La Corrida

The first time that Ev took a group of 5th graders to France, she returned with two cultural realizations that would change the way that we lived our lives from then on. The first came from the family that she stayed with. They introduced her to the joys of French rosés, something we had always associated with bad vintages in funny, squat bottles from Portugual, or worse, in pop top jugs from California. After this trip, our summers were never the same as we came to discover all kinds of great pink wines. And in addition, she also brought her discovery of the French popular musician, Francis Cabrel. Prolific and eclectic, his later works are introspective in the same way that defines the paths of many 20th century French philosophers. I don’t speak French, but I love Cabrel. On road trips, we’d pop a Cabrel CD into the player in the car, and I’d ask Ev to translate the lyrics real time. I have sung enough French to recognize much of the vocabulary, but Cabrel is often symbolic, so we both delighted in the process–me getting to really know the songs and Ev meeting the challenge of translation on the fly. And although there are a few Cabrel songs I would be happy to never hear again, some of his songs would make my “Stranded on a Desert Island Playlist.” My favorite Cabrel album is Samedi Soir Sur la Terre (The last night on Earth), and one of my most favorite of all Cabrel songs is the first track—“La Corrida.”

“La Corrida” is the tale of the bullfight told from the point of view of the bull. In contemplation and waiting in a dark room, the locked door is suddenly sprung, and the bull finds himself in the bright light of the ring. At first he thinks he just needs to defend himself, and so confident is he in his own strength, he boasts that it is the toreador’s ears that the bullfighter’s lover will sleep upon tonight–a reference to the practice of awarding the ears and tail to the victor. But confusion arises as the ring closes with a locked door behind him, as the picadors like peacock puppets, stab his shoulders forcing his head lower and sapping his strength, as the dancing toreador in ballet shoes dodges and twirls around him. Suddenly he is hyper-aware that this is a fight for his life. Throughout the song, an echoing refrain is the bull’s bewildered, ironic question, “Est-ce que ce monde est sérieux?” (Is this world serious?). On the studio recording, the song ends with Nicholas Reyes, founding singer from the Gipsy Kings calling a la flamenco, “Yes, yes! Dance man and dance again and kill other lives, other bulls. And kill others, come, come and dance.” Like so many Cabrel songs, “La Corrida” has a meaning that is both obvious—bullfighting is cruel; and subtle—we have more in common with the bull than we may wish to admit.

As you can imagine, the meaning of the song has changed significantly for me. When I first listened to it years ago, I was struck by the ironic refrain, “Is this world serious?” Although I had experienced situations before where I might have asked the same question with the same irony and bewilderment, I had no clue of just how metaphysical the question was. That has changed. ALS allows no irony. Dis ease is serious business. It forces existential interpretations of meaning, seeking out new ways to translate past life experiences into present definitions, and a sense-making capacity that requires more consciousness than most of us might ever desire. Everything, everything is colored, filtered, diffused, washed, shadowed and illuminated by the incessant presence of dis ease, so what was once a mere simplicity now must be carefully thought through for its consequential complexity.

Even so, I love the bull. He dares me to examine my life in the face of dis ease’s deterministic push.

I admit that I am privately more than a little embarrassed by how the bull’s arrogance and confusion and his misunderstanding of his own capacity in the small universe of the bullring, was interpreted by my old normal self as pathetic, more of a “there but for the grace of God go I, but I’d never be caught dead in such a place” interpretation. As if I actually had the choice, now I recognize my own arrogance in being so flippant. ALS has no room for simple truths. Even the title of the song has deeper meaning than first glance; “La Corrida” translates as “The Run” in Spanish and French, but it doubles in French as “Bullfighting.” It is from the same Latin root as the English word “corridor,” and somehow the three meanings combined seem almost appropriate in capturing what it is like to experience dis ease’s progress as I am thrust far too swiftly toward the ultimate endgame, a dance down a hallway with but one exit, not quite dodging the picadors that would sap my strength until the coup de grace is delivered. Est-ce que ce monde est sérieux? Indeed! Such questions transcend simple meaning.

Ultimately, I find myself granted one kindness that my friend the bull does not have—the time for consciousness to unfold both in grace and horror. While a similarity between us exists–the bull’s sudden epiphany of his mortal danger in the bullring runs parallel with my own violent rip from immortality by an ALS diagnosis—there also the similarity ends. This dance of ALS slows time for me, while my friend has no time to mindfully examine his predicament. The gift of dying in slow motion is the choice to practice a level of attention that sometimes feels like a Mephistolean bargain; each new insight a trade for physical function–the loss of a finger-lift or less a fraction of yesterday’s strength today–until there is nothing but realization that carries through week by week and day by day.

This past week had so many highpoints, but by Friday, it was all I could do to hold things together. It isn’t about the highpoints anymore, for highpoints are too prone to ego without authenticity. Rather, it is about the gifts paid forward, each to each, never fully perceived but realized nonetheless–kisses stolen in the darkness, love proclaimed from the depths of the soul’s balustrades. It is about the energy of my sons cooking with their true loves in a kitchen that demands energy for a father soaking it up like gravy sopped by crusty bread. It is the look my Ev gives me when she knows, she just knows, and I am comforted for a few moments more. It is the sharing of colleagues in an educative space, the joining of the many into a set of diverse purposes that somehow narrate a unified tale of epic proportion and day to day living. It is fatigue morphing into illumination as friends succumb to the inexorable, the next loss, while their families and loved ones blink their comprehension back behind their eyes, flooding their souls with tears.

Music has always had the power to speak the unspeakable, to ask the unaskable, to understate the obvious and to reveal the hidden depths that lie much more in the listener than in the music itself. “La Corrida”–this small trifle, this song spoken in the space of a framework defined by AM radio fifty years ago–understates dis ease, and it simultaneously reveals its magnificence. I wish it was nothing that a good rosé couldn’t knock the edge off, but ultimately, we kneel in dis ease’s presence, nothing more than bulls in the finite space of the ring asking, or maybe pleading to understand: Is the world really serious?

And it is. It really is.

Here is a link to a reasonable translation using the studio recording, with an anti-bullfighting message.

And here is a link to Cabrel singing “La Corrida” live on YouTube.

Summer in the City

It is summer in the city, and early summer means scrutinizing the year’s successes and failures, challenges and opportunities, missed possibilities and veritable triumphs. If you are not part of school culture it is reasonable to wonder, why all this reflection in the second week of June; and if you dance the dance of education, you know that our inner clock is set to the turning of the seasons where in late May and early June, while farmers plant new crops with hope in the harvest of the fall, we harvest the produce of an academic year based on the hope that was planted 10 months ago. For me, this time of year represents another one of those weird juxtapositions. The liturgy of yearly reflection, framed by dis ease, offers up an accounting ledger of gain and loss, columns of perceived profit overall, but parenthetical red ink spilling all over my personal ledger. Even with a couple of weeks left in the fiscal year, I have a pretty good idea of the forecast with all things pointing to continued negotiation of ALS, like a flipped coin that never seems to land cleanly on one side or the other.

Key to any professional reflection is assessing your own and others’ performance. I don’t believe I have ever enjoyed evaluation meetings as much as I have in the past week. I find myself hanging on to every question, every comment, every conversation in which we share our hopes and goals and dreams and yes, our disappointments. These meetings, so perfunctory in the past, have now taken on sweetness, morsels of shared appreciation, frustration, collective failure and success. I want to say more but the words are muted, inadequate to the privilege I feel working with these bright, talented, passionate, and even curmudgeonly individuals. We seek a toehold on the cliffside of Higher Education v. 2012, and pushing up and out under craggy overhangs, swinging to spaces where the safety of ropes is memory, jamming fingers into minute cracks to hold ourselves onto this wall by the smallest of digits, we dangle our professional existence in a netherworld where terra firma has turned upside down. I look back on my own accomplishments, my failures, and I look forward at what faces us looming large, comforted by the presence of these brilliant people. There have been tears in these meetings. There have been mirthful laughs. But most of all, unspoken, there have been present, holy manifestations of just how special this time is together; at least it is that way for me.

The logistics of Bruce with ALS mean that each passing day presents more and more difficulty just to enter the professional day in the life. Taking stock over the past 12 months, I have departed from dressing myself to requiring home care just to get on my socks. The act of buttoning a shirt has transitioned from the just possible to sleeves and necks and sometimes the whole placard left for someone else. My perfectly knotted tie, once so smoothly executed, is now a clumsy ritual of reliance on others to turn down my collar and center the knot. Breakfast and lunch and dinner are totally dependent on the culinary skills of my one true love or trusted others. Nothing is more illustrative than driving: A year ago, I plopped into a Honda Hybrid with a cane thrown in the back seat; 10 months ago, I traded the Civic with Ev so I could drive her Subaru (higher off the ground, room for the walker, easier to swing in and out of); 7 months ago, I moved into a Rollx van with hand controls, and 8 days ago—I stopped driving. The academic calendar recalls the logistical progression of dis ease’s greatest accomplishments.

And of course, the preparation for professional engagement leaves me exhausted, anticipating the everyday exhilaration as if I had run a marathon, swum miles, biked up a mountain, hiked into town and back on an empty stomach. In these end of year meetings, I float on a self-manufactured cloud of fatigue, thoroughly relishing the shared time together, scrabbling to stay focused when weariness from pre-game liturgies pushes my eyelids downward, misting my peripheral vision, darkening the walls and ceilings, yet illumined by the presence each colleague brings into the room. I never feel so alive as when I am in communion with others, and the intimacy of colleagues engaging the common purpose of educating professional wannabes whose entire raison d’etre is to point a life path for those struggling to find their way, is a sweetness that frames the exhaustion in dappled light like the shade of a tree interrupted by summer sun.

This week, one of my favorite people in the whole world brought his district’s administrative team to our campus for a day of K-12 reflection. He asked me if I would say a few words of welcome—something along the lines of current educational policy or trends reflecting the needs of K-12 and higher ed. I worried that welcome like a loose tooth, and nothing seemed even remotely right. And why should it? The epiphany of dis ease floods my eyesight with the realization that ALS doesn’t allow you to be so flippant as to toss off a few ideas about policy. Instead, I spoke from the naked core of what I know best—failure. I said:

One of the gifts of ALS is recognition. As an educator, and a pretty good one I might add, I recognize great teaching when I see it, and ALS is a great, if unyielding teacher. And what have I learned? The cornerstone of my new knowledge is to accept failure as inevitable. I write about this a lot, because such recognition blesses and curses, confuses and clarifies, fragments yet unifies. You can build faith in failure.

Is it any wonder that I want to keep working? Against the easily documented losses of ALS come the professional accomplishments of so many around me, an opportunity to build a spiritual faith where failure is only the next test and the next. I ended my welcome with this:

Today, as you discuss your successes and failures of the past year, challenge yourself that every child in your sphere will be deeply known, loved, fostered, and cared for by someone in your school. Challenge your systems to face failure in a way that will build strength and capacity so that the next failure and the next will be nothing but a pathway to success. Yes, intervene, improve, tutor, school, teach syllables and numbers and sounds and knowledge and the civil responsibility that defines the difference between the educated and the ignorant. But in that time, do not lose sight of the fact that we are, each one of us, failing; and we have been given a great gift in this insight—the choice to energize our collective failures into the emergence of a beautiful human child educated to be persistent, resilient, squeezing that failure, until it yields, and in the yielding, learning success.

It is summer in the city. “Hot times!” My academic clock insists upon reflecting on a professional life that somehow, squeezed out another year engaged in what I love, that somehow my world of physical breakdown continued to intersect with a world in which failure needs translation for its gifts. The sounds of summer in my city tell me to let the sunshine pour down, that just enough will get through my personal shades, and that faith is in the blessings of failure and life and spring planting and autumn harvests. On the local farms, lettuce and leaves and strawberries are just now beginning to show themselves to the possibilities and threats of the season to come.

And I marvel. I just marvel.

The Deathly Hallows

You know that writing this blog is my cheapo version of therapy, that the writing gives me a chance to figure out what is rattling around in my head, that meaningful reflection for me is found in the translation of rattles to fingers to the electronic ink of fonts and characters and words and phrases. Consider, by the time I work through these inadequate attempts to comprehend my apprehensions, I’ve probably spent six to eight hours in deep reflection on whatever topic is making noise. From a therapy point of view, the writing seems like a good deal although this week I am a little more befuddled than usual, and I think it is all because of Harry Potter.

For the past few weeks, HBO has been showing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II. Whenever I come upon it, mostly through late night channel surfing, I cannot help myself; I stop and watch. I’ll bet in the past two weeks, I’ve seen the last hour of this movie at least 10 times (no groaning please). Beyond the joys of riding the waves of a sleek remote control, wrapped in a reality defined by HD signals crashing through the shorelines of CAT5 cable upon a beach of plasma images and digitally enhanced sound, there is something about this 60 minutes of cinema that really hooks me. Beyond the commercially successful Potter franchise, I cannot help finding this movie to be more than just compelling.

I have loved the Harry Potter books since Ev introduced them to me over 10 years ago. I rationalized this love through statements like, “Anything that gets kids to read these days has some redeeming quality,” or “In my position as a professor in education, I need to know what kids are reading.” I even went so far as to engage in my own Pottermania by accompanying Ev to a B & N release party for the aforementioned Deathly Hallows, so she could celebrate reading with current and former students. As an author, J.K. Rowling feels no compulsion to calcify her characters into the frozen plotlines that accompany the vast majority of literary series. She is fearless in showing the warts, scars and pimples of her most central characters, and each book outlines a new challenge that could be framed in terms of child-to-adult development, while advancing the newest twists in the adventures of a captivating collection of young wizards. I freely admit it; I was hooked on Harry Potter from the first book I read.

In many ways, the movies are just as remarkable. How many casts have held together like this one? To watch the first movie, Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone is like peering into old photo albums of family vacations long past. Almost every child that started with the Harry Potter movies remained until the very end. Even the main adult characters, except for Dumbledore (poor Richard Harris; we didn’t know how sick he was), stayed constant throughout. So, as an audience, we were able to witness the maturation of numerous child actors, and of course, by the time the last movie was made, there was such a lovely sense of ensemble in the cast, it was more like great live stage than a multimillion dollar blockbuster movie franchise. How often do we witness such a phenomenon? The continuity has been a treat.

We tend to take continuity for granted until some great disruption like ALS comes along. Then, the only continuity one can count on is that you and your loved ones are going to have to continually adapt to the next loss and the next. In reflecting on the week, the continuity of adaptation to loss is indicative. It happened that as I was writing a memo at work, my left hand, which has been threatening me on and off for a while, suddenly and absolutely refused to respond. My ring finger drooped, dragging along the keyboard so that many “s’s” and “d’s” appeared on the screen like some alien being attempting to communicate by taking over the computer. Since then, while I find that rest helps, recovery is less than ideal. My continued discontinuity of physical capacity, now realized in the act of typing, is just another step on a continuous path. In contrast, Harry Potter’s main characters learn from their past and apply it to their present situations; a continuity that is marked by growth not loss. I have to admit that there is very little in my past that applies to my current dis eased situation, so in many ways, the continuity of Harry Potter is a respite from the discontinuity of ALS.

But I think there is more to it than respite and continuity.

In a later scene of Deathly Hallows II, Harry comes upon Severus Snape, lately an ally of Harry’s deadly enemy, the “Dark Lord” Voldemort; yet to be revealed for his true role in the epic drama. He is in the final throes of death as his master has turned upon him, ostensibly to consolidate his greater magic. As Snape’s life seeps from him, Harry gently cradles his head, trying to staunch the mortal wound that will kill him. This story moment is ironic since Harry and Snape are consistent in their hatred for each other throughout all of the past seven books and eight films. But now, we witness Snape’s ebbing life, and in this moment, tears trickle down his cheek that he signals Harry to collect. In these tears are memory and hard truth, information critical to Harry’s understanding of his own fate, what he must do in the battle to come. For Harry, a different Snape—one who loves unrequitedly, who bravely maintains a fiction so as to protect Harry throughout his entire life—is revealed. The scene never fails to touch me. Harry’s sudden understanding, combined with my own history of misjudging people’s intentions, is an epiphany, and this scene is symbolic of the fact.

But the most compelling sequence in this film for me is when Harry makes the decision that he must allow himself to be killed by Voldemort. In this scene, his dead parents, uncle and friends appear. Harry asks his uncle, “Does it hurt? Dying?” The poignancy of the moment is almost too much to bear. Harry asks the question, or at least a variation of the question, that is never far from my own consciousness. He probes the feeling of death. And then, he voices his desires, my own desires, to his dead family and friends: “Stay with me.” God do I get that one. With these ghosts close at hand, he walks into the forest to fulfill destiny—his death at the hands of the dark lord.

The rest of the movie is pretty typical of the epic plot that befits most action movies and great religions. Harry’s final battle with Voldemort is of less interest to me than his ever-developing humanity on the pathway to the moment. After all, in movies and in life, we know the final curtain. What we don’t know is how we will approach it. I return to Harry Potter because I appreciate the ending framework he chooses. He speaks words I would rather not say. When I imagine my last moment, I like to think that those who have gone before me will be there to help me face my own “voldemort.” I like to think that what I have witnessed with others as they have passed—that they seemed to be in communion with their own saints—will come to pass for me.

Nevertheless, I cannot lose the fact that my dis ease is not a movie, a book, a fiction that can be closed because the story got a little harder to take. Unlike the actors in Harry Potter, my family and friends, my colleagues and I cannot just walk away from our roles, closing down for the day and picking it up where we left off the next time we are together. But that is how it should be, and that is probably the most compelling reason for my repeated return to The Deathly Hallows. Because I know they are acting, I can put myself in total empathy with them.

And then maybe, just maybe, I can come back to pick up where I left off…tomorrow.

The Gravity of It All

The Gravity of It All

I’ve been thinking about gravity a lot lately. Perhaps I have allowed my situation to make me a little too serious, and I realize that I have been behaving as if my situation was overly grave. But I know an opportunity when I see it, and I think I might be on to something in this realization. As my body weakens, and it becomes harder and harder to lift my arms and legs, it has suddenly become apparent to me that gravity is not my friend. Indeed, it very well might be that my problem is gravity. Most of us are pretty happy to have gravity in our lives. It keeps us grounded. It keeps us from floating off at inopportune times, especially when we would like to remain in place. But I am wondering if perhaps my problem isn’t so much that my muscles are weakening, but that gravity is exerting undue influence on my movements, singling me out from the rest of the general population, and requiring me to find some mitigating technology to counter its effects. All I need to do is reconceptualize the issue at hand from a medical problem to one that has to do with the effects of gravity, and then maybe I have a chance to solve this.

Of course, thinking through a gravity problem means really delving into the etymology of the word “gravity.” The Latin root, gravis, actually means heavy. That seems to fit me pretty well. Too much weight, heaviness of the limbs, caused by too much gravity is the issue. My legs are just too heavy to lift. My arms must be gaining weight as well, as the pressure on them seems to be increasing. It is a question of gravis. As we used to say in the 60’s, this situation is really heavy. But heavy doesn’t fully speak to my situation. It isn’t that it is so heavy, as it is that things keep migrating south. So maybe this is a migratory problem.

As you may know, there are now real ecological concerns for almost every creature that engages in migration. Birds for example, are particularly vulnerable to the enticements of big city lights. They mistake buildings that are lit up as signals that it is OK to keep on flying, or they fail to perceive that the windows of a building are windows and not the reflections of the trees, sky, or horizon–real images but dangerously not real from the avian point of view. They will fly until exhaustion or collision takes them down. I have to admit that the big city lights have always attracted me, and I definitely understand the signal to keep on flying until exhaustion. Evidently a number of people in Mineapolis emulate the same, as the police have to come out at 2:00 AM when the bars close in order to get everyone talked down and to stop flying. And in my present gravity induced, migratory state, I can really relate to how exhaustion can leave me feeling that all I want to do is drop. But if I drop, I think I am back to the gravity issue, although I suppose we could interpret my southern migration as gravis to the max.

Another migratory creature, the grey whale, also is experiencing migratory difficulties. It seems that the subsonic, low frequency signals associated with motors and communication systems are disruptive to whales’ migratory paths as they are often in the same range as the signals the whales themselves use to guide them in their travels. This can result in the whales beaching themselves, drowning on dry land if you will. Now this migratory issue really speaks to me, as I find that often, I feel like a beached whale myself. When I get into bed, my legs are so useless that I really cannot move once I am positioned. As a mostly restless, toss and turn sleeper, this gets to be very wearisome, so I try to keep my sounds of frustration at the subsonic level. It is in my best interest as well as the interest of familial harmony, that I not wake Ev. She needs her sleep, and this becomes much more difficult if she is awakened by the hypersonic moans of the beached whale migrating south next to her. In this migratory vein, I think I see that my health issues are more about a new state of being, and that being identified, I think I am back to the gravity of the situation.

When we discuss the gravity of a situation, we acknowledge that it is grave, and in my case, there is no denying just how grave the situation is. Since it is grave, it takes on other meanings such as “serious, grievous, oppressive” or, as the Sanskrit relative of the word, guruh means, it is “heavy, weighty, venerable.” But that puts me back into the consideration of the weightiness of my condition. I suppose I could come to believe that this weight gain in my arms and legs, causing me to more acutely feel the weighty effects of gravity, is actually a grievous, oppressive state. No kidding. To quote Dennis in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “Now we see the violence inherent in the system…Help, help!! I’m being oppressed!” At least I think I feel oppressed, and when I feel oppressed, I tend to focus on just how grave everything is, and any discussion of graves conjures up all kinds of images that I just don’t want to think about yet.

Unfortunately,you cannot have a weighty discussion about gravity without a discussion of graves. The old English word graef relates to graves, ditches, and caves. Its relatives are related to the verb, grafan, which means to dig. While this is a state of affairs that I really don’t dig, I cannot help but feel that if I don’t interrupt this overabundance of gravity soon, my situation will have me ditching this plane of existence into the trenched grave, grafan specifically for me.

But there is more to this grave situation, for it is digging into me. As gravity works its migratory magic, I find my image to be more graven than grave. My body is carved, dug, impressed by the weight of dis ease’s gravity. And while I have never considered my image as graven, it is clear to me that gravity engraves me with its indelible etchings, testing my mettle or at the very least, meddling with my sense of how much gravis is present. Overall, I find the whole situation totally aggravating, and in a justifiable and remarkably symbolic act of defiance, I refuse to give it the proper gravitas it demands. In fact, in total insubordination to this unjust judgment, akin to throwing tea into the harbor over taxation without representation–although I am no tea-partier by any stretch of the imagination–I’m going to engage in civil disobedience and deliberately break the law of gravity. At least that is my plan.

Just as soon as I can ditch this cave full of beached whales and exhausted birds.