Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Last Day

He couldn’t describe how he felt exactly, but he knew that, right now, the whole thing was strange. He had parked his car and he started walking toward the school, and then he paused to look up at it. He breathed deeply, held it.

“Fifty years,” he said, as he entered the building.

He was seventy-two. He started teaching English back in 1963, when he was twenty-two and just out of college. He remembered his first day vividly. He walked in and he was nervous and the kids could tell, but they didn’t seem to mind. They didn’t give him a hard time, at least. He was lucky. He’d heard some horror stories.

But that was in the past—as was he, in a way. All the new teachers looked at him as if he were helpless. They’d smile, say hello. And that was it. They never paid him any mind. And he knew why. They wanted him to leave so someone else could get his job. He heard them talking at lunch. They’d mutter things like:  “All these old guys stick around and they take up space.”

He was just about to enter his classroom when he felt a tap on his shoulder. He spun around. It was Mike, one the younger history teachers. Something else:  he was a former student.

“Mr. Rosen, I, uh, just wanted to say—”

“Stop. We’re colleagues now. You can call me Frank.”

He laughed and Mike smiled.

“Right. Well, I wanted to say good luck. And thanks, too. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you.” He stuck out his hand and Frank shook it and as he did so he felt his heart drop.

“No problem. You were one of the good ones. But hey, I need to prepare for class. Let’s talk later, huh?”

“Sure.”

Mike left.

His promise was an empty one. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to talk to him. He did. He wasn’t sure he could deal with the realization that he might never see him again.

He went over to his desk and sat down, leaving the door ajar. Outside the sky was a pale and dull gray and there was mist in the air. You could see the droplets dancing among the trees. All things were cool and refreshing but soon the temperatures would rise.

He pulled out some papers and began to grade. But he stopped after a few minutes. He stood up. He walked around the classroom. At the beginning of his career he was down the hall, but he had spent most of it here. He’d taught town officials and business owners and their sons and daughters, who had their own kids, and he taught them, too.

He turned around. The chalkboard was gone, replaced by a dry erase board. His library had been pared down. The books were old and cracked and they had to be donated to a library or given to a charity—or so he was told. The school replaced them with laptops and e-readers. In the back of the room was a television, but he barely used it.

Some students filtered in, sat down. They took supplies out of their backpacks and they looked at their phones. And then more came, and more still. He smiled at them.

Eventually the room filled. The time was 7:40, and the day was about to begin. Today they were to discuss A Separate Peace by John Knowles.

The bell rang. The students looked half-asleep. He clapped his hands together and they jolted awake.

“We’re almost done with the book, guys. You must stay alert! Things are coming to an end.”

He paused, not realizing the weight of what he said. He had to take a moment to recover. He cleared his throat.

“What’s the matter, Mr. Rosen?” said Janelle, one of his favorites.

“Oh, nothing, nothing. Now, let’s consider this chapter.”

The rest of the day went on like this. He would say something, or a student would remind him of something long past, and he would pause, overwhelmed by it all. His memories had come to life. He wasn’t sure if his classes—he taught four—knew of his impending retirement. He was sure they did. But he didn’t want to say anything, because discussing it with them would have been too painful. So he acted as if he would see them next year, as if time didn’t keep going forward, as if it remained frozen, and people didn’t have to worry about things like nostalgia and aging and loneliness.

The bell rang at 2:30.

“Guys, I just want to say—good luck. And thank you.”

Some, as they exited, thanked him, too. Others nodded. And some didn’t thank him at all. They focused only on the coming summertime, where they air was warm and filled with swirling dandelion seeds and everyone had no cares, for everything was joy, and all things seemed permanent. If only, he thought. If only.

Once they left, he started to get some boxes together in order to pack up his things. He sorted through his draws, his closet—this can stay, but this needs to come with me, he thought.

They had a party for him a week ago. They had cake at lunch, and they gave him cards. It was a nice time.

A few of his colleagues stopped in to say hello and to wish him well, but most of them, like the students, just wanted to get home.

He finished packing up his boxes and he stacked them on top of one another—there were only three, and he could carry them—and he walked out to his car. On the way he ran into Mike.

“You’re going to be missed around here,” he said.

He paused.

“That so?”

“Yes.”

He coughed. He didn’t know what to say. The two of them traveled the rest of the way in silence. Mike took one of the boxes. They arrived at his car, loaded the boxes, shook hands, and parted ways.

He lived alone at the other side of town. It was near the huge town park, the one with gardens and a stream and tall, swaying trees.

The drive lasted about fifteen minutes. He pulled into his driveway and he decided to leave the boxes in the car. He’d get them in the morning.

He walked up to his front door and opened it and he stepped inside.   

“Well, I did it,” he said. “I did it. It’s over. I just wish you were here so we could celebrate.” His wife had died a year ago. She contracted cancer of the kidney. The tumor was small, so they expected a recovery, but then it spread, and she ultimately succumbed to the disease.

“I just wish you were here.”

He sighed and then went to the porch. He looked out his large windows and into his backyard. The day was blistering and the sun had removed itself from the lazy gray clouds and sat proudly in the bright sky.

Now, ironically, he had all the time in the world. He had to get used to this.

“What to do?” He rubbed his hands.

He paused. And then:


“I guess I’ll tend to the garden.” 

Friday, September 12, 2014

A Man Scratching Lottery Tickets on the Street Corner

A Man Scratching Lottery Tickets on the Street Corner

A man stands at the door to
the corner liquor store,
holds tickets in his hands,
scratching away, scratching,
as pedestrians walk by and
pay him no mind.

Everything has converged upon this
moment. He takes off the silvery
coating and reveals the
numbers underneath.

Nothing.

He surrenders them to the wind.

They swerve into the clouds,
like lost birds,
and he re-enters the crowd
shuffling back to work
from lunch. 

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.