Final: Lost in the Funhouse

Featured

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.

Advertisements

Object Lessons: Life is Just a Bowl of Varies

I’ve navigated the teaching profession intuitively, always gravitating to what I sensed were voids in the system that, more often than not, compromised students. My rewards have not been monetary, nor have there been accolades showered on me – a special chair, a title, the such and such professor of. No. I’m nowhere near a think tank and the leisured life of, well, thinking and writing. None of this has happened. Mine has been a bumpy road – humbling in many respects. Some might even say I live on the boundaries of academe, shunning careerism – no publishing in obscure journals, no writing unreadable books, no clawing up the expected ladder to obscurity. I’ve done none of it. I’ve focused on students instead – and there’s a price to be paid for that.

But the rewards for this focus occupy my office shelves —objects the students have given me over the years. They are testaments to the significance of shared learning moments otherwise muted by the hallowed ivy.

Objects are aesthetic records of the deeply emotional link between the past and the present. Objects say something of our need to regain something of ourselves – something lost, perhaps, what memory is; they’re even about something we yet don’t know we’ve lost, something of a nature we’re yet unsure of. Something needing discovery. Objects point to the past, but to the future as well. And they emphasize how ephemeral time is.

Yet – while these objects are incredibly intimate accolades, they also signify how my dreams were held in check by my sense of responsibility to others, to the commitment one makes to someone else’s desires – a young dreamer’s. In these objects is a teaching life; they are portals into the difficult work of helping young minds integrate into culture – and of how a teacher evolves with students.

Life is Just a Bowl of Varies – Sid was an older gentleman that followed me around from course to course. And one day, when he was done with his schooling pastime to idle away hours in retirement, he handed me a bowl comprised of various dice. LIFE IS JUST A BOWL OF VARIES was printed on a card – that’s all. He was telling me that life is varied, diverse – and that it might diverge from my plans.

Life is Just a Bowl of Varies

Life is Just a Bowl of Varies

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

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

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

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

Stanley London Brass Compass

Stanley London Brass Compass

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

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overpopulation and the Anthropocene

Overpopulation is Not The Problem, by associate professor of geography and environmental systems, at the University of Maryland, Erle C. Ellis, is definitely an important piece to read – and not just because of the argument – “The conditions that sustain humanity are not natural and never have been. Since prehistoric, human populations have used technologies and engineered ecosystems to sustain populations well beyond the capabilities of unaltered “natural” ecosystems.”

In the argument, we thus must also ask about how we’re educating ourselves – and those to come – so as to follow data, science, principles and ethics and humanisms wide reach, thus ensuring that we’re moving towards a more pronounced technological future with empathy and care.   The challenge, according to Ellis, is here:

The science of human sustenance is inherently a social science. Neither physics nor chemistry nor even biology is adequate to understand how it has been possible for one species to reshape both its own future and the destiny of an entire planet. This is the science of the Anthropocene. The idea that humans must live within the natural environmental limits of our planet denies the realities of our entire history, and most likely the future. Humans are niche creators. We transform ecosystems to sustain ourselves. This is what we do and have always done. Our planet’s human-carrying capacity emerges from the capabilities of our social systems and our technologies more than from any environmental limits.

Since we are “niche” creators, the danger, of course, is in creating a “niche of terror and devastation,” a niche, for instance, the excludes others, that, as Chris Hedges argues, creates “sacrifice zones.”

From Newtown to Newark and Back: The Always Ongoing Cycle of Despair

Not since 9-11 has a country mourned as it is now following the overwhelming, mindless violence that occurred in Newtown.

Twenty six innocent children and six innocent adults were martyred on the crucifix of insanity. We have to accept, as Yeats says in Easter 1916, that we’ve finally been Transformed utterly. All, indeed, has changed — Yeats says it and we must see it as well.

There will be a lot of talk in time — the Second Amendment to the Constitution, violence in America, assault weapons, the NRA, mental health. The list can be endless since Newtown — this new town — to many of us a new spiritual place, is now every town in America; everything that ails us crushed Newtown’s innocence.

Why? Why have we come to this?

A shadow of cloud on the stream/Changes minute by minute, Yeats tells us. The long-legged moor-hens dive,/And hens to moor cocks call;/Minute by minute they live:/The stone’s in the midst of all. How prophetic Yeats is about our problem: those common folks living in Eighteenth-century houses, we pass them by, nod and give Polite meaningless words. We move around and through people, not with people. We ensnare rather then enable. We are suffocating. We suffocate because we take meaning away, not work to understand.

But in the middle of all this, our constructed struggles, our foibles, is The stone, the grave, death. It’s inevitable so we try to move past it too. “These tragedies must end,” said President Obama. But in order to begin to address the problem we have to first acknowledge our inconsequentiality in the face of Nature. It has a power that brings us to our knees — Katrina, Sandy, now Adam Lanza. He, too — there is no doubt — is a force of Nature we don’t understand. He, too, is a storm of destruction.

Too long a sacrifice/Can make a stone of the heart, says Yeats. Is this who we are? Was this Lanza, his heart so cold, so lost? O when may it suffice? wonders Yeats. President Obama wondered the same thing in Newtown. He told us all that Newtown reminds us of what matters. Why do we have to have violence of such magnitude to remind us of what matters? Why?

What matters are the simplest things: Why are we here? What is the purpose for our lives, given that time is fleeting, our lives ephemeral? This is the terrible beauty that is born, says Yeats. The dull, almost empty sound that comes when we ask these questions. There’s no response. We turn to education and religion, exercise and excess, mediated sports and consumerism to find ourselves. We never turn inward, towards ourselves, our inner being.

Adam Lanza is the extreme example of an outward manifestation of a harrowing malady. Newtown is his response to his darkness. How can we evolve if we don’t embrace these frightening questions about ourselves, the shadows in Plato’s allegorical Cave, and face these together?

When President Obama read the names of the innocent children, I turned to Yeats and whispered, Now and in time to be, …/Are changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.

We are a culture that harbors anger against our inconsequentiality — …the birds that range/From cloud to tumbling cloud,/Minute by minute they change, while we run past each other, never taking the time, never asking, never wondering, watching, learning what ails us.

Nature’s indifference against our need to be seen and heard, to have relevance in a short life requires that we have systems of checks and balances that help us address questions of the soul, the mind, the spirit because we will each find ourselves, from time to time, in the darkest of places.

Of course, the change we need — one that also coincides with Nature’s insistence that we are merely part of its scheme, that’s all — must address the deepest, darkest aspects of our American existence. We must face our hand in evolving a world in which life is cheap, inconsequential.

As we turn to Newtown, as we should be, as we mourn, let’s not forget the hundreds and thousands of children that are killed yearly in places like Newark, New Jersey — not Newtown, which is a random brutal tragedy. Newark has been spiraling for a long time. A few years back a mother cried to me, in a Newark elementary school, to help make education better in the city because she lost a son to the streets and illiteracy as the system promoted him blindly — until at age 16 when he was shot dead in front of her.

Newtown didn’t need our attention because all the American signs of perfection were self-evident. Newark we bypass because, even though little school age children are killed every year, due to a harrowing street violence that, like Lanza, has no conscience and will use incredible fire power regardless, the people here are not like us. We push by Newark — and its people. There are far too many communities in America we bypass, leaving them to face incomprehensible violence on their own, leaving them to face questions about their existence in the shadows of our illusory splendor.

We all suffer equally. We all suffer. Some have more resilience then others; however, we have nothing in place to help those that might be lead down a destructive path — no mechanisms are available to diagnose, analyze and engage those among us who live troubled lives.

Questions of the heart and the soul have been relegated to prayer and service, once or twice a week; they’ve been sidelined in our daily actions, our close and sometimes intimate exchanges. Speed is privileged over contemplation; the quick fix over meaningful deliberation. We are desperate but we don’t have the means by which to express our anxieties. Some respond to their despair with gruesome violence — and we faciliate this by embracing an amendment to the constitution that was adopted on December 15, 1791 when we were new, fresh and worried about the shackles of a heartless government. Then, a well regulated militia was necessary; the security of a free state fundamental, as was the right of the people to keep and to bear arms. But now we have a fat Defense Department, and in States, we have militias — the National Guards. States differ, but in most states people can keep and bear arms — as Mrs. Lanza did.

Given these realities, what is the necessity of arming ourselves with assault weapons? Fear of government? Any local community police force can overcome any citizen militia, even if the citizens are armed with assault weapons. So what is the point of such armament? We know where it leads, particularly if we don’t have a robust system to work with our anxieties, our very human stresses, our discontents.

From Newtown to Newark, and back, the needs of a Nation are the same. The terrible beauty is that we can’t escape our place — life and death in a brief moment in time, the raw awesomeness of Nature, and our sense of a beleaguered self. All this requires one thing: mindful education early on. When it skips people, when we rush by it, even as change happens all around us, some will find no recourse but to continue down a dark and violent abyss whose only end is to spread pain and suffering to as many innocent people as possible because the despair is so overwhelming that it’s unspeakable.

Adaptation One. Hands.

for Heather and Cheswayo

He said it just like this: “Yo, brother Hector, why don’t you take me under your wing?”

He said it just like that at the end of one of our final classes of the semester. He reached over with his right hand and placed it in mine, and swung his left arm over and embraced me — we embraced.

“Yeah, brother Hector. Mentor me,” he insisted softly. “Mentor me. Why don’t you mentor me? Yeah, I’m serious. Take me under your wing,” he said with a pleasant, endearing grin.

Mentor — having the form of an agent. Latin, monitor — to remember, think, counsel. The name of the Ithacan noble whose disguise the goddess Athene assumed in order to act as the guide and adviser of the young Telemachus; allusively, one who fulfills the office which the supposed Mentor fulfilled towards Telemachus — hence a common noun: An experienced and trusted counselor. Thank you OED.

I’ve been grappling with this word ever since I first heard it in conjunction with my name. The weight of it — the history, the expectations. Homer‘s Odyssey, for god’s sake. How do you fit into those shoes? Kids don’t know the gravity of their questions, the load.

The most difficult challenge for me has been taking jurisdiction over myself and moving my entire being — my sense of self — into feeling that I fit in, anywhere, any time and under any circumstance. Why don’t you take me under your wing? clung to my conscience, a hallowed white wing, outstretched, soft, protective. And I’m looking down on it, spread out over the student’s head, carefully drawing him in, just a wing, an allusive one at that, referencing something implied, as in a life, your life, the student’s life.

Adaptation One. Hands. It was -13 C (9F) the other morning when I did chores — moving sheep from one paddock to the next to continue grazing on fresh grasses even in December, feeding chickens and cleaning their coop, and bottle feeding Sandy, the two-month old Jersey steer, cleaning the barn, leveling the water. They depend on me, I on them. If their lives are good, mine will be too.

If the lives of my students are good, fulfilling, creative lives full of promise — mine will be too. It’s a law of the universe, unspoken but true. This kind of interdependence feeds adaptation, nurtures it. Adaptation requires abandonment, letting go of some aspect of yourself; it’s essential for evolution, for evolving.

Sunlight was barely pushing through weighty blue-gray clouds that morning. The still visible full moon waned. It was going to stay cold. All the signs were there.

I pulled open the barn door, Sandy’s bottle cradled in my left arm. Steam rose from my nostrils when I got out a push and my back creaked a bit down my left side to my waist; a stiffness in a shoulder. The chickens fluttered, jumping off bales of hay. The roosters that sounded off at 4:30 that morning and made me stir turned and faced me with dignified, proud looks, heads raised. I knew exactly where I was, what things would be like on this day because of the way things felt in the barn. I keep time with these creatures– they give me time. It’s a better idea, a better feeling to know where you are, what you need to do and why.

I set out across a tough earth for the paddock gate to move the sheep. An Arctic wind kicked up. It made me tear.

When I got to the fence, I noticed that the earth’s shift to freezing had leaned into a post and the top hinge of the gate had come off its back plate. The gate looked wounded, tired. It snowed a bit the night before, barely a cover — but what had fallen near the gate had seized the bottom rung. The gate was frozen.

The sheep took two steps towards me. I faced them and they took two steps back. I pulled off my gloves so that I could get a better grip on the frozen fence and yanked until it broke lose and I could maneuver the hinge back on the back plate, holding the fence up with one hand, helping the hinge with the other. I had to bare knuckle whack the hinge a few times and in a couple of minutes I had the fence back on. I was winded. Nose running. A finger and a knuckle bled only a tiny bit and I knew, after I licked them, that in a few seconds my system — and the cold — would seal the cuts.

Would there be scars, a record of this event? I wondered.

I noticed my hands. Who is this performing these tasks? Who — or what — is the I in the I? Am I me or some aspect of me that is a part of the spectacle? Perhaps both. Who — or what — will give testimony to my being here? Hands move between reality and fiction, like phantoms.

Philosophers have spoken about the hands. In the documentary, derrida, Jacques Derrida says that what interests him about the eyes is that it’s the part of the body that doesn’t age. “In other words,” says the French Philosopher, “if one looks for one’s childhood, across the signs of aging in the body … one can find one’s childhood in the look of the eyes…Hegel says that the eyes are the manifestation of the soul…But I translate this thought as follows: That one’s act of looking has no age.”

As for the hand, “There is a history of the hand,” says Derrida, “the evolution of man, what we call the hominization of the animal, occurs via the transformation of the hand. I think that it’s not the body of the hand that stays the same, the hand changes from childhood to old age. It is the eye and the hands that are the sights of recognition, the signs through which one identifies the Other. To return to the question of narcissism, they are, paradoxically, the parts that we see the least easily. We can look in a mirror and see ourselves and have a reasonably accurate sense of what we look like. But it’s very difficult to have an image of our own act of looking or to have a true image of our hands as they are moving. It’s the Other who knows what our hands and eyes are like.”

I look at hands, intensely, fascinated by them because they say a lot about a person’s life, his or her beliefs. The phalanges of both my hands are bent in different directions, particularly the ring finger of my left hand — and I can’t tell you how this happened; the index finger of my right hand won’t close all the way; and I have what’s called a “boxer’s break” in the carpal behind the pinky of my right hand, which happened when I was kneeling before my 6 month old warm blood and he took a step towards me and my pinky jammed up in his powerful chest and he broke it as I tried to hold him back. It’s a break that often happens to boxers. I have what looks like a burn on my left hand, but it was really a saw I use to cut metal that brushed me; and I have a “V” scar there too, beneath it a steal pin holding my wrist together (this came from sports, not farming, another story).

The academic’s hands have always intrigued me because they pose a problem: these soft, subtle hands, meant for turning pages, not digging ditches, have turned civilizations on their heads, named things, classified others, and in fact define what is evolving and how; they label progress; they determine right and wrong; they convict. Pardon. And they wash their hands of things they don’t want to see. Such soft hands have so much authority. This troubles me. Can delicate hands teach?

Can a mentor have soft hands? Easy to mould, cut, compress?

Have we left the hand behind in our cultural adaptations? Those among us using their hands at ground level — this is where the hands live, after all, where they’re necessary — how can we understand You, the Other, without become You, entering Your I as our own and abandoning the spectacle that is us? How do I speak to You if I’m not You, You who uses Your hands?

My journey: from what am I going to do with myself ? to the teacher and now to mentor, it’s been impossible for me to feel good about the answers to these questions where and when I’ve been involved. I could have done better.

The other day, I received an email from a young colleague and friend I respect immensely. She wrote to me about her family’s venture, a Wisconsin experiment with 50 grape vines. The family has been winterizing them over a few months, Thanksgiving closing off the project. They use chicken wire around the base and fill these with leaves. The chicken wire has to be strung around each of the 50 vines. She tells me that the “scratches and cuts are beginning to fade on my hands.” I immediately fell totally in love with the “scratches and cuts,” that beautiful image that eventually will “fade.” Irresistible. I don’t want them to “fade” — like an old photograph, a node in life’s road. Her hands would be so lovely, I thought, with a hint of a few scars that named a passage about love and family and growth and beauty. And that, in its course, touched me with such melancholy, brushed against me like that and I ached at the thought of it fading. I had the same feeling when I first read John Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale and came to Forlorn! the very word is like a bell/To toll me back from thee to my sole self! And then Keats says, Adieu!, which he repeats soon thereafter, Adieu! adieu! they plaintive anthem fades/Past the near meadows, over the still stream,/Up the hill-side …

Fade, the scars fade but never really go away, do they? Do we all fade like this?

Hands tell us our approximation to love, to life itself. Hands are better then pictures. Van Gogh’s Two Hands. We learn nothing from Facebook, not really, because we leave the hands out. We leave hands out a lot these days — and most of the hands we see are either killing or keeping someone from harms way, embracing an Other who is suffering, distraught.  Follow the hands (where they’re pictured, that is) in the 45 most powerful images of 2011 and tell me, what do you see hands doing? What do these hands say about our struggle to Be.

I remember my grandmother’s hands. Worn, working hands. My hands have been compared to hers: round, strong, used — not the hands one associates with turning pages of a book. The problem of the hand is that it resides at ground-level — where hands actually work. Knowledge, economies of scale and technology have created an upside down model where the consumer economy is privileged over all else. Hominization without hands — or is it with unseen hands, unacknowledged hands, hands we don’t want to see? We believe that we are evolving differently and that the hand is somehow secondary. Soft hands have drawn this conclusion. Round and round soft hands go into carefully orchestrated meetings to discuss threats from different epistemologies. We meet to discuss how not to use our hands. We don’t like dirt. We don’t want to get our hands dirty.

Why don’t you take me under your wing? Is this the right question, my brother student? For me to enter the I that is you, we need to be in each other’s hands, spreading our wings together. This is adaptation.

Was it a vision, or a waking dream? We ultimately ask ourselves along with Keats. Fled is that music: — Do I wake or sleep?   Hands always know the answer.

On Being: Lessons From the Farm — Life, Death and Self-Reliance

For my Students in the Fall 2012 First Year Seminar, Voices

and for Jon

I don’t know how I got to where I am, where I’ve arrived. At my age, soon to be 59, we’re suppose to know, have some answers. I don’t. It’s as if life just happened and I went along, foggy.

Did I direct my life or was it directed for me? Who’s the director of my life? Anyone’s, for that matter?

My first instinct is to turn to literature for answers to questions like this; literature is our keystone, the arbiter of confusing dreams. Literature and art have been with me all my life, they’re friends, guides.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in Book 1 of his Confessions, speaks to my core: “I alone. I know my heart, and I know men. I am not made like any of those I have seen; I dare to believe that I am not made like any of those who are in existence.” This is not a conceit. It is. That’s all. It simply is what comes to me after I ask, “Who’s the director of my life?” It comes from not knowing; it’s the feeling of being out of sorts, different. And it may have everything to do with having lived in two very different cultures.

My mother tells me that I’m traveling pathways paved long ago. She tends towards mysticism: my ground was set, she says, between 1294 and 1324, in Monatillou, France, when Pierre Maury shepherded his sheep across the Pyrenees into Spain for wintering. My mother argues that we descend from this Cathar line of heretics. This might account for my rebelliousness, my always ongoing push against any and all constraints; this may account for my disdain for authority, too. It may also suggest why I find myself on a farm raising sheep.

My sister tells me that my entire life has lead to this critical point, and that it has something to do with my immediate past, filled with recollections of my grandfather – ranchero, un campesino in Argentina’s Pampas, and my own father and mother on horseback in the hills and valleys of La Cumbre, Argentina. There are pictures of me sitting on horseback, my mother or my father holding me in the saddle. There’s one of me on a burro, my uncle Julio holding me in place. There are images of me chasing chickens towards my grandmother — then she’d grab one by the neck, whirl it around close enough to my face to touch me, bleed it at my feet, and dunk it in scalding water. We’d feather it together and she’d force my tiny hands into its warm cavity so that I’d pull out its lungs. Seems as if I’ve always had this genteel country life at my back urging me along.

But I still don’t know. I don’t know how or why I’ve come to this place.

I live in Vermont. I teach at Middlebury College. Eighteen or so years ago, when teaching in NYC and our youngest son was in diapers, fast asleep in the car seat, my wife, Nina, and I drove through Middlebury. We were dreaming. And she said to me in our fantastic conversation, “Why can’t you teach here? It’s beautiful.” I replied, “They don’t take people like me here.” Fifteen years later, here I am. Middlebury knocked on my door and asked me to join them — and changed my life in the process.

Who directed whom to what?

I’m not sure why — or even how, still, but here I am on a 47 acre gentleman’s farm (for lack of a better way of saying it) trying to make what to outsiders may look like two lives work. But they’re really one: what I do as a professor in an elite, residential liberal arts college and what I do on my small, always changing farm are one in the same. I can indeed see that much — but little else.

Students always ask, “How did you get here?” When they’re really asking, How does an immigrant from Argentina end up a professor in Vermont? (Student’s questions are never what comes out of their mouths; they’re always looking for something else, more, a deeper inquiry.)

Answer: I don’t know. It just is.

Here’s what I do know. “This is what I have done,” says Rousseau, “what I have thought, what I was … I may have assumed the truth of that which I knew might have been true, never of that which I knew to be false.” It’s good enough for me.

Middlebutry College gave me room to run, a luxurious open field to experiment as a teacher and a scholar – writer, conflating all my interests — technology, teaching, literature and culture and writing. It’s not surprising that the college is in the heart of Vermont — the Middle. Vermont has brought me back to Ralph Waldo Emerson‘s notion of self-reliance:

Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — “Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.” — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that never took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.

From the first moment I read Self-Reliance as an undergraduate, these words have haunted me. My spiritual, American father is Ralph Waldo Emerson, in my mind always decadent, always an aesthete, always the father of American philosophy, something that’s grand and strong, unique, and that gives rise to so much, politically, culturally, and, yes, even technologically in this country.  But we may have forgotten this.

I always claimed to be misunderstood, not because I’m comparing myself to Pythagoras or Socrates, say, or even Emerson himself — that would be too daunting; rather, my misunderstanding with the world comes about because I refuse to settle and be inhabited by the conditions I find myself in. Instead, I have always chosen to abandon these, to leave these constructions behind, as just that, constructions, and abandon myself to my instincts, my sense of what Rosseau says is the truth I find in my eyes.

A Truth: There’s nowhere to hide on a farm. The animals — in my case, sheep, chickens, a cow (the second) — need attending, constantly. I am tied to their cycles, to the always present rhythms of nature. Fall into winter, where we are now, at 9 degrees F this Friday morning, the 30th of November, one week left of regular classes before exams; then dead winter and our January term; it slides into Spring — and the term begins in February; which slides into the bliss of spring, graduation’s anxious joy, and summer and the rest of life. The agricultural calendar and the school’s calendar are strangely in sync. And the rhythms of my body with them both. I adapt and negotiate the life of the farm with the constructed semester and the merciless whim of nature that, like this morning’s Artic blast, is indifferent to my freezing fingers, even under thick gloves.

No matter what Nature presents — Nature + the Human Hand, that is — I have to be out there, inside it, learning, making choices, adjusting moment – to – moment, staring into the eyes of my animals — the chickens, the ewes and their lambs, the cow — to see what they’re telling me about how they want to live.  They depend on me — I them.

My wife says that all animals thrive under my hand. My sense of things is that I’m merely responding to what they’re asking of me. It began long ago, it seems now.

Chelsey on SunciWe had horses long ago — 4. This was when our daughter, a great equestrian from a very young age, rode; she did dressage at college, too, competing and doing quite well in the NCAA’s. But like all children, she moved on and I was left a groom to 4 very large horses — a Belgian draft (17.2 hands), a draft-cross, looking like a warm blood (17 hands), and two other draft-crosses, a paint (15 hands or so) and a cross with a black like the night Percheron (15 hands, too).

Andy

Horses are a unique animal. They’re a flight animal: when they scare they fly. But they’re social, too, and want to trust. A huge horse, like my Belgian, can feel the touch of a fly on his rump. The horse is sensitive; it needs to be approached quietly, slowly but with a kind of strength and security that it can trust. Much like students. If a teacher is too agressive, the student flies away, literally and figuratively. To get to where the heart is, which is all that matters in teaching, really, particularly if we’re wanting students to be self-actualizing citizens, we have to proceed with great imagination, treading lightly, finding our way in their worlds — but with strength, a secure touch and resolve. A horse is like this. I listen better because of my horses. I see better too — perhaps because I spent years learning the horse’s language, the twiching, the movement of the ears, the eyes.

Virgil Rocket, the Belgan

My teaching and my farming have expanded together — and become one.  My education is pretty traditional. I have a PhD in American and English Literature from NYU. I wrote my dissertation on Henry James and aesthetic decadence — and Emerson featured heavily. But mysteriously, adaptively, I teach classes in literature, composition, education studies and, now, environmental studies. I’ve been teaching since 1985, and have done so in poor schools, rich schools, private schools, public schools; I’ve been fortunate enough, given the kind of academic work I’ve done, to have spent time with students in every single grade, K-16, and graduate students. I’ve done projects, assignments, courses in each and every level. I’ve had to learn to adjust quickly; it has forced me to learn — a lot — from various disciplines, which is usually not the norm for a college professor that, even as far back as undergraduate studies, s/he works in silos.

I, on the other hand, can argue that Emerson really begins the technological revolution we’re experiencing today; it could have happened no place else but here, in the USA. What does this mean? It means that my life, as I see it and understand it, has been a series of adjustments — call these adaptations.   Adaptation is how we all evolve.

In The Location of Culture Homi K. Bhabha contends that, “Our existence today is marked by a tenebrous sense of survival, living on the boundaries of the ‘present’, for which there seems to be no proper name other than the current and controversial shiftiness of the prefix ‘post’: postmodernism, postcolonialism, postfeminism … we find ourselves in the moment of transit where space and time cross to produce complex figures of difference and identity, past and present, inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion.”

Don’t we feel this? Don’t we feel this “living on the boundaries” of this or that, “in the moment of transit” and complexity, so much so that we’re unsure of our centers?

The farm centers me. I understand that now. It protects me. I’ve abandoned myself to its life, its subtle language. It’s more powerful and significant then I am. But it’s hard, very hard.  “Let’s face it,” says Ben Hewitt, author of The Town That Food Saved“Farming is damn hard work, typically done for damnable pay … You don’t get to sprawl across the sofa masticating rinds and watching American Idol unless someone else is growing the food.”

FrankyAlmost a year ago this coming January, Franky, our Holstein, had to fulfill its promise.

The hand-raised, docile steer — all 750 beautiful lbs — is feeding our family, others too, friends and so on.

That was the mission, the goal: what can we produce to sustain ourselves, while looking to sustain others? What can we do organically, working with the land’s language, learning it, and letting it help us use it, but making sure we were nurturing it?

These questions were our early business plan, a design for a different future. I was trading in my Henry James for Wendell Berry and Joel Salitin, for Ben Hewitt that, up here in Vermont, is showing us how we can change, how we can live embracing a fortified self-reliance.

Garde

Sustainability requires we come into dialog with death. Eventually, it comes. It has to. Death is always present on the farm; it’s always also present in life outside of the farm, too, but we have so many distractions — particularly those mediated ones that profit from death, cover death, excite us through images of death — to help us repress this most creative of realities about life. Life is death. When we look at the fast-moving hands of a clock, is not that a reminder of the end of things? When we look at photographs taken yesterday, a month ago, several years ago, are these not meant to excite memories of a time lost, gone, left behind? In museums, what are we looking at?

The notion that we have to abandon one thing for another, constantly, is something I’ve come to accept. The challenge is to not abandon yourself and keep to a view, a wide view.

On the day of his death, I slowly walked Franky out of his stall. I had him on a rope halter and he looked at me playfully, as he’d done thousands of times before when we played in one of the paddocks. I’d chase him. He’d stop and face me. We’d challenge each other. He’d half – charge, as if he knew his power would certainly crush me. Eventually he’d settle and I’d sratch his huge head, the one that I would eventually carry to the back of our property and bury in the cold.

In January it will be a year since we put him down. We’ve enjoyed him immensely since. “Go get Franky,” we say to each other when we want a cut of him waiting in the freezer in the basement. We say, “Thank you, Franky,” when he graces our table. Franky was the first. It’s taken me a year, almost, to write about this, to come to terms with how I feel about what we’re doing, but on the day of his death, I was okay. It was natural, a course that he and I were on. We both had a purpose; there was order; we’d helped each other — and he was going to carry on, help all of us through.

I slowly walked him into the barrel of gun. In a split second it was over and we were raising him up to prepare him for the butcher.

I put my hands inside him; it was warm, soothing. As he hung there, I was in awe of his beauty, his mass, his gift to us. This is what moved me to look deeply into his dead eyes that were once so playful. I wanted to reach for him, thank him, tell him, Gracias hombre. Like that, in Castellano, like my campesino grandfather must have done before me — and before, his father, and before  that, Pierre. Backwards and forwards like that, the same human action, the same human urge to produce, to nurture, to sustain inside the cycle of an indifferent nature. Ironic. How indifferent nature is to our wailing at windmills is always ironic. In such irony, the most intimate relationships, even with an animal — or perhaps especially with an animal — are what matter most. There’s the possibility of changing anything with intimacy.

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.

Sheep with Chief