Quotation: Alfred North Whitehead on Great Ideas

A great idea, says Whitehead, "is like a phantom ocean beating upon the shores of human life in successive waves of specializing."
 Alfred North Whitehead
Source: Whitehead, Alfred North. Adventures of Ideas. United Kingdom, Free Press, 1967.


Lyotard's Caution on Taste

image credit: © Greig Roselli 
"There could be no greater misunderstanding of judgments of taste than to declare them simply universal and necessary."

Jean-François Lyotard, Analytic of the Sublime, p. 19.


Little Red Lighthouse Under the Gray Bridge

To get to this Lighthouse, officially called The Jeffrey's Hook lighthouse (which is inoperative but maintained by the New York City Park Service), I took the subway to 168th street (A, C, 1). I walked west on 168th street toward the Hudson. 168th street ends at a psychiatric hospital. Turn right to follow the highway then turn left onto the meandering path which will lead you into Fort Washington Park. There may be an easier way to do this. If you know of one please let me. I figured my way over and under the Henry Hudson expressway and a multitude of other expressways that cut vertically through Manhattan's Westside. Once you get to the Fort Washington Park (follow the signs) the Little Red Lighthouse is easy to find. I did make one wrong turn, though. I climbed up a flight of stairs that brought me to a dead-end walkway alongside an overpass. The trick is to keep walking west. The bright red structure sits under the George Washington Bridge. It's a really fun trek to make on a nice weekend day. Make sure you bring something to eat. There are several picnic tables positioned close by. Watch out for the bikers. On the opposite side of the lighthouse, there is a ramshackle hut built for the security guard who watches over the bridge to make sure no one trespasses. Oh, and if you want to play tennis there are courts nearby to the south. Speaking of the south, the view of Manhattan from the vantage point of the lighthouse's location gives one a great view of Midtown in the distance. The way the island descends southward and widens is evident from this view. Considering the lighthouse is a tender memory from a children's novel (which I never read) attracts attention enough. But even if you don't know the literary connection, I'd say the trip is satisfying on its own.


"Apparently" and "Weird": A Report on Colloquial Usage

I overheard a conversation on the subway today between two college kids: "It's weird, you know, apparently she was his girlfriend, but now it's so awkward, I'm like whatever."
The words "apparently" and "weird" have taken on a nuanced meaning in contemporary Americana. Jonathan Franzen, in his novel Freedom, first alerted me to the phenomenon of "weird." Everything Patty Berglund notices that should be contested, like her son living with the next-door neighbor, instead of in his own home, is just weird, she says. Anything Patty Berglund doesn't like, "it's weird." The neighbor flicks cigarettes from her window into the baby pool below. Patty Berglund just says, "It's weird."

"Weird" no longer means oddly strange or not normal. Weird is a catch-all phrase for anything a person doesn't understand or agree with. "It's weird," a student told me. I thought she would tell me about a strange occurrence on the way to class, but she only meant her grade. "You gave me a C-."

Instead of, confused, or give me a reason, the epithet I get is weird.
"Awkward" deserves its own post. It's like weird in that it replaces what we'd rather say about a situation or unable to say, so we say weird or awkward instead. Everything is either weird or awkward. I think Franzen is keen to the usage of words, like weird, because the word becomes a substitute for whenever we rather not say what we would like to say, so we just say it's weird or awkward. It's similar to standing in front of a painting at a museum and saying, "That's interesting." We know we like the painting. We just can't give words to what we feel. Weird works like this, but it masks a moral attitude. Patty could have said the neighbor was sociopathic, or mean, or just plain bad. But it's weird. Nothing beyond weird was in her vocabulary. She avoids placing moral blame on an action by substituting right or wrong, just or unjust, with weird.

The word has taken on a moral ambiguity that Franzen links to a propensity to choose not naming an action for what it is out of fear of being labeled weird. By taking the weird stance, I protect myself from being weird.

Anything that threatens becomes weird. Weird is the neologism that defines fear of otherness. Building a Muslim Community Center in Tribecca? That's just weird.

Then there's "apparently." This adverb is everywhere in speech patterns I've overheard. It's supposed to be a useful way to suggest an inductive conclusion based on surface knowledge. "Jorge apparently had not studied because his answer sheet was blank when he turned it in to the teacher."

If something is apparent, it means I know it to be true only at the level of appearance.
People use the word incorrectly to talk about events that are known. "The J train's not running, apparently." Is it running or not? There is no "apparent" in sight. The word insinuates suspicion of a claim on certainty when no such suspicion is necessary. It's weird!


Aesthetic Thursdays: Oedipus and the Sphinx

In this blog post, I compare Gustav Moreau and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres's two very different paintings of Oedipus solving the riddle of the Sphinx.
"Oedipus and the Sphinx" - Gustave Moreau. 1864. Oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.
Notice the bottom of the painting. The gray corpse and fallen crown foreshadow Oedipus's tragic fate. The painting depicts young Oedipus as powerful, able to thwart the Sphinx's cunning by answering her riddle. But, the viewer can't help but notice death hiding just beneath.
Oedipus and the Sphinx, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. 1827. The Louvre, Paris.
Notice in Ingre's version, we see depicted in the left foreground the foot of a fallen corpse (who guessed incorrectly) as well as in the right foreground a foreshadowing of Oedipus's own demise. Since Oedipus solved the Sphinx's riddle and saved Thebes from a plague, he was given the Queen Jocasta as his wife who later is found to be his mother. Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus blinds himself with her brooch.


Photograph: Dogs of the Upper East Side

Dogs diligently wait as dogs are wont to do.


English Teacher at the Yeshiva

Inside an empty hallway in the Satmar Hasidic Yeshiva School
Today at the Yeshiva my patience ran thin. I'm exhausted by the antics of three of my students.
Most of the boys I teach love to learn. They dive into the strangeness of English. The silent "k" of "know" and the funny -ed ending of past tense verbs. Why "spoke" and not speaked? Questions abound from them about curiosities in language. English words are like rare finds. "It's a pity," I said today, "few boys don't want to learn." One astute and perennially smiling child asked, "Teacher, what means 'pity'?" I say, "It means, 'It makes me sad.'" "I say you something, yeah?" I don't hear what he says because I'm distracted.

The Classroom Is Full of Non-Stop Chattering Boys
The classroom is loud. The boys are supposed to be doing a Spelling review. Spur, snap, rub, scrub, run, etc. Joel, Shlomo, and Shlomo are out of sync with the lesson. I motion towards the trio of boys who are huddled around a drawing of an oversized rebbe and a picture of a horse.

No spelling words in sight. "Get out of my classroom if you don't want to learn," I say. This is not a first warning. Earlier Shlomo had eaten into the husk of a pen splattering ink over his face and onto another boy's pants. This is not the first time these three have completely ignored the lesson. I'm not adverse to drawing. But it is insolent to not even have at least one spelling book.

The rebbe comes into the classroom. "Boys no discipline?" I say only a few boys, pointing to the three huddled together. He takes the three boys outside.

Teaching English To Yiddish Speaking Satmar Hasidic Children Is Not Easy
This is life in the Yeshiva. I try to teach English to children who barely speak the language or seemingly have an interest in it. If you walk the streets of Brooklyn in certain areas one only needs to know Yiddish (or Jewish, as they call it).

I love the chaos, though. Sometimes the school day is electrifying. Hundreds of kids rush by me on a late weekday afternoon. In class, we talk about the Amazon Rain Forest, or exponents, the normal fare of American elementary schools.

But, it's different though when I'm the minority. It's not that the students are vile or mean spirited or even apathetic. There is a huge throb of energy in my students I find contagious. But, this energy is directed toward Jewish studies. "We boys are Talmud," one boy with sharp blue eyes and round glasses says.

The task is to get that energy focused on English. One father tells me, "I'm not so good with the Math either." And his son tells me, "I not love English." So what am I supposed to do?

I embrace the chaos. I go with the flow.
Today I became frustrated. The three malcontents who seem to be completely furious I turned them in return. The Rebbe tells me in front of the boys, "You good teacher. But too good. No discipline. Boys take advantage of you." I listen to his wisdom. All the boys grow quiet when he speaks. Any boy who not learn send them to me. If you teach and they not listen send them to me. But, you are the teacher Whose fault is it that boys not learn?" I say, "mine," feeling just as chastened as the punished boys. "Right," he says. "You must have the discipline," he says and leaves.

The three promptly do the work. For a time. I walk around the classroom. All the boys are seated in benches like they do in the old schoolhouse style. I answer questions about "slept" and "overslept."

I've been with these boys seven months now. I know them well. I know who loves English and who doesn't. I envy their love of the Torah. It's so unbridled and passionate. I envy the rebbes who command attention. They stand like gods. If only the boys would listen to me like that, I think.

Seeing Hasidic Judaism Through a Child's Eyes
"Teacher, I say you something, yeah?"

Ok. I say.

"All boys learn English, no? Why you not learn Jewish, yeah?"

Tomorrow will be no different. And the next day. Boys will learn a few words. Some boys will simply do nothing. Others will talk loudly and incessantly. I'll manage to conjugate "to be" or tell a story about a boy who rides in an ambulance in the snow. Lately, I've noticed stories grab their attention. And it's in English. A plus! More on storytelling later. For today it's about the discipline.

It's a normal day at the Yeshiva.