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Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Occupational Hazards of the Teaching Life...

A couple of months ago, I posted an entry I had to remove due to confidentiality issues. Never mind that I didn't include my student's name, or the name of the school I teach in (I always refer to it as "the Academy"), or that I don't even use my real name in this blog. I had to remove it, and it was painful because I felt I was airing feelings and emotions that spoke for most of those who knew this exceptional young woman. My student, D.C., died of cancer on Monday after a struggle that lasted two years. She was in my class twice, and she worked with me on some video/music montages of the senior class she was a part of. When I heard the news that she had a relapse in October and that this time it was going to be even more critical, I spun into a rage against everything I believed or even professed faith for. That was the entry I posted and later took down. Now that she is gone, I am posting it again. I am doing this because the pain (not only mine but all who knew her here at the Academy and beyond) is so overwhelming and deep that going on with life and work seems nearly impossible at the present. I made some corrections after recovering it (thanks Ms. Stefanie for sending me a copy of it)... here it is...

"A few days ago, I heard that one of my students is in relapse and possibly dying of cancer. Two years ago, she fought hard and won her battle in a display of courage that will remain a lesson to me for the rest of my life. To this day, her example is one of the most selfless acts of courage I have ever seen (including during my military service). I am not exaggerating when I say that. She is simply amazing. Her heart, her bright smile in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds... nothing is lost, or in vain. She has taught me how to be a better human being. I am afraid that whatever I say here is going to sound like some tired cliche, but it's simply a sign that there are NO words to describe what is going through my mind right now.

I don't have children of my own. When I told the story of my student to a friend of mine, his response was just that. "I mean," he said sternly, "it's not like she's your daughter, or anything." I kept quiet in front of him, but I cried on the drive home... more out of anger than anything else. This is not fair, and I don't have to like it. I can enumerate the reasons why I think my student doesn't deserve this, but I suspect that also would be an exercise in futility. I have cursed and howled madly in the direction of passing clouds just because my anger gets the best of me. I have bargained with God this past week like an unregulated Wall Street bookie. It has gone as far as me thinking of that scene from "Amadeus" in which Salieri, feeling cheated by God's gift of talent to Mozart, says to a crucifix on the wall: "From now on we are enemies... you and I..." My faith has never been weaker than it is right now. And those who tell me that we have to understand God's plan for my student dying of cancer never explain to me that this trick of "understanding" takes a great deal of time. I have gone from feeling that faith is going to carry us all through this, to declaring my unreserved antagonism against religion and the facade of peace it offers. I have remunerated, grappled and screamed, shouted and cried again. I have felt confused, cheated, ridiculed and humbled. Of course, it's not like she's my daughter or anything.

It is said love can make us do strange things. These are the reasons behind and underneath the "rat race," the things we live for.... to subtract the most meaning out of life one must be willing to lose a lot (or a little), and do it all in the name of love. Take away all of the "sugar-coating" about "teachers changing the world," etc., etc. ad naseum, and boil it down to the pain and anger and confusion, sadness of losing a student to cancer. Okay, so I understand that part, but I don't like it and presently I am unwilling to accept it. It's not right and it's not fair. But then again, it's not like she's my daughter or anything."

I have accepted now, and my faith is stronger than ever... she taught us all how to reverse the process of losing faith and in the process made us all stronger people. She was the light of life for her family, friends, and certainly her teachers. May God bless you now and forever, D.C. We will see you again some day.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Friedrich Nietzsche: "Why I am So Wise"

It seems such a broad jump from Marcus Aurelius to Friedrich Nietzsche, but this is precisely what I want this year to be--a broad spectrum of the best philosophical ideas in the canon of literature and philosophy. It is difficult to objectify the use of the word "best" to describe Nietzsche's premises and ideas. This is mainly so because there has been a vast (or at least there was in the first half of the 20th Century) misinterpretation of his philosophy. That what he thought of and wrote he did so to raise some eyebrows (that's an understatement) I would totally agree with. However, there's more than meets the eye with Nietzsche, and this little book, "Why I am So Wise", is not only insightful but thought-altering if approached with an open mind. The book is primarily a collection of segments from "Ecce Homo," and "Twilight of the Idols," with a meshing of other ideas in between. For example, Zarathustra is featured prominently throughout. I was most impressed (as I always am) with Nietzsche's willingness to go beyond the propriety of clicheist ideas. This not only applies to religion and Christianity particularly, but also to his ideas about music, nationalism and ethnic identity, among other topics. I believe his fallout with Richard Wagner started with the realization that this idea of the metaphysics in art is just as much a sham as the facade of peace and safety religion offers. I remember reading a quote by Nietzsche some years ago in which he stated clearly that music was not what people make it out to be (to speak of the higher soul, of the inner self, of metaphysical phenomena), but rather that music was simply and most concretely mathematical formulae. This, of course, is the deconstructionist Nietzsche, not the lover of "Tristan und Isolde" (until he changed his mind, that is).

I suppose that one could compare Nietzsche and Marcus Aurelius at least in the opinion of both thinkers as to how to approach pain, suffering and hardship. As a stoic, Marcus Aurelius believed that pain (whether emotional or physical, but I suppose more in terms of physical) manifested itself in two ways. First, you would feel it and stand it or put up with it. Secondly, if pain became unbearable, then you would just die... and then have nothing to worry about. Comparatively, Nietzsche embraced hardship and pain and reeled against the "fake" sense of security religion/Christianity offered. An excellent film (and I can't say it with more emphasis: EXCELLENT) by British philosopher Alain de Botton entitled Nietzsche on Hardship is available for FREE at Google videos. This little video is supremely accurate in introducing Nietzsche's anti-religious ideas and the fact that the alternative is not as dark as many have interpreted to be. For example, is not that as individuals we should seek the hardship, but that once it arrives we shouldn't run away from it, or try to placate it with religious belief or liquor. Despite the fact that this sounds like a false analogy (liquor and religion), Nietzsche examines them at the same level and (at least to him) they seem to offer the same reward. I know there's a reason why this idea of "religion as the panacea of the world" has been around for as long as it has... it is no mistake... whether you like him or not, Nietzsche is a genius. Hardship is part of the human condition; to deny it is to deny part of yourself.

Just like with Marcus Aurelius, I have underlined and written too much marginalia with Nietzsche to be included here, but several passages stand out more than others. For example, when examining one's own failures and defeats throughout life

"... [E]ven the blunders of life--the temporary sidepaths and wrong turnings, the delays, the 'modesties,' the seriousness squandered on tasks which lie outside the task--have their own meaning and value. They are an expression of a great sagacity, even the supreme sagacity: where nosce te ipsum [know thyself] would be a recipe for destruction, self-forgetfulness, self-misunderstanding, self-diminution, narrowing, mediocratizing become reason itself."

Most of the language throughout is metaphoric, so the reading is hard going to someone not familiar with the style. For example, most of the title segment "Why I am So Wise" could be interpreted as an attack on the religious and metaphysical, but one can't take the words on the page literally. Doing so will result in missing most of the meaning and I believe this has happened in my previous readings of Nietzsche as it happens to most people who misinterpret his anti-religious views. Along side this interpretation is the Nazi misappropriation of Nietzsche's ideas. Despite the fact that that seems a topic in its own right, and I rather not elaborate too much here, I do have to remind the readers of this blog about Nietzsche's sister management of his literary estate and how she literally gave full permission to the Nazis to interpret the "Will to Power" to fit their demented philosophy of the master race. But let's not bash the Nazis... I'll let the History Channel do that for me.

Next on the list is my re-reading of Will Durant's "The Story of Philosophy." I will try to write the blog entries by "Unit" (meaning chronological school of thought format) hoping it will develop into a good resource for those researching philosophy online. The only question I have is which one of my two copies to use... my trusty old 1950s paperback or my hardcover 1920s copy. There's some hardship on that choice... uhmmm.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

"Meditations" and Mischa, the Wonder Kitty

Well, the weather decided to strike hard this week, and with luck on our side it struck on a Friday. The temperature was an incredible -32 degrees (wind chill), and practically every school closed in the entire region. So, what are we to do but read and enjoy a good cup of coffee? Here's the "distressful" day I spent in the company of my dear friend Mischa, the wonder kitty. I finished my re-read of "Meditations" by Marcus Aurelius a couple of days ago. It strikes me that the best thing about this little volume is precisely what the modern world has decided to ignore. Simplicity of mind, heart and philosophy appears as such a healthier way to live, but how many of us practically ignore the idea. What makes us do so? Is it the struggle for survival? Is it the ever-evolving technology? Is is our seemingly insatiable thirst for money and social position? Of course, what critics have debated over the years (perhaps centuries) is whether or not Marcus Aurelius was a real stoic or not. As for me, I believe he was, and the fact that this re-read has actually changed my perception of what it means to be stoic confirms this interpretation. I believe after analyzing Marcus Aurelius deeper I realized that being stoic means more than just dispassionate and unfeeling; in fact, I believe now that the opposite is the case. Marcus Aurelius left some space for "feeling" deeply, at least for the things that meant a great deal to him. I guess the issue here is the fact that if something is important to you, say, a principle, a virtue, the empirical, etc., then it is perfectly fine to hold it in high esteem.

What was really interesting of this re-reading of the "Meditations" is the inclusion of an essay by Mathew Arnold on the value of the "Meditations" to the modern world. Since I had already read various biographies on Marcus Aurelius, it came as no surprise to me that he was pretty harsh with and critical of the early Christian movement. Arnold, however, goes a bit further when he seemingly uses what appears as "political correctness" language to somehow explain (read, defend) Marcus Aurelius on this account. The essay--at least for this part--turned into an apologia and proved that even in the 1700s people were ready to inflate and idealized antiquity without giving much thought to the impression this would make in posterity. At any rate, I can't even begin to enumerate the amount of insight this re-reading of Marcus Aurelius has given me. I hope I can continue to apply much of what I've learn to the rest of the year.

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Saturday, January 10, 2009

Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations" and Descriptive Journal Writing

Alexandra Johnson's "Leaving a Trace" is a very good book about journaling. I read it in one single day at the end of last year and determined that I needed to follow much of her advice to learn how to describe better. Her most insightful idea is to write journal entries without using the first person pronoun. I've actually tried this with my students and they absolutely hate it. The trick is not to allow yourself to then address yourself in the third person; that too seems to invalidate the whole writing exercise. So, I've plucked at the idea for a week now and made little progress here and there. It's interesting and for as difficult as I find it, I am learning a great deal.
A re-reading of Marcus Aurelius' "Meditations" always yields a great deal of wisdom, especially at the very start of the year. For this reason, I decided to begin "The Year of Living Philosophically" with this very excellent, short and amazing little book. I've only re-read the first part of the book (the first Six Books), and I've already underlined things I'd never noticed before that I could use to live a more healthy life. Here are some keepers:

"... not to be led astray into a passion for rhetoric... or play the ascetic or the benefactor in a manner calculated to impress... to be easily recalled to my usual frame of mind, and to be easily reconciled as soon as they [those who have angered me] are willing to make a move in my direction... To be a beneficient, and ready to forgive, and free from guile; to give the impression of being a man who never deviates from what is right rather than of one who has to be kept on the right path... sobriety in all things, and firmness, and never a trace of vulgarity or lust for novelty... At every hour devote yourself in a resolute spirit, as suits a Roman and a man, to fulfilling the task in hand with scrupulous and unaffected dignity, and love of others, and independence and justice; and grant yourself a respite from all other preoccupations... Let your every action, word and thought be those of one who could depart from life at any moment... What then is worthy of our striving? This alone, a mind governed by justice, deeds directed to the common good, words that never lie, and a disposition that welcomes all that comes to pass, as necessary, as familiar, as flowing from a like origin and spring..."

Certainly, I could go on forever and ever, as the entire volume is filled with these thoughts. Perhaps that is a lesson well-learned in these times we are living presently: to seek and want less and less of that which holds us chained to consumerism and materialism. Another great example for this, of course, is Thoreau. I've learned a great deal from this re-read, and, at least for now, I've been able to do something I hadn't been able to do before: slow down.

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Thursday, January 01, 2009

Strong Ending, Great Beginnings...

The end of 2008 came at me without relent. I left the Academy on Friday, December 19th at 3 PM, and from that moment on, all I did was concentrate on getting better and reading. The reading was marvelous. I read four books in about 10 days. It was great to be able to concentrate and finally understand all the things that were going wrong during the second half of the year. Once again, it was literature that saved me, as it has so many time before.


Among the books that I read, the one that really stands out is A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, by Robert Olen Butler. This collection of short stories won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993. The volume has been patiently waiting for my attention in one of my bookshelves for a long time. Butler writes magnificently, and the voices therein are so real, so authentic it is difficult to realize those voices do not belong to the Vietnamese immigrants he is writing about. That's the incredible thing about this prose. I simply got lost in a sea of amazingly detailed and credible voices, all mixed with longing for home and dealing with their expatriate existence.


A re-reading of Demian, by Herman Hesse came about because the book was mentioned in conversation with a good friend, a concert pianist making her way in the music world. Over dinner she expressed her very insightful ideas about the book, and the temptation to re-read it was planted firmly in me. My favorite passage from the book, "I am coming to the end of my story. Everything went very rapidly from then on. Soon there was war, and Demian, strangely unfamiliar in his uniform, left us.... All men seemed to have become brothers--overnight. They talked of "the fatherland" and of "honor," but what they lay behind it was their own fate whose unveiled face they had now all beheld for one brief moment. Young men left their barracks, were packed into trains, and on many faces I saw a sign--not ours--but a beautiful, dignified sign nonetheless that meant love and death. I, too, was embraced by people whom I had never seen before and I understood this gesture and responded to it. Intoxication made them do it, not a hankering after their destiny. But this intoxication was sacred, for it was the result of their all having thrown that brief and terribly disquieting glance into the eyes of their fate." I find this to be a beautiful and very disturbing passage. I read it for the first time in 1993 and still consider it one of the most moving things I've ever read. It was good to read again, this time at the end of 2008, to remember all the things that have happened and the new bright beginning of 2009.


I also read Wallace Stegner's "On Teaching and Writing Fiction." This was written with great insight into what it means to both teach and write. Stegner explains both theory and practice as only a professional writer can. Among the many interesting things he writes about is the difference between a "writer of serious fiction," and "a writer of entertainment." He states that one works from intuition and the other from a blue print. While it is not permissible to make judgments as to whether or not one is better than the other, Stegner ascribes far more value to intuition. His own fiction is full to the brim with it, so it is easy to understand this argument.

Alexandra Johnson's "Leaving a Trace: On Keeping a Journal," was a great little find at my local used bookstore. I read this in under 24 hours, not only because it was engaging and easy to read, but because it was a treasure of ideas and techniques. There are exercises at the end of every section, and I will be trying some of them throughout this year.

I am very happy right now with how the end of the year turned out, despite the many difficulties during the second half of the year. Music also played a great influence during my break, and I will be writing more about it later on.

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