Monthly Archives: June 2014

Radical education

I don’t know what an ideal education looks like, but I do know that mine was different from most. Nestled among the redwood trees at a public school in a small town of 100 families, I grew up in one of the last true havens of radical 60s thought.

They say that Janis Jopin used to play there.

My initials are carved into the road by the post-office – the only public building besides the school. This wasn’t some act of teenage vandalism – though such a deed is not unheard of. The road had washed out. The road from the post office up to the tracks, where the railway used to run. A lot of families live up that way, and the road had washed out.

So what’s a community with no police, no fire department, no Public Works Department, to do? They rebuilt the road. Among them, they had the knowledge, expertise, and skill, and they rebuilt the road.

And the school walked all the students over so we could watch. This is how our community works, they told us. When something breaks, we work together to fix it.

That’s just how it goes.

At some point, later or earlier, I’m not sure – a student teacher who’d just started working there, came into my classroom and started pulling kids out. Someone had seen a student throwing rocks at cars (not outside the realm of possibility). They didn’t know who it was. Someone blond.

So they pulled all the blond kids out of class and started sending them home. Somebody needed to be punished.

We protested. We were told adults knew best. We pushed back. Adults invoked their power. We didn’t back down.

We were, I believe, about to go into full on riot mode, when the teacher explained it was all a set up. Welcome to a unit on American internment camps during World War II.

It was definitely a unique education.

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Pandora’s Box

I’ve never understood the story of Pandora’s box. Pandora opened the box, allowing all the evils of the world to escape. The only thing left was hope.

So. If the box was full of evils, why was hope in there in the first place? If opening the box is what unleashed evil upon the world, how is it a good thing that hope didn’t make it out? Doesn’t that mean the world doesn’t have hope?

To hear it told, that doesn’t seem to be the point of the story.

Of course, the whole thing was a set up. An elaborate plan to punish man and degrade us in response to our burgeoning capacity.

Prometheus defied the gods and gave man fire. For that he won an eternity chained to a rock having his liver devoured by an eagle.

Like Sisyphus, though, one must imagine Prometheus happy – the sheer torture of being eaten alive balanced by the knowledge of what he’d done. Not only had he created man – shaping us out of clay – he’d truly given us life. He gave us fire. He gave us knowledge. He made us conscious.

It was that gift of consciousness which the gods could not abide.

And so, Prometheus endured eternal torment, a daily cycle of liver devoured and regrown. The worst punishment the gods could muster. But even knowing his fate, Prometheus would commit his crime again. I imagine him calmly greeting his winged tormentor – a painful reminder that what he’d accomplished was truly miraculous.

But punishment for Prometheus was not enough. He was made to suffer for his act, but what of the young upstarts, recently blessed with consciousness, empowered by Prometheus’ fire? How should the gods punish them?

Pandora and her box were gifts to Prometheus’ brother: Epimetheus was as near sighted as Prometheus was far sighted. The perfect rube for a celestial con. Pandora, created specially for the occasion, was endowed with insatiable curiosity and, perhaps, a healthy dose of defiance.

Pandora was told she must never, ever open the box with the full intention that she would, of course, open the box. She was the unwitting time bomb sent to unravel the power of man.

So she opened the box – as she was instructed not to and as she was designed to. All the evils of world were unleashed.

Except hope.

The moral here, I suppose, is this: even with all forms of evil forever tormenting us, even with despair, illness, conflict and worse, even in a world without hope – we still have life.

We still have fire.

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In Their Nature

I recently finished George Elliot’s Middlemarch, a “penetrating analysis of the life of an English provincial town during the time of social unrest prior to the Reform Bill of 1832.”

Spoiler alert: All the characters are fools.

Or, at least, that’s what I thought when I began.

A work of historical fiction written more than 50 years after it takes place, Middlemarch is narrated by an undefined voice whose wisdom of hindsight makes all impulsive missteps seem glaring errors.

It is no surprise when Fred, the young ne’er-do-well who’s old enough to be a man but as irresponsible as a boy, is unable to pay back a loan he felt sure he’d find a way to resolve. It is no surprise when the young heroine Dorthea finds dissatisfaction in her marriage to a much older man. It is no surprise when Lydgate, a young doctor making enemies of the establishment, finds himself deeply in debt after marrying a nice, but high maintenance girl. It is no surprise.

Reading the book is rather like watching a horror movie and yelling, “Don’t open the door!” to the hapless girl who’s bound to open the door. As the audience, we know the killer is back there, but the girl opens the door anyway. It is no surprise.

All the characters are fools. They always open the door.

At first this bothered me. Why couldn’t these characters stop themselves from doing and saying things they would obviously regret? Alas, all the characters are fools. I can’t abide fools.

But, I suppose, we are all fools.

I certainly can’t claim to have never spoken rashly or miscalculated my path. Hindsight is 20/20, and knowing exactly how someone else is experiencing a moment – through the gift of an omniscient narrator – is certainly helpful in knowing how to respond.

Perhaps I judge these characters too harshly – they were doing the best the could in the moment, while I analyzed from a safe distance away.

As the book went on, however, I began to notice something. Nearly every time a character made an important decision or had a critical interaction, Elliot described how it was in his/her nature to act that way.

Proud, humble, foolish, or wise, character choices came down to a question of intrinsic nature.

Such a way of thinking is anathema to a full embracing of free will – to the belief that we not only are free to make our own choices, but that we have the capacity to change those choices at will.

I found myself rooting for characters to change their nature – to act beyond the path they’d laid out for themselves.

But, alas.

One of the most distressing parts of the book comes when Bulstrode, who’d come into come into his fortune through misdeeds and deception, faces a critical moment: the man who’d been blackmailing him over his dark past arrives in need of medical attention.

Bullstrode, now a fine, upstanding, religious man who’d worked hard to put his past behind him, starts out resolute – a good man would provide the best care regardless of a distaste for the afflicted. He calls the doctor.

As the treatment goes on, however, and the blackmailer shows signs of improving – Bullstrode waivers. This man has the power to destroy him. As this debate rages on, I found myself yearning for Bullstrode to make the choice he knew was right, to side with the better angels of his nature.

But the man has the power to destroy him. Bullstrode waivers. Bullstrode kills. Full of justifications and explanations, Bullstrode murders his blackmailer. It is no surprise. It’s in his nature.

Of course, justice being essential to any good Victorian novel, the truth of Bullstrode’s past comes out anyway. Bullstrode is disgraced. Bullstrode is destroyed.

In perhaps the most moving part of the book, Mrs. Bullstrode is now faced with a decision: stand by her husband or abandon him? She is a good woman. Everyone thinks she should leave him.

Her honest ostentatious nature made the sharing of a merited dishonor as bitter as it could be to any mortal. But this [woman] had a loyal spirit within her. The man whose prosperity she had shared through nearly half a year of life, and who had unvaryingly cherished her – now that punishment had befallen him it was not possible to her in any sense to forsake him.

She stands by him. It is no surprise. It is in her nature.

The book goes on. Stories resolve themselves. Characters maintain their natures. Even Fred, who finally grows up enough to be a sensible man, continues to lose money on horses. It’s in his nature.

The characters grow. Their lives improve. But their natures stay the same.

The best we can do, it seems, is to accept our natures and understand the natures of those around us. Only then can we fools find some wisdom.

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Strange friends in strange places

“Just look at all these beautiful people I could get know!” a man exclaimed outside Gate 8, Terminal A of San Jose International Airport last night.

He waved his hands in the air, twirling in a circle and gesturing emphatically at the various individuals, families, friends, and colleagues who slouched around, eyes fixed online or in a book.

He gave a fist bump to an elderly man passing in a wheel chair. He made the rounds, shaking hands and introducing himself as he went.

A few minutes earlier, this enthusiastic gentleman been greeted joyously by another man, sitting a socially acceptable distance from me along the terminal wall. “Hey man, there you are!” He’d exclaimed, “Join me, have a seat!”

But Enthusiasm didn’t want to have a seat. He wanted to meet all the people.

Enthusiasm was quite drunk.

I’d assumed that my wall neighbor, a man with a balding head, an impressively robust beard, and a laid-back but thoughtful vibe, knew Enthusiasm. His manner of greeting seemed to indicate so.

But, I learned, Thoughtful didn’t know Enthusiasm. They’d met over a drink at the terminal bar – Thoughtful having taken his leave an hour before. “You’ve definitely outpaced me,” commented Thoughful, whose friendliness could have been natural or lightly beverage-induced.

Our flight was about to board as this interaction occurred, so I assumed I’d never see Enthusiasm nor Thoughtful again. I hardly thought I’d remember the moment at all.

But there was a problem with the plane. We spent the next hour in the terminal.

Enthusiasm was particularly taken with my wall neighbor on the other side – a young woman who seemed equally friendly, thoughtful, and skeptical about the interaction. She was a writer, as it turned out, with a passion for fiction. She seemed to view the world – or at least this small slice of it – as an explorer might: interacting, yes, but carefully observing.

So there we sat – Enthusiasm, Thoughtful, Explorer, and I, waiting for our plane to board.

Enthusiasm, whose occupation seemed to involve large scale HVAC planning, declared that today he’d been a Technical God. He’d been in town, he explained. to resolve a client’s technical difficulties. In an effort to describe to his airport audience the scope of this company’s air system, he effortlessly completed some calculations before gesturing so wildly he knocked himself over. He lolled about on the floor before finishing his story, which I’ll admit to having missed the finer points of, but it’s denouement was that he ultimately resolved the issue. He was a Technical God.

No wonder he was so enthusiastic.

Later, as Thoughtful described his work teaching High School English to young people who were primarily children of immigrant farm workers, Enthusiasm found himself continually falling over for a quick rest on my shoulder.

Thoughtful, a Canadian by birth and accent, pointed out that the number of children living in poverty in the United States is larger than the entire population of Canada.

Thoughtful advised Explorer that she shouldn’t settle professionally. If she wanted to write fiction, she should write fiction. Another job to pay the bills would only detract from that.

Enthusiasm went back to mingling with the terminal guests. Introducing himself to anyone who would listen.

I wondered if I ought to scorn Enthusiasm. Public drunkenness is generally frowned upon, public displays of social affection even more so. Should I be displeased that this man, too out of his wits to properly control his own motor function, continually rested his hand gravely on my should or found himself leaning against me when he’d been aiming for the wall?

Perhaps I should have found this behavior most disreputable, but to be honest, it didn’t bother me.

It was a very public setting, with little chance of things going too awry, but more than that, Enthusiasm was really just…enthusiastic. This 57-year-old man who found himself crawling around on the airport floor while professing his philosophical beliefs, simply wanted to meet people and to talk to them. He wanted to experience the moment through interaction with others. He wanted to know each person’s story – though he couldn’t seem to remember it for very long. He wanted to celebrate existence and co-existence, and he wanted those around him to feel the unbridled joy which had overtaken him.
In a world where many of us focus on our own narrow lives, breaking our vows of silence to strangers only for simple comments such as a pleasant good morning or a request for time, it was refreshing to see someone who so genuinely wanted to interact with everyone around him.Socially unacceptable, perhaps, but laudable all the same.

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Portraits of Fake People

In Boston today, I could see clear into an office building. A row of abandoned workstations lined a dull taupe corridor overlooking a brick plaza. Generic office artwork offered a splash of color on the wall. A man in a suit stared at his computer. Another man stood next to him.

For a moment I thought they were fake. Mannequins, or cardboard cutouts, perhaps. The whole scene seemed staged. A museum exhibit. Office Life Circa 2000.

In the T stop a woman had fabulous 80s hair. Side-swept and crimped. She may have been wearing a jean jacket. Her husband was, with his mullet and ball cap. Their daughter rocked a bedazzled Patriots tank.

Was this a costume or everyday attire? I wondered. Or, perhaps, a special occasion?

Is this real life?

Crammed into the T car brought back years of people watching memories. I used to guess what stop each person would get off at. Based on their appearance, their demeanor, their habits, their company. I’m not sure, really, but I almost always got it right.

And I’d make up stories for all these fake people. Where they were coming from and where they would go. What made them anxious and what got them excited. What kind of work they did and what kind of day they were having. I’d imagine it all.

Then they’d get off at the stop I predicted for them, never to be seen or heard from again.

Of course, these fake people weren’t really fake people. It was the lives and personalities I’d invent for them that were fake – just as I imagine others invented lives and personalities for me.

But in the absence of real information – of conversation and experience sharing – these fake portraits are the best we can know about the mass of humanity. About real people.

And while they are fake – deeply subject to our own bias and interpretation – there is something real in them as well.

The man on the train, dark circles under his eyes and paint on his pants, drinking a coffee while adjusting the hardhat attached to his backpack. The woman in scrubs who looks like she’s lost the will to move. The young men and women in suits, adjusting their blazers and trying to look casual. The mothers, the fathers, the tourists, the students, all going about their lives, celebrating achievements and struggling with tragedy.

I will never know the Truth. I will never know them all. But I have stories for each and every one.

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Tea with the First Lady

So, I had tea with Michelle Obama. No, really, this happened:

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I sat next to Congresswoman Lois Frankel (D-FL), who was delighted that this was “a real tea!”  IMG_6239

The tea was part of bus tour led by Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi to promote her economic agenda for women and families: When Women Succeed, America Succeeds.

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About a dozen congresswomen from around the country were in attendance. Congressman Mike Capuano also made an appearance, but he wasn’t there for the photo.

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And, of course, first lady Michelle Obama was there:

IMG_6249 And she was a great speaker.

Like many of the other speakers, she spoke about the important role of women in democracy.

It is not acceptable that women are systematically paid less than men.
It is not acceptable that child care is unaffordable – even out of reach for some families.
It is not acceptable that many people, especially women, do not have paid sick leave.
It is not acceptable that women are underrepresented at the highest levels of power – including elected office.

The world is getting better, but there is more work to be done. So, let’s get it done.

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