Arts And Technology

Sisyphean TechnologyI found myself at my alma mater, discussing with the present Dean the divorce between Sciences and Literature a few weeks ago. It’s part of the concrete issue that I faced as a young man – in Trinidad and Tobago, then, probably around 1986, we were put into focused classes for Ordinary Level examinations.

There were paths for Modern Studies, Technical for the more hands on, and two Science classes. I made it into one of the two Science classes where we were driven down the science path – which most of us wanted. We were also required a language, which was Spanish. I was very happy with this at the time, only of the Computer Science aspect.

I was convinced Computer Science was my future, and to a large extent this was a self-fulfilling prophecy – as most prophecies seem to be.

In retrospect, as I spoke to the Dean of the school, a man younger than me, I looked back on how I wish I had the option to continue studying English Literature. I lost that when I got into the Science silo.

For 3 years prior, at the beginning of every summer vacation, I read all the books required for the next year. A voracious reader, I had read everything in the house already – all my father’s novels. Louis L’amour, James Clavell, Robert Ludlum, Stephen King, Zane Grey and Clive Cussler come immediately to mind. We also had an Encyclopedia from the early 1980s that I had read from end to end.

As I look back, I had two main passions but at the time I only understood the passion for one: Computer Science. The second, which I didn’t understand as a subject, was literature in it’s many forms – except plays. I thought reading plays was silly, and to a large extent I still do – you lose the forest for the trees, in my mind, and to write a forest one does not study trees but the forest. An opinion.

Now, what would have happened if I had been able to trade Spanish or Geography for English Literature? We could speculate a lifetime. I could say that the system failed me, but it’s not the system’s job to create individuals. In fact, when it comes to Education, what the system’s job is probably one of the most debated topics on the planet.

I can’t fix the Education system. That’s not the intent here. Nothing works for everyone, and it’s a fool’s errand to try to – but we set humanity’s most horrendous weapon to task, bureaucracy, and it grinds at young minds enough so that Pink Floyd wrote, “Another Brick In The Wall” as I began my very journey through the grind, beneath that wheel.

This isn’t about Education, though. This is about Learning, and the need to be balanced to at least be competent to some degree in sciences and art.

Just because you like being an individual who writes poetry doesn’t mean you won’t gain from understanding how a tree lives. Just because you like to know how things work doesn’t mean that you have to be spartan in your reading.

It was later on in life where I was rescued and given challenging things to read that tested my mind, poked and prodded it and teased out the importance of other things. It was an openness to knowledge that allowed me to do that, and while I was in a secondary school silo I did not feel that I had the time for such… luxury… such freedom to allow my mind to explore.

Yet I worked for decades with people who were generally horrid to communicate with, who weren’t aware of some of the lessons available in the Arts – about why society maybe should do some things and maybe shouldn’t do others. Ethics, and the roles as builders technologists play on the world stage. Philosophy. Being human. And in doing so, we forget what our role is, shrugging off the responsibility and putting it on others because we like our paychecks.

We should be better than that.

To Contemplate, to Understand.


Contemplate
I’ve been reading “Labyrinth of Solitude” by Octavio Paz – an overdue read – and he made a point about how the Mexican way is to seek contemplation, and the North American way is to seek understanding.

My inner Mexican contemplated because my inner North American didn’t understand. Of course, I’m not Mexican, and to label myself by a continent is pretty foolish – the latter not stopping people from doing it – but the point is that there is a cultural difference between the two, and I have always preferred contemplation.

The world I have lived in has constantly tested my understanding, giving grades along those lines, and I often find myself in conversation with people who believe that they understand something because someone told them, or they read it somewhere… someone else’s contemplation becomes their understanding. It isn’t earned.

I suppose in a world that constantly moves faster, borrowing the contemplation of others and making it one’s understanding is the way forward for a lot of people through formal education systems. It’s probably why I never truly thrived in them consistently, only thriving in demonstrating understanding subjects I had contemplated. This might be perceived as a flaw. I see that it demonstrates a flaw in society.

A borrowed understanding is not true understanding; a borrowed understanding comes from a context that is not your own. An understanding – a true understanding – comes through contemplation, and therefore is never complete.

If you understand that, I do believe you missed the point.

 

 

Alma Matters.

IMG_20170610_181942Last weekend I spent some time at the reunion of my alma mater, Presentation College. It was odd measuring myself against the school again after all these years – there have been 29 of them so far. I met old classmates and new ones. There was a sense of brotherhood.

Alma Mater. Many people use the phrase without knowing it’s root Latin meaning – Nourishing (Alma) Mother (Mater). The Mother aspect comes from the Roman Goddeses Ceres (agriculture) and Cybele (‘Great Mother’), the latter having a history that can easily eat the time of an interested reader.

Nourishing. When we look at plants, we know that there is more than one nourishment – there are different types of nourishment and if we keep it simple, we have water, earth and sunlight.

The Monday, on invitation, I went to the school during regular class-times. I interacted with staff, mainly, and watched how the interiors of buildings had changed – how the people had changed… and how much stayed the same.

A friend of mine from my year was collecting some data for a thesis, and students were voluntarily filling out surveys. As I walked in, my first shock.

Young students in uniform, without knowing me, made eye contact with me and said, “Good morning, Sir.”

I blinked. ‘Sir’. Not ‘sir’. You can tell the difference between the two; the capitalized ‘Sir’ conveys sincere respect, the lower case conveys the casual respect. Suddenly, I was an alien in my old school, someone automatically given that respect by simply being present, having made it past the guards and the staff. And we former non-commissioned officers balk at either use, returning, “Do not call me ‘sir’, I work for a living.”.

These young students had served me notice. They had their end to live up to that they would uphold, and I had my end that I must uphold. “Good morning, Sir” had ushered me into a calm and pensive silence. I looked over the young men differently, wearing the uniform that I once wore.

The hairstyles had changed. Little more. I thought about the young man I once was and I looked around for him, not seeing him in one young man – that would be too easy – but aspects of myself spread across many of them. It has been a while since I taught.

There were the side conversations, done quietly. Some of the young men busied themselves with French textbooks, others quietly passed notes back and forth (yes, I saw it), some told each other jokes at the back and some were in their own little worlds, daydreaming.

I helped a little with the survey set up on the machines. Nothing noteworthy. I’m curious what my friend will find, and when I told him so he gave a half laugh and said, “Me too.”

We broke for lunch. I went to the new cafeteria. They have rotis, burgers… I had a chicken burger. And we went to the old Dean’s office area that had been reinvented.

My relationship with Staff and Deans in my day had been less comfortable. I’d found out years later that I had almost been expelled at one point – perhaps more. I wasn’t a very nice young man, a simmering rage I couldn’t understand always below the surface, a bored intellect I couldn’t understand constantly being told to stay on the rails of the education system. With creativity, those two were dangerous things.

Despite my weed-like appearance, it was decided to nourish me instead of weed me – something I am grateful about in no small way.

The Deans had these fidget spinners that they were collecting. I’d never seen one before. Honestly, having now seen a collection and live demonstration, I don’t see the appeal.

The Vice Principal who suffered me as a French student – an abysmal one at that – looked no different to me but frowned significantly less at me. In fact, I don’t think she frowned. She did smile, something she didn’t do very often around me when I bore the school uniform. We all spoke about things that I would not have thought, 29 years before, I would ever discuss in that area of the school – analysis of data, the challenges of the infrastructure, etc.

How peculiar after all these years to find that the alma mater still nourishes, and can help make sense out of the nonsense of life indirectly. The casual conversations break the old chains and ways of thinking, even as back then they did as well. To me, that is the true mark of education – when 29 years later, I can walk into my old school and still learn things of value.

This goes back to the German concepts of Lehrfreheit and Lernefreheit – of Academic Freedom. This is a part of the Presentation College that I remember, where the Principal or someone else would talk about present events and give we young men food for thought – nourishment – even as we pressed along the road-map of formal education.

Nourishment matters. We forget that too often, filling our lives with things that aren’t nourishing and even rob us of our health – be it the fast food, or the fast ‘facts’ circulating on social networks. It is possible to starve when overweight, our bodies seeking the nutrients we need in the gluttony of what we want. Yet in this case, nourishment is a communal effort, and to be nourished, you have to nourish.

Nourish, be nourished. It matters.

‘Older Heads’

deepartIn Trinidad, you have the ‘older heads’ – those that, by virtue of living longer are attributed a wisdom that the ‘younger heads’ do not have. People go to them for advice on all manner of things about life, be it business or pleasure. ‘Older heads’ are the ones with the answers, the advice, those that have had the privilege of living through choices good and bad.

Not long ago, I sat with two younger cousins, an Uncle only 13 years my senior and his wife – our Aunt. We had gone to Annie’s Restaurant for dinner where our connections allowed us to simply let our host pick out the dinner for us. We sat there, joking with each other, telling each other stories about things past. Being the 2nd eldest at the table, I had my own stories to share – we all do – and on the way up with my younger cousins, I spoke about the land and the respect for the people on it, and the way I have learned to do things… and how it allowed me to grow in ways that I would not have.

My second youngest cousin had prompted me in a conversation a day before, so at the table I said to the youngest, “Well – we used to have the older heads to ask about things. And now, look around. These are the older heads.”

I looked around, unsettled by the fact maybe more than those younger at the table. I’d just done my Will after I was reminded of my mortality and the fact that despite trying so hard otherwise, I would likely die of old age. My mind was on those I cared about, near and far, a context that I had been completely unprepared for. I’d had the pleasure of playing with my youngest nephew, a gift that allowed me to see life through younger eyes again, that reminded me of the trust and care that every child should have and so many do not… so many did not, including myself.

I had become an ‘older head’.

I had become someone that was respected by those that meant something to me. I had become someone that people listened to, whose words where important and even in that moment I wondered how everyone had changed so much… but we all had, and the most change was my own in my context. There was no pleasure in it, just a daunting responsibility to do the right things, to say the right things…

And even as I was trying to make a point to everyone at that table – that we were it, that we were now what we used to look up to, the responsibility felt heavy on my shoulders – an unannounced burden, an unsettling weight that was easy to carry and worrisome because it had become so easy to carry.

thosemountains.jpgIt was heavy on my mind throughout my trip to Trinidad. The thought of how a very small action could become either something very good or very bad – about how a word in the right place could move mountains, and a word in the wrong place would doom you to carrying the mountains. The thought of how a life I so recklessly lived for others meant so much to people who mattered, the thought of how a life I gave so willingly from meant so little to those who I gave it for meant so much to those I did not give it to… and the rare and pleasing occasions when I gave and received in amounts I found good enough. There is no equal. There are simply returns not to be measured.

Many will say that I’m not old enough to think some of the thoughts that I do, or to feel as I do, and I can’t argue their frame of reference.

My frame of reference is understanding that I can never go home, but that I can choose to be at home wherever I am. I have learned to take sacrifices for what they are, to know that some decisions might have been better with more knowledge and wisdom without the sting of regret that wounds so many. I have learned to embrace the unrequited, to be silent when words will have no effect, to deny what I want to get what I want, and to be myself and accept the good and bad within myself.

older headAs I told a younger person over a bottle of Angostura One on my last night in Trinidad in a rare moment when I could shoot straight with someone elusive even when there… we are not limited by those who have gone before. We are not doomed to their shadows by anything but ourselves, and within we have the capacity to dare to find the amazing human beings we are, to revel in the good and accept the bad.

And most of all, I have learned that while through attrition I have become one of the ‘Older Heads’ at some tables, I still have much to learn and that everyone and everything has something to teach me.

Levels

The student, introduced
Learns silence and gets it
The clapping crowd silences
Harmony weeps in respect
The strings move
The strings stretch
The strings come to life
As is their nature.

Once in motion
They seek harmony
And find it only in
Calloused fingers
Steel tendons
And the unforceful hand
Of the master,
the Student.