I was explicitly forbidden to run. I was not allowed to just throw in the towel and hit the escape key. I had to have a plan, or at least enough determined passion and enthusiasm to placate my pare…
Source: Running Away or Running Toward?
I was explicitly forbidden to run. I was not allowed to just throw in the towel and hit the escape key. I had to have a plan, or at least enough determined passion and enthusiasm to placate my pare…
Source: Running Away or Running Toward?
The Uncanny is moving over. This move will make it easier for anyone to contribute ideas, art, short clips.
Are you interested in trying to get deeper into ideas, into how things work — or don’t? Are you interested in trying to find meaning where there doesn’t seem to be any?
And are you interested in trying to explore ideas beyond what we hear, what we see, what we’re told is the new normal?
This is an open invitation to writers interested at looking deeper at strange current events, different ideas, and trying to lay the path for fresh trends in media, politics, education, sports and entertainment, the environment — new ideas for us.
I am interested in challenging orthodox ideas. I am interested in finding a way through what seems to be an impenetrable and weighty status quo.
The original Uncanny is a WordPress site of 215 stories, if you care to learn how and when all this began.
Now migrated to Medium, The Uncanny is an invitation to collaborate, contribute and critique any and all ideas pertaining to the dramatic reality we seem to be living.
What will the other end of this transition look like? What do you want it to look like? What should we consider? What good ideas about navigating through this period are out there?
I will consider a broad range of stories and ideas, images, very short clips, art, inclusive of cartoons.
I can be reached here: hector j vila I really look forward to hearing from you.
Education — with a capital E — has effectively divided the nation. Education has been eating away at the fiber of this country for quite some time. This is quite obvious when examining the 2016 Presidential Election. Yet, Education is not being held accountable for the mess we’re in; it’s getting a pass.
We can get a sense of this by looking, first, at popular media. Second, we can see how obstructionist our Education system really is, and the consequences.
Bill Maher calls Trump supporters idiots. “What we learned,” Maher tells CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, “is that there’s a lot of vulgar, tacky, racist people in this country, more than I thought…A basket of deplorables.”
“What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance” (1839-1840)
We are more at home with illusion than we are with the reality before us. It seems quite natural for us to walk away from facts when they don’t support our illusions — and our emotional attachments to them. Our minds and our eyes always fool us. We even reject the notion that they do — a catch 22 if there ever was one.
Consider this: Why does the moon look so much bigger when it is near the horizon?
Granada, Spain — The modern state comes into being during the Middle Ages in Europe. It establishes what many economists call a social good, a strong military that (a) provides security for citizens, (b) gives room for nationalism, and (c) implements accountability. We have the right to live securely and without fear, the right to define a national identity, and to create the means by which to expand fortunes, guided by laws. The Modernaccountable State, there it is. And it’s all held together by taxation — people pay for protection, pay for nationalism, and pay for laws.
In the United States, the Pentagon budget, as reported by The Washington Post, consumes 80% of individual income tax revenue. The Pentagon spends more on war than all 50 states combined spend on health, education, welfare, and safety. According to the Lexington Institute, the U.S. has 5% of the world’s population — but almost 50% of the world’s military expenditure. The military receives 54% of discretionary spending. To get all this done,Americans spend $27.7 billion a year preparing taxes. In 2008, GE made $10.3 billion in pre-tax income, but didn’t have to pay a single cent in taxes;Bank of America paid no taxes in 2009, even though it made $4.4 billion in income; and, Molson Coors paid no taxes in 2009, and was actually paid $14.7 million by the government.
Granda, Spain — The prodigal child has come home to roost. I am in the Albayzín section of Granada. This once autonomous,Andalusian Muslim community, which has retained the narrow streets of its Medieval Moorish past, I’d argue, is ground zero for tomorrow’s world.
It’s all here- the sights, sounds, smells; Syrians, Moroccan, Lebanese, Lybians; the restaurants, Halal food, leather stores up steep walkways; the incense; wild colorful ingredients, spices and herbs. Arabic pushing up against Spanish and other European languages. The mosque and the church, Jewish history. Young women offer henna, which comes from the Arabic, ḥinnāʾ, for 1 Euro; men smoking their cigarettes stand in front of their shops. There are tea and hookah lounges. There’s flamenco, too, where it originates (as well as in Extremadura and Murcia) — a doleful synthesis of Romani, Arabic, and Spanish cultures that eventually find their way to the New World and metamorphose into el tango.
That’s who we are … We could very well be a developing country.
Take a look: we are all getting our new credit cards with computer chips, something that has been long in coming.
Have you tried using your card, though?
I routinely walk to a counter, see the chip-enabled card reader, and when I go to use it, I’m met with this halting remark by the cashier (that we have cashiers, still, is another matter): “Wait. No. It doesn’t work. Please slide your card instead.”
It’s night in a foreign land. It’s hot, humid. I kick open a door of a nondescript apartment, splintering it to pieces, and lunge at three men sitting at a rickety table in a dingy room, revolvers, grenades, and detonators are strewn on its surface.
I punch one burly man hard in the face as he stands, unsure of himself. I can sense that — the weakest link. He falls back. He’s to my right. To my left, a mountain of a man, knife in hand, comes at me. I step aside, lock his elbow against my ribs with my left arm; with my right I come over the top of his humerus and snap it. He falls to his knees, doubled over in pain.
The third man leaps to his feet, turning over the table, pushing it against me. I grab a revolver from the floor and quickly shoot him in the leg before he can leap out an open window.
It’s instructive to begin with Barry Blitt’s March 28, 2016, New Yorker cover, “The Big Short,” because it conflates three central ideas critical to our discussion: Donald Trump’s deep anxiety about the size of his fingers — and something else, our age’s latest, desperate attempt to try and determine our future by hyperbolic palm reading — disconcerted flailing as we transition into the challengingAge of Knowledge — and the latest, eye-opening film directed by Adam McKay, The Big Short, based on the book by the same name written by Michael Lewisabout the financial crisis of 2007–2008, which was triggered by the build-up of the housing market and the economic bubble.
No one has said this, so let me be the first: Donald Trump is a manifestation of an age that has run its course. There you have it.
Reacting to my Medium.com piece, 5 Writers Imagine America: Reflecting Forward, 2016, my friend, Vermont documentarian, Michael Hanish, emailed the following (I will place it here as an image because the form is relevant, I think; it’s exactly as it appears in his email—like a poem that we’ll title, “So”):
It’s like a riddle, isn’t?
“So,” then a pause. We must begin there: “So” is as if to say, summarizing 5 Writers Imagine, Now that you’ve said what you said, following Thoreau’s most men lead lives of quiet desperation and that this desperation is orchestrated—meaning it is systemic, purposefully constructed, a mirror of our socio-economic structure—and that this manufacturing of longing brings with it great suffering, a cost to society, its citizens, everyone, why then live as we do? What has gotten us here? How did we get here?
– See more at: Community Works Journal – ONLINE MAGAZINE
The United States has been flirting, if not downright chasing after, fascism for quite some time. Donald Trump/Drumpf is the final manifestation of this inclination towards despotism. Historically, our entire system has been moving in this direction.
Here, I’ll show you…
There have already been some intelligent articles written about the fascistic leanings of Donald Trump/Drumpf, which I will briefly point to and summarize but by way of showing the part of the argument that’s missing: namely that US flirtations with fascism are directly related to a merciless socio-economic system that stratifies, marginalizes, and silences many, to the point of creating large swathes of invisible, voiceless people; out of such mayhem and loss, a fascist will rise and in a language the imperceptible can understand, the language of violent change through overthrow.
I’m casting an eye, first on who we were: 9 young women, 6 young men — 15 ambitious first years in all — and me, in a college seminar this past fall, 2015.
Ten beautiful, bright-eyed students, each, brought into my life their stories from Sudan, Canada, Korea, again Korea, China, Poland via Canada, dos Mejicanos, Palestine, and Serbia — that’s 10. NJ, GA, NYC (Manhattan), NYS (upstate), CA made up the rest of the dazzling class, 5 eager and industrious Americans with their own stories to tell.
I’m highly privileged, as you see. This is why I mention it: I’m looking at this too. With this kind of privilege, there’s much responsibility. To start, then, I’ll say that we’ll look at the 5 authors chronologically, following publication dates. At the very least, this places each author in an intellectual history. Contextualization like this will afford us the long view.
Long-range factors are already evident in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s America struggling for meaning in the face of brutal slavery — an initial extreme we can’t escape; the struggle continues today. As does our desire fortranscendence, to move beyond who we are and into dreams. I wonder what we hear now if we put Emerson’s American against the multi-racial, multi-ethnic, diverse, boisterous, cosmopolitan America of Adichie, the last of our authors in the seminar?
Want to read more (it takes 14 min)? Go here…
White privilege is so powerful and pernicious that it literally blinds us to history; it is a willful repression of facts that are pushed aside for a false narrative, which, in turn, becomes the truth. A whitewash, literally.
This is what I came away with after reading Scott Cacciola’s New York Times piece, “Even Ballet Dancers Are in Awe of Stephen Curry’s Moves” (Nov 24, 2015).
Can we turn Stephen Curry into something white?
Want more? Read on, here …
Following American Violence and Education I was asked to take “another ride” on this subject and, following a workshop I was in this summer where, allegedly (it’s on film so I can’t deny it), I said that “we are all educators,” meaning those in and out of education proper, and that this makes us all somehow “responsible,” so, along these lines, I am taking another turn with The Cultivation of Hatred: A Brief History of Violence in America.
I am testing on Medium first since this is a good, well, “medium” to see what kinds of legs this approach has. For those of you that measure these things, a la Medium, the 2444 word piece will take you 11 minutes to read. There are pictures and links to videos.
It begins like this :
In “The Dawn of Man” sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick introduces us to the usage of tools as “man” becomes an active element and gains the power of action over nature — tools make “man” an agent of change.
Paleolithic being discovers that the tool can protect and conquer; it can be used to advance one’s cause and eliminate all threat, kill it off — at least until an opponent engineers a more dastardly tool as we see in another Kubrick film, Dr. Strangelove, and the making of the Doomsday Machine, and in Dr. Seuss’ The Butter Battle Book — both narratives about mutually assured destruction.
So it begins, “man’s” intimate relationship with violence. It commences quite rationally: to protect and to serve one’s needs and the needs of one’s community. Can’t be more fundamental than that, more reasonable.
Read More … and thank you!
I’ve been asked by Joe Brooks, my editor at Community Works Journal, to write something about the school shootings and education. It was extremely hard for many reasons, but I’ve tried. As I sometimes do, I’ll “test” the piece in Medium, first, and see how it runs; I’ll test it here, too.
So here it is: American Violence and Education
It begins thus:
I can’t make things out anymore. I don’t know what we’re doing. American culture is upside down and, as an educator, I have no idea what to do, what to say, how to find “the teachable moment.” I’m lost. I suspect we may all be feeling lost. The world outside the classroom is way too big, too harrowing, too confusing. Death and suffering have become all too common. It seems as if we’re operating in two distinctly different worlds, one is inside the classroom where we theorize, study, calculate, ponder, the other, outside the classroom, that world we dare only glance at from time-to-time, is brutal, relentless in its inhumane insistence that life is cheap.
In a course I’m working through Brent Easton Ellis’ disturbing, post-modern 1991 Gothic novel, American Psycho, giving the requisite warnings about the extremely graphic violence, because students wanted me to do so, differentiating between escapist literature (Hunger Games, 50 Shades of Gray, and so on), and Literature that means to have the reader turn inward, difficult as that is, and examine her life, the lives around her. American Psycho is the latter. Kids, our students, want to feel safe, be safe; they want to avoid “the horror” of it all; they don’t want to reside in the inhumanity outside our neat little classrooms.
But these worlds are clashing.
The New World, as the Western Hemisphere has been called, specially the Americas, including such nearby islands as those in the Caribbean and Bermuda, is a term that originated in the early 16th Century after Europeans made landfall. This “fourth part of the world,” as the Americas were also called, was “conquered,” in the modern sense of the word, and “colonized” by extremes of will and power.
It was a violent takeover, a crazy, fierce and brutal acquisition of exotic lands and a murderous subjugation of native people. This legacy – this warring DNA – runs rampant through the Americas, but most notably in the extreme nature of American ideology, which brought us the horrible and savage act of racial terrorism in South Carolina.
America is misaligned; in turn, this most powerful nation is causing a misalignment in the world. The cause of this improper alignment originates with a denial of history and, of course, the refusal to believe that any history leaves behind a stain that is carried forth by those re-writing and making a new history.
The violent legacy that founded the New World roams our unconscious; it has never left, not since 1492 when a New World Order was determined. We are still working it out; we’re still living it; and we’ve yet to acknowledge its violent, repressive aftermath, which reared its ugly head in South Carolina.
Here’s a brief outline of the extremely powerful history, psychology and ideology that came across the Atlantic – and made us who we are today:
Question #1: How well did this work out, the first modern misalignment?
Question #2: How well did this work out, the first vital exportation of an ideology of misalignment ? How did Columbus treat the “docile” and “friendly” natives in this “New World”? What did he establish as the modus operandi for Europeans colonizing the “New World”, especially since his backing already comes fraught with violence and oppression – and expulsion – under the auspices of a Christian God?
Question #3: How did this work out? The Plantation System, an extreme organism comprised of a harsh hierarchy, becomes firmly ensconced as the economic engine for the New World. Slavery is an economic system under which people are treated as property. Slaves can be held from the time of their capture, purchase or birth, and deprived of the right to leave, to refuse to work or to demand compensation. Slavery in the Americas has a contentious history, and plays a major role in the history and evolution of some countries.
An estimated 12 million Africans arrived in the Americas from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Of these, an estimated 645,000 were brought to what is now the United States. The usual estimate is that about 15% of slaves died during the voyage, with mortality rates considerably higher in Africa itself in the process of capturing and transporting indigenous peoples to the ships. Approximately 6 million black Africans were killed by others in tribal wars.
Question #4: Violent conquest, antisemitism, expulsions, beginning with the Spanish Inquisition, and the establishment of the plantation system, have brought us where?
One answer is a total denial of history and how the blood and violence that established an illusion of order still runs deep in American ideology.
Slavery was well established in the “New World” by the Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch, who all sent African slaves to work in both North and South America during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The English began aggressively trading in what was called “black ivory” during the middle of the seventeenth century, spurred on by the need for laborers in the hot, humid sugar fields on the West Indian islands of Barbados, St. Christopher, the Bermudas, and Jamaica.
For their cargoes of human flesh, the traders brought iron and copper bars, brass pans and kettles, cowrey shells, old guns, gun powder, cloth, and alcohol. In return, ships might load on anywhere from 200 to over 600 African slaves, stacking them like cord wood and allowing almost no breathing room. The crowding was so severe, the ventilation so bad, and the food so poor during the “Middle Passage” of between five weeks and three months that a loss of around 14 to 20% of their “cargo” was considered the normal price of doing business. This slave trade is thought to have transported at least 10 million, and perhaps as many as 20 million, Africans to the American shore.
Slaves from the region of Senegambia and present-day Ghana were preferred. At the other end of the scale were the “Calabar” or Ibo or “Bite” slaves from the Niger Delta, who Carolina planters would purchase only if no others were available. In the middle were those from the Windward Coast and Angola.
Carolina planters developed a vision of the “ideal” slave – tall, healthy, male, between the ages of 14 and 18, “free of blemishes,” and as dark as possible. For these ideal slaves Carolina planters in the eighteenth century paid, on average, between 100 and 200 sterling – in today’s money that is between $11,630 and $23,200!
Many of these slaves were almost immediately put to work in South Carolina’s rice fields.
Which brings us to the shooting in South Carolina and a deep seeded ideology that runs through American culture and is carefully massaged by conservative politicians and extremists, such as the Council of Conservative Citizens, whose leader, Earl Holt, III, has donated large sums of money to several politicians of note, and emblazoned in the display of the Confederate flag over South Carolina’s State Capital, an affront to decency and social justice.
Slavery became the American Economic System – a way of seeing the world, a way of experiencing an Other, a way to disregard human life. (In 2006, William C. Rhoden, sports columnist of the New York Times, publishes, Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Black Athlete, demonstrating how The Plantation System is alive and well in professional sports. See Rhoden’s interview, here, on Quite Frankly.)
Until we get back to this history and acknowledge that history does not end, rather it continues in strange and dark strains that haunt us because we are interconnected in complex ways, such that so much goes undetected – such as a baby-faced, unassuming young man who becomes, as Charles M. Blow says, “baptized in a theology of race hate,” we will be unable to move towards the idea of justice, as Amartya Sen writes about:
The need for an accomplishment-based understanding of justice is linked with argument that justice cannot be indifferent to the lives that people can actually live…The freedom to choose our lives can make a significant contribution to our well-being, but going beyond the perspective of well being, the freedom itself may be seen as important. Being able to reason and choose is a significant aspect of human life…The freedoms and capabilities we enjoy can be valuable to us, and it is ultimately for us to decide how to use the freedom we have … First, human lives are then seen inclusively, taking note of the substantial freedoms that people enjoy, rather than ignoring everything other than the pleasures or utilities they end up having. There is also a second significant aspect to freedom: it makes us accountable for what we do.
Dylan Storm Roof had access to a dangerous single story perpetuated by a white supremacist theology of race hate that victimizes whiteness. “You are raping our women and taking over the country,” said Roof right before his rampage, according to witnesses. Roof has no sense of justice, obviously; he’s been educated in a limited sense of freedom, too, one in which some have it and others do not – and that’s the way it is.
If we live in a country that privileges stories that are limiting in their very nature, we will experience many more people like Roof ; we will also find the racial illogic of Rachel Dolezal. Misalignment produces extremes. These are times that are defined by the inconsistencies brought about by a binary view of the world: black and white, right and wrong, conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat. Rather, we fail to see what can bring us together: our connections to each other, to humanity – the notion that when you look into someone’s eyes you’re seeing yourself. Only when we begin to realize this will we able to move away from our misaligned belief that this is “the new normal.”
It’s the theology of race hate that is the prodigal child of the plantation system. And it’s the theology of race hate that is uniquely lodged in the American Ideology. The American Dream, our national ethos, the set of ideals in which freedom includes opportunity for prosperity and success, and an upward social mobility for the family and children, achieved through hard work in a society with few barriers, is completely hindered, even non-existent – for all of us – if the theology of race hate remains unabated. There’s no way around this. And it requires re-education for all on a massive scale, one in which social justice is at its core.
The connections between the ideology of race hate and how it affects opportunities for prosperity and success in a society that sees itself as having few barriers are the only things worth talking about, otherwise we’re not moving forward as a nation that is open and willing to embrace the idea of justice. We cannot embrace the idea of justice without first acknowledging that a violent history informs us and that we have to embrace the challenge of undoing this across the Americas, together.
I received a most gracious email from a colleague the other day: “Thanks, Hector, for all you do to shepherd students along through the systems. I trust they are eternally grateful for the kindness, energy and personal investments you make in their successes!”
Earlier, I received another: “Thanks, Hector, for once again being on the front lines with students and advocating for them.”
And yet another note said, “Your dedication to your students is admirable.” Someone else, in conversation, said, “You treat the 1% student as you do everyone else—that’s admirable.”
I of course immediately fell for the accolades—I’m human; they made me feel good. Any person would likely feel the same. I was beaming. My ego was stroked and I felt as if these comments separated me from my colleagues and I was somehow operating at some higher plane. You start thinking that perhaps you’re the only one making deep, meaningful connections with students. You start imagining that, at some level, you could be better than others.
But you know you’re not better than anybody else and put the brakes on and say, Wait a minute. What’s going on? Why are they saying these things? ….CONTINUE READING HERE
I went to my country road mailbox a couple of days ago, opened it, and beneath nonsensical mail, there was the New Yorker. I held it in my hands and stared at the Barry Blitt cover of the many faces, personalities and histories of Hillary Clinton. And I came to a thought: There’s nothing more to say. It’s all here.
Mouth agape, I’m still staring at it. You? Blitt is incredible, a truly remarkable artist.
There’s been a spate of education articles concerning “troubling” or “triggering” comments and speakers and programs and the concomitant evolution of “safe spaces” on college campus that provide refuge, calming areas in which to reclaim the self that’s been disquietly pushed off balance.
Get it? Higher education, even in the most elite, safe spaces imaginable, may not be so welcoming, understanding, safe, secure. It may be anxiety-ridden, hostile, dangerous, off-putting, demanding, deprecating. Dangerous, yes, just ask around, definitely dangerous to many who have found themselves vulnerable and unsafe, violently abused. Dangerous, yes. Demeaning too. Make you feel wrong, like you don’t belong, have no place in the world. An outsider.
To say that academia is struggling to find itself, again, is an understatement. It’s struggling to define its relevance, now and in the future; it’s struggling to understand the needs of students and the public; it’s struggling to justify cost v outcomes; and, it’s struggling to understand its hand in creating the very world in which we find ourselves. No small task.
“In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas” Judith Shulevitz describes an academic world where students “are eager to self-infantalize,” parents go along, even help it along, and colleges and universities are caught between a rock and a hard place: make the academic world safe for all free speech – academic freedom; and make this setting behind the hallowed ivy safe for those that might be adversely affected by what we might say is politically incorrect speech: hate speech, language that may be defined as inflammatory and insensitive, callous, violent speech, writings, art and film that might depict the harrowing affects of violence, that might argue for the ease with which we commit acts of killing – and the personalities and faces and organizations and groups – artists, politicians, bankers and lawyers, celebrities, sports figures, etc., a long list – that we might associate with any of these incorrect forms of expression.
Phoebe Maltz Bovy quickly came along: “Don’t Blame Students for Being Hypersensitive. Blame the Colleges.” Bovy writes a superb article – but the title tells the story. Her use of history – how we evolved to this point (irony of course) – is spot on. Not that Shulevitz isn’t; she is too. Shulevitz and Bovy are speaking of something larger gone awry, which requires we move beyond blaming, though “blaming” of this sort – Shulevitz’s and Bovy’s – let’s us into the larger problem – or is it problems?
You decide. Here are 3 large challenges that incite the need for safe places in academia:
Bovy concludes her article, addressing Amanda Hess’ notion, in “Elite College Students Protest Their Elite Commencement Speakers,” that students are looking for a “uniquely tailored experience,” which “elite schools are promising their students in exchange for astronomical costs,” because these students believe they are “owed exactly the experience they want,” saying that:
This strikes me as almost right, but I’d switch the order. It’s not that students demand that colleges provide a gated-community experience tailored to their every preference. Instead, the elite schools are selling that experience—and given the competitiveness of that marketplace, it’s hardly surprising that campus life sometimes crosses over into the ridiculous. Shulevitz blames the students, and surely they deserve some of it. But they’re demanding exactly the college experience that the brochures have promised them.
Here is where the problem conflates, folds in. Stops. It’s the students, the parents and the institutions. But this is only the surface structure, the symptoms or some of the results of the 3 greater challenges: Why do students self-infantalize? Why do parents foster this? And why do colleges and universities, particularly the elite ones, promise infantalization at a high cost?
Americanization changed more than just higher education. It brought with it a new ideology, corporatism: the needs and wants of the corporation trump nation-state identity and the will of the people. Unions are on the ropes; health care, too, even with Obamacare and with insurance companies reporting record earnings, is fighting for existence, for a better place – universal coverage(?). Funding for public education is being chipped away, while standardized testing and the assessment of teachers have taken center stage supported by a powerful theme: some can pay to be well educated, others will not afford it and be left out. We find ourselves in an education environment that mirrors the socio-economic stratification of society, the separation of classes and races, and fueled by an ongoing rhetoric, fear the Other, he’s here to take from you. (Pretty well argued by Jonathan Kozol in The Shame of a Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America.)
Public education, K-12, has been gutted and those caught inside separated. This separation – and lack of diversity – exacerbates fear and anxiety among students, families and teachers. Coupled to this fear, for students and their families – I must not venture out of my group/tribe, a message that’s delivered very powerfully throughout systems – comes the high stakes world of getting into an elite school, a name, some guarantee of a (well paying) job in the future. The student, in this world, is already cowering, already obedient. When she arrives in college – Princeton, Yale, Harvard, the mini ivies, you name them, UC Berkeley, U of VA – that time to explore and blossom, to embrace the unknown, she’s instead wincing and looking for a hand to hold, safety, an established path, worn, well lit and marked, and not the road least traveled.
A conveyor belt to material success defined by excellence and efficiency, accounting terms, breeds obedience and fear. No one wants to experiment, take a chance, speak out, claim a space, wonder, get lost. Getting lost and being vulnerable are frowned upon. The student is thus always off balance, measuring possible falls. Hesitant.
Learning requires no hesitation. It requires leaps. Trust. This is the frightening part.
Colleges and universities provide the social structure to try and ensure safety – “a small army of service professionals,” as Shulevitz describes them, “mental health counselors, student-life deans and the like.”
But when you look at the immensity and complexity of academic work today; when you look at the material goals and aspirations and pressures faced by most students; when you then pit these against dwindling resources, environmental problems, justice issues and issues of identity and wellbeing – the student is rather lost and anxious. Fearing the onslaught of offensive and challenging speech is but a symptom of students wanting more, something richer, deeper; they want to find themselves. They’re asking for justice, for the anxiety over molded impositions to cease. They’re looking for creativity, aesthetics – beauty and a philosophy to go with it.
Creativity requires breathing space. This is the classroom’s purview, the teacher’s attention.
If we slow our teaching way down and extend it over longer periods of time, perhaps over more than a semester using online tools, community service and dialog, intentional living, and give rise to safe learning spaces where mentoring, in the very traditional, Socratic way, I dare say, can evolve, then text, student, faculty will commune in distinct ways, and solve problems. This, I venture, would begin to alleviate the tension, the blaming and the misconceptions we have of each other. This is an invitation to bring diversity into classrooms, schools, and, most importantly, to a staid pedagogy still stuck somewhere in a 19th Century aristocratic model. It’s an invitation to re-think what we do and how we do it, K-16. The current model got us to this point. Do we want to continue? If we look around and are honest, the model is broken. Is that good? It’s the only conclusion. So we have to change; it’s in our capacity to do so.
It’s less about power and authority over fields of knowledge and more about connecting fields of knowledge to an individual’s contextualized learning practices. This requires some understanding of human nature, the science of the stages of learning, the context in which education is delivered – the who, what, when, where. Understanding these three ideas will lead us all to see the child as a whole being, not merely a repository and parrot of knowledge we push in.
If we create a teaching and learning environment that is safe and free and that decompresses the massive compression that is the reality of our time, we can then address mutual respect, honor, conduct; we can address all sorts of language challenges because we have the time and the space to deal with it ourselves. This is not expensive. We have the means and the talent, right now, to tack this ship into healthier waters.
Students infantalize because they don’t want to grow up. Who can blame them? I wouldn’t want to grow up either – not today. Students infantalize because the world is frightening. To say that it isn’t is a wild conceit, the wildest. Isn’t it?
Parents infantalize because they fear for their children. Understandable. (I’ve been blamed for “babying” my children – yes; it is, I can say, fear.) A better use of a parent’s time, energy and emotions, however, is to press schools to do a better job teaching and creating safe spaces in classrooms – not rejecting speakers, not more counselors and certainly not more deans! – that do not shy from controversy, rather address it coherently and with a student-centered approach that honors a student’s place, her history, the context of her life; that enables her to direct herself. In other words, parents: press schools to see the whole student; to see your child as a person, first. We’re not doing that.
A child today entering college is many things: hope, aspiration, desire – a life; but she is also capital the institution needs increasingly so. There’s the human divided: a commodity and a being.
What are our priorities?
If we demand that colleges and universities – the entire K-16 system – focus on the Human Being, the corporate-academic model will react. Its primary concern, all rhetoric on brochures aside, is staying alive, being on top, maintaining brand value, increasing it. If staying on top means recreating itself to capitalize on (a) the very personal needs of students, (b) the promises – still – of technologies, particularly as these speak to how we may change our very important intimate relationships with students, and, (c), the increasing need to evolve professor-teacher-mentors, an instrumental third party, that can speak to small numbers of students about forging ahead professionally and personally, not one instead of the other, then the university – as would any corporation – will change. The corporate-academic institution will react to market pressures, primarily. That’s us.
Right now we’re mired in the blame game, arguably necessary at this stage, so I’m not using “blame” in a derogatory way; it is what it is. But we just need to look under the hood; there are solutions, and these require massive perspective changes and a restructuring of the educational model, using everything at our disposal. How might K-3 education, for instance, help mold higher education? There is an answer here (but for another essay though).
“The reliable, mechanistic old college system has allowed a large number of people born into middle-and upper-middle class circumstances to comfortably ride along established pathways to prosperity without having to work especially hard,” says Kevin Cary in The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere. “As the higher-education system opens up to many more people, this will change.”
With software companies and technology pushing on one end, colleges and universities struggling to find their identity (read: niche) on another, we have a perfect storm: ambiguity reigns. It’s a time ripe for powerful forces to take hold. They have, they are: “Instead of waiting for 35,000 students to apply and picking among them by reading stacks of paper, elite schools like MIT, Princeton, and Stanford will electronically search among tens of millions of potential students worldwide.” Not surprising. Technology will sort, which plays right into one of its most powerful capacities – sorting.
In the future we’ll be more finely denominated. “A critical mass of high schools will allow students to make evidence of their learning machine-discoverable, and more people will build up portfolios of digital badges and other credentials online to attract the attention of universities around the world,” continues Cary. This is now; this will happen. The point is to start adjusting and re-creating ourselves now. If there is money to be made by a software company, a college and a university, it will be made.
Education’s existential crisis is caused by immobility – us. Way too many colleges and universities are not thinking about how the world Cary describes affects us now – never mind tomorrow. It’s already taking shape, this is why we’re off-balance, searching.
One clear way to re-create ourselves is to imagine more instances of intimate contact with our students. It’s not happening in the current design – there’s no time for it. Yes, some students do receive personal attention; yes, this does appear to happen, more often, in elite liberal arts colleges – a reason for their existence, I’d argue, and extraordinary cost; but even here, among the elite, the model needs reinventing, which can reduce costs, re-ignite the essence of the liberal arts and how it relates to citizenship, and demonstrate new, invigorating and imaginative safe spaces where learning can take place. And let’s not forget, technology will have a hand in this; it can and will assist us – a certainty. Unless, of course, we’re happy being sorted – a choice we have.
Education going through an existential crisis is not new; it’s not surprising, since everywhere we look – government, business and banking, social services and health care – the same questions and challenges exist. Education can’t be exempt. Whether educators on a grand scale have a say in the changes that are afoot, there’s no telling. But change is inevitable and in years to come these conversations, hopefully, will seem naive, things we had to say to align us. Then we’ll be addressing other challenges.
“Can you help me?” she asks. She looks doleful, head tilted to one side. She hints a smile.
It’s work for her, getting out a smile – I can tell.
“What do you need?” I respond and smile for her. “Tell me.”
“I don’t know. I’m not sure,” she says shrugging her shoulders and shaking her head no. “I wish I knew. I don’t know what I’m doing, I guess. What happens next? I mean: where am I going? Only the kids going to Wall Street seem to know what they’re doing. What about the rest of us? I have no idea.”
Living in extreme compression, as we do in academia—12 to 14 week semesters, which are more like 10 and 12; the ever increasing complexity of disciplines and their idiosyncratic literacies we’re asked to master; the weight of the ongoing mantra: succeed, excel, achieve, be noted, and all this in an affronting socio-economic-political climate where opportunity and resources are shrinking – we all know this, students especially; the added burden of the great cost of a college education, mounting debt—it’s not surprising that students, faculty too, are desperate for safe spaces to explore their place in what we experience as a progressively hostile, indifferent world.
I’m teaching Solnit and Shields as we speak and my students are working at this NOW. 😉
As I contemplate, as Solnit does, the pre-Socratic philosopher Meno’s notion about how I will go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to me [you]?, I realize that I’ve written quite a bit about this (and others). And I figure that it’s because of something Solnit says: “Certainly for artists of all stripes, the unknown, the idea or the form of the tale that has not yet arrived, is what must be found.”
A place where I find myself lost – along with students – is in the writing classroom. That’s right. I try and create an environment where something – preferably the self – has to be found, the nature of which is totally unknown to you. “Children seldom roam, ” says Solnit,” even in the safest places.” I find this to be the single most critical impediment to finding that thing…
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The day after Thanksgiving, in the wee hours of the morning, lighting a wood stove, I turn to The New York Times and find this incredible contrast that certainly defines our harrowing age:
What can we say?
I want to thank all of the teachers that brought me to the place in which I now find myself. I want to thank all that have loved me and held me together so that I can do what I do today. I want to thank you for putting up with me – all of my nonsense.
I thank you
In giving thanks, I thought about Walking & Talking… and wrote it as a way to give back.
I must acknowledge a distinct pleasure in my life: walking with students across Middlebury’s bucolic campus. Here I am, thinning white hair, not moving as spiritedly as the 18 year olds beside me, two or three students to the left of me, the same to the right, and sometimes one a bit in front of the flock, turning to say something. We part a sea of students in motion—bikes maneuver around us, others with cell phones in hand abruptly realize we’re a single mass and weave and bob by, there’s laughter, students call out to each other. Hey. Hey back. Polite nods at one another as we pass. A predictable stream switching classes.
– See more at: http://communityworksinstitute.org/cwjonline/essays/a_essaystext/vila_walking.html#sthash.sgHs1Ddr.dpuf
I don’t know how I got here. But I do know that what I do has meaning because it’s real—life and death. I’ve put myself inside a dead animal and extracted life out of it. And when I enter a classroom at Middlebury College, my only instinct is to reach for the students’ hearts because, after all, this is where life begins and ends. The farm is hopeful. Students are hopeful. The farm and the college are the same; they are fields that can be joyful if we’re true, honest, nurturing. The work is in moving aside the manure, using it for something better. That’s what I know to be true. That and death. In between there are choices; these depend on listening and experience. It’s not an intellectual exercise; that comes after all else is exhausted. – Read more of On Being: Something Grand and Strong @ Community Works Journal …
I’m often asked what I do for a living. “I’m a teacher of writing,” I say. That’s what it’s turned out to be. There’s a freshness that arrives when you know what you are, who you are. My wife, Nina, chimes in: Why don’t you ever say you’re a professor?
The culture is large and powerful, and always challenging notions of who you think you are. In New York City Public colleges and universities, and in New Jersey’s, I was Doctor. Doctor Vila. Too presumptuous, but I learned essential in a world where signification builds street cred. In urban educational environments the code of the streets applies.
In private schools, Professor is customary, a softer adjective that marks a rise, for the student and the teacher, in an invisible but powerful hierarchy of knowledge we assume can only be held in the hands of right-minded apostles. These heralds hold the rank of Professor. Professor is a place in the culture; an event, the donning of colorful robes that signify the anointed. In my mind, I’m far from that. Just the opposite. I tend to work as a counter weight to the significance afforded these distinguished vestments…
– Read more at: Community Works Journal …
What is a memory? What is a memorial?
A memorial is something to preserver a memory – but of what?
The image on the left is the prophetic shot of Don DeLillo’s great novel, Underworld. Published in 1997, the Underworld was immediately recognized as one of the best American novels ever written – in fact, recently, viewed in the top 5. Post 9/11 readers by the droves were drawn, first, to the ominous cover, second, to the narrative’s harrowing picture of American culture, the world, and where we might find some semblance of hope – or not. Somewhere between our waste and commodification, we struggle for hope, for a better future. Peace, as DeLillo ends his novel.
The image on the right was just captured by my son, Carlos, a professional photographer living in Brooklyn, NY. In many ways, Carlos’ image is also a memorial – to the days of DeLillo picture, to the harrowing events of 9/11, and to our current malaise and sense of hope and vulnerability.
Carlos’ image is very much a vulnerable one: will we experience 9/11 again? Given the conditions in our world, are we, like this image, in a fog we can’t get out of? Is this a memorial to a time we’ll never get back, yet we hope for something more?
I’ve been talking to other teachers, conducting workshops on teaching, and the notion of “influence” has come up: Why do we teach the way we do? What enters into our pedagogy? Who are the unseen forces that stand with us in classrooms? Teacher’s voices are hardly ever heard; we are never really considered in all this chatter about education reform. I’d argue that we need to have more teachers speak; we need more teaching voices telling their stories. To that end, I submit to you “Out of Life, Out of the Past,” which is the third chapter of my book, Life-Affirming Acts: Education as Transformation in the Writing Classroom.
If you’re a teacher – or you remember teachers – and are so moved to tell your story, please use the “Comment” feature here and we’ll compile these … Thank you.
It’s inescapable that when we speak about education we speak about pedagogy. And when we speak about pedagogy, we actually never speak about pedagogy at all—that is to say, never in meaningful and significant ways. Instead, the language around the method and practice of teaching is rife with utopian aspirations, anxiety and discontent.
Thus is pedagogy’s paradox. Or to state it another way: pedagogy is a form and in this form there are at least three postulates that create its meaning, and our confusion and uneasiness, even displeasure, with education writ large. – Read More …
The most disconcerting lines in modern fiction, the opening of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, perfectly capture our condition, today; it’s what we’ve become: “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.”
It’s the tone of the lines that gets to us; its matter of fact, almost as if half-expecting this metamorphosis; it’s as if becoming a “monstrous vermin” is not shocking. It simply is. To simply be means that it has always been; it’s not sudden, new, shocking.
“What happened to me?” thinks Samsa. “It was no dream,” he realizes. Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman, looks over to a table, on top of which he’s placed a picture of a young lady “done up in a fur hat and a fur boa” inside “a pretty gilt frame.” He has no one; he’s alone, fantasizing plastic dreams that will never come. Nothing is real; and the nothing that isn’t real is his life. The unreality is the reality. The illusion is what he’s living. Truth and illusion are interchangeable.
What’s real? asks Kafka.
Gregor Samsa tries – or rather, he thinks about going back to sleep, but can’t. In his present state he can’t sleep on his right side, which he prefers, because he “always rocked onto his back again” and could then still see his “squirming legs.”
If we turn away from something that is, does it cease existing? Is turning away possible, real, more real than the “squirming legs”?
Gregor Samsa can think of nothing else but the “grueling job” he has, “Day in, day out – on the road.” The reality that he’s a vermin is less important. Gregor Samsa, “a tool of the boss, without brains or backbone,” is more concerned with getting to work on time than he is about his new condition. Samsa is anxious about his responsibilities. Vermin or not, he’s not going to lose his job, his footing.
But is Samsa’s condition new? And is Samsa’s condition our very own? Kafka is telling us that Gregor Samsa’s acceptance of his “monstrous vermin” state is something long in the making. Acceptance of horror takes time to enter into a culture. It doesn’t happen over night.
In the opening scene of another Kafka piece, In the Penal Colony, examining a “remarkable piece of apparatus” to be used to kill a condemned man, we learn that the “condemned man looked like a submissive dog that one might have thought could be left to run free on the surrounding hills and would only need to be whistled for when the execution was due to begin.”
The dominion that builds gradually and unconsciously to the point that we don’t even notice our transformation into submissive subjects – vermin, the condemned- is key to understanding Kafka – and ourselves.
In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a “hot” book everyone seems to be talking about, though quite clearly chewing at the edges – as Gregor Samsa does when he experiences his altered state – Thomas Piketty says, “…that the dynamics of wealth distribution reveal powerful mechanisms pushing alternately toward convergence and divergence. Furthermore, there is no natural, spontaneous process to prevent destabilizing, inegalitarian forces from prevailing permanently.”
Our systems push and pull; merge and deviate, detour; and there’s no “natural, spontaneous process” to prevent damaging and undermining, undemocratic forces from, eventually, reigning. In other words, we’ve awakened into a state – as in a dream – we have a hard time understanding, never mind getting at the root causes of why we’re here.
So what do we do?
We accept. We’ve authorized – a nice word for this – the move toward the ongoing merger of financial and military spheres that diminish our authority, for instance; we’ve approved the move away from a substantive global democracy; we’ve endorsed the humanization of the corporation. In all this, we’ve established our de-humanization. We prefer not noticing.
The deaths of Gandolfini, Hoffman and Williams, for starters, suggest that even at the highest socio-economic levels we don’t understand suffering; we don’t understand the conditions in our lives that may cause us stress and harm; we don’t understand how we might help one another, collaborating and cooperating, sometimes across differences, which is the only way to prevent becoming Gregor Samsa. We seem to be okay letting people go – or at least, okay that this is how things go.
Iraq, ISIS, Syria, and the horror that was the murder of journalist James Foley are characteristic of an age that has grown cold, unsensual, dismissive and callous. It’s hard to argue against this. It is a world that – it should be obvious by now – looks to the short term rather than the long view. And compressing all experience into tight, corporate mediated narratives that leave no room for questions and dialog. Iraq, ISIS, Syria and James Foley are horrible unintended consequences of a world – like Kafka’s – where the gruesome apparatus for death is a machine we just have to look at; “it works all by itself,” Kafka writes. We approve that the mechanisms of death work by themselves.
The rise of evil and violence is directly related to our incapacity to engage our world – and each person in it – in ways that address our interconnectedness – because, as Don DeLillo says in Underworld, everything is indeed connected. There’s no escaping this fact. The murderers that ended James Foley’s promising life know this; 9-11 was all about the relationship between blindness and interconnectedness, something we still yet deny. Disconnected people, cultures, societies react – they have to.
Ferguson, for instance, appears to us as a shocking reminder that we are not a post racial America; yet we can’t seem to find the language to try and understand the piercing reality that Ferguson has been festering for quite some time, and it’s been smoldering across our land. People in Ferguson – and many, many places in the US – are feeling very disconnected. Ferguson is a sign. We could move towards greater freedoms or we could move towards greater oppression.
Unobstructed mechanisms work to ensure that this is how we live: Propaganda and Ideology. They work in tandem. One needs the other.
Propaganda, says Jacques Ellul, “is scientific in that it tends to establish a set of rules, rigorous, precise, and tested, that are not merely recipes but impose themselves on every propagandist, who is less and less free to follow his own impulses. He must apply, increasingly and exactly, certain precise formulas that can be applied by anybody with the proper training – clearly a characteristic of a technique based on science” (Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes). This happens by analyzing environments and individuals; it’s thought through. And it works in business, as well as in government, affecting political speech, for instance. A key characteristic of propaganda is that “the individual,” says Ellul, “is never considered as an individual, but always in terms of what he has in common with others, such as his motivations, his feelings, or his myths.” A key characteristic of popular media – the assumption that we’re all one.
Enter Ideology. An ideological apparatus or mechanism in any given culture works by ensuring that each individual see himself as an other, as with others. In other words, one’s individualism, through a propaganda model set in an ideology, say grounded in capitalism, is used to actually justify what Slavoj Žižek calls a “vast anonymous power” that works unconstrained, “without any democratic control” and which regulates our lives (Demanding the Impossible).
What has happened?
How we measure balance, virtue, truth has changed; our very measures of what is extreme have changed. When we look around – Gandolfini, Hoffman, Williams, James Foley, Iraq, ISIS, Syria and Ferguson – we fully realize that these are extremes. But, like Gregor Samsa, these are metaphors, today, of the hard shell we wear and that keeps us from moving as we might like; and like Samsa, when we begin to feel “a slight, dull pain,” something we’ve never felt before, we think about our grueling jobs, the challenges of just getting to work on time, not losing time, not losing our step in the illusory game of our own private enterprise to succeed. And go to happy hour or rush to ESPN.
The long-run evolution of capital, I’d argue, has lead to our awakening in a vermin state, though like Gregor Samsa, we half expected it so we rush to social media, we rush to screens and rapid fire texting and calls to check on one another, not saying anything meaningful, mind you, just merely acknowledging that we’re alive amidst all this pain and suffering we’ve allowed to grow and flourish, and which, sadly, we accept as ongoing.
A great darkness hangs over us now.
Rebecca Solnit ends her letter, (though it was published, online, in The Guardian, on October 15, 2012, I’ve just run into it and find it – still – relevant for many reasons, which I’ll try to capture here), by saying the following :
There are really only two questions for activists: what do you want to achieve? And who do you want to be? And those two questions are deeply entwined. Every minute of every hour of every day you are making the world, just as you are making yourself, and you might as well do it with generosity and kindness and style. That is the small ongoing victory on which great victories can be built, and you do want victories, don’t you? Make sure you’re clear on the answer to that, and think about what they would look like.
Solnit also says:
There is idealism somewhere under this pile of bile, the pernicious idealism that wants the world to be perfect and is disgruntled that it isn’t – and that it never will be. That’s why the perfect is the enemy of the good. Because, really, people, part of how we are going to thrive in this imperfect moment is through élan, esprit de corps, fierce hope and generous hearts.
Solnit is, for me anyway, trying to channel, (to some extent and falling dramatically short), Slavoj Žižek, the Slovanian Marxist philosopher, psychoanalist, and cultural critic. (To directly cite Žižek would be disastrous for her, I’m sure.) Read more …
In his column, Order vs. Disorder, Part 2, Thomas L. Friedman, of The New York Times, says that, “The Israeli-Arab conflict has become a miniature of the most relevant divide in the world today: the divide between the ‘world of order’ and the ‘world of disorder.’
Friedman’s muse for his sense of order and disorder as defining our world, and reaching back into his Part 1, The World According to Maxwell Smart, which I wrote about here, is Wallace Stevens‘ Connoisseur of Chaos :
A. A violent order is disorder; and
B. A great disorder is an order. These
Two things are one. (Pages of Illustrations)
Stevens sees this as “the pretty contrast of life and death” which “Proves that these opposite things partake of one,/At least that was the theory when bishops’ books/Resolved the world. We cannot go back to that.” Yet even Steven concedes – and this is what I think Friedman misses completely and thus stops short in his analysis – that, “The squirming facts exceed the squamous mind.”
We bump along with minds indeed covered by scales, squamae. Thus we protect our vistas from penetrating horrors; but we’re also prevented from reaching beyond the accepted notion that we live in a world defined by order vs. disorder. “The squirming facts” escape us; we view the world without concern for history or historical development. Our ahistorical reality is caused by the role ideology plays in our confusion.
Friedman acknowledges this confusion, a world, then, of contradictions – which we accept, that we see as normal and amidst cries of horror, we turn away:
Israel faces nonstate actors in civilian clothes, armed with homemade rockets and drones, nested among civilians on four of its five borders: Sinai, Gaza, Lebanon and Syria. And what is most striking about this play is that the traditional means of bringing order seem ineffective. Israel, a mini-superpower, keeps pummeling the ragtag Islamist militias in Gaza with its modern air force, but the superempowered Palestinian militants, leveraging cheap high-tech tools, keep coming back with homemade rockets and even a homemade drone. You used to need a contract with Boeing to get a drone. Now you can make one in Gaza.
Nothing is, in Friedman’s mind, as it should be – “the traditional means of bringing order seem ineffective.”
We see this same confusion – or uncanny consternation – when looking in on the Russia vs. Ukraine, NATO, and Western ideology debacle. We also see this in the Ebola Crisis where now, 2 Americans infected with the virus are heading to Atlanta – the first Americans to be treated of this virus in the States.
What’s going on? What’s lead to a world, in Friedman’s critique, that’s arranged as a destructive binary, order vs. disorder?
“When all the old means of top-down control are decreasingly available or increasingly expensive (in a world of strong people and strong technologies, being a strongman isn’t what it used to be),” argues Friedman, “leaders and their people are going to eventually have to embrace a new, more sustainable source of order that emerges from the bottom up and is built on shared power, values and trust.”
He’s wrong, of course. He’s merely supplanting one ideology for another that, if we look a little deeper into language such as “new, more sustainable sources of order” and that romantically “emerges from the bottom up” and “built on shared power, values and trust,” we see the expected, the politically correct, neoliberal viewpoint that is meant to uphold the current balance – and imbalance – of power by gesturing almost comically to the way things are, which is the world we’ve had a hand in creating. Friedman’s rather comical, even cartoonish solution is also part of the problem because it fails to see the real.
“What to do?” as Friedman asks.
We need to go deeper; we need to dig further, inquiring into our current incapacity to use language to describe what we are and who we are, and why we fall, as Friedman does, into cliché – or bad poetry.
We can begin this inquiry by turning to Stevens, again, and jumping off from here:
A great disorder is an order. Now, A
And B are not like statuary, posed
For a vista in the Louvre. They are things chalked
On the sidewalk so that the pensive man may see.
The pensive man … He see that eagle float
For which the intricate Alps are a single nest.
Friedman feigns the “pensive man,” but he’s concerned only with the surface structure of things, an analysis solely of the spectacle. In fact, it is about the spectacle, only; it is the most important reality in our lives because it synthesizes our mysteries, our crises, and our solutions, too. The spectacle, in fact, is hope – the greatest and most profound fallacy. And Friedman is one of the analysts – and mouthpieces – for the ruling ideology of the day that is essential for buttressing the spectacle, arguing, first, that there is a problem – order vs. disorder – and then dissimulating a solution, a “more sustainable source of order that emerges from the bottom up and is built on shared power, values and trust,” which is delivered to us as if it’s viable, though confounding: “Leadership will be about how to cultivate that kind of order. Yes, yes. I know that sounds impossibly hard. But when isolated Gazans can make their own drones, order doesn’t come easy anymore.”
In the spectacle, we are always told – and must embrace – the notion that things are bad and that solutions, the viable ones, are difficult, and because of these difficulties nearly unreachable. The spectacle, then, is a dream – a dreamscape; a place where dreams and nightmares live together.
Infusing this ideology are several gestures that are systemically well organized, so much so that we accept these ideas – and methods – unconsciously; we are thus indoctrinated into a fallacy built on binaries, a vital component of the spectacle: 1. there are a multitude of critical, almost unsolvable problems warring with each other; 2. these crises are both unacceptable but normal; and what’s normal is suffering since not all crises can be addressed – it’s the way of the world, the acceptance of brutality; 3. there are reasonable ways through the crises; 4. these are dependent upon an order that comes through the hierarchical value systems delivered to us from our most powerful institutions – government, finance and its marriage with the military and education.
For Stevens, only the “pensive man” can see this; only we live in a time where compression of experience is essential for maintaining and ensuring our understanding of an order that requires our acceptance of the binary, order vs. disorder. The “pensive man” is obsolete – and if not, then he’s overly romanticized to the point that he’s rendered helpless. This is how ideologies function.
Ideologies are the destructive force of civilization; they blind and bind; they keep us from seeing “that single eagle float.” Ideologies give us an artificial view of the world; give us a prescribed language; and in this artificiality, the only real thing that can exist is materialism as hope and value. This is where the corporation comes in, the major engine behind the spectacle.
As John Ralston Saul says in The Unconscious Civilization, we are a society addicted to ideologies. The most dominant ideology is “corporatism.” “The result,” argues Saul, “is a growing imbalance which leads to our adoration of self-interest and our denial of the public good.”
Now, look again at Friedman’s Israeli-Arab conflagration; look again at Russia vs. the Western world, Ukraine as the vessel; look again at the Ebola crisis, the result of this gross imbalance brought about by ideologies consistent with plunder. In short, we live in a symbolic ordering of our world – and our crises – that point in two directions simultaneously: a disordering, a dissolving of our conditions, and likewise a possible rebuilding that’s based on commodity culture, global capitalism, the edification of systems of power that marry finance, the military and education. In essence, and following Slavoj Žižek, “the main point is to see how the reality itself cannot reproduce itself without this so-called ideological mystification.”
That’s Friedman’s solution – and his take on the Israeli-Arab crisis – “ideological mystification”; that’s why, in his own words, his solution “sounds impossibly hard,” which then requires a mystifying, and accepted, cliché, a gesture towards the incapacity of escaping our ruling ideology-creating apparatus, “order doesn’t come easy anymore.”
The world we have today is not a binary, order vs. disorder, wrongly argued by Friedman. It’s a world of little knowledge and, not vs., a world of even less knowledge, all of it hanging by a thread – yet complacent – in the animated, antiseptic and artificial spectacle we call the real.
In his opinion piece, “The World According to Maxwell Smart, Part 1,” Thomas L. Friedman, who is someone I enjoy reading, because I learn, though I don’t necessarily agree with him all the time, says the following:
You can’t understand the spread of ISIS or the Arab Spring without the relentless advance in computing and telecom — Moore’s Law — creating so many cheap command-and-control Internet tools that superempower small groups to recruit adherents, challenge existing states and erase borders. In a flat world, people can see faster than ever how far behind they are and organize faster than ever to protest. When technology penetrates more quickly than wealth and opportunity, watch out.
The combined pressures of the market, Mother Nature and Moore’s Law are creating the geopolitical equivalent of climate change, argues Michael Mandelbaum, author of “The Road to Global Prosperity,” and “some familiar species of government can’t survive the stress.”
In other words, as I, myself, argued recently in “How Fútbol (not soccer) Explains the World – If Not How it Explains Immigración En EEUU (USA),” we are losing borders – they’re murky at best – and money is not restricted by man-made demarcations, just the opposite is true:
Immigrants and multinational corporations follow the flow of money; it provides hope and potential – a future. The flow of capital knows no boundaries – everyone, especially people suffering in different parts of the world, know this. We, “the EEUU,” (after all North, South and Central Americans are ALL AMERICANS), have a hand in creating possibilities, as well as destruction…
The point is this: when it suits us, we’ll cross any border; we’ll invade; we’ll destroy. Immigrants, witnessing this way of being, follow suit – then we prosecute them.
Friedman is interested in showing how complex – and interconnected – our world order (and chaos) really are; that blaming Obama, though there’s plenty to criticize here, fails to see the challenges we face; and, that there are “huge forces acting in these countries, and it will take extraordinary collaboration by the whole world of order to contain them,” the promised subject of Friedman’s Wednesday’s column.
In order to emphasize this point – again and again and again – I’ll use two authors I frequently turn to on this subject (sorry, again and again for repeating the always already obvious – that which we turn away from): Edward W. Said and Homi K. Bhabha, two professors experts on this subject.
Here’s Bhabha, from his now essential The Location of Culture, which I’ve used before in these pages, but needs repeating:
Our existence today is marked by a tenebrous sense of survival, living on the borderlines of the ‘present’, for which there seems to be no proper name other than the current and controversial shiftiness of the prefix ‘post’: postmodernism, postcolonialism, postfeminism
…Beginnings and endings may be the sustaining myths of the middle years; but … we find ourselves in the moment of transit where space and time cross to produce complex figures of differences and identity, past and present, inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion.
Friedman’s “figures of difference” are the likes of Boko Haram and ISIS, for instance. Friedman adds:
NATO decapitates Libya’s regime and sets loose a tribal-militia war of all against all, which, when combined with the crackup of Chad, spills arms and refugees across African borders, threatening Tunisia and Morocco. Israel has been flooded with more than 50,000 Eritreans and Sudanese refugees, who crossed the Sinai Desert by foot, bus or car looking for work and security in Israel’s “island of order.”
And, just since October, the U.S. has been flooded with more than 50,000 unaccompanied children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.”
In other words, the compression and extensions of globalization are producing frightening figures, great violence and a dispersal of people. The world is, indeed, borderless; these are simply man-made construction that are continuously being pushed aside. This, in turn, is producing a world in which many have to live in dehumanizing exile.
Said is best here:
Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement. The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever.
Said’s first line says it all, defining the world Bhabha so eloquently describes as “tenebrous” because, in fact, it is “on the borderlines.” Exile, then, is a terrible experience that permanently houses an individual in the “unhealable” space of in-between, between “a human being and a native place, between self and its true home.”
The exiles we create – and we do have a hand in creating exiles, all of us do; responsibility for our world is all of ours – are forever lodged in a suffering place all because we cannot seem to understand that incredible false sense of borders and demarcations we’ve given the Other – those we don’t want to acknowledge, those that are different, and always will be, those that ask us to reconsider our privileged vistas, our biases and prejudices.
As I write, we’re amidst the NBA Free Agency Period, 2014: Carmelo Anthony is touring Chicago, Houston, Dallas and Los Angeles (where he, too, has a home), while still holding on to the Knicks – at least on paper; the Houston Rockets have “ramped up their pursuit of Chris Bosh”; and King James is on vacation while his agent contemplates offers.
“Who owns this body, this body of work?” Indeed.
Answer: “Networks televise the game. Advertisers buy the games. Fans support the games. Players are the game (italics mine).” Rhoden, consistent with his seminal work, Forty-Million Dollar Slaves, continues:
Anthony should keep that in mind and not accept a nickel less than he feels he is worth. Athletes are conditioned early on to feel grateful to be on the team. The reality is that their schools, and, later, their franchises, depend on the athletes to have a program. Athletes are the show.
If the Knicks ask Anthony to take a pay cut, or when Pat Riley appeals to James’s sense of loyalty, the Clippers’ pending sale should be a glowing reminder to say no.
In an often coldblooded industry focused on the bottom line, players still invariably lead with their hearts, often to their detriment. The new rules of engagement should be, simply, money first.
Who owns the body – and the game? Players.
This a decisive moment in the business of sports, particularly the NBA. For us, the fans, the spectators of the modern age, we began to see this change with “The Decision,” LeBron’s move to Miami, which, says Rhoden, “showed how valuable he was not just to his team but to an entire region, with Cleveland’s economy seeming to take a hit.”
We’ve seen this kind of thing when Tiger Woods plays golf – or doesn’t and TV ratings take a hit; we see this in tennis, too, when the Williams sisters cherry pick which tournaments to play, unlike any other player on the tour, including the top names.
We saw this in the great Muhammad Ali who, says Rhoden in Forty-Million Dollar Slaves, “brought home the concept of principle, that there was something greater in life than wealth, though wealth has its place; something greater in life than fame, though fame has its place. And he taught [me] that in the right hands wealth and fame, the fruits of athletic success, could be used as a tool in the ongoing struggle.”
This is where we are – an ongoing, historical process. We’re fixated on tweets and on headlines, going back and forth between salary caps, salary commitments, how much is this guy or that guy leaving behind, but failing to see that we’re moving into uncharted territory where ownership of the game, by star players, is dominating.
The Decision II – yet to be made as of this writing – will put a hole through the old plantation model. What commentary is missing, but, I think, management realizes, is that, “the history of African American survival in the United States is the history of teamwork and a history of individual expression within the context of the larger group,” as Rhoden tells us.
We’re witnessing an unprecedented amount of teamwork – at the business level; in turn, the business of basketball is showing how powerful these great players really are. I agree, these players own the game. They’re moving into ownership without knocking on doors – something Michael Jordan tried with the Wizards in 2000 and was rejected, even fired; they’re simply walking through, commanding leadership roles that will determine the future of the game.
When John Oliver took on the broken immigration system on his HBO show, Last Week Tonight, calling it the universal crazy maker and saying that it’s great here, so how can people be blamed for wanting to live in the USA, carefully explaining right-wing fallacies, he never touched on how fútbol and The World Cup of the beautiful game actually explain how totally ironic – and extremist – the immigration fiasco is in America.
Oliver says that many people who would like to see a change in our doctrinaire immigration policies are “drowned out by a lot of opinions unsupported by documentation.” These “undocumented opinions,” says Oliver, need a “fence of facts” around them to protect us. One such “undocumented opinion,” which is not true but “feels like it might be,” he says, is the notion that undocumented workers are here to take jobs from Americans. The American Enterprise Institute, for instance, a private, conservative, not-for-profit institute, says that there is no evidence that undocumented workers are taking jobs from Americans. Let me repeat: this is coming from a conservative institute about “Freedom. Opportunity. Enterprise” (the periods theirs). John R. Bolton is a resident scholar, as is Lynn V. Cheney. Get the drift? Okay, so let’s go a bit further and follow the American Enterprise Institute’s thinking in their own words:
Even among less-skilled workers, Americans and immigrants tend to work in different fields. Low-skilled Americans are twice as likely as low-skilled immigrants to work in offices or administrative support jobs. They’re also twice as likely as immigrants to work in sales. In contrast, low-skilled immigrants are three times more likely than low-skilled Americans to fill farming, fishing and forestry jobs.
And they’re more likely to be in those office buildings cleaning and removing garbage. It gets better yet:
Less-skilled Americans work in difficult conditions – outdoors, on their feet, in jobs that require repetitive motion and expose them to contaminants. But less-skilled immigrants work in jobs that are even dirtier, more dangerous and more difficult.
Immigrants are not smuggling drugs either, another undocumented opinion; they don’t add to crime. And Obama, by addressing the immigration issue, is not trying to make sure that the Republicans never win the White House, as Michele Bachmann contends.
John Oliver’s solution: What if you just tried treating them better... Maybe as if they’re human beings who might hypothetically contribute something.
Fútbol has embraced John Oliver’s idea – fully. Even the US National Team abides. You see, fútbol tells us another story – it has for years, only nobody calls attention to it. Fútbol is an example of where societies will go – or need to go.
The fútbol story is about how different people, from different nationalities, collaborate; it’s about how globalization works; how money floats to where there is least resistance; how multinational corporations look for smooth, quiet rides into areas of least resistance, cross borders and blur boundaries and speak a totally different language than that spoken in Washington D. C.’s inner sanctum of confusion.
In his book, How Soccer Explains the World, Franklin Foer, says that, “You could see globalization on the pitch: During the nineties, Basque teams, under the stewardship of Welsh coaches, stocked up on Dutch and Turkish players; Moldavian squads imported Nigerians. Everywhere you looked, it suddenly seemed, national borders and national identities had been swept into the dustbin of soccer history.” Foer cites Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, to show how the beautiful game follows the premise of globalization: “The inexorable integration of markets, nation-states and technologies to a degree never witnessed before – in a way that is enabling individuals, corporations and nation-states to reach around the world farther, faster, deeper and cheaper than ever before.” Fútbol, like global markets, is a world-flattening enterprise that confounds boundary-making. The only boundaries that matter are evident only on the pitch; creativity is what gets you through – in 90 minutes. To win, then, we do anything, even push through warring ideologies and national debates. That’s one of the beauties of the game today.
Evidence of this is overwhelming. We need to look no further than the great commercials airing during the 2014 World Cup ,Oliver Stone’s commercial, which teams him up with Rodrigo Prieto, the Mexican cinematographer and, of course, the US National Team to understand how truly bigoted, misinformed, costly and inhumane US immigration policy is.
The commercials are easy; these represent the most notable multinational corporations in the world: Samsung, CocaCola, Verizon, AT&T, Apple, Honda & Hyundai, Volkswagen & Mercedes, Yingli Green Energy Holding Co of China, and so on – the list is very, very long. Okay, more: Anheuser- Busch, Corona, Bacardi, McDonald’s. The point is that brands are seeking a global reach and they don’t care what language the message is in or where their customers are; companies expect their costumers to be everywhere. They’re not taking any chances and spending lots of money to ensure their reach. But the largest group of customers – and growing – is Spanish-speaking, many of who are in the USA.
(When Mexico beat Cameroon in a very dramatic game, at the end, cameras cut to Mexico City AND Los Angeles – the crowds nearly equal in size. This suggests that for stations covering the game – ABC, ESPN, Univision and Canadian TV and radio – it’s always already known that large numbers of Spanish speaking immigrants – legal and not so legal – reside in the USA; that these Spanish folks love the beautiful game, they’ll be caught up in it – and all the implications that come from mediated sports experiences – and find, hopefully, their products as alluring as the game, after all, spokespersons are Messi, Pepsi and creativity and community, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar , Rooney, Zlatan, Iniesta in the Nike Commercial 2014: The Last Game – risk everything – quite a message about living lives on the borders of existence, forgotten heroes returning as saviors.)
Immigrants and multinational corporations follow the flow of money; it provides hope and potential – a future. The flow of capital knows no boundaries – everyone, especially people suffering in different parts of the world, know this. We, “the EEUU,” (after all North, South and Central Americans are ALL AMERICANS), have a hand in creating possibilities, as well as destruction. Iraq comes quickly to mind where we’re now witnessing the devastation that evolved from the massive Bush-Cheney lie that is accepted as truth in neocon/neoliberal circles. We can go back to Iran – Contra, when senior administration officials in the Reagan Administration secretly facilitated the sale of arms to Iran, the subject of an arms embargo; and there are Gary Webb’s stories, in the San Jose Mercury News, which shaped his 1999 book Dark Alliance: The CIA, The Contras, and the Crack-Cocaine Explosion about the role of the CIA and the Department of Justice in cocaine trafficking in South Central Los Angeles. (On December 10, 2004, Gary Webb was found dead from two gunshot wounds to the head. Sacramento County coroner Robert Lyons ruled that it was suicide, noting that a suicide note was found at the scene. Two shots to the hit? How do you do that to yourself?)
“The major task,” says Edward Said in his essay Movement and Migrations (in Culture and Imperialism), “is to match the new economic and socio-political dislocations and configurations of our time with the startling realities of human interdependence on a world scale…But we need to go on and situate these in a geography of other identities, people, cultures, and then to study how, despite their differences, they have always overlapped one another, through unhierarchical influence, crossing, incorporation, and recollection, deliberate forgetfulness, and, of course, conflict…The fact is, we are mixed in with one another in ways that most national systems of education have not dreamed of. To match knowledge in the arts and sciences with these integrative realities is … the intellectual and cultural challenge of moment.”
The point is this: when it suits us, we’ll cross any border; we’ll invade; we’ll destroy. Immigrants, witnessing this way of being, follow suit – then we prosecute them. For instance, the children that are now crossing into the USA from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are doing so, less because of confusing rhetoric from the Obama Administration, and more because they are escaping horrific violence in their countries. We confuse everything. The rest of the story is that this fertile ground for killing, the drug cartels operating in these parts of the world, and the despair are remnants of our US involvement in Iran-Contra; these gangs, too, operate with impunity in the USA (see The Gangs of Garden City: How Immigration, Segregation and Youth Violence are Changing America’s Suburbs, please, a terrific study by Sarah Garland.).
What we perceive as the truth, isn’t. The world is upside down. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn once wrote, “Men, in order to do evil, must first believe that what they are doing is good.”
Truth, today, ironically, can be found in fútbol. Let’s take a look at the US National Team and let’s start with the manager, Jurgen Klinsmann, the great German striker who went on to coach the German National team 2004 -2006 (He faced his protégé on Thursday, June 26, 2014 – and lost 1-0). When games begin, we can see Klinsmann singing the US National Anthem as he presides over a team that’s half German. (Before the US vs Germany game, Klinsmann refused to answer questions in German.) One commentator called the game between Germany and the US the Germans vs the half Germans.
Jermaine Jones, for instance, who is still learning English, has lived for most of his life in Germany. The son of an American father and a German mother, born in Frankfurt, who lived in the US as a boy, moved to Germany when his parents separated. In 2008, he failed to make Germany’s squad for the European Championship. He surmised that his best chances to make it to the World Cup – and the grandest of all spectacles – was to use his dual citizenship and try out for the US National Team. His bet worked. He’s not the only one.
True, Jones and others on the team – Diskerud is from Norway; Chandler, also from Frankfurt, Germany; Johnson, Munich – are dual citizens; but the point is, just as we can’t stop cross-border, cross-cultural love, as in these cases, we can’t stop the flow of capital and the pursuit of happiness that today is synonymous with the pursuit of some sort of wealth.
Another poignant example is the French National Team. Here we see one of the best teams of this year’s World Cup – and the result of French Colonialism. This is what we learn from Europe, Sport, World: Shaping Global Societies, edited by J. A. Mangan:
The fact that France is currently the most
popular destination of African migrant footballers says much about the strength of the link between football migration from Africa to Europe and broader socio-economic processes associated with colonialism. The expropriation of African players to play their domestic and international football in France during the first half of the twentieth century can clearly be interpreted as an extension of France’s colonial policy of Gallicization or the assimilation of the local population into the citizenship of the motherland.
The result, in 2014, is an incredible French team. For the USA, it’s another version of Manifest Destiny, which justifies that we intervene in this or that aggression since World War Two; it also suggests, for us, that there is a “pure” American, which couldn’t be further from the truth since all Americans are Americans hyphen. Ironic, of course, since the San Antonio Spurs won the NBA title with two foreign players, Tony Parker, French, and Manu Ginóbili, Argentininian. But this is what we always do: look the other way when we need highly qualified foreign nationals, as we learn in The Real Odessa that tells the story of US involvement in smuggling German- Nazi scientists and engineers, through Argentina, Mercedes-Benz the proximity, with the help of Juan Perón, to come to the US to develop our military industrial complex. No one is clean; no one is innocent.
The real problem is how we’ve approached immigrants, accepting those we want, discarding those that will hold up, on bended backs, the world we want.
So where are we? What have we learned about this yet to be named nebulous period in our global history?
Let’s go back to John Oliver – What if you just tried treating them better... Maybe as if they’re human beings who might hypothetically contribute something.– we can see some solutions:
This is, in fact, the fútbol model. Let’s embrace what is already surely to happen and concentrate on what we know and not on “undocumented opinion” that does nothing but keep us apart.
Part 2 of What Matters in Education? has been published by the Community Works Journal, which supports teaching practices that build community. They’ve been around since 1995. The original title for my piece was “An Unrealistic Proposal.” Now it’s “Considering Technology and the School Experience” (I added the unrealistic bit for this blog).
I. An Unrealistic Proposal
Let’s think BIG: The moral imperative is to focus the K-12 curriculum of tomorrow on 2 large areas: Health and the Environment. End of story.
Health and the Environment is a rich, complex, overarching curriculum that covers history and philosophy, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and all forms of literature and the arts, as well as sociology, economics and political science; it covers the classics (is not Plato about health and the environment – literally and symbolically?). This curriculum connects “learning to social change and fosters modes of critical agency through which people assume responsibility for each other”; morality and ethics are the driving engines.
Our health and the health of the planet are our greatest challenges, but just as significantly surely to affect generations to come if we don’t act now, creatively and with force. A curriculum focused on Health and the Environment is about a long view, not tomorrow’s standardized test scores; it disrupts the move towards authoritarianism.
This curriculum can only be created by a meaningful K-16 collaboration that enables “education hubs” to emerge nation-wide: interdisciplinary centers of study focused on children, first and foremost, with appropriate teachers and mentors, counselors, and medical care up and down the system. Secondly, this new system privileges experiential learning: how to put into practice ideas and theories; how to test what we perceive; how to step away, reflect and describe what we’re doing and how what we’ve accomplished may affect the future.
Necessity is an evil, but there is no necessity to live under the control of necessity.
A new Gallup-Purdue study that looks at links among college, work, and well-being has generated a lot of conversation – in and out of the academy. Much of the chatter is about some of the study’s top findings: 63% of the students said that they “had at least one professor at [College] who [excited them ] about learning”; 27% found that their professors cared about them as a person; 22% found a mentor that encouraged them about pursuing goals and dreams.
Most notably, “The study found that the type of schools these college graduates attended — public or private, small or large, very selective or less selective — hardly matters at all to their workplace engagement and current well-being. Just as many graduates of public colleges as graduates of not-for-profit private colleges are engaged at work — meaning they are deeply involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work. And just as many graduates of public as not-for-profit private institutions are thriving — which Gallup defines as strong, consistent, and progressing — in all areas of their well-being.”
“The report,” says Charles M. Blow of The New York Times, “has a strong message for students who are asking about which school to attend, for employers who are deciding which people to hire and for colleges that are negotiating their curriculums.”
Google agrees. “Google’s head of people operations Laszlo Bock told the New York Times that top graduates can lack “intellectual humility,” and that schools frequently don’t deliver on what they promise”:
A new Gallup survey finds that in hiring decisions, only 9% of business leaders say that the school on a candidate’s diploma is “very important,” compared to 84% assessing knowledge in the field and 79% looking at applied skills.+
The challenge, of course, is that higher education mirrors our socio-economic system. And we embrace that, instead, and shy away from whatever Google and Gallup are suggesting. This is because, as reported in Quartz, “School rankings have been found to matter when it comes to pay, an effect which rises over time. Graduates of elite private schools in particular get paid more according to a report from the Century Foundation (pdf). Elite industries like professional services and finance put more weight on top schools in hiring decisions.”
We need not go far to prove this. Let’s look at the distribution of faculty salaries. Reporting for the Huffington Post, Tyler Kingkade, writes that,
The average pay for all types of professors, instructors and lecturers is $84,303 for the academic year 2012-13, but the report noted a big difference between public and private colleges. At public institutions, the average is $80,578, while at private schools, it’s $99,771.For a full professor, the average salary at a private university this year is $139,620, a notable hike over the average $110,143 at public colleges, and that difference has been growing. This public-private gap has increased from 18 percent in 2004 to 24 percent in 2013, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
These disparities help create a provocative narrative: it does matter where you go to school – even though you may not get a single soul to pay attention to you at the most elite institutions.
The Gallup-Purdue study calls into question our ruling narrative about the value we place on an institution’s brand versus the care an institution may give individual students, their dreams and their needs.
It’s what goes on inside, behind the hallowed ivy, that counts and not how significant – and marketable – the brand is.
It’s not difficult to see how celebrity culture has a hand in this, too. The narrative concerning the significance of one school over another is manipulated by the tools of advertising and management rather than by what data – and reality – tend to show. We have celebrity schools to go along with our celebrity mindset. It’s not surprising, then, to see how much the University has been totally transformed into yet another corporation that comes with its own story – and is never to be questioned.
“The corporation has the power to determine identity,” writes Chris Hedges in Empire of Illusion. “The corporations tell us who we are and what we can become. And the corporations offer the only route to personal fulfillment and salvation. If we are not happy there is something wrong with us [italics Hedges]. Debate and criticism, especially about the goals and the structure of the corporation, are condemned as negative and ‘counterproductive.'”
We see this model stretching from government to the private sector to education. Don’t be counterproductive. Go along.
In another view of academia, a survey done at U.C.L.A. that looks at shifts in our culture over time, according to David Brooks of The New York Times, says that values have changed. “In 1966, only 42 percent of freshmen said that being well-off financially was an essential or very important life goal. By 2005, 75 percent of students said being well-off financially was essential or very important. Affluence, once a middling value, is now tied as students’ top life goal.”
It’s not surprising that professional admissions coaches and special tutors have become critical for gaining entrance to top schools – and we know who can afford this luxury. We’ve created a race – an anxiety filled race, says Brooks:
As the drive to compete intensifies, other things get streamlined away. In 1966, 86 percent of college freshmen said that developing a meaningful philosophy of life was essential or very important. Today, less than half say a meaningful philosophy of life is that important. University of Michigan studies suggest that today’s students score about 40 percent lower in measures of empathy than students did 30 years ago.
Epicurus’s necessity is now synonymous with affluence – we can’t seem to break from it. If we are creating a world that is less empathetic – and doing so by introducing a mindless competitive model that makes commodities (read slaves) of us all – then we’re definitely creating a world where Evil has found its niche. I’m moved by Epicurus these days – and here’s something else that fits our age: No one when he sees evil deliberately chooses it, but is enticed by it as being good in comparison with a greater evil and so pursues it.
Isn’t this where where we find ourselves today?
As of 2012, the last year we have of available data pertaining to the College where I teach, Middlebury, the most popular major (10%) was Economics – it still remains so. Students I see in this major have one goal: Wall Street and gold. According to the Princeton Review, of the top 10 majors, the top three are Business Administration and Management/Commerce, Psychology and Nursing. Economics ranks a surprising 7, after English Language and Literature, Education and Biology/Biological Science. Accordingly, English is one of the two top majors for gaining entrance into law school; the other is Political Science. And Catherine Rampnell, of The New York Times, in “The College Majors That Do Best in the Job Market,” says that the major that “produced the most graduates in jobs that required degrees was education and teaching; 71.1 percent of this discipline’s alumni had jobs for which a bachelor’s was a prerequisite.:” Yes, many graduates go on to teach – but education is under attack and not hiring as it once did; however, many do not enter teaching, suggesting that education studies makes for great job training – students are organized, can work within tight time parameters, and communicate effectively.
Being an efficient undergraduate that develops a picture of “success” is therefore key; demonstrating that nothing has been “wasted” while in college is important. Not much else matters; the competition is fierce.
“I’m not sure if students really are less empathetic, or less interested in having meaning in their lives,” writes Brooks, “but it has become more socially acceptable to present yourself that way. In the shadow of this more Darwinian job market, it is more acceptable to present yourself as utilitarian, streamlined and success-oriented.
I’m not so sure that Brooks’ use of Darwin is correct, particularly following Edward O. Wilson’s quite cogent argument, in The Social Conquest of the Earth, that societies evolve in direct relationship to their capacity to embrace altruism, the unselfish concern for or a devotion to the welfare of others:
…human groups are formed of highly flexible alliances, not just among family members but between families, genders, classes, and tribes. The bonding is based on cooperation among individuals or groups who know one another and are capable of distributing ownership and status on a personal basis. The necessity for fine-graded evaluation by alliance members meant that the prehuman ancestors had to achieve eusociality in a radically different way from the instinct-driven insects. The pathway to eusociality was charted by a contest between selection based on the relative success of individuals within groups versus relative success among groups. The strategies of this game were written as a complicated mix of closely calibrated altruism, cooperation, competition, domination, reciprocity, defection, and deceit.
Empathy is key. But we’ve turned away from the characteristics of meaningful evolution and focused our attention solely on domination and competition – not altruism, cooperation and reciprocity. Eusociality is a balance, a dance we don’t now enjoy.
Presenting yourself as “utilitarian, streamlined and success-oriented” (here meaning: profitable), leads to the commodification of the self, but of experience too. Which is to say that we are headed totally in the opposite direction – a straight line to damnation.
What matters for me is that Education, which I’ve been a part of for nearly 30 years, has had a very strong hand in ensuring that this model goes unquestioned. The utilitarian, streamlined and success-oriented model says that we have bought hook, line and sinker into the idea that education is about training and monetary success. Learning to think critically and to question – given plenty of lip service – are nowhere to be found in our actions.
What matters to us most?
In Part 2 of What Matters in Education? I will describe an education model for a renewed commonwealth.
Had fantastic news this morning from Joe Brooks of the Community Works Institute & Journal: I’ve been selected to be one of the four “Regular Contributors.”
Joe and the Journal re-published my Final:Lost in the Funhouse after viewing it on my blog. Truly and honor – and humbling. Here’s a link to my new page in the Community Works Journal (yes, I agree with my wife, Nina: I have to do something about that picture, taken in Paris two years ago in front of the Opéra National de Paris.).
NOTE: A word about the “Final” in my title: this refers to my final posting for our little experiment, Getting Lost (I wrote 8 pieces for this trial and don’t see the need to write more).
Thank you all, readers, for your continued support – and patience…
Sometimes gaining and losing are more intimately related than we like to think. And some things cannot be moved or owned. Some light does not make it all the way through the atmosphere, but scatters.
I have a simple job. I’m a teacher. Yes, believe it or not. It’s simple. Very. That’s right.
To Teach: to show or point out; to present or offer a view.
To show what? Point out what? Present and offer what?
The answer is the simple part: the heart. To show and to point out, to present and offer the heart of the matter; often this matter is in a text such as Solnit’s: “Sometimes gaining and losing are more intimately related than we think”; that “some light does not make it all the way through the atmosphere, but scatters.”
We can lose something, even painfully so, and gain by it too – a terrible beauty is born, writes Yeats in Easter 1916. And when light scatters about – but particles – it’s very difficult to find the meaning in the loss that will release us from the guilt of gaining.
Too long a sacrifice/Can make a stone of the heart./O When may it suffice? wonders Yeats. Indeed.
Most times the heart is the student’s a teacher aims for – compassion, empathy, understanding and, most of all, full spectrum realization. And yet other times it’s my own that I’m reaching for trying to connect my heart to the student’s.
But the simple act of teaching is challenged: In this world, one where light scatters, “The present state,” says Guy Debord in The Society of the Spectacle “in which social life is completely taken over by the accumulated products of the economy, entails a generalized shift from having to appearing: all the effective ‘having’ must now derive both its immediate prestige and its ultimate raison d’être from appearance.”
Appearance: the action of coming forward into view or becoming visible (c.1400-1869); the action of coming before the world or the public in any character (c 1671-1880); that which appears without material; a phantom or apparition (c. 1488-1834); money paid to a (leading) sportsman or sportswoman for participating in an event (1977-1981).
The privileged place of Appearance makes any straightforward attempt to reach for the heart a challenge because the mere materialization of social power, which has assumed a social character and makes individuals dependent on it, transforms, into real beings, images, figments and behavior. Illusion becomes the norm, how we experience the world – and each other. No truth evident here. Nothing is real.
Instantly, teaching becomes difficult; it becomes complex, challenging, strange given that material reality is wedged between the student’s heart and the teacher’s. Reciprocity, which is essential for happiness, is lost and hostility takes over since it is the prodigal child of aggressive self-interest. Self-interest is the sole arbiter of success and value in the academy that feeds the culture: the professor that thinks his is the only course students take, so students are overworked, mindlessly responding to carefully orchestrated questions meant to solicit a single answer or two – busy work; the student that believes she merely has to get through, not worried about learning, rather about finishing, while reaching for the next rung that will get her ever closer to the penthouse at the helm of the economic system. A conveyor belt that privileges a move away from the heart and towards material reality.
Materialism and self-interest go hand-in-hand; all else, including people, must be shunned – and there goes reciprocity. Thus we find ourselves lost, floating in an open sea of confusion, living lives on the boundaries of meaning, never quite getting there, never quite getting at truths, comfortable numbing our haze. Welcome to the Aderrall Generation.
“Whether Adderall is a life-changing medicine or an unfair performance enhancer depends on whom you talk to” writes Kyle Fink in the first of a two part series, “Living in the Adderall Generation: Part 1,” in the Middlebury College Campus. “What is clear is that we are now living in the Adderall Generation, a reality that is rarely talked about but apparent just below the surface. You may not have a prescription or snort the drugs on weekends, but psychostimulants are here to stay, and they have the potential to affect nearly every aspect of life at the College.”
In Living the Adderall Generation: Part 2, Fink tells us that, “While most students the Campus talked to began their psychostimulant usage at the College, [Dean of the College] Collado pointed to a new wave of applicants who are being stimulated and pushed to their maximum from young ages,” suggesting that this is a larger problem in the culture; however, since many – if not most – of the students attending elite, competitive schools such as Middlebury are from the upper socio-economic strata of society, this might suggest that the early pressure is manufactured by the need to locate the student in an appropriate – and socially mobile – rung in a vituperative economic system.
This also suggests that the focus of learning is not the student – and not learning at all – rather it’s where the student might end up, socio-economically, years down the road; part of this pressure comes from the realization that, as systems go, ours is fighting for a dwindling piece of the resource pie. Not healthy.
Where we now also see this unhealthy pursuit of unhappiness is in the current light being shed on sexual assault on college campuses. Naturally – and reasonably – these discussions are focused on the safety of victims while also urging others, who remain silent, to come forth; the purpose being to get accurate data about how pervasive this condition is. We want to help victims, educate, and change the climate of violence and fear. But it’s not surprising, given our aggressive self-interest, that these violent, tragic occurrences happen when drugs and alcohol are in the mix. It’s not surprising that this violence happens in a culture where violence is privileged at every step – in the media, in politics, in economics, you name it.
So, at a time in one’s life when self-discovery should be one’s focus, self-interest and the need to ride the conveyor belt towards increasingly better social mobility take precedence; psychostimulants and alcohol, sometimes taken together, become ways of getting through the system and coping mechanisms. Aristotle on happiness doesn’t seem to cut it; Shakespeare, for get about it. The text is gone; pharmaceuticals are in. It’s not about knowing and learning; it’s about doing and moving on, always transitioning upward to an elusive reward.
Amidst all this is a very large and critical dialog occurring on campuses across the US about, specifically, the cost of higher education and, in the case of many elite colleges and universities, the viability of a liberal arts education (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/19/arts/humanities-committee-sounds-an-alarm.html;https://chronicle.com/article/The-Humanities-Declining-Not/140093/; http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/30/the-real-humanities-crisis/;http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/12/the-real-reason-the-humanities-are-in-crisis/282441/).
Everything from an over emphasis on science education to the humanities moving away from a search for the self and into race, class, gender and semiotics, cartoons and television, plastic surgery, to the humanities being just boring and with little relevance have been used to blame the apparent decline – and if not decline, then lack of interest.
How ironic, no? Do we really know what’s going on? If you read any of the above articles linked for you, there is a theme: we don’t know what’s going on; we have less of an idea about who our students are; and we may even know less, with our PhD’s, about the world we live in and that’s constructing our students, our lives. We educators have a hand in this.
Dante is not cutting it. Socrates is not cutting it. Academic language, with its uptight vernacular of disdain, is cutting it even less. Pharmaceuticals and violence, sports, the palatial grandeur of an institution’s geography, food, and who knows who is seemingly more important. Today, I’m less a professor and more a concierge helping students navigate the nebulous halls of an academy that, like the world we live in, appears lost in confusion.
Management is more important than learning about one’s self; systems of efficiency clearly dominate; technology, connectivity – always on – and surface communication and production de riguer. Humanity, talked about all the time, is less important. Matters of the heart? What’s that? I’m always asked.
“You know the usual story about the world,” writes Solnit, “the one about ongoing encroachment that continues to escalate and thereby continue to wipe out our species.”
We humanists, in our zeal to make even the most obvious complex, may be a large reason why students, who already come from a system that overvalues performance and results over knowledge of the self and others, find themselves, at some point, wondering what has become of them. It may be why I continue to receive emails from alumni wondering about the critical questions in life: why, how, who, what for? These weren’t even mildly approached during their very expensive undergraduate lives.
Humanity today is like a waking dreamer, caught between the fantasies of sleep and the chaos of the real world. The mind seeks but cannot find the precise place and hour. We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.
Our students thrash about because we do; students are terribly confused because we are; we are all a danger to ourselves. And, as far as I am concerned – in one humble opinion – we dutifully adhere to the most medieval institution, the University, without realizing that, before our eyes, it has metamorphosed into an exotic multinational business like any other – and students are our last concern.
We are in a dreamlike state. These are the saddest times.
This is the final movement of the first section of The Edge of Sorrow, “Bending.” Again, if you want it from the top:
Enjoy the ride. The next section, which will not appear on this site, is titled “Twisting.”
Thank you for following this to here. Comments are more than welcome. Do you want to know what happened?
The Next Day: July 21, 1996
Somewhere in SoHo, New York City
Put a sprig of coriander on anything and it’ll taste good. You can conceal any bad taste – even rot.
Raul’s father taught me how to find something to say that would perk someone’s interest like that. “Keep your ear to the track, as my grandfather used to say,” Professor Javier Sicard instructed. “An old gaucho trick,” he said. “You can hear the train coming miles before anyone else. That’s a writer’s secret – the ear must be on the track at all times so you can be the first to know what’s coming down the track.”
I search and search for something I’m ninety percent sure a person hasn’t heard – something that doesn’t seem true and it’ll twist a person all around but is true. In the end it’s true.
I’ve not stopped looking for gems that can peak your interest since he told me. I write them down in a small black notebook that fits in my pocket – like he carried. I keep it handy. Think of a gunslinger in a western. It’s like right there by my side ready to be drawn. Identical to his notebook, except I hold mine together with a thin piece of purple cloth and he held his with a wide rubber band – and he stuffed leaves, business cards, train tickets, anything he thought memorable into it. I write these things down as soon as I find them, immediately. I write other things, too, but I love it when I find something like that, so exact – put a sprig of coriander on anything and it’ll taste good, no matter what it is. (I added the ‘conceal any bad taste – even rot’: poetic license.) I don’t know where I heard it first, but I wrote it down right away. Then waited. I waited for the right place to use it, the right time. Waiting and knowing are the key. Waiting for the right time, the right place to drop it in. Something will come up and you can use it. That’s a writer’s work, he told me. Fill notebooks, he said. Fill them. “You want to write,” he yelled. “Write. Write god damn it.”
Put a sprig of coriander on anything and it’ll taste good.
“That’s a lesson he gave you that he never gave me,” said Raúl, smiling. “He probably knew that I was heading in a different direction. I don’t know. But I keep a notebook. I do. Really. Maybe it’s a habit I picked up unconsciously.”
“He didn’t have to say it to you. You lived it with him.”
When Raúl smiles, there, in the corners of his mouth – they sort of turn up like, gently, and his eyes light up; it’s so attractive, magnetic, you know, and you just want to stay in it, the smile. Like I could see his father. I smiled back.
We looked down at our beers and let the memory settle until the void enveloped us again, waiting, as it does, for our guard to go down, for us to be weary of memories that are like a vapor that one can hardly hold.
We were somewhere in SoHo, the day after I came to meet Raúl in his apartment for the first time. It was strange because it felt like I’d known him for a long time and we’d only been together twice now, and briefly. We hugged and held each other and kissed and sat down and anyone passing by would have thought, what a nice couple.
He ordered a couple of Brooklyn Lagers without asking what I preferred – and I felt fine with that. Usually I’m not. I insist. At that moment, like I was fine with it. It’s probably because of the familiarity, the energy between us. It seemed as if a lifetime passed and we’d spent it together somehow and we were both looking back through the long tunnel of time. It’s a funny thing how two people can meet and the intensity of the moment brings them – us, like we seemed – instantly close. The bitterness that follows a tragedy brings with it unexpected intimacy. It was my first experience with it. I was confused because my heart was heavy but I liked the feeling – the sense that I’d known Raúl practically all my life. I can’t explain it – either can anyone else, I don’t think.
It was hot and muggy, really thick and sticky, and I was crashing with a bunch of friends — five girls – that graduated from Adams the year before and were busy working fourteen hour days on Wall Street – Lehman, Smith Barney, Goldman, Bear Sterns. The standard bearers. (I didn’t want to be with my parents – I couldn’t really, not after all this – on the Upper East Side so I stayed with my girlfriends.)
My friends were herded together fast tracking to millionaire status before they turn 40 – that’s the game. They’re willing to do anything to get there; once that happens, life begins. Everything is on the back burner – even children and family. They can be gotten at any time; they’re afterthoughts. We have choices, they told me; we can do this with or without men. So guys, well, they come and they go, you know. The college hook up on a wild weekend night has moved to suits at happy hour in a chic oak bar after a grueling week forecasting the ups and downs of the market, the hedging, the betting for a million. All one big roulette game, even the sex. Blame it on Sex and the City, they said. It was our bible, they said. Like a How To manual.
The five girls live all cramped up in a West Village loft. Having a great time, they made a point of saying, sardonically. I wasn’t sure whether they said that because we’re all suppose to be successful and have a great time after we graduate, especially from Adams because it puts such a premium on success, whatever that means, and they weren’t having the best of times, not really, and they were hiding it – or maybe they really were having a great time, I don’t know – but it didn’t make sense to me since their work had simply replaced school work and they were still laboring the same amount of hours, still hitting the bars Friday and Saturday nights and getting wasted, just like we did at Adams. Nothing had changed. I slept on their studio floor on a bogus mattress – like I did back at Adams when I stayed overnight in one of their rooms. Nothing had changed.
But everything had changed for me. They didn’t even ask about Professor Sicard. “Shit, too bad about the prof on that plane. Imagine that,” said Alexia, a blond, with shoulder length hair. Alexia had the perfect body; she worked out incessantly, which compelled her to seek out reflections of herself on any surface – windows, stainless steel trays, glass doors. Remember American Psycho? She’s the female version. Like she’d purse her lips and move her head around to find the right look as if she was auditioning for a part and she needed to strike the right pose. She flexed her biceps and said, “I can’t imagine the luck. Shit. We just never know. That’s why we have to grab it now. We just never know. Never had him. I can’t even tell you what he looked like.”
I told Alexia that I had him and that I really liked him.
“Oh. Shit. Sorry,” she said. She quickly went on to something else altogether different – like the guys she met at work, who was cute, who was an asshole, last weekend in the Hamptons, the new clothes she just bought on a shopping trip to Paris with her mother who was always keen on dressing her.
I needed Raúl; he was the only one that could understand what I was feeling. The only one. Shit is right.
Raúl and I agreed to meet for a beer the afternoon following my visit to his apartment because, he said, he was going to work for a few hours just to make the first move back to some sense of normalcy. But I don’t think it possible. I don’t. To be normal again. I told Raúl that. I also said that maybe – just maybe – the lack of normalcy was already in place way before anyone noticed. Like I feel that, you know. I felt it looking back at the year – his last year. Normal is a creation anyway – just like success is. I took Sociology courses. I know all about constructions of this and constructions of that (but it’s so boring always to have the same argument, no?) What is normal? Success, what’s that? How do we measure these? Things seemed totally out of whack. Perverse and confused – and maybe that’s what normal is. The only normal. The new normal, people like to say when things get turned around and are all shitty and there are no answers, no reasons why; like we simply change the meaning of a couple of words to coincide with how shitty we’re feeling, how inconsequential we are, how irrelevant and call it the new normal. How things get twisted this way and that. Normal is a moving target.
Right at that moment, meeting with Raúl, I was more anxious then anything, like something was eating at me and I was totally unprepared to deal with it so I was hoping he had some words of wisdom – or maybe he was seeing what I was seeing, though I don’t know how since he wasn’t at Adams last year. But maybe his father mentioned something to him in passing and whatever that was, it seemed odd, strange, like it could be something that may explain a life so gone, just like that, as if no one cared. So gone. A snap of the fingers.
Life is cheap, I realize now. I told Raúl that I’ve come to believe this like nothing else. And how his father stressed this but I was too naïve to understand it – yet. I’m beginning now. Life is cheap and the pace of life helps it along. We move on much too quickly past someone’s life. We cheapen life, I said as if all this time I’d been living in the clouds or beneath some fake cover or something unreal and even fake and, like, suddenly, after Javier’s death the curtain lifted and voila, there it was: we—cheapen—life. By how we live it, that’s the irony. It’s no longer a life journey; it’s a race, a sprint to the gold, a springing forth onto something that makes no sense, something, I don’t know, immaterial. Like a jaguar leaping onto its prey, mouth open, teeth showing, we latch onto irrelevance and hold on for dear life. But we come up empty. I don’t want to come up empty. I didn’t want to be one of God’s little children. That’s why I wanted Javier Sicard to be my mentor; that’s why I went to see him that day before school started; that’s why I changed my life away from the family business, money. That’s why, now, I’m more confused then ever because I suspect that things are more complicated. But I wanted to know more and I needed Raúl for that.
Raúl met me at some nameless place that had outdoor seating. We wanted to be outside, away from the maddening crowds sopping up happy hour. The place was like all other places – dark bar, black and white tiled floor, Latinos in the kitchen and a gregarious Irish bartender – an ox of a man – that poured indiscriminately when someone asked for a drink. (I couldn’t tell you the name of the place. I may not even be able to lead you back to it.)
The place was crowded with folks that knew each other, knew the place; it was an oasis – you could tell – their place to come to and slow things down a bit, stop the rush, check in with someone that would recognize them. A place to go to, check in and know that you’re okay – it’s not you, not your fault, things are what they are, and everyone agrees. That kind of place. I think it was on Bleecker near Broadway – no telling for sure. Somewhere. But its where the indifference that’s so hard to understand about life passed by incessantly, and its recognizable – and we sat outside and tried to slow things down a bit, too, and see if we could bring him back. To us. Just for us. Even for a moment.
I told Raúl that I had come to a conclusion: “We can’t trust anything – or anyone for that matter,” I said.
He looked startled and leaned back as if I’d pushed hard against his chest.
“I’m not a religious person and I’m not a believer and you must understand why,” I continued. “You must. Even your science is questionable.”
“Maddy,” he said. “Maddy, we can take science up to a point. I understand that. But we can use it to see. It helps,” he said. “It does. It’s the one instrument we have that can explain so much.”
“Science can’t explain what happened to your father,” I said. “Everyone is confused. All those experts. What happened to that plane? No one has an answer – just more questions. Terrorism? The military? A malfunction? What? A bomb? Who knows? Will we ever know? There’s your science. There you have it. So much for science – eventually it’ll be manipulated to suit the story. Science is a sprig of coriander. It covers over the nasty things beneath the surface. It tries to make everything sweet again so we can go on our merry way totally unsuspicious.”
“Science is a sprig of coriander that conceals the ugliness,” he repeated. “I see. A sprig of coriander. Something – you’re saying to yourself – is being concealed beneath the spectacle of science. What? That’s why you came to my apartment yesterday. Isn’t it? That’s what’s been eating at you.”
“Well, yes. That – and like I wanted to finally meet you. You’re his son,” I said and continued, reluctantly. “I’m not a religious person and I don’t believe because everywhere we turn there’s a lie. I’m convinced that he died because of lies. You can’t tell me otherwise. Call it intuition. Something happened to him and I’m trying to put it together. Help me put it together, please. I’m pleading. Can’t you see? I was there last year at school. It’s been strange looking back. A little confusing. No. A lot confusing. Things happened. I’m sure of it. And I’m scared now. I don’t know why but I’m scared. Like intuitively, I’m scared. It’s a feeling, you know. Deep inside. I need your help. Help me. We’re told so many stories; we’ve twisted so many different perspectives and ideas and histories and tied them together so tightly that we no longer know one story from another,” I said and I was leaning over my beer, hunched over, passionate about my confusion – and fear. “What we do know for sure – a certainty in life I’ve come to – is that there is no truth to anything, not even to what we see. Not even to death. Not his, anyway,” I said and I leaned back and took a sip of my beer. I’d gotten it off my chest. There. I felt better for the moment. “Trust me on this one,” I said having finished my beer and looking around as if sensing that someone was watching. “Trust me,” I whispered as I leaned towards Raúl, again. “I know. After all this, I’m learning. I – am – learning. For sure.”
“You spent a lot of time with my father. You sound like you’re channeling him. You do. But Maddy … Maddy, it’s terrible when at such a young age you come to this,” said Raúl. “Terrible. Even if it’s because of what’s happened. Maybe it’s even terrible if it’s true. Probably worse if it’s true because someone so young shouldn’t see so much.”
“I just turned 21. What are you 30 – 32 tops?”
“Thirty. I’m thirty.”
“What’s the big difference? You’re not going to give me some shit like, how can someone so young know so much, are you? Mr. thirty-year-old-doctor. At some point our ages are simply another construction and have little meaning – if any meaning at all. What, I’m not suppose to know certain things because I’m just 21? I can’t see certain things because I’m 21? After 30 – I suppose you think – like a magic wand is waved and just like that we can reason through things much better. More wisely. Nonsense. A little magic dust and you’ve arrived? That’s not how your father thought. Not at all. I’ve had professors that are total idiots, white haired imbeciles with PhD’s. They know nothing about me. Nothing about what’s really going on. Explain that to me. I’m sick of that way of thinking. Today, all bets are off. All of them. Don’t ask me to accept someone else’s shit for my reality. No way. I don’t see any difference between us – not really. Except that you’re done with school.”
“And graduate school,” he said, again with that smile that made me smile, too, sort of, because, like I didn’t want to let him know that he got to me with that last remark. It was funny – but true. He was talking about durability. Resilience. What age is after all. All the more reason why his father’s time wasn’t up.
Raul’s blue eyes were gray now, as if a film covered their usual splendor. They seemed tired, worn, suffering. The result of relentless tearing. But beneath them was that smile. He was learning how to live with two lives, his and his father’s lost for eternity.
A young, muscular guy was locking his navy-blue Cannondale to a No Parking sign right near our table; an aristocratic looking couple was looking at Durham sofas in the window of LUXURY FURNITURE across the street.
And something Javier Sicard said came to me: Truth has been made to suffer as a consequence of our unbridled actions. I told Raúl that his father said that.
He didn’t respond to me immediately. He took it in, carefully, as if he was tasting a fine wine for the first time and he wanted to experience it all, slowly, distinguishing every particle. He repeated it: “Truth has been made to suffer as a consequence of our unbridled actions.” And he followed it up: “Yeap. That would be him, mi viejo,” he said. “That’s just like my father. He would likely then say that unbridled actions become the truths we abide by.”
“He didn’t say that. But it sounds like him.”
It was one of the first sentences I heard him utter that September, last September, when I took his seminar. Truth has been made to suffer as a consequence of our unbridled actions. That’s how he began the class – that’s how it all started I’m thinking now. Or it was right around then – with the convocation, which made the hairs on my head prickle. The confusing year.
We were seated around his seminar table. Quiet. Expectant. Waiting. And he’s just there, a shit eating grin on his face looking at all of us. I don’t mean just scanning the room. His Roman nose, the square jaw, the clear, wide forehead, all of him larger then life – and with that grin he’d fix those forest green eyes on each one of us, wait till we looked away, and move on to the next person. There were fifteen of us. All silent, and very still. We didn’t dare move. You could hear a pin drop. When he got to me, I didn’t look away. Everyone else did. I didn’t. I smiled back instead. And he nodded approval – ever show slightly, like almost unnoticeable. And then he ran one of his bear hands over his short white scalp and leaned back in his chair. And he said it. Just like that. And he looked at each of us again. Then pushing on he said, Alexander Hamilton said that ambition must be tempered by ambition.Followed by a long pause. Ambition tempered by ambition, he emphasized again, repeating it twice. Ambition tempered by ambition. He made us dwell on that. I’m still dwelling on it – personal ambition and the collective ambition of society, others, institutions. How it all works together – or should. Something like that. I’m still thinking about it. I still don’t know.
“And maybe … Finding the virtue in ambition, no? How we value ambitions. What it is.”
I found it uncanny how much like his father he sounded, I told Raúl. It was unreal that his father knew so much about American history and philosophy and literature. More then most Americans even – and he was from Argentina. How does that happen?
“By chance, Maddy,” said Raúl. “By chance. Like you coming to my apartment after what happened. Who could have seen any of this coming? Any of it? That’s randomness and it’s always at play in the universe – by design.” He paused, searching for something he kept buried in his mind, his learning. “You know what Darwin said?”
I nodded “No”.
“He said we – man that is – can neither originate varieties, nor prevent occurrences – he can preserve and accumulate. That’s all we can do. We can preserve and accumulate the wrong things, you know. That’s the trap, I figure.”
“What does that have to do with anything? I don’t get it,” I said with some embarrassment, a feeling that, early on, came over me when his father spoke like that too. Sometimes Javier spoke as if the meaning he was after was universal, obvious – quite clear. The truth, I always assumed. This is how the truth gets told, I remember thinking, when it’s in you, your DNA – but when you’ve not experienced it like this before, it’s paralyzing. Raúl brought me back to that uncomfortable feeling. I was suddenly vulnerable. Sat back, looked away, drew on my beer, trying to make it all go away.
“How do we make order, Maddy? In a Godless universe, how do we do it? How do we know we’re really alive?”
“I don’t know. Maybe we bargain for it,” I said, guessing.
“We’re always working with what already is – what exists – and we had nothing to do with it. That’s what burns us. And when we work like that, artificially, we are exposed to new things and change. Darwin – my man. Yeap. Inescapable. That’s what he was thinking about. We’ve all been affected ever since,” said Raúl. He laughed and said, “I pulled that out of my undergraduate years. I don’t know how it popped into my head. Maybe you pushed it. Randomness is complex shit, Maddy, and it fits and we adapt where and when we can. If not, well, you know.”
“So you mean to tell me,” I said to Raúl, “that Javier’s father, your grandfather, a captain in the Argentine Air Force, fighting in a revolution against the lies of Juan Perón – that’s how your father told it – gets shot down. Dies. And there it is again. There you have it, the lies – tight fitting lies, you’d probably say, traveling through time, over and over, always the same lie visiting us, maybe even in different forms, and bringing damnation. But lies anyway. The same lies.”
“And fire and brimstone,” says Raúl. “Don’t forget fire and brimstone come before damnation. They’re essential for the religious story. All that exists in defiance of what is natural and diverse.”
“So your grandmother moves them, right – her and your father – to the U.S., and like that, that’s how we have one of the great minds of our time? Chance. Randomness.”
“How else can you explain it? Death shall have no dominion, said Dylan Thomas. See, I know some literature. After years with my old man, something’s rubbed off.”
“It seems that you’re simply saying that self-preservation is valued above all. Like, that’s disorienting – and stressful. No? Where do we find the laws of the world? And make things work.”
I opened my black notebook and I had dog-eared the page I wanted to share with Raúl because I knew that I’d turn to this over and over again. I quote it when I can. Say it to anybody. It seems to make sense to me, especially now. The more I read it, the clearer it becomes. I said to Raúl that his father would tell us that there’s nothing else but the here and the now. No past – it’s gone, left to weak memories. No tomorrow. It’s only about now. This – is – it, like Javier used to say. (But as I was saying this, I got the sense that Raúl knew all this about his father already. How could he not?).
“The rest of the game,” I read from my black notebook exactly what I had hurriedly taken down in class intent on catching every word Javier said, “involves merely ensuring that we make people into compliant individuals. That’s all. The ultimate bargain. A collective that complies with the wishes – and perversions – of those that dominate. Just don’t look down – the abyss is daunting. And alluring. Rot wins. Shit rises,” I read, looked up and stared into Raúl’s blue eyes – and I grinned.
“Maddy, listen to me. I love my father. Dearly. You know that. You know I do. I don’t have to tell you that. The pain I feel in my heart I feel to the bone. But you. You Maddy, so young. Beautiful. Really beautiful. So intelligent. Such promise. You can’t be so pessimistic. You can’t have such a nihilistic view of things. No, please. He didn’t. My father didn’t think that way.”
I wanted to disagree with him because Javier did have that view – I got it from him, he lead me to it – but I got hung up on beautiful. It took dominion. Everything stopped moving. Beautiful held me captive. The way it came out of his mouth – easy, softly. Like it had been there for some time and he was contemplating it, aging it, waiting to see when to let it out. Beautiful. Soft like that. It didn’t say that I’m good looking. It didn’t speak to me like that. He didn’t. I am good looking. I had on an earthy yellow tank top and a short skirt – light brown – and my thighs are perfect. Tan. So are my ankles. Raúl could see that. Maybe I was showing him – I don’t know. Maybe that was troubling me – that I wanted him to see me. I’m short but I’m long, too, because I’m skinny and strong. I have definition. I know that. A straight nose. Full lips that some idiots at Adams can’t take their eyes off of when they talk to me – so annoying. I hate that. I know all that about myself and I could see Raúl, here and there, even when I first met him, looking here and there – but gracefully not like some of the boys at school that stare at you as if they’re ready to eat, bib on, knife and fork in hand. Pretty girls experience this all the time. All pretty girls know this – we don’t need a mirror. Like we’re told from the start: You’re so beautiful. We’re recognized. The looks we get are different. It’s accepted that beauty is this or that and that the culture pursues it with a vengeance. Whistles follow. Guys on the street grabbing their balls and licking their lips. Other men just look and smile – the educated ones. And there are those educated ones, like at Adams, that are way too young and think their shit doesn’t stink, those blond, blue-eyed Ralph Lauren wanna be types that saunter over and say something really fucking stupid, “Hey beautiful, I can cheer you up. I can wipe away your gloom.” Ugh. Some educated men can be so school smart and know absolutely nothing. A sprig of coriander won’t help here.
Beautiful. His beautiful said something else. More. It said more. It worried me, frankly. It said that there was something there between us. Some thing. I worried that it had a strange connection with his father; that I was somehow a way for him to, I don’t know, return to his father, like get him back; that I was a therapy; that I could help him through this darkness that was so thick we could both feel it, taste it, touch it; that at some point – this I feared the most – when all was said and done and he was over this moment and onto the next I would be shown the door, thank you very much, adios, good-bye, all done.
I’m not going to go through life with people thinking that’s all I have to offer.
“Maddy. Maddy where are you? Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“When I think about last year,” I said snapping back into the moment, though the comment about beautiful remained with me – a dull humming noise. “Like when I now think back, I don’t know, I was engaged or something because I took notice – of something. I did. There was something – I’m not sure – strange, tragic events that sprung up right at the beginning of the year,” I said to Raúl. “I took notice. How could you not? Like I don’t know what. I took notice – and I’m feeling it now. There was more to it. More beneath the obvious. It was convocation. It was then when it started. The curtain began to be pulled back … I don’t know … Like I began to notice … things. Things. Things that don’t add up. Or maybe they do – I’m not sure. This is why I’m here, why I came to you.”
It began like this: students marched two-by-two to Mather Chapel. It looked like a picture, the gentility, the privilege that abounds at Adams. Nothing out of the ordinary. On the contrary. The sun was high, the skies cloudless that day last September, a few days after I visited the great Javier Sicard in his office and pleaded my case to be in his seminar, right before the start of school. The sky, the air, the sun – it was all perfectly harmonized for the Convocation, the welcoming of the new year. Like it was ordained or something – it had to be like this, anyone would think. What could be better, right?
The faculty gathered near the library. All in their colorful regalia glistening in the afternoon sun — the reds, the golds and the greens, the purples, even the black had a spectacular glow. The beginning of another school year. Every year, at the start of the year, we follow ghosts that obediently marched into chapels, just like we were doing, in ceremony, the attired disciples laid out for God to inspect and sanctify. We have to understand that. That’s what I was thinking. We are the anointed, the select. Privilege in the air – our destiny. God’s will. All that shit in our favor. All of it.
I hadn’t been to a Convocation since I was a first year and had to go – and maybe it’s that I didn’t know any better then. The naïve new student, you know. But I was junior and I wanted to start gathering memories of the place, the rituals of academia that make the ground hallowed and after my meeting with Professor Sicard, I decided to attend this time, one last time, knowing full well that as a senior I wouldn’t want to go because I’d be too tied up deconstructing the nature of such a spectacle, the way professors in their robes love to play hide and go seek with their fancy language and their idiosyncratic knowledge.
I wanted to go and look for my Professor Sicard, too, hoping I wouldn’t find him in the procession. He told me he hated all that dressing up, the disguises, the theatre, the circus of it all – and that we had enough of that in academia as it is, so he never went to the ceremony. Not even to graduations. He doesn’t attend those either. I looked for him anyway to see if what he said to me was true; to see if I could hold him to his word. I didn’t know him yet. And I guess, secretly, I wanted to see if he would show up last minute or something. That would say something.
Professor Javier Sicard and I were somehow preternaturally connected already.
At the rear of the faculty parade, lagging a good ten steps behind, alone, there was Professor Dickenson. He’s a classics professor. Was, I mean – he died that fall. Heart attack they said. One of the confounding truths, I think. I noticed him because the sun bounced off of his Harvard red and it looked like a spot light was on him and he was about to give a soliloquy. He looked resplendent. An image for all time center stage. Yet he also seemed aged, haggard, having some difficulty keeping up. He was hunched over, as if he could hardly stand and he walked slowly, laboriously, and from where I was it appeared as if he was talking to himself. But we all knew that he talked to himself often – nothing new.
I was off to one side in the middle of the quad, the history of the place written into the gleaming marble all around me standing in judgment. I never felt Adams like that before, never noticed Adams in such a strange and foreboding way. It felt as if it was actually looking right through me – all it stood for, all it was, all it would be forever leering at me. I turned three sixty and felt so small, Stanhope and Whitman and Adams and Franklin, all of them scowling. My only respite, ironically, was to run to Mather Chapel. Driven there by the school I never imagined. I didn’t know why, either. I don’t know why at that moment I felt so alienated from the place my entire family attended – and where future generations of our people would go too. It was as if I was standing outside myself, watching myself be; it was like I was seeing myself doing myself, really seeing myself for the very first time. And I didn’t know what I was feeling, not at all. Premonition maybe.
But I quickly let it go and stuck to my plan: wait for the first years and the faculty to enter Mather Chapel – and go in. Sit near the back, that way I could exit unseen and quickly if it got too boring.
But my attention was taken by Professor Dickenson, hunched over, troubled and losing ground as the faculty chatted with each other while strolling in a fine line towards the chapel’s large oak doors that were opened wide, like outstretched arms waiting to embrace the arriving flock.
And as if out of nowhere I noticed him: Javier Sicard, there – “Your father,” I said to Raúl – edging out from behind the stand of pines that sits on the way to the knoll before the chapel. He was wearing a black t-shirt and jeans – that’s all. No regalia. He moved quickly, gracefully towards Dickenson, catching up to him from behind, putting his arm around him and turning him and leading him away from the procession.
As they walked away they seemed to be talking. Professor Sicard kept an arm over Dickenson’s hunched back. From where I stood, it looked as if Sicard was holding him up. Dickenson would raise his head towards Professor Sicard, look at him intently and say something, waving his arms. I could see Professor Sicard pat him on the back, like consoling him. He nodded, agreeing with Dickenson for whatever reason.
Javier turned and looked back at the procession heading to the chapel. That’s when he saw me; he caught my eye. He kept walking and listening and staring at me standing perfectly still and totally alone in the center of the quad. For some reason, I thought of myself as Christina – Andrew Wyeth’s Christina Olson crawling to her house. I don’t know why. The starkness of it maybe; the color, the gold rolling to the steel horizon; the aging house on a hill. Christina, the wide expanse before her, the solitary house on the hill, lonely, perfectly still in a universe that’s moving, constantly changing and she can’t keep up. Like a buoy bobbing in open ocean, holding time, a record of us, for us to know.
I was torn: whether to go into the chapel and hear some rapturous speech about Adams’ heritage, how it’s the pinnacle, the summit of success for all who aspire to be leaders – or follow Dickenson and Sicard as they slowly made their way back to their offices in Whitman.
“What did you do?” asked Raúl. And he ordered two more Brooklyn Lagers.
I remained true to my mission and went to the Convocation because, if I followed Dickenson and Sicard, I wouldn’t be able to explain my spying. To be true to the story, I didn’t think twice about it – perhaps Dickenson was sick, perhaps he was growing senile, something we all thought since he lost his wife.
“But my father, he was waiting. He knew something was off with his friend. And he already knew you saw him with Dickenson.”
“That’s why I made sure. I waited for him to turn towards me one more time – I knew he would – and when he did I walked off towards Mather.”
I wanted to be one of the last in and first out. That was foremost on my mind, being a typical student. I never gave Sicard’s sudden appearance from behind the stand of pines a second thought. I never thought about Dickenson, other then his decrepitude making sense to me. He was fragile. I thought that the logical path from Whitman to the parking lot was also the path of the Convocation procession so Javier wasn’t out of place either. He was leaving. But I did turn quickly, right before entering Mather, to see if he was still watching me. He wasn’t. Javier and Dickenson had disappeared.
It all made rational sense to me. Everything was in order, as it should be. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t at all.
Once I heard the Convocation speech, I began thinking – not just then, mind you, not at that precise moment. At the moment I heard the speech I was affected by it because it was all off, strange, out of place. I didn’t know what I was thinking, really; I didn’t know what I was feeling – other than it was an affront to my mentor. That troubled me. And now I’m thinking that the Convocation was some sort of message – they always are; but at the time I took it personally. An uncontrollable urge came over me to protect Javier, to shield him from what I was hearing – and the forces I assumed were behind the vitriol – like my father. It was an overwhelming feeling; it was almost immediate. This strange feeling, something new, even mature maybe, came over me right from the beginning, from the first utterance of the familiar words. And all I wanted to do – and thought about – was to protect him.
July 20, 1996, 3 Days After Flight 800 Exploded
Upper West Side, New York City
Raúl hadn’t been able to move from his couch. It seemed to hold him against his will. He was coiled, knees up to his chest and arms over his head as if trying to hide.
The TV was still on – a specter in the dark whispering to him what he didn’t want to hear. But he couldn’t pry himself lose from the unreal words twisting through.
Pilots from other planes circling to land report they saw flashes of light streaking from the ground toward the Boeing 747. Two unnamed FBI sources suggest that what looked like two missiles hit TWA Flight 800.
He was unable to bring himself to his lab at Columbia Presbyterian, either. He didn’t even reach for his window to look out at the Hudson River, the intimate horizon that was his respite in another life. Now dull remembrances. His place in the order of things was vague and incompatible. There was nothing he could diagnose, nothing he could quantify and make understandable, nothing. As far as Raúl could tell it was now a life of nothing. He was learning to embrace the value of nothing, something deep in his soul, a ruthless weight.
He whispered a prayer: “Nothing who art everywhere hallowed be thy nothingness. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Nothing. Give us this day our daily Nothing. And forgive us Nothing as we forgive Nothing, who sin Nothing, and deliver us from Nothing for thine is the kingdom of Nothing, the power and the glory of Nothing.” And laughed uncontrollably, until the harsh irony lifted and, on the couch, a forearm over his forehead, he stared at the insensible ceiling, taken up by its blankness, seeing it for the very first time – its creases, cobwebs in the corners, its dullness.
He dozed off from time to time, sitting up only to sip the bourbon beside him on the coffee table.
It took him just two days to go through the first bottle of his father’s favorite drink, Wild Turkey 101, after he ran out and picked up another.
He locked his apartment door, closed himself off and sat at the edge of sorrow.
For three unforgiving days and nights he laid there in a knot and sipped until the Wild Turkey pushed him into uneasy dreams of airline seats floating aimlessly in open ocean, bobbing out of place, incompatible to the world. He was buckled into an airplane’s seat, the stars and the darkness all around him and he was falling, spinning and falling, alone, and not a word came from his mouth. Not a scream. He just fell like a stone into the embrace of an immense darkness, empty seats all around, hundreds of them, dipping and rolling in the immeasurable sea. Ghostly sirens of absurdity. No hint of life. Not even a whisper, a smile – not even an I love you. No sense of a history, of having lived. No evidence. No body. Nothing. Nothing who art everywhere hallowed be thy nothingness. He fell and fell and spun and spun, round and round. He kept falling until he couldn’t stand it any longer, the enveloping irrelevance of life, the pregnant silences endured until life ends. The power and the glory of Nothing. Amen.
He envisioned himself in a dark hole, a coffin, closed in, unable to move – an anonymous being with life no more yet aware of his end, that there would be no one touching him, kissing him; no more sound – except for his empty breathing going nowhere. A sarcophagus of eternal loneliness. That’s what death is, he thought as he tried to see himself like his father in the blackness of space forever gone. An impenetrable irony, that’s what life is, he told himself. A god-awful paradox, inconsistencies everywhere.
“What’s the point,” he said to no one. “What’s the point?”
That was Darwin’s epiphany after all, Raúl concluded, from a tiny cell to unbeing. That’s life. A profound tragedy, a joke. No reconciliation whatsoever. That’s it, regardless of what those little tiny squiggly lines screamed from the stage of a noble microscope that is already perversely designed to look like a question mark.
He sat up and sipped some more – until the Lawrenceburg elixir pushed him down again. He heard things through the fog.
Flashes of light. Streaks from somewhere below hit the plane. Radar reports that a small boat raced away at 30 knots in a direct line away from the crash site. Other boats rushed to the crash site. Explosive residue.
Nothing in Raúl’s dreams foreshadowed this future – and he wondered whether his father’s dreams told him anything before his end. Who would know? Where was the record? There were no witnesses. There was nothing in Raúl’s past that hinted at the suffering and sorrow of this moment, the Wild Turkey just about gone. Disaster came unexpectedly, as it always does, and what mattered most in that precise moment was another trip to the liquor store. All death is unnatural – that’s how we experience it anyway. Unnatural and unforgiving.
Which is when his apartment’s front door buzzer rang – and he suddenly became aware that it must have been the third, maybe the fourth buzz because, this time, the person buzzing hung on and pushed the buzz through the foyer where his lab coat lay and into the kitchen to the living room where he was – and it kept going. The annoying electric infuriation traveled to his bedroom, bounced back, exasperating him even more. Or was it the booze and the buzzing, both, that irritated him to a point where he wanted to do violence?
“What? What the fuck? Fuck you,” he yelled at the incessant buzzing.
But there it was again the trying pain, the coarse frustration. Fuck.
“What …” he yelled and staggered to the speaker on the wall next to the apartment’s front door.
“Professor Sicard’s son. Raúl Sicard. His son. The professor’s only son. Is it you? Don’t cut me off. Don’t. Wait. Wait. I need to see you. Wait. Don’t. The professor’s son. Please. Talk to me. Please. We need to talk. You are him, yes?”
Raúl leaned against the wall and shut his eyes. And hit the buzzer to open the street door to the building and cracked open his apartment door and staggered back to his couch for another bourbon.
It was early evening. The setting sun was leaving behind a thick haze. The dog walkers and the Haitian women pushing their Cadillac strollers had long retreated from the murk. Riverside Drive was quiet, except for an occasional honking of a car horn. Impatience in people is persistent, no matter what.
Maddy Sachs hesitantly eased into Raúl’s solemn apartment and standing just inside, mouth agape and wide eyed, she scoped the dark kitchen, the rumpled lab coat left on a chair by the entrance and looking like someone in a hurry threw it there with some indifference. Keys in a bowl. Mail.
Raúl was outstretched on the couch, an arm over his eyes. He didn’t budge. His other hand held a bottle of Wild Turkey 101 as if it was a life preserver on the coffee table beside him.
“Hi,” she said softly, cautiously approaching the couch. “Hello … Hi … Sorry …,”
Raúl managed to raise himself to his elbows and said, “Who the hell are you? I don’t know you. Who are you?”
“I’m … I’m sorry for your loss …”
“My fucking loss? Who are you? What about his? He lost. His loss. He lost big time. The whole game. He lost. Fuck me. Sorry for him. No one can say that to him now. No one. What do you want to do, pray for him now? Is that why you’re here? Shit. Who the hell are you?”
Raúl labored to sit up and put his head in his hands and said, “Memory is suffering. It is. No one tells you that. Memory is suffering.” And he looked up at Maddy.
“Yes. I know. I know. Yes. I’m sorry. Still.”
Raúl eased back down and shut his eyes and said, “Wanna drink? It helps.”
Maddy thought about the first time Javier said that to her, just like that. “Wanna drink?” They were in an Adams hamburger only joint and he was alive and vibrant, jocular, his forest green eyes bright and smiling. It was all about tomorrow, no darkness visible anywhere. And the waitress came over. And Javier said, “I’m having a bourbon. You?” And she ordered what he was having wanting to be like him, wanting to be as close as she could be to his way of seeing things, his way of experiencing this journey. “I’m under age,” she said when the waitress walked away. “Bullshit,” he said. “You’re mature beyond your years. Anyway, you’re with me. There won’t be any questions. We’ll make believe we’re in Europe – or Latin America. Anywhere but here.” When the waitress returned with the drinks, he grinned. “Well?” he asked, raising his glass and sipping. “Tell me what you think. Slowly,” he said and he placed his large hand on hers as Maddy drew the short glass to her lips. Javier stared at her and smiled. “Wet your lips first,” he said, keeping his hand on hers – something she was used to by now – until the glass touched her lips. “Lick them after. Get a feel for the taste. And then take a sip – a tiny one so that you can really experience the heat go down, inch-by-inch. Go ahead.” She did as instructed. “That’s it. Good. Nice.” And she felt the heat of the golden rod ooze, tickling her, igniting her. She grinned and said, “Thank you,” not quite sure why.
“I’m Maddy. Maddy Sachs. And I’m a student. At Adams. I go there. I loved your father. Still, I love him still,” she blurted out not knowing why or where her words came from, but she was sure the sentiment came from somewhere deep in her soul. “I loved your father,” she said again. “I was his student. He was my mentor. That’s what he was. He was everything to me. Better then a father. More than that.”
She went to the kitchen and searched for a short glass and Raúl, on his elbows now, studied her. As she poured herself a drink and sipped, Maddy told Raúl about the first time she had a bourbon with his father. She told him that they met to talk about her writing because she was doing an independent study that Spring, following his Fall seminar, Life and Death in an Unconscious Civilization: A Survivor’s Guide. “It was unreal,” she said. “The class was totally unreal. No one talks like that, like him. At least I never heard anyone. Say things like he did. As they are. The truth, you know? Like that. No one’s around like that,” she told Raúl who didn’t move. “We are asleep to change, he told us right off the bat. You’re here, in this class, now, to discover that you’re all sheep being lead to slaughter. He boomed it out. Like we were his shinning knights and he our Arthur. We sat at his round table. All so eager to please him. We’d do anything for him. Like anything. We felt safe with him. He made it that way. He spread himself over us – like a warm blanket or something. He challenged us – but he made us feel good, like we meant something.”
She took another long sip, as Javier taught her, and said, cautiously, “I … I’m not sure how to say this … I …”
“Just say it,” said Raúl, now sitting up, forearms resting on his thighs so that he could really get a good look at Maddy for the first time, her blue eyes, her uncombed, long blond hair. She stood over him like an angel ready to announce something or other. Make a declaration about the world he was to inhabit. Or give him a warning. Maybe she was going to describe a picture that would tell Raúl how things would be from now on.
“Just say what you need to say. My father and me, we’re alike that way. It’s best to just say things and let the cards fall where they may.”
“I’m … I’m not sure what happened. I mean. I’m not sure. Not sure why things have come to this. I was there last year. At Adams. That’s what I’m saying. I was there with him. All sorts of shit went down. But I’m not sure what I saw. Can anyone bare witness? Who can tell? Who’s there to verify, like things, you know? What you see, right? I don’t want to be petrified after I confess what I saw. It’s all so strange and confusing. I can’t put my finger on it. I feel this thing. I don’t know. In the pit of my stomach. An ache, like nausea, something. Like I want to throw up all the time.”
“Ah…That. I don’t know either – and I’m suppose to know these things. How lives adapt – or not. I’m not sure of anything anymore. My world is upside down and I’m having a hard time seeing. Maybe I should take up praying – but he’d find that absurd. I can’t focus. On anything.”
“Me too. Like I can’t either. I don’t know… I’m not sure of anything anymore, either. I’m not sure what to do. The dead. They never really go, do they? Death seems to be just another form. I see him everywhere. They don’t depart, like we say, do they? They do something but they don’t leave. Like he’s pushing me now. I can feel it; it’s coming from him. What does it mean, to die?”
“All I seem to understand is that we don’t ever really know why lives end. I can give you all sorts of scientific reasons – lack of mutation, no adaptation, deterioration, environmental causes, diseases and where they come from. All that shit. I can give you all that. All the reasons in the world. With a capital R. But – fuck – it doesn’t seem to help. At one time. Before this. Before this thing, I thought that science was enough. All I needed to believe. Now I’m not so sure. Now I’m totally out of it. I see science. I get it. But all it’s telling me is that we’re not even sure what it is we’re suppose to do with the life we have. The purpose of a person’s life is lost on us. It happens all too fast. And time, we’re left with time. Time is mourning. Time mourns. We spend our lives conjecturing about the meaning of someone else’s life instead because we can’t stand the fact that time reminds us of loss, always. So we’d rather study lives. We spend so much time quantifying every single little aspect of every single moment of our time on earth, the minutia, that we forget to live. Then it’s gone. Over. Just like that. Gone. Time wins. It constricts. It gets narrower. We forget what living is – or should be. Maybe that’s what we mourn – ourselves. That we lose ourselves in time.”
“He had a purpose. He wasn’t like that. He knew how to live. That’s what was so attractive about him. Why we were so drawn to him. So nothing makes sense to me. That’s all I know. I’m not sure of anything anymore. Nothing. It’s as if his reason for being was denied – taken away. It seems like an irony of the most tragic proportions.”
“And what was that, Maddy? His purpose.”
“To be who he was, how he was – even for a short time. He used to tell me that I was an old soul – but I think he was. He was the oldest soul I’ve ever known. So wise. He made me, you know. I believe that. He did. Like he helped make me. He gave me purpose. Shaped me somehow. I know it. I knew it every time we were together. I felt different afterwards. Even after class. Always. Like after every talk, I could see how the world changed for me. It was as if every time we spoke, he…he like lifted another veil, peeled back the onion a bit. Then another layer. And another. And it all suddenly stopped. Just like that. The suddenness worries me. The unpredictability.”
“He probably made you, too. Right? Something about you. I don’t know. Something beyond just having people be frank and honest.”
“So we’re his adaptations.”
“I don’t know what you call it. But I do know that he’s still with me … and … and … I don’t know. Like I’m running this past year through my head. Over and over, you know. I’ve been doing this all along since … And I can’t get this past year out of my head and … like I can only conclude that something happened … Something happened and it lead to this – to me here; you – and I can’t put my finger on what it is. Something happened. I know it. It’s all twisted together. Connected like to this point. Because things aren’t suppose to end like this. Not his life anyway.”
“You’re young Maddy. Thinks like this happen all the time – just not to us. That’s what we think. It’s why we feel this way. It’s the stuff we read about – see in movies. But it’s never about us. Never. That’s the fallacy.”
“I just can’t see the signs yet. But something happened. I swear. I’m looking hard because something is not right with the universe. He’d say that. He used to say that. But now I can feel it. I know what he meant. He would feel it, I think. He’d think the same way. I’m sure of it. He’d think that.”
“Yes, he died. He’s dead. My father … My poor old man … Mi viejo is dead. That’s what happened. That’s not right. Yes. That’s not right. An unfortunate sudden death, along with many others. An epic tragedy. And we’re asked to move on. Leave them behind. That’s what we’re asked. Life goes on. That’s what makes things feel so – I don’t know – out of place. Strange life goes on and a tragedy grows and simmers. And the days continue. Morning to night. Birds sing, the sun rises and sets, the grass grows. Again and again. Time elapses. Criminals rob, stocks go up and down, dogs shit on the streets. Life – the movement of it, you know – goes on.”
“A terrible beauty is born,” Maddy blurted out.
“Yes. Indeed. Nicely put. That says it. A terrible beauty.”
“That’s not me. It’s Yeats. It just came out of me – like it was the only thing I could say and I couldn’t stop it.”
“And the distance becomes greater – it widens. A terrible beauty is born and we learn to live with it when we gain some distance. We write poems about it. A sort of coming to terms with how perverse it is. An unexplainable understanding that words can’t describe. How this thing we can’t name eased in, slowly. We can’t explain a thing. So we go on because we can’t face the fact that we have no record of his life. There’s no body. No sign of him. No evidence. Nothing. No last words. No good-byes. No memorials. No comforting words from Jesus saying something about preparing a place for us when he comes knocking. Nothing of the usual we see in movies. No answers. Just dull recollections. And we’re all twisted up in knots. Take another sip of your bourbon, Maddy. It’ll help.”
She did and said, “We have his books.”
“When people die we want to see them. We want to touch them. Say something. See them off. When they die prematurely and we don’t have evidence, things are much worse. Much worse. We go into a tail spin.”
“I’m worried,” said Maddy, taking another sip of her bourbon, shutting her eyes so as to better feel the slow burn, and pursing her lips.
“I’m worried. That’s all. I’m not sure how to explain it,” said Maddy and she walked over to the window Raúl always used as his respite and stared out, as he once did, at the Hudson River and the graying Palisades. “You have an incredible view,” she said. The sun was easing into the horizon, releasing the earth from the indolence it brought forth.
Raúl lifted himself off the couch as if he was bearing a great weight and for the first time in three days went to his window and stood next to Maddy. And he recognized things.
“It’s all new. It seems new. All of it. But I recognize it. Like I’ve been here before some other time. Another life, maybe. I don’t know anything anymore. I don’t know what will happen next.”
“I have an uneasy feeling,” said Maddy. “I’m scared. I don’t know why but I’m scared. I have a pit in my stomach.”
“It’s just that this thing is fresh. It’s opened up new feelings we don’t understand. Maybe never will.”
“No. I don’t think so. I understand what you’re saying. I realize I’m feeling love for him – and I can’t express that to him. It’s too late for that. I didn’t tell him when he was alive – but like I think he knew. I have this feeling of tremendous loss. I wasted that. I can only blame myself. I should have done something about it, let him know – something. I should have and I hate myself for that. I wasted it. But no. It’s not that.”
Raúl turned to Maddy. He saw what his father saw – the muscular shoulders, the strong jaw and her full lips. Her surety. And he felt as if he had known her for a long time, as if her appearance came with an unannounced expectation of long ago. He recognized something in her but he couldn’t quite put a finger on what it was. They knew each other. Maybe it was his father that he was seeing in her. He recognized him, there, in her. His imprint.
“Are you done with school?”
“No. I have a year. I don’t know how I’m going to do it. I have so much on my mind. I … I just don’t know.”
“Tell me,” he said.
Maddy turned to Raúl and looked up to his blue eyes like the sky. “You look like him,” she said. “You know. You do. Like I can see it. You’re like him, too. I can see that too. He’d push aside anything that would be an obstacle to us. You just did that – and at such a difficult time for you. I appreciate it. I do. Thank you for listening. For reaching out. He was like that. He was like that from the start. With everyone. Even when I first met him. He didn’t have to talk to me. But he did.” Maddy paused and looked down at her glass. Sipped. “Maybe he’s right here right now,” she said. “Wouldn’t that be something.”
“Something,” said Raúl. “Something.”
They stood like that, looking into each other’s eyes and didn’t say a word. Raúl reached for Maddy and put his arms around her and drew her in and held her. He could feel her body give. She cried, as if pulling her to him gave her permission to feel the deep sorrow she carried beneath her stoicism. He held her tighter and stroked her head and kissed the top of it, inhaling her every time. She buried her head even deeper into his chest. He encircled her neck with his right arm, his left arm across her back, and drew her even closer, wishing that she could pass through him at that moment – he through her. And somehow, together, his father, Javier Sicard, would become something else like this, another form with them. A life without end in the darkest of places where the heart aches and bends.
“Providence sometimes foreshadows the future of men in dreams, not so that they may be able to avoid the sufferings fated for them, for they can never get the better of destiny, but in order that they may bear them with the more patience when those sufferings come; for when disasters come all together and unexpectedly, they strike the spirit with so severe and sudden a blow that they overwhelm it; while if they are anticipated, the mind, by dwelling on them beforehand, is able little by little to turn the edge of sorrow.”
Achilles Tatius in The Adventures of Leucippe and Clitophon
To say it less sublimely, —in the history of the individual is always an account of his condition, and he knows himself to be a party to his present estate.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Conduct of Life
DNA is a relatively rigid polymer, typically modeled as a worm-like chain. It has three significant degrees of freedom: bending, twisting and compression, each of which causes particular limitations on what is possible with DNA within a cell. Bending or axial stiffness is important for DNA wrapping and circularization and protein interactions. Twisting or torsional stiffness is important for the circularization of DNA and the orientation of DNA bound proteins relative to each other. Compression or extension is relatively unimportant in the absence of high tension.
PART ONE: BENDING
July 17, 1996
New York City, Upper West Side
Life’s din diminished some in the small moment when he pulled open his apartment window with such expectation that the last few inches the window flew up knew only his eagerness. But on this day, July 17, 1996, the window got stuck halfway up. He stared at it, hands on his hips, perturbed at the window’s unexpected stubbornness. He loved watching the window reach its conclusion without him. Humidity, no doubt. Summer in the city.
He smacked it with the heel of his hands and muscled it open the rest of the way.
He placed his palms on the external, coarse sill and exhaled his frustration and leaned into the horizon – the Hudson River and the Jersey Palisades across the way and the George Washington bridge just north beaming a dull evening gray.
He waited all day to tilt into the picture. He loved the patience evening brought, especially in mid summer when the heat and humidity pressed against him. He arched his back and stretched and inhaled the tide’s dank odor.
He panned down six stories and set his eyes on an incongruous dance of Poodles and Labradoodles and French Bulldogs and a Great Dane and a German Shepherd and a Chihuahua and a couple of Golden Retrievers held easily by a dog walker in a weathered Yankee baseball cap.
The dogs sniffed the smells coming from a square earth and lifted their legs to trees and squatted when they recognized something. The dog walker was graceful, never entangled in the leashes held to one hand, then the other, the exchanges fluid and experienced as if it was all meant to be like this.
The Great Dane and the Chihuahua and the Bulldog dumped together, responding to some great secret unknown to man. The rest waited, and the dog walker studied them.
A country dog doesn’t lift his leg to a tree, not always, not necessarily, thought Dr. Raúl Sicard. There’s no reason to, no threat to its territory. The country dog roams unencumbered across a larger earth and squats.
Dr. Raúl Sicard wanted to believe that there was some luck to his life. That would be romantic. But luck had little play. His life was ordained, a design with some options guided by the instinct to survive. He was sure of it. He was certain Darwin was right. Adaptation and creativity go hand-in-hand and life is one large adaptation atoning to the unforeseeable – otherwise extinction follows.
Dr. Sicard, Raúl, often thought about his responsibility – the study of gene-environment interactions and how selection evaluates these relations. For over a year – since his doctorate in Genetics, Stanford University – Raúl examined ecologically important genes in a shimmering lab at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in the upper west side of Manhattan.
During his breaks, when he managed to will his head up from a microscope, Raúl strolled to the George Washington Bridge to study its scars. He went to the bridge to be away from the lab’s sterility, its shiny evangelical promise, and smell the clammy mid summer air, feel the earth beneath his feet, perspire like everyone else pushing through lives.
He studied the wounds on the bridge’s underbelly to see if they said anything about the fifty-five forgotten men left to the silence of time. He craned his head until his neck pained him and stiffened, and wondered.
It helped keep his head focused on where things come from and maybe he could make evolutionary predictions, establish principles. At Columbia Presbyterian, Raúl wanted to understand what reproductive strategies must be used in the future to minimize stress on our tired biosphere. He depended on histories. He looked for stories in the smallest of things, cells. He looked for sure signs.
But when he pulled open his apartment window and stepped into the frame he didn’t want to continue thinking about limitations and outcomes. He was done with the censors and motivators that exist in the brain and that deeply and unconsciously affect ethical premises. The day was over. He wanted to leave it behind.
He wanted to lose himself in the dog walker – an adaptation, an offspring that survived it all so far. A ancient herdsman, perhaps, like the ones we see on elysian fields in travel brochures to Scotland and Ireland and France, now a dog walker.
Haitian women rushed stately blue strollers with large white wheels around the dog walker scooping up the steamy remains with a hand gloved in a baggie. The other held the dog web.
Up and down Riverside Drive and across Joan of Arc Park, in the promising glow of summer evening, went these intertwining objects – the dog walkers and the Haitian women and their stately strollers.
When the phone rang and the sadness arrived and pushed aside everything familiar to him and stopped him from stretching as far as he could into the picture of the Palisades knocking at him.
He held the grainy sill and turned to the ring that tempted the faith he found in his routines.
There was a weight in the room that came out of nowhere – yet it was old and familiar, in the pit of his stomach, a sense of things lost, gloom.
Raúl faced the phone. He held the sill with his left hand, unable to give it up all the way, and leaned in.
The knots in his spine that would otherwise crack and unwind the fatigue that amassed from hours curled over a microscope deciphering the nucleic acid that contains the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms tightened.
The sadness multiplied. He had no explanation for it, dumbfounded. He liked knowing where things came from, how they evolved, what changed them, how they appear. How things appear even suddenly like the ring of the phone that hung in the air with the sadness.
He traced his steps for signs. Just a few moments before the first ring he entered his apartment and dropped the keys in the bowl on the table beneath the mirror near the front door and draped his lab coat over the chair meant just for that otherwise it would be useless. Grabbed a beer and turned on the TV for noise. But at some point that day, the sadness must have begun to set in unnoticed. Maybe the sadness had been there all along.
The phone rang again.
He could consider the ring’s origin or rather the origin of the intuition he had that came with the ring and told him that something happened and he was involved. But that was too much, too far to go.
Something traveled the distance and found him and opened a black hole and he didn’t want to be present. He didn’t want to be sucked in. Know its spiral history. This is what humans do, he thought, run for cover – and wait and adapt slowly, hopefully. Those that can’t adapt don’t make it, ever. They have no hope. Hope grows from adaptation. It’s the single most important characteristic of evolution, adaptation. From here, all springs forth – but especially hope. No hope, no survival. And the end, the true end of everything.
Raúl looked out the window and off in the east the moon was already there.
“It’s always already there,” he said, pushing out a whisper, a way to test his voice and see if he wasn’t dreaming. “Like everything else. Six inches from our noses. Always.”
The ring told him that events had unfolded and suddenly just like that he was in. He had been on one side of the looking glass and now on the other side nothing was recognizable. A chill ran up his spine. He felt bound. In the lab life laid down road signs, roots to instincts that he could quantify. There was nothing to measure here.
He turned and inhaled again, just to take a final whiff of the thick, clammy air. Maybe, just maybe what he was feeling was all an illusion, a figment of his exhausted imagination. But nothing. He lost the scent.
He retraced himself. But there was no way to revise the day, see it fully in memory’s half-light. The phone pawed at him trying to get to where the heart is.
After working in the lab he and friends sat in a sidewalk café across from Lincoln Center and had Brooklyn summer ales and dreamt of things that may never come to pass. On a cloudless bright day, they descended into the murky subway station on 161st and took the train to 72nd Street and strolled to 64th. It was a who cares and so what moment, he called it, because in the design of things, who knows – really – what the next moment can bring. It was important to have a philosophy, something to hold him up.
When everything is touched by the human hand, he believed, randomness takes on a whole different meaning. It conceals the real order. It assumes a privileged place. But randomness itself is part of the order of things. He knew that – that’s what he saw swimming on a microscope’s stage.
Wednesdays are halfway moments between the noise that is and the noise that was. And the noise that’s yet to arrive unannounced is always there too. That’s how Raúl saw things. But we never hear the noise that’s yet to come, ever.
He allowed himself a smoke on Wednesdays, a Marlboro Light. Often more then one. He dangled it from his mouth like his father did – “It’s just social,” his father said. Raúl took his time with it, sat back and rubbed his right hand across his unshaven face all in one smooth motion. He liked nothing better than not shaving on days like this because it showed that he was in the thick of it, living. He rubbed his hand across his face and chin a couple of times. There was comfort in seeing himself like this, not saying anything of importance, pointing to interesting passersby, with each puff challenging alterations deep in the nomenclature of life in the helix. But it didn’t matter. Everything is already determined. Everything. We fool ourselves thinking that it’s not.
A Guatemalteco on the corner selling dolls with bouncing heads, a Jamaican next to him selling antique copies of Paris Match and Look and National Geographic in several languages, the skinny invisible woman with tattoos of crosses and peace signs on either hand and barely able to stand on the corner waiting for pedestrians to push by and she’d mumble spare some change as they forget her, a picture of an extinction, something that no one wants to see intimately, the end of an adaptation. Someone’s daughter. A failure to create. She was being run over by the evolving. She would not be. It’s been determined like this, how it all goes. No second chances. No overtime.
When the phone rang he was having a beer in his apartment and getting ready to meet friends again that night to ogle girls in a bar somewhere near Columbia University. No commitments, just ogling. Everyone on the same page gauging each other’s reproductive investments.
He tried ignoring the third ring, its persistence. It came from somewhere deep in the coil, he was certain of that too. All things do. That’s the design. Wednesday, July 17, 1996 was determined long ago.
He turned to the hum of the TV. It helped him think and it distracted him, made his life noisier even though it wasn’t his. Now it was his life. He grabbed his beer, waiting for the phone to ring again, wondering whether to answer or to let the answering machine do the work and buy him time. He gulped his beer.
On the TV, a voice over a static map of Long Island filled the room with sadness. That’s when the phone rang a fourth time, its red flash igniting the papers on the desk next to it and the bills waiting for another week. An inexorable eye looking back at him.
Nothing mattered now. Except the fifth ring. Its sound hung in the air, hollow. The phone and the TV. Wednesday’s safety was gone.
…At 8:45P.M, eleven minutes after take-off from Kennedy International Airport, TWA flight 800, bound for Paris, France, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Long Island. Witnesses say they saw a bright flash in the sky. But nothing is certain. There are no causes known at this time. The Coast Guard responded immediately, dispatching numerous search and rescue vessels. The New York City Police Department, the New York State Police Department, and the Suffolk County Police Department have all responded as well. The National Transportation Safety Board has dispatched a team from New Jersey. And we’ve been informed that numerous private vessels are also involved in this initial search and recovery effort…
The phone rang again.
“Papá,” he whispered.
Raúl said it just to hear himself say it, to test its feel and the emptiness that arrives with flashes from a life lived, rattles you and tempts your faith, a specter that arrives in the weak light of suffering memory.
“Papá,” he whispered again.
It filled the room, repeating itself, over and over again and again, dying to reappear, always.
It overwhelmed everything. The sanctity of his routine, the lab, the dog walkers and their dogs crapping and the Haitian maids and their Cadillac strollers.
He picked up the phone and staggered.
He felt him there, the ghost of his father standing beside him as still as recollections tend to be where light suddenly is as darkness and the darkness is where we are and where we will be. Where the problems of the heart live. The sadness was new and full.
She places her chin on my desk. She leans over, arms on her thighs and rests her chin on my desk.
“Professor, I don’t know.” “I… I don’t feel anything.” “I …I’m indifferent. I don’t feel anything. I don’t. I just don’t feel anything.” She walks into my office with a big smile.
She wears a white wool turtleneck and her silky black hair, parted off-center on her left, falls around her face and over her shoulders like a frame calling attention to her lively eyes—and her smile.
– See more …
The beginning of Imagining Amsterdam can be found here. Below is what follows, the second section, which I’ve titled, for this exercise, “The Secret in the Mirror,” to comply with our work/play/reading of Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost.
For Hannah and Leah, who brought this story to me. And for Karen who has always been there, caring and interested and thoughtful.
Some ideas are new, but most are only recognition of what has been there all along, the mystery in the middle of the room, the secret in the mirror.
Rebecca Solnnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2005)
In a story such as this, the full view is necessary. Otherwise it won’t work. I don’t want false impressions.
I’ll start with a wide angle shot and push in so you’ll experience what I did when I finally got to Amsterdam in mid May, after I called him, and the city came to me. As he did. Slow like. An animal crouched low. And they rose up. First this city that proved everyone wrong, which is what he used to say – and he not far behind. They arrived together.
In the “tangible landscape of memory,” as Rebecca Solnit calls it, on one end is the primal scene of my father’s first instance with disease that keeps repeating itself in my life, and the life of my family; on the other end resides the “unseen bodies” that are at work, like strong winds that can be felt but not seen. Read more here…
So grateful for Joe Brooks and the Community Works Journal for, once again, doing me a solid and reissuing my essay, “Breaking Out of the Factory Model.” (Evidently they’ve gotten lots of ‘hits’ on this one.
There is a lot of talk about education reform, but there is little conversation about what teaching actually is — and who the teacher is.
What are the elements of teaching?
There is a singular demand on education today, namely that it develop producers—students that will mature to be workers and consumers. This single demand is blind to the sources of this production model, the teachers, and the nature of human interactions that comprise our culture.
— If I think back, I’d say that some of our most moving times together were when you thought you were about to leave behind something of yourself, he said over the phone. And … I don’t know, maybe sometimes you couldn’t. I don’t know. Or wouldn’t. You’d hold on. Tight. You’d hold on tight. To everything you could. Until you couldn’t.
I don’t know why I reached out to him after so many years. But I did. And here we were.
– There’s something of that now, I’m guessing, he continued in a soft tone. He paused, and waited.
It feels good to learn that something you’ve written is appreciated; it’s doubly great when the piece is re-issued because more teachers want to read it.
Here it is..
Ordinarily, when speaking about the teaching of writing, I’d address my remarks to an audience of my peers—teachers of English (Lit too), and composition and rhetoric teachers. But I’ve chosen to do otherwise, feeling that I want to try to communicate directly with you, instead. – See more at: Community Works Journal
I’ve navigated the teaching profession intuitively, always gravitating to what I sensed were voids in the system that, more often than not, compromised students. My rewards have not been monetary, nor have there been accolades showered on me – a special chair, a title, the such and such professor of. No. I’m nowhere near a think tank and the leisured life of, well, thinking and writing. None of this has happened. Mine has been a bumpy road – humbling in many respects. Some might even say I live on the boundaries of academe, shunning careerism – no publishing in obscure journals, no writing unreadable books, no clawing up the expected ladder to obscurity. I’ve done none of it. I’ve focused on students instead – and there’s a price to be paid for that.
But the rewards for this focus occupy my office shelves —objects the students have given me over the years. They are testaments to the significance of shared learning moments otherwise muted by the hallowed ivy.
Objects are aesthetic records of the deeply emotional link between the past and the present. Objects say something of our need to regain something of ourselves – something lost, perhaps, what memory is; they’re even about something we yet don’t know we’ve lost, something of a nature we’re yet unsure of. Something needing discovery. Objects point to the past, but to the future as well. And they emphasize how ephemeral time is.
Yet – while these objects are incredibly intimate accolades, they also signify how my dreams were held in check by my sense of responsibility to others, to the commitment one makes to someone else’s desires – a young dreamer’s. In these objects is a teaching life; they are portals into the difficult work of helping young minds integrate into culture – and of how a teacher evolves with students.
Life is Just a Bowl of Varies – Sid was an older gentleman that followed me around from course to course. And one day, when he was done with his schooling pastime to idle away hours in retirement, he handed me a bowl comprised of various dice. LIFE IS JUST A BOWL OF VARIES was printed on a card – that’s all. He was telling me that life is varied, diverse – and that it might diverge from my plans.
I sensed this. I fell into teaching; it was never planned. Many people don’t plan on becoming teachers – at least none that I knew while at grad school. Some go into it because it’s the final, common denominator; others continue down a path (mine was “the writing life”) unaware that the teaching profession would grab hold of them, a safety net of sorts. I thought I was going elsewhere. Sid must have navigated many divergent paths. He taught me something – something to expect.
Sid sat in the back of the class, usually next to other retirees that came to listen. I had no idea whether they read the material or whether they’d read the material in another life. Seldom did these folks say anything, giving space to the young undergrads that had to take my course. It was after class that one or two of the retirees would come up, thank me for the lecture and tell me whether they liked it or not. It was good today. This is when Sid, one day, came up and said, You’re an iconoclast. I smiled. I wore it like a badge of honor, a purpose for my teaching life.
I started teaching in 1985. I taught at SUNY College at Purchase from 1987 to 1996, two nights a week, three hour classes, and sometimes a three hour day class. I had to work to pay the rent, so SUNY was how I read the texts I needed to complete my PhD (I also taught at Manhattanville College at the time – 1986-1995. The life of the adjunct.). Introduction to American Literature. Literature of the Modern Age. Sexuality, Morality and Aesthetics in English Literature – 1880-1923 (drew a strange crowd, especially at night). Literature of Discipline and Punishment. Poor Sid, looking back, sat through most of these and watched an inexperienced teacher stumble his way through. I suppose Sid saw something, which prompted him to give me the dice – LIFE IS JUST A BOWL OF VARIES.
It’s turned out to be true. Everything for me has been about change and adaptation. Sid was right. I keep his bowl prominently displayed.
The Compass – Leah, in the picture, now a teacher and a tennis star, too, sent me, most recently, the antique, Stanley London, brass compass. Inscribed inside the top of the compass is Robert Frost‘s The Road Not Taken (1916). You know it.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Leah sent me The Compass not long ago. It sits opposite Life is Just a Bowl of Varies. The space between them is a traveled life.
I joked with her and said, “What, you think I need a compass?” We laughed. And she said, “No, you seem to be always finding paths for people.”
I think it’s both: in trying to find paths for students to fulfill dreams, I’ve found my own. We’ve both used the compass. We still need it.
Then there’s Frost. Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – / I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference.
When I’ve traveled down a path a frightened student puts forth, this has been a road that diverges. I’ve gone down many a scary road with students; we held on. Eventually I’ve tried doubling back. But that’s been impossible. “Back” is never a return; it’s a moving away, sometimes with regret and sorrow, always with something new in the horizon. It’s good to have a compass.
Heraclitus said, “Things keep their secrets.” The challenge with objects. Dice are small throwable objects with multiple resting positions. Like us, humans. Only we seem to land in random places, occupying arbitrary positions. We need navigational instruments that show directions and give a frame of reference.
Heraclitus also said that, “Whoever cannot seek/the unforeseen sees nothing,/for the known way/is an impasse.”
Object lesson 1: the objects of my teaching life represent a rejection of the “known way,” an understanding that we are always in “an impasse” – but that at least two are needed to break through the gridlock, the predicament, the jam. The hats and scarfs from Afghanistan, the elephant from Sri Lanka, Chinese objects, cards from all over the world – Thank You! Professor – all of these objects hold time. They speak of the impossible. Scary journeys taken side-by-side when no one was watching. These objects are symbols of always diverting plans that asked for different commitments, and once the commitments were made, as Frost says, I doubt if I should ever come back.
After the news today, Obama Unlikely to Vow No First Use of Nuclear Weapons, (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/06/science/obama-unlikely-to-vow-no-first-use-of-nuclear-weapons.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=first-column-region®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=0), it’s worth reblogging since this is, as we speak, the most dangerous of all situations we’re living in!!!!! THIS IS THE PROBLEM that BEGETS ALL OTHER (PROBLEMS)!
“What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance” (1839-1840)
We are more at home with illusion than we are with the reality before us. It seems quite natural for us to walk away from facts when they don’t support our illusions — and our emotional attachments to them. Our minds and our eyes always fool us. We even reject the notion that they do — a catch 22 if there ever was one.
Consider this: Why does the moon look so much bigger when it is near the horizon?
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Given the way Americans have treated the Lochte case compared to how Americans treated Gaby Douglas, it’s relevant to reblog this piece so that Americans can take stock in what “Gaby Douglas means” to us – and what Lochte never will, other than to show the most negative aspect of white privilege…
This is may be one of the most significant Olympic Games in history but the story — why is it so important? — has yet to be told. Let’s tell it.
Gabby Douglas — winner of the individual all around gold medal in gymnastics, the team gold (as I write, she failed to medal in the balance beam, a ghastly apparatus, opening the field for Ali Raisman who went on to win a gold in the women’s floor exercise) and the first African American to reach this pinnacle of success — is the perfect way into this Olympic story about the (permanent?) dissolution of boundaries.
Douglas’ story has moved us. It has caused some confusion as well. At the heart of the confusion is the story that’s yet to be told about these Olympic Games. It’s a story of possibilities, of a better, brighter tomorrow. It’s what we’ve…
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by popular demand – requests – as schools are about to begin yet another academic year…
for Shipnia, Brittany, Dane, Becca, Christine, Chris and Amanda and Taylor and Annie — and the countless other young souls that will call themselves new teachers
There is a lot of talk, politically and otherwise, 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 culture. Of course, citizens have to be productive, engaging the world creatively, we hope, but this is not the first criteria. There are other requirements. In order for education to be productive — produce productive individuals — it must preserve the health and welfare of teachers…
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