Tuesday, July 1, 2014

On Lowell



On Lowell

I noticed immediately that most people in Lowell were hurrying toward something, as if being outdoors had become toxic. Yes, Lowell is a small city, but still it contains blasting vents and speeding cars and empty and gaudy buildings, all of the trappings of modernity. But pace Baudelaire and others, one can find an attachment to place even in the modern urban space.

On my walk I took a turn I’d never done before and ended up at the Lowell Canals. A gentleman sat on the steps, drinking coffee, looking down at the ducks quacking and floating in the water below. He seemed to be one of the few people who wanted to take a moment to relax, to take a break. I walked past him and ended up at an overlook.

I was alone. Next to me was a sign that detailed the history of the canals. It said that, at one time, people considered Lowell the ‘Venice of America.’ I realized then that history is always present, always there, as are connections between places separated by oceans and miles. I stood there, watching the cool water flow and letting the breeze ruffle my hair, and I took it all in.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

On Every Day is for the Thief

Teju Cole’s Every Day is for the Thief is a mediation on time—how it shatters or enriches relationships, how it causes us to reflect, how it always propels us toward our end. It arrives when we leave home, and it remains when we decide to return. Such is the situation in which we find the unnamed narrator of the book. It is not a coincidence that Every Day is for the Thief opens with him telling us that he is late for an appointment at the consulate.

He is a Nigerian native who has moved to the United States. When we meet him, he has been away for fifteen years or so, and he finds that he cannot easily settle back into the life he once found familiar. For example, he has become appalled by much of what he sees:  extortion, lawlessness, and even murder. But he recognizes that his separation from Nigeria has allowed him to see everything with clear eyes. He has “taken into myself some of the assumptions of life in a Western democracy — certain ideas about legality, for instance, certain expectations of due process — and in that sense I have returned a stranger.”

But still Nigeria calls him. In one particularly moving sequence, he debates whether he should move back home. “I am not going to move back to Lagos,” he says. “I don’t care if there are a million untold stories.” But later:  “I am going to move back to Lagos. I must.”

We realize, then, that the narrator has returned to Lagos not only to visit friends and family, but also to assuage a certain longing. He is nostalgic. Philosophy, as Thomas Aquinas noted, is the handmaiden of Theology. Nostalgia has the same relationship with time. The more time passed, the more the narrator missed home.

Nostalgia, as Svetlana Boym noted in her seminal The Future of Nostalgia, is utopian; it glosses over our memory and has us glance longingly at a golden age that never existed. She means this in a philosophical and political sense, but it would certainly apply to Every Day is for the Thief. He wishes, in a way, to immediately resume the life he once lived. And, obviously, he cannot. It is why he says Amina, his ex-girlfriend, still “looks like herself.” He wonders whether she has kept the letters they exchanged, which he says were written in “belabored cursive on perfumed paper.” And then he departs, leaving Amina, her husband, and her daughter standing there “close together and small, as in a medallion of the Holy Family.”

This is what happens to us when we leave home, when we depart for places new and yet unseen. Time propels us along. It gives us memories and warm sensations, neither of which is directly tangible. And this is especially so when something ends quickly. The narrator “left under a cloud.” His family found this a surprise. And he didn’t keep up with them; he wanted to make the “break complete.” It was nothing personal, he says. He just “needed to restart…life on [his] own terms.”

But his greatest surprise is that the memory of his mother—and, we assume, of other family members—is “inessential.” She too left Nigeria, and she “left no void.” It was as if she had never been there, he says. And even though he does meet with his uncle and aunt, some friends, romantic interests, we can infer that he is also talking about himself. Like his mother, he is a stranger to Nigeria.

After all, when we leave at place about which we care, everything does not stop. It continues. It ticks on like a clock. So in Lagos, friends become lawyers and doctors, former girlfriends get married and have families, police continue to ask for bribes and place signs deep in the woods so motorists do not see them. People fight. They shop at the market. In Lagos, like everywhere else, “the past is not even past.” All things exist eternally in the present. So when we have moved on from something, it is gone forever.

And nostalgia is not a cure for this. It can make us sick. This is why the narrator, before he leaves, contracts malaria. He is both physically and metaphysically ill. And thus he needs to return to the United States.

Still, he does not leave in despair. He recognizes that he ultimately needs to “let go of [his] moorings.” He recalls his encounter with coffin-makers and undertakers who work on a street that is filled with dignity. It is a place with “enlivening purity. Enlivening, but not joyful exactly.” It allows him to realize that everywhere there is “a wholeness, rather, a comforting sense that there is an order to things, a solid assurance of deep-structured order.” That, right there, is life.


In taking us on a tour of Lagos, Teju Cole and his narrator have not just given us a chance to simply consider what happens as the years continue to go by. No, Every Day for the Thief, as any great work of literature should, shows us what it means to be human. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

I am Bob Costas's Eye Infection

I am Bob Costas’s Eye Infection

I’ll bet you never thought you’d see Bob Costas off the air. He’s your boy wonder—the Dick Clark of sports. He never ages, and he certainly never tires. He shows up dutifully every two years and he tells you about who won gold medals.

But you’ll never have to hear any of that again—at least for the time being.

Because I won. I am the greatest participant in any Olympic Games.

See, we germs have had a bet going on for a while, but none of us figured we’d be able to take down Bobby C. He’s too good. He’s beaten colds and the flu and stomach bugs.

But I don’t think he ever expected me. No one did.

Here’s what happened. You’ve heard all about the bathrooms in Olympic park, I take it. I figured I’d settle on one of the doorknobs and wait for someone to come in. After a few minutes, I felt the door open. I looked. It was one of the—is this what you call them?—curlers. So, no dice. I struck gold a little later, though, because in walked Bobby C. He sat next to the curler and said hello.

And get this, right? The curler didn’t wash his hands! So he was like:  “It was great to meet you, Bob.” And they shook! They shook! He’s doing my work for me.

Costas washed his, but man, I’m like glue. I stick. And you’ve seen the water here. It’s pretty gross.

You know that commercial where the mucus moves into the person’s lungs? Yeah, you should think of that.

So later on, Bobby C put in his contacts. It was my time. I got ready. I went right into that eye and I didn’t look back.

I showed up a few days later. He put on those glasses in order to see, and I also think it was to hide his eyes. I knew I had him. Everyone was talking about it.

So then he decided to take a few days off. I made him worse and worse. His eyes were redder than an Easy button. He had to recover.

My friends all congratulated me. They never thought it was possible, but I proved them all wrong.

I now have a new project. No one thinks I’ll be able to pull this one off, but hey—they never thought I’d be able to get rid of Costas, either.

I’m going for it. I’m contagious, man.  I can’t stop.

Look out, Lauer. You’re next.  

Saturday, June 29, 2013

On Kevin Garnett



Kevin Garnett is a mysterious man—well, at least to our voyeuristic culture.

After he retires, you’re not going to see him end up as a broadcaster or analyst; he won’t be doing movies; he’s not going to coach.

No, he’ll, as he put it, disappear.

And I think that’s virtuous. Kevin Garnett is one of those people who does nothing but work on his game. He views it as a craft, an art. He’s not in the NBA for the accolades. On this he shares a similarity with Flannery O’Connor who, when asked why she wrote, said:  “Because I’m good at it.”

This is why I’d like to depart from this often-repeated aphorism:  “Athletes aren’t role-models.” Sure, some aren’t, but, then again, neither are some teachers or doctors or politicians. There are good and bad people in every profession. And I think athletes like Kevin Garnett are wonderful role-models.

Here’s why:  what they have to teach us transcends their sport.

Of course aspiring basketball players can look up to Garnett. They can spend hours on the courts attempting to mimic his moves. That’s fine.

But I think Garnett also reminds us that techne—the Greek word for craftsmanship—is important to human life. We live in a world of ease. It is flooded with devices that remove anything arduous. For instance:  We don’t know how to fix things anymore. When such devices break, we often toss them away or we’d just rather buy a new one.

We also don’t know how to build. We prefer to let robots take care of that for us.

Doing something and becoming good at it is often satisfying. Let’s take writing. It, like basketball, is a craft. It takes years of hard work to learn how to hear the musicality of a sentence, to know how to put together a story. And, even then, writers are often far from perfect.

Our culture prefers expediency, too. Kids often think that, a week after learning how to play basketball, they’re ready to play in the NBA. This should fade with maturity, but it hasn’t. Recently, Toucher and Rich, a Boston-based sports talk radio program, sponsored an event that invited anyone to challenge former Celtic Brian Scalabrine to a game of one-on-one. Sure, this was in jest. But there were people who actually believed they could beat someone who played in the NBA.

Those who understand that perfecting a craft takes time are wise. The act of doing and experiencing grants a profound intelligence—one that cannot be gained by sitting in a classroom. This is another reason one can admire Kevin Garnett. Education should be a holistic enterprise. It should instill in the student a sense of wonder. But it has become a treadmill:  you get the Bachelor’s and the Master’s and then you end up with the PhD. After that, you end up in the unemployment line or in a banal job that you can’t stand.  No one uses education to seek purpose, because that doesn’t offer benefits.

Garnett, who knew his purpose involved basketball and thus didn’t attend college, is described by teammates as one of the most brilliant people in the league. And you can see it in his interviews; you can read it in the newspapers. When he talks, you want to lean in and catch every word.

This was especially evident in his 2008 conversation with Bill Russell, a legendary player and a figure similar to Kevin Garnett. They talked about the game—what it means to win, tradition, duty, friendship, sacrifice, the art of basketball. As Stuart Scott rightly said, it should give the listener goose bumps. It was like witnessing a conversation between Plato and Aristotle.

So I think we all have a lot to learn from Kevin Garnett. He demonstrates to us what happens when someone pursues his purpose and works hard at it.

And I hope he continues with this approach. His so-called disappearance will be soon—this summer or the next or the one after that. Retirement, I’m sure, makes you restless. I’m wondering if he’ll move onto something else.

Maybe he’ll try writing.



Thursday, June 13, 2013

Public.



We begin, it seems, full of life
and laughter
and great humanity.
But then,
slowly, our
imaginations are compressed
and flattened
and emptied
until we are suitable
for pushing papers
and scheduling meetings—
exploring the permanent things
be damned.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Some thoughts on writing.

A year or so ago I wrote that the writer asks the same question as the philosopher:  why?

I still believe that. But I'd like to add something to it:  it is the goal of the writer to explore the nature of what is. He must present fully all that is within the world and within our hearts. That way, the reader will encounter truth.

I would not have realized this, by the way, if it had not been my study of some of the work of William F. Lynch, S.J. He changed my approach to both literature and writing.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Some freewriting.



Night Breeze

The road and sky are dark as pitch and I am driving. It is about 4 a.m.—the birds are still silent, as are the houses and the trees. I hear nothing but the warmth of the summer night. It, in a way, makes a sound of its own.

I have my windows down.  The breeze trickles through and touches my face and eliminates—even if briefly—the stickiness of the humid air. I speed up a little bit—forty miles an hour in a zone marked twenty-five.

I don’t care, though. I don’t know where I’m going. Tonight I needed to drive somewhere, some time.

It is nights like this where the past ceases to be pure memory. It steps out of our minds and takes root in the dew-covered grasses.

I drive by darkened hills and basketball courts and ice cream stores and empty park benches. I pass empty schools and playgrounds, both diligently awaiting the local students.

I keep going—onward, onward.

And then I get an urge to stop.

It is the edge of the town. I remember I first came here the night before I was to move away. I grew up here. My memories stay locked in the fields and the stores, the houses and the people. I had to come to the edge—knowing that I would soon break through and enter into something without place. I would be a man without roots.

And I was frightened.

I remember looking at the sign:  “Williamsburg—Established 1810.” This was everything I knew. That comforted me.

Now I have returned. I guess I must have been driving longer than I thought. Still it is strange how we are sometimes compelled to return to such places. The world is full of compelling. I think of sea turtles always returning to the same island in order to lay eggs.

All of us need a home.

I turn off my car and I unbuckle my seatbelt and I step outside. The warm air is refreshing. Everything seems tinged with magic. It is as if a singular step would transport you into some fantastical world filled with strange creatures.

I look at the sign—just as I did years ago.

I smile as a night breeze blows.