Thursday, September 19, 2019

My Version of Hunger Art

I just heard a report on the radio about Edward Snowden. I don't know enough about the details of his situation to evaluate whether he was wrong or right to leak the information he did, but I do know he thinks he did the right thing. This means, of course, he sacrificed the comforts of his own country to do what he felt he had to.

It makes me feel guilty, a little. 

When I think about America's Founding Fathers and what they sacrificed to establish our country, I am reminded of this quotation from John Adams: 

"I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain."

It sounds so selfless. Adams is enduring the toils of government and politics for our future; so we can chill and create and be cultured; so we can have the "finer things."

It makes me feel guilty, indeed, for having pursued a life of music and literature; for not having become at least a town councilman or a mayor or something...

But, the other day, I was teaching Kafka. We were discussing "A Hunger Artist." If you have never read it, the man makes a living by putting on shows in which he sits in a cage and fasts and the public comes by and they watch him slowly turn into a bag of bones. The story goes through many aspects of his thinking, including his pride in his art and the disappointment he feels when the public stops caring; stop appreciating the purity of his art.

Spoiler alert: In the end, the hunger artist is about to die and he makes a confession: he never found a food he liked, so starving himself is easy. It renders the feat way less impressive, right? Even the hunger artist feels guilty for having fooled people.

So, it got me thinking: You are not going to tell me that, in some way, the people who made these sacrifices for future generations or to expose evil or to free their people didn't do these things partly or mostly because of some characteristic within themselves that made them enjoy or even need to do what they did. 

Someone who leads a country, like Washington, wants to be a leader on some level. He may not actively seek it as a preference, but he does have to thrive on it.  Like, I am not saying Snowden wanted to be a refugee hiding in Russia, but something about him drew him to this kind of dissent...

So, maybe I don't feel so guilty. Because what I guess I am getting at is that there is no true altruism. Right? People are drawn to acts that stem from their inner composition. The hunger artist hated food, so he stopped eating; Adams was a man with a perfect political and legal mind who, given free reign, would not have become a sculptor anyway...

I'm a teacher, right? I teach literature and writing. Am I doing it because I just have a burning desire to improve young minds? Partly. But mostly I do it because I love words. I'm proud of being a teacher but I'm not, however, ready to receive accolades for having picked a low-paying job so that I could help my fellow man.

I feel better now.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

A Frightened Boy, His Dad, and the Night Sky; Summer, 1982

I just traveled back to a night from about thirty-seven years ago. At least, I can see it projected like a movie onto the dense trees behind my house. The air smells exactly the same as it did that night; it's the kind of wonderfully cool evening air that carries a spectre of fall and floats through the door like an unnoticed arrival to a formal Victorian party; the kind of cool that can only feel the way it does after weeks of intense heat.

As I said, the night was the mirror image of this one. I was about a week away from heading to high school for the first time and I was nervous and very reluctant. I never said anything, because I was that kind of a kid; somehow I always reacted to fears by turning inward, concentrating like someone trying to untangle  twine. And though I had two approachable, caring parents, it never occurred to me to go to them. Maybe it was pride. Maybe it was just my teenage thinking locked onto the rails of some rusty, individualistic instinct.

And while I wouldn't have openly talked about my fears, I would routinely seek out the comfort of company, especially the company of my dad, when I felt troubled. He had a way of making me feel I was standing on solid ground when I felt a quake coming.

This night -- decades ago but still tonight -- found my dad and me lying on the deck of our swimming pool in our suburban neighborhood, hands behind our heads, looking up at the stars. We'd do this from time to time, talking or not talking...just being there. Just feeling the moment. ("Don't think about the next thing you want to do; think of now and take care of business," he would always say to me when I, for instance, rushed through cutting the lawn.)

When we talked, it was usually because he'd throw philosophical puzzles at me (some of them repeats). He was well-aware they were repeats, by the way; he just liked them enough to run them at me again.

One of his favorites: He'd have me look at the moon and he'd say, "You see the moon? It's Truth."

He'd never explain. He'd just let the idea hang there like the great white orb itself: bright against the black of Everything Else. I could almost feel the synapses connecting and creeping like ivy across my brain.

This night, with the lovely chill on me, and the fear of a new experience creeping up my spine, I was hoping for one of the old ones; one of his comfortable, familiar repeats, but he asked me a new question. Just as he asked it, I remember smelling someone's fire -- a marshmallow-toasting pit or a bonfire in the neighborhood.

"What do you think about U.F.Os?" he asked. "You think they are up there?"

"You mean space ships? Flying saucers?" I giggled a little.

"What's U.F.O. stand for?" he asked.

"Unidentified flying objects?" I ventured.

"So, what's not to believe in? Don't you think they see things up there they can't identify? The government has tons of cases of pilots seeing things up there they can't identify."

", starships?" (If you are a long time reader, you know I grew up on Star Trek.)

"Or...anything unidentified that flies. Bottom line, if you go by the definition, U.F.Os are real. Period. There are things that have been seen flying around up there that are unidentified. Keep looking long enough and you will see something."

Impending, scary newness was obscured for me at that moment. School didn't exist; or, at least, it just didn't matter much in the vast stretches of a lifetime. As we looked at the sky, I was somehow aware of the span from that day to this one, thirty-seven years later. I was aware that some day -- today -- he'd be gone, but that he would always be with me, because of the seeds he planted in the fields of my mind.

But my dad didn't plant trees; he planted beanstalks.

His U.F.O question still resonates with my like a over-wordy koan. Of course he was right, but what it means that he was right is still more of a setting off point for other explorations than an answer to be captured.

They say one forgets the face of his lost loved ones. Sometimes I think it might be true, but, from one musician to another, a voice is never lost. I can still hear my dad's voice; I can hear his tone harmonized by the cars hissing by on the street in front of our house and the leaves moving above the pool. It's a chord of memory. Tonight, I hear my dad again, in my heart, in my ears and in my head, and I look at the stars and I swear I see things moving around up there.

I just can't identify them...I hope I never will.

Goodnight, Dad.