Saturday, July 28, 2012

Beauty and Attraction

I was riding the train back to the city yesterday with my friend Dan and we were talking about some of the struggles he was having in reconciling his reading of James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son with the Harlem he was living in this summer. He was wrestling with what historians call "presentism." His struggle was to put aside his own experience and try to reside fully in Baldwin's world of Harlem in the 1950's; he wanted the past to somehow confirm his present understanding.  The issue, then, is one of time.  But is it possible to be "timeless?"

Baldwin is a particularly difficult person to read in this way because he possesses the remarkable capacity to arrive at "timeless truths." But part of the reason he can achieve this is precisely because he is such a good historian.  What he understands deeply is that "people are trapped in history and history is trapped in them." Perhaps along with Toni Morrison and Robert Penn Warren, I think of Baldwin as being one of the great American historians. For example, here he is talking about the role that history plays in our lives,

"For history, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do...In great pain in terror one enters into battle with that historical creation, oneself, and attempts to recreate oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating; one begins the attempt to achieve a level of personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power, and also changes history."

I was telling Dan, who had been a student at CITYterm, that one of the reasons that we had so many authorship seminars during the semester was partly based on my experience of meeting Baldwin when I was in high school. It was a profound moment and one that I unpacked for years because it had so many layers. I already loved the way he wrote--the way he manipulated words and ideas--but I left that seminar with a feeling that I was unable to put into language until much later.

In short, I came to realize that part of the reason I responded to Baldwin the way I did was because he was beautiful. This was not an obvious conclusion because Baldwin was not, by first glance, someone you would say that about. This forced me to re-evaluate what I thought beauty was, and how, in truth, what I had been doing was confusing beauty with attractiveness. So often what is described as being being beautiful is far less than that; it is not something that lifts us up but something more mundane and generic. And, at the same time, "unattractive beauty" slips by without our even noticing.

I have spent many hours reading Baldwin and always with this thought in the back of my head--where did that beauty that I recognized that night come from? Part of the reason, I was telling Dan, as Metro-North rolled into the 125th street station, was because I think he "entered into battle with that historical creation, oneself" and that he did attempt to recreate himself "according to a principle more humane and more liberating."  He used the past in order to be fully present in that personal re-creation. That is no easy feat, and one we might all aspire to.

The effect was, in fact, to be in the presence of beauty. Years after meeting Baldwin I was reading Annie Dillard's meditation Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek and came across this line, "The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is to try to be there." Why I was there that night as seventeen year old high school student, I have no idea, but I have been eternally grateful; it changed my life. And the more I keep the difference between beauty and attraction straight, the more I am there for the performance.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Guerrilla Irony

Years ago, my friend Ted and I were teaching English and coaching lacrosse together every day. And one day we noticed on the lacrosse field the very kind of "irony" we had been teaching that morning in class. Except that it was slightly different--it was fleeting, darting and the person involved had no idea that it had happened. This led us to re-think the idea of irony as a noun--that it was a description of something that one observed and could identify and label.

What if, we thought, irony were not a noun but a verb? What if irony were an active force in the world (perhaps something like the way some people see God as playing a day to day role in their activities)? What if irony were not, as we had been teaching, a rhetorical device or a literary technique? What if deeply understanding irony was not the ability to identify it as verbal, situational, dramatic or cosmic, but to see it happening around one, perhaps even to oneself in the moment?

It would be one thing to help students to identify irony in O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi" where a couple buys each other Christmas gifts by selling exactly what the others gift was to be used for, but it would be another to feel it happening to one while in the moment.  And hence was born the idea of "guerrilla irony." This was irony that was "hit and run;" sometimes it was so fast that the person who was victimized was unaware that they had been "ironized."

But where to look for this irony?  Were there places that it showed itself more clearly? At times it seemed to be everywhere--signage, see below, was particularly visible. A soccer goalie screaming, "Keep calm," and wildly gesticulating which induced hysterical laughter from the rest of the team after the guerrilla irony had been noticed.

But one of best places seemed to be during faculty meetings. There were obvious ones like an ongoing berating of student attentiveness in class while half of us were on-line and some were texting, but the one that continues to haunt me was the cursory discussion of the mission statement and the phrase "encourages a lifelong passion for learning." Following that we spent the majority of the day learning how to use "Blackbaud"--our new computer program that, among other things, records, translates and calculates individual grades for students in classes.

What was striking about the session was how intense and excited people became as they realized all the ways they could manipulate and translate grades--letter grades, check and check pluses, numbers, any kind of symbol--into a single number. I could not help but be reminded of the Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In the poem the Ancient Mariner shoots the albatross that has led them to safety with a cross-bow for no other reason than that he can. It is my favorite example of technology being used simply because you have it (though perhaps one would have hoped Truman had read the poem before he dropped the atomic bomb). And here we were with our new cross-bows that did wonderful tricks, but at what price in terms of people's relationship to their learning? What is the albatross we are wearing, and how deep is this "guerrilla irony?"

Later that fall I ran in to my friend who calculates all the grades looking exhausted and beleaguered and he posited, "maybe this technology isn't quite worth all the effort?"

But today I just got an email that I had mis-calculated some of my grades according to the Blackbaud formula, and I  needed to change some of them.

The lesson seems to be that guerrilla irony is at its most powerful when our personal assumptive world--the one whose bedrock beliefs we do not question or perhaps even recognize and which acts as a way of managing our anxiety--is challenged by a competing assumption that is equally attractive.  In other words, do I need to use this crossbow? Do I really need Blaukbaud to accomplish the school's stated mission?

So, I am wondering, maybe "guerrilla irony" could act as an early warning humor system that our desires for ourselves and our assumptive world are in conflict?

In the vein of the world speaking to us---sometimes called "morphic resonance"--while I was writing this piece, my friend Josina posted this photo on her Facebook page. Guerrilla Irony of the day---for today!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Re-learning in Venice

E.B. White once said that "great writing is re-writing," and I think this is true of the way we learn as well--great learning is re-learning.  I have one friend who relentlessly plans things sequentially in a developmental order--as if that is, in fact, the way we learn. And he is right, we do learn that way. And we try to design curriculum in a way that is orderly and builds from one step to the next.

But there is another kind of learning that is not so much a straight line as a spiral.  In short, we learn the same thing again (and again and again), but in a different context.  It is the switching of the context that makes the learning so powerful and oftentimes gives it the "stickiness" that allows it to become more internalized. Bob Kegan (who I  first encountered with a book called The Evolving Self)  has a theory of transformational learning that sees learning as a series of re-learnings.

Venice, for me, was a startling lesson in re-learning. And it began upon arrival.

As Nicki and I exited the train station I suggested we just get a cab to which Nicki responded, "David, this is Venice; there aren't any cabs." One look at the scene before me was enough to confirm all the "expectation failure" that was happening to me. The first step out into Venice from the train station (I later discovered) has been written about by countless travellers with the same sense of awe that I experienced. Here is William Dean Howells writing in the 1860's, "for I think there can be nothing else in the world so full of glittering and exquistie surprise as that first glimpse of Venice which the traveller catches as he issues from the railway station by night, and looks upon her peerless strangeness...there lies before you for your pleasure the spectacle of singular beauty as no picture can ever show you nor book tell you."  My experience was Howells' and below is a faint photographic attempt to capture what he is describing.

And perhaps there is something to the feeling of awe that prepares you for more intense learning, but, regardless, my time in Venice was a bit like what Proust describes in Remembrance of Things Past where he finds himself "wandering in strange regions like a character in the Arabian Nights. It was  very seldom that I did not, in the course of my wanderings, hit upon some strange and spacious piazza of which no guidebook, no tourist had ever told me." And every night there were throngs of tourists hunched over maps hovering at tiny bridges looking plaintively down winding canals and muttering, "We went over a bridge, right?" As Proust discovered, even if you find a desired location once, it doesn't mean you can do it again. Venice is the "anti-grid" to New York City where everything is set out in quadrants that are easily negotiated. But I found myself being quite adept, I thought, at negotiating my way through the alleys of Venice.

And late one night, at the end of a long day of exploring Venice, we set out for the Plaza de San Marco to see the fireworks for the Festa del Redentore--a Venetian form of Thanksgiving celebrating the end of the plague in 1576. We were tired, but I was confident that I could find the Plaza in about ten minutes from our hotel. But it all went diasterously wrong almost immediately and while we did end up at the fireworks by the Grand Canal I found myself obsessing about having completely blundered my way there and consumed with my wounded pride and with planning a way home--so much so that Nicki suggested we just leave before the finale.

What I realized later is that learning in Venice is rarely sequential, and that the city demands two things of its visitors to really appreciate it.  The first is that you cannot control your journey with a map. Unlike the grid of NYC, Venice demands that you work with a tandem of your rational, map-based self and your intuition. You have to feel your way through the twists and turns, and while you can get better at it, you can never totally master it. I realized this as I asked a waiter at an outdoor cafe for directions one evening to a place that ended up being three minutes away and he was unable to explain how to get there, but he could point me in the general direction. You can use a map to check your actual place in space, but you cannot rely on it to get you where you want to go. Perhaps Venice is some weird quantum world that mimics Heisenberg's uncertainty principle? In Venice paradox reigns--and you had best get used to looking at things a couple of different ways.

The second re-learning can best be summed up by one of my favorite poems--Antonio Machado's XXIX.

Traveller, there is no path.
The path is made by walking.

Traveller, the path is your tracks
And nothing more.
Traveller, there is no path
The path is made by walking.
By walking you make a path
And turning, you look back
At a way you will never tread again
Traveller, there is no road
Only wakes in the sea.

A fitting last line for a place that has no taxis except the ones you find on the water.

So, above is a picture I took of the fireworks from the familiar piazza we had arrived at on our way back to the hotel.  And here is a You Tube link that will give you a little sense of what the Festa del Redentore looked like from the Grand Canal. A great and painful re-learning.