Thirteen Below: Dispatches from a Polar Vortex.

“The collectors of cold have assembled
their evidence, and the professors
have completed their book.”
–Lawrence Raab, “The Collector of Cold Weather”

“It grows cold, you sauceboxes.”
–Jonathan Swift, December 30, 1710.

It’s 5 AM on Monday, January 6, and I’m driving to SFO airport. My phone says it’s 46 degrees. With a little luck, in six hours I’ll be 1838 miles away–and at least 55 degrees colder.

Wait. What?

It’s true. I’m flying into the Polar Vortex, the mass of arctic air that descended into the Midwest (and points south) the day before, snarling travel and causing a media sensation. I’m not flying into the heart of it, but rather only as far north as I can manage based on my air travel limitations. But it will certainly be plenty cold. From my departure gate, I check the weather. It’s -13 in Chicago. In comparison, Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point in the US, reports -4. I think that qualifies Chicago, at this moment, as sufficiently polar.

§

Here are some things people who live in the Midwest said to me (or about me) on Facebook when I announced that I was intentionally flying into the Polar Vortex (spoiler alert: my mental health is frequently called into question):
“He’s crazy, and will not have coats heavy enough for that cold.”
“Why!? Why would you want to experience this mess? Most of us would do anything to not be here right now!”
“Wait–are you serious? You booked a ticket?”
“I think you have officially lost your mind!!!!! I’ll go back to California in your place and you can stay here for me!!”
“If he’s coming in can I use his place in California for a few days?”
“I’m not sure I know anyone else who would do what you are doing! Be safe, my friend.”
“They are saying you can get frostbite in just a couple of minutes and hypothermia shortly thereafter–I’d say the only way to experience it is from inside somewhere warm.”
“I’m on my way to Minneapolis. I’d like to reiterate here that I can’t believe you’re doing this.”
“Pajamas do double-duty as long underwear” [I should have paid more attention to this.]
“You are totes cray.”
“You are CRAZY!”
“You’re brave!” [My vanity made me include this one.]
“You are insane!”
“I’m trying to fly out of this. My feet constantly feel wet but really they’re just withering away. Why would you fly into it?”
“I would have done a house swap with you! All you had to do is ask – Dude you crazy !!!”
“Somehow this feels like the most hipster thing you have ever done.”

So, why would I do such a thing? I can give you a number of reasons, but I suspect that none of them are likely to convince you this was a reasonable thing to do. Here goes. First, I should note that, in my academic work, I write about disaster. In the context of this work, I have developed an increasing interest in meteorology, extreme weather, and climate change.  Second, I should explain that I feel a strong attachment to Midwestern weather. I grew up in Michigan and, though I have lived in California for a number of years, I still miss the idea of snow in the winter. Third, I’ll admit that I’m feeling something like a fear of missing out (#FOMO). The Polar Vortex is an event–both meteorologically and culturally. It hasn’t been this cold in Chicago in twenty years (or more). Shouldn’t I be there? Will I get another chance? Will it happen again in my lifetime? (Incidentally, I think this is what makes it “the most hipster thing [I've] ever done.”) Fourth, Joan Didion used to do this kind of thing. And isn’t that reason enough?

And before we go any further, let me try to settle the question of how much of a jackass flying into the Polar Vortex makes me. I would suggest that the answer is “not as much as you think.” Because my partner works for an airline, I flew for free. I stayed at an airport hotel that I booked on Priceline. In other words, I didn’t blow a bunch of money on this bizarre adventure. More importantly, I want to stress that I contributed very little to the wider travel difficulties at O’Hare. I flew standby, so I didn’t take up a seat that anyone else needed/wanted. And in the face of small delays and minor frustrations, I was calm, patient, kind. I wasn’t a jerk. I tipped excessively whenever tipping was appropriate.  My goal–and I think I achieved it–was to make no one’s day worse. So while this may have been a weird and possible crazy adventure, I am confident that it didn’t harm anyone.

§

My flight to O’Hare is very empty. I have a whole row to myself, which is not surprising, really–who’s actually trying to go into this? What is surprising is that it’s one of the smoothest transcontinental flights I’ve had in recent memory (except for the wind in Chicago as we land). By it’s very name, the Polar Vortex suggests a remarkable atmospheric disturbance, but it’s not noticeable on this day at 36,000 feet. The skies are clear the entire flight and, somewhere around western Nebraska, a light dusting of snow on the ground outlines the topography of the plains. The snow on the ground gets deeper as we get closer to Chicago. At the Illinois border, the Mississippi is covered by a frozen crust. In air this cold, hot moist air (exhausts, smoke, etc.) becomes thick white clouds of vapor. Some sort of industrial plant near the Illinois-Wisconsin border throws off a dense white plume that the winds blow eastward–in a long, straight, visible line–for what I estimate to be almost fifty miles.

The snow-outlined topography of Nebraska.

The snow-outlined topography of Nebraska.

The frozen Mississippi.

The frozen Mississippi.

Because we need to approach and land facing into the wind, we overshoot ORD and turn around over Lake Michigan. From my window seat, I have a spectacular view of the Loop. There are wisps of low clouds hanging over the city and plumes of vapor from the buildings’ air vents–it looks like half the city is burning. I see the Chicago River and it’s flowing, but it looks strange, fuzzy, almost as if clouds of smoke are coming off of it. I realize that the water itself–freezing cold, but probably more than forty degrees warmer than the ambient air–is producing clouds of “steam” or fog as it evaporates. Then, moments later, I see the lake itself. There’s a frozen crust along the shoreline, but farther out the chunks of floating ice cluster together, forming lace-like patterns. In between the ice chunks, there are wisps of fog/”steam” rising from the open water. I would never have imagined this. It’s creepy and apocalyptic, as if the lake is boiling while downtown burns. We bank sharply and I get a long view. It’s mesmerizing and horrible.

Lake Michigan, frozen and steaming, with The Loop in the background.

Lake Michigan, frozen and steaming, with The Loop in the background.

On the ground, my first taste of the cold is in the jetway as I deplane. It’s warmer than being outside, of course, but it’s still almost shocking. My first breath makes me cough, which turns into a kind of disbelieving laugh. The woman behind me make a similar sound as she steps out of the plan and the businessman ahead of me turns and smiles at us with shared amusement. I will have this type of experience again and again the rest of the day–with doormen, smokers, other pedestrians–when we, in each other’s presence, step in and out of the cold. It’s like we can’t quite believe what the cold feels like and we need to reassure each other that “yes, I’m feeling it too.” The cold–this type of cold–becomes a collective experience.

On the ground at O'Hare.

On the ground at O’Hare.

§

Above, I already gave several reasons why I wanted to take this trip. But what these reasons left out–what they overlooked–is that there is a somatic reason. The point of seeking out the cold is to feel the cold. And it’s not just about feeling cold; it’s about feeling colder than I have ever felt. It’s about expanding my experience of cold, feeling something I’ve never felt before. If you want to quantify it, you can think about it in terms of what I’m going to call a “lifetime temperature range”–the hottest and coldest temperatures that you’ve ever experienced outdoors. The warmest temperature that I’ve ever felt was 109 degrees (in Las Vegas); the coldest (before this trip) was right around 0 degrees (in Michigan one winter). This trip, then, allows me to add almost 15 degrees to my lifetime temperature range.

§

An hour later, after checking into an eerily empty hotel, it’s time for my first prolonged excursion into the cold. I am here to feel it, after all. The weather report on the hotel television says that it’s -13 degrees with a wind chill of -39. I need to be dressed like a Shackleton, but, as you can imagine, I don’t have all of the necessary clothes for this (I’ve lived in California too long). My solution is layers. I wear several pairs of socks. I put on multiple shirts and a thermal (under a jacket that I did buy in the Midwest). I have two scarves. The problem is my legs–I’m only wearing jeans, although my jacket does extend below my waist. I step outside and, to the incredulity of the doorman, announce my intention to walk to the end of the block. With the first gust of wind, my eyes are tearing. The snow is cold and dry and it squeaks under my boots. Within a couple hundred feet, my breath is freezing in my mustache (and yes, my nose hair). The breath from my mouth freezes my scarf to my beard. I want to pretend that the air temperature is bearable–searing, but bearable. But the wind is a different story. My torso (under four layers) feels fine; my knees and thighs do not. I stop several times to take selfies with my phone, my momentarily unmittened hand getting pinker and unsteadier each time. In the photos, I clearly look uncomfortable, but also excited and–in a way–happy. I stay outside for twenty minutes, making it to the end of the block. As I head back to the hotel, I begin to worry about my legs, which are going numb. The feeling comes back in the elevator: a tingling, then a burning, then an weakness that causes me to lean against the wall for a moment. Back in the room, I find that my knees and thighs are chapped and bright pink. I take a pic and send it to my partner. I tell him that, on the whole, it was actually kind of fun.

Feeling the wind.

Feeling the wind.

Two hours later, it’s dark and the Polar Vortex is already starting to wane: -12 degrees, -37 wind chill. I decide to walk down the block even further to another hotel for dinner. This time, I’ll be wearing basketball shorts under my jeans to layer my knees and thighs. The shorts are thin, but they actually help. The cold is still overwhelming (especially the two minutes that I stand on the corner waiting for the crosswalk light), but I manage. The restaurant is terrible, and mostly empty, but I get to sit right next to the fireplace. As I layer up to go back outside, the hostess is nonplussed:
“Are you going outside?”
“Yes, I’m going back to my hotel.”
“Did you drive here?”
“No.”
“You’re going to walk?”
“Yes.”
“But it’s too cold! You should use our indoor walkway! It’s a much longer walk because it goes through the convention center, but you won’t have to go outside.”
“But I want to go outside.”
“Why would you want to go outside?”
“I want to feel the cold.”
“Why?”
“I live in California!”
To me, this seems like a perfectly reasonable response, but I can tell immediately that my answer entails, for her, exactly the opposite course of action. For her, living in California should mean that you don’t want to feel cold. She rolls her eyes and lets me go with a concerned admonition to “Be careful.”

Abandoned parking garage.

Abandoned parking garage.

Maybe it was sitting next to a roaring fire for an hour, but by the time I get back to my hotel, I feel like I could keep walking. (Or perhaps the wind has eased a bit.) I continue down the block in the other direction toward a park at the end of the street. I pass an abandoned parking garage that’s waiting for demolition. The snow is blowing across the bare concrete slab under the bright fluorescent lights. It’s eerie, but then again, so it is the whole street, deserted in the snow. My iPhone is barely registering my finger on the touchscreen at this point; I have to use the volume buttons to click the shutter. At the end of the block, I reach the park. There’s a purple-orange glow from the city lights behind the bare tree branches. I manage to take one photo before my iPhone gives up entirely and shuts down. Back at the hotel, I crank the thermostat to 76, unlayer, and lay down to watch the football game. Twenty minutes later, I realize that I’m shivering uncontrollably. I take a hot shower to get warm again–it takes a while.

The last picture before my iPhone shut itself off.

The last picture before my iPhone shut itself off.

§

Of course, if I’m going to talk about my pursuit of the Polar Vortex as a primarily somatic experience, I have to talk about pain. As I think I’ve made clear, it hurts to be that cold–in a myriad of ways (my knees, my cheeks, my hands, my sinuses). So why would I seek out such pain? I’m not going to deny my ascetic impulses. I could spin a story here about the pleasures of internalized cruelty and it wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. But I don’t think it’s the only story. There is more pleasure here than the pleasure of self-punishment; there is also a pleasure in reminding myself that I have a (mortal) body. Stepping out into the cold is a way of forcing an experience of embodiment, an experience that, even in pain, is not without a type of pleasure. And not just an experience of partial embodiment, like when you have pain in a specific body part (a toe, a knee, your head). This is cold that makes you feel large swaths of your skin, many of your muscles and bones, all of your respiratory organs. It produces something close to a sense of a full body in pain. And because it is temporary, and because it is chosen, there is, I think, a pleasure in this.

§

When I get on the airport shuttle the next morning, it’s -2 degrees (wind chill -20). It clearly feels warmer, so much so that I get a little reckless. I get off the shuttle with an open coat and no hat or gloves. For a few moments, I offer my head, neck, and hands to the Polar Vortex. And the Vortex rewards me–it allows me to leave. Two hours later, it is my remarkble luck that there are enough no-shows for me to get a seat on what was supposed to be (as of that morning) a full flight. By that evening, I’m back in unseasonably warm, increasingly drought-stricken San Francisco (which promises its own type of extreme weather).

Let me try one last way to make sense of this trip. For Christmas in 2012, I received a small book called The Weather Calendar. Compiled by “Mrs. Henry Head” around the turn of the twentieth century, it collects references to the weather from letters, diaries, and journals by historical English and French writers (spanning the 16th to late 19th century), one reference to correspond to each day of the calendar year. For example, the epigraph from Swift above is from December 30 (Swift wrote it on that date in 1710). It’s a remarkable collection. On a lark, I decided to turn this book into a project on Facebook for 2013. Every day last year, I posted the corresponding entry for that date. I called it my “Weather Project” and I posted faithfully almost every day. I lived in Mrs. Head’s collection for an entire year. And when the project ended, naturally, on the final day of 2013, I felt for several days at loose ends. It was only after I returned from Chicago that a dear friend pointed out that it wasn’t exactly a coincidence that my Polar Vortex adventure happened less than a week after the end of my Weather Project. When we read it this way, my visit to the Polar Vortex becomes a transfer and reinvestment of psychic energy–from the history of weather to the personal experience of weather. It becomes a type of performance piece. It’s a companion (and idiosyncratic capstone) to Mrs. Head’s Weather Calendar: almanac becomes travelogue. It’s a different way of collecting weather, a mode of collection that I intend to pursue. Stay tuned, you sauceboxes.

“Miserando atque eligendo”: Reflections on my romance with the papacy.

When I was eight, I was elected pope. It wasn’t exactly a canon law-approved election, as the sole “cardinal elector” was my second grade teacher at St. Mary’s Elementary School. Every year on All Saints Day (November 1), the second grade would lead a procession at Mass, each student dressed as a Catholic saint. Then during the ceremony, each student would read a brief biographical sketch of their chosen saint. Most kids dressed as the saint whose name they shared. As I lacked an eponymous saint, Mrs. Rudman and the nuns decided that I could lead the procession as Pope John Paul II. My mom made an elaborate costume for me, including a miter I loved so much that–according to my cousin Susan–I wore it for a month after. I still remember the first line of my speech: “I represent Pope John Paul, who is very close to the saints.” A local news station covered the event and interviewed me on camera. The reporter asked me when I planned to release my first encyclical. I replied, “huh?” It was my first experience with “gotcha” journalism.

After the end of my papacy, I remained a good Catholic boy. I celebrated First Communion. I became an altar boy. Not to brag, but I was a really good altar boy. I once served at Mass every week for an entire calendar year. A parishioner even requested that I serve at a Mass in memory of her husband. Years later, I was confirmed. I continued to attend Mass every week. I became a lector. And while I wasn’t the most pious of the boys my age (that was my friend Patrick), I was devout enough that our parish priest considered me as a potential vocation (Translation for non-Catholics: he thought I might become a priest.)

Indeed, when I was seventeen my diocese thought enough of my vocation potential to send me on an all-expenses-paid trip to Poland to attend World Youth Day with Pope John Paul. I spent the night in a field outside the Jasna Góra Monastery in Częstochowa with one million people, waiting for the Pope to say Mass the next morning. I was so far away that I needed binoculars to see him (although I did accidentally happen upon the route of his motorcade in Krakow a few days later. He waved at me.) In Poland, I was embedded with a group of students and seminarians from several different states. I was a little smitten with a young seminarian from Galveston and I watched with surprise as he was treated with respect, dignity, and friendship by the Poles. No one treated priests like that in my hometown. When I returned home, I told my mom that–if I were to become a priest–I would want to do so in a Catholic country. (Years later, I got over this desire to be treated with dignity in my chosen profession and became a teacher.)

But, of course, I never pursued a vocation–largely because I am, in the words of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and the Interdicasterial Commission for the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “intrinsically disordered.” Sure, I wouldn’t have been the first self-loathing gay man to become a priest. There’s Cardinal O’Brien, who was having “inappropriate relationships” with his seminarians while throwing gays under the bus. There’s Pope (Emeritus!) Benedict XVI with his red shoes and dreamy secretary and theology of repression. And yes, there’s that seminarian I furtively hooked up with years ago in the basement of the Notre Dame library. In other words, the Church has been fishing for men from that gay pool for decades. And I would have fit right in. After all, I spent my college years cruising guys while writing anti-gay editorials. Cardinal O’Brien looks shamefully familiar to me.

Eventually I got better. I moved to a new state, made new friends. I walked away from the Church. I came out. I still remember the last Mass I attended. It was Easter Sunday and I didn’t feel any joy; I felt out of place. A few years passed and I read history and philosophy and psychology and became an atheist. Even so, it took me years to break most of the habits I learned as a child. More than a decade later, it’s finally gotten to the point where I don’t pray anymore–not even as a comforting reflex on bumpy flights.

But I still can’t quite let go of the Church. I wouldn’t call myself a “non-practicing Catholic,” a phrase that still carries a connotation of belief. Rather, I prefer to call myself a “cultural Catholic”: someone who lacks belief but whose worldview was formed within the Church. For one thing, I still can’t shake the fascination of Catholic asceticism, a strain of thought that remains fundamental to my worldview. (This probably sounds surprising to those of you who know me or who have seen me. However, I would note that it is possible–indeed, probable, when you think about it–for one to be a failed ascetic.) But even stronger than the appeal of the monastic life (I also consider myself a failed monk), is my conviction that the Catholic Church can do so much good in this world.

I guess this makes me, in the words of Timothy Radcliffe, a “Kingdom Catholic.” As E.J. Dionne notes in a summary of Radcliffe’s book:

“The Christ whom [Kingdom Catholics] cherished,” he writes, “was the one who overthrew the boundaries between human beings, who touched lepers, reached out to foreigners and gathered us into the People of God.” Theirs was “an outward-looking theology” that was “rooted in experience” and emphasized “liberation.” The Kingdom Catholics look back to the [Vatican II] era as a time when “everything seemed possible.”

In other words, Kingdom Catholics are believe in the “good” version of Jesus–you know, the one that you never seem to hear about in American political discourse.

Which is why, I guess, I felt so giddy over the last two weeks in the run-up to the Conclave. For someone like me, it’s surprisingly easy to fall back in love with the Church at a moment when it lacks the usual leadership. The great thing about the interregnum is that there is the theoretical possibility that somebody like the good version of Jesus could walk out of the Sistine Chapel. Even better, good Jesus would do so after a week filled with fabulous costumes, mesmerizing rituals, and sumptuous art. The whole thing is like an Alexander McQueen runway show that ends with the possibility of social justice. What could be more appealing to a leftish homo like me?

But that’s what is so crushing. The reality is that were a version of my “social justice Jesus” sitting in the Sistine Chapel, he would be unelectable. Because after roughly 20 years of Joseph Ratzinger’s theological and administrative domination, the College of Cardinals is filled with men of the contrasting style, the ones that Radcliffe calls “Communion Catholics.” These are men who are more interested in protecting the doctrinal integrity of the Church in the face of modernity. It’s an inward looking orientation, concerned more with a version of holiness than with social justice. If this sounds familiar, it should. Communion Catholicism is the worldview of Ratzinger, who provided the theological and doctrinal underpinnings of most of John Paul II’s papacy and who succeeded JPII as Pope Benedict XVI. Now, I’m not here to write a theological treatise on Ratzinger or a detailed analysis of the political currents inside the College of Cardinals. I’m qualified to do neither. My analysis, such as it is, is undoubtedly simplistic and reductive. However, there is no doubt that, over the past several decades, Ratzinger has been remarkably successful at remaking the Church’s hierarchy in his image.

And we can see the results in the narrowness of the Church’s moral vision. It is a sad truth that the Church’s two most visible interventions into contemporary Western society have focused on abortion and gay marriage—issues on which the Church is desperately concerned to keep marginalized people in their place. And when it comes to immigration, income inequality, austerity, environmental destruction, AIDS? Even when the Church says the right thing on these issues (and that is rarer than it should be), we still never see a serious, organized attempt to intervene in politics. Catholic bishops show up in Congress to complain about their employees having access to free birth control, but none of them show up to advocate for raising the minimum wage.

So what should we expect of Pope Francis? I’ll admit that I like his choice of name and his call for austerity in the Church—that’s austerity I can believe in. But realistically, there are more questionable or negative indications than there are positive ones. He may not end up being the cruelest Pope of the last 35 years, but that’s very faint praise indeed.

I know that many of you probably think there is something quixotic in my hope for the Catholic Church as a force for social justice. And I can’t entirely disagree. But it’s also true that the most committed everyday champion of social justice that I have ever known was a Catholic nun. Her name was Sister Dolora (an astounding name, when you think about it). Throughout my childhood and beyond, she organized our parish’s Christian Service Organization and food pantry. I remember her driving around town in a Chevrolet Citation filled with groceries. Even though she was in her late 60s, she was an absolute whirlwind. An excerpt from her 2004 obituary:

“It was in 1979, when Sister Dolora arrived in Niles, that she organized the Christian Service Organization. In 1988, concerned parishioners pulled together to build the new home for the pantry at its current location in the Christian Service Center located at the corner of Clay and State streets. The pantry assists about 100 needy families a month and even more during the holidays. If there was any community project or service that St. Mary’s offered, Sister Dolora played some part in organizing or directing it. Through her work as director of the Christian Service Organization, Sister Dolora visited the sick, held bingo games for seniors, and offered coffee and donuts on Sundays during the winter months. She organized the spring and Christmas arts and crafts bazaars, and made Thanksgiving baskets for the needy. She also organized the junior volunteer program through St. Mary’s, which got fifth and sixth grade students involved in helping in the community.”

She served the poor, regardless of their religious beliefs. And she did it every day. To be honest, as a kid, I was a little scared of her. Her single-minded focus on the poor was perplexing to me and a bit embarrassing. Now, all these years later, it’s clear to me that Sister Dolora is exactly what is right about the Catholic Church—as are, indeed, so many American nuns.  What the Church needs is more nuns.  And this makes Ratzinger’s crackdown on them even sadder.

I’ve been thinking a lot about nuns in the past few weeks, but I’ve also been thinking a lot about what kind of priest I would have been. As mid-life crises go, this isn’t one that you regularly see on sitcoms. Even after all these years and all this baggage, I guess still have doubts about whether I missed my vocation. Not that I think I would have been a very good priest—I probably wouldn’t have been. I’m too proud, occasionally vain, and not very good at quiet, humble obedience. I don’t take orders well.  I lack a deep spirituality. I might have had a little trouble with sexual abstinence.

And yet. Perhaps I would have become a Jesuit. I could have been a teaching priest: history or literature, of course. My life as a parish priest is less easily imaginable. I would have been lonely. I would have taken up smoking, drunk too much, and cultivated an eccentric hobby (Opera? Chess? Building birdhouses?). I couldn’t have become a bishop—I’m not very good at management or organizational politics—and the papacy would have been out of the question, of course. But I would have done some things well. I would have written and delivered strong homilies. I would have been approachable, slightly but not too worldly. I would have been occasionally bemused or exasperated by my parishioners, but I would never have been cruel. It would have been okay.

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Dispatches from Last Year: My Five Favorite Articles from 2012.

I read a number of great articles in 2012, but here are five that I still think about–even months later.

David Graeber, “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit.”  The Baffler, No. 19.  Probably my favorite article of the year.  Haven’t you ever wondered why very few of the technological advances we were promised have actually arrived?  Graeber’s analysis is smart, convincing, and pleasantly digressive.  And then there’s this:

There was a time when academia was society’s refuge for the eccentric, brilliant, and impractical. No longer. It is now the domain of professional self-marketers. As a result, in one of the most bizarre fits of social self-destructiveness in history, we seem to have decided we have no place for our eccentric, brilliant, and impractical citizens. Most languish in their mothers’ basements, at best making the occasional, acute intervention on the Internet.

I’ve considered adding this paragraph to the bottom of my curriculum vitae.

Terry Castle, “Don’t Pick Up: Why Kids Need to Separate from Their Parents.”  The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 6, 2012.  Another wide-ranging essay, this time by the brilliant literary critic Terry Castle.  Castle’s shock at her Stanford students’ closeness to their parents leads her to a fascinating argument about the novel:

Thus the first of two big lit-crit hypotheses I’ll advance here: More than love, sex, courtship, and marriage; more than inheritance, ambition, rivalry, or disgrace; more than hatred, betrayal, revenge, or death, orphanhood—the absence of the parent, the frightening yet galvanizing solitude of the child—may be the defining fixation of the novel as a genre, what one might call its primordial motive or matrix, the conditioning psychic reality out of which the form itself develops.

And, perhaps more importantly, are the lives of our students signaling a change in conditions of our world?

Are we in the midst of some countertransformation? A rolling back of the Enlightenment parent-child story? Are we returning to an older model of belief—to a more authoritarian and “elder centric” world? The deferential-child model has dominated most of human history, after all. Maybe the extraordinary Enlightenment break with the age-old commandment—honor thy father and thy mother—was temporary, an aberration, a blip on the screen.

Patrick Hruby, “Game Over.”  Sports On Earth, August 29, 2012.
Charles P. Pierce, “American Ghouls.”  Grantland, April 30, 2012.
This year, I (and only about five other people, apparently) got over the NFL.  The gleeful crushing of labor unions, the shakedowns of municipal tax coffers, the Billionaire Boys Club: it all looks so ugly.  But most importantly, this is the first year that I recognized how purposefully the NFL has ignored brain injury and how continuing to watch makes me complicit in that deliberate negligence.  For the first time in my life, watching a football game looks to me like a choice with negative ethical consequences.  These articles had a lot to do with that perception.

Hruby:

Slowly, over time, I’ve found myself worrying more and enjoying football less; recently, I’ve come to feel that seeing people ruin themselves for entertainment’s sake — so my Saturdays and Sundays are a little more fun — isn’t just sordid. It’s ghoulish.

And Pierce:

There will be people who maintain that NFL players signed on to be cogs in a machine when they signed their initial contracts. There is a libertarian argument that will be made about allowing people to take their own risks with their own bodies. There will be some boohooing about the involvement of “politics” in our entertainment. Standing against these concerns is the simple fact that we all owe each other a debt as members of a political and social commonwealth not to profit from the pain and suffering of each other, no matter who inflicts it or how accidental or deliberate that might be. It is time to regard our individual complicity in the circumstances that we allow to produce what happened to someone like Ray Easterling with a far more jaundiced eye than we ever have. You can enjoy football if you wish. I do. But I can’t enjoy it blindly any more. I can’t enjoy it with a clear conscience.


Zadie Smith, “The North West London Blues.”  NYR Blog, June 2, 2012.  A defense of a local library becomes a meditation on the importance of the state.  This is a conversation we need to have in America.

I retain a particular naivety concerning the British state, which must seem comical to many people, particularly younger people. I can only really account for it by reaching back again, briefly, into the past. It’s a short story about debt—because I owe the state, quite a lot. Some people owe everything they have to the bank accounts of their parents. I owe the state. Put simply, the state educated me, fixed my leg when it was broken, and gave me a grant that enabled me to go to university. It fixed my teeth (a bit) and found housing for my veteran father in his dotage. When my youngest brother was run over by a truck it saved his life and in particular his crushed right hand, a procedure that took half a year, and which would, on the open market—so a doctor told me at the time—have cost a million pounds. Those were the big things, but there were also plenty of little ones: my subsidized sports centre and my doctor’s office, my school music lessons paid for with pennies, my university fees. My NHS glasses aged 9. My NHS baby aged 33. And my local library. To steal another writer’s title: England made me. It has never been hard for me to pay my taxes because I understand it to be the repaying of a large, in fact, an almost incalculable, debt.

“I’m just here for the union-busting!”: Nicholas Kristof, School “Reform”, and the Chicago Teachers Strike

I’ve been defending the Chicago Teachers Union in my posts on Facebook and that has led to a number of online arguments with some of my more neoliberal acquaintances (who, in general, have never met a union that they don’t want to bust).  My overall argument is that socioeconomic factors have such a massive effect on educational outcomes that it is unfair to blame “underperforming” teachers for poor test scores.  More than one acquaintance responded to my argument by linking to a recent op-ed in the NYT by Nicholas Kristof.  I ended up writing (and posting in a comment thread on Facebook) a long rebuttal to this op-ed, but I’ve decided that I’d like to publish it more generally.  Here is my response (enhanced with a few hyperlinks):

First things first. No one is arguing that there aren’t teacher effects on educational outcomes. But the problem is that’s all Kristof and his neoliberal cronies want to talk about. They love to mention–in passing–poverty and racism and inequality, but they always come to back to firing teachers. The whole introduction of his op-ed could be summarized as “Poverty is the most important issue affecting education, which is why we need to fire some teachers.” It’s a bait-and-switch. Kristof may want to come off as a thoughtful observer of complex social phenomena, but he’s really just here for the union-busting.

Which brings us to his evidence. Despite his assertions, the studies Kristof cites just aren’t that clear cut. Diane Ravitch and Bruce Baker (among others) have discussed all of the studies that Kristof cites and have made several important points (you can read these critiques here and here):

  1. The effects that Kristof cites are just not as large as the rhetoric claims.
  2. Despite the fact that teacher effects exist, it is still not clear how to isolate individual teachers based on evaluation. (Kristof admits this in passing and then quickly ignores it.)
  3. There is nothing in these studies that supports firing bad teachers as a solution. Indeed, considering that the mode of teacher experience nationwide is one year and that evidence suggests that teachers improve by their third year of teaching, it may actually be preferable to spend money on training/retraining/professional development of current teachers than hiring (and then firing) a whole new set of teachers every year. (Incidentally, Rahm’s proposal to the union cut funds for teacher training, whereas the union’s original proposal called for a significant increase in funds for professional development.)

In fact, I don’t see any reason to believe that strict evaluation and lack of job security will improve educational outcomes. After all, charter schools–where “underperforming” teachers are NOT protected–do no better on average than traditional schools. Somehow, the charter school model of turning teachers into well-educated temps doesn’t actually produce all of the promised educational benefits. This is the problem that Kristof and his ilk forget to mention in their op-eds and propaganda films.

CTU Strike: 'Democratic Party, Where Are You?'

But Kristof isn’t really trying to be fair here. He’s more interested in trying to make teachers look bad. He seethes about how “unconscionable” it is that Chicago schools have a shorter day/year than other schools and applauds Rahm for trying to increase the length of the day/year. But Kristof forgets to mention that Rahm didn’t offer the teachers a commensurate increase in compensation for the increased workload. Kristof claims that he wants to pay teachers more, but I guess that doesn’t apply in this case.

And then there’s that cheapest of cheap shot lines about teachers expecting not to be held accountable for educational outcomes until poverty is solved. I don’t think teachers are asking for quite that much. Indeed, I suspect that most teachers would just be happy to see Democrat politicians and philanthropists do ONE FUCKING THING about poverty and inequality. But why should Kristof and the  NYT call out Rahm, Pritzker, Obama, etc., when there are teachers to be fired?

Finally, let me say how enraging I find it when Bill Gates (from his compound on Lake Washington) or Penny Pritzker (in her under-taxed Chicago mansion) or Nicholas Kristof (from his aerie in Manhattan) claim that they care more about the poor black kids on the South Side and know what is better for those kids than the teachers who spend every day with those kids. How dare the (underpaid) people who teach these kids try to speak up when the rich and the powerful are telling them (from afar) how to do their jobs! As far as I’m concerned, we should make education policy by listening to teachers, not to the arrogant rich and their pet technocrats.

“The south of the north”: Reading Diane Seuss and Making Sense of Niles.

I was born in Niles, Michigan, and lived there until I left for college.  Lately, I’ve been thinking about Niles a lot.  Not coincidentally, in a few days I’ll be returning for my high school reunion—a reunion that I had no intention of attending until about a week ago, when I finally decided that the calculus of potential regrets works out in favor of not skipping it.  I’ve mentioned before my feelings about Niles (calling the town “angry and sad and mean”), but recently I’ve begun to look for other ways to make sense of Niles and my childhood there.  I’ve been looking through old pictures and yearbooks.  I’ve been connecting with old acquaintances.  And I’ve been reading literature.

If you want to try to make sense of Niles through literature, you have two choices.  The first is Ring Lardner (1885-1933), who was a sportswriter, newspaper columnist, and writer of short fiction.  Lardner grew up in Niles, but spent his professional career in Chicago and then New York.  My junior high school was named for him.  Scholars argue for the strong influence of his style on subsequent American literature, but there is something sadly dated about his prose.  He doesn’t get read much anymore, except perhaps by baseball historians (who are, almost without exception, the worst).  Niles shows up occasionally in his work, but always briefly and usually as the place that gets left behind.  When it comes thinking about life in Niles in the second half of the twentieth century, Lardner isn’t much help.

I am more interested in reading Niles through the lens of contemporary poet Diane Seuss.  I was introduced to her work by a mutual friend who recognized our shared Niles connection.  Seuss grew up in Niles and, after years in New York and elsewhere, now teaches writing at Kalamazoo College.  She has published two excellent books of poetry, It Blows You Hollow and Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open (winner of the 2009 Juniper Prize for Poetry).  I have never met Seuss, although I have interacted with her on Facebook.  I know her better through her poetry and various interviews I have read.

First, let me make it clear that Seuss is not a “poet of Niles”—or if she is, it’s only in the same way that Bruce Springsteen is a “poet of New Jersey.”  Niles matters for Seuss just as Jersey matters for Springsteen; however, the concerns of both artists are so much broader and deeper than their respective natal geographies.  Seuss writes with authority about so much else: desire, sex, scars, language.  And her geographical preoccupations go well beyond Southwestern Michigan, including a stark set of meditations on Drummond Island.

But in this essay, I am interested in looking at Niles through Seuss’s eyes.  And indeed, I will admit that—at first—it was hard for me to read her work for anything else.  Maybe you can imagine how it feels to me, after all these years, to find another person who is also struggling—in language—to make sense of Niles.  Someone who is wise, perceptive, and in love with words.  Someone who has turned Niles into a source of art.  It’s a thrill, of course.  And I am tempted to find myself in it.

When I read Diane Seuss, there is a part of me that searches greedily for scraps from my own biography.  I look for shared experiences and for places that I remember.   I thrill at the mention of Happy House, my favorite Chinese restaurant from childhood (“have you ever seen a Chinese place with buttered dinner roles and funeral home placemats” [“You Like It Don't You, You Like It Hard and Cold”]).  I smile knowingly at the evocation of “burn barrels” (“Viceroy”).  I collect these moments eagerly, feeling almost as if I have cracked Seuss’s code—a code that is thrilling because of its obscurity.  When I come across references I don’t recognize, I feel left out, like I missed something essential about Niles (although I recognize that, even if Seuss and I were the same age, we would still have lived in different versions of the town).

Before the fire.

And what is her version of Niles?  Well, it’s more like Twin Peaks than Grover’s Corners.  From an interview: “[Niles] is another spooky, freaky place. I rarely go there because it makes my tuning fork buzz.”  From a prefatory note: “I wanted to get at the weirdness of small town life rather than the nostalgia.”  Seuss’s version of Niles is gothic.  For her, the town is suffocating, sinister, unheimlich.  In this way, there is a kinship between Seuss’s Niles and the rural Southern towns of Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor.  Indeed, Seuss draws this parallel explicitly in “Stiffs” when the speaker notes that “I’m from the south / of the north.”

It is in “Stiffs” that Seuss offers the most chilling indictment of Niles.  The speaker in this poem imagines returning home after years away.  Feeling out-of-place in the world of academia, she fantasizes about using her hometown as the escape from her current life.  She thinks about her old boyfriend, “a tree trimmer”:

He was struck by lightning last year, hit him in the belt
buckle.  He dangled upside down in the tree for hours
until they found him and cut him down.  Critical condition
for a night, then he swaggered out of the hospital
and headed straight for the Nugget, bragging that his dick
saved him from disaster one more time.  Backwards cap,
he’s still looking good.  I could move back.

The tree trimmer is not an unappealing option here.  Nor is the freedom that Niles would offer to “write ungrammatically.”  But as seductive as this fantasy is, the speaker knows there is more to the town.  The swaggering authenticity of the tree trimmer is sexy, but Niles isn’t all bravado and beer and sentence fragments (and lightning).  There is also an ugliness:

The underworld there makes this place look
like a bowl of cornflakes on a sunny morning.  Skull buried
under the dismantled boards of the old fruit stand, you know.
People nearly making good, then getting drunk to celebrate
and killing some kid in a head-on, rotting in jail
with their chins in the air, no remorse.

It is by remembering the darkness that the speaker, by the end of the poem, recognizes that Niles offers no escape.  The fantasy of Niles and the “lowdown archangel” that is her old boyfriend is, finally, “a lie.”

I love this poem because it feels so familiar.  This is not just because I recognize the defiant drunk drivers or the Nugget (although I will be there with my classmates on Friday night).  But I also recognize the imaginative act of this poem.  I recognize the train of thought.  By the standards of my hometown, I’ve lived a nontraditional—perhaps even eccentric—life: accumulating degrees, working (precariously) in academia, moving frequently, refusing to marry and to have children.  I’ve chosen this life, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t fantasize about the alternatives.  I have a pretty clear picture of what my life would have been like had I never left.  While that picture is mostly ugly, it is not entirely so.  There is enough comfort in the picture—as there is in “Stiffs”—to keep the fantasy alive.  Niles may be gothic, but sometimes I am too.

Apparently, the Nugget added a “T” in recent years.

It is in the darkness of Niles, almost necessarily, that Seuss’s desire for transcendence appears.  It is no accident that, in It Blows You Hollow, the myths of Niles are intertwined with deliberate evocations of the metaphysical poets.  These poets begged for an escape from sin and desired—erotically, ecstatically—a reunion with God.  Seuss finds these same desires in the world of her childhood, translating the language of John Donne and George Herbert into the language of the baby boom.  In “Hit,” she rewrites Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 14” using the pop culture tropes of mid-twentieth century Americana (“Batter my heart, three-personed / mud wrestler”).  “Viceroy,” in which the child speaker stands outside in the smoke of Niles from “the burn barrels, the paper mill, mushroom factory, leaf burning,” ends with some of my favorite lines, an echo of Herbert’s direct and earnest pleas for salvation:

Do you see, God, how I do not want to have to die
to get to come home?  Being your child,
I want to be so alive that you gasp when I arrive.
You acknowledge the grape juice on my lips.
You light your Viceroy on the sparks in my hair.

These are gorgeous lines, an exaltation of life beyond the sooty air of Niles.  Did I ever feel so alive in Niles?  To be honest, I don’t know.  I don’t know if I was that kid.  But I wish I had been.

It is in this way that I brush up against the dangers of reading Diane Seuss on Niles.  Her vision of the town is so seductive, so powerful, that it begins to color my own memories.  Reading Seuss, I find myself having to be careful–it is too easy and too pleasurable for me to become enveloped in her vision.  Making sense of Niles through Seuss’s poetry is an exercise in both self-recognition and resistance.  And it is through this tension that I have found myself–recently, finally–thinking about Niles.

Sim City: Las Vegas, the Future, and Pretending to Be Rich.

My partner and I went to Las Vegas a couple of weekends ago. Lately, I’ve found myself wanting to go to Vegas once or twice a year, which is odd because I don’t enjoy gambling, dancing, or swimming pools. Indeed, I much prefer to Vegas any number of West Coast cities that can be reached by a similarly short flight. Seattle and Portland have more interesting and varied activities. Los Angeles has better food. All three cities have more culture. This is not to say that I don’t have fun in Vegas. There are several restaurants that I like (that I can afford). The Bellagio fountain has been known to make me cry (true story). And the lights on the Strip at night are spectacular. But even so, after a few hours in Vegas, I often find myself wondering how I can possibly kill the remaining hours until our return flight.

So why do I keep going back to Vegas? The answer is complicated and involves many different factors, including, I will sheepishly admit, several massively successful national advertising campaigns that play on fantasies of leisure (“It’s not a vacation if you check your work email”) and fantasies of transgression as leisure (“What happens in Vegas…”). But there is more to it. It’s a city that seems to demand sense-making, even though it is very hard to do so. I like San Francisco, but I really don’t spend much time thinking about San Francisco. San Francisco, for the most part, makes sense to me. On the contrary, I don’t like Vegas, but I like thinking about Vegas. Now I’m not a sociologist or a geographer or an urban theorist; I am merely an curious and observant amateur who has spent some time walking the Strip and driving around the parts of Las Vegas where tourists rarely go. These are my recent thoughts.

Fantasies of leisure

Whenever I’m in Vegas, I feel like I’m in the future. A very specific future. The future from Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story. It’s a beautiful novel (and very much worth reading), but it’s not a book that you want to live in. In the novel, portions of Manhattan have essentially become an exclusive entertainment complex for the global rich. Some NYC residents work service jobs to keep the upscale mall running, but most live in squalor–kept in check by a military and police. Sound familiar? Indeed, Shteyngart’s future is different from our present only in degree. And right now Las Vegas is closer than any American city to Shteyngart’s vision.

As far as I can tell, Las Vegas is a spectacular playground for the super-rich. Probably more so than I can even imagine, as so much of it takes place outside the view of people like me–in VIP sections, champagne rooms, high roller lounges, suites with secret elevators, private dining rooms. But what does life look like in Vegas outside of this archipelago of glitz? A lot like the Third World. If you drive a few blocks off of the Strip, things start to get ugly. You’re surrounded by flat, desolate warehouses–many of them abandoned. Vacant lots. Halted construction. Streets that don’t go anywhere, that just end in dusty concrete barriers. And farther from the Strip? More than once, I’ve accidentally exited the freeway into what appear to be ghost neighborhoods.

And then there are the inhabited neighborhoods. Seventy-one percent of Las Vegas mortgages are underwater. As my friend Todd discovered recently, you can buy a two-bedroom house on a golf course for less than $50K. Unemployment is almost 14%. And the most common jobs in Vegas aren’t those that produce a robust middle class: casino dealers, maids, cocktail waitresses, valets. In the year 2000, my fresh-out-of-college cousin moved to Las Vegas during the boom to become a teacher. There was an optimism in those years that Las Vegas could be a functioning city, an idea that a well-rounded community with a middle class could be built in a city devoted to tourism and service. We can see how that turned out. A decade later, Vegas is closer to having only two classes: casino billionaires and serfs.

But what makes this story even more interesting (and horrible) is that Vegas is not just a playground for the super-rich built on the backs of the poor. Because it’s not just the super-rich who play in Vegas. The rest of us do too: the remnants of the American middle class, retirees, students, underemployed twenty-somethings, the less poor. We’re allowed to play in a more crowded, less opulent approximation of the VIP spaces that we’ll probably never glimpse–for the 3-5 days of (often unpaid) vacation that we can afford to take. This is what is devious about Las Vegas: it’s a playground for the super-rich AND a parallel (and mostly separate) playground where the rest of us can pretend to be just like the super-rich. Not every twenty-something can be one of the millionaires on Jersey Shore, but any twenty-something with a tan and $25 can spend the afternoon at the Palms pool pretending to be on Jersey Shore. And although I’ve managed to resist fist-pumping in the pool, I’m not immune to fantasies of acting wealthy. Indeed, it’s hard to spend any time in Vegas without falling into them. In an American class system that is increasingly rigid, cruel, and inescapable, a long weekend of acting like your economic betters feels like a vacation.

We called it “Fist-pump Pool.”

But wait, there’s a final twist of irony here. What do the casino billionaires like Sheldon Adelson and Steve Wynn do with the money we spend at their resorts? They give it to Mitt Romney. Or to Karl Rove. And, undoubtedly, to many other candidates and SuperPACs that are devoted to transferring wealth from the bottom to the top. And so we have a situation in which people who are not rich (you and me) spend some of our money to pretend that we are rich, but the money we spend makes it more likely that we will have less money to spend in the future. In other words, Las Vegas casinos are essentially money laundering operations to make the non-rich contribute money to increasing income inequality–all while making us feel like we’re on the winning side.  It’s a con disguised as a vacation package and it’s hard to resist.