28 November 2010


I have been considering that we (by which I mean ‘I’) organize much of life in the attempt to deal with inevitable loss. I think that we construct a life not only to fruitlessly protect us from loss but from ever having to acknowledge it. That is, the central event of our (my) existence is loss, and we devote much thought and energy avoiding loss and in subconscious avoidance of the acknowledgement of it. Every moment lived is immediately lost and forever irrecoverable. I am immersed in the joy of the moment but it soon will be gone. I take the moment’s photo and place it conspicuously on a mantelpiece or paste it less obviously in a book. And so too even with the grief that I feel: it too will be lost unless I carry it always in which case I can do nothing else bearing its weight, or I must divide my experience between the grief I maintain and the present activity that does not have commerce with grief. And I am also considering what it is I must do to preserve it, for what I do is all that remains of the grief. Grief is a burden I cannot bear. Perhaps this is what Emerson means when he says in “Experience,” “So is it with calamity; it does not touch me; something which I fancied was a part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me nor enlarged without enriching me falls off from me and leaves no scar . . . I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature.” For Emerson, if there are no scars, then if there was a rend, it has left no trace. He remains whole, and experience is not what he has and upon which he reflects, but in what he presently engages. His grief that has left no scar is not part of experience.
But I think that Emerson is ingenuous: to protect his grief he writes about his grief. His writing carries him into the next moment where the grief cannot touch him, though I suspect that it is his grief that makes necessary the writing. It is the permanence of change, an apt synonym for loss, that protects Emerson and ensures that he remains whole. That is, though everything must be eventually lost, this surety ensures his ability to go on even though this awareness is “the plaint of tragedy.”
Acquisition in the capitalist system is endless and finally unsatisfying—else why the perpetual urge to acquire. Here, there is no end to the goods I can purchase; here, there is no limit to what I can obtain.  But I think that our lives cannot be about acquisition because whatever we acquire is inevitably lost. And acquiring doesn’t fulfill desire but only gives it an outlet. And what we acquire is in some sense always lost. And so we either continue to obtain and provide us the illusion of permanence, or we do something else to assuage our sense of loss. Can I say that the wholeness of my life is constructed on the understanding of loss.
More than “Self-Reliance,” more than the “American Scholar,” essays that every school child must read and believein “Experience” Emerson struggles to assert the power of the individual to create her life wholly and his belief in the centrality of the moment even in the face of insuperable loss. Emerson suggests that the grief he experienced as a result of the deaths of his wife, his brother and his dear five-year-old son, had not, in fact, touched him. Emerson argues that he is not diminished by these losses but remains whole and completely available still to experience. Ironically, perhaps, he is thinking himself to mental health. Though he writes that “intellectual tasting of life will not supersede muscular activity (an implied criticism of the Brook Farm experiment where the noblest theory of life would not move a plough), in fact, it is his intellect that saves him. He avers that there is nothing to be learned from grief, and that it leads us nowhere. Outside the moment, nothing exists, though outside the moment things can be brought into existence. I think the first elementthe moment he calls “power,’ and the second element, that which is created in the moment, he calls ‘Form.’ Emerson says, “These must be kept in some balance: a man is a golden impossibility. The line he must walk is a hair’s breadth. The wise through excess of wisdom is made a fool.” Isn’t that Hamlet’s problem: let me not think on it, and then I might act! But I cannot act without thought and then the moment is lost.
Even the words I write now are an attempt not to lose the moment and to somehow futilely preserve it.  The attempt is valiant but useless: the word remains but the moment it attempts to preserve is gone.
Isn’t this the problem that sent Thoreau out to Walden: he wanted to learn what was the least he needed to live so that he needn’t spend his time acquiring that for which he had no need. Hence, his decision to discard the paper weight he had been given as a gift because he discovered that it accumulated dust to which he must attend and he had other priorities. All the wealth a person acquires doesn’t raise the stature of a single person until s/he starts to actually ‘lose’ some of it, these days mostly in philanthropic activities. But of course, they have so much to begin with that the philanthropy has no consequence and is not in fact, actually a loss.
Experience is a very complex essay, and when I read it I am engaged in experience. When I think about the essay—even when I write about it—I am engaged in experience. And I think that this is the very thin line that a human must walk. Experience is not what we know in reflection but rather, what is now and is soon passed. And when I consider it or write about it, the ‘experience’ is gone and I am engaged in experience. It is impossible. Grief falls off me and does not touch me.
I wish it were so easy. 

24 November 2010

Thanksgiving 2010

A two turkey Thanksgiving, and so I think that calls for an extra bottle or two of wine. Once every year—always on Thanksgiving—I eat flesh with great gusto and even considerable pleasure. And at the end of the meal I am satiated for the year and have no urge to indulge in meat again. I think were the turkey (in this case, two turkeys) not on the table, I would be content with a vegetarian Thanksgiving repast (indeed, I hosted in Thanksgivings past alternative Thanksgivings that were wholly vegetarian), but since the cats are in the cradle and the birds lie on the table, I energetically indulge. Next Yom Kippur I will atone for the sin of gluttony.

For my entire life, Thanksgiving has been the first moment since September when it is possible to stop and breathe. Well, the Jewish holidays serve as some respite in the Fall, but outside the shul the race remains at full trot. In academia, where I have spent my life, Thanksgiving is the first real pause in the action; and the holiday portends the end of the academic term, the beginning of final exams and the sweat over final papers, and then the absolute cessation that is Winter Break. Thanksgiving is the taste of peace.

So we’ve got two turkeys because we’ve got three families., and the extra wine for our astonishing cheer. We will engage in conversations we’ve saved for this table expressly, and share some of our hopes for the year ahead. And then we’ll watch a movie, The Lion in Winter, while the dishes soak lazily in the sink and before I head blissfully to my trytophanic slumber.

I have always liked Thanksgiving despite the history it obscures.

19 November 2010

Waiting for Kafka

"If the state education commissioner grants Ms. Black a waiver from the law requiring leaders of school districts to have substantial education credentials and experience, she would take over a system whose size, demographics and challenges are like nothing else she has tried to manage."

The quote above comes from an article in today’s New York Times, with a by-line by David M. Halbfinger, Michael Barbaro and Fernanda Santos concerning Mayor Bloomberg’s appointment of Catherine Black as the next Chancellor of the nation’s largest educational system. The issue seems to be this: Ms. Black has almost no knowledge—practical or theoretical—about education. The article reports, “There is also little evidence that Ms. Black has until now had to wrestle with the challenges of the school system, including race, poverty, immigration and public health, never mind pedagogical and philosophical questions like teacher tenure, charter schools or the new math.” And this seems to be a problem?

What Ms. Black knows a great deal about is the publishing industry and managing what the article refers to as “the bottom-line,” a reference to profits, a subject with which education has nothing to do, except perhaps in certain subject classes.

Having spent forty years in the schools, forty years in classrooms over crowded with young people who struggle in the world and in the schools, forty years of my own steady study, practice, learning and reflection on my art; forty years of thinking, writing and even publishing about education and curriculum, I open the daily newspaper and read that someone who hasn’t the foggiest notion of education has been chosen to serve as the head of the New York City school system.

As Hamlet says of his childhood friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whom he would trust as two adders fanged, “They fool me to the top of my bent.”

I will go again into the classroom today—and even tomorrow; as Bartleby says, “I know where I am,” though neither the Mayor of New York or his chosen appointee have the least idea where we stand or even for what we endeavor

17 November 2010

Brit Milah

Brit milah serves as the entrance of the male child into the Jewish community. It literally marks the covenant in the flesh of the male child. The practice has its opponents in our contemporary world: they say the procedure is cruel, akin to cliteroidectomy and other barbaric mutilating practices engaged in by native tribes and roundly criticized by the civilized world. Apparently about forty or fifty years ago, almost 90% of all boys received circumcision, many, of course, in hospital because they weren’t Jewish. It was for whatever reason considered stylish and proper. Today it is no longer believed to be so, and I read that fewer than 60% of males receive circumcision.  It is no longer held to be fashionable.
            But of late I find this argument against circumcision unconvincing. I think that we cut our flesh and that of our children all of the time. For example, many of our young people these days, and not just the females, have pierced their ears, and often have done so several times. Many infants wear earrings. Ear cartilages have been punctured through. My own two children have marked a path up their ear lobes; my dearest friend’s daughter pierced her navel interrupting, my friend moans (with rings dangling from her own ears), an important chakra path. Indeed, the bodies of so many have been pierced in so many places, some of which I prefer not to consider: the penises of some males, and the navels, nipples and clitiroses of some women being popular sites. Hamlet asks, who would such fardels bear when one could her quietus make with a bare bodkin? But I look about and people are pricking themselves with these bodkins with some frequency and I do not hear some public outcry condemning such practice.
Tattoos are visible, and even, I suspect, invisible on many citizens who might once have eschewed company with anyone sporting such bodily attire. Personally, I experience these tattoos as a form of violence: they remind me at times of the t-shirts I hate to stare at but which demand that I do so—like the ones which have blazoned across the chest “Do not stare at my chest.” These tattoos demand to be seen, and though I need not look, why else are they so obviously visible? Many of the designs are somewhat simple, and some, I think, even inconspicuously placed; some, I am certain I never see at all, though I suspect they serve some purpose about which I would prefer not to know. However, the ones I do see—and they are ubiquitous today, even people of my generation carry them as marks upon the flesh--are very much in view on arms, legs, on chests, and on the smalls and larges of backs, on shoulders left and right, and on heads and necks. And then there are the tattoos that are elaborate designs that cover entire body parts and are inked in strong, bold patterns and colors, leaving no skin unmarked, and I feel assaulted by the broadcast volume and the demand to view. Just yesterday I saw a tattoo done circling the left ankle—almost like an ankle bracelet, but this appeared not at all delicate and off-setting, but was inked in black and appeared to me in drawn in the image of barbed wire. As a society we are tolerant of these practices and intolerant of circumcision. I suspect some anti-Semitism behind the attitudes.
I know that it might be argued that these piercings and tattooings are voluntary. That is subject to some question: cultural practice has much to do with choice. In the plethora of brit milahs I observe on YouTube, the child experiences pain briefly, and within ten to fifteen seconds has returned to some peacefulness and quiet. I do not remember my brit, and have no recollection of experiencing any early pain though there is no doubt it was present.
I’ve gotten older, and I’ve grown if not more comfortable to the idea of the brit milah, at least more prepared to respond to the accusation that circumcision is a barbaric rite. For me the brit milah contains and celebrates thousands of years of history, struggle and survival in the face of insurmountable odds and unconscionable violence. It is a minor pin- prick in the entire life of the child, but it joins him viscerally and irrevocably to the community and to a history that can be dismissed only with some cost. Inherently, there is implicit in the ceremony a sexism, and I read that feminists propose several practices that might serve as a female counterpart to the brit milah: washing the soles of the eight day old girl child’s feet, or the breaking of the hymen. I do not know what I think of these ideas, but for me, the practice of brit milah retains yet the cultish aspects of a Judaism that preached care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger in our midst but that rose out of an almost universal barbarism. It is important to recognize the history undergirding our actions and sometimes to align our actions to honor and to sustain that history into the present.

07 November 2010

What Was Good About It?

I’ve been thinking that a question I want to stop asking my children—and not a few others as well—is  “Did you have a good time?” The question is ubiquitous: when they return from a party we ask, “Did you have a good time?” After a school field trip I wonder to them, “Did you have a good time?” When someone returns from a vacation we say, “So, how was it?” I think that the question comes in several permutations: at the end of the film we turn to each other and wonder aloud, “Did you like the movie?” When the children enter the house after a day in school I ask, “How was your day?”

The problem with the question(s) is that all is required from is in response is a single word answer—good, bad, ok, yes, no, eh-- and doesn’t really open the floor for conversation. The question makes it too possible for the children and others to answer and run upstairs to their rooms and close the door behind them to engage in meaningful communication, usually on the internet.

I find that when someone asks me that question I am stunned to silence. I don’t know what to answer: the question calls for a simple categorization to a complex experience that cannot be addressed by absolute value judgments. I don’t want to answer “yes,” to did I have a good time, nor can I merely respond ‘good’ (or ‘not good’ as the case might be) as a valuation of a film, or thater production, or concert or even a television show.  Or even to breakfast with the men on Sunday mornings.

No, the more appropriate question seems to be: “What was interesting about your day?” “What did you find interesting in the film?” “What did you think about today that you found interesting?” Or “What did you like (or not like) about fill-in-the blank, etc. These questions, it seems now to me, to expand the space for talk rather than to circumvent that space. Now, I am aware that I am assuming that the person to whom I ask these questions might have desire to engage with me in conversation, but perhaps even if they would not be so inclined, they would still be required to respond, “I’m not interested in sharing that information with you (right now or even ever!).” In which case I would have learned a great deal, I think.

04 November 2010

Thursday following Tuesday

I’ve been thinking a great deal about “Bob Dylan’s Dream,” a song to which I have been listening for almost fifty years. Dylan wrote the song when he was yet in his early twenties, but there is in the song an awareness that the romantic innocence of youth has no future, that its loss is sad, even tragic, but that its loss is inevitable. “We thought we could sit forever in fun/But our chances really were a million to one!” Eventually, we'd have to leave that room or the world would enter it. Its possession is priceless--“Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat, I’d give it all gladly if our lives could be like that--” but that innocence can not be long held.  

And I am mesmerized how a man so young as to be still in the throes of that innocence, could know so wisely how ephemeral the experience of it is, and understand how perfect life then seemed in that room where he and his friends weathered many a storm. How wise to have known that the room was not occupied by adults but could only be viewed by them.

The election results makes me long for that room, but I wish, I wish, I wish in vain . . .

01 November 2010

Eastern Standard Time

If you cannot see the player when you open this post,  please click on 'read more' at the bottom of the post to enjoy the whole musical experience.

We return to Eastern Standard Time on Sunday at 2:00am. I will be relieved. The mornings are so dark these final days before the change that it seems dawn will never appear. That is all a metaphor, of course, but this morning the writing went well and the moon is a beautiful crescent sliver and the stars are very bright.

Tomorrow is election day and Wednesday I pull my head in and hibernate from the political world for several years. It is not that I do not know what is going on: see the new boss? Same as the old boss! But I will retire my vague hope for a better society, and try to muffle the absurd declamations of the Republican/Tea Party advocates. In good dialectical fashion, the Left is already predicting that the Republican victory will be good for the country as the populace sees the true nature of Republican ideology—take from the poor and give to the rich. Its all been seen and done before.

It might be lighter at this time of the morning next week, but I fear that the world will be just a bit darker.

But the run this morning was almost decent—it has not been so in awhile. This morning it was the first movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. I was first introduced to this music by Disney’s Fantasia, in which the animators set the symphony in bucolic forest scenes with beautiful centaurs flirting, courting and innocently coupling. Even the fierce storm scene is tamed by the playfully vindictive Zeus tossing lightning bolts down on the chubby Dionysius not drunk but yet swimming in overflowing vats of wine. I’ve spent much of the last several years to erase these images from my mind when I listen to the symphony; I do not want this music tied to a program.

Anyway, toward the end of the first movement—almost at the very end, there is one of the most glorious melody I have ever heard. These measures pluck the strings of my soul as if the music were the wind and my soul an Aeolian Harp, and I experience absolute, uncorrupted and incorruptible joy.

It is always and every time a transcendent moment. I do not know what there is about this melody that affects me so, nor am I now inclined to analyze the measures to discover their alchemy. It is enough to know the light of being.

So regardless of tomorrow’s election results, I will always have my Beethoven.
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