26 October 2009

Waitings and Endings

Sometimes I just walk about out here, albeit now comfortably in my new warm boots. I move from desk to desk, book to book, and project to project. Searching for a direction, I experience boredom: a waiting for something to occur that will lead me into some clear direction and purpose. But the experience of this waiting-boredom-tries my subjectivity; I become a waiting person and not a doing person. How to conceive of waiting as an activity and a part of subjectivity? Vladimir and Estragon can at least say about their existences that they are in a certain place at a certain time and they are waiting for Godot. And this waiting becomes the problem: what to do while waiting. The Rabbis posit waiting differently: they wait for the Messiah and while waiting they must do. Hence the essay “Study and Benevolence.” Waiting sets the ground of all action and prepares its nature. Waiting becomes active.

So today I actively wait: for the project to become realized, for the car to be fixed, for the meeting to meetr and for the surgery to occur. [I have learned from my daughter that this just written sentence is a polysyndeton!). And while I wait what should I do? Study and Benevolence.

It seems to have rained for a week now. This past week we read about Noah and the flood.

It is the end of October, but it feels like December. I miss November.

And finally, one of us has to be the first to leave.

21 October 2009

Bread and Roses

For some reason I cannot fathom, running through my mind right now are lines from Burt Bachrach: “What the world needs now, is love sweet love/It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.” Aside from the ungrammatical construction leaving a preposition without its object, the sentiment is completely absurd. There is certainly too little food and water, too little meaningful work, definitely too little joy, and I suspect there are a few other things that are in insufficient quantity.

Why do we listen to such drivel? I know the Beatles said that all you need is love, but there was always something about the music that existed in ironic relationship to the words. Perhaps it was the oom-pah-pah rhythm of the chorus—

I’ve been thinking of the discontent of Henry David Thoreau as expressed in “The Beanfield,” normally one of my favorite chapters. “I said to myself, I will not plant beans and corn with so much industry another summer, but such seeds, if the seed is not lost, as sincerity, truth, simplicity, faith, innocence, and the like, and see if they will not grow in this soil, even with less toil and manurance, and sustain me, for surely it has not been exhausted for these crops. Alas! I said this to myself; but now another summer is gone, and another, and another, and I am obliged to say to you, Reader, that the seeds which I planted, if indeed they were seeds of those virtues, were wormeaten or had lost their vitality, and so did not come up.”

Alas, Reader. I think he acknowledges that though he thinks he planted seeds of those virtues, it might be that what he planted were not seeds at all; that his efforts were ill- or mis-directed, or that his actions contained not enough life to bear fruition. We do not always know the character of our acts based as they must be in the illusions we invest in them. Nor do we always know our effectiveness until our acts bear, or do not bear, fruit.

It is a chilly, rainy day here in Wisconsin; Fall has come and gone too soon. Even those pesky beetles and box elders have retreated from the wet and cold.

Thoreau says “Bread may not always nourish us; but it always does us good, it even takes stiffness out of our joints, and makes us supple and buoyant, when we knew not what ailed us, to recognize any generosity in man or Nature, to share any unmixed and heroic joy.” I baked two loaves of bread this morning; my medical doctor today bestowed great generosity on me.

16 October 2009


Today’s New York Times contains two interesting pieces. The first is a front page story that provides a “rare look at the lengths the Catholic Church goes to keep clergy members’ clandestine relationships hidden.” Apparently a Catholic priest, a member of the Franciscan order (!) has engaged in several (at least) affairs with parishioners, fathered (ironic use of the term here) a son who is now terminally ill. Today, this Father refuses, despite his son’s medical condition, to contribute any further to his care and maintenance. Apparently there was an original agreement that set limits on his future responsibility to the family. When asked to comment from his present position as a priest in a Catholic community near Ashland Wisconsin, the article said that “he did not want to talk about the situation, and pointed out that Ms. ____ had more to lose than he did because she had signed a confidentiality agreement that, if broken, requires her to pay a penalty. He asserted that Ms. ____ had shown no care for his needs and was only concerned about money, and that his son had shunned him. He said that he and the Franciscans had done nothing bad.” Abusing his position as spiritual advisor, violating his clerical oaths, and attempting to contract his way out of responsibility for the lives he disrupted must not be considered bad in the Catholic organization to which he pledges allegiance.

The article notes that “the relationship between Ms. Bond and the priest is hardly unique. While the recent scandals involving the Roman Catholic Church have focused on the sexual abuse of children, experts say that incidences of priests who have violated sexual and emotional boundaries with adult women are far more common.” There are, it would seem, many problems out there caused by the abuses perpetrated by Church officials. Perhaps it is time we demanded reform!! There should be national standards for priests and for the administrators who must supervise them. We need alternative routes to the priesthood. Let us start closing those institutions out of which such priests enter the communities they are educated to serve. Perhaps we might institute a national test for the ordination of priests. Let us bring the Catholic Church hierarchy to its knees in our effort to repair the egregious sins they have allowed to occur and refuse to punish!

In the same newspaper in an Op-Ed piece from October 14, Nicholas Kristof berates the powers that be for the horrible state of our nation’s schools, a result, he suggests, due to the incompetency of our teachers. He writes, “Good schools constitute a far more potent weapon against poverty that welfare, food stamps or housing subsidies. Yet, cowed by teachers’ unions, Democrats have too often resisted reform and stood by as generations of disadvantaged children have been cemented into an underclass by third-rate school.” Attributing the low status of these schools to the inferiority of the teachers who work in them, Kristof advocates a more liberal system of licensing charter schools and a more thorough method of removing inept or abusive teachers.

The suggestion here is that until we do something about our incompetent teachers the legacy of Brown vs. the Board of Education will not succeed.

When I hear arguments like this I go outside my cabin and scream bloody murder. Citing a few cases of what might be real incompetence, Kristof moves immediately to the indictment of the whole profession. He says that “Research has underscored that what matters most in education—more than class size or spending or anything—is access to good teachers.” Regardless of the conclusions of this study (dubious at best: in one section the study cites as evidence reports from one school district and then assumes that the results should apply to all) Kristof has neglected the extensive research of Professors Richard Rothstein and David Berliner. Neither scholar discount the role of the teacher, but both acknowledge the tremendous influence social environment has on the educational possibilities available to a child in our schools.

An analogy: If I smoke a pack of cigarettes a day and I go to my doctor and she tells me that if I don’t stop smoking soon I will die, shall I blame the doctor if I refuse to quit my habit and my health continues to worsen? Is she to blame for my premature death?

If a child is learning to read but there are no books for her to read, is it the fault of the teacher that the child’s reading does not progress as rapidly as those children surrounded by books? If the child lives in an environment where lead poisoning is an issue, is it the fault of the teacher that the child has trouble learning? If there is no medical care for children’s ear infections, is it the fault of the teacher that the child’s hearing is impaired and cannot hear effectively? And so on, and so on, and so on.

Why is it that we keep blaming victims? The priest says that by asking for financial assistance to care for their dying son, the woman is violating an agreement. Then what can be said for his violation of fundamental ethical responsibilities? Its all her fault, finally, he seems to say. Are teachers victims? Of course they are as long as they are the target of public accusations but have no platform from which to speak for themselves. Kristof attacks the one viable organization that speaks for teachers—the Unions, and he blames the Unions for collaborating in the educational debacle.

And then Kristof has the nerve to equate the Democratic Party’s commitment to health care reform with its lack of commitment to educational reform. As if the former isn’t intimately connected to the latter. How many ears and eyes must one man have before . . . well, you know the rest.

This is a rant. I know. I know. I wish I could apologize but I'm just too angry.

15 October 2009

Snow and Red Wheelbarrows

So much depends on a red wheelbarrow.

The weather here has been totally unacceptable this Fall. Of course, I give the season its temporal appellation, but in fact, there has been no Fall. On October 12 snow fell in some quantity and it has begun to snow again this morning. The temperature has not risen above forty degrees in a week, and the leaves are not turning brilliant colors on crisp sunny days, but falling defeated in shades of monkish brown. It isn't yet mid-October!

And this year I could have used a pleasant Fall. It would have cheered me to note the brilliance of leaves even as they fade away; I would have liked to recall Thoreau’s praise of the leaves fallen to the ground ready to fertilize next year’s growth; I would have liked to remain outside at the waning of the year. As it is, I am too long at meetings. I think too long about my health and well-being, and worry too much at prospects of long-term care.

The sun might yet return and color the leaves and warm my bloods, but the early snow has set the terms for the imminent future: cloudy with a certainty of cold.

11 October 2009

Let's go Watson; the chase is on"

Yossarian, in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 screams accusingly, “They’re trying to kill me!” Clevinger (or maybe its Doc Daneeka) says, “They’re trying to kill everyone!” and Yossairan retorts, “What difference does that make?” They are going to get Yossarian in any case, singly or altogether.

Despite my hypochondriacal paranoia, I had a great run this morning, stronger and longer than in a number of months. And when I arose early—the usual 5:00am or so, I despaired of having the energy to tie up my running shoes. I have learned that there is certainly a physical component to health, and sometimes that physical element is almost beyond our control—but there is as well a psychological factor to health which cannot be minimized. A sense of psychological well-being which leads, in my case, to a desire to stay out there on the trail running, thinking, being in the moment that I am presently experiencing and enjoying. Reminds me of Thoreau’s artist of Kouroo.

Sometimes I am running in the morning silences, and I sense I am not alone. I hear things. Dylan speaks of this; he says, “I hear the ancient footsteps, like the motion of the sea, Sometimes I turn there’s somewhere there, at other times its only me.” I seek the times when there is someone there, and it’s a spiritual seeking. But we cannot plan those times. Dylan suggests to me that it is a rather mystical occurrence; somehow, we become receptive to a spiritual influx or presence, and we feel we are not alone. Perhaps this occurs when we are most free. And my dear Spinoza reminds me always, “The free man thinks least of all of his death.”

So yes, Yossarian, they are trying to kill us and yes, it doesn’t make any difference to me that they are trying to kill everyone, but there are times when I do think there is someone there, and then I have forgotten. And can run again.

03 October 2009

5770 Sukkot

The world sometimes moves too quickly, and I feel uncomfortably unsettled everywhere and anywhere. One child wants to move into a house off campus—her comment to the change is that suddenly she feels too grown up and therefore, a bit ‘weird.’ I’ve been saying for years that she is too grown up—by which I mean that she and her younger sister are inevitably moving away from home and a physical presence. I experience sadness when I consider this, though there are, I must admit, moments of great relief also as part of the mix.

As for the younger, she is dressing for the annual Homecoming Dance in an elegant relatively formal dress that serves only to remind me that she, too, grows up beyond me.

And today I learned of the deaths of two people whom I knew fairly well and who were both younger than I. The problem with mortality is that it weighs too heavily in the background until it’s too late, and then it cannot weigh in at all. Spinoza says that the free man thinks least of all of his death, but I am not so free. And so I read the obituaries. An acquaintance reminded me of what George Burns once said: I read the obituaries in bed, and if I’m not there, I get up.

It is a morbid, melancholy evening. I sat in the sukkah and had my dinner. Sukkot is supposed to be a joyous festival, but not this year. But over the next week of the holiday, we’ll invite people into the sukkah, and by this mitzvah, perhaps we will merit some honor.