Aug 30, 2014
This morning, Melony the beagle showed no sign of wanting to get out of bed, cuddling into my pillow as if she could slow the inevitable progress of the day through sheer determination. I’m sure we’ve all had mornings when we wanted to lie abed just a little while longer, as if closing our eyes to the clock would make it run more slowly.
Late August is when teachers and schoolchildren around the world try to slow the hands of time through sheer determination: please, Summer, can’t you stay just a little while longer? And yet late August is also when both parents and retailers are eager for time’s passage, happy to herald another back-to-school season. While a lot of schools and colleges started their fall semesters this past week, I’m one of the lucky ones: both of the colleges where I’ll be teaching this year wait until after Labor Day to start their fall semester. So like Melony the beagle, I’m spending this weekend cherishing every last minute of freedom until I, too, have to head back to school. The hands of time are moving whether I’m watching the clock or not.
Aug 18, 2014
As I type these words, a rafter of wild turkeys is scratching for seed beneath our backyard birdfeeder: two hens and their combined offspring, a true Boston marriage. We didn’t see much of our resident turkeys in the spring and early summer, when the hens were incubating eggs, but now that the poults are leggy and ravenous, we’ve seen them and their mothers more frequently.
The other day, J and I saw a small group of tom turkeys crossing a side street about a half mile from our house, one striding slowly in front of the other like the Beatles crossing Abbey Road. This is how turkeys live in August: the females band together to shepherd their combined young, and the males hang out singly or in loose-knit throngs, fattening up for breeding season. It’s a strict division of labor where the females look after the poults and the males do little more than strut and breed.
A week or so ago, J and I watched an episode of the CNN documentary The Sixties that discussed the women’s movement. The episode discussed the advent of the birth control pill, Gloria Steinem’s stint as a Playboy Bunny, and the one-two punch of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl. Once you acknowledge that some housewives are unhappy tending children and doing housework and some women are enjoying sex outside the bonds of marriage, you’ve crossed a revolutionary divide. Everything is possible between the sexes because everything has been called into question.
A strict division of labor between tom and hen turkeys has worked for eons: just look how many turkeys there are! But human beings aren’t turkeys. We no longer live as hunter-gatherers, when it made sense for larger, stronger males to pursue large game while bands of women gathered nuts and berries, their babies and children in tow.
Nearly all of today’s jobs can be accomplished by either gender, and the job of gathering groceries knows no sex. This means each household is free to divide chores however works best for them, individually. In our home, J does yard work and cooks, and I do dishes, take out the trash, and shop for groceries. J and I don’t divide these chores by gender; instead, we’ve settled upon a routine that works for us, and we don’t expect that routine to be universally applicable to other couples. We’re talking about conscious choices, not binding cultural rules.
I don’t know if male and female turkeys are content with their lots in life: I suspect turkeys live the way they do because they don’t have much choice. Does an abundance of choice make us humans more or less happy in the long run? That’s a question for philosophers to decide. All I know is that once a choice is offered, you can’t take it back. Once you know other options are available, you’ll always want the freedom to choose between them.
Since I don’t have any decent photos of turkey hens and poults that have been visiting our backyard bird feeder, the photos illustrating today’s post come from last summer’s groovy MFA exhibit of sixties clothing, Hippie Chic, which I blogged last December.
Aug 12, 2014
This morning, in the aftermath of Robin Williams’ death, I watched the Grand Central Station scene from The Fisher King: one of my all-time favorite cinematic moments. Williams plays a mentally troubled homeless man watching the woman of his dreams walk through a busy train terminal, and for the two minutes she’s passing through, the chaotic crowds coalesce into a grand, beautiful waltz befitting the high-vaulted splendor that is Grand Central Station. It’s a magical, perfectly choreographed moment where hundreds of strangers move to the step of one man’s love: a scene where Williams doesn’t say a single word, his expressive face speaking volumes.
When a special person passes through even the most ordinary place, the mundane becomes magical, at least for a moment, until they disappear in the crowd and the music reverts to hubbub again. That’s what it feels like this morning after Williams’ death: the waltz has ended, the crowds are no longer choreographed, and the sunbeams no longer scintillate with stardust.
It would not be an exaggeration to say I grew up watching Robin Williams. I was nine years old when Mork and Mindy premiered, and it was one of my favorite TV shows. As a brown-haired tomboy, I wanted to be Mindy, a free-spirited, Jeep-driving girl living in a city that sounded both outdoorsy and cool. When Mork moved into Mindy’s attic, Mindy didn’t lose an ounce of her independence: Mork wasn’t a boyfriend, after all, but an alien. Long before we learned that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, I learned from Mork and Mindy that the best way to relate to the opposite sex is through humor and an open acknowledgement that men really are from another planet.
Years later, Dead Poets Society came out when I was halfway through my undergraduate English studies, and it gave me a new role model in Mr. Keating, a renegade teacher who encourages his buttoned-up students to think for themselves. I can’t say Dead Poets Society made me want to be an English teacher, as I was already long along that path, but it did stoke the fire of my enthusiasm by invoking two of my favorite authors: Walt Whitman, whose image hangs on Mr. Keating’s classroom wall, and Henry David Thoreau, whose commitment to live deliberately served as the Dead Poets’ motto.
I wonder how many English majors have watched Dead Poets Society time and again, as I have, wishing they could be a Mr. Keating in some student’s life? Mr. Keating wants to change the lives of his students, and he does indeed succeed, but he learns too late that sometimes changes happens for the worse, not the better. Dead Poets Society is a tragedy that ends in death…but then again, so is life. Dead Poets Society is deeply romantic in its suggestion that a passionate teacher can inspire students, and as an undergrad English major, I drank that idea deeply, like a drug.
By the time Williams appeared as the working-class community college professor Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting, I was a graduate student living in Boston, where the film was set. By then, my Dead Poets Society dreams had been tempered by the reality of teaching actual first-year college students, none of whom stood on their desks and hailed me as “O captain, my captain!”
In my dreams, I wanted to be Mr. Keating, but in reality, I was more like Maguire, who in the movie teaches a course on “Dying and Bereavement” to a nearly comatose class of indifferent students. While his college roommate has become a revered professor at MIT, Maguire teaches at Bunker Hill Community College, where his talents are clearly going to waste. Most fans of Good Will Hunting remember the funny scenes where Matt Damon wins Minnie Driver’s heart by schooling snobby Harvard boys with his smartass wit, but what I remember from the movie was the awkward moment of recognition as I watched Maguire try to engage his students. George Carlin once said a cynic is nothing more than a disappointed idealist, and Williams captured that truth perfectly in his portrayal of a tender-hearted but tired professor who has weathered many heartaches.
Robin Williams is remembered and beloved as a comic, but what always resonated with me was the way he captured the vulnerable, serious, and (yes) sorrowful side of his characters. Yesterday when I heard of Williams’ suicide, my first thought was, “Didn’t he know how many lives he touched?” I sometimes think being a teacher is a lot like being a stand-up comic: there’s nothing like the thrill of connecting with your audience, but there’s nothing worse than the sensation of crashing and burning when your material falls flat. When the laughter and applause subside, there’s nothing left but the nagging question, “But was I good enough, really?”
I understand mental illness well enough to know that no number of fan letters, awards, and accolades can lift the shroud of depression: depression is, after all, a bug in the brain that makes it impossible to believe such affirmations. Still, I find myself wishing that at the split second before he slipped from this station to the next, Robin Williams fully realized the joy, wonder, and delight he inspired in so many of us.
The title of today’s post comes from Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to make much of Time,” which features memorably in a scene from Dead Poets Society. The photos illustrating today’s posts show some of the roses and rosebuds I’ve gathered (digitally) over the years. Rest in peace, Robin Williams, and thank you for so many years of laughter, life, and joy.
Aug 5, 2014
Back in March when J and I went to the Harvard Museum of Natural History to see the famous glass flowers, I snapped several photographs of a more ephemeral phenomenon: several botanical specimens taken by Henry David Thoreau. Among the embarrassment of riches that is the Harvard Museum of Natural History, these pressed plants mounted on paper and labeled in Thoreau’s notoriously illegible handwriting seemed particularly fragile and astonishingly personal. When Thoreau picked, pressed, and preserved these specimens, he was acting as an amateur botanist. He had no way of knowing more than a century and a half later, someone like me would cherish these yellowed pages as a tangible connection with a long-dead writer.
Thoreau probably never suspected his meticulous botanical records—not only the 900-some specimens housed at the Botany Libraries of Harvard University or the two held by the University of Connecticut, but also the lists of first-flowering dates for the wildflowers he observed in Concord, Massachusetts from 1851 until 1858—would someday be used to study climate change. Thoreau intended to compile his seasonal observations into a project he called the Kalendar, by which he could ascertain the date simply by studying what was blooming in Concord at any given moment. Thoreau died before his Kalendar was complete, but even an incomplete project can eventually bear fruit if it is ambitious and accurate enough.
I’m currently reading Richard B. Primack’s Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods, which chronicles how Thoreau’s nineteenth century observations are contributing to twenty-first century climate science. Primack is a biology professor at Boston University, and he and a team of graduate students have spent the past decade comparing Thoreau’s first-flowering dates with modern observations of Concord flora. Because Thoreau kept such a meticulous record of what bloomed when in Concord, Primack and his colleagues are able to track the acceleration of the seasons, with species such as highbush blueberry blooming between three and six weeks earlier today than in Thoreau’s day.
Primack’s book is grim reading insofar as it confirms the dire warnings of climate scientists. But part of me is cheered by Thoreau’s unintended contribution to the project. Thoreau liked to say he was born in the nick of time, but his death of tuberculosis in 1862 has always struck me as painfully premature. Thoreau was only 44 at the time of his death, and he left many unfinished projects. He didn’t live long enough to see the abolition of slavery, he never completed his Kalendar, and most of his book-length works were published posthumously, with only A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden appearing during his lifetime.
Because of global warming, the spring wildflowers in Concord, Massachusetts are blooming earlier these days, but it seems that Thoreau himself was a late bloomer, becoming popular as a writer, philosopher, and citizen scientist only after his death. I often wonder whether Thoreau lamented on his deathbed the work he left undone: did it seem silly to have spent so much time gathering data for a project he couldn’t complete? I like to imagine that in his heart of hearts, Thoreau had faith that even a feeble seed would bear fruit, albeit years later. I like to imagine Thoreau himself wouldn’t be surprised his meticulous botanical records would be pored over and appreciated eventually, in the nick of (another) time.
Aug 2, 2014
The Buddha wasn’t a god; he was a man with eyes in his head. Any person with the ability to observe the world can deduce the simple facts the Buddha taught: suffering exists, things are impermanent, and the quality of our contentment isn’t necessarily related to our external circumstances. There are unhappy people in paradise and people who find contentment in hell. All things change, but there sits at the root of our nature certain enduring tendencies: the grain in the wood of personality, the slant of our inclination and the direction of our days.
The Buddha wasn’t a god; he was a man with eyes in his head. Nothing the Buddha taught needs to be taken on faith: you can test anything he said against your own experience, against what you yourself have seen and lived. If you don’t believe that suffering exists, scan the headlines in the nearest newspaper, tune into your favorite TV news channel, or ask the person next to you how things are going, really. Or try sitting with nothing but your own thoughts for ten, fifteen, or thirty minutes: as long as you can stand. How long does it take to sink beneath the skin of surface contentment to find the existential angst beneath?
If you don’t believe things are impermanent, try loving a child, an old person, or an elderly pet. Whenever you see someone change, grow, or age before your very eyes, you’re seeing impermanence in action. Or take a long view of your own relationships and your own self. How many of the people you loved ten, fifteen, or twenty years ago are exactly the same now as they were then? Take a good, honest look in the mirror. How have you yourself changed over the past decade? Even the most stubborn, entrenched personalities grow old, grow sick, and die.
The Buddha wasn’t a fortune teller; he simply was observant. He was, as I keep telling you, a man with eyes in his head. He closely observed the people around him, and he carefully monitored the coming and going of his own thoughts. The Buddha was like Isaac Newton sitting beneath an apple tree: he didn’t see anything particularly unusual, but he had the intelligence to notice the patterns that underlie the seemingly random nature of our days. Apples fall and seasons change. If you don’t believe me, go sit under an apple tree and see for yourself.
One morning this week, I wrote my journal pages outside, sitting at our backyard patio table. The bird feeder was empty, so there wasn’t the usual flapping, energetic throng of birds, but still there were squirrels foraging overhead, robins singing in the neighbors’ yard, and chipmunks scurrying through dead leaves. There wasn’t a single moment in even my quiet backyard that was truly quiet: there was a constant soundtrack of birdsong, animal rustlings, and insect humming.
You don’t have to set foot outside—you don’t have to move from wherever you’re reading these words—to experience the constant activity that is impermanence in action. Shut your eyes and turn your attention inward to where your thoughts chatter without ceasing. Try to follow the flow of your own thoughts: the way they inevitably jump from one thing to another. Even when the world around you is quiet and serene, your mind is agile and electric, jumping from one thought to another like a squirrel leaping from branch to branch. People erroneously think that meditation is about “stilling the thoughts,” as if this were possible. Stilling your thoughts is as possible as stilling your own heartbeat or the stopping the flow of blood in your veins. Even if you could do it, why would you want to?
Several weeks ago I spent two hours writing in downtown Boston at rush hour. I sat in a café facing a wall of windows with a clear view of a steady stream of people walking down the sidewalks on either side of a narrow one-way street. Occasionally, there was a burst of vehicular activity: at one point, several cars, a taxi , and a police SUV cruised down the street, followed by a lull in traffic. Although the cars moved in sporadic bursts, the flow of pedestrians was constant: people walking singly, in pairs, or loose groups; people talking on phones, gesturing to friends, or pointing to landmarks. One man stopped to take a picture on his phone, then three people passed in a kind of parade, each one steering a vendor’s pushcart: lemonade, hot dogs, Italian ice. Each person who passed was on an errand known only to them, and this activity never stopped during the two full hours I observed it. Trying to stop the rush hour flow of people walking, cars moving, and cyclists pedaling is impossible, as this activity is simply the nature of a city.
So is the nature of our minds. Our mind is a road at rush hour, with a constant traffic of thoughts moving past. Sometimes these thoughts come singly, one after the other, and sometimes they arrive in bursts of activity. Sometimes these thoughts slow and quiet, and we think we’ve reached the end of them…but inevitably they return, always arriving from unknown origins and wending toward unspoken destinations.
Sometimes our thoughts get stuck and we find ourselves endlessly obsessing over a single idea that returns again and again like a car that keeps circling the same block. But just as it’s impossible to count much less stop every single person that passes down a busy city street, it is impossible to stop the stream of our own thoughts. Thinking is the mind’s job, so it’s both foolish and futile to try to stop it. Why not try to cover your ears, stopper your nose, or paste your eyes shut?
The contentment that comes with meditation doesn’t come from stopping one’s thoughts; it comes from making peace with them. As I sat typing on my laptop and watching the stream of people pass by that rush hour coffee shop, I had no quarrel with any of them. If I had been sitting in traffic, I would have wanted it to move faster or slower: I would have had an interest in controlling it. But as a mere observer watching the people who pass, I didn’t have to worry about their pace, direction, or destination. When you simply observe your thoughts move through your mind like people passing down the street, there’s no need to worry over them. They’ll find their own way without any interference from you.
It isn’t our thoughts themselves but our impulse to control our thoughts that drives us crazy. Because the Buddha had eyes in his head, he realized this. If you spend time watching your thoughts, you’ll quickly realize that crazy thoughts, calm thoughts, happy thoughts, and angry thoughts all come and go. These thoughts arise and pass away without reason: there’s no need to try to excuse or explain them, just as there’s no need to excuse or explain the passing of people and vehicles during rush hour.
We suffer when we cling to impermanent things, and that includes thoughts. If we cling to the idea of “baby,” we’ll suffer when our child grows into an adolescent then adult. If we cling to the idea of “youth,” we’ll suffer when we see our bodies gray and wrinkle. If we cling to the idea “I am a good person,” we’ll suffer when angry, lustful, or selfish thoughts arise. If we cling to the idea “Meditation will make me peaceful,” we’ll suffer when we find our minds to be noisy with distractions.
The Buddha realized that all things, including our thoughts, are impermanent because he himself watched them pass. It was an observation anyone with eyes in their head could have made. Right now, look around at the people who pass, then look inside to the ebb and flow of your own thoughts. What can you hold? What can you take with you after you’re gone? If you have eyes in your head, you too will see the whole world is passing, and the only instant we can claim is the very moment at hand.