Senioritis

Sure, the colloquial meaning of the word refers to an attitude of slacking off often found among the behaviors of high school seniors — and occasionally college seniors — who are nearing graduation. It is the lame duck period after college acceptances have been confirmed and graduation is not threatened, when the motivation to perform according to the rules of school decorum and expectations is dangerously low. I experienced a significant bout of this myself when I was seventeen, causing one of my teachers to worry that I may have to sit for a final exam instead of being exempt, a reward given to seniors who received “all A’s” in each of the four marking periods; I was poised to receive a “B” in my English course, a class I loved and looked forward to, but I had simply run out of words. I could write no more. I had no words left to produce the perfunctory papers that were required of me and my fellow students. It was also the class in which I discovered and read (and re-read) Anna Karenina; and verbally dressed-down a classmate for his insistence on literary insouciance. It had been a relatively good four years, but I was done. And I was ready to move (on).

But, I digress… and as we(e) academics are wont to do, I am opting to take a perfectly familiar notion like senioritis and imbue it with yet another meaning. (Take heart that I haven’t gone the path of creating arbitrarily complicated language for perfectly simple notions. Well, not here, anyway…)

I am referring to the character that gyms take on between the hours of 11:00a – 12:30p and 2:00p – 4:00p — the quality of being overrum with silver foxes tending to their arthritis, looking to soothe their bursitis, searching for exercise elixirs to ease other their joint pains as they commune with fellow septua– and octogenarians.

These are the times of day when I most love to visit the gym. Gone are the early morning, pre-work runners; missing are the mid-day warriors whose presence spreads out across the weights and the bicycles — these are times of the day when the gym is a place to engage differently. Some seniors take a class in the group activity room, raising a five-pound barbell in the air for six or eight repetitions, laughing all the while with the others in the room. (Oh, how I secretly wish to join their cult – the carefree, the years of institutional malarkey behind them.) Others seem to get lost on the elliptical machines, intentional in their workout gear and sporting headbands, knee-braces, and the odd wrist band. And still others are giving the un-retired a run for their money, literally, as they outpace their younger counterparts on the treadmill or climb artificial stairs with ease. What sets these retirees apart is the absence of hunched shoulders, tightened faces, teeth grinding, and the scowl that the others wear — those who must return to their desks/cubicles/offices/trucks/ and other sites of labor. In the locker room, the stories they share are tender, nostalgic, and wickedly funny; not all, but most.

Perhaps Senioritis is not slacking, but instead a slackening of the vice-like grips that govern our lives otherwise – a release of obligations, a recognition of the arbitrariness of social order, a reduced adherence to what were once strict rules of living…

…and the more than fifty shades of gray… their beautiful locks in all shades of gray, proud demonstrations of time gone by, of lives having been lived and being lived.

Viva la Senioritis!

getting lost

Alfred Wainwright was a British fellwalker.” Instantly, I am jealous. Before clicking on the explanatory Wikipedia link, before I am actually clear about what this moniker implies, I am jealous. Because I suspect that such a title indicates a life whose purpose is found in walking. This seems to be a theme with me these days: being drawn to the walkabout tales of others.

Wainwright, according to a program on British television called “Wainwright’s Walks” in which the host, Julia Bradbury, and occasional companions make their way through the hundreds of miles of Lake District landscape about which he wrote, covered large expanses of Northern England hills and mountains on foot. And he detailed these journeys in numerous publications and filled with his own illustrations. Wainwright walked in the hopes that others would walk, too.

Walking feels like a luxury. Not the kind of bipedal transportation from one point to another, but the sort where the objective is to get lost. In which the getting lost brings about a sense of becoming found and founding oneself. In Patience (After Sebald), a film by Grant Gee that was inspired W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, Robert Macfarlane, a writer who has also pursued inquiry through walkabout, distinguishes the English and European tradition of walking as recovery from the American practice of walking as discovery. Is it so simple, I wonder; are the boundaries so clear, between recovery and discovery? Could we achieve discovery through recovery, and vice versa? And do we have or take the time for either, let alone both?

Gee’s Patience, like Sebald’s oeuvre, has stayed with me and I am returning for a second viewing later this week. The very name of the essay-dream-like film invites in the viewer a different posture. (As I sat in the Renoir theater this weekend, I was slumped low in my seat and my neck rested on the well placed backrest. But more on that another time.) Patience. Do we have time for patience? I laugh to myself as I write those words. Time has been the main character in several recent exchanges. If so many of us miss time, as it were, can we agree as a whole – as a society, as people desperate to have more hours in a day, that we might just strive to do less? For some reason the metaphor of a limited, but thoughtfully curated, wardrobe as superior to an overly full one comes to mind. The rewards, it seems, of allowing yourself the patience to get lost are plentiful. Or perhaps these are just the musings of a blissfully clueless wanderer.

For the sake of argument, I offer the spoils of today’s amblings:

I started walking west toward Regent’s Park. The sky looked dull and backlit, like the color of well worn silly putty. I passed Bedford Square, crossed Tottenham Court Road – feeling quite clever that I could discern it from Tottenham Street, which runs perpendicular – and made my way through a few Mews, Passages, and Courts before finding myself suddenly in front of All Souls Church.

All Souls Church, Langham Square

I’ve visited London almost a dozen times in my life and I couldn’t recall ever laying eyes on this structure before. It almost resembled Lady Liberty’s torch turned upside down. I didn’t go inside this time, opting instead to take the path around the Langham Hotel to Queen Anne Mews and onward westward on Queen Anne Street. The facades looked familiar suggesting I had been in this neighborhood before, and the sign for Harley Street confirmed my suspicions.

Queen Anne Street

Like this the meandering continued, one gut instinct leading the next, until the site of a dress pulled me into an unassuming boutique. I wasn’t expecting the loud chime that sounded as the door opened. I had a few seconds alone in the small space before a voice sounded from below, and I heard the shopkeeper before I saw her blond head come up the stairs from the floor underneath. In those few moments, I was once again taken by the clean lines on the designs that were displayed in an almost storylike manner, some on mannequins and others evoking narrative simply by their arrangement on hangers, on shelves, in how they laid next to one another. But the real story was ignited when the shopkeeper, after doing her due diligence to exchange pleasantries with me and to answer my brief inquiry with ample information about the store and its founders, inquired about the goings-on that had led me to “here.” This followed from my assuming New Yorker status during an exchange about simultaneous and competing Fashion Weeks in both London and New York. So influential is New York’s that this small design house with a commitment to ethical sustainability opted to increase their carbon footprint in order to show their collection in the Big Apple instead of in their backyard. New York self-importance, I said jokingly, with a well-timed follow-up comment that I say that as a New Yorker; it was easier to explain than Philadelphian. Or at least that’s what I told myself.

She asked me what I was doing in London – was I just visiting?

In this instance, my outsider status brought me in, and today’s version of “what I do” opened up an even broader discursive space than before in which she shared her thoughts on last summer’s riots and suggested that this moment in which we, citizens of the world, find ourselves might be a tipping point. Much like the other shopkeeper last week, the fate of youth as tied with broader social notions of education and society were at the forefront of her mind. She spoke as a mother of two young children, as a neighbor, as a citizen.  However, unlike my encounter from last week, this one held fast to a hopeful tenor of urgency. And then she mentioned a friend of friend who founded a program for youth in a nearby section of town, one that is among those that have been heavily impacted by financial constraints and budget cuts that seem to eliminate first and foremost those public spaces in which youth and other community members gather: libraries, community centers, parks. I learn that this friend of a friend has also begun to rise in the local political landscape and is, by virtue of circumstance, being placed on the pulse of fast emerging proposals for social reforms related to education and youth development. In England, like the United States, the social and economic challenges are taking an especially large toll on youth, who are the canaries of our societal coalmines.

At this moment, when the shopkeeper walked to the small desk in the back of the store to write down as much of the contact information as she could remember for this youth development/politician type on a beautiful, indigo business card, I found myself having another out of body experience—is this what I said I would do? Walk aimlessly and hope for serendipity to strike? This was not guilt. No, this was evidence of gears working, as in “how can we build in time to meander more?” – “we” as in we faculty colleagues, we students and teachers, we community members. Can we have patience to see what happens? (Seriously, someone please call me out when I undoubtedly relapse and give in to the madness once I return to the grind as we know it!)

To sum up: I went outside to breathe in some much needed fresh air. I returned with an injection of insight, social context, and a potential connection to further my ongoing inquiry. Not bad for getting lost.

saturday afternoon with a three-year-old

Grown-ups never understand anything for themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.
~Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince, 1943

In went a small notebook with the letter H on the front, surrounded by an orange background and white polka dots – part of a birthday gift. Then, a leaf newly plucked from the bush outside the house. Followed by mini-colored pencils that were no longer encased in the jewel case carrier in which they were presented as part of the aforementioned birthday gift. Some of the sky blue is tested out on black pavement before it, too, goes in. Finally, the fire engine red metal pail is ready to be transported and the toddler of the hour leads the grown-ups into her house but not before commanding her mother to hurry up and please open the door. The exquisite autumn Saturday bids farewell to us temporarily as we retreat into the open arms of a living room that, too, is squarely toddler domain. Only inside the warmth of a house does the outside chill reveal itself in the form of a shiver that has been building and awaiting the perfect time of release. Once inside, the pail and its contents are emptied into a miniature, metallic, silver and red, real life replica shopping cart acquired during the previous holiday season. The contents, which have grown in number inexplicably between the short path from the front porch to the inside foyer – and expectedly for the adults but as a shock and surprise for the toddler – fall through the square holes. The toddler is undeterred. A grass green pencil takes a ride through the obstacle course of objects and falls again at her feet, but before it lands two other pencils (taupe and violet) and a plastic, yellow screw top cap (belonging either to large tube of something or is a gear looking for a home) have also been unwittingly launched only to land, unceremoniously, again and again on the hardwood floor below. And once again the items are gathered into the shiny, metallic, red pail which is then placed, using its rounded, silver colored steel handle, into the top of the cart where, in an adult sized cart, the same toddler might sit with her legs dangling out of the back. As before, the adults, who have been talking and watching throughout this performance, are led into the living and as they continue to talk while seated on the boomerang (not quite L) shaped sofa, are made to share the coffee table with a determined toddler. Where must these items go? Which to address and engage with now? Which to save for later? Before any of that can be answered, the items must be laid out on the low, glass top table with rounded edges. The pencils here, the notebook there, the yellow screw top and wooden faucet… perhaps to the right of the notebook. Yes, that seems right. Each of the sixteen, slim, colored pencils are placed in succession to the left of the notebook until the display comes to resemble the desktop of a mad genius. I half suspect that Einstein was moved toward a theory of relativity when he wondered how to make sense of the co-existence of objects that were chewed, organized, manipulated, represented, mildly wet, and remained a mysterious anomaly all in the same space and surface!

Baby Genius surveys this makeshift workspace with scrutiny, surveys the surrounding room for what attention is coming her way, and appears to survey her own simultaneous acts of surveillance. Sensing, it seems, a time for a change, the maitre d’objects composes a new organizational scheme and proceeds to take two items at a time and rearranges them with varying placement on the cardboard box that sits, unopened, a foot behind her. The height is even more perfect and the red pail remains empty a little while longer as pencils, gears, notebooks (there are now two, one large and the other pocket-sized), a single leaf, a few coral colored berries, an assortment of plastic in various shapes, a larger, thicker, pinker colored pencil, and a piece of string – spoiler: the string is not an actual object, but one that thought it could hitch a ride on the Great Object Express; it was sadly mistaken and summarily discarded. – find new temporary residence.

The red pail does not wait too long and the express continues, lured by the siren call of the miniature (although not too much smaller than city-size), wooden kitchen setup along one wall in the adult kitchen (perhaps grown-up kitchen or life-size kitchen is more apt?). The living is strangely quiet with only the conversational voices of the over-three crowd filling the room.

But not for long.

seeing and doing and seeing

During my near-fortnight in Oz I spent a day in Manly, a town on Sydney’s northern shore that is accessible from the city by ferry. I wasn’t sure what to expect save for the fact that there was a beach that a new colleague had described to me and an arts festival taking place during the month of September that I had read about in one of the numerous texts virtually thrust into the hands of tourists upon clearing customs, whereupon mechanisms of sorting visually separate the residents from the non-residents.* It was the 7th, a few days after I had spent time talking with elementary, secondary, pre-service teachers and meeting other university colleagues who were also involved in the small conference for which I had been invited to facilitate a workshop and give a talk; and it was a few days before a not-traditionally-monumental birthday — only notable for me because I had planned only up until this one. Everything afterward remains a complete and utter mystery. Almost.

Upon arriving in Manly, I first stopped into the Art Gallery just steps away from the ferry terminal. I might have known that in a month’s worth of events there would be a few down or slow days. The 7th was one such day. But “no worries,” as the country and its citizens seem to exclaim while embracing the unexpected, because this non-turn of events opened up my loosest of plans considerably and led me to have a most magical day, the kind that can only occur perhaps when one is traveling alone.**

Before taking my leave of the gallery I spent a short while taking in its offerings. In addition to the schedule of events related to the arts festival, the gallery also boasted an eclectic permanent and revolving collection of mostly paintings and also a few other artifacts. In the room immediately to the left of reception was set up a visual and mixed media retrospective of the evolution of the bathing suit. A notice preceded the entrance to the exhibit that warned entrants of occasional instances of nudity and near-nudity. I have to think they were referring to the images of men and women in bathing suits, unless I missed something…

The semi-permanent collection featured work by artists living in an artist colony in nearby Scotland Island. While standing in front of a photographic portrait of Venice – as the recognizable orange and yellows of the Venetian buildings fell into their canal reflections – a simple realization hit me.

portrait of venice, a reflection

As participants of an artist colony, the artists were fundamentally involved in the work of making art. And while the purposes and intentions may vary, each day these artists committed themselves to creating art simply for that purpose alone. So then I started to wonder: what must it be like to wake up each day to engage in a practice that you love?*** To fully attend to what’s happening in the moment, not necessarily for where it may lead or gains to be had. Another simple thought followed the first: why do we do what we do? By this I don’t mean the oft-concerning question of motivation or its always near semantic cousin, engagement. Rather, my observation of these artworks displayed in a gallery partially dedicated to their very existence gave me pause; how much of our daily lives are driven by where our actions may lead? To the next accolade, level of recognition, monetary remuneration, title or designation…? Certainly the “tenure track”, by virtue of its moniker alone, can feel like at times like a chaotic and traffic-laden (and other times deserted and dark) road to somewhere, with “where” not easily defined. At meetings and other types of gatherings designed to help the proverbial “us” make sense of these sensations of uncertainty and aimlessness — not that anyone would risk admitting as much out loud — the frenetic pace to somewhere-or-nowhere-in-particular was palpable. How might we change this, I asked a friend who also fell under that “pre-tenure” designation? (and what a strange designation it is, replete with the hope of becoming, one day, “post-tenure” — initiated at my institution in good spirits, I do believe, the designation functions instead like the tell tale heart in a young academic’s life…)

I’m not naively suggesting that practical considerations, such as the job security that tenure promises (in most cases) or being able to sustain oneself economically, are not real or worthy of importance. I simply worry that in constantly striving for the next thing, we forget to really see what we’re already doing, being, living. Echoes of such “next thing” thinking reverberate through young adolescents responses to questions about *what* they want to be when they grow up — e.g., words like “successful” and “famous” (no doubt a factor of our reality-tv-really-can-be-a-career-ITIS) foretell an unrelenting pursuit of those measurable markers of status that begin almost at birth. Could we change the question? Could we ask instead or perhaps alongside the “futures” question,”what kind of life do you want to lead?” not ten, twenty years from now, but now. What are we doing each day and how might our actions be contributing to or detracting from a way of being that we can imagine? Some call this mindfulness. Others have talked about how we attend to and cultivate the art of living. And still others have wondered about human flourishing. My friend O cuts right to the chase, “as far as I can tell, we have this one life. So, how are we going to live it? Each day? With how much time and space for play? To really live?” [paraphrasing, of course] I can’t help but wonder about these questions from the horizon of educator, to think about how actions, conditions, curricula, policies might be in service of flourishing and attentiveness — have no doubt that competition is not the only fuel for innovation, inspiration, creativity…

I walked out of the Manly galleries slowly, taking in the way the sunlight beamed down through the wood slats giving the illusion of a jail cell at one glance, but could also be suggestive of transparency (as this architectural wonder boasts).

front of manly art gallery

From there, the day unfolded like scenes from a collection of impossibly breathtaking postcards. I made my way through a cliff walk that placed multi-colored waters next to rock formations of increasing height, where I crossed paths with a stealthy lizard and was serenaded with a steady concert of bird songs and reptilian mating calls. All the while, I held onto the notion that walking was what I was doing in the moment. Not necessarily walking to reach any predetermined location, but just meandering; and resisting the occasional impulses to hurry back to the ferry: why rush? I really had nothing and no one awaiting me. A rare occurrence, and something that it was taking all of my focused attention to remember.

And sure, I’m probably guilty of sabbatical-brain, where I can’t keep days of the week straight — a feeling I hope to be able to access from time to time when I will also very likely slip back into the game of what’s next and where to… So for now, I’ll indulge my pontificating proclivities and see what the next corner brings and continue seeking and finding others with whom to commune artfully.

at the start of a long walk

i started writing a different post this afternoon, in part motivated by my umpteenth visit to moma this summer, in an effort to maximize my membership before i take temporary leave of the apple. that post contains musings on yesterday’s cleaning-packing-purging adventures, with a twist of recipe-rambunctiousness. that post will come, but this evening’s ruminations have turned my gaze in an unexpected direction — one that is both reflective, toward memory and also poised toward unfamiliar, or rather less-than-appealing terrain — brought on by almost simultaneous happenings around the world in which young people are at the center.

two instance in particular weigh heavily on my mind, both in cities that hold special meaning for me: the first is a series of attacks by young people on apparent strangers in philadelphia — here and here and here; and the second is the protracted and fiery set of events following the shooting of mark duggan by police in london, discussed thoughtfully and almost methodically here. i hesitate to reproduce these links here for fear that doing so may be read as another act of violence, or worse may affirm ill-conceived beliefs about young people and cities. this angst i feel is a mixture of responsibility (as a citizen and educator) and disappointment (at those who inflict such harm, but also at those who amplify rather than alleviate the conditions surrounding such situations). i was going to write here that these goings-on — no, to call them anything short of devastating incidents is being untruthful, because the truth of the matter is that these incidents, laced now with intractable labels of violence and destruction, make me angry. not only at the structural realities that so often become the focus of the aftermath of such moments, but at the opportunists who go on to make a name and stake a rhetorical claim before the ashes have settled. (another potential digression here involves frustrating musings about what may be called promiscuous ethnography wherein the book is written before the ink on the field notes has even dried; but i’ll refrain. for now.)

w.g. sebald opens the rings of saturn with this passage:

In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work. An in fact my hope was realized, up to a point; for I have seldom felt so carefree as I did then, walking for hours in the day through the thinly populated countryside, which stretches inland from the coast. I wonder now, however, whether there might be something in the old superstition that certain ailments of the spirit and of the body are particularly likely to beset us under the sign of the Dog Star. At all events, in retrospect I became preoccupied not only with the unaccustomed sense of freedom but also with the paralyzing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident even in that remote place.

while i don’t dare to draw a comparison between myself and this true wordsmith and linguistic activist of sorts, i do share the sentiment he offers above wherein having come off of “a long stint of work” — and i’m going to feel justified in giving these past six years (seven including my postdoc) of dangling precariously from the metaphorical pre-tenure string such a moniker — the sense of freedom is shockingly short-lived.  sure, there are days free of meetings and an excuse not to reply to messages that arrive in my institutional mailbox quite as frequently as i might have were i not at the ready with my sabbatical auto-reply… but with the tenure metronome no longer clanging loudly in my mind’s ears, i have no choice but to really listen to stories that i might have otherwise categorized under ‘back burner.’ namely, the tropes of violence that are hitting me in the face every time i click onto a news site, look at my twitter feed, or check even my personal email account. i should note that while i do work with young people in my ‘day job’ capacity and it is with their stories that i rest my research trajectories, i have long kept these tropes at arm’s length opting instead to illuminate other narratives, the lesser heard tales. the answer doesn’t seem to be a purging of one to take on the other completely, but rather an openness where there has largely been resistance. (keep in mind that these are ill-formed, rapidly evolving, nuggets of ideas. i reserve the right to recant completely and wholeheartedly!)

so, like sebald in his august of 1992, i embark in this august of 2011 with a more open ear and although i am likely to feel the weight of such discursive directions, i almost feel as if i have no choice. wouldn’t be wrong to intentionally ignore the stories that slap you in the face? this walk, i reckon, will be another long one.

as a side note, i wonder whether sebald was indeed referring to sirius, the “brightest star in the night sky” with his use of the colloquialism “Dog Star” — even as i write these words i instantly reminded that not only is nothing in sebald’s oeuvre an ‘accident’ (or hardly anything, is perhaps more accurate), but the celestial reference is especially delightful to me as it evokes one of my favorite characters from the harry potter series, sirius black.