30 March 2010

In excess

On the idea of excess:

The gift basket of fruit was lovely and in excess. But what kind of evaluative statement is that⎯to say that something is ‘in excess’? Is the matter of excess always a matter of judgment, and then, is my statement of the fruit basket only what I thought. I want to think briefly about the meaning of my thought. What does ‘in excess’ mean? Is excess a matter of quantity, or is excess always a matter of judgment. And by whom would the judgment be made? For example, was it excessive when Abraham rose up in his pain to welcome the strangers? Could there be an excess of hospitality? When is consumption excess and when is it necessary? Thoreau had some firm opinions regarding this matter: for him one shirt was more than enough. Must one always rise full from the table? I suppose the latter compulsion might have psychological foundations to those who have been hungry. But who finally has the right to make these types of decisions? When does excess exceed the boundaries and go beyond the borders? Is excess a matter of boundaries and borders or is it a matter of judgment? Borders are often legal limits, though they could be ethical ones as well.

Without boundaries, I have long held, there is no canvas; it all becomes the world and there is no distinction in it. It is like the Escher painting where the painted canvas is indistinguishable from the landscape it paints: there is no separation between canvas and world though one can see the canvas drawn. And in this creation the canvas makes the painting and not the other way around. Only the presence of the easel and the foregrounded canvas define the painting that actually exists. Boundaries create reality. Or perhaps I would claim not that boundaries create reality, but that they allow reality to exist. They are an enabling agent, though they do not cause reality. In “Trying to Get to Heaven” Dylan complains, “I only saw what they let me see.” Someone else had created his canvas; it was all someone else’s canvas.

Maybe reality is all about Havdalah—without the separation there can be no sacred time—well, there would be no time at all. One continuous scene, but no picture at all. It would be all one uninterrupted present. It is perhaps convenient that we have settled on seven days in a week because we have learned that the human being can only remember seven items at a time. Of course, we can chunk several items into a single larger one (hence, the possibility of remembering ten digit phone numbers as three chunks of numbers), but the expediency of seven days for human psychological functioning is not insignificant. A day becomes twenty-four hours, but a week becomes seven days, and a year is equivalent to 365 days, give or take a quarter or so. As for the months, they are variable in length in order to accommodate the division of the year into twelve (the signs of the zodiac?) and the egos of rulers (Augustus and Julius for two), but the separation into days and weeks and months and years make possible a boundaried perspective. Boundaries control excess.

And the anorexic: she starves to excess, but she keeps a very strict boundary to her eating. The excess here is in the rigidity of the border. Or to the size of that border—but then that returns me to the idea of quantity as essential to the idea of excess and allows me to avoid the judgment of quality with regard to excess. When does the size become so large that the painting ceases to exist—the Sistine Chapel is sufficient, but if Michelangelo had painted the scene on the heavens, then what would it be? And what is the excess that the anorexic experiences? It is of image, but image of what? Of weight? There is so little. Of girth? It hardly exists. Where is the boundary? So how is excess defined in this case? Is it too rigid a border or too loose a one?

How does the fruit basket leak out beyond the border? Is it my border that is transgressed? Is that what excess amounts to: a fear of leaking behind my personal border? How do I define my borders? Of course, without them I don’t exist, but if they are too rigid do I become a social anorexic, and severely limit my intake of sociability. And how and why do I perceive it this way? What leaks beyond the border that I feel threatening to my reality? Interesting here that the command in Exodus is that the pesach offering must be consumed in one evening: nothing of it shall remain into the morning! The offering has a border or it cannot be considered an offering. Well, a painting requires a boundary—can a painting leak outside its borders? Can it survive without its frame? What is to be learned from the Escher painting? It is a painting of a painting. But what is the painting within the larger canvas? Is the excess a leaking?

But what if I think of the anorexic that her borders are too porous? The anorexic refuses to eat, tightly controlling what the body takes in, rigidly maintaining a severe regimen of intake. And what would be too permeable here? The anorexic wants to be the world, to disappear into the world, just like in the Escher painting.

What is excess?? Is it too loose a border so that everything flows out—how is the anorexic excessive in this way? Of course, without eating her life leaks out—but one can also say that she crawls up (like Susan the Starfish in The Book of Daniel) until she simply ceases to move. And then ceases to live. Is that excess? Perhaps not of a leaking—but of a holding in—like holding in the bowels and staying constipated? Keeping them to oneself—of course, not eating is control, though certainly a perverse kind of control. And that is why it is a disease—a condition—I suppose there is a kind of pleasure in the excess of anorexia as there must be pleasure in the excess of the fruit basket. What does it reveal about pleasure? I suppose the pleasure comes from the ability to indulge in excess. And then it doesn’t matter what form the excess takes: it is the excess that matters. And so the excess of anorexia is the excess of control—it is a form of boundary that is ultimately self-destructive—is suicide excess?? Am I returning to Aristotle? ? Is every obsession excessive—are Aristotle and Ecclesiastes and Siddhartha right to say that the golden mean is the only way?

Why the excess? That is the question. In so far as it is a leaking, then the excess is the inability to hold everything in: in language we say “it is gushing.” But what about the fruit basket (the fruit basket was as thick as the anorexic is thin). Does excess establish any relationship between size and affection? Is excess about size passing as affection? Or is the excess all show: who can send the biggest basket? Is competition inherent to excess? Is the excess a mismatch between what is sent and to whom it is sent?

What would that line of thought mean for Shabbat? Is the celebration of Shabbat an instant of excess or exactly its opposite?

27 March 2010

The start of a few things at the end

I’ve learned a few things along the way. Probably very little things at that, but perhaps significant to the narrative.

The array at breakfast is enormous. Salads, fruits and vegetables, an assortment of cheeses, varieties of breads and lately matza (not for me and not until Pesach), juices, eggs, cereals, not dishes, only some of which I recognize . . . perhaps one can only imagine. The service tables extend the length of the rooms.

For me it is excessive. I have learned that I want simply my coffee in my mug and a small slice of bread. Sometimes some hot cereal, or sometimes a single egg omelet. Only one of these, mind you, and not all of them at once.

I grow tired of touring. I know at some point I will recall Be’at Sh’ean, but right now I remember nothing about my visit there. Israel for me is like a great museum, and when I go to a museum (rarely) I focus on one or two rooms (or one or two paintings) and then I choose to leave. It isn’t the seeing of the artifact, but the study of it, and the latter requires time and concentration, some important study and conversation. The artifact alone, out of any context at all, is meaningless, and only the individual can give it the necessary context to make it expressive in the story that I am writing.

Touristing should be done more leisurely. Of course, this was the intent of the Grand Tours made by the wealthy in the nineteenth century. I have learned I have not the means nor the mind to do so.

And so the tour guides tell the story, and offers broad summaries, lists a few titillating details, must always be speaking or ready to speak, can even answer (depending on the expertise of the guide) many of the questions. But in fact, though they know their subject, more or less, they do not know their tourists at all, and so the story they tell is impersonal—as too much history has always been narrated. And at the obscene additional customary tip of 400 shekels a day, the guide represents serious excess. I have learned to minimize my contact with tour guides.

There is no way to learn a country as a tourist. We keep eating at the restaurants they let us see, or that we can easily find. We talk only to the people who can talk back to us, and we are prisoners of our own culture. And how do we know we have found the real experience unless we are told by a native, or have our experience confirmed by some citizen of the realm. I have learned not to see the authentic.

I have learned the pain of a broken heart, and I did not need to be away from home to experience that.

18 March 2010

I'll drink later, maybe

I started this as a complaint. Oy, travel is so hard!! Oy, I’m so uncomfortable? Oy, I miss my ease, and my regular beer. Who will watch the grass grow?

This reminds me of the joke: Mrs. Goldberg sits in the back of her tour bus as it moves through the desert pathways of Tunisia. Despite the warnings she received from the tour guides, she has not brought enough water, and that beverage she has brought she has long since consumed. “Oy,” she complains aloud in her seat, “I’m so thirsty.” And every several minutes she sighs deeply, and says too loudly, “Oh, I am so thirsty. I think I’m going to die of thirst. I’m so thirsty.” Finally, someone, no longer able to stand her moaning one more instant, hands her his water bottle, and in one steady gulp she drinks it down. She hands it empty back to him, and forgets to say ‘thank you.’ It is quiet on the tour bus, and everyone breathes with great relief. For a minute more. And then from the rear of the bus comes the plaintive sound of Mrs. Goldberg’s voice, “Oy, I was so thirsty!”

But I don’t feel like being Mrs. Goldberg, and I am not inclined anymore to complain. I am trying to change the vision of life I live, despite the funeral march of the second movement of Block’s First Symphony.

I am traveling to Israel to see my eldest daughter. I am traveling to Israel to see my eldest daughter and to see a bit of Israel. I am not certain why exactly, except that she is there, in Israel. She could have been in London or Paris, I suppose, and then I’d be drinking at the Cheshire Cheese with Samuel Johnson. And maybe seeing a show at the Old Vic. Or I might be commingling with the tourists in Montmartre and visiting with Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison in their rest at Pére Lachaise Cemetery. Instead, I’ll be visiting the Western Wall (assuming it is politically safe to go there), and Yad Vashem, and the lair of the Kabbalists in S’fad. Maybe even seeing Einstein’s original manuscript of the General Theory of Relativity.

And I want to learn to say, “Its all good.” Or at least most of it is, I think. And to express too little thirst.

14 March 2010

. . . Until Morale Improves

I have started this page too many times over the past week and years. In the past two weeks the latest assault on teachers has been launched by the media, first in the New York Times Magazine section, and most recently by Newsweek in a cover article entitled “The Key to Saving American Education.” On the cover and behind the bold statement is a blackboard on which is written in chalk, in a style reminiscent of punishment assignments for mischievous students, “We must fire bad teachers.”

Why have I started this page too many times over the past week and years? Because inevitably I feel compelled to make some response refuting the absurd claims made in articles such as this. Let me give one small example: in the current Newsweek article⎯about the second or third sentence⎯the authors write, “Once upon a time, American students tested better than any other students in the world.” This totally absurd statement, made with no references or even numbers to substantiate even the smallest part of the claim, is nothing more than the beginning of an elaborately woven fairy tale (hence, “Once upon a time . . .”) about the poor princesses (our children) trapped in the castle (the schools) by the evil witch (the teachers) for her own wicked purposes. Somehow, the authors suggest, we have to turn that malevolent force into good, and having accomplished this feat, the key to saving American education will have been turned. What crap!

The Times article, “Building a Better Teacher,” attempts rather lamely to probe the nature of teaching in an effort to produce a better teacher. The authors focus on the work of Dennis Lemov who has constructed a taxonomy of teacher behaviors that, he claims, will facilitate learning. The book comes out this Spring. The beatings will continue until morale improves.

Why have I started this page too many times over the past week and years? Because I won’t spend my time again defending what does not any longer need defending.

Teaching is an impossible profession. And I believe its influence is highly overrated. In the textbook I have been asked to use for a Foundations of Education course at the University, Diane Ravitch is prominently portrayed as a conservative advocate of strict standards, but over the past several weeks her change of heart⎯and position⎯has been documented volubly in the mainstream media. So what, you wonder? Well, it means that everyone who had paid attention to her voice over the past several decades and transformed their pedagogy according to her mandates, suddenly find themselves practicing the wrong profession. Not effectively teaching at all!

Teachers are artists. Some have great vision: they are the Picassos and Rembrandts and even Van Goghs of our society. Some may even be painting Brillo boxes on canvasses. But their work hangs in no museum, and their work does not sell for millions of dollars. Indeed, sometimes their work becomes a clerk in Wal-Mart, or becomes a housewife or lawyer or accountant. And sometimes their work is blown apart in a war started by some of the other products of the teacher.

And most of the teachers keep on keeping on. Many are not brilliant though they are more than capable; indeed, they are brave and they persevere amid insurmountable obstacles and odds. And they persist despite the calumnies heaped upon them by ignorant writers in popular magazines who owe their skill to their unacknowleddged teachers.

12 March 2010

My Spring Colds

As soon as I note the finches and robins outside of my cabin marking the coming of Spring, I am beset by my Spring affliction: a cold. And as I get older, these colds seem more oppressive and debilitating. Children walk around with them all of the time: snotty running noses, caked shirtsleeves coated with mucus wiped off almost unconsciously from those same running noses, and unused boxes of tissue stuffed into backpacks. No cold would keep a child from frolicking in the cold rain and snow, and even more happily on snow days! No cold would keep a child from wanting to be outside during the burgeoning Spring. Me, I just want to take to my bed with a careless novel and plenty of liquids.

I recall a time in my life when a cold was a seven day affair: three days for onset, one day of absolute debility, and three days of recovery. And then it was over until the next seasonal affliction. I would come down with two colds a year: one in the Spring and one in the Fall. Both were caused, I believed, by the rapidly changing weather: in the Spring I dressed in the morning for below freezing conditions, but by noon the sun had warmed to forty or fifty degrees—experienced warmer because of the change in the earth’s angle in relationship to the sun, and I was overdressed, sweating and removing clothes. But by the time I left the buildings, the temperature had changed again, and I discovered I was underdressed. I shivered in the cold. I suppose I could have begun putting on all of my clothes before leaving the building, but the feeling of warmth was too enticing to diminish its length. And besides, I thought, it was such a short walk to the car. Ah, now that is the excuse of a younger person. I walk slower now.

The opposite pattern occurred in the Fall. I developed colds in both seasons. Never in Winter and never in Summer. Only in the Spring and Fall. And since real the Spring is such a brief affair in Wisconsin, I feel unwell sick the whole season.

And so this week, alas, and probably next, I’m experiencing the usual. Its Spring and the robins and finches are singing, and they are keeping me awake as I take to my bed!!

08 March 2010

Spring Hints

As I stare out the window of my lovely cabin, I can see three small yellow birds sit singing on the tree branches, and on the ground a number of robins forage for food and material for the building of nests. The trees are full of birds, and when I walk out the door of my cabin they hustle out of the way. Except the woodpecker who has been seeking out worms in my cabin’s cover. Alas, doesn’t he know that the only worm turns inside?

The warmer weather has melted a great deal of the snow—Walden is, indeed, melting apace—though much remains and inevitably more snow will fall before Spring fully arrives, Here in Wisconsin that occurs usually several days before the arrival of summer!! But the increased activity is Spring cleaning and building time has arrived. I will soon clean out last year’s nests and place them back on the trees and await this year’s residents.

It is a relief to sense the end of winter, and a joy to hear the birds in the still dark early morning. There is great activity out of my window suddenly, and a slow appearance of color to the gloomy greys of the naked trees and white ground.

Sunday this week Daylight Savings Time returns. I lose the hour sleep I found last October. It is all cyclical. What once was dead is alive again.

01 March 2010

Huntley and Brinkley and Beethoven's Ninth

It is a remarkable journey I travel listening to the second movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. I do not think I here say anything itself remarkable, for my words pall before the reality of this symphony. To my mind, the 9th is one of the world’s sublime creations.

And the journey through this second movement, filled as it seems to me with struggle and triumph, with pain and joy, with ugliness and even beauty challenges and stimulates me.

But no, I don’t mean this posting to be some exposition on Beethoven’s 9th symphony or even its remarkable second movement. (Of course, to call the second movement remarkable almost assumes that the others are not so; this is not so. Each is consummate in its own manner.) Rather, when I hear the opening measure of the second movement, I am reminded of the opening seconds of the Huntley-Brinkley report on NBC news during the 1960s and early 1970s.

I do not know who chose the theme music for this program, but clearly it was someone who understood the nature of the news, and meant the music to set the tone for the reporting of it. Whoever chose this music understood what was the substance and consequence of the news report, and to prepare for its presentation chose the dramatic and portentous opening measures that culminate in portentous beats of the tympani drum. The news mirrored the journey of the second movement, both filled with struggle and triumph, with pain and joy, with ugliness and even beauty. And so the close of the movement with its furious in driving rhythm accompanied by the pounding of the tympani drums served well as the conclusion of the news program; a fitting end to the arduous, climactic journey which the symphony and the had engaged us. It was the perfect frame for this production. At the end of both, I was relieved, even exhausted, and glad for the moment of rest.

I cannot help but compare the solemnity with which the news was treated then to the superficialities and silliness that accompanies it now. Then the news was significant and important, and to report it required dignity and a sense of solemnity. Today, regardless of the content, the tone is glib or melodramatic (which might be the same thing), the newscasters insubstantial and undignified, and too often crude and insensitive. I don’t know that they know anything about what they report, and what they report partakes of little matter. News has become just another reality TV show, manipulating events to entertain and not to inform, to accumulate viewers and hence, advertising dollars. These so-called news programs address themselves to those who would not journey, but who remain content with fast food take out and home delivery. If the news has not changed, then its means of being reported has undergone a precipitous and somewhat dangerous decline.

Beethoven is no longer suitable as introduction or conclusion to the news of the day. I would have better for my children. I take them to concerts of Beethoven’s symphonies, and subscribe to too many substantial weeklies.