Sunday, June 30, 2013

Two Hearts on Canvas

A mysterious painting has drawn me here every day.  I gaze upon it and let my thoughts wonder.  The image on the canvas is foreboding, but I don’t think I’m alone in experiencing the almost insufferable sense of loneliness that it conveys.  This latter thought strangely comforts me.
 
I’ve been coming to this art gallery for nearly a week now.  At first I just sort of wandered around aimlessly, initially more interested in the sculptures than the engravings and paintings.  Full disclosure: I know very little about art, but I needed some kind of inspiration and figured a visit to the gallery would get me out of my funk.  Things haven’t been so great for me these days.  My life is in a state of flux and I feel like I’m swimming in a sea of self-doubt.  Last month I was essentially laid off from my job of fourteen years, though I was the last person at work to know.  I have other issues in my life right now that I don’t care to share.  Well, if you must know, I’m estranged from my parents and even before the layoff I’d been experiencing an “existential crisis,” if I can coin that outmoded phrase.  So viewing art, and one painting in particular, has been my only outlet and a diversion from my problems.
 
The artist managed to create two hearts in one crimson brushstroke and set it against a wispy, swirling grey background.  She called her work simply “A Brushstroke,” probably to make it absolutely clear that she pulled this image off with one remarkable move of the hand and wrist.  The artistry and simplicity of this canvas captured my imagination, admittedly not at the first viewing.  I kept coming back to this painting, as it resonated with my memories and life experience.
 
Maybe something else brings me here almost every day.  As I stood gazing at this painting on my second visit to the gallery, I became aware of a woman sitting on an ottoman near the wall opposite the framed picture.  She let me know with a polite clearing of her throat that I had been obstructing her view.  I moved to the left and offered an apology with my body language.  She had been writing or etching something into a pad of paper, so I assumed she was an art student.  Why was she so interested in this painting too?

You might find it odd that we didn’t interact.  I mean, why should we?  We’re complete strangers.   We exchanged courteous smiles as she got up to leave the gallery an hour later.  I thought I saw deep solitude in her eyes, but I later surmised that I was looking at my reflection mirrored back to me.  The next day, however, we spoke.  She asked me what I thought of the painting.  She said she’s getting a masters in art therapy and studying the effect that art can have on a person’s disposition.  This painting, she conceded in perhaps an unguarded moment, had captivated her but she didn't know why.  I told her I would tell her what I think over coffee at the diner.  We stepped outside and walked across a rain-soaked street under an overcast sky.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Bodhisattva

As you can well imagine, I occasionally take the “slings and arrows” of outrageous criticism for my views.  If I’m doing my job on this blog, you won’t find many partisan discussions of controversial issues that plague our bipolar political culture; however, I’m not averse to making a stand on certain issues that are important to me.  Most of my readers understandably agree with me, but there are a few contrarians out there.  The time has come to address my critics.  For instance, a colleague, in response to one of my blogs, asked me if I think of myself as some kind of enlightened one who dismisses other viewpoints.  Well, as it turns out, I am an enlightened one.  When I say enlightened, I mean this in a literal and technical sense.  You see, when I wore a younger man’s shoes, I gave up everything, all my possessions, including the shoes, and traveled to a remote Hindu monastery in the Himalayas to find wisdom and solace in this life.  I studied under some of the great Hindu masters of the past two generations.  I really don’t want to brag, but I would be remiss not to mention my discipleship under Swami Chandrasekharan Aranya who guided me toward sannyasa via the Dashanami Sampradaya tradition.  And I don’t mean to drop names here, but I studied under Mageshkumar and Jagmohan Taranjit Balakrishnan.   Anyway, I was able to renounce all material possessions and earthly desires.  Through a strict regimen of rice and spiritual meditation, I emptied myself of the self, achieved a blissful state of detachment from the world, and reached the pinnacle of complete humility.  I guess what I’m saying is that my views aren’t so much opinions as they are oracles of wisdom, sagacious sayings that few would dispute if they too were enlightened (my italics).

Monday, June 24, 2013

Forgiving and Negotiating with Evil: Memoirs of the Rwandan Genocide (2/2)

This summer and fall I’ll have students read Paul Rusesabagina’s autobiography for the Rwanda portion of my course.  He hid Tutsis at the Hotel Mille Collines where he served as hotel manager.  His heroism became the inspiration for the movie Hotel Rwanda.  The insights I gained from this book were pleasantly surprising.  Rusesabagina’s survival and his protection of over 1,200 people depended on his ability to negotiate.  The power of words got him through this difficult ordeal, though it didn’t hurt to have other negotiating “tools” at his disposal, such as alcohol and money.  His earlier training as a pastor had helped sharpen his communication skills.  Above all, Rusesabagina possessed innate political savvy.  He knew how to size up a person and how far he could go in negotiation.  He was a shrewd observer of poolside politics.  “Around this small square of water is where the real business of the Mille Collines is conducted.”  He learned how to use charm and work through the unspoken patronage system that governs relationships and grants favors.  This experience provided a valuable education and came into use during the genocide.

Rwanda was a multilateral failure, and Rusesabagina calls it like he sees it.  The UN was “worse than useless.”  Indeed, any credible book on the Rwandan genocide is essentially an indictment of UN peacekeeping missions.  The author doesn’t even spare General Romeo Dallaire, the UN commander on the ground, who was one of the few third-party officials trying to stop the killing and protect the innocents.  He didn’t do enough, writes Rusesabagina.  While he likes Dallaire on a personal level and acknowledges the Canadian’s efforts, Rusesabagina thinks he should have disobeyed orders from his UN higher-ups in New York and intervened in the conflict.  “At the very least it would have forced the UN to beef up its peacekeeping force and send us real fighters instead of inept draftees from nations who seemed more interested in collecting their per diem payments from the UN instead of doing anything meaningful.”  Whether disobeying orders and engaging militarily in the genocide would have helped I leave up to the reader.

Rusesabagina has less but equally harsh things to say about France, “the policeman of Africa.”  The French government was so concerned about English-friendly Tutsi taking over the country, that President Mitterand sent troops to the southern part of Rwanda in order to protect Hutus; this “peacekeeping mission” gave killers “the chance to look like victims instead of aggressors.”  Rusesabagina weighs in on Uncle Sam’s role as well.  The U.S. could have jammed the airwaves of RTLM, the talk radio program actively cheerleading the genocide.  He recounts a phone exchange he had with a dismissive and apathetic White House staffer.  In another passage Rusesabagina sourly comments that President Clinton, during his mea culpa visit in 1998, never left the airport.  Unlike Immaculeé, the hotel manager is more critical of the United States and Paul Kagame, the current president, a Tutsi leader who commanded the Rwandan Patriotic Front that ended the genocide.  Whether these differences have to do with their ethnic background—Rusesabagina is Hutu and Immaculeé is Tutsi—is an open question.

What I most enjoyed about An Ordinary Man was the author’s shrewd assessment of human nature.  His observations of Rwandan history taught him that “most politics is an outgrowth of emotions that may or may not have any relation to the rational.”  Indeed, that’s how I see the rancorous division in the U.S., especially since the days of Clinton and Bush; the differences stem from visceral feelings and not from reasonable arguments.  In another passage of the book Rusesabagina comes back to this idea: “People are never as reasonable as they seem to be—in fact, 'reason' is usually an afterthought, nothing more than a cover story for the feelings inside.”  I’ve espoused the same viewpoint on this blog.  Where we differ perhaps is on the nature of evil.  In the concluding chapter Rusesabagina draws on C.S. Lewis to make the case that common decency is the norm in humanity; evil is an aberration.  Finally, the author ends his book on a realistic note.  He doesn’t give platitudes about a brighter future or give voice to the hopeful but vapid “Never again!” slogan.  No.  There will be genocides in the future.  All we can do is find strength and take example from those who resisted evil or, in the case of the hotel manager of the Milles Collines, negotiated with it to save lives.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Erika the Intern

I spent the late afternoon and evening with Erika in beautiful Mundelein, a village north of Chicago, where she’ll be working as an intern for a business that sells medical supplies.  She starts an eight-week internship tomorrow.  After checking into the hotel around 5:30, we explored this upscale town to see what it has to offer and how far the business is from the hotel.  I knew the town like the back of my hand before we left; that is, I gave the region a good scrutiny on Google Maps.  Mundelein and the adjacent Vernon Hills consist of industrial parks and plenty of places to eat and shop.  This place is definitely upscale and expensive.  We ate on the outdoor patio of a fine Mexican restaurant and had “Guacamole Live” as an appetizer.  A dude made it fresh on the spot!  Exciting.  I guess that served as our entertainment for the evening.  I went out on a limb and got three cheese enchiladas with rice and beans.  Erika did the same.  We had a fun discussion about the family.  I find Erika to be so easy going; she’s a pleasure to be around.  I think she’s a classic phlegmatic: an introvert and relationship-oriented person.  After the dinner we went to the grocery store so Erika could stock up her hotel room kitchen for the next week or so.  She’s settling into her hotel room and I’m currently in the lobby lounge area.  I’m proud of Erika.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Forgiving and Negotiating with Evil: Memoirs of the Rwandan Genocide (1/2)

Immaculeé’s faith carried her through the darkest days of the Rwandan genocide.  For about one hundred days thousands of Hutus armed with machetes and other makeshift weapons hunted Tutsi neighbors like 24-year-old Immaculeé Ilibagiza and her family. Her memoir, Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, gives a harrowing account of survival under the most stressful of conditions, as she and six other women hid in a Hutu pastor’s small bathroom for three months.  Immaculeé became a U.S. citizen a couple of months ago and continues to write books about her Catholic faith.
 
Over the years I’ve had students read memoirs in order to understand a historical event.  Immaculeé’s account and another memoir, Paul Rusesabagina’s An Ordinary Man, discussed below, can draw the student into this somber topic more than a straightforward history book, and fortunately I have the academic freedom to choose my texts and experiment with the curriculum.  To supplement these personal accounts with a wider perspective, I usually include a short online article that gives students the necessary background information.  In the case of Rwanda, it’s important to show that both the perpetrators and victims were real people who made moral choices and faced the gravest of moral dilemmas.  The subject requires careful analysis and measured discussion, as many students tend to write off the “Dark Continent,” to use the old colonial phrase, as a place where life is not valued and mass violence is the norm.  We know that the genocide could have been avoided every step of the way; it was not the product of inevitable “ancient tribal hatreds.”  What I hope my students realize is that political forces on the local, national, and international level instigated the flames of hate and allowed them to continue unabated.  A Tutsi army invading from the north of the country managed to end the holocaust without help from the United States and in spite of French assistance to the Hutu opposition.
 
After the spring of 1994, Rwanda is not so much the country of mountain gorilla preserves, banana groves, and free trade coffee as perhaps it once was in the eyes of the international community.  The Land of a Thousand Hills is the site of one of the worse and most systematic massacres of a people in world history, and it continues to offer lessons in humanity, or the lack thereof.  The genocide tested the resolve of the United Nations, United
States and France to intervene and save lives, but the international response was found wanting in the small African nation’s hour of direst need.  We also get insights into the fragility of civilization.  Victims suffered excruciating death at the bloodied hands of neighbors and old family friends, as well as professional death squads.  Motivated by fear or a sense of ethnic obligation and historic comeuppance preached rabidly by Hutu extremists, the perpetrators were relentless in their pursuit of “cockroaches” and “snakes” hiding in the swamps, churches, or a pastor’s secret bathroom.
 
As the subtitle of her book suggests, Immaculeé searches for God in the darkness.  The author’s religious faith gives students another perspective, as the other texts in my course give a secular or Muslim point of view.  The physical comfort was bad enough, but the “mental anguish,” she writes, “was even more intense.  I was trapped alone with my thoughts, and the dark fears and doubts that had haunted me since my arrival became relentless—they wormed into my heart and undermined the foundation of my faith.”  Killers lurked outside and on a few occasions they entered the house looking for victims.  Fortunately they never spotted the bathroom door hidden behind a large wardrobe.  “When the killers were out of earshot, my thoughts drifted away from God, and the negative energy rushed in.”
 
A key theme of the book is forgiveness.  Admittedly, I have an issue with her view of forgiveness, though I don’t necessarily share my opinion in the classroom.  I understand the therapeutic importance of forgiveness.  Bitterness and hate can destroy a person.  It’s important to let it go and not keep it bottled up inside.  To a certain extent I admire people who take this road less travelled.  Most of us want vengeance.  Still, forgiving those who commit heinous acts can border on the ridiculous and even irresponsible.  And I think it’s great if someone can “discover God” during evil times, but one must keep things in perspective, no? “I thanked Him for delivering us to the bathroom,” writes Immaculeé.  “I truly believed that God had guided Pastor Murinzi to bring us here.”  That’s wonderful, but what about the other victims who weren’t so lucky?  Did God, a “cosmic sadist,” abandon them?  I like to elicit the students’ opinion on the following statement from Immaculeé: “The killers are good people, but right now evil has a hold on their hearts.”  Readers of this blog know my view here, but it's open for debate and I welcome the students' take on evil provided that they give a decent rationale for their view.  In sum, Left to Tell yields good classroom discussion and students learn some things about genocide by reading a survivor’s memoir that they would not otherwise learn.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Feminized Civilization and its Discontents

I spent the evening with a couple of good friends, John and Mark, to watch Fight Club, a 1999 movie starring Brad Pitt and Ed Norton.  We watched There Will Be Blood together a few years ago and enjoyed the fellowship so much that we wanted to meet again.  I guess the theme of these evenings would be “profiles in male character” or “case studies on the male experience in U.S. culture.”  Fight Club yielded a good post-viewing conversation about the emasculation of the postmodern American male and the search for identity more broadly.  I’m sure we could have found other interesting aspects of this evocative film, but we no doubt picked up on the salient points the director wanted to make.  I won’t be doing the film justice here; I'm not offering a complete commentary on the movie.  Instead, I’m simply conveying what we got out of it.  You eventually find out that Tyler Durden, the Brad Pitt character, is a mental projection of the main character and narrator, played by Norton.  I didn’t see that coming.  In a telling scene, Durden observes that men are no longer hunters and gatherers, but consumers barraged by images of the "perfect male" in Calvin Klein ads (my paraphrasing, mind you).  So the wild and carefree Tyler, the narrator's id, starts a “fight club” that becomes popular among males seeking to prove their manhood in a sensitized urban culture lost in consumerism.
 
John wondered if we’ve made some gains since the 1990s in addressing the feminization of our contemporary society or whether we’ve fully absorbed these cultural changes and don’t think about them anymore.  Have the social engineers of a less aggressive and more effeminate society been successful?  Fight Club portrays testicular cancer victims going through therapy after castration, and there are a couple of scenes in which a male is threatened with emasculation.  That is, the filmmaker conveys the idea of a society that’s been neutered.   On a not-unrelated note, my wife informs me that 40% of women are taking over the role of head of household.  Yet, as I've written elsewhere, you can’t so readily tame our natural instincts, since the Homo sapiens has been around far longer than civilization.  More to the point, the male of the species has an anatomy and hardwiring to survive his environment and spread his gene pool.  For what it’s worth, my bons amis and I reject these efforts at feminizing every aspect of our culture.  Must it be a sum-zero game?  Must the empowerment of women come at the expense of a man’s masculinity?  The Marlboro Man has ridden off into the sunset and won't be allowed to return until he loses the cigarette and starts donning metrosexual garb.  Anyway, we three guys had a delightful time sitting in Mark’s living room sipping little cups of cappuccino that he had prepared like a good host and nibbling on pan bread that John had cooked up in the kitchen before the movie.  We started a bit late because Mark had to tend to his two-year-old daughter while his wife was at work.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A Coastal Drive (7/8)

Kelsey had given birth to their first child, Ashley, only a few months before Mark’s deployment to Afghanistan, his third tour in five years.   It took him a while to figure out that his wife was suffering from severe postpartum depression, a condition bad enough without her husband’s frequent absences.  Mark harbored plenty of guilt for all his time away, and hearing Kelsey grieve about how tough things were for her and the baby only compounded his anxiety.  Though Kelsey had been in the military, she was tired of living at Fort Lewis and wanted a “normal” life.

All the signs of trouble were there.  Before he went overseas Mark could see Kelsey’s mounting depression, but he didn’t put it in any kind of medical context.  In retrospect he would spend nights regretting his inattention to the clues.  He took some solace in the fact that his mother-in-law Rita was going to stay with Kelsey and her new granddaughter throughout most of Mark’s tour.
 
Initially, they Skyped whenever Mark was at Bagram, Kabul, or on one of the more wired firebases, but the mission ate up more of Mark’s time as March was approaching and the Taliban-infested mountains started to turn from white to brown.  Inevitably the conversation would center on Kelsey’s feeling of inadequacy as a mother.  Mark did his best to reassure her, but, unmindful of the depths to which his wife was sinking, he grew tired of her woeful tone.  After all, he thought, wasn’t he was not only away from his young child in a bullet-ridden land but he was responsible for the lives of soldiers?  His exasperation with Kelsey only increased his wife’s sense of alienation and worthlessness.
 
Once incident kept playing in her mind, and Mark had to ask Rita via email what actually happened.  Kelsey had left Ashley on the kitchen table after changing her diaper to check the laundry.  The baby rolled off edge and fell to the floor.  Rita, who was outside watering the plants, heard the thump and Ashley’s wailing.  With horror she picked the child up from the floor.  Ashley seemed fine, but Rita took the baby to the hospital to be sure there was no serious injury to the head.  All the while, Kelsey sat on the couch in catatonic state, unable to offer aid or even express concern.  Ashley ended up being okay, but Kelsey never forgave herself for leaving her on the table.

These past few weeks had been running through his mind, as he and his men, strapped inside the CH-47, ascended the mountainside.  The voice of his first sergeant shook his mind back into the game.

“Listen up!  We’ve been here before, but this is the real deal, confirmed by SIGINT and boots on the ground.  Be sharp, Rangers.  Hooah!”

No sooner than Top finished his pep talk, the door gunner cried out, “Incoming!”  Rounds were making piercing thuds into the bottom of the gunship.  The gunner unloaded a barrage into the snowy landscape below.

"No worries!" yelled out the crew chief.  "It's just a welcoming party."

Monday, June 17, 2013

At the Piano

I sat at the piano today and let my hands and mind roam freely.  Indistinct thoughts mingled with strong feelings.  Out of this reverie something emerged in F# phrygian, a wistful, dark song that partly reflects my mood but also satisfies my need for speed.  I spend most of my time on the lower register of the keyboard these days, but I let my fingers slip and slide around the keys as is their wont.  Lyrics?  Vocals?  They'll follow in due time.  I could spend hours upon hours at the keyboard, getting lost in the music of my dreams. 

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Naughty Monkeys (2/2)

Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.  Why do some people fail to acknowledge the evidence of human nature and cling tenaciously to a social constructivist theory like a monkey on a vine?  There’s nothing new under the sun.  Sanguine views of human progress and the belief in attainable utopias have been around time immemorial.  Still, after a century of two world wars and numerous genocides, not to mention oppression and civil wars, you’d think we would have done away with foolish optimism.  So we should account for such opposition to human depravity in this post-Auschwitz, post-Hiroshima, post-911 world that we live in.  One reason for this opposition has to do with a person's training or ideology.  The contrarian might be trained as a sociologist and therefore predisposed to see social ills as a result of social forces or faulty institutions that can be corrected.  More broadly, they like the idea that humans are blank slates, with no particular predilection for evil, or good, but can be molded with the latest programs, strategies, or conceptual framework to create a more caring, equitable, and peaceful society.  This scenario puts humans, at least the smart ones, comfortably in control of their fate.  There’s something to be said for both nature and nurture.  It’s just that they exaggerate the latter and neglect or underappreciate the former.
 
Those who oppose the view of inherent human evil have some valid concerns, however.  Cults and dictatorial regimes have controlled people through ideologies of human depravity.  They instill guilt into their followers and subjects and foster the idea that they must look to Big Brother, to use Orwell’s words, to save them from their selfish ways.  After all, what conclusion does Thomas Hobbes draw from his realistic portrayal of humans left to their own devices?  They need a strongman to keep them in line, someone who can be brutal when necessary.  Perhaps he would have opposed the Iraq War precisely for this reason.  Some associate arguments of “nature” with a white patriarchy determined to keep women and minorities “in their place.”  It’s an argument for the status quo, not for revolutionary change.  These objections are legitimate, for this position has sometimes been a tool of exploitation.  However, the abuse of biological arguments doesn't take away from the fact that nature has bequeathed to us behavioral software.

The idea is to confront our inner monkey and design a social system to foster enlightened self-interest, all the while being vigilant against our dark impulses that resist from time to time.  While we’ve been born with the instinct for self-preservation, and males in particular are hard-wired for violence and aggression, we can “reverse the curse” of our evolutionary heritage.  The antidote lies within us: we have the ability to empathize and cooperate.  The ongoing work of primatologist Frans de Waal at Emory University has brought our attention to cooperation, empathy, and indeed morality among chimpanzees.  How we encourage these traits and overcome our equally inborn ethnocentrism and xenophobia is not an easy task.  We need to set up a system in which people have something to gain by trusting those outside their circle of blood kinship.  For example, it's clear that the United States government, like any other government, will only get involved in a crisis abroad if it serves our national interests.  So humanitarian groups should convince the U.S. that intervening or helping other countries serves our collective self-interest as Americans.  You won't get far with grandiose calls for the "right thing to do."  What we do not want to do, however, is give in to our base instincts.  The other day I watched a movie called The Purge, a dystopian story set in the near future.  The “new founding fathers” of the U.S. government have managed to reduce crime and unemployment significantly by setting aside a day each year, March 22, when people have 12 hours to give full vent to their hatred, jealousy, and violent impulses.  Until 7 am the next morning, all crime is permitted and no fire or police services are available.  From sundown to sunup it’s essentially a Hobbesian war of every man against every man.  The storyline is implausible in a number of ways, but I found the film instructive for our present topic. 

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Graduation Day

My daughter Jessi graduated from high school today.  The entire family was present for the ceremony.  It was a large graduating class.  The keynote speaker was mediocre, but to be fair it was one of the high school faculty and not a professional speaker.  My wife is organizing a party for Jessi and her friend Lauren in a park next Thursday.  She’s off to the Naval Academy in less than two weeks, but for now she's enjoying her time with friends and a summer job as life guard and swim instructor.  These eighteen years have flown by.  I hate to use that old cliché, but it's true.  She's leaving the nest.  While she can take care of herself physically, I hope she's emotionally equipped for the challenges ahead, particularly in her near future.  I remember a little rugrat with big pretty brown eyes crying as I'd leave in the morning to work on my dissertation at the municipal archive in Augsburg, Germany.  From the get-go, she was a handful: a bit dramatic and somewhat high maintenance.  But her personality reminds me of someone else I know, namely a little boy with the initials D.V.

After the ceremony and photo op outside the Kohl Center, we ate at a place called La Brioche, a restaurant that prides itself on "true food" and feng shui (which I find both ridiculous and arrogant).  Jessi, Erika, and I ordered the same exact thing.  Weird.  Jessi wanted to eat at a quaint place far from the madding crowd.  She surprises me sometimes.  Later in the evening I found her at home taking a break from all the graduation parties, chillin' like a villain with her iPhone.  This behavior was yet another sign that, for good or ill, she's inherited my melancholy temperament.  Overall, it was a good day.  The weather was great and it's rare to have the whole family together these days.  We experienced a bit of déjà vu today, as Erika graduated a few years ago from the same place, the Kohl Center.  Likewise, I had my PhD graduation ceremony there some thirteen years ago.  Monika, my youngest, is on deck for next year. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Activism in the Classroom

I’m writing this essay because I want to clarify in my mind a position I’ve held about education for quite some time.  I’ve vigorously opposed the idea of being an activist instructor in my history courses.  The particular subjects I teach and otherwise read about give me perhaps a certain perspective that makes me so contrarian on this issue.  I’ve broached this topic with a few colleagues, some of whom identify themselves as activists and don’t see a problem here, provided that the activist cause that's being presented in the classroom is one with which they agree.  In some cases these individuals misunderstand what I’m saying, becauseI suspectthey feel so strongly about their principles, values, or sense of mission that they can't get beyond their defensive reaction or understand why there'd be a question mark here. Whether they understand me or not, it could simply be a case of disagreement.  To be honest, I'm sometimes astounded that I have to make my case for leaving activism out of the classroom, but I realize this issue requires much clarification.
 
So before I proceed, a couple of qualifications are in order.  First, I’m talking about activism in the classroom, not activism as such.  This point is often missed in these conversations.  Moreover, I’m thinking specifically of the traditional disciplines: the humanities, the behavioral and social sciences, biology, chemistry, and the quantitative sciences.  I’m somewhat open to arguments for an activist bent in co-curricular courses on, say, civics and cultural diversity, because students are arguably expecting this approach in these types of courses.  I'm still thinking through this question, though.  Second, I think it’s important to get a handle on what activism precisely means.  Let’s start with some definitions.  According to the Dictionary.com, activism is “the doctrine or practice of vigorous action or involvement as a means of achieving political or other goals, sometimes by demonstrations, protests, etc.”  Wikipedia tells us that activism “consists of efforts to promote, impede, or direct social, political, economic, or environmental change, or stasis.”  Merriam-Webster Online says it’s “a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue.”  This last definition is most pertinent here.  Okay, I think we’re ready to go forward.
 
My basic concern is that activism can mar pedagogical efforts to be as objective as possible in the classroom.  Many undergrad freshmen don't have the ability to discern a professor's advocacy for a controversial issue from analysis or Socratic dialogue.  The students who might have a different view will either be turned off by the instructor's efforts at proselytization or they won't really think about it because they agree.  In either scenario, I submit, education is not happening.  The temptation for a university instructor to preach their values or indoctrinate students with their ideological viewpoint is strong enough, as that's what humans do: they want to influence others. But giving full vent to activism in the classroom makes an instructor less willing to foster the free exchange of ideas, something that a university is supposed to facilitate.

When I’m talking about Nazism, for instance, I should be discussing how this evil came about, various theories that account for the rise of this ideology, and less on what students should be thinking about it or what they're going to do to oppose manifestations of it in our own day.  I want them to draw their own conclusions.  There are plenty of avenues for the student to get involved outside of class.  History is replete with examples of visionaries and moralists with good intentions and a razor-sharp moral sense who've nonetheless led people down the primrose path to hell.  Jim Jones and Robespierre, a pastor and a principled activist who wanted to right the wrongs of their respective societies, are just two individuals that come to mind; one enjoined his followers under gunpoint to drink poison and the other ended up cutting people’s heads off en masse.  Didn’t George Orwell warn us about public mind control?  I guess there’s a part of me that, should I let my ideological or partisan views come to the fore in my class, would feel like I'm Inner Party member O’Brien probing for thoughtcrime among my students.

I attended a GBLT speaker’s talk on campus a few months ago.  At that meeting no less than the chancellor seemed to be on board with an activist classroom.  No one even questioned or at least qualified the notion of pushing a particular social agenda.  I thought to myself: What if I wanted to promote the idea of regime change in my course on conflicts throughout the contemporary world?  That is, what if I decided to make the case with students that the U.S. military should intervene to displace genocidal dictators abroad because it serves our national interests and the interests of humanity in general?  How do you think that would go over?  I’d have good intentions, and perhaps roughly half the country wouldn’t mind this emphasis in my class.  I don't think it would be a popular idea where I teach, however.  So being an activist in the classroom hinges on your patrons and the campus culture.  What's wrong with this picture?

For those who are either explicitly or implicitly okay with activism in the classroom, the thought process presumably goes something like this: Why wouldn’t you take this great opportunity to promote a good cause?  You have a captive audience and as an authority figure their respect.  They’ll listen to you and consider your perspective.  You shouldn’t pass up this moment to correct those who might be less ardent in fighting sexism, racism, homophobia, and other expressions of social injustice.  It's not about pushing an agenda!  It's about doing the right thing.  Don’t you want to inspire?  Don’t you want to be a part of the solution?  These students are wide-eyed young people with an open mind.  They'll be moved by what you have to say, and you'll be doing humanity a favor by fostering those same values in the youth that you hold so dear.

Am I exaggerating the impact of activism in the class?  Maybe just a bit, but I’m trying to make a point.  I think some further clarification would be welcome here.  Do I make value judgments in the classroom?  You bet, especially in the subject matter that I teach.  I can tell the students that the Nazis committed evil.  I don’t leave that up for them to decide.  There are times when an instructor needs to make a stand and not moderate or throw out alternative positions on an issue.  For instance, while I'm open to the idea that the 911 attack was really a conspiracy carried out by the U.S. government doing Israel's bidding, I reject it out of hand in class because of the lack of evidence.  The burden of proof, I tell the students, is on the conspiracy theorists, not mainstream scientific investigation and data.

Listen, instructors have opinions and it can aid the learning process to share these opinions at times.  For instance, I had my students read a young Tutsi woman's memoir about surviving the Rwandan genocide by finding refuge in a Hutu pastor's home.  She talks a lot about forgiveness, as she's a devout Catholic.  I told the students that I can't agree with her view of forgiveness; instead, I expressed my agreement with a military commander that she cites in the book who said he'll forgive the perpetrators when they're dead.  I made it clear that this is my opinion.  Remember the third definition above: activism means you’re defending one side of a controversial issue.  What's controversial changes for each generation.  One must discern the moral zeitgeist from partisan positions that divide the country.  If you find yourself pushing a viewpoint tendentiously, you're likely not giving the opposing viewpoint its due.  Activism in the classroom will always conjure up for me China’s Cultural Revolution, re-education centers, propaganda, self-criticism sessions in North Korea’s gulags, Joseph Goebbels, totalitarianism, and Big Brother.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

My Red Leather Pants

I wore tight red leather pants today.  I readily admit that I’ve been wearing them all week.  My mom got me them for my birthday.  People at the grocery store noticed me, but I'm still not sure if they're perplexed or turned on.  I wore them to church last Sunday.  The pastor, elders, and parishioners gave me looks of disapproval.  (It felt similar to the time I wore assless chaps at my nephew’s bar mitzvah.)  But I didn’t care.  You know why?  Because it just feels so frickin’ good to wear those things.   I like to prance around in them and feel sexy.  Most guys my age don’t wear pants like this, and it’s a real shame.  People can be so judgmental.  I like to think I’m paving the way for other men who’ve always aspired to don these hot trousers but fear jeers from the cruder elements of our society.  If I wear them enough, though, critics will start to say: “Ya know, we were wrong about a middle-aged man wearing those pants.  What we once thought was inappropriate, unseemly, and downright gross, we now see as refreshingly sassy and sensuous.  It’s as though the veil were lifted from our eyes.”  If you see a tall bald guy with a playful spring in his step and sporting red leather pants that look like they’ve been spray painted on, chances are it’s me, Der Viator.  I feel so good in them.  Then again, it might be one of the many poor souls I’ve liberated.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

On the Road Again

We all find the familiar metaphors for life useful from time to time.  Likening my experience on this planet to a road, a path, best fits me.  True, the pathways I often discuss on this blog are psychological; I’m recounting or coming to terms with my "journey" through emotional places and intellectual terrain.  But I’d like to discuss here travel across geographic distance, not another episode in my spiritual odyssey.  Geography defines my life, perhaps best explains me, and has given me a name.  Mine is a tale of four cities that span two states and involve lots of time on the road.  Heretofore I have not disclosed specific locations on this blog, but I think I need to do so now, for these places are the central characters in this "story."
 
I spend most of my time on the road driving the 3½ hours between Madison, Wisconsin, where my family resides, and Rochester, Minnesota, where I teach at a university.  I rent a room in Rochester, in a house nicely located near the downtown area and just a 10-minute walk from my office.  I’ve been doing this driving routine for just over two years now.  I don’t mind it too much, notwithstanding the gas expense and car maintenance.  More significantly, it's taken a toll on my family life; yet I keep telling myself that change is never easy, especially since I've lived in the same city more or less for twenty years.  I was accustomed to being on the road prior to my job in Rochester, though.  I’ve driven all over Wisconsin for years as an itinerant instructor for a private Catholic university.  Maybe as I get older I’ll tire of the travel, as I’ve talked to adjunct instructors my age or older who said they couldn’t keep up this kind of lifestyle because of the wear and tear on their body.  Whatever.  Driving provides me some good alone time, and for the most part the scenery around here is pleasant.  I've written or thought through most of the entries on this blog while on the road.

Madison is a great city.  I completed my graduate degrees there.  Indeed, graduate school was the reason for coming to Wisconsin from California in the first place.  As my wife Teri knows, though, it was never supposed to be the final destination, for me at least.  I didn't come to the Badger State with the intention to end my days there.  For some odd reason, I've always seen my life as tripartite: I'd live a good chunk of my life in three, not two, places.  And it looks like Minnesota might be that third place, though I didn't think it would be just one state over.  So it’s probably not a coincidence, as I think about it in retrospect, that I ardently pursued and landed a teaching job outside the state after almost exactly twenty years of living in Wisconsin.  While I've always felt like a fish out of water in Madison, except when I was with a few good friends with whom I share spiritual and intellectual leanings, the city has been a factor in our lives and has given us another perspective.  I still don't know if I continue to think as a west coaster, or if I've fully absorbed an Upper Midwest sensibility.  If I subtract our stay in Germany and my deployment to Afghanistan during these past two decades, I spent a third of my life there thus far.  Teri has established a career there, and the kids of course have formed their friendships and social identity in the Mad City.  We've bought a home and acquired lots of stuff over the years.

In any event, the family is on the cusp of significant change.  Teri and I are seeing our daughters off to college these days.  Our youngest daughter, Monika, will be a high school senior in the fall, and she’s the class president.  Erika is attending the business school at UW Madison and will be working as an intern at a business in Chicago this summer.  Jessi is leaving for the United States Naval Academy in a couple of weeks.  Perhaps the terrorist attack in September of 2001 had the greatest impact on me during these years in Madison.  Ultimately I joined the military as a result and my life has taken a different turn ever since.  Back in the day I played the smoke-filled clubs there in a progressive metal band.  I worked some odd jobs there to supplement my teaching income.  We've raised a family there.  Yes, Madison has been a great experience.
 
Still, I have some business east of Madison.  I routinely make my way to Milwaukee, at least one weekend a month for my Army Reserve duties.  It’s somewhat surreal knowing that I have a large office and small staff at this location, though I’m hardly there.  My tenure as company commander will be ending in September and I’m currently looking for a Reserve or National Guard unit in Minnesota.   My responsibilities as commander have been burdensome for the most part and sometimes rewarding.  Last Sunday I conducted a “Commander’s Run” with the more fit soldiers.  We ran through nature trails behind the Army Reserve Center.  It was fun.  As far as Milwaukee goes, it’s time to move on.  I’ve been drilling there since I joined the military.  I need to shift westward, toward Minnesota.  Finally, I’ve been making more and more trips to the Minneapolis this past year.  I’ve been a member of a globalized curriculum program sponsored by the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and more recently signed on as an adjunct for a private university which brings me up to Eden Prairie...

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

800 Miles

The sign said Paradise  800 Miles.  What sign gives such a heads-up?  800 miles!  Think about it.  Aren’t there any exits prior to Paradise?  Aren’t there any towns or cities in the next few hundred miles?  If memory serves, there’s a sign as you leave Los Angeles County on the I-5 that tells you it’s 300-some-odd miles to San Francisco.   I had never seen a larger number than that, until now.  And what’s with the name Paradise?  As I drove on, I mused with a chuckle that this place presumably requires an 800-mile advance notice so you can prepare your soul.  Surely you can’t enter a town with such a name without first atoning for your sins.  Anyway, I had been driving on a high desert highway for what seemed like nights on end, so I was ecstatic to see this sign, any sign.  Honestly, I had lost my way.  I no longer had GPS and internet connection once I crossed the mountains.  I didn’t really know where I was going, but I had to keep driving on.  Did I stop to ask for directions?  Nope.  I’m a male, and you know how that goes.  Once again, pride is my downfall, and now I’m lost in the darkness.
 
Wait, I take that back.  I did stop at a filling station earlier in the drive to see if I could get a map of the area.  First I got some grub at the diner next door.  A diner and filling station on a lone desert highway?  You know the place.  The building and characters inside must have been straight out of central casting.  Marge, a fifty-something waitress took my order, her face kind but also evident of hard living.  “You aren’t from around here, are you?” she said, obviously fodder for small talk and not an earnest question.  Who would be from around here?  I nodded No.  When she brought me my omelet and bacon, I managed to ask for directions in a roundabout way: “Could you tell me where this road leads?”  I felt like a supplicant, confessing my sins or at least displaying my ignorance.  Marge didn’t know the answer.  How can she not know?  I couldn’t eat my food.  I just looked out the window and watched a dim glow on the horizon.  It seems I had been chasing this light for years.  “Where are you headed?” asked a man in overalls who strolled by with a coffee cup in hand.  I didn’t have a response, but the question opened up a can of worms in my mind.  So by the time I saw the 800-mile sign, I had given much thought to my life.  Driving through a desolate land lends itself to such reflection anyway, does it not? 
 
I just don’t know much about this life anymore.  I really don’t.  I’ve lost my faith in God and to a certain extent in humanity itself.  Man delights not me.  I’m wandering around in the dark, without a compass, and shadowy images lurk around me like specters of my conscience.  It’s crazy, this life.  I keep looking for something, but I don’t know what it is.  Have you ever felt so alone?  So alone that even those dark shadows provide a modicum of comfort. I mean, what else do I have?  Besides, I wonder if I’m living in reality!  I so often feel as though I’m driving through a dream.  This desert highway is a figment of my imagination, a metaphor, a chapter in a novel, anything but something real, something substantial to which I can cling with certainty and spiritual fulfillment.  The firmament above and the terrain below are just props on a stage.  Looking toward the heavens for inspiration is an empty gesture, and I have no firm foundation on which to stand.
 
The glow ahead shone brighter and brighter as I put more miles behind me.  I had set my odometer to zero upon seeing the sign, as I suspected (rightly, as it turns out) that I would get no further indication of the distance.  No more signs, just a road ahead of me disappearing into the horizon.  I can’t even remember my original destination, for I became consumed with idea of reaching Paradise as soon as possible.  Dream or not, I pressed on, my seat back and with one hand on the wheel.  Cruise control is a beautiful thing.  When the odometer turned over the magic number, I stopped the car and looked around.  It wasn't at all what I expected to see: just a Kwik Trip and a Dairy Queen.  Is this what I came for?  I uttered three words that you wouldn’t think you’d hear in a place called “Paradise,” namely what, the, and fuck, in precisely that sequence, and with an emphatic tone in my voice.  I must have experienced the mother of all disappointments at that moment.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Gwok Tok

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I would kill a man for a dish of guacamole.  If someone stood between me and that precious avocado dip, so virescent and refreshing, I’d take that person out in a heartbeat—man, woman, or child.  Obviously I'd be sufficiently armed.  I'm not stupid, nor am I particularly brave.  Anyway, if that's wrong, then I don't know what to tell you.  I can’t help it.  Don’t judge me.  I’m not a violent person.  I'm really not.  I abhor violence.  Guacamole is the exception, though.  Well, the only other exception would be tortilla chips, seeing as how the two go together, you know?  If I had just one more exception it would be a margarita.  Actually, that is an exception, another one.  So if  you stood between me and chips, guacamole in a molcajete, and a mango margarita with salt, I'd probably do something I'd regret later, after I had stuffed my face and took a little siesta.  By the way, the Aztecs invented guacamole and they killed people all day long.  So I think I'm allowed a little violent tendencies here, okay? 

Sunday, June 9, 2013

I Soiled Myself Today

I soiled myself today.  It’s the fourth time this week, and the problem’s not getting any better.  Do I have too much fiber in my diet?  Nope.  Are my bowels weakened by age or fancy living?  I don’t think so.  Am I making too much of this?  Maybe.  Back in the day, I’d soil myself only at the movie theater during an especially intense or scary scene.  Nowadays I’m relieving myself at other venues: the public library, choir practice, church service, daughter’s high school graduation, and the list goes on.  People always ask why I keep wet wipes in the glove compartment of my car, my knapsack, or even in my back pocket.  They also inquire as to why I go to the laundromat so often.  Now you know.  Please.  If you somehow detect that I've once again soiled myself, do not bring it to my attention.  I'll be embarrassed enough without you making an issue out of it.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Military Weekend

I’m currently enjoying some blissful time alone in the hotel room after a day of playing Army.  I’m sitting at the desk chair and watching an episode of Forensic Files on HLN.  I’ve already seen all the episodes, but it’s my routine to watch a murder mystery show before bed.  These military weekends are a mixed bag.  Sometimes they run smoothly and people generally do what they’re supposed to do.  Other times I’m putting out fires and failing to meet “suspenses.”  My involvement in the Army Reserve gives me an outlet that I don’t have in other aspects of my life.  It provides a balance.  For instance, most of the soldiers are male, whereas I have three daughters at home and most of the college students in my courses are females.  For that matter, there’s a greater mix of ethnic groups in the Army, and this diversity makes things more interesting.  Also, soldiers interact with one another and communicate in ways different from academics.  Part of this distinction has to do with military protocol and culture, of course; but I’m sure the social background and educational level of the soldiers are also factors.  Anyway, these last eight years of Army have been quite a roller coaster ride, taking me outside my comfort zone but giving me some invaluable experiences.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Turning into Bigfoot

So what’s with all this hair on my forearms?  How do things like this just creep up on you?  And is this part of the aging process for males?  What!  Am I going to start growing hair on my chest too?  After all, I’ve spent years drinking whiskey and cavorting with bad boys in leather jackets to accomplish this kind of growth, and I'm only now becoming Mammal Boy?  Why now?  What's the science behind this, or is it witchcraft?  I’m frickin’ turning into Sasquatch.  People already comment on my big feet, and as mentioned elsewhere on this blog I have the same gait as the Bigfoot in the famous 1967 reel footage.  My eyebrows have been getting so bushy over the years that you might as well call me Officer O’Malley.  Maybe I should shear these appendages, spin the wool into yarn, and knit Der Viator sweaters.  I got a damn forest growing on my arms! 

Thursday, June 6, 2013

D-Day

Today marks the 69th anniversary of D-Day, or Operation Neptune, when Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy, France in a massive amphibious invasion to defeat the dark force of Nazism that had cast its genocidal shadow over continental Europe.  Don’t ever allow anyone to get away with blanket statements about war never solving anything.  Some things are worth fighting for, and the defeat of Hitler was clearly a righteous cause.  Otherwise, words like evil and valor truly have no meaning.  There's a good chance we'd be goose-stomping and greeting each other with the Nazi salute were it not for this intervention.  These American, British, and Canadian troops, both the fallen and the survivors of that hellish morning in 1944, were heroes.  They didn't want to die or get severely wounded, but they confronted the guns of an enemy well fortified nonetheless.  The U.S. military no longer throws men into enemy gunfire so unprotected, but war will always be hell.  My sister told me about her experience on an Honor Flight some years back.  She didn’t appreciate what these men had done at that time, but she recalls kind and polite old men who carried themselves with such dignity. 

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Frank and Lena

Besides the wine tasting with my siblings during my visit to California I spent some time with my parents.  Chatting with my father at the poolside or the coffeehouse was an enjoyable experience, though he did most of the chatting.  My dad is genetically hardwired for conversation and social engagement, and he’s a dye-in-the-wool Democrat and educator.  Well, we have education in common!  I get my temperament and musical proclivity from my mother.  She pulled out some sheet music and had me work on some Chopin and ragtime pieces while I was there.  I felt like a twelve-year-old boy old again.  I used to come home from school and get ready for piano lessons, while my mom would bake cookies or otherwise reward me for my efforts.  All things considered, I had a good childhood.  No complaints.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Basking in the Sunshine, Strolling through the Vineyard

I recently returned from a weeklong sojourn in Los Angeles to visit family.  I spent most of that time lounging around the pool, sipping iced espresso on a Starbucks patio, conversing with my parents, and walking around Valencia, an upscale town located about thirty miles northwest of central L.A.  I hadn't seen my parents and in-laws since April 2010 when I was on a military "hot mission" in the San Francisco area and managed to drive down to L.A. for a few days.  People on the street were friendly, the weather was superb, and the urban landscape was beautiful.  On Sunday I went wine-tasting in the Santa Barbara area with my sister, brother, and my brother's significant other, Allison.  Once you reach Santa Barbara you take California State Route 154 eastward over the mountains toward the vineyards.  On a side note, I highly recommend a white BMW stocked with plenty of David Bowie and George Michael tunes.  Anyway, we stopped along the way at Cold Spring Tavern, a rustic stopping post located at a bend in the old stagecoach route.   The tavern dates back to the late 19th century and now attracts motorcycle clubs and tourists.  After a delicious chicken barbecue sandwich and alcoholic beverage, we made our way to the town of Los Olivos to enjoy some excellent wine samples at one of the tasting rooms.  We also checked out an art gallery and hung out at the local coffeehouse.  Next stop was Solvang, "the Danish capital of America," where we visited Mission Santa Ynez and a couple of wineries in the vicinity: Sunstone and Kalyrathe latter providing one of the film locations for the 2004 movie Sideways.  Though I grew up in Southern California, I had never been to Solvang before.  Overall, the wine and olive oil selections we tried were to die for.  Before heading south on the 101 back to Valencia, we ate a fine meal at Los Arroyos Mexican Restaurant in Montecito and ruminated on the day's wine-tasting experience.
 
Well, so far I’ve given you a straightforward narrative of what we did, but you don’t get any notion of who we are.  I don’t see my siblings too often, but it seems that each of us is rather independently minded, strong-willed, and more or less non-partisan in our politics.  Since our temperaments are different, I guess I’ll have to chalk these similar traits up to nurture, not nature.  I don’t know what it was about growing up in Santa Clarita, California, but we picked up a similar outlook on life.  Yet the differences are clear.  Linda has an infectious joie de vivre, speaking a mile a minute about the many books she’s read, the art exhibits she’s visited, the exotic countries she's traveled to, or the documentaries she’s viewed.  Rob, on the other hand, is laid back, thoughtful, deliberative in his comments, and a musician at heart.  For my part, Der Viator, I’m dark, self-absorbed, and, admittedly, often reeking of whiskey (unless I’m doing some serious wine tasting in Santa Barbara!).  This combination seemed to work well during our junket to Santa Barbara.  There was once an eldest daughter, but she passed away in the flower of her youth.  I can only guess what she would have been like in this dynamic, but that's a story that will never be told.   It was great getting to know Allison, and I'm sure Rob is drawn to her kindness and easy-going nature.  I think he's lucky to have her in his life.  In sum, the six days in sunny California were just what the doctor ordered: rest, relaxation, good conversation, and plenty of wine.