Wednesday, August 17, 2016
1. At my core, I'm a stranger to passion. I've seen it in others: a passion for soccer or partying, for example. I've messed around with passion myself. Passion is another word for despair.
2. Commitment is what I know more intimately. I recognized it even as a child whenever I saw pensioners playing bocce or chess in the street. On that patch of dirt in the otherwise leafy park, heavy balls hardly moving, the players were calm and focused. On that folding table covered with a plastic tablecloth with a garish floral pattern, the only pattern the chess players saw was the checkered board and black and beige figures. That has always made sense to me.
3. Even though I only began teaching part-time at the age of 28, and full-time at 38, it's the line of work I knew I'd fall into one way or another. As I write this, I'm 42.
4. For the first 14 years as a teacher, every August, I'd write my syllabi and get excited about the semester to come. I knew my syllabi were fiction, a fantasy of a meticulously charted and (about to be) perfectly executed plan to help a group of strangers, teenagers who had just become adults, take control of language. I'd feel like teaching is my passion. This August, that feeling is finally gone.
5. For most of us, being a teacher involves thinking about teaching non-stop. That thinking is usually not in the forefront: it's more like a quiet but incessant background hum, like the sound of traffic behind closed windows and doors. I used to resent that.
6. For most of us, being a teacher involves knowing what your balance of money and time will be only one semester at a time. If there's enough money, that means you've strung together three or more part-time teaching jobs and will be able to pay for your health insurance, but will have no time to read anything other than student papers nor write anything other than feedback for those papers. (This is a problem when reading compelling books and writing the best work you can is the source of your mental balance.) If there's enough time, it means instant ramen and no health insurance. (The two can be a lethal combination.) I used to fear both scenarios.
7. This August, I feel no excitement, resentment, or fear. In their place, there's detachment.
8. What's the difference between resignation and detachment? In resignation, I'm frustrated and desperate. My ego is wrapped up with my day job, and it's never even remotely satisfied. At the same time, I plunge into a hobby—in my case it's neither a spectator sport nor partying, but that doesn't matter—with passion bordering on desperation.
9. But in detachment, I'm able to do my day job competently, and commit to my work of reading and writing and music with a sense of calm and focus. There might be a hum going on in the background: folders of papers, appointments and trainings, several work inboxes full of emails, ideas for future classroom activities, thoughts about the state of higher ed. So be it. Every day, I plug in my guitar with no other reason but to play it. I put lines on a page with no other reason but to convey images and ideas in a way that surprises me. I open a book for no reason but to experience images and ideas I am not able to convey myself.
Wednesday, March 30, 2016
The Stars on Fire, the World in Flames
In my brain, there is a video file. If I hit play, I see two married couples--my parents one of the couples--and a single dude in a car. (I wasn't there; my brain simply filed away a story I heard as a child.) My dad is driving, the single dude is in the passenger seat. In the back seat: my mom, her friend, and her friend's husband, also a close friend. They're crossing a bridge after an evening out. It's a broad, gorgeous concrete bridge over the Danube, somewhere in the Pannonian part of Yugoslavia. As they're driving across the empty bridge in the middle of the night circa summertime 1978, the radio is playing an old-timey, waltzy song. My dad pulls over, opens the door to the small Fiat-ish car (but made in Yugoslavia and thus called simply Fitcho), and the song spills and trickles all over the concrete bridge like syrup in a 3/4 time signature. On cue they all exit the car, and my mom's friend and my dad begin waltzing all around the car.
The brain file is a reworking of a story nobody remembers. But I remember my dad telling that story and commenting how the single dude--a foreign friend, it turns out--who was hanging out with them was a bit shocked that two friends of the opposite sex who were not married to each other would hold each other and dance. The foreign friend had came to Yugoslavia from another country to study. He had to learn the language from scratch in order to become an engineer. He made friends, such as my parents and their friends. But he never drank and never danced with a girl. My dad and his friend danced to show him that it wasn't a big deal. I remember that story and I remember feeling embarrassed for my parents and their assumptions about this foreign friend, who I hadn't even suspected, for a long time, was a foreign friend, since I had little concept of countries. But, having learned he was a guest in "our" country, my gut told me it just wasn't proper host-like behavior for my parents and their friends to make assumptions and try to educate their friend who had just obtained his medical or engineering degree.
This friend was, I understand that now, from one of the Arabic countries that had joined the Non-Alignment Movement, along with Yugoslavia, India, Indonesia, Ghana, and Egypt, back in the 60s. Instead of studying in his own country or in the West, he ended up in Yugoslavia. Perhaps he later married a Yugoslav and stayed in the country. Or perhaps he settled back in his homeland. Or found a third country. Perhaps he had to flee and become a refugee in 1991 or 1992 or 1995 or 1999. Or 2016.
Perhaps he remembers that evening on the bridge, that waltz, the feeling of lightheadedness, the laughter, the certainty of a bright future in the summer night. Perhaps he remembers looking up at the sky, at all the same constellations he'd see back in Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Syria. (I still don't know where he was from. I was too young to grasp geography back in the 70s.) Perhaps he remembers his provincial, well-meaning friends dancing on the bridge, and perhaps he remembers his punk rock friends in Belgrade jumping around to this crazy record called "Non-Alignment Pact" by Pere Ubu that was new at the time. They sang:
I wanna make a deal with you girl
And get it signed by the heads of state
I wanna make a deal with you girl
Be recognized round the world
It's my nonalignment pact
At night I can see the stars on fire
I can see the world in flames