Googling “There is No Better Education Than”

the public schools
a private school education
the perspectives of history, literature, and philosophy
study of the Holy Scriptures and the traditions of the Church and of our ancestors
the classics
poetry

foreign travel
experiencing the world firsthand
what goes on between a doctor and patient
the writing of essays on subjects just outside the range of one’s capacity
going out there in front of an audience
seeing firsthand how others do what you do

chat with fellow exhibitors
editing a small-town newspaper
painting outdoors
handling, caring for, and training animals
that of the Black for the Black and by the Black
working amongst the people to build socialism
owning a Mercedes-Benz
the fact that an insurance company will ask that question
what you got at Ghost

good conversation
the sight of the best
the presence of a good man
the demonstration of values through a living personality
example

putting your hand into your pocket for a dollar
conducting or participating in simple and complex events
keeping theory and practice in constant and fruitful relations
practical work
personal involvement
experience
one’s own failures
the classroom of life
life itself
this

Today is National Survivors of Suicide Day

[This is a reposting of “The Harrowing” from 2010, in honor of fellow survivors, and their silent struggles.]

That summer, both of my boys stayed with their mother in Chicago, but only Tristan was to return in the fall for school. There was some apprehension about how that would go: we had moved across school district lines, and though his petition to stay with his friends at the other high school had been approved the previous year, when he was a freshman, his second petition had been rejected. I don’t know if this was because of his grades, which were mediocre, or because of behavior issues that never got back to us, but in retrospect I can say that either way, it was his taste for marijuana that seemed to have been behind it. He was pretty upset about the prospect of losing his friends.

During the summer he had met a girl, not the first girl he had been sweet on, but the first he had gotten anywhere with. I later learned that they had had sex, and this had opened doors in him that would never close again. He had been reading Romeo and Juliet for school and had expressed the desire to learn more about Shakespeare.

When he came back, he seemed fine, but there was one moment when we were sitting in the dining room that he started to tear up, very quietly. Being separated from the girl was going to be hard on him. I thought back to similar events from my own adolescence, and while I was perfectly aware of how hard they had been, I had survived, and so would he.

A couple of weeks after his return, they had their first fight. He had told her a story designed to elicit her sympathy (I seem to recall it was about being mugged) which he had made up out of whole cloth. Eventually the deception weighed on him and he confessed, upon which she broke up with him. Though deception is a part of every child’s life as we all recall, it was different with him. He was typically quite dogged in sticking to his story, so the standard ritual of discovery, confrontation, contrition and reconciliation tended to not happen. I didn’t understand this at the time but later did: when you chronically lie to protect someone else you love and depend on (his mother), the incentives for honesty tip the other way. I think he had lived much of his life like a spy in enemy territory, or like a closeted gay man in the bad old days. All children lie; but Tristan was living a lie, and the explosion of his sudden desire to be loved for who he truly was, his sudden desire to be open for once with the one person he thought to receive redemptive love from, was probably a psychic earthquake I can’t fully imagine or understand.

For days he and the girl were on the phone incessantly. I tried to be reassuring, but I had nothing to offer except that it might work out, and that he would survive if it didn’t. Like some kind of galloping idiot, I cited the example of the long separation between me and my high school sweetheart, who I was later re-united with and married. “See, these things have a way of working out,” I said, about his mother, whom he knows I later divorced and, as I imagine it, probably drove to drink.

Toward the middle of one evening, I started to get a seriously weird vibe. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but my natural optimism seemed to suffer some sort of tremor. Something indefinable and spooky had entered the household and settled over it that evening, and I felt fear. Something was not right. I went to his room and knocked on the door, let myself in. He was, for the moment, not on the phone to her. He seemed utterly at peace.

“It’s OK, Dad. She took me back. We’re back together again.”

The spooky thing was still with me though. It was somehow all the inadequacies one feels as a parent, accumulated and present in that moment, this sense that I had done everything I was ever going to do and now it was up to him, and that I hadn’t done enough. I thought of how many times I had focused on his older brother at his expense. I thought of the absent-minded way I had spent my time with him during our visitation weekends, as if there would always be more time, as if just being there was enough. But in the past few years, I had done everything for him. Was it enough? Had I prepared him for the life that was now rapidly unfolding for him, a life I would have no power to control?

“Have I been a good enough Dad?”

A horrible, impossible question. An unfair question. And unnecessary: for it is never enough, nothing is ever enough, no one is good enough. This is just something we learn to accept, and when we see how they survive and cope and come into their own, we gather that it must’ve been enough.

“You’ve been the greatest Dad anyone could ask for.”

I am so grateful for the gift of those words. And I will never forgive myself for feeling relieved. The spookiness was gone. I told him goodnight and went back up stairs.

The next day, I got up with the dawn, as I usually do, and wasted time on the computer until it seemed like it was time to be really up and about. I posted something to Facebook. My wife woke up, and we made coffee, puttered around. Tristan was still asleep.

By nine in the morning we were ready to leave for the farmer’s market, but it was awfully late to let him sleep in (I figured he had gotten back on the phone with the girl and had talked half the night).

“Tristan, we’re going out now.” There was no reply. I spoke some more to the closed door, knocked a few times. From here, some things are now a bit blurry. I tried the door expecting it to open and to find him asleep. It wouldn’t budge. I don’t recall how many seconds elapsed. I remember her saying the word “nonresponsive.” I thought about heart attacks, medical things. Suddenly, I had this bodily sense that decisive action was necessary, right, saving. I threw my body against the door, got it open a crack, pushed myself through it. As long as I kept moving powerfully, decisively, everything would be OK. I knew without forming the words that I was about to save his life.

His body had been somehow rolled up against the door blocking it, so to get the door open I had had to force his body out of the way with the door. Once inside, I could see that he was on his stomach. Something about his legs looked strange, but I didn’t recognize it; I classified it quickly as more indications that something medical was happening. He would need CPR. I had no idea how to do this but I would try. Decisiveness. Action. Saving. There was no time to think that it would be OK; I would make it be OK.

I rolled him over and for the first time saw his face. The thing to understand here is that Tristan was an uncommonly beautiful child and after an awkward, in-between period, had become an uncommonly beautiful adolescent, so it was that face, the angelic face, that I saw. And then my eyes locked on it as if on a target, locked and fixed, and my whole visual field filled with that small, so small point which was the tip of his tongue between his lips.

It was blue.

The universe contracted toward that point. Silence. And for a split second, outrage, indignation. I whispered: not you. More seconds. And you find that your mind has shifted, inexplicably, from first person to second person, and the world has fallen away. Time has stopped. You don’t hear it at first, because it is so far away. It only comes to you gradually, the sound and for a moment you wonder at it, wonder where it is coming from, this awful awful howling noise that has gone from inaudible to far away to filling the world. And it takes a few moments to realize that this howling sound is you.

Later, there are police. They take over the room, the “crime scene”. There is this absurd desire to prove that you are fine, so you act fine. They tell you “he didn’t suffer” and you accept this, while immediately knowing that this is a lie and making a deal with yourself to never think about this again. A priest you know comes and you are grateful for this. You proceed to make a series of inconceivable phone calls which it falls on you to make, all of which begin with “I have some terrible news” most of the reactions to which are not what you expect. And then the police tell you that they are done and ready to take the body, and you ask for one last moment. You rub your palms on his chest as if applying Vic’s Vapo-rub to a sick child, and then stop. And then you are done.

This has happened before and this will happen again. And it happened here, September 13, two years ago, in the morning, as the sun shone through the forest trees outside his window.

Forget

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, the Long War that had begun four years before and all but obliterated our civilization seemed to come to a close. We all vowed to never forget it, and gave it its own special day of remembrance. They called it the war to end all wars; it almost ended us. No one could imagine that day that the Great War would get a number assigned to it, that by the time the Long War ended in 1989, it would have taken well over 100 million lives, and that in the wake of this unimaginable tsunami of blood we decided that there wasn’t much point in trying to remember the false light of that day in November, and decided to use it to remember something else.

Happy Armistice Day.

Super 8

If you routinely avoid big commercial summer films, or science fiction, and thus missed Super 8 last summer, give it an evening when it is released this month on disc. From a great distance, it is a loose remake of Spielberg’s E.T. and even has his name on it as producer. This is ironic because the film gently but devastatingly sabotages everything E.T. was about. Recall that in that film, we see children in a single, working parent, middle class household; separation or divorce are lurking in the background. Baby Boom Mom means well, but she’s so distracted by work and the household is so chaotic that she isn’t even aware of the fact that an alien from outer space has taken up residence in her son’s bedroom. Dad is even more absent, of course. And yet everything works out precisely because the alien brings the love and warmth that the parents have neglected to provide.

All fantasy is wish-fulfillment, Freud says, and as a generation of adults sat next to their kids in theaters getting a warm glow from watching this one, we need to clarify just precisely whose wish-fulfillment this is. It is the guilty Baby Boomer parent’s fantasy, of course. Having just exited the Me Decade and the Divorce Revolution, and entered the Me Plus Money Decade, parents suspected that all was not well at home, and here a fantasy about the ultimate babysitter disguised as the ultimate childhood imaginary friend served to reassure a generation that more money could make up for lost time.

Super 8 gives us the same story, but seen from the children’s perspective. Indeed, it was only because it did this that I realized after the fact that E.T. was written from the parent’s perspective. It also sabotages the all-American assumption that we are all middle class as well. The parents in Super 8 are too busy working to go off and discover themselves at their children’s expense. These are working class, two paycheck households, and lest our collective amnesia about the very existence of the working class get the better of us, the absence of maternal love is due to death by industrial accident (nor is this a focus of indignation at the company whose factory kills Mom: life happens, death happens, we pick ourselves up and keep going). The boy Joe’s grief is understated and dignified and there is never any catharsis that makes it all OK. She’s just dead, Dad tries hard to but can’t replace her, and it’s time for Joe to grow up anyway. I’d have to go back and watch it again, but I don’t recall any hugs or tender moments, not between the generations at least. Nor are the adults evil, well, not most of them, but what they are is powerless. The kids will have to solve their own problems, and mostly, they do.

What about the alien? This is perhaps the only bit of displacement in an otherwise surprisingly frank film, but the alien is neither monster nor messiah. Rather, he is extremely dangerous (a train gets derailed, a minimart trashed, a few people and their pets get eaten) because this is what happens when a fundamentally decent being gets trapped in Area 51 by careerist professional adults and then subjected to systematic, violent abuse. In the end, perhaps it is the creature’s compassion which saves the day, but one suspects that luck and exhaustion play a role too. Anyway, our alien doesn’t primarily want to hurt people even if they richly deserve it; he just wants to get the fuck off of this fucked up planet.

But it’s the kids that are truly amazing. Here it really is the case that The Kids Are Alright. I’ve mentioned the remarkable way that the central character deals with his grief, but there’s more. The kids are all shown trying to make a movie. There are many ways that this could be played, but they are not shown as caught up in narcissistic fantasies of escape and fame. They want to be part of the exciting world of productive, meaningful work. They want to produce the sorts of things that have given them so much enjoyment. They do everything in their power to be as grown up as they can in their approach to the super 8 zombie flick they are making. And the self-referential dimension is important here too: the film you are watching is living proof that this could be the first step toward becoming an adult film maker, J. J. Abrams, say. The solution to their problems will involve growing up and taking responsibility, not regressing and being rescued. The kids are amazing in other ways too: their leader Charles is the “fat kid” and not one fat kid cliche is ever so much as approached. Though not the lead character, he leads the others, dominating them through sheer force of will, ambition and love of what he hopes to produce. Like Joe, he loves the girl Alice, and loses her to him, and he responds to this with great honesty, maturity and, again, dignity. Joe’s love in turn is portrayed with great tenderness. And last but far from least, it is the early stirrings of love and not something else that we are shown, because he ultimately saves her, at great risk to himself. Hell, someone has to, and who better to assume that responsibility than the person who cares about her the most.

In the end, a small image gives us a somewhat pat resolution of the boy’s grief. But the film makes extremely clear that “resolution” is anything but cathartic or transcending: grief is overcome by being outlived. He learns to let go of his dead mother simply by growing up, growing up into the world where he too can work in a dangerous factory and barely get by… or, for some, a world in which, through sheer force of will, one can make art which, disguised as heart-warming nostalgia, contains a quiet dirge for childhood, and an even quieter condemnation of the society that killed it.

Economics Is Inevitably A Moral Science, Ctd.

Suppose I said that the important thing in politics is to have elections, sure, but only elections which, as a result of political manipulation of the media by the state, induce people to vote in ways they would prefer not to, because the experts controlling the process know better than they do what’s good for them. Not too different from saying that the important thing in economics is to have markets, sure, but only markets which, as a result of economic manipulation of the medium of exchange by the state, induce people to buy and sell in ways they would prefer not to, because the experts controlling the process know better than they do what’s good for them.