Monday, April 23, 2018

Lost causes





So there I was...

Stone-cold sober and conversationally accosted by an older guy on what I guessed was his sixth vodka tonic. He was a successful businessman who wanted to "ask me a few things" about my closed college.

"You had to know it was going to happen," he said, spraying spit on me.

I replied that while we knew of the financial problems and the imminent need to act, we were assured by our leadership, just two months prior to the closure announcement, that we were all right and had years to right the ship.

"Oh so they 'told you.' All right, you know hope's not a plan, right?" he said, the volume of his voice seeming to rise with each slurred word. "Do you think it was smart to listen to them?"

The seventh vodka tonic arrived, distracting him and giving me time to compose.

"Let me ask you another question," he said, pointing at me and tossing back a swig. "You were $27 million in debt. What made you think this was going to turn out all right?"

I explained that many of us saw the college as our home. We were willing to stay and do what we could to make things work because the place meant something to us.

He was stunned.

"Admirable...positive..." he shrugged. "But was that realistic? Do you really think you were smart to do that?"

We writers tend to be a sensitive lot. It allows us to understand how someone else feels and then convey it in words. It also means that we tend to internalize what people say to us. Ironic then, isn't it, that we engage in an activity that insists we tender the work of our hearts and souls up for judgment? That question lands outside the scope of my post. I am trying to grok something else altogether.

Am I really "not smart" for having stayed at my college? Doing the research for my book, I can see the trajectory of things with a cool mind. Indeed, all the signs of collapse had been there for a fair amount of time. In the hours after leaving my conversation "partner," I...well, I felt like my current situation was entirely of my own doing, as are my successive failures. Two days later, I shifted my thinking and I decided that I might need to ask myself a different question: "Having it to do over again, would I have chosen differently?" Pondering the question led me to deep reflection and self-examination. In those moments, I turn to the narratives I've consumed over my years.

As a writer, I have a penchant for the romantic. The painting at the top of the post is a good example of it. It's called The Third of May and it's by Francisco Goya. As you can probably tell, it depicts an execution. Note the man in the center. Though obviously knowing he's at the end of things, he stands defiant. The enemy has complete control of everything in his sphere of existence save for his own attitude, his own integrity, and his own values.

I think of Marius from Les Miserables, which is an excellent book but I insist it be read in the unabridged edition. Hugo will actually go on for pages that become essays on morality and serve neither plot nor subplot. It's beautiful in both its depth and inefficiency. Just can't get away with that these days. But I digress...
Marius believes the love of his life is lost to him. He then joins a group of French revolutionaries, fully intending to die but at least his death will have meaning. At the barricade and in the face of the advancing army, he holds a torch to a powder keg and threatens to gladly send all of them to kingdom come.

I think of the Battle of Helm's Deep in The Lord of the Rings. Knowing they are hopelessly outclassed and outnumbered by an army of Uruk-Hai, Legolas voices quite fact-based doubts to his friend, Aragorn as to the wisdom of their remaining with the refugees.




"Then I shall die as one of them!"

My gods wear spandex. I say that as a paraphrase of another writer's book title. It simply means that comic book superheroes serve as a contemporary pantheon. Their stories serve as a kind of common mythology, helping us make sense of our world and showing us ideals we should aspire to.

In a landmark story arc written by DC Comics in 1993, a creature named Doomsday attacked Metropolis in an incoherent and unstoppable rage. As the body count mounted, Lois Lane, then secretly married to Superman, begged her husband not engage. "At least wait until the rest of the Justice League gets here," she pleaded. Superman counter-argued that though that would be a sensible plan, there was no time for it. More innocents would die while he waited. He was the only one who could do this. Just as Hector said goodbye to his wife in The Iliad, Superman flew off to face his own Achilles. After a fierce and ugly battle, Superman did indeed stop Doomsday, but at the cost of his own life. He dies in Lois' arms, depicted in an homage to Michelangelo's Pieta.

   


Then DC somewhat nullifies the sacrifice by bringing him back to life a year later. Was glad to see him back, but, well...I digress.

I'll confess, I have another, far less cerebral example. Red Dawn is, in truth, an awful movie that fails on most every level. Writing, acting, plot, you name it. But I can't help but hold a special affinity for it. A group of kids cry out to their invading enemy "You will not take our home from us...at least not without paying a grievous, grievous price." In this scene, my favorite character in the film meets his end with nobility.





Now there's a word. Nobility. The more and more research I do on closed colleges, it's a word that continues to resurface. I've seen it in faculty and students as they met the end of their own institutions. I've seen it in other faculty and students as they, against all odds and reason, stood and fought the decisions of their own boards of trustees. I particularly have in mind a quote from one student who transferred from her closing college: "How could I have left my community and chosen to save myself?" She dropped out and returned to her college for its final days.

Why, you might ask? Sometimes the choice that makes no sense is the only sensible choice.

I have the answer to my question. Knowing everything I know now, I would have done nothing different. Not one thing. Wouldn't even have started sending out my CV earlier. I admire characters in each of the story examples I've just shown and of course there are many more. Through them, my family, and the many mysteries and experiences of life, I'd like to think I've acquired a few slivers of nobility. I believe it's necessary for my teaching.

You teach students far more about who you are than what you know. I'd like to think I helped "my kids" through a very difficult time just by being there for them. When they feared the future, I'd like to think my simple words of "I won't leave you" meant something. I was meant to be there at just that time. We all were, each in our own way. Therefore, there is nowhere else I would rather have been than right there with everyone at the very end.

Nobility hasn't made me much on the commodities exchange, but it has helped me stay true to who I am.

I can live with that.


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