I don’t know how I got here. But I do know that what I do has meaning because it’s real—life and death. I’ve put myself inside a dead animal and extracted life out of it. And when I enter a classroom at Middlebury College, my only instinct is to reach for the students’ hearts because, after all, this is where life begins and ends. The farm is hopeful. Students are hopeful. The farm and the college are the same; they are fields that can be joyful if we’re true, honest, nurturing. The work is in moving aside the manure, using it for something better. That’s what I know to be true. That and death. In between there are choices; these depend on listening and experience. It’s not an intellectual exercise; that comes after all else is exhausted. – Read more of On Being: Something Grand and Strong @ Community Works Journal …
Rebecca Solnit ends her letter, (though it was published, online, in The Guardian, on October 15, 2012, I’ve just run into it and find it – still – relevant for many reasons, which I’ll try to capture here), by saying the following :
There are really only two questions for activists: what do you want to achieve? And who do you want to be? And those two questions are deeply entwined. Every minute of every hour of every day you are making the world, just as you are making yourself, and you might as well do it with generosity and kindness and style. That is the small ongoing victory on which great victories can be built, and you do want victories, don’t you? Make sure you’re clear on the answer to that, and think about what they would look like.
Solnit also says:
There is idealism somewhere under this pile of bile, the pernicious idealism that wants the world to be perfect and is disgruntled that it isn’t – and that it never will be. That’s why the perfect is the enemy of the good. Because, really, people, part of how we are going to thrive in this imperfect moment is through élan, esprit de corps, fierce hope and generous hearts.
Solnit is, for me anyway, trying to channel, (to some extent and falling dramatically short), Slavoj Žižek, the Slovanian Marxist philosopher, psychoanalist, and cultural critic. (To directly cite Žižek would be disastrous for her, I’m sure.) Read more …
Sometimes gaining and losing are more intimately related than we like to think. And some things cannot be moved or owned. Some light does not make it all the way through the atmosphere, but scatters.
I have a simple job. I’m a teacher. Yes, believe it or not. It’s simple. Very. That’s right.
To Teach: to show or point out; to present or offer a view.
To show what? Point out what? Present and offer what?
The answer is the simple part: the heart. To show and to point out, to present and offer the heart of the matter; often this matter is in a text such as Solnit’s: “Sometimes gaining and losing are more intimately related than we think”; that “some light does not make it all the way through the atmosphere, but scatters.”
We can lose something, even painfully so, and gain by it too – a terrible beauty is born, writes Yeats in Easter 1916. And when light scatters about – but particles – it’s very difficult to find the meaning in the loss that will release us from the guilt of gaining.
Too long a sacrifice/Can make a stone of the heart./O When may it suffice? wonders Yeats. Indeed.
Most times the heart is the student’s a teacher aims for – compassion, empathy, understanding and, most of all, full spectrum realization. And yet other times it’s my own that I’m reaching for trying to connect my heart to the student’s.
But the simple act of teaching is challenged: In this world, one where light scatters, “The present state,” says Guy Debord in The Society of the Spectacle “in which social life is completely taken over by the accumulated products of the economy, entails a generalized shift from having to appearing: all the effective ‘having’ must now derive both its immediate prestige and its ultimate raison d’être from appearance.”
Appearance: the action of coming forward into view or becoming visible (c.1400-1869); the action of coming before the world or the public in any character (c 1671-1880); that which appears without material; a phantom or apparition (c. 1488-1834); money paid to a (leading) sportsman or sportswoman for participating in an event (1977-1981).
The privileged place of Appearance makes any straightforward attempt to reach for the heart a challenge because the mere materialization of social power, which has assumed a social character and makes individuals dependent on it, transforms, into real beings, images, figments and behavior. Illusion becomes the norm, how we experience the world – and each other. No truth evident here. Nothing is real.
Instantly, teaching becomes difficult; it becomes complex, challenging, strange given that material reality is wedged between the student’s heart and the teacher’s. Reciprocity, which is essential for happiness, is lost and hostility takes over since it is the prodigal child of aggressive self-interest. Self-interest is the sole arbiter of success and value in the academy that feeds the culture: the professor that thinks his is the only course students take, so students are overworked, mindlessly responding to carefully orchestrated questions meant to solicit a single answer or two – busy work; the student that believes she merely has to get through, not worried about learning, rather about finishing, while reaching for the next rung that will get her ever closer to the penthouse at the helm of the economic system. A conveyor belt that privileges a move away from the heart and towards material reality.
Materialism and self-interest go hand-in-hand; all else, including people, must be shunned – and there goes reciprocity. Thus we find ourselves lost, floating in an open sea of confusion, living lives on the boundaries of meaning, never quite getting there, never quite getting at truths, comfortable numbing our haze. Welcome to the Aderrall Generation.
“Whether Adderall is a life-changing medicine or an unfair performance enhancer depends on whom you talk to” writes Kyle Fink in the first of a two part series, “Living in the Adderall Generation: Part 1,” in the Middlebury College Campus. “What is clear is that we are now living in the Adderall Generation, a reality that is rarely talked about but apparent just below the surface. You may not have a prescription or snort the drugs on weekends, but psychostimulants are here to stay, and they have the potential to affect nearly every aspect of life at the College.”
In Living the Adderall Generation: Part 2, Fink tells us that, “While most students the Campus talked to began their psychostimulant usage at the College, [Dean of the College] Collado pointed to a new wave of applicants who are being stimulated and pushed to their maximum from young ages,” suggesting that this is a larger problem in the culture; however, since many – if not most – of the students attending elite, competitive schools such as Middlebury are from the upper socio-economic strata of society, this might suggest that the early pressure is manufactured by the need to locate the student in an appropriate – and socially mobile – rung in a vituperative economic system.
This also suggests that the focus of learning is not the student – and not learning at all – rather it’s where the student might end up, socio-economically, years down the road; part of this pressure comes from the realization that, as systems go, ours is fighting for a dwindling piece of the resource pie. Not healthy.
Where we now also see this unhealthy pursuit of unhappiness is in the current light being shed on sexual assault on college campuses. Naturally – and reasonably – these discussions are focused on the safety of victims while also urging others, who remain silent, to come forth; the purpose being to get accurate data about how pervasive this condition is. We want to help victims, educate, and change the climate of violence and fear. But it’s not surprising, given our aggressive self-interest, that these violent, tragic occurrences happen when drugs and alcohol are in the mix. It’s not surprising that this violence happens in a culture where violence is privileged at every step – in the media, in politics, in economics, you name it.
So, at a time in one’s life when self-discovery should be one’s focus, self-interest and the need to ride the conveyor belt towards increasingly better social mobility take precedence; psychostimulants and alcohol, sometimes taken together, become ways of getting through the system and coping mechanisms. Aristotle on happiness doesn’t seem to cut it; Shakespeare, for get about it. The text is gone; pharmaceuticals are in. It’s not about knowing and learning; it’s about doing and moving on, always transitioning upward to an elusive reward.
Amidst all this is a very large and critical dialog occurring on campuses across the US about, specifically, the cost of higher education and, in the case of many elite colleges and universities, the viability of a liberal arts education (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/19/arts/humanities-committee-sounds-an-alarm.html;https://chronicle.com/article/The-Humanities-Declining-Not/140093/; http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/30/the-real-humanities-crisis/;http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/12/the-real-reason-the-humanities-are-in-crisis/282441/).
Everything from an over emphasis on science education to the humanities moving away from a search for the self and into race, class, gender and semiotics, cartoons and television, plastic surgery, to the humanities being just boring and with little relevance have been used to blame the apparent decline – and if not decline, then lack of interest.
How ironic, no? Do we really know what’s going on? If you read any of the above articles linked for you, there is a theme: we don’t know what’s going on; we have less of an idea about who our students are; and we may even know less, with our PhD’s, about the world we live in and that’s constructing our students, our lives. We educators have a hand in this.
Dante is not cutting it. Socrates is not cutting it. Academic language, with its uptight vernacular of disdain, is cutting it even less. Pharmaceuticals and violence, sports, the palatial grandeur of an institution’s geography, food, and who knows who is seemingly more important. Today, I’m less a professor and more a concierge helping students navigate the nebulous halls of an academy that, like the world we live in, appears lost in confusion.
Management is more important than learning about one’s self; systems of efficiency clearly dominate; technology, connectivity – always on – and surface communication and production de riguer. Humanity, talked about all the time, is less important. Matters of the heart? What’s that? I’m always asked.
“You know the usual story about the world,” writes Solnit, “the one about ongoing encroachment that continues to escalate and thereby continue to wipe out our species.”
We humanists, in our zeal to make even the most obvious complex, may be a large reason why students, who already come from a system that overvalues performance and results over knowledge of the self and others, find themselves, at some point, wondering what has become of them. It may be why I continue to receive emails from alumni wondering about the critical questions in life: why, how, who, what for? These weren’t even mildly approached during their very expensive undergraduate lives.
Humanity today is like a waking dreamer, caught between the fantasies of sleep and the chaos of the real world. The mind seeks but cannot find the precise place and hour. We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.
Our students thrash about because we do; students are terribly confused because we are; we are all a danger to ourselves. And, as far as I am concerned – in one humble opinion – we dutifully adhere to the most medieval institution, the University, without realizing that, before our eyes, it has metamorphosed into an exotic multinational business like any other – and students are our last concern.
We are in a dreamlike state. These are the saddest times.
“Providence sometimes foreshadows the future of men in dreams, not so that they may be able to avoid the sufferings fated for them, for they can never get the better of destiny, but in order that they may bear them with the more patience when those sufferings come; for when disasters come all together and unexpectedly, they strike the spirit with so severe and sudden a blow that they overwhelm it; while if they are anticipated, the mind, by dwelling on them beforehand, is able little by little to turn the edge of sorrow.”
Achilles Tatius in The Adventures of Leucippe and Clitophon
To say it less sublimely, —in the history of the individual is always an account of his condition, and he knows himself to be a party to his present estate.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Conduct of Life
DNA is a relatively rigid polymer, typically modeled as a worm-like chain. It has three significant degrees of freedom: bending, twisting and compression, each of which causes particular limitations on what is possible with DNA within a cell. Bending or axial stiffness is important for DNA wrapping and circularization and protein interactions. Twisting or torsional stiffness is important for the circularization of DNA and the orientation of DNA bound proteins relative to each other. Compression or extension is relatively unimportant in the absence of high tension.
PART ONE: BENDING
July 17, 1996
New York City, Upper West Side
Life’s din diminished some in the small moment when he pulled open his apartment window with such expectation that the last few inches the window flew up knew only his eagerness. But on this day, July 17, 1996, the window got stuck halfway up. He stared at it, hands on his hips, perturbed at the window’s unexpected stubbornness. He loved watching the window reach its conclusion without him. Humidity, no doubt. Summer in the city.
He smacked it with the heel of his hands and muscled it open the rest of the way.
He placed his palms on the external, coarse sill and exhaled his frustration and leaned into the horizon – the Hudson River and the Jersey Palisades across the way and the George Washington bridge just north beaming a dull evening gray.
He waited all day to tilt into the picture. He loved the patience evening brought, especially in mid summer when the heat and humidity pressed against him. He arched his back and stretched and inhaled the tide’s dank odor.
He panned down six stories and set his eyes on an incongruous dance of Poodles and Labradoodles and French Bulldogs and a Great Dane and a German Shepherd and a Chihuahua and a couple of Golden Retrievers held easily by a dog walker in a weathered Yankee baseball cap.
The dogs sniffed the smells coming from a square earth and lifted their legs to trees and squatted when they recognized something. The dog walker was graceful, never entangled in the leashes held to one hand, then the other, the exchanges fluid and experienced as if it was all meant to be like this.
The Great Dane and the Chihuahua and the Bulldog dumped together, responding to some great secret unknown to man. The rest waited, and the dog walker studied them.
A country dog doesn’t lift his leg to a tree, not always, not necessarily, thought Dr. Raúl Sicard. There’s no reason to, no threat to its territory. The country dog roams unencumbered across a larger earth and squats.
Dr. Raúl Sicard wanted to believe that there was some luck to his life. That would be romantic. But luck had little play. His life was ordained, a design with some options guided by the instinct to survive. He was sure of it. He was certain Darwin was right. Adaptation and creativity go hand-in-hand and life is one large adaptation atoning to the unforeseeable – otherwise extinction follows.
Dr. Sicard, Raúl, often thought about his responsibility – the study of gene-environment interactions and how selection evaluates these relations. For over a year – since his doctorate in Genetics, Stanford University – Raúl examined ecologically important genes in a shimmering lab at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in the upper west side of Manhattan.
During his breaks, when he managed to will his head up from a microscope, Raúl strolled to the George Washington Bridge to study its scars. He went to the bridge to be away from the lab’s sterility, its shiny evangelical promise, and smell the clammy mid summer air, feel the earth beneath his feet, perspire like everyone else pushing through lives.
He studied the wounds on the bridge’s underbelly to see if they said anything about the fifty-five forgotten men left to the silence of time. He craned his head until his neck pained him and stiffened, and wondered.
It helped keep his head focused on where things come from and maybe he could make evolutionary predictions, establish principles. At Columbia Presbyterian, Raúl wanted to understand what reproductive strategies must be used in the future to minimize stress on our tired biosphere. He depended on histories. He looked for stories in the smallest of things, cells. He looked for sure signs.
But when he pulled open his apartment window and stepped into the frame he didn’t want to continue thinking about limitations and outcomes. He was done with the censors and motivators that exist in the brain and that deeply and unconsciously affect ethical premises. The day was over. He wanted to leave it behind.
He wanted to lose himself in the dog walker – an adaptation, an offspring that survived it all so far. A ancient herdsman, perhaps, like the ones we see on elysian fields in travel brochures to Scotland and Ireland and France, now a dog walker.
Haitian women rushed stately blue strollers with large white wheels around the dog walker scooping up the steamy remains with a hand gloved in a baggie. The other held the dog web.
Up and down Riverside Drive and across Joan of Arc Park, in the promising glow of summer evening, went these intertwining objects – the dog walkers and the Haitian women and their stately strollers.
When the phone rang and the sadness arrived and pushed aside everything familiar to him and stopped him from stretching as far as he could into the picture of the Palisades knocking at him.
He held the grainy sill and turned to the ring that tempted the faith he found in his routines.
There was a weight in the room that came out of nowhere – yet it was old and familiar, in the pit of his stomach, a sense of things lost, gloom.
Raúl faced the phone. He held the sill with his left hand, unable to give it up all the way, and leaned in.
The knots in his spine that would otherwise crack and unwind the fatigue that amassed from hours curled over a microscope deciphering the nucleic acid that contains the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms tightened.
The sadness multiplied. He had no explanation for it, dumbfounded. He liked knowing where things came from, how they evolved, what changed them, how they appear. How things appear even suddenly like the ring of the phone that hung in the air with the sadness.
He traced his steps for signs. Just a few moments before the first ring he entered his apartment and dropped the keys in the bowl on the table beneath the mirror near the front door and draped his lab coat over the chair meant just for that otherwise it would be useless. Grabbed a beer and turned on the TV for noise. But at some point that day, the sadness must have begun to set in unnoticed. Maybe the sadness had been there all along.
The phone rang again.
He could consider the ring’s origin or rather the origin of the intuition he had that came with the ring and told him that something happened and he was involved. But that was too much, too far to go.
Something traveled the distance and found him and opened a black hole and he didn’t want to be present. He didn’t want to be sucked in. Know its spiral history. This is what humans do, he thought, run for cover – and wait and adapt slowly, hopefully. Those that can’t adapt don’t make it, ever. They have no hope. Hope grows from adaptation. It’s the single most important characteristic of evolution, adaptation. From here, all springs forth – but especially hope. No hope, no survival. And the end, the true end of everything.
Raúl looked out the window and off in the east the moon was already there.
“It’s always already there,” he said, pushing out a whisper, a way to test his voice and see if he wasn’t dreaming. “Like everything else. Six inches from our noses. Always.”
The ring told him that events had unfolded and suddenly just like that he was in. He had been on one side of the looking glass and now on the other side nothing was recognizable. A chill ran up his spine. He felt bound. In the lab life laid down road signs, roots to instincts that he could quantify. There was nothing to measure here.
He turned and inhaled again, just to take a final whiff of the thick, clammy air. Maybe, just maybe what he was feeling was all an illusion, a figment of his exhausted imagination. But nothing. He lost the scent.
He retraced himself. But there was no way to revise the day, see it fully in memory’s half-light. The phone pawed at him trying to get to where the heart is.
After working in the lab he and friends sat in a sidewalk café across from Lincoln Center and had Brooklyn summer ales and dreamt of things that may never come to pass. On a cloudless bright day, they descended into the murky subway station on 161st and took the train to 72nd Street and strolled to 64th. It was a who cares and so what moment, he called it, because in the design of things, who knows – really – what the next moment can bring. It was important to have a philosophy, something to hold him up.
When everything is touched by the human hand, he believed, randomness takes on a whole different meaning. It conceals the real order. It assumes a privileged place. But randomness itself is part of the order of things. He knew that – that’s what he saw swimming on a microscope’s stage.
Wednesdays are halfway moments between the noise that is and the noise that was. And the noise that’s yet to arrive unannounced is always there too. That’s how Raúl saw things. But we never hear the noise that’s yet to come, ever.
He allowed himself a smoke on Wednesdays, a Marlboro Light. Often more then one. He dangled it from his mouth like his father did – “It’s just social,” his father said. Raúl took his time with it, sat back and rubbed his right hand across his unshaven face all in one smooth motion. He liked nothing better than not shaving on days like this because it showed that he was in the thick of it, living. He rubbed his hand across his face and chin a couple of times. There was comfort in seeing himself like this, not saying anything of importance, pointing to interesting passersby, with each puff challenging alterations deep in the nomenclature of life in the helix. But it didn’t matter. Everything is already determined. Everything. We fool ourselves thinking that it’s not.
A Guatemalteco on the corner selling dolls with bouncing heads, a Jamaican next to him selling antique copies of Paris Match and Look and National Geographic in several languages, the skinny invisible woman with tattoos of crosses and peace signs on either hand and barely able to stand on the corner waiting for pedestrians to push by and she’d mumble spare some change as they forget her, a picture of an extinction, something that no one wants to see intimately, the end of an adaptation. Someone’s daughter. A failure to create. She was being run over by the evolving. She would not be. It’s been determined like this, how it all goes. No second chances. No overtime.
When the phone rang he was having a beer in his apartment and getting ready to meet friends again that night to ogle girls in a bar somewhere near Columbia University. No commitments, just ogling. Everyone on the same page gauging each other’s reproductive investments.
He tried ignoring the third ring, its persistence. It came from somewhere deep in the coil, he was certain of that too. All things do. That’s the design. Wednesday, July 17, 1996 was determined long ago.
He turned to the hum of the TV. It helped him think and it distracted him, made his life noisier even though it wasn’t his. Now it was his life. He grabbed his beer, waiting for the phone to ring again, wondering whether to answer or to let the answering machine do the work and buy him time. He gulped his beer.
On the TV, a voice over a static map of Long Island filled the room with sadness. That’s when the phone rang a fourth time, its red flash igniting the papers on the desk next to it and the bills waiting for another week. An inexorable eye looking back at him.
Nothing mattered now. Except the fifth ring. Its sound hung in the air, hollow. The phone and the TV. Wednesday’s safety was gone.
…At 8:45P.M, eleven minutes after take-off from Kennedy International Airport, TWA flight 800, bound for Paris, France, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Long Island. Witnesses say they saw a bright flash in the sky. But nothing is certain. There are no causes known at this time. The Coast Guard responded immediately, dispatching numerous search and rescue vessels. The New York City Police Department, the New York State Police Department, and the Suffolk County Police Department have all responded as well. The National Transportation Safety Board has dispatched a team from New Jersey. And we’ve been informed that numerous private vessels are also involved in this initial search and recovery effort…
The phone rang again.
“Papá,” he whispered.
Raúl said it just to hear himself say it, to test its feel and the emptiness that arrives with flashes from a life lived, rattles you and tempts your faith, a specter that arrives in the weak light of suffering memory.
“Papá,” he whispered again.
It filled the room, repeating itself, over and over again and again, dying to reappear, always.
It overwhelmed everything. The sanctity of his routine, the lab, the dog walkers and their dogs crapping and the Haitian maids and their Cadillac strollers.
He picked up the phone and staggered.
He felt him there, the ghost of his father standing beside him as still as recollections tend to be where light suddenly is as darkness and the darkness is where we are and where we will be. Where the problems of the heart live. The sadness was new and full.
She places her chin on my desk. She leans over, arms on her thighs and rests her chin on my desk.
“Professor, I don’t know.” “I… I don’t feel anything.” “I …I’m indifferent. I don’t feel anything. I don’t. I just don’t feel anything.” She walks into my office with a big smile.
She wears a white wool turtleneck and her silky black hair, parted off-center on her left, falls around her face and over her shoulders like a frame calling attention to her lively eyes—and her smile.
– See more …
The beginning of Imagining Amsterdam can be found here. Below is what follows, the second section, which I’ve titled, for this exercise, “The Secret in the Mirror,” to comply with our work/play/reading of Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost.
For Hannah and Leah, who brought this story to me. And for Karen who has always been there, caring and interested and thoughtful.
Some ideas are new, but most are only recognition of what has been there all along, the mystery in the middle of the room, the secret in the mirror.
Rebecca Solnnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2005)
In a story such as this, the full view is necessary. Otherwise it won’t work. I don’t want false impressions.
I’ll start with a wide angle shot and push in so you’ll experience what I did when I finally got to Amsterdam in mid May, after I called him, and the city came to me. As he did. Slow like. An animal crouched low. And they rose up. First this city that proved everyone wrong, which is what he used to say – and he not far behind. They arrived together.
— 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.