Abandon – from Getting Lost

“Beauty is often spoken of as though it only stirs lust or admiration,” says Solnit, “but the most beautiful people are so in a way that makes them look like destiny or fate or meaning, the heroes of a remarkable story.”

This is who she is, this young woman – beautiful like this. Fate and meaning. Something remarkable she yet quite doesn’t understand and is terribly frightening. We’re invested in the plight of humanity and “exceptional beauty and charm,” as is hers, “are among those gifts given by the sinister fairy at the christening,” says Solnit. Humor and irony – and darkness. The child, at christening, never knows and spends the rest of her life trying to know – sometimes in fear.  [ read more … ]

Fastened to a Dying Animal: Hot at 60?

“I don’t know if I can trust you,” says to me one day, this very tiny, witty and very wise 19 year old student, a young woman.

She’s in my office for our weekly, hour long meeting. It’s near the end of the fall term’s 12th week, 2013. We speak about her magnificent writing, about writers and their lives – until life itself comes into the fold, something that always happens with this particular student. She’s always digging deep, searching.

When speaking about life – her view of it based on her experiences – she likes resting her head on my desk, crossing her arms and resting her chin on the backs of her folded hands. She slows down, becomes more contemplative. The sides of her long, black silky hair, carelessly pulled back and held by a band, fall over one side of her face or another. She leaves it, as if she hasn’t noticed it cascading over the side of her mouth. From here, this position, she comes up with the most uncanny of things.

“I don’t,” she repeats – and grins sardonically, a hallmark of hers when she’s lining me up for something. “I don’t know if I can …”

“After all this time, this is what you say to me? Why not?” I ask somewhat confused, wondering where this was coming from – and where we’re going.

“Well, the other day the girls in our class, we were like talking, you know. We were talking about you. And one of them said that you’re hot,” the hot rolling off her tongue as if suffering from too much neon, almost an accusation. “I don’t know if I can trust a hot, old professor,” she says – and laughs, sits up and leans back, hair in her face, which she pushes back behind her ears.

What does one do with something like this? When I was her age it would have never occurred to me to speak to a professor like that – but the audacity of today’s students is incredible. No fear. They don’t hold back. Titles, status, age – nothing phases them. We, the gray-haired, old professors live in a world that doesn’t exist to them, the young students of today. What does hot even mean in her vernacular?

The Family

The Family

There I sat, somewhere between a momentary dalliance with vanity and the treacherous phenomenon of aging. And here I am. 60. That which has been kept at bay has leaped onto my back and won’t let go. Hot quickly dissolves into dark irony. “Old man,” my youngest son calls me. “El viejo,” say my kids  mirroring the term of affection that is so much the idiom of the Spanish and I used for my father. Like father, like son.

In Men Over 55 I lamented how we men exist in a kind of fog; in Coming to 60 (Reluctantly and with Some Help), I bemoaned the mathematical conundrum: there’s less time. Now 60, I’ve signed my AARP card, charmed by the organization’s promise: “Real Possibilities.” Another 30, 40 years? I’m reaching for anything – what the hell.

The young student rattled this old man.  Hot points back to time gone – if there ever was a time when hot was real – while signaling less time to come. A slow, long sunset. “An aged man is but a paltry thing,/A tattered coat upon a stick,” says W. B. Yeats in Sailing to Byzantium.

Paltry: ridiculously or insultingly small; utterly worthless; mean or contemptible – minor, slight, insignificant, inconsiderable.

Did the student tell me the story to make me feel small – to have me come face-to-face with my insignificance? Or was it to make me feel better about feeling slight, utterly worthless? Was it a kindness?

Tattered: ragged, torn to pieces – hanging loosely from the main part.

Is a 60 year old man a ridiculous thing barely hanging on – loosely – to life itself?  And so the “hot” problem doesn’t make you feel better or good, rather it accents the ragged part, the insignificance I’m becoming until, well, I am Nothing – a page left for posterity on Facebook.

A prayer at 60: Nothing who art everywhere hallowed be thy nothingness.  Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Nothing.  Give us this day our daily Nothing.  And forgive us Nothing as we forgive Nothing, who sin Nothing, and deliver us from Nothing for thine is the kingdom of Nothing, the power and the glory of Nothing.

“Once out of nature I shall never take/My bodily form from any natural thing,” Yeats says.  Of course not – how can that be possible today when we’re already so far from – and out of – Nature that we are confused – and battered – by mere snow storms and Arctic blasts, surprised by their voracity? We’re left pining for something else – something “Of hammered gold and gold enameling,” perhaps, that will take us into posterity and be worth something.

How far will hot take me – not even “hammered gold”?

The student’s story is “Of what is past, or passing, or to come,” as Yeats says. Once, maybe, you were hot, she may be saying; there’s an inkling of it, she says. Barely visible. But it’s the past and the fact that at least one of the students recognized this, it’s passing, transitioning towards the Nothing. The hallowed nothingness “to come.”

This is why men over 60 grab at straws – the end is near and the way there is a dramatic decline, a decay visible before our very eyes. Hot is not even a straw to grab at since vanity is fleeting and you’re left recognizing that the decline has come about slowly, assuredly, strong – a mysterious animal hiding in the high grass, waiting, time on its side. Until time no more.

Somewhere inside this confusing noise is the truth; somewhere here is the story of the hot, old professor, I think. Hot means virile, too, no? But uncovering the truth about one’s own sense of self while aging is difficult – and not just because the noise is deafening; it’s because no man raised in a culture like ours, where the male is privileged and lionized, can actually conceive himself unmanly, not virile. Hot.

Men’s virility is today’s problem du jour, says Marc Lallanilla, Assistant Editor of livescience, in “Low T: Real Illness or Pharma Windfall?”. My young student perhaps knew this, heard this in the noise, and she made light of it. Men are teased, even admonished, for having too much testosterone; now we’re told we don’t have enough T – either because we’re facing the winds of our misfortune or because of real biological challenges. Hypogonadism, testicular cancer. Not pretty.

I’m listening more intently to issues concerning us older guys. But when you hear hot, you lose sight – a momentary reprieve – of being “sick with desire/And fastened to a dying animal” that “knows not what it is.” Yeats again, perfect on aging.

And perhaps that is the moral of the little funny story: I don’t know what I am. I don’t what “it is,” this “dying animal,” looking back, taking inventory, seeing what’s amassed – if anything.

Assimilating into American Culture 1.0

Part of what informs my life is my ongoing assimilation into American culture. The journey began in 1961.

It was cold and snow was piled high on the tarmac of Idlewild Airport (now JFK International) and on New York City street corners. For a wide-eyed, frightened, young boy, but 7, and who didn’t speak a word of English, the City was something out of an epic, something only imagination can conjure in big terms, colossal, I don’t know, something seemingly impossible though there he found himself in Herald Square, W34th Street, in 1961.

Carlos Vila Photography/Cityscapes

Carlos Vila Photography/Cityscapes

What I didn’t know is that to take in a powerful culture like this, I had to give something up – and if not give it up entirely, tuck it away somewhere.

The first change, the one aspect of my life I had to immediately push away was fútbol. Not the game, rather the word. In it is a world. Only this world is not the U. S.’s. No longer would it be fútbol or even futbol, the name given by Spanish speaking countries to the universal game.

Football originated in England. FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) lists 43 affiliated nations that use fútbol and futbol. The United States and Canada are the only two members, of a total of 45, that call the game soccer. Soccer has been the prevailing term for association football in the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, where other codes of football are dominant.

An initial code of football involves the helmet. When this kind of protection becomes central, the culture, unknowingly, adjusts its gaze on that one vital component. This change, this new point of view, is fraught with implication; it changes the values of a culture, an important factor in determining the meaning of football.

Ray Lewis

Ray Lewis

The head in fútbol is used for thinking, planning – and heading. The head is a weapon in football. The critical thinking happens on the sidelines and in booths, thinkers assisted by technology – computers, cameras, software, communications technology – that reflect our very own condition, the fan looking in, the fan trying to read the very confusing kernels of information streaming from various points of origin, most of which are unknown. This is not to suggest that there’s no thinking on the Gridiron. There is – but it’s short lived, reactionary,  compressed, almost ephemeral, fleeting – gone once territory is captured. Followed by chatter. Followed by next. In-between a beer maybe.

Violence, the taking of territory, anxiety over time – the defining characteristics of football that pushed aside the grace of the world’s game, fútbol. Instantly I learned that force is privileged in this foreign place. Force and violence, that is. The taking of territory by guile and violence, all neatly wrapped in a spectacle that generates huge amounts of money in a merciless, vertical economic reality. You’re in or your out. That’s it. Play or go home. The message, as a young boy trying to take it all in, was clear. Totally. Riches reside at the top, the penthouse – or in the case of football, the luxurious owner’s box. On the field the bodies lay wounded, forever changed in a quid pro quo: money for your body. A football contract is about the value of a player’s body – that’s it.

Heavy snow fell the night before John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, January 20th, 1961. We flew into New York a few days before. The election of 1960 had been close, and the Democratic Senator from Massachusetts was eager to gather support for his agenda. Kennedy attended Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown that morning before joining President Eisenhower to travel to the Capitol . The Congress had extended the East Front, and the inaugural platform spanned the new addition. The oath of office was administered by Chief Justice Earl Warren. Robert Frost read one of his poems at the ceremony.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

Kennedy’s image was grainy on the Martinique Hotel’s TV. But I listened and my father translated.

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

In 1961, the AFL and NFL agreed to merge together to create one “Super League” called the NFL. In this agreement between the AFL and the NFL they arranged to begin playing a championship game between two conferences the AFC and NFC after the 1966 season. Originally the Championship game was named the AFL – NFL Championship, but it was soon nicknamed the Super Bowl.

The first Super Bowl, though, between the NFL’s Green Bay Packers and the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, wasn’t so eagerly anticipated. With Green Bay’s perennial dominance the only question seemed to be was how large would Green Bay’s margin of victory be. Even though the tickets cost only $12, the game still wasn’t a sellout.

The NFL machinery was in motion. The spectacle was born. I was terribly excited – all 7 year old boys, mostly Irish and Italian at St. Gabriel’s School in Riverdale, Bronx, New York, played out their athletic fantasies in the schoolyard. I was looking to find ways in, trying to understand and learn English – until I heard someone call out, Spick. Spick. I didn’t have to look long. My way in was fighting, just being tougher then someone else, not backing down. Respect.

Unconsciously, I was taking in a world awash with violence, anger and confusion. It came from all sides. The body of Christ, I heard the priest say in front of a crucifix held high for all to see the suffering. A political movement for equality played on TV, harsh images of German Shepherds attacking Black people.

The Cuban Missile Crisis paralyzed the world for 13 days, a confrontation between the Soviet Union and Cuba on one side, the United States on the other. From October 14 to the 28th, 1962, the world stood at the brink of nuclear war; it was the very real moment when we first understood mutual assured destruction.

How long do I have? I began thinking then. How am I going to live with this? Certainly not abide. If I’m going to go, I’m going to go my way. Everything around me told me as much.

On November 20th, 1963, at 12:20PM, in Dealey Plaza, in Dallas, Texas, the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated. On February 21, 1965, one week after his home was firebombed, Malcolm X was shot to death by Nation of Islam members while speaking at a rally of his organization, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom in New York City. On April 4, 1968, at the age of 39, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. And on June 6, 1968, while campaigning for the presidency, Robert F. Kennedy, “Bobby,” was assassinated in the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, California.

All of this was regular television.

We were in the thick of things in Vietnam, which lasted until the fall of Saigon, April 30, 1975 – three years after I first registered for the draft and missed being sent when I was 15 numbers off in the lottery. Richard Nixon was inaugurated as president on January 20, 1969, sworn in by his onetime political rival, Chief Justice Earl Warren. On January 5, 1972, Nixon entered his name on the New Hampshire primary ballot, effectively announcing his candidacy for reelection. At some point in the spring, I think it was, Nixon came through Garden City, Long Island, a Republican enclave in Nassau County, and I managed to shake his hand. He didn’t get my vote – no one did that year. I didn’t vote. By June 17, 1972, The Washington Post was breaking the Watergate Story.

The murders of the Kennedy’s, King and Malcolm X, the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, Gay Rights – and Nixon – were a perfect storm that changed the semblance of America until our very day. We haven’t recovered. We haven’t fully realized what materialized since.

But the spectacle of violence was in place – and getting stronger, growing exponentially with broadcast technologies. Football was fast becoming America’s game because America was fast becoming a media-centric society. And our attention was narrowing.

The Sports Broadcast Act of 1961 was passed in response to a court decision which ruled that the NFL‘s method of negotiating television broadcasting rights violated antitrust laws. The court ruled that the “pooling” of rights by all the teams to conclude an exclusive contract between the league and CBS was illegal. The Act overruled that decision, permitting certain joint broadcasting agreements among the major professional sports.

Football’s potential was in its infancy. The road ahead was clear. It’s been television that’s brought the NFL to prominence, along with a spectacular way of passively transmitting the dominant culture’s ruling ideologies. Since then, NFL broadcasts have become among the most-watched programs on American television, and the financial fortunes of entire networks have rested on owning NFL broadcasting rights. This has raised questions about the impartiality of the networks’ coverage of games and whether they can criticize the NFL without fear of losing the rights and their income.

Monday Night Football first aired on September 21, 1970, with a game between the New York Jets and the Browns in Cleveland. This brought ABC Sports producer Roone Arledge’s dream of creating an entertainment “spectacle” as much as a simple sports broadcast to fruition. Advertisers were charged $65, 000 per minute by ABC, a cost that proved to be a bargain when the contest collected 33 percent of the viewing audience.

Before we knew it, the spectacle became how we experienced life in the U.S.. Programs such as the Kardashians and the Real Housewives of (fill in your city) were born then. They all work on the same soap opera narrative model, something NFL coverage excels in.

Monday Night Football

Monday Night Football

Monday Night Football ushered in a new era of television and I was further away from fútbol than ever before, though I was playing in a small community league, coached by a Scotsman. It was soccer all the way. The Scotsman tried playing an orderly game, a military-like, precision game of mid-range passes, very little flair and solid fundamentals. It didn’t sit well with me. Remember: I was going to go at this life my way. Soccer in a football culture.

I was a foreigner, undocumented, except for a passport, until 1972 when I followed my father into Naturalization. See, because before I wasn’t Naturalized. I felt the Other – foreign – on and off the field.

By now, 2013, amidst scandal pertaining to concussions, exposed in the Frontline documentary, League of Denial, where the NFL is compared to the tobacco companies, the National Football League will have revenues “somewhere just north of $9 billion, which means the league remains the most lucrative in th world.” That is up 5.6% – or $500 million – from the previous year, and $1.8 billion (23.4%) more than Major League Baseball ($7.7).

This is the America in which I find myself and I’m not sure what I think. If NFL player contracts are about the player’s body – how long will it last? – then how much is a body worth?

An NFL game is about crisis and the drama that can be built around this with careful narrative strategies – as in politics. Television and now the Internet have forced new narrative lines to appear, across all professional sports, in order to capture the fan’s gaze. By now I’m wondering what’s left of that wide-eyed 7 year old boy? The violence and brute force that initially overwhelmed my conscience have metamorphosed into an experience that is highly compressed. Reacting to violence, which seems to be so prevalent – and promoted – is, as I write here, now, a major obstacle in every aspect of my life, and I suspect other’s as well.

The grace of fútbol is gone from my life – except when I catch a game (hopefully it’s Messi and Barcelona) on TV. Not enough time, a tighter field in which to do open field running, abundant crisis – these mark our lives today. Which is a road to what? Where are we going?

I haven’t watched any football this year, except to watch Middlebury College defeat Williams College, 21-14, on October 12, 2013. Perhaps a final act of assimilation into humanity.

What’s the Best Age for a Midlife Crisis

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

JG: Do your findings kill off the character of the middle-aged man full of existential angst?
OR: Not quite. The research suggests there may be something to it. While men in their 40s are no more likely to have a crisis, those who do are more likely than other groups to see it as a negative without any subsequent benefits.

JG: What practical use do these results have?
OR: They help frame life difficulties in a way that shows they are part of normal life. Not having a crisis at any point in your life was extremely unusual—only 4 percent of respondents aged 50 and over said they had never had one. There is this subtle but fairly insidious tendency, especially among young adults, to think that adulthood will be a fairly easy ride, like living in a glossy magazine. So when the hard times hit they are not prepared for it. We hope this helps change that.

Coming to 60 (Reluctantly and with Some Help)

Age 60 is when it takes a man all night to do what he used to do all night.

At 60 years old, your birthday suit requires regular ironing.

At 60 you can still chase women, but only downhill.

At 60, two of the most important things in life are bowel movements and nose hair.

Everywhere I look – even though it’s customary to say, 60 is the new 50 – there’s the daunting accuracy of Mathematics: Coming to 60 means less time. That’s all. It’s inescapable. Less time it is.

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde said that, “The old believe everything; the middle-aged suspect everything; the young know everything.” True. I knew everything once, now, somewhere in-between believing and suspecting, I know very little, but I’m sensing that this is how it goes, how everything goes. “Age is a high price to pay for maturity,” said Tom Stoppard.

Maturity is gaining (some) self-knowledge while falling part – a final irony on top of life’s other contradictions.

An aged man is but a paltry thing, writes W.B. Yeats in Sailing to Byzantium. A tattered coat upon a stick, he is. In The Tower, Yeats tells us that, Everything that man esteems/Endures a moment or a day. Shit. That’s all I can say. A moment or a day – that’s it? Shit.

I’m but a flash. But looking to Yeats again for solace, he says, Whatever flames upon the night/Man’s own resinous heart has fed. So maybe there’s hope that even when 60 candles are being lit on my birthday cake, and by the time the last one is lit, the first twenty have already burned out, the first two thirds of my life may account for something.

I’ve tried to flame upon the night, really I have, passionately so. But it’s that resinous heart I wonder about.

W. B. Yeats

W. B. Yeats

Did I make enough noise? Has my heart been big enough, resplendent enough to leave even a little bit of residue upon the night? When night comes, what remains? I wonder.

The inherent tension found at 60: there has to be meaning – has to be; but there are no real witnesses to give my meaning its due. Sure there are loved ones. Of course there’s family. Yes. But in the end we travel alone; we face trials alone, even when loved ones say, I’m with you. An end to something is an end. That’s it. Time’s up. And only the person experiencing this end, this coming to, can verify the experience. No one’s seen everything, experienced everything as I have. The final irony is that only glimpses of me will be left – Tweet feeds, moving images here and there, maybe even Facebook pics and news updates, scribblings for posterity, all will hang in a digital limbo until someone needs the space and, well, DELETE.

Recognition for a life lived comes late – if at all. DELETE. The rugosity on my face and hands is known only to me. The scars that tell the story of me will disappear with me, deleted for eternity.

I awaken from this dream with a jerk and find my wife’s nose up to mine.

“You’re asleep. You’ve been asleep. I heard you snoring. You woke me. I was sound as asleep. Let’s go to bed.”

Watching Orange is the New Black, two glasses of wine proved the better of me (it didn’t use to be – I have witnesses, trust me I do for this), even while contemplating opening a second bottle. I was snoring, I guess. I nodded out, I guess. My cell phone read: 8:30PM

“I’m not tired,” I declare.

“You were sound asleep,” says Nina.

“I’m not tired.”

“You’re an idiot. Why would you always do this – deny snoring? You were sound asleep. I watched you. You jerked. You were dreaming, dead asleep.”

She did, she watched me. But I can’t relent. “I’m not tired,” I say and ridiculously keep to my story.

“You’re being stupid.”

“But it’s only eight-thirty. I can’t go to bed. Besides, I’m into the show. I love Alex (Laura Prepon). I love her voice.”

“Oh yeah, what just happened? Tell me. What just happened in the show?” asks Nina, getting up and marching out. “Turn it off and let’s go to bed.”

I can’t even seduce her with a chic flick conversation about Alex – her voice, her looks, her character; couldn’t even get to the relationship between Alex and Piper (Taylor Schilling) – and in a prison for women no less. What fun. I could then exploit my understanding of popular culture, the significance of Orange is the New Black, which some call The Maids in prison. None of that would happen. What I think – what I want, something like stopping time – quickly becomes erased, inconsequential. It must be how everything goes.

I follow Nina to bed. The Golden Retriever, Chief, is already in his ottoman.

Coming to 60, do men turn into chicks? I wonder. Which is fine. At 60 I’ve lost all rights to judge and critique; I can only accept and tolerate.

Maturity must mean abiding by all conditions outside your control; it’s acceptance, a kind of adaptation, I figure.

Coming to 60, whatever that means, is indeed a Math problem. It becomes an organic rather then a mechanical approach; time differs now, no longer tied to industry. Life depends on how poetic I can make it. Its structure resides in the felt relationships I still have.

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

As I do sometimes when I’m in a questioning, searching mood, I turn to Uncle Walt, Walt Whitman, right before laying my head down, thinking that this is how it must go – what sleep is, and read:

The soul,

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

than water ebbs and flows

It must go like this.

Orchard Grass Farm

Orchard Grass Farm
New Haven, VT

The Great Pretender

I stand in front of people day in and day out and pretend to know what I’m talking about.

Teach: to impart knowledge or skill; give instruction – enlighten, discipline, indoctrinate. It’s a verb, action. The teacher is the noun. The teacher acts, and s/he’s acted upon too. We pretend not always being slightly off-center because of it. Teaching is pretending to be the authority while standing on thin ice; it’s walking a tightrope over a ravine while negotiating our influences and the ever present, ever changing needs of students.imgres

Gaining dominion over a class is a creative struggle between what you know, what you feel and what you see in front of you; it’s the teacher’s sense of her place in the world. This requires an opinion about the world, its history and how it manifests itself today. The place of authority is therefore assumed – it must be so; it is given to the teacher by the cultural positioning of education, first, the teacher, second. Thus the institution and the teacher are one and the same in the mind of the student; authority from the State to the Institution to the Citizen is translated this way. It disciplines and orders. The teacher is forever pretending not to be this socio-political-economic force, which renders her insecure about her sense of self in the institution. So teachers seek out models.

Like writers, painters, musicians, and filmmakers the teacher considers authorities that have come before – honored representatives of knowledge and methods. In the West, the archetypal teacher is Socrates – until we get to Paulo Freire, for instance, who then articulates the way oppression infiltrates the perfect model. “To educate is essentially to form,” says Freire in Pedagogy of Freedom.

In considering the practice and the knowledge that has been placed in my hands by generations of teachers before me, I’m forced to measure their influence, the consequences of what I believe to be the truth in what I think I’ve learned, and look for expressive ways of re-delivering this to new, ever changing audiences. I take in, I filter and edit, and perform knowledge as I see it. It’s not the truth, but a version of it, hopefully. I am the authority. But for a brief moment. Education has formed me, the good and the not so good; and education forms others through me. It’s a classic performance: the teacher imparting knowledge; knowledge, in turn, comes from highly subjective instances of expressions about humanity’s ongoing search for purpose and happiness.

images

These days, as I look around, do some math – I’m coming to 60, how much longer do I have? – I’m somewhat off balance. I’m a necessity – that’s my value. And how much I’m valued depends on many factors: my academic pedigree, my institutional experience, my current place behind the hallowed ivy – my age. These are harsh truths about education – hard to accept. Education is both a commodity and a necessity. Here lies the tension between teachers and the institution, students, parents and the institution. It’s a cultural tension concerning the ambiguous place of the teacher and how we appreciate – or not – knowledge. Is it knowledge for my benefit? Is it a benefit for humanity as well? This means that I’m essential and property. I can be routinely dismissed, many hungry mouths eager to replace me with their own versions of how to perform their understanding of our time.

I look down and around a seminar room. I’m talking and students are writing. They’re writing what I say. It’s incredible to think that young minds are recording my performance; that they’ve come to understand that because I am the institution I’m worthy of trust. I stand before them and pretend to know what I know. This is the commodity space: students pay and I impart – quid pro quo. I’m useful now, in the moment, re-vitalizing old knowledge.

But how long will this newfound knowledge last? Am I saying anything at all that makes a difference – anything? Has the performance turned into a pantomime? Do I want it to because maybe, just maybe, it might be more effective, a dramatic pantomime?

“Let us examine the question of man,” argues Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth. “Let us reexamine the question of cerebral reality, the brain mass of humanity in its entirety whose affinities must be increased, whose connections must be diversified and whose communications must be humanized again” (Richard Philcox, trans. 2004).

imgres-1Over fifteen years ago, a student that took 3 different classes I taught, a carpenter finishing up his B.A. in night school, comes up to me and asks, “Professor, would you write a letter of recommendation for me, please? I’m applying to Lehman College to finish up because I want to do what you do.”

I chuckled and said, “Why would you want to do that?”

He critiqued my performance romantically with words like inspirational, knowledgeable, courageous. Yet, knowing that what humanity really needs is a re-examination of itself, of what it means to be human, as Fanon teaches, I was certain my performance fell short, focused on canonical texts, instead, reading them as they’ve always been read, and not challenging the consequences of doing so, blindly and obediently following a school of thought without question.

Yes somewhere in this performance I meant something to this young, American working class hero. Maybe it had something to do with how my performance enabled him to assume a proximity to a knowledge he felt somehow residing outside himself – and me – but reachable, something he needed to touch and he was willing to work late into the night for this ambiguous future imparting knowledge of himself to the unknowing.

I stand in front of people day in and day out and this is all I know.

Life At 60: Looking for Completion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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