Thursday, January 10, 2013

One Way of Looking at Cancer

We (or at least I) live largely on a steady diet of metaphor. It is low calorie, zero fiber but good for the vision, blood pressure and sense of wonder. It allows you to look at one thing, one phenomenon, one horror, one delight, from at least another angle and sometimes many. Actual experiences also transform themselves into metaphor and then into personal fable, dogma, lore or myth. I do this all the time but not quite so often as I have over the last couple of months.
Years ago when we were the world with Sir Bob Geldorf and all the swaying rock stars, I went to the Sudan, the Ethiopian border, to the most miserable town in the world filled as it was with Cholera Ghosts, children just back from the starvation chasm -- a long trip your never fully survive. There was tuberculosis, malaria, incredibly toxic snakes, brackish water and stupefying heat. It was my job, as the Chief Administrator of the Tawawa Refugee Camp (30,000 or 45,000 people on a given day or in a given week) to choose what stragglers fell in off the blistered road from Addis Ababa, could stay in the camp or who had to move on to god knows where but probably west into the insatiable maw that was Khartoum in those days. I was a sort of bureaucratic dispenser of Sophie’s Choice like pronouncements. If you were healthy you kept walking, if you were dying or looked like you would be soon, we gave you a tucal (the round mud and camel dung huts that were the sole architecture of the camp and that part of Africa) and three meals a day courtesy of President Ronald Reagan and the People of the United States of America. The sacks the food came in became the clothes worn by the children and the dead.
One afternoon, a beautiful young Ethiopian woman came into my Administrative Tucal (much less grand than it sounds) and exposed a perfect, flawless breast. It was as beautiful as anything as I have ever seen. I told my translator, Maru, to tell her to cover herself, have a meal of fooul (beans and sometimes a hardboiled egg) and hit the road for the capitol or someone else’s camp. That’s when she showed me her other breast which was the nightmare of the first, charred, suppurating and, really, gone. I had Maru cover her again and this time take her to a new tucal close to the Maternal and Childbirth hut because, well, I found out that was where she was going to need to be in a few months.
Here, I walk around all day, go to the dry cleaners, the library, watch bad movies, read good and mediocre books. I make jokes, get dressed, undressed, sleep, cancel travel plans and try to avoid telephones. But there is that ruined Ethiopian breast that I am beginning to understand and even adopt. Having cancer has made me think a lot about a lot of things but, more than anything else, it has made me consider how complicated we homo sapiens are. How fragile, how secretive, how doomed. I knew all this already -- I have read Hamlet after all -- this isn’t metaphor, this is very, very real but I must say, it is also really quite interesting.
I am not at school because I am busy being the target of a Radioactive Ray Gun in a lead-lined room in the bottom floor of a building called The Cancer Center. I have a tumor on my epiglottis. The cancer has not spread. I know this because I have been in vast, amazing tubes, which are controlled cyclones of magnetism and inquiry.
Surgically, the cure might be worse than the disease. So I am (at the advice of scholars, doctors, friends and other pilgrims to this strange land) going the chemo/radiation route. The prognosis is excellent and, most importantly, this is a type of cancer that can be cured and not just edged into remission. The regimen calls for a dose of radiation five days a week for 6-8 weeks and three to four dances with the chemo demon.
Georgene has rented us a house in Santa Barbara for the first month of whatever this is going to be. I concurred because the bells of Dunn drive me mad when I am not responding to them but rather, lying in bed considering all the stuff I should be doing, the kids I should be teaching.
Many thanks for all the support and good wishes.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Istanbul Fugue

I have become enchanted, this late in the game, my golden years of lengthening shadows and shrinking horizons, of Istanbul. It is neither here or there, straddling as it does the Bosporus which is all that keeps (topographically anyway) Europe and Asia from their long awaited, long dreamt, kiss. There are bridges and ferry boats and water taxis from the Golden Horn to the funicular that rises through the rock and pops out at the Galata Tower. Last summer I ate breakfast looking at Asia and dinner with Europe beneath the table on a spit of land that leads all the way to Helsinki. The twain, in fact, does meet in Istanbul but it is a sort of leering glance too, a haughty look, as if the land itself knows to what brand of history it belongs.
And the history is an exotic cocktail, an omelet, a ragout whipped up by mad chefs and whimsical barmen. Ottomans, Jews, Romans, Muslims, Cossacks, spies and their handlers and targets, assassins, armies, armadas, great forgotten architects, the builders and excavators of cisterns and aqueducts, ports , piers and bridges. It was where renegade and legitimate Popes fled when they fled the Vatican. Pirates and gypsies have come there from all the places where they used to hide. They invented the mall, introduced hookahs and hazelnuts to the world and then shipped them all over in boats with lateen sails and mother of pearl astrolabes. They wore fezzes and burkahs and gardener pants cut like balloons with huge laps for the threshing of the herbs, spice, dyes and the hashish they planted and nurtured.
Every thing is for sale. Everyone, it seems, has a stall, a shop or a briefcase filled with watches or a cart piled high with knock-off handbags, rolling suitcases and faux alligator shoes. I got lost one day in the wrench souk, next to the plumber’s souk that was down by the air conditioner souk. Every child has some chicklets or bottled water, each old lady wrapped from head to toe is selling bottles of water. People eat seeds of every sort; their shells are the mortar in the paving squares that are the streets of Istanbul, Byzantium, Constantinople.
The Bosporus is as busy as the 405. There is every sort of ship or boat or scow or junk. Oil tankers with their lights muted make the long night sea journey to the Black Sea and dark, and oh so sad, benighted Russia. There are slick quick yachts with girls in bikinis and fat men in Speedos and waiters in white with canap├ęs and fluted glasses. There are water taxis and tour boats, the odd NATO destroyer, and little caciques with little fishermen seemingly oblivious to the great hulking brows that push through the roiling water that splashes on shores European and Asian alike. Above all this the Hagia Sofia, The Blue Mosque, the muezzin and the call to prayer – the whole surreal skyscape of Istanbul shaped by faith and the architecture of siege .
It’s one of the oldest cities in the world but it seems like they have only last week begun to build it. There are cranes on every horizon, trucks filled with gravel emptying it down every alley, there are dumpsters filled with drywall, men with picks and everywhere the slow or fast sluurrpp of concrete tumbling into forms.
It’s a town for a man in a fedora in the shadows wearing a trench coat and waiting for a fat man in a fez; bearing secret plans, desperate codes, bags of ransom.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Dodging Mariachis

I am going to Mexico City after Christmas because I can. We are staying out in the Candalara section not far from the Zona Rosa, the Reforma and Chapultepec Park with its balloon men, the sellers of seeds and all the romance refuges, on all the benches, escaping the stultifying omnipresence of brothers and sisters, tias and tiosabuelos , viejas andcousins in from the campo now ensconced in the casa. It’s a cab ride to Xocimilcho where the garlanded boats float through the canals that are all that are left from when Tenochtitlan was a lake and Cortez only a nightmare – the rough beast not yet born.
Not far from the floating gardens is where Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo lived and argued and cheated and painted and where Leon Trotsky, overdressed in the near equatorial heat, wrote his anti Stalinist screeds, chased Frida, and waited for the inevitable ice pick and the assassin who was from as far away from home as his fulminating, furious victim. There’s a little museum there with the ice pick under glass amid pictures of Lenin and Trotsky on some of their interminable train rides across first Tsarist and then Bolshevik Russia.
It’s a cab ride too to the Zona Historico and the grand zocolo by the tipsy cathedral. That and the Opera House are listing under their weight like the wands of dowsers seeking aquifers or even small springs beneath the pavement. The city, like Delphi, was identified by an eagle and a snake. The snake swooped off with the serpent and those who saw it could not forget nor did they want to so that is where they built the city because such an encounter, between the slithering and the soaring, must presage some kind of luck and it might just be good. In Delphi it was an eagle and a turtle, a rock and gravity, which suggested someone should build a temple and wait for the other sandal to drop.
And all over the place there are people selling tacos from carts. Streetside of the carts there’s a picnic table groaning under the weight of great phalanxes of chopped onions, lettuce, peppers, salsaspico de gallo, unidentifiable but clearly volatile green and red sauces that could cripple my taste buds for a week. There are tacos de res, de cabeza, delengua, de pollo and bottles of cold beer out of an ice chest behind the gas tank, la boomba, on the cart with grandma’s name stenciled across its narrow eave.
The fly in this ointment, the hair in this soup is, for me, the mariachis that roam like brazen bandits through the streets, into the bars and cafes, even afloat at Xochimilcho, just outside the doors of the museums sometimes, in the park, bus stations and the parking lots of 7-11s. hey are really loud and they get far too close. Mariachis have no sense of space because they see all distances and proximities as business opportunities. They sing songs of love and sorrow and drunkenness and then pass the sombrero. It is, to be sure, a minor beef with the Capitol and they provide me with something to dodge, elude, and leave in my tracks. And everyone needs a bit of that.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

How the Lights Go Out

The High School Canon has been having a bit of a rough time of late here in post literate America. The common dialog, the shared vocabulary of allusions and references has been shanghaied by guys with bad ponytails in offices in Burbank where they cook up a stew of leftovers and demographic bait. Disney and his Imagineers supply the images, the archetypes in the making, the ditties and the plotlines and the happy endings that have taken the place of actual literature for this poor generation unable to even stand at the end of that lonesome pier and stare across the oily water at the light on Daisy ‘s dock. When the clock strikes thirteen there is no Orwell to explain to the frightened, the huddled masses that the truth is what the State has decided it to be.
The consolations of philosophy are threadbare for those whose diet has been almost exclusively reinvented Grimm and happy ogres with hip soundtracks, and maybe the occasional Munchkin or the odd melting witch. No much-handled leathery tome by firelight, no repose, rumination, reflection. Only the pixilated rush of sight and sound in darkened rooms, the pace of your adventure metered out by ratings, target audiences and polls.
From what I can tell, the new canon runs something like this: The Lion KingFinding Nemo, the Harry Potter movies,Hunger GamesThe Matrix, Bill and Ted’s (various adventures), South ParkHercules (the cartoon), The Phantom Toll Booth, some Maurice Sendak, The Runaway Bunny, the Transformers (movies and comics), Twilight and the other two, Beavis and Butthead, all commercials having to do with all things Apple, skateboards, or rap music, Sponge Bob SquarepantsThe Avengers (comics and movie), Captain Underpants, Justin Bieber, Bob Marley, The Simpsons, The Chronicles of Narnia, Michael Jordan and a number of athletes, Rugrats, Dr. Seuss, Goosebumps, The Lord of the Rings(the movies), Mickey Mouse, Romeo and JulietTeletubbies, Scooby Doo, Winnie the Pooh, Power Rangers, Pokemon,Titanic (the movie), American Idol, Snookie, the Kardashians and the Fear Factor.
With allusions and references gleaned from the above you should be more than comfortable in any number of awesome conversations well into your sophomore year in college, a dolphin tattoo on your ankle, your board shorts clean and pressed, your flip flops almost as worn in and comfortable as your Oakland Raiders jersey. At the kegger in the Isla Vista backyard, maybe in between beer pong sets, you will be able to tell a story with ample asides and illustrations from the world of film and televisions –large, flat screened or small and mobile. The common vocabulary will be difficult to lose. It will still work when you’ve dropped out and are driving vans delivering stuff for “some company” and living with “some dudes” until you are “really ready” to go back to school. It will be hard to lose because it will become more and more difficult to replace it with anything that sounds like yourself. You, in being true to you, will stall linguistically, idle in expressive neutral. And like all native speakers surrounded by those wagging foreign tongues, you will circle the wagons with those who you understand and who understand you.
And this, very roughly, is how the Medieval Period in the history of Northern Europe came to be called The Dark Ages.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

This Week in Introduction to Philosophy

In Philosophy class we are reading excerpts from Roberto Calasso’s rogue take on myth called The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. He posits that Helen was never more than a “penumbra” or a collective dream. That her abduction was more of the same, spurred on perhaps by Dionysus- the “god of all things moist.” Calasso’s first chapter is a series of rifts following the refrain, “But how did it all begin?” No Big Bang Theory for him, no Genesis, no Titan brawl but rather Zeus as a bull, a swan and the human world as a beautiful virgin named, say, Europa or Io or Leda and one rapes another and into the world comes the unwanted but deeply loved, the complications, slings and arrows, the niggling doubts, the bootless ambition and the insatiable single-minded avarice of all biological beings.
The women take one for the team of course. Pandora is set up like a shooting gallery duck with that bejeweled beguiling box and every other need satisfied. The box (sometimes a purse) sits in a corner of a sumptuous room where the bored beauty awaits for her lover’s return. The single Olympian admonition drives her crazy: DON’T OPEN THE BOX, DO WHATEVER ELSE YOU LIKE, HERE’S MORE THAN YOU WILL EVER NEED, BUT DON’T OPEN THE BOX – which is exactly what she and Zeus knew she would do. This fight is rigged. Pandora goes down in the first moments of the first round. And, just like that, everything that hurts came into the world. Only Hope was snagged on an errant thread or the edge of a hinge.
So how did it begin if not in Eden where there was everything and anything one could hope for except the one thing, held out like a hitchhiker’s thumb from a perfect tree and accompanied by a an articulate amphibian who seemed to know all there was to know about desire and dark, unspoken need. And, of course, Eve takes a bite and gives the apple to her boyfriend and then the heavens open or close (depends on how you look at it) and they are cast “East of Eden, into the Land of Nod” where they learn, in a single terrifying night, about the cold and hunger and dismay and shame.
So the world begins how we begin, wrenched from the soft, warm dark paradise of the womb into the cold angular world with its impossibly bright light and a man in a mask who smacks us until we scream. Fish all our lives, gilled and snugly adrift in the amniotic fluid; we are rushed rudely through a thousand evolutionary steps without a guide or language, rhyme or reason. It’s a shock from which many of us never recover.
So how did it begin? And then why did it begin at all? It is the stuff of philosophical inquiry. It should make us nervous and proud at the same time. Side by side the philosopher considers the ineluctable void and lofty achievements of our species. The love that was made that made us. Hope caught in the box hinge, the certainty of our death and the mysteries of the grave. It all makes for good thinking, circumspection and a bit of courage.
And the question, so how did it begin? Leads to stories – which Calasso reminds us – “never live alone; they are branches of a family that we have to trace back, and forward.”

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Curriculum: A Lowedown

There was a bit of chill to the night air and fog in the vineyards this morning. The cicadas have given over the night sounds to the owl on the wire that borders the field with its autumn crop. The days are shorter; they’re selling Halloween candy and plastic Jack o’ Lanterns at Rite Aid so it must be time for me to teach Hamlet.
My students, however, are not ready to meet up with the Melancholy Dane. His wiles too wily, his prevarications too layered, his neuroses too sore. He (Shakespeare) was a Renaissance man creating a Medieval character for an audience, with one smelly boot still stuck in the Dark Ages that continued, still, to calcify England the moment you were out of sight (and smell) of the great, puzzling, gin soaked, horse manure dappled streets of London when it wasn’t burning.
The groundlings came out of the countryside or up out of the cellars into the Christian world that was short on devotion, largely ignorant of dogma but intensely superstitious, suspicious and wary of omens, the auguries of one-eyed seers on street corners reading the guts of birds. News that the world was twice as large and shaped differently than they were taught stuck the great unwashed as more evidence of aristocratic/ecclesiastical perfidy and skepticism lay like a shroud over London and it is still there.
I have the seniors reading A World Lit Only by Fire by William Manchester because it describes, masterfully, the strange crevices and appalling limits of the medieval mind. Hamlet would run into these guys all the time. He was, as Harold Bloom asserts, “in the wrong play.” He could, after all, be “bounded in a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space.” The flea bitten, drunken, toothless audience could not consider the world much beyond whatever gate enclosed them from the cradle to the grave. They were named after the trade of their ancestors and the one they plied without argument or question. There were no women at the Globe; they were barefoot, pregnant, cooking, foraging and always expecting a magisterial knock or the wolf himself at the door.
Shakespeare’s plays are filled with the givens, the axioms, and the accepted oddities of medieval life. The pivotal character in Hamlet is the ghost of Hamlet’s dead father. In Macbeth daggers float, witches brew, Banquo and his son show up dead and “corseted in blood” (shake not your bloody locks at me screams Macbeth), Lear prays to Jupiter, Odin and Zeus more often than he nods to the God everyone was supposed to believe in. Shakespeare gave us the ogres and the trolls and the dragons before Freud showed up with the distressing news that these magical, terrible, creatures are of our own device, that if we suffer from them it is because we sired and bred them. Freud makes Iago the scariest villain of all.
When the ghost appears in Hamlet, the audience shuts up. The bear baiting, the mead, the hot sun, the reek of the crowd all fades away and there, up there, stands a dead king, powerless in the face of mortality and slain by the one who should have loved him most. Hamlet, with all his poetic powers, cannot shake the audience from their fixation with someone who has come back from the other side, from the “undiscovered country,” to tell the tale. Any tale. This was to collide with mystery and there was no Wikipedia to explain, no Google to search.
I need to convince the kids that for the medieval man every new thing was a miracle. Most importantly, I want to teach them the value of wonder, the seduction of mystery. They need not explain everything or cite endless sources. They don’t need replace candles with merely reliable light.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

St. Thomas Aquinas, Gertrude Stein and the Count of Monte Cristo Walk Into A Bar….

The other day, the dew still fresh on the first morning of this nascent academic year, all the new kids nervous and the old ones cool, not much news to tell as all had been tweeted hence, one of my students, a senior, a seventeen year old senior, on his way to my desk, stopped to ask me “what” the “thing” was lodged on a side table in my classroom beneath a collage featuring Anne Hathaway’s cottage, Michelangelo’s Moses and a room at Auschwitz which houses the passports of exactly one million murdered Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, communists and other ethnic, ideological, religious motes in the Nazi eye. The “thing” was a model, complete with landscaping, of the Salisbury Plain and the enigma that is Stonehenge. I told him it was Stonehenge and he asked what Stonehenge was and I started in with the Druids but that went nowhere, paganism was a stretch and I lost him at ancient astronomy. I didn’t go near time without end.
He is a bright young man this lad of privilege, loving parents, good nutrition, clean air, potable water, pediatricians, crossing guards, jumpy castles on his birthday, triumphs on the playing fields, a couple of AP classes and any number of colleges and universities willing and eager to have him matriculate as a Freshman in the next nascent academic year. The world looks bright and he is wearing his shades.
I, however, surrounded by the cracked spines of books, mounted atlases, medieval globes, talismans and symbols, totems and the arcane, don’t really know where to start or even if I should slip the ropes that attach me to the pier. If you have never heard of Stonehenge, is there any reason to allude to polytheism, tribalism or, indeed, any “ism” at all? It would be like telling a joke about a rabbi and a priest and a mullah going into a bar and having to stop to explain why the mullah wouldn’t, what bars are for, what a rabbi does and no.. all priests aren’t… It would take hours of a sort of rough catechism to limp into or across the punchline.
Is there a more plaintive, sonorous cry than “Where do I begin?” I have been married for almost thirty five years and will stay so for a host of reasons one of which is I wouldn’t know how to tell the story to some new lover, some desperately seduced replacement of the irreplaceable.
Can you read Catcher in the Rye without knowing really quite a bit about WWII? Can you read To Kill a Mockingbirdwithout an understanding of the Jim Crow South or the shortcomings of Reconstruction? Does Big Brother make sense if you haven’t heard of Stalin or why do Huxley’s specialized spawn pray to Ford? Who was Ford, or Edison, or Fermi or Oppenheim, Copernicus, Newton or Freud? This stuff is as connected and painstakingly woven as a Turkish rug.
Google offers staccato information and no knowledge. Even if you “know” what Stonehenge looks like doesn’t get you much closer to what it is. It does not take a good education to be a Jeopardy! champion, it takes cursory relationships with disconnected facts as you switch from category to category.
Too close to the flecks of oil or the stains of watercolors, we can’t back off far enough to see that there is a painting of one thing made up of many other things, the least of which, removed, would render the whole flaccid, confusing, garish or bland–an exercise in unfinished sentences, important words not spoken, vital letters lost in the mail.