This evening, the Walt Whitman class I have been taking online comes to an end. As a final exercise, we were encouraged to write a poem in the style of Whitman.
Last night, I went to the opening of "A Body in Fukushima" at Wesleyan. It is a powerful show, that I highly recommend. As I thought about the show, and thought about my assignment for the Whitman class, I thought it would be good to writemy thoughts about the show, al a Whitman.
A Body in Fukushima
Who were you that rode your bike to the train station, now abandoned to the radiation?
Who were you that steamed your rice, in a cooker now too hot with a different type of heat?
Who were you that mended the boats, the boats damaged by the tsunami, the boats that can no longer be repaired?
Who were you that danced by the one ton bags of radioactive dirt or photographed the dancer?
And those of you in years past who helped build the nuclear power plants. You saw Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Did you not worry that those promises of prosperity to your impoverish properties would be empty?
It is all part of a giant dance of survival, the deals we make to escape mind numbing subsistence work. But sometimes, the deals go bad.
Now, the cherry trees, that your ancestors nurtured so lovingly, bloom each spring, but the radiation keeps away the visitors, keeps away the former inhabitants. Their flowers, their smells, their beauty hidden behind the warning signs.
And what can we learn from the photographs? And what will those who come many years hence, after the radiation has decayed, what will they learn?
Tomorrow is the last day of the online class on Walt Whitman I have been participating in. We’ve read sections of his poems and been given things to think about
think about how hearing Whitman in song affects your understanding and interpretation of Whitman's words as they appear on the page.
It sounds like a homework assignment and doesn’t set my mind wandering.
On Sunday, the church I attend will have its annual meeting. Prior to the meeting, we’ve been invited to think about two questions.
1) We are now at five years with a new Rector. There have been many transitions in those five years, many new things. What new, different, exciting enhanced ministries do you see coming out of this parish over the NEXT five years?
2) In our fallen, rapidly-changing world, what do we believe God is calling us to be/do as a Christian community of faith, as p part of the Body of Christ, in this time and place?
These are important questions as we think about how we will spend our time and money. They are questions I’ve been tempted to write a long response to.
These are the things I’m thinking about as I stop at “A Body in Fukushima”, an exhibit at Wesleyan. This is another experience deserving much more though, and a well written response. There are issues of art and politics, things that I find echoed in discussions on social media.
Perhaps, all of this is woven together into some larger construct.
I’ll spend some time thinking about all of this, hoping that I’ll get a glimpse of the larger construct, but now, it is time to sit quietly pondering.
And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.
This is how David Foster Wallace introduces his famous 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, “This is Water”.
Yet I have to wonder, is it really the ‘liberal arts education’ that does this? Can we get this without going to a liberal arts college? I’m taking a MOOC right now about Walt Whitman. Reading Walt Whitman breathes a little life into the day in, day out existence. So does a sacred scarf, a beautiful sunrise, and a few moments of silence in church.
Today, I spoke with my daughter Miranda and her efforts in the arts as it relates to tiny houses. I’ve seen people talk about the difference between tiny houses, RVs and mobile homes. Some of the discussions have talked about sustainability, others about supporting local artisans. Yet perhaps the big question is, how much art is there? How much of whatever David Foster Wallace was speaking about that keeps us from going through life unconscious?
I spoke with a homeless friend this evening. I know people who are looking at tiny houses to address homelessness. For some people, a tiny house, any sort of a house, is about having basic needs met, the physiological and safety needs from the base of Maslow’s hierarchy. Many people I know who live in nice houses, view their houses in this way. Yet what if our houses were meeting our needs of esteem or self-actualization?
It may seem to many that these sort of houses are reserved for the very rich who can have their dwellings designed by famous architects and built by master craftsmen. Yet this may be where the tiny house movement has some of its most important appeal. If you focus on form and function, and not on how many square feet a McMansion takes up, you can have a house that is a work of art.
Housing: Conceptual art and interactive sculpture, a chance to live deliberatively.
On the way home from work today, I listened to an article on NPR, Bored ... And Brilliant? A Challenge To Disconnect From Your Phone. It asked the question
Are we packing our minds too full? What might we be losing out on by texting, tweeting and email-checking those moments away?
The article talks about a study which found
the participants came up with their most novel ideas when they did the most boring task of all — which was reading the phone book
Yet they seem to conflate daydreaming with boredom. Being busy reading the phone book is very different from daydreaming. Indeed, playing casual games on a cellphone may be closer to reading the phone book than being disconnected. I find most casual smartphone games pretty boring.
They are suggesting a project which will “will collect stories and provide tips for keeping your phone at bay”.
It seems particularly ill conceived to me. I spend a lot of time on my cellphone and on top of that I spend even more time on my laptop. I would suggest that my use of time is, perhaps, a more beneficial approach towards fostering creativity.
I spend time connecting with people via social media. Listening to what others are talking about, searching for new ideas. I visit sites like Open Culture. Today, I watch a video they share of Patti Smith and David Lynch Talking About the Source of Their Ideas & Creative Inspiration. It seems much more interesting than trying to keep access to other ideas at bay.
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig talks about the ghosts from his past as he taught rhetoric and quality before his nervous breakdown. In Dead Poet’s Society, the character of John Keating played by Robin Williams, invoked the ghosts of former students, urging his students to “seize the day”.
Last night, I walked the halls of Amity Middle School in Bethany, accompanied by these ghosts and others. My wife was a student at this school over three decades ago. The mother of one of my daughter’s classmates was one of my wife’s classmate those many years ago. Did they imagine, back then, that their children would be classmates, carry small devices like the communicators from Star Trek and have access to machines that could print out three dimensional objects? What were their dreams, what were the dreams their teachers and parents had for them back when they walked these halls.
Back to School night started similar to the school day. The principal’s voice crackled over the loudspeakers. We all stood to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, bringing recollections of the ghosts of those who fought for our freedom. There was a moment of silence, thirteen years after 9/11 as we recalled our friends and neighbors who died in that attack.
Then, it was off to meet the different teachers. There were a few themes that emerged, the total point system was repeated over and over again. There were frequent mentions of the Common Core, and at least to me, it seemed, there was too little focus on the actual curriculum and acknowledgement of the ghosts.
The first class I sent to was World Geography and Culture. There was a good syllabus presented and a discussion about the focus on argument and debate. Fiona, like her parents, loves debate and I’m excited for this class. I did wonder about how much the students will be encouraged to question the assumptions they have about culture based on the culture they’ve grown up in.
The second class was Spanish. I believe both Fiona’s mother and uncle had Mrs. Young for world language classes when they were students.
This was followed by English. I am sure that this will be a fine class and that the teacher will inspire the students, but I have concerns. The teacher will be managing the class using a “behavior management plan” based on corporate structure. I’ve already written to the teacher expressing concern. I am not convinced that CEOs are the best role models for proper behavior. Nor do I believe that they are the best exemplars of the use of the English language.
She spoke about finding examples of good writing to emulate, of “mentor texts”, and my mind went to e.e.cummings, Jack Kerouac and James Joyce. Somehow I suspect that may not be the sort of texts they’ll focus on. She mentioned that because of the Common Core, the readings would be based more on the skills being taught than on the titles of famous books. I have mixed feelings about this. Skills are important, but so is being literate in certain classics. I hope Fiona will end up reading Lord of the Flies, The Pearl, A Separate Peace, and other great books that illustrate something more important about language than just skills.
The essay, 'Understanding Poetry,' by Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D. comes to mind:
If the poem's score for perfection is plotted on the horizontal of a graph and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the poem yields the measure of its greatness.
For those who miss the reference, this is a section of the text book that Mr. Keating in Dead Poet’s Society urges his students to rip out.
That said, I remain hopeful for the class and the work they will do. Perhaps the students can form a union to deal with the corporate structure. Perhaps some can even participate in the National Novel Writing Month Young Writers Program. I think everyone should try to write their first novel by the time they complete middle school.
There was a nod to integrated curricula connecting the English class with the social studies class. I was glad to hear that. I’m a big fan of integrated curricula.
The next class was science. The teacher highlighted the classroom and the lab equipment. My daughter wrote that she thought I would like the science teacher, and I do. They will be studying lab safety, metrics, the scientific method, earth movements, meteorology and astronomy. I wondered if AMSB had a weather station connected to Weather Underground. It doesn’t appear as if they do. I figure I’ll have to dig out my ten inch Schmidt–Cassegrain telescope soon. I wonder how much they will get into issues of climate change or the effect of fracking on earth movements. I also wonder to what extent the science curriculum can be connected to the social studies curriculum.
The following class was tech. The teacher recognized me because of my Google Glass and we talked about 3D printing. My daughter is pretty excited about this class as well. As the teacher lauded the school district. We do have a great school district with wonderful facilities, great teachers, all contributing to the success of the students. Yet I remember hearing former New York City school Chancellor Joel Klein talking about equality in education. He spoke about how if the school system is working properly parents should be happy with whatever school their children end up at knowing that they all have the same level of excellence. I thought about students at under performing schools in Connecticut and remembered a great quote attributed to Virginia Woolf, “There is only one thing wrong with privilege, it’s that not everyone has it.”
For the final period, my daughter wrote Phys-Ed/Choir and listed the teachers and rooms for each. I suspect that Fiona, like me, prefers choir over physical education, so I went to the choir room. No one else showed up. Since we were supposed to be following the A schedule, I should have gone to physical education. My daughter had made a similar mistake at one point, missing technology and going to choir instead. Yet it provided one of the best chances to spend time talking with a teacher.
We talked about folk music festivals, expanding musical horizons, and the role of the arts in STEM oriented systems. My middle daughter, with her masters in community arts education always points out that it really should be STEAM, with the A standing for Arts. Without the creativity of the arts, the inventions of STEM projects are too likely to be lifeless and soulless.
There wasn’t any discussion of integrated curricula here, but it would be great if choir expanded the musical horizons of the students to include cultures being studied in social studies.
Like the students, when the classes were over, the parents found time to speak with their friends before heading home. As I drove home, I thought about the Common Core, various ghosts, and seizing the day.