Thursday, December 28, 2006

see you next year

We're taking off today for the Pays gone about four days. Happy New Year everybody...see you on the other side.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

trying to be good, hoping to be lucky

If Tess has a role model right might well be the lead horse in the animated film Spirit. He is wild, willful, brave, and true. Everything about him seems to speak to her...she loves to get down on all fours, stomp her feet, snort boldly, and then rear up, front hooves pawing the air, whinnying at the top of her lungs.

It is both amusing to watch and inspiring...also taxing when you are pressed into service as a stand-in. For as long as I can remember, Tess has walked in the company of equine they horses or unicorns. She has given them such names as Sparkle Rose and Light. The horse is the magic vessel into which Tess has poured all of her most potent imaginings.

And then last week we sat down with the kids and watched the film The Neverending Story. Normally when we offer the kids their weekly video, they choose Spirit by acclamation. But Beth and I had decided to make this a family affair and we wanted to see something new. Neither of us had seen the film; worse, neither of us knew anymore about it than what we could gleen from the jacket cover...ages 6 and up it said.
It began well enough although early on it was evident that there was a middle school sensibility that was a little more flecked with disappointment and imperfection than what our kids normally saw... schoolyard bullies and the like. But soon enough that stuff gave way to the terrain of fantasy, and, I thought we were on our way to a beguiling winter afternoon.
The main character is a boy who loves reading stories and who encounters a book whose storyline, he comes at length to realize, features himself or rather a part of himself as yet unknown to him. He is named Atreyus and he is charged with saving the kingdom of Fantasia from the advancing threat of something referred to as "the Nothing".
Atreyus' bosom companion is his white horse Atrax. Beth and I are pleased to see the familiar vocabulary of child and horse and magic present in the mix...and then comes "the scene".
Atreyus and Atrax are crossing a dank and fetid bog called The Swamp of Sadness. The voice over narration tells us that those who allow sadness to fall over them will disappear into the mire. We have come to our hero's first testing ground, it seems. The footing is treacherous. Atrax flounders in mud up to his withers. The boy dismounts so that his horse will have an easier time of it, but Atrax begins to sink even deeper. Tess begins to cry.
"Why is the horse sad?"
I lock arms with her and we watch, both of us hoping not to see what we may well have already intuited is about to happen.
Alarmed, Atreyus chides his friend not to give up. He tugs with all of his might on the reins but it is no use. He pleads, he cries, he declares his love to the white horse who only looks back at him through round, dark and terribly inexpressive eyes. In the end the boy is on his knees cupping the head of his horse. Tess has been moaning and she says, "I wanted to watch Spirit!"
Both Beth and I are on the brink of jumping up and turning it off, putting in the other movie in the hopes that these past few seconds can be erased from memory. It's as if an unexpected moment of truth has been presented to us.
I decide to try to redirect Tess' attention toward the boy. "Look at Atreus!" I say. "He's not going to give up. He's going to make it. Watch!He's going to escape.!" I feel almost certain that I am right about this, although I am not happy about having to put my faith in a screenwriter.
The inexorable logic of the scene forces Tess to follow the boy, and as a result, to leave the horse behind, but then the plot twists again. The boy too begins to sink. It appears hopeless. I can feel Tess coiling up next to me, and I intervene before she can say anything. "He's not going to drown, Tess. Watch and see how he escapes."
I am thinking hard about how far I am willing to go down this road, but Tess still seems willing to see what will happen. (As for Colm, he has watched the whole thing up this point in quiet fascination, not a whimper, not a single flinch...inscrutable. I'm not sure had we turned off the movie that we would not have had a whole other issue to deal with concerning him.)
Then redemption arrives in the form of a luck-dragon, a giant, flying, white-haired lap dog kind of creature with an amiable smile, who swoops in at the critical moment and carries the boy high up into the air and off to safety. Once again the boy is on the back of a magical creature who has indeed rescued us all. The luck dragon is precisely the tonic Tess needs. She becomes progressively more intrigued by this new creature until finally she seems to have adopted him as her horse surrogate. From this point on the movie becomes a story again, something we can try to puzzle out and keep at arms be sure there are still a couple of scary moments but nothing we can't handle with a confident assertion like..."don't worry, he won't die. He'll be fine." In the end, there's even a wish sequence in which Atreyus is on his luck dragon soaring through the sky and he "sees" Atrax galloping across the grassy plains below. Tess recognizes him instantly.
At the end of the film Beth and exchange looks that might roughly be translated - let's not do that again anytime soon. We're both spent. We've been with them every step of the way, watching them, holding them, whispering into their ears. I can't imagine having left the kids to watch that film alone...on the other hand, having seen it with them feels like an experience that was both difficult and ultimately valuable. The rest of the day passes without incident.
The next morning I am getting Tess a bowl of cereal when she says, "Dad?"
"Yeah sweetie?"
"Atrax sank in the Swamps of Sadness because he was covered by sadness."
"Yeah, he did."
"Why did he?"
"I think...that he was very, very his heart...and so he gave up."
"and he sank."
"Yeah...but Atreyus, he didn't give up. He kept trying and he made it out of the Swamps of Sadness."
"yeah and he had a luck dragon."
"Yes he did. That was pretty lucky wasn't it?"
Tess doesn't answer. She is done talking for awhile. We eat our cereal quietly.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Noel en France

Yannick and Cristelle, our neighbors, gave us a marvelous Christmas gift by inviting us to their family dinner Christmas Eve.In addition to their kids, Constance and little Paul, Cristelle's family was there - brother, sister, brother-in-law, nephew, mother, father, and presiding over the whole group, Yannick's grandmother.

We came over a little after eight in the evening. The kids set to playing right away and we chatted over snacks and champagne. Cristelle's brother is in law school in Bordeaux, her sister is a nurse in Ares, and her brother-in-law works in a metal products plant in Bordeaux. Around nine or so the Yannick took note of how quietly and contentedly the kids were playing down the hallway in Constance's room. There was a brief confab involving the adults, the sense of which I grasped but only indirectly. Then they sprang into action. Cristelle's father stationed himself at the door to Constance's bedroom, his hand firmly on the doorknob, in case some little hand might try to open it. The rest of the adults disappeared in about three different directions, reappearing moments later bearing armfuls of wrapped presents. Efficiently, they deposited the gifts under the tree. How cute, I thought, but then they disappeared again, repeating the process. How impressive, I thought. From down the hallwaay I heard Cristelle's father speaking through the door..."Wait a minute, we're looking for the key!" The knob was twising slightly in his hand. The great gift transfer continued apace. I was nearly laughing out loud at the enormity of it all. Then all was done; the kids were released, and wrapping paper began to fly. We had brought a couple of gifts for our kids and so they were right in there with everybody else. It was delightful...really exactly the kind of family feeling we had hoped for.

We fed the kids and sent them upstairs to watch around ten we sat down at the table.

Yannick had prepared the feast...he and Cristelle really know how to set what is called a bonne table. The menus featured specialities of the enormous platter of raw oysters fresh from the bassin, foie-gras mi-cuit, crepinettes (a pork sausage patty), and for the main dish, chevereuil (elk) accompanied by a mushroom dish whose name I missed. For dessert there was of course the traditional buche de noel.

We had tried raw oysters once before and found it hard to suppress the gag reflex, but these oysters were nothing like the others we had tasted. Beth ate three! ...I had seven. Our antics with the oysters provided some comic relief at the table. We were at the table until after midnight.
It was fun to watch the family interact, the sibling relationships, the amiable parents, the friendly ribbings. Every once in awhile we were asked to verify or correct certain assumptions about american culture....was it true for example that in America you were legally entitled to shoot someone who climbed over your fence? Did people in America use forks and knives when eating pizza? The recurrent question that seems to arise wherever we eating with French people has to do with when Americans eat their supper. Yannick never tires of needling us about eating so early...normal supper time for us in Amercia is between six and seven. Here in France we've made an effort to push the time back to try to get into a local rhthym but the bast we can manage is seven or seven-thirty...this makes Yannick laugh. His brother-in-law, Oliver, then asks us in all sincerity, "So if you eat dinner at six or seven, what do you do after dinner?" I paused, seeing the issue from his angle was a bit like considering one of those math word problems back in school...if you eat dinner at X and go to work the next day at Y, what can be done to fill in the interval Z? I decided to send the question back to Oliver? What do you do after eating dinner? He seemed a bit at a loss himself and then he shrugged and said that they relaxed, maybe watched a little tv and then went to bed. I said, "We do the same thing..." but really, I knew it wasn't that simple...we sometimes go to eveining events, games, concerts, activities....maybe we go to work earlier in the morning. I couldn't shake the notion that the French manage a neat trick of finding more time in the day than we do...for things like being at the table together. Yannick did observe somewhat ruefully that this too was changing, for the worse, in France.
We carried the kids back across the street and into their beds around two in the morning.
About seven hours later...Tess and Colm were up and at our tree, delighted to discover that Santa had left gifts under our tree as well. Beth had composed notes to the kids from Santa...she read the letters to them before they opened their presents. I have to say that this Christmas will go down in history...

Monday, December 25, 2006

Joyeux Noel de Lege

From all of us here in Lege, to all of you...with love and kisses.

An extra special "bisou" for my daughter Erin in Alaska and my son Tim in Portland... two of the most likeable seekers you would ever want to meet.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Fighting the cafards

Before coming to France we were warned by the Fulbright people about the winter doldrums that typically hit people during exchanges. They showed us a graph (see the facimile below...obviously I had no help with the art work) that resembles an inverted bell curve with the lowest point of the trough coming in the dead of winter. (Note the precipice at the end of the year too...something to look forward too.)

Beth and I had fun mocking the graph, feeling ourselves to be chosen even among the lucky ones.

It's a little annoying to be so predictable but I guess we have to admit to feeling the cafards or blues these days. It's all about the cultural context and social connections. The former is different enough to keep us off balance and the latter is a puzzle that we've had a little difficulty solving.
The two are intertwined of course with the result being that even the smallest incident can trigger the onset of loneliness, self pity, and even a juvenile sort of whining about the culture. The whining part is pretty simple. It goes something like this...
French culture is so rule bound and hierarchical and they (the French people here) are so reserved and distant.
There is a lot of truth to these observations but as with everything else these truths are best understood in context.
Beth drops off the kids at school on Tuesday and learns that the kids will be attending a "spectacle" in the morning. Some parents are attending too, she learns. There was probably a message about all of this but it got lost in the translation and transmission. Beth is excited about the opportunity to sample a bit of our kids' school experiences and so she asks Colm's teacher if she can come along. The teacher (who is truly excellent, bright and enthusiastic and warm with Colm) smiles politely at Beth, wags her finger and says, "No, you are not signed up. Maybe next time." With that she is off to deal with her students, the matter is closed.
Beth is left there a bit stunned by the finality of hadn't occurred to her that she wouldn't be allowed to go. One of the other parents who had observed the interaction suggests to Beth that she ask Tess' teacher. Perhaps he can arrange for her to come along. But the answer is the same, same words, same finger wagging. The parent appears dismayed but she shrugs. Particularly difficult for Beth to absorb are the words, "Maybe next time." Nobody seems to account for the fact that for her, there will certainly not be a next time.
Early this week the social calendar was looking pretty plans to go anywhere or see anyone. When I asked people at school what they were doing for the holidays the response was typically, visit family and/or stay at home. Beth too at her weekly gym class heard the women there talking about planning for the family visitations, their favorite vodka drinks...
Sometimes people ask us if we are going home for the holidays...that's when I realize that they are probably assuming we're going home for the holidays - it becomes clear to me that we are not on the social radar here yet.
On the interpersonal level, people here are friendly but getting beyond the perfunctory greetings to an opportunity to socialize or even dine together is another matter altogether. About a month ago a couple of colleagues promised to invite us over - in January...that, I think, reveals just how protective the people are here of their family time.
That's why Wednesday was a big day.
I am taking Tess to dance class in the morning when I see our neighbor Crystelle there with her daughter Constance. She says, "Beth says that you are not going anywhere for Christmas?" "That's right." "You can come with us for Christmas Eve dinner, if you like. Yannick is preparing it." I am momentarily at a loss for words. Crystelle interjects, "Of course you should think it over..." "No, no, need. I accept." She laughs at my maladroit acceptance. I am so happy to bring this news home with me.
Then the next morning at the lycee Helene and I meet at a classroom door during a changeover. Helene and Franc are the only other people besides Yannick and Crystelle who have invited us into their homes. (We have hosted them in our place as well.) She asks me how we're doing. I say fine. Helene seems to understand. She tells me to tell Beth that we should come by Friday evening to prendre un verre (have a drink). Bring the kids, she says. I thank her trying to strike a more poised tone...but she laughs at me. "I'm not inviting you because I'm trying to do a good turn...we enjoy your company." I want to believe her, I do believe her.
Two days, two invites...already the cafards are lifting. It's sobering how fragile our sense of well being can be. Crystelle and Yannick- Helene and Franc...they are our knights in shining armor. They are both families with whom we feel a genuine connection and fondness. It's easy to imagine becoming friends with them...
Yesterday we took the kids to the marche de noel in Lege. There the kids get their faces painted and they run happily about with other kids who go their school. We've done right by the kids...they are having a good time here.

I am watching them play when I make eye contact with an african woman who looks familiar to me. She is holding her daughter. I smile and her smile emboldens me to cross over and speak with her. It turns out that we had met weeks earlier on the beach...just for a few minutes. Her name is Ginette. I remember how her husband, Serge, and I had tried to recreate a tour he had taken years ago in the western U.S. We had drawn a map in the sand and had tried to pin down the locations of Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver B.C...
In the course of talking to Ginette, I learn that she and Serge have lived in Lege for five years and that we are practically neighbors.
We move the conversation outside where there is an iceskating rink. Serge is out there with their oldest daughter Chloe. In the course of talking to them I mention how challenging it is to break into the social scene here. Both of them agree vigorously. Serge tells me that even though they'v lived in Lege for five years, and ten years in Ares before that, they still don't know anyone here. I am reminded of a similar comment made the proviseur of the lycee where I work, about how even though he is from this region, that since coming to his post in Andernos he still feels himself to be an outsider in this particular corner of the Gironde.
I have to admit that I felt the same way about La Grande for a good ten or fifteen years after having moved breaking through the intitial level of hospitality and courtesy into networks of friendship is a slow process.
Then Serge adds that the Bordeaux area is a bit unusual in this regard. He is from the southwest of France, basque country. People there, he says, are much different, much more open. It is plain that Ginette agrees with this assessment.
I venture an observation that I've been harboring for awhile...the architecture here, I say. It seems to reinforce or even enforce a certain closed attitude vis a vis the outside world. All the homes are enclosed within walls and their entries are all blocked by locking gates. Serge nods. Five years ago when I build my house here, he says. They showed me the regulations and the styles of gates I could choose from. He shrugs that shrug that is part and parcel of daily life here.
They probably help with security I say, trying to sound positive. Serve scoffs at the suggestion. Not really. Besides, here we don't have that problem, not like the banlieue of Paris. No, the only thing they are really good for is keeping the neighbors' dogs from crapping in your yard. I laugh. It's true, Serge says. Only last month I forgot to close the portail one night and the next morning there was dogshit everywhere in my was if word got out around the neighborhood and all the dogs took advantage.
I laughed and said well at least the gates are good for something. That one thing, yes, he said with a wry smile.
We part, they are going home for lunch; we are going to take kids skating. Before leaving, we exchanged phone numbers and agree to get together next week for a snack...we were perfect strangers an hour earlier.

Funny how this stuff works. Reminds of the the line "I've always relied on the kindness of strangers" (which by the way inspired the title of a good travel book, The Kindness of Strangers... highly recommended).
Meanwhile, we're chasing the blues...

p.s. - chasing the blues also happens to be the refrain of a bluesy song I composed a few years back.. the title is Quilt Blessing. It seems a propos now focused as it is on warmth. Here it is:

Quilt Blessing
chasing the blues
to the four corners of the covers
dreams of cotton colors
we're kindling our limbs together

chasing the blues
to the far reaches of the rainbow
dreams of vermillion
under an aubergine sea
we're going down together

putting on a festive face

rencontres culturelles

Cultural encounters... kids seem to work it out. Sometimes they just let their let their feet do the talking.

But other times, it's fun to imagine what's inside the little bubbles above their heads.
Today I'm leaning toward the sci-fi meme..."what planet do you come from?"

Warning, alien presence...all shields up!

"Your weaponry here is very primitive."

"Is it customary on your planet to take candy from strangers wearing funny hats and long white beards?"

"On our planet everyone has red eyes." (click for larger view)

"Here they are called vampires...on my planet we call them "boys".


Thursday, December 21, 2006

analysing Rudolf

In the run up to Christmas break my students have begun a familiar campaign to mark the holiday season by trying to avoid normal school work in favor of something more "fun". In a couple of classes I rendered the effort moot by scheduling a test on their last day. It was a difficult test which took everyone right up to the bell...I offered them as a holiday "cadeau" no homework for the break. They were good sports about it and smiled at my lame teacher humor.
In another class, I gave the class a reading/writing prompt that I told them was due by the end of the period. I rightly suspected that they would run out of time...I watched for signs of stress/frustration and then announced that as a holiday "cadeau" I'd let them finish the assignment at home over the break...mostly they were relieved...funny how expectations color reactions to outcomes.
Today, I decided to try something a little more maybe, but that's a bar I've learned not to strive too hard to is hard to just happens or not, and besides, why schedule fun? Why not leave open the possibility that fun might be a by-product of any kind of experience?
I decided to lead the class in an analyse de texte of Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer. As Christmas songs go it has a couple of advantages. First, it is secular in content and therefore safe. Second, it features a narrative line that is both accessible and amenable to analysis, however superficial.
I begin in a somewhat covert manner, telling my students that I was simply going to tell them a story. Their job is to identify the 5 W's in the story as I told it to them.
I endeavor to evoke the realm of the North Pole...and a community of reindeer families...very white bread as reindeer communitites go... except that one day a there is a new arrival that changes the complexion of life there...a strange birth in one of the reindeer households...a baby born with a birth defect, a disfigurement of sorts, a bulbous, red, lamplike nose... from this point forward in the story it seems inevitable that everyone will know more or less where the story is going, but this is an English class in a French lycee and the language difficulties and cultural differences are such that not everyone "gets" it right I withhold Rudolf's name. I describe the difficult childhood, the isolation and the cruelty of adolescence. (I leave out the girlfriend character from the Burl Ives tv special)
I then skip to the morning of Christmas Eve and Santa standing at his cottage window, his brow furrowed by concern. Out there, he can see nothing but dark,spectral grey. It has been like this for days, unprecedented and untimely. Everyone in the North Pole has witnessed the remarkable weather, and everyone has been visited by the same inescapable reindeer will fly in such skies. Santa has just concluded in his own mind that he will have to do the unthinkable and cancel Christmas, when his train of thought is diverted by a pinpoint of color in the distance. Santa rubs his eyes but when he looks again the pinprick of color is still there and what's more it appears to be growing more intense. At length, he discerns that it is approaching him. Santa begins to comprehend how miraculously far that light has penetrated the fog to reach him at his windowpane. It is then that the form of a reindeer emerges from the as if the clouds have parted. Excited, Santa hurries outside, nearly frightening away the shy young deer.
What is your name? says Santa. The reindeer braces for some sort of reproach...experience has taught him to expect little else from others, though to be fair Santa's reputation for precedes him here.
What is your name, repeats Santa.
Rudolf, says the reindeer.
Amazingly, Santa cannot seem to place this young reindeer. It is as if he materialized out of the very fog itself, as an answer to Santa's prayers. The Red-nosed Reindeer...Rudolf. Santa regards the young reindeer for a moment and then he asks him the famous question...the one that makes Christmas history and transforms Rudolf into a beloved hero among reindeer folk.
All the while I'm spinning this tale I'm mentally preparing for the next phase of the lesson...The classical French approach to textual analysis:
What sort of text/document is this?
From what point of view is the text written?
What are the key lexical and grammatical structures?
What are the essential elements of the story/argument?
How does the story attempt to effect the reader?
What is the reader's response to the text?
and so on...
But of course this approach needs a text, nothing as ephemeral as the oral tradition. So I write the lyrics of the song on the board and have the class copy them into their copybooks. In America I would have been tempted to google the lyrics, print them out, and dash to the xerox room and make copies for everyone. The French tradition of the trace ecrite kicks in nicely...for five or ten quiet minutes everyone earnestly records the lyrics by hand. I then read the lyrics aloud, using hand gestures to illustrate certain words like "foggy" and "glows". Next come the questions and the responses. It is satisfying to perform this ritual in this way since it it is designed to prepare students to furnish answers. We proceed methodically, inventorying the elements of the song, dissecting it. And then,impulsively, I ask them, "Why is this story so sad?"
They look at me blankly for a isn't the difficulty of the language that stops them...they all know "sad"'s a staple of English expression for them, covering nearly one half of the possible emotional states of being. I repeat the question. Why is this story a sad story? I feel like Santa looking into the fog...and also, I perceive a little light here and there. Finally, a hand goes up. Ysoline says, "They didn't like him before."
"And now they do?"
"Yes...but maybe not really?"
Another hand. Margaux says, "Maybe only because he helps them."
"Is that a reason to like someone?"
"Yes, but it isn't a true friend."
Alexis adds, "Perhaps they do you say, manipulez..."
"They manipulate him."
"His friends manipulate him...because he helps them?"
"I don't's possible."
"That is sad." I say. I think to myself what a bummer note you're ending this lesson on...I reach for something.
"Well, at least he's important now... Santa seems to think so."
I can't tell if they're buying it...
Alright, I say, let's learn how to sing this thing...
so we's actually a good song to teach language learners. Lines like, "and they shouted out with glee..." fall trippingly off the tongue or slide sidewise out of the mouth and before long we're diverted and laughing at each other's accents and the time the bell rings, there are smiles all around and there is a lightness in the

p. s. - photo is december 2005

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

chicken feathers

You might as well know up front that this is a long post...possibly even a non sequitur...though that remains for each of you to judge...

I was talking to one of my colleagues yesterday, a prof de philosophy, he described a project he has undertaken with students for two or three years running. He and a group of interested students form an atelier lecture (reading group) that meets once a week. They select a contemporary European writer/artist who has situated his work in a particular city. They study his/her work and then, in the spring, they visit the city in which the work is situated and they meet the artist as well. Part of the project involves the students preparing a plan for a journal/photo/video document that is inspired by what they have read.
The opportunity for them to extend their imaginations beyond the covers of a novel and then to carry those imaginings with them into the city itself, strikes me as singularly impactful. The prof claims that his students behave differently on these trips, not like the students who merely on vacation and looking for any pretext to amuse themselves; rather, they come to the city with an eye toward understanding how it compares to the city they have imagined. When they return home they put up an exposition of their work.
His group's initial project was in Rome, the next year was in Prague...possibly Naples this year. The teacher seems a bit unsure of the projects future because of funding difficulties...students/parents have to come up with the money.
I actually have heard of a similar project in Oregon. A colleague of mine on the coast (his name escapes me right now, Chris, I think), has taken kids to visit Northwest writers after first reading their works in class...seems like a cool idea to me.
Anyway, this philosophy prof is adamant about the integral role of the arts in the transmission of culture from generation to generation. He is animated on the subject, alternately describing the situation here as scandeleux and criminel.
He passed along to me an editorial from a recent edition of Le Monde entitled Vers un monde d'adolescents (a world full of adolescents). The columnist asserts that a kind global juvenilization is occuring, that popular culture everywhere is falling under the thrall of the worship of youth. With tongue only slightly in cheek, the editorial references the famous marketing slogan for comic book Tintin "for children 7-77 years old" and then asserts, perhaps more plausibly, that it is becoming increasingly more difficult to differentiate between the desires of people from 15 - 60 years of age. The traditional stages of life, particularly those of adulthood and elderhood have been eclipsed by an ever expanding adolescence .
Years ago I read a book by Neil Postman entitled The Disappearance of Childhood which in many ways advanced the same premise as this editorial. Both Postman and the writer in Le Monde seem preoccupied with the ways in which technology, specifically information technology, has exponentially accelerated the process by which information becomes available to everyone, bypassing in large measure the hurdles of literacy in favor of oral, visual and tactile modes, and how that same technology is constantly rendering information obsolete or "out of date" thereby undermining any tenable sense of tradition or authority that might be derived from "knowing things".
In a world where knowledge is continually up for grabs, where expertise is as likely to reside in the hands and the head of a nineteen-year-old as it is in that of a fifty-year-old, it is very difficult to conceive of "tradition" as being a vital and valued part of the culture as opposed to being merely a curiosity or, worse, the province of snobs.
The editorial ends on a pensive note, wondering without benefit of a crystal ball whether the world's population is becoming steadily more immature as it grows more and more beguiled by the dream of eternal adolescence and therefore ever more fond of the charms of material consumerism. What kinds of youthful fits of creativity and impulsivity are we in store for? What kinds of reactionary responses are likely to emerge to counterract them?
It's tempting to agree...but I'm wary of each generation's temptation to behave curmudgeonly towards the generations that "follow" it (chronologically at least).
On the other hand, as a teacher, I am inclined to take seriously the idea of "cultural transmission". It seems very near the heart of the project that I am most interested in participating in (compared with the chamber of commerce-style project that focuses on "competencies" and "workplace skills").
But cultural transmission seems predicated on the notions of tradition and authority, it is by definition a conservative (if I can use the word apolitically for a change) least in temperament. I see my job within the disciplines that I teach, therefore, as an effort to help my students situate themselves in a context of traditions and practices that continue today in large measure because they represent the collected wisdom of those who have come before us, but which will continue on into the future only to the extent that they are adapted and shaped with the same kind of imagination and audacity that formed them in the first place. Such a context invites students to identify "father figures" intellectually and artistically speaking. The great American novelist Ralph Ellison, for example, considered Dostoevsky and T.S. Eliot as part of his literary parentage. Ellison, who was black, recognized his fellow black writers like Richard Wright as brethren but he adopted different literary parents than they did.
The creative impulse is, in other words, indispensable to the evolution of tradition and therefore to the transmission of culture.
The aims of this kind of conservatism are the preservation not so much of specific traditions and practices (the sort of thing I learned to associate with neoclassicism in European literature for example); rather, the aims are the preservation of those habits of mind which are necessarily enjoined in the twin spheres of science and art, the domains which define, I think, what we think of as our culture.
Even as I write this last sentence I hear myself objecting that I have left out a third domain...the marketplace. Can there be any sphere of activity more likely lay claim to our cultural identity than the marketplace? Have we not utterly distinguished ourselves there, for good and for ill, in our nearly religious commitment to satisfy the full range of human appetites? Has not that commitment led us to invent, to barter, to acquire, to consume, to own, to sell, to dabble, to play, to pretend, to speculate, to conceive, to build...the marketplace is the domain in which liberty is expressed as personal preference, as variety, as novelty and is writ large in dollar signs. It is where we desire things and we attempt to anticipate/create/satisfy the desires of others. It is both anarchic and collectivist, it provides a context for innovation and enormous pressures to conform, it is an important expression of freedom even as it shackles people to remorselessly competitive lifestyles.
And unlike science and art, there is no domain more intrinsically hostile to the notion of tradition than that of the markeplace. The marketplace assigns value to all things within a profit/cost matrix. History or tradition get no special value added. Citing the dynamics of supply and demand, Adam Smith's invisible hands, etc...the marketplace can rightly claim to have some connection to the pulse of the a public we participate in the marketplace on a scale and in a visceral way that perhaps we do not with science and art (I may well be wrong on this count). We as a people tend perhaps to trust the marketplace at least at some point in time to reflect our desires back to us in the form of new products and services. Perhaps we aren't quite so sanguine about our personal connections to the domains of science and art, each of them belonging it would seem to "experts" whose aims are esoteric and mysterious contrasted with the aims of entrepeneurs and captilalists. We buy things because we want them and/or we need them. The marketplace obliges us, for a price.
If only it were as simple as knowing our desires or knowing how to convert such desires to dollar figures...Woody Allen once observed that "the heart wants what it wants." Aritstotle argued that education should be focused on the teaching the heart to want the right things, and then training the intellect and the body to attain those things...right desire connected to right thinkings leads to virtuous action. Misery, he argued came from being crippled or malformed aesthetically and emotionally...even the smartest head will be mislead by a warped heart.
The marketplace doesn't care about Aristotle, it doens't care about whether people want the right things, it doesn't worry whether children have had the opportunity to properly begin the formation of their notions of good and beauty and pleasure, it only wants to satisfy the Woody Allen's of the world. (That's not fair to Woody Allen probably...we all want what we want...and we all go shopping to find it.)
But just because the marketplace doesn't care whether we prefer Aristotle to Adolf Hitler doesn't mean that we shouldn't care about the messages we send to the marketplace. If we wanted different things we might see a different marketplace, if we valued time (ours and other people's), people and resources differently then we might see a different marketplace, if our sense of long and short term costs and benefits were calibrated differently we would see a different marketplace...
we get what we get when we want what we want.
Chicken feathers...?

Sunday, December 17, 2006

crooked trees

Apparently, Immanuel Kant once wrote, "Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made."

I guess if trees were people (which, according to some Japanese folk traditions, they are) they'd look like this...whoever or whatever they might be, my kids like 'em.

bonne boule...bonne fete

I took the kids to Andernos to see Santa...we got there early so we chilled in the park...some of the locals were playing boule or petanque...

every once in awhile you'd see an old guy do a little jig while his mates chuckled and said, "bonne boule!"

no reindeer here...Santa's entourage is a Cuban mambo band... and a pink caddy! Colm and Tess didn't really connect with this guy.

Cotton candy is called barbe a papa noel (Santa's beard)...ummm

Saturday, December 16, 2006


This was taken at the very point of Cap Ferret....the funny thing is that a month ago we were at this same spot at high tide and we had no idea these pilings were even here.

The tide and the wind are the elements to be reckoned with in this part of the world. The other day I was proctoring an exam in a classroom at the lycee when there arose a long moan that moved eerily up the my mind, it conjured some sort of cosmic tachometer hitting the red line...the kids taking their exams all lifted their heads at the same time. They looked out the windows - trees were leaning like dishevelled chorus girls - and then we all smiled at one another and went back to work.
The rain too has on otherwordly feel to it at times...once in awhile it looks like that fake Hollywood rain the way it falls in sheets. Even stranger are those little dousings that seem to last no more than 5 seconds...almost exactly as long as it takes you to get to your car. It's enough to make you look up to see if someone is playing a practical joke on you...if only God were that amusing.

third wave

Our third wave of visitors arrived on Wednesday...uncle Phil and aunt Jessica. We picnicked on the Cap atop an escarpment overlooking the ocean.

Ignoring the customary warnings about not getting too close to the edge...Colm and Tess quickly began dabbling in the physics of freefall and angle of repose...

the results were very entertaining...

although a couple of times we did have to clean sand out of their eyes.

A bit further down the beach we explored some old bunkers left over from WWII (I think).

The kids love hanging out with Phil and Jess.