Sunday, November 2, 2003

Lots of Time for Reflection

I was just reading something entitled “Enlightenment Fears, Fears of Enlightenment” by Lorraine Daston, a woman who happens to be director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. She was writing of the headiness of the shift from relaxing into the arms of God to independence and assuming godliness, that shift into the Enlightenment.

But the price of detachment was often solitude, and the price of solitude could be madness. Cut loose from the web of sociability, released from the reciprocal accommodations of sympathy and diversion that “busy” us in conversation, the imagination invents a counter-self and a counter-world. Lovelier and livelier than the real self and world, the fata morgana of the imagination draws the solitaire ever farther from reality, both social and natural. To be mad was no longer, as it was in the seventeenth century, to suffer an excess of black bile, or to be possessed by demons; it was to prefer a personal world of the imagination to the shared world of society. It was, in other words, the ultimate form of independence. Hence the terror of madness precisely among Enlightenment intellectuals who hallowed independence, who fled Unmündigkeit [immaturity – the state of being before coming of age]. Their incessant warnings against the seductions of the imagination indicate how loose they gauged the grip of reason and reality to be. Pace its Romantic critics, the doyens of the Enlightenment did not scorn the imagination; they paid it the respectful compliment of honest fear.

I’ve spent the last two days in virtual isolation. Great for reading and thinking. Great for getting the kitchen grease off the metal surfaces and the dried bell pepper slices unstuck off the floor. But not good for the mind.

Too much think-time. Too much reflection on the failure of the body and the lack of will to do anything about it, on the fear of the end of an income. Too much time to think about the limitations of connections with the world around me. A mini touch of madness.

Have been thinking about that time in Argentina when, after eight days mostly in solitude (a dream come true) I found myself squirming with the fear of self and the chagrin of the discovery that I had never faced those fears. And about the conversations with several people who have gone to Kyoto for ten day zazen meditation sessions, who all told me the same experience comes over them about the seventh or eighth day.

It’s an easy place to avoid, this fear of self and of the imagination. So easy to keep busy. Distraction is sanity.

Life has been good to me and granted me time for reflection.

It has also given me clothes. And it’s time to do the laundry.

November 2, 2003

Saturday, July 12, 2003

Japanese Politicos’ Darwin Awards

Japanese politicians deserve their own category of Darwin Awards. The Liberal Democratic Party, which some like to call the Japan Republican Party, has been in power so long it smells like feet enclosed too long in shoes. They have been given a run for their money in recent years, but voter apathy, structural rigidity and lack of an inspired opposition have kept them in power. Virtual certainty of continued control allows for corruption, incompetence and boobery in any country, but the way Japan has managed to funnel some of its dimmer wits into politics is worth a Poli Sci Ph.D. dissertation or two; I’d love to see what a clever analyst might come up with to explain the phenomenon.

Back in the 80s there was Prime Minister Nakasone who let it slip that he felt sorry for America because it had so many blacks and hispanics pulling down their IQ level. When Jesse Jackson said, “Whoa there, pardner,” Nakasone insisted he was only talking to his cronies and the media had no right to take his remarks out of context. Yeah, right. What was that context there, Yasu? (Yasuhiro Nakasone and Ronald Reagan were pals. They called each other “Ron” and “Yasu.”)

There are the usual xenophobes who suck on people’s fear of difference and the unknown, like the Governor of Tokyo who wants to get the police ready so that if there is a natural disaster the city’s fair citizens will not be overrun by foreign criminals. But that kind of pandering is hardly a uniquely Japanese phenomenon.

No, I’m thinking more of the guy recently who announced, after a scandal hit the papers of a club at Waseda University that was into raping their dates, “It just shows the virility of the younger generation.”

And of the guy in the paper today. The country is in shock at the moment, so you might want to give him a little slack. But after the news hit the stands that the four year old found dead last week after being thrown off a building was actually killed by a twelve year old, everybody is doing what they always do with such information, asking how the nation got into such a mess and looking for scapegoats. Anyway, this guy – Konoike is his name – has now come up with a course of action. “Drag his parents through the streets and behead them,” he suggests.

All right, all right, I hear you say. He’s only saying out loud what millions are thinking. But really, folks, this guy is not only a public figure; he’s the (are you ready for this?) Minister for Disaster Prevention and Deputy Head of a government panel on youth problems.

Once we learn the whole set of circumstances and have a clearer idea of the degree to which mom and pop are responsible for this tragic figure, who knows? We might actually be persuaded to go along with this punishment.

But only if the twits that put Konoike in this position are subjected to the same punishment.

July 12, 2003

Friday, June 27, 2003

Reflections on Stonewall 2003

Thirty-four years now – where does the time go to – since the guys in makeup and heels fought back at Stonewall. It’s once again the gay Fourth of July, Christmas and Easter, Pesach and Yom Kippur rolled into one. It’s time to be gay for all of us old farts who don’t make that much of a big deal about being gay anymore. Time to look around and celebrate. Oh yes, and you young folk who think it’s always been this good, you go ahead and party too.

This year, with all the bad news of war and viral terror, it’s been hard to sing and dance. But Stonewall has rolled around and the gods have decided to be kind this week. There’s much to be thankful for.

On the political front, there are some remarkable differences between now and only a few years ago. In 1992, the Republican convention released its pitbulls against gays. W’s people, however, kept the dogs on the leash in 2000, and after Rick Santorum compared homosexuality with bestiality the White House couldn’t try hard enough to distance itself. When John Ashcroft’s “compassionate conservative” Justice Department went back on its word to allow its employees the usual courtesy of marking this month as Gay Pride month, and was forced to eat its words and give in, W kept silent. Six years ago Republicans savaged the appointment of a gay man as ambassador to Luxembourg; W. just appointed a gay man with a live-in partner as ambassador to Romania. All this from an aggressively conservative government.

In the world of entertainment, CBS is putting out a new sitcom starring Nathan Lane as a gay Congressman, and Scott Wittman plants a kiss on the lips of his partner of 25-years (and fellow songwriter for “Hairspray”) Marc Shaiman at The Tony Awards this year, right out there in front of God and everybody. Ellen DeGeneres’s coming out six years ago was the biggest news on television. These days, Frank Rich of the New York Times reports, the boycott of Disney for its pro-gay stance is a total flop and Richard Chamberlain “declared he was gay to widespread yawns.”

That lovely country up north where “the Mountie always gets his man” has just taken step three for gay marriage. Step one was all the Scandinavian countries, who allowed their own gay citizens to marry but no non-citizens and without adoption rights; step two was Holland and Belgium, who allowed marriage for its own citizens and anybody from countries like Scandinavia where it was allowed – and accepted adoption rights. Canada says there is no reason to deny the right of citizens and non-citizens alike to determine for themselves what they will call a marriage, and of course they should be able to raise kids in a loving family.

For gay people in America, however, it was yesterday when the Berlin Wall finally came down. For seventeen ugly years since police walked into a house and caught two guys in flagrante and the Supreme Court of the day, in Bowers v. Hardwick, said gays had no right to have sex even in their own home, gays have dreamt of the freedom people have in other countries to love and be loved and have that love recognized and accepted. Not in the U.S.A. Until yesterday.

Yesterday, the Court, with a majority of 6 to 3, declared that “Bowers was not correct when it was decided, is not correct today, and is hereby overruled.” The new ruling, in Lawrence et al v. Texas, might have been merely a resounding victory, but the decision of the court to base their decision on a critique of separate laws for gays and straights, which Bowers upheld, makes it a stunning victory, opening the possibility of full civil rights for gays once and for all.

I remember some thrilling moments over the years, the election of Harvey Milk and the defeat of the Briggs Initiative in California, the election of gay mayors in Berlin and Paris. But seldom have I wished I might have been in and up close on something as much as this. The New York Times report had the information tucked in with the details of the case that “by the time [Justice Kennedy] referred to the dignity and respect to which he said gays were entitled, several were weeping, silently but openly.”

Me too. Except when I’m dancing in every room in my house.

Happy Stonewall Anniversary everybody!

June 27, 2003

Saturday, June 7, 2003

Canon Gene

Well, it’s done. Gene (He’s one of “us,” you know) Robinson is now officially a bishop. And there he is on the front page of the Herald Tribune, mitre and all, about to give a smack on the lips to his partner of many years, Mark Andrew, who I guess will be moving in to the rectory – or wherever bishops live these days. Mark (“Hi, have you met my Lifemate the Primate?) Andrew, along with Gene’s ex-wife, two daughters, his mom and dad and nearly 4000 other people stood, applauded, cheered and whistled, they tell us, when the ceremony was completed. I would have too, if I had stayed in the church. And if I lived in New Hampshire. And had been invited. And could whistle.

Not everybody is cheering, obviously. There’s lots of talk about how this is splitting the Anglican communion down the middle.

That would be a pity, I think.

I have an especially warm place in my heart for the Episcopal Church. When I was eighteen, and looking hard to organized religion for answers, I wandered away from the Congregational Church in which I had grown up, because it did little for the soul. At least for my soul.

I used to go to mass at St. Joseph’s with my catholic friends during lent. I loved the dark cavernous church, the flickering candles on the many altars, the smell of incense which had seeped into the gothic beams and the stones on the floor. In the Congregational Church there were good people, but the focus seemed to be on ourselves, how we looked, how nicely we all spoke to each other, how much food for thought was in preacher’s latest sermon. In the Catholic church, the attention was drawn away from ourselves, up the beams and out the gothic arches, carried on the incense and the upraised hands of the priest holding the Body of Christ.

There are worse ways of growing up than being torn by two cultural solutions in the battle between the head and the heart. Enlightenment reason was my heritage home. I was a white kid of Puritan stock. The Quakers, with their ability to sit for hours waiting for the Spirit to provoke them to comment, the Baptists who were much about water and washing off the dirt of sin, the analytical bible classes where study took us as much to the world of the Jews and the Old Testament and a proper fear of a wrathful God – all these were my tradition lined up for me, from the anti-intellectual fire and brimstone to the thoughtful Christian Scientist, Quaker, Presbyterian or Congregationalist truth claims. So many choices, so many properly protestant voices to listen to, so many communities of believers to join.

I went Lutheran. That way I got to be a tad closer to the spiritual homeland of my grandmother, got to say prayers in German, got to see a Protestant cleric, for a change, deck himself out in brocade and velvet and brilliant color. I got to go to a church that appreciated the value of ritual, without slipping over into the world of the Irish and the Italians, the Poles and the French Canadian “others,” whose views on God I knew, somehow, were not anatomically correct.

I went Lutheran, except that where I went to school in Middlebury, Vermont, there was a pitiful dearth of us – eight or ten of us at most. We formed a student group, and Pastor Dave came over from Dartmouth to do a Lutheran service once a month.

The rest of the time, I got my appetite for ritual satisfied at St. Stephen’s, the local Episcopal enterprise. And so earnest was my desire to participate that I actually went and got special dispensation from the Bishop of Vermont to take communion. He quizzed my Lutheran enthusiasm for a minute or two and then pronounced me worthy.

I had memorized the mass in Latin at St. Joseph’s by going every morning before school. I was a precocious language learner in those days, and it did wonders for my school Latin. But now, in the Anglican communion I was handed what I came to feel was a gift from heaven itself, the Book of Common Prayer, which included lines like the Anglican analogue of the Roman mea culpa: –

We have erred and strayed from your ways like lost sheep,
We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts,
We have offended against your holy laws,
We have left undone those things which we ought to have done,
And we have done those things which we ought not to have done,
And there is no health in us...

what’s not to love about this glorious use of the language of God, Shakespeare and the Bible. Never mind the excess of language. Just assume with me that some one of Gene Robinson’s gay predecessors got to write that line in the confessional in his native faggotese. (“There is no health in us,” indeed! Reminds me of my friend Elizabeth, who when some evangelist came to the door of her Jewish household with the line, “Did you know Jesus died for your sins?” responded, “He went too far – they weren’t that bad.”)

Never mind. Excess is delicious, I think. I’m gay. It’s in the genes. And I was at home in that lovely ritualistic communion. It was so Catholic. So English. So pretty.

I left the Church not more than a couple of years later, driven out by the discovery that the Lutheranism I had come to know in America was not at all like the Lutheranism I encountered in Germany. The German Church in Catholic Bavaria had a seige mentality – an island of protestant purity in Germany’s most decadent city. I went on a religious retreat with the folks in my Lutheran dormitory and made the mistake of letting it slip that I had been drinking in the Hofbräuhaus the night before and was ostracized.

Screw them, I thought. I was tired of answering the phone with “Evangelisches Studentenwohnheim in der Arcisstraße, Grüß Gott!” anyway. Too much of a mouthful, this Lutheran business. I found myself looking for an Episcopal Church in Munich. Instead, I found an “Old Catholic” church, something I had no idea existed. After that, I was on a roll, for a while, seeking out all the ways of being Christian that I had never heard of back in the land of Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians.

“When it comes to culture and religion,” I asked my graduate seminar in the theory of culture, just recently, “which one is background, which is foreground?”

Not everybody’s idea of an exciting way to spend your time, I grant you. Not everybody gives a hoot about such things. But I do. I really am interested in how religion affects culture and vice versa.

And here we have a delicious example of how culture reigns supreme. In this battle over whether Canon Robinson ought to be where he is, religion is like the candle in a side altar and culture is the cathedral. Whether the Anglican Church will fall apart depends on whether men and women of different cultures can cross their cultural divide. Very little of this issue is religious.

While thousands cheer and hug and kiss and whistle in New Hampshire, the Archbishop of Canterbury is acknowledging that the Bishop of New Hampshire will not be able to take communion in many of the Anglican churches of the world. Nigeria, for example. And Uganda. Laugh if you will, but there are only 2.3 million American Anglicans out of 70 million worldwide. And it’s not just Bishop Kogo of Kenya who has broken his church’s links with the members of their American Anglican family. Canon Harmon of South Carolina is leading a group of Americans who want to cut this limb off the body.

There was a moment during the consecration ceremony when people were invited (you know, like at a wedding when you get to speak or “forever hold your peace”) to object to Robinson’s installation. The Reverend Earle Fox of Pittsburgh got up and entertained the assembly with a graphic list of sexual practices engaged in by homosexuals. He had to be shut up by the bishop presiding over the ceremony.

Don’t you love it? Bishops talking in church about rimming and toe-sucking? Who needs Disneyworld? (And don’t you wonder if there was anybody around to remind the Reverend Earle that somewhere in history there were heterosexuals who once did it standing up?)

This is serious business, folks. Meredith Harwood of St. Mark’s parish in Ashland, we are told, is on record as saying this will not only split the Anglican Communion; it will break God’s heart.”

I gotta tell you, Meredith, the good Christians of the world probably did that already when they stood by and let the Holocaust happen. This won’t even give him indigestion, unless he takes cultural difference seriously.

The Europeans are ready for gay marriage; the Americans are not, but they are, at long last, acknowledging gays should have unfettered civil rights. The Africans are, some of them, now sacrificing children because they have discovered sacrificing goats does not prevent AIDS. Do you think these boys are concerned about whether allowing a good man who happens to be in love with a man named Mark might break God’s heart by wanting to minister to the needs of some New Englanders?

All God’s children looks at things differently.

I’m happy for you, Canon Gene. Blessings on you, your Church, and your loving partner Mark Andrew. I’m happy you’re all sharing the Planet Earth with me today.

June 7, 2003

Monday, April 28, 2003

Finding My Legs

One day I’ll find a decent place to have my hair cut in Berkeley. I know a good barber in Palo Alto, but in the eight months I just spent at home in California, I was in a rut. When I began to feel the hair pouring over my ears and neck, I usually popped in to Supercuts or one of those wretched places on Shattuck. Each time I’d say to myself, "For a buck more I could have hired a guy with a lawn mower and gotten a better haircut." And each time I’d think, "Can’t wait to get back to Mr. O., my barber in Hiratsuka."

I didn’t spend a lot of time pining for Japan those eight months. I was really happy in Berkeley and I lived in the present the whole time. And coming back to Japan has been very hard. The weather, the politics at work, the loss of Friday nights at shabbat, the Sunday nights at Linda’s, the day-to-day with Taku and with Jerry and Karl just around the corner. It’s been rough. Aside from time with the Harringtons and with my friend David’s family, it’s been lonely and empty.

Today I felt the hair begin to bury the legs of my glasses and I decided it was time to renew my acquaintance with old Mr. Oshima. For four years now he’s been cutting my hair, and unlike the five-minute hatchet jobs at "The Clip Joint," or whatever that place on Shattuck is called, a trip here to the barber is almost as good as a trip to the onsen.

Mr. O always meets me with a look on his face that suggests I’ve just made his day. The entire staff bows as I enter; Mr. O. escorts me to the barber chair, everyone else clicks their heels and takes their stations. One kid makes sure the towels are hot, another sets out the shaving mug and razor, a third prepares the combs and plugs in the hand massager. Mrs. O. bustles around and whisks the loose hairs from every corner of the room, and all attention is on me. It’s tailor made to make you feel like a king.

That’s the way it was. Today was different. I walked into the barber shop in the late afternoon. There was nobody there. Mrs. O. was in her apartment in the back of the shop and only one kid was holding down the fort. When he spotted me, he dashed back. Going for Mr. O, I thought. Have to get the old man to take care of sensei. They’ve got some sort of unspoken agreement that I get the boss man.

It’s not simply that I always get a first class haircut. I’m genuinely fond of the man and I enjoy our conversations. He’s well-informed about world events and I always learn something. He’s witty and charming and he’s genuinely fun to talk to, unlike most barbers who always talk more than I want to listen.

Today was different. Mrs. O. comes out, bows low to me and apologizes, "I’m sorry. Mr. O. isn’t here. Would you be willing to have the boy cut your hair?"

"No problem," I tell her. It really isn’t. The kid will do fine.

He’s nervous. Maybe I was a bit too hasty in agreeing. He’s a skinny kid with thick glasses. Hope he can see what he’s doing. Hope he can tell where my hairline ends and my ears begin when he’s got that razor in his hand.

I learned years ago that within the first two or three seconds a barber puts his hands on your head you know whether or not you’re going to get a good haircut. The kid puts me instantly at ease. We don’t talk. I don’t want to assume he has views on the war in Iraq and I don’t want to distract him. But the scissors are soon flying and the comb is running up and down the sides of my head as if he’s been doing this for thirty years. The kid is good.

Mr. O. never asks me about my preferences. He knows them. Learned them the very first time I went in there four years ago. But the kid asks me if the part goes here, if the back is high enough, if the sideburns are the way I like them. He wants to know about mousse. "Do I look like the few remaining hairs on the back of my head would benefit from mousse?" The question makes him turn red.

I try some conversation. I tell him how lousy the barbers are in Berkeley, and I realize I’m only making him more nervous. He’s really trying hard to get this right the first time so I won’t tell Mr. O. the day was a disaster. I’ve got to lighten up with the suggestion I’m a harsh judge of haircuts.

I’m in the chair for forty-five minutes. Forty minutes longer, in other words, than the Supercuts record. He stands back and I can see in his eyes he’s proud of his accomplishment. And he can see in my eyes that I’m in agreement. Mrs. O. is suddenly there to lift the gown and send me on my way. "Tell Mr. O. I’m sorry I missed him today," I tell her, hoping I don’t freak out the kid. "And tell him this kid is good!" Mrs. O. has a sudden sadness in her eyes. "My husband passed away in November," she says.

I’m struck dumb. I had just been sitting there wondering why I couldn’t remember the word for barber while I was talking to the kid. Now my vocabulary loss over the past eight months is even more serious. "I’m so sad," I say to her, hoping I don’t sound too insensitive. I can’t remember the fixed expression for "I’m sorry for your loss!"

I really am shocked. I know enough not to make this all about my reaction, though, so I say to the kid, "Tell me your name, so I’ll know to ask for you next time." He blushes again. It’s too much. His face has written all over it, "I’m not worthy that you should ask my name."

Yesterday I got an e-mail from a former tenant who has the most annoying habit of speaking constantly of his accomplishments. "After my success at Portland Junior College, I can pretty much write my own ticket to all the best educational institutions in the world," he writes. I alternate between feeling sorry for him for his insecurity and wanting to take him down a peg. Here things are so remarkably different. Here this shy nervous kid with the thick glasses who has just done such a good job is embarrassed at my compliments and I have to tone down or I’ll put him into a shock similar to the one I’m going through at the moment.

Three or four more comments on how sad I am. Why can’t I remember that damn expression! And what’s wrong with my head that "barber" won’t come to my tongue? I want so much to tell this woman what a good barber her husband was. "I used to enjoy those conversations so much," I tell her. She knows my fumbling is sincere. "He always looked forward to your coming," she says.

When I go out into the street, I’m confused and don’t know which way to turn. I realize I’m terribly shaken. I go across the street to the wine shop and buy a couple more of the bottles of French cabernet I got the other day. The shopkeeper says to me, "Glad to see you liked that. I knew you would!" I ask him if he can sell me a case at a discount. "Of course," he says. "And I know you don’t have a car, so why don’t you just buy what you need from time to time and I’ll sell you the individual bottles at the discount price.

I know this is a sneaky way to get me coming back, but right now I see only the charm of the small shopkeeper that characterizes this neighborhood. The family barbershop, the family wine shop. They’re still holding their own.

It sinks in that I’m home. These people treat me well. I want to come back to these places. I’m home again. I’m really home again.

I decide to stop at Starbuck’s for a cup of coffee in Hiratsuka station before catching the train for the 3-minute ride back to Oiso. I sit down with my latte, open my book on the battle in the Central Asian republics between the Islamic fundamentalists and the old Soviet guard, and I feel the tears coming into my eyes.

"Tokoya-San" says the little voice in my head. Mr. O. was my tokoya-san. The word is back and it doesn’t feel like it ever left any more.

I try to focus on Kazakhstan.

"Goshuushou-sama," the voice says. "I am heartily sorry for your loss."

Oiso, Japan
April 28, 2003

Wednesday, March 26, 2003

Reflections on Going Back to Work

When I left the U.S. in 1989 to start this second round of living in Japan, I felt hounded by the presence all around of AIDS. It was a relief to suddenly find myself in a place that knew little of AIDS and wanted to know even less. I had just graduated from Stanford and my second round of being a student had come to a close and I was ready for a new chapter to begin. But I was also ready to run and hide. The six years at Stanford were among the richest years of my life, for many reasons, but they were lived out in the context of AIDS, and the constant reminder that life could be cut short.

Japan, from my perspective, is a deliciously self-involved place – probably no different from most of the world in this, but I don’t know most of the world. It pushed and pulled on my sense of what is important and it forced me to set up a new life and live it in a different way. It was just the thing, this pressure to start over.

I’ve been back in California now for eight months. A few days from now I’m returning to my life in Japan, and I’m reflecting on the parallels to that trip in the fall of 1989. This time it is not AIDS hanging in the air – it’s not touching me as directly, that is – it’s the war. And this time I suspect I will not find Japan a refuge.

Some people are good at shutting the war out. The San Francisco Chronicle is doing a service by putting all the war news in a special daily section apart from the rest of the newspaper. Somebody there knows how to run a newspaper. I understand people have turned away from the bad news of the war and are watching things like Divorce Court and Matlock.
But I’m not good at shutting out the war and I don’t want to shut out the war. I didn’t shut AIDS out either, as it turned out, but set up a seminar called “Cultural Responses to the AIDS Crisis” and set about looking at culture through the lens of the pandemic. I focus on language and culture in my teaching and it was a way to integrate my work with the larger context, a way to engage with the monster instead of trying to stuff it in a closet and wonder when it was going to smash its way out and get me.

I’m wondering now how I’m going to deal with the war in the classroom under the rubric of culture. It’s going to be even harder to keep myself from using the classroom as a pulpit for my own strong feelings that the war is between a thuggish autocrat and an imperial power tripping on its hubris. Not that I am ashamed of my views or that I believe they need to stay out of the classroom. What I’m worried about is that my rage at the world will keep me from doing what I think I’m supposed to be there for. I’m a child of the 60s and I define education as a subversive activity. You do that best by holding things up to the light and not preaching about them.

I should wear around my neck a sign, a caveat:

Warning. The person with the power to give you a grade in this course and the power to determine who speaks in this classroom holds the following views:

• War is a bad idea at the best of times. At this time it is unmitigated disaster.
• Although I am an American, my attitude toward the government of my country is one of embarrassment. And that’s on a good day.
• I am distrustful of the media, distrustful of popular opinion, and generally distrustful of authority.

I don’t mean to suggest that they disagree with me at their peril. I’m notorious for rewarding people (with smiles and good words, if not automatically with grades) for disagreeing with me and sometimes the kids become disagreeable simply because they think they will please me that way.

But the caveat is only part of what is probably necessary. A clear and open warning would be a cop-out. Far more effective, if far more challenging, would be carrying on as usual and not making the war the center of focus in the classroom. And not using the caveat as a way of covering my ass when I rant and rave.

Way back at the start of it all, when I was in a teacher training program getting my master’s degree, one of my professors told me there were three topics one should avoid at all costs in the classroom: sex, politics and religion. I thanked him for the tip, and made a note that if I wanted to create an environment where thinking would be sure to take place, I would probably do best to make full use of the topics of sex, politics or religion. In 35 years, that notion has served me well. My students are between 18 and 23. The warning about religion was meant for classes in the American social context, and their eyes glaze over at any mention of religion, but they are deeply curious about how to approach the issue of politics in their lives. Sex is dangerous, if only because once broached it’s hard to go back to anything else.

I teach a course in argumentation. That might sound strange, but the Japanese propensity to avoid confrontation leaves them with few skills at putting forth their own views against a strong opponent. I love these kids now and again and now and again I hear things out of their mouths that are stunning in their sensitivity and insight. It pains me that they would hold such worthy views and not be able to defend them. So I offer a course where I think I’m helping to do something about that lacuna. I know it’s going to be hard to keep the war from entering this classroom.

A second course I teach has the name “Critical Reading.” One purpose of the course is to turn reading from a passive event to an active one, to make people understand there are strategies for psyching out the author’s background and point of view and asking how it might affect the objective content. Another purpose is to learn to ask why one should take seriously what is in front of them, and not suspect there is bias in the accidental discovery of this piece of writing and not some other. The information revolution has made reading primarily a question of management of what sources one allows into the consciousness. Not that that wasn’t always what reading was about, but where one was challenged before by a mere five million books in the Stanford library, and 40,000 periodicals the library subscribed to, to give examples from my own experience, now one is faced in the internet with bits of information that run into the billions and trillions. The days of looking at a chunk of writing and making sense of the words and calling that reading are gone forever.

In this course, I hand out reading selections for analysis from a number of genres, news and news analysis and opinion pieces from journalism, research reports, working papers, theory-building pieces from the academic genres, history, polemic, and fluff for contrast. Sometimes it’s hard to be sure what the genre is because the lines are blurred. But it’s going to be hard here, too, to keep from using the war as the framework on which to hang all the discussion, and I’m struggling with whether I’m overly concerned in the first place.

Those are my so-called “English” courses. I teach three others, as well. Seminars that meet once a week on the topics of “Ethics,” “Liberation Theory” and my graduate seminar in “The Meaning of Culture.” The three seminars are eyeball-to-eyeball small group sessions and I get to go more deeply into things and get more personal. Students often become friends and there is quite a bit of socializing that comes out of these classes. Feedback shows I have a much stronger influence over the kids in my seminars than I do in the regular classes. Groupthink is an ever-present possibility.

I’m talking out loud here because that’s where my head is. I turned the corner a couple days ago, as I inevitably do when moving from one hemisphere to the other three times every year for the past fourteen years. I’m feeling heavy-hearted indeed about leaving my home in Berkeley, the day-to-day with Taku and my other chosen family and friends. I’m not looking forward to the hostility that exists in the workplace, to the soul-killing bureaucracy and busywork. This sabbatical has been a gift from the gods. To be mundane and fair, it’s actually a gift from the very same workplace I am now dreading returning to. How can I fault it after it has allowed me this time to think and read and write and recharge my batteries?

I’m talking about returning to the classroom because that’s what makes it all worth while. That and the money to remodel my bathrooms, of course. That’s where my head is because that’s where I’m hoping to find some solace against the choice of connecting with a world where AIDS and an imperialistic government supply the context in which everything else takes place, on the one hand, or tuning out, on the other.

I had a nice little chat yesterday with the tile man. He’s from Finland. Wanted to be a helicopter pilot, but ended up tiling people’s bathrooms instead. Delightful man. Master craftsman. I caught him sitting and staring at his work when he finished the grout yesterday. “Caught you,” I said. “Yes,” he laughed. “I love to stare at my own work.”

“I’m jealous of you,” I told him. “You get to do a job and within two or three days you get to admire the finished product. I go into a classroom and I won’t know for twenty or thirty years whether I’ve had a positive impact.” He thought I was nuts, no doubt, but it was a nice moment when two people got to say nice things to each other and admire each other’s work. The dignity that comes from doing a good job may seem trivial stuff but I don’t think it is at all. I think it actually helps contend with a world gone awry.

My bags are packed. I’m leaving tomorrow.

Strange how the mind works. How vulnerable I am. How dependent I am on my job for a way to deal with sadness and disappointment. Some people get that boost from their families. My loved ones give it to me too, of course, but I am really tied up in my job.

What irony, then, that the sadness which I hope will dissipate once I get back to work has to do with going back to work, and the situation I’m looking forward to leaving behind is the life I am looking forward to coming back to after retirement.

I’ll figure it all out someday, I’m sure.

March 26, 2003

Thursday, January 30, 2003

Bye-Bye, Kimono

Next to the loss by AOL of $98.7 billion (that’s $98,700,000,000.00, by the way), the closing of Berkeley’s Kasuri Dyeworks is an elephant and flea comparison. But although I continue to lose from my AOL investments and remain financially kimono-uninvolved, the closing of the little store at 1951 Shattuck strikes me as terribly sad. The reason storeowner Koji Wada is going under? The Japanese aren’t making kimono cloth in sufficient quantity anymore to keep the price of the merchandise affordable.

Ancient crafts are not being passed on. Remember how the sushi chef had to start by scrubbing the floors for a year before he was allowed to learn how to boil rice? No more. Same goes for kimono-making. Nobody can afford to apprentice 20 or 30 years to learn how to weave cloth that nobody will buy. Nobody but the rich can afford it. Besides the fact you have to hire somebody to dress you, since grandma no longer lives with you, you then need a car to get anywhere, since you can’t ride the trains. Kimonos don’t fit in the new Japan.

Or so says Patricia Yollin of the Chronicle. I have my doubts. I see kimonos all the time in Japan, even on the trains. Come the big holidays, they’re all over the place. And why can’t machines make the cloth? Can’t you program in stitches that look like human glitches? But the closing of this little shop in Berkeley is no doubt a more accurate indicator of the loss of a Japanese cultural treasure than my anecdotal evidence and uninformed questions.

I don’t think a whole lot about Japan when I am in California. I miss my friends, but I am not one who went to Japan for the culture. I remain pretty much a dunce when it comes to textiles and pottery, although I love what I find in front of me most of the time. I take the feminist line that hobbling girls and women in those explosively colorful to breathtakingly elegant (depending whether you’re 16 or 60) straightjacket outfits in a Japanese analogue to barefoot and pregnant.

But then I wander down Shattuck Avenue, past Walgreen’s and Ross “Dress for Less” and all those other slap-it-together-cheap places, and my eye catches this little kimono shop and I have a quiet moment of mentally stroking my Japanese permanent visa.

But then there are always the museums of cultural history.

January 30, 2003

Thursday, January 23, 2003

Letter to Debra Saunders

(in response to her article in the San Francisco Chronicle, January 23, 2003)


Dear Ms. Saunders:

Your column appeared this morning next to John Arquilla’s argument that our focus in the "war on terrorism" ought to be on arms control, not on war as a solution to problems. I read him first, and possibly that’s why your article came across as badly as it did. The two together ought to go into a textbook as an example of the difference between good journalism and bad. You have the disadvantage, as a journalist, of being a generalist while he, as a professor of defense analysis at one of our prestige military institutions, has more substantial content to work with, but you might have done your readers a service anyway, if you had taken the high road.

Instead you presented yourself as a petty no-nothing whose chief means of communication at her disposal is name-calling and derision. "…de Villepin looked down his nez…;" " ‘Let us not be diverted from our objective,’ de Villepin sniffed;" "Saddam-ites such as de Villepin..and Blix;" "…France’s idea of serious consequences for Hussein? Not being invited to Maxim’s for dinner?"

All very cute, this derision, but it hardly contributes to the need for clarity and depth in this life-and-death question of whether to unleash the fury of a rich angry nation on people under Hussein’s thumb and unable to get out of the way. Your points are there – de Villepin makes war more likely, Iraq will not disarm as long as Hussein is in power, Hussein thumbs his nose at Resolution 1441– but you just lay them out as if your readers didn’t know them already; you don’t argue, you simply declare.

You also counter de Villepin’s appeal to justice, solidarity, morality and the law with the made-for-sophomores argument that Hussein is a bad man who has "killed his own people." If justice demands that be be driven from office for doing this, what of the question the world is asking about why justice should be applied to people sitting on oil but not elsewhere?

You have the floor, Ms. Saunders. Could you not take your responsibility a bit more seriously? Is anything at all accomplished by lashing out at the French for not eliminating their Foreign Ministry and tying their foreign policy to ours for time and all eternity because we "saved their bacon" a half century ago?

After being an embarrassment for so many years, the Chronicle is now providing its readers with very high quality news and analysis. I know the pressure of deadlines means sometimes you have to write something without giving it much thought, but lashing out at France for doing what virtually all of Europe is doing makes you look punchdrunk. The Chronicle's quality depends on people like you to offset its liberal bias. I hope find your way back to playing that role responsibly.


Alan J. McCornick