Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Shallow Optimism, Deep Hope: a quick formula for resilience in education

"I am not an optimist, but I am a prisoner of hope." --Cornel West

Three quick points:

1. Apparently only 31% of students nationwide agree that "I can find many lots of ways around any problem."

2. We always ask: why aren't students more invested in their own education? The answer is because they don't own the goals that are set for the educational system. As Jessica Lahey put it in a recent tweet: "we don't wash our rental cars."

3. Hope is another word for resilience. Hope comes to us, and it sends us over and over again into situations where failure is possible. It is grounded in a durable concepts like justice, goodness, truth, and love.

Students are optimistic that they will do well on the next test because they studied over the last few days. [low resilience]

Students hope that their education makes them genuine human beings, capable of carrying out full, just, and independent lives. [high resilience]

Our school system is designed for optimism, which is fleeting, external, and dependent on that minimal thing called the human will.

We need schools and communities that are focused around hope, which draws on deeper, more spiritual resources in the human -- and hopefully exposes students to these resources, teaching them that human strength is founded in our internal capacities. These are designated by concepts like joy, friendship, truth, justice, and freedom.

Looking for resilience in kids? Simple way to find it: ask whether your interactions with them are based around resilient concepts.

Is our pedagogy founded in a shallow optimism which says that "for this kid, in this situation, given these skills, she might find her way in society that is fundamentally hostile to her growth?"

Or are our educational practices and relationships with students founded in a deep hope that says, "together through the work of community, we can make a future that is more just, more free, more true, and more connected?"

Students intuit very quickly the sort of future that our relationships with them predict -- our ways of relating to them can undermine or generate hope in them and through this process either sap them of resilience or open them to the deep stores of strength and possibility that liberal education at its best sustains generation after generation.

What is liberal arts education? Put simply: it is a community practice of deep hope.

Monday, October 26, 2015

How things generally go

Mornings feel best to me. The vagueness of consciousness mirrors the early dawn and portends lucidity. There is a wariness to morning, the small fear that we all feel when at the beginning of something. I like most the mornings that stretch out not quite timelessly before days that have not yet been planned. No one else is up; no one else would be moving; the relaxation that is possible in the morning is the unearned kind and thus most itself, most fully present.

The coffee is finished, the scraps of reading are read, and into our day clothes we step, one leg at a time, like putting on armor. On opening the door, the day makes itself known -- the first breath, autumn smells, leaves scattered and thrown across the driveway.

Day is so much interaction and movement. The people come at you with their faces and their lively eyes. Small requests uttered, and the larger tasks always left unsaid. We walk by each other, holding ourselves somewhat tightly to our chests, not letting too much of ourselves leak out, and then finally losing ourselves to chore, to tedium, to fatigue, and if we are lucky to occasional joy or romance or more. All the beginnings not yet begun become real and resist; this is day.

Afternoon comes, as always, and energies wane. HacĂ­a el sur son inteligentes y duermen la siesta. Even if we work and do not rest, we work slowly and aim primarily to finish up. The daytime has drained the life out, like clear water poured over the ground and soaked up into roots and earthworms and then to the rocks underneath. If you take a moment in the late afternoon, you will notice that after the energy is stripped all away, you can find a sort of bedrock of the soul, the limestone underneath. That can be satisfying.

Evenings, things depend. Some people get the morning feelings again, in anticipation of the night being another beginning. Others -- like me -- see the night time as a chance to throw one's self absolutely into ending. As the light drains out of the world, so do all the daytime things slowly lose their reality.

Night comes, and we lay in our beds. The mind draws loops around itself, constructing imaginary scenes until the loop skips and eventually becomes a dream and then dark.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

On Teacher Autonomy

"It is ... advisable that the teacher should understand, and even be able to criticize, the general principles upon which the whole educational system is formed and administered. He is not like a private soldier in an army, expected merely to obey, or like a cog in a wheel, expected merely to respond and transmit external energy; he must be an intelligent medium of action." -- John Dewey

Teacher autonomy is critical to good education. This (like everything in education) is of course most obvious to teachers, as they are the ones most intimately involved in the educational process. Students (especially adolescents) are suspicious of contrived situations and most open to connection when they sense there is an authentic person on the other end of the line. Autonomy is the path to authenticity, as only the teacher who is free to explore and experiment can find the pedagogy that allows full expression of the self in practice.

However, autonomy is poorly understood by many teachers who advocate for it and also by the administrators who are suspicious of it. The reason for this is that autonomy is really different from being left alone. 

Sure, the first step to developing autonomy is freedom from. Freedom from arbitrary constrictions. Freedom from micromanaging. Freedom from forces and interests that are obviously mis-educational. Administrators have a basic duty to protect teachers from these things so that they can explore and create.

Unfortunately, most conceptions of teaching autonomy stop there, but of course that sort of autonomy for teachers is not enough. Autonomy is more than freedom from constraint. Autonomy is positive freedom -- it is the freedom to act with purpose. Teacher autonomy (like individual autonomy) only finds its full expression within a purposeful community, and it is fuller yet when teachers are able out of their own practice (alongside students) create that purpose and feel responsible for the school community.

What then, is the role of the school administrator? As clear as I can figure it is to identify the ways in which the community is not yet autonomous or lacking purpose -- and also the teachers as individuals who have not yet found the full expression of their autonomous practice (or who have lost it somewhere along the way.) The administrator cannot ex nihilo create this purpose or autonomy, but must instead, through modeling, encouragement, listening, and communicating help teachers into autonomous community, actively and boldly clearing the path for it, and sometimes perhaps tracing the first steps.

If students are to learn to be free, active, bold, joyful, and creative, they must have in front of them on a regular basis adults who possess these qualities. Schooling is difficult work, and many adults lack the stamina or resilience to do this work and manifest these qualities. The best schools quickly identify the impediments to teachers being their full, best selves for their students, and eliminate them without pity.

Friday, October 16, 2015

On Vitality, Schooling, and Training

An acquaintance told me a week ago that there is a deep connection between training for a marathon and good schooling and encouraged me to draw this connection.

The connections at first seem obvious. Perhaps school is like training. You put the work in and then get results out. Effort over the long haul leads to incremental changes in the body, mind, and spirit that allow the runner/student to do something which perhaps seemed impossible. I suppose this is the association my friend had in mind, and it works at a certain level.

Runners recognize, however, that equating training with effort and work takes an external view of the whole thing. From the inside training never feels primarily like a goal-oriented activity. In order for it to work and work well, it must mostly be immediately satisfying.

Sure, there were moments when there was a lack of satisfaction and I could invoke an external goal (running under 2:30 in the marathon was mine) to get myself out the door. But my training at its best was an almost wholly present-oriented activity. The training works when it is integrated and flows and feeds the rest of your life, through friendships, being outside in nature, and the pleasurable feelings of bodily movement. If we have to be inspired to get out the door on a frequent basis, and if it's not the doing itself that is inspiring, then the effort that marathon training requires can't be sustainable. The running must be based in a sort of  joy in movement, one that is pleasant in itself and flows out of experience with the vitality and force of Nature.

Learning is the same in this sense. As living beings, it is as natural for us to learn and grow as it is to breathe and eat. Schooling, like training, has to feed that natural impulse and work in it and through it. The purpose of schooling is to make the human animal most fully what it can become. Too often we think of the work of education as the construction of an artificial self, manufactured through external effort and work. So long as the work of education fails to engage with the natural impulse to grow and learn, it will be absent vital force. If running and training must be based in the joy of movement in order to be fully effective, so education must be based in the natural joy of growth.

One of the great dangers of marathon training (perhaps the single greatest danger for the highly competitive runner) is overtraining. Overtraining happens when instead of working in concert with vitality, training begins sapping it. The consequences to the runner are loss of joy, constant fatigue, depletion, etc. Yet, often the runner ignores these signs, attempting through sheer effort to will the body to follow the despotic trainer. The error of overtraining is a consequence of too much artificial effort and too little listening to the body.

When our schools fail today, they fail in two ways.

1) Focused too entirely on what society needs from its young people, it forgets entirely that the process of education is founded in student growth. The "training plan" -- having been crafted by political interests -- is implemented and executed with complete disregard for the individual undertaking it.

2) Schools, teachers, and parents intentionally trying to maximize student growth, very much like the marathoner in training pushing herself to her absolute limit, disregard the natural ability of the child to grow and the natural source of growth, which is joyful play. They push the child too hard, effectively overtraining them so that they lose touch with their natural capacity for growth. Here schooling becomes based in effort, work, and achievement rather than the internal qualities of curiosity, will, determination, and freedom.

Schools work only when they are founded in and working through the natural impulse to growth and association that are a byproduct of being living beings. Any other approach to education is necessarily artificial and external -- usually founded in ideas or demands that are only weakly attached to the relationships of community out of which the school draws all of its life.

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 experience 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?

Friday, July 24, 2015

Death, Singularity, and the Memory of Running

"... as my father was receding from human circumstance, so, too were all of these particulars, back to some unknowable froth where they might be reassigned to stars or belt buckles, lunar dust or railroad spikes …  I am made from planets and wood, diamonds and orange peels, now and then, here and there; the iron in my blood was once the blade of a Roman plow.” 
— Paul Harding, Tinkers

Injury has kept me from running for more than six months, and I finally decided last month to go under the knife, hoping that the surgeon could somehow make elastic again a right achilles tendon that had been chewed by my calcaneus over the course of thousands of miles into a ruptured mass of inchoate flesh. The surgery was a success; he took the flexor hallus longus — a tendon that runs the length of the bottom of the foot to flex the big toe — and somehow used it to reinforce and stabilize the achilles. Just yesterday I began to walk awkwardly without crutches. It will be a few more months until I can run. With luck, I will be able to train a year from now.

So for the last little while running — that faithful antidote to all the ideas in my head — has now become an idea. My relationship with running is no longer immediate. I am a runner, still, but in memory, in dreams.

Here are the things I remember: the acid first early steps of a run, the complaining legs falling like mules into halter, a steady rhythm, steamy breath, the shoulders loosening and legs warming. The second curve of the track, bending patiently around, the bodily humors surging and flowing, pain and pleasure mixing like ginger beer and whiskey. Mischievous thoughts, playing with the pace, baiting training partners into feeling too good, running too fast, until we are flowing and cranking and leaning into the curves.

When something in your life is lost: your father, a favorite shirt, an old habit, or a place, what is remembered is arbitrary: a collection of moments adding up to only so many particulars. So it is with running; away from the rhythm of training, away from the constant ache and hunger, the wooden legs and bird-chest, running comes back to me as scattered bits and impressions, never as the whole. The brain weakly assembles what in immediate experience is so much fuller: the symphony of experience played back by a solitary and sweet violin.

But I believe what Paul Harding is saying in Tinkers, as George ruminates on his father's death, is that in the re-assembling of memory, in the broken particularity, is a kind of connection. As particulars, as belt buckles and lunar dust and railroad spikes, we possess the kind of fractured density that Kant could only call the object =x. Singularity is the word for it in philosophy — as singularities we are not the same, we are absolutely other, as mute to each other as a pillow to a strand of hair, as the diamond to the orange peel, as every object is to every other. We are all made out of this soundlessness.

The logorrheic beings we are, we constantly bridge this soundless singularity through narrative, piecing together the separate nouns that clutter perception with verbs and syntax, holding the whole grammar together in the stories we tell. Narrative weaves together the disparate, fallen apart, and lost objects into a coherence that — done well — recreates the deep and immediate flow of experience.

But narrative itself only holds together in the moment of reading or the even more fragile moment of writing. Narrative, itself, is an experience, and does not last. We read and are captured in the grip, and then lost again. 

With running too: we run, are captured in the grip, and lost again. Like wrens, we flit from branch to branch, the perchings and the flights, lightly touching and grabbing and holding on, then falling into flight. 

That's what I miss from running, the catchings, the fallings, the effort to piece it together until it then comes together. The violins drop their piecemeal whining, the soundless objects cease their muteness, and -- the symphony begins, and it strains and flows and lasts the whole while, like life, until it ends.

Monday, July 20, 2015

"Running as Art: Tolerance, Temperament, and the Ineffable"

Here is an open access link to the post-prints of "Running as Art: Tolerance, Temperament, and the Ineffable." This essay was first written in response to a call for papers on the topic of the ineffable by the American Philosophies Forum.

I think that readers of this blog will enjoy it! Any institutional use of this work should credit the Journal of Speculative Philosophy.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

My Dad -- how I knew him

Dad loved the Tennessee River Gorge
When my daughter was born, my Dad would look at her to try to gauge whether she was an Edmonds. He always concluded that she was. Lourdes and I saw it too: from the beginning the first person she looked like was my father. Panambi was a difficult infant. I remember looking down at her when she was just months old, and she stared back up at me with animal wildness in her eyes, twisting and straining in a body that didn't fully respond. That's when she looked like my Dad.

When we would talk about how difficult Panambi was as an infant with my family, everyone would say that Dad was the most difficult infant they had ever seen. I of course didn't see that up close but I saw it in my own daughter. She came into the world restless and straining at its limits, just like my Dad.

When I think about who he is, that's the first thing I think of -- a sort of unsettled, straining, and restless energy that was the quality of his soul. My Dad was a little bit crazy and very much alive.

That restless energy made some people uncomfortable. My Dad was not good in polite company. He headed straight in conversation for the most taboo topics. He could size up a complete stranger in an instant and would center in on what made them uncomfortable and unsettled. This sounds mean and aggressive when I write it, and I think that he came off that way to some people. But what he was doing was inviting people into the way that he lived in the world, which was open and unsettled and vulnerable and chaotic. He wanted to dispense with the guards we put around us and meet on terrain that was more open. He felt most comfortable there.

Although my Dad loved to provoke people he was never calculating -- it was instinctual. He never controlled fully the energy that coursed through him. The closest he came was as a young man, a state champion pole vaulter who also loved to party and dance. He couldn't control the energy but as a young athlete, he could vibrate with its frequencies.

The purity of my Dad's energy is something that those closer to him knew. Once you got past his provocations, a different man emerged. My father was almost totally selfless. Perhaps because he could never build a self around all of that instinct and spirit, he just never demanded much from anyone. He was also deeply sensitive and capable of deep emotion. Though he never said it much, I knew how much he loved me and my brother, along with his mother and his own father and his brother and sister. His life centered on a small circle of people who he would do anything for, without complaint and without judgment.

My Dad died suddenly and it appears he left without suffering, at least in that moment. In the later years of his life, my Dad suffered quite a bit. His body rebelled at the energy of his spirit, tightening and tensing up on itself. Sometimes the energy was too much for him to bear, and his way to deal with it wasn’t always healthy. But he took it all on himself and didn't want to bother anyone with it.

The memory that flashes before me now is of me and him fishing on Santeelah Lake up in the North Carolina mountains. It was sunset, the lake reflecting brown and orange sky. All of a sudden, the smallmouth started biting, and it was total chaos. I was probably 10 years old, and my Dad and I reeled them in, one after another, these tight wriggling fish pulled like electricity out of those clear cold waters. That's when my Dad was at peace, with his son, in nature, with forces as wild and clean and wriggling as that soul-stuff that ran through him.

That night is 25 years gone and now so is my Dad, gone with it, but he was never here to stay anyways. He was unsettled and vibrant and now he is gone.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Eulogy for a Great Coach: Van Townsend

"...if an unusual necessity forces us to press onward, a surprising thing occurs. The fatigue gets worse up to a certain critical point, when gradually or suddenly it passes away, and we are fresher than before. We have evidently tapped a level of new energy, masked until then by the fatigue-obstacle usually obeyed. There may be layer after layer of this experience. A third and a fourth "wind" may supervene. Mental activity shows the phenomenon as well as physical, and in exceptional cases we may find, beyond the very extremity of fatigue-distress, amounts of ease and power that we never dreamed ourselves to own, — sources of strength habitually not taxed at all, because habitually we never push through the obstruction, never pass those early critical points." --William James, "The Energies of Men"

Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.
-- Will Shakespeare

My good friend, training partner, and coach Van Townsend died on Monday, too young, of cancer.

Great coaches are gifted with an ability to unlock what is bound up in others, and of course if they themselves could explain this gift, great coaching could be learned and perhaps we'd have more of them. This gift is as obvious and basic in great coaches as other fundamental character traits. You perceive it immediately, once in their presence, a sort of magnetic effect of personality. Coaches are born, not made.

Really the best way to understand great coaching is indirectly through looking at what athletes need. Athletes are people who are driven to pour immense amounts of energy into a single pursuit of excellence . The best athletes must be able to tune out distraction, find poise and relaxation under extreme conditions, tap into wells of motivation and endurance long after the wells of others have run dry. The athlete is the person who knows how to access the strengths and capacities of the human that are, as James puts it, "habitually untaxed."

For this reason athletes are fundamentally solitary beings. They function at their best in small clans, apart from the untaxed habits of ordinary life and in tune with different values and expectations. The athletic life is a counter-cultural life.

A great coach know how to cultivate and maintain this counter-culture. He or she is able through the magnetism of the coaching gift to create a world within a world (and even against the world) that moves according to different laws. Van Townsend was a master at this.

When Van first arrived at my high school, he was strikingly counter-cultural. In a world of mid-90's George Herbert Walker Bush Southern values and prep-school ties, he sported an earring, wore garishly colored running jackets, and dwelled always within a clutter of enormous adidas running shoes (he had size 11 feet.) His shorts were incredibly short, revealing legs hardened by a word that when spoken seemed magical: mileage. It was hard to tell how old he was -- the wrinkles around his eyes, the gaunt cheeks were marks of old age. But his eyes were twinkling and bright and mischievous as if he'd just turned 17. He was into weird British punk rock.

He was immediately different, and that difference itself made us curious -- what sort of world did this guy live in? Where did he come from? And what the heck was he doing here, in Chattanooga?

Turns out that Van had come to Chattanooga to create a running dynasty in a place that didn't even know what running was. Van had trained at the center of the running universe under the legendary Bill Squires. He was a running purist; he believed in running easy, in weekly mileage numbers that made young kids heads whirl: 80, 90, 100. He believed in doubles, in running during lunch, in running in the middle of the night. He urged us to be different, to be weird.

Running, for Van, was not training or doing a sport. It was a way of being, a radical counter-culture for a chosen few. He didn't coach a team or build training plans. He created a world of values and mystery, and invited you in. Those who crossed the threshold would be forever fundamentally changed.

Van's world unlocked runners. How do you take an adolescent boy and convince him to run 80 miles per week? How do you create a band of brothers, willing to pour themselves out, day after day, under the hot sun? How do you take 20 or so young men from a small town in Tennessee and craft a team that is able to compete with the best teams in the nation? These are the things that Van did.

Van's gift was that he urged and fostered intensity. He modeled what it meant to be energetically alive. His life avoided the plain, the ordinary, and the routine and instead focused on the wild, the spontaneous, and the reckless. For Van's runners, training and competing wasn't about glory or even victory, but about intensity of living purposefully and sharing in sacrifice with others.

Perhaps the greatest thing about Van was that it was so easy to be a part of his team. Van was always recruiting--which is to say, he was always reaching out and finding people. As soon as you met Van, he was coaching you, like it or not, peering into what made you tick, and filling that ticker with his enthusiasm which poured out of him in a wild spray of language. His world was for the precious few, but it was an open world. He would train runners from all the schools in the region over the summer, then relentlessly compete against them in the fall, then bring them back together to train in the winter. His world was the runner's world, in which your rival is your greatest friend. He could fuse opposites.

I am sad that Van is dead. Really, it's hard to believe that he could die. But I am not as sad as I thought I would be. For those of us who knew Van, we carry so much of him within us that in a way he had already accomplished a kind of spiritual leaving. Great coaches are there with their athletes, in their moment of greatest struggle, and that's because they've figured out a way into the athlete's heart, so that the athlete doesn't have to be alone in his solitude of striving, in his moment of greatest fatigue and pain.

Yes, -- these are hard words -- Van has died. But more than that, he has become more fully what he always was: a man able to give a part of himself to everyone he met. Now he is only that, a beating pulse in the center of every person he touched, unlocking us, giving us strength and joy and life.

Van Townsend was a great coach. He runs on, in the heart of runners everywhere.
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