Wilderness, experience, and commodity.

963The Internet’s aflame with outrage over the killing of a male lion in Zimbabwe – a park favorite named “Cecil” – by a dentist from Minnesota. The lion was baited outside of park boundaries by the hunter’s guides so he could be shot, which is not only immoral but illegal. I mourn the death of this animal.  And amid the welter of issues to ponder here, I’m thinking of one: what does Cecil’s death say about our lives, and our pursuit of meaning through purchased “experiences” — particularly in wilderness?

Big-game hunting in Africa — like all the other historical depredations of Africa’s natural resources, from Congo rubber to diamonds — is very big business. (On the radio this morning, I heard that a hunt like this can cost $45,000 or more.)  And it’s an uncomfortable reminder that the last frontier (pun intended) of purchaseable commodities is experiences.  Wealth and capital are being concentrated into fewer and fewer hands, and those hands are getting very full.  When all your material needs are more than met, when you’ve fought for and won an Hermes Birkin bag or rare Swiss watch, what is left to want?  What’s unique? What’s authentic?  What’s real? What can break the skin of habit that grows like mold over the surface of even the most privileged life? As Russian critic Victor Shklovsky famously wrote:  “If someone compares his sensation at holding a pen for the first time and then holding the same pen for the ten thousandth time, he will agree with us…. Habit removes works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war.”

One answer to these questions is experience: meaningful contact with something not yourself that expands the self and continues doing so in memory, Wordsworth-style.  And the richer you are, the bigger the experience you can buy.  You could become a Manhattan socialite summitting Mount Everest with her Dean & DeLuca espresso machine in tow (memorably described by Jon Krakauer in Into Thin Air.)  You could become the star of a splashy, tacky pseudo-Tolkein wedding among towering redwoods.  Or you could stalk and shoot a rare animal and bring its head home to hang on your wall as a reminder — once habit starts to reform over the surface of your life, like a skin on stale pudding — that once you felt something.  (Never mind what the animal felt.)

Notice that all these “experiences” have one thing in common: contact with the natural world, even though they are still mediated by guides and tools (and espresso machines.)  We still seek that world, as humans; it still nourishes us in ways we can’t anticipate until we experience it.  Craig Childs’ great book The Animal Dialogues describes how  encounters with animals — from grizzlies to mountain lions to owls to even our own housecats — can shake us up and open our eyes, knocking us off our self-appointed position at the center of the world in a way we need.  We seek the wild, and what lives there.  Yet as an impoverished, and impoverishing, landscape of asphalt and big-box stores covers more of our environment, we feel trapped, anxious, eager for contact with nonhuman animals and soil and sky and something that just feels real even if we have little idea of how to get there.

Wilderness hiking is one remedy.  Rafting, biking, or even just walking down the street on a late summer evening, with the outrageously gorgeous mellow light of oncoming sunset in the sky, are others.  So is horseback riding, and farming.  So is hunting.  I’m not suggesting all these are equivalent in every way, just that in my experience — and I have experienced all of them — they provide that burst of contact with reality we crave, the humbling and necessary and wondrous reminder that (to borrow from Matthew Crawford) there is a world beyond your head.  An attentive encounter with the natural world — and the experience of deep interaction with it that hunters and hikers describe in varying forms — can rip the skin of habit away.

Yet this lion-shooting dentist should not call himself a hunter.  He’s a trophy-shooter.  And even if you don’t like hunting and don’t participate in it, you might agree there is a difference between the two.  Good hunters, like the ones I grew up with and deeply respect, would be the first to agree with you.  One hunter friend distinguishes “shooting” from real hunting, which he describes a complex dance between hunter, dog [and sometimes horse], and environment, and in which the process of contact with a reality beyond yourself — not an object to hang on your wall — is the real goal.  “Hunting,” he writes, “is an honorable and noble venture that should be pursued with gear and guns that evidence knowledge of and respect for the sport’s history, traditions and ethic.”  (Note: ethic.)  The great Montana writer Rick Bass says of deer hunting, which feeds him and his family through the winter, “There’s something up, out there in the woods, a thing that our scientists and atom-chasers and neutron-smashers will likely never be able to prove or discover — a braided spirit, is what it seems like to me — and sometimes a hunter finds him- or herself inside it, and other times outside it.  It exists, though what to make of such knowledge, I am not quite sure, other than to try to remember, always, to say please and thank you.”  Another hunter I know speaks of mourning: “When I take an animal’s life,” he says, “I am taking a part of my own, as well.”  And like Bass, he always says thank you.  The good hunter isn’t seeking to buy an exceptional experience, including exceptions to human and natural law.  S/he isn’t after a trophy.  S/h is seeking to submit himself or herself to the natural world and its laws, which will mean experiencing whatever that world decides is on offer that day.  Fundamentally, this is a posture of humility, not arrogance.

Yet making the natural world available as a place of “authentic experience” also risks opening it up for economic exploitation as just another “resource” (one reason among many to resist the language of “natural resources.”)  What ethically grounds positive human-and-natural-world encounters, at least in my view, is the self-examination and humility involved, gratitude for one’s place in a right relationship to the nonhuman, and the recognition that money is not the only measure of value in encounters with what’s left of a wild world.  Trophy-shooting is antithetical to population-balancing conservationism, self-sustenance, or meditative process (for the sake of which some hunters find but choose not to shoot their quarry, like a trout fisherman’s catch-and-release.)  And it’s antithetical to wilderness ethics as many hunters know them:  the quarry becomes mere commodity and the “value” in play is monetary, based on scarcity and capture and the degree of cash you shelled out to get that animal’s head and show it off (again, think Birkin bag.)  It makes very plain what critics of hunting in general will charge, not always unfairly: that in seeking their purchased “experience,” these humans are subordinating other creatures unethically and carelessly to their own consumer desires.

And it does become a consumer desire, since money tends to focus every standard of value around itself.  The Guardian writes, “Bryan Orford, a professional wildlife guide who has worked in Hwange and filmed Cecil many times, told National Geographic that the lion was the park’s “biggest tourist attraction”. Orford calculates that with tourists from just one nearby lodge collectively paying €8,000 per day, Zimbabwe would have brought in more in just five days by having Cecil’s photograph taken rather than being shot by someone paying a one-off fee of €50,000.”  Yet even here, we’re still insisting on money as a measure of Cecil’s “value,” rather than saying that Cecil, as an [increasingly rare] animal, has a right to exist, just because his presence on this earth contributes to the kind of wilderness human beings need for our own spiritual survival, whether we acknowledge it or not.

We can mourn Cecil, and we should.  But let’s not let Internet outrage substitute for real and difficult thinking about how we position ourselves on the continuum between exploitation of the nonhuman world and right relationship to it.  This thinking can include developing the kinds of attention and humility that can foster non-consumerist experiences of the world and (as Father James Martin writes) can widen our view of of human and nonhuman suffering.  Even though we may abuse it, we need to know that everything on this earth is not subordinate to us and our needs.  And as humans, we need that to be the case, even as wilderness, in theory and in fact, gets increasingly rare, nibbled-away-at, and more in need of real defense.

Posted in animals, conservation | Leave a comment

Shadow work and academia.

indexReading Craig Lambert’s new book Shadow Work for research on my own manuscript, my thoughts went immediately to faculty, at my college and elsewhere. “We are living in the most prosperous era in human history,” Lambert writes, “and prosperity supposedly brings leisure. Yet, quietly, subtly, even furtively, new tasks have infiltrated our days, nibbling off bits of free time like the sea eroding sand from the beach. We find ourselves doing a stack of jobs we never volunteered for, chores that showed up in our lives below the scan of awareness. They are the incoming tidal wave of shadow work, [which] includes all the unpaid tasks we do on behalf of businesses and organizations.”

Academia’s not unique, or course – every profession is seeing this.  Think of medicine, and of nursing; in a recent radio documentary I heard, a nurse lamented the loss of time she experienced in the early days of her training, when she could rub patients’ feet and sit and talk with them, making them feel cared-for and seen.  The issue at the heart of Shadow Work is the same conundrum each of us face: We love our jobs. We feel lucky to have them.  We don’t want to complain.  Times are tight, and our institutions need to save money.  We want to be team players — and if we have been invested with tenure, we should be.  (Never forget: so many adjuncts are doing everything we are for half the money and zero job security.)  Yet how should we deal with the sense that every day we are doing more and more — including things not “part of our jobs” — with less and less, and work against that trend to keep the quality of our work high?  Because this is the real reason to pay attention to this issue: if we keep stacking on more and more without really asking “why,” we are undermining the value of our own work and of our institution in the short and long term.

As at every small college — and, really, every college in an era of stuff like this — we faculty, especially the tenured people who are invested in the institution, are doing more with less every day.   And some of that’s inevitable. A generalist by nature, I like having my hand in a lot of pots.  To whom much has been given, much is expected; my education has privileged me, and I feel obligated to give back out of that well of interests and ideas.  I know that the success of any institution requires all hands at work. I’m a teacher, and like many of that tribe, an idealist and a giver, who isn’t going to cavil at pitching in when our school needs us.  Thank God for generous teachers like the colleagues with whom I spend my days. If we were actually paid for all we do on behalf of students, we’d be making Morgan-Stanley-level salaries, which, um, we’re not.  (Insert somewhat strained smiley-face here.)  And yet we give our all, anyway, because it is important, and because our college — and the young people we care for — need us.

But when I counted up the number of pots I’m stirring as part of my job these days — even aside from writing and publishing and teaching (6 courses per year) — I got something like this: advising (academic, senior-project, professional, and what-do-I-do-with-my-life advising, for recent graduates and for current students who are and are not officially my advisees), “service” (all-college committee chairs, honor-society advisor, and more), admissions (talking with prospective students and parents, formally and informally; interviewing scholarship applicants; generating and giving feedback on new initiatives; hosting class visits), and marketing (attempting to bring new ideas, initiatives, and mentions of the college in national media to the relevant people’s attention.)   There are also the social functions: receptions, potlucks, honorary dinners, celebrations of the institution’s life and good colleague-connection time which nevertheless consume entire evenings or afternoons.  Every bit of this carries on through the summer, which I count on to build a giant backlog of writing I can revise for the rest of the year.  I’m doing an awful lot of shadow work.  And I’m not alone.

This means that when we rejoin one another in the fall, colleagues and I are much less “rested” than stereotypes of summer-layabout teachers would have us be. This also means that our patience for that well-meaning advice we always get from non-teachers — “Just say no!” — is pretty short.  “Just saying no” is not a realistic option if you’re on the tenure-track, where pleading child-responsibilities seems to be the only reason colleagues will respect, and sometimes not even then.  And it’s not realistic if your institution has a real need that you can help fill — and if you have tenure, discerning and volunteering for such needs is your responsibility.

Shadow work may just be a fact of any job, and of being a faculty member, as it is a fact of life.  But the challenge, as with any job, is to keep one’s focus, keep doing well the things for which you were actually hired, and to discern what those things are.  There is a difference between doing (even taking on) additional work that builds the institution and its long-term mission and identity and finding yourself snarled in shadow-work minutiae that you do either because there is no administrative help available or because you are too pigheaded or rushed to use it.  (Guess which is more often the case with me.) There is also a difference in discerning which one builds you and your institution and which one confuses both of you, covering up real gaps and needs it is the institution’s job to address in order to keep its employees truly productive.  Such discernment — even in an era of financial belt-tightening — has got to be both faculty’s and administration’s work at any college in order to keep it healthy, as it has to be the work of any successful and functioning organization.

What are some sources of shadow work in academia? Lowered numbers of tenured colleagues in general, and too many tenured colleagues who don’t feel as obligated to pitch in and help run things as they should.  (This is often tied to gender: women tend to “give” too much, men too little.)  Lowered numbers of administrative and support staff.  Administrators who need active faculty input (and rightly so) in marketing the school and in refining its academic reputation and mission.  Massive amounts of email from every direction, which can take a big chunk of time to even begin to sort — let alone answer.  And the broader social trends beyond our walls that are shaping the lives of our students — God bless them — who seem to need more direct support each year in understanding what “education” is really for, what “college” really means, how to keep anxious parents (and one’s own anxiety) in check, how to talk with professors and work-study supervisors, why they should put away phones during lectures, how to manage time and energy, and how to take advantage of the vast resources waiting to help them succeed.  (This is true of students from all socioeconomic backgrounds, at institutions up to and including the Ivy League. Just ask William Deresiewicz.)

I’m not denying the reality of tightened financial belts, and/or the need for all hands on deck. Yet the question’s still worth raising, and caring about, because the invisible costs of shadow work to the institutions we love are so considerable. First of all: overextended colleagues whose exhaustion (even resentment) saps the atmosphere of collegial support that is sometimes one of the only tangible rewards we have for our work. Second of all: lowered quality of the work we are in charge of – teaching, advising, and creative or research activity, which under the pressures of real responsibilities and “shadow work” can become nonexistent.  (Yet in twenty years, you — and your institutional reputation — will be affected by the book you never finished, not the emails that Must Be Sent Today.) My dissertation director advised me never to sacrifice the important (long-term) to the urgent (short-term.) This is a dance I do every single day.  It’s gotten a little easier as I’ve gotten older, but not much, since the stakes are higher on the dance floors where I’m performing now, on and off campus.  (I dare not push this metaphor much farther.)  I informally advise several current graduate students at other institutions, and one of the biggest pieces of advice I give is to develop your strategies to manage your time, energy, and philosophies of “shadow work” now, before you ever go on the job market.

So how can we think about “shadow work” and manage it in our lives? Here are some thoughts:

One: couple the hard work of self-analysis to your analysis of the institution and to meaningful action.  Why am I saying yes to yet another thing? Why am I feeling so tired and resentful?  How have I been complicit in my own oppression here — taking on what I know, deep down, is not really my job, trying to manage others’ feelings for them, trying to shield students (for instance) from the consequences of their actions?  (Or, conversely, am I protecting my “own time” at the expense of colleagues – am I not giving enough, especially for someone at my level of seniority?)  How can I empower others, especially junior colleagues looking for opportunities to build their skills, to step up and meet these needs? And how / can I articulate my analysis of the problem and suggestions for institutional improvement in a concrete, constructive way that goes beyond complaining-over-coffee? If such suggestions would make me vulnerable, how/can I either address those fears and proceed anyway (if not me, who? if not now, when?) or find recourse with, for instance, AAUP?

Two: design boundaries that are true to the realities of your work and to your own comfort levels.  Find your truth and stand on it, kindly and factually.  With students, articulate your standards and policies clearly on syllabi to cut down on questioning emails; put a gentle ceiling on the number of meetings with you in a given month (they can also use the Writing Center, counseling services, or other colleagues); ask for appointments written down and confirmed in advance, and don’t hesitate to say you are not available or rescheduling is not possible. (I don’t have open “office hours” for this reason; when students are asked to make a specific appointment, they’re more likely to keep it, which also builds calendar skills.) For advising, teach students to use online registration and transcript-analysis tools and ask them to come to your meetings with a possible schedule clearly laid out. If they’re not ready, ask them to come back when they are.  And if they’re never ready, they may not be ready to be in college. For committees, consult the faculty handbook: many have stated limits to the number and type of committees you can be on. Point to that as needed.

Three: get a handle on email.  The message sitting there unread, like the thing sitting there undone, creates stress, and so your task is to reduce the stress by getting rid of it.  My life changed forever when I made it my goal to get to a totally empty inbox as much as I could — and in an average week, I can keep the inbox at 20 or below each day. On my first pass through, I delete ruthlessly: mailing lists, ads, spam, whatever (and unsubscribe from lists if possible.) Don’t agonize too much – if you haven’t read this organization’s last three bulletins, skim it, delete it, and go to their website when you have time.  Next, I answer as many emails as I have time for and file them away in folders I’ve made for each category.  (One for each class, committee, or type of responsibility, including “stuff to read” – they’re still there, but no longer in inbox.) Pretty much, if it’s still in my inbox, it’s something I’ve still got to do.  Of course, it’s also important to designate email-free (and social-media-free) times. I use Facebook but try to do so pretty strategically, letting a lot of stuff (especially “social” stuff) go by.

I’m not saying “shadow work” is unavoidable. But with a little thought, maybe we can get it under control and in doing so help preserve the health of the institution for which we’re working – shadow-wise and otherwise.

Posted in higher education, teaching | 3 Comments

The angels of Bread Loaf.

001 All around me in the half-light of thirty thousand feet, people abandon themselves to sleep: mouths slack as babies’, heads lolled back. A brown-skinned woman in a pale turban dozes under an airline blanket that in this light is startling persimmon-gold. A child curls across two seats, pink headphones clamped against her silky hair. My tall young seatmate offers me some M&Ms and rejoices with me about exit-row leg room. Here we are together in this space between places, all going somewhere. Even in our sleep, we’re flying.

I’m coming home from the Bread Loaf/Orion Environmental Writers’ Conference, which has given me, among so many other things, the most transformative workshop experience I’ve ever had. Nine strangers and leader Craig Childs and I brought a whole new territory into life by going there together, and now it’s a place on my mental map as real as Oak Bowery, Alabama or Eldorado, Iowa or the alley leading up to Samuel Johnson’s house in London, where my students and I watched a red fox trot into the dark. Around a table in the Bread Loaf library (where I discovered Stanley Elkin’s Searches and Seizures and Rick Bass’s A Thousand Deer and the amazing Miguel Hernandez), we discussed each others’ nonfiction projects by following Craig’s first code: writing is about being vulnerable, willing to put yourself out there so you can take the reader too. And in laughter and – yes – tears, we did. Sharon, Jess, Isaac, Mila, William, Stephanie, Christine, Rose, and Jenna. We’ve jokingly renamed ourselves “Childs’ Children,” and we are a family by now, one that, to borrow Deborah Eisenberg’s line, was out there waiting for all of us to come to it. “Keep these people in your head, in this circle, when you write,” Craig advised, “from here on out, and write to them.” I will.

Oh, yeah — about those tears. On Friday morning, my turn came to get feedback on the introduction of my book manuscript, The Hands-On Life: How to Wake Yourself Up and Save The World. Readers of the Cheapskate have seen a lot of chunks of it already, and know how despite myself I can default to stiff-necked rant rather than the compassionate curiosity of story. But story, of course, is where vulnerable me comes in.  And there’s the rub.  Of course, good surgeons all, the group asked me what experience illustrates “what this book is really about” for me.  My mind flashed straight to the scene I’d buried in Chapter Two.  I described it, stammering.  And then I clapped my hands to my face and cried.  My friends waited with me, let me be.  “If you can talk through tears,” Sharon offered, “we can listen through tears.” And they did.  When we were finished, I had pages of yellow-legal-pad notes and my friends had damp spots on their shirts where they’d hugged me and asked if I was ok.  I was.  I am.

But the real work wasn’t finished.  After lunch Christine and Jess and I walked to the bookstore.  On the patio outside, they found a slim blue-gray feather, white-tipped and dark-banded, and held it up.  “Angels!” Jess exclaimed.  “That’s what I always tell my little boy when we find feathers.” And then I saw it, the new first image and scene of my entire book: eagle feathers parted to the roots by wind, as my students and I watch, barely daring to breathe.  [Trust me, there’s a story.] It was all right there.  It’s right here now.  I’ve been scribbling it in airports all day, this deep-tissue lift for my entire project, courtesy of this place and these people who happened to arrive together.  Once again, Deborah Eisenberg (from “Windows”): “Everything that happens is out there waiting for you to come to it.”

Even before learning it was the theme of faculty member Luis Urrea’s craft workshop, all week I’d been inking and re-inking TRUST in big block letters onto the back of my left hand, right over the vein that carries wedding vows into the heart.  It’s no accident that this word follows me this week.  It’s no accident about the feathers, either.  Almost every morning I’d been bird-watching with Orion editor Chip Blake, who’s forgotten more about birds than I will ever know.  Among the things I learned from him: cedar waxwings (so glamorous in dull gold and platinum) get kind of drunk from their favorite food, juniper berries, which are always in some state of fermentation.  You couldn’t have a sweeter writing metaphor than one bright morning’s sight, right next to the inn:  a whole tree working alive with waxwings, hopping and singing and going nuts.  Isn’t that writing at its most glorious and wild and necessary? Staggering around ecstatic in your tree to sing your song?

It was Chip who identified the little feather as a bluejay’s.  I was wearing it inside my nametag last night – last of the conference, too – when William and Isaac and I took our turns reading for three minutes in the barn.  My micro-story was called — I swear I hadn’t planned this — “Wrestling the Angel.”  And I felt such warmth from those assembled there, including shades of the Bread Loaf past we’d seen in David Bain’s slideshow: Ralph Ellison, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers (who’s from my own home place.) And in a photo of a workshop group with four men and one other woman, around the early 1950s, there’s my friend Elizabeth Spencer, who’s in another book I’m finishing, whose intensity still shines so bright.  From director Michael Collier outward, everyone I met, writers and guests of every plumage and variation, was so warm, so kind and real.

We were moaning that we didn’t want to leave the mountain, and it’s true.  But since we have to, we’re ready for the next work: carrying that cone of green-gold light, that circle of workshop friends’ faces and voices and questions that help you find the voice in you that breaks your writing open, as a young spruce tree, with patience, splits a rock. I pray for the vision to keep slipping knife under skin, to unpeel a Rick Bass-style catfish with a gold watch deep down in its guts.  That’s where the real things are, including the tears, as for Pam Houston’s baby elk with its nose against her cheek, as for Ross Gay’s “Burial” (read it, please), as in Allison Deming’s eloquent pleas to reach through poetry toward science so we can save the world we love.  That’s where the story is, the extravagant curl of river that carries Luis Urrea’s hapless modern Lewis and Clark through an urban wilderness.  And the light’s there, too: Ginger Strand’s rhapsodic harmonies of photograph and word, Craig Childs’ giant Burning Man blazing a hundred feet high in a desert where stone weapon-points thousands of years old still dot the shores of a vanished sea.  It’s in the heart, like the great heart of Scott Russell Sanders, whose every sentence makes me say Amen.

I’m writing this by hand in my scruffy red notebook on the plane, seatbelt fastened.  The pilot’s just observed, in that casual pilot-way, that there may be “some weather” up ahead. Or there may not.  On the other side of it, I’ll land back in my life at home, where all the distractions are.  But the spell of that green and gold light up on the mountain, the helpless, joyous, perception-renovating  focus that’s kept this pen in my hand more or less straight since 5 am, isn’t broken, and doesn’t feel like it ever will be.  I see story all anew.  Even here.  And here.  And here.  I’ll shine up my book’s most important sentence, because I think I know now what it will be.  I’ll hew to the motto on the T-shirt of the girl across from me: PRAY. HUSTLE. REPEAT.  And to the Bread Loaf / Orion Environmental Writers Conference, its faculty, guests, and staff, and all my friends, I’ll keep on giving thanks.

bl o 2015 009

Posted in art, community, gratitude, spirit, writing | 6 Comments

Parents, college, and the student self.

The recent controversies about “free-range parenting” have me thinking about something every college professor deals with: the relationship between parents and their college-age children, which is often very different from what we experienced with our own parents when we left home.  Recently a prospective student’s parents asked me, “So, everything you are saying about self-motivation and intellectual curiosity…. do you expect students to have that when they get here, or do you teach them that?”

Both, I said. I tell first-year students directly what their professors’ expectations of them are — they have to be alert and curious and self-motivated and start building relationships with professors in their first year, and I help them build the skills to do that.  With 84% tenured and tenure-track faculty at our school, they have professors and mentors who are invested in this institution to advise them.  But the older students get, the more I nudge them toward the edge of the nest; if they don’t accept responsibilities and make things happen for themselves, no one else will either, here or in the world beyond college.

These parents were pleasant people.  But I couldn’t help noticing a shade of trepidation in their faces at my answer, which echoed the vibe colleagues and I get more and more from parents: what sort of accommodations can you make for our child that will support him/her in the style of adult supervision and affirmation to which s/he has become accustomed?  And, behind that, a more personal worry: we have been our child’s motivation: what if s/he just can’t make it on her own, without us?  And beyond that, what’s perhaps the real worry (and the source of overinvestment and anxiety): if my primary role is not “parent” anymore, than what am I?

Having been teaching at the college level for almost twenty years, as both a graduate student and a professor, I’ve seen parents’ involvement in students’ lives go up at the same time self-motivation, courage, and maturity among students have in many ways gone down.  As one colleague remarked, “We are raising a generation of kids who cram their schedules full, looking for external validation, and then expect an adult to make things better when, inevitably, they run into conflicts.” This has real implications for the coping skills and sense of agency with which students leave college, because we’re building a generation unaware of who they are when nobody’s watching, alternately longing for and terrified of independent life without surveillance or a crowded calendar of activities among which to rush.  In smoothing all obstacles from their child’s path (what used to be the “helicopter” parent is now the “lawnmower” parent), parents think they are “helping.” But when they get to college, students (especially those from privileged backgrounds) sometimes realize their pre-college path has turned them into Eliot-style Hollow People against their will – and that parental involvement, alternately pressuring toward “achievement” and worrying over safety and ease, has contributed to that.

Interestingly, students are among the first to tell you this about themselves.  Especially after a semester in college, they are seeking more independence and thinking well about how their education can help.  When I read parts of William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep with first-year students this year, several passionately affirmed his argument that a focus on credentialing, extracurricular-activity-accumulating, and 4.0 averages (or higher) from middle school onward has created a generation of “really excellent sheep.” Coupled with the constant self re/invention of social media (which turns eerie and malicious with things like YikYak),  this leaves an awful lot of students not knowing who they are when nobody’s watching, or grading, or judging.  What do you really want to be? Who are you, anyway? This is a generation longing for authentic experience even as it is hemmed in on all sides by simulacra, which almost — but never quite, deep down — succeeds in bending that craving to itself.  And not knowing who you are and what you really want, apart from your parents and the paradigms in which you’ve grown up, gets more and more dangerous — professionally, spiritually, and emotionally – the older you get.

No parent would say “But I WANT my child to have a massive, painful midlife crisis!,” even if that’s what they are setting them up for.  Yet so many parents can’t see that they are so invested in their kids they have no sense of where their own selves end and the child’s begins – which means the kids don’t either, even at the natural maturation and transition point of high school into college.  My colleagues and I have seen this over and over.  When a student expresses even a little bit of doubt, anxiety, or fear, the parent freaks out and takes the student to the doctor and gets the student medicated, so that what may be just uncomfortable but normal emotions become occasions of fearful self-pathologizing.  One parent brought to a prospective-student weekend at my college a child who had literally never slept away from home before.  The parent put the student in the dorm and hovered anxiously, telling her again and again, “you can call me at the hotel if you need me.” Unsurprisingly, that’s what the student did.  The student did not end up coming to college, at my school or, I suspect, at all.  I hope she will make it to college somewhere.  (And I hope this does not lead to the sort of angry, painful midlife student/parent rift that can unfortunately be necessary for anything like self-determination in such cases).  Another student told me that his mother reads his journal and hacks into his computer to sift through his files of creative work.  My jaw dropped.  So what do you do? I asked.  “Well,” he said, “I have several different blogs online, under different aliases, and I put all my stuff on those so she doesn’t know where it is.”

It’s hard to think of a better example than that of the way parental smothering — all for the “best” reasons — becomes real endangerment:  driving your child online — where there are more dangers than you can imagine — to escape you. Researcher danah boyd [whose lower-case name is her preference], has written in her fascinating book It’s Complicated that the Internet is the last “public space” available to teenagers in a world where parents won’t let them go anywhere; the dangers of such public spaces are real, of course, but the threats to children are much more likely to come from within the same domestic or online spaces parents believe are “safe.”  I don’t have a child, so I’m sure there are many emotions in this experience I don’t understand.  But as a college professor, I come up against the reality more and more each year that parental overprotectiveness hinders my ability to do my job, because it hinders a student’s ability to use her education to grow into a functioning adult.  Consider this: in hovering, offering protection again and again, a parent’s not saying so much “I’m here if you need me” as “I don’t believe you can get along without me, or ever will.” I want to ask parents: is this what you plan to do when your child is 30? Follow her around her office and interrupt conversations with her boss to ask him not to speak to your child in that tone of voice?

Philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote of the space of public civic life she called the polis, in which we have to find out who we are by contact with others.  Confronting real challenges and differences of opinion stretches the self beyond what might otherwise be its self-protective, self-limiting borders.  This is true for all of us.  It’s true for students.  And it’s true for their parents, who may have become a little too used to seeing a child as an extension of themselves, subject to their anxious control.  If I don’t stand over him/talk to the professor for him/plan out his whole course of study, maybe he’ll never get a job.  Or, maybe if you don’t, he will. And be the sort of functioning adult he will need to be for the rest of his life.  Maybe — maybe — he will be just fine.

Posted in self-reliance, teaching | 6 Comments

The museum of the too-good-to-use.

“My mother had a collection of old lace, which was famous among her friends, and a few fragments of it still remain to me, piously pinned up in the indigo-blue paper supposed (I have never known why) to be necessary to the preservation of fine lace.  But the yards are few, alas; for true to my conviction that what was made to be used should be used, and not locked up, I have outlived many and many a yard of noble point de Milan, of stately Venetian point, of shadowy Mechline, and of exquisitely flowered point de Paris, not to speak of the delicate Valiencennes which ruffled the tiny handkerchiefs and incrusted and edged the elaborate lingerie of my youth. Nor do I regret having worn out what was meant to be worn out. I know few sadder sights than museum collections of those Arachne-webs that were designed to borrow life and color from the nearness of young flesh and blood. Museums are cemeteries, as unavoidable, no doubt, as the other kind, but just as unrelated to the living beauty of what we have loved.” – Edith Wharton, “A Little Girl’s New York” (Harper’s Magazine, 1938).

From the Lace Museum of Venice (http://museomerletto.visitmuve.it/en/home/)

From the Lace Museum of Venice (http://museomerletto.visitmuve.it/en/home/)

Setting my table for a dinner party recently, I opened the drawer of the buffet where the tablecloths live: a white feather-patterned damask, a very old lace cloth (from my maternal great-grandmother, I think), and more.  I reached for one but hesitated:  are you sure you want to use this? whispered some interior voice.  What if wine spills on it? What if it gets ripped? Since it’s survived so many years already, could you handle the guilt if it doesn’t survive you?  I argued with myself about this but didn’t win.  The tablecloth stayed in the drawer.

However, as always, I did bring out my grandmother’s china — a Renaissance-ish-floral-bordered pattern I’ve adored since I was a little girl, staring up at it ensconced in its glass-doored cabinet — and the wineglasses that had come to me, through her, from my great-grandmother.  “You remind me of her,” my grandmother always told me.  “I know she would want you to have these, and enjoy them.” I remember her urging me to do that.  “Don’t be like me,” she said, “having nice things and never using them, ‘saving them for later.'”  She gave me her mother’s rings and cameo, too.  She would have loved you.  You remind me of her.

I have hosted many a dinner on that china, and enjoyed it without guilt.  Not so the one time I wore my great-grandmother’s ring — three small opals on a thin band — out of the house and, looking down, saw that a sliver had chipped out of one stone.  I had been taking care.  Opals are just soft, anyway.  My grandmother had urged me to wear that ring.  But I was inconsolable.  Even repeating her words to me — have them, use them, enjoy them, she would want that — didn’t help.  This was entrusted to you, and you ruined it.  Isn’t that the reproach we most fear from our ancestors, that particular sharp shame?  That little chip isn’t noticeable to anyone but me.  But I’ve been scared to wear that ring ever since.

Yet the alternative to use and its dangers isn’t really any better — immuring ourselves in museums of fearfully preserved objects that in a way become even “deader” than Edith Wharton’s museums, because they are seen and used and enjoyed by nobody but us.  Buying rooms full of glossy new things (and then hissing at everyone who comes in your house to stay off the furniture) is even worse.  Looking at the lists of items in estate sales in the newspaper every week is looking the passage of time in the face, sadly realizing that as much as the hand wringer or those stoneware crocks or those porcelain figurines might have meant to the one who gathered them, they don’t necessarily mean the same thing to the ones who follow: one person’s treasure collection is another person’s how will we ever get this house cleaned out when she’s gone?  It’s not a bad way to keep stuff-accumulating-impulses in check: what, if anything, will my descendants do with this? What meaning will they make of it?

Memory sticks to things, but it must also float free of them to be alive, to make a thing (and the memory) more than a static object of worship.  Laurel McKelva Hand of Eudora Welty’s novel The Optimist’s Daughter (1972), confronts this when she returns to her father’s house to find that a breadboard her late husband made by hand as a gift for her late mother has been ruined by her father’s careless young widow, Fay, who’s scornful of it as “just an old thing.”  Significantly placed at the end of the novel, it’s a startling scene to read – especially if you like old things as much as I do.  But Welty’s closing words echo beyond the book, into every moment in which you touch an object and remember the one who gave it to you:

“The past is […] impervious, and can never be awakened.  It is memory that is the somnambulist.  It will come back in its wounds from across the world… calling us by our names and demanding its rightful tears.  It will never be impervious…. As long as it’s vulnerable to the living moment, it lives for us, and while it lives, and while we are able, we can give it up its due.” 

“Laying the breadboard down on the table where it belonged,” Laurel thinks: “Memory lived not in initial possession but in the freed hands, pardoned and freed, and in the heart that can empty but fill again, in the patterns restored by dreams.”  We can care for our inherited things and our treasured possessions without being bound by them, without being terrified of the loss and breakage that is inherent to the passage of time in this world.  That’s the challenge, but, when we find it, a gift.

And as my friends and I sat around my grandmother’s table, in her chairs, eating and drinking from her china and glassware, laughing and talking for hours, I thought of her and knew she’d be glad we were enjoying her things together.  That’s another gift of memory, and of the present moment in which we let that memory come to life again.

Posted in home, spirit, stuff, the past | 1 Comment

Ownlife vs. Internet?

“…at the same time I felt so strongly the pull of another thing, a thing having to do with music, freedom, the future, individuality.  This is an important reason why I became a writer, I think, for in everything I write, I am seeking freedom, which to me is a state that is inaccessible to the gaze of others.  And this state, which is not only shameless but also selfless, is not unlike a child’s way of being in the world.” – Karl Ove Knausgaard, qtd in Harper’s Dec. 2014

The strange case of Alex Lee hit the New York Times this week.  A snapshot of Alex, a sixteen-year-old Texas Target clerk, posted on Twitter (without his knowledge or consent), has already led to an Internet sensation, an appearance on “Ellen,” and the usual general fifteen minutes of puffery.  And — this being the Internet — it’s also led to death threats and the release of his family’s personal information online.  What on earth? Why would anyone threaten a boy and his family just because another teenager posted his picture?  Well, probably just because they can.  Which leaves us — again — confronting the dark side of the Internet, and what (not only who) it endangers.

Alex and his family have had their privacy shredded (although, to be fair, they did go on “Ellen,”) all because of a stranger’s Twitter-enabled whim.  But then, the Internet excels at subjecting us, without our consent, to strangers’ whims and bad decisions.  When the link between thought and action, person and person-with-a-grudge, desire and “fame,” can be so dramatically shortened by the medium, and when law and ethics (as is the case with any technology) lag so far behind in addressing and analyzing these connections, we should be concerned.  Especially considering, the swamp of online threats against feminist video-game critics and other outspoken women, it’s worth being wary of how instant access to information turns into access to us.  Rebecca Solnit has just written a great piece on this in Harper’s, issuing a warning to the tech-prophets seeking tech-profits via a 1984 Apple Macintosh commercial :

“If you think a crowd of people staring at one screen is bad, wait until you have created a world in which billions of people stare at their own screens even while walking, driving, eating, in the company of friends and family — all of them eternally elsewhere. Apple’s iPhones will make their users trackable at all times unless they take unadvertised measures to disable that feature. They will be part of the rise of the Internet, which will savage privacy, break down journalism as we know it, and create elaborate justifications for never paying artists or writers — an Internet that will be an endless soup of grim porn and mean-spirited chat and rumor and trolling and new ways to buy things we don’t need while failing to make the contact we do need.”

The Internet has shortened the distance between impulse and fulfillment but widened the distance between us, reversing the mature moral order of being in the world, in which (ideally) action should follow reflection and we should take others as seriously as we take ourselves.  (Yeah, that’s why I said “ideal.”)  Even as we succumb to the impulse to tweet the picture of the cute boy or snap a picture of a stranger, we’re not really thinking about him as a person, as a human subjectivity who’s as real to himself as we are.  He’s just a shadow, a simulacrum, an image, a ghost.  On political comment boards or news websites, he’s The Other, The Enemy, The Opponent, He Who Must Be Flamed/Smacked Down/Shamed.  And if that doesn’t work, pull out a threat of violence, or if “He” is a woman, rape.  “He” is so far away.  And, after all, “He” is less real than you are, with your needs and your insecurities and your own desire to make an impression on the world that seems so close and yet so far away.  “He” doesn’t have a family or a job, doesn’t feel pain or fear, has no life beyond the screen.

The irony of using a blog to talk about the Internet doesn’t escape me.  Even as a college professor writing a book about reclaiming our attentiveness in a distracted world, skeptical of smartphones and Twitter (neither of which I have), I still use email and online course platforms every day.  Yet I’m hoping that the presence of ethical users can keep the Internet trading good ideas, too, helping to sustain our own dignity in a world that’s always whittling the human down to the mechanical.  In his “Principles of Newspeak” appendix to Nineteen Eighty-four, Orwell traces the link between complexity of language, nuance of thought, and plenitude of the self.  Party members in his fictional “Ingsoc” state speak an oversimplified argot called “Newspeak,” which makes some ideas (conveniently for those in power) impossible to imagine: “There would be many crimes and errors which it would be beyond [one’s] power to commit,” Orwell writes, “simply because they were nameless and therefore unimaginable.” His hero Winston Smith notes that

In principle a Party member had no spare time, and was never alone except in bed.  It was assumed that when he was not working, eating or sleeping he would be taking part in some kind of communal recreations; to do anything that suggested a taste for solitude, even to go for a walk by yourself, was always slightly dangerous.  There was a word for it in Newspeak: ownlife, it was called, meaning individualism and eccentrity.

For Orwell, Ownlife is the site of resistance to all that would colonize, commodify, or subject humanity.  Ownlife is where reflection lives, and consideration for others as well as oneself, and the realization that you and your present concerns are not all there is to the world.  It’s what we sink into when we experience an unmediated moment of joy, without a selfie to capture it, or freeze in wonder as a comet hurtles across the sky.  It’s where we don’t have to explain ourselves to anyone, where our identity doesn’t rest on anyone’s opinions.  It’s where we are alone, whether we like it or not.  It’s what we escape when we fill the minutes between things, thumbing our phones.  It’s not profitable.  It’s dignified and quiet, if we let it be.  And it’s what’s endangered if someone photographs us (and circulates that image) without our consent.  Which is why it’s worth protecting — legally as well as morally — in order to protect our own humanity.

I’m thinking less about celebrities or figures who step knowingly into the Internet spotlight than about the private citizens who may find themselves on the wrong end of Internet image-alienation without quite knowing how.  Media law already provides degrees of redress for private and public citizens seeking to retain control of their own “image and likeness,” yet every day, a new conundrum — from Facebook’s ownership of all your personal posted images to an old mistake following you around for years until you plead for “the right to be forgotten” — shows how far behind reality the law actually is.  Will it ever catch up with the way the Internet alienates image of person from person, likeness from reality, simulacrum from object, and then sends those unhooked images, thin as playing cards, around the world for years to serve the needs of (and make money for) people the original person will never meet, contributing “content” that swells the coffers of corporations who will never pay us for what is, technically, our own information?  (Read Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns The Future for more on this.)

Despite having grown up in a world in which omnipresent smartphones (and smartphone photos and videos) are “normal,” many of my college students haven’t quite thought about how Snapchatting can go wrong.  Some have heard of the Jennifer Lawrence hack, but few have realized her private photos, shared privately, had been stolen out of the “cloud” – in which all our supposedly “private” content rests – which means the same thing could happen to any of them.  Some students offer versions of many people’s responses to Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations: “If I’m not doing anything wrong, why should I worry about surveillance? I don’t have anything to hide.”  Yet this point of view ignores the reality of how a theft of image and likeness does echo “primitive” peoples’ stereotypical fear of cameras: that box that captures your picture also steals your soul.   And it does look very much like soul-stealing, once your image gets alienated from you and bent to other ends, in ways that can follow you around the Net for the rest of your life.  Especially when that endangers your Orwellian ownlife, in which the dignity of a private self is its own end and reward — not to mention when, as in the threats against Alex, the dangers are literal.

So what can we do? Well, first of all, we can do our part to be ethical on the Net, brightening and enriching the communities of which we are members.  We can investigate tools like reputation.com, Ghostery, and other online management techniques for blocking trackers and avoiding dissemination of private information without our knowledge. (Searching for your own name plus the names of towns in which you’ve lived can be very revealing.)  We can avoid feeding the Facebook beast beyond the point of reasonable social or professional use (particularly with images of ourselves we wouldn’t want, say, parents or employers to see — students, I’m talking to you.)  But most of all we can cultivate in ourselves the habits of attention, mindfulness, and quiet, without the Internet, that cultivate our Ownlife — that irreplaceable thing that we can choose every day to protect or to give away.

** Updates (Nov. 19):

Reasons to be concerned about this if you are a parent: http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/data_mine_1/2013/09/facebook_privacy_and_kids_don_t_post_photos_of_your_kids_online.html?wpsrc=fol_fb

And reasons to be concerned if you are a teacher or professor: http://dailynous.com/2014/11/18/philosophy-grad-student-target-of-political-smear-campaign/

Posted in attention, corporations, technology | 3 Comments

Harpooning the comet.

photo from a comet

View of a comet’s surface: from the European Space Agency’s photoset at https://www.flickr.com/photos/europeanspaceagency/sets/72157638315605535/

Struggling to absorb the wondrousness of Philae, the observatory device shot into space this week to stick to and photograph a comet, I can only fasten on the verb: harpooning.  It’s a suitable invocation of an attempt to fasten ourselves to mystery, to the curved back of the large beast hurtling past our limited world and away into its limitless own.  Melville would approve.

Except the harpoon didn’t catch. The device bounced, for 2 hours, while “the comet rotated beneath it.” Wow.  One scientist’s words I heard were appropriate: even not getting this right, he said [I’m paraphrasing], is not a failure in the grand scheme of things.  Because they tried.  As artists, and voyagers, and scientists, and humans in general always do and always have.  We try.  Philae itself (not file, where my Southern brain first went) is named after an ancient device of decoding and knowing, one stone used to read another.  We want to know.  That’s our joy and our curse.  We want to know.

Preparing to descend again into the work against Keystone XL in the wake of the midterm elections, I’m thinking of how we can continue to fight the casual, use-value approach to the world that has led us to pollute our own planet and think seriously, in some quarters, of colonizing others.  Let the awe of the Philae launch and the photos it’s sending back – humanity’s first sight of a comet close up — sober us into a realization of our own place in the stream of time and the great ocean of the galaxy, so small, so small.  Let it humble and dazzle us, in the way Melville’s Ishmael would recognize, gazing from his small boat into the eye of the whale-calf gazing back from its own unknowable world.  Let it redirect our gaze on all that is already around us as well as all that lies beyond the realm of our sight, all that is out there in the galaxy where human plans and narratives and self-importance mean less than nothing.

There are not only images but sound recordings from Philae too.  And now we can hear a comet sing.

Tonight, trudging through the bitter cold to my car from another meeting, through the fog of work and general First World pseudoproblems, I saw something hurl through the air above a streetlight, so bright and large it looked like somebody had set a soccer ball on fire and tossed it off the roof of the nearby dorm.  But it was a shooting star – fierce, shaggy, spark-scattering, pale orange at the edges, hurtling across the sky long enough to freeze me in place, registering all of this in wonder and shock.  I thought belatedly of the plans and hopes I’d been turning over in my mind at that moment and hoped that star was some sort of blessing, like the Ancient Mariner with his water-snakes, that would be more real for being unexpected and unlooked-for.  But then I let that thought go.  No need to harpoon the comet.  Just let it be what it is, burning itself onward, glorious and not unseen.



Posted in attention, mystery, technology | 3 Comments