23 April 2015

On Retirement (Not!)

It is that time of year. (I am interested to what the word ‘it’ refers in a sentence such as the previous. Obviously, the word addresses the season, or the month to which the earth in its spin has arrived.  But the pronoun here doesn’t seem to have any antecedent, even if I consider that its antecedent, in fact, follows it. And so I think that ‘it’ in sentences such as the one with which I started this piece, refers more to my state of mind. “It” refers to whatever flows through my consciousness as a result of the specific time of the year—in this case, Spring and the approaching end of another semester and academic year on campus.) And though ends of the year always trouble me, this year in particular has caused me the experience of angst.
    Certainly, that time of life has arrived. For almost with whom I speak—even sometimes with myself—the conversation begins with the question, “When are you going to retire?” or “Are you retiring this year?” At this very moment the University campus is abuzz with the offer of a buy-out for a select group of qualified staff who would be willing to allow their present positions to be purchased for a specific quantity of monies (not all that much, actually, to my mind), and be terminated and head off in relative quiet into retirement.
      The easy question asks in retirement from what one would retire, and the easy answer is that retirement would be from a position at the University: no more teacher, no more books, no more student’s dirty looks. More, there would be no more meetings required to attend, no more involvement with the distasteful politics that emanate from the guardians of the educational silos and protected disciplines, and no further entrapment in the vines heavy with sour grapes. In the latter states there is something appealing, no doubt, to these offers. But I often (though not always) enjoy the students’ looks, and I have learned over the years somehow to avoid these academic ensnarements, or at least to find some way to distract myself from their tedium. I love the classroom, obviously, for I have chosen to spend my life in them.  
     Perhaps I am offended by the question of the presumption that my age demands that I consider retirement. I am, certainly, of retirement age. That is, my legal standard I have lived sufficient years to cease the obligation of going to work. The classroom is effort but I am lucky to say here that it has rarely been work. Perhaps I take umbrage at the idea that I have become (have always been?) ineffective and that retirement would relieve the classroom of what some might consider one more bad teacher. I resist the idea that I am tired, though at the end of a day and a week, well, I am fatigued, but whether the quantity of that fatigue exceeds qualitatively the fatigue I experienced when I was young (and in my prime!), I sincerely doubt.  Utah Phillips sings the plaint of another retiree,
He used up my labor, he used up my time
He plundered my body and squandered my mind
Then he gave me a pension, some handouts and wine
And told me I'm all used up
I am no longer a new pretty face, but I do not experience exhaustion. No, I am hardly used up: indeed, my curiosity continues to inspire my intellectual movement and I sense there will never be enough time; the materials pile up about me and I am constantly in the market for another desk and another bookshelf. I continue to haunt the book stores and the Reviews of Books that arrive regularly to my mailbox. I suppose more than a fear of not having a place to go, there is no other place I’d rather be than in the classroom. I have spoken with my dearest that it would be nice to have the option, but the reality remains that I am not finished and not ready (or prepared?) for retirement.

     And I will try to avoid those conversations that begin with the question, “Are you going to retire?” Arlo Guthrie once gave me the question I prefer, “Did you think of anything on down the line.” Hell, yeah!,

13 April 2015


For her own pleasures, Emma Woodhouse has consistently led poor Harriet Smith down false, illusory paths of love and wedded domesticity. First Emma had insisted that Robert Martin, a young, educated and respectable farmer, was not good enough for Harriet, and at Emma’s insistence, Harriet refused the suitor’s proposal. Next, Emma convinced Harriet that Mr. Elton, the local vicar, had become enamored of her and a proposal from him was imminent. Alas, it was to Emma that Mr. Elton proposed, and shocked and even somewhat appalled, she turned him soundly and roundly down. (Mr. Elton then left town in a huff only to return several weeks later engaged to a very obnoxious, but very wealthy lady). Harriet was left bereft. To Harriet’s rescue apparently arrives Frank Churchill who saves Harriet from an assault by a band of gypsies; Harriet takes his action as a sign of his affection for her. Emma had earlier thought herself enamored of this very Frank, and she experiences just a bit of jealousy as a result of Harriet’s assumption of Frank’s intentions.  Emma is relieved to know that she doesn’t in fact desire Frank, but Harriet . . . well, as it happens, Frank has been secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax, and poor Harriet seems again to have suffered rejection.  Learning that Frank has been already romantically committed, Emma expresses heartfelt (?) sympathy for Harriet’s loss, but the latter confides to Emma that indeed, she was not at all disappointed because Mr. Knightley (who has served throughout her life as Emma’s companion and conscience) has shown Harriet some attention, and Harriet expects that Mr. Knightley will make her a marriage proposal. At this news Emma suffers a strong bout of jealousy, realizing that she, indeed, has always imagined that Mr. Knightley, somewhat older (37 years old to Emma’s 20 years) would remain forever unmarried and her intimate, albeit platonic companion. Mr. Knightley returns from London, and just when Emma anticipates his announcement of his engagement to Harriet, and announces to Emma his love for her.
     But thrilled as she must be, Emma experiences considerable guilt over this latest disappointment to befall Harriet, and in order to relieve her own guilt, Emma sends Harriet to her sister and brother-in-law’s home in London so as to put Harriet at great distance from Emma and ease Emma’s disquiet.
     And the narrator writes, “Now Emma could, indeed, enjoy Mr. Knightley’s visits; now she could talk and she could listen with true happiness, unchecked by that sense of injustice, of guilt, of something more painful which had haunted her when remembering how disappointed a heart very near her, how much might at that moment, and at a little distance, be enduring by the feeling which she had led astray herself.”  And here is my question: Emma acknowledges her responsibility for the injustice of her actions suffered on Harriet by Emma’s insensitivity, even as Emma experiences inestimable guilt as a result of her vain and foolish actions. I appreciate Emma’s recognition of the consequences of her gross selfishness and solipsistic behavior on Harriet: Emma has played matchmaker for her own egotistic delights without consideration for any consequences her actions might have on others—and especially on Harriet.  Emma sought pleasure alone for Emma alone. Her sense of injustice and guilt are well deserved. And I am wondering what can be meant by that  ‘something more painful’ which Emma suffers. And I think that Emma here experiences for once—for the first time in her very privileged and egocentric life—some doubt about the integrity of her self; some concern that whatever pride she had once felt, whatever opinions she had held and of which she had boasted regarding the goodness of her character might not be justified; that her faith in the genuineness of her own essential self is questionable. The pain might derive from the realization that her existence has been based on a Winnicottian false self. She is not—has never been—what she has claimed to be to herself and others. Emma experiences here, not a failure of faith, but a loss of the security of the very ground on which she once felt secure;, the sense of a dangerous vertigo. Emma wonders not merely who she is now, but who has she ever been? The pains of guilt can be eventually relieved, and the wrongs of injustice inflicted may be eventually righted, but how to gain back a lost sense of a self that might have never been ever known? I think this latter might be the identity of that ‘something more painful.’

09 April 2015

Aging Thoughts

For some aging occurs physically: more joint pains, more stiffness in rising from chairs and sofas, less vigor when climbing stairs. I speak from some experience. Aging also appears physically in the drying of skin—the parchment-like appearance of the skin on my legs and arms, the sun spots and skin discolorations that record the history of the various vain sunburning episodes at the parks and beaches of my youth. 
     There are other physical signs of aging: beards that gray, waistlines that expand and sag, eyes that pop up over expanding and darkening bags. There is more but the list begins to depress me.
     However, there are also some milestones in time that mark my aging, and the two occur this year almost simultaneously. My older daughter turns 26 years of age and is now no longer covered by my health insurance. Notice of this termination came in yesterday's mail. This event marks one more move forward in her independence and one less care that I must and can proffer. Now, I can only worry but do little and hope that her soon-to-occur employment provides a wonderful health care option or that the Affordable Care Act remains intact. I sense a declension in my sense of being a father.
     And then the younger daughter turns 21 years of age and becomes an adult in the eyes of at least the bars. This, too, marks a move towards her independence and one more item about which I can worry. And still, how am I less the father?
     And so this aging process proceeds physically limb by limb, and emotionally neuroses by neuroses. I’m thinking of Joni Mitchell’s composition, “Song to Aging Children”: This is one.

27 March 2015

Anne Frank

There was a play last evening. My dear friend and colleague, Tami, directed a performance of the play And then they came for me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank. The play represents an account of the life of Eva Schloss and her family during the Holocaust. Schloss and her mother survived Birkenau, but her father and brother died on the forced march from Auschwitz days before its liberation. Eva became (by default and in Anne Frank’s absence) Anne’s stepsister—after the war Schloss’s mother married Otto Frank, the only member of that family to survive the Nazi horror.  Anne is a Jewish icon of no less prominence I think than Moses. Her diary has been and will continue to be read by millions of people speaking myriad tongues; she is the subject of countless academic and [inspirational] papers. She figures prominently as trope in Philip Roth’s novel, The Ghost Writer, in which Nathan Zuckerman fantasizes that the girl sleeping upstairs at the home of his hero is Anne Frank, and that they fall in love and he brings her home to his parents. “Look Mom, I have found the perfect Jewish girl.” What parent could criticize this choice for a bride? Ellen Feldman’s novel, The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank is an account of Peter Van Pels based on his relationship with Anne gleaned from the diaries, and speculating on the life he might have lived had he survived the camps. Anne is in the public eye continuously.
Chapter 19 of Deuteronomy begins with the ritual of the red heifer (a chukkat—a commandment without explanation or even rationale), and then the following chapters of the weekly portion tells the story of the failure of Moses, Aaron and Miriam to gain entrance to the Promised Land after their forty years of wandering. After all of those years in the wilderness—forty years— after all that they had suffered and endured, after all that time wandering, and after all that they had accomplished, Miriam, and Aaron and Moses are denied access to the Promised Land. First Miriam dies, and then Moses and Aaron are told that neither of them will be permitted to enter Israel. It is a long way to go, I think, without ever arriving. The Grateful Dead seem to speak to the experience of Moses, Aaron and Miriam when they sing, “Such a long, long time to be gone and a short time to be there.” Though we never hear Moses and Aaron and Miriam ever wonder when they are going to be there, they at least know that they are going somewhere. But to have traveled almost to the destination and then to be denied access to it, well, that just seems too ironic. I wonder how one defines a life that never arrives at a destination.  At the end of their lives, Moses, Miriam and Aaron will not sit comfortably by the pool and reminisce nostalgically about their lives; they will not say, ‘Well, it was tough going, but now, look, it was worth the trouble.” Indeed, only Aaron has anyone to pass things to—after his death, Aaron’s son, Eleazar, assumes the sacred vestments and the role of high priest. But, Miriam and Moses not only have no one to pass things on to, they have nothing to pass on. These three have struggled for the past forty years—Aaron and Miriam had never even lived in the palace and been raised as royalty¾and now, having come almost to the end, they are denied resolution, denied completion, denied final satisfaction. How can they answer to their lives?
            Robert Pirsig wrote that it was the sides of the mountain that sustained life, but that it was the peak that defined the sides. There must be some idea of an end to define the means. Ends do change, and means change along with the change of ends, but means and ends exist in a relationship. It is a cliché to say it is not the destination but the journey that is important. I think it is a cliché because unless we are headed somewhere, unless there is a destination, a peak to define the travels, well, then there is no journey but only aimless wandering. Perhaps it was this that led the people wandering in the wilderness to grumbling: oh, they might have known they were headed towards the Promised Land, but as do children, they immediately wanted to know “Are we almost there?” And they complained, “We’re hungry!” “I’m thirsty!” “Are we there yet?” “I have to go to the bathroom!” A failed journey is a journey that doesn’t arrive at a destination; not to arrive at the destination is to remain on a journey, but if you aren’t headed anywhere, then all the wandering is not a journey—it is just aimless wandering. For the hoboes, for Kerouac and the Beats, for the hippies of the 1960s, it wasn’t aimless wandering in which they engaged; it was the experience of the road. But after four hundred years of slavery, well, perhaps the Israelites could be excused for their abhorrence of the road and with their impatience to arrive. Aren’t we there yet?         
            I think often of Anne Frank, who, too, did not enter any promised land after spending twenty five months of wandering, albeit, in the sedentary confines of the Secret Annex. After 25 months in the Secret Annex, living a life in conditions so horrific that they exceed my capacity to comprehend, her life ended of typhus at Bergen-Belsen. We turn the page of the diary—ah, but we know the destination here—we read, “Anne’s diary ends here.” What was all of her suffering for, I asked myself. The incredible, almost inhuman discomfort, the perpetual terror of being discovered, the experience of an excruciating, horrible claustrophobia defies my ability to conceptualize it. That hiding which was supposed to be a journey, but where did it lead? What was it for? Only to exit into the stench of the camps and the horrible issue of smoke from the chimneys of the crematoria. When I consider Anne, my grief overwhelms me. How to answer for the twenty-five months journey in the Secret Annex? For what purpose? I remain dumb.

20 March 2015

Thinking aloud

Christopher Bollas defines the self not as a unitary entity but as a capacity: self is the capability of perceiving the self.  In this formulation, self becomes process. My self is unknowable but can only be experienced. Self cannot be immutable else what’s a heaven for? Were the self to be inflexible it would suffer unending frustration as the external world forever alters and education would be pointless. The same actions will rarely produce the same result.  In the encounter with objects ‘I’ becomes the question: who am I? what is that? who is that? what next? etc. Bollas states, “as we move through our life we do so as a personality, a unique set of evolving theories generating insights and new perspectives, but meeting up with experience that turns our self as theory increasing sets of questions.” The self in this sense is all possibility; in reflection self becomes but is never fully known. In reflection I become me, but the me I become is then a new theoretical construct; as the me moves the intellect raises new questions that continues to form the self that the intellect perceives. New questions arise from the theory.
     I have in the past considered that our Desire is unknowable, and we can know only its satisfactions: to know our desire would reduce it to mere appetite. I am not sure I would equate Desire to self, but perhaps that is a direction into which I am heading. Our desire, perhaps, is “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower/That drives my green age . . .” Our experience is driven (?) by what Bollas refers to as ‘our idiom’: “the aesthetic of being that is driven by an urge for its articulation, its theory of form, by selecting and using objects so as to give [those objects] form.” I equate that ‘idiom’ with the force that drives the flower and that might be my Desire. That idiom is the force in me that demands expression, that requires some form and structure in order to be realized, and that seeks out in the world for those objects (or it makes such objects of that which it finds) with which I can play- establish relations and use that become psychic relations as well. I think the world contains illimitable objects for my use. Idiom starts as theory and becomes experience that develops new theory that inspires new experience. Bollas rhetorically asks that if an individual has “an appreciative sense of the self’s experiences, isn’t it likely that the organizer of such inner constellations will be unconsciously aware of introspective delight,” and continue to enjoy reflection and the pursuit of insight. Wouldn’t the pleasure of perceiving the self (and therefore of having a self) offer unconscious pleasure and inspire continuance. Objects chosen from the influences of my idiom possess their own integral form, and my use of them gives to those objects idiosyncratic form that leads to delight. I can go on. I want to go on. Going on is the pleasure. Where once was id—Desire—now there are objects. Bollas says that, “In play the subject releases the idiom of himself to the field of objects, where he is then transformed by the structure of that experience, and will bear the history of that encounter in the unconscious.” Thus, to be a character (not equivalent to being the self) is to “enjoy the risk of being processed by the object.” Since my engagement with actual objects is limited by space and time, and since I can carry about only my psychic relations to the objects to which I relate, then I understand my self when I recognize my participation in the world of objects.
      One of the places where I release my idiom into he world of objects is in writing. As I sit here trying to make sense of what is above I am content. And when I read books (not just any books, however, only ones to which my idiom leads me—and that idiom comes from somewhere—I am at play.

10 March 2015

Mithridates, he died old

I don’t remember in whose class exactly I first read the poetry of A.E. Housman, but I am looking now at the text that Henry Taylor assigned in the course Modern Poetry, and many of the poems by Housman are dotted and so I assume that mark means that they were assigned and that I must have read them, because I did read them all though I learned a few.
            I’m looking specifically at the poem “Terence, This is Stupid Stuff,” one of the poems I certainly learned. Terence, I believe, is the poet, and his friends berate him for the dolorous, depressing views of life expressed in his poetry: “It gives a chap a belly-ache” they moan! Pipe us a tune to dance to, Terence, and cease singing these dismal bits of poetry that are so sad that they even killed the cow to whom you first chanted them!
            But Terence responds: If is good cheer you want, friends, there are sources more appropriate than poetry, and liquor seems to Terence the most effective antidote to depression and despair.
            Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink
            For fellows whom it hurts to think:
            Look into the pewter pot/
            To see the world as the world’s not.
Inebriated beyond consciousness, fallen drunk along the road, the world appears pleasant and hospitable until, alas, he awakens from his drunken stupor and realizes that the tale was all a lie: “The world, it was the old world yet,/I was I, my things were wet . . .” And so will begin another day. Some years later Samuel Beckett will have Pozzo pronounce something similar: “But¾but behind this veil of gentleness and peace night is charging and will burst upon us pop! Like that! just when we least expect it. That’s how it is on this bitch of an earth.”
            Terence advises his friends that though the world has much good, it possesses, in fact, much less good than ill, and that they would do well to live their life expecting and preparing for that ill rather than hoping for and awaiting the good. Of his poetry he cautions his friends, that “Tis true, the stuff I bring for sale/Is not so brisk a brew as ale . . . If the smack is sour, The better for the embittered hour.” We toughen ourselves with small doses of the bitter that we be not destroyed by it when it inevitably assails us! There was a king in the East, Terence says, who knew how easy it was to poison the food upon which the king would feast, and so each day with each meal the king would add a small portion of “all that springs to birth/From the many-venomed earth.” And as “they” added arsenic to his meat and strychnine to his cup, his would-be assassins sat aghast at the failure of their poisons to effect any harm at all. Indeed, they “shook to see him drink it up.” The king had made himself immune to the poisons by imbibing a bit of them every day. “I will tell the tale I’m told,” Terence says, “Mithridates, he died old.”
            I was sitting in my spin class this morning and Kathy was yelling at me to increase my pace by five RPMs and to raise my Watts by twenty percent, and was saying something about the lessons of adversity and pain, and I, weary and out of breath, spun my legs as fast (or as slow) as I could manage, and all I could think to say was that Mithridates, he died old. I pedaled harder, but only hard enough to inure me to the embitterment I would face outside. You see, I read the news today, oh boy!