Monday, November 11, 2013

Happy Veteran's Day

This post is a republication of an essay that was originally published on Veteran's Day 2011 in the Opinionator blog of the New York Times. 
As a Marine Captain in 1991 I commanded Delta Company, First Reconnaissance Battalion in the Persian Gulf War.
Thinking about the war still brings back a flood of sounds, smells and mental images; most of them mundane and decidedly unheroic. The sound of heavy sand flicked off of a shovel into a sandbag. Burned JP-5 on an airstrip. Free-standing piss tubes. Camel-mac. The way the carbon from the chemical suit would turn your skin black. Dried-out Copenhagen newly arrived from the states. Little boxes of nuclear milk. A cassette tape from home. The sight of powdered detergent blossoming in a bucket of lukewarm water when I would hand-wash the only uniform I had for 60 days.
And I remember the guys with whom I served. Willie Thom, who was so serious the first week I knew him and so funny the rest of the time. Mike McCarley would take a big pull of an O’Doul’s and pronounce it foul and undrinkable before taking another swig. Lou Gregory got a Silver Star for personally sorting out a friendly fire incident at the second mine belt, but I remember him more for letting us use his stove to heat water for coffee and shaving. Martin Gallegos once made a radio work by holding a homemade antenna in the air with a shovel. Ben Jones often had a look on his face that asked, “I did good, huh?” Brad Delauter would try to kill me when we ran the sandy hills at Manifa Bay down near the First Marine Division Support Area. A tentful of guys lying on cots would laugh at Dan Bonham snoring at night.
In a short week in January of 1991 I went from seeing CNN’s “Line in the Sand” on TV to being there. I confess I was enthralled. Leading a company of reconnaissance Marines in combat was natural for me, which doesn’t mean it wasn’t the hardest thing I ever did. It was just natural. Even in the most critical and dangerous moments, I would be conscious of the fact that everything in my life, from reading Guadalcanal Diary in the eighth grade to my training at Quantico, had delivered me to that instant, to that point of leading those Marines in combat. I was living an infantry officer’s dream. We were, at times, thirty miles from higher headquarters and three thousand meters from the bad guys, and I had complete liberty and responsibility to make my own decisions, which I knew were monumental. We knew who the enemy was and we could engage him at the maximum range of our optics. It seems now like an obscenely benign view of war, especially compared to the experience of people who fought in Iraq and who continue to fight in Afghanistan.
My Gulf War experience made me successful and was, at the same time, my ruination. Since that time I have had a job where including the wrong person in the distribution for a routine e-mail nearly got me fired. I’ve had a job where my peers and I did not have the authority to make a Xerox copy or operate the coffee machine. In combat I was completely responsible for the lives of dozens of young men who looked to me to lead well and do my duty. I had millions of dollars of equipment and untold amounts of political capital entrusted to me. I was the eyes and ears of a Marine Division. I walked bolt upright through places where disaster was highly possible and death expectantly stood by. I spoke into a radio handset and mayhem rained down.
I was 27.
So to Phil Coutris, Jim Burns, and Dave Green; on patrol in the next life, to the wounded and the maimed, to those unreconstructed and unrepentant old Jarheads forever shaped by what we did, where we went and what we saw, to those who loved us and prayed for us; I owe my love and everlasting thanks. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Deconstructing Tiger Tunes

We have been here at Ouachita Baptist University for less than three months but we’ve already experienced what I’ve been told (and I believe) is, without a doubt, the biggest event of the year here: Tiger Tunes.  Tiger Tunes is a musical show featuring acts performed by some of the campus social groups (fraternities and sororities that are unique to OBU) as well as Campus Ministries, Campus Activities and the band.  The event is competitive, with awards for best choreography, best costumes, best overall act, etc.  The money raised through ticket sales and donations (totaling over a million dollars since it started 35 years ago) goes to student scholarships, but the real excitement is generated by the competition itself.  The football team is undefeated so far this season but all the talk and energy on campus so far this semester has been focused on Tunes.  The heat generated by the awards is so great that people who have nothing to do with OBU have to be brought in to judge the event.  Doesn’t it seem that every university has something like this that is the center of gravity of university life (OBU’s Tiger Tunes was patterned after Baylor’s “Sing”)?  Our undergrad experience at A&M back in the day featured the all-consuming Aggie Bonfire, an event with considerably more hair on its chest; so much so that it became too dangerous to continue (the stack collapsed in 1999 and killed a dozen students).

If I were to look at Tunes strictly through the eyes of the grumpy professor, I would want it abolished or drastically scaled down, which would be tantamount to holding the tide back.  The prep for Tunes for the rank and file social club members starts with the beginning of the school year and for the month leading up to homecoming, they’re spending three hours a night rehearsing.  Poor classroom attendance is a problem and a lot of the students have a tougher time than usual staying awake or concentrating.  The whining and complaining about academic requirements crescendos in the week leading up to Tunes, as if continuing with classes in the middle of a fall semester that also features a fall break long weekend and a Thanksgiving break were some onerous, unreasonable expectation. 

But the fact that just about every university seems to have a Tunes-type event (or several), combined with the fact (I take it as a fact because I heard it from a prof who was here then) that Tunes started 35 years ago because students were spending too much time and money working on homecoming floats, convinces me that an event like this is not only unstoppable, but a necessary and strongly positive part of college life.  Each group is forced to put together a routine and employ everyone in a way that showcases the abilities of the most talented members and covers up the limitations of the less musically talented.  There’s no faculty advisor standing over them telling them to keep rehearsing or to schedule another practice or make the costumes better.  It’s completely student-led and that’s the real key: you become an adult when there are no “adults” standing over you making you do stuff.  Obviously, most of us are not destined to sing and dance professionally, but the leadership and followership required for a social group to do Tunes is exactly what it takes to make a good business, church, team and family.  And while I'm on the subject of being a grownup, I'll just add that there's another important element to the relevance of Tunes: the fact that classes and quizzes and mid-terms should go right on.  For one thing, we need to be fair to the 2/3rds of the student body that does not participate in Tunes.  And in adult life, you choose to participate in "extra" stuff.  Want to go run the Chicago Marathon on a Sunday in October?  Super.  Your boss is still going to expect you to be standing tall at work at 8 a.m. in Texas on Monday morning.  When we're kids our parents decide for us.  When we're grown up we make our choices and manage the consequences.

So for me, the crusty old professor, the challenge is to generate excitement about learning Spanish in the same way that Tunes captures the imaginations of so many students.  The main ingredients will have to be teamwork, autonomy, fun and competition with publicly advertised consequences.  How do you do that in a traditional classroom that is generally anathema to all of those things?  I don't know yet, but I have some ideas.  

Just don’t expect to see me in a chicken suit. 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Ouachita Baptist: The College Athletics You Don´t See on ESPN

Ouachita Baptist University, the school in Arkansas where I started teaching in August, has an enrollment of about 1,500, about a third of which participates in varsity athletics.  You read that right.  1/3 of the students are varsity athletes.  That percentage is a large paradigm shift for me coming from Texas A&M where an on-campus sighting of a star athlete during the school day is fairly novel and the famous Johnny Football only comes to campus for practice and games (he takes on-line classes).  I’m sure there are many effects of having such a large percentage of the student body involved in varsity athletics that I haven’t digested yet, but one of them may be that of returning the quaint term “student-athlete” to its original meaning. 

Ouachita is a small school in a small place (Arkadelphia) and most of the schools we play seem to be equally non-descript (the schedule reads like a litany of intercardinal directions of Northeast or Southwest somewhere) but that doesn’t mean the athletes don’t train or compete hard.  The wrestlers, in spite of sharing just a few scholarships, go through grueling two-a-day practices for months before their season starts, and you can bet there’s no athlete here who ever went for a loose ball thinking, “It’s ok if I don’t win it. It’s only Division II.”

The Ouachita football program still boasts of its one notable NFL alum, 1970’s Dallas Cowboy great Cliff Harris.  This year´s team has a defensive end, Antwion Patterson, who seems to be unblockable, knifing into the backfield to blow up plays and sacking the quarterback.  But he's listed as 6´4" and 215 lbs.  Is the NFL of today a bridge too far from here?  Ouachita´s A.U. Williams stadium sits in the shadow of our bigger cross-town rival, Henderson State (when Henderson and Ouachita play each other the visiting team gets ready in their own dressing room and walks across the street to the other school’s stadium) and it would be dwarfed by most 5-A Texas High School stadiums.  The football roster carries a lot of 5’ 11” guys who were passed over by bigger schools, but the quality of play at the first home game I attended was excellent.  The vibe at the game, in spite of drizzling rain, was great.  Students get in free and their section punched above their weight in terms of being loud and active. The little school band played “Will the Circle be Unbroken” when the team ran out on the field and the players looked as pumped as if they were running out to play the Rose Bowl.  My minister of music grandfather, Harvey McGraw, who graduated from here in 1931, would have been proud.   

Many of the biggest fans of the athletic teams (in addition to their parents) are the other athletes.  They know firsthand what it takes to practice and compete while succeeding in college and they pull for each other.  I went to a volleyball game on a Friday night thinking attendance would be sparse, but the stands were packed with softball players, swimmers, basketball players and wrestlers who yelled their lungs out in spite of a loss on the court. 

When I went to my first volleyball game here last week I saw something that made me think I’m seeing a fundamentally different college athletic experience at Ouachita than the one covered by ESPN.  Maybe it’s more pure and positive.  Maybe, at the end of the day, it’s better for the average collegiate athlete as he or she moves out into post-college life. As the pre-game warmup routine of running, hitting and serving came to a close, it was time for the customary national anthem.  One of the Ouachita players, still sweaty and catching her breath, grabbed the microphone and sang the national anthem for the hundred or so fans who crowded into the few bleachers courtside. 

And she nailed it.  

Monday, September 30, 2013

"I Did it for Me"

I can´t add much to what is zinging around the blogoshpere about "Breaking Bad."  My family and I watched the entire series and avidly followed the story week to week.  I often refer to "Breaking Bad" in academic presentations and university classes.  I can´t think of a better example of character development (or character unraveling) and the writing, production and filmography is so superb.  Some stray thoughts as I still come to grips with last night´s final episode:  

1.  Some bad decisions can be reversed with minimal inconvenience: when you’re single you can vow never to go out with that White Supremacist kickboxer again or swear you’ll never ask for the extra spice on the curry chicken at the Thai restaurant.  But some decisions are so catastrophic and profound that you can never recover from them.  Walt headed down the road of the meth-cooking business and bullied Jesse into coming with him and before long, there was no way to undo it.  Almost nobody in the whole series that got into the meth business came out alive. 

2. To take a moral stance like Walt did, ostensibly providing for his family by engaging in an activity that ruined the lives of thousands of people, has a blowback effect that cannot always be calculated.  Saying, in effect, “I’m going to take care of me and mine and the rest of the world is not my problem,” may create such a large problem that it eventually eats you up.  It’s not just what you do to other people outside your declared circle of responsibility; it’s what you become that gets problematic.  Breaking Bad may be a metaphor for American foreign policy and big business and our own individual apathy toward the larger impact of our small daily decisions.     

3. One’s own declared intentions are slippery.  Walt had us all believing he was cooking meth solely to provide for his family after his demise.  He probably even believed it himself.  Then, he passed up chance after chance to get out until it was too late.  In the final episode he admitted to Skyler, “I did it for me.”  How many things do we do out of our own self-interest and then try to dress it up as if our intentions were noble?  How effectively can we really weigh the depth and complexity of our own intentions? 

4. Lies are damaging but lies between family members are enormously destructive, resulting in lost trust, lost intimacy, lost support.  Walt lied to his family so many times that when he finally told the truth (that he didn’t kill Hank and actually tried to buy his life with all the money he had left) they didn’t believe him.  Maybe if you´re contemplating doing something so bad you don´t want to tell your family about it you should take that as a real solid clue not to do it.    

5. Most of us don’t do what we do for money.  We may want the money for the prestige, power, security and leisure that comes with it, but the money ain’t the thing.  Walt, beyond having a hot car and the ability to buy one for his son, didn’t care about the money except to build an empire to rival the legal one (Grey Matter, Inc.) he was forced out of by Elliott and Gretchen.  Jesse was eventually so disgusted by how he came by his money he drove around and threw it out the window in a poor neighborhood.   

5. "Breaking Bad" should challenge our notions of who gets to be classified as a decent person.  Walt hid in plain sight, as did Gus Fring, because he appeared to be an upstanding, model citizen.  Walt was beyond suspicion when the lab equipment went missing out of his classroom and he let the poor Native American janitor take the fall.  Jesse’s drug history and appearance marked him as an addict and a drug dealer, making him the target of suspicion and abuse, but he turned out to be infinitely more caring and moral than Walter White. 

6. The series should make the viewer question (for at least an hour on Sunday night) the benign appearance of the apparently quotidian: the chicken restaurant, hay truck, the nerdy high school chemistry teacher, the car wash, the Stevia packet, the industrial laundry and the stacks of canned cold drinks being wheeled into a business on a dolly.  For me it reflects the lethal, tainted, corrupted thought that lurk beneath our language.  Meaningless, boilerplate expressions shield our insincere, feigned interest in others.  Questions about someone’s job title are a thin veneer for our sexism and racism.  So much of what we say and how we say it cover up complex, deep seated values and opinions which, if we really examined them, would shame us.   

7. We want to dedicate ourselves to something that has profound meaning, even if it´s really hard.  At a couple of points in the series Walter White said he felt most alive when he was cooking and selling meth (which also meant he was close to death – see Freud’s Death Drive).  I don’t think we’ll shy away from doing hard things when we’re given the freedom to exercise our talents and initiative and we can see some positive (according to our definition of positive) outcome.

8. There’s more to what makes us tick than what science can figure out.  In one flashback, Walt and Gretchen (then his colleague) try to determine the chemical composition of a human being.  Despite their best efforts to account for all the elements and reach 100%, there was always a small fraction of a percentage they couldn’t account for.  Gretchen asked, “Could it be the soul?”  Walt dismissively answered that there was no such thing.  That was the brilliant chemist’s biggest miscalculation.  Yes, we have a soul.  Watching Walter White lose his in this fictional TV show gave me an opportunity to search mine.       

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Keys You Turn in. The Keys You Get.

I went to campus to turn in my last library book and maybe clean out the office I’ve had for the past year.  It didn’t occur to me that it would be any big deal for me.  So I got up to my office and started getting stuff collected and throwing stuff away.  I paused to check my e-mail and there it was: the congratulatory e-mail from the thesis office telling me my dissertation was approved and I was good to go for graduation; pretty much the last administrative step down a five year long road.  
Boom. Finality.  

I managed to get the stuff I needed to take home from my office in one bag and with that last library book in my hand, I went down to the Glasscock Center office and turned in my three keys: the one to my office, the one to the suite, and the one to the building.  Then I went to the library and handed in the last of what must have been hundreds of books over the past few years.  I didn’t want to leave it in the drop box.  I wanted to put it in someone’s hand.  To the bored student worker behind the counter, that book was one of dozens she’d handle during her shift.  For me, the last book at Sterling Evans Library.  
Bang.  Finality.  

Then I went by my department office to turn in the three keys that gave me access to the spaces I needed as a Graduate Assistant Teacher.  No one was in the office, so I wrote a note on a card, stapled it to a rubber band that held the three keys together and left them in an envelope in the admin assistant’s box.  
Zap. Finality.  

Keys that are issued to you represent a certain amount of trust and responsibility.  They’re also how you know you belong.  You can get into a space from which most people are restricted.  You’re "one of us."  Handing those keys in undoes all that.  Giving back those keys stamped with the ominous and impersonal “state property DO NOT replicate” on them is tantamount to locking yourself out.  Out of the building.  Out of the organization.  That’s pretty final.

On my way out of the department office I looked in my assigned box, the one that will soon have another grad student´s name on it,  more out of reflex than anything.  A big envelope contained the course evaluations from the class I taught in the spring semester.  I couldn't resist taking a look right there in the empty office.  They were statistically the best evaluations I've had in four years of teaching as a grad student.  Some of the students wrote nice comments about me on the backs of the forms, reminders that I had done some good on a personal level; that I helped make an obligatory course more fun, meaningful and rewarding for some students.  And that’s really what my next profession will be all about. 

Cervantes wrote that Alonso Quijano was about 50 years old when he decided to change his name to Don Quixote and strike out on adventures as a knight.  I’ll be nine days shy of my 50th birthday when I graduate with the Ph.D. in Hispanic Studies.  The Tuesday after I’ll be a professor of Spanish at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas (can there be anything more quixotic than to be a professor in the Humanities in 2013?).  A new title, new profession, new place and a new environment. 

By almost every measure, we’ll be scaling down our lives.  I turned in six keys at A&M.  They’ll give me two at OBU.  In early August we´ll temporarily move into a little duplex right next to campus while we build a new home about half the size of the one we've lived in for nearly eight years.  Bryan-College Station have about 150,000 people.  Arkadelphia 10,500.  Texas A&M will have 50,000 students in the fall.  OBU 1,500.  But the most important metric:  20 students at a time, will be the same. 

Moving your own household goods, especially when you know you’re going to be in a smaller space, makes you look closely at all your stuff and ask, “Do I like this thing so much that I’ll sweat my butt off to carefully protect it, carry it out to a truck, drive it seven hours and unpack it in the August heat?”  Boy, that question will make you better at letting stuff go.  Am I really going to wear this shirt ever again? No, to Goodwill it goes.  Will I ever open this book again?  No, to Half-price Books it goes.  Is this item I don’t really need useable by someone else? Yes, give it away.  No, to the curb for bulk pick-up. 

But what about the people you fear you may never see again?  It’s been much tougher to delete them from my phone so I haven’t done it.  Because it’s those personal relationships you keep and you carry with you and they don’t take up any room on the truck.  People you studied and partied with. People you worshiped and prayed with. People you coached with. People you trained and raced and suffered and crashed with.  Those people have given me keys to themselves that I’ll never have to give back.  

Sunday, June 16, 2013

What Don Quixote Taught Me (so far)

Don Quixote by Salvador Dalí
A little over a year ago I was coming back from Spain with some images on a thumb drive and a notebook full of scribbles.  My full-scale research on Don Quixote had just started.  My mission was to research and write a doctoral dissertation in about a year, a pretty ambitious (maybe even quixotic) undertaking.  One thing you are expected to do in a dissertation is to demonstrate knowledge of the field and with the Quixote, that’s over 400 years of existing scholarship written mostly in English and Spanish.  Then there was the task of coming up with something new, some addition to the knowledge about the subject and express those findings in a well-researched and cited +/- 300 page paper.  

There were times when I felt like I was not going to get it done, which would put me in the large percentage of Ph.D. candidates who take all the classes and pass their exams to go on to the dissertation phase . . . and . . . never . . . finish.  There were doldrums where I struggled to write much of anything.  But I was propelled forward by several things, some negative, some positive.  One big motivator was the knowledge that a few people in my department never thought I belonged in the Ph.D. program, some of them because they thought I was some kind of incurious knuckle-dragger due to my previous career in the military.  A very important person in our College of Liberal Arts once told me he didn't think the G.I. bill was meant to be used to pursue graduate studies.  I suppose he thought I should be using my military benefits to learn welding or automotive repair (I discovered my lack of talent for welding in Mr. Vidrine’s Vocational Agriculture class in 1979 in high school). 

But to investigate a field you are really interested in is a real privilege and I was also mindful through the process that I was being given a great opportunity.  Many people would love to pursue a Ph.D. but would never have the chance because it costs so much and takes so much time.  My opportunity was funded by my military service but also by the fact that a sizeable number of people valued my service and were willing to fund my studies through the G.I. bill.  So it was never just me pushing to the finish line to get the dissertation done.

The task I took up was to figure out how the 17th century Spanish literary character grew into a nearly universally recognizable popular icon today.  Answering that question taps into a little bit about what fiction, images and symbols mean to us, as well as how we use narrative as humans.  A few books out there track how Don Quixote broke out of his literary beginnings in the original novel and showed up in translations, illustrations, tapestries, films and  theater over 400 years.  But almost none of them bundle all of those genres together and none of them attempt to explain why; what it is about the character Don Quixote that makes us attracted to him and gives him long life. The conclusion of my dissertation is attached below if you're a real trooper and have a few minutes.
At the beginning of this study we saw that the Quixote initially gained bestseller status because it rode a wave of Spanish literary production and brilliantly satirized a well-known literary genre.  The Quixote was image based, developing its own proto-iconography by exploiting the existing religious iconography and combining it with the imagery of medieval carnival.  As Spolsky points out, we seem to gravitate as human beings to images due to the phenomenon of representational hunger, filling needs with the representations provided by narrative and its concomitant set of images (Iconotropism 16).  With the advent of film just before the turn of the twentieth century, the Quixote was the subject of some of the very first films ever made, proving to be exceptionally useful by providing a visually impactful protagonist whose episodic adventures worked well in the new multi-track media.  The protagonist´s paradoxical flexibility came into play in film, providing a mouthpiece and model for Socialist and Communist ideology as well as supporting a fascist Franco regime, while later coming to exemplify North American post-modern individuality in the 20th century.  Translators and adapters seemed to respond to some basic drive to universalize the Quixote, providing translations in nearly every written language and adaptations for every age.  In order to serve national agendas, some translators have used a variety of techniques and word choices to emphasize the insanity or oddness of the Manchegan knight.  Later translators sought to recover the dignified and heroic side of Don Quixote, preserving his Spanish character while making him understandable for the target audience.  The writers of children´s adaptations in Spain have appropriated the work and the protagonist as a paragon of national character while those outside of Spain have tended to mine his playful, adventurous side for stories which would appeal to young readers.  The image of Don Quixote has been enhanced, embellished and propagated by illustrators who have used technological advances and their own artistic vision to highlight either the comic or serious side of the protagonist.  That iconography, as well as the other manifestations of the protagonist, has allowed Don Quixote to gain his own momentum separate from the text and be appropriated for political purposes to either lampoon one´s opponents or to be the guiding model for one´s own movement.  Proof of his iconic status is that he is used to introduce and sell products and has become the backbone of an entire segment of the tourism industry in Spain.  His name and story are invoked by both oppressive governments and revolutionary movements and his iconic figure is so strong that echoes of his discourses are still heard in the modern military ethic. 
 As the Quixote was about the intrusion of fiction into the life of its main character, this study seems to point to what may be a basic human tendency to bundle fiction and reality to produce our own narrative, our own “truth” for our own purposes and conveniences.  The examples of movie directors like Rafael Gil and Miguel Gutiérrez Aragón remind us that we sometimes like to have it both ways: to construct our own truth and claim that it is not a construction, but faithful to the original text, an even more powerful platform for our own personal agendas.  But we should not be too hard on ourselves, as this mixing of the fictional and real is our birthright as modern humans who have been taught by literature and language to “imagine counterfactual and qualitatively new contexts (new in the sense of different from that which is already and merely present) suggest[ing] the possibility of attempting to realize them, and therefore also purposive action” (Berman 45,46).  Our ability to see beyond the present, quotidian, and tangible to imagine the hypothetical, the notional, and possible and take steps to achieve them is what makes us human, even quixotic.  
                Part of the flexibility of Don Quixote´s character derives from the fact that “Cervantes refuses to explicitly prescribe how his work is to be read” providing what he calls an “‘open ideological canvas’ for its readers” (Bayliss 389).  Indeed, Cervantes writes in the Part I Prologue, “you have your own soul in your own body, and your own free will like anybody else, and you are sitting in your own home, where you are the lord and master just as much as the king is of his taxes. . .”  But beyond the freedom the author give to us the reader to interpret and engage Don Quixote, the greater availability of the protagonist to us rests on his built-in paradox and ambivalence as a comic hero, enabling one reader to focus on his insanity and another to hone in on his wisdom, according to the reader´s individual needs.  Ellen Spolsky has drawn a parallel between the intake of food and narrative (Narrative as Nourishment 42).  Like many other narratives, we consume Don Quixote individually, perhaps uniquely, casting aside the characteristics, episodes and discourses we don´t like and digesting what we find convenient.        
                Don Quixote´s paradox has resulted in two primary readings: the hard interpretation espoused by Anthony Close and Peter E. Russell which maintains that Cervantes´ novel should be read as a satire that aims to discredit a literary genre, and the soft reading consistent with that of the 19th century romantics who saw the knight as a heroic idealist and noble visionary.  Similarly, the title of John Jay Allen´s Don Quixote: Hero or Fool suggests that he must be one or the other (Bayliss 391).  But to say that the reader must choose between the burlesque and the heroic in Don Quixote discounts the knight´s paradoxical nature.  He is simultaneously cuerdo and loco, hidalgo and caballero, and that paradox is what makes him so accessible and useful as an icon.  Like Subcomandante Marcos, who first read the Quixote at twelve years of age and later, as a revolutionary, carried it as a primer on political theory, the reader can enter the Quixote through the door of burlesque entertainment and make himself at home in the poignant and profound.     
Don Quixote´s progress toward gaining iconic stature has not just been a linear, cumulative or additive process, but a geometric, multiplicative and viral one, since the next appropriator will have not only the original textual Don Quixote to choose from, but all of the subsequent appropriations from 1605 until now.  The icon has picked up speed and momentum, riding every single wave of new media, being propelled forward by translation, illustration, theater, film and product, but also enriching and contributing to each genre. 
A great deal of our attraction to Don Quixote has to do with his representation of the struggle to establish an individual identity,[1] but other less viral literary figures: Faust, Don Juan, and Robinson Crusoe have also carried an individualist message.[2]  Certainly, the fact that Don Quixote is recognizable, especially if paired with Sancho, has helped him gain iconic status, but if being recognizable were the overriding criteria for being an icon, this study might be about Bottarga and Ganassa or Don Carnal and Doña Cuaresma.  
Paradoxically, he is us and he is not us. In his manifestation as Alonso Quijano he is a common man, an unremarkable, unaccomplished man from nowhere special.  As Don Quixote, though, he highlights our own belief and idealism, our own limitations and possibilities.  Don Quixote, the medieval knight armed to the teeth, was bizarre in the late 16th century Spain in which he was cast and he remains bizarre today.  As Russell Berman points out, the epic genre emphasizes not what the heroes did, but the fact that they are long dead and not replaced (Fiction Sets You Free 115), and in a similar way, we become aware of our unbelief by viewing Don Quixote´s unshakeable belief in everything he has read.  Don Quixote is cited by Robert Alter as beginning the “erosion of belief in the authority of the written word” (qtd. in Parr 21), not the least of which was the loss of faith in the authority of scripture.  Georg Lukács reinforces that idea about the Quixote, writing, “The first great novel of world literature stands at the beginning of the time when the Christian God began to forsake the world” (103).  Nonetheless, the knight´s innocent belief in his ability to achieve great things and embark on adventures chosen for him alone invokes and partially mirrors the repeated biblical narrative of the meagerly talented or even handicapped individuals who achieved great things through divine inspiration (Moses, Joseph, Samuel, David, Gideon, Mary, Jesus´ disciples, etc.).  Don Quixote´s self-efficacy and ability to create identity through belief may be enormously attractive to the modern person conditioned by rationalism to mistrust the metaphysical and whose aspirations are hemmed in by the limitations of gender, race, social class, sexual orientation, education and an economic system that commodifies basic human existence.  So, between the hard and soft readings of the Quixote, it is the soft reading that causes us to sense, like José Cadalso in 1789, that this is much more than just a funny book.  It is that heroic reading that connects us personally to the knight and elevates him to the status of an icon.  The knight´s unwavering commitment to impossibly high ideals, celebrated by the song “Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha, is what we admire and would like to replicate in our own lives.  That affirmation of transcendent idealism, the desire to be greater than what one would normally be allowed, to follow ideals and strive for the impossible dream, is what makes him special to all of us.     
Alonso Quijano had to become someone else to find out who he was.  At fifty years of age he had to be born again as Don Quixote to truly live and die.  He journeyed to the limits of his country to get back home.  His impossible ideals resulted in many beatings and many defeats, but they were necessary for him to become the “vencedor de sí mismo,” the conqueror of himself.  He challenges us to do the same: to aspire, to journey, and to conquer ourselves.   

[1] Alexander Welsh writes extensively on Don Quixote as a treatise on individualism in Reflections on the Hero as Quixote. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1981. pp. 167-222.

[2] Ian Watt´s book takes on the subject of Don Quixote´s individualist myth in Myths of Modern Individualism. Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Robinson Crusoe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. pp. 48-89.  

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

But Today I Raised my Hand

Some 27 years ago I was going through Marine Corps Infantry Officer's Course in Quantico, VA.  It was eight weeks long and tough, wedged between 6 months of Basic School and 58 days of U.S. Army Ranger School.  When we were not actually in the field, the classes were taught in a quonset hut.  And you can google "quonset hut" and get an idea of the environment.  The only decoration in the classroom was a big poster of two guys fighting with pugil sticks and a caption that said, "We're looking for a few good men . . . to beat each other to death with pugil sticks."  Go ahead.  Google "pugil sticks."    We had one instructor, a Captain who was especially fearsome and ill-tempered.  At some point in one class he glared around the room and said, "We don´t have any Christians in here, do we?"  And I, immersed in this environment where I was presumably taught to have moral courage and stand up for what I believe in . . . what did I do?  I did not move a muscle, did not raise my hand.  I was going to avoid the wrath of this maniac, cooperate and graduate.

And for 27 years when I recall that moment I feel like Peter denying Christ, there rubbing my hands together before the warming fire with the lackeys of the court of the High Priest, concerned for my own safety.  

Today I attended a reading on campus by a well-known author, dynamic speaker and National Book Award Winner.  The Glasscock Center Library has a capacity for 70 people but we probably had 90 people in there. His talk was excellent and very worthwhile.  His message was very anti-war (which I generally dig) and he was trying to make the point that taking another person´s life violates the Ten Commandments.  And in making his point he glared around the room and said, "Do we have any Christians in here?" and he spat out the word "Christians" with absolute disdain, as if it were a more offensive word than the f-bombs he occasionally sprinkled through his lecture and Q&A session.  

It´s a curious word: Christian. Some terrible things have been done in the name of Christianity and to self identify as a Christian now, even in the Bible belt, is to increasingly identify oneself with intolerance, ignorance and closed-mindedness.  

But today I raised my hand.  I raised it all the way and felt my elbow lock.  And I left it up there long enough for him to see.  I didn´t see any other hands raised and I don´t care if there were any.  Because for all the baggage that comes with the term "Christian" I must claim that I am a needy follower of Christ.  And if I get sneered at, and that´s what passes for persecution in the U.S. in 2013 I´ll take it.  By saying I´m a Christian I´m admitting that I totally buy into something I can´t prove and I am accepting all the negative baggage and stereotypes that accompany a label with a complicated history.  I am not proclaiming that I´m better.  I´m admitting that I´m worse.  And in my insufficiency I claim Him.  Not as "fire insurance," but as a connection to truth.   

If my admitting I´m a Christian hooks me up to a bunch of negative baggage in your eyes, then get to know me and give me a chance to show you it´s not about judgment or being better or even about being good.  It´s just about recognizing insufficiency and reaching for completeness; acknowledgment of woeful imperfection and reaching for pure truth.  I didn´t do anything noteworthy.  I just raised my hand.  


Friday, March 29, 2013

Writing as a Peanut Butter Sandwich

This is not very profound, but if it helps a writer (or someone trying to love and understand a writer) out there, I'll be pleased.

Stephen Miller, one of my profs, talking to me about writing my dissertation told me, "Don't worry about editing too much, just get the volume first.  Just push that text out first.  Then you can edit." That sentiment was seconded by Robert Anthony Siegel, who led the novel writing workshop I attended last summer in Iowa.  He even went so far as to cite examples of creative writers who write blindfolded or with a cover over the computer screen to resist the urge to edit until they have a sufficient amount of stuff out there to work with.  The word processing capability of the computer makes us compulsive editors, moving text here and there and correcting syntax and word choice.  And we do that because we can.  The mechanical process of editing is less taxing than the creative process of taking what is in our hearts and souls and minds and putting it on the page.

Maybe writing for most of us is like making a peanut butter sandwich.  You have to accept that the first lump you get out of the jar and put on the bread is not ready to eat.  The lump may be too much (you glutton!).  It may not be enough and you'll have to go back to the jar.  But you have to start with the messy lump before you do the careful spreading to get the peanut butter all the way to the edge with a uniform depth of peanutty goodness all over the slice of bread.

You've got to accept the messiness and the process of cleanup that follows.  And you can't stare at the jar and the bread and think the p.b. onto the bread.  You've got to put that lump down.