Thursday, July 28, 2011

find your own safe place

I just finished re-reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer for the third time. To be completely honest, I half read/ half listened this time around. The book on tape version has the most wonderful narrators and I found the combination of reading/listening to this particular story brought even more depth to the novel.

This is a novel about so many things -- large-scale tragedy and its connections to the isolation of individual pain; love; listening; communication and its impossibilities; understanding and misunderstanding; loss and coming to terms with emptiness. It is also a novel about safety... or the lack thereof. After all of his searching and questions and attempts to 'find' his father, Oskar comes to a different kind of 'revelation' (as he likes to say a la his dad) -- that the only way to be truly "safe" is to go backwards. It is the same realization that his grandmother implies in her dream in which "all of the collapsed ceilings re-formed... the fire went back into the bombs," in which "people apologized for things that were about to happen, and lit candles by inhaling," in which
Eve put the apple back on the branch. The tree went back into the ground. It became a sapling, which became a seed. God brought together the land and the water, the sky and the water, the water and the water, evening and morning, something and nothing. He said, Let there be light. And there was darkness." (pp. 306-313)
The last scene in the novel finds Oskar alone in bed at night looking through his book, Stuff That Happened to Me. (Spoiler alert!!... because the following is the end of the book...) In this book he has photos he has taken and others he has collected from things or events that interest him. He has a picture of a body falling from the Twin Towers that he found on the internet after his father's death in that tragedy.
Was it Dad?
Whoever it was, it was somebody.
I ripped the pages out of the book.
I reversed the order, so that last one was first, and the first was last.
When I flipped through them, it looked like the man was floating up through the sky.
And if I'd had more pictures, he would've flown through a window, back in the building, and the smoke would've poured into the hole that the plane was about to come outof.
Dad would've left his messages backward, until the machine was empty, and the plane would've flown backward away from him, all the way to Boston.
He would've taken the elevator to the street and pressed the button for the top floor.
He would've walked backward to the subway, and the subway would've gone backward through the tunnel, back to our stop.
Dad would've gone backward through the turnstile, then swiped his Metrocard backward, then walked home backward as he read the New York Times from right to left.
He would've spit coffee into his mug, unbrushed his teeth, and put hair on his face with a razor.
He would've gotten back into bed, the alarm would've rung backward, he would've dreamt backward.
Then he would've gotten up again at the end of the night before the worst day.
He would've walked backward to my room, whistling "I Am the Walrus" backward.
He would've gotten into bed with me.
We would've looked at the stars on my ceiling, which would've pulled back their light from our eyes.
I'd have said "Nothing" backward.
He'd had said "Yeah, buddy?" backward.
I'd have said "Dad?" backward, which would have sounded the same as "Dad" forward.
He would have told me the story of the Sixth Borough, from the voice in the can at the end to the beginning, from "I love you" to "Once upon a time..."
We would have been safe." (pp. 325-326)
And it is this last line of the novel that strikes me. 'We would have been safe..." Implication: we are not safe. And we cannot go back to the 'beginning' when we were.

So what is safety? And do we ever have it? Or do we even need it? Is it the umpire gesturing energetically and yelling "Safe!" as we slide into home base? Or is it the lock box where we keep our rainy day money? Is it the 'safety in numbers,' the safety of being with and amongst others? Or is it the mode on our computer that fixes operating systems malfunctions?

Is it love?

A student of mine -- an incredibly insightful and creative student -- once asked me if I would do him a favor. "Depends what it is," I told him in all honesty. "I am conducting an experiment. I am collecting answers from all kinds of people to the following: Define love in three words." I told him I needed to think about it... because I did. I am a REALLY slow thinker. He persisted. "I promise I'll do it," I told him.

He came in the next day and asked me if I had my answer. I laughed. Somehow I thought he wouldn't have stayed so committed to his independent project. "No, but I'll do it right now." I don't remember what I wrote, but it was something like this: listening, sharing, tenderness.

I passed my sheet of paper over to him. He read it, was quiet for a moment, and then looked up. "Interesting," he mused.

"What is?" I asked.

"Well, I've asked a lot of people and most people say 'safe' as one of their three."

I told him I thought that love was a lot of things, but not safe. 'Safe' love implies to me that one person is seeking security or meaning or a cover against all that is threatening, frightening, risky... and is seeking it within and from another person. It suggests that someone is hiding from the world... and, if that is the case, then there is no room for growth. Love should be about giving to another, not burying your head in his/her sand. Plus, love is a risk. You are giving your secrets and your intimacies and your heart and your soul up to someone else. You are opening yourself up, the very raw and nakedness at the center of you, and offering it to someone. That is very dangerous. Obviously. People get seriously injured because of love all the time. Sometimes people even die from the pain of love lost.

We put up signs to keep ourselves safe. We have safety trainings. We make safe houses and have safety insurance. Surely, it is something we are always trying to establish, to surround ourselves with. Then what is safety? I think this question doesn't interest me as much as whether we need it... as whether it is a beneficial thing for us. Whenever I am afraid of something, I like to make myself do exactly that thing because I simply hate being afraid. Doing whatever that may be involves a risk (obviously.. .hence my fear), but usually I grow and learn from the experience. Being safe all the time would mean never growing or evolving as a person... and that would be a tragedy... although I see many people doing just that. Sure the womb is the safest place. But would you want to stay there forever? We can't choose that 'go back to the beginning' option anyway.

Perhaps instead of seeking safety, we could seek understanding. This is the only kind of safety that I truly love. That feeling that someone has listened so closely and has made the attempt to see what you are seeing, to think what you are thinking, to feel what you are feeling. The safety in connection. The safety that we create together rather than the one we seek that isolates us from anything and everything that would require us to change. This is the kind of safety that can venture to say "I love you"... and to say it often. For, in the novel, the safety that different characters seek is one that tends to isolate them from each other. And is the kind that doesn't want to accept the parts of reality that involve loss and pain.... and this kind of 'safety' only winds up bringing them more pain. And frustration. And deeper loneliness. Oskar's grandmother learns this lesson. At the end of the passage where she describes her backwards dream, she talks about the last night she spent with her sister.
She rolled onto her side.
I said, I want to tell you something.
She said, You can tell me tomorrow.
I had never told her how much I loved her.
She was my sister.
We slept in the same bed.
There was never a right time to say it.
It was always unncessary.
The books in my father's shed were sighing.
The sheets were rising and falling around me with Anna's breathing.
I thought about waking her.
But it was unnecessary.
There would be other nights.
And how can you say I love you to someone you love?
I rolled onto my side and fell asleep next to her.
Here is the point of everything I have been trying to tell you, Oskar.
It's always necessary.
I love you.
Grandma       (p. 314)
Looking for safety can mean that you look at things too close ('incredibly close') and that immersing yourself in the search... or in the tiny hole that seems safe... all becomes 'extremely loud.' When things are too close and too loud, you can't see the forest for the trees. You can't see at all. And if you are blind and deaf, then, yes, maybe you are safe... but you are also dead to the world.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

write it down

I had a big decision to make recently. I kept talking to my boyfriend about it and, often, asking for his opinion. He doesn't like to influence my choices too much so he held himself at bay... rather valiantly. But I felt like I was going in circles. In my head, I kept thinking of the decision and I could actually visualize the two possible outcomes... as if they were two huge rocks sitting in front of me and I needed to push one of them over. That was all I could see really. Just the overwhelming existence of the choices themselves and not the nuances of what might help me actually decide what to do.

At the same time, I resisted making a list. List-making seems such a dry, tedious, inane task... a whole lot of busy-work like elementary school teachers who used to make us copy sentences repeatedly in cursive writing on dotted lines in little workbooks. When I was younger and lived more in the shadows of my parents, I often struggled with decision-making. 'Should I drop swim team or not?' 'Should I take Economics or not?' 'Should I go to this college or that one?' I labored over decisions often to the point of frozen indecisiveness. It is possible to become so immersed in the decision-making process itself that the process becomes a place of inertia rather than an impetus towards growth and perspective and learning. I could (and still can) research a decision to death before feeling like I am equipped well enough to make a solid, well-informed decision. And these days, with the breadth of the internet and all of the information (and misinformation) that you can gather there, this phase of acquiring 'enough' information can go on indefinitely. I had a wonderful professor once who told me that, while he was at Berkeley, he used to go and sit on a rock high above the ocean and sit and think when he had to make a decision. It was a place for him to get perspective, to ponder possibilities. Yet, he told me, he found himself sitting too much and doing too little. He finally realized that sometimes you need to just act and let the rest fall into place. You can think forever about something, think it into oblivion... and that is the same place you will end up if the thought-process never pans out.

So, when I had these crises of indecisiveness in high school and beyond, my father would sit me down and tell me: "Make a list." I would roll my eyes at him and tell him I wanted his advice. "Make a list," he would repeat as if that was the be-all-end-all statement. I resented him for that statement, for that 'stupid' advice. I am sure that, many a time, I would huff and walk away theatrically and frustrated. But after calming down, and after finding no way out of my quandary, I would sit down and.... make a list.

Usually these lists would consist of two sides, often of the pros and cons of a particular decision. Sometimes, in the process of writing things out, I would realize that the decision was more complicated and required a sort of spreadsheet. I actually recall making a rather complex Excel spreadsheet when I was accepted into three different Ph.D. programs and couldn't decide which one to attend. I assigned different weights to various aspects of the decision and, in the end, gave each school a point total. It seemed too mathematical to be helpful. I am one to make decisions from my gut because I trust this inner sense that I have about things. Yet, looking back, my analysis of this decision was spot on... and I made the right decision for me at the time. Yes, it was a more mathematical analysis of myself than usual. Still, I was forced to confront myself because I was forced to put my thoughts down onto something... to expose myself, even if only to myself. That in and of itself can be revealing. We can 'write ourselves' into being, just as Escher knew.

There is something about making a list. There is something about writing out the jumble of thoughts that clog your head and seeing them in front of you. It organizes them, for one. It also makes them real. It is easy to dismiss certain thoughts. It is much harder to dismiss something once it has traveled from your brain to your hand through the pen and onto the paper into something concrete, something now separate from yourself, something that exists for others to see if you were to share it with them. It can be highly illuminating to write this process down. Often, you think you know... or are sure you know... what you feel about a certain decision, but, in the course of writing, you find (or see) that there is an altogether different dominating thought... or that something you thought was insignificant is actually huge... or that something else keeps repeating itself, perhaps in different form, but it keeps appearing like a blinking alert that you should have sighted all along.

Writing things down makes them real. You can avoid a decision if it knocks back and forth in your head like a wave. Or if you put the decision at the back of your head and the information-gathering process at the front as I previously mentioned. When you write things down, you realize you didn't need to gather all the information in the world about a particular topic in order to know how you felt about it. You learn to trust what is in your head because you see it and can read it back to yourself and may even be surprised to learn what you knew already.

Why write things down when we can just enter everything into a Smartphone or an electronic organizer or an online calendar? In my opinion, there is something psychological that happens as thoughts travel through your body, as they are forced to manifest from something intangible and shapeless and isolated in your head into letters and words and phrases scratched permanently onto a piece of paper. In a review of the book, How Writing Shapes Thinking: A Study of Teaching and Learning, Christopher Burnham writes of how research supports my hunch:
1) writing creates a permanent record and allows rethinking and revising over an extended period of time; 2) writing requires explicit expression so that meaning is clear in various contexts; 3) writing requires organizing ideas and developing relationships between ideas; and 4) writing requires active, engaged thinking that explores the implications and challenges unexamined assumptions. (Christopher Burnham, Review, Writing Program Administration, vol. 15, nos. 1-2, Fall/Winter 1991)
His review continues on to explain how the researchers study helped them to recognize that writing not only helps us digest old information, but prepares us for new information. Thereby, writing opens up the door to expansion: of thought, of knowledge, of perspective, of understanding, of self, of the world.

Writing things down is not only helpful in decision-making...or interpreting. It is an integral process of reflection and consciousness. And not only in the process of understanding literature or making a sound business decision. It also strengthens relationships.

My boyfriend writes me notes. Not just 'hey sweetie, have a great day!' dashed off on the back of an old receipt but long, thought-out, earnest articulations of his deepest feelings and hopes. Reading them moves me profoundly. His love becomes a story that we share through its written expression -- one which he makes real by the writing and I feel as real by seeing and holding and rereading it over and over again. These are very tangible pieces of our relationship, of our love. I treasure them because of this concreteness. I also treasure them because of the time and effort it takes to actually sit down and express the tingling in your soul. It is not an easy thing to do... or to say. I love that he is so dedicated to "us" that he makes us even more real. And that he preserves these thoughts for all time by doing so. Why do we write our names in the sand? Carve our initials in a tree? It is the same instinct, the same 'making real' outside of what we know and feel internally.

As an English teacher, I have always asked my students to do journal-writes. My prompts run the gamut from making literary connections, to broadening our reading to touch their personal experiences, and even to completely unrelated mind exercises or philosophical questions. So often, they express resistance and annoyance at arriving to class to see me writing out such a prompt on the board. But then they get writing and I can see them stopping from time to time, peering out but really looking inward attempting to verbalize all of the hazy indistinctness that lies in a blur in their heads. I know this feeling very well. I also know their initial resistance. It is the same resistance I once felt at my father's urging to 'make a list.' When the thoughts are in your head, it seems pointless to have to write them down. They are already there... or are they? Even if they existed in a logical expression in your head (which I would argue they don't), they exist only for you. Life is about sharing our ideas... and about being able to clearly express that muddle of thoughts in our heads to others. This is what I find to be the fundamental problem for high school freshmen in their writing. They struggle to translate what they think and what they are beginning to analyze and interpret and infer into something that makes sense to another person unfamiliar with the inside of their brains. This is a frustrating process and some of the kids want to give up. I try to be patient and encouraging and to act as an additional translator, often modeling ways of articulating thoughts. Writing things down and doing it over and over again... and using your own hand to do so... is really the only way to overcome this breakdown of communication, this loss in translation.

I think a lot about writing... being a writer. But even if I wasn't, I think it would fascinate me. It has structured and guided so much of my life. My grandmother and I used to write letters to each other. It was a process of reaching out... for both of us. Writing our thoughts down on paper seemed secretive and bold, intimate and expansive all at the same time. We both wanted to understand ourselves and to express that self to another human... to someone who cared... and to be accepted. Seeing thoughts written in the unique handwriting of those we love seems naked and personal and speaks of the personality of that person. When I read a handwritten note or letter, I can hear the writer's voice... I can see his face and his expressions, his gestures, his smile or concern. Not only the thoughts, but the person himself becomes more real to me.

Like me, my grandmother wrote poetry. She didn't get published, but she would often include her poems in a letter. I realize now that this was a sort of publishing of her poems. An audience need only consist of one caring listener. This is one such poem that she sent me long ago:


Spring leaps too hig
for me to follow

The heat of summer
cracks my brittle bones

Fall's riot tramples over me

But under the cold, frost-
hardened wings of winter

Lies the kernel of whatever

I possess.

There was an article in the New York Times back in April of this year entitled "The Case for Cursive." It argued, among other things, that there was a loss of something artistic in the decline of those who can and do write in cursive handwriting. Amongst the many comments, a number of people spoke of how they were not sorry to see the death of cursive. One reader wrote: "Cursive is NOT a 21st century skill. Language is constantly changing and evolving. It is not, nor has it ever been static and fixed. Neither has the way we express language ever been static and fixed. What we have witnessed and are continuing to witness with cursive being a dying art, is the constant, natural evolution of how humans communicate. Cursive no longer fits any need, so it is falling by the wayside."

It is true that cursive is not a skill required in the world we now live in. It is also true that language and communication are always changing and evolving. There is certainly a beauty to the malleability of language, to how words are added, to the ebb and flow of phrases and sayings, etc. I wonder, though, about the emphasis on 21st century 'skills.' Is that the only reason to write in cursive or to hand-write a letter? Is it only useful if it can 'get you ahead'? I fear the loss of those things I find most beneficial about writing things by hand -- about the self-evaluative process, about the process of thought, about the translation of thought, about the concretizing of self and love and living, about the uniqueness of communication, about the expression of each and every one of our personalities, about intimate gestures, about what is gained by the investment of time and self and a non-digitalized output. And so I will continue... to make lists, to compose poems by hand, to read love notes that feel like they come straight from my boyfriend's heart... I will continue to write things down.

Friday, July 15, 2011

cultural assimilation: learning, adapting, or mimicking??

The May 16th copy of New York magazine contained an article, "Paper Tigers" by Wesley Yang, which dealt with 1) the stereotyping of Asians as quiet, placating, and self-effacing, 2) the cultural background for these qualities, 3) the reality and non-reality of this stereotype, and 4) whether or not Asians should adapt to an American culture of assertiveness and confidence or ascend in that culture through rote memorization and mastery of math, science, technology, business practices, or anything else that can be systematized and learned and re-taught.

In short, has Asian-American over-achieving become their Achilles heel? The author speaks to a young writer, a recent college grad who feels he has shorted himself by his devotion to good grades and perfect school records. Or, as he explains, if he were to do it all over again, he would have "[w]orked half as hard and been twenty times more successful." What then, is the difference between learning and success? Is there a correlation between doing well in school, in becoming the best possible learner, and doing well in life?

Yang implies that there is not, especially in the case of Asian-Americans who so diligently dedicate themselves to intellectual achievement that they may sacrifice social (or perhaps even emotional) aptitude. Asian-Americans, Yang points out, are at the top of every high school and college graduating class. Yet, as leaders in the white-collar workplace, they are conspicuously absent. What is going on? How could they be mastering all knowledge and yet failing to reach the pinnacle of success? Yang speculates:
Maybe it is simply the case that a traditional Asian upbringing is the problem. As Allyn points out, in order to be a leader, you must have followers. Associates at PricewaterhouseCoopers are initially judged on how well they do the work they are assigned. "You have to be a doer," as she puts it. They are expected to distinguish themselves with their diligence, at which point they become "super-doers." But being a leader requires different skill sets. "The traits that got you to where you are won't necessarily take you to the next level," says the diversity consultant Jane Hyun, who wrote a book called Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling. To become a leader requires taking personal initiative and thinking about how an organization can work differently. It also requires networking, self-promotion, and self-assertion. It's racist to think that any given Asian individual is unlikely to be creative or risk-taking. It's simple cultural observation to say that a group whose education has historically focused on rote memorization and "pumping the iron of math" is, on aggregate, unlikely to yield many people inclined to challenge authority or break with inherited ways of doing things. (Yang, 26)
And so Yang goes on to tell stories of Asians who have to learn how to smile, how to woo a woman, how to fight and alter the perception of Asians that they have, in fact, helped to create. Ultimately, Yang himself refuses to yield to what he (perhaps stubbornly) perceives as cultural conformity, as just another submissive acquiescence to others' values in the name of "success"... and thereby as an ignoble and monumental disgrace. And Yang remains defiantly himself...
Instead, I set about contriving to live beyond both poles. I wanted what James Baldwin sough as a writer -- "a power which outlasts kingdoms." Anything short of that seemed a humiliating compromise. I would become an aristocrat of the spirit, who prides himself on his incompetence in the middling tasks that are the world's business. Who does not seek after material gain. Who is his own law.

This, of course, was madness. A child of Asian immigrants born into the suburbs of New Jersey and educated at Rutgers cannot be a law unto himself. The only way to approximate this is to refuse employment, because you will not be bossed around by people beneath you, and shave your expenses to the bone, because you cannot afford more, and move into a decaying Victorian mansion in Jersey City, so that you sense of eccentric distinction can be preserved in the midst of poverty, and cut yourself free of every form of bourgeois discipline, because these are precisely the habits that will keep you chained to the mediocre fate you consider worse than death. (Yang, 94-95)
Yang relates an anecdote which was eye-opening for him. At a party, a woman approached him and told him she had read one of his articles and, in seeing his depth and insight, realized she had misjudged him. Then, she confronted him with a question with which she had long ago dealt in a parallel fashion. Being a less than attractive female, she had learned she would need to "love the world twice as hard." And Yang wonders, "why hadn't I done that?"
I see the appeal of getting with the program. But this is not my choice. Striving to meet others' expectations may be a necessary cost of assimilation, but I am not going to do it.

Often I think my defiance is just delusional, self-glorifying bullshit that artists have always told themselves to compensate for their poverty and powerlessness. But sometimes I think it's the only thing that has preserved me intact, and that what has been preserved is not just haughty caprice but in fact the meaning of my life. So this is what I told Mao: In lieu of loving the world twice as hard, I care, in the end, about expressing my obdurate singularity at any cost. I love this hard and unyielding part of myself more than any other reward the world has to offer a newly brightened and ingratiating demeanor, and I will bear any costs associated with it.

The first step toward self-reform is to admit your deficiencies. Though my early adulthood has been a protracted education in them, I do not admit mine. I'm fine. It's the rest of you who have a problem. Fuck all y'all. (Yang, 95)
And so I wondered... what is learning? When is learning a step towards an admirable goal and when is it just a piece of a broader process of cultural assimilation or societal mimicry? And do we always know the difference? Or do we only recognize the distinction in hindsight?

In this case, the concept of assimilation in the biological sense turns out to be an interesting parallel. In the realm of evolutionary biology, there is a old and yet revived debate over something called genetic assimilation. Genetic assimilation is, to the best of my understanding, similar to the Lamarkian notion of evolution -- that organisms can 'force' their own evolution. More scientifically, genetic assimilation is a process whereby some environmental condition (usually an environmental stressor) causes an alteration in an organism's phenotype which that organism is then able to express in successive generations without the existence of the environmental stimuli. A simple example involves flies. Conrad Waddington, the proposer of this notion, exposed fly pupae to excessive heat. Some of the adults in this laboratory population then displayed an unusual gap in the crossveins of their wings.

As Ilan Eshel and Carlo Matessi explain in their article, "Canalization, Genetic Assimilation and Preadaptation: A Quantitative Genetic Model," in Genetics:
After some generations of selection, when only these abnormal individuals were allowed to breed, the proportion of adults with broken crossveins induced by heat shock at the pupal stage was raised above 90% and, morever, a small proportion of individuals were crossveinless even among flies that had not been exposed to temperative treatment. If artificial selection was then continued by breeding the adults that had developed the abnormality without heat shock, the frequency of crossveinless individuals among untreated flies became very high, reaching 100% in some lines...

Hence, selection in favor of the preadapted phenotype enables a fast process of assimilation, comparable to that observed by Waddington and others in an artificial laboratory setting. Note, however, that this fast process of phenotypic adaptation to a new environment is likely to be followed by an equally important, slow hidden process of build-up of a new canalizing system, adjusted to the new environment, with a subsequent accumulation of phenotypically suppressed genetic variance... It is only this hidden process that may provide the population with potential preadaptation to a variety of possible new environmental changes. (Eshel & Matessi, Genetics, Vol. 149, 2119-2133, August 1998)
Changes or adaptations made under stressful conditions become the new foundation for a population's reaction to all conditions. The debate for biologists is whether the phenotype change can precede the genetic change... as traditional evolutionary theory would argue the opposite. What is interesting as a parallel is this question of whether forced adaptation (or learned adaptation in the case of cultural assimilation) can then be passed on to successive generations as a sort of ingrained coding. Is that what Yang was describing with Asian-Americans? Have they 'learned' so well that their adaptation is now equally a part of their cultural endowment as are the stereotypical qualities of humility and reticence?

Indeed, it seems that Yang has to fight quite hard to be what he wants to be in the face of his culture and ethnicity. He is angry and confrontational when asserting his right to express his "obdurate singularity at any cost." Is the learning to participate in a culture different from all sorts of other learning? Is it a healthy process of learning or merely a game of expert mimicry?

Though I am not Asian nor any other minority, I too have 'raged against the machine' of conformity that Yang implies. I, too, have spent time self-righteously believing in the importance of holding tight to the 'hard and unyielding' part of myself in the face of all other 'rewards.' I spent many years fighting hard to take alternate paths. Yes, there was a healthy process of self-learning that took place during my explorations... but I also wonder if there wasn't an unhealthy avoidance of traditional paths merely because they were so well-trodden. In avoiding these paths, did I not cost myself another kind of learning? And what really were the rewards of my 'hard' self? After years of being who I was with utmost independence I found I had reached a decidedly lonely pinnacle. It seems that Yang suggests one must either rub one's nose in the butt of corporate culture or restrict one's path to be so solitary, so unyielding that the path leads only to the top of a cliff from which you must jump... because there is nowhere else to go... and no one to watch you fall.

I let go. I let go of that 'hard unyielding' part of myself and re-learned a sort of societal assimilation. Not to the point of compromising my individuality or personhood or creativity... but towards the goal of becoming more like the other flies... of being able to adapt as they adapted to changing conditions... of sharing those conditions... and ultimately of sharing a life filled with love rather than solitary headstrong defiance.

And again, what of learning? I turn again to Bhabha because of his continual recognition of hybridity. For in the learning, in the adaptation, in the reproduction of what is and what is known evolves something beyond the boundaries... something in the thirdspace... something new... best exemplified in the articulation of old and reborn culture amidst colonial and post-colonial national ideologies and desires:
If India is a reproduction of the common Aryan origin, in Maine's discourse, it is also a perpetual repetition of that origin as a remnant of the past; if that remnant of India is the symbol of an archaic past, it is also the signifier of the production of a discursive past-in-the-present; if India is the imminent object of classical, theoretical knowledge, India is also the sign of its dispersal in the exercise of power; if India is the metaphoric equivalence, authorizing the appropriation and naturalization of other cultures, then India is also the repetitive process of metonymy recognized only in its remnants that are, at once, the signs of disturbance and the supports of colonial authority. If India is the originary symbol of colonial authority, it is the sign of a dispersal in the articulation of authoritative knowledge; if India is a runic reality, India is also the ruin of time; if India is the seed of life, India is a monument to death. India is the perpetual generation of a past-present which is the disturbing, uncertain time of the colonial intervention and the ambivalent truth of its enunciation.(Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (1994), 130)
... the 'ambivalent truth' of the force, inflection, intonation, fluency, emphasis, utterance... the 'ambivalent truth' of a voice -- of a people's voice, of a singular voice. The voice that repeats what is learned never says it quite the same way if you listen carefully enough. That is the slippage. That is the adaptation of adaptation. That is where learning is re-learned over and over again.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

the song remains the same... and sometimes it changes

"I had a dream. Crazy dream. Anything I wanted to know, anyplace I needed to go..." (Led Zeppelin)  And so the song remains the same. And the dream remains the same. And the dream changes. And thereby so does the song. And so I urge you to think about change and about constants... and about where they overlap.

JOURNAL: List 15 things that change. List 15 things that do not change.


1. the weather

... the shift of cloud formations... the calm of the lake in the morning before the breeze picks up... the fog that envelops, blinds, obscures and then dissipates to reveal a clarity that seemed impossible moments before... the flurry of flurries that jams traffic as people forget how to drive in the snow and then turns into a sweet drifting lullaby of white outside your window in the evening, swaying one way, hushing another until all the world is pacified...

2. my thoughts

... racing at 3am when all things converge in the dark, dark night... percolating as I read articles in the morning... moving from incubation to decision... moving from latency to actuality... bouncing across the stones of complexity that confuse me even though I know somewhere they all cohere into something of significance... thinking the words I cannot articulate...

3. my interests

...ballet and gymnastics when I was six... sweater dresses and tights and slumber parties when I was ten... soccer and swimming and getting good grades and organizing family events and directing films when I was fifteen... my thoughts and thought in general and how people think and why and cultures and seeing the world and understanding and trying to understand and opening my eyes and broadening my vision when I was twenty-two... now: establishing, fine-tuning, fly-fishing, being strong (physically and mentally), growing more inward than outward, contributing, writing, writing, writing, starting a business, loving, committing

4. identity

... cultural identities that alter internally and externally... myself of yesterday and of today and of tomorrow... anyone from the inside versus the outside... group identities: racial, ethnic, national...

5. world conflicts

... then: Rome versus everyone else; now: United States versus everyone else... the Middle East... U.S.-Mexico border... pirates... empires and tyrants and anarchy and peace...

6. technology and inventions

shelter and spears and burial and bows and flutes and pigments and rope and pottery (Paleolithic Era)... cast iron and crossbow and wheelbarrows and catapults (5th century BC)... paper (2nd century BC)... multiple-arch buttress dam (1st century AD)... movable type (1088)... magnetic compass (1182)... gunpowder (1249)... eyeglasses (1268-1289)... clocks (1280)... windmills (1285) ... golfballs (1400)... oil painting (1420)... the printing press (1455)... flush toilets (1500)... compound microscope (1590)... telescope (1608)... submarines (1620)... blood transfusions (1625)... pressure cookers (1679)... steam pumps (1698)... pianos (1709)... tuning forks (1711)... mercury thermometer (1724)... circular saw (1780)... guillotine (1789)... bicycles (1791)... ambulances (1792)... cotton gin (1794)... smallpox vaccine (1796)... batteries (1799)... electric lights (1809)... tin cans (1810)... plastic surgery (1814)... soda fountain and the stethoscope (1819)... matches (1827)... typewriters (1829)... sewing machines (1830)... the wrench and the mechanical calculator (1835)... postage stamps (1837)... grain elevators (1842)... the facsimile (1843)... dental chair (1848)... safety pin (1849)... dishwasher (1850)... pasteurization (1856)... machine guns and plastic (1862)... dynamite (1866)... traffic lights (1868)... telephone (1876)... toilet paper (1878)... Coca Cola (1886)... radar and contact lenses (1887)... zippers (1893)... roller coasters (1898)... vacuum cleaners (1899)... zeppelins (1900)... polygraph machine and neon lights (1902)... crayons and windshield wipers (1903)... tractors (1904)... theory of relativity (1905)... Cornflakes (1906)... geiger counter (1908)... instant coffee (1909)... crossword puzzles and ecstasy and the bra (1913)... stainless steel (1916)... fortune cookies (1918)... pop-up toaster and short-wave radio (1919)... technicolor (1927)... penicillin and bubble gum (1928)... car radio (1929)... modern color TV and the jeep (1940)... the slinky and silly putty (1943)... kidney dialysis machine (1944)... atomic bomb (1945)... microwave (1946)... 1st mobile phone (1947)... Frisbee (1948)... cake mix (1949)... diet soda and bar codes and the hydrogen bomb (1952)... black box-flight recorder (1953)... the pill (1954)... computer modem and the Hula Hoop (1958)... pacemakers (1959)... Valium and non-dairy creamer (1961)... audio cassettes and Spacewar, 1st computer video game (1962)... BASIC (1964)... astroturf (1965)... computer mouse (1968)... the ATM and artificial hearts (1969)... dot-matrix printer and LCD (1971)... word processor and Pong (1972)... gene splicing and disposable lighters (1973)... post-it notes and liposuction (1974)... walkman and roller blades (1979)... disposable cameras (1986)... disposable contact lenses (1987)... doppler radar (1988)... world wide web (1990)... HIV protease inhibitor (1994)... DVDs (1995)... Viagra (1998)... iPod (2001)... Toyota's hybrid car (2003)... YouTube (2005)... Wii and the hurricane nail (2006)... iPhone (2007)... smog-eating cement and pig-urine plastic and sugar batteries (2008)... Google Prius and glasses-free 3D and synthetic cells and virtual therapy (2011)...

7. ideologies

...the construction of worldviews... survival... rationalism and humanism of the Enlightenment... relativism and subjective logic of modernity... Marxism... structuralism... psychoanalysis... competition... individualism...

8. opportunity can go for it or you can let it slip by but it never stays there for long...

9. perception

10. relationships

11. my age

12. the landscape

13. the future

... we keep rethinking how it might unfold...

14. the past

...we continually reshape how we see and understand what has happened...

15. love

... we keep learning...


1. the weather

... the consistency of topical skies: the azure sky in the tropics; the grandiose, vast sky stretching over Montana and Colorado and Wyoming; the fickle, seen-through-treetop sky of the Northeast... the repeating seasons... the possibility of the rainbow that will climb through the sky in a delicate shudder after the rains...

2. my thoughts

... always moving... always tons of them... always exciting and overwhelming and comforting... always circling... never resolving...

3. my interests

... to learn, to love, to give, to listen, to experience, to question, to offer, to challenge, to grow...

4. identity

... stereotypes: German: firm and punctual; American: independent, individualistic, competitive, ambitious, searching for the new, perhaps too materialistic... Joke: Heaven is where the cooks are French, the police are British, the mechanics are German, the lovers are Italian and everything is organized by the Swiss... Hell is where the cooks are British, the police are German, the mechanics are French, the lovers are Swiss, and everything is organized by the Italians.

mine: ... quiet and introspective... contemplative and strong-willed... sensitive... easily overwhelmed... tender... independent... loyal... observant... open-minded and open-hearted... that i strive for perfection... that i strive to be okay with imperfection... creative... curious... that i prefer questions over answers...

5. world conflicts

... religion has been and remains at the center of so many conflicts; the "East" still battles the "West"; survival; wars; the very rich and the very poor... xenophobia...

6. technology

... humans always keep inventing and creating and searching...

7. ideologies

... that there is some guiding spirit/God/power/reason/science... the consistency of people thinking with similar outlooks until something breaks it... shared community through outlook...

8. opportunity

...always exists...

9. perception

...that I perceive the possible and the hopeful...

10. relationships

...those that matter endure...

11. my age

...internally, I am still a child...

12. the landscape memory... in dreams...

13. the future

...always racing towards us...

14. the past

...always slipping away...

15. love

...the song remains the same when it is true... my love for you will never change... my love for you is unconditional... my love for you is eternal... it will only grow as we grow... it will always become deeper and stronger... it will be our guiding light and meaning consistently... our constant through eternal change...

Thursday, July 7, 2011

'healthy': the chameleon of self-righteousness

I have food intolerances... not strict allergies which will make me break out into hives or stop breathing when I eat particular foods... but intolerances that make me exhausted, upset, sluggish... that give me headaches, indigestion, acne. When I eat these foods -- including corn, dairy, wheat, and sesame -- I feel "off" -- sad, tired, bloated, and cranky. When I avoid these foods, I feel like a dark cloud has been lifted. I feel lighter, more vibrant, more in tune with life. Because it is not worth a chunk of parmesan to feel horrible, I avoid the foods that trigger unpleasant reactions in me. Some people hear about my diet and think it would be difficult or frustrating to follow. Really it's not though. First of all, humans are adaptable to most anything. Once you stop eating cheese for a couple months, you really stop thinking about it or missing it. Same thing with bread. Second, I consider it a problem of perspective. I could look at my life thinking about what I can't eat, but rather I think about the plethora of options that do exist... including the ongoing discovering of wonderful foods I had never tried before. Finally, this is not a higher moral ground for me. This is not something I require myself to adhere to with rigid and severe restraint. It is not meant to limit me or make me firm against the flow of life. If I want bread and butter, I will eat it. If I am at a family function and I have some ice cream, so be it. I am just aware that there may be uncomfortable physical consequences. But the trade-off can be well worth it.

I consider it part of my overall health, thereby, to be informed. In that vein, I subscribe to the magazine Living Without, a publication that provides articles about and recipes for gluten- and allergen-free lifestyles. I quite enjoy reading articles about new developments in the treatment of celiac disease and recipes for carrot cake that I can actually eat. This past issue, however, disturbed me to the core. I curled up in bed the other night and began reading an interview with Maria Menounos, the TV celebrity reporter. In brief, her story was as follows. She was getting rashes and hives and couldn't identify the cause. Traditional Western medicine wasn't working. The steroid creams and pills were only creating a worse nightmare. Finally, in desperation, she visited an ayurvedic practitioner who gave her an Indian tree powder to spread over her itchy, bumpy body. By the following day, her hives has disappeared. Success!

Or at least that is what you would think. But Menounos went further. Her positive introduction to ayurvedic medicine made her a full-on convert and she took more of the practictioner's advice. She cut out "hot" foods. She stopped eating gluten, dairy, and sugar. She never got tested for food allergies, but found she was feeling better overall. Her diet came to resemble that which she had grown up with in her native Greece -- largely vegetarian; fresh, local fruits and vegetables; eating when she was hungry and not at predetermined mealtimes. She was eating 'clean.' All of which I found refreshing. "Yup, this is all good," I thought. "Healthy." I respected her choices and especially that she had thought things through... that she had a logic to back up her decisions.

And then I stopped completely stunned. "Are you feeling better?" asked the interviewer. Maria responded:
Yes, I'm healthier. I have more energy and no more stress hives and rashes. My diet has been tremendously simplified and I have to say I spend less time running around trying to get food to prepare, I haven't eaten a standard breakfast in a long time and I never thought I could go without breakfast. I just have a cup of hot water and I'll eat some fruit and I never thought I could eat just fruit on an empty stomach -- but I can. So now I only eat when I'm hungry -- and when I eat, I eat something clean and simple.
Wait, I thought to myself. Did she just say she has only a cup of hot water for breakfast? Perhaps I misread, I thought. I kept reading...
Interviewer: So when will you put that first bite of food into your mouth?
Menounos: Probably around noon, I'll have an apple. Then when I get hungry again around 2 o'clock, I'll have carrots and hummus or some gluten-free bread....
Blah... blah... blah... I get it now. She doesn't eat. Just another celebrity who doesn't eat... and she uses this front of 'eating clean' to not eat at all. To cultivate an eating disorder and yet to simultaneously appear logical and moral about the reasoning behind her food choices. No, I am not 'outting' Menounos as anorexic... well, actually, maybe I am suggesting that. My overall point is broader than her, though. I am incredibly irritated at the way in which "healthy" can be manipulated... at the way one can make personal eating choices and then impose their defense of those choices upon others as if she is cleaner, purer... and even morally superior.

There is something about eating clean that is endlessly appealing. Clean to the point of ingesting clear, cool water and having that be the only thing that passes through your body. The ultimate purity. And for those of us who sense the immorality, the ugly narcissism and hypocrisy and duplicity and betrayal and 'dirtiness' of so much of our modern world and culture... this kind of purity beckons like a siren song. I have dealt with this demon... and overcome it. Yes, I felt pure when I ate next to nothing... when I could put my hand to my chest and feel the bones of my sternum rippling across the taut, stretched skin. Yes, it was reassuring to barely exist... to begin to exist less and less... to take up less space in the world... to not need anything... not even food... to be that pure. To be the kind of purity that it seems our world is so desperately lacking. I am not perfect... far far from it, in fact. But one thing I never did was force my sense of increasing purity upon others as a sort of decree of moral superiority. For that is its own sort of narcissism. I retreated. What I see so often now is that others find it necessary to proclaim their righteousness in order to legitimize their choices and the rectitude of what they are doing.

This disease has a name. Orthorexia. When a fixation upon eating healthy dominates one's life to the point of unhealthy obsession. When foods are assigned moral merit -- apples and kale become 'good' and pizza and ice cream become 'bad'... and even forbidden and dirty. The physician, Steven Bratman, originally coined the term 'orthorexia' which he describes as:
... an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy food. The term is derived from the Greek "ortho," which means "right," or "correct," and is intended as a parallel with anorexia nervosa.

I realize this sounds like an oxymoron. How can focusing on healthy food be bad for you? The apparent contradiction had led to a great deal of challenge of the concept.

But the emphasis is intended to be on "unhealthy obsession." One can have an unhealthy obsession with something that is otherwise healthy. Think of exercise addiction, or workaholism.
Healthy as obsession and as moral battleground becomes unhealthy. In an article about this binary thinking mode, Dana Udall-Weiner addresses the danger of categorizing what we eat. Food in and of itself is not good or bad. Fish is healthy, full of Omega fatty acids. But too much of the wrong fish will overdose a person with mercury. Not good nor bad. Or rather both at the same time. As Udall-Weiner explains:
The result of applying such labels to our food choices usually ends in one of two things: guilt or self-righteousness. We feel guilty if we have overdone it, which can mean eating "bad" things or even too many "good" things. "I've been so bad all week," we often say. Alternately, we feel righteous and self-satisfied if we have eaten a limited quantity or only selected "good" food. Yet even if we land on the good side of things, we will typically return to feeling guilty or bad very quickly. This is because we are basing our appraisal on what we have eaten, which is a transitory thing.

This binary system of evaluating food represents black and white thinking, a style of thought that is associated with much psychological dysfunction, including eating disorders.
This kind of thing presents a tremendous burden on a person requiring her to be strictly disciplined (in actions and thought) and occupying most of her day. I was a vegan for almost a year. I made the decision after my cousin (who was a vegan at the time but is no longer) introduced me to The Vegan Sourcebook, a book that makes the connection between eating choices and conscious, moral living... and then gives you the tools to easily enact such a radical lifestyle change. I was moved. She spoke of suffering and compassion and selflessness and gentleness without falling victim to the holier-than-thou proselytizing to which so many become prey. I am a sensitive person and have always struggled with the pain that exists in the world. For me at the time, this seemed like a godsend. The answer to absolutely everything. I should have known better. Nothing can be that easy. Nothing can be a complete panacea. But I jumped right in. This was years after having struggled with my own eating disorder and, in hindsight, I should have seen these roots replanting as well. The urge for ultimate control. The attraction of cleanliness and purity. The need to purge oneself of all that rots and reeks and threatens and corrodes and 'dirties' the world. The desire to be pain-free... and increasingly to be everything-free.

Being vegan, especially ten years ago, required total concentration. I immersed myself in reading food labels, in analyzing every meal I was served outside of the safety of my own home, in discovering more and more about being vegan. The problem grew. Soon, it was not just what I ate but what I wore. I must now avoid fur and leather. My favorite boots at the time were masculine black chunky leather hiking boots. What was I to do with these? I had to get rid of them... or at least hide them... because I couldn't be hypocritical.... or at least I desperately didn't want to be. This was, in large part, what I hated about the world in the first place. Yet, it was an impossible endeavor. There was no end. And really no way to avoid absolutely everything that had to do with animals or the potential for animal harm or suffering. I tried though. I became increasingly isolated. I lost a ton of weight. I was unhappy and felt overwhelmed by the need for constant vigilance about what I ate, what I wore, where I went, who I interacted with. I refused to go out to eat. I even began to refuse to attend family functions. I was so afraid of what I might encounter there. I started to lose energy. Later, I would realize it was because I was becoming incredibly anemic despite my focused attempts to carefully attend to all my nutritional requirements and needs.

And finally one day I had an epiphany. I came across an article. It may even have been Steven Bratman's original article about orthorexia. I can't remember. I do remember it addressed similar issues. I remember recognizing myself -- and the ugliness I had inadvertently become -- in his anecdotes. Bratman tells the story of a macrobiotic seminar at a commune for which he used to be the cook and organic farmer:
An audience of at least thirty-five listened with rapt attention as Mr. L lectured on the evils of milk. It slows digestion, he explained, clogs the metabolism, plugs the arteries, dampens the digestive fire, and causes mucous, respiratory diseases and cancer.

At that time, a member of the commune by the name of John lived in a small room upstairs from the seminar hall. He was a "recovering" alcoholic who rather frequently failed to abstain. Although only in his fifties, John's face showed the marks of a lifetime of alcohol abuse. But he had been on the wagon for nearly six months when he tiptoed through the class.

John was a shy and private man who would never voluntarily have so exposed himself. But upon returning from the kitchen with a beverage he discovered that there was no way he could reach his room without crossing the crowded seminar. The leader noticed him immediately.

Pointing to the glass of milk in John's hand, Mr. L boomed, "don't you realize what that stuff is doing to your body, sir! Class, look at him! He is a testament to the health destroying properties of milk. Study the puffy skin of his face. Note the bags under his eyes. Look at the stiffness of his walk. Milk, class, milk has done this to him!"

Bewildered, John looked at his glass, then up at the condemning faces, then back to the milk again. His lower lip quivered. "But," he whimpered, "but, this is only milk, isn't it?"

In the alcoholics anonymous meetings with which John was familiar, milk was practically mother's milk, synonymous with rectitude and purity. "I mean," he continued, to the unforgiving students, "I mean, it isn't whiskey, is it?"

...The act of eating pure  food begins to carry pseudo-spiritual connotations. As orthorexia progresses, a day filled with sprouts, umeboshi plums and amaranth bisquits comes to feel as holy as one spent serving the poor and homeless. When an orthorexia slips up, (which, depending on the pertinent theory, may involve anything from devouring a single raisin in violation of the law to consuming a gallon of Haagen Daz ice cream and a supreme pizza), he experiences a fall from grace, and must take on numerous acts of penitence. These usually involve even stricter diets and fasts.

Over time, this "kitchen spirituality" begins to override other sources of meaning. An orthorexic will be plunged into gloom by eating a hot dog, even if his team has just won the world series. Conversely, he can redeem any disappointment by extra efforts at dietary purity.
Oh my god, I thought. OH MY GOD!!! Had I become so self-righteous? So narcissistic? So enveloped in my own purity and penitence that my 'morality' was now infringing upon the shared morality of humanity at large? Certainly I had become rather useless. My entire concentrated effort in life was now devoted to the upkeep of my own veganism, of my selfish eating choices. What was I contributing to the world? Nothing. I had become a leech. Further, what was I enjoying of the world? Nothing. I had moralized food so much that there was nothing enjoyable about it. I had lost the ability to see sharing a meal as sharing love and companionship... and compassion. Suddenly, I realized that compassion and meaning lay elsewhere. I wanted to contribute to the world. I wanted to do "good"... yes, but I needed to be properly fueled to do so. I needed to eat meat because I am a person naturally low in iron. Which was better -- that I was a pure vegan or that I eschewed the possibility of purity and instead recommitted myself to helping others and doing something of meaning with my life. The choice seemed so blatantly obvious that I was deeply ashamed at myself. And so I gave up veganism. I chose impurity. I chose imperfection. I chose to live.

We feel the suffering in the world. We want to be pure. We want to 'do good.' We want to counter the evils and pain in which we feel enveloped... and often in which we feel we are drowning. I recently read the May 23rd New Yorker article entitled "Test-Tube Burgers: How long will it be before you can eat meat that was made in a lab?" Many PETA advocates are supporters of this new potential to 'grow' meat because it would stop the cruelty towards animals inherent in factory farming. Surprisingly, perhaps then, Dan Barber, the chef at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York state, is wary of petri-dish meat-production. He has trouble with separating any part of the whole symbiotic process of animal, farm, land, etc. Thereby, he finds lab meat on par with the zeal of some who promote organic farming:
"To sit in some of the best farming land in America and talk about what organic food could do to solve the problems of nine hundred million people who go to bed hungry every night..." He stopped and smiled wanly. "That is really a pretty good definition of an elitist."
Barber believes you can't look at the meat of a cow in an isolated way. He scoff at the claim that cattle jeopardize the environment by the amount of methane gas they release. As Barber explains:
"That is a simplistic way to look at this problem... In nature, you just cannot measure methane and say that livestock contribute that amount to climate change and it is therefore a good idea to get rid of livestock. Look at meat. I am not talking about factory farms... or the need for better sources of protein for many people in the world. But if you just look at meat without looking at the life of the cow you are looking at nothing. Cows increase the diversity and resilience of the grass. That helps biological activity in the soil and that helps trap CO2 from the air. Great soil does that. So when you feed a less methane-emitting animal grain instead of grass you are tying up huge ecosystems into monoculture and plowing and sending enormous amounts of CO2 into the air with the plows. You are also weakening soil structures that might not come back for hundreds of thousands of years... So if you can supplement a farming system with cultured meat, that is one thing. But if your goal is to improve animal welfare, ecological integrity, and human health, then replacing animals with laboratory products is the wrong way to go."
Food so often gets wrapped up in issues of morality. And too often the problem is of an over-simplified moral system which doesn't take into account the interconnections between things, processes, and people. It would be lovely if purity were so simple as drinking hot water for breakfast and eating only an apple for the rest of the day. But a more realistic kind of purity may be the recognition of the complex and interdependent nature of life... including our own. We can choose to disconnect and to believe that by doing so we are living a more wholesome life. But that, in my opinion, is a life without meaning or purpose. A life of self-righteousness. A life that claims 'health' but goes nowhere. A life that doesn't recognize that true health is breaking through 'clean eating' in order to connect and have compassion for others. THAT is self-sacrifice. That is meaning. Yes, you can compromise your health by eating fast-food at every meal. But you can also compromise your health... and that of others... when you seek only to attain purity. Rather, I recommend keeping your toes wiggling in the dirt beneath you. In short, stay dirty.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

old home days or reunions of sentimentality

In 1907, James Ball Naylor wrote a poem entitled "Old Home Week" which read as follows:


I was sitting in my office, -- far above the busy street
Where the laden barks of business come and go,
Where the rushing streams of traffic swirl and mingle as they meet
And the surging tides of commerce ebb and flow, --
Dimly conscious of full many sounds -- the city's swash and foam,
But unmindful of the import they might bring;
I was pouring o'er a letter from a schoolmate 'way back home --
And drinking from the dipper at the spring!

'Twas a letter from a boyhood friend from whom I hadn't heard,
Till then, in all the fleeting fruitful years;
And the quaint school-day chirography, each smudged or blotted word,
Brought a taste of joy -- with just a tang of tears.
I read, "Dear Jim, we're trying to get up an old-home week,
And make the old place fairly buzz and hum.
The boys and girls all say they're just a-longing for a peek
At your old homely face; so say you'll come."

The load of years slipped from my sagging shoulders, and again
A lad was I back in the old abode;
And I whistled up and down the room as merrily as then
I whistled up and down the country road.
The freighted day became a dream -- a bright dream of the days
When held in thrall by Nature's potent charm
And shackled with the clinging vines of dewy woodland ways,
I knew the mystic rapture of the farm.

And the tumult of the city -- its titanic crash and roar,
And babel of the many tongues men speak --
Sank and softened to the rumble of a wagon rattling o'er
The stony ford of old Bald-eagle creek;
The jangle of the telephone became the drowsy call
Of sheep-bells far within the forest gloom;
And the whir of the electric fan, the rhythmic rise and fall
Of the buzz of bees among the clover bloom.

I could see it -- I could see it all! The home -- the days gone by!
The farmhouse and the honeysuckle sweet;
The cool and darkling woodland -- and the glimpse of sunlit sky
Where the gray and mossy branches failed to meet;
The greenish, glassy shimmer of the spring brook near at hand,
The loop of grapevine where I used to swing,
And myself a careless youngster -- flushed and thirsty, grimed and tanned --
Drinking from the big gourd dipper at the spring.

I could hear the bob-white's whistle in the field of waving grain,
And the robin's cheery lilt within the shade
Of orchard on the hillside; and far down the leafy lane,
The cries of barefoot comrades in the glade.
And my soul a-thirst! -- and I hankered for the dipper at the spring,
My playmates, and the hills we used to roam;
And in fancy I could hear a boyhood chorus softly sing:
"He is coming! He is coming -- coming home!"

I could see my father's rugged form, my mother's wrinkled face --
Ah, the homesick feeling tongue can never tell! --
The vagrant, dusty highway idling past the dear old place,
And the apple-tree on guard beside the well.
I could smell the blue smoke curling o'er the rooftree gray and high,
Could hear the swallows chirping 'neath the comb;
And in my happy heart, in echo, to those swallows made reply:
"I am coming home! I am coming -- coming home!"


With the gleaming road ahead of me, the teeming town behind,
And my thoughts the wayward fancies of a boy! --
With the rule of gold forgotten and the Golden Rule in mind,
I went speeding toward the loyal land of Joy.
The many miles dropped out of sight, as had the many years
Since I abandoned subjects, crown and throne;
But the blue sky's smile of sunshine and the brown earth's dewdrop tears
Bade me welcome to a kingdom still my own.

I thought to slip into the sleepy village, and depart
For cottage of my boyhood and my birth --
Just to spend one evening worshiping and talking heart to heart
With my parents, at the fondest shrine on earth;
But my friends were at the station, kindly faces all aglow,
With madly waving banners and a band. --
Those grown up lads and lassies of the blissful long-ago!
And the nearest and the dearest took my hand.

Then the band commenced a-playing, and the treble of the fife
And the rumbling, grumbling basso of the drums
Made me laugh as I had seldom laughed in all my busy life
They were playing - "See, the Conq'ring Hero Comes"!
But I looked at the musicians -- understoof their wild acclaim
Of welcome, that was ringing to the skies; [name]
Heard the joyful cheers and outcries that were burdened with mine
And I found the tear drops trickling from my eyes.

There they were to meet and greet me, those dear chums of other days! --
Older, graver, bent with work and worldly care;
Badly marred in many features, sadly changed in many ways --
Lacking grace of limb and sorely scant of hair.
But I knew them -- oh, I knew them! Knew each girlish trick and trait --
Remnants of the merry coquetry of yore;
And recognized each impish grin, each boyish move and gait --
And I loved them as I never had before!

But ah! I saw an aged pair -- their eyes alight with pride,
Their countenances bright with love and joy! --
Hesitatingly advancing, hand in hand and side by side;
And I caught their murmured words: "My son!" -- "My boy!"
Father! -- Mother! Halt of speech were they, and quaintly, oddly dressed --
But I loved the very ground they trod upon;
And I sprang and caught them in my arms, and strained them to my breast --
As each had held me oft in years agone!

There we left the people cheering; took the well remembered road
Leading to the homestead high upon the hill,
Crossed the shrunken, dribbling creek that once made music as it flowed
To turn the mossy wheel of Bingham's mill;
Passed the lightning-blasted sycamore, its naked arms outspread --
I recalled the very day the bolt was loosed! --
Climbed the slope and reached the farmhouse with its windows sunset-red
And the noisy chickens cluttering to roost.

Supper in the roomy kitchen! Homely bliss without alloy!
There I took my old-time chair and old-time place,
And had the same old plate and mug I had when just a boy --
Heard my pious father say the same old grace.
There we ate and drank and chatted in the fond familiar way--
The gracious, gently manner of the past! --
Till the golden twilight purpled, and the purple paled to gray;
And the twinkling stars came peeping out at last.

In the little white-washed bedroom, where the wan moon's tricksy beams
Pencilled airy fairy pictures on the wall --
In the same fantastic tints that colored all my childhood dreams! --
There I soundly slept till waked by mother's call.
Father's grace was in my mem'ry, mother's voice was in my ears --
The balm of bloom was on the morning air;
Healed of all the hurts and headaches of the burden-bearing years,
A boy again was I -- without a care!

All that summer day I spent in roaming old Clovertown --
Searching here and hunting there for odds and ends
Of broken school-boy idols! -- and in strolling up and down
The streets and shaking hands with long-lost friends.
Some were dwelling in the village -- in the homes where they were born;
Others, like myself, had traveled mile on mile --
Hoping once again to know the joys of youth's sunshiny morn,
To receive the benediction of its smile.

There was Bobby Brown from Texas -- with his gracious grin unfurled,
And an overgrown sombrero on his head;
Johnny Smith, who as a youngster always planned to see the world --
But had never crossed the county ling, instead;
Tommy Plummer from Chicago, Billy Hawkins from New York,
Jimmy Fuller -- looking older than the hills;
Shorty Donaldson from Kansas -- lank and lengthy as a stork,
And wed to pretty frisky Mandy Mills.

Some were there -- and some were absent! One was lost beneath the sea,
Another laid at rest beneath the sod;
One was up in far Alaska -- serving Mammon for a fee,
One was down in distant Chili -- serving God.
Some were single -- more were married! Some had children almost grown,
To whom they gave full mead of Love and praise --
Finding in each disposition early virtues of their own,
Fond and foolish boys and girls of other days!

To the quiet little churchyard -- underneath a spreading thorn,
I went to search for truant Brother Jack;
With waving hand he left us, on a sunny summer morn --
And he never - never - never more came back!
And I thought of him, my playmate, as I stood beside the stone
That told of how he came -- and went away;
And I felt so old and weary, so dejected and so long,
That I wept -- and wondered why he had to stay!

But, ah, the picnic that we held, next day, in Hunter's grove! --
And the dinner that we knelt and hunkered round,
Where the threads of sunlight dangling through the spangling treetops wove
A lacy cloth of gold upon the ground!
How we sniffed the toothsome incense of that altar of delight
As good old Parson Dawson thanked the Lord;
Then like greedy youngster sought to cat up ev'rything in sight --
And joked and laughed and frolicked round the board!

There was lakes and streams of milk and cream, and tablelands of cake --
There were spouting coffee-geysers, steaming-hot;
That fragrant amber drink was just like mother used to make --
For she was there and made it on the spot!
There were mountain-peaks of chicken and extensive plains of pie.
Hills of luscious bread-and-butter, vales of fruit;
'Twas a goodly land of plenty smilling 'neath the summer sky --
And we were marauders after loot!

Then the games we played! The noise we made at tag and blind-man's bluff.
Hide-and-seek, and skip-the-rope, and pris'ner's-base,
Woke the echoes of the woodland; and sounded loud enough
To rouse the dozing dryads of the place.
Shorty Donaldson, in some way, tangled up his legs and fell --
The same old Shorty! -- sprawling on the turf;
And Tim Hardin, captain of the good ship Bonnie Bell.
Gave a sailor shout that thundered like the surf!

A jolly, heedless boy was I for one whole happy week!
Cuddled close to Mother Earth's warm breast again,
I bent my ear to catch the words of wisdom she might speak --
And forgot the vaunted vanities of men,
O'er the well-known hills I rambled, climbed the well-remembered trees, --
Grown to double size since I observed them last! --
Swung and teetered with the sunbeams, romped and rollicked with the breeze.
And sighed to see the rosy hours flit past!

As in olden summers of the golden years of yore,
I trudged the sun-baked highroads up and down;
Loitered in the leafy greenwood and relearned its ancient lore,
And sauntered o'er the meadow-fields of brown.
I plunged into the deep ravine below the barn, to seek
The spring I loved -- and once more drink my fill;
Wandered aimlessly along the banks of old Bald-eagle creek --
And rested in the shade of Bingham's mill.

Bingham's mill-a crazy ruin! Through the doorway yawning wide,
Crept the lazy breeze or swept the boist'rous blast;
From the broken, cobwebbed windows peeped a spirit somber-eyed --
The spirit of the dead and buried past!
And the whirring burrs were silent --lost their busy, buzzing song
And the wheel was idly dabbling in the stream,
While the murmur of the water as it softly lipped along,
Was the music of a long-forgotten dream!

Badly shriveled was the millpond where as boys we dove and swam.
Dry and weed-grown were the forebay and the race;
Gone were laden carts and wagons -- and the ford below the dam
Mirrored now no barefoot urchin's freckled face.
But I loafed and lolled upon the butment's crumbling, mossy brim,
And I fished -- and wished for nothing but to know
That my soul was steeped in sunshine, as the minnows were a-swim
In the filmy floating shadows far below!

Dear delightful Land of merriment! I roamed it all again --
From the gaunt gray house of worship on the ridge
To the humble little schoolhouse nestling low in Carter's glen,
And the sun-fish pool near Sandy Bottom bridge.
I lived and loved and laughed again -- and was so loathe to leave,
I argued with myself for longer stay;
But grim, unfeeling duty sought me out and plucked my sleeve --
And pointed to the city far away!


So here I am back at my work -- revivified, reborn!
In my mind the pressing duties of the day;
But in my soul the sunshine of the dewy summer morn
And the fragrance of the fields of new mown hay
Father's grace still tarries with me, mother's voice still greets my ears --
The balm of bloom still lingers, cool and sweet;
And I'm ready -- eager, ready! -- for the warfare of the years --
Fore the never-ending battle of the street!

And I swing my pack upon my willing shoulder once again --
And smile to note the lightness of the load;
I trudge and whistle on my way, as merrily as when
I trudged and whistled 'long the country road.
And the tumult of the city -- all its brazen clash and blare.
And the hoarse and throbbing thunder of its might --
Is soul-inspiring music of a stirring martial air
To which I march to conquer in the fight!

Yet -- in spite of all! -- I sometimes pause -- and think -- and long to be
Cuddled close to Mother Earth's fond breast again,
To catch the words of wisdom that I know she has for me --
And forget the worthless vanities of men;
To ramble o're the grassy hills, to climb the spreading trees --
The meadow-fields and pasture-lots of roam;
To whistle with the robins and to frolic with the bees --
For my best love's back there in the dear old home!

*    *    *   *    *    *    *    *    *

Old home days, or old home week, began for more practical than sentimental reasons. New England farming towns were losing population and the state and town governments were drowning in debt. In 1897, the governor of New Hampshire, Frank West Rollins, came upon an idea. He established Old Home Week in order to lure back native born New Englanders to their home towns. He thought that, upon seeing where they had been born and turning on the flood of memories, these folk would buy back their old farms, contribute to the upkeep of the local communities, donate to the libraries and meeting houses... and further, that the local towns would awaken from their "moral slumber." He explained:
"I wish that in the ear of every son and daughter of New Hampshire, in the summer days, might be heard whispered the persuasive words: Come back, come back. Do you not hear the call? What has become of the old home where you were born? Do you not remember it -- the old farm back among the hills, with its rambling buildings, its well sweep casting its long shadows, the row of stiff poplar trees, the lilacs and the willows?"
Here, Rollins expressed the nostalgic side of Old Home Week. He knew full well that pulling on strong emotional bonds was a better angle than just asking people to donate money. Rollins was also thinking long into the future of these New England farm towns:
"There have been, of course, reunions since the beginning of time, but my plan differed from the ordinary reunion in that it was to occupy a week in each year so that each one could make his plans to be back, and was to be recognized by the state as a permanent festival."
And his arguments were successful as in 1899, he oversaw the state's first official Old Home Week festivities.

By 1907, when Naylor wrote his ode to Old Home Week, the idea had spread to the rest of New England and across the nation to places such as Ohio, Alabama, North Carolina, Kentucky... and even across national boundaries to Canada and Australia.

What is interesting about Naylor's poem is the expression of the contrast between the city and the country. Of course, the turn of the 20th century brought with it extensive urban expansion and rapid technological advancements. The pace of change frightened many as to what may be inadvertently lost in the process, not to mention whether our human processing abilities would be ready to adapt quickly enough to all that was new and different. The German sociologist Georg Simmel wrote his famous treatise on "The Metropolis and Mental Life" in 1903 in which he warned about the rapidity of images and intellectual stimulation that the city forced upon a person and which would take up large amounts of man's consciousness and mental space. These threats included:
... the rapid crowding of changing images, the sharp discontinuity in the grasp of a single glance, and the unexpectedness of onrushing impressions. These are the psychological conditions which the metropolis creates. With each crossing of the street, with the tempo and multiplicity of economic, occupational, and social life, the city sets up a deep contrast with small town and rural life with reference to the sensory foundations of psychic life. The metropolis exacts from man as a discriminating creature a different amount of consciousness than does rural life. Here the rhythm of life and sensory mental imagery flows more slowly, more habitually, and more evenly. Precisely in this connection the sophisticated character of metropolitan psychic life becomes understandable -- as over against small town life which rests more upon deeply felt and emotional relationships. These latter are rooted in the more unconscious layers of the psyche and grow most readily in the steady rhythm of uninterrupted habituations. The intellect, however, has its locus in the transparent, conscious, higher layers of the psyche; it is the most adaptable of our inner forces. In order to accommodate to change and to the contrast of phenomena, the intellect does not require any shocks and inner upheavals; it is only through such upheavals that the more conservative mind could accommodate to the metropolitan rhythm of events. Thus the metropolitan type of man -- which, of course, exists in a thousand individual variants -- develops an organ protecting him against the threatening currents and discrepancies of his external environment which would uproot him. He reacts with his head instead of his heart. In this an increased awareness assumes the psychic prerogative. Metropolitan life, thus, underlies a heightened awareness and a predominance of intelligence in metropolitan man. The reaction to metropolitan phenomena is shifted to that organ which is least sensitive and quite remote from the depth of personality. Intellectuality is thus seen to preserve subjective life against the overwhelming power of metropolitan life, and intellectuality branches out in many directions and is integrated with numerous discrete phenomena. (Simmel, 1903)
In short, we lose our emotional connections. An indifferent, almost cold intellectual outlook dominates the urban man because it is required for him to take on all of the rapid changes, all of the mass of stimulating distractors that confront and assault him as he moves through and amidst the city. The values of punctuality, calculating thought processes, and exactness take predominance over a rhythmic connection with the world, spirituality, and emotional bonding. Thereby, man loses some of his instincts and much of his natural connection with the world. As the metropolis is about individual success, personal freedom overtakes social connections in import. Thus, Simmel felt, modern culture leads to a "preponderance of what one may call the 'objective spirit' over the 'subjective spirit.'.. Indeed... we notice a retrogression in the culture of the individual with reference to spirituality, delicacy, and idealism." Self-preservation is of the utmost importance... it dominates the brain of the urban man... and somehow, it kills his soul. Simmel's particular perspectives on urban and rural life have infiltrated the way in which we see the two places.

It is just such a notion that intrigued Raymond Williams in his Introduction to The Country and the City. He writes:
'Country' and 'city' are very powerful words, and this is not surprising when we remember how much they seem to stand for in the experience of human communities. In English, 'country' is both a nation and a part of a 'land'; 'the country' can be the whole society or its rural area. In the long history of human settlements, this connection between the land from which directly or indirectly we all get our living and the achievements of human society has been deeply known. And one of these achievements has been the city: the capital, the large town, a distinctive form of civilisation.

On the actual settlements, which in the real history have been astonishingly varied, powerful feelings have gathered and have been generalised. On the country has gathered the idea of a natural way of life: of peace, innocence, and simple virtue. On the city has gathered the idea of an achieved centre: of learning, communication, light. Powerful hostile associations have also developed: on the city as a place of noise, worldliness and ambition; on the country as a place of backwardness, ignorance, limitation. A contrast between country and city, as fundamental ways of life, reaches back into classical times.

Yet, the real history, throughout, has been astonishingly varied. The 'country way of life' has included the very different practices of hunters, pastoralists, farmers and factory farmers, and its organisation has varied from the tribe and the manor to the feudal estate, from the small peasantry and tenant farmers to the rural commune, from the latifundia and the plantation to the large capitalist enterprise and the state farm. The city, no less, has been of many kinds: state capital, administrative base, religious centre, market-town, port and mercantile depot, military barracks, industrial concentration. Between the cities of ancient and medieval times and the modern metropolis or conurbation there is a connection of name and in part of function, but nothing like identity. Moreover, in our own world, there is a wide range of settlements between the traditional poles of country and city: suburb, dormitory town, shanty town, industrial estate. Even the idea of the village, which seems simple, shows in actual history a wide variation: as to size and character, and internally in its variation between dispersed and nuclear settlements, in Britain as clearly as anywhere...

This importance can be stated, and will have to be assessed, as a general problem. But it is well to say at the outset that this has been for me a personal issue, for as long as I remember. It happened that in a predominantly urban and industrial Britain I was born in a remote village, in a very old settled countryside, on the border between England and Wales. Within twenty miles, indeed at the end of a bus route, was in one direction an old cathedral city, in the other an old frontier market town but only a few miles beyond it the first industrial towns and villages of the great coal and steel area of South Wales. Before I had read any descriptions and interpretations of the changes and variations of settlements and ways of life, I saw them on the ground, and working, in unforgettable clarity. In the course of education I moved to another city, build round a university, and since then, living and travelling and working, I have come to visit, and to need to visit, so many great cities, of different kinds, and to look forward and back, in space and time, knowing and seeking to know this relationship, as an experience and as a problem...

Thus at once, for me, before the argument starts, country life has many meanings. It is the elms, the may, the white horse, in the field beyond the window where I am writing. It is the men in the November evening, walking back from pruning, with their hands in the pockets of their khaki coats; and the women in headscarves, outside their cottages, waiting for the blue bus that will take them, inside school hours, to work in the harvest. It is the tractor on the road, leaving its tracks of serrated pressed mud; the light in the small hours, in the pig-farm across the road, in the crisis of a litter; the slow brown van met at the difficult corner, with the crowded sheep jammed to its slatted sides; the heavy smell, on still evenings, of the silage ricks fed with molasses. It is also the sour land, on the thick boulder clay, not far up the road, that is selling for housing, for a speculative development, at twelve thousand pounds an acre.

As I said, I was born in a village, and I still live in a village. But where I was born was under the Black Mountains, on the Welsh border, where the meadows are bright green against the red earth of the ploughland, and the first trees, beyond the window, are oak and holly. Where I live now is in the flat country, on a headland of boulder clay, towards the edge of the dikes and sluices, the black earth of the Fens, under the high East Anglican skies...

In the east now, at nights, over the field with the elms and the white horse, I watch the glow of Cambridge: a white tinged with orange; and in the autumn, here, the stubble fields are burned, sometimes catching the thorn hedges, and when I saw this first at night I took it as strange accidental fire. My own network, from where I sit writing at the window, is to Cambridge and London, and beyond them to the postmark places, the unfamiliar stamps and the distant cities: Rome, Moscow, New York.

The lights of the city. I go out in the dark, before bed, and look at that glow in the sky: a look at the city while remembering Hardy's Jude, who stood and looked at the distance, attainable and unattainable, Christminster. Or I remember Wordsworth, coming from high country to London, and saying from Westminster Bridge:

"Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This city now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air."

It is true that this was the city before the rush and noise of the working day, but the pulse of the recognition is still unmistakable, and I know that I have felt it again and again: the great buildings of civilisation; the meeting-places; the libraries and theatres, the towers and domes; and often more moving than these, the houses, the streets, the press and excitement of so many people, with so many purposes. I have stood in many cities and felt this pulse: in the physical differences of Stockholm and Florence, Paris and Milan: this identifiable and moving quality: the centre, the activity, the light. Like everyone else I have felt also the chaos of the metro and the traffic jam; the monotony of the ranks of houses; the aching press of strange crowds. But this is not an experience at all, not an adult experience, until it has come to include also the dynamic movement, in these centres of settled and often magnificent achievement. H. G. Wells once said, coming out of a political meeting where they had been discussing social change, that this great towering city was a measure of the obstacle, of how much must be moved if there was to be any change. I have known this feeling, looking up at great buildings that are the centres of power, but I find I do not say 'There is your city, your great bourgeois monument, your towering structure of this still precarious civilisation' or I do not only say that; I say also 'This is what men have built, so often magnificently, and is not everything then possible?' Indeed this sense of possibility, of meeting and of movement, is a permanent element of my sense of cities: as permanent a feeling as those other feelings, when I look from the mountain at the great coloured patchwork of fields that generations of my own people have cleared and set in hedges; or the known living places, the isolated farms, the cluster of cottages by castle or church, the line of river and wood and footpath and lane; lines received and lines made. So that while country and city have this profound importance, in their differing ways, my feelings are held, before any argument starts.

But then also, specifically, I came from a village to a city: to be taught, to learn: to submit to personal facts, the incidents of a family, to a total record; to learn evidence and connection and altering perspectives. If the walls of the colleges were like the walls of parks, that as children we had walked round, unable to enter, yet now there was a gate, an entry, and a library at the end of it: a direct record, if I could learn to read it. It is ironic to remember that it was only after I came that I heard, from townsmen, academics, an influential version of what country life, country literature, really meant: a prepared and persuasive cultural history. I read related things still, in academic books and in books by men who left private schools to go farming, and by others who grew up in villages and are now country writers: a whole set of books, periodicals, notes in newspapers: country life. And I find I keep asking the same question, because of the history: where do I stand in relation to these writers: in another country or in this valuing city? That problem is sharp and ironic in its cultural persistence. (Raymond Williams, The Country and the City, 1973)
And so Williams struggles with the distinctions, the idealizations, the stereotypes, the realities, the nostalgic longings, the connections and disconnections -- that exists between and amongst the city and the country. Old Home Days are a chance to fall into the stereotypes and the nostalgia... or to ponder the ways in which these two realms have been set up against each other as foes and opposites... how they have been typecast and frozen in perpetual images that may not melt upon the actual reality. Nonetheless, Old Home Days proliferate around New England and should be taken in. Old Home Days are not just a chance to remind the city man of his lost connections to family and nature, but to imbue the country with urban vibrancy and ideas. Between city and country, there can and should be an exchange... rather than a fallacious contradistinction. These places are not just places to dig up the graves of memory past, but are living places, full of present and people and life... in which memory is incorporated and thereby its celebration can be a celebration of genuine connection rather than of sentiment only.