The Illusion of Self

“The study of haptic intelligence leads to even deeper questions about the somatic self. Our skin is us because it draws a line around our existence: we experience the world as ourself. We can separate ourself from our eyes and ears, recognize the information they give us as information, but our tactile and proprioceptive halos supply us with the sense that we are constant selves.

“There are rare conditions in which you come to believe that while, say, the right half of your body is you being yourself, the left half of your body is someone else’s—some uncomfortably close-talking, peering stranger you would like to get away from. Out-of-body experiences are related to these illusions, and they are probably key both to religious experience and to tales of alien abductions. The possibility of such illusions suggests that their opposite—our agreed-on coherent sense of a continuous self—may be a convenient fiction, an organized cognitive heuristic that we impose on experience to let us go on having it.” (bold added)

—Adam Gopnik, “Feel Me: What the Science of Touch Says About Us” in The New Yorker

God had come in

“When I came back out there was a strange light in the kitchen, as if there was a film of silver over everything, like frost only smoother, like water running thinly down over flat stones; and then my eyes were opened and I knew it was because God had come into the house and this was the silver that covered heaven. God had come in because God is everywhere, you can’t keep him out, he is part of everything there is, so how could you ever build a wall or four walls or a door or a shut window, that he could not walk right through as if it was air.

“I said, What do you want here, but he did not answer, he just kept on being silver, so I went out to milk the cow; because the only thing to do about God is to go on with what you were doing anyway, since you can’t ever stop him or get any reasons out of him. There is a Do this or Do that with God, but not any Because.

–Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace

Happy New Year: An Exorcism and Onward to 2016

Tree & Cloud
Tree & Cloud

Goodbye to 2015, a year which seems, Janus-like, to present opposing faces as I look back on it.

Navel gazing advisory: the following is entirely personal and most likely of no great interest to you, dear reader, so consider yourself duly warned and advised. I write this, selfishly, for my own exorcism, and share it here because that’s what this blog is, for better or for worse—a selfish undertaking, with some obscure, vague hopes of selflessness imputed somewhere in the offing. A mundane and transparent and unscientific bloodletting, with some already lost dream of connection underlying the catharsis.

Took me some time to process, but I’ve finally recognized a psychological barrier greatly weighing me down at the close of this year. Two thousand fifteen. Overall, the year has been quite good. Quite excellent. But something occurred at the outset of this school year (September, for you non-public-school folks) that entirely sapped my mojo. I’ve avoided talking about it, or even fully grappling emotionally and mentally with it, because it never has had full closure. So now this, disclosure.

I was offered a position, in a very untimely manner, to a district-level role that would have not only significantly bumped up my salary*, but provided me an opportunity to utilize the skills and knowledge I’ve gained in my experience in education thus far, and see how I can share and apply them across hundreds of different schools. I was quite excited about the new role, but it unfortunately was offered at an extremely inopportune time—i.e. 2 weeks before the start of the new school year. I did everything I could to make it happen, including arranging as many interviews, phone and in person, that I could, attending hiring fairs, sending out emails to everyone within my professional network, sending out email blasts to listservs, emailing professors at graduate programs, and so on. And the really frustrating thing is that I had the full support of many others in my efforts.

Essentially, in order for me to take the position, I had to arrange for my own replacement. While there is much talk of teacher shortages, especially in special education, here in NYC it did not apply at the time that I was looking. Those few I was able to interview were either too unskilled, lacking proper certification, or were entirely incompetent (i.e. didn’t have the skills to email properly or even arrange for an interview), for the type of school and role we were seeking. I wasn’t merely looking for a warm body—this is a great position and school to work at.

I will abstain from detailing the interviews that did occur. I can regale you with them over crumpets and tea some time one-on-one, if you’re interested.

So once the school year commenced, and it was clear there was no amazing teacher waiting somewhere hidden in the wings, I washed my hands of the matter and got back to my work—or so I thought. Internally, I was sorely chafed, and it has been a rough transition, emotionally speaking, for me to get my head screwed back on straight. I’m not exactly someone attuned to my emotions — it took me 4 months to get to this current point of awareness, to the point of being able to talk somewhat honestly about it. With unnecessary rhetorical flourishes, of course. Partially, I think, because the position has still been (hypothetically) there for me, in the case I was able to find a replacement, so a part of me kept looking and hoping.

This has been damaging to my motivation and well-being.

So as I look back at 2015, even though the year up until that point had been quite fantastic, really—a busy and productive close to the prior school year (obtained my School Building Leader license), a wonderful and invigorating trip to Ireland and Scotland, and an energizing bit of additional work to close out the summer with an online curriculum company and a geeky study of NYC education history with a nonprofit—I was left with this very negative feeling in the dusty corners of my being. And that’s ridiculous! Absolutely ridiculous, and petty, and insufferable. Which is probably why I’ve refused to fully look upon it, in all its puny, grotesque, childish glory.

This has made me recognize a damaging hubris of my character. I apparently feel this compelling need to justify my existence via a feeling of progress which is gained through the recognition of others. How superficial! But that’s how I am. And so I shut down when this opportunity didn’t pan out the way I hoped it would. I stopped writing articles. I turned down (or simply ignored) opportunities outside of my current school work. And I’ve been just a wee bit depressed, really. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s probably other elements involved, like existential notes of loneliness and getting older, but this may be the underlying factor that really squeezed me behind the gills.

So, taking a deep breath, looking at it honestly, and putting a fork in it. And forcing myself to open my eyes to just how incredibly fortunate and lucky I am to have what I have. To live in an apartment next to two beautiful parks here in upper Manhattan. To work in a great school with a professional and hardworking staff and wonderful students and families. To share this existence with my beautiful, hardworking, loving wife, who has been undergoing her own trials and tribulations to finish out an incredibly difficult nursing program (only one semester left!!!). And to come home every day to four vibrant birds (we took on two additional parakeets), who fill our apartment with endless chatter and color and life. To be in good health. To be part of two very different, yet complementary, families, both my wife’s, and my own.

That’s why there is shame involved here, to even be putting this out there. Shame in looking at this and articulating this out loud. Because there’s absolutely no good reason to be feeling this way. But there it is.

So, exorcised.

2016 stands untrammeled before us. Let’s do this right, people. Let’s do this honestly, and embracingly, and joyously. Happy new year.

*An aside on salary: (why do I feel the need to justify this? Why can’t we talk honestly about the importance of salary? This is NYC! Perhaps because I recognize that no matter how much I might pretend to be dancing around that thin red line, I can see all around us so many more in much more dire straights? Yes. That’s probably it.)

The Real Evil in the New Star Wars

Just saw the new Star Wars film, an entirely enjoyable nostalgic pastiche, but which—just as its original predecessors—relies heavily on convenient plot devices and breezily drawn characters.

Finn could have been a genuinely interesting character, if there had been even just the smallest hint at the psychological tensions that might be involved in turning against everything that you’ve been raised to become. But alas, no, J.J. Abrams elected to stick with the sure seller of the plot and settings that made the original Star Wars franchise enduring, and Finn ends up a simple pawn in the headlong drive of the plot.

Yet despite the shallowness of the characters (again, an utterly enjoyable shallowness, worth savoring in 3D IMAX), I thought there was an element of “realness” imbued to the young villain, Kylo Ren, that touches on an interesting, if disturbing, zeitgeist not present in past Star Wars.

The actor they chose to play Kylo, Adam Driver, is well-casted. When he removes his helmet, there is a feeling of revelation. He is pale, his locks flowing, his face slightly askew. He is alienated from his father, and instead worships and seeks to emulate Darth Vader. When things don’t go his way, he explodes into fits of rage, destroying everything around him.

Something about Kylo evokes the image of the American teenage male mass shooter. And in this sense, his character is the most striking of the movie—all of the other characters are completely unattached to any real basis in our modern, mundane world.

Not sure if this was an intentional association that Abrams wanted to make, but it made Kylo much more frightening than any of the “dark force” maneuvers he wielded.

A letter from beyond the walls

IMG_20151211_193106-2

It’s been a while since I’ve scribed anything of any sort over the last god-knows-how-long. I wonder sometimes if I’m experiencing the addictive satiation of social media that everyone with a smartphone seems to be so haply skewered by, whether it’s reducing my cognitive and spiritual capacity. As of late, I feel often unfocused, tired, and unwilling to engage in much beyond the reading of newsfeeds, science and education articles, because there’s always something critically important just beyond the next scroll downward.

Perhaps I’m simply getting older. It’s harder to get myself out the door for a run (it is “winter,” if you can call what NYC has been experiencing thus far as such, but still). It is harder to feel compelled to respond to emails from anyone asking for my time and energy for things that don’t relate to what I need to get done tomorrow. Or maybe I’m just simply depressed.

Full disclosure: last month I discovered myself standing in the middle of my living room weeping, not entirely certain why. When I examined the blubbering’s antecedent, I had just gotten off the phone to my parents. So I guess I realized just how much I miss my family, way out there on the West Coast. I’m not a sentimental sort of person, so this was surprising to me, this missing of family.

And maybe I just felt overwhelmed and stressed at work, because Novembers in any school year are always hard.

Or maybe I was just feeling old. I’m nearing what statistically speaking could be determined as the median of my life’s parabola.

Perhaps it was also that I realized, 8 years into living in NYC, that I’m lonely. I know people, but I don’t know people. Hell, I don’t know myself anymore.

All of those things.

So I’m growing a beard. The un-manicured kind. It now feels like a ginger mat of fur splayed out my chin, which is fun to rub.

I furthermore obtained a set of tabla drums, and assuming I can force myself to haul them downtown on a Thursday night, I’ll begin taking lessons. I’ve decided that my brain has been getting too set into narrow ways, and I need to wire some new connections.

Teaching is certainly a rewarding profession, but I’m missing having any sense of self or capacity that extends beyond the work that I do. Which brings me back to this.

Writing.

The toughest damn thing in the world.

If it was easy, I would have written that book I was supposed to write 4 years ago already. Writing a blog post that nobody ever reads is hard enough as it is.

I know enough not to make myself any promises, but it’s clear that when I fail to write regularly, I lose an essential connection to myself. It is through this mundane connection that I no longer feel alone.

Here’s to continued future scribblings of the soul.

Sometimes, One Can Only Watch

By Photograph taken by Official War Photographer at an Australian Advanced Dressing Station near Ypres in 1917.

He experienced neither joy at having escaped nor remorse. War made everything one could say or think about it simultaneously true and false, and there was too much evil and too much good mixed up in every moment for one to be able to judge. One could only hold one’s peace and watch. Beside the window a young soldier was learning how to light a cigarette, clasping it between the remaining stumps of his hands.

—Andrei Makine, Requiem for a Lost Empire