Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Compulsive Higher Education

In the fine TV movie of "A Dance to the Music of Time," set in the 1930s, an Oxford don asks a new student, "Are you happy?"

He replies that he is not, that too many students are there to drink and have fun. Some things never change.  I can't imagine professors today asking such a question of a college freshman, in part because they already know, in most cases, what the answer is. They can tell by looking at their bored, passive faces or reading their lifeless essays.

They know what I observed for years dealing with thousands of new students at a large state university: that most of the freshman are there because it is expected--by their parents, their past teachers, their future employers, and their peers.  Not going to college (a four-year, preferably residential school) is not cool. It is supposed to be the dream world at the end of twelve years of compulsive education.

Frank Bruni in a recent NYTimes column  (9-3-17) talks about the loneliness of many new students at universities and their tendency to drink in order to forget.  He says what many of us know: that college is over-sold to students. From elementary school on, it seems, studying hard and getting good grades will mean acceptance at a good university, which will please the family and mean a chance at a good job--along with bragging rights by all involved.  And dropping out to learn about life, to see the world, to learn a trade is looked down upon.

This results in compulsive higher education. How often I have looked at the faces of freshmen who have come with high expectations having little to do with studying. In fact, they don't read much, or enjoy the life of the mind, probably because it's unfamiliar to them.

To return to Bruni's column: he says college in America isn't merely oversold to teenagers as a rite of passage. "It's a gaudily painted promise. The time of their lives!  The disparity between myth and reality stuns many of them, and various facets of media today--from social media to a secondary school narrative that frames admission to college as the end of all worry--worsen the impact."

No wonder there is too much drinking, some drugs, too many parties, reckless behavior at fraternity or sorority houses and too much depression.

A four-year college education is not for everyone, nor is it a fundamental human right. It is for those who have a career goal that requires the advanced study that our fine universities and colleges provide.

I am glad to see more and more young people taking a gap year to learn a bit about life outside the classroom. I would like to see more high school counselors promote technical programs that don't require a four-year degree--and more parents encouraging their kids to gain some life experience rather than landing, alone, in a college lecture hall with 450 other students, most of them prepared since early childhood for the great "college experience," which sometimes isn't so great.

Advice to parents: check out the drop-out rate at the colleges your kids plan to attend and explore some of the reasons for these drop outs.  Such data is not widely advertised.

Friday, September 1, 2017

How real is the past?

I visited my 96-year-old friend Mary last week. Although her bones are wobbly, she has lost none of her faculties. Her long-term memory is especially alive with stories of World War II and life on Long Island 60 years ago, and she comes alive in telling these stories.  She finds joy in "re-living the past" without being trapped by guilt or needing to re-hash old grievances.

When she said, "the past is not over and done with," I thought of William Faulkner's famous statement: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."
This seems to mean that the present is unreal, that "right now" is always becoming the past and so does not exist.

I will come back to that. After seeing Mary, I happened to find a cache of old family pictures and high school memorabilia; and before finding a new home for them, found myself being pulled back more than 50 years, thinking of friends as they were then and convincing myself, for a time, that they were as alive to me--and as real--as the images of long-gone actors on the screen, which deceive us into thinking they are still alive.

It almost like the delusion that doomed the tragic protagonist in The Great Gatsby, who was convinced he could repeat the past, that somehow he could recapture Daisy as she once was, as if the intervening years had not occurred, as if he could extend his remembered past happiness into the present.  Poor Gatsby.

Someone said that the past is always a work in progress. I think of this often when I read biographies that re-visit familiar figures from the past and bring them "to life."  What is happening, of course, is that the reader (like the historian) is re-interpreting through the imagination a new version of what the past might have been.  Augustine, back in the 4th century, saw in his reflections on time in the Confessions, that memory and imagination are related, almost interchangeable.

All our experiences are filtered through remembered events as they become part of our past.  In saying this, I am neglecting my spiritual conviction, often called mindfulness, that tells us that only the present moment is real. God, Ultimate Reality, is revealed to Moses as "I AM." 

The contemplative mind, whether following Christian or Buddhist practice, pushes aside the past, which is as unreal as the future; in this way only the present moment, fleeting as it is, can give us access to the kind of timeless present found in meditation--and evoked by T. S. Eliot in his later poetry.

Many poets have sought those timeless moments "in and out of time" that hint at eternity, just as mystics try to find words for the inexpressible moments of union with the divine.  Great poets are mystics in the sense that, for them, past events, recalled by the memory and enhanced by imagination, live on in the mind and in their art, which is impervious to time.

So I think that it is to great writers, especially poets, that we must turn for a proper response to Faulkner's idea of the past, which I think of as a work in progress; it often tries to snare us into thinking that it's real.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Trumpism: Some benefits

Like many people disgusted by the events of the past ten days, when Trump shocked the world by failing to exert basic moral leadership following the neo-Nazi march in Virginia, I have been turning away from the news for relief.

Too much news, like too much reality, can be overwhelming.  Yet the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, long known for sarcastic put-downs, has shown in her column today why the era of Donald Trump may have ushered in a new golden age of journalism.

Dowd descended from the pedestal she has carefully constructed over the years out of wit and gossip and scorn and produced a piece of wisdom: she sees good coming out of evil (and the Trump administration, with its disregard for the common good in health, the environment, civil rights, etc., has been vicious and vile).  I quote her column:

"There will be a lot of pain while this president is in office and the clock will turn back on many things. But we will come out stronger, once this last shriek of white supremacy and grievance and fear of the future is out of the system. Every day, President Trump teaches us what values we cherish--and they're the opposite of his."

If Dowd is right, as I would hope she is, we are beginning to have a much-needed discussion of racism and diversity in America, just as we are already seeing a rise in a resistance movement to the worst instincts of the Trump administration.  We are seeing politicians and others on both sides distance themselves from his bigotry, lies, and ignorance.

The issue goes beyond race but involves the lesson of the civil rights movement: that non-violence in the long run is more effective than violent protests. It attracts more people and will force the extreme alt-right white nationalists (for whom Trump is an icon) into the shadows.

This will take time; it will require patience, courage, and the wisdom Maureen Dowd shows in taking the long view of the current madness.

It is encouraging to realize that something good will eventually come out of the current disaster.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Escaping into Films

My wife and I tend to watch a lot of movies--too many, in fact. Perhaps we are tired at the end of the day or, lately, so weary of the horror that is the Trump presidency that we eagerly escape into the alternate reality of film since TV offers so little. Or blame Netflix, which makes it all possible.

So instead of venting my feelings about the latest racist outrage in Virginia, and the response, I savor memories of three striking films we saw this week, none of them mainstream Hollywood offerings.

The most memorable is a 2009 Italian movie with a perplexing title: THE MAN WHO WILL COME, directed and written by Giorgio Diritti. If I had known that his story was based on the massacre of 770 innocent villagers in central Italy in 1944 (the Marzabotto Massacre), I probably would not have ordered it, but the violence is offset and beautifully counterbalanced by the way the film unfolds: quietly, through the eyes of a beautiful little girl who seems fearless as she watches Nazis kill her family members and neighbors. She retains a hope that the baby brother being born will save her from the trauma of having lost an earlier brother, which caused her to become mute.  As a result, the film has a silence enhanced by a lack of soundtrack and by a remarkably understated style as one scene of village life unfolds after another.  The sense we are given is that life is a balance of good and evil, of violence and compassion; above all, of redemptive love, which keeps little Martina going and turns her into a little mother-figure caring for her infant brother. The style of the director, who gives us impressions of life in war-torn Italy, somehow minimizes the impact of the war and death and makes the dialogue almost unnecessary. 

THE PROMISE is a 2016 film of artistry and power about the Armenian genocide a hundred years ago, but the main focus is on the love triangle between an Armenian doctor, his lover, and the American reporter who also loves her. The cast in this long movie is strong, the impact unforgettable, as, once again, the theme of love and war is treated with artistry and originality.

Finally, another tale of wartime Europe but with an upbeat ending.  THE EXCEPTION concerns the exile of the aged German Kaiser (Christopher Plummer) in Holland in 1940, which is given a fanciful treatment and becomes secondary to the love story between a Jewish spy and the SS captain she loves and whom we come to like as a human being.

As someone said, the past is always a work in progress. And art of this type can give us an intelligent escape from present reality.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Names without limits

As new parents become more and more creative with naming their infants, some relying on familiar names while others inventing ones they like and still others borrowing famous ones, I wonder, should there be some guidelines on what is acceptable? If so, how do we reconcile freedom of choice with the specter of Big Brother?

What is to prevent a parent from naming his son Adolf Hitler Jones or Lee Harvey Oswald Smith?  Is it fair to the child to be saddled with such a name?  Or wacky names like Spaghetti, States Rights, and Kyrie (seen recently in the media)?

The French, always careful to preserve their heritage in language and culture, have long legislated such things, to the horror of many Americans. Apparently, the practice goes back to the French Revolution, when children where given political names (Rights of Man, etc.), leading Napoleon in 1803 to declare that French babies could only be named after the saints; this was later amended to included classical and historical names (Hercule, Diana, etc.). This remained in effect until 1966, when the laws were relaxed a bit.

But, as Lauren Collins reports in the current New Yorker, a government registrar in France today is required to accept any name (mon Dieu!) EXCEPT one that might not been in the child's best interest, in which case the naming is referring to a magistrate from the Department of Justice.   Recent rulings include such statements:  Fanciful, ridiculous names are likely to create difficulties and embarrassments for the child. So the government has suppressed such names as Happy, Nutella, and Prince-William, which must be replaced by names like Roger or Raymond.

Many here, in the land of individualism, where the "nanny state" is loathed, are likely to storm the equivalent of the Bastille and file suit, demanding their rights to use whatever name they conjure up from films, books, or their own imaginations for any new baby.

I do pity the child sometimes, who must, at age 21 or so, go through the legal process of changing Reality Game Johnson or Barefoot Soles to something more mainstream. But, if everyone had a Tom, Dick, or Jane kind of name, how bland the world would be.  So I'm all for freedom while still  admiring the standards maintained by the French, even if they seem like a relic of another age.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Terror, anxiety, and grace

I have saved an interview with actor Andrew Garfield from the magazine America (January 2017) by Brendan Busse because it deals with something that is part of my life and something I have written about: anxiety.

Garfield is one of the many performers I have read about (Barbra Streisand, among them) whose stage-fright has often prevented their going on stage.  The fear of being seen and watched and judged has affected me, not on the stage but in more ordinary circumstances I won't go into.

What's interesting is how Garfield, on the verge of suicide while preparing for a Shakespeare performance in London a few years ago, felt hopeless. "I feel like I'm going to die, " he said.  He had never before felt such terror or absolute dread at the idea of revealing himself.

People who hate to give public speeches can understand this common phobia.

To calm himself, he took at walk and encountered a street singer with a mediocre voice singing Don MacLean's "Vincent." Garfield remembers the imperfection of the performance:  "If that guy had thought he had nothing to offer and told himself he was not ready to perform in public, I would not have been given what I needed."

He needed a bit of outside inspiration, and it came from that song, which he considers a gift from God, just as his despair came as a moment of grace, a sign that he had to suffer before seeing that his depression was a kind of prayer, a cry for help.

Garfield then began to cry, feeling that God was telling him, "You think if you go on stage, you're going to die. But actually if you don't, you're doing to die."  And so he went on to this and other performances, always aware of the tension between the deep fear of being seen and the deep need of this.

As several self-help books tell us, feel the fear and carry on anyway.  Maybe your inner self will experience a moment of grace, as Garfield did,
when your inner self moves you from despair to participation in life.

A writer who has analyzed (in his book "Monkey Mind") his own acute anxiety is Daniel Smith, who reminds us of the universality of fear, an essential emotion essential for a full experience of life. Acute anxiety and terror are also common and can, he says, be dealt with despite their daily horrors and discomforts (by exercise, meditation, counseling, medication perhaps).

Before such anxiety leads to despair, he says, we must fight it. Keeping up the daily fight, I would add, is a holy struggle. It can be a form of prayer, a reaching out to the God outside us.  

Monday, July 10, 2017

The enigma of desire in a fine novel

I am always attracted to writers whose style, whose attention to sentences, inspires me to do better work or to return, revived, to an old draft of a story.

Such is the case with The Enigma Variations by Andre Aciman. I wasn't sure if I wanted to read a novel about a bisexual man or perhaps more accurately a man who at various stages of his life goes from a schoolboy crush to lust and jealousy with people of each sex--along with regret, fear, sadness, and worry and all the emotions that make sexuality so complicated.

But I am glad I stayed with it. I must confess to having been intrigued by the title, an allusion to Elgar's piece of music, and even more to the multiculturally rich background of the author: He was born in Alexandria,Egypt of Turkish-Jewish parents who spoke French at home and introduced their son to Greek, English and Italian, which he then perfected when the family moved to Rome.  Then as an adult, Aciman came to America, to Harvard to study comparative literature, which he now teaches in New York City.

It is no surprise to learn from this latest of his books that he is an expert on Proust: the intense, closely observed and analyzed states of feeling that become almost claustrophobic as we follow a man named Paul at various stages of his life.

The recurring theme of the five interlocking stories that comprise this novel is one of memory and desire, as our narrator takes us deeply into his mind and soul as he moves from a gay to a straight experience and back again, suggesting that these terms and categories are useless in describing, like Shakespeare's sonnets, all the emotions associated with lust and longing, with men and women,with time and regret, with joy and sadness.

Aciman, a master of subtly described arousal, shows us that all of us are various people at various points in our life.

In an elegant style that is almost hypnotic, Aciman has crafted a very original type of novel analyzing in agonizing detail what being in love is like, from various perspectives. It is also, my students will be happy to learn, full of those long sentences that I admire and urge upon them.

So, even if you at first find that the desire analyzed here turns you off, you will find the tone poetic--wistful and melancholy--and the style and the central character memorable.