Final: Lost in the Funhouse

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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.

Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, 2005

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.”

Yes.

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.

I’ll leave you with this – sage words from E.O.Wilson, found in his The Social Conquest of the Earth:

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.

The Edge of Sorrow – Third Movement

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This is the final movement of the first section of The Edge of Sorrow, “Bending.”  Again, if you want it from the top:

Enjoy the ride.  The next section, which will not appear on this site, is titled “Twisting.”

Thank you for following this to here.  Comments are more than welcome.  Do you want to know what happened?

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

 

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.

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

Featured

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

She places her chin on my desk. She leans over, arms on her thighs and rests her chin on my desk.

“Professor, I don’t know.” “I… I don’t feel anything.” “I …I’m indifferent. I don’t feel anything. I don’t. I just don’t feel anything.” She walks into my office with a big smile.

She wears a white wool turtleneck and her silky black hair, parted off-center on her left, falls around her face and over her shoulders like a frame calling attention to her lively eyes—and her smile.
See more …

The Ecology of Teaching: Breaking Out of the Factory Model

So grateful for Joe Brooks and the Community Works Journal for, once again, doing me a solid and reissuing my essay, “Breaking Out of the Factory Model.”  (Evidently they’ve gotten lots of ‘hits’ on this one.

Teaser:

There is a lot of talk  about education reform, but there is little conversation about what teaching actually is — and who the teacher is.

What are the elements of teaching?

There is a singular demand on education today, namely that it develop producers—students that will mature to be workers and consumers. This single demand is blind to the sources of this production model, the teachers, and the nature of human interactions that comprise our culture.

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

From Getting Lost: “Imagining Amsterdam”

— If I think back, I’d say that some of our most moving times together were when you thought you were about to leave behind something of yourself, he said over the phone.  And … I don’t know, maybe sometimes you couldn’t.  I don’t know.  Or wouldn’t.  You’d hold on.  Tight.  You’d hold on tight.  To everything you could.  Until you couldn’t.

I don’t know why I reached out to him after so many years.  But I did.  And here we were.

– There’s something of that now, I’m guessing, he continued in a soft tone.  He paused, and waited.

Read More … 

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

It feels good to learn that something you’ve written is appreciated; it’s doubly great when the piece is re-issued because more teachers want to read it.

Here it is..

Ordinarily, when speaking about the teaching of writing, I’d address my remarks to an audience of my peers—teachers of English (Lit too), and composition and rhetoric teachers. But I’ve chosen to do otherwise, feeling that I want to try to communicate directly with you, instead. – See more at: Community Works Journal

Object Lessons: Life is Just a Bowl of Varies

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.

Life is Just a Bowl of Varies

Life is Just a Bowl of Varies

I sensed this. I fell into teaching; it was never planned. Many people don’t plan on becoming teachers – at least none that I knew while at grad school. Some go into it because it’s the final, common denominator; others continue down a path (mine was “the writing life”) unaware that the teaching profession would grab hold of them, a safety net of sorts. I thought I was going elsewhere. Sid must have navigated many divergent paths. He taught me something – something to expect.

Sid sat in the back of the class, usually next to other retirees that came to listen. I had no idea whether they read the material or whether they’d read the material in another life. Seldom did these folks say anything, giving space to the young undergrads that had to take my course. It was after class that one or two of the retirees would come up, thank me for the lecture and tell me whether they liked it or not. It was good today. This is when Sid, one day, came up and said, You’re an iconoclast. I smiled. I wore it like a badge of honor, a purpose for my teaching life.

I started teaching in 1985. I taught at SUNY College at Purchase from 1987 to 1996, two nights a week, three hour classes, and sometimes a three hour day class. I had to work to pay the rent, so SUNY was how I read the texts I needed to complete my PhD (I also taught at Manhattanville College at the time – 1986-1995. The life of the adjunct.). Introduction to American Literature. Literature of the Modern Age. Sexuality, Morality and Aesthetics in English Literature – 1880-1923 (drew a strange crowd, especially at night). Literature of Discipline and Punishment. Poor Sid, looking back, sat through most of these and watched an inexperienced teacher stumble his way through. I suppose Sid saw something, which prompted him to give me the dice – LIFE IS JUST A BOWL OF VARIES.

It’s turned out to be true. Everything for me has been about change and adaptation. Sid was right. I keep his bowl prominently displayed.

Stanley London Brass Compass

Stanley London Brass Compass

The Compass – Leah, in the picture, now a teacher and a tennis star, too, sent me, most recently, the antique, Stanley London, brass compass. Inscribed inside the top of the compass is Robert Frost‘s The Road Not Taken (1916). You know it.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Leah sent me The Compass not long ago. It sits opposite Life is Just a Bowl of Varies. The space between them is a traveled life.

I joked with her and said, “What, you think I need a compass?” We laughed. And she said, “No, you seem to be always finding paths for people.”

I think it’s both: in trying to find paths for students to fulfill dreams, I’ve found my own. We’ve both used the compass. We still need it.

Then there’s Frost. Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – / I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference.

When I’ve traveled down a path a frightened student puts forth, this has been a road that diverges. I’ve gone down many a scary road with students; we held on. Eventually I’ve tried doubling back. But that’s been impossible. “Back” is never a return; it’s a moving away, sometimes with regret and sorrow, always with something new in the horizon. It’s good to have a compass.

Heraclitus said, “Things keep their secrets.” The challenge with objects. Dice are small throwable objects with multiple resting positions. Like us, humans. Only we seem to land in random places, occupying arbitrary positions. We need navigational instruments that show directions and give a frame of reference.

Heraclitus also said that, “Whoever cannot seek/the unforeseen sees nothing,/for the known way/is an impasse.”

Object lesson 1: the objects of my teaching life represent a rejection of the “known way,” an understanding that we are always in “an impasse” – but that at least two are needed to break through the gridlock, the predicament, the jam. The hats and scarfs from Afghanistan, the elephant from Sri Lanka, Chinese objects, cards from all over the world – Thank You! Professor – all of these objects hold time. They speak of the impossible. Scary journeys taken side-by-side when no one was watching. These objects are symbols of always diverting plans that asked for different commitments, and once the commitments were made, as Frost says, I doubt if I should ever come back.