Monthly Archives: April 2013

Expiation

How did I do it?

You know, I once read something about an Indian boy who, in lieu of flowers or gifts, courted the object of his affection with stories. He would gather the gossip and prattle of the street and wrap it for her in his own cheek every day, weaving tales of Bombay for her. Hardly room for a word shoved in edgewise, she just sniggered and chortled at all the comic goings on as he became more and more irreplaceable as a source of mirth. He was sort of an amorous Scheherazade, I suppose.

Touching, no? But I chose another route.

I chose cruelty.

There is nothing so easy to ply as a beautiful and vain woman. She expects adulation. She expects desire. The world has been for her nothing but a long scroll of encomium. To win her, you must simply give her the opposite–make her want you so that she can prove to herself she is undeniably desirable. So when I first saw her, with those eyes that I don’t need to waste similes and metaphor on, I knew she had been the target of more men’s suits than are worth counting. Yet still, she was alone. From this I concluded that even the arrogant boys, sufficiently convinced of their own irresistibility, must have also been shooshed away, driven from her orbits by denial. Even they had desires, after all. They’d made those needs plain enough and she had, predictably, found them and their base appraisal debasing.

No, no. She was the worst of all possible marks. Vain. Lovely. And clever. Imagine looking into every pool you strolled by and knowing right down to the depth of it. Of course, you would start to imagine you walked on the glassy surface. Of course, you would disdain the whims of the mewling little apes that wanted to mount you.

What? Was she a virgin? Of what importance are questions like that.

So, as I was saying, I chose the long game. I found a way to insinuate myself in her affairs–first an office across from her family home and then some protracted (and ultimately fanciful) business proposition for her father. I needed to be near her, and I needed to hate it.

At every meeting, a barely courteous, condescending wrinkle of the mouth to acknowledge her. A huff for every word I heard her speak in my presence.

The best was the painting. The poor girl painted. The rich need hobbies, after all. I happened to be at the house to sign an initial contract (one I’d carefully written to obligate me to nothing tangible), but naturally her father was not present (as per my design) so her gaunt, bony mother felt obliged to entertain me so that my journey across the street should not have been in vain.

So the grey woman showed me one of her paintings as the girl looked on. To the mother’s effusive praise, I initially only offered a barely audible grunt. But the old woman, God love her, pressed me, asked if I was much familiar with art, and if I ever thought of such things. I replied in the affirmative and began an exhaustive deconstruction of the image on the canvas before me, tracing its connection to various other works and movements, once slipping in the word “reductive.” The mother listened with polite nods, but the girl herself listened with a tightening jaw, understanding better than her sweet ma-ma that she was being patronized, called an imitator, patted on the head like a child who’d managed to connect a head to a body in chalk.

From then on, I knew she would be mine. Without a dash of interest, without even anything akin to scorn, I’d won her. I was the first creature on Earth to never pay her any mind, and she loved me for it.

What? When I was done with her? I’m not certain, there have been some letters, but I haven’t had time to read them.

we are living inside something else

the city has a roar at the edge
a low engine palpitation
synthetic cardiac rhythm
faster than the ear bone’s repose

and at night
the larger beastly shapes
prowl with whishes in the orange glow
looking for nothing in particular
nematocysts in the larger organism
groping and ferrying souls about

somewhere in it all
the air finds space for the animal noises
the hoots of the pigeons
and the yips of stray canines
occasionally, in the black of it, human voices chirp and crow
calling out their wagers or begging on behalf of their loins

 

Idiocracy

So the idiocy of the sequester continues. Now, with FAA furloughs leading to long delays at the nation’s commercial airports, some are accusing President Obama of deliberately trying to make Americans feel the impact of these cuts.

If that was the case, then the president and Congress are rapidly backtracking. Apparently, they’re realizing that if the cuts actually impact their constituents then it might affect their political fortunes.

Newsflash, folks: All these cuts will affect your constituents!

Congress, though, is cynically counting on us being too short-sighted to realize that little fact. After all, a cut to the FAA we notice when we have to wait on the runway.

What about the cuts to research, though? Well, those we won’t notice for years, maybe decades. So Congress’s attitude is, “Eh, screw ’em.” (Once again, I want to applaud hero-of-Rationalism Zack Kopplin for whittling this so-called debt/deficit problem down for the economically impaired.)

Again and again, we refuse to learn the lessons of history. This monomaniacal fixation on deficits and debt has already been debunked, both through the failure of the theory of austerity and its actual devastating consequences in Europe. The mess there, though, could have been avoided by asking these debt ideologues–empowered here in the U.S. by the Tea Party fringe–a simple question: When in history has cutting government spending EVER helped an economy?

The sequester’s impact on research and its concomitant impact on economic growth is equally transparent if we allow history to inform our decisions. In the 1950s and 1960s, America paid out the wazoo to beat Russia to the moon. What was the result? Years of financial ruin from overspending? No. We had windfalls in scientific innovation and national confidence that drove our economy onward. Research now, though, is down as a share of our government’s spending from 17% in 1962 to an already too-low 9%. We don’t have to wonder what impact these new cuts to research and development will have. This sequester’s consequences are what good old Donald Rumsfeld would call “known knowns.” We should just go ahead and call them “Cuts to Progress” and be up front about the whole mess.

There’s no mystery here; cutting science hurts America.

The Lost

I’ve been reading about the lonely. The ones that wander off from the fence lines and the safety of the herd. They tuck Thoreau or London under their arms, fill their heads with half-plans where they are the only souls for a thousand miles and live fortnights away from any electric light. They’re lost to us, to civilization, to the ones who move through channels cut in the rock of day-in-day-out. They’re alien souls.

And yet I know them. I’ve seen through their eyes. Atop the rocks, out past the city limits, in the granite outcroppings. It’s all pretty safe there. Rangers just a city block’s worth of wilderness away (laterally) and yells and hope could bring helicopter messiahs in no time.

But up there, with only the wafting of the hueco pools and the sneaky bits of green that have clung to the margins of the tiny canyon below, I’ve seen out into the great flat sheet of the desert, where the city is only a distant oasis blur, and I have wished–as these pilgrims into empty spaces must have wished–for a world without lines, without Nazca roads imposing order on the brown shrubs and tan patches of barren dust, for a world with only unnamed shapes and without purpose.

Pure beauty. Art outside of art.

idyll, delivered

Has something changed?
Some cavitation in the gearworks
a slow-winding spring
finally clicks
and, now an old man,
my mind slows
and the restless beating of
more, more
subsides

And the thing itself
is now sufficient;
an old stone fissure
with a glint at the bottom
enough to keep my eye

On Reading The Chosen

Talmud. Kabbalah. Sanhedrin. God says unto man, “Read. And read more. Labor over every intonation, every possible meaning, until your eyes go dark,” and they obey. Young men trying on their fathers’ shoes; they live in the words.

In study.

Deep study into words and the numbers of things, codes from God’s finger, gossamer strands behind creation–a coming-of-age through inert toil, exhausting, mind-breaking toil over the page.

And you are left in a world of words. Over the landscape, Freud is a tower–a dark sentry post–and beneath the verdant hills lie catacombs of analytic logic–branching tunnels of if’s and then’s beneath the disordered graveyards of nephilim.

Worlds within worlds–all standing still.

Just Say No…to Teaching?

This image is ironic, if you now the right meme.

I have this one student this year who, ever since the deer-in-headlights who-the-heck-is-this-guy looks wore off at the beginning of the school year, has been telling me that she wants to do exactly what I do when she grows up–though I’m sure a seventeen year old wouldn’t have said “when I grow up.”

It’s always been her life’s ambition, apparently, to teach.

Which is why I was so disheartened when a few weeks ago she asked me if I thought she should become a teacher after all. So many people had been discouraging her–including, I think, some of her teachers–that she’d begun to question her lifelong goal.

I reassured her that, despite all the difficulties and pitfalls, teaching was still extremely rewarding.

In the weeks since, though, I’ve seen other voices chime in questioning whether it’s worth teaching these days. In a resignation letter that’s since gone viral, teacher Gerald Conti questioned whether the profession even exists any longer. A fellow English teacher Randy Turner would apparently tell my young pupil a flat out: “No. Don’t go into teaching.”

As we move deeper into the twenty-first century, visionaries and bureaucrats alike are crafting an image of education without teachers. Most of these efforts rely on technology. In higher education, penny pinchers have already begun relying on mass courses and computerized evaluation to replace teaching staff (while also shifting away from tenured positions to disposable and interchangeable adjunct positions). At the other end of the spectrum, TED darling Sugata Mitra argues that perhaps students don’t need schools and on his computer-driven learning terminals in India students interact, not with trained teachers, but with video feeds from encouraging matrons in England. These folks think that hollow sound is the twenty-first century knocking, apparently.

I’ve commented on the problems facing teachers and eduction in general many times and will hardly stop after this post. But I wanted to fire my own volley on this particular front of the War on Teachers to ask a simple question: What would a society without teachers look like?

Many may imagine that we are seeing just such a shift, but I don’t think so. These teacherless side-shows are just novelty acts–ones that won’t have staying power. I don’t think we can have any kind of twenty-first century without teachers. In a society as diverse as ours, we must have a niche for professional educators because they are more than just functionaries, more than just lesson delivery systems. Teachers do more than any computer system can ever do.

The most important function of a teacher is not to grade papers or disseminate information, and that’s why I think my advice to my own pupil is still sound. Her lot in life won’t be to push the paperwork around or to follow lesson plans. Our most important job as teachers is to be a model of transformative intellectualism in students’ lives, to show them what it looks like to live in the mind, to be committed to the ideals of education–no matter what the actual practice may look like in the future.

On Reading Absalom, Absalom

But in all Israel there was none to be so much praised as Absalom for his beauty: from the sole of his foot even to the crown of his head there was no blemish in him.  

And if you are that beautiful, you must revolt, you must be more than the father, more than the molds from which other men are cast. You must dream larger, more fearsome dreams. Sutpen was more Absalom than his son who turned on him. I see him and Gatsby, together, spiraling Roman candle wild into some invented nightscape. Possessed by a vision, they wanted to remake the world. Simple plans. But they allowed the plans to consume them, envelop–or did they absorb the plans? Swallow them whole until they were defined by the shapes inside, like kite struts.

And both stories told from without. Faulkner watching Sutpen for us through Quentin’s sprawling investigations and Fitzgerald only able to look at Gatsby through Nick’s eyes. You never look directly at the sun, even in eclipse. Both must be told from without, because there is no conflict in beings of such pure will, whatever their purpose. A man possessed, fully possessed, by a single vision isn’t a man anymore. He’s not a frail, weak, conniving human being. He is transformed. Transformation.

We can only understand him from the outside, through other’s eyes. Because if we were inside his mind–even through the page, even for a single page–we would lose ourselves in the completeness of the dream.

On Reading As I Lay Dying

The author, as if abnegating the halcyonic imagined vision of some better state, some better causally constructed world in fiction in favor of the effluvia of decayed civility, the trace of something that might have made someone once believe in something noble but now is only putrescence, weaves a world more real that real, more depraved than even the most corrupt shell of a half-wished country. You forget the way a great book can worm its way into you, find a niche and live in you–half-parasite, half-Jiminy Cricket. Faulkner builds everything from that frail beauty of something horrible that cannot be helped.

I think it’s an allegory for the whole human race, a family of unthinking, torn, stertorous, half-buffoons, half-martyrs, lost in thought and ripping at one another with dull, aching teeth, driven on, servile and bound by a purpose we barely understand, a promise that ultimately means nothing because it was made to dust, all in service to a mother who is a god who we worship, we orbit, we revere, the power and the center of all the things we have done, cathedrals and bridges across fords at high flood, and yet we toil on not knowing, unaware of the lack in her godly heart, we imagine ourselves beloved, served by the architecture of our world, but she hates us, would hate us if hate were anything but a word, and still we go on, always, forever, on and on and on without sense.