the circular runner

Posts Tagged ‘death’

Hallmark: When Words Fail Us

In life, observations, teaching & education, Uncategorized, writing on March 15, 2012 at 6:15 am

Last week, I went to the funeral of one of my recent graduates. If you read an earlier post about her death and my reaction to it, then you’ll know that I’ve been struggling about how I’m struggling.  I know there’s grief under it all, but the grief’s not showing itself.  And then again, I did drive 400 miles to LA this weekend to hug my folks and my sister and her army of kids.  The grief is there. It’s pushing me around a little even if it isn’t dragging me down.

At the funeral, it was open casket which is tough. I paid my respects to the family, brought flowers, wore a tie.  (The latter made me stand out because everyone else was wearing t-shirts with the student’s face on it and/or SF Giant hoodies. This was a funeral for the neighborhood folks, and I must have looked a little like the “guero” “boojie” dude, but what can I say? I’m light-skinned, which makes most people think I’m white, and there’s the fact that my mom taught me to show respect by dressing as well as I can in situations such as these. Truth is no one probably gave a damn how I was dressed.  We were there for my student.  Or were we?

Grief and cliche have an oh-so-tight relationship to one another.  At one level, cliches cannot be helped. I get that. When we talk about death, we are talking about something that cannot be talked about. What words can get past the barrier between life and death? Prayer works at times like these. Prayer, in a sense, was the origin of Halmark.  It gives people words to say when facing tragedy.  But if you are not completely a person of faith, and you can’t give it up to God as they say, then what can you say?  Which words are best?

At the funeral, there were the posters made by my student’s young friends telling her to rest in peace, that she was an angel, that she was special and smart.  My student was these things, no doubt, but her body in the coffin made these words seem senseless to me, dead even.  These words are not her, no more than her dead body is.  And to say this does not mean I avoided cliches, myself.  I couldn’t help but say the words I’ve been taught to say when I reached out to shake my student’s mom’s hand.  But when I looked around and saw those signs and those Hallmark-isms, I couldn’t help but wonder if those Hallmark thoughts didn’t cover up something beside grief and desperation. Did it cover up a lack of ingenuousness.

Let me take this away from the funeral-setting for a moment. Think about another type of event–a deeply spiritual one. Imagine a religious revival somewhere out on some prairie.  I don’t doubt that people have conversions, just like I don’t doubt that some people were really grieving and struggling for language to describe the grief they were feeling for my student–but when that experience gets replicated, so that, for example, at some evangelical church on a Sunday, you have a preacher calling out for people who are moved by the Holy Spirit to come forth and repent, and he does this every Sunday, at what point does this just become routine?  The expression of something seen and copied? That feeling of the routine was there at this funeral.  Maybe it’s there at every funeral.

The Mission can be a dangerous place. Bullets fly there. Kids are senselessly killed. But among some of the people who were at my student’s funeral, individuals who might have pulled a trigger or two or known someone who was a victim, one almost got the strange sense that they spoke in Hallmark language to cover up their indifference. Death and sadness are badges for some. And funerals for young people are just part of the way.  The death of my student was tragic. No doubt. But tragedy expressed en mass forces everyone to express it in a certain kind of way whether they feel that grief at all. Grief comes when it does. No need to force it. But there was some forcing going on last week, and though I know it can’t be helped, I was bothered by it.

We are social beings. Don’t let the Ayn Rand-Rand Paul types fool you: we are a collective.  Some don’t want us to be that when it comes to taxes, but there’s no putting it off in death.  Here’s another cliche for you: resistance is futile.

Geoff Dyer and death and you–the antidote to Eat,Pray,Love

In writers & books on October 10, 2010 at 11:34 pm

I have a lot of books in my house, and I recently noticed that among the obvious stuff: the novels and short story collections and the history and philosophy books I kept from college days, I have a shelf devoted to books about people who go off the grid. I guess you could call it my Eat, Pray, Love section, though I don’t own that book. (My wife does, but that doesn’t count because she, like me, hasn’t read it.) Actually, now that I think about it, the books I’m talking about are more of the Leave, Starve, Die variety. There are the obvious ones, like Into the Wild, The Razor’s Edge, essays by Denis Johnson. There are a lot of books about hobos, like William T. Vollman‘s Riding Toward Everywhere. Like Vollman, I love hobos and trains, though unlike him, I’ve never “caught out.” I have no idea why I read these books, why I feel a strong connection with people who are off not connecting with anyone. Maybe because they are stories about people who are searching for something–extreme versions of the kind of searching that we all do to lesser and varying degrees. Maybe, probably, I like these books because I feel some sort of connection with people who don’t connect.

My most recent addition to this shelf of sadness is Geoff Dyer‘s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. Like any interesting book, you can read it in a number of ways. I don’t know if other people would include it in the Leave,Starve,Die genre as I described it above. For one thing, no one starves. Also, the main character is not a misfit (like Vollman) or overly idealistic (like the guy from Into the Wild). (Misfits and idealists seem to be a common thread in the Leave,Starve,Die collection.) Most importantly, the death the title promises is more of a social death than a physical one. But the general idea is there. This is a story about someone seeking and failing to find connections, and how he reacts accordingly. So, yes, when I’m done with this post, I will shelve Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi with my other beloved, sad books about unconnected people. And here’s why, even if you’re more on the happy/positive Eat,Pray,Love side of things, you should read this book, as well:

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is a book in two parts. The first half is about a journalist named Jeff, a freelance writer who is assigned to cover the Biennale in Venice for a British arts and culture magazine. He doesn’t much care for his work and doesn’t think much of it. Early on, when asked what he does, he says “that freelancing is the the something else that you do after you’ve packed in your job.” Even so, he still gets assignments to places like the Biennale and invited to parties by people who seem to like him. On the surface, we see him as an aging hipsters who is out there enjoying his life without a worry. He may not be a brilliant writer, but he’s ok with that as long as there’s a party to go to. But that’s only on the outside. Dyer treats us to page-long interior monologues that are at once funny and painful to get through. At one point, when thinking about quitting his job, Dyer writes, “[Jeff] knew also that as soon he was told that they did not want him to do this shit any more he would realize how desperately he wanted to keep doing this shit that he did not want to do anymore.” It sounds absolutely ridiculous, but then again, it is probably not so different from the conflicted feelings many of us have about what we do.

For the most part, with the help of a younger woman and a lot of booze and drugs, he manages to push these neurotic back-and-forths aside, but as this section of the book ends, we see that all his fixes are only temporary: the booze and the drugs peter out, and sadly for Jeff, so does his relationship with the younger woman. Dyer is a clever writer, and I enjoyed the first half of the book the way one enjoys any witty, summer read. The relationship Jeff has is fun and it reminds you of how exciting it can be when you’re just getting to know someone with whom you are vibing on every level. You root for Jeff. Maybe he’s imperfect, but he’s not just some hipster without a soul. If only he can find love, this middle-aged hack could find love.

Left there, the book would’ve been like a good burger from your favorite upscale burger joint–not completely without nutritional merit, but not exactly a literary square meal, either. (Also, left here, there is no way, it would make it into my beloved Leave, Starve, Die shelf.) But when you turn the page and start the second section, you find something completely different going on. The energy and the mile-a-minute wit have been traded up for a slower, more sedate first-person narrator who is never identified by name, but who seems to be the same person we just left in Venice.

This narrator tells us that he is on a new assignment to cover some of the culture of Varanasi and because the narrator is, like Jeff, middle-aged, British, and a journalist, we assume this has to be the same character. Of course, he might not be, and that is part of what makes the book clever. Though for a minute, I’m going to ask you to give up that option and read the book as if you are seeing two sides of the same Jeff. For me, this is how the book goes from being a fun read to being a great book. It shows a transformation or a stripping-down of social persona that is unusual and yet completely believable. Partly, this has something to do with environment. Booze are a lot harder to come by in Varanasi, and though there’s some pot to be had, (which the narrator does try toward the end of the book), there also seems to be something about the city itself that makes him seem less interested in partying. It’s not that he’s getting more spiritual by being India. Remember, this is not Eat, Pray, Love. It’s more that whether he knew it or not, in a social sense, this narrator, this Jeff, is preparing to die.

Over the course of the second section, he is letting go of social connections to people, to his identity, to the things that make him who he is back home in England. And by doing that, he is becoming one of the invisible people, one of the ghosts who walk the streets of Varanasi, though if you think about it, he just as easily could be walking the streets of San Francisco or New York or any other city. This is why the book moves me. It takes someone who is basically successful at his job, a person with friends and financial means, and over three hundred pages, shows that person who could be me, who could be you, becoming that strange, unbathed, mumbling, invisible person you pass on your way to work (and ignore) every morning. (You know the one.)

Now, if you’re thinking to yourself that that guy you pass (and ignore) is insane, not dead, and by extension, that the narrator in Dyer’s book must be insane as well, then let me say that you might be right. In fact, you very likely are right (at least you are about the guy you keep ignoring). But then again….

My point is that mental illness is sort of a catch-all phrase that is so broad and, at times, so vague that it starts to lose meaning. Is it crazy for someone to jump off the grid? Maybe. Then again, I’m sure there are a lot of people in other cultures who see the way we live our lives, the way we sit in hours of traffic and buy too much stuff and eat too much stuff, and they probably think we’re nuts. In a sense, being mentally ill is not as objective as it might seem on first glance. I’m not denying that mental illness, but what I am saying is that the term needs to be examined before we slap it in on people like the narrator in Dyer’s book and that guy you keep ignoring. It’s just too easy to dismiss people that way. That’s the lesson I take from Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. The novel is not about a guy named Jeff, some depressive who finally fell off the grid–that would be familiar. You’ve heard that story before. You may have even known someone like that. Instead, Dyer’s book asks us to imagine how anyone can jump off that grid we hold on to for dear life–not because he’s struggling with illness, but just because he has decided to let go. It’s about the randomness and precariousness of our social lives and connections. It’s about the possibility of a social death. Most importantly, it’s about people like me and you and, maybe even that guy you ignore every morning.

After writing all these words and thinking about Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi for the last week, maybe I should rename that shelf of mine. Maybe what I love about these books is the combination of bravery and cowardice involved in letting it all go–everything and everyone. In the end, it’s not for me. I love my wife and my fiends and family. But still, seeing someone letting go is interesting and scary and exciting to think about.

And if that doesn’t convince you, then let me say this: at the very least, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi has to be a better read than Eat,Pray,Love.

Leonard Nimoy, Death, and Education–There is a Connection

In observations, teaching & education, Uncategorized on June 22, 2010 at 8:05 pm

I should start by saying that this post was influenced by Mark over at the blog, Leaving Trails There was something heartening about reading about education in such a thoughtful way. I guess I thought I’d give it a go.

That said, we’re into the last week week of classes, and I decided to end my class on identity with readings about death–specifically, the funeral industry. I have a lot of reasons for doing this, but the most important, aside from the fact that I think how we choose to be celebrated in death says a lot about us in life, is that I also am wondering what it means that funerals have become a globalized industry–at least it is according to our readings. And guess what? It’s our fault. No longer are we content with the old-fashioned mom and pop funeral director. We want choices. We want our remains to be put in coffins that look like Formula-One race cars and we want urns that have the Star Trek insignia on it.

I will stop myself from saying, “beam me up, cruel world. My people have gone nuts.” However, I think we may need a little Vulcan reasoning here. Leonard Nimoy, where are you?

I will also fight the liberal (perhaps idealistically liberal) urge to decry globalization, standardization, and other -ations of all stripes that we see in every facet of our society. At the same time, I can’t help but see some parallels between the funeral business and the increasingly large education industry. In one of the readings for this week, Thomas Lynch, a poet and a funeral director, writes that the funeral business “relies more on trust, personal attention, and accountability.” I would say the same should be true of education. (I think I should mention that Lynch wrote this in Bodies in Motion and at Rest which was published in 2000. Ten years ago, he could still hope that the funeral business would remain as he describes it. It hasn’t. And, if I can make the parallel, neither has the education business (which shuldn’t be a business, if you ask me.)

Education, like dealing with death, is not and cannot be known for efficiency, at least not in the way that corporations require. I’m not saying that funeral directors and teachers should not be held to high standards. I AM saying that those standards have to serve people not profit.

Take, for example, the school I work for. Teachers here are required to call students who miss more than two days in a row, and then, we are to log those calls into a system that the school provides. This is ok. It’s not easy, but I understand the need to get involved with the students we serve who are easlily discouraged. The problem is that we are really judged more for whether or not we call than we are for the teaching we do for the students who actually show. Is a class run well by a teacher who tries different approaches to help her students? If so, great. If not, well, at least she makes the calls. The thinking here is that students who come are happy (or happy enough) so they won’t bolt and take their money with them. It’s those others–the students who we can’t get to come to class that we have to go after. We need them–we need their money.

It’s true that no one says any of this. But the fact that so much support is given to the teacher who keeps students happy and not to the teacher who keeps them thinking is a sign that what I’m saying here is not completely off. This is the corporate way. Calls to the student can be counted. Students kept happy by not being babied and not challenged, check. (Yes, as in a bank check.) The harder thing to quantify is the teacher trying to get a student to improve. Education is not easy. Students may quit if they are pushed too hard, and if they are allowed to show or not show as other students are in most colleges. That’s what the corporation tells us without telling us, so we teachers either buck the system and hope our students will understand that challenge is good, or we hide behind mediocrity and make our calls and keep our students happy in a facile way.

Reading this over, I fear that I may have committed a rhetorical faux pas that I wouldn’t excuse from my students. I started off this post with one intention and then went away and I’m not sure there’s a connection. Initially, I was doing my usual weekly update on my advanced class, and then I swerved away, possibly driving off a cliff with sense at my side. The only connection I can offer (besides the corporate need for efficient profit) is that this quarter may mark the death of me as a teacher–at least in this incarnation. I love to teach. I do. But do I want to keep doing it in this environment? The brave side of me tells the other part of me that the thing to do is to persevere. They (my bosses) can take me out if they want to, but they (like a funeral director) are going to have to carry me out first. The other side of me says I should move on–do the easy thing (not that going to an office job is easy, which is what I might have to do since California schools are not hiring).

Let’s see what happens. At least I’m not dead.

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