The Edge of Sorrow – Second Movement

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(First Movement is here)

 

July 20, 1996, 3 Days After Flight 800 Exploded

Raúl’s Apartment

Upper West Side, New York City

 

 

Raúl hadn’t been able to move from his couch.  It seemed to hold him against his will.  He was coiled, knees up to his chest and arms over his head as if trying to hide.

The TV was still on – a specter in the dark whispering to him what he didn’t want to hear.   But he couldn’t pry himself lose from the unreal words twisting through.

Pilots from other planes circling to land report they saw flashes of light streaking  from the ground toward the Boeing 747.  Two unnamed FBI sources suggest that what looked like two missiles hit TWA Flight 800.

He was unable to bring himself to his lab at Columbia Presbyterian, either.  He didn’t even reach for his window to look out at the Hudson River, the intimate horizon that was his respite in another life.  Now dull remembrances.   His place in the order of things was vague and incompatible.  There was nothing he could diagnose, nothing he could quantify and make understandable, nothing.  As far as Raúl could tell it was now a life of nothing.  He was learning to embrace the value of nothing, something deep in his soul, a ruthless weight.

He whispered a prayer: “Nothing who art everywhere hallowed be thy nothingness.  Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Nothing.  Give us this day our daily Nothing.  And forgive us Nothing as we forgive Nothing, who sin Nothing, and deliver us from Nothing for thine is the kingdom of Nothing, the power and the glory of Nothing.”  And laughed uncontrollably, until the harsh irony lifted and, on the couch, a forearm over his forehead, he stared at the insensible ceiling, taken up by its blankness, seeing it for the very first time – its creases, cobwebs in the corners, its dullness.

He dozed off from time to time, sitting up only to sip the bourbon beside him on the coffee table.

It took him just two days to go through the first bottle of his father’s favorite drink, Wild Turkey 101, after he ran out and picked up another.

He locked his apartment door, closed himself off and sat at the edge of sorrow.

For three unforgiving days and nights he laid there in a knot and sipped until the Wild Turkey pushed him into uneasy dreams of airline seats floating aimlessly in open ocean, bobbing out of place, incompatible to the world.  He was buckled into an airplane’s seat, the stars and the darkness all around him and he was falling, spinning and falling, alone, and not a word came from his mouth.  Not a scream.  He just fell like a stone into the embrace of an immense darkness,  empty seats all around, hundreds of them, dipping and rolling in the immeasurable sea.  Ghostly sirens of absurdity.  No hint of life.  Not even a whisper, a smile – not even an I love you.  No sense of a history, of having lived.  No evidence.  No body.  Nothing.  Nothing who art everywhere hallowed be thy nothingness.  He fell and fell and spun and spun, round and round.  He kept falling until he couldn’t stand it any longer, the enveloping irrelevance of life, the pregnant silences endured until life ends.   The power and the glory of Nothing.  Amen.

He envisioned himself in a dark hole, a coffin, closed in, unable to move – an anonymous being with life no more yet aware of his end, that there would be no one touching him, kissing him; no more sound – except for his empty breathing going nowhere.  A sarcophagus of eternal loneliness. That’s what death is, he thought as he tried to see himself like his father in the blackness of space forever gone.   An impenetrable irony, that’s what life is, he told himself.  A god-awful paradox, inconsistencies everywhere.

“What’s the point,” he said to no one.  “What’s the point?”

That was Darwin’s epiphany after all, Raúl concluded, from a tiny cell to unbeing.  That’s life.  A profound tragedy, a joke.  No reconciliation whatsoever.  That’s it, regardless of what those little tiny squiggly lines screamed from the stage of a noble microscope that is already perversely designed to look like a question mark.

He sat up and sipped some more – until the Lawrenceburg elixir pushed him down again.  He heard things through the fog.

Flashes of light.  Streaks from somewhere below hit the plane.  Radar reports that a    small boat raced away at 30 knots in a direct line away from the crash site.  Other boats             rushed to the crash site.  Explosive residue.

            Nothing in Raúl’s dreams foreshadowed this future – and he wondered whether his father’s dreams told him anything before his end.  Who would know?  Where was the record?  There were no witnesses.  There was nothing in Raúl’s past that hinted at the suffering and sorrow of this moment, the Wild Turkey just about gone.  Disaster came unexpectedly, as it always does, and what mattered most in that precise moment was another trip to the liquor store.  All death is unnatural – that’s how we experience it anyway.  Unnatural and unforgiving.

Which is when his apartment’s front door buzzer rang – and he suddenly became aware that it must have been the third, maybe the fourth buzz because, this time, the person buzzing hung on and pushed the buzz through the foyer where his lab coat lay and into the kitchen to the living room where he was – and it kept going.   The annoying electric infuriation traveled to his bedroom, bounced back, exasperating him even more.  Or was it the booze and the buzzing, both, that irritated him to a point where he wanted to do violence?

“What? What the fuck? Fuck you,” he yelled at the incessant buzzing.

But there it was again the trying pain, the coarse frustration.  Fuck.

“What …” he yelled and staggered to the speaker on the wall next to the apartment’s front door.
“Professor Sicard’s son.  Raúl Sicard.  His son.  The professor’s only son.  Is it you?  Don’t cut me off.  Don’t.  Wait.  Wait.  I need to see you.  Wait.  Don’t.  The professor’s son.  Please.  Talk to me.  Please.  We need to talk.  You are him, yes?”

Raúl leaned against the wall and shut his eyes.   And hit the buzzer to open the street door to the building and cracked open his apartment door and staggered back to his couch for another bourbon.

It was early evening.  The setting sun was leaving behind a thick haze.  The dog walkers and the Haitian women pushing their Cadillac strollers had long retreated from the murk.  Riverside Drive was quiet, except for an occasional honking of a car horn.  Impatience in people is persistent, no matter what.

Maddy Sachs hesitantly eased into Raúl’s solemn apartment and standing just inside, mouth agape and wide eyed, she scoped the dark kitchen, the rumpled lab coat left on a chair by the entrance and looking like someone in a hurry threw it there with some indifference.   Keys in a bowl.  Mail.

Raúl was outstretched on the couch, an arm over his eyes.  He didn’t budge.  His other hand held a bottle of Wild Turkey 101 as if it was a life preserver on the coffee table beside him.

“Hi,” she said softly, cautiously approaching the couch.  “Hello … Hi … Sorry …,”

she said.

Raúl managed to raise himself to his elbows and said, “Who the hell are you? I don’t know you.  Who are you?”

“I’m … I’m sorry for your loss …”

My fucking loss?  Who are you? What about his?  He lost.  His loss.  He lost big time.  The whole game.  He lost.  Fuck me.  Sorry for him.  No one can say that to him now.  No one.  What do you want to do, pray for him now? Is that why you’re here? Shit.  Who the hell are you?”

Raúl labored to sit up and put his head in his hands and said, “Memory is suffering.  It is.  No one tells you that.  Memory is suffering.”  And he looked up at Maddy.

“Yes.  I know.  I know.  Yes.  I’m sorry.  Still.”

Raúl eased back down and shut his eyes and said, “Wanna drink?  It helps.”

Maddy thought about the first time Javier said that to her, just like that.  “Wanna drink?” They were in an Adams hamburger only joint and he was alive and vibrant, jocular, his forest green eyes bright and smiling.  It was all about tomorrow, no darkness visible anywhere.  And the waitress came over.  And Javier said, “I’m having a bourbon. You?”  And she ordered what he was having wanting to be like him, wanting to be as close as she could be to his way of seeing things, his way of experiencing this journey.  “I’m under age,” she said when the waitress walked away. “Bullshit,” he said.  “You’re mature beyond your years.  Anyway, you’re with me.  There won’t be any questions.  We’ll make believe we’re in Europe – or Latin America.  Anywhere but here.”  When the waitress returned with the drinks, he grinned.  “Well?” he asked, raising his glass and sipping.  “Tell me what you think.  Slowly,” he said and he placed his large hand on hers as Maddy drew the short glass to her lips.  Javier stared at her and smiled.   “Wet your lips first,” he said, keeping his hand on hers – something she was used to by now – until the glass touched her lips.  “Lick them after.  Get a feel for the taste.  And then take a sip – a tiny one so that you can really experience the heat go down, inch-by-inch.  Go ahead.”  She did as instructed.  “That’s it.  Good.  Nice.”  And she felt the heat of the golden rod ooze, tickling her, igniting her.   She grinned and said, “Thank you,” not quite sure why.

“I’m Maddy.  Maddy Sachs.  And I’m a student.  At Adams.  I go there.  I loved your father.  Still, I love him still,” she blurted out not knowing why or where her words came from, but she was sure the sentiment came from somewhere deep in her soul.  “I loved your father,” she said again.  “I was his student.  He was my mentor.  That’s what he was.  He was everything to me.  Better then a father.  More than that.”

She went to the kitchen and searched for a short glass and Raúl, on his elbows now, studied her.   As she poured herself a drink and sipped, Maddy told Raúl about the first time she had a bourbon with his father.   She told him that they met to talk about her writing because she was doing an independent study that Spring, following his Fall seminar, Life and Death in an Unconscious Civilization: A Survivor’s Guide.  “It was unreal,” she said.  “The class was totally unreal.  No one talks like that, like him.  At least I never heard anyone.  Say things like he did.  As they are.  The truth, you know?  Like that.  No one’s around like that,” she told Raúl who didn’t move.  “We are asleep to change, he told us right off the bat.  You’re here, in this class, now, to discover that you’re all sheep being lead to slaughter.  He boomed it out.  Like we were his shinning knights and he our Arthur.  We sat at his round table.   All so eager to please him.  We’d do anything for him.  Like anything.  We felt safe with him.  He made it that way.  He spread himself over us – like a warm blanket or something.  He challenged us – but he made us feel good, like we meant something.”

She took another long sip, as Javier taught her, and said, cautiously, “I … I’m not sure how to say this … I …”

“Just say it,” said Raúl, now sitting up, forearms resting on his thighs so that he could really get a good look at Maddy for the first time, her blue eyes, her uncombed, long blond hair.     She stood over him like an angel ready to announce something or other.  Make a declaration about the world he was to inhabit.  Or give him a warning.  Maybe she was going to describe a picture that would tell Raúl how things would be from now on.

“Just say what you need to say.  My father and me, we’re alike that way.  It’s best to just say things and let the cards fall where they may.”

“I’m … I’m not sure what happened.  I mean.  I’m not sure.  Not sure why things have come to this.  I was there last year.  At Adams.  That’s what I’m saying.  I was there with him.  All sorts of shit went down.  But I’m not sure what I saw.  Can anyone bare witness?  Who can tell?  Who’s there to verify, like things, you know?  What you see, right?  I don’t want to be petrified after I confess what I saw.  It’s all so strange and confusing.  I can’t put my finger on it.  I feel this thing.  I don’t know.  In the pit of my stomach.  An ache, like nausea, something.  Like I want to throw up all the time.”

“Ah…That.  I don’t know either – and I’m suppose to know these things.  How lives adapt – or not.  I’m not sure of anything anymore.   My world is upside down and I’m having a hard time seeing.  Maybe I should take up praying – but he’d find that absurd.  I can’t focus.  On anything.”

“Me too.  Like I can’t either.   I don’t know… I’m not sure of anything anymore, either.  I’m not sure what to do.  The dead.  They never really go, do they?  Death seems to be just another form.  I see him everywhere.  They don’t depart, like we say, do they?  They do something but they don’t leave.  Like he’s pushing me now.  I can feel it; it’s coming from him.  What does it mean, to die?”

“All I seem to understand is that we don’t ever really know why lives end.  I can give you all sorts of scientific reasons – lack of mutation, no adaptation, deterioration, environmental causes, diseases and where they come from.  All that shit.   I can give you all that.  All the reasons in the world.  With a capital R.  But – fuck – it doesn’t seem to help.  At one time.  Before this.  Before this thing, I thought that science was enough.  All I needed to believe.  Now I’m not so sure.  Now I’m totally out of it.  I see science.  I get it.   But all it’s telling me is that we’re not even sure what it is we’re suppose to do with the life we have.  The purpose of a person’s life is lost on us.  It happens all too fast.  And time, we’re left with time.  Time is mourning.  Time mourns.   We spend our lives conjecturing about the meaning of someone else’s life instead because we can’t stand the fact that time reminds us of loss, always.  So we’d rather study lives.  We spend so much time quantifying every single little aspect of every single moment of our time on earth, the minutia, that we forget to live.  Then it’s gone.  Over.  Just like that.  Gone.   Time wins.  It constricts.  It gets narrower.  We forget what living is – or should be.  Maybe that’s what we mourn – ourselves.  That we lose ourselves in time.”

“He had a purpose.  He wasn’t like that.  He knew how to live.  That’s what was so attractive about him.  Why we were so drawn to him.  So nothing makes sense to me.  That’s all I know.  I’m not sure of anything anymore.  Nothing.  It’s as if his reason for being was denied – taken away.  It seems like an irony of the most tragic proportions.”

“And what was that, Maddy?  His purpose.”

“To be who he was, how he was – even for a short time.  He used to tell me that I was an old soul – but I think he was.  He was the oldest soul I’ve ever known.  So wise.  He made me, you know.  I believe that.  He did.  Like he helped make me.  He gave me purpose.  Shaped me somehow.  I know it.  I knew it every time we were together.  I felt different afterwards.  Even after class.  Always.  Like after every talk, I could see how the world changed for me.  It was as if every time we spoke, he…he like lifted another veil, peeled back the onion a bit.  Then another layer.  And another.  And it all suddenly stopped.  Just like that.   The suddenness worries me.  The unpredictability.”

“Sudden death.”

“He probably made you, too.  Right?   Something about you.  I don’t know.  Something beyond just having people be frank and honest.”

“So we’re his adaptations.”

“I don’t know what you call it.  But I do know that he’s still with me … and … and … I don’t know.  Like I’m running this past year through my head.  Over and over, you know.  I’ve been doing this all along since … And I can’t get this past year out of my head and … like I can only conclude that something happened … Something happened and it lead to this – to me here; you – and I can’t put my finger on what it is.  Something happened.  I know it.  It’s all twisted together.  Connected like to this point.  Because things aren’t suppose to end like this.  Not his life anyway.”

“You’re young Maddy.  Thinks like this happen all the time – just not to us.  That’s what we think.  It’s why we feel this way.  It’s the stuff we read about – see in movies.   But it’s never about us.  Never.  That’s the fallacy.”

“I just can’t see the signs yet.  But something happened.   I swear.  I’m looking hard because something is not right with the universe.   He’d say that.  He used to say that.   But now I can feel it.  I know what he meant.  He would feel it, I think.  He’d think the same way.  I’m sure of it.  He’d think that.”

“Yes, he died.  He’s dead.  My father … My poor old man … Mi viejo is dead.  That’s what happened.  That’s not right.  Yes.  That’s not right.  An unfortunate sudden death, along with many others.  An epic tragedy.   And we’re asked to move on.   Leave them behind.  That’s what we’re asked.  Life goes on.  That’s what makes things feel so – I don’t know – out of place. Strange life goes on and a tragedy grows and simmers.  And the days continue.  Morning to night.  Birds sing, the sun rises and sets, the grass grows.  Again and again.  Time elapses.  Criminals rob, stocks go up and down, dogs shit on the streets.  Life – the movement of it, you know – goes on.”

“A terrible beauty is born,” Maddy blurted out.

“Yes.  Indeed.  Nicely put.  That says it.  A terrible beauty.”

“That’s not me.  It’s Yeats.  It just came out of me – like it was the only thing I could say and I couldn’t stop it.”
“And the distance becomes greater – it widens.  A terrible beauty is born and we learn to live with it when we gain some distance.  We write poems about it.  A sort of coming to terms with how perverse it is.   An unexplainable understanding that words can’t describe.  How this thing we can’t name eased in, slowly.  We can’t explain a thing.  So we go on because we can’t face the fact that we have no record of his life.  There’s no body.  No sign of him.  No evidence.  Nothing.  No last words.  No good-byes.  No memorials.   No comforting words from Jesus saying something about preparing a place for us when he comes knocking.  Nothing of the usual we see in movies.  No answers.  Just dull recollections.  And we’re all twisted up in knots.  Take another sip of your bourbon, Maddy.  It’ll help.”

She did and said, “We have his books.”

“When people die we want to see them.  We want to touch them.  Say something.  See them off.  When they die prematurely and we don’t have evidence, things are much worse.  Much worse.  We go into a tail spin.”

“I’m worried,”  said Maddy, taking another sip of her bourbon, shutting her eyes so as to better feel the slow burn, and pursing her lips.

“About?”

“I’m worried.  That’s all.  I’m not sure how to explain it,” said Maddy and she walked over to the window Raúl always used as his respite and stared out, as he once did, at the Hudson River and the graying Palisades.  “You have an incredible view,” she said.  The sun was easing into the horizon, releasing the earth from the indolence it brought forth.

Raúl lifted himself off the couch as if he was bearing a great weight and for the first time in three days went to his window and stood next to Maddy.  And he recognized things.

“It’s all new.   It seems new.  All of it.  But I recognize it.  Like I’ve been here before some other time.  Another life, maybe.  I don’t know anything anymore.  I don’t know what will happen next.”

“I have an uneasy feeling,”  said Maddy.  “I’m scared.  I don’t know why but I’m scared. I have a pit in my stomach.”

“It’s just that this thing is fresh.  It’s opened up new feelings we don’t understand.  Maybe never will.”

“No.  I don’t think so.  I understand what you’re saying.  I realize I’m feeling love for him – and I can’t express that to him.  It’s too late for that.  I didn’t tell him when he was alive – but like I think he knew.  I have this feeling of tremendous loss.  I wasted that.  I can only blame myself.  I should have done something about it, let him know – something.  I should have and I hate myself for that.  I wasted it.  But no.  It’s not that.”

Raúl turned to Maddy.  He saw what his father saw – the muscular shoulders, the strong jaw and her full lips.  Her surety.  And he felt as if he had known her for a long time, as if her appearance came with an unannounced expectation of long ago.  He recognized something in her but he couldn’t quite put a finger on what it was.  They knew each other.  Maybe it was his father that he was seeing in her.  He recognized him, there, in her.  His imprint.

“Are you done with school?”

“No.  I have a year.  I don’t know how I’m going to do it.  I have so much on my mind.  I … I just don’t know.”

“Tell me,” he said.

Maddy turned to Raúl and looked up to his blue eyes like the sky.  “You look like him,” she said.  “You know.  You do.  Like I can see it.  You’re like him, too.  I can see that too.  He’d push aside anything that would be an obstacle to us.  You just did that – and at such a difficult time for you.  I appreciate it.   I do.  Thank you for listening.  For reaching out.  He was like that.  He was like that from the start.  With everyone.   Even when I first met him.   He didn’t have to talk to me.  But he did.”  Maddy paused and looked down at her glass.   Sipped.  “Maybe he’s right here right now,” she said.  “Wouldn’t that be something.”

“Something,” said Raúl.  “Something.”

They stood like that, looking into each other’s eyes and didn’t say a word.  Raúl reached for Maddy and put his arms around her and drew her in and held her.  He could feel her body give.  She cried, as if pulling her to him gave her permission to feel the deep sorrow she carried beneath her stoicism.  He held her tighter and stroked her head and kissed the top of it, inhaling her every time.  She buried her head even deeper into his chest.  He encircled her neck with his right arm, his left arm across her back, and drew her even closer, wishing that she could pass through him at that moment – he through her.  And somehow, together, his father, Javier Sicard, would become something else like this, another form with them.  A life without end in the darkest of places where the heart aches and bends.

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The Edge of Sorrow

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“Providence sometimes foreshadows the future of men in dreams, not so that they may be able to avoid the sufferings fated for them, for they can never get the better of destiny, but in order that they may bear them with the more patience when those sufferings come; for when disasters come all together and unexpectedly, they strike the spirit with so severe and sudden a blow that they overwhelm it; while if they are anticipated, the mind, by dwelling on them beforehand, is able little by little to turn the edge of sorrow.”

Achilles Tatius in The Adventures of Leucippe and Clitophon

 

To say it less sublimely, —in the history of the individual is always an account of his condition, and he knows himself to be a party to his present estate.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Conduct of Life

 

DNA is a relatively rigid polymer, typically modeled as a worm-like chain.  It has three significant degrees of freedom: bending, twisting and compression, each of which causes particular limitations on what is possible with DNA within a cell.  Bending or axial stiffness is important for DNA wrapping and circularization and protein interactions.  Twisting or torsional stiffness is important for the circularization of DNA and the orientation of DNA bound proteins relative to each other. Compression or extension is relatively unimportant in the absence of high tension.

PART ONE: BENDING

July 17, 1996

New York City, Upper West Side

Life’s din diminished some in the small moment when he pulled open his apartment window with such expectation that the last few inches the window flew up knew only his eagerness.  But on this day, July 17, 1996, the window got stuck halfway up.  He stared at it, hands on his hips, perturbed at the window’s unexpected stubbornness.  He loved watching the window reach its conclusion without him.  Humidity, no doubt.  Summer in the city.

He smacked it with the heel of his hands and muscled it open the rest of the way.

He placed his palms on the external, coarse sill and exhaled his frustration and leaned into the horizon – the Hudson River and the Jersey Palisades across the way and the George Washington bridge just north beaming a dull evening gray.

He waited all day to tilt into the picture.  He loved the patience evening brought, especially in mid summer when the heat and humidity pressed against him.  He arched his back and stretched and inhaled the tide’s dank odor.

He panned down six stories and set his eyes on an incongruous dance of Poodles and Labradoodles and French Bulldogs and a Great Dane and a German Shepherd and a Chihuahua and a couple of Golden Retrievers held easily by a dog walker in a weathered Yankee baseball cap.

The dogs sniffed the smells coming from a square earth and lifted their legs to trees and squatted when they recognized something.   The dog walker was graceful, never entangled in the leashes held to one hand, then the other, the exchanges fluid and experienced as if it was all meant to be like this.

The Great Dane and the Chihuahua and the Bulldog dumped together, responding to some great secret unknown to man.  The rest waited, and the dog walker studied them.

A country dog doesn’t lift his leg to a tree, not always, not necessarily, thought Dr. Raúl Sicard.  There’s no reason to, no threat to its territory.  The country dog roams unencumbered across a larger earth and squats.

Dr. Raúl Sicard wanted to believe that there was some luck to his life.  That would be romantic.  But luck had little play.   His life was ordained, a design with some options guided by the instinct to survive.  He was sure of it.  He was certain Darwin was right.  Adaptation and creativity go hand-in-hand and life is one large adaptation atoning to the unforeseeable – otherwise extinction follows.

Dr. Sicard, Raúl, often thought about his responsibility – the study of gene-environment interactions and how selection evaluates these relations.   For over a year – since his doctorate in Genetics, Stanford University – Raúl examined ecologically important genes in a shimmering lab at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in the upper west side of Manhattan.

During his breaks, when he managed to will his head up from a microscope, Raúl strolled to the George Washington Bridge to study its scars.   He went to the bridge to be away from the lab’s sterility, its shiny evangelical promise, and smell the clammy mid summer air, feel the earth beneath his feet, perspire like everyone else pushing through lives.

He studied the wounds on the bridge’s underbelly to see if they said anything about the fifty-five forgotten men left to the silence of time.  He craned his head until his neck pained him and stiffened, and wondered.

It helped keep his head focused on where things come from and maybe he could make evolutionary predictions, establish principles.  At Columbia Presbyterian, Raúl wanted to understand what reproductive strategies must be used in the future to minimize stress on our tired biosphere.  He depended on histories.  He looked for stories in the smallest of things, cells.  He looked for sure signs.

But when he pulled open his apartment window and stepped into the frame he didn’t want to continue thinking about limitations and outcomes.  He was done with the censors and motivators that exist in the brain and that deeply and unconsciously affect ethical premises.  The day was over.   He wanted to leave it behind.

He wanted to lose himself in the dog walker – an adaptation, an offspring that survived it all so far.   A ancient herdsman, perhaps, like the ones we see on elysian fields in travel brochures to Scotland and Ireland and France, now a dog walker.

Haitian women rushed stately blue strollers with large white wheels around the dog walker scooping up the steamy remains with a hand gloved in a baggie.  The other held the dog web.

Up and down Riverside Drive and across Joan of Arc Park, in the promising glow of summer evening, went these intertwining objects – the dog walkers and the Haitian women and their stately strollers.

When the phone rang and the sadness arrived and pushed aside everything familiar to him and stopped him from stretching as far as he could into the picture of the Palisades knocking at him.

He held the grainy sill and turned to the ring that tempted the faith he found in his routines.

There was a weight in the room that came out of nowhere – yet it was old and familiar, in the pit of his stomach, a sense of things lost, gloom.

Raúl faced the phone.  He held the sill with his left hand, unable to give it up all the way, and leaned in.

The knots in his spine that would otherwise crack and unwind the fatigue that amassed from hours curled over a microscope deciphering the nucleic acid that contains the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms tightened.

The sadness multiplied.  He had no explanation for it, dumbfounded.  He liked knowing where things came from, how they evolved, what changed them, how they appear.  How things appear even suddenly like the ring of the phone that hung in the air with the sadness.

He traced his steps for signs.  Just a few moments before the first ring he entered his apartment and dropped the keys in the bowl on the table beneath the mirror near the front door and draped his lab coat over the chair meant just for that otherwise it would be useless.  Grabbed a beer and turned on the TV for noise.   But at some point that day, the sadness must have begun to set in unnoticed.  Maybe the sadness had been there all along.

The phone rang again.

He could consider the ring’s origin or rather the origin of the intuition he had that came with the ring and told him that something happened and he was involved.  But that was too much, too far to go.

Something traveled the distance and found him and opened a black hole and he didn’t want to be present.  He didn’t want to be sucked in.  Know its spiral history.  This is what humans do, he thought, run for cover – and wait and adapt slowly, hopefully.  Those that can’t adapt don’t make it, ever.   They have no hope.  Hope grows from adaptation.  It’s the single most important characteristic of evolution, adaptation.  From here, all springs forth – but especially hope.  No hope, no survival.  And the end, the true end of everything.

Raúl looked out the window and off in the east the moon was already there.

“It’s always already there,” he said, pushing out a whisper, a way to test his voice and see if he wasn’t dreaming.  “Like everything else.  Six inches from our noses.  Always.”

The ring told him that events had unfolded and suddenly just like that he was in.  He had been on one side of the looking glass and now on the other side nothing was recognizable.  A chill ran up his spine.  He felt bound.  In the lab life laid down road signs, roots to instincts that he could quantify.  There was nothing to measure here.

He turned and inhaled again, just to take a final whiff of the thick, clammy air. Maybe, just maybe what he was feeling was all an illusion, a figment of his exhausted imagination.  But  nothing. He lost the scent.

He retraced himself.  But there was no way to revise the day, see it fully in memory’s half-light.  The phone pawed at him trying to get to where the heart is.

After working in the lab he and friends sat in a sidewalk café across from Lincoln Center and had Brooklyn summer ales and dreamt of things that may never come to pass.  On a  cloudless bright day, they descended into the murky subway station on 161st and took the train to 72nd Street and strolled to 64th.   It was a who cares and so what moment, he called it, because in the design of things, who knows – really – what the next moment can bring.  It was important to have a philosophy, something to hold him up.

When everything is touched by the human hand, he believed, randomness takes on a whole different meaning.  It conceals the real order.  It assumes a privileged place.  But randomness itself is part of the order of things.  He knew that – that’s what he saw swimming on a microscope’s stage.

Wednesdays are halfway moments between the noise that is and the noise that was.   And the noise that’s yet to arrive unannounced is always there too.  That’s how Raúl saw things.  But we never hear the noise that’s yet to come, ever.

He allowed himself a smoke on Wednesdays, a Marlboro Light.  Often more then one.  He dangled it from his mouth like his father did – “It’s just social,” his father said.  Raúl took his time with it, sat back and rubbed his right hand across his unshaven face all in one smooth motion. He liked nothing better than not shaving on days like this because it showed that he was in the thick of it, living.  He rubbed his hand across his face and chin a couple of times.  There was comfort in seeing himself like this, not saying anything of importance, pointing to interesting passersby, with each puff challenging alterations deep in the nomenclature of life in the helix.  But it didn’t matter.  Everything is already determined.  Everything.  We fool ourselves thinking that it’s not.

A Guatemalteco on the corner selling dolls with bouncing heads, a Jamaican next to him selling antique copies of Paris Match and Look and National Geographic in several languages, the skinny invisible woman with tattoos of crosses and peace signs on either hand and barely able to stand on the corner waiting for pedestrians to push by and she’d mumble spare some change as they forget her, a picture of an extinction, something that no one wants to see intimately, the end of an adaptation.  Someone’s daughter.  A failure to create.  She was being run over by the evolving.  She would not be.  It’s been determined like this, how it all goes. No second chances.  No overtime.

When the phone rang he was having a beer in his apartment and getting ready to meet friends again that night to ogle girls in a bar somewhere near Columbia University.  No commitments, just ogling.  Everyone on the same page gauging each other’s reproductive investments.

He tried ignoring the third ring, its persistence.  It came from somewhere deep in the coil, he was certain of that too.  All things do.  That’s the design.  Wednesday, July 17, 1996 was determined long ago.

He turned to the hum of the TV.  It helped him think and it distracted him, made his life noisier even though it wasn’t his.  Now it was his life.  He grabbed his beer, waiting for the phone to ring again, wondering whether to answer or to let the answering machine do the work and buy him time.  He gulped his beer.

On the TV, a voice over a static map of Long Island filled the room with sadness.  That’s when the phone rang a fourth time, its red flash igniting the papers on the desk next to it and the bills waiting for another week.   An inexorable eye looking back at him.

Nothing mattered now.  Except the fifth ring.  Its sound hung in the air, hollow.  The phone and the TV.  Wednesday’s safety was gone.

 

At 8:45P.M, eleven minutes after take-off from Kennedy International Airport, TWA flight 800, bound for Paris, France, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Long Island.  Witnesses say they saw a bright flash in the sky.  But nothing is certain.  There are no causes known at this time.  The Coast Guard responded immediately, dispatching numerous search and rescue vessels.  The New York City Police Department, the New York State Police Department, and the Suffolk County Police Department have all responded as well.  The National Transportation Safety Board has dispatched a team from New Jersey.  And we’ve been informed that numerous private vessels are also involved in this initial search and recovery effort…

 

The phone rang again.

“Papá,” he whispered.

Raúl said it just to hear himself say it, to test its feel and the emptiness that arrives with flashes from a life lived, rattles you and tempts your faith, a specter that arrives in the weak light of suffering memory.

“Papá,” he whispered again.

It filled the room, repeating itself, over and over again and again, dying to reappear, always.

“Papá.   Papá.”

It overwhelmed everything.  The sanctity of his routine, the lab, the dog walkers and their dogs crapping and the Haitian maids and their Cadillac strollers.

He picked up the phone and staggered.

He felt him there, the ghost of his father standing beside him as still as recollections tend to be where light suddenly is as darkness and the darkness is where we are and where we will be.  Where the problems of the heart live.  The sadness was new and full.

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

Continue Reading:

Edge of Sorrow – Second Movement

Edge of Sorrow – Third Movement

 

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 … 

On Getting Lost, a new blog … and an invite

Several of us, motivated by Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, have created Getting Lost, a blog that asks a simple question found in Solnit’s book:  “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?”

About Getting Lost tells the seed for this blog – and invites all of you to participate.  It’s indeed open to all and we want to see what kinds of stories, essays, images, etc., are generated around the notion of getting lost.  

Please visit us – an intro post is already up, “Lost in the Most Unlikely of Places…”  Enjoy.  A new experiment.  Take the plunge…

A New Consolidation of Power

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

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


A New Consolidation of Power

Javier Sicard                                                                                           November 30, 1995

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work Today and the Loss of the Sublime

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is happiness today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Under the Hood of Education: A View of the Classroom

Often, when I’m out socially (this is rare), I am asked about “education.” The questions go like this: “How’s school?” “Are you done yet?” “What do you think (about this or that on the news or concerning an opinion someone has heard)?”

I’ve found that the best way to respond is by telling a story that lifts the hood and exposes the education engine — or at at least a part of the engine. So here’s a story …

I teach a course that’s a typical (perhaps not ?) composition course for students who may lack some confidence writing — yes, even at Middlebury. It’s called Writing Workshop 0101A (I didn’t come up with the title; you can’t access the course without a password). Students read challenging literature, gain confidence interpreting what they read and learn how to move these interpretations into subjects for their writing. Easier said then done.

I’ve designed the course so that we read only one novel the entire 12 week semester, Don DeLillo’s 827 page Underworld (1997). Students always complain that they are given too much work; that they don’t have time to effectively ingest all the material that they’re given; that they learn for the test, then forget the material. I therefore pace this course as a response to these critical points, giving students the necessary time — and space — to think and reflect, dialog and write.

Students read approximately 160 pages every other week. The in-between weeks are for writing: students come into class with rough drafts and we peer-review; they also receive comments from me, one-on-one, and come to my office, too, to discuss their work as it’s being written. Lots of scaffolding. The course is labor intensive. Leading up to these writing workshop weeks, students are given in-class prompts relevant to what we’re reading in Underwrold — a passage, perhaps, or an entire section. Online, prior to coming to the class discussion on a particular sequence, students have been capturing major ideas and themes and posting them on a forum; they respond to each other, establishing a mellower, online version of our discussions. (I use these to touch on major points students make, and lecture in the gray areas.) Writing, then, happens all the time; it’s a model I want students to have: writing is not just for a grade, rather it’s a practice that should genuinely be done all the time; it’s a way to learn, to see yourself thinking; it’s a way to make sure we don’t lose what we’re thinking; and writing engenders life-long learning, which is what everyone in education says is desired.

For example (I’m trying to be quick about this explanation), Underworld begins with the famous prologue, “The Triumph of Death.” “He speaks in your voice, American,” says DeLillo, “and there’s a shine in his eyes that’s halfway hopeful.” The implications of this line for the rest of the narrative are significant — and daunting. We spend about 25 or so minutes discussing this line and the different paths it gives us into the narrative. Then I give the students a writing prompt (and 10 or so minutes to write in class, afterwards they share their insights): think back to a significant moment in your life that changed your life; this event was perhaps unexpected — or perhaps it was planned — either way, before the event you had one perspective, after you had another: what was going on in your life, the conditions of your life, including your community, family, and so on? what lead you to this event? what happened? Take us through it. And on the other end, the moral of the story is …?

I keep repeating these prompts, in different ways, circling the class, until all heads are down and the students are writing. I don’t care if students write on paper or on a computer (I have no rules against computers in the class, finding these, well, for lack of a better word, stupid: if you’re going to teach this generation, you better get used to — and learn how to — work with computers, cells phones, tablets, etc., in your class, otherwise you have no business being in the classroom).

In all, students will write 5 official essays in the course ( 5 – 7 pages each). What’s significant is that each student essay grows from this intial writing exersice, giving (a) students an entry into Underdworld (b), evolving a theme of the course: a piece of writing, a note, scribbling, a response to a prompt, done at any time, is relevant and can — and must — be used to evolve the more formal writing, and, finally, (c) students learn that they’re going to see, in Underworld, the narrative proper, only what they bring (experience) to the reading and writing act.

The role of the teacher in a writing course is to tap into these student experiences — the knowledge students already bring to the table. In a safe, creative space, students will expand creatively, moving from the deeply personal to the more subtle and complex world(s) of Underworld — but always able to see their signature, which began in their first paper. This is how writers work. I’ve chosen never to cloud this up with ridiculous rhetoric.

Sorry it took this long to get to this last point — what exactly is the knowledge students bring to the table? — but it’s critical to the rest of the story.

It’s important to note, at this time, that this exercise, these lessons, Underworld, is all happening inside an elite liberal arts college in New England. That is to say, we need to understand that the work I’m describing — and doing here — happens behind the hallowed ivy walls of a tradition that suggests that students are learning to think critically on their way to becoming strong, mindful and empathetic, self-reliant democractic citizens; that this tradition is “influenced by the Stoic goals of self-command, or taking charge of one’s own life through reasoning,” says Martha Nussbaum in Cultivating Humanity. And that what I’m trying to do, again quoting Nussbaum, is to arouse the mind, which is essential “for citizenship and for life, of producing students who can think clearly and justify their views.” In education, any other mission is a waste of time.

So now you have a context. And now you can begin to understand what may be going on in education when you see the rest of the story. Here we go: One day, I come to class — this is 3/4’s of the way through the semester, between weeks 8 – 9, and students are pretty accustomed to how we’re working — having in mind to go over a challenging passage in Underworld.

In typical DeLillo fashion, we have beautiful writing, a conflation of the historical with the personal, the psychological and the emotional, and the culture. “On a large console the screen was split four ways and the headshot ran in every sector and, ‘It’s outside language,’ Miles said, which is his way of saying far-out, or too much, or the other things they used to say …”

The key, here, is “headshot.” It’s JFK’s murder in Dallas on that fateful day that seemed to change the country — or, perhaps, the country had already changed and the murder was simply its symptom, a final event lifting the curtain so that Vietnam and Nixon, Watergate and the culture of cynicism we’re in now could emerge.

DeLillo continues: ” … and here was an event that took place at the beginning of the sixties, seen belatedly, that now marked the conceptual end, carrying all the delirium that floated through the age, and people stood around and talked, a man and woman made out in a closet with the door open, remotely, and the pot fumes grew stronger, and people said, ‘Let’s go eat,’ or whatever people say when a thing begins to be over” (496).

In a liberal arts environment full of inquirying minds, one would want students to pick up on “the beginning of the sixities,” “the delirium that floated through the age, “the pot fumes” (the very least), and wonder about that “headshot” that’s “outside language,” exciting a need to know; this creative disruption should, then, launch students into a Google search to come to understand how and why “the screen split four ways” and “the headshot” actually mark “the conceptual end” of an age. Reading is a contact sport and this is the work of reading critically.

DeLillo adds yet two more hints for an easy Google search: Elm Street and Zapruder. Here’s how it reads, finally, bringing the entire passage to a close:

It ran continuously, a man in his forties in a suit and tie, and all the sets were showing slow motion now, riding in a car with his confident wife, and the footage took on a sense of elegy, running even slower, running down, a sense of greatness really, the car’s regal gleam and the muder of some figure out of the dimmest lore — a greatness, a kingliness, the terrible mist of tissue and skull, so massively slow, on Elm Street, and they got something to eat and went to the loft, where they played cards for a couple of hours and did not talk about Zapruder. (496)

There it is — the images are running “continuously” on TV, hence suggesting the importance of “the murder of some figure out of the dimmest lore”; these give off a “sense of greatness”, and there’s a car that has a “regal gleam,” a la Camelot, and the horrid — and beautifully described, capturing the culture to be, the one needing reality TV — “terrible mist of tissue and skull,” moving slowly on “Elm Street” (the motorcade had to proceed to Dealey Plaza, before exiting onto the Stemmons Freeway, again turning onto Elm, from a segment of Main Street, the often disputed and critical change of plans).

DeLillo ends the entire passage with, of course, the most critical of signs, Zapruder, which should, if nothing else, send readers off into a quick but meaningful search to learn it’s function. In other words, if all other rather emphatic signs are missed or dispensed with, finding the significance of Zapruder would create a domino affect and everything would cascade into a single understanding. This is how great writing works. There is a key, a sign-function that opens doors (though these lead to other doors).

When I Googled Zapruder, before class, it took less then 3 seconds to see the first, full suggestion, “Zapruder film,” followed by the second, “Zapruder.” I chose “Zapruder,” not film, thinking that a student may push aside “film” since it’s not in the passage (even though there are images running “continously” on TV). The entire reference is here. This Google exercise, including reading the entry, took no more then 5 minutes to complete.

Back in class, I looked around and asked, after opening up to the passage and re-reading it to the class (students read it for homework a week earlier!), “What is Zapruder? Who or what is Zapruder?”

No answer. Thick silence. (There is creative, necessary silence a teacher works for in a class, and there is non-creative silence, the kind only someone dumbfounded relies on. This was the latter.) By now in the semester, students are not intimidated; we’ve joked around enough and they’ve learned that I’m not someone that creates an inhospitable environment — just the opposite. The learning space I create is open, welcoming, suggesting to students that they can take chances because they’re supported. In fact — not to boast but to give you a full picture — this is indeed my reputation judging from 27 years worth of students’ evaluations performed every single semester I’ve taught.

So then I say, “Someone Google it, please. Google Zapruder.”

In seconds, a few students find Zapruder and one kid reads: “The Zapruder film is a silent, color motion picture sequence shot by private citizen Abraham Zapruder with a home-movie camera, as U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade passed through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963, thereby unexpectedly capturing the President’s assassination.”

The students leaned back, “Oh…,” some say. And if the students would have kept reading the entry, they would have learned about Elm Street.

I leaned forward, and asked, “When you guys read, how many of you have computers open?”

Just about every single student raised her/his hand.

“And are these computers open to Google, Facebook, Twitter? What?”

Students said that their computers are open to just about all of these — multiple windows — including (ironically) Wikipedia for some. (Is the notion of “Windows” also ironic, the deepest and darkest irony, I wonder? Windows to what?)

“And so, in the course of the semester, when we read, how often do you think I ask you guys, in class, to turn to Google and look something up?”

“You always do that,” they answered in unison. Some nodded, “Yeah. Always. We always do it. ”

“So could this be a hint? A suggestion? Something at all that may, at some point, suggest to you that what I’m asking you to do is to look things up, quite easily, using the technology at our fingertips?”

Silence, again. Students look away, down at their iPads and MacBook Pros.

New Yorker Cover, May 28, 2012. A picture says it all.

There are three distinct challenges higher education is facing: For American students, the challenge is obvious: international students are gobbling up resources and advancing efficiently, particularly in science and economics and technology, creating spaces for themselves, in the U.S. and abroad, and American students have yet to wake up to the fact that, as Thomas Friedman said years ago, the world is indeed flat ; that this race to have the most luxurious “stately pleasure – dome…Enfolding sunny spots of greenery,” as Coleridge says, particularly when we add labor costs — faculty with PhDs and the large staff needed to maintain this “miracle of rare device” — is not sustainable. (Elite institutions, recognizing that change is inevitable, have begun to address this problem.) And the last, the third challenge, perhaps the most critical of all, is that we’re not sure what our students bring to our classrooms — emotionally, psychologically and knowledge: the culture has had an effect on our students and we don’t yet know what this is, though we’re experiencing what we call something, an unknowable, perhaps, something strange and different, unfamiliar.

We’re not talking about who our students are and how they may perceive the world we’re trying to squeeze them into.

I’ve been in higher education for 27 years. I have seen a lot of changes and I’ve seen a lot that looks like change but is nothing more than smoke and mirrors. But perhaps the biggest change has been the student. We need to engage our students differently so as to better learn who they are and what they want; we need to also better engage the world outside the ivy because it, too, has changed and it’s not at all what we perceive it to be.

A huge change in the American student — leaving aside the other two distinct challenges facing American higher education — is found in the story I tell.

In a recent News Hour interview, Andrew Delbanco, Columbia University professor, speaking about his book, College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be,” tries to defend the traditional four-year college experience with a liberal arts education, joining a long list of scholars addressing the issue, and finds that the liberal arts, four-year experience is “not lost, but I think it’s under threat from many directions. And much of that is understandable. The anxiety that parents feel about the cost of colleges … It’s well – place anxiety.”

But when we look at the cost of a four-year liberal arts education, we’re failing to place this in a greater context that is more threatening to a democracy, which is our allegiance to mindless corporatism that has a primary function of scorning knowledge itself. This is why students, sitting with computers open to Google, cannot make the connection and search for Zapruder even though the behavior has been modeled in class time and time again. Thus, as John Ralston Saul says in The Unconscious Civilization, probably the best thinking on this subject, we have been given permission to “interiorize an artificial vision of civilization as a whole.” Students may see Google as part of their world, not ours, in academia, with our demands and constraints. Google, and other systems, are their liberating tools; when brought into the confines of a traditional classroom and used as a tool rather then a liberating break from confusion, a student’s identity is challenged — his or her sense of self is upside down. They’ve been taught, always, to have neat lines of demarcation that define pleasure and work — and school is work since it’s valued as a system for socio-economic success. Zapruder is therefore irrelevant to a student’s vision of reality. Students actually said this. Students embrace ideologies that insist on the “oppressive air of conformity” that “force public figures to conform or be ruined on the scaffold of ridicule.” Doubting and questioning are gone, then. “The citizen is reduced to the state of the subject or even of the serf.” Our students come into our classrooms already reluctant to challenge their position — subjects; they’ve been lead to this because they’ve never been taught to think for themselves and learn through experience. For many students, their lives have been managed.

Our communication technologies, our culture that holds fashion to the highest levels, though it’s the lowest form of ideology, is what paralyzes students that have been spoon fed a culture that insists they be driven to play dates, organized games, the proper college prep courses, the right channels to elite instituions. What is behind this narrative, though, is crude “individualism and false modernism,” leading to a life in a void. Instinct and common sense are lost. They’ve been taught that the world is hostile and that life is a competition. The horror. They can’t connect to Google in an academic setting, even if it’s to their benefit. The student sees absolutely nothing important, nothing relevant in the action of Googling Zapruder so the meaning of the DeLillo passage has been completely lost. But that’s okay, for students. The meaning of the passage, its significance in the narrative is not relevant; it’s an exercise we’ll go over in class. What is relevant is simply getting through the course, nothing more, since this is what’s being promoted culturally: get a degree in something meaningful and this will give you a good life. Students are taught to follow, not to pursue creative disruptions of the status quo.

I feel for my students. I care for them. I have kids their age as well. I feel for all these kids in school today, graduating tomorrow, because I wonder whether they can think critically, critique, fear not standing out because they question.

I leaned forward, again, and said to the class, “Remember this day when you’re handed your diplomas. I want you to go to your parents and thank them. Say, Thank you for spending over a quarter of a million dollars to make sure I’m one more sheep that will follow on command.”

I wasn’t expecting the students’ reaction. They laughed. “Professor Vila, you’re so funny,” they said. “So funny.”

I leaned back in my chair, briefly thinking that I wanted to jump out a window — and I’ve not stopped thinking about this day since.

Says Saul,

We can now add to the list such simple battles as that for consciousness versus the comfort of remaining in the unconscious; responsibility versus passivity; doubt versus certainty; delight in the human condition or sympathy for the condition of others versus self-loathing and cynism regarding the qualities of others.

So, “how’s school?” “What do you think?”