November 30, 2012 § 2 Comments
For my Students in the Fall 2012 First Year Seminar, Voices
and for Jon
I don’t know how I got to where I am, where I’ve arrived. At my age, soon to be 59, we’re suppose to know, have some answers. I don’t. It’s as if life just happened and I went along, foggy.
Did I direct my life or was it directed for me? Who’s the director of my life? Anyone’s, for that matter?
My first instinct is to turn to literature for answers to questions like this; literature is our keystone, the arbiter of confusing dreams. Literature and art have been with me all my life, they’re friends, guides.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in Book 1 of his Confessions, speaks to my core: “I alone. I know my heart, and I know men. I am not made like any of those I have seen; I dare to believe that I am not made like any of those who are in existence.” This is not a conceit. It is. That’s all. It simply is what comes to me after I ask, “Who’s the director of my life?” It comes from not knowing; it’s the feeling of being out of sorts, different. And it may have everything to do with having lived in two very different cultures.
My mother tells me that I’m traveling pathways paved long ago. She tends towards mysticism: my ground was set, she says, between 1294 and 1324, in Monatillou, France, when Pierre Maury shepherded his sheep across the Pyrenees into Spain for wintering. My mother argues that we descend from this Cathar line of heretics. This might account for my rebelliousness, my always ongoing push against any and all constraints; this may account for my disdain for authority, too. It may also suggest why I find myself on a farm raising sheep.
My sister tells me that my entire life has lead to this critical point, and that it has something to do with my immediate past, filled with recollections of my grandfather – ranchero, un campesino in Argentina’s Pampas, and my own father and mother on horseback in the hills and valleys of La Cumbre, Argentina. There are pictures of me sitting on horseback, my mother or my father holding me in the saddle. There’s one of me on a burro, my uncle Julio holding me in place. There are images of me chasing chickens towards my grandmother — then she’d grab one by the neck, whirl it around close enough to my face to touch me, bleed it at my feet, and dunk it in steaming water. We’d feather it together and she’d force my tiny hands into its warm cavity so that I’d pull out its lungs. Seems as if I’ve always had this gentile country life at my back urging me along.
But I still don’t know. I don’t know how or why I’ve come to this place.
I live in Vermont. I teach at Middlebury College. Eighteen or so years ago, when teaching in NYC and our youngest son was in diapers, fast asleep in the car seat, my wife, Nina, and I drove through Middlebury. We were dreaming. And she said to me in our fantastic conversation, “Why can’t you teach here? It’s beautiful.” I replied, “They don’t take people like me here.” Fifteen years later, here I am. Middlebury knocked on my door and asked me to join them — and changed my life in the process.
Who directed whom to what?
I’m not sure why — or even how, still, but here I am on a 47 acre gentleman’s farm (for lack of a better way of saying it) trying to make what to outsiders may look like two lives work. But they’re really one: what I do as a professor in an elite, residential liberal arts college and what I do on my small, always changing farm are one in the same. I can indeed see that much — but little else.
Students always ask, “How did you get here?” When they’re really asking, How does an immigrant from Argentina end up a professor in Vermont? (Student’s questions are never what comes out of their mouths; they’re always looking for something else, more, a deeper inquiry.)
Answer: I don’t know. It just is.
Here’s what I do know. “This is what I have done,” says Rousseau, “what I have thought, what I was … I may have assumed the truth of that which I knew might have been true, never of that which I knew to be false.” It’s good enough for me.
Middlebutry College gave me room to run, a luxurious open field to experiment as a teacher and a scholar – writer, conflating all my interests — technology, teaching, literature and culture and writing. It’s not surprising that the college is in the heart of Vermont — the Middle. Vermont has brought me back to Ralph Waldo Emerson‘s notion of self-reliance:
Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — “Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.” — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that never took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.
From the first moment I read Self-Reliance as an undergraduate, these words have haunted me. My spiritual, American father is Ralph Waldo Emerson, in my mind always decadent, always an aesthete, always the father of American philosophy, something that’s grand and strong, unique, and that gives rise to so much, politically, culturally, and, yes, even technologically in this country. But we may have forgotten this.
I always claimed to be misunderstood, not because I’m comparing myself to Pythagoras or Socrates, say, or even Emerson himself — that would be too daunting; rather, my misunderstanding with the world comes about because I refuse to settle and be inhabited by the conditions I find myself in. Instead, I have always chosen to abandon these, to leave these constructions behind, as just that, constructions, and abandon myself to my instincts, my sense of what Rosseau says is the truth I find in my eyes.
A Truth: There’s nowhere to hide on a farm. The animals — in my case, sheep, chickens, a cow (the second) — need attending, constantly. I am tied to their cycles, to the always present rhythms of nature. Fall into winter, where we are now, at 9 degrees F this Friday morning, the 30th of November, one week left of regular classes before exams; then dead winter and our January term; it slides into Spring — and the term begins in February; which slides into the bliss of spring, graduation’s anxious joy, and summer and the rest of life. The agricultural calendar and the school’s calendar are strangely in sync. And the rhythms of my body with them both. I adapt and negotiate the life of the farm with the constructed semester and the merciless whim of nature that, like this morning’s Artic blast, is indifferent to my freezing fingers, even under thick gloves.
No matter what Nature presents — Nature + the Human Hand, that is — I have to be out there, inside it, learning, making choices, adjusting moment – to – moment, staring into the eyes of my animals — the chickens, the ewes and their lambs, the cow — to see what they’re telling me about how they want to live. They depend on me — I them.
My wife says that all animals thrive under my hand. My sense of things is that I’m merely responding to what they’re asking of me. It began long ago, it seems now.
We had horses long ago — 4. This was when our daughter, a great equestrian from a very young age, rode; she did dressage at college, too, competing and doing quite well in the NCAA’s. But like all children, she moved on and I was left a groom to 4 very large horses — a Belgian draft (17.2 hands), a draft-cross, looking like a warm blood (17 hands), and two other draft-crosses, a paint (15 hands or so) and a cross with a black like the night Percheron (15 hands, too).
Horses are a unique animal. They’re a flight animal: when they scare they fly. But they’re social, too, and want to trust. A huge horse, like my Belgian, can feel the touch of a fly on his rump. The horse is sensitive; it needs to be approached quietly, slowly but with a kind of strength and security that it can trust. Much like students. If a teacher is too agressive, the student flies away, literally and figuratively. To get to where the heart is, which is all that matters in teaching, really, particularly if we’re wanting students to be self-actualizing citizens, we have to proceed with great imagination, treading lightly, finding our way in their worlds — but with strength, a secure touch and resolve. A horse is like this. I listen better because of my horses. I see better too — perhaps because I spent years learning the horse’s language, the twiching, the movement of the ears, the eyes.
My teaching and my farming have expanded together — and become one. My education is pretty traditional. I have a PhD in American and English Literature from NYU. I wrote my dissertation on Henry James and aesthetic decadence — and Emerson featured heavily. But mysteriously, adaptively, I teach classes in literature, composition, education studies and, now, environmental studies. I’ve been teaching since 1985, and have done so in poor schools, rich schools, private schools, public schools; I’ve been fortunate enough, given the kind of academic work I’ve done, to have spent time with students in every single grade, K-16, and graduate students. I’ve done projects, assignments, courses in each and every level. I’ve had to learn to adjust quickly; it has forced me to learn — a lot — from various disciplines, which is usually not the norm for a college professor that, even as far back as undergraduate studies, s/he works in silos.
I, on the other hand, can argue that Emerson really begins the technological revolution we’re experiencing today; it could have happened no place else but here, in the USA. What does this mean? It means that my life, as I see it and understand it, has been a series of adjustments — call these adaptations. Adaptation is how we all evolve.
In The Location of Culture Homi K. Bhabha contends that, “Our existence today is marked by a tenebrous sense of survival, living on the boundaries 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 … we find ourselves in the moment of transit where space and time cross to produce complex figures of difference and identity, past and present, inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion.”
Don’t we feel this? Don’t we feel this “living on the boundaries” of this or that, “in the moment of transit” and complexity, so much so that we’re unsure of our centers?
The farm centers me. I understand that now. It protects me. I’ve abandoned myself to its life, its subtle language. It’s more powerful and significant then I am. But it’s hard, very hard. ”Let’s face it,” says Ben Hewitt, author of The Town That Food Saved, “Farming is damn hard work, typically done for damnable pay … You don’t get to sprawl across the sofa masticating rinds and watching American Idol unless someone else is growing the food.”
Almost a year ago this coming January, Franky, our Holstein, had to fulfill its promise.
The hand-raised, docile steer — all 750 beautiful lbs — is feeding our family, others too, friends and so on.
That was the mission, the goal: what can we produce to sustain ourselves, while looking to sustain others? What can we do organically, working with the land’s language, learning it, and letting it help us use it, but making sure we were nurturing it?
These questions were our early business plan, a design for a different future. I was trading in my Henry James for Wendell Berry and Joel Salitin, for Ben Hewitt that, up here in Vermont, is showing us how we can change, how we can live embracing a fortified self-reliance.
Sustainability requires we come into dialog with death. Eventually, it comes. It has to. Death is always present on the farm; it’s always also present in life outside of the farm, too, but we have so many distractions — particularly those mediated ones that profit from death, cover death, excite us through images of death — to help us repress this most creative of realities about life. Life is death. When we look at the fast-moving hands of a clock, is not that a reminder of the end of things? When we look at photographs taken yesterday, a month ago, several years ago, are these not meant to excite memories of a time lost, gone, left behind? In museums, what are we looking at?
The notion that we have to abandon one thing for another, constantly, is something I’ve come to accept. The challenge is to not abandon yourself and keep to a view, a wide view.
On the day of his death, I slowly walked Franky out of his stall. I had him on a rope halter and he looked at me playfully, as he’d done thousands of times before when we played in one of the paddocks. I’d chase him. He’d stop and face me. We’d challenge each other. He’d half – charge, as if he knew his power would certainly crush me. Eventually he’d settle and I’d sratch his huge head, the one that I would eventually carry to the back of our property and bury in the cold.
In January it will be a year since we put him down. We’ve enjoyed him immensely since. “Go get Franky,” we say to each other when we want a cut of him waiting in the freezer in the basement. We say, “Thank you, Franky,” when he graces our table. Franky was the first. It’s taken me a year, almost, to write about this, to come to terms with how I feel about what we’re doing, but on the day of his death, I was okay. It was natural, a course that he and I were on. We both had a purpose; there was order; we’d helped each other — and he was going to carry on, help all of us through.
I slowly walked him into the barrel of gun. In a split second it was over and we were raising him up to prepare him for the butcher.
I put my hands inside him; it was warm, soothing. As he hung there, I was in awe of his beauty, his mass, his gift to us. This is what moved me to look deeply into his dead eyes that were once so playful. I wanted to reach for him, thank him, tell him, Gracias hombre. Like that, in Castellano, like my campesino grandfather must have done before me — and before, his father, and before that, Pierre. Backwards and forwards like that, the same human action, the same human urge to produce, to nurture, to sustain inside the cycle of an indifferent nature. Ironic. How indifferent nature is to our wailing at windmills is always ironic. In such irony, the most intimate relationships, even with an animal — or perhaps especially with an animal — are what matter most. There’s the possibility of changing anything with intimacy.
I don’t know how I got here. But I do know that what I do has meaning because it’s real — life and death. I’ve put myself inside a dead animal and extracted life out of it. And when I enter a classroom at Middlebury College, my only instinct is to reach for the students’ hearts because, after all, this is where life begins and ends. The farm is hopeful. Students are hopeful. The farm and the college are the same; they are fields that can be joyful if we’re true, honest, nurturing. The work is in moving aside the manure, using it for something better. That’s what I know to be true. That and death. In between there are choices; these depend on listening and experience. It’s not an intellectual exercise; that comes after all else is exhausted.
May 3, 2012 § 1 Comment
1. Finding the Artes Liberales
What is the place of a Liberal Arts education in American culture? This is coming up quite a lot these days, and usually accompanied by at least two other critical questions symptomatic of the state of affairs:
- How do we measure the results of a Liberal Arts education — because we’re data driven and results oriented, thus the investment, in all its metaphorical splendor, must come to something?
- How do these results measure up to the cost of a Liberal Arts education (in most places above 50K yearly) — because we are, after all, still puritanical and pragmatic?
Originally, the liberal arts referred to subjects which in classical antiquity were considered essential for a free citizen to study. The artes liberales have always been considered necessary for an informed citizenry — Democracy writ large. The liberal arts nurture the proper citizen, the reasoning goes, because the work of the artes liberales is critical thinking, dialog, cooperation and collaboration, and clear, insightful writing — communication on a grand but subtle scale.
In classical antiquity, this meant the study of Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic; in medieval times, these subjects (called the Trivium) were extended to include mathematics, geometry, music and astronomy, including astrology. The curriculum was called the Quadrivium that, along with the Trivium, constituted the seven liberal arts of the medieval university curriculum.
Modernism — industrialization and globalization — changed all this and extended it to include literature, languages, philosophy, history, mathematics, psychology and sciences. What the liberal arts do not relate to is the professional, vocational, or technical curricula. Also confusing or blurring this negation of the professional and technical, are courses (and majors) in the liberal arts college on computer science; we have pre-law, pre-engineering and, of course, pre-med further blurring the lines. One of the most popular majors in many of these schools is Economics, for instance, students keeping a keen eye on Wall Street. (Business Administration is the most popular major across American higher education.)
So I’m just going to put this out there, a comment I made to my education class the other day when discussing these questions and the confusion about how we feel about the liberal arts:
The Liberal Arts in American culture is synonymous with elitism; the Liberal Arts equals privilege — it’s how we see it; and the Liberal Arts is code language for expensive, small colleges, mostly in New England, that are fed by equally as expensive — and elite — prep schools. Attending these has the potential of leading a student to ‘the good life’, which is synonymous with wealth.
And in this calculus of elitism, there exist policies concerning diversity and affirmative action that ensure that students that do not come from socioeconomically privileged geographies attend these schools, have a way in, a keyhole to squeeze through, a door held slightly ajar for those that can demonstrate that they’ve pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and can assimilate into the dominant culture.
Yes, that’s exactly it, said my students, unanimously, at least a third of which do not come from geographies of privilege. It’s true, they said. This is how we “read” the Liberal Arts, they said. Thus is the baggage held by Liberal Arts institutions in the popular consciousness.
2. Finding the Work Inside the Liberal Arts
This raises other questions, of course:
- What goes on in a Liberal Arts education?
- What, in fact, is the relationship between the Liberal Arts school and the elite in American culture? Is it a conduit that guarantees a place at the table of power?
- And, given the above two questions, is the place of the Liberal Arts to enable the evolution of critically thinking citizens or is it simply a high-end conveyor belt with some guarantees for wealth?
These questions are some of the ammunition used to attack the artes liberales. There may be good reason.
Martha C. Nussbaum is on the forefront of this national conversation. In her Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (2000), Nussbaum asserts that, “…the unexamined life threatens the health of democratic freedoms, and the examined life produces vigor in the nation and freedom in the mind.” This is the kind of citizen we want — and need; the future of Democracy depends on this intellect. But, says Nussbaum, “We live, as did Socrates, in a violent society that sometimes turns its rage against intellectuals.”
Anti-intellectualism, then, is an assault on the liberal arts, an irony for Nussbaum — and others, like me, for instance — because it’s exactly what we need to have, “freedom of the mind.” But how free is the mind in these schools?
Nussbaum says that, “No curricular formula will take the place of provocative and perceptive teaching that arouses the mind.” Is this what’s going on?
My students report the following: mind-numbing, endless PowerPoints where teachers routinely read from screens; the book or two a week pace that compels students to skim and rely on Sparknotes; rigid writing assignments that ask students to repeat class notes that follow the professor’s ideas rather then asking students for their own insights, feelings and ideas; writing assignments that are always given at the end of a sequence, which students see as assignments trying to prove whether or not the student is paying attention, or busy work writing assignments, nightly or two per week reactions and summaries of the reading to see if the student is reading and following along; research papers and projects, routinely 12 – 20 pages, and assigned at the end of the semester when all classes are asking for the same thing, yet adding final exams as well, leaving no room for dialog, debate and revision. No creativity.
“Provocative and perceptive teaching,” in order to arouse the mind, cannot follow PowerPoints, nor can it ask students to engage in tasks to prove they’re listening; rather, mind arousal takes time and patience. A student — and the teacher — have to sit with ideas, let these ferment, come to the surface, so that learners can come to grips with the complexity that abounds in the human experience. This is how critical thinking is built, how inquiry is conducted. There is little evidence that this is what’s happening, according to students.
But in the pace of a semester, which ranges, depending on the school, from 12 weeks to 15, in a class that, say, meets for 2 seventy-five minute periods, I wonder how much time is afforded to Socratic activity that, says Nussbaum, again, “can enliven the thinking”? If we’re rushing through PowerPoints, and students are frantically trying to copy what’s on the screen (because faculty are frightened of simply giving the PowerPoints to students, this while MIT has put ALL their courses online!), and we’re pushing one text after another, where is the contemplation that the Socratic methods demands? Where are the writing assignments that ask students to grapple with complexity, slowly and carefully? And, since we are Americans and, for the most part, Ralph Waldo Emerson is our philosophical father, where is the time and space to revise, to think differently?
A good instructor must know a great deal about a subject; s/he must be able to draw out students to make complex connections so that the learner can begin to understand his and her capacity to reason. This takes time. If a 20 page research paper is a requirement to be delivered to the instructor at the end of the term, say during the last week or during the exam period, how is the capacity to reason determined and shown to the student? The research paper or the research project is a vital reflection on a subject; it requires time, creativity, insight. How does this happen with the pressure of the end of the term? Students say that what they do is to work through short cuts that simply enable them to produce a 20 page piece, they hand it in, and then forget about it. The goal is to be done.
The way schooling takes place, in many liberal arts institutions, what we’re in fact doing, is working against the promises of the artes liberales and, instead, we’re creating a production system that privileges the end product rather then the process; that privileges being done, rather then an examination of the insights that have gone into creating a piece in the first place. We’re product oriented. The process, where the actual teaching and learning takes place, where insights can happen and where space has to be given for ambiguity is repressed in the name of speed and efficiency. Getting through a packed syllabus and reaching the end of the term are the major course management principles; the number of pages a student writes, by the end of the term, is more important than the quality of insight, the creativity used to approach complexity. A student’s reading on an author, subject or idea is less important then her ability to mimic the teacher’s thoughts, reproduce the teacher’s lecture. Ironically, a passionate, insightful reading of a writer’s passage is more engaging, more useful in producing enlivened thinking.
In the modern curriculum, as we taut the relationship between the artes liberales and the informed citizen, we remove the most vital aspect, which is the time and the space — the safe space — essential for provoking and challenging pre-conceived perceptions about the order of things. We exist in systems based on time and efficiency models, rather then on how we learn. We’ve decided to go along with what we deem to be finished products, rather then trying to understand, in one another, how we come to be creative, how we imagine. In fact, an argument can be made that we’ve taken away the capacity to imagine on a grand scale.
3. Finding Empathy — or can we create a Citizen of the World?
In another, more recent book, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010), Nussbaum says that the abilities associated with the humanities and the arts, which are critical for our survival as a Democracy are : “the ability to think critically; the ability to transcend local loyalties and to approach world problems as a ‘citizen of the world’; and, finally, the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person.”
The number one complaint of students I know is that they don’t have time to think; that everything is rushed; that course material is “rammed,” they say, and that how much one reads and does is more important than how deeply one thinks.
“As long as you give the prof what he wants, and you know what that is, then you’re fine,” said a student, echoing what many students say.
“We don’t have time to think about what we’re told we’re learning,” said another.
“We can’t even talk over a meal because we’re always rushing to the next class,” yet another.
What are we doing? Do we even know?
We indoctrinate students into a kind of institutional loyalty that rejects — and punishes — critiques of “local loyalties”. Adding to the problem — and the challenges facing the Liberal Arts — the economic system privileges hyperindividualism, leaving no room for empathy, the ability “to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person.” In this system, it’s hard to actually think sympathetically about another since that Other is a sign of competition, someone or something we need to overcome and outdo. Getting ahead is the primary concern.
The humanities — the artes liberales – should inspire searching; instead, we’ve conditioned ourselves to push students to quickly seek majors, line up behind stringent requirements, though we expect them to take a course here and a course there about Other places in the world — Asia, Africa, Latin America; we inspire them to take foreign languages and to visit other countries, an approach that’s more like looking for the right restaurant, the right vacation spot without really thinking about our impact on others. We have forgotten what Paul Bowles told us in The Sheltering Sky: there is a difference between the tourist and the visitor.
We thus move about without imagining sympathetically the predicament of another person, as Nussbaum suggests. And so the challenge of the Liberal Arts is to (a) justify this conveyor belt approach that could, perhaps, enable some to enter into higher socioeconomic classes and (b) to justify, in doing so, the expense, which is rising. But there is a third consideration: how has this system added to our problems, not least of which is the systematic creation of a society divided along class lines that, in turn, emerge from our stringent parameters that determine access to (elite) higher education.
Chris Hedges, in Empire of Illusion, says that we can lay all of the worlds problems on the doorsteps of the best colleges and universities. I agree. We’re creating assembly line workers, parading as thinkers, eager to keep things as they are, fixing a nut here and a bolt there, but lacking in an imaginative perspective that can embrace, with empathy, the problems and challenges of the world. Privilege has been effectively eroticized. How expensive is that?
In Excellence Without a Soul: Does Liberal Education Have a Future? (2007), former Dean of Harvard College, Harry R. Lewis tells us that, “Unquestionably, the rewards of being part of top-tier university have caused competition for both student and faculty slots that has made both groups better in certain important ways. Yet while the competition has drawn better faculty and students to top universities, it has driven the two groups apart.”
There is a disconnect in the liberal arts academy, not least of which is the notion that we’re not really sure who are students are.
February 10, 2012 § 1 Comment
For those of you who dare, this is the second chapter (the first is here, still).
One of the characters is reading El Clarín, which is a popular and central newspaper in Argentina. And, as TWA Flight 800 is real, Hojjatoleslam Ahmad Musavi is a real character, though highly fictionalized here so as to avoid condemnation. Others, Gardel, Evita Perón and Maradona — el Che — are of course real.
The rest — I’m responsible for putting you through this …
El Clarín, on the lower right hand side of its front page, in a small tight square unnoticed by most of its readers even as they licked the tips of thumb and index finger and turned to the paper’s next page, reported that an unidentified Middle Eastern man was found dead in a dingy alley near the Rocha Bend of the Riachuelo in La Boca.
Artists and laborers in red, yellow, blue-green chapa houses, built at the dawning of a nation by Italian immigrants working in nearby meatpacking plants and warehouses in Buenos Aires’ oldest neighborhood, aroused by first light, awakened to a coiled body in fetal position, throat cut from ear to ear, face down and eyes wide open submerged in coagulated gutter water and floating cigarette butts. Winter flies gathered the spittle.
Víctima de juego sucio, reported El Clarín.
“I hope he’s not here,” said Marcelo Abendroth in a whisper, his long, delicate hand outstretched over the story of the dead Middle Eastern man in El Clarín laying opened on a flimsy table in the dim Rincón Café in San Telmo. He looked down at the story and stared at it for some time. Then he carefully drew his café to the edge of his thin lips so as to avoid being stung by its heat.
He scoped the Rincón. A gilded portrait of a young Carlos Gardel, fedora at an angle over the tangista’s upturned brow, hung side-by-side with the Madonna sagrada, Evita Perón, over the murky bar. Abendroth grinned. A dozen small fat candles in constant vigil beneath the portraits flickered a quiet light onto a mahogany bar and scarred it with a melancholy wax. The bar was an altar , an homage to an imagined Argentina. Bottles of wine and whisky and gin and absinthe from France stood without order – whisky next to wine, cognac and warm cokes and vodka. At the end of the bar next to the television held high on a homemade wooden shelf was a signed poster of a youthful Diego Maradona in his blue and yellow of better days. The poster was tacked into the plaster wall.
Near Plaza Dorrego, the Rincón was the local café, the nexus for life’s transitions. On its wounded external brick wall was a spray painted caricature of a youthful Che Guevara, in his boina and scraggly beard, frozen for posterity. And beneath the image of the Argentine doctor from Rosario, in blood red: Until Victory Always!
Marcelo Abendroth wore a brown gabardine suit, a dark blue wool turtle neck and Italian loafers without socks. He had taken off his jacket and draped it behind his seat. Abendroth had skeletal shoulders and a spindly neck. He rolled his sleeves half way up his forearm exposing fine wrists. A Rolex dangled like a woman’s bracelet from his right wrist.
Abendroth looked down at the newspaper, again, and moved his hand to the side and glanced at the story. He read the headline out loud: “Víctima de juego sucio.” And raised his conditioned eyebrows to show indignation. “Very Argentinean, the knife,” he said sternly – as stern as he could be given his demeanor. “I hope that Abu Dokhan lives up to his name. And vanishes. I hope he didn’t have anything to do with this.”
Hojatoleslam Ahmad Musavi had eyes that were outsized portals as black as night. They fell on a thick weariness that told a story of an anguished life. Musavi’s face was round and wide. He ran his hand over his bald head – a sign of his frustration with Abendroth’s questions about the whereabouts of the smoke-bearer, Abu Dokhan.
But Abendroth noted how Musavi brightened when he heard the name of the most wanted Lebanese. Musavi sat up and eased his hand down his burly face and rubbed his bulbous nose as if he suddenly had an itch. The table trembled from his weight. Hairs protruding from his nose were like ivy entangled in a moustache that covered his upper lip. Abendroth looked away in disgust.
“Hezbollah calls him The smoke-bearer, the Abu Dokhan. That’s what it means, smoke-bearer. He vanishes like smoke,” said Hojatoleslam Ahmad Musavi with pride. “All westerners think we Arabs are related or that we know each other intimately. Everyone knows who Hajj Radwan, the Abu Dokhan, is – that’s his real name. Hajj Radwan. But I. We,” he said pointing to Abendroth and then himself. “We have nothing to do with him, my friend. And I have nothing to do with this dead man.”
“In this country all Arabs are implicated, I’m afraid – first the Israeli Embassy is bombed, then AMIA is leveled,” said Abendroth. “I’ve been told that the dead man had a bird stuffed in his mouth.”
“A bird? What kind of a bird? It’s not in the paper,” said Musavi. He spoke as if he was gargling with marbles. He leaned towards the much smaller Abendroth. Musavi seemed to be about to swallow him.
“They don’t want to alarm people. We Argentineans are a superstitious lot. A canary.”
“Ah. Someone has indeed sent a message.”
Musavi sipped his bitter black coffee, eyes on Marcelo Abendroth, Director of the Economic Education Trust, a subsidiary of Triad Management, a consulting firm concentrated on information and influence ; it mines special interests for investors in the United States that look to expand their holdings and have some bearing on power.
“I love the coffee in your country. It reminds me of home,” said Musavi, his thick lips expanding into a smile that made his face even wider.
“The destruction of the Israeli Embassy and AMIA are not subtle messages, Musavi. Not at all. What’s next? There’s always a next. Something. Always more, something else,” Abendroth said leaning forward over his espresso. But he immediately relaxed because he knew from Musavi’s blank gaze that there wasn’t going to be a response. Abendroth was not one to push. He smiled coquettishly, which was his way when he was nervous. He looked down at his hands, palms down, and rubbed the tops of his finger nails with his thumb as if he was removing dust. He admired their luster.
“Abendroth. In German it means evening or dusk, does it not? Argentineans are always on the lookout for Germans. It must make you self-conscious. Nervous perhaps. No? The indictment in people’s eyes when they know – and suspect. Similar to what we Arabs feel. So you must understand that Hajj Radwan, the Abu Dokhan, is a coincidence – that’s all.”
“Coincidence. The Israeli Embassy and the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association, the AMIA itself after the embassy. Coincidences, Musavi? Suddenly this dead man. What are you hiding? We’re always hiding something.”
“Money is truth, Mr. Abendroth,” said Musavi in his thick accent. “The only truth. Nothing else. Money. It creates democracies. And it can create autocracies and dictatorships and whatever we need it to do. Money can hold whoever we want in power, for as long as we want. Money paves roads. And sometimes, as you say, it can hide things.”
“It depends on the story, Musavi. It has to be the right story. Freedom has a price. It’s a balancing act. That’s the world we’re in. Our world. And you want to play in it so you must tow the line, Musavi. With care. Or you might not be let in. Entrance comes at a price.”
Marcelo drew his espresso and then waved to the sleepy waiter.
“Ajenjo. Para los dos, por favor,” he ordered.
“Ah bien. La fée verte. Muy bien. Perfecto.”
Marcelo Abendroth leaned towards Musavi as if he didn’t want to be heard. “At our first meeting in Iguazu, I remember the smoke-bearer. He was there. I remember. He was with you. In your entourage. I can see him there plainly. Like it was yesterday. I saw him. I remembered him when I read this story. This was before the embassy. Before any of it. This dirty business. What are you doing, exactly, Mr. Musavi? What can you say to me? If it’s learned that Hajj Radwan was with you – it’s obvious no? People would think. Put two and two together.”
“Anyone could have done this killing. Someone could have been angry at this guy because he said something foul against Boca and fútbol passions ran wild and they cut his throat after too much drink. Maybe he was a River fan. Look where we are, Marcelo. This is not uncommon in your country. It could have been a woman – because of a woman. The signs are there – the knife. The knife is always used when a woman is involved. It could have been the Iranians. Who’s to know? Or maybe it was that psycho al-Gaddafi – he has a bone to pick with your president. Menem’s an Arab, too, after all, and word is, he crossed Gaddafi. On the street I hear that your president reneged on a missile deal. You can’t take ten million dollars from Gaddafi, not give him anything in return and get away with it. Come on. Your people should know better. Perhaps Gaddafi is paying him back – a warning. Maybe that’s the message. A message from Gaddafi. Don’t cross me Menem or next time it will be closer to home.” Musavi paused and looked down at his black café, put his thick hands around the tiny cup and, as his large round shoulders came up around his head and he looked like a giant sea turtle, said, “And maybe it was the CIA. You know they’re everywhere and they like it down here. They like your country, all those Germans smuggled in – who could have imagined that American military power was built with Nazi know-how? And it came through here, your country, Marcelo. It’s very easy here. It’s chaotic and delightfully confusing. Anything is possible in your country. Everything can be done here. People are wonderfully distracted. That’s why we all like your country. Certain countries exist to facilitate the needs of others. The legacy of the Cold War, I’m afraid. We have to live with it. Adjust. Isn’t that how we’ve evolved? It’s the probable course of things. And who’s to know? Maybe the CIA is fronting for Gaddafi or the Iranians, maybe both. It’s all possible. It depends on which way the story will be turned. Isn’t’ that what you said? We’re all in this twist now – twisted together in a coil, stories intertwining, running into each other, infecting one another. We can’t escape it. History, the present, the future – they’re all intertwined and confused. No one knows the truth. No one knows where we’re going. We have to create new truths. New rules. I don’t recall Hajj Radwan there with us. I’m sorry, Marcelo, I don’t. Not at all. Maybe you’re mistaken. You westerners think we all look alike. It’s not just. Not just at all. We Arabs don’t know each other. We’re not all related. The eye is fickle, my friend.”
“And the heart is worse.”
“Perhaps. Perhaps you’re right. Maybe the Iranians, maybe Gaddafi. The CIA. We don’t know anything about this dead man. And, yes, the embassy and AMIA are messages, indeed. That’s all. Messages, Marcelo. The result of something much larger. Eventually we’ll set a good course, catch the right wind with the right force. Perhaps Hajj Radwan has been here – perhaps not. We will never know. Unsavory characters know how to blend with the rest of us. They blend and wait – and then strike. A friend today can kill you tomorrow. And never be found again. Maybe getting away with a thing like that is the ultimate freedom. An aphrodisiac – the most powerful of all. What’s a life worth, anyway?”
Abendroth lit a cigarette and inhaled with the deep satisfaction of someone who smoked because it eased him. Musavi leaned back in his chair and extended his arms, his hands holding the edge of the delicate table, and took in the contentment of watching Abendroth’s unease.
A bandoneon cried out Gardel. El día que me quieras.
The bandoneon player, all in black like the night echoing through the front window behind him, was lost in the woe oozing from his fingers moving instinctually up and down the white keys that shone like the moon. El día que me quieras.
Musavi studied Abendroth. A full silence fell between them.
“I’m not sure about all this Musavi,” Abendroth said in the semi darkness of the Rincón. He was hesitant.
“We’re merely trying to learn to live in the world that has been created by you westerners.”
Musavi took a red pack of Dunhills from his pocket and lit a cigarette, too. He held the cigarette between his thumb and index finger. Inhaled. And exhaled slowly and leaned forward and flicked the edge of his cigarette into a tin ashtray between them.
The bartender turned on the old black and white TV at the end of the bar and its radiance fell on the dim Rincón. The bartender reached for the rabbit ears and adjusted them and a coarse picture came into view as if traveling a great distance through fog.
… A las 20:45 horas, once minutos después de despegar del Aeropuerto Internacional Kennedy, el vuelo 800 de TWA, con destino a París, Francia, se estrelló en el Océano Atlántico frente a la costa de Long Island…
Marcelo Abendroth turned towards the TV, a disturbing blue-gray eye, an unannounced brightness that pushed aside the solemn comfort that can exist among strangers, and took a drag of his cigarette.
Suddenly the TV picture was gone and a scratchy graininess shoved Gardel’s sadness, jostled it, and brought forth another.
The bandoneon player kept on, his melancholy persistent, like mourning.
“Carajo. Puta. Qué mierda,” the bartender railed.
“Chin,” said Musavi, raising his absinthe. “Salud. It’s done. The future is ours. Let’s not cry over what’s past. We’ve done well together – and we’ll do more. We understand each other. And we have a place to start. A starting point. We’re in deep. And we’re going deeper. When there are no answers to a puzzle, my friend, the only solution is to go in deeper, dig further into the maze. It’s the only way. There’s no turning back. There’s only going deeper.”
Marcelo Abendroth turned away from the TV and raised his glass to Musavi’s. “I suppose you’re right,” he said. “To forging ahead. Going deeper. Here’s to the labyrinth. Salud.”
“Al futuro,” said Musavi. “Nuestro futuro.”
They pulled their heads back and swallowed the warm ajenjo and slapped their short glasses on the table. The table shook and creaked. Musavi looked up at the black television screen.
February 8, 2012 § 3 Comments
These are the first pages of a story I’ve been working on for quite some time. The larger working title is THE DOUBLE HELIX. The first third is called BENDING. The second and third parts are titled TWISTING and COMPRESSION.
Please feel free to comment. Your comments will definitely help me. Where do you think it’s going? What’s happening here? Who are these people? This is fiction that grows from history. The major event, here, which happens on July 17, 1996, is true.
“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
PART ONE: BENDING
July 17, 1996: New York City, Upper West Side
Life’s din diminished some in that 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.
With his palms on the coarse sill, he ducked under the window’s frame 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 serenity that arrived with the humidity and pressed him to push away his day. He arched his back and stretched and took it in.
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 cap, a danseur never entangled in the leashes held to one hand, then the other, the exchanges fluid and experienced.
The dogs sniffed the smells coming from a square earth and lifted their legs to trees and squatted when they recognized something.
The Great Dane and the Chihuahua and the Bulldog dumped together as if responding to some great secret. The rest waited, and the dog walker studied them.
The young Dr. Raúl Sicard was transfixed by the scene. What others might find inconsequential, something to pass by, intrigued him. There was meaning in the seemingly mundane. He was a geneticist and he liked nothing better then to lose himself in thought when he came face-to-face with an adaptation like this. He strayed off to see if he could imagine the adaptations that drove the dog walker and his canis lupus familiaris to this moment, this place, here and now.
The city dog is so different from the country dog that roams unconstrained across a larger earth and squats without fear, he thought, never lifting his leg. Almost nothing separates them – yet everything does.
He stretched further out his window and took a deep breath, even though the air was heavy. Streets lamps came on. The Palisades were lit and reflected off the Hudson River.
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.
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.
This is how the world moved that day, July 17, 1996, before Raúl’s eyes adjusted to the sadness that arrived when the phone rang outside everything familiar to him and stopped him from stretching as far as he could into the picture knocking at him, asking him to leave things behind for a bit.
He held the grainy sill and turned to the ring that tempted the faith he found in his routines.
He felt the weight in the room, a sadness that came out of nowhere – yet it seemed old and familiar, and lodged itself in the pit of his stomach.
Raúl leaned inside and faced the phone. He held the sill with his right hand, not yet giving it up all the way. Not yet.
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. And pulled open his window.
At some point that day, the sadness must have begun to set in unnoticed. Maybe the sadness had been there all along – that was more logical.
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. That’s what humans do, he thought, run for cover – and wait and adapt slowly, hopefully. Those that can’t adapt don’t make it, ever.
He felt bound. In the genetics lab life laid down road signs, roots to instincts that he could quantify. There was nothing to measure here. Nothing at all – but an intuition.
The phone pawed at him trying to get to where the heart is.
There was no way to revise the day, see it fully in memory’s half-light. After working in the lab he and friends sat in a sidewalk café across from Lincoln Center and had a Brooklyn Summer Ale and dreamt of things that may never come to pass. On a cloudless bright day, they descended into the dank and murky subway station on 161st and took the number one, Broadway – Seventh Avenue local to 72nd Street and strolled to Lincoln Center where a Guatemalteco on the corner sold dolls with bouncing heads and a Jamaican next to him hawked antique copies of Paris Match and Look and National Geographic in several languages.
A invisible woman with tattoos of crosses and peace signs on either hand and barely able to stand on the corner waited for pedestrians to push by and she’d mumble spare some change as they forgot her, a picture of an extinction, something that no one wants to see intimately, the end of an adaptation. Soon, she would not be.
It’s all like this – the Guatamalteco, the Jamaican, the invisible end of an adaptation. It all had to be like this, a design, an order. Nothing spoke to him of the sadness he felt – but it had been there, he was sure of it. Had to be.
He tried ignoring the third ring and turned to the hum of 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.
…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. “Papá,” he said again. It filled the room. “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 just beyond the design, beyond the touch of order. This sadness was new and full.
December 19, 2011 § 4 Comments
I seem to be looking for meaning everywhere I turn. But meaning I cannot find today.
Looking for meaning ought to point to something, a thing that corresponds to it. It’s a temptation to try to find some object that we might call “the meaning.” But there is no such object. This temptation — to find the meaning – needs to be cured.
Baffled, I look and wonder about our state of affairs — why we are the way we are, today’s American — and find not a single hint of an answer anywhere. Nothing is predictable. Nothing is obvious. Perhaps, as mathematicians might suggest, the deterministic nature of our system — capitalism flag waving as democracy — does not allow for predictability.
The world is perpetually in flux, yet Americans operate as if it’s static. We speak boldly about Morality and Utility, but these extract demands from our propensity for pleasure — oral, visual, sexual (not so much sensual, which would then move us towards aesthetics and a re-engagement with philosophies concerning Beauty, which would be too much to think about, too complex).
We are very much alone and plugged in — iPads, iPhones, computers, social networks. We are solitary — the self in perpetual solitude. Our experiences, like no other time in history, are profoundly solitary. In solitude we have intense experiences and can, for a short time, transcend the very real flux, the natural course of Being, existence.
Americans are then always in contradictions — solitary experiences that momentarily transcend the flux that is always present. Ironic — we are in a constant state of Irony. The prodigal child of irony is Alienation, a ongoing theme, for instance, in our American Literature that begins with Emerson to Hawthorne and Melville to Henry James and William Faulkner and Wallace Stevens to Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy. Alienation gives us a form of rooted rootlessness, security in insecurity, an sense of alienation that has been historically a confirmation of community.
Alienation, rather then any ideology, is the construct of politics in America today. Alienation presupposes the always ongoing struggle to find the meaning that alludes us. There is no meaning — it’s the temptation we follow.
The rhetoric of politicians, keenly orchestrated to appeal to media, exploits the temptation to find the object that will give us the meaning. No one is telling the truth, though. The only truth is that our masquerading democracy seeks exploitation to survive, using Divine Providence — the false notion that we are the Chosen — to embellish our tendency for denial of what we see — or don’t see.
We signed up and followed Obama’s Change Rhetoric, only to find out that change meant more of the same: a rounding up of the Bush-era foreign and domestic policies and greater intimacy with Wall Street, passed down to us by Reagan. We’ve been lead, with our acceptance, down the wrong path. And the alternative, the crazy, Ahab-like Newt of destruction and the indifferent and the callous and blindly ambitious Romney, who made his fortune on destruction, promise a profound exploitation of resources.
In The Ship chapter of Moby-Dick, Melville tells us that, “For all men tragically great are made so through a certain morbidness. Be sure of this, O young ambition, all mortal greatness is but disease.” What we chase is profoundly irrelevant, says Melville.
We long for men that promise the meaning; we chase after their ambition, as poor Ishmael did when he stepped onto the Pequod and said, “this ship is for us.” But the Pequod is not a democracy; in its appeal to be considered the meaning, what we find, as a microcosm of American culture, in 1851 and 2011, is a totalitarian regime disguised as a democracy fully grounded in self-reliance. And nothing could be further form the truth, which is where we find ourselves today in America — far from any sense of truth.
In the end, now, as did Ishmael, we are orphaned, floating in a sea, only the sharks do not have “padlocks on their mouths.”