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 …
I’m often asked what I do for a living. “I’m a teacher of writing,” I say. That’s what it’s turned out to be. There’s a freshness that arrives when you know what you are, who you are. My wife, Nina, chimes in: Why don’t you ever say you’re a professor?
The culture is large and powerful, and always challenging notions of who you think you are. In New York City Public colleges and universities, and in New Jersey’s, I was Doctor. Doctor Vila. Too presumptuous, but I learned essential in a world where signification builds street cred. In urban educational environments the code of the streets applies.
In private schools, Professor is customary, a softer adjective that marks a rise, for the student and the teacher, in an invisible but powerful hierarchy of knowledge we assume can only be held in the hands of right-minded apostles. These heralds hold the rank of Professor. Professor is a place in the culture; an event, the donning of colorful robes that signify the anointed. In my mind, I’m far from that. Just the opposite. I tend to work as a counter weight to the significance afforded these distinguished vestments…
– Read more at: Community Works Journal …
It’s inescapable that when we speak about education we speak about pedagogy. And when we speak about pedagogy, we actually never speak about pedagogy at all—that is to say, never in meaningful and significant ways. Instead, the language around the method and practice of teaching is rife with utopian aspirations, anxiety and discontent.
Thus is pedagogy’s paradox. Or to state it another way: pedagogy is a form and in this form there are at least three postulates that create its meaning, and our confusion and uneasiness, even displeasure, with education writ large. – Read More …
Part 2 of What Matters in Education? has been published by the Community Works Journal, which supports teaching practices that build community. They’ve been around since 1995. The original title for my piece was “An Unrealistic Proposal.” Now it’s “Considering Technology and the School Experience” (I added the unrealistic bit for this blog).
I. An Unrealistic Proposal
Let’s think BIG: The moral imperative is to focus the K-12 curriculum of tomorrow on 2 large areas: Health and the Environment. End of story.
Health and the Environment is a rich, complex, overarching curriculum that covers history and philosophy, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and all forms of literature and the arts, as well as sociology, economics and political science; it covers the classics (is not Plato about health and the environment – literally and symbolically?). This curriculum connects “learning to social change and fosters modes of critical agency through which people assume responsibility for each other”; morality and ethics are the driving engines.
Our health and the health of the planet are our greatest challenges, but just as significantly surely to affect generations to come if we don’t act now, creatively and with force. A curriculum focused on Health and the Environment is about a long view, not tomorrow’s standardized test scores; it disrupts the move towards authoritarianism.
This curriculum can only be created by a meaningful K-16 collaboration that enables “education hubs” to emerge nation-wide: interdisciplinary centers of study focused on children, first and foremost, with appropriate teachers and mentors, counselors, and medical care up and down the system. Secondly, this new system privileges experiential learning: how to put into practice ideas and theories; how to test what we perceive; how to step away, reflect and describe what we’re doing and how what we’ve accomplished may affect the future.
Necessity is an evil, but there is no necessity to live under the control of necessity.
A new Gallup-Purdue study that looks at links among college, work, and well-being has generated a lot of conversation – in and out of the academy. Much of the chatter is about some of the study’s top findings: 63% of the students said that they “had at least one professor at [College] who [excited them ] about learning”; 27% found that their professors cared about them as a person; 22% found a mentor that encouraged them about pursuing goals and dreams.
Most notably, “The study found that the type of schools these college graduates attended — public or private, small or large, very selective or less selective — hardly matters at all to their workplace engagement and current well-being. Just as many graduates of public colleges as graduates of not-for-profit private colleges are engaged at work — meaning they are deeply involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work. And just as many graduates of public as not-for-profit private institutions are thriving — which Gallup defines as strong, consistent, and progressing — in all areas of their well-being.”
“The report,” says Charles M. Blow of The New York Times, “has a strong message for students who are asking about which school to attend, for employers who are deciding which people to hire and for colleges that are negotiating their curriculums.”
Google agrees. “Google’s head of people operations Laszlo Bock told the New York Times that top graduates can lack “intellectual humility,” and that schools frequently don’t deliver on what they promise”:
A new Gallup survey finds that in hiring decisions, only 9% of business leaders say that the school on a candidate’s diploma is “very important,” compared to 84% assessing knowledge in the field and 79% looking at applied skills.+
The challenge, of course, is that higher education mirrors our socio-economic system. And we embrace that, instead, and shy away from whatever Google and Gallup are suggesting. This is because, as reported in Quartz, “School rankings have been found to matter when it comes to pay, an effect which rises over time. Graduates of elite private schools in particular get paid more according to a report from the Century Foundation (pdf). Elite industries like professional services and finance put more weight on top schools in hiring decisions.”
We need not go far to prove this. Let’s look at the distribution of faculty salaries. Reporting for the Huffington Post, Tyler Kingkade, writes that,
The average pay for all types of professors, instructors and lecturers is $84,303 for the academic year 2012-13, but the report noted a big difference between public and private colleges. At public institutions, the average is $80,578, while at private schools, it’s $99,771.For a full professor, the average salary at a private university this year is $139,620, a notable hike over the average $110,143 at public colleges, and that difference has been growing. This public-private gap has increased from 18 percent in 2004 to 24 percent in 2013, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
These disparities help create a provocative narrative: it does matter where you go to school – even though you may not get a single soul to pay attention to you at the most elite institutions.
The Gallup-Purdue study calls into question our ruling narrative about the value we place on an institution’s brand versus the care an institution may give individual students, their dreams and their needs.
It’s what goes on inside, behind the hallowed ivy, that counts and not how significant – and marketable – the brand is.
It’s not difficult to see how celebrity culture has a hand in this, too. The narrative concerning the significance of one school over another is manipulated by the tools of advertising and management rather than by what data – and reality – tend to show. We have celebrity schools to go along with our celebrity mindset. It’s not surprising, then, to see how much the University has been totally transformed into yet another corporation that comes with its own story – and is never to be questioned.
“The corporation has the power to determine identity,” writes Chris Hedges in Empire of Illusion. “The corporations tell us who we are and what we can become. And the corporations offer the only route to personal fulfillment and salvation. If we are not happy there is something wrong with us [italics Hedges]. Debate and criticism, especially about the goals and the structure of the corporation, are condemned as negative and ‘counterproductive.'”
We see this model stretching from government to the private sector to education. Don’t be counterproductive. Go along.
In another view of academia, a survey done at U.C.L.A. that looks at shifts in our culture over time, according to David Brooks of The New York Times, says that values have changed. “In 1966, only 42 percent of freshmen said that being well-off financially was an essential or very important life goal. By 2005, 75 percent of students said being well-off financially was essential or very important. Affluence, once a middling value, is now tied as students’ top life goal.”
It’s not surprising that professional admissions coaches and special tutors have become critical for gaining entrance to top schools – and we know who can afford this luxury. We’ve created a race – an anxiety filled race, says Brooks:
As the drive to compete intensifies, other things get streamlined away. In 1966, 86 percent of college freshmen said that developing a meaningful philosophy of life was essential or very important. Today, less than half say a meaningful philosophy of life is that important. University of Michigan studies suggest that today’s students score about 40 percent lower in measures of empathy than students did 30 years ago.
Epicurus’s necessity is now synonymous with affluence – we can’t seem to break from it. If we are creating a world that is less empathetic – and doing so by introducing a mindless competitive model that makes commodities (read slaves) of us all – then we’re definitely creating a world where Evil has found its niche. I’m moved by Epicurus these days – and here’s something else that fits our age: No one when he sees evil deliberately chooses it, but is enticed by it as being good in comparison with a greater evil and so pursues it.
Isn’t this where where we find ourselves today?
As of 2012, the last year we have of available data pertaining to the College where I teach, Middlebury, the most popular major (10%) was Economics – it still remains so. Students I see in this major have one goal: Wall Street and gold. According to the Princeton Review, of the top 10 majors, the top three are Business Administration and Management/Commerce, Psychology and Nursing. Economics ranks a surprising 7, after English Language and Literature, Education and Biology/Biological Science. Accordingly, English is one of the two top majors for gaining entrance into law school; the other is Political Science. And Catherine Rampnell, of The New York Times, in “The College Majors That Do Best in the Job Market,” says that the major that “produced the most graduates in jobs that required degrees was education and teaching; 71.1 percent of this discipline’s alumni had jobs for which a bachelor’s was a prerequisite.:” Yes, many graduates go on to teach – but education is under attack and not hiring as it once did; however, many do not enter teaching, suggesting that education studies makes for great job training – students are organized, can work within tight time parameters, and communicate effectively.
Being an efficient undergraduate that develops a picture of “success” is therefore key; demonstrating that nothing has been “wasted” while in college is important. Not much else matters; the competition is fierce.
“I’m not sure if students really are less empathetic, or less interested in having meaning in their lives,” writes Brooks, “but it has become more socially acceptable to present yourself that way. In the shadow of this more Darwinian job market, it is more acceptable to present yourself as utilitarian, streamlined and success-oriented.
I’m not so sure that Brooks’ use of Darwin is correct, particularly following Edward O. Wilson’s quite cogent argument, in The Social Conquest of the Earth, that societies evolve in direct relationship to their capacity to embrace altruism, the unselfish concern for or a devotion to the welfare of others:
…human groups are formed of highly flexible alliances, not just among family members but between families, genders, classes, and tribes. The bonding is based on cooperation among individuals or groups who know one another and are capable of distributing ownership and status on a personal basis. The necessity for fine-graded evaluation by alliance members meant that the prehuman ancestors had to achieve eusociality in a radically different way from the instinct-driven insects. The pathway to eusociality was charted by a contest between selection based on the relative success of individuals within groups versus relative success among groups. The strategies of this game were written as a complicated mix of closely calibrated altruism, cooperation, competition, domination, reciprocity, defection, and deceit.
Empathy is key. But we’ve turned away from the characteristics of meaningful evolution and focused our attention solely on domination and competition – not altruism, cooperation and reciprocity. Eusociality is a balance, a dance we don’t now enjoy.
Presenting yourself as “utilitarian, streamlined and success-oriented” (here meaning: profitable), leads to the commodification of the self, but of experience too. Which is to say that we are headed totally in the opposite direction – a straight line to damnation.
What matters for me is that Education, which I’ve been a part of for nearly 30 years, has had a very strong hand in ensuring that this model goes unquestioned. The utilitarian, streamlined and success-oriented model says that we have bought hook, line and sinker into the idea that education is about training and monetary success. Learning to think critically and to question – given plenty of lip service – are nowhere to be found in our actions.
What matters to us most?
In Part 2 of What Matters in Education? I will describe an education model for a renewed commonwealth.
Had fantastic news this morning from Joe Brooks of the Community Works Institute & Journal: I’ve been selected to be one of the four “Regular Contributors.”
Joe and the Journal re-published my Final:Lost in the Funhouse after viewing it on my blog. Truly and honor – and humbling. Here’s a link to my new page in the Community Works Journal (yes, I agree with my wife, Nina: I have to do something about that picture, taken in Paris two years ago in front of the Opéra National de Paris.).
NOTE: A word about the “Final” in my title: this refers to my final posting for our little experiment, Getting Lost (I wrote 8 pieces for this trial and don’t see the need to write more).
Thank you all, readers, for your continued support – and patience…
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.
This is the final movement of the first section of The Edge of Sorrow, “Bending.” Again, if you want it from the top:
Enjoy the ride. The next section, which will not appear on this site, is titled “Twisting.”
Thank you for following this to here. Comments are more than welcome. Do you want to know what happened?
The Next Day: July 21, 1996
Somewhere in SoHo, New York City
Put a sprig of coriander on anything and it’ll taste good. You can conceal any bad taste – even rot.
Raul’s father taught me how to find something to say that would perk someone’s interest like that. “Keep your ear to the track, as my grandfather used to say,” Professor Javier Sicard instructed. “An old gaucho trick,” he said. “You can hear the train coming miles before anyone else. That’s a writer’s secret – the ear must be on the track at all times so you can be the first to know what’s coming down the track.”
I search and search for something I’m ninety percent sure a person hasn’t heard – something that doesn’t seem true and it’ll twist a person all around but is true. In the end it’s true.
I’ve not stopped looking for gems that can peak your interest since he told me. I write them down in a small black notebook that fits in my pocket – like he carried. I keep it handy. Think of a gunslinger in a western. It’s like right there by my side ready to be drawn. Identical to his notebook, except I hold mine together with a thin piece of purple cloth and he held his with a wide rubber band – and he stuffed leaves, business cards, train tickets, anything he thought memorable into it. I write these things down as soon as I find them, immediately. I write other things, too, but I love it when I find something like that, so exact – put a sprig of coriander on anything and it’ll taste good, no matter what it is. (I added the ‘conceal any bad taste – even rot’: poetic license.) I don’t know where I heard it first, but I wrote it down right away. Then waited. I waited for the right place to use it, the right time. Waiting and knowing are the key. Waiting for the right time, the right place to drop it in. Something will come up and you can use it. That’s a writer’s work, he told me. Fill notebooks, he said. Fill them. “You want to write,” he yelled. “Write. Write god damn it.”
Put a sprig of coriander on anything and it’ll taste good.
“That’s a lesson he gave you that he never gave me,” said Raúl, smiling. “He probably knew that I was heading in a different direction. I don’t know. But I keep a notebook. I do. Really. Maybe it’s a habit I picked up unconsciously.”
“He didn’t have to say it to you. You lived it with him.”
When Raúl smiles, there, in the corners of his mouth – they sort of turn up like, gently, and his eyes light up; it’s so attractive, magnetic, you know, and you just want to stay in it, the smile. Like I could see his father. I smiled back.
We looked down at our beers and let the memory settle until the void enveloped us again, waiting, as it does, for our guard to go down, for us to be weary of memories that are like a vapor that one can hardly hold.
We were somewhere in SoHo, the day after I came to meet Raúl in his apartment for the first time. It was strange because it felt like I’d known him for a long time and we’d only been together twice now, and briefly. We hugged and held each other and kissed and sat down and anyone passing by would have thought, what a nice couple.
He ordered a couple of Brooklyn Lagers without asking what I preferred – and I felt fine with that. Usually I’m not. I insist. At that moment, like I was fine with it. It’s probably because of the familiarity, the energy between us. It seemed as if a lifetime passed and we’d spent it together somehow and we were both looking back through the long tunnel of time. It’s a funny thing how two people can meet and the intensity of the moment brings them – us, like we seemed – instantly close. The bitterness that follows a tragedy brings with it unexpected intimacy. It was my first experience with it. I was confused because my heart was heavy but I liked the feeling – the sense that I’d known Raúl practically all my life. I can’t explain it – either can anyone else, I don’t think.
It was hot and muggy, really thick and sticky, and I was crashing with a bunch of friends — five girls – that graduated from Adams the year before and were busy working fourteen hour days on Wall Street – Lehman, Smith Barney, Goldman, Bear Sterns. The standard bearers. (I didn’t want to be with my parents – I couldn’t really, not after all this – on the Upper East Side so I stayed with my girlfriends.)
My friends were herded together fast tracking to millionaire status before they turn 40 – that’s the game. They’re willing to do anything to get there; once that happens, life begins. Everything is on the back burner – even children and family. They can be gotten at any time; they’re afterthoughts. We have choices, they told me; we can do this with or without men. So guys, well, they come and they go, you know. The college hook up on a wild weekend night has moved to suits at happy hour in a chic oak bar after a grueling week forecasting the ups and downs of the market, the hedging, the betting for a million. All one big roulette game, even the sex. Blame it on Sex and the City, they said. It was our bible, they said. Like a How To manual.
The five girls live all cramped up in a West Village loft. Having a great time, they made a point of saying, sardonically. I wasn’t sure whether they said that because we’re all suppose to be successful and have a great time after we graduate, especially from Adams because it puts such a premium on success, whatever that means, and they weren’t having the best of times, not really, and they were hiding it – or maybe they really were having a great time, I don’t know – but it didn’t make sense to me since their work had simply replaced school work and they were still laboring the same amount of hours, still hitting the bars Friday and Saturday nights and getting wasted, just like we did at Adams. Nothing had changed. I slept on their studio floor on a bogus mattress – like I did back at Adams when I stayed overnight in one of their rooms. Nothing had changed.
But everything had changed for me. They didn’t even ask about Professor Sicard. “Shit, too bad about the prof on that plane. Imagine that,” said Alexia, a blond, with shoulder length hair. Alexia had the perfect body; she worked out incessantly, which compelled her to seek out reflections of herself on any surface – windows, stainless steel trays, glass doors. Remember American Psycho? She’s the female version. Like she’d purse her lips and move her head around to find the right look as if she was auditioning for a part and she needed to strike the right pose. She flexed her biceps and said, “I can’t imagine the luck. Shit. We just never know. That’s why we have to grab it now. We just never know. Never had him. I can’t even tell you what he looked like.”
I told Alexia that I had him and that I really liked him.
“Oh. Shit. Sorry,” she said. She quickly went on to something else altogether different – like the guys she met at work, who was cute, who was an asshole, last weekend in the Hamptons, the new clothes she just bought on a shopping trip to Paris with her mother who was always keen on dressing her.
I needed Raúl; he was the only one that could understand what I was feeling. The only one. Shit is right.
Raúl and I agreed to meet for a beer the afternoon following my visit to his apartment because, he said, he was going to work for a few hours just to make the first move back to some sense of normalcy. But I don’t think it possible. I don’t. To be normal again. I told Raúl that. I also said that maybe – just maybe – the lack of normalcy was already in place way before anyone noticed. Like I feel that, you know. I felt it looking back at the year – his last year. Normal is a creation anyway – just like success is. I took Sociology courses. I know all about constructions of this and constructions of that (but it’s so boring always to have the same argument, no?) What is normal? Success, what’s that? How do we measure these? Things seemed totally out of whack. Perverse and confused – and maybe that’s what normal is. The only normal. The new normal, people like to say when things get turned around and are all shitty and there are no answers, no reasons why; like we simply change the meaning of a couple of words to coincide with how shitty we’re feeling, how inconsequential we are, how irrelevant and call it the new normal. How things get twisted this way and that. Normal is a moving target.
Right at that moment, meeting with Raúl, I was more anxious then anything, like something was eating at me and I was totally unprepared to deal with it so I was hoping he had some words of wisdom – or maybe he was seeing what I was seeing, though I don’t know how since he wasn’t at Adams last year. But maybe his father mentioned something to him in passing and whatever that was, it seemed odd, strange, like it could be something that may explain a life so gone, just like that, as if no one cared. So gone. A snap of the fingers.
Life is cheap, I realize now. I told Raúl that I’ve come to believe this like nothing else. And how his father stressed this but I was too naïve to understand it – yet. I’m beginning now. Life is cheap and the pace of life helps it along. We move on much too quickly past someone’s life. We cheapen life, I said as if all this time I’d been living in the clouds or beneath some fake cover or something unreal and even fake and, like, suddenly, after Javier’s death the curtain lifted and voila, there it was: we—cheapen—life. By how we live it, that’s the irony. It’s no longer a life journey; it’s a race, a sprint to the gold, a springing forth onto something that makes no sense, something, I don’t know, immaterial. Like a jaguar leaping onto its prey, mouth open, teeth showing, we latch onto irrelevance and hold on for dear life. But we come up empty. I don’t want to come up empty. I didn’t want to be one of God’s little children. That’s why I wanted Javier Sicard to be my mentor; that’s why I went to see him that day before school started; that’s why I changed my life away from the family business, money. That’s why, now, I’m more confused then ever because I suspect that things are more complicated. But I wanted to know more and I needed Raúl for that.
Raúl met me at some nameless place that had outdoor seating. We wanted to be outside, away from the maddening crowds sopping up happy hour. The place was like all other places – dark bar, black and white tiled floor, Latinos in the kitchen and a gregarious Irish bartender – an ox of a man – that poured indiscriminately when someone asked for a drink. (I couldn’t tell you the name of the place. I may not even be able to lead you back to it.)
The place was crowded with folks that knew each other, knew the place; it was an oasis – you could tell – their place to come to and slow things down a bit, stop the rush, check in with someone that would recognize them. A place to go to, check in and know that you’re okay – it’s not you, not your fault, things are what they are, and everyone agrees. That kind of place. I think it was on Bleecker near Broadway – no telling for sure. Somewhere. But its where the indifference that’s so hard to understand about life passed by incessantly, and its recognizable – and we sat outside and tried to slow things down a bit, too, and see if we could bring him back. To us. Just for us. Even for a moment.
I told Raúl that I had come to a conclusion: “We can’t trust anything – or anyone for that matter,” I said.
He looked startled and leaned back as if I’d pushed hard against his chest.
“I’m not a religious person and I’m not a believer and you must understand why,” I continued. “You must. Even your science is questionable.”
“Maddy,” he said. “Maddy, we can take science up to a point. I understand that. But we can use it to see. It helps,” he said. “It does. It’s the one instrument we have that can explain so much.”
“Science can’t explain what happened to your father,” I said. “Everyone is confused. All those experts. What happened to that plane? No one has an answer – just more questions. Terrorism? The military? A malfunction? What? A bomb? Who knows? Will we ever know? There’s your science. There you have it. So much for science – eventually it’ll be manipulated to suit the story. Science is a sprig of coriander. It covers over the nasty things beneath the surface. It tries to make everything sweet again so we can go on our merry way totally unsuspicious.”
“Science is a sprig of coriander that conceals the ugliness,” he repeated. “I see. A sprig of coriander. Something – you’re saying to yourself – is being concealed beneath the spectacle of science. What? That’s why you came to my apartment yesterday. Isn’t it? That’s what’s been eating at you.”
“Well, yes. That – and like I wanted to finally meet you. You’re his son,” I said and continued, reluctantly. “I’m not a religious person and I don’t believe because everywhere we turn there’s a lie. I’m convinced that he died because of lies. You can’t tell me otherwise. Call it intuition. Something happened to him and I’m trying to put it together. Help me put it together, please. I’m pleading. Can’t you see? I was there last year at school. It’s been strange looking back. A little confusing. No. A lot confusing. Things happened. I’m sure of it. And I’m scared now. I don’t know why but I’m scared. Like intuitively, I’m scared. It’s a feeling, you know. Deep inside. I need your help. Help me. We’re told so many stories; we’ve twisted so many different perspectives and ideas and histories and tied them together so tightly that we no longer know one story from another,” I said and I was leaning over my beer, hunched over, passionate about my confusion – and fear. “What we do know for sure – a certainty in life I’ve come to – is that there is no truth to anything, not even to what we see. Not even to death. Not his, anyway,” I said and I leaned back and took a sip of my beer. I’d gotten it off my chest. There. I felt better for the moment. “Trust me on this one,” I said having finished my beer and looking around as if sensing that someone was watching. “Trust me,” I whispered as I leaned towards Raúl, again. “I know. After all this, I’m learning. I – am – learning. For sure.”
“You spent a lot of time with my father. You sound like you’re channeling him. You do. But Maddy … Maddy, it’s terrible when at such a young age you come to this,” said Raúl. “Terrible. Even if it’s because of what’s happened. Maybe it’s even terrible if it’s true. Probably worse if it’s true because someone so young shouldn’t see so much.”
“I just turned 21. What are you 30 – 32 tops?”
“Thirty. I’m thirty.”
“What’s the big difference? You’re not going to give me some shit like, how can someone so young know so much, are you? Mr. thirty-year-old-doctor. At some point our ages are simply another construction and have little meaning – if any meaning at all. What, I’m not suppose to know certain things because I’m just 21? I can’t see certain things because I’m 21? After 30 – I suppose you think – like a magic wand is waved and just like that we can reason through things much better. More wisely. Nonsense. A little magic dust and you’ve arrived? That’s not how your father thought. Not at all. I’ve had professors that are total idiots, white haired imbeciles with PhD’s. They know nothing about me. Nothing about what’s really going on. Explain that to me. I’m sick of that way of thinking. Today, all bets are off. All of them. Don’t ask me to accept someone else’s shit for my reality. No way. I don’t see any difference between us – not really. Except that you’re done with school.”
“And graduate school,” he said, again with that smile that made me smile, too, sort of, because, like I didn’t want to let him know that he got to me with that last remark. It was funny – but true. He was talking about durability. Resilience. What age is after all. All the more reason why his father’s time wasn’t up.
Raul’s blue eyes were gray now, as if a film covered their usual splendor. They seemed tired, worn, suffering. The result of relentless tearing. But beneath them was that smile. He was learning how to live with two lives, his and his father’s lost for eternity.
A young, muscular guy was locking his navy-blue Cannondale to a No Parking sign right near our table; an aristocratic looking couple was looking at Durham sofas in the window of LUXURY FURNITURE across the street.
And something Javier Sicard said came to me: Truth has been made to suffer as a consequence of our unbridled actions. I told Raúl that his father said that.
He didn’t respond to me immediately. He took it in, carefully, as if he was tasting a fine wine for the first time and he wanted to experience it all, slowly, distinguishing every particle. He repeated it: “Truth has been made to suffer as a consequence of our unbridled actions.” And he followed it up: “Yeap. That would be him, mi viejo,” he said. “That’s just like my father. He would likely then say that unbridled actions become the truths we abide by.”
“He didn’t say that. But it sounds like him.”
It was one of the first sentences I heard him utter that September, last September, when I took his seminar. Truth has been made to suffer as a consequence of our unbridled actions. That’s how he began the class – that’s how it all started I’m thinking now. Or it was right around then – with the convocation, which made the hairs on my head prickle. The confusing year.
We were seated around his seminar table. Quiet. Expectant. Waiting. And he’s just there, a shit eating grin on his face looking at all of us. I don’t mean just scanning the room. His Roman nose, the square jaw, the clear, wide forehead, all of him larger then life – and with that grin he’d fix those forest green eyes on each one of us, wait till we looked away, and move on to the next person. There were fifteen of us. All silent, and very still. We didn’t dare move. You could hear a pin drop. When he got to me, I didn’t look away. Everyone else did. I didn’t. I smiled back instead. And he nodded approval – ever show slightly, like almost unnoticeable. And then he ran one of his bear hands over his short white scalp and leaned back in his chair. And he said it. Just like that. And he looked at each of us again. Then pushing on he said, Alexander Hamilton said that ambition must be tempered by ambition.Followed by a long pause. Ambition tempered by ambition, he emphasized again, repeating it twice. Ambition tempered by ambition. He made us dwell on that. I’m still dwelling on it – personal ambition and the collective ambition of society, others, institutions. How it all works together – or should. Something like that. I’m still thinking about it. I still don’t know.
“And maybe … Finding the virtue in ambition, no? How we value ambitions. What it is.”
I found it uncanny how much like his father he sounded, I told Raúl. It was unreal that his father knew so much about American history and philosophy and literature. More then most Americans even – and he was from Argentina. How does that happen?
“By chance, Maddy,” said Raúl. “By chance. Like you coming to my apartment after what happened. Who could have seen any of this coming? Any of it? That’s randomness and it’s always at play in the universe – by design.” He paused, searching for something he kept buried in his mind, his learning. “You know what Darwin said?”
I nodded “No”.
“He said we – man that is – can neither originate varieties, nor prevent occurrences – he can preserve and accumulate. That’s all we can do. We can preserve and accumulate the wrong things, you know. That’s the trap, I figure.”
“What does that have to do with anything? I don’t get it,” I said with some embarrassment, a feeling that, early on, came over me when his father spoke like that too. Sometimes Javier spoke as if the meaning he was after was universal, obvious – quite clear. The truth, I always assumed. This is how the truth gets told, I remember thinking, when it’s in you, your DNA – but when you’ve not experienced it like this before, it’s paralyzing. Raúl brought me back to that uncomfortable feeling. I was suddenly vulnerable. Sat back, looked away, drew on my beer, trying to make it all go away.
“How do we make order, Maddy? In a Godless universe, how do we do it? How do we know we’re really alive?”
“I don’t know. Maybe we bargain for it,” I said, guessing.
“We’re always working with what already is – what exists – and we had nothing to do with it. That’s what burns us. And when we work like that, artificially, we are exposed to new things and change. Darwin – my man. Yeap. Inescapable. That’s what he was thinking about. We’ve all been affected ever since,” said Raúl. He laughed and said, “I pulled that out of my undergraduate years. I don’t know how it popped into my head. Maybe you pushed it. Randomness is complex shit, Maddy, and it fits and we adapt where and when we can. If not, well, you know.”
“So you mean to tell me,” I said to Raúl, “that Javier’s father, your grandfather, a captain in the Argentine Air Force, fighting in a revolution against the lies of Juan Perón – that’s how your father told it – gets shot down. Dies. And there it is again. There you have it, the lies – tight fitting lies, you’d probably say, traveling through time, over and over, always the same lie visiting us, maybe even in different forms, and bringing damnation. But lies anyway. The same lies.”
“And fire and brimstone,” says Raúl. “Don’t forget fire and brimstone come before damnation. They’re essential for the religious story. All that exists in defiance of what is natural and diverse.”
“So your grandmother moves them, right – her and your father – to the U.S., and like that, that’s how we have one of the great minds of our time? Chance. Randomness.”
“How else can you explain it? Death shall have no dominion, said Dylan Thomas. See, I know some literature. After years with my old man, something’s rubbed off.”
“It seems that you’re simply saying that self-preservation is valued above all. Like, that’s disorienting – and stressful. No? Where do we find the laws of the world? And make things work.”
I opened my black notebook and I had dog-eared the page I wanted to share with Raúl because I knew that I’d turn to this over and over again. I quote it when I can. Say it to anybody. It seems to make sense to me, especially now. The more I read it, the clearer it becomes. I said to Raúl that his father would tell us that there’s nothing else but the here and the now. No past – it’s gone, left to weak memories. No tomorrow. It’s only about now. This – is – it, like Javier used to say. (But as I was saying this, I got the sense that Raúl knew all this about his father already. How could he not?).
“The rest of the game,” I read from my black notebook exactly what I had hurriedly taken down in class intent on catching every word Javier said, “involves merely ensuring that we make people into compliant individuals. That’s all. The ultimate bargain. A collective that complies with the wishes – and perversions – of those that dominate. Just don’t look down – the abyss is daunting. And alluring. Rot wins. Shit rises,” I read, looked up and stared into Raúl’s blue eyes – and I grinned.
“Maddy, listen to me. I love my father. Dearly. You know that. You know I do. I don’t have to tell you that. The pain I feel in my heart I feel to the bone. But you. You Maddy, so young. Beautiful. Really beautiful. So intelligent. Such promise. You can’t be so pessimistic. You can’t have such a nihilistic view of things. No, please. He didn’t. My father didn’t think that way.”
I wanted to disagree with him because Javier did have that view – I got it from him, he lead me to it – but I got hung up on beautiful. It took dominion. Everything stopped moving. Beautiful held me captive. The way it came out of his mouth – easy, softly. Like it had been there for some time and he was contemplating it, aging it, waiting to see when to let it out. Beautiful. Soft like that. It didn’t say that I’m good looking. It didn’t speak to me like that. He didn’t. I am good looking. I had on an earthy yellow tank top and a short skirt – light brown – and my thighs are perfect. Tan. So are my ankles. Raúl could see that. Maybe I was showing him – I don’t know. Maybe that was troubling me – that I wanted him to see me. I’m short but I’m long, too, because I’m skinny and strong. I have definition. I know that. A straight nose. Full lips that some idiots at Adams can’t take their eyes off of when they talk to me – so annoying. I hate that. I know all that about myself and I could see Raúl, here and there, even when I first met him, looking here and there – but gracefully not like some of the boys at school that stare at you as if they’re ready to eat, bib on, knife and fork in hand. Pretty girls experience this all the time. All pretty girls know this – we don’t need a mirror. Like we’re told from the start: You’re so beautiful. We’re recognized. The looks we get are different. It’s accepted that beauty is this or that and that the culture pursues it with a vengeance. Whistles follow. Guys on the street grabbing their balls and licking their lips. Other men just look and smile – the educated ones. And there are those educated ones, like at Adams, that are way too young and think their shit doesn’t stink, those blond, blue-eyed Ralph Lauren wanna be types that saunter over and say something really fucking stupid, “Hey beautiful, I can cheer you up. I can wipe away your gloom.” Ugh. Some educated men can be so school smart and know absolutely nothing. A sprig of coriander won’t help here.
Beautiful. His beautiful said something else. More. It said more. It worried me, frankly. It said that there was something there between us. Some thing. I worried that it had a strange connection with his father; that I was somehow a way for him to, I don’t know, return to his father, like get him back; that I was a therapy; that I could help him through this darkness that was so thick we could both feel it, taste it, touch it; that at some point – this I feared the most – when all was said and done and he was over this moment and onto the next I would be shown the door, thank you very much, adios, good-bye, all done.
I’m not going to go through life with people thinking that’s all I have to offer.
“Maddy. Maddy where are you? Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“When I think about last year,” I said snapping back into the moment, though the comment about beautiful remained with me – a dull humming noise. “Like when I now think back, I don’t know, I was engaged or something because I took notice – of something. I did. There was something – I’m not sure – strange, tragic events that sprung up right at the beginning of the year,” I said to Raúl. “I took notice. How could you not? Like I don’t know what. I took notice – and I’m feeling it now. There was more to it. More beneath the obvious. It was convocation. It was then when it started. The curtain began to be pulled back … I don’t know … Like I began to notice … things. Things. Things that don’t add up. Or maybe they do – I’m not sure. This is why I’m here, why I came to you.”
It began like this: students marched two-by-two to Mather Chapel. It looked like a picture, the gentility, the privilege that abounds at Adams. Nothing out of the ordinary. On the contrary. The sun was high, the skies cloudless that day last September, a few days after I visited the great Javier Sicard in his office and pleaded my case to be in his seminar, right before the start of school. The sky, the air, the sun – it was all perfectly harmonized for the Convocation, the welcoming of the new year. Like it was ordained or something – it had to be like this, anyone would think. What could be better, right?
The faculty gathered near the library. All in their colorful regalia glistening in the afternoon sun — the reds, the golds and the greens, the purples, even the black had a spectacular glow. The beginning of another school year. Every year, at the start of the year, we follow ghosts that obediently marched into chapels, just like we were doing, in ceremony, the attired disciples laid out for God to inspect and sanctify. We have to understand that. That’s what I was thinking. We are the anointed, the select. Privilege in the air – our destiny. God’s will. All that shit in our favor. All of it.
I hadn’t been to a Convocation since I was a first year and had to go – and maybe it’s that I didn’t know any better then. The naïve new student, you know. But I was junior and I wanted to start gathering memories of the place, the rituals of academia that make the ground hallowed and after my meeting with Professor Sicard, I decided to attend this time, one last time, knowing full well that as a senior I wouldn’t want to go because I’d be too tied up deconstructing the nature of such a spectacle, the way professors in their robes love to play hide and go seek with their fancy language and their idiosyncratic knowledge.
I wanted to go and look for my Professor Sicard, too, hoping I wouldn’t find him in the procession. He told me he hated all that dressing up, the disguises, the theatre, the circus of it all – and that we had enough of that in academia as it is, so he never went to the ceremony. Not even to graduations. He doesn’t attend those either. I looked for him anyway to see if what he said to me was true; to see if I could hold him to his word. I didn’t know him yet. And I guess, secretly, I wanted to see if he would show up last minute or something. That would say something.
Professor Javier Sicard and I were somehow preternaturally connected already.
At the rear of the faculty parade, lagging a good ten steps behind, alone, there was Professor Dickenson. He’s a classics professor. Was, I mean – he died that fall. Heart attack they said. One of the confounding truths, I think. I noticed him because the sun bounced off of his Harvard red and it looked like a spot light was on him and he was about to give a soliloquy. He looked resplendent. An image for all time center stage. Yet he also seemed aged, haggard, having some difficulty keeping up. He was hunched over, as if he could hardly stand and he walked slowly, laboriously, and from where I was it appeared as if he was talking to himself. But we all knew that he talked to himself often – nothing new.
I was off to one side in the middle of the quad, the history of the place written into the gleaming marble all around me standing in judgment. I never felt Adams like that before, never noticed Adams in such a strange and foreboding way. It felt as if it was actually looking right through me – all it stood for, all it was, all it would be forever leering at me. I turned three sixty and felt so small, Stanhope and Whitman and Adams and Franklin, all of them scowling. My only respite, ironically, was to run to Mather Chapel. Driven there by the school I never imagined. I didn’t know why, either. I don’t know why at that moment I felt so alienated from the place my entire family attended – and where future generations of our people would go too. It was as if I was standing outside myself, watching myself be; it was like I was seeing myself doing myself, really seeing myself for the very first time. And I didn’t know what I was feeling, not at all. Premonition maybe.
But I quickly let it go and stuck to my plan: wait for the first years and the faculty to enter Mather Chapel – and go in. Sit near the back, that way I could exit unseen and quickly if it got too boring.
But my attention was taken by Professor Dickenson, hunched over, troubled and losing ground as the faculty chatted with each other while strolling in a fine line towards the chapel’s large oak doors that were opened wide, like outstretched arms waiting to embrace the arriving flock.
And as if out of nowhere I noticed him: Javier Sicard, there – “Your father,” I said to Raúl – edging out from behind the stand of pines that sits on the way to the knoll before the chapel. He was wearing a black t-shirt and jeans – that’s all. No regalia. He moved quickly, gracefully towards Dickenson, catching up to him from behind, putting his arm around him and turning him and leading him away from the procession.
As they walked away they seemed to be talking. Professor Sicard kept an arm over Dickenson’s hunched back. From where I stood, it looked as if Sicard was holding him up. Dickenson would raise his head towards Professor Sicard, look at him intently and say something, waving his arms. I could see Professor Sicard pat him on the back, like consoling him. He nodded, agreeing with Dickenson for whatever reason.
Javier turned and looked back at the procession heading to the chapel. That’s when he saw me; he caught my eye. He kept walking and listening and staring at me standing perfectly still and totally alone in the center of the quad. For some reason, I thought of myself as Christina – Andrew Wyeth’s Christina Olson crawling to her house. I don’t know why. The starkness of it maybe; the color, the gold rolling to the steel horizon; the aging house on a hill. Christina, the wide expanse before her, the solitary house on the hill, lonely, perfectly still in a universe that’s moving, constantly changing and she can’t keep up. Like a buoy bobbing in open ocean, holding time, a record of us, for us to know.
I was torn: whether to go into the chapel and hear some rapturous speech about Adams’ heritage, how it’s the pinnacle, the summit of success for all who aspire to be leaders – or follow Dickenson and Sicard as they slowly made their way back to their offices in Whitman.
“What did you do?” asked Raúl. And he ordered two more Brooklyn Lagers.
I remained true to my mission and went to the Convocation because, if I followed Dickenson and Sicard, I wouldn’t be able to explain my spying. To be true to the story, I didn’t think twice about it – perhaps Dickenson was sick, perhaps he was growing senile, something we all thought since he lost his wife.
“But my father, he was waiting. He knew something was off with his friend. And he already knew you saw him with Dickenson.”
“That’s why I made sure. I waited for him to turn towards me one more time – I knew he would – and when he did I walked off towards Mather.”
I wanted to be one of the last in and first out. That was foremost on my mind, being a typical student. I never gave Sicard’s sudden appearance from behind the stand of pines a second thought. I never thought about Dickenson, other then his decrepitude making sense to me. He was fragile. I thought that the logical path from Whitman to the parking lot was also the path of the Convocation procession so Javier wasn’t out of place either. He was leaving. But I did turn quickly, right before entering Mather, to see if he was still watching me. He wasn’t. Javier and Dickenson had disappeared.
It all made rational sense to me. Everything was in order, as it should be. But it wasn’t. It wasn’t at all.
Once I heard the Convocation speech, I began thinking – not just then, mind you, not at that precise moment. At the moment I heard the speech I was affected by it because it was all off, strange, out of place. I didn’t know what I was thinking, really; I didn’t know what I was feeling – other than it was an affront to my mentor. That troubled me. And now I’m thinking that the Convocation was some sort of message – they always are; but at the time I took it personally. An uncontrollable urge came over me to protect Javier, to shield him from what I was hearing – and the forces I assumed were behind the vitriol – like my father. It was an overwhelming feeling; it was almost immediate. This strange feeling, something new, even mature maybe, came over me right from the beginning, from the first utterance of the familiar words. And all I wanted to do – and thought about – was to protect him.
July 20, 1996, 3 Days After Flight 800 Exploded
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 …,”
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.”
“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.
“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.
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.
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