Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Most Glorious, Ecstatic, Generous, Kind Thing with a Glass of Wine, Together

Yesterday, campus was buzzing again. And (as the semester gets going) I was back, playing my little part in the large privilege of orienting new students from around the world to this place of living and learning for their next several months, semesters, and years.

(It’s my thirteen year of working here. It's working to assist others who are cultural outsiders often stigmatized or tokenized as each unique individual or someone else for her or him has decided personal development is needed in second-or-third-language proficiencies, in academics in America in English. These are deep changes for change-resistant adults).

The day before yesterday (all day, when I wasn't anybody's linguistics master or rhetoric novice), it was that canoe and kayak trip down the Brazos River. This segment of my summer vacation included three generations: my father, my two brothers and their seven children, and me and my son.

(The women opted out, because they could opt for work and other things. My daughters were in school, because theirs started earlier.)

Dad and I canoed together.
(He's the changing man I've written about before at this blog. My son doesn't know him as a changed man, because maybe much more needs transforming. More in my father, more in my son, more in me. "Why does he sound so old-fashioned?" my son asks me privately, gesturing purposefully and less discriminately something that Eugene Nida himself might accept as the dynamic equivalent of "old-fashioned," given the context. Who knows the context, really, when my son's grandfather doesn't understand ASL? Earlier, in the van ride over, we'd all been talking audibly, which sounds like arguing. It sounds like arguing, declamation and disputation about American politics; abortion; gay marriage; family; John Edwards' morality; Hilary Clinton's faithfulness; John McCain's inability to use the Internet; Barak Obama's Blackberry use; the legalization of pot smoking; the best age for the right to vote; and the best age for the right to drink if drinking were ever right; tattoos in general; my son's tattoo in particular; and how the legislation of anything by anyone for someone else is suspect. We also talked about China, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Georgia, Russia, and the Olympics. Short tempers seem to make the long ride shorter. Turns out my brother who lives in the UK doing social work among the poorest is exploring views our father takes exception to; my brother's son holds the views tightly, views he shares with his best friend in London, views they each take for granted. My other brother who lives in the US running his own business sounds like our father; his kids are silent. Our family polemics have shifted, so that the generation gaps have widened some places and narrowed others.

But I imagine I'm the only one who notices (if not the only one who feels) that Dad has explained -- but has not confessed -- that he "let" Mom opt out of canoeing though he's "not let her" do certain things during the day she's opted out. This is the profound practice of the patriarchy. It's reinforced by a certain Southern-Baptist-preacher practice and perspective of the Bible. And yet, the incredible thing about my father is that, later this fall, he's returning with my mother to South East Asia many years after their retirement to help a group start an orphanage in Ha Noi. Dad's an orphan himself, and they're going, going back actually, together with a group of orphans who he helped father for several years, in a war zone where life was torn from bodies, parents' lives from children. (My brothers and I became third-culture kids, literally sharing then the US passport with our mother but not necessarily American culture with her; not necessarily sharing Vietnamese culture with our friends though singing a common language with them.) So I do, actually and carefully, consider what the Christian-turned-atheist anthropologist professor tells the undergraduates about "missionaries"; but I was in the prof's class when he started in with his own ironic, hypocritical, missionary zeal. It was the semester when my missionary father's heart started breaking at home, and I believe Ruth Behar more when she cries for anthropology that breaks your heart, and mine. Deep change takes more than one van ride. Sometimes it takes paddling long distances in a canoe in beauty some where far away, together. And that morning, I think, I was maybe touched profoundly when Brennan Manning led me into this confession: "As I drained the cup of grief, a remarkable thing happened: In the distance I heard music and dancing. I was the prodigal son limping home, not a spectator but a participant." Manning seems to have visited our home, once upon a time: "Negative voices from our family of origin, 'You will never amount to anything,' moralizing from the church, and pressure to be successful transform expectant pilgrims en route to the heavenly Jerusalem into a dispirited traveling troupe of brooding Hamlets and frightened Rullers. Alcoholism, workaholism, mounting addictive behaviors, and the escalating suicide rate reflect the magnitude of the problem.")

In the quiet, Dad asks me if and how my dissertation has changed me. "Really?" I reply, showing him (I hope) in my intonation how good I think his question is, even how much better his asking it. We talk. And We talk more. It is nothing like what we're so used to. Nothing like what Bettany Hughes has observed some of us practicing so mindlessly for so long as if mimicking fathers so long ago. In Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore, Hughes recalls:
The Bronze Age elite would certainly have met together in fierce combat-sports to sort out the men from the boys: to determine among them which of the aristocrats really was the best (aristos in ancient Greek) and who therefore deserved control (kratos). On a variety of visual sources from the Bronze Age we find men slugging it out -- not in battle, but in complicated 'friendly' combats, engagements that were designed to perfect close-quarter combat skills. Submission fighting, submission wrestling, mock battles with pikes and shields and boxing are all represented. These contests were important preparation for war, but also served to identify the real 'heroes' within the citadels. Their ancient Greek name, agones, is the root of 'agony'; the etymology goes some way to convey the intensity of such contention. . . Dressed to impress, to strut in front of each other, and perhaps Helen, . . . (page 73).
How did I answer Dad? It was only a couple of days ago. Does it matter?

How does Maya Angelou answer Russell Harris when he asks her (before she became famous for her poetry) several years ago? Harris asks, "Do you feel that today it is best to combine education plus experience?"

Remember what Angelou says? She replies:
One needs both. I was very fortunate. I was curious and handicapped as a young person. And so I read everything I could get my hands on and I have a good memory. And I have a lot of energy. It's a blessing. So I continued to learn. I'm hungry for knowledge still. Not every young person is blessed or visited with that combination. So he or she desperately needs to go to a university and be introduced to some of the great ideas of humankind. One needs to worry over the question of "Why am I here, what am I doing here of all things in this place, this life?" One needs to know Aristotle and Plato. One needs it desperately. One must have Leopold and Pascal. Must! I mean desperately, if one is to be at ease anywhere. One should have read the African folk tale to see what the West African calls deep thinking. One must worry over ideas that if I come forward how far do we have to go before we meet? And when we meet will I go through you and you go through me and continue until we meet somewhere else? This is an African concept. Do we stay once we meet or do I actually go right through you and pass through you and continue on that road. Is that what life is? All this knowledge is available at universities and one is more likely to run into a great teacher at a university than one is at a pool hall. It just follows.

Out of thirty teachers a person has in a period of three years at a university, he or she might run into two who bring stimulation to that mental machine and then one is encouraged to go to the literature. . . go to it. The teacher doesn't teach, not really. The teacher offers stimulation and ways in which the person can educate himself or herself. At best the teacher wakes up, shakes up that person and makes a person hungry. That's when you really hit it -- when you make them hungry. There is nothing more exciting in teaching.

What I really teach is one thing; that is I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me. That's all I teach. There is nothing alien that you can think that I can't think. And the worst, the most vile thing you can think, I have the capability of thinking. And the most glorious, the most ecstatic, generous, kind thing any human being can think, I have the machinery to think it. What about a glass of wine now?