Thursday, October 1, 2015

Twin Cities Marathon and the Black Lives Matter Protest

Black Lives Matter in St. Paul has planned a protest to block the finish this weekend at the Twin Cities marathon. Here are my thoughts and hopes for how this goes.

* * *

We all know that running is an expression of great individual freedom, which is why we value it so much.

A marathon race boils down so many of our values and creates a pure space for their expression -- hard work, execution, effort, risk. Because all distractions have been cleared away, and the course has been marked off from the chaos of life and the politics and all of that, the individual runner is freed to maximize his or her potential.

It's interesting to reflect on how artificial the conditions of a big city marathon are: how many roads have to be blocked, how many policemen enlisted in the effort, how much work and resources goes into creating this clean slate for achievement, especially when it is mapped out over a normally chaotic public space, as in the case of the big city marathon.

Reflection brings the realization that the expression of great freedom, the maximization of individual effort, depends on a prior effort that requires social coordination and agreement, and it takes very little to disrupt that organization. Marathon races show what becomes possible for individuals when like minded people work together.

It's for all of these reasons that a blocked or disruptive marathon works well as a metaphor for blocked social justice and disrupted democracy. But of course it is just a metaphor; life itself is not at stake in a marathon, only the expression of life.  A marathon is a medium through which we work out our relationship to life. It's not "real" in the way that life is. It is constructed.

The constructed and metaphorical nature of marathoning, however, is what gives it great power for life. We need artificial forms and media through which we can work out our relationship to life. This is why art -- and marathoning is art -- is so precious. When life itself gets into these artificial forms of understanding life and messes them up, we feel a loss of control and understanding.

The protest is positive in the sense that the BLM is inviting runners into reflection on these things, and helping us draw connections between ourselves and the communities that we only run through, and often times do not even run through.

However, I hope in the end they let the runners run, not because marathoning is more important than black lives, but out of a sense of empathy for and kinship with the marathoner and the community that makes marathoning possible.

Black Lives Matter has a chance to say something like the following -- "though black lives are often disrupted, and though we have the power to disrupt as well, we will choose not to disrupt the lives of individuals or the organization that gives them meaning." This choice would be highly meaningful and richly demonstrative as well. It would not only raise awareness, but do so in a way that builds the empathy and understanding that is the necessary precondition for the forms of community upon which deep social justice depends.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

On the necessity of anxiety for education: the wild and unholy learning of adolescence

I've just finished Jessica Lahey's The Gift of Failure, and it inspired this post in a sideways sort of way. It's a great read for parents and educators, highly readable and very wise -- but what if the failure she writes about is really just a means to an end that looks more like play...

* * *

Anxiety is a condition of learning. It's a feature of adolescence, not a bug.

Schools these days are worried about anxiety, and with good reason. Young people are very anxious, and it's impeding their learning. We've been asking how to reduce that anxiety, using techniques like mindfulness with some effectiveness, and rethinking emotional support in schools so that we can keep anxious young people tracking down the path we've set for them.

While anxiety is a real problem that must be addressed by schools, it's also clear that we haven't gotten a grip on the problem. Perhaps this is because the whole idea of reducing anxiety is problematic. Maybe the problem is not anxiety at all, but the forms in which anxiety is allowed to exist that are the problem.

Anxiety is fundamental to adolescence. It's the sense that things must change, and urgently. Or, as Camus wrote, it's the "tremendous energy spent in just being normal." Anxiety is the great driving energy that funds this incredible period of reaction, freedom, intense experience and growth. Without anxiety, there would be no first kisses, no deep insight, no wonder. Anxiety is the intensity, the shimmering, that gives adolescence its life.

In my work, the problem I see is not that students are anxious. Indeed it would be strange if they weren't. Teenagers should be anxious because they are experiencing freedom and growth. The problem is that they are anxious about the wrong things -- they have had their anxiety stolen from them. We ask that their anxiety be quelled and that they submit to a known and tamed future. The goals we set for them are of an adulthood that is already understood. The world we present for them is one in which the path to happiness is much too clearly defined. Anxiety does not want clear goals or need calming. What it wants, what it needs is wildness and openness. Anxiety is a panther pacing the cage. It can only be its full self in the wild.

We think that students are anxious because they are worried about an uncertain future or afraid that schooling is not going well. But this is an adult projection. Adults worry (and rightfully so) about the future for young people. But the natural attitude for adolescents towards the future is disinterest and unconcern. The intensity of youth is founded in the way in which it is totally present in its becoming.

The problem that students experience today is not that they experience anxiety, but that they are not allowed to release it. Parents, schools, culture, college pressure -- these things bottle up student anxiety and attempt to direct and channel into mechanical, law-abiding, and future-obeying forms something that is fundamentally wild and living and anarchic.

So, maybe the answer to the problem of anxiety is not really deep breathing or relaxation or mindfulness, but instead something that looks more like play, joy, or wildness. So long as we are intent on teaching students to "manage" anxiety, we are misunderstanding the proper function of anxiety. Adolescent anxiety can't be managed -- that's the whole point. It operates outside of the whole concept of management. What we need are school and family spaces that allow for wildness and play. We need to release anxiety into its full power.

Until that moment, until we adults realize that the structures we have built are fundamentally hostile to the practice of adolescence in all of its wild and unholy learning, anxiety will be an impediment to learning and the mental health of our young people. Let's not be content to manage anxiety in the off-base hope that eventually adolescence will just go away.

Here's the heretical claim: maybe it's only by rethinking anxiety as a feature of adolescence, not a bug, that we can begin to glimpse a different sort of schooling, wilder, freer, less adult -- a school that doesn't just tolerate anxiety, but puts its tremendous power to use on behalf of learning. It's strange but we always talk about anxiety as if it were a quantity rather than an existential reality. We say: she experiences a lot of anxiety. But the problem of anxiety is not how much there is -- but the ends to which it is (or worse, is not) put.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

On Education as a Human Act: a report from the trenches

The process of learning is call and response. It's back and forth. It is flow and rhythm. It's a method of measuring -- how much can I take in without being overwhelmed. You can't gulp the glass; you have to drink deeply but breathe while you are doing it. You have to digest.

In short the process of learning is a process of relating. In learning we establish relationships with each other and with the object of study.

Much of the contemporary discourse around education forgets this basic fact. When we think of students, we think of individuals with clear boundaries, as disconnected wholes, and our educational system tends to consider itself as the accretion of many isolated data points. Each individual accrues a transcript, which marks the ascension of a single atom through a clearly defined path. When we speak of whether our educational system is working or what it is doing, we understand the whole "system" (we are in a mechanistic metaphysics) as an accretion of thousands of isolated data points. We take the data as primary and try to derive relationships from the data.

This way of thinking is literally backwards. Every educator knows that individuality is constructed out of relationality -- not the other way around. An atomistic way of thinking about students forgets what teachers know: learning is about making boundaries of the self open and permeable and could never be measured by any test whose function is to close off a self so that it can be determined.  Tests make static a process that is dynamic. They attempt to define a river by casting a line into it. Learning is fluid -- it demands breaking open the self and interacting with the world and with other people. The isolated atom cannot learn. It can only be sent mechanically from one point to another along a line that is already clearly laid out and determined.

These are things I have learned in my educational work: good teaching begins and ends with good relationships. Those relationships are founded in trust, and trust is a binding agent that functions between individuals. A school is not a system of transcript assembly. A school is a place, which exists in a world, and it is made out of people.

The social function of a school is to be a place where human relationship can be maintained and protected, where habits of human relationship can be built while they are still open and in-process. A school protects young people from the repetition and deadening that undermines relationality and de-sensitizes the human animal. These relationships -- of friendship, of respect, of joy, of concern, of self, of inquiry -- are the material of education.

A school is, therefore, a type of utopian space, where people come together to attempt to preserve the best in each other against the social forces that would undo and mechanize the human element. Schools succeed when they protect our ability to be vulnerable, to be exposed to each other, to encounter the world, to think and to feel. Openness, exposure, and vulnerability are the conditions of possibility of relationships and indeed of sensitive inquiry itself. Without these qualities there is no inquiry, there is only violence.

All educators must resist the factory model of education. The factory model, with its atomistic and divided conception of the child and the educator, its linear conception of curriculum, and its hierarchical characterization of social structures strips the school of its essential function, which is to maintain our humanity and to construct a vision of the human that is worth pursuing. It makes the school a machine instead of a place; it gives it functionality but not relationality. It deadens and makes mechanical a process that is organic and living and can only function in organic conditions.

For these reasons, the basic function of a teacher is to simply be humane -- all educational practice stems from the humanity of the teacher. The teacher's ability to relate to the world, to the material, to herself, to her colleagues, and to her students is the sine qua non of educational practice. All pedagogy is variation on this theme, and no pedagogy can substitute for it.

So, yes, let us measure our educational practice. Let us test and revise and innovate. But when we do, let us be sure we are testing the actual material of education. Such tests are not impossible to construct or carry out -- but their implementation demands qualities that cannot be factory-produced: empathy, respect, care, concern, attention. The testing and the analysis of education can only happen at the level of life itself, and those who know how to inquire at that level remain in short supply and appear not to have their hands on the levers of the educational system.

Until we have a society capable of taking the measure of a life in a full way, we will never have an educational testing system that leads us out of the factory model of education. We will have to rely on the human element in the factory and their counter-practices within and against the machine to keep the human spark alive. Green grass breaks through the cracks in the hardest concrete, and so still in the margins and through great effort does learning and genuine education happen.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Pretending to be Nenow

The runner I thought about most when I was training hard was Mark Nenow. He's not known by many runners today, but he ran under 28 minutes for 10k something like seven years in a row back in the '80s. He held the American Record in the 10000m for 15 years, from 1986 to 2001, when Meb ran seven ticks faster. Ritz never beat Nenow's best time. He still holds the mark for 10k on the roads at 27:22.

Nenow was a total running bum. He was known as the "White Kenyan" as he was slight and had legs up to his elbows. He lived and trained during his fastest years in Lexington, KY. His training schedule was simple: 140 mpw in 13 runs: 10am / 10pm Monday through Saturday, with a 20 miler on Sunday. Apparently he would head out for his evening run at 10pm. Most of this running was at "moderate" paces, which for Nenow was probably sub 6 minute miling. He did little to no interval work, sometimes running for a year without getting on the track -- but his best times came of course with a little rest and sharpening. Nothing fancy: workouts like 4 x 1600 at 4:30 pace.

Anyways, whenever I'd get that bulletproof feeling, when my mileage built and it felt like I could run forever, I'd imagine that I was Mark Nenow running with stone-hard legs through the Nashville evening. I can't say that I knew what it felt like to be that fast or be able to weather that sort of training, but I loved the kind of running that he ran -- the moderate runs, day after day -- which matched the simplicity of his training, and, in turn, matched the grueling simplicity of racing 10000m.

These runners in the 80s had no internet, rarely ran with watches, and Nenow himself didn't even have a coach. It's likely that if he had done today's perfect training with today's perfect recovery methods he would have run faster, perhaps much faster. But it's just as likely that part of the reason Nenow ran so well was that he did it his way, on his own, listening to his body, and simply running as much as he could.

I don't know Mark, but anyone who trained like that must have loved the running as much as the racing. And why not? Think of what it must have been to be Mark Nenow feeling good: rippling along at 5:40 pace, somewhere around the 17th mile of the day, as the dogs barked and the moon shone through the Kentucky midnight -- just Mark, just running.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Running Dreams

My suspicion is that most runners do not dream -- or at least do not remember their dreams. As a runner, my sleep had the quality of ink; absolutely black and immediate. It could be that runners simply do not need to dream, as in waking-life they are able to inhabit an intermediate phase of consciousness, skimming underneath their minds as they roll down the road. Or perhaps the narcotic fatigue of training drags runners into sleep so deeply that by the time they re-emerge they've left their dreams unconsciously behind.

Lately, without exercise, I have been dreaming more, and I often dream quite vividly that I am running. Some hours later, I have to point my consciousness to the fact of my injured ankle and construct a counter-factual argument: I cannot run, and so therefore the run that I am remembering must have been a dream and did not happen.  That's how vivid they are.

Upon recall these dreams are are very bodily. The run comes back as vibrations and sounds. The images are peripheral, as when in the flow of running, experience becomes a type of tunnel that opens out from the mind. The eyes are less important than the hips, the shock, the balance.

The other day in my dream I was running up a mountain, and what I remember most was the downthrust of my elbows, my toes curling to grip the dusty trail, and the arch of my neck as my eyes searched up for the horizon. The sun was nowhere to be seen; the landscape was trimmed down to an intimate horizon in which everything was felt and included, as if the lavender on the side of the trail was not seen but felt. This is perhaps a hallmark of dreaming. The boundaries between mind and world, between sense and reality, are muddied, as the world itself is only thought and through that inversion thought itself is worlded.

I remember that inversion in the flow of the run. To be reminded that we are each centers of our own universes, each capable of expanding and dissipating, or contracting to a point of intensity. Cosmology states that the universe began in a tightly wound point of tremendous density, and it has been exploding outwards for eons. Our image of the universe is specks of lonely stars in gallons of black paint.

The inward universe does not mirror nature. We need both expansion and intimacy, distance and depth, beginning and endings, waking and sleep. The multiverse of experience is a billion drifting centers of a billion vague horizons, blinking open and awake and then at the end of the day contracting back and asleep.  Later we wake and remember that it was all a dream, and that it all happened inside our minds, but that it was still somehow quite real, as real as it gets.

The possibility that reality is a dream has always been seen as solipsistic -- as a way of arguing that the only thing that is real is individual consciousness. But dreams and runs do not eliminate the world. They interiorize the external. They collapse the barrier between self and world, not so that the one becomes the other, but so that they both mingle and refresh and inter-connect. We dream and run and remember, not escaping reality, but following paths back into it.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Depressives

Disclaimer: this post is not about running -- it's been over a year since I've run! But it was motivated by a perfect evening for running, as the Tennessee summer somewhat incredibly loosened its grip, letting the crisp of fall in through the cracks in the clear sky.

* * *

It's come to me slowly and over time that almost all of my literary/philosophical heroes have been depressives. The three philosophers I've spent the most time with -- James, Emerson, and Nietzsche -- all struggled with and at moments succumbed to depression. There's a way in which their depression is a key to their writing, particularly Nietzsche's writing. Much of his work on human motivation -- the will to power -- could be seen as motivated by the depressive's question: how can I will myself to will?

James' philosophy as well so often rotates around questions of what makes experience flow and run. Depression is like a large and stagnant body of water, and we see James through the sort of effort of his prose make the water run. "The Will to Believe" is the text of a depressive trying to develop habits of mind that keep the water flowing. Belief for James is not about truth, but about continuing to survive and pursue an active life: this is the depressive's challenge.

We don't often think of Emerson as a depressive; the stock Emerson is the Emerson of "Self-reliance," an essay often (mis-) read as having the view that the individual could through force of will somehow wrest hold of his destiny and live according to it. The deeper argument that Emerson urges throughout his work is that the self must find deeper and more substantive sources of energy: the divine, genius, the universal. The Emersonian self is always losing itself in larger flows. The essay that unlocks this message is "Experience," in which Emerson fails to find the flows of experience, in which he lays out the fundamental nature of reality as melancholic:
"...we cannot shake off the lethargy now at noonday. Sleep lingers all our lifetime about our eyes, as night hovers all day in the boughs of the fir-tree. All things swim and glitter. Our life is not so much threatened as our perception. Ghostlike we glide through nature, and should not know our place again."
In The Noonday Demon (a book which anyone who is interested in depression should read), Andrew Solomon argues that depression has been with us, manifesting itself in various cultural forms and under various understandings, but persisting as a quality of the human animal. These days, of course, depression is understood medically as a type of disease along the lines of alcoholism or perhaps diabetes. There are people who have a propensity towards depression that can be activated by their environment or their biology (and also deactivated through medical and talking therapies.) Solomon's take is that depression is a type of chronic illness and should be treated as such -- through ongoing and constant treatment. Depression is a flaw in the wheel of character, and it can be lived with, but only through steady work.

When we read philosophy as young people, we often do so in order to lend authority to our own relatively new impressions of the world. When I read these depressives as a young man -- James, Emerson, Nietzsche -- I recognized their problems and my reaction was to say: aha! -- some truth, and carried them close to my heart as encouragement that the shade in which I saw the world might have some merit.

As we get older and more settled in our views, we need the affirmation of philosophy less. We see the philosophers that we clung to so urgently in our adolescence as thinkers as deeply flawed and even embarrassing. This happened to me most specifically with Nietzsche, who I find I can hardly read any more, and when I do so now, it's mostly to extract something banal and ordinary like: the guy was a depressive, rather than a nugget of indecipherable prose that reflected back to me something undecipherable as well.

But just in this way the philosophers return to us, less as sooth-sayers and more as representative types. The depressives, I can say at least, resonated with me in a time in my life when I needed them. They were friends, fellow travelers, strange men from the beginning of the 20th century who seemed to be speaking in an untimely present to me. As a young man, the concept of depression was totally foreign to me, but I understood these problems all too well: The Nietzschean question: "what is the source of human will?"  The Jamesian question: "How does intellectual rumination touch reality?" The Emersonian question: "How can the individual tap into the spark of divination?"

My use for philosophy had little to do with truth and much to do with companionship and friendship around a certain set of questions. Or, perhaps better put, the truth I found in the depressives was in their struggle, which seemed to take place alongside mine. It's impossible to imagine my young adulthood without these ideas and thinkers; that's how deeply they affected me.

In the larger culture wars, battles rage on about the value of the humanities, the purpose of philosophy, literature, and other less practical pursuits. For my part, it's sad to think that someone like me might not have had the chance to encounter those traveling companions who shepherded me into adulthood. Who else could it have been? The transition certainly would have been made, but less richly, less articulately, and with fewer memories and understanding of myself.

So, I'm grateful for my youthful courage to study philosophy and for the teachers and professors and friends and family who encouraged me to go digging into books to see what strange riches I might find.

Monday, August 3, 2015

On the Smallness of Running

"As for me, my bed is made: I am against bigness and greatness in all their forms, and with the invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, stealing in through the crannies of the world like so many soft rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, and yet rending the hardest monuments of man's pride, if you give them time. The bigger the unit you deal with, the hollower, the more brutal, the more mendacious is the life displayed. So I am against all big organizations as such, national ones first and foremost; against all big successes and big results; and in favor of the eternal forces of truth which always work in the individual and immediately unsuccessful way, under-dogs always, till history comes, after they are long dead, and puts them on the top."  --William James, in a letter to a friend

The smallness of running:

  • the strike of the foot
  • the curve of the path
  • the agonizing second
  • the race remembered
  • the step out of bed
  • the moment of decision
  • the blinding whirl
  • the forward lean
  • the breeze in an ear
  • the flight of the mind
  • the common pace
  • the daily run
  • the irritable tendon
  • the lace untied
  • the rising strength
  • the return to weakness
  • and so on, so long as we run

The way to write about a practice like running, which has no larger meaning, is to focus in on the smaller meanings. It's easy to think that when we philosophize we ought to say something grand and large, as if the truth of life must somehow be bigger than life. We are always wanting life to live up to its reputation, perhaps not realizing that this desire diminishes life. 

Following James, I've found more insight going small -- into the overlaps and the lifted edges of life. It's there that the mind can actually grab hold of reality. We want our minds to be like trawling nets that capture everything at once, but the truth is that minds are more like scalpels and tweezers, better at slicing and mending and grasping the small than capturing the large. We think with a pincer-grip.

It's for these reasons that I drone on about running as an antidote to wisdom ill-conceived. Running brings us back to the small. It locates the mind inside a body, inside a brain, inside a skull. It localizes the attention, steadies the scalpel. When we run, we find ourselves to be contained within ourselves, smaller and therefore more capable, and ultimately more wise for the smallness.

Like any material, the larger the mind is spread, the thinner it becomes. With the internet and current events and politics and all, it feels as if our minds have been stretched to a sort of transparent film, like the surface of a soap bubble, upon which only impressions can be made. Our attention is repeatedly drawn to affairs much larger than we can comprehend, and our reflections threaten to spin off into other reflections, hardly skimming experience.

In contrast, the pleasures and pains of having a body are always local, immediate, pressing. While our minds can drift above and out of them for a while, in the end these smaller immediacies will have their way, like James' patient soft rootlets rending relentlessly the hardest monuments of man's pride. 

In this is the small wisdom the body teaches: in the slip, in the passing, in the sensed and forgotten, in the glimpsed and the fleeting. In these are something more stable and enduring than the monuments of pride, the Gods and Nations and Arguments and Identities and Truths. We run, we sweat, we move, composing ourselves again, packing ourselves back into the small beings we are, ready to lift camp and to travel. 

Might it be that in the end there is no larger meaning, that in the end life is measured in smaller meanings, themselves eroding away into sensations, overlaps, strains, and intentions? The world, perhaps, does not just orbit a sun but is also made of beetles and coral and blood, itself one of many worlds, teeming off into smaller and smaller multitudes. Can't we cast our lot with smallness? Aren't the multitudes more than enough?

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