I Sing the Body Electric

In 1980, I saw the movie Fame with a friend of mine.  It was a rainy fall evening in downtown Minneapolis, somewhere in one of the huge old theaters on Hennepin Avenue.  My friend, a Romanian émigré I had met in Hebrew class, enjoyed them film.  I was enthralled.

When I graduated from high school in 1976, I had two identities.  One was as an actor/theater person; the other was as a Christian.  While the latter identity hadn’t survived college really intact, and though I had managed only to fit a single theater class into my curriculum, I was still, in 1980, definitely a theater person.  I still had visions of the stage, though they were mixed with music by then.

Fame fed all of that.  I saw high school, I saw theater, I saw romance, I saw it all.  Everything I ever wanted.  I was only four years older than the kids in Performance Arts.

Time has come and gone.  37-odd years now.  I’ve played music (and I’m way better at it than I used to be), I’ve done a radio drama, but most of my life has had nothing to do with the theater and never will.  And I’ve done stupid things, too.  Saturday, I was clearing the area behind the garage, stupidly wearing sandals.  Something got between my right sandal and my foot while I was carrying a piece of decayed fence, and it went into my foot.

So now I’m at home because I literally can’t walk.  And I decided, for the hell of it, to pull up Fame on Netflix.

You know what?

It hasn’t changed.  And my response to it hasn’t changed.  I’m still seeing high school, theater, romance.

Fame has held up remarkably well.  In the 37 years since I first saw it (and as far as I can tell, that was the only time I saw it before today) many things have changed and not held up.  There are no more Checker cabs.  There are no more heavy green telephones.  If you walk around New York today, you see people not talking to each other or looking around, you see people staring at cell phones (or talking on them).  The city is cleaner and less interesting.  I’m cleaner and less interesting.  Do you know how long it’s been since I went to a midnight showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show?  Smoked dope?  Hell, my children are now older than the students in Fame.

It hurts, in some ways, to watch Fame, because I realize what’s been left behind, and a large part of it is me.  I was young in Minneapolis, and ready to stay up all night long and do fantastic things.  I’ve done things that I never could have imagined, and few of them have been fantastic.  But some have, I suppose.  Now I sit, a 60-year-old lawyer, in a pleasant house in Connecticut.  I go to bed around ten.  I don’t swear as much.  I don’t listen to music as much.  I’m in many ways less than I was.

But the dreams haven’t changed.  And I still love this song.

 

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A “Good” Education

Before reading this, I urge you to take a little while and listen to this.

OK, you’re back.

I want to start out by saying that, as an undergraduate, there was never any question that I was among the best and brightest at my school.  Starting in 1976, I attended the University of Minnesota, in the College of Liberal Arts.  All told, the University had around 55,000 students.  My student ID number was 990127.  Tuition, during my time there, was between $300-400 for as many classes you wanted each quarter (the University was on the quarter system, what is now known as the trimester system—each term was 10 weeks, and there were three normal terms in the university calendar, plus two shorter summer terms of 5 weeks each (plus, if I recall correctly, exam weeks)).  The University had, in addition to the CLA, the Institute of Technology, a forestry school, and an entire agriculture campus (that we knew as “Moo U.”  Plus there were graduate programs in almost every department and professionals schools for Law, Medicine, and Architecture.

I made the Dean’s List every single term.  I was in the honors program.  I was in chemistry classes with premed students and I earned solid As when they were getting Bs.  I graduated summa cum laude in sociology, with a gold phi beta kappa key and a GPA of around 3.8.  I never got less than a B.  Yes, I’m bragging.  I earned the right.

So what did I do for an encore?  Naturally, I applied to graduate school.  I applied to ten, and was accepted at nine.  The one that didn’t accept me (Stanford) may have done so because one of the people I asked to write a recommendation hated that school.  Those that did accept me—every one of them, from the New School for Social Research and Columbia University to the University of California at Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara—gave me scholarships.  In some cases, they gave me way more than free tuition–additional aid for living expenses, so I would finish loan-free (and loans were smaller in those days).

I ended up at the University of Chicago, one of the great schools for sociology, with a 3-year scholarship that gave me leave to take whatever courses I wanted, so long as I was making progress in the sociology department, and $1,500 each term for living expenses (Chicago was also on the trimester system).  $4,500 per year was not a hell of a lot of money, but a studio apartment in Hyde Park, with utilities, could be had for $400/month, and there were always research assistantships to be had, so it was pretty good.

Do you know the difference between a college and a graduate school?

A college turns out people who go into a wide range of disciplines—they may become small business owners, artists, housepainters, musicians, actors, shopkeepers, draftsfolk, bus drivers, electricians, plumbers, clerks, soldiers, luthiers, police officers, managers, account executives, bicycle mechanics, insurance salespersons.

A graduate school turns out professors.

Now, I have no argument with professors.  I’m married to one—one who also received an excellent scholarship from the University of Chicago and who (unlike me) finished her PhD (and on-time!).  But I wonder sometimes, regarding my own case in particular and graduate schools in general, if we don’t make a mistake by funding the routing of the undergraduate “best and brightest” into the professoriate.

I’m thinking about this in large part due to having listened this weekend to the Malcolm Gladwell podcast I’ve linked above.  Because the reason I don’t work in a factory today, and the reason I’m now in my third exciting career (I’m now doing law, after teaching and software engineering) has much more to do with that undergraduate education than with graduate school.

Gladwell makes the point that America is a country in need of weak-link aid rather than strong-link aid.  That is, in context, that it would make more sense to put money toward improving the education of the many, including the “not so hot” students, than it does to put increasingly vast amounts toward the education of a few, fantastically smart students.  He uses the analogy of soccer vs. basketball, and argues—convincingly—that America is trying to play the latter when it needs to play the former.  We should be funding the bench, not just the superstars.

Now, there are good reasons to fund smart students.  I remember sitting in one class at Chicago and realizing that the person to my left had a BS from Yale (he quit grad school the next year and went on to be a lawyer), and the one to my right had a BA from Harvard (finished grad school and has been chair of sociology at Chicago!).  I was smart, and I did good work and communicated some useful things to people.  Not as smart as them, but I was smart.

But.  Had the thousands spent on my abortive graduate career gone to the University of Minnesota, easily a dozen people could have earned BAs.

I’m not sorry that I went to graduate school.  It was a great experience—I met my spouse, branched out to a new city, learned things that I still use in everyday life, met exciting people and minds (see Yale and Harvard, above).  But the marginal advantage was small.  Perhaps that’s why I dropped out of graduate school.  What I learned as a grad student didn’t build all that much over what I learned as an undergraduate.  Or perhaps I wasn’t cut out for it, and wasn’t as smart as I thought.

And maybe Malcolm Gladwell is right.  Maybe what we need is not a few people with great educations, but a whole lot of people with good ones.  Looking at the current political situation, it’s hard to argue with that point.

 

 

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Lessons from Squirrels I: Mortality

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

–John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, “Meditation XVII”

OK.  Pretentious title and text (which I hope to invoke again later) out of the way–

This post is inspired by two things, ten or more years apart.

Thing the First:  As readers of this blog know, I’m a morning person.  So it was around 6:30 AM, in a small town in Wisconsin, I was riding my bike to work, not yet far from home, when I came across a disturbing sight.  In the middle of the road was a squirrel–upper body smashed by a tire, but its legs were moving.  It was still trying to escape.  It knew death was coming, and it didn’t want to wait around for it.

Thing the Second:  This morning, this time driving to work, I saw a smashed squirrel.  But what was significant this time was a non-squashed squirrel that was sniffing at it and touching the body tentatively and solicitously.  A relative?  A mate?  A total stranger?  But it was not “playing” the way squirrels do; it knew something was wrong.  It knew it was dealing with death.

OK.  Maybe I’m being anthropomorphic here, but consciousness of death implies something.  These “lower animals” understand mortality.  And they don’t like it any more than human beings do.  And consciousness of death, well, that implies so much more.

This is something I haven’t thought much about since I took a course in “animal rights” back around 1980.  My final paper for that class was on the question of consciousness and its role in morality.  On these grounds, books like Watership Down and The Plague Dogs (which were among the books we read at Professor Sartorius’ assignment, together with Peter Singer’s work) are rather disturbing, in part because they privilege their protagonists’ species (as we do our own).

I remember thinking, while I was writing that final paper, about the cat that lived at my parents’ house and  whom I had known, at that time, for more than 12 years.  I think I wrote that I would have a very difficult time reconciling what I knew of that animal with eating her.  She was a person.  I was not acquainted with the squirrels to whom I refer above, but I am coming to think, bit by bit, that just as much as my cat, those squirrels are persons also.

Being a person means that someone is not interchangeable with someone else.  That applies to humans (and it’s something we all too often forget) as well as animals.  My cat (unofficially denominated “Miss Meow,” though officially “Samantha”) was not like any other cat.  She knew her home and her people and behaved in a certain way that no other cat behaved.  To be sure, there were commonalities with most other cats–a love of barbecue, cheese, and catnip–but so there are commonalities among most other people–a love of barbecue, cheese, and coffee.  And people are not interchangeable, either.

What makes us people–what makes us persons–what makes squirrels persons–is the recognition of the individual quality over the collective quality.  And to the extent that is recognized, mortality becomes a force with which we much reckon.  Each death of a human being affects me because I am a human being.  The bell tolls for me (and thee).  Each death of a squirrel affects all squirrels because they are squirrels.  The bell tolls for them.

But more importantly, we should observe that the death of another, regardless of species, to some degree diminishes us because of the individual quality of that being who has died–because of its loss.

Am I going vegan?  Not likely.  Vegetarian?  more likely, but see above, barbecue.  I’m human.

Still.  Let us, even in our carnivorous moments, acknowledge the individual, regardless of species.  The bell tolls for we.

 

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Where do the Children Play? In Flander’s Fields.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place: and in the sky
The larks still bravely singing fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead: Short days ago,
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved: and now we lie
In Flanders fields!

Take up our quarrel with the foe
To you, from failing hands, we throw
The torch: be yours to hold it high
If ye break faith with us who die,
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields

(John McCrae)

I have a problem with Memorial Day.  It’s not that I don’t understand it; I do.  It’s not that I don’t have any skin in the game.  My brother served in the Cold War and later in a hot one, in Fallujah, and I have a son currently serving in Afghanistan.

No, the problem is a disconnect between what we want the deaths of soldiers to mean and what they really do mean, from a military perspective.  In ordinal terms, those meanings are (a great deal) and (not much).

I just finished reading We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, a commanding officer’s account of a seminal battle in Ia Drang, Vietnam.  While General Moore, the author, goes out of his way to humanize his soldiers, what is striking about the book is not their sacrifices (and let’s be clear, there was a hell of a lot of that; men seriously wounded who fought on, who tried to pull wounded comrades to safety, who literally threw themselves onto grenades to save their fellows).  What is striking is how little those meant.

The battle in the Ia Drang in 1965 valley wasn’t for some territorial objective; its rationale was simply to engage and learn about the enemy–to see how well men and helicopters worked together.

The consequence was that hundreds of Americans and thousands of Vietnamese died, hundreds more were wounded, hundreds of thousands of dollars of ordinance and equipment was expended, destroyed, captured and/or just lost.

And more importantly, the total significance of all of this death and destruction was no  more than that of a boxing match.

Once you realize that, you realize what war is about.  It’s about depleting resources.  In the cold war, the resource was money.  The US outspent the USSR on nuclear weapons and weapon systems.  No shot was fired.  We simply spent our opponent into the ground.

In Vietnam, the resource was people.  General Westmoreland thought a “kill ratio” of 10-20 enemy killed for each American soldier was acceptable. Acceptable.

But that that doesn’t take account of is that human beings are not fungible.  You can’t assign the same value to John Smith and Jane Black.  They’re different people, each valuable.  But war demands that we treat them as if those are simply the names we assign to two interchangeable parts.

General Moore’s book tries to humanize the dead and wounded and living by telling you where each came from, how old each was, whether they had a family, that sort of thing.  But the moment it does that, it ceases to be about the battle.  Because it doesn’t matter for the purposes of the battle whether it was a family man who gave up his place on a helicopter for a worse wounded comrade (and then was shot and died) or a slacker who tried to pull his officer to safety (and who was then shot through the heart and died).  Their humanity has no military significance.

The same goes for the enemy, who died by the thousands in the same battle, only of course, we don’t know about their backgrounds, villages, families, education.  Their hopes for the future.  They’re no more fungible than Americans, but here they are simply the enemy.

I am reminded of a scene from Harold and Maude:

Memorial Day celebrates the sacrifice, but fails to understand what is sacrificed.  It perpetuates the myth that these deaths were heroic in some meaningful way, special, when there was usually nothing heroic about them.  People meant something in life, but in death were merely cogs in a machine.  And that’s why I have a problem with Memorial Day.

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Big League

President (still) Trump has made the term “Big League” popular, at least in the form that he says it, which (still) sounds like “Bigly” to me.  But that’s not what I came to write about.

This morning there was an article on NPR about some college athletes who are likely to be recruited to the pros.  These particular athletes are in US Service academies, and the point was that they may not be excused from active duty service even if they are recruited by, for example, the NFL or the NBA.

But that’s not what I came to write about either.  Rather, it put me in a place to remember what my life was like in 1981.

I was a golden boy.  I graduated from college with a 3.78 GPA, no grade ever below a B, honor program, summa cum laude, having worked as a research assistant and teaching assistant in my program for more than two years.

And when I went to apply for graduate schools, well.  I applied to the best:  Berkeley, Stanford, Columbia, Chicago, UCLA, UCSD…and a few more.  I think I applied to ten in all.  I was accepted at every single one.

More important, I was offered a scholarship at all but one–Stanford declined.  I had a Route 66 of choices across the country.

So, not long after getting my acceptance letters, I set up a cross-country trek.  I would fly form Minneapolis to New York, then fly out to San Francisco (my former college roommate lived not far north of there), visit the schools in that area and then fly south for some more investigations before making my way back to the Twin Cities.

I landed in New York and a cabbie who didn’t understand English took me to the wrong neighborhood.  A nun got me on the right bus and so I got to spend some time walking Columbia’s campus, talking to students and faculty (including Robert K. Merton, who told me that you could tell Columbia was a Great University because he was still there).  Modesty is not a big property of academics.

After a couple of days in New York (including a harrowing experience taking a dose of insulin in the men’s room of a Morningside Heights pizzeria while a cop watched suspiciously) I got out of there and headed for what I thought would certainly be greener pastures on the West Coast.

The highlight of that trip was hearing about the assassination attempt on President Reagan while I was walking around the UC Santa Barbara bookstore.

I got home feeling like a star.  And since I wasn’t crazy about any of the places I had visited (for one reason or another) I ended up accepting the offer from the University of Chicago.

I was a star.

Then I screwed up, which is how I ended up as a software engineer and later a lawyer–but that’s a whole other story.

For a while, I was in the Big Leagues.

 

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Monday, Monday

 

Monday, Monday

It was the fall of 1976, the fall I started college, and the world was good.  I didn’t have a girl friend at the time, but I had a good friend who was a girl, A, who had recently arrived in the United States from what was then termed “Eastern Europe.”

We met in a language class at the University—she was on her fourth or fifth language, and I was struggling to learn Hebrew.  But while she communicated well in English, she didn’t understand idiomatic expressions, and that was where I came in.

We spent a lot of time going to movies and plays and restaurants, and generally getting A immersed in American culture, which was a lot of fun.  Coming from where she did, she was moderately conservative but skeptical of government.  Where I was moderately skeptical but a fan of government.

We got along.

As language students, we learned that there were “listening rooms” on both the East and West Bank campuses of the University, where you could sit with a set of uncomfortable Telex headphones while someone on a record spoke in English and then in the language of your choice.

The University had three “neighborhoods”—Stadium Village, the West Bank, and Dinkytown.  One day I was in the latter when I discovered a record store.  I don’t remember its name any more, but it had stuff.  I would end up buying music by Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span there (before I moved to the West Bank and discovered The Wax Museum) but this one day in the fall of 1976 I bought a two-record set called The Best of the Mamas and The Papas.

The band had broken up eight years before (and that seemed an eternity in those days) but I knew some of their music, and I was excited to be able to share this with A.  I ran to our Hebrew class, and immediately after, dragged A to the West Bank listening room and put the record on.  We plugged in two sets of headphones and sat there for the full four sides, even though our ears hurt like hell.

When the record was over, A was wearing one of the biggest smiles I had ever seen on her.

The Mamas and the Papas.  It was just that way.

This morning, someone posted a link to “Monday, Monday” in the course of a discussion, and it’s worth listening to.  So here are some things you should hear, just in case you never have.

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Mothers Day/Fathers Day

If you had told me, a year ago, that I would not be celebrating Mothers Day this year, I would likely have scoffed.  It’s true, my mother was then 94, and it’s true, she had experienced a couple of health challenges, but I had just ordered flowers and balloons for Mom.  All was well.

And then November 1st came.  I had just gotten out of the shower when my phone rang.  Phones that ring at 7:00 seldom bring good news.  It was my brother, telling me that Mom had died that morning.  She had told my dad she had a headache, and he’d gotten up to get her a glass of water so she could take an Ibuprofen, and while she was drinking the water, she died.

My brother lived next door, and he’s a doctor, so he was immediately on the scene when Dad called.  He knew Mom was gone at once, and he called me as soon as he’d set the machinery in motion—the ambulance, someone to sit with Dad.  He was crying.

You expect death because it’s inevitable, but when it happens, it is a bolt out of the blue.  I’m thinking about Mom’s death now because my local NPR station is running a fund drive, and one of the gifts that they flog without mercy, is a bouquet that you can have delivered for Mother’s day.

Dad took Mom’s death about as well as could be expected.  I think he had known more than we did that Mom was approaching the end of life, but.  My brother arranged for a helper to stay with him during the days, but less than a month after Mom’s death, Dad was diagnosed with ALS—which most people know as Lou Gehrig’s disease.  It’s a fairly rapid paralysis that ends with the muscles that operate your lungs.  We’d noticed it because Dad was having trouble using his hands and walking.

My brother called in favors and shepherded Dad through the health care system, and the diagnosis was confirmed.  He had about six months to live.  Not that he wanted to live that long.

In December, Dad flew up to visit me and stay with my family over Christmas.  Due to a massive storm, his flight was diverted to JFK, and it took me four hours to make the two-hour trip through the snow.  He came off the flight in a wheelchair, thinner than I remembered, quieter, and for the next couple of weeks, he and I spent time together.  We went to a couple of movies with my family, my law partner and I took Dad to a casino—which he navigated on a small electric cart.  He read, we watched a Mel Brooks movie or two, we talked.

And then I drove him to the airport, and said goodbye.

My brother and I knew that Dad didn’t want to wait to die, so we looked into states that would permit physician-assisted suicide for the terminally ill; we even went so far as to look into flying to Switzerland, which has rather liberal laws on the topic—I applied for a passport on an emergency basis.

But Dad was having more trouble, and one day in late February my phone rang at work.  My brother told me that Dad had developed an intestinal blockage due to narcotic painkillers he was on, and had elected not to have surgery to remove it.

The next day I was in Florida.  I arrived around 9:00 and went straight to the hospital, where Dad was a patient in the hospice wing.

My brother and his wife were there with their younger daughter, (their older was scheduled to arrive late the next day) and my three sons were there (T and my youngest stayed in New England).

Dad was pretty much unconscious, but I think he knew I was there.  That night I sat in a chair next to his bed and held his right hand until morning.  My oldest boy stayed with me, and we talked about music, guitars, kids (he has two), art, that sort of thing.  Each of us napped a little.  Around 7:00 I went to get breakfast from the cafeteria.  Dad hadn’t shown any chances.

March 1st.  Family came in and went out.  At noon, all of us were there except for my brother, and we went out for a quick bite.

We were back by 1:00, and not long after that, I noticed that Dad was taking long pauses between breaths.  I called my brother, and he hurried to the hospital.  The pauses became longer and longer, and something like two hours later, he died.

So there’s no Mother’s Day for me this year, and no Father’s Day, either.

 

 

A friend of mine told me that it took him over a year before he was no longer struck with periods of depression after his father’s death.  I’m hoping in some respects that this will be my last entry on the topic.  I don’t know how long it will be, though, before I see something on the news or take a photo of a flower and don’t think that I should send it to my folks. 

As I said, a bolt from the blue.  We all know it’s going to happen,  but we don’t know when.  So enjoy time with your parents, if it’s something you can do.

That’s it for now.

 

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