HORNED-TOADS AGAINST THE HEART

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Frank is a 29 year old Navajo man who’s dying of AIDS. I spend time with him several days a week at the near by hospital. It’s part of my volunteer work, and I’ve been reading poetry and Coyote stories to him, coming to understand that he’s smart and funny, not to be toyed with or patronized.

Walking into the room of a very sick stranger requires some combination of courage and audacity. Who the hell am I to barge in? Who is this middle-aged white woman?

Frank has a private room and it’s small like a cave. I’ve come to like it. Hospitals usually seem like the hell realm to me – no place to relax or rest, full of noise and disaster. But Frank’s room is down a hall that’s not too busy, and there’s white noise in there, and he keeps the lights low. He’s hooked up to a lot of stuff – about three machines on wheels with red lights and numbers and tubes going into his arm. He has to take all this with him when he goes to the bathroom, including something that goes up his nose. He’s also hooked up to his iPod from time to time.

One of several inspiring things is that Frank is in charge of all this, sometimes telling the nurse how the equipment works. Quiet and weak, a lithe and dark young man underneath a pile of blankets, he has come to seem to me more like some wounded potentate than like a patient. He laughs and smiles, a great smile – big broad mouth and something metal shining on one of his front teeth. His head hangs a little and his voice is soft; the disease has been an exhausting foe. He has to cough up phlegm into a vacuum tube and he’s slow moving.  But he’s fully present, even after getting the pain meds.

A couple of days ago he was listening to some Navajo chants on a CD that the formidable woman who runs the program I volunteer in brought him. In the little cave of his room, lights dim, we listened and I asked him if I could read a few Coyote stories that I’d brought. I read the one where Coyote is dancing wildly in the dark with what he thinks are other dancers by a lake; Coyote is thinking that he’s really cool, a great dancer. But as the night wears on, he can’t believe the other people aren’t quitting. He keeps dancing away, not to be outdone, until he can hardly lift his arms or feet, continuing to think to himself that he’s really going to impress these people. Finally when dawn comes, he looks around and comes to find out he’s been dancing like a fool in the middle of a bunch of bulrushes blowing in the wind.

Frank and I find that amusing. Then Frank starts telling me about Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “Shay”) near where he’s from; he draws a map of where it is in the Four Corners area where New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado meet.

For some reason, and I suspect it has to do with the unseen entities that are enticed to play with sincere and strange encounters like the one Frank and I are having, I think of horny-toads. It occurs to me that 32 years ago when I moved to New Mexico, I saw a lot of horny-toads. These animals are very cool in my opinion. They have round squat bodies about the size of a child’s palm, spikes all around their bodies, little lizard legs, and a wide dragon-like head. My cats used to try to mess with them, but never could quite comes to terms with the spikes and some noxious red liquid they excreted. But it’s been a long time since I’ve seen one.

Frank said to me, “Yeah, horny-toads, we used to call them grandpa. You pick one up and place it over your heart and it makes your heart strong. And when you put it back you have to put it down exactly where you found it.”

I’d never heard that story before.

After visiting Frank, I went to the bookstore and got a book of photos of canyons in the Four Corners area to take back and show him, so he could tell me about the places in it, like he told me how to pronounce Navajo words in the poetry I was trying to read.

But when I went in with the book today, Frank wasn’t doing well. He was in a lot of pain. We only looked at the pictures a little, and then it seemed better to just be with him.

I wondered if I should leave, if I was too much a stranger to share the intimacy of terrible pain and weakness. I asked him if I could stay until the nurse brought the pain meds, and he said, “Please do.”

During a respite, we talked about our families, I read a couple of Joy Harjo poems and I did some puttering around for him, feeling like an idiot because I had such a hard time hearing his weak voice. I hated having to ask him to repeat himself when it took all his energy to speak in the first place.

One of the things that got him to smile was a story I told about my brothers giving me “Indian burns.” It amused us both that this cruel twisting of the skin, done by thousands of white boys to their sisters throughout the mid-twentieth century suburbs of America, was attributed to Native Americans – kind of like the innovative European tradition of scalping, which came to be standard behavior for Hollywood Indians.

I want to thank my brothers for giving me stories to tell Frank. Suffering sometimes has its reward.

But Frank’s suffering just seems pure cruel to me, and I hate it.

As I was walking my bike home, I could feel the urge to cry, but refused to make Frank’s suffering my drama. I told myself, “Hey, this is the work you signed up for. You start sobbing about it and you’d better switch to bake sales.”

Respect. That’s what I want Frank to get. I’ve lifted him up and put him against my heart, but I need to always put him back where I found him.

School’s Out for Summer

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I had a student last term who for a week sat in the first row spitting diseased mucus into an empty Dr. Pepper bottle. This was my first class of the day, 9 am. He told me his mother would kill him if he didn’t come to class, even when he was so sick he could not raise his head up off the table. Boils developed on his nose, which was translucently red from being blown on the streamers of toilet paper he’d bring into class.

In the same class there was a young man, a member of the National Guard, who came in 24 minutes late regularly, carrying a gallon jug of water and reeking of pot. Puffy-eyed, he’d write a fairly decent in-class essay, showing good grammar skills, that had nothing to do with the topic, and then leave at 9:45.

When I went up to my office before the next class at 10:30, I felt nauseated. I lost any desire to ever drink a Dr. Pepper again, and I was concerned about what would happen if there was a need for the National Guard in my neighborhood.

There was a student in the 10:30 class, just turned 18, who never failed to say something amazing. His essays were publishable. I still remember his argument against assisted suicide, saying that when a life ended it was like a unique piece of art being destroyed, like the Mona Lisa being shredded. His politics were more conservative than mine, but he made me think.

At 1pm I got to deal with a middle-aged woman who looked like Beavis of “Beavis and Butthead,” with a long black wig on, who despised me. She and a G.Q. gorgeous young man with gelled hair sat  in the last row and disdained everything I did; they talked constantly to each other about my lameness. “Miss,” said the guy, who never took his dark glasses off except to hang them under his chin for a moment, “I hate this class.” When I’d ask him to stop text messaging or to stop getting up and down during class he explained with a troubled, furrowed brow that he had a learning disability. “Miss, I don’t want to be here,” he’d say. And of course, I didn’t want him to be there either.

One day I asked him why, if he was so miserable, he was in the class. He explained that his parole officer made him go to school.

The students in that class were constantly talking to each other. I’d sometimes sink into blatant derision, calling them a bunch of adolescent addicts. Or I’d just stand there and mutter to the scrawny kid in the front row, “When did I lose control?”

There was a middle aged Korean businessman in that class. He had enrolled in order to improve his English skills while he was temporarily working with a high-tech computer company in town. Polite, nodding his head whenever I looked at him, he sat between three girls, who giggled about the good looking young man who was on parole, and an older woman who wore Tinkerbell t-shirts.

It was because of him, and his meticulously handwritten essays, that I felt any desire to walk into that classroom. But about nine weeks into the term, he wrote me an email saying something like, “With most honored gratitude I must to inform you that my obligations within business and the need to travel to several European capitals for a month require that I no longer attend class. When I go back to my country I will always remember you and the atmosphere of your class.”

No doubt! Somehow I can’t see a teacher in a classroom in Korea listening to her students explain why they don’t think they need to buy the textbooks.

Oh yeah, and then there was my cute creative writing student who came in late to the 6pm class and passed out in her desk, slowly sliding down until her neck was on the back of the chair and her mouth was gaping open. The subject line of her email the next day was “Class Drunk.” Several students in that class wrote a final exam essay about their own tragic flaws.

The guy who hawked up phlegm into a Dr. Pepper bottle actually passed that 9am class. The guy on parole (who’d attended a private high school, by the way) didn’t hand in a research paper or show up for the final exam and got an “F.” The woman in the Tinkerbell shirt and the guy who wrote the Mona Lisa metaphor both made an “A.”

I’m eligible for retirement. But I can’t leave this stuff.

April is the Cruelest Month

 

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          My son died nine years ago, April 9. There’s some nine thing going on (this also being 2009).  I’m not doing very well. Who knows why this year seems particularly bleak to me. Some years aren’t so bad.

          The gory details, which are never far from my consciousness, are that he was crossing a one-way street on a sunny Sunday, trying to get home from work around noon to talk to a girl on the internet, someone he was infatuated with. He looked the wrong way, stepped out into the street and was hit by a GMC van. He died instantly, as he was being held by a stranger who saw the whole thing and ran into the street to cradle him. This stranger’s action is the most soothing memory I have of this horror. 

            The first months after Aaron’s death, everything was yellow. Really – there seemed to be a yellow light around everything. I had enormous compassion for people, knowing for the first time that really horrible shit happens. My eyes were opened to human suffering as they had never been before.

            Never did I consider going on meds.  I wanted the raw experience of grief, because I wanted to be with my son. I didn’t want the only connection I had with him, grief and awe over his transition to the void, to be diluted. I sought out other parents whose children had died, and found no groups that did not gag me with talk about angels and being with the Lord. I tolerate anyone’s methods of dealing with crushing tragedy, but I felt it was an insult to my son to drag his essence into  a world that seemed to both of us as the desperate product of wishful thinking. I left these poor parents to their own rituals, to smile about how God called little their little angels home. Aaron told me once that the only higher power he believed in was death. Stunning wisdom.

            I chastise myself this year for falling down the grief tube and coming out the other side with a puffed up face and a whole day gone. Shouldn’t I be used to my son’s death by now? Shouldn’t I have moved on?

            I have moved on. I’m in my 23rd year of a teaching job I love; I write novels and plays; I have great friends, most of whom don’t envision me lying on the floor one or two days a year weeping and calling my son’s name. Who wants to know such things? When I was in school, no one told me that  Mary Todd Lincoln was mentally ruined by the death of her children. Her depression was always taught as a weird defect that was a ball and chain for her beloved husband (who, by the way, was assassinated in April.) It didn’t dawn on me until my own trauma that, “Hey, maybe the woman was depressed because her children died.”

            The truth, of course, is that children died a lot in the old days before antibiotics and such. Only recently have people in wealthy countries seen the death of a child as deviantly odd, except for in war zones. And when the child belongs to a family that speaks a “foreign” language and has a non-Christian belief system, well, what did those mothers expect?  Well, I suspect that no matter how common death is, even for those who believe in Jesus or an afterlife with 72 virgins, the loss of one’s baby has always been sickening and damaging.

            My 18 year old son who loved Ska bands like the Mighty Mighty Bostones and Jimmy Cliff’s reggae classics, is most likely not sitting beside Jesus singing “How tender is thy love, oh Lord.” Maybe someone else’s little angel or dearly departed gramps is doing that; hey, maybe we all get what we believe in when we die. If you want to hang out with those women who hold their hands up and close their eyes and say, “Thank you Jesus,” that’s your business. As Mark Twain said, “I prefer Heaven for climate, but Hell for company.” If Aaron’s essence is anywhere, it’s where people are joking around and eating pizza, and I would look for him there, no matter how hot it gets. 

            Actually having no belief in a heaven and hell other than the ones we create for ourselves in this life, I’m left with “I don’t know,” and some interesting experiences with other theories about the after death process. My best guess is that our parts get recycled, and that may include mental and emotional parts. And then there’s always the infinite void, which may or may not have a buffet.

            The most important thing one learns in hospice work is not to impose one’s spiritual views on others, and not to show any disdain for theirs. Dying people and their families need whatever they can muster to not be crushed by their trauma. And I would say the same thing about grief. We should not impose our own notions of how long or how hard someone should mourn. On the other hand, I understand that the howling sorrow I can lapse into once a year or so is more and more a private matter. I don’t want to unload it on others, but I can write about it, and hope that it will reduce the shame or judgment other grievers heap on themselves for “not getting over it.” Some things you do not get over – not with meds, not with therapy, not with the Bible and not even with time. It is not weakness. It is a part of life many want to pretend does not exist. And transforming sorrow into art or compassion for others, or, if you’re really lucky, gratitude for what you did have and do have — those are possibilities that can give some hope. But this shit is hard.  

            So if you believe in Heaven and you run into Mary Todd Lincoln tell her you understand, and that she wasn’t just some burdensome crazy lady. She was a woman who saw the corpses of her own children. 

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Finding What You Weren’t Looking For: Where Research Leads the Writer

     There’s only one column left of Hera’s temple in Crotone, Italy. To get to it, you walk through a park that has a fraction of the olive trees that once grew in the thick forest that covered the area. The forest is gone. The temple is gone, except for this column and other crumbs left behind — the stone foundations of various chambers, serving various spiritual and sexual needs. 

     In December there can be a cold wind on the coast of Southern Italy. You can stand alone, like the column, on this ancient site, uncomfortably bundled, wondering what happened to Hera, what happened to Crotone where Pythagorus and his cult once contemplated the geometry and music of the cosmos. 

     Today Crotone has a speck of charm left and a lot of trash, noise, combustion engines and organized crime. African refugees, brought to this particular promised land by corrupt industries,walk to and from barbed wire bound compounds in silent groups — cheap laborers for some fat gatto.

     I wanted to go back home, to leave this wrecked place and its sad remnants, or at least go back to the Zen Center in Rome, an unexpected refuge in the most Catholic city in the world. I was getting a few details for my novel about Pythagorus’ cult — the shape and size of the little oil lamps the ancient peoples carried, the way the sky and sea looks from Hera’s temple — but it was scant information compared to the piles of trash leaking into the streets and the constant roaring of a thousand cars looking for one parking space. What was the point of dealing with the nine hour tin can experience of the airplane, the frantic and humorless security lines where people threw items into plastic tubs and then rushed to reorganize, anxious about missing a connecting flight? What was the point of spending oodles of money for a walk through a tiny museum and a shivering pilgrimage to one sad column when my publishing prospects had waned since the low sales numbers of my last novel? 

     As a writer of historical novels, I felt that I had to stand where my characters stood. And I did — in more ways than one. I understood, as I could never have understood staying at home with my dog and my imagination, the poignant end of one of history’s noble efforts. The impermanence of ideals, philosophies, utopias and even gods, is hard to take. You want to hang on to a romantic idea of something, anything — ancient Greece, modern Italy, yourself as a writer being inspired by beauty instead of being depressed by trash and by the exploitation of once hopeful African immigrants. 

     This depression followed me back to Rome where I must have been one of the grumpiest adult tourists ever to trek through the maze of the Vatican museum to see the Cistene Chapel. With hundreds of people, I craned my neck to stare up at Michelangelo’s work; the part where God reaches out to Adam was much smaller than I had thought it would be. And everything was so damned ornate and ostentatious, so patriarchal an opposite of that one beautiful remnant of the mother goddess — that single column, hanging on, looking out to a vast blue ocean that, at least on the surface, remained uncluttered, unruined. 

     A fiction writer seeking the truth is in itself a kind of oxymoron, and I felt like a moron. I liked the sanctuary for cats in an archeological site in the Argentine section of Rome better than the Cistene Chapel. Cats were everywhere — on broken columns, strolling along tumbled stone walls. And I loved the shiny Micky Mouse face balloon that had floated up against the ceiling of the entranceway to the Pantheon and that grinned stupidly down on tourists like today’s manifestation of Zeus. 

     Truth moves, erodes, morphs, disintegrates, makes a joke of expectation and certainty. Whatever I write will somehow spin around that one column and have a lot of cats and the face of Micky Mouse looming somewhere. 

     I had no idea that’s what my research would turn up. 

 

 

The Amazing But True Story of What I Would Be Writing About If I Were Writing

 

I haven’t done a lot of writing on this website. And yet I’m very grateful to anyone who takes the time to check it out. One problem I have with a blog is that I prefer to use fiction, narrative, to say what I am compelled to say.

            The books that I’ve published rely on research into real lives that fit my pet themes. These themes always have something to do with integrity, which I define as the quality of actually behaving according to one’s ethics. I’m fascinated with the idea that humans are capable of having integrity, yet often choose not to. We excuse ourselves from making a serious effort to live up to our ideals, even though many ordinary people have shown that courage, honesty, and maintaining a love of life are not super human. They are choices. 

            In my first novel, there’s the woman who sees her Jicarilla Apache friends slaughtered and thus learns what evil is and that she has to reject it. In another story, there’s the woman who has to finally admit that her drinking has caused others to suffer, including the man who was hanged after he helped find her missing children. There’s the man in Careless Love who lusts after women so indiscriminately that he has sex with an axe murderess in her jail cell; but a thirteen year old girl gives him an opportunity to see his own bullshit. There’s the 19th century French doctor who faces up to his own part in a world of hypocrisy and exploitation after knowing a Native American on the verge of being his own people’s great shaman. There’s the 14th century Irish woman who passes through many identities before tragedy teaches her to give them all up and “honor what’s been lost and savor what one has.” And there’s the 6th century Pagan Nun, who cannot put her faith in anything but kindness. All of these characters move through self-deception and dogmas to see what is and to align their actions, as much as they can, with what they believe to be humane and noble.

            I am not as good as the characters I create. And that is one of the reasons I don’t have writer’s block, but writer’s frustration. I don’t have the time I need and want to explore all the amazing examples of ordinary humans who have refused to succumb to their own or anyone else’s cynicism. I am not done teaching myself, through the stories I concoct, about how a person not only maintains, but develops strength and integrity in the midst of brutal and cynical circumstances.

            I have one finished but unpublished manuscript called Bad Molly about a woman who comes through the Irish famine and ends up in the Territory of New Mexico as a laundress with the United States Army in 1860. Molly spoke to me many nights when I’d have preferred sleep, her hands on her hips, saying things like, “So when is that you think you’ll pull your sorry backside out of that bed and start writing this story?” Every fantasy she had, except about owning chickens, got soiled or nixed somehow, and yet she constantly demonstrated practical courage and expected it of others. She, no doubt, is very irritated with me now as I write this blog.

            For example, I should be writing the book I’ve outlined about the daughter of a con artist and cult leader in 6th century BC Greece who inherits the secret that all dogmas are bullshit.

            I should be finishing the play based on the true story of a man whose daughter was shot to death on prom night, and who ended up forgiving the boy who did it, a boy who grew old and sick with colon cancer in prison.

            I should be outlining the story of a woman who survived the sinking of the Titanic to get a degree in bio-chemistry and work as a nurse in a World War I hospital on the French front. 

            This stuff is real. I don’t make it up. Or I don’t make the core of it up. I just stumble upon every day acts of awesome backbone and think that all of us running around talking about human nature as though it were license to lie, cheat and steal need to jump into narratives where people don’t buy that. People do amazingly generous and courageous things, which doesn’t mean that they don’t also pick their noses.

            And that’s what I would continue to try to write about if I were writing.

           

 

 

 

 

New Magic in a Dusty World

medd_01_img0008.jpgMy father said to me as we walked arm in arm, slowly down the hall of an upscale nursing home, “I’m a dead duck. I don’t have anything to live for, and I’m afraid to die.” He’d been widowed twice, had been too abusive a father for any of his children to take him into their homes, and was slowly dying of conditions related to a lifetime of drinking Chivas Regal and smoking Marlboros.   My dad was basically saying the same thing Hamlet said. He didn’t want to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune anymore, but he was too cowardly to leap into the unknown maws of death. There’s the rub. 

I got into hospice work because I want to look right at the thing we fear so much, the thing that looms, that Edgar Allan Poe wrote about as a vivid, gothic horror.  Death, as much a part of life as birth, is still shocking — like something that no one believes could happen to them or those they love. The dying are often tucked away in institutions, avoided, pitied.

It seems to me that the most important work a person can do is to make dying less horrible for someone, including him or herself.  And that’s what the hospice movement is all about. The medical staff in hospice care are amazing people. They know an impressive amount about palliative medicine — the relief of pain and discomfort.  I learned from one nurse all I need to know about morphine patches. 

This particular nurse was helping a colleague of mine, a cantankerous English teacher, a bachelor and a loner who’d left an abusive home in South Boston at 16 and joined the military. Like my dad, he smoked and drank. He got esophageal cancer that metastasized all over the place. A group of people who didn’t really know Paul or each other well materialized around Paul as a team of caregivers, so he wouldn’t have to be institutonalized. He could have his big screen t.v., but more importantly, his books around him.

Paul especially loved Thomas Wolfe. As a young soldier, he had gone on a pilgrimage to Wolfe’s home in Ashville, North Carolina. There was a picture of him standing by Thomas Wolfe’s grave with the author’s elderly brother. One day when I was with Paul after a procedure that he’d been heavily drugged for, I sat next to him with a copy of Look Homeward Angel that he had just given me. Groggy, lying in a hospital bed, he told me to open the book to the first page and read it. I told him I didn’t want to start reading that book until I’d finished You Can’t Go Home Again. He said, “Just open the damned book and start reading.” I did, and Paul began to recite from memory the entire first paragraph of Look Homeward Angel, …“that dark miracle of chance which makes new magic in a dusty world.”  

Another man I stayed with in his final weeks was Mac, eighty something with Alzheimer’s. He’d sit at the dining room table humming to himself, asking me who I was several times, and wanting to know when his wife was coming home. There were two things that soothed him. One was getting him to tell stories about his childhood, which I wrote down in a journal. I learned about how he could hear his mother playing Chopin on the piano from blocks away when he was a boy walking home from school. The other soothing thing was putting on a CD of the Ink Spots, a male singing group from the 1930’s and 40’s. Mac couldn’t remember what day or year or season it was, but he could remember every word of those Ink Spots songs, including their big hit”If I Didn’t Care.” “If I didn’t care would it be the same?”

There’s a growing realization that there’s something palliative, soothing, important about things like poetry, music, writing for those who are dying. I work with a program call Arts in Medicine which puts musicians in the waiting room of the cancer clinic, among other things. I read poetry while a massage therapist works on nurses in high stress areas such as the Intensive Care Units.

Another enlightened program has suggested that people make a living will, not about medical treatment, but about the things that they want with them for emotional comfort. I want, among other things, people to read to me. Paul wanted his books with him until the end. When someone suggested that he start giving them away as he was doing with his other things, he said, “No. My books are my friends.”

I completely understood.  

Writing While My Ego Eats Ice Cream

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 For over thirty-six years, I’ve dabbled in Zen Buddhism. For over forty-six years, since fourth grade when I wrote a Christmas poem about the Snow Fairy for my class, I’ve been a writer. These paths do not always converge. 

Egolessness is a beautiful thing. Buddha taught that all suffering comes from the ego’s desire to feel pleasure and avoid pain. Writers are rarely, if ever, seen without their egos.  I heard that Jack Kerouac went through a period in which he wrote all day and then burned his work at night. He spent some time dabbling in Buddhism; but at the end of his life he was bloated with alcoholism, living with his mother, and he had sort of returned to his Catholic roots. I think writing and then burning whatever you’ve written might be a good indication that you are experiencing a Zen moment. But then telling people about it would cancel out the egoless aspects of it. 

It’s hard to want people to think you are cool, brilliant, an irreplaceable contributor to the world’s art, and at the same time try to disappear into the great selfless void. When your work is accepted for publication, when people actually show up for a booksigning, it’s easy to say, “I am not attached! Everything is perfect as it is.” But at some point you might find yourself, the Buddhist writer, spending an entire meditation period fretting about how you can get your latest manuscript published.  This, clearly, is not transcending ego. This, clearly, is suffering, albeit on a pretty minor scale. 

 Some might say, “Forget the hippie Buddhist crap and admit that you want it all — you want fame, fortune. And okay, you also want people to stop being mean to each other as a result of reading your profound work.”  But I’ve had one experience after another that told me this kind of indulgence has no good end. It creates a lot of anxiety. It creates doubts and fears; and anyway, all success comes to an end. The party is over, and you have to try to plan a bigger, better party. Yes, there’s momentary pleasure, as there is when one finally says, “What the hell! I’m going to eat the whole pint of ‘Chunky Monkey’ and have a damned good time doing it.” But that last spoonful comes, and then what? How long can you coast on “Wow — that was some fun eating that ice cream”? 

 I cannot deny the wisdom of Buddha. Ego and its limitless fears and desires should not be indulged. And I’d probably be a much more contented person if I had no ambition as a writer. 

 But I do. 

 And yet — there is a time when as a writer I have a little freedom from wanting and fearing — it is,  of course, when I’m writing. 

 Any creative act is best when you forget time. And ambition is, after all, about the future. At my best, I am writing to write, not caring about anything, loving the magical appearance of a word, even a letter. The formation of the words and an insight about the character or the events I’m creating seem to happen simultaneously.

Another way my Buddhist intentions merge with writing is when I make a focused effort to see and listen to a character. It’s a character I’ve made up, but it isn’t “me” — not the “me” in the mirror or the “me” ordering from the L.L. Bean website. It’s often someone in an entirely different century. Yes, it’s part of my imagination, but removed from my day to day identity.

And finally, if I sit down with the intention of connecting to readers, breaking the barriers between my mind and the minds of others, I am making an effort to dispense with the delusion that we are lonely, independent, self-centered beings.  Just as I have been able to see what a long dead writer once imagined, someone else will read what came out of my mind, and it will enter into his or her mind. That’s trippy! And it inspires a certain responsibility to try to make what you put into other people’s minds as good as it can be. 

 

Anti-Intellectualism

26_2.jpg Anti-intellectualism has been around – sheesh, I don’t know, probably a long time. But Americans have taken to it, well, like a hog to mud.   

That venerable American Thomas Jefferson was an intellectual. That means he liked to think, and to ponder the thoughts of other people, both alive and dead.  Now I’m going to skip way ahead to Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon’s Vice President who called reporters a bunch of effete intellectuals. But here’s the irony — in today’s world, about forty years later, his use of the word “effete” would seem too intellectual to many Americans.   

American anti-intellectualism has gone downhill. It used to be a disdain for Frenchie men with their noses in the air and English fops with tights on. It used to respect the common man and his raccoon skin cap and corn cob pipe, sitting around discussing the common wisdom of things like dogs and marriage. My dad spouted some of that wisdom: “Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas” — that’s one of my favorites. It’s true, depending on the dog, of course. Mark Twain was a great one for putting down European elitist bullshit and promoting down home smarts.  

But Daniel Boone, Mark Twain, and (I can’t believe I’m saying this) even Spiro Agnew would be too intellectual in today’s anti-intellectual parade of proud dumb-asses, who would be pissed off at someone using a word like “effete.”

As a teacher, I see anti-intellectualism at work in students who think reading a book or knowing history is a waste of time that could be better spent collecting “friends” on Myspace. Okay, they’ve been raised on television. They’ve been coddled by advertisers who do not benefit from anyone being intellectual. Advertisers rely on dumb asses who like shiny objects. If people were to think, to study history and culture, my God!!! – they might realize they don’t need a new car every five years or that drinking three Cokes a day just isn’t, you know, healthy. And then where would the economy be? 

Worse than students not wanting to think is fellow teachers and educational administrators who are hostile, and arrogantly so, against intellectualism. The very word sounds like something elite and nasty. I have been in meetings — which are a condensed version of the dumb ass parade — in which the term “ivory tower” is used smugly. It’s a sad little cliche to indicate the privilege and idiocy of college professors who study useless stuff and impose their findings on the rest of the world that is just trying to figure out how to record their favorite reality show on tv and pay for a tank of gas.  Yes, many of my fellow college teachers are clowns with vocabulary and attitude, and they do give intellectualism a bad name. They say “utilize” when they could say “use.” But is this any reason to celebrate a lack of knowledge? Is this any reason to consider ignorance a good thing?  

I tell my students this: Ignorance is not good. Knowing stuff is good. Read. Think. Don’t let the idiot voices of high school, the ones that put all their mental energy into trying to make smart kids feel like losers, continue to keep you from being as human as possible. And those students in my classes who despise the idea that humans are related to apes — well, I say, the best way to assure that you are different from an ape is to read and think. Apes do not identify themselves as intellectuals. We’ll discuss the dumb ass disdain for Darwin another time.