomfortable for all of us, indeed. What’s most uncomfortable – perhaps we have grown to accept this – is the evolving relationship between major corporations and government (another subject I’ve spoken about). In this case - surveillance via tv – major corporations – Verizon and Comcast – are  working very hard to watch us be ourselves in the privacy of our own homes.

I don’t know, what do you think about this latest turn …

Education and My Discontents

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As I look out into the world after 28 years of educating college-age kids I can’t help but feel a sense of monumental failure.

I haven’t always felt like this. I didn’t always see things like this, but I suppose I didn’t take the time to look around either. Perhaps this is because I’m not just beginning; rather, I’m looking back at my career and trying to understand the place education occupies in our culture so that I can move on. But I don’t like what I see. And I worry that I had a hand in creating this mess.

Let’s do an experiment that can help you see what I see. Let’s start with George W. Bush’s Cabinet. This is an exercise I sometimes do with students. Where did the cabinet members attend college? Let’s look at a few …

  • Secretary of State: Colin Powell (2001-2005), West Point; Condolezza Rice (2005-2009), University of Denver and then Notre Dame, attending Moscow State University to study Russian, eventually becoming Provost at Stanford University.
  • Secretary of the Treasury: Paul O’Neill (2001-2002), California State University, Fresno, Claremont Graduate University and Indiana University; John W. Snow (2003-2006), Kenyon College, University of Toledo, and a PhD from University of Virginia; Henry Paulson (2006 – 2009), Dartmouth College and Harvard University.

Of course, who can forget George W. Bush, himself: Yale and Harvard. His VP, Dick Cheney (2001-2009), received his B. A. and M. A. in Political Science from the University of Wyoming.

What happens when we look at Barak Obama’s White House? President Obama, of course, our 44th President, attended Columbia University and Harvard Law School where he was President of the Harvard Law Review. His Vice President, Joe Biden, went to the University of Delaware and then to Syracuse University College of Law. Let’s look at the same offices.

  • Secretary of State: Hilary Clinton (2009-2013), Wellesley College and Yale University College of Law; John Kerry (2013 – ), Yale University and Boston College of Law.
  • Secretary of the Treasury: Tim Geithner (2009-2013), Dartmouth College, Peking University, where he studied Mandarin, and John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies; Jack Lew (2013- ), Harvard College and Georgetown University Law Center.

Anything beginning to click yet?

Now let’s just take a quick look at Massachusetts, say, and Boston itself, a hub of intellectual energy. In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts there are 100 colleges and universities, including doctoral and research universities, baccalaureate colleges, associate’s colleges, master’s degree-granting institutions, and special-focus institutions. There are 60 institutions of higher education, of the 100, in Boston alone.

Between 2001 and 2013 (covering our initial look at the two White House Cabinets), Harvard University lists 9 Nobel Laureates, spanning fields such as Economics (Alvin Roth, Eric S. Maskin and Thomas C. Schelling, A. Michael Spence), Physiology and Medicine (Jack Szostak, Linda B. Buck), Al Gore and the 2007 Peace Prize, Physics (Roy J. Glauber, Riccardo Giacconi).

During the same period, 2001-2013, MIT lists 26 Noble Laureates – too many to list here. In fact, MIT’s complete list (over 60 names) is daunting.

Are we seeing a pattern yet? Is there a relationship between these impressive curriculum vitae and the quagmire we feel we’re living in?

I’m wondering what it is that we’re actually teaching? I mean, if you look at the respective educational histories of our cabinet members, don’t you have to wonder why the problems in the United States are getting worse, not better? Don’t we have to wonder why it is that the White House and Congress (from equal pedigree) can’t seem to have a meaningful dialog when, at the core of these elite educations is, indeed, dialog, an extension of the Socratic method that has come to us through the ages?

History tells us that education is the key to understanding the world we’re in – and changing it for the better.

Between 2001-2013, covering both the Bush and Obama years, we had no less than 35 Nobel Laureates in the Boston area – nothing changed, except that things got worse. Now we have a huge surveillance system, a war we can’t get out of, debt, a slow economy, climate change deniers, a harsh, even brutally violent congress that’s hell bent on closing down all rights, not just women’s and minorities’.

My heart-felt question is this, and it pains me to ask: What did all these people sitting in the most powerful seats in our civilization, with teachers I assume like me, actually learn? Certainly not empathy, not compassion and nothing about love.

Humanity is actually a cause we have to fight for now – not a given. Let me state this again, cleanly: that quality of being human, kindness, benevolence, human nature are all things we have to fight for; they are not guaranteed. Inhumanity is though.

We live in a love-less nation where we tell the rest of the world that life is cheap; it’s for the taking. People are expendable. Materialism and growth for growth’s sake are the only things that matter. It’s a vertical ladder we have to climb, and we  have to claw our way over another. One look at gun violence, poverty and our disastrous apartheid system of education – to say nothing of health care and nutrition, as well as the horrors of industrial food production – will lead anyone to agree.  And we look to solve other nation’s problems, exporting this model for others to follow.  Are we in fact exporting inhumanity, too?

As a college and university teacher – a professor – have I been involved in a scam? That is, I’m beginning to think, along with Chris Hedges in Empire of Illusion,that,

We’ve bought into the idea that education is about training and “success,” defined monetarily, rather than learning to think critically and to challenge. We should not forget that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers. A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, that mistakes management techniques for wisdom, which fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death.

Much to my displeasure in this late stage of my career, I’m beginning to realize that I’ve been involved in creating “managers,” people that will go right into the system and change a tire, a spark plug, the oil, but that don’t know how to truly overhaul an engine; that, in fact, don’t have the capacity, will and courage to look at an engine and throw it completely out and begin again by inventing something else. Obama is precisely the perfect example of this quagmire: while running on the notion of change, he’s changed nothing, really; in fact, he’s helped usher in a more stringent society, a more secretive society, while congress works to shut down our civil liberties, our needs as humans, creating a world where inhumanity is accepted as normal.

Wisdom is something I’ve not been able to model, to show and inspire, I think. How to get around this or that, I’ve taught. How to look good so as to be seen, I’ve taught. How to sound successful, I’ve taught too. How to write in the language of power and in acceptable forms, I’ve also done. I don’t think I’ve done well in the how to challenge department, not at all.

Take a single class that meets for 75 minutes twice a week for 12 weeks – that’s a student sitting with me for approximately 30 hrs. If I do this twice years, two semesters, that’s 60 hrs. In a career that spans 28 years (going on 29 this year, as I turn 60, which is hard to say and even harder to look at), that’s 1680 hrs, which is not counting emails and texts and facebook and a number of other social network connections. In that time, in one course, say, I’ve not affected any change. Instead I’ve been swallowed up, I sense, and perhaps condemned us all, as Hedges argues, to death.

I’m looking to September with a kind of despair. I know that I have to make my move to my students’ hearts, as well as my own, with greater conviction, throwing away the very comfortable ways in which education has of getting  the teacher to go along, ensuring that we preach that management techniques are somehow wisdom.

Love’s Labor: The Long View in Education

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for Katie, who brought me this essay

My relationship with students has changed dramatically over time and is determined less by my knowledge of disciplines and more by how sensitive I am to their emotional and psychological needs.

Students have changed over time, as our culture has changed, requiring that I rely more on my intuition, my sense of things, keeping faith that my ongoing study can be conjured instantly and give me the knowledge of content I need at a moment’s notice. This requires constant preparation on my part. I taught before the Internet, and now with it; I taught when it was only paper and pencil, and I teach now when technology is ubiquitous, sometimes even distracting. And, let’s not forget that in these last 28 years, we’ve experienced huge socioeconomic, global shifts that have affected students and teachers, as well higher education itself.

My relationship with students is determined less by the constraints of a 12 week semester (Middlebury has a 12 week term, with a January “J”term) and more by my sense of the long view; that is, my relationship with 18 – 22 year olds is defined by how well I foster the sense that what we’re developing together in the classroom and in my office is long term and made to last because we need to face the world together. It’s too harrowing to do otherwise. I see this as the essence of the liberal arts education, the most vital responsibility for today’s professor. Anything else is window dressing – the business of education, not teaching meaningfully.

We have crossed over to a different time, forced upon us by how students and their families are reacting to the confusing stresses of our times: globalization and the compression of time and space, and the narrowing of opportunity; the breakdown of institutions that we were accustomed to relying on, including education; the cracks and falsehoods of ideologies; the ongoing secularization of society; the dysfunction of governments – and fundamentalism running amuck; climate change and the challenges to our environment that, consequently, raise concerns about food and health care. These are all huge pressures that make everyone that is even remotely paying attention anxious; students, more so, since they are all experiencing incredibly complex forms of vulnerability.

Students are demanding a different academic experience, something that is more complete and holistic, and determined less by the recklessness of departmentalization and the privileging of idiosyncrasies that have lead to overspecialization and underemployment, our current problem. Students are demanding acknowledgement; they demand to be seen and heard – and to be understood. Students need to have their anxieties taken seriously – and for the curriculum to react and change accordingly. Thus, the word relevant has become a measure: is this course relevant? is this school? this technology? this pedagogy?

In other words, students are challenging what has been a rather passive approach to education, particularly among colleges and universities, not least of which are the elites with tuition approximating 60K a year. What is the relevance? You can hear students and families asking.

Students, families, teachers – all of us share a desire to learn, and to do so actively. It’s ironic, actually, that today’s conditions have forced us academics to move towards more active representations of knowledge, pushing us, even unwittingly, towards Paulo Freire, Maxine Greene and bell hooks, just to name a few who have advocated a deeper, richer meaning for the teaching and learning experience. These are the thinkers that have always believed that the process of learning is a mutual experience, a creative exchange between students, teachers, the institution and its place in society.

So I smiled the other day when a student with which I have a very long standing relationship with – as well as with her older sister and her family – sent me a passionate text about Vijay Govindarajan, the Earl C. Daum 1924 Professor of International Business at the Tuck School at Dartmouth. She attended Tuck and she was beside herself after Govindarajan’s talk. “We have to bring him to Middlebury,” she texted. His central idea, found in Reverse Innovation: Create Far From Home, Win Everywhere, is simply that “reverse innovation is any innovation that is adopted first in the developing world. Surprisingly often, these innovations defy gravity and flow uphill.” Thus the developing world benefits, as then does the world from which, traditionally, innovation occurs first because of wealth and technology. Creativity and innovation flow upward, from the poorest countries to the riches; this is new, says Govindarajan, because rich countries can afford to innovate – they demand it and people have grown to expect it. But what works for the rich doesn’t necessarily work for the developing. (What works for the classically trained, elite professor, doesn’t necessarily work for even the best of students in today’s world.) This is creating huge adjustments in the world of innovation, technology and business.

There are several reasons for my smile, my glee, when I got this text and launched into my reading of Reverse Innovation:

  1. A student reached out – she took the time – and taught me something; her view of learning is active, new, fresh, believing that we – she and I – can and must learn together;
  2. She’s trusting that I will move forward with this; in turn, this means that in the two years we’ve shared, and the time we have together at Middlebury, she can rely on me, trust me – I in her. This is monumental in the development of the long view, and she has it; she’s looking for deep, abiding meaning and significance; she’s looking to push aside anxieties about the future by creating a view for herself, a way through;
  3. Reverse innovation is unique to business, which she understands; however, it should not be new to her since she’s been deeply engaged in education issues, working with me on these Freirean ideas: “For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other”(italics mine);
  4. We always learn from each other and, today, the point is to acknowledge this reality – and for teachers to open up to student innovation, a kind of reverse innovation, which sounds counterintuitive but, as Govindarajan would argue, defies gravity. We know this to be true since this student’s experience with me has been exactly Govindarajan’s definition of reverse innovation. She, in fact, motivated this small essay, my first acknowledgement that, professionally and intimately, I hear her, I see her and I care for what she has to say. She is teaching me.

Govindarajan’s Reverse Innovation may be new to business; it’s not new to educators that have been working assiduously, to use bell hooks here, to teach to transgress. As engaged education thinkers say, education is, indeed, the practice of freedom. Govindarajan, in reverse innovation, sees, in business, a practice to freedom as well.

The tragic irony is that as globalization and new markets see this need – innovation floating uphill, rather then the more intuitive downhill – education is moving in the opposite direction, working to eliminate innovation, squash creativity, and squelch the very important relationship that must exist between a teacher and a student; this relationship defies standardization, rather it requires that more time be given close, innovative, encounters that can begin to define – and design – meaningful pathways through the complexities we find today. For me, these gateways happen in the classroom, during long hours in my office, and online. Academics must learn to use all the tools available to us so as to create the sense that education is wed to a long view held together by deep relationships where empathy, understanding and love are the guiding lights.

The Meaning of LeBron James

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There’s a photograph of a close friend and former student that has remained fixed in my mind: two young lads, teenagers, wearing LeBron James, Cleveland Cavalier’s game shirts, number 23, one red and one white, stand amidst the solemnity of the Walling Wall, or Kotel, located in the Old City of Jerusalem at the foot of the western side of the Temple Mount.

Ryan at the Walling Wall

Ryan at the Walling Wall

LeBron James means something to these kids from Cleveland. He was the world to them to such an extent that they appear at one of the holiest sights in the world sporting his jersey. LeBron was hope — not just for Cleveland but for the post Michael Jordan NBA; his is the American Horatio Alger story we so need to keep alive — from poor Akron, Ohio, to the fourth highest paid athlete in the world, the kid who wasn’t suppose to be holding up the Larry O’Brien Championship trophy after the Heat beat the Spurs, 95-88; he was the new face of Black American hope, even before President Obama, as James explains how he’ll be the first billion dollar athlete and, to this aim, he installed his closest friends to run his empire, heard first on the  60 Minute interview.

LeBron James means something to the NBA. He’s moved our attention past the dearth of exhilarating play that fell on the NBA after Michael Jordan retired. He’s excited new narratives — is he better than Michael? will he have an equal amount of championships — can he catch Jordan? is he more like Magic Johnson? is he the best of both?

The game today is not the game Michael played. And for me, speaking strictly basketball, James is the prodigal son of a long standing prototype that has adapted to and animated the evolving play of the NBA. LeBron James is true, imaginative adaptation. Think Karl Malone, “The Mailman, “ generally considered one of the greatest power forwards and long held to be a strong leader, even another coach. Think of the 6’9″ Magic Johnson and the selfless play, the incredible vision, the passing, the shooting, the quickness. And we can take a page out of Larry Byrd, too, if we consider basketball IQ in a deep and penetrating sense. LeBron James is all these players — and Michael Jordan (who wasn’t all these players).

Basketball — as in most sports — is keen on comparing numbers and trophies, the accolades that fund a vertical profit structure and that can give a player — and a team — value; this is why racing to comparisons with Michael Jordan abound and are easy to make. The comparisons are trite, though; these types of comparisons are like statistical models in economics, say: they only tell one small piece of the story. What this modeling fails to see is that LeBron James, in his young career, has already outdone Michael Jordan — if we look at the whole man, beyond the game, and understand that, unlike Michael, there are moments when a figure appears and transforms his sport, as well as the perceptions of fans and the culture at large.

LeBron James is a product of our culture and he’s transforming it as well — the good and not so good. This is his true meaning — and some may not like this, while others see vitality and hope. It’s a fresh narrative line when we most need it since the other being that was to transform our culture — Change Obama – has clearly not, acting more like Mike then LeBron.

Here’s how it works:

Mediated sports in American culture — their immediacy, their narrative strategies, their universal appeal — occupy the unique function of continuing the ongoing tensions — relationships, influences and antagonisms — in the dominant culture. The assumptions about popular culture concerning race, class, and gender — especially masculinity — are grahically displayed in media’s representation of sports. In other words, there are but a few figures that stand in the center of this spectacle that are transforming these tensions, while also, before our eyes, being transformed by them. And it is here where we are offered a mirror of who we are. One such person is LeBron James, of course.

But to get there, we have to begin with Michael Jordan’s problematic position in popular culture.

“To some, Jordan in his prime became the embodiment of Black Power,” writes William C. Rhoden in Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete; “to me he is the antithesis, however, the embodiment, if anything, of the destructive power of the Conveyor Belt and the perversion of the nobler goals of integration.”

Who is Mike? asks Rhoden.

Jordan is the one who fully exercises the won right to be publicly neutral, not to have to deal with quotas and segregation, and even to have the ‘black’ elements of style and image — bald head, baggy pants, soaring acrobatics — not just accepted by the mainstream, but revered, freeing him to be obsessed with wealth and image. Freed by the Civil Rights movement to be neutral, he’s lightly shrugged off the historical mission of black athletes to push for progress and power.

Jordan paid a price for this. In May 2003, Jordan was summoned to Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin’s office and categorically dismissed, Rhoden tells us (as did many others in the media).

“I didn’t do this for the money,” Jordan told Pollin. “I thought I was going to take over the franchise eventually” (in Rhoden).

“That was never a part of the arrangement,” Pollin responded, Rhoden tells us. “I’ve worked thirty-nine years to build this organization. I’m not giving it to you and I don’t want you to be my partner, Michael.”

Says Rhoden, “Intentionally or not, the dismissal served as a warning shot that reverberated through the NBA. The greatest athlete of all time — “God,” “the deity,” His Airness — couldn’t prevent his own firing. Jordan was effectively taken out into the yard and shot like a dog.”

This is not LeBron James. He learned from Jordan’s don’t make waves, go along quietly and just Be like Mike attitude. In fact, James may have learned from the Williams sisters: they’ve paved their own way, created their own, respective voices in tennis and, literally, as in the case of Serena that “runs women’s tennis like Kim Jong-un runs North Korea: ruthlessly, with spare moments of comedy, indolence and the occasional appearance of a split personality,” designed their own lives and fortunes — on their terms.

LeBron James’ meaning encompasses something of all the descriptors used for Serena Williams, the antithesis of the Be like Mike, quiet persona that refuses to take a stand on anything. James is something other then Jordan’s passivity and reluctance to engage any racial challenge. When LeBron James was handed the MVP and the NBA championship, standing with each trophy securely in his arms, he acknowledged coming from Akron, Ohio, saying that he wasn’t even suppose to be here, the champion, a profound political statement in a dramatic moment.

As Rhoden suggests, Jordan was fully aware of his double standard and, like most African – Americans “playing the game, seeing racism and sidestepping it, grumbling about it under his breath, but pushing it to one side in order to reap the full benefits of a multiracial society. At the same time, even if his attitude about race was familiar and defensible, his actions remained troubling.” Who could forget, in 1992, when Jordan balked at wearing the Reebock designed United States Olympic Committee awards-ceremony uniform and covering it with the American flag, of all things?

What’s the point?

The point is that LeBron James is reaching far beyond the confines of race in sports, pushing the boundaries, creating new models to consider. Somewhere in America today, young boys are running around trying to be like LeBron, not Mike, and wonder, as LeBron has said, if they too can use basketball as a stepping stone to other ventures.

But this, too, is the problem, and deeply felt, more then most, by Cleveland fans. In order to be the first million dollar athlete, and taking a page from the Williams sisters, more so then from any other story today — except for, maybe, Muhammad Ali — LeBron James is floating to the heights of capitalism like no other athlete before, conflating Black Power, Black Style and (Black?) Capitalism. This was made evident in The Decision. James said he wanted to win championships, the hard road to value and to making an impact on history. The people of Cleveland were devastated; unfortunately this is because most fans don’t understand the business of sports and how a player is valued, financially and historically. Players will float to the money — and money, even though there are rules in the NBA, has no allegiances, except to more money.

I received a text from another student post the Heat victory: Even though I love LeBron, she says, the Spurs are a REAL team. This is another meaning of LeBron: he represents the conditions in which the game takes place. Pat Riley and the Heat management bought a team — and helped LeBron make his mark. In the Heat vs Spurs NBA final, we saw two histories, two narratives unfolding that are mirrors of our lives: bought, immediate success vs the labored building of success over time. LeBron James has given meaning to this business form — which is also a military form, “shock and awe.” We don’t like this when we’re affected by it. (Sort of the hatred of the winning Yankees, the glee in their losing.)

LeBron James is the meaning of our times — loved and despised; admired and yet disliked, too, for his grace, agility and strength; he is liked and disliked because of his work ethic, professionalism and business, as well as basketball, IQ (no one said, as an announcer said about LeBron during the NBA finals, that Michael could coach any time; he’s failing miserabley with the Bobcats because his basketball IQ is just not LeBron’s); and he’s both admired and admonished because he forces us to look at race in an America that still asks that African Americans be like LeBron, or Mike, or Magic or …, to succeed while others hope for the best in the injustice of it all. Think Detroit, think Akron, think South Bronx.

LeBron James’s meaning is that he’s us — we are him. He is a mirror of our extremes; he is a sign that all is not right, but suggesting that what is right requires self-reliance, certitude, facing fear without reservations, and launching out with dead reckoning, much as Herman Melville would suggest. We love and hate LeBron James because he captures all of who we are and he’s letting us know; and we are uncomfortable, in Apartheid America, that one individual is actually striking out, not on the Pequod, but on the basketball court, and calling it his own.

LeBron James and the Williams sisters, too, are the future. They’re in control of it — we’re not.

The Real PRISM Story: The Silencing of Dissent

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DISSENT : To differ in sentiment or opinion, especially from the majority; to disagree with the methods, goals, etc., of a political party or government; take an opposing view; difference of sentiment or opinion; disagreement with the philosophy, methods, goals, etc., of a political party or government.

There are 2 challenges facing us post the PRISM story that define a history of efforts to curtail dissent, though dissent is essential for democracy:

  1. The U.S. government approved — and reconciled itself with — the PRISM program without much debate. The public didn’t even know about it. The public sphere has been carefully eliminated by partisanship and media’s propensity for the extreme. This, more then any other story is the critical story of the PRISM leak.
  2. The U.S. citizen is literally clueless about surveillance and the trail we leave behind, which begins the moment we’re born and we receive our social security numbers in our utter innocence. It begins here — then we’re cataloged, followed through school, tax forms (in my case: selective service during Vietnam, and service in the USN), drivers license, marriage certificate, diplomas, CV’s, etc.

DISSENTERS: U.S. history is synonymous with dissent; their voices and struggles created this country. Someone like Jonathan Edwards, one of America’s original theological philosophers, was a dissenter. Dissenters landed on Plymouth Rock, in 1620, 83 years before Edward’s birth. Ralph Waldo Emerson, too, and his prodigal son, Henry David Thoreau dissented. A long line of American writers — Hutchinson and Bradstreet, Hawthorne and Melville, Whitman and Dickenson — through to Faulkner, say, and Zora Neal Hurston, who died a relative unknown, in 1960, until Alice Walker found her unmarked grave, in the Garden of Heavenly Rest in Fort Pierce, Florida, are dissenting voices speaking against the status quo.

The point I’m making is that the evolution of the American character — our beliefs, our personality, our energy and our dedication to civil rights and social justice — is synonymous with dissent; however, as we’ve journeyed into our very tenebrous times, media, corporate sponsored government and our entertainment industries have all worked assiduously to homogenize the American character, thus the American experience. Homogenization, on a mass scale like this, is, first and foremost, how dissent is repressed; it’s also how propaganda parades as truth. And from this lens, how people — and language and actions — are criticized, which is to judge. It’s why John Boehner can call Edward J. Swoden, the individual that leaked PRISM, “a traitor”. This is the same John Boehner that would parade through the halls of congress with wads of tobacco cash asking his colleagues to take it; this is the same Speaker of the House whose leading five contributors are AT&T, Murray Energy, First Energy Corp, American Financial Group and the Boehner for Speaker Committee.

Who is a trader to whom?

Edward Said is dead, as is Howard Zinn. Noam Chomsky is 85 years old. How long can he keep fighting the good fight? Bernie Sanders is all alone, a lone voice. Naomi Kline is working hard, and only 43. If you think, unless you’ve tuned into Democracy Now!, with another dissenter, Amy Goodman, and WBAI, something like that, nowhere in our crowded networks does one hear a single voice of dissent, ever. Colbert, Stewart and Maher are our contemporary — and popular — dissenters, speaking to the choir, but their comedy goes along, it reminds us that all we can do is poke fun at the lies, deceit and idiocy because we have to live what we have. Hell, Rush Limbaugh, for god’s sake, sees himself as a dissenting voice.

Where are we?

In Chatter:  Uncovering the Echelon Surveillance Network and the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping, Patrick Radden Keefe (2006) describes the Echelon project, the largest invisible eavesdropping architecture in the world:

The United States is the dominant member of a secret network, along with four other Anglophone powers — the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand — that intercepts the chatter of people around the world. The pact between thee countries was initiated a half a century ago, in a document so secret that its existence has never been acknowledged by any of the governments involved: the UKUSA agreement. The network these countries have developed collects billions of telephone calls, e-mails, faxes, and telexes every day and distributes them, through a series of automated channels, to interested parties in the five countries. In this manner, the United States spies on its NATO allies, and the United Kingdom spies on its EU allies; the network supercedes any other ties of loyalty… Signals intelligence, or Sigint, in the shorthand of politicos and spies, is the little-known name for listening in that it is used today by the eavesdroppers themselves. Eavesdropping has become an extraordinarily cutting-edge game, with listening stations inhaling conversations bounced via satellites and microwave towers; spy satellites miles above in space tuning in on radio frequencies on the ground; and silent and invisible Internet bugs clinging, parasitelike, to the nodes and junctures of the information superhighway…Though many Americans are not even aware that it exists, the National Security Agency, the American institution in charge of electronic eavesdropping, is larger than the CIA and the FBI combined…[And] Like any good conspiracy theory, this one contains important elements of truth. Like any good conspiracy, it is also nonfalsifiable: while it might be impossible to prove it’s all true, it’s also impossible to prove that it’s not, and the theory thrives on official denials and refusals to comment.

Has anyone read Chatter? Has anyone seen Patrick Radden Keefe interviewed, particularly since the PRISM story broke? Exactly.

In England’s North Yorkshire moors, Keefe reports, in cow country, “lies the most sophisticated eavesdropping station on the planet.” The five Anglophone powers — the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — share it. British military police stand guard in front of a sign that reads: RAF Menwith Hill.

What we’re experiencing is a perfect storm right now: a long standing pact between certain powerful nations that created a world-wide — and very powerful — surveillance system; the unfettered dominance of the world’s largest electronic surveillance security agency, the NSA; corporate owned government that by design has to do nothing, because that’s what it’s asked by sponsors, and instead — also by design — harps on ideologies while privileging social issues over human rights and social justice, and dismantles public education; and the slow decay of dissent via entertainment and education, the only outlets for citizens, which is why mediated sports and pornography are the top sellers, followed closely by reality TV.

Very effectively, alternative voices — and alternative points of view — are marginalized through ridicule because they’re different, unable to adhere to jingoistic idealism, the bane of our existence.

The real story of the PRISM leak is here — in how dissent has been slowly silenced and how any alternative point of view, when voiced, is immediately rejected and ridiculed because it’s not following the ruling — and mediated — ideologies of our time, lending our age a certain degree of shiftiness, giving us a sense of transit where complexity — and complex figures — are introduced to produce, in us, an inside and an outside that figure to confuse our identity.

Cronopio U.S.A.

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SOBRE EL SER: LA VIDA, LA MUERTE Y LA AUTO CONFIANZA Por Héctor Vila* Traducción de Carlos Ramí­rez**

No sé cómo llegué hasta donde estoy, hasta donde he llegado. A mi edad, 59, se supone que sepamos, que tengamos algunas respuestas. Yo no. Es como si la vida simplemente hubiera ocurrido y yo siguiéndola, neblinoso.

 

 

via Cronopio U.S.A..

Life in the PRISM: We Asked for It — or the Illusion that Technology is Neutral

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The most disconcerting aspect of the NSA’s PRISM program, whereby the U.S. intelligence community can gain access to the servers of nine Internet companies for a wide range of digital data, is not that this was granted by federal judges working under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and congress went along; it’s not even that Big Brother has been here — and now it’s here to stay.

The most disconcerting aspect of the NSA’s surveillance program is what it says about us, the citizens of the U.S. that are wired, interconnected, splashing ourselves across social media, using all kinds of devices and moving ever so quickly — and quietly and blindly and accepting — into a more nuanced programmed world, a reality, as suggested by Bill Wasik in his Wired article, Welcome to the Programmable World, where “houses, cars, and factories, [are] surrounded by tiny, intelligent devices that capture data about how we live and what we do” — and they’re starting to talk to one another, and us.

The NSA has an infinite number of entry points into our private lives.

And the most disconcerting aspect to all this is that we’ve gotten here without much fanfare, not much noise. It arrived — along with the surveillance.

We live in 3 worlds:

  • The 1st World is highly visible and physical. It’s life and death, birthdays, weddings and funerals. We experience it getting food out of a refrigerator, opening doors, smiling at people, getting on planes, and so on. In this magical world, we’re assisted by the 2nd World.
  • The 2nd World is the device world: automated doors, automated tellers and accounts of all sorts at our finger tips, cell phones and bluetooth devices, computers, and computer chips, the magic of the Internet we don’t see but have grown to expect, even anticipate to such a degree that if at anytime it should go down, it would be accompanied by massive withdrawal and anxiety. Here we’ve grown to depend on our social networks – Facebook, Twitter, Tumbler, WordPress, and so on. All of it, the identities we try to extend online. This leads us to the 3rd World, the most dangerous of all.
  • The 3rd World is inhabited by the programmer — engineers socializing us through their dreamy programming that comes to us via cool hardware. Cool has seduced us into a blind acceptance of programming. It is this world that ties everything together; it is this world that pre-figures our actions, even our motivations, and synthesizes all this with the needs, will and plans of some of the most powerful forces, nation-states and multinational corporations. We’re pawns here.

We’re under a spell, mediated into believing we have voice and a modicum of control.

Program: a plan or schedule of activities, procedures, etc., to be followed.

An insidious but vital part of the programmer’s responsibility is — and has been — to make everything we experience easy, fluid, dynamic; this is what keeps us from wondering where we’re going — and why. And this is the most disconcerting aspect of where we find ourselves today with this Big Brother-like surveillance program.

Most of us that enjoy technology, and many who pontificate about the wonders of technology, have zero knowledge of how and why our states of being changed so drastically — though there have been warnings. We could argue that this has been a problem about educating ourselves. But how can we educate ourselves when we’re so complascent with the way things are, going along as if nothing is happening, quite able and eager to surrender control? This is what technology is — a surrender to the programmer’s imagination.

This is not technophobia. I use technology. I teach with it. I find great pleasure in working with technology — but not at the expense of not knowing.

The first warning came from Martin Heidegger, in The Question Concerning Technology. This essay is contained in two of Heidegger’s works, Die Technik und die Kehre (1962) and Vortröge und Aufsätze (1954). I mention this because the dates matter — a lot. The atomic bombings of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaky, conducted by the U.S., occured in the late stages of World War II, in 1945. Heidegger speaks on the heels of this monumental human event that changed our relationship to technology forever. By 1962, the air was filled with a sense of revolution, change, a desire to unmask authority world-wide. In-between these global events, Hiedegger warns us about technology. From this vantage point it’s easy to see the arc to our current day:

Thus we shall never experience our relationship to the essence of technology so long as we merely conceive and push forward the technological, put up with it, or evade it. Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to the technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this conception of it, to which today we particularly like to do homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology.

In the traditional sense, Heidegger regards essence — the German noun Wesen — as not simply meaning what something is, but that it means the way in which something pursues its course, the way in which it remains through time as what it is. Thus, he means here a “coming to presence.”

As technology has come to presence — to be present in our lives — Heidegger suggests that we’ve merely create what is technical — data, programs, hardware, etc. — and push on without much thinking. We “put up with” technology’s requirements — iPhone 1 – 5, hardware and software that can’t be updated because it’s obsolete, the new mantra for everything we must have, the glitches.

We also put up with what we don’t see, such as the NSA’s surveillance program. Drones for attack, drones for surveillance. This is why Heidegger suggests we remain “unfree and chained to technology”; it’s the point of no return. We’ve gone over the edge. Never have we been so reliant on technology – and never have we been so vulnerable. Even the Ludites are vulnerable.

We’ve gotten to this point because we regard technology as something that exists outside of our lives; that it’s not us. But a closer look demonstrates that the technological world we have is the technological society we’ve fostered, from cell phones to drones.

Another author that is seldom studied and discussed along these lines is Jacques Ellul who, in The Technological Society, prophetically first published in 1954, then again in the U.S. in 1964, also warns us:

Whenever we see the word technology or technique, we automatically think of machines. Indeed, we commonly think of our wrold as a world of machines…It arises from the fact that the machine is the most obvious, massive, and impressive example of technique, and historically the first. What is called the history of technique usually accounts to no more than a history of the machine; this very formulation is an example of the habit of intellectuals of regarding forms of the present as identical with those of the past.

Subsequently, “…technique is nothing more than means and the ensemble of means. This, of course, does not lessen the importance of the problem. Our civilization is first and foremost a civilization of means; in the reality of modern life, the means, it would seem, are more important then the ends. Any other assessment of the situation is mere idealism.”

There we have it. If we conflate Heidegger — technology is neutral — and Ellul — technology is a means, and this is more important then ends — we have our world.

What is our world?

As overt examples of authoritarian regimes crumble and fight to stay alive, the power of the microchip has risen. Simultaneously, as governments and corporations experience our crowd sourcing and learn, a different form of totalitarianism is rising under the auspices of capitalism, the threat of terrorism, and a government eager to demonstrate its benevolence by arguing for our protection. The invertion of power is now complete, the corporation — Google, Verizon, Apple, AT&T, etc — legitimize massive control by becoming open partners with their foil, government, and thus power is effectively removed from the hands of citizens and sits only in the hands of the few.

Striking Thirteen: The World of Surveillance and Indifference

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Since today, June 6, is George Orwell’s birthday, let’s begin with him. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,” reads the opening line of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Looking around this morning, I find that the clocks are, indeed, “striking thirteen.”

So let me set things straight for President Obama and the NSA, this way no one has to come looking for me — or if you want to, I’m transparent: I frequently receive phone calls from Kabul, Afghanistan, sometimes even from other provinces; other times I receive communiqués from Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Hong Kong; I receive regular communiqués from Argentina and Great Britain, the odd couple, Spain and France, too. Sometimes Germany, though I’m sure you’re fine with that, unless it’s a white supremacist group. Welcome to the reality of global citizenry in the 21st Century. We’re all interconnected so we’re all under surveillance at all times — through Facebook, Twitter, etc. We’re all very willing to tell the world where we are at any given moment.

I am open about all of my communications because it makes little — or no — difference to the Obama Administration since it is pursuing with great force the Bush era Patriot Act section allowing for secret surveillance of US citizen’s phone records (number only for now). I am also a Verizon Wireless client, which is named in the New York Times (yes, I also have an iPhone — just keeping with the transparency). Screwed every which way, I guess.

And just to be clear, my conversations with Middlebury College alumni, which is mostly who I speak to, unless it’s family in Argentina, usually cover the following subjects:

  • The rejection of the Bush – Cheney lies that got us into Iraq, forgoing Afghanistan, until it was time to enter there.
  • The complete understanding that the government in Kabul is totally corrupt and millions U.S. dollars have been siphoned off and the Afghan people continue to suffer — and will suffer for yet another one or two generations. But we don’t really mind that.
  • The disgust over drones that in Obama’s hands makes Bush-Cheney war-mongoring seem like Sesame Street.
  • The militarization of key spots in the world to protect multinational oil business that, in turn, is channeling money to buy senators and congressmen, thus continuing our climate / environmental debacle and our dependency on fossil fuels.
  • The continued global policy, by the most powerful nations, to disenfranchise the poor – those without voice – on whose backs our way of living is built on, though, by all logical uses of statistical models we see that it’s in decline but we don’t want to look inward. So it goes.
  • The willful and systematic dismantling of public education in the USA — and education that’s meaningful globally — in order to ensure that production models of existence that malign one’s identity continue on our current conveyor belts to oblivion.
  • I also discuss, just to create a list of themes: Inverted Totalitarianism, the environmentalism of the poor, world wide, climate change, the industrialization of food and our decaying health, as well as the confusion over health care, which is an inalienable right.

There. If anyone this morning is looking around, just browsing and skimming, it’s impossible not to be depressed. Besides the U.S. secretly collecting the phone exchanges of citizens, FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe says the IRS scandal leads to Obama — and it’s as bad as Watergate. So Obama is being compared to Nixon? At this point, does anyone really care?

Obama, back in 2008, ran on the promise of change. “Yes we can.” Indeed, we can. We have changed — and Bush-Cheney are having a grand old time smiling away their respective retirements because never in a million years could they have imagined that Obama would out Bush-Cheney them. Frankly, I don’t really know why the conservative right is all bent out of shape about Obama; he’s outdoing even them.

Let’s see:

  • Obama is weak on the environment, the Keystone pipeline likely to be the next feather in his cap.
  • Obama is weak on education, following No Child Left Behind — and Duncan’s rather mindless approach to any real education reform (I say reform rather then change, though they mean the same thing to this administration: privatization and homogeneity).
  • Obama is weak on civil liberties, particularly when it comes to our rights as citizens, going full force with an Orwellian (thus the beginning of this piece) scheme that will blanket the nation — and the world. (See the book: Chatter)
  • Obama is strong on keeping our banks strong, as I said he would during his 2008 election campaign; shortly thereafter appointing Timothy Geithner, a Wall Street insider, Secretary Treasurer — the fox in the hen coop.
  • Guantanamo is still open — what more can we say?

On June 23, 2011, I said that even with an Obama victory, nothing will change. GMO’s everywhere so that we can’t tell what’s what; a Farm Bill that, according to Mark Bittman in Welfare for Wealthy, is, well, just that, welfare for the wealthy — multinational agribusiness will be guaranteed pay-offs and given an open door to increase their monoculture production that has ruined land and air, while the poor will get less; Eric Holder is still on the ropes with the FBI scandal, the aggressive probing of journalists.

Has anything changed, really?

In my mind it has — but it didn’t change with Obama. In my mind things began to change and become more violent and aggressive, government more elusive, abrasive and prohibitive, with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. At 12:30PM, Central time, on November 22, 1963, in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas, the world changed — and if not the world, then the U.S. certainly did. A standing president could be assassinated. Shortly thereafter, Malcolm X was assassinated (February 21, 1965), in New York City. On April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. And, on June 5th of that year, shortly after midnight, Bobby went. In the span of 5 years, a sitting president, a brother running for president and two civil rights leaders were all shot down before our eyes. We were all witnesses. American violence played on the evening news, alongside harrowing images of Vietnam and dogs attacking Civil Rights marchers. We passed through the looking glass and became something else altogether different — callous, angry, colder and more reserved and reluctant.

It was no wonder that this lead to Richard Nixon and Watergate. The stage was set for the coming of our hostile age of surveillance and indifference, the twin brothers that accompany a politics that gives justice to malice.

In his seminal work, The Idea of Justice, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen says that, “What moves us, reasonably enough, is not the realization that the world falls short of being completely just — which few of us expect — but that there are clearly remediate injustices around us which we want to eliminate.” All around us, daily, we see, “inequities or subjugations from which we may suffer and which we have good reason to recent, but it also applies to more widespread diagnoses of injustice in the wider world in which we live,” continues Sen.

So I want to be clear, I want to be transparent about what I’m saying, this way, Mr. Obama and the NSA have a clear mission: the most profound injustice, which is evident in the U.S., as a leader, and the wider world, is a resentment towards creative, free and open uses of the imagination; rather, justice, now, is interpreted as equal to or consistent with the injustice brought about by homogeneity and subjugation, the children of surveillance and indifference.

In other words, when I talk to my former students in Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Great Britain, Germany and France and Spain, we all note the same thing: the closing of the American mind leads the world so powerfully that the abuses and violence we see in the rest of the world are a mindless mirror of who we are and what we’ve nurtured. That’s been the big change. We’re leading the world in our repression of social justice, of humanity. We’re all interconnected; it can’t be otherwise.

The Agony of Lucidity

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For Leah and the girls down in Boston today

I’ve not been “on” this blog for some time. I want to apologize, say I’m sorry, but I don’t know who I’d say this too. And given what we face today, a darkness visible hanging over American culture, it’s hard for me to find the words to get through this. But here goes …

Boston changed everything. Boston brought me back to our interconnectedness, a notion or theme linking all my classes this term, a Writing Workshop and Social Class and the Environment. So that’s what I want to talk about. Interconnectedness.

CNN’s feed — such an influence! — compels me to create my own timeline to my emotions:

1. 3PM – 4PM, Monday, April 15: I was in a delectable bubble, sitting in my warm, safe and bright college office with a student, engaged in an incredible conversation about social justice, environmentalism, writing and creativity, a healthier future we imagined conceivable.

2. 4:10PM: I learned about Boston — the ugly violence, the havoc and instant suffering, the confusion that turned into a tremendous weight — and disbelief.

3. 5:30PM: On the ride home from school, I learned of the cowardly defeat of the gun bill. A heavier darkness set in. The NRA and Washington cowards intent on keeping power, not saving lives, are more powerful then the voices of American citizens. Washington exists outside our American lives.

4. April 17, two days later: The news of the poison letters sent to Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss) and President Obama. And the darkness reigned supreme, a suffocating feeling.

The winter winds have begun to change in Vermont. Indifferent clouds race across the skies, the air is lighter — you can smell it — the temperature rising ever so slowly, as it does this time of year. Hints of sun remind us that it’s still there laboring to find its way back to us — finally. Something other then death, destruction and callous indifference has to come our way.

5. April 19, Friday: When one suspect is dead and CNN works to fit into every aspect of the unfolding manhunt, a tropical wind is screaming across Vermont. My chickens had a hard time getting across paddocks, pushing against it, literally going airborne and tumbling  when the gusts were incredibly harsh. It all felt surreal, confusing. At some point that night, maybe around 11PM, I learned that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the second Boston marathon bombing suspect, was apprehended.

During the depressing malay, the chants of Boston Strong, the Red Sox game and Neil Diamond, my brain turned to a movie, The Siege, directed by Edward Zwick. This film is about a fictional situation in which terrorist cells make several attacks in New York City. Despite objections, the US President declares marshal law and the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division, under Major General William Devereaux (Bruce Willis), occupies and seals off Brooklyn. People of Arab descent are rounded up and detained in Yankee Stadium. New Yorkers stage violent demonstrations against the army and the racial profiling of the Arabs and the Army fights to maintain control.

The Siege, again, a fictional account — I’m compelled to repeat this, just to pinch myself — is not the Boston lock down, but it gave me pause. Is this what we’re facing, our future? Surveillance. Tighter controls, literally and virtually. A military-like presence in our cities. Fiction has been turned into our lives.

Regardless of the ethnicity of the Tsarnaev brothers, they grew up in the United States. In the West, many fundamentalist radicals intent on following terrorist actions are being bred in our communities. Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, whatever they did to get to that tragic day that colored the Boston marathon with such harshness, had friends in the community. They had family, went to schools like everyone else’s — even excelled. They went to work, too. In other words, they lead American lives in an American community. They were, at one point, normal, as we like to say.

In an interconnected world, everything is possible.

Welcome. This is our world now.

Where do we go from here, knowing what we now know?

I’m a father of 4. I’m a husband. A son. A brother. And I’m a teacher. This Sunday, April 21, my mind is on the Middlebury Women’s Tennis Team: they took the trek to Tufts, in Boston, yesterday, Saturday, because the original trip, a long weekend of matches, first against MIT, then Tufts, was put on hold by the Tsarnaev brothers. Everyone was on tenter hooks. With some anxiety, these beautiful, wanting kids took the trip to Boston. They went to do something they love; they went to meet their responsibilities. That’s what we’re called to do. I know they’re safe, but I can’t help thinking of them because they’re young, like my children. Hell, they are my children — they’re all our children. They’re young and innocent working so hard that it sometimes brings me to tears to watch them grapple with our difficult world. Sometimes we cry together.

I feel totally guilty for the world my generation is leaving behind. It’s a world where neighbors can’t trust neighbors; where important people in important positions, graduates of our most elite institutions, can’t be trusted at all. This is the world we’ve given them, the tomorrows colored by a siege scenario. Unacceptable.

All I can say to them, my students, is I love you. I have nothing else, nothing left. How else can you teach any kid anything today? Love and Health are the only curriculum. What we pass along as knowledge and information makes no sense — not to them, not to us. The material I teach, I find almost irrelevant. In the face of Boston — and the Bostons to come — I’m driven to my knees. I’m sorry, yes, I can say that only to them. I know that now. I love you is what I must say to them and show them, let them know that in their time with me, they’ve been loved, unconditionally; that this is love in this heartless universe — so harsh. We’ve become so harsh and reproachful.

Why are we here?

6. April 21, about 1:40: the girls are on the courts at Tufts. Brazilian Girls: Some people want to burn the world with their greed. We just want to have a good time, all the time.

I had to travel some, today, to get to the Brazilian Girls. Given how dark I felt, after morning chores I turned on Al Greene. His Greatest Hits have a way of lifting me — even though my wife, Nina, laughs. You know nothing about music, she says. My son, Devon, agrees. But Nina is in a workshop in NY and I’m a weekend bachelor, left alone with the weight of things. But Love and Happiness — Love will make you do right, make you do wrong, just wasn’t doing anything for me; it existed somewhere else. Love is, Love is walking together, talking together…

Is it? Can it be?

Feeling so alone, I took to cooking. And somewhere between the chili con carne and the lamb (White Dorper, our own) with lentils, and Bonnie Raitt,  Used to Rule the World began to lift the veil of darkness. I began to see, slowly, a bit. Brother lovejoy. Yeah, Raitt’s raspy voice, that guitar — she touched my soul, showed me the way, aching. With her cover of Right Down the Line — You know that I need your love, you got that hold on me – I had 3 dishes going simultaneously — the lamb, the chili and a kale and potato soup. And I was moving to Raitt. She was moving me towards light.

Lucidity. The agony of lucidity.

Lucidity is both a gift and a punishment. Lucid comes from Lucifer, the rebellious angel, the Devil. But Lucifer is also the morning star, the first star, the brightest, the last to fade. Lucid comes from Lucifer, Lucifer from Lux and Ferous, meaning that he who has light, who generates light, who brings the light allowing inner vision. Good and Evil together. Pain and pleasure. Lucidity is agony, and the only pleasure we can know, the only pleasure, remotely like joy, is that of being aware of our own lucidity. “The silence of understanding, the silence of merely being. There, the years go by. There, beautiful animal joy went,” said Pizarnik. Brilliant. (Lugares Comunes, Adolfo Aristrain, Director, 2002)

Lucidity is agony. This morning I sent my students a note, just a quote, something to ponder in this extraordinarily blinding world:

Academics who act as ambassadors of the oppressed are no substitute for enduring arrangements that might enable the oppressed to explain themselves and pursue their own interests as they wish … When humanists claim to set aside crude, worldly, practical concerns for the sake of purely ‘philosophical’ inquiry, they actually fall prey to the optical illusion of a pure thinker somehow separate from the world. (Arts of Living: Reinventing the Humanities for the Twenty-first Century, Kurt Spellmeyer, 2003).

I blame myself for the world we have. Us professors, in our elite institutions, have presumed a position that is an illusion: the world is out there, we are somehow living in loftier terrain separate from the world. We have separated people; we have separated ourselves from feeling the world. This false position has created the world we’re in. We’ve failed to describe a world that Don DeLillo gives us in Underworld (1997) where everything is interconnected: the guy making toothpaste and light bulbs is also making nuclear warheads. How do we tell the good from the bad? asks DeLillo.

Our way of life has consequences. Our leisure, our comforts — and discomforts — come at a price; we can’t have what we have unless someone pays. This is what Rob Nixon calls slow violence (Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor; 2011). Struggles for existence, for human rights, are extraordinarily symbolic — as well as physical (banking; military) and intellectual (ideologies; academia). Thus, the overwhelming force of the West has created cultures of doubt coupled to systems burdened by national debt. It’s not a stretch to imagine the rise of terrorism from here.

Now it’s come home; it comes from us. If we are to enter into this age with meaning — to try to understand our complicity, first, then find a way through — the agony of lucidity must be central, and it begins by recognizing that everything is interconnected, as DeLillo would say; that what happened in Boston is not because of some foreign force, rather it’s, in part, due to our own force, our own blindness in our uses of force, the cataclysmic development of structural violence worldwide.

2012 in review

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The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 9,400 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 16 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

From Newtown to Newark and Back: The Always Ongoing Cycle of Despair

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Not since 9-11 has a country mourned as it is now following the overwhelming, mindless violence that occurred in Newtown.

Twenty six innocent children and six innocent adults were martyred on the crucifix of insanity. We have to accept, as Yeats says in Easter 1916, that we’ve finally been Transformed utterly. All, indeed, has changed — Yeats says it and we must see it as well.

There will be a lot of talk in time — the Second Amendment to the Constitution, violence in America, assault weapons, the NRA, mental health. The list can be endless since Newtown — this new town – to many of us a new spiritual place, is now every town in America; everything that ails us crushed Newtown’s innocence.

Why? Why have we come to this?

A shadow of cloud on the stream/Changes minute by minute, Yeats tells us. The long-legged moor-hens dive,/And hens to moor cocks call;/Minute by minute they live:/The stone’s in the midst of all. How prophetic Yeats is about our problem: those common folks living in Eighteenth-century houses, we pass them by, nod and give Polite meaningless words. We move around and through people, not with people. We ensnare rather then enable. We are suffocating. We suffocate because we take meaning away, not work to understand.

But in the middle of all this, our constructed struggles, our foibles, is The stone, the grave, death. It’s inevitable so we try to move past it too. “These tragedies must end,” said President Obama. But in order to begin to address the problem we have to first acknowledge our inconsequentiality in the face of Nature. It has a power that brings us to our knees — Katrina, Sandy, now Adam Lanza. He, too — there is no doubt — is a force of Nature we don’t understand. He, too, is a storm of destruction.

Too long a sacrifice/Can make a stone of the heart, says Yeats. Is this who we are? Was this Lanza, his heart so cold, so lost? O when may it suffice? wonders Yeats. President Obama wondered the same thing in Newtown. He told us all that Newtown reminds us of what matters. Why do we have to have violence of such magnitude to remind us of what matters? Why?

What matters are the simplest things: Why are we here? What is the purpose for our lives, given that time is fleeting, our lives ephemeral? This is the terrible beauty that is born, says Yeats. The dull, almost empty sound that comes when we ask these questions. There’s no response. We turn to education and religion, exercise and excess, mediated sports and consumerism to find ourselves. We never turn inward, towards ourselves, our inner being.

Adam Lanza is the extreme example of an outward manifestation of a harrowing malady. Newtown is his response to his darkness. How can we evolve if we don’t embrace these frightening questions about ourselves, the shadows in Plato’s allegorical Cave, and face these together?

When President Obama read the names of the innocent children, I turned to Yeats and whispered, Now and in time to be, …/Are changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.

We are a culture that harbors anger against our inconsequentiality — …the birds that range/From cloud to tumbling cloud,/Minute by minute they change, while we run past each other, never taking the time, never asking, never wondering, watching, learning what ails us.

Nature’s indifference against our need to be seen and heard, to have relevance in a short life requires that we have systems of checks and balances that help us address questions of the soul, the mind, the spirit because we will each find ourselves, from time to time, in the darkest of places.

Of course, the change we need — one that also coincides with Nature’s insistence that we are merely part of its scheme, that’s all — must address the deepest, darkest aspects of our American existence. We must face our hand in evolving a world in which life is cheap, inconsequential.

As we turn to Newtown, as we should be, as we mourn, let’s not forget the hundreds and thousands of children that are killed yearly in places like Newark, New Jersey — not Newtown, which is a random brutal tragedy. Newark has been spiraling for a long time. A few years back a mother cried to me, in a Newark elementary school, to help make education better in the city because she lost a son to the streets and illiteracy as the system promoted him blindly — until at age 16 when he was shot dead in front of her.

Newtown didn’t need our attention because all the American signs of perfection were self-evident. Newark we bypass because, even though little school age children are killed every year, due to a harrowing street violence that, like Lanza, has no conscience and will use incredible fire power regardless, the people here are not like us. We push by Newark — and its people. There are far too many communities in America we bypass, leaving them to face incomprehensible violence on their own, leaving them to face questions about their existence in the shadows of our illusory splendor.

We all suffer equally. We all suffer. Some have more resilience then others; however, we have nothing in place to help those that might be lead down a destructive path — no mechanisms are available to diagnose, analyze and engage those among us who live troubled lives.

Questions of the heart and the soul have been relegated to prayer and service, once or twice a week; they’ve been sidelined in our daily actions, our close and sometimes intimate exchanges. Speed is privileged over contemplation; the quick fix over meaningful deliberation. We are desperate but we don’t have the means by which to express our anxieties. Some respond to their despair with gruesome violence — and we faciliate this by embracing an amendment to the constitution that was adopted on December 15, 1791 when we were new, fresh and worried about the shackles of a heartless government. Then, a well regulated militia was necessary; the security of a free state fundamental, as was the right of the people to keep and to bear arms. But now we have a fat Defense Department, and in States, we have militias — the National Guards. States differ, but in most states people can keep and bear arms — as Mrs. Lanza did.

Given these realities, what is the necessity of arming ourselves with assault weapons? Fear of government? Any local community police force can overcome any citizen militia, even if the citizens are armed with assault weapons. So what is the point of such armament? We know where it leads, particularly if we don’t have a robust system to work with our anxieties, our very human stresses, our discontents.

From Newtown to Newark, and back, the needs of a Nation are the same. The terrible beauty is that we can’t escape our place — life and death in a brief moment in time, the raw awesomeness of Nature, and our sense of a beleaguered self. All this requires one thing: mindful education early on. When it skips people, when we rush by it, even as change happens all around us, some will find no recourse but to continue down a dark and violent abyss whose only end is to spread pain and suffering to as many innocent people as possible because the despair is so overwhelming that it’s unspeakable.

Adaptation One. Hands.

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for Heather and Cheswayo

He said it just like this: “Yo, brother Hector, why don’t you take me under your wing?”

He said it just like that at the end of one of our final classes of the semester. He reached over with his right hand and placed it in mine, and swung his left arm over and embraced me — we embraced.

“Yeah, brother Hector. Mentor me,” he insisted softly. “Mentor me. Why don’t you mentor me? Yeah, I’m serious. Take me under your wing,” he said with a pleasant, endearing grin.

Mentor — having the form of an agent. Latin, monitor — to remember, think, counsel. The name of the Ithacan noble whose disguise the goddess Athene assumed in order to act as the guide and adviser of the young Telemachus; allusively, one who fulfills the office which the supposed Mentor fulfilled towards Telemachus — hence a common noun: An experienced and trusted counselor. Thank you OED.

I’ve been grappling with this word ever since I first heard it in conjunction with my name. The weight of it — the history, the expectations. Homer‘s Odyssey, for god’s sake. How do you fit into those shoes? Kids don’t know the gravity of their questions, the load.

The most difficult challenge for me has been taking jurisdiction over myself and moving my entire being — my sense of self — into feeling that I fit in, anywhere, any time and under any circumstance. Why don’t you take me under your wing? clung to my conscience, a hallowed white wing, outstretched, soft, protective. And I’m looking down on it, spread out over the student’s head, carefully drawing him in, just a wing, an allusive one at that, referencing something implied, as in a life, your life, the student’s life.

Adaptation One. Hands. It was -13 C (9F) the other morning when I did chores — moving sheep from one paddock to the next to continue grazing on fresh grasses even in December, feeding chickens and cleaning their coop, and bottle feeding Sandy, the two-month old Jersey steer, cleaning the barn, leveling the water. They depend on me, I on them. If their lives are good, mine will be too.

If the lives of my students are good, fulfilling, creative lives full of promise — mine will be too. It’s a law of the universe, unspoken but true. This kind of interdependence feeds adaptation, nurtures it. Adaptation requires abandonment, letting go of some aspect of yourself; it’s essential for evolution, for evolving.

Sunlight was barely pushing through weighty blue-gray clouds that morning. The still visible full moon waned. It was going to stay cold. All the signs were there.

I pulled open the barn door, Sandy’s bottle cradled in my left arm. Steam rose from my nostrils when I got out a push and my back creaked a bit down my left side to my waist; a stiffness in a shoulder. The chickens fluttered, jumping off bales of hay. The roosters that sounded off at 4:30 that morning and made me stir turned and faced me with dignified, proud looks, heads raised. I knew exactly where I was, what things would be like on this day because of the way things felt in the barn. I keep time with these creatures– they give me time. It’s a better idea, a better feeling to know where you are, what you need to do and why.

I set out across a tough earth for the paddock gate to move the sheep. An Arctic wind kicked up. It made me tear.

When I got to the fence, I noticed that the earth’s shift to freezing had leaned into a post and the top hinge of the gate had come off its back plate. The gate looked wounded, tired. It snowed a bit the night before, barely a cover — but what had fallen near the gate had seized the bottom rung. The gate was frozen.

The sheep took two steps towards me. I faced them and they took two steps back. I pulled off my gloves so that I could get a better grip on the frozen fence and yanked until it broke lose and I could maneuver the hinge back on the back plate, holding the fence up with one hand, helping the hinge with the other. I had to bare knuckle whack the hinge a few times and in a couple of minutes I had the fence back on. I was winded. Nose running. A finger and a knuckle bled only a tiny bit and I knew, after I licked them, that in a few seconds my system — and the cold — would seal the cuts.

Would there be scars, a record of this event? I wondered.

I noticed my hands. Who is this performing these tasks? Who — or what — is the I in the I? Am I me or some aspect of me that is a part of the spectacle? Perhaps both. Who — or what — will give testimony to my being here? Hands move between reality and fiction, like phantoms.

Philosophers have spoken about the hands. In the documentary, derrida, Jacques Derrida says that what interests him about the eyes is that it’s the part of the body that doesn’t age. “In other words,” says the French Philosopher, “if one looks for one’s childhood, across the signs of aging in the body … one can find one’s childhood in the look of the eyes…Hegel says that the eyes are the manifestation of the soul…But I translate this thought as follows: That one’s act of looking has no age.”

As for the hand, “There is a history of the hand,” says Derrida, “the evolution of man, what we call the hominization of the animal, occurs via the transformation of the hand. I think that it’s not the body of the hand that stays the same, the hand changes from childhood to old age. It is the eye and the hands that are the sights of recognition, the signs through which one identifies the Other. To return to the question of narcissism, they are, paradoxically, the parts that we see the least easily. We can look in a mirror and see ourselves and have a reasonably accurate sense of what we look like. But it’s very difficult to have an image of our own act of looking or to have a true image of our hands as they are moving. It’s the Other who knows what our hands and eyes are like.”

I look at hands, intensely, fascinated by them because they say a lot about a person’s life, his or her beliefs. The phalanges of both my hands are bent in different directions, particularly the ring finger of my left hand — and I can’t tell you how this happened; the index finger of my right hand won’t close all the way; and I have what’s called a “boxer’s break” in the carpal behind the pinky of my right hand, which happened when I was kneeling before my 6 month old warm blood and he took a step towards me and my pinky jammed up in his powerful chest and he broke it as I tried to hold him back. It’s a break that often happens to boxers. I have what looks like a burn on my left hand, but it was really a saw I use to cut metal that brushed me; and I have a “V” scar there too, beneath it a steal pin holding my wrist together (this came from sports, not farming, another story).

The academic’s hands have always intrigued me because they pose a problem: these soft, subtle hands, meant for turning pages, not digging ditches, have turned civilizations on their heads, named things, classified others, and in fact define what is evolving and how; they label progress; they determine right and wrong; they convict. Pardon. And they wash their hands of things they don’t want to see. Such soft hands have so much authority. This troubles me. Can delicate hands teach?

Can a mentor have soft hands? Easy to mould, cut, compress?

Have we left the hand behind in our cultural adaptations? Those among us using their hands at ground level — this is where the hands live, after all, where they’re necessary — how can we understand You, the Other, without become You, entering Your I as our own and abandoning the spectacle that is us? How do I speak to You if I’m not You, You who uses Your hands?

My journey: from what am I going to do with myself ? to the teacher and now to mentor, it’s been impossible for me to feel good about the answers to these questions where and when I’ve been involved. I could have done better.

The other day, I received an email from a young colleague and friend I respect immensely. She wrote to me about her family’s venture, a Wisconsin experiment with 50 grape vines. The family has been winterizing them over a few months, Thanksgiving closing off the project. They use chicken wire around the base and fill these with leaves. The chicken wire has to be strung around each of the 50 vines. She tells me that the “scratches and cuts are beginning to fade on my hands.” I immediately fell totally in love with the “scratches and cuts,” that beautiful image that eventually will “fade.” Irresistible. I don’t want them to “fade” — like an old photograph, a node in life’s road. Her hands would be so lovely, I thought, with a hint of a few scars that named a passage about love and family and growth and beauty. And that, in its course, touched me with such melancholy, brushed against me like that and I ached at the thought of it fading. I had the same feeling when I first read John Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale and came to Forlorn! the very word is like a bell/To toll me back from thee to my sole self! And then Keats says, Adieu!, which he repeats soon thereafter, Adieu! adieu! they plaintive anthem fades/Past the near meadows, over the still stream,/Up the hill-side …

Fade, the scars fade but never really go away, do they? Do we all fade like this?

Hands tell us our approximation to love, to life itself. Hands are better then pictures. Van Gogh’s Two Hands. We learn nothing from Facebook, not really, because we leave the hands out. We leave hands out a lot these days — and most of the hands we see are either killing or keeping someone from harms way, embracing an Other who is suffering, distraught.  Follow the hands (where they’re pictured, that is) in the 45 most powerful images of 2011 and tell me, what do you see hands doing? What do these hands say about our struggle to Be.

I remember my grandmother’s hands. Worn, working hands. My hands have been compared to hers: round, strong, used — not the hands one associates with turning pages of a book. The problem of the hand is that it resides at ground-level — where hands actually work. Knowledge, economies of scale and technology have created an upside down model where the consumer economy is privileged over all else. Hominization without hands — or is it with unseen hands, unacknowledged hands, hands we don’t want to see? We believe that we are evolving differently and that the hand is somehow secondary. Soft hands have drawn this conclusion. Round and round soft hands go into carefully orchestrated meetings to discuss threats from different epistemologies. We meet to discuss how not to use our hands. We don’t like dirt. We don’t want to get our hands dirty.

Why don’t you take me under your wing? Is this the right question, my brother student? For me to enter the I that is you, we need to be in each other’s hands, spreading our wings together. This is adaptation.

Was it a vision, or a waking dream? We ultimately ask ourselves along with Keats. Fled is that music: — Do I wake or sleep?   Hands always know the answer.

The Agony of Lucidity

hector:

In Memorium

Originally posted on The Uncanny:

For Leah and the girls down in Boston today

I’ve not been “on” this blog for some time. I want to apologize, say I’m sorry, but I don’t know who I’d say this too. And given what we face today, a darkness visible hanging over American culture, it’s hard for me to find the words to get through this. But here goes …

Boston changed everything. Boston brought me back to our interconnectedness, a notion or theme linking all my classes this term, a Writing Workshop and Social Class and the Environment. So that’s what I want to talk about. Interconnectedness.

CNN’s feed — such an influence! — compels me to create my own timeline to my emotions:

1. 3PM – 4PM, Monday, April 15: I was in a deluctible bubble, sitting in my warm, safe and bright college office with a student, engaged in an incredible conversation about…

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Life on the Boundary and the “Rehabilitation of Freedom”

hector:

We are anxious because experience — reality as we once knew it — is ending. We’re certain. We feel we’re at the end of boundaries. But boundaries are also beginnings of things. What will be, though, is unclear.

Originally posted on The Uncanny:

In this time of socio-economic turmoil and political malaise, might we take a moment, breath, step back and perhaps try to understand how we got here, to this confusing place we’re living through these days, so that we then might find ways through and, eventaully, out? Because we are going to get out of this; the question, however, is what will we look like when we come through to the other side.

We’re living through a transition of mammoth proporstions. The anger — and anguish — we witness daily is caused by enourmous change in societies. Some of this change is planned; some is historical; other change is uncontrolled, unforseen. This is literally happening everywhere. No one is untouched. We are anxious because experience — reality as we once knew it — is ending. We’re certain. We feel we’re at the end of boundaries. But boundaries are also beginnings of…

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The Location of Technology, a Theory of the Present

hector:

*****Given the recent excitement about the Heartbleed bug, I’m reblogging this post since many of the questions I pose, about the University’s and our culture’s orientation with technology, are raised in User’s Stark Reminder, New York Times, April 10, 2014.

Originally posted on The Uncanny:

*****Given the recent excitement about the Heartbleed bug, I’m reblogging this post since many of the questions I pose, about the University’s and our culture’s orientation with technology, are raised in User’s Stark Reminder, New York Times, April 10, 2014.
***********************
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…

Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture

The battle for the survival of man as a responsible being in the Communications Era is not to be won where the communication originates, but where it arrives.

Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality

1. The Question of New Media

Since Martin Heidegger’s lecture, The Question…

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The Ever-Receding Future

Originally posted on The Uncanny:

Dedication: For My Students @ Middlebury

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

Common myth says that a person doesn’t choose a horse—the horse finds his owner.

We’re unsure when or how our accumulated knowledge becomes our very own signature—nor if it ever becomes so since our antecedents are eternally lurking, ghosts whispering in our ears; we are not even sure how much experience and study will be required for us to lay claim to the recognition that this or that is known, completely ours.

So what we do is wait—we prepare and we conjecture and we project, we assume, and we wait for the dawn of the day when we’ll rise and pull open a curtain on to the…

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