Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Travelogue 307 – November 24
Blue Fog

It's feeling like autumn today. There's a chilly fog suspended over the Twin Cities. I'm driving home from one of my colleges. I'm driving south on 94. The car is turned toward downtown, but there is nothing to see but a heavy grey sky, pushing the boundaries of the vacuous heavens down, trespassing into the realm of soil. There's no city today.

Fall wants to claim a title to sadness. 'I am the blue season. I approach close to the skin. I cloak the light and make humans turn on lights.' The highway is a trail of red bulbs one way and white the other. Autumn is a sallow, middle-aged man. His eyes are sometimes mocking, sometimes shot with elusive wisdom.

My mood resonates with Autumn's. I'm fresh out of an afternoon class in which I chewed out a student that didn't deserve it. The true cause of my ire was some bad news in the morning, mixing dangerously with late-semester fatigue. The student is actually one of my favorites – isn't that always the way? But he's a smart aleck and his timing of an innocent comment was unconsciously bad. I overreacted.

There are no excuses for a teacher. Responsibility descends toward the center with a kind of moral centripetal force. One person stands up front; many sit in the seats. Don't be fooled by an errant sense of fair fights. They will band together, and that's their right. Saying that is not succumbing to the trend of academic consumerism – the mindless bromide that is current: 'I pay your tuition'. No, it's a bow to the oldest of traditions: responsibility devolves upon on the one capable of bearing it. That thought is loosely akin to, 'Responsibility devolves upon the one appointed to bear it,' though there is not always a strict correspondence.

I can say, 'there are no excuses for a teacher,' in several languages and in a variety of tones. The tone depends on the season. Spring is sensitive, easily bruised. Things should be different, that season says. Summer is rebellious. Summer feels cornered by statements like 'there are no excuses'. The season of hot tempers lashes out, thrusting away the feeling of guilt. Extenuating circumstances, and all that. Actions are just the final, inscrutable signs of a long string of irritants, the ultimate knots among endless threads. In high temperatures, moral absolutes relax and seem to melt away.

But fall is the season of the harvest. It's the time we reap what we sow. The sap in the trees is in retreat. Ice is on the march, lining everything with its sharp edges. Doors and windows are shut; one's world closes in. It's the season of resignation.

So I drive on through the fog, feeling miserable. Responsibility and misery are close cousins. When one lives with responsibility, one lives with misery. You can't keep one and push the other away. You have to sit together in silence in the same small Honda together, all the way home.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Travelogue 306 – November 19
The Sky is Falling

I had the opportunity to watch the end of the world the other night. This was the famous Mayan prophecy made good by CGI and friends. It was good fun while it lasted – watching skyscrapers being tossed about like so many beans, monitoring the slaughter of billions while bad guys plotted and good guys wrung their hands. Volcanoes blew and oceans swelled. All quite grand.

Before I even get home, my mood had begun to sink. The adrenaline high of unrelenting action gives way to the grim subtext of the plot. On the ride home, the city seems very fragile. I seem blessed with special sight: I foresee the lifespan of the city's buildings, from their concrete-dust beginnings to the wrecking ball – either the city's or Mother Nature's. And my supernatural gift extends beyond man's creations. Crossing the river, I see the mighty Mississipp's growth pains. I see the messy St. Anthony falls before it was shaped. Every boulder has arrived in its current resting place in a fit of violence, in a spray of pulverized stone.

Now I have trouble getting to sleep. I'm suspended in a solution three parts grief and five parts anxiety. The mind is racing. It's the perfect prelim to nightmares. So I turn to George Eliot as a tonic. She lives and writes safely on this side of Armageddon and far across the ocean from the Mayans. The lives of all her characters and contemporaries run their course without one tectonic shift or catastrophic meteor collision or polar shift.

And why does it come as a kind of revelation that entire generations have lived in peace? These days, most of us have severe doubts that we or our families will pass quietly into old age and the soul's timely oblivion. No, there will be brimstone. There will be tsunamis higher than Mt Everest. There will be unconditional war with sentient machines, or with aliens. Or perhaps something less dramatic, like the seven angels' trumpets and Jesus returned.

I doubt there's been a generation that didn't delight in stories of the end. But maybe the generations alive now have an edge in the proliferation of apocalyptic nightmares. Speaking of my own education, I was raised in a time when it was taken for granted that humankind had the power to obliterate civilization with its weapons. And I've had the privilege to live into the age when the sane among us admit that we have undermined the very climate of the planet that sustains us.

My generation has grown up being educated that the universe was born from a Big Bang, and will eventually fall back into that furnace again. There is no eternity. We've been educated in the violence of planetary origins, tectonic theory, and the rather gory origins of life – rising out of slime, proceeding through bloody Jurassic Park, and on into Darwin's fierce world of struggling species. Maybe this is the root of Christian resistance to science: with every layer of violence, with every degree of impersonal magnitude, the throne of a loving God becomes more remote.

But doesn't this litany of violence reveal a large fairly large gap – or series of gaps – in our education? We learn history only by its tumults: its wars, famines, and disasters are the signposts. But how do we illuminate with some proportion the millions of long lives lived without tumult? We teach about the cataclysms of geological time, but how do we make real and relevant and interesting the nearly inconceivable spans of years between cataclysms? How do we learn to appreciate the tedious, boring lives of countless Tyrannosaurus Rex who died from the weight of their years, and never encountered aliens, Mayans, or flaming comets? How do we teach peace?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Travelogue 305 – November 13
Far Sight and Mad Dogs

I won't tell you how the novel ends. But the climax sort of rhymes with this little passage: 'Atticus pushed his glasses to his forehead; they slipped down, and he dropped them in the street. In the silence, I heard them crack.'

The climax of the story happens on Halloween. It's a day like today, I imagine. It's just about warm enough to be an Alabama winter. It's gloomy out. A fine mist is falling. The bare trees stand patiently against the season, without solace.

It's the trees that put the lie to the stretch of strange weather. Most branches are bare. The leaves left are an anemic yellow. It makes for an odd effect. Suddenly, there is new depth to the landscape. One sees through the walls of trees and sees space. The weather lulls the perceiving mind into expecting the same sights and sounds. It feels like September … but there's Christmas music at the Caribou Coffee. But the sun is setting at five. But when I take this corner I see across the river, when I didn't used to. I am disoriented by sudden sight.

In the news today: “The alleged 9/11 mastermind and four other suspects will go on trial close to where the Twin Towers fell.”

I have to copy a quiz for class today, and I've left no time to do it at school. I'm in no mood for work. After a nine-mile run on Wednesday, a sniffle and a cough have crept into my sinuses. I'm sleepy and lethargic.

Down on Fourth Street, you'll find one of the only remaining small businesses in Dinkytown, a printing and copy house. The owner is almost always there, a greying man with a diffident smile. We engage in a lazy small-town conversation while he is copying my quizzes. A lazy and personable conversation is very welcome in the barren psychological space that is this University of Minnesota college town.

He asks about the weekend. He says his Saturday will be the Gophers game and a nap. The U's football team has a new stadium. I ask him if that has inspired the team to great heights. No, they're just hanging on to slim hopes for a bowl game. And what with all the legal issues…. Legal issues?

In the local news
: ““Football player accused in assault of female student”, and “Gophers football staff member jailed on DWI charges.” Kids and their pranks.

So there's a mad dog approaching down the small town street. Everyone has retreated indoors, except Atticus. “Nothing is more deadly than a deserted, waiting street. The trees were still, the mockingbirds were silent.' Atticus stands alone with a rifle.

In an interesting twist, it seems that the Republicans would rather that the masterminds of the 9/11 attack did not stand trial. They're not even tempted by the prospect of a line of Arabs at the entrance to the gas chamber. Why? Because a certain bogeyman made a promise to shut Guantanamo. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell says bringing the suspects from Guantanamo into the US puts Americans "unnecessarily at risk"!

Mad dogs always trot straight forward, unconscious as zombies. Imagine two dogs who were enemies in life, trotting forward along the instinctual, invisible line, side by side, content in the righteousness of rabies, comforted by rage. Most of us rush indoors, and watch the dramas through the fog of our windows.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Travelogue 304 – November 8
Our Wonderful American Amateurs

Harper Lee published one book in her lifetime. It won a Pulitzer Prize, was a bestseller, and was voted "Best Novel of the Century" in a 1999 poll by the Library Journal. It happens that I'm having one of my classes read the book this semester. The bookstore had extra copies, I had to assign some fiction, and I was familiar with it; so I assigned it.

This class is at the downtown college, and I am one of a small minority of white people in the classroom on any given night. It didn't take long for me to develop concerns as I prepped for lessons around this novel. The language is 50s American South. I deliberated; I considered dropping the book. But it's in the syllabus by now.

Instead I initiate one of those class discussions the thought of which makes me cringe. Group discussions of racism: an idea so revolutionary it was trite within weeks of its first enactment. What can I do? The surprise of this detour is the authenticity of the discussion. There is little discomfort. And no, there is nothing new said under the sun, but it's a subject everyone in the room can relate to. Willis in the back is middle-aged. He can say with a smile, without rage, that racism is something he experiences everyday. He describes the lady in the elevator who lays a protective hand over her purse when he enters. Oddly, the only one with no stories is the Native American, Mike, who advertises with eagle feather tattoos.

'Hey, guys, Scout grew up in a different time. It wasn't Obama's America. People said negro and colored, and they didn't know any better.' They nod blandly. 'I think we can handle it,' says the 18 year-old with the perfect Afro. He says it with a wink and a sardonic smile. Nice: we did that without professional facilitation. Sing an ode to native wisdom.

Harper Lee had a few advantages in life. She grew up next to Truman Capote. Me, I grew up next to a chubby Argentinian boy who liked to push me around. And now that I'm thinking about it, he stole my basketball. Harper probably would have picked on me, as well. They say she was a tom-boy. And she was an avid reader. I love that combination. Those are the only two things I want to know about her childhood.

It wasn't until her late 20s that she decided to become a writer, volunteering for an all-American dose of deprivation in New York City. She published a few stories, and more importantly she forged a friendship with musician Michael Brown, who offered her a year's salary to produce a novel. Whatever lucky breaks she had had up to that moment, now she had to produce. And she hit her home run.

Apparently one best novel of the century was enough. Her only subsequent appearance in the limelight was to become Catherine Keener for a junket into Kansas with her friend Truman. 'Quadruple murder, Harper; it'll be a lark.'

Yesterday was the Tesfa 5K at Fort Snelling State Park. The gods smiled upon us. They did more than smile. They showered us with sunny blessings: sunny and 60°. I leapt on my bike in the morning, eager for the race. Everyone who showed up was in fine spirits. It's the fourth year we have staged this race, but we're still beginners in the road-run business. It's happy chaos for an hour, but somehow we get everyone registered and to the starting line on time. I recognize a number of faces among the runners from previous years and from previous Tesfa events. We exchange encouraging words. The race begins, and the so does the pain. Fellowship and pain; are these the incentives for sacrificing a beautiful Saturday morning?

What about the those over-sized clocks at the finishing line? They seem to move us. How can it matter? This isn't London 2012. Let's face it: I'm struggling to beat the first-place dog in the race. The guy in front of me has a good seventy pounds on me. His pace is a roll. If any effort can produce a greater ratio of suffering to insignificance on Destiny's sonar screen, I am hard-pressed to come up with it. Yet, all our eyes are locked onto those digital numbers as we approach the finish line. There's little more important in those final instants.

I cross the line, another of America's glorious amateurs. I note my time, slower than last year's time. We head back to the park's pavilion to collect our awards.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Travelogue 303 – November 5
Noise in the Machine

Machines make noises. We shouldn't take offense. My bike is making a clicking noise now, since I took it into the shop last week. I have new gears and a new chain, so it clicks when I pedal. I take that as a healthy noise, like the hum of a tuned-up auto.

My car is another story. Things have happened underneath that I don't dare investigate too closely. The muffler has checked out long ago. Everybody in the neighborhood knows that. In addition, a pipe down there seems to have seceded from the union and hangs on a thread, lodged between a few other mysterious greasy parts down there – between the distributor cap and the rear bearing support bushing, I would say if you asked. I would say that because the names are melodious. And besides all that, the rear brake is making a scraping sound, too, especially on a cold day.

But the old Honda put-puts with extraordinary vigor and confidence, considering that her entrails are hanging down between her tires. She must last me another six weeks. The car is actually Margaret's. I 'bought' it from her for a low sum, so that I have something to carry me to work this autumn. After Christmas, when I have boarded a plane for Ethiopia, the car will revert to family ownership.

She is white and compact, my Honda. Her rear bumper is sinking with time toward the road, proudly tilting the Obama bumper sticker toward the sky. My addition to the look is a faint set of red streaks on the front bumper, lifted from the side of a van that was occupying my parking space. The van belonged to a recalcitrant college daddy using Craig's lot behind his house. With a few little nudges, the Honda and I thought we just might fit, but the daddy changed his mind and ran out with his hand in the air. 'Are you blind?' he asked with sudden irritability. I said I was busy reading the 'No Parking' sign.

The radio in the car makes it own noises. There was a show on public radio yesterday about what it means to be conservative these days. One happy caller from Virginia says the new Republican governor has promised to do whatever is necessary to create jobs, including cutting taxes and improving transportation. Hmmm. Sounds like my good intentions to fix the muffler by adjusting the rear bearing support bushing and polishing the distributor cap. Our Republican governor in Minnesota will be moving on to his presidential bid next year. As far as I can tell, he seems to think budget caps will cure H1N1 and take us to Mars. There's something appealing about this brave new world, in which cause and effect are divorced. It was never a satisfying match.

Another caller was enraged. Wall Street is running rampant. Nothing is being done. Nothing! Rage is all the rage these days. Is the question being answered: what does it mean to be conservative? Does it relate to volume of protest, to abstract rage, or to the efficacy of tax cuts in the fight against the Taliban? Or is it a kind of four-year revel in the incidental setbacks of Obama's presidency? I'm not entirely sure.

Well, this is the life of itinerancy. Every fall I sleep in a different bed in a different room. I drive a different car to work, and harangue a new cohort of kids. Today, it's tailpipes; tomorrow, it's tax cuts. Yesterday, it's a new president; today it's rage in the parking lot. I don't know. You just have to lean over the engine and take your best guess.