Reading “Felina” (Breaking Bad spoilers)

How late can you be to writing about TV?  Breaking Bad ended two months ago, and yet my days still hang sometimes with the sagging, earthen colors of Bryan Cranston’s craggily, bespectacled furrows, the haunting thought that Jesse Pinkman is locked away in a meth dungeon, and Damocles’ Sword swinging over the Southwest.  The end of one of TV’s best shows ever predates this blog, but the DVD set’s release occasions this post, as well as this recently-released video of Cranston and Aaron Paul reading the script of the finale, which of course you should only watch if you are, like me, similarly satiated by the completed story, rather than lucky enough to still have that show and its savory final season before you on a platter, fully-cooked.

The last season was worth all the acclaim it got, as was the whole show.  Not until season 5 did I watch episodes when they aired.  Instead, I mainlined them like a fix for a stint, before the darkness got too dark and invaded my normally sunny life, until I needed to come up for air for a few months.  The show had its closeness to home for me from the pilot, the “there but for the grace of God go I.”  A teacher, feeling regularly emasculated, like a big old nobody after all the promise and genius that filled him with expectations/delusions otherwise.  That feels like me.  The bitter rationalizations of the victimized, victimized by the contemptible world, by the rich, by the fates, who senses the moment and seizes the excuse to finally be powerful, autonomous, and right.  I get that.

Walter White hates the dirty work, but he’s reveling in the chemistry; he finds the climb to criminal power deeply distasteful, but necessary to protect his family, his name, and his surrogate son Jesse; he dons the dark hat as a disguise, but he’s truly, truly beige and white and maybe, just for kicks, the purest blue.  No, by the end, that’s all unmasked.  Just about the most poignant moment I’ve seen in a TV show, when he curses out his wife over a tapped phone and says the opposite of everything he means as perhaps his parting words, at least until he can see her again and come clean enough to recognize that he did it all… for himself.  The dirty work, the distasteful empire, the dark hat… it was no more or no less Walter than the beige pants and the tighty whiteys and the sanitized chem lab or chemo clinic.  We are all shot through with Heisenberg, with the will to power, just as we are all crumbling and tearing apart, like Mr. White.  We are all clutching desperately for survival and our families, just as we are all, in fact, filthy to line our pockets with security, ego, vengeance, and wrath.  It became my mantra after watching each season, a deep sigh with the words, “I am Walter White.”

What disappointed me about the ending was that there had to be someone much worse for Walt to kill in order for him to find redemption.  There had to be irredeemable Nazis and an icy, merciless Lydia.  Not that Krazy 8, Tuco Salamanca, or Gus Fringe were great souls, but you could root for Walt to be free rather than rooting for them to meet grisly deaths, and in all cases, the end felt like a twisted necessity, a Ricin-less last resort.  In Felina, the fist-pumping moments were for a calculated unsheathing of raw violence, like rooting for Travis Bickle’s trench coat drawer-slide contraption to work and forgetting how morally misaligned it had all become.

And yet, watching that newly released video of Cranston and Paul read the ending, moved to tears, I was moved in turn.  Jesse and Walt are these horrible people, but people, whose humanity had been reinforced by each moment that it was being withered away.  (The same, it must be said, could have–should have–been done for the Hectors and the Andreas and, heck, even the Gomeys, as it seemed to have been for the Mikes and the Janes and the Hanks).  Every degradation flecks off a piece of what is undeniably flesh, hardened or burnt as it may be.  The terror behind Jesse’s eyes is not the dissociation that makes Todd a different species from himself, but the even more terrifying recognition that he is just heartlessly angling for what Jesse has already become.  My sympathies for Walt and Jesse don’t persist in spite of their failings, but exactly because of them.

I am Walter White.  This is not a confession tape.  I have not manufactured any illegal substances, under compulsion from my brother in law or otherwise.  But I got choked up watching Walt’s end and Jesse’s tortured liberation, not just because it was the end of a great show, but because it was a sweet and terrible relief to not live inside their plausibility structure any longer.  I was moved by the end for the same reason I’m so moved watching this video of Paul and Cranston being moved.  Because they had inhabited these guys for so many years, and as both have said repeatedly, not in defense of their actions but purely out of the commitment actors must have, they have rooted for them as well.  Rooted for them to live and thrive and choose well.  No empty absolution of their sins, no denying justice waiting in the wings, but just simply to wish for the quality of mercy on men who have become, five/six seasons of moral water under the bridge, people.  Terrible, beautiful people.

I look back at a lot of my own human endeavors with the same ambiguity and finality.  As I bookend things, even in celebration, I can’t help but see a soiled mess.  Even in victory, shot through with selfishness and greed.  And yet, in the end, the notes of grace to unwarranted monsters like us–nothing captures it better to me than Holly White– remind us that even on a road to hell, we are humans, caked in dirt, imago dei.

 

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Cultivating work of “a tough mind and a tender heart”

In a sermon reprinted in 1963’s Strength to Love, Martin Luther King calls for a dialectic of tough-mindedness and tender-heartedness, which he encapsulates in nonviolent resistance, which “combines toughmindedness and tenderheartedness and avoids the complacency and do-nothingness of the soft minded and the violence and bitterness of the hardhearted.”  It’s a simplistic schematic, but it contains the best of what I appreciate about Dr. King, particularly as a thinker.  Resistance cannot be complacent, must not only be in a state of unrest, but must stir up unrest.  Academia’s complicity in reifying the domination and stratification of the ruling classes extends from its dependence on the means of corporate interests and warmongers, to its shirking of intellectual responsibility to be truth-tellers, as gadflies from Chomsky to Cornel West, from Gramsci to Bourdieu, have reminded us.  But nonviolence is a concerted effort of compassion and love, a hard-nosed and sustained, painful and dedicated commitment to humanizing oppressed and oppressors, of calling out the evil in others and recognizing it in ourselves, of strength enough to fight and sympathy enough to free.  I think my own tendency is to attempt to be a scholar of reconciliations, a tender-hearted embrace of as many perspectives as wish to sing kumbaya around the table.  But the organic intellectual must also speak forth what’s misguided, what’s hegemonic, what’s imperial, often in the very language and forms of communication which are designed to mark out, distinguish, separate, and exclude.  She must do so while suffering the schizophrenia of tough-mindedness and tenderheartedness.

We must be in grateful and continued dialogue with those we resonate with, but also with those we disagree with.  We must engage them with clarity and force, but also in a spirit of understanding.  For instance, I think often of how I should write about our schools as a scholar.  Will my critique antagonize school leaders?  Get me pinned as a “critical” (read: irrelevant) voice, offering nothing substantive to the conversation?  Or do I compose myself with the same norms of research, the packaging of quantifiable, value-added economic efficiency-trained best practices, that I feel drain the work of its humane, particular, contextualized, and potentially revolutionary bent?  The answer is to do neither.  The answer is to step into the morass, to march up where other voices are uninvited, to speak with common moral language of authority, and if necessary to stand there with the courage to be flogged and hosed.  But to do so with the recognition that your opponent needs to hear something, needs to be reminded, needs to be called back to something which first put him in front of kids in a classroom, first compelled her to invest in children…

Education scholars must be endlessly critical, as a matter of critical hope, which is material hope, substantial hope.  But we must also be willing to be refined in good-faith dialogue.  We must continually find the veins of shared blood even among those with incommensurable perspectives and contrary positions.  For me, that means despite my significant concerns and critique of Common Core, David Coleman, and the Gates Foundation and so on, which I will have to write about one day, I can’t help but bristle at Susan Ohanian’s sometimes eloquent but often bitter screed against the “heart’s death” we are supposed to resist with Common Core’s onset.  In broad sweeps, I largely agree, and would like also for my daughter to have crayons and finger paints, but I wish our disagreement did not have to be such a whole-cloth dismissal.  In reality, earnest teachers are rolling with this momentary swinging pendulum, still instilling the distinctive and personalized passion for language and literature with or without CCSS, NCTE, or whatever body’s say-so.  Only those who believed in salvation by standards will perish in its flames, and would have anyway.  Instead of a “resisting the system,” we might, by our teaching, call the system to the carpet for its failures of vision and purpose, and struggle for children to be “college and career-ready” as incidental to the bigger project of human flourishing, civic empowerment, and cultural development that we are engaged in.  I’m not saying we should sell out, but can I hope we can retort transcendently.

 

Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal

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Recently published, O’Connor’s prayer journal seems like a bit of an intrusion.  She’s only twenty to twenty-two years old at the time.  In my experience, my prayer journals are full of sincere yearnings and unguarded complaints, with the occasional thought that someone in public someday will read it but mostly the private effort to narrate in visible words the groanings of my spirit to God.  They feel like an intrusion because they seem so very authentic, and they seem to me so authentic because they sound and flow and twist and unfurl so much like my own prayers.

The rhythms of her prayers are completely familiar, a remarkable relief of recognition, like someone else’s soul speaks the same language.  The turns and the movement, from supreme confidence to self-deprecating humiliation, from exultant praise to supplicant pleas.  She even says at one point that “Supplication” is the only one of the four she’s good at, and like so many thoughts in the book, I know exactly what she’s thinking of, having not only learned the pattern of Adoration, Contrition or Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication, but also felt the guilt of having come to God with nothing other than the last of those.

Some cries are eloquent, some guttural.  They are stunningly honest.  She has ambitions to be a writer, a great writer, a professional writer, and she is not afraid to ask God for that.  But reading prayers are listening to one end of the conversation, with only our imaginations and inference to construct the other end, but you can see the ways her ambition and desire is being fine tuned by God, pointed in the process of the asking.  They are not separate from, but coterminous with the general ways in which she seeks God’s face.

But I also learn from her the sense of writing as redemptive and painful labor.  “If I have to sweat for it, dear God, let it be as in Your service.  I would like to be intelligently holy.  I am a presumptuous fool, but maybe the vague thing in me that keeps me in is hope.”  Writing has often felt like lonely and directionless labor, and Flannery inspires me to bear it, bear it with a prayer that it will be an instrument of grace.  “The intellectual and artistic delights God gives us are visions & like visions we pay for them; & the thirst for the vision doesn’t necessarily carry with a thirst for the attendant suffering.”

phD uncertainty.

In year four of my Ph.D program, doubt sets in.  I’ll be plain about my studies: I’ve done terribly with my benchmarks, those milestones of progress that should pace me through “normative” time to earning the doctorate.  To be clear, the demands are by no means unreasonable.  I should at this point have completed my oral exams after finishing my position papers.  I’ve drafted my position papers, one a review of research, another an empirical study, and a third paper that serves as a draft proposal for my dissertation project.  Only one of those has completed the review process, and the other two have gathered varying degrees of dust on a digital shelf, having already garnered valuable feedback from my advisor and classmates, awaiting my attention like starved offspring.  Also, a paper I was invited to submit to a publication, the not-yet-ripe fruit of a long collaboration with some very willing and thoughtful research partners, also sits and waits.  I believe in all these projects.  They are rich with data, with conceptual relevance, well-articulated methodology, meaningful findings.  They sit and wait.  I can’t bear to revise them.  It is grinding and grueling work for me, combing through my own writing, re-writing and seeking clarity, making the judgment of Solomon for concision’s sake.  I need to approach it with freshness, stamina, and expanses of time.  The first I find from time to time, the latter two elude me, and always have.

I admit I feel at this point like I’m languishing, my scholarly career in a prenatal ICU, caught in the contradiction between not having enough funding to focus on the work and not having focused on the work enough to be competitive for funding.  My first semester was a sunlit backstroke on a Maui beach, and then my daughter was born and time disappeared in a diaper-shaped vacuum.  Stints of teaching, working at my church, family and family and family, all those local and familiar attachments of not having moved away for graduate school, and then the scholar-related chances at teaching, publication, research projects… all have left no margins for the clean, well-lighted place and the uninterrupted time to apprentice in the rigors of fifth drafts, peer review, lengthy reading lists.  I read, read constantly, read widely, read promiscuously, read fruitfully… but in scattered bits, like a desperate prisoner squirreling away illicit bits of food and sunlight.  Meanwhile, by day, I keep hustlin’ for fatherhood, for meaningful labor in schools, for these other facets that I cannot divorce from myself, the million yeses I could not no, rows of doors opened for me or that I’ve pried open that I cannot shut.

So much dissatisfaction in a life that should feel satisfying makes me question whether to continue trying to become a scholar.  An analogy: my spotty bilingualism.  Mandarin was my first language, the earliest language of my consciousness, the first reservoirs of culture, the primal sounds of intimacy.  But moving to the US, my literacy in English soared and my literacy in Chinese dissipated, and with them my access to the productive capacities of those language structures.  Yet, even though as a ninth grader, I routinely read 19th century British literature, crime novels, and dramatic theory, I did not know the difference between what was called a “stove” and an “oven”.  I could distinguish regional accents of Mandarin but forgot how to write “dog.”  Gaps.  Glaring gaps.  The side effect of inhabiting multiple worlds.

My formation as a scholar, divided as it has been with all these other obligations, is riddled with gaps.  I haven’t done any conference presentations.  Haven’t even written a proposal for one.  I’ve written hundreds of pages but can’t get myself to turn in twenty-five.  I have not served on any committees– I have to be home by dinner time.  I’ve joined all the organizations but contributed to none, not even attended their meetings or conferences– I have to take mom to the doctor.  I’ve accumulated repositories of journal articles and books about my research areas, but can’t pull together my orals list– I lost a whole summer selling our house, renting another one, and moving. It goes on and on like this.

And I have to question my readiness to enroll in scholarly work as a whole-life endeavor.  Research engages me, especially the kind of research I get to do, the horizons of research that are humanizing and decolonizing and reflexively rigorous, the possibilities of what research can introduce us to and how it can engage practice.  I appreciate critiques and the opportunity to refine my work.  But I have insufficient space and capacity for them in a hard drive and CPU so tasked with being a good dad, and drafting rubrics, and expounding Scriptures, and maintaining loyal friendships, and keeping up with my cherished former students.  I don’t know that I really want to sacrifice those, whether that is even a possibility.  Even leaving aside for a moment the extra-professional spheres, I don’t know that I want to give up chatty lunchtimes and teacher collaborations and curating educative experiences for lectureships and grant-writing and checking citations.

My ambitions have always been that I can have it all, the opportunity to study, to speak to the world, to remain a teacher for equity and justice, to be a family man, to be a follower of Jesus.  What I did not count adequately before, what I always fail to account for, is the unavoidable costs of such a division of self.  No matter how integrated my vision, no matter how productive the cross-pollination of identities and roles, each day still only has 24 hours, each month only its 35 days.  Oh, wait.

A professor who I have not worked closely with but whose advice I cherish once challenged me with a hard, direct question: do you really want to be a researcher?  Do you really want to do academic work?  My enthusiastic yes at the time is now wavering under the strains and the tradeoffs.  Usually, such tensions feel right, necessary, appropriate.  Today, my fingers reach for the white flag.

My Very Own Lighthouse, by Francisco Cunha, and strange dreams

Our city’s main public library, just down the street from our house, has a shop where they sell books, so I picked this one up for little E.  It has the feeling of a book from another place.  I think it’s from Portugal.

Lately my daughter has a strange reaction to stories with certain kinds of conflicts.  For one, she’s starting to read more books that have conflicts.  Early on, books with narrative usually just wound up toward bedtime or successful potty.  The closest was Hug by Jez Alborough, where the child gorilla noticed that every other animal hugged its parental figure but his own was missing, until they help him find her and Mommy gorilla and Bobo gorilla embrace, and all the animals join in a big hug.

My daughter has started to listen to these stories with a knitted brow.  Dotty (by Opal) has trouble crossing the little river, and when she tries to fly like a bird, she falls down.  My daughter is troubled, and frowns, and avoids the book next time until we clarify for her that everything turns out okay, and it’s okay to run into a little trouble crossing the river, if you just keep at it and find a way.

And in the stories that I tell her (they usually feature Linus from Peanuts, for some reason her favorite narrative protagonist), I’ve started having conflicts… conflicts of loss, of defeat, of loneliness, or struggle.  She knits her brow, looks up at me, wonders why I would lead Linus into this wilderness.  And she’s started to like Seuss’s Oh the Places You’ll Go!, a gift from my professor Laura Sterponi, and she points at the creatures on the darker pages when triumph is not at hand and there are Seussian monsters and pugnacious adversaries littering the page.

Cunha’s book features a young girl, staring out the window at the boats beside her house and having nightmares about her fisherman father facing dangers at sea.  Assuaging her fears, her mother shows her a book of lighthouses, and she is inspired to make one (with the assistance of her toys) of her own.  She reaches up for the brightest star, a close personal acquaintance, to hold on her lap to light her very own lighthouse so that her father’s ship can find its way home.  No reunion completes the story, but it ends with the same waiting, the same harbor of expectation, that inspired the dreams in the first place.

The book is devastating for we fathers who throw ourselves into oceans of labor.  But it’s mostly beautiful for children’s patchwork hopes, for the reminder that they cannot imagine any real reason, not seas or the distance to stars or the darkness of waiting, why they and you cannot be together again.  It is my duty as a father sometimes to see that distance, to recognize that I have to get away to work, to fish, to provide.  It is also my duty sometimes to be just as blind, to see no other beacon lights than the one she seizes for me.

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Why teaching is political and why it’s worth it

Working together with some incredible colleagues today, I shared a thought that occurred to me years into my work as a teacher and a coach, that much of teaching and being a teacher leader was a matter of navigating politics. This often feels secondary, like a distraction, like ugly business and irrelevant to the real work of teaching kids. In many ways it is. But I came to understand at one point that working on those politics, building bridges with those lone ranger teachers, tactfully speaking up to or finding common ground with admins with different imperatives, working in solidarity with your union even when their protections require creative workarounds… Yes, it can be a lot of politics piled on to 8 hours of teaching plus evenings of lesson planning and grading.

But it is in fighting for the things that matter for kids in the midst of those politics, for the sake of the kids, that collective change and growth happens. As teachers we should have the ideal situation to support meaningful collaboration and colleagues ready to share the best they have, so that our focus is utterly on great instruction, assessment, and relationships with kids.

But in reality, those politics that seem constraining are the very territory over which the relevant battles are fought. The stakeholders don’t always have the best motives compelling them at each moment, but they very often have good intentions that you can appeal to. And even where people are the enemy, they are wolves we must protect our flock from, and worth our efforts. These stakeholders impact our kids. To engage them with integrity, strategy, commitment to equity and humanity, and love, is often to serve the kids and communities that are our bottom line.

Habitual family radicalism.

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My wife and our small group (big shout) have been going through this book by a favorite of mine, an intrepid purveyor of down-to-earth radical and experimental Christian faithfulness, Mark Scandrette. It has been inspiring to see, and has challenged me against what I have often taken for granted, that it’s not possible to live a life of upside-down priorities, joyful simplicity, and self-giving generosity in the context of suburban family life. I want to figure out how to live in Habitual Family Radicalism, a kind of lifestyle we choose as a family that affirms that God provides all we need and disabuses consumer culture, that identifies and stands in solidarity with the least and the margins where Jesus walks, that is more concerned with peacemaking than moneymaking and poverty of spirit than popularity. I pray our girl grows up in it and sees that it is profoundly meaningful, not a drudgery of self-inflicted and arbitrary deprivation, but profoundly satisfied and happy, a joyful dance (literally, not just metaphorically), and full of adventure and risk and immeasurable worth.