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Saturday, October 30, 2010

Reading List for 2011 (Subject to Change)

This year I had one hell of a time trying to keep track of all I've read. It was around this time in 2009 that I decided I was not going to have a reading list for 2010. What a great mistake that was! Whether or not reading lists are a popular form of keeping track, I find it I do much more reading when I have at least a provisional idea of what is ahead of me in the coming year. As a result, I have returned to the Reading List, and here's a provisional list (in no particular order) for 2011.

"Never Let Me Go" -- Ishiguro.
"The Corrections" -- Franzen.
"The Portrait of a Lady" (re-read) -- James.
"Journal of a Novel" (re-read) -- Steinbeck.
"Things are Never So Bad" -- Dubus.
"The Art of the Personal Essay" -- Lopate.
"Eichmann in Jerusalem" -- Arendt.
"Exile's Return" -- Cowley.
"The Plague" -- Camus.
"Classics for Pleasure" -- Dirda.
"The Spooky Art" -- Mailer.
"In Patagonia" -- Chatwin.
"A Tranquil Star" -- Levi.
"I, Claudius" -- Graves.
"The Stories of John Cheever" (re-read) -- Cheever.
"Portrait of Dr. Gachet" -- Saltzman.
"Proust Was a Neuroscientist" -- Lehrer.
"The Piano Tuner" -- Mason.
"Run With the Hunted" -- Buckowski.
"Motherless Brooklyn" -- Lethem.
"The Enchantment of Lili Dahl" -- Husdtvend.
"Consider the Lobster" -- Foster Wallace.

Of course there might be some "spillage" from 2010 into (at least) a few weeks of January 2011. Of these the most obvious would be "The Diaries of Christopher Isherwood" part 2. and "Sunset Park" by Paul Auster. All in all, I am very satisfied with this prospect list. Since I will be spending more and more time in my office at home, I think the number and selection will prove to be both enjoyable and productive.

I know I've said before that my ultimate plan after leaving the classroom was to read all 12 volumes of "The Story of Civilization" by Will and Ariel Durant, but the effort seems quite monumental to begin with. I need a couple of years to adapt to the idea that I am actually having the time to do it now.

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Farewell to Academia... The Real Version

I am writing today to inform you of my permanent and final decision to leave the teaching profession once and for all. It goes without mention that this was the most difficult decision I have had to make in my life. After giving it careful consideration, I have decided that this is the best path to follow for my young family and my professional career. There are two reasons why I have come to this decision and in the following paragraphs I hope to explain this in a way you all can understand.

Reason #001 - Teaching Legacy and the Academy

In the last month, I have received electronic correspondence from four former Academy students I had in class during the school years 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2008 respectively. I always enjoy reading what my former students are doing, and their words of encouragement and support mean more to me than I could ever express in words. Invariably, these e-mails mentioned how much they appreciated the courses they took with me, how much what they learned at the Academy helped them during their freshman year in college, and how much they miss the Academy. Again, receiving these e-mails over the years (especially during this last year) have always filled my heart joy and beckoned me to a time when my career was at its zenith of success. Since the events of September 2009, I have struggled with the decision to quit the teaching profession. For long months thereafter, I listened to hundreds of recordings of my class discussions and lectures going back to 2003. I cherish the fact that I have so many of them to remember the Academy by. It was while listening to all of these mp3 files (and reading all the e-mails) that I realized I had left behind not only the warmth, love and reverence I had for the Academy, but most importantly, I realized I left my legacy in the halls and corners of that same place I loved so much, for so long. Since late summer, I have been teaching English composition at a local trade college. The courses are exciting and the lessons regarding “life-long learning” I have always tried to teach to my students have not waned or falter. It has been a wonderful experience teaching these courses—indeed, as wonderful as the courses I taught at the Academy! Nevertheless, the memories returned to me of the many “day-dreaming hours” I spent visualizing myself as the “elder scholar” at the Academy, respected by my colleagues and students, pursuing the literary life. This, in combination with the many e-mails from former Academy students helped me realize that I left my teaching legacy at the Academy. I am comfortable with my decision to quit the profession because these facts make me feel fulfilled and realized.

Reason #002 – The “Dehumanization” of Education

This is not a new argument. As a matter of fact, others (in more academically powerful positions than me) have already argued and continue to argue against the national obsession with “21st Century education,” and “global economy,” and “compete with China,” and “private and public partnerships,” and,… well you get my point. Scholars such as Anthony T. Kronman, former dean of Yale University’s Law School, examined this issue in his book “Education’s End: Why Our Universities and Colleges Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life.” One only has to read Mark Edmundson’s “Why Read” to realize what we are in the risk of losing. More recently, the article “Dehumanized: When Math and Science Rule the School,” by Mark Slouka in Harper’s Magazine exposed a new wave of attacks against the importance of the humanities in the curriculum. Reading and discussing this article by Mark Slouka was one of my last lessons at the Academy. I did, at one point, receive a disciplinary action plan with the warning, “Mr. Rondon will only teach appropriate materials in the classroom.” The past administration of the Academy (and I hear the present one as well) seemed obsessed with educational jargon, most of which I have already listed above. This direct connection with curricula development and “global economy” and “business partnerships” strikes me a mild form of indoctrination. Furthermore, all of these private companies cited by one school district after another as a partner in redesigning the curriculum might be doing more harm than good. I wonder, whether or not these “skills of the future,” to be able to “compete in the global economy” leave any space for the reading of Shakespeare, Faulkner, Dostoyevsky, Morrison, Camus and Twain. Is the future really as the comedian George Carlin envisions it?

“There’s a reason why education sucks and there’s a reason why it will never be fixed. It’s never going to get better, don’t look for it. Be happy with what you got…. [because] the big, wealthy business interests make all the decisions…. They want more for themselves and less for everybody else. But I’ll tell you what they don’t want. They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well-informed, well-educated people… they are not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. It doesn’t help them at all. It is against their interest…. You know what they want? They want obedient workers! Obedient workers! People who are smart enough to run the machines, and do the paperwork, and just dumb enough to passively accept all of these increasingly [bad] jobs with the lower pay, the reduced benefits, the end of overtime, and the vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it…. It’s a big club… and you ain’t in it.”

Of course I want to believe that Carlin’s stand-up comedy is not a peephole into the future, but I am beginning to realize that many of the things he states above are here today. Is anyone paying attention? It reminds me of what the devil tells his nephew in C.S. Lewis’ “The Screwtape Letters,” something to the effect of: “Uncle, people don’t believe in you anymore. Oh nephew, that’s exactly what we want. That way it is easier for us to sneak up on them.”

I am not against math and science in the classroom, as I am not against the capitalist system. What I am against is the excess, both in education and in a consumerist society run completely amok. One only has to examine the Huxleyan warning in “Brave New World” to realize we are living it now—a population (myself included) more mesmerized, more entertained, more somnambulant and less willing to fight back. I am leaving the classroom because I cannot compete. I cannot compete with the slashing and cutting of the humanities electives in a curriculum as a disguised effort to “fit in” more math, science, engineering, etc. courses (the proverbial ‘throwing out the baby with the water’). I cannot compete with administrations obsessed with the economic threat China is beginning to reveal to the world, and how they judge this as a reason to “educate.” I cannot compete with systems of control, lack of instructional freedom and the increasingly disturbing jargon of the education system that means absolutely nothing. I cannot compete with technologies in the classroom that only paint a thin veil over what is already a monstrous fact: no computer in the world can teach a child how to read (or do math) as effectively as a real flesh and bones teacher. Those of you who know my work know of my inclusions of technology in all my courses; you serve as silent witnesses that I am not a Luddite, nor am I arguing for a non-technology classroom. I cannot compete with educational institutions so concerned with the financial bottom line, so obsessed with cutting cost that they “force-retire” people in the high salary brackets and hire young, inexperienced teachers right out of college for less than half what they paid the former. I realize that the economic temperature of this country is reaching critical levels, but who really suffers when schools are being run like businesses: the students.

This final reason IS the REAL reason why I am leaving the teaching profession, and find myself incompatible with the classroom. Of course, I will continue to live “the life of the mind;” I could never abandon that aspect of my life. As I have throughout my life as a teacher, I will continue to read, write, enjoy art and music, and follow the canon of humanist study.

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Claire Messud's "The Hunters" - A Lyrical Journey

There's something special about Claire Messud's writing and one has to take time and enjoy, as if for the first time, our lips were allowed to touch the rim of a wine glass containing--none other than--a couple of ounces of 1977 Chateauneuf-du-Pape wine. I am not saying it is an acquired taste, not at all, but tackling "The Last Life" in 2001 left me a little confused. I wonder how it was possible for me (a lyrical and romantic language lover) not to like the stylistic prowess of this excellent writer. Messud made me a convert because no matter how much I struggled with "The Last Life," I was more than rewarded in the end. It wasn't until I read "The Emperor's Children" that I realized here was a real literary genius; a contemporary author with the facility of lyrical and descriptive language few others can match today. I read "The Emperor's Children" during my trip to China in 2008. I began reading the book a few days before my trip, and, although I knew I was going to have a busy schedule during my visit, I took the book with me nonetheless. I am glad I did, as I am glad at the fact that the volume got a much deserved recognition in the award circles (although aside from NYT Best Book of the Year, I don't think it was awarded more). I decided that once I got home from my trip, I would hunt down all of her books and read them immediately.

I found a copy of "The Hunters" (a PEN/Faulkner Award finalist) at a used book store and didn't think twice before paying the hefty $16. for it. I didn't get to read it as soon as I wanted to, but now that I've picked it up, I find it a narrative as close to perfection as they come. This is more than lyricism; the descriptive language (a make or break element in what some critics regard as 'wordy' literature) is Messud's main strength in this collection of novellas. The first, "A Simple Tale" is the story of two women, or actually just one. As the narrative begins, we meet Maria Poniatowski, caretaker for one Mrs. Ellington. The plot revolves around Maria's inability to reconcile her past with her present life in Canada. She suffered greatly during the unrest of World War II in Europe, escaping from labor camps, moved from one Displaced Persons camp to another, until she reached Canada by special arrangement. By this time she is married and has a small child. Adapting by working as a cleaning lady for distinguished families, she beings to feel as Canadian as any Canadian around. But the price of this assimilation has an immense cost. Messud's descriptions are a literary tour d'force, allowing the reader to see it all painted inside their mental vision. Here's an example of how an expert writer describes with such small details so as to bring the reader inside the written picture: "She [Maria] went to the McDonalds on Mondays and Wednesdays all day (they had three children--Jack among them, then a boy of nine--who made quite a mess), and to the Ellingtons on Tuesdays until just after lunch. The Pollocks were on Thursdays, once again through till six o'clock (instead of children, Mrs. Pollock kept a pair of small, long-haired white dogs, with smashed noses and Oriental eyes, who shed indiscriminately and whose chronic, vindictive ill temper created a great need for cleaning: when crossed, they vomited and peed and pooped in tantrum (and occasionally in tandem), and when left alone scratched irritably at door frames, piano legs and upholstery, almost as if they were cats). Fridays, Maria saved for Mrs. Mallow, a genuine half-day--home by 2 PM--spent largely, it seemed, in keeping the old woman company, as she kept her house pristine of her own accord." There it seems to be two ways of writing this passage. For example, if this was a simple schedule that Maria kept week after week, why not detail it and move on? A master describer (such as Messud) is not so easily satisfied. Here we see the addition of information in parenthesis appear like a private detective log. I can't get over the little dogs and the parenthesis within the parenthesis. Visually, descriptive information in parenthesis reinforces the detail of the information being offered. This is the type of small detail that tells a story all of its own; imagine, a story within a story but without having to include a separate story. Let the details do the storytelling. As diminutive as this passage appears, I wanted to quote this one in particular because it really shows talent beyond comprehension.

In the second novella, "The Hunters," Messud tells the story of a sort of academic character whose main attraction was spying on his neighbors. It isn't so much that the story displays a sense of macabre or weirdness; on the contrary, the flow of this little masterpiece depends on much of what I wrote about "A Simple Tale," but in addition to masterful description, Messud also displays she is a force to reckon with when writing dialogue.

This little volume is not a new one (first published in 2001), but I highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning how to write description, or simply to a reader who wants to get lost in thought provoking environments of the descriptive mind.

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Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The End of Time (Why I Need to Run Away)

The reading part of my intellectual endeavor has suffered greatly this year. I have not read as much, even at times consciously choosing not to read or set time out to read. I am not quite sure why this is; perhaps the teaching and the reflective type writing I've been doing occupies most of my waking hours. Regardless of this, I do need to escape. I don't want to go off on a rant about current events and the ridiculousness of media, politics and travesties of justice which seem to flood our sources of information. Nevertheless, I watch the news every day, and, as it has become a habit, come away feeling desolate and depressed. Why watch the news, then? My network of preference (not because I like it but because it strikes me the most biased and light-headed) is NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. It's amazing how the news directors at NBC structure the news order and even the rhetoric used--much opinion swaying and pitching takes place every evening. Many have told me that "Fox News is much worse." To them I say, yes, absolutely, Fox, CBS, NBC, CNN, etc. are all so biased it's hard to make heads or tails from the news items they broadcast. Nothing infuriates me more than NBC giving a platform to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran, a man notorious for his "Holocaust denial" and for stating (several times) that Israel needs to be wiped out from the world map. It's amazing to me how Brian Williams can sit across this person and ask question after question even though we all know the answers. Why do we need to hear from Ahmadinejad that there's boiling point political and social issues that threaten to destabilize the Middle East more than it's already? Any person with a conventional knowledge of the middle east and its challenges can say as much. One comes out of these reports with a sense of dread... is the world really down a slippery slope toward ultimate destruction? Perhaps.

Five minutes before Nightly News ends, the segment titled "Making a Difference" airs on NBC. This is a "feel good" segment, always at the end of the news, as if to tell us, "please join us tomorrow for 25 minutes of dreadfulness, and 5 minutes of "feel good therapy." Everything is confusing. Everything is terribly, terribly negative. Everything is full of despair and sadness. Everything, that is, but literature.

We need to escape; it's a fact that most people seek succor by means of something significant to them. The preferences, of course, are unique depending on the personality of the individual. Some run to negative resources: alcohol, drugs, pornography, etc. Yet, despite the statistics, I believe that most people want to run away to something they love, more than just running away to mere escapism. This is not a new argument (or a new rant); perhaps the oldest ritual in the history of humanity (depending on levels and systems of belief) is religion. People who do not believe in God taunt the believers, subscribing to the idea that believers run to God because they don't want to take responsibility for their own actions or problems. Religion as the great opium of the masses, right? Recently, there were reports of young people using a digital drug called "iDozer." This is comprised of mp3 files that emit a certain frequency and white-noise with the frequency level adjusted to achieve the correct effect. There are as many flavors as there are vices: marijuana, cocaine, Valium, orgasm and lucid dream, to list some of them. We need to escape--plain and simple.

I am not reading enough these days and it's got me thinking. am I no better than other "escape artists?" Who decides which escape is right and which one is wrong or damaging to the individual. Years ago, I had a student who suffered from all different issues of depression, panic attacks, paranoia, etc. This student was "allowed" to "draw" in class and listen to music on his iPod because it was part of his therapy. Many of my colleagues thought it was a sham, a ruse. They could not understand what the drawing did, or what it was that the music soothe. Personally, while I didn't entire understand, part of me learned to be curious about the student's drawings, or what he was listening to in his iPod. Two years later, when that same student committed suicide, we no longer wondered what type of escape he needed. It was a shame, really, that one so young could be so misunderstood to the point of feeling life has no meaning. We cannot judge what is a good or bad escape, especially when it comes to this degree, but we must learn to acknowledge the fact that escaping (and here I mean with methods of escaping that foster our humanity, soothes our soul and helps us cope and grow) is essential. We must understand that the complexities of this modern (often cruel) world will not relent; we are in it for the long haul. As a result, I am embracing Bach on my iPod and grabbing my Moleskine notebook for a journey into escapism.

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