Ideology and the Confining Reality of Order vs. Disorder: The Missing Link in Thomas L. Friedman’s Ongoing Disbelief

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In his column, Order vs. Disorder, Part 2, Thomas L. Friedman, of The New York Times, says that, “The Israeli-Arab conflict has become a miniature of the most relevant divide in the world today: the divide between the ‘world of order’ and the ‘world of disorder.’

Friedman’s muse for his sense of order and disorder as defining our world, and reaching back into his Part 1, The World According to Maxwell Smart, which I wrote about here, is Wallace StevensConnoisseur of Chaos :

I.

A. A violent order is disorder; and

B. A great disorder is an order. These
Two things are one. (Pages of Illustrations)

Stevens sees this as “the pretty contrast of life and death” which “Proves that these opposite things partake of one,/At least that was the theory when bishops’ books/Resolved the world. We cannot go back to that.” Yet even Steven concedes – and this is what I think Friedman misses completely and thus stops short in his analysis – that, “The squirming facts exceed the squamous mind.”

We bump along with minds indeed covered by scales, squamae. Thus we protect our vistas from penetrating horrors; but we’re also prevented from reaching beyond the accepted notion that we live in a world defined by order vs. disorder. “The squirming facts” escape us; we view the world without concern for history or historical development. Our ahistorical reality is caused by the role ideology plays in our confusion.

Friedman acknowledges this confusion, a world, then, of contradictions – which we accept, that we see as normal and amidst cries of horror, we turn away:

Israel faces nonstate actors in civilian clothes, armed with homemade rockets and drones, nested among civilians on four of its five borders: Sinai, Gaza, Lebanon and Syria. And what is most striking about this play is that the traditional means of bringing order seem ineffective. Israel, a mini-superpower, keeps pummeling the ragtag Islamist militias in Gaza with its modern air force, but the superempowered Palestinian militants, leveraging cheap high-tech tools, keep coming back with homemade rockets and even a homemade drone. You used to need a contract with Boeing to get a drone. Now you can make one in Gaza.

Nothing is, in Friedman’s mind, as it should be – “the traditional means of bringing order seem ineffective.”

We see this same confusion – or uncanny consternation – when looking in on the Russia vs. Ukraine, NATO, and Western ideology debacle. We also see this in the Ebola Crisis where now, 2 Americans infected with the virus are heading to Atlanta – the first Americans to be treated of this virus in the States.

What’s going on? What’s lead to a world, in Friedman’s critique, that’s arranged as a destructive binary, order vs. disorder?

“When all the old means of top-down control are decreasingly available or increasingly expensive (in a world of strong people and strong technologies, being a strongman isn’t what it used to be),” argues Friedman, “leaders and their people are going to eventually have to embrace a new, more sustainable source of order that emerges from the bottom up and is built on shared power, values and trust.”

He’s wrong, of course. He’s merely supplanting one ideology for another that, if we look a little deeper into language such as “new, more sustainable sources of order” and that romantically “emerges from the bottom up” and “built on shared power, values and trust,” we see the expected, the politically correct, neoliberal viewpoint that is meant to uphold the current balance – and imbalance – of power by gesturing almost comically to the way things are, which is the world we’ve had a hand in creating. Friedman’s rather comical, even cartoonish solution is also part of the problem because it fails to see the real.

“What to do?” as Friedman asks.

We need to go deeper; we need to dig further, inquiring into our current incapacity to use language to describe what we are and who we are, and why we fall, as Friedman does, into cliché – or bad poetry.

We can begin this inquiry by turning to Stevens, again, and jumping off from here:

A great disorder is an order. Now, A

And B are not like statuary, posed

For a vista in the Louvre. They are things chalked

On the sidewalk so that the pensive man may see.

V

The pensive man … He see that eagle float

For which the intricate Alps are a single nest.

Friedman feigns the “pensive man,” but he’s concerned only with the surface structure of things, an analysis solely of the spectacle. In fact, it is about the spectacle, only; it is the most important reality in our lives because it synthesizes our mysteries, our crises, and our solutions, too. The spectacle, in fact, is hope – the greatest and most profound fallacy. And Friedman is one of the analysts – and mouthpieces – for the ruling ideology of the day that is essential for buttressing the spectacle, arguing, first, that there is a problem – order vs. disorder – and then dissimulating a solution, a “more sustainable source of order that emerges from the bottom up and is built on shared power, values and trust,” which is delivered to us as if it’s viable, though confounding: “Leadership will be about how to cultivate that kind of order. Yes, yes. I know that sounds impossibly hard. But when isolated Gazans can make their own drones, order doesn’t come easy anymore.”

In the spectacle, we are always told – and must embrace – the notion that things are bad and that solutions, the viable ones, are difficult, and because of these difficulties nearly unreachable. The spectacle, then, is a dream – a dreamscape; a place where dreams and nightmares live together.

Infusing this ideology are several gestures that are systemically well organized, so much so that we accept these ideas – and methods – unconsciously; we are thus indoctrinated into a fallacy built on binaries, a vital component of the spectacle: 1. there are a multitude of critical, almost unsolvable problems warring with each other; 2. these crises are both unacceptable but normal; and what’s normal is suffering since not all crises can be addressed – it’s the way of the world, the acceptance of brutality; 3. there are reasonable ways through the crises; 4. these are dependent upon an order that comes through the hierarchical value systems delivered to us from our most powerful institutions – government, finance and its marriage with the military and education.

For Stevens, only the “pensive man” can see this; only we live in a time where compression of experience is essential for maintaining and ensuring our understanding of an order that requires our acceptance of the binary, order vs. disorder. The “pensive man” is obsolete – and if not, then he’s overly romanticized to the point that he’s rendered helpless. This is how ideologies function.

Ideologies are the destructive force of civilization; they blind and bind; they keep us from seeing “that single eagle float.” Ideologies give us an artificial view of the world; give us a prescribed language; and in this artificiality, the only real thing that can exist is materialism as hope and value. This is where the corporation comes in, the major engine behind the spectacle.

As John Ralston Saul says in The Unconscious Civilization, we are a society addicted to ideologies. The most dominant ideology is “corporatism.” “The result,” argues Saul, “is a growing imbalance which leads to our adoration of self-interest and our denial of the public good.”

Now, look again at Friedman’s Israeli-Arab conflagration; look again at Russia vs. the Western world, Ukraine as the vessel; look again at the Ebola crisis, the result of this gross imbalance brought about by ideologies consistent with plunder. In short, we live in a symbolic ordering of our world – and our crises – that point in two directions simultaneously: a disordering, a dissolving of our conditions, and likewise a possible rebuilding that’s based on commodity culture, global capitalism, the edification of systems of power that marry finance, the military and education. In essence, and following Slavoj Žižek, “the main point is to see how the reality itself cannot reproduce itself without this so-called ideological mystification.”

That’s Friedman’s solution – and his take on the Israeli-Arab crisis – “ideological mystification”; that’s why, in his own words, his solution “sounds impossibly hard,” which then requires a mystifying, and accepted, cliché, a gesture towards the incapacity of escaping our ruling ideology-creating apparatus, “order doesn’t come easy anymore.”

The world we have today is not a binary, order vs. disorder, wrongly argued by Friedman. It’s a world of little knowledge and, not vs., a world of even less knowledge, all of it hanging by a thread – yet complacent – in the animated, antiseptic and artificial spectacle we call the real.

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Final: Lost in the Funhouse

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Sometimes gaining and losing are more intimately related than we like to think. And some things cannot be moved or owned. Some light does not make it all the way through the atmosphere, but scatters.

Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, 2005

I have a simple job. I’m a teacher. Yes, believe it or not. It’s simple. Very. That’s right.

To Teach: to show or point out; to present or offer a view.

To show what? Point out what? Present and offer what?

The answer is the simple part: the heart. To show and to point out, to present and offer the heart of the matter; often this matter is in a text such as Solnit’s: “Sometimes gaining and losing are more intimately related than we think”; that “some light does not make it all the way through the atmosphere, but scatters.”

We can lose something, even painfully so, and gain by it too – a terrible beauty is born, writes Yeats in Easter 1916. And when light scatters about – but particles – it’s very difficult to find the meaning in the loss that will release us from the guilt of gaining.

Too long a sacrifice/Can make a stone of the heart./O When may it suffice? wonders Yeats. Indeed.

Most times the heart is the student’s a teacher aims for – compassion, empathy, understanding and, most of all, full spectrum realization. And yet other times it’s my own that I’m reaching for trying to connect my heart to the student’s.

But the simple act of teaching is challenged: In this world, one where light scatters, “The present state,” says Guy Debord in The Society of the Spectacle “in which social life is completely taken over by the accumulated products of the economy, entails a generalized shift from having to appearing: all the effective ‘having’ must now derive both its immediate prestige and its ultimate raison d’être from appearance.”

Appearance: the action of coming forward into view or becoming visible (c.1400-1869); the action of coming before the world or the public in any character (c 1671-1880); that which appears without material; a phantom or apparition (c. 1488-1834); money paid to a (leading) sportsman or sportswoman for participating in an event (1977-1981).

The privileged place of Appearance makes any straightforward attempt to reach for the heart a challenge because the mere materialization of social power, which has assumed a social character and makes individuals dependent on it, transforms, into real beings, images, figments and behavior. Illusion becomes the norm, how we experience the world – and each other. No truth evident here. Nothing is real.

Instantly, teaching becomes difficult; it becomes complex, challenging, strange given that material reality is wedged between the student’s heart and the teacher’s. Reciprocity, which is essential for happiness, is lost and hostility takes over since it is the prodigal child of aggressive self-interest. Self-interest is the sole arbiter of success and value in the academy that feeds the culture: the professor that thinks his is the only course students take, so students are overworked, mindlessly responding to carefully orchestrated questions meant to solicit a single answer or two – busy work; the student that believes she merely has to get through, not worried about learning, rather about finishing, while reaching for the next rung that will get her ever closer to the penthouse at the helm of the economic system. A conveyor belt that privileges a move away from the heart and towards material reality.

Materialism and self-interest go hand-in-hand; all else, including people, must be shunned – and there goes reciprocity. Thus we find ourselves lost, floating in an open sea of confusion, living lives on the boundaries of meaning, never quite getting there, never quite getting at truths, comfortable numbing our haze. Welcome to the Aderrall Generation.

“Whether Adderall is a life-changing medicine or an unfair performance enhancer depends on whom you talk to” writes Kyle Fink in the first of a two part series, “Living in the Adderall Generation: Part 1,” in the Middlebury College Campus. “What is clear is that we are now living in the Adderall Generation, a reality that is rarely talked about but apparent just below the surface. You may not have a prescription or snort the drugs on weekends, but psychostimulants are here to stay, and they have the potential to affect nearly every aspect of life at the College.”

In Living the Adderall Generation: Part 2, Fink tells us that, “While most students the Campus talked to began their psychostimulant usage at the College, [Dean of the College] Collado pointed to a new wave of applicants who are being stimulated and pushed to their maximum from young ages,” suggesting that this is a larger problem in the culture; however, since many – if not most – of the students attending elite, competitive schools such as Middlebury are from the upper socio-economic strata of society, this might suggest that the early pressure is manufactured by the need to locate the student in an appropriate – and socially mobile – rung in a vituperative economic system.

This also suggests that the focus of learning is not the student – and not learning at all – rather it’s where the student might end up, socio-economically, years down the road; part of this pressure comes from the realization that, as systems go, ours is fighting for a dwindling piece of the resource pie. Not healthy.

Where we now also see this unhealthy pursuit of unhappiness is in the current light being shed on sexual assault on college campuses. Naturally – and reasonably – these discussions are focused on the safety of victims while also urging others, who remain silent, to come forth; the purpose being to get accurate data about how pervasive this condition is. We want to help victims, educate, and change the climate of violence and fear. But it’s not surprising, given our aggressive self-interest, that these violent, tragic occurrences happen when drugs and alcohol are in the mix. It’s not surprising that this violence happens in a culture where violence is privileged at every step – in the media, in politics, in economics, you name it.

So, at a time in one’s life when self-discovery should be one’s focus, self-interest and the need to ride the conveyor belt towards increasingly better social mobility take precedence; psychostimulants and alcohol, sometimes taken together, become ways of getting through the system and coping mechanisms. Aristotle on happiness doesn’t seem to cut it; Shakespeare, for get about it. The text is gone; pharmaceuticals are in. It’s not about knowing and learning; it’s about doing and moving on, always transitioning upward to an elusive reward.

Amidst all this is a very large and critical dialog occurring on campuses across the US about, specifically, the cost of higher education and, in the case of many elite colleges and universities, the viability of a liberal arts education (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/19/arts/humanities-committee-sounds-an-alarm.html;https://chronicle.com/article/The-Humanities-Declining-Not/140093/; http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/30/the-real-humanities-crisis/;http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/12/the-real-reason-the-humanities-are-in-crisis/282441/).

Everything from an over emphasis on science education to the humanities moving away from a search for the self and into race, class, gender and semiotics, cartoons and television, plastic surgery, to the humanities being just boring and with little relevance have been used to blame the apparent decline – and if not decline, then lack of interest.

How ironic, no? Do we really know what’s going on? If you read any of the above articles linked for you, there is a theme: we don’t know what’s going on; we have less of an idea about who our students are; and we may even know less, with our PhD’s, about the world we live in and that’s constructing our students, our lives. We educators have a hand in this.

Dante is not cutting it. Socrates is not cutting it. Academic language, with its uptight vernacular of disdain, is cutting it even less. Pharmaceuticals and violence, sports, the palatial grandeur of an institution’s geography, food, and who knows who is seemingly more important. Today, I’m less a professor and more a concierge helping students navigate the nebulous halls of an academy that, like the world we live in, appears lost in confusion.

Management is more important than learning about one’s self; systems of efficiency clearly dominate; technology, connectivity – always on – and surface communication and production de riguer. Humanity, talked about all the time, is less important. Matters of the heart? What’s that? I’m always asked.

“You know the usual story about the world,” writes Solnit, “the one about ongoing encroachment that continues to escalate and thereby continue to wipe out our species.”

Yes.

We humanists, in our zeal to make even the most obvious complex, may be a large reason why students, who already come from a system that overvalues performance and results over knowledge of the self and others, find themselves, at some point, wondering what has become of them. It may be why I continue to receive emails from alumni wondering about the critical questions in life: why, how, who, what for? These weren’t even mildly approached during their very expensive undergraduate lives.

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

Humanity today is like a waking dreamer, caught between the fantasies of sleep and the chaos of the real world. The mind seeks but cannot find the precise place and hour. We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.

Our students thrash about because we do; students are terribly confused because we are; we are all a danger to ourselves. And, as far as I am concerned – in one humble opinion – we dutifully adhere to the most medieval institution, the University, without realizing that, before our eyes, it has metamorphosed into an exotic multinational business like any other – and students are our last concern.

We are in a dreamlike state. These are the saddest times.

The Edge of Sorrow – 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.

Coming to 60 (Reluctantly and with Some Help)

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

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

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

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

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

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde

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

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

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

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

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

W. B. Yeats

W. B. Yeats

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not tired,” I declare.

“You were sound asleep,” says Nina.

“I’m not tired.”

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

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

“You’re being stupid.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

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

The soul,

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

than water ebbs and flows

It must go like this.

Orchard Grass Farm

Orchard Grass Farm
New Haven, VT