30 June 2011

The Green Ray

The birds woke me this morning too early. Except for the crows’ caw I recognized no other accent, but there was certainly a teeming cosmopolitan atmosphere outside my bedroom and dreams. I arose earlier than I had anticipated. I think it was in Eric Rohmer’s 1986 film Summer (I have netflixed it: the past tense of a new verb akin to ‘to google’) that someone stated that there was a brief moment at about 4:00am (or exactly at 4:00am perhaps) when the world is completely silent. For a brief moment nothing stirs, not even the wind, and not a sound is heard anywhere. Of course, I am usually asleep at that hour, and therefore miss that incredible moment of absolute quiet; or if I am up, like Daisy Fay Buchanan who always waits for the longest day of the year and then misses it, I am distracted and miss that moment of complete stillness. But no sooner is the moment over, however, then everything returns to its regular decibel level, and incrementally the day fills noisefully with sound and movement. In Rohmer’s film, Delphine, the main character, experiences that moment of quiet attitudes of awe and wonder, though she is herself not at all happy. The peace is exquisite. 
The original title of Rohmer’s film (The Green Ray) alludes to a Jules Verne novel by the same name. The green ray is a flash of light that appears rarely but only and always at sunrise or sunset; when the green flash of light is seen one’s thoughts and those of others are made aural and known. The moment of its sighting is soon gonelike the moment of complete silenceand when it ends, our thoughts and those of others may no longer be heard. The absolute peacefulness of the moment of silence available at 4:00 am contrasts with the lonely isolation that accompanies the fading of the green flash, and the volubility of the world contrasts with the silence of our loneliness. I remember the power of these scenes in the film. 
But as I said, I always hear my birds after that singular but daily moment, and I know know that the crows at least are quite hungry and wondering where might be their breakfast. It is my habit to give them the crumbs from the heels of our bread, and they prefer I not sleep too late. This morning I did not, and I awoke to their sounds. They protest loudly when I stay abed, and then they broadcast loudly the arrival of breakfast. And then they are gone. 
Every day I awake as well to the squawking in the media about the necessity for setting standards for education and demanding that teachers assume responsibility for every child achieving proficiency in those standards. I am not re-entering that ring right now, though I am going to talk about standards. 
I see that Bristol Palin’s new book has been published and she is presently engaged on a nationwide book tour. She appeared with her mother at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota. Her mother is Sarah Palin, the very one who doesn’t know the difference between Concord, New Hampshire and Concord, Massachusetts. I am sure that the book will sell fairly well. 
Bristol Palin is a twenty year old whose only claim to fame is to have had a child out of wedlock. At best hers could be sold as a cautionary tale to Seventeen magazine, but there are so many such tales already published in these arenas that hers would probably be unexceptional and passed over. But that a book company would credibly publish this absurd memoir as if there were any socially redeeming value to it bespeaks the incredibly low standards of the publishing industry and the reading public. That a publishing company would spend money on such drivel argues that the industry has no standards other than to earn as quick and dirty a profit as possible. As a teacher, as a reader, as a writer, as a scholar, as a father and as a citizen I am appalled and embarrassed by the publication of this garbage masquerading as a book, and I am incensed at the hypocrisies of an industry that market Bristol Palin as a credible author whose words are worthy of someone’s time. 
The anti-intellectual nature of American society increases every day alongside my despair. I go into the classroomI even send my children therebut the barbarians are closing in. 

28 June 2011

Storms, Part II

Sometimes the storm insistently summons us to come out our front doors and confront it. Such is the storm that rages throughout Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.  “Thus, fate knocks at the door,” and this storm, fate’s emissary, demands that we acknowledge its presence and face it. We are pulled out of the safety of our homes by our acceptance of its call. Why we follow I am not sure: perhaps we mean to confront the fierce tempest, to accept its challenge and to challenge ourselves. Perhaps we are drawn by the insistence of the taunt. Perhaps we are even too afraid to refuse its dare. The tensions implicit in the demand of the summonsta-ta-ta-TAthe short bursts of eighth notes followed by a lowered, half- note held by a fermata, or extended rest, threatens our calm and security. Its persistent assertion disturbs our rest, and our homes are no refuge. During this first movement, the storm steals away my breath; I find no safety from it, know no place to hide, and yet I am irresistibly drawn outside by the insistence and power and violence of the storm. I stand vulnerable outside of the door.
I am offered some respite from the onslaught by the symphony’s second movement, to be played andante con moto (slowly with motion). It is a rather long and an even untroubled rest, and during it I look nervously about and take deep breaths. The melodies are lyrical and gorgeous, and I feel almost safe; I hope the struggle is over, though I sense it is not. Indeed, the storm has not at all dissipated; and this illusory calm does not resolve into a praise to God as at the end of the ‘storm’ in Beethoven’s 6th Symphony. Rather, what might be a peaceful resolution is transformed into a defiant stance by the insistent tensions of the cellos and basses. The night here is dark and I am far from home. I may be bloodied, but I insist unbowed.  
And with the opening bars of the Third Movement, with the threatening rumbling of the basses and a reprise of the opening insistent and portentous four-note summons voiced first in the horns and then the strings, the storm returns in full fury, and I am now out too far to find shelter to protect me from the onslaught. I am on my own, and I am all the resource at my disposal; I am not at ease. The storm beats at me, and in the final moments of the Third Movement that begins with the ominous sound of the tympani drums, a final assault of the menacing storm advances. The violins enter and churn portentously in tension with the tonic key; they rise slowly in pitch and intensity and volume, as if waiting tauntingly for an order for the final attack, and move anxiously about in uncertain and irregular melodies; the music fights with itself, gathering forces, its power bent on destruction. The violins continue to struggle upwards, but shift slowly yet steadily away from conflict and discordancy until in the final swirlings the strings reach the tonic key of C major, and there, joined by the entire orchestra, the threatening storm is transformed into a moment of triumph, and in a glorious resolution, the entire orchestra propels me seamlessly into the exultant opening chords of the magnificent fourth movement.
The storm continues to menace in this final movement, but I know I have overcome: whenever it now threatens, its tensions resolve into triumph.  I have become stronger than the storm which continues to rage. I am no longer cowed. I have triumphed. I have been battered and scathed by the storm, but this storm for now has been overcome. The last measures of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony are filled with triumph: 29 out of the final 41 measures are tonic C major chords; I recall that I began this struggle in the key of C minor and have now come through into the major. And the final moments in this symphony speak victoriously; in the symphony’s final measure the entire orchestra plays the plain and simple C notes, and no tension or dissonant element remains anywhere. I have not only withstood the storm, but transformed it into my triumph. I am stronger now, and I am home. 

26 June 2011


As I walked out to Walden yesterday morn, I barely missed stepping on a significantly large blood-worm crossing on the walkway. I think it was no less that four-six inches in length and actually seemed to me quite animated for a worm. It twisted its rear end into some curlicue, and pushed its front end advancing, sometimes moving forward but at times only reconfiguring. I suspect that it is called a blood worm because the enlarged girth below its front end seems engorged with blood—or at least its upper section approaches the color of blood. I watched for some time as the worm writhed and wriggled its way to wherever it might have been moving. I cannot attribute causation to the worm, alas, and so I will not say “where it was headed,” though it is humanly difficult to accept movement without purpose or direction. I marveled at the contortions the worm made in its progress. First, its rear twisted into a squiggle, and then its front end straightened out the question mark its rear had formed. I could discern no motive for its motions. I stood on the path and observed the worm, and then entered the cabin to move on to my own wrigglings and writhings. Maybe in here I would have purpose. But for a moment I turned back and watched through the glass and waited expectantly for a bird to alight and pick the worm up in its beak and carry it off to feed its younglings. But none arrived.
Several hours later I remembered the worm and went again to the glass to check on its fate. I noted that its rear end (I think it was its rear, but what do I know?) had reached the end of the path and the entire front of the worm had fallen into the grass.  I wondered if it were safer here and out of obvious sight, but of course, I knew that its predators knew exactly how to see its prey despite the camouflage.
I did not see the worm today. Perhaps it was discovered.
And yesterday as I sat out here in Walden, a movement on the computer screen disclosed behind me and outside the window a doe crossing the backyard. Not ten feet behind it was its fawn. prancing behind its parent like many a child following close but sovereign. The spotted fawn was small and delicate, and I was cheered to watch it following its mother. But then something startled the pair—it might have been my presence—and the doe ran west into the brush and the fawn scurried east into the woods. I wondered if the two would find each other again. I was saddened at the even and despaired that I was responsible for the separation. Today as I sat out here in Walden a doe passed my cabin window but was not followed by a fawn. I had no way to know if it was the same doe searching for its lost fawn.
Emerson notwithstanding, Nature is a mystery to me and offers no lessons. And the mystery today doesn’t comfort me.

23 June 2011

Beyond Unconsciousness

For twenty years I have at regular intervals experienced full body, deep tissue massage given by a very skilled practitioner. The efficacy of massage remains without doubt, though the exact rewards of the practice are yet uncertain. Once, after finishing a marathon I went immediately into massage; the muscle relief I experienced and the quickened recovery from the punishing run were soothing and immediate. For several months I experienced shiatsu massage, and outside the pain I experienced, the benefits I reaped from it seemed to result in some immediate increase in my sense of well-being, though I could not define how that directly related to the massage. I suppose that pathways of energy were opened by the practice of shiatsu opens up pathways of energy in the body that may have become blocked, but really, the explanation for the benefits was never so much a concern to me as was the benefit I received from the experience. 
But there occurs an interesting phenomena in full body massage about which I would like to think right now because I have begun to realize its possibility at other moments in my days. Sometimes, lying face down on the table, my head held naturally face down in a cut-out open space and my arms resting in a swing under my face, while the massage proceeds I enter a space when I am neither asleep or awake, neither unconscious nor conscious. I enter a space of complete rest and peace: no thoughts pass through my mind but my mind is not inactive. Images appear and fade, but they are not part of any narrative and they do not possess emotional charge. They appear because I am wholly at peace and are not the cause of my peace; they are the mind that becomes free. Perhaps this state approaches the goal sought in transcendental meditation: the place of absolute peaceful equanimity and serenity. I think that perhaps it is this space in which prophecy might have once occurred. 
There are times when such visions occur outside the massage room. They happen always in moments of absolute quiet and peace, but again, they are not dreams and they have no meaning. I do not feel compelled to interpret them. When I experience such visions, I am at peace, and when they pass I come back into the world not changed, but conscious that I have been forever so brief a moment somewhere else where there was no conflict or tension and I am grateful for the experience. I do not know the long-term benefits of such journeys, but I am glad to take them and to have recognized that they can occur in places other than on the massage table. 

20 June 2011

On Sanity and Insanity

I think it is terribly easy to feel mentally unbalanced in this world and terribly difficult to feel sane. Adam Phillips’ book, Going Sane, among other things a history of sanity, suggests that though we have identified the descent into madness and written extensively about insanity, we have not theorized what it might mean to rise into sanity, nor quite define what it means to actually ‘become sane.’ Phillips attempts to define the ‘sane life’ and explore what it might mean to live sane.  And I think in part Phillips arrives at the idea that “Sanity involves learning to enjoy conflict, and giving up on all myths of harmony, consistency, and redemption.” In this sense, Walt Whitman is the epitome of sanity: “Do I contradict myself, well, I contradict myself!” And of course, Whitman accords me the same freedom. 
I think it is much more difficult in this world to become sane, and so I want here to consider for a brief, even superficial time what I mean when either I question or depend on my sanity. 
I don’t think I am talking about afflictions of mental illness that are often too painfully obvious, though sometimes I too flippantly refer to my disordered state as such. In reality, I think I am relatively stable and functioning. That is, I don’t know I am sane but I think so. I am astounded when things move smoothly though I appreciate the apparent frictionlessness of a situation. I am upset when I confront obstruction to a ready fulfillment of my desires, but I am not incapacitated by it. Furthermore, those about me seem to rely on my sanity, a condition that suggests to me that perhaps it really exists. Daily I go happily and even productively to my work, and though my efforts have not changed the world, the work has not been without influence. For the most part, I maintain a variety of social relations of greater and lesser intimacies, and I never hear voices telling me to do anything that might lead to anything but a victimless crime. Sometimes, I do hear a voice calling me to go forth from my native land and from my kindred and my father’s house and follow some desire, and sometimes I attend to the call. I do not ever know with any certainty what the effect might be on others of this call, though I have my hope in its efficacy, and I proceed nevertheless. Sometimes they trust me. But of course, by the definition above, sanity is the acceptance of the absence of certainty. I think I am sane; they think I am sane. And I suppose to be really sane is to experience pleasure in the uses of ambiguity, disharmony and the impossibility of redemption without succumbing to a debilitating insecurity. 
Abraham seems to experience no doubt following his call: why, I wonder? As soon as he hears the call, he sets out, though how he knew whence came the call the Torah does not explain. Oh, the text does say God told Abram (his name before God changed it) to leave home, but how Abram knew the word came from God I am not certain. If Abraham experiences insecurity and doubt he does not voice it. But I wonder how could he not have suffered any doubt, even if it was God to whom he speaks. A story is told: Olé is out hiking when he slips and falls into a deep crevice. As he slides down to certain death he manages to grab onto a thick root branch that juts out from the rock and he breaks his precipitous descent. But after several minutes Ole’s strength weakens, and his grip begins to slips, and he knows he is without hope. Suddenly, a thunderous voice calls out, “Olé, this is the Lord. Let go of the branch, Olé; I will save you.” Ole looks down once more, and then turns his head from side to side. Finally he looks upwards and calls out, “Is there anybody else up there?” 
The voice Abraham hears is ascribed to God, but sometimes I think the call actually came from within Abraham, and was the expression of Abraham’s Desire. The call was to go to a land that God would show him, but in fact, the location of that land is not part of the text, though Abraham does leave Haran and ended up in Canaan. But when exactly did God tell Abraham to where he was headed, and why did he never express any doubt about the destination? I know that the Rabbis say that this indicates Abraham’s complete faith in God, but not a little while later Abraham tries to pass his wife off as his sister so that he would not be killed by the lascivious king who lusted after Sarai. Why didn’t Abraham trust unquestioningly in God in that instance? And didn’t anybody in Abraham’s retinue object to his command to pack and to head out they knew not where? After all, Abraham did not leave alone: when he left Haran he took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth Abram had amassed. With him he took the persons that they had acquired there, and they set out for the land of Canaan. How did he know it was there that God told him to go? The Rabbis tell us that these persons are those who Abraham converted to the idea of the single God, but the Rabbis really don’t know this for certain. Their interpretation is ex post facto, and the facto is required by the faith. Abraham is sane because he lives with his doubts and continues to act on his desire. 
How do we ever know that we do (are doing) is the right thing. And I am struck by the simplicity of the answer: we never do know with certainty. Because we do not live in isolation, every act of ours must produce ripples that disturb the waters in which others swim, but we do not really ever know the effects of our actions, or even if there has been any effect. Even as I write those words I hear the cliché: the flutter of a butterfly’s wing in Wisconsin causes a typhoon in India. But there is no certainty of this truth really; the cliché itself rests on the bedrock of a philosophy that supposes causation. For the most part, causation in this world is very difficult to assign. Within very specific limits I can arbitrarily assign an effect to a cause: when Leopold Bloom hits his head on the crossbeam in his house he experiences pain; the mishap produces pain. But is the headache he subsequently suffers the result of the accident or the difficulties of his day? How did the accident influence his decision to approach the sleeping Molly? Nobody knows, but I can for my ease assign cause. Finally, however, I don’t know; I may be wholly wrong. 
Thus, to assert certainty and to try to live by it is certainly a problem. And to make absolute judgments is to accept certainty. I try to avoid declarations of certainty, and judgments are statements of certainty. Hence, I have to avoid judgments. And so the strategy I adopt is to try and choose my environments carefully so that in my actions I threaten no one with my judgments (inevitable, finally) and no one threatens me. It is not that I make no judgments, but that I choose those environments where the necessity of judgments is minimized and where it is possible to practice an acceptance by others and enjoy the acceptance of others.  
When I feel insane it is when judgment is made on me and all I can do is to defend myself, as if I had actually been culpable of that of which I had been accused. Or when I make a judgment that I insist be accepted. Winnicott said that madness is the necessity to be believed, and I am sane when I feel no need to defend myself to anyone but myself; and as long as I continue to consider myself an ethical person. The ethical, Terry Eagleton says, is “how we may live with each other most rewardingly . . .” I think I agree with him. And so, I choose to refrain from judgment when that judgment prevents me from living rewardingly with others, and to avoid situations where I am the object of the judgment of others. It is the only way I know to become sane and avoid insanity.

17 June 2011

On Drinking and Drunkenness

If there is one thing that characterizes Montaigne it is his advocacy of moderation in almost every area of life. And so I am delighted to read his essay “On Drunkenness” and discover that even this activity has its rightful place in the lives of men and women. Now, I really don’t think that it is absolute drunkenness about which Montaigne speaks: it is the benefits of social drinking addressed in his essay. Within limits, Montaigne actively supports imbibing liberally in alcoholic despite the occasional headache or discomforting behavior it may inspire. Indeed, I think he was sipping a glass of wine even as he wrote! 
Drunkenness above all, he avers, calls us to ourselves.That is, because we hold such high opinions of ourselves as sane and rational creatures, because we are so vain, a little inebriation enables a valuable check on our egos. Since we are all human, well, we are all, therefore, imperfect, and drinking liquor reveals to us our flaws: when we drink we often act in ways distinctly different than when we are cold sober and seemingly rational. Since, “wisdom does not overcome our natural inclinations,” Montaigne cautions the sage to best remember his humanity “and moderate his inclinations; for to do away with them is not in him.” The sage ought to drink a bit more and learn some humility. In this age of rampant moral hypocrisy, I appreciate this sentiment. 
As for myself, it has been a number of years since sincere drunkenness was even mildly attractive, but I do like to have a regular drink or two. Indeed, for any number of years I have, whenever possible, put the work aside at about 4:00pm, come into the house, from Walden, turn on the musicBeethoven or Dylan or something else that might fill the environment with hope. I would circle into the kitchen area, pour myself a drink and prepare dinner for the family. The whole process of chopping and mixing and listening and drinking contents me. I rarely have more than a single drink, and with the meal my liquid of choice is usually water, but the ritual of the alcoholic beverage while cooking is comforting and helps me transition into a new space. I liked the aesthetics of the bar or beer glass sitting expectantly amongst the vegetables. I cook some lovely thoughts having a drink while preparing dinner. 
For some time now I have for my pleasures purchased micro-brewed and relatively expensive beer: I would spend anywhere from $6.00-$8:00, for a six-pack of the brew, and last week I treated myself to a new double-hop India Pale Ale that was priced at $10.00 for six bottles. My purchases are a small luxury that I can afford, bourgeois though the indulgence may be. Compared to a case of Budweiser Light (24 cans) that might cost $16.00, my immoderation might seem excessive, but I have learned the difference between crafted beers and mass-produced ones even as I know the difference between coffee beans roasted at J&S Beanery and the coffee served at most local diners and restaurants in the United States. And after all, the purpose of my drinking is sensory satisfaction and not drunkenness. I love the taste of a well-brewed beer. If it is not beer that I pour while preparing dinner, I settle in with a single malt scotch in the medium price range: never more than $50.00 per bottle. On the rocks with a slight splash of water. It lasts a month or two: the bottle that is and not the particular drink! 
I like to have my drink during dinner preparation, but when possible I like to share my drinking as well. A very perfect evening involves friends, good food and an assortment of bottles of wine that cost no more than $15.00 a bottle. I am cosmopolitan in my tastes: wines of all countries have a place at my table. I no longer get drunkit is better than forty-five years since I overindulgedthough at these social events I have occasionally drunk more than moderately and had some interesting ideas. Indeed, in moderation drinking lubricates the moving parts in the mind and about the table. Drinking is about realizing pleasure, and as sitting about the table with friends is pleasurable, then drinking all the more increases the pleasure. Montaigne urges, “To drink French style, at two meals and moderately, for fear of your health, is to restrain the god’s favor too much. You need more time and persistence . . . And so we should make our daily drinking habits more expansive and vigorous.” Here, here! 
Like so many of Montaigne’s essays (at least as I read them), “On Drunkenness” has a tendency to ramble. All the more delight to consider that as he wrote he drank! But in the midst of his lovely discussion of liquor and its effects, he suddenly digresses into a lovely encomium about his father for whom Montaigne seems to have had great respect. Apparently he admires his father’s zest for life, which somehow Montaigne aligns with the joy of drinking, but realizing he has drifted somewhat from his topic he concludes this section with a resounding command: “Let’s get back to our bottles!” I like that. 
Montaigne declares that drunkenness has a tendency to push to the top all that is at the bottom: I also hear in Montaigne an early form of psychology’s recognition that wine looses the inhibitory reflex, and while somewhat inebriated we say (and do) things we wouldn’t do while sober. Many of those acts are not necessarily exemplary. Nevertheless, though he finds drunkenness a “loose and stupid vice,” it is less malicious and harmful than the others, which almost all clash more directly with society in general.” Again, what Montaigne prefigures is our concept of the victimless crime, such as recreational drug use, or the employment of call girls and gigolos (the latter not at all frequent, or frequently reported). Montaigne also defends drinking by suggesting that since “we cannot give ourselves pleasure without its costing us something,” then drinking is something that has minimum cost. Montaigne here precedes some words of contemporary philosophers: Bob Dylan (of course) and the Grateful Dead (also, of course): the former declares that, “every pleasure has a edge of pain/ Pay for your ticket and don’t complain;” and the Grateful Dead acknowledge that “every silver lining has a touch of grey.” So Montaigne acknowledges that though inebriation has its cost, it is the price paid for its pleasure. 
Besides, he writes, drinking is one pleasure that age does not take from us. Montaigne suggests here that if we attempt to learn to drink only the finest as we ageif we keep trying to find the most perfect and finest wines—this only means that we have to drink a lot of bad wine to find the good ones. This seems to him to somewhat antithetical to the pleasure one ought to derive from drinking in the first place.  Therefore, “to be a good drinker, one must not have so delicate a palate.” Not to be too picky I find this so true for myself: once I heard tell of an auction where a jeroboam of wine was sold for $50,000! For me, anything between $15.00 and $25.00 is more than adequate. Montaigne says that a coarser palate increases the potential for pleasure. We should increase our pleasure as we age, he writes, and not look for occasions that might disappoint, as in drinking a bad bottle of wine or beer. 
Quoting respectable authorities, Montaigne supports drinking—even drunkenness—because such indulgence makes possible pleasure where pleasure seems not possible. “For drunkenness to Plato is a good and certain test of each and every man’s nature, and at the same time suited to give older people the courage to make merry in dances and music, useful pastimes that they shy away from in a sober mood.” Drinking increases our capacity for pleasure as we age, but it has the potential to do so even in our youth. Again, this is a drunkenness in moderation and not that state that disables but rather, one that liberates. 
Lastly (but not finally), Montaigne avows that poets and artists often are carried outside themselves in their creative process: in the heat of creative and even courageous activity, people “lose” themselves and cannot answer for their extraordinary accomplishments. Assuming that wisdom (or reason) constrains us from such fanciful flights as enables such remarkable feats, Montaigne, after Plato, declares that such accomplishment do not happen unless our wisdom is “obscured by sleep or by some illness, or lifted from its place by celestial rapture.” The poetic frenzy and madness of say, artistic creation or prophecy, Montaigne ascribes to a certain madness “that transcends our own judgment and reason.”  Drunkenness enables such a state. 
And so, as for now, I think I’ll go into the house, have a drink and make some dinner. L’chaim!

15 June 2011

Early Summer Storms

Late at night and during the early summer months out here in the Midwest (out here, but from where?), roiling thunderstorms draw us from our sleep, and we shudder in our beds in astonishment and dread.  At first, vague rumblings move into our dreams, as of the sound of the drum tuning at the rear of the concert stage. The soft din is low and irregular, almost calming, but even in our dreams we anticipate the violent assault we have learned from experience that the muted rolls portend. Though the storm remains yet many miles away, we can hear the insistent thunder progressively sound like the irregular beat of an orchestra comprised of deep tympani drums tuned to diminished fifths: the storm’s threatening alert, this symphony of percussion, beats primeval into even the most intimate body recesses. We know what yet portends, and lie tremblingly awake in our beds, hopelessly hoping the storm will keep its distance. In this first movement of the storm, we can see in the near distance the lightning flicker, as a bulb flashing down, though we cannot yet hear its sharp, cracking sound. Inevitably, we know that as the storm moves closer, razor-sharp bolts will slice cleanly through the skies callously aiming for our rooftops. We slip further under the light cotton blanket and hope hopelessly to fall back to sleep. Like a cry in the night, the storm calls us awake.
As the storm approaches nearer, the thunder increases in shattering, shuddering decibels, and reaches through the house walls, shaking us who already quake in our beds. Lightning cracks the sky with the sound of new wood torn and splintered. We lie in our beds certain that one of the thunderclaps will rip in two our feeble solitary home atop the hill and expose us naked to the brutal physical assault of the violent storm. Our beds feel no longer a safe refuge, and we rise from them and stand wide-eyed at the window as if as witnesses we could tame the assault. The dark shapes of standing tall trees whipped by the violent winds snap back and forth, and I expect to see one of them go flying, uprooted and groundless past our window, like Miss Gulch pedaling steadily on her bicycle in the midst of the twister. Thunder starts to roll incessantly and fills the air like the sound of a thousand tympani drums, and the lightning, in strobe-like bursts, flashes in split-second intervals. The lashing rain beats on the ground and on our roof and our windows in unsteady but persistent rhythms demands attention and even entrance. Its rhythmic drumming is in counterpoint to the thunder and lightning, and altogether it makes an unholy sound out of which we expect monsters to rise. I think of Mussorgsky’s “A Night on Bald Mountain,” but it is late June and not All Hallow’s Eve, and this isn’t recorded music but real Nature threatening. Wrapped in the storm we have become the storm. Home is not where we want to be, but it is where we are; home does not feel safe, and yet it is all the safety we have.

13 June 2011

Memory and Stories

I was running this morning, but not running well. I huffed and I puffed but I could blow no houses down. There was a time when on a Sunday morning I would go out running anywhere from eight to twenty miles. These runs were invigorating experiences, and I loved being out on the roads. I would run with my dear friend, Gary, and at this time of year (it is supposedly mid-June but I’m now wrapped in my quilt and blowing warm air on my cold hands as I work out here in Walden), he and I might strategically place water bottles along the day’s chosen route to ensure necessary hydration. We were good, careful runners.
Gary is actually a stronger runner than I; I think he is even a stronger person. I admire his determination and drive: when Gary undertakes to accomplish something, he always completes it. Though he patiently accompanies me most weekday mornings on my present and somewhat feeble two mile run/walks, just a month or so ago Gary ran a half-marathon in an incredible time of 2 hours 25 minutes, or thereabouts. Gary is a dear but he is no Spring chicken! Nor to my knowledge had he trained very much for the event. And though Gary wonders daily why he still works so hard, he never ceases to labor without regret or complaint. I have learned a great deal from his strength. 
Anyway, I was running feebly this morning and remembered when I began my running habit almost four decades ago. I recall making the decision to run myself into some kind of physical shape, though I don’t remember what inspired this athletic enterprise. I’d always be involved with sports, but at that time my decision to run probably had something to do with the fact that running was a sport I could do alone and without fear of judgment by the rest of the team. And so I laced up my sneakers (I did not have running shoes at that time—don’t even remember knowing that such things existed) and put on a pair of gym shorts and t-shirt. I left the house and walked to Northern Boulevard (about fifty yards) and began to run toward the East. It was an uphill climb. Actually it was all uphill—the incline was significant along this stretch of Northern Boulevard. I didn’t make it very far before I felt it necessary to walk. And so for about twenty minutes (or less) I began my running by mostly walking. 
And that is how it went this morning: a mixture of running and walking with some emphasis on the latter. And what intrigued me this morning was the specific memory of the beginning of my running that was inspired by my running situation in the present. I remembered what occurred forty years ago because I could connect something of my past with some event that occurred in my present. Indeed, I considered that without the present I had no past, and without the exegetical process I know as narrative I had no means to recover my past. I become more and more convinced that the ability to remember anything derives from the ability to narrate it. Memory is narrative. My memory is my story: my life. And the better able I have the capacity to narrate, the better my memory seems to be and the fuller my life appears. All facts are random until they constructed into narrative. 
Of course, this doesn’t at all suggest that I have any accurate picture of my past, but only that I can construct a life by narrating it. I believe that if I want to have a memory then I have to continue to narrate, and that means that I must continue to remain active in the present and continue to ask questions about it. The answers to questions I pose are midrash: the story­. Midrash is the constant process of creating narrative with teleological motive. I tell the stories to create the person who tells the stories. Now, the purpose of these stories might remain obscure or singularly possessed, but as long as they work they are good enough stories. Pychoanalysis permits me to understand how I have come to tell the specific stories, and even offers the material for alternative stories. My memory actually consists of the process of story-telling. 
Gary and I have run all over this town. I remember: I have a story about each mile.

10 June 2011

On Noondles

I almost bought a Barnes & Noble Nook. The Nook is one of those devices that allow one at somewhat reduced prices and rates to download books, newspapers and journals for reading now and in the future and on the go. These devices are virtual libraries, and rather than gaze up and down the rows and shelves of books in personal or public libraries or book stores searching for a specifically desired volume, or even just browsing at random for a work that catches the eye, on these devices one scrolls through their present downloads to select the next book, or can view digital images of the covers and even sample pages and tables of contents of volumes that are available for instant downloading. Rumors abound that these contrivances can store several hundred volumes and a wall full of journals, magazines and newspapers. Now, I tend to travel heavy laden, packing in my bag at any time several books (of varying genres) and a number of various journals to satisfy a wide variety of occasions where reading material may be required. For the sake of my shoulders and back I considered purchasing one of these rather small and light devices. They weigh less than a pound usually, are very thin, and no bigger than the size of a good trade paperback. 
I see people all about these days reading on their Nooks and Kindles (the Amazon.com version of the e-reader). I think the Apple iPad can also serve as a reading platform. People read on these devices in a variety of locations: of course, in airports and on airplanes, but also at concerts, on trains, even in taxi cabs and automobiles. They are becoming ubiquitous sights in the ubiquitous coffee houses. Actually, I think people read on these devices in locations everywhere exactly as they read bookseverywhere. And perhaps this is a good thing for reading! Perhaps libraries will soon check out kindles on which a certain number of books have been downloaded for a small fee. As an educator I am pleased to see so many people reading, even on these devices. 
But maybe the preposition ‘on’ intrigues me here: that is, the reading is mediated. People do not read the book/journal or whatever else is on their Noondle (an neologism for the two major e-reader devices), the way that I, say, read a book. When I read, I do not do so on a device, I read in a book on an airplane, train or park bench. I hold the book open in my hands and do not grasp delicately with my fingertips a device on which the book appears. But today, when people refer to their reading they say that they are reading this or that book ‘on’ the Noondle, and they do not say that they are reading ‘the’ book. If I observed someone reading a book on a noondle and I wanted to browse the book, I cannot imagine how I might accomplish this with any degree of success. 
The book has become an accessory to the Noondle. Now I am aware that I am addressing my semantic problem, but language does reflect something about thought, and the language here reflects that there exists some mediation between the book and the reader. I recognize at well that the newness of the devices provokes the forms of language with which people refer to it. This may change. But for now, I am caught in the preposition. 
Naturally, there is always something mediating between book and reader, often it is culture, but the Noondle increases and confounds the degree of separation.  I wear glasses, but they are not a screen behind which the book appears but a means by which the book in my hands or on my desk top itself may be distinctly seen. When I open the book my hands touch the pages; the quality of paper differs between books. Sometimes, I run my fingers across the words on the page, not as a vision-impaired person might use Braille, but as a means of establishing contact with the objects with which I want to commune, the way I might reach out and touch the arm of my companion with whom I am engaged in intimate talk. Sometimes as I read my thumb accidentally covers a word or two along the book’s margins.  With my pens and pencils I engage in conversation with the text, and as I write I run the edge of my hand physically across the page. I touch the book. I graze the words. Sometimes, alas, I spill coffee on a page; when it dries it leaves a stain on the page that I will recall when I return to the book. Once I suffered a nosebleed (how appropriate it would have been had  it occurred during my reading of Cyrano de Bergerac or Tristram Shandy), and now the pages hold my DNA. When my reading session closes for the moment, I place a marker on the page. For this purpose I choose some personal itema note, a handcrafted bookmark I received as a gift, a bill I must remember to pay. I read once that a librarian discovered in a returned book a very fried egg that must have served someone as a reading placeholder. Some people fold the page at its corners to mark their place, but I would not subject my books to this intentional injury. But I note the page, close the book and place it carefully on a surface to await my return. Or I place it back in the bag with its companionsthe journals and magazines and other books I have brought along to read. Walt Whitman said “Who touches this book touches a man,” and in my life I have taken this declaration seriously.  I do not feel that I either can or want to apply this designation to what appears on the Noondle. 
On the device (the Noondle) the page and the words lie behind a screen, not unlike on the computer on which I even now write (and read what I wrote), though I can certainly carry the Noondle closer to my eyes than I can the computer screen. For the most part, when I read on the computer I am constrained to remain in a upright, seated position, and sometimes scrolling down the screen makes me a bit dizzy, even sometimes nauseous. I suppose I can sit in a chair or lie in my bed or hammock with the Noondle, but I am always physically separated from the words by the screen nonetheless. I know that it is meaning I seek in the reading (and I derive pleasure from that activity obviously), but there is something quite tactile about meaning-making from a book that at present I cannot imagine enjoying on the Noondle. When I read I move in and out of the text that I hold in my hands: the paper pages are, after all, porous. With a book, I can leaf through the pages to see when the chapter ends. I can flip back to see where I have been and with whom I have spent the time, all the while holding my place in the present. In the book, there are facing pages and I can move my eyes back and forth with ease in the meaning making process. But when I read my Noondle I not know how to find where I have marked what I consider a particular image or phrase that seems to me repeated in the section of the book which I am now reading.  I don’t know how to talk to the book or to converse with myself in the book on the Noondle.
 And as for cherished magazines and journals?  When I pick up a journal I love to hold it in my hands and cascade with curiosity through the pages. I like the sound and the very slight breeze the movement produces. I take note of articles to which I want soon to return and those that I think might wait a day or week or two. I like to look at the bright, color pictures that sometimes fill a whole page. On the Noondle there is no leafing through a journal to glimpse at the articles published, or to glance at the graphics or pictures throughout. 
There is something too linear about these Noondles that does not accord with or complement my practice of reading. On these devices one seems expected to begin at the beginning and work one’s way through to the end. There is no hyper to the text. On the Noondle reading has been transformed into yet another product of/for consumption rather a process in which to be actively and physically engaged. On the Noondle I am meant to read the text from start to finish in strict linear fashion and without pause, symbolic or otherwise. Reading on the Noondles I have little opportunity for recursive practices that I know are necessary to reading and enhance the experience of it. Rather, the reader seems constrained to finish rather than to experience the text.   
Oh, this might be the Luddite in me, and it might be that at this time next year I may throw my fully loaded Noondle in the empty bag. But I think that were I to do so, and if I sat down in the plane, or on the train or at the table in the coffee house, and pull out my reading material, (and though of course one always reads alone,so to speak) on my Noondle I would remain quite isolated, and no one would glance over to see what I am reading, take a measure of my character, and even offer to open a conversation about my reading material. Holding no book and no man—nor woman neitherI will talk with no man, no, nor woman neither.

07 June 2011

Not Them,That's For Certain!

A story is told: 
The end was near, and the near ones had been called. Moishe lay on his death. His breathing was labored and his eyes remained closed. He lay silently and motionless. Then, weakly, he opened his eyes and looked out. He started to speak but his voice was weak and low. “Is Pearl here?” At his side his loving wife of forty five years sat holding his right hand in hers. She was crying. “Yes, Moishe, I’m right here.” There was another moment of silence. “And Alvy,” Moishe gasped, “is my oldest son, Alvy, here?” A gray-haired man about sixty years old and dressed in a well-tailored suit stepped forward. “Yes, Dad, I’m here. And so is my brother, Aaron.” And the younger brother stepped forward and took his father’s left hand in his own. Pearl looked up. “And your sister, Rachel, is here, Moishe, and Aunt Sadie. Even your two beautiful grandchildren are here with you now. Look, Sydney and Calvin.” And Moishe’s eyes opened again and he looked slowly about. “Everybody is here?” he asked. “Yes, Dad, we are all here with you,” Aaron said warmly. Moishe suddenly sat up alert, and in a clear, stern voice asked, “Well, and so who’s minding the store?” 
That question sits central to my mind as I read the daily news. Who’s minding the store? In recent weeks (alone!) there have been revelations of extra-marital philandering on the part of the former Governor of California whose love-child is now ten years old; criminal charges made against a former candidate for Vice-President and President, practices illegally initiated in an attempt to cover up his extra-marital sexual liaison and love-child; rape charges brought against the head of the International Monetary Fund; and now the revelation that yes, indeed, those pictures were actually of Anthony Wiener and he had, indeed, sent them out to young women (some of them a bit young) across this great land!  And lest we forget: Sandford and Spitzer and Thurmond and Limbaugh and Gingrich, et al. It sorely troubles me when I consider how inappropriately, nay, immorally, our current leaders behave. I am ashamed and appalled by the choices government (and would-be government) officials make in their private lives while they legislate morality for the rest of us. I am angry at the shameless stupidity exhibited by our self-professed political leaders. Just recently Sarah Palin embarrassingly erred in her recounting of the midnight ride of Paul Revere, a story every fifth grader knows thoroughly. And just recently Michelle Bachman spoke ineloquently and incorrectly about the location where occurred the shot heard ‘round the world. (I can be certain that she doesn’t know from where the phrase originates: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The Concord Hymn”). And just recently the Republican aspirant for high office, Herman Cain, attributed to the Constitution words written in the Declaration of Independence. 
Who is minding the store here isn’t a question of quantity, as it might have been for Moishe, it is a real question of quality. It is apparent to me from the regular reports in the newspapers that, indeed, no one is minding the store. Or certainly not enough honest folk to keep the thieves and murderers at bay. 

06 June 2011

Not for Sissies

There is a poster hanging in my basement from the days when my office lay on the other side of the room opposite the house furnace and the cat litter boxes. On some cold winter mornings, as I happily wrote, the air hung warm and pungent. Lining the walls of the basement were all of my books, almost organized into rather amorphous and porous subjects. The individual books themselves were alphabetized neither by title nor author, and searching for any book required that a) I had actually read the book and b) knew in approximately what category I might have placed it. Of course, there was no guarantee that the book would be found, and many precious private morning minutes were spent hunting the shelves for the absolutely necessary volume. Interestingly enough, many other unsought treasures were found in the process. 
Anyway, the poster to which I refer here pictures a shirtless, well-built older man (well, he is well past the age of fifty, I’d say), a man well used to the use of free weights and body-building apparatus and regimen. He stands in the poster staring defiantly out at me, his muscles flexed and poised, wearing a pair of tight and worn jeans, neé dungarees. And underneath him the poster pronounces, “Growing Old Is Not For Sissies.” I know that this man has been working out for years in preparation for his aging. I had purchased the poster when I was not as old as I am at present, but when I was certainly older than I was before getting older was ever an issue. 
I admire the man in the poster, but I think I require more than the caution he offers me. In fact, I want more explicit direction. Having never done this before, I don’t know how to get old, and the generation that raised me didn’t live through the Sixties, by which I mean they did not choose to experience the Sixties. Their 65 was the new 114, or thereabouts, I am told. I graduated high school in ’65. 
Oh, I know there are no rules for living, but I think I could use some signposts. For example, is the soreness in my shoulder arthritis or charley horse? Do I have costochondritis and need a regimen of Advil, or is that soreness a hint that I need a new bed mattress? Am I really overworking (as I think) or am I more tired from the same amount of work? Is what I tell my children the result of long-suffering wisdom or mere and ornery cantankerousness? What am I to make of my anxiety coming upon yet another set of stairs and the increasing frequency of urinations in what is already troubled sleep? 
Of course, these are rather silly questions, but I mean them quite seriously. It is romantic nonsense to say that I haven’t followed any maps up until this moment, so why should I be desirous of them now. Indeed, not to follow the available map is not at all to be free of maps; there are maps all about and always have been so. I marched to the beat of a different drummer, I boasted, but it was a drum that beat, nonetheless. Perhaps the issue that I consider now has more to do with the impress of time: I once behaved with a greater boldness, leisure and complacency when I permitted myself to get lost. Then I had no concern for time’s passage: time seemed illimitable and I immortal. Today that sense of abandon and have grown somewhat old and brittle. I do not move effortlessly nor with abandon. I have become more watchful. Chiron asked for death when he understood the terms of immortality. 
Montaigne says that to philosophize is to learn how to die: philosophy asks questions about the nature of living. Montaigne writes, “He who would teach men to die would teach them to live.” I am not perfectly clear what he means by this aphorism, but I suspect that to Montaigne learning to die means learning what to do in preparation for it, and that means learning to how to live. Or perhaps Montaigne wonders why anyone should bother to teach some body how to die when it would be so much more productive to teach them how to live. Death requires no teaching because it only happens once and for all. “Wherefore it is as foolish to lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years from now as it is to lament that we were not alive a hundred years ago.” And so in the process of learning to die, Montaigne keeps the idea of death about him all of the time to remind him that he is not dead and that he yet lives. He must be active. I suppose this is a reason why I daily read the obituaries in The New York Times: while I read them I am not in them. “And there is nothing that I investigate so eagerly as the death of men: what words, what look, what bearing they maintained at that time, nor is there a place in the histories I note so attentively.” Their deaths teach me how to live. Because to learn how to die frees us from the slavery that fear of death imposes.” Montaigne must be about his business without ever forgetting that death occurs and will occur even to him. While I write about death I do not think of my death. To learn how to die is to remain engaged in life, for death will come when it will, and as Dylan reminds us, “He not busy being born is busy dying.” Montaigne knows full well that death is not life, and that life is action. “I want a man to act, and to prolong the functions of life as long as he can, and I want death to find me planting my cabbages, but careless of death, and still more of my unfinished garden.” Whatever is unfinished remains still to do. 
So this getting old that is not for sissies seems to me to be really a willingness to keep on keeping onto continue to make mistakes and to learn from them. Learning how to die is, indeed, to learn how to live. I must go now: I have other seeds to sow.

02 June 2011

On Boredom

I am not bored, but I am experiencing boredom. I owe to Adam Phillips some perspectives on this state. 
I raise the issue of boredom now because I am ‘between projects,’ and I am experiencing boredom. Oh, it is not that I have nothing to do, nor even that I do nothing. Ironically, the situation is just the opposite: I have too much to do and I have not yet chosen one activity I wish to engage in concertedly, or even seriously. At present, I read an assortment of books in a variety of genres placed strategically in various location throughout Walden and the base house, but I sit down with each each without a real question in mind: I am not even sure at times from where the impetus to read this rather than that book derives. I read sometimes out of obligation to too many things to which I may be committed; I read to belong to communities; I read obligingly in the field, and that which I think might be related to the field; I read to empty my to-be-read book shelf in order to make room for more books to be read. When I am not reading, I watch movies or stream old television shows onto the computer screen into my Walden. I am watching whole seasons during some weeks. I am actively inactive, but waiting in great anticipation for what will give my desire some form; I await some inspiration to act in earnest. I think this is Genesis all over again: there was Abraham actively inactive until the voice tells him to go to a land where I shall show you . . . and off he goes never to return. I await my call to go forth. 
I read my Montaigne steadily but slowly, and it intrigues me that he seems to have no essay on boredom. Perhaps it is that his essays kept boredom at some remove. I think the essayist had a remarkable curiosity, for there seemed so little in the world that would not set him thinking and writing. Or perhaps I might consider that Montaigne’s writing was inspired by his boredom as he sat comfortably in his chair awaiting the question? And if he was bored, then boredom was not something to which he wished to give much thought: he was busy. 
For forty years in the classroom I have listened to students complain that the work (either that in which they were engaged or that which refused to engage them) was boring. This particular grievance indicated that for the students there existed a separation between the learner and the to-be-learned, and the cry that  ‘this is boring’ indicated that a problem existed with that which was ‘to be learned:’ it was boring. Given the failure of the material then, students felt absolved of all responsibility to learn the flawed material: it was, after all, boring. 
Of course, this indictment of the material suggests that learning ought to be at least entertaining (which it often is, but not in ways that oppose it also being consideredat least, at firstboring), and it ought to be recognizably compelling at first approach. In many classrooms the power of first impressions is often definitive: if to the individual the work does not appear immediately accessible then it is boring and need not be engaged with seriously. 
The ascription of boring to the material assumes as well that all learning requires an immediate and perfect fit between learner and learned. There ought to be no discordancy, no friction, no rigorous exertion, no mystery in the engagement in learning. Nothing should require change in state. Everything should automatically appeal and suit each in exactly the same manner and to the same degree, and no one should ever suffer confusion. Elsewhere I have learned that confusion is a state out of which one must labor in order to achieve comprehension. 
It is also possible to understand boredom as a state in which the subject cannot pose any question to her environment. Sometimes the situation exists that the material permits few questions to be asked. This occurs in material so complex that a learner does not even know how to question the text or even what questions to ask it. Or in the case of the Dick and Jane Readers or formulaic films, the material is so simple that it inspires no questions; or the end is immediately evident in the beginning. The material is empty and does not arouse much interest. In the former case, the material is too dense and cannot be interrogated, and in the latter, it is too vacant. 
Boredom is not disinterest for in boredom there is a willingness that does not exist in indifference. When I am bored I am waiting; boredom is what I experience while I wait. In boredom, I am active. But when I am disinterested, I do not engage at all. I move on, a type of action, I suppose, but one that smacks of evasion and escape. 
Phillips suggests that boredom might be considered a useful object with which the subject might await something that will attract his attention. Boredom is a holding environment: within it one need not yet make a decision to act until his desire motivates him to act. Boredom maintains desire when the subject doesn’t even know that she desires. That is, desire is the pilot light; when I am ready to cook something I turn it up to ensure a proper temperature. Boredom ensures that the pilot light remains lit. 
Which returns me to the idea that in boredom nothing in the environment (the text) attracts the individual’s desire. Boredom is not an active refusal to become engaged, but rather, an active sensitivity to the environment in which one awaits some stimulus to spur a more focused action. I might consider that boredom is a state in which one becomes brave enough to let ones feelings develop and to actively reach into the environment for something that I did not previously know I desired though, of course, I did desire something. This accords with an argument I have entertained for a while now that says that education is the search for lost objectsthe Rabbis define a lost object as something that requires a relationship in order to fulfill its purpose or realize its potentialand that we do not know what we have lost until we have found it. Phillips makes the same argument for boredom. He says, “So the paradox of the waiting that goes on in boredom is that the individual does not know what he was waiting for until he finds it, and that often he does not know he is waiting.”  The individual thinks he is bored. 
I’m boreda charge I have for two decades heard from my childrenalso suggests a problem with the environment. Implicit in their boredom is a failure of any object to capture and enthrall their attention. I have not provided enough. I am another failed parent. 
But I think now that there is some relationship between these two conditions of boredom. In the first the idea demands that the stuff of the classroom ought in itself to capture the imaginations of the students without their effort. Students may thus absolve themselves of responsibility for their learning since the fault is, indeed, in the stars and not themselves. I would argue they are not bored but disinterested, and perhaps they are afraid to acknowledge this: they are, after all, supposed to be students, but perhaps we have not yet taught them the responsibilities that attach to that position. Our students are taught too much passivity during their formal schooling experience. Perhaps responsibility to the process of education must be taught along with the content. Students, I have learned, require education. The complaint that students make in the classroom assumes that the material is responsible for grabbing them without their effort. And my children (and three thousand million other children besides) demand to be entertained by something external to them. My children think they must have enough stuff about to ensure continual stimulation. It is this appeal, I suspect, that can be met by social networking institutions like Facebook and texting. 
When students complain that the material is boring, we might ask then to consider why they are having difficulty entering the texts. What questions can they ask, and how can they find answers to their questions. When my students say “This is boring,” I might ask, “What doesn’t interest you, and why exactly aren’t you interested?” When the children say they are bored, I might answer, “Well, good. Just relax, and wait to discover what you want to do next. Don’t worry: something will occur.” Boredom might be better enjoyed.