Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Beautifully flawed

In his debut novel The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman flawlessly depicts the foibles of a newspaper staff in the twilight days of traditional media

The following review was published yesterday on the Books page of the History News Network site.

It's a measure of how rapidly our media order has changed that it seems almost unrealistic to even imagine a small, economically viable, English-language newspaper in the Rome of 2006-07, let alone one that managed to publish everyday without a web presence. And indeed this premise -- actually, the imminent collapse of the paper functions more like the plot -- is the most far-fetched aspect of this clever, sharply observed little book, which made a brief appearance on the New York Times bestseller list this spring (thanks no doubt in part to a page one rave review in the paper's Book Review by the ever-shrewd Christopher Buckley). Elegiac without ever brooding, historically resonant while insistently contemporary, The Imperfectionists is perfect summer reading.

It's worth calling attention to the subtitle here: "a novel." You might glean from reading the table of contents, or even in plunging into to the first chapter, that you've embarked on a book of short stories. And there would be good reason to think so: each segment of the book is a fully realized character portrait of people involved in publishing the newspaper, from publisher to reader. But it's soon apparent that the pieces interlock, further cemented by flashbacks to the founding of the unnamed paper and its fate across three generations of ownership.

So it is, for example, that we see the driven young chief financial officer of the paper, who finds herself on an intercontinental flight seated next to a copy-editor she just fired (turns out she likes him more than she ever would imagined -- maybe).  Or a lethargic obituary writer who deals with tragedy in an unexpected way by finally coming to terms with his job. Or a corrections editor who discovers that the friend he's idolized his whole life is not who he thought he was (no crime there). In every case, the portrayal of the character in question has just enough of a twist to keep you off-balance and intrigued, as Tom Rachman manages to steer clear of cliches and soar with an artistry that lands gently by moving on to the next little epiphany.

He also manages to turn to produce some striking prose. The middle-aged owner of the paper sees a woman he loves for the first time in twenty years, and "glimpsed in a the tilt of her head, in her hesitant smile, the woman he had known. By fading, the past only seemed to sharpen before him." A young business writer "is on a diet that started, roughly at the age of twelve. She's thirty-six now and still dreaming of butter cookies." (In love no less than cuisine, she feeds, perhaps distressingly so, by providing for others.) A dying intellectual marvels at how thoroughly she has been in the thrall of her own ambition. "It's like being a slave all your life, then learning one day that you never had a master, and returning to work all the same." Such pithy insights are all the more impressive when one considers that they're imagined by a young man of 35 writing his first book.

 Yet the sober moments here never manage to dampen the spring in this novel's step. Actually, the book feels a bit like a tourist excursion, notably good at evoking the rhythms of everyday life in the timelessness of Rome, where most of the book is set. The Imperfectionists is the literary equivalent of a margarita on the rocks: bracing, salty, and refreshing. Find room for it in your suitcase (or on your iPad).

Monday, June 28, 2010

Learning through a screen

Guest post by Tim Handorf

The Internet has become the epicenter of nearly every aspect in our modern lives. The implications are vast. As we all know, education is not immune to the current sea-change of hyper-connectedness, whether for good or ill. In fact, e-learning is one of the hallmarks of burgeoning Internet trends. Both "open education" and for-profit online schooling are front and center in an ongoing debate about where, exactly, the Information Revolution will take us.

Still, while revolutionary ideas are the starting mechanisms of substantive change, the successful implementation of such ideas cannot and should not be implemented in the typical "revolutionary" manner. If there's one thing that historical revolutions have taught us, it's this--change does not occur overnight. Forcing such change neglects the time it takes for a human being to adapt. Now how does this conception of change apply to e-learning?

Traditional classroom teachers should embrace the unprecedented resources that the Internet makes available to both educators and students alike. Some examples of online tools that can power the classroom are forums that enable real-time collaboration, like Google Docs. There are also online libraries and archives that disseminate primary resources otherwise only available at larger libraries and research centers. These resources are just the tip of the iceberg.

At the same time, teaching is teaching, whether on or offline. There are some basic aspects of teaching that don't change, and it is imperative that educators remember this while gutting the Internet, searching for educational resources. These resources are surely varied and potentially enriching, but there is a reason why education begins and ends with the Socratic method. Simply put, it works.

Connecting with students on a visceral, human level, empowering them to think for themselves by enabling critical thinking through constant questioning, and reinforcing learned concepts via hands-on, dynamic activities—these teaching techniques are absolutely indispensable in our storied canon of traditional pedagogy. And of course, the teacher herself must be fully present and engaged. Why? Because passion is infectious, and if there's one foolproof technique that invariably inspires the love of learning, it's the convincing demonstration of the instructor's own interest in the subject being taught.

Currently, there is much virtual chatter about how the Internet is going to change everything. While the rhetoric can be seductive, again, it is important that educators, learners, and administrators understand that passionate words and arguments aren't always necessarily logical ones. Before we get caught up in revolution speak, we should remember what Peter Drucker, a professor and self-described "social ecologist" once said:

"Almost everybody today believes that nothing in economic history has ever moved as fast as, or had a greater impact than, the Information Revolution. But the Industrial Revolution moved at least as fast in the same time span, and had probably an equal impact if not a greater one."

As educators open to future technological changes, we should remember to focus on the good and filter out the bad.

Tim Handorf writes on the topics of top online colleges. He welcomes your comments by email:

Friday, June 25, 2010


The following essay was written for the "faculty" section of 2010 edition of Fieldglass, the yearbook of the Ethical Culture Fieldston School

I've long considered classroom teaching a form of live performance. Certainly, as in any theatrical experience, certain elements are essential: Strong source material. Assiduous preparation. Bold confidence (sometimes faked). A willingness to rework a line, a scene, a whole piece of repertory. Because you do it over and over again, teaching, like staging a play, is a game of percentages. You aim for improvement -- or, at any rate, consistency -- without ever taking for granted that you're going to have it on any given day.

There's one other element that will make or break a show that's never entirely under your control, and that's your collaborators. Collaboration can take a series of forms, ranging from the silent, but nevertheless palpable, presence of an audience, to active participation (or, in some cases a conspiracy). As a professional, you should never assume the pieces are going to fall into place by themselves. But you'll never succeed if there's no space for spontaneity with a cast of characters. You can't teach if you don't learn.

The great privilege of teaching at Fieldston lies in the quality of the collaboration. Fieldston student never fail to surprise, even astonish, in what they're willing, and able, to do. And it's the ones at the edge of the stage who are often the most interesting. What's her story? What makes him tick? What will it take to get them to see? What am I missing here?

As a teacher, I get to work with kids all day. Hey: thank you for being there.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Flood Plain

Dave Eggers illustrates the deeply human dimensions of the Hurricane Katrina disaster through the eyes of an immigrant in Zeitoun

This gripping piece of journalism, published last year by McSweeney's, a San Francisco publishing house founded by the author, has just been issued in paperback by Vintage Books , and is slated to be the source for an animated film slated to be directed by Jonathan Demme in 2011. At the simplest level, the book tells the story of how an American family underwent and survived the catastrophe that was Hurricane Katrina. But it resonates on a lot of levels: as a deeply personal chronicle of a not-quite natural disaster; as an immigrant saga depicting the limits of the American Dream; and as a sobering, if not harrowing, case study of eroding civil liberties that can't help but trouble every U.S. citizen.

One reason why the book works as well as it does is the beautifully executed artlessness of its narration. Eggers alternates the point of view in brief passages between the recollections of Muslim Syrian immigrant painting contractor Abdulrahman Zeitoun, and his native-born wife Kathy, a convert to Islam. This method, interspersed with flashbacks of the couple's respective backgrounds, is the organizing strategy for the run-up and experience of the hurricane itself. But it diverges once Zeitoun gets swept up in the improvised criminal justice system of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as we experience Kathy's panic and despair over her lost husband for a stretch and then witness Zeitoun's horrific ordeal, amid declining health, in the section that follows. Through it all, Eggers manages to maintain editorial restraint, which makes their ordeal, simply expressed in their own terms, all the more compelling. So does the way we occasionally experience moments of wonder, even beauty, in the stillness that follows the storm and the understated, stunning decency of a man who so savored helping women and animals before he was swept up into the cataclysm that his wife, who fled with their children, unsuccessfully begged him to flee New Orleans as well.

The depiction of Katrina's ravages is upsetting enough. But what may be even worse are the privations the Zeitouns suffer once he's thrown into a jail built by prison inmates in a matter of days -- amid the chaos around them -- and run by an unaccountable FEMA. (Hell of a job, Brownie.) Here we see the crimes of Guantanamo Prison, which, however deplorable, are nevertheless committed on foreign shores, replicated on U.S. soil. Zeitoun is arrested for a crime he didn't commit, incarcerated without the right to make a phone call, and excoriated for even touching the walls of the cage into which he was thrown. Here is a second train wreck that follows the first, with the same sense of awful inevitability. You can't bear it, but you can't stop reading, either. Yes, of course, in this moment of chaos something approaching martial law was necessary. What's disturbing is how badly planned and executed that martial law was -- the sheer senselessness of it, even months and years later.  The only really redemptive element in the story is Zeitoun's faith -- not in America, which is broken, probably for good, but for a loving Allah who provides shelter in a man-made storm.

In a way, Zeitoun is revealing less in what it shows about those awful days in August and September of 2005 than as a lightning-illuminated snapshot of the ongoing decay of an egalitarian American democracy. To be sure, the egalitarian strand in American democracy has never been the only or even dominant one -- American democracy has co-existed with slavery and plutocracy, for example, for hundreds of years, and at times been defined by precisely such boundaries. But the convergence between social, political, and economic equality and democracy, which crested in the middle-third of the twentieth century, has been receding ever since.  In offering a story of those British Petroleum chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg-- whose company has plunged Louisiana into disaster again -- recently called "small people," Zeitoun documents how viscerally the land of the free is shrinking. And how fast.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Kindling Faulkner's Fire

The sounds and furies of Scott Turow's latest novel, Innocent, consolidates a comparison with a literary giant of the last century

The following essay was posted last night in the weekly edition of the History News Network website.

Let's get something straight at the outset: There's a limited amount of cultural juice to be squeezed in comparison of any two writers, let alone novelists as different as William Faulkner and Scott Turow. Not only did Faulkner and Turow write about very different people in very different places, they barely shared a century: Faulkner was born in the 19th, and Turow, God willing, has decades to go in the 21st, with all that necessarily implies about their consciousness and frame of reference. Perhaps more to the point, Faulkner's career was dedicated to smashing some of the very conventions of literature that Turow has avowedly embraced, among them a commitment to traditional narrative and the concomitant values and rewards that result from a large general audience (the more succinct term among modernists of Faulkner's stripe would be "pandering").  Though we live in a postmodern world in which scholars and critics routinely blur, if not erase, the line between what was once considered "high" and "low" culture, many of those of us most committed to doing so hesitate to draft Faulkner for such an enterprise. Even in an assertively secular, post-poststructuralist order, there's something sacrilegious about it.

But let's go ahead anyway. In a spirit of Whitman more than Baudrillard.

At the most superficial level, to call Turow "the Faulkner of the mystery novel" (or, to be more generically specific, the legal thriller of which he is considered a Founding Father) is nevertheless to communicate something useful: he's really good at it. Stipulating that Elmore Leonard deserves a special citation for his Hemingwayesque dialogue (among other virtues), I'd put Turow at the front of a pack that includes very fine writers like George Pelecanos, Archer Mayor, or Sue Grafton. Each of these people have their own distinctive wrinkles and voices; Mayor, for example, squarely inhabits the subgenre of the police procedural, while the protagonist of Grafton's "abcederian" series, Kinsey Millhone, carries on the tradition of the private detective pioneered by Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe and extended, with mixed results, by Robert Parker's Spenser (with a gender twist). But they all write separate-yet-connected, densely plotted novels with recurrent characters, in books of similar length and published at regular intervals. Moreover, they all have a strong sense of place: Leonard will forever be associated with Detroit (later Florida), Pelecanos with the mean streets of the nation's capital, Mayor with not-quite idyllic Vermont, Grafton with the fictional Santa Teresa (located somewhere on the Southern California coast in the figurative vicinity of Santa Barbara, first imagined by Grafton's acknowledged influence, Ross MacDonald).  

But none of these writers have conjured up a world as a world quite as vividly as Turow has in his fictional Kindle County,  a sprawling metropolitan area that I think of as in the shadow of Chicago but more vibrant than greater Cleveland or Indianapolis (but whose hapless baseball team, the Trappers, is clearly modeled on the Cubs). This vibrancy, of course, is relative -- the so-called "Center City" at the heart of Kindle is an empty husk that struggles to restore its former industrial glory. Nor is the sociological range of characters, from thugs to municipal politicians, all that great; certainly sin and redemption are tightly entwined in these people. But within such parameters a remarkable array of human diversity thrives, as even the names of the names of characters -- Rusty Sabich, Nile Eddgar, Muriel Wynn, Robbie Feaver -- suggest.

As such, Turow comes closer than any of his peers at approaching Faulkner's now-mythical Yoknapatawpha County.  There is no decaying aristocracy of the ilk of the Satoris family in Kindle County, but this is at least in part a reflection of a difference in regional milieu; if Yoknapatawpha is a land of white and black sharecroppers in the shadow of great plantations, Kindle is a land of second generation European immigrants clawing their way to the suburban perimeter of a brown underclass. (The proudly dignified Argentine immigrant, Alejandro Stern, protagonist of The Burden of Proof (1991), does have a kind of Faulknerian stature, however, nowhere more so than in the arriviste quality of that stature.) What the two fictional worlds share is a population of brooding, conflicted protagonists inhabiting social landscapes where even minor characters have an edgy intelligence. Faulkner might not describe a woman like the African American law clerk Marvina Hamlin as having "not heard another human being say anything worth considering since her mother told her at a very early age that she had to watch out for herself," as Turow writes in his most new novel, Innocent, but you can find people like her in his work, even if an African American law clerk would be as likely to show up in Light in August as a Martian. Turow can similarly evoke the sense of incestuous rivalry that looms over Faulkner's work in the multi-volume rivalry between Rusty Sabich and his nemesis Tommy Molto: "They managed a strained cordiality, not only as a matter of professional necessity, but perhaps because they had overcome the same cataclysm together. They were like two brothers who never got along but were scarred and shaped by the same upbringing." (This line is from Innocent, the sequel to Turow's 1987 debut and smash bestseller, Presumed Innocent.)

Indeed, the centrality of multi-generational family drama may be the one quality more than any other that links Turow to Faulkner. The haunted Quentin Compson of Absalom, Absalom has his analogue in Rusty Sabich's son Nathaniel in Innocent, both books in which unwitting incestuous relationships are emotional time bombs with fatal results. For Faulkner, the long reach of the 1860s casts shadows over a series of novels; for Turow, it's the 1960s, particularly in The Laws of Our Fathers (1996), which has a lengthy Berkeley backdrop for the Kindle County trial that takes place a generation later. In Ordinary Heroes (2005), Stuart Dubinsky, a minor character in Presumed Innocent, comes across a cache of letters that reveals his father's shocking life as a court martialed lawyer in World War II. When Elmore Leonard turns his hand to historical subjects in his westerns or a novel like Cuba Libre (1998), the results are often a lark. But there's a gravity in Turow's work that can plausibly be considered Faulknerian in its profound recognition of the burden that the past imposes long after a novel is presumably "over." Nowhere is this more true than in the latest novel, which ends with what I regard as an important secret dangerously undisclosed.

As these examples suggest, the Turow/Faulkner obsession with family history is embedded in a larger context of American history -- and, more importantly, an acute consciousness of time itself. Turow often overtly manipulates his narration by presenting information in an asynchronous manner, much as Faulkner does. Again, this is not an uncommon technique in the mystery genre generally, where crimes are painstakingly reconstructed ("Prosecutors are historians," Rusty Sabich notes in Innocent, noting that "they never get it completely right.") But Turow's deployment of this technique is typically more than a storytelling gambit to advance the plot of his novels. It's part of a broader literary strategy in which time is a virtual character its own right. Faulkner, of course, takes this idea even further. In his work, time is liquid, shifting sometimes over the course of a single sentence. This almost three-dimensional, Picassoesque, deployment of time on his fictional canvases is not merely a hallmark of his style, but of his greatness, a greatness that will likely give his work a sense of esteem and relevance for the foreseeable future.

Turow has a different strength: readability. If Faulkner makes time liquid, Turow gives narrative -- a dimension of literary art that has for too long been overlooked in critical discourse -- a comparable liquidity. As tens of millions of his fiction know, Turow's novels flow so seamlessly as to engender a compulsive desire to finish them quickly. Kindle County is always a great place to visit, even if you can't live there. Anybody who can pull off this trick again and again deserves to be considered a great artist. Is Turow as great as Faulkner? Maybe not. But comparable in ways that help us appreciate both.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Jim is traveling in New England. His trip, which will swing through five of the region's six states (alas, no Maine this time) will see him visiting friends and family in Massachusetts, hiking up Mount Mondanock in New Hampshire, and a attending a conference on progressive education at the Putney School in Vermont. The conference will feature presentations by Howard Gardner and Alfie Kohn, colleague and protege, respectively, of his father-in-law, the late Ted Sizer.

Jim's current reading is all keyed to the coming school year. He's begun Dave Egger's Zeitoun, an evocative piece of journalism about a Muslim family in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (the book is the officially designated summer reading of the Fieldston School, and will be the subject of a symposium in the fall). He's also in the middle of his third time around with Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which will be taught in the new tenth grade English/Ethics/History curriculum he's currently co-developing. (The novel is funnier than ever.) Also packed for the trip is the Heath brothers' Made to Stick, a piece of pop psychology on why certain ideas take off and others don't. Jim is reading the book along with a bunch of colleagues, in the hope it will help improve their pedagogy.

All in all, a good way to kick off the official start of summer. May yours be similarly satisfying.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Civic War

In Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South, Stephanie McCurry offers a compelling account of how women and slaves defeated a society dedicated to the proposition of inequality

The following review was published last week  on the Books page of the History News Network site.

No: It was not a matter of overwhelming numbers. Nor was it the outcome of particular battles. Or the vision of statesmen (sorry, Mr. Lincoln). Professor Stephanie McCurry of the University of Pennsylvania doesn't deny these things made a difference. But in the end, the Confederate States of America was doomed from the start because the people who weren't consulted about its creation -- principally white women and black people -- exerted their overlooked power and destroyed it from within. This is what happens, she says, when your vision of politics, and your notion of who counts, gets too narrow.

Confederate Reckoning lies at the confluence of three streams of recent scholarship: studies of secession explored by William Freehling, the pioneering work of Drew Gilpin Faust on Southern women, and Ira Berlin and company's massive body of work documenting the saga of emancipation. There is also a tributary on the discourse of comparative slavery (think George Fredrickson), which surfaces periodically to demonstrate that the closely linked political and military dynamics of the Confederacy were not unique to the western hemisphere or the western world in the 19th century, from Cuba to Russia. But the integration of these bodies of discourse into one forceful and elegantly written volume makes this book a landmark piece of Civil War historiography. 

Part of what makes it so is McCurry's ability to make truly surprising points along the way. For example, she shows in the opening chapters of the book that even white male voters were effectively disenfranchised in many Southern states during the pivotal months of 1860-61 when the Confederacy first took form. The actions of the plantation elite in states like South Carolina and Mississippi give the lie to an oft-invoked ideal of herrenvolk democracy, as resolutions were rushed into approval on dubious grounds, the results of voting were suppressed, and widespread intimidation was practiced. Even in Alabama, the very heart of Dixie, opposition to secession never dropped below 39%. These widespread efforts to railroad through secession in face of more obvious resistance would bear bitter fruit in places like Virginia, whose western residents would ultimately secede from the seceders. But passive as well as active resistance would be widespread from North Carolina to Texas. The so-called "Slave Power" invoked by Northern politicians in the 1850s was no myth, and its power was nowhere more evident than in the South of the 1860s.

But that power, while real, was destroyed because those who wielded it failed to consider people they considered beneath notice in their deliberations. Confederate women, assumed by government policymakers to be merely ancillary, quickly became a force in their own right. Ironically, the first way womens' power became apparent was through their presumed dependency. Since the defense of home and hearth was endlessly invoked at the basis of Confederate independence, anything that at least appeared to undercut that defense -- like the death or prolonged absence of men unable to protect families increasingly subject to invading armies and hostile slaves -- became matters of insistent appeals, and, eventually, demands. As McCurry shows, women, especially non-elite women, were increasingly direct in addressing government leaders. By 1863, they began taking matters into their own hands; McCurry emphasizes that the well-known Richmond food riot that summer was only one of a number of highly organized, female-led political actions. In their wake, Confederate leaders were forced to make systematic efforts to address the well-being of wives and widows by allocating precious resources in response to their demands. Which brings us to another surprising finding: McCurry's suggestion that the modern welfare state actually has its origins in the increasingly desperate statist behavior of C.S.A. state and federal governments. While she would never put it that baldly, principally because the women in question did not really use a language of citizenship and explicit political assertion we tend to think of as central to the modern liberal tradition, she makes a compelling case not only for rethinking Confederate history, but American history as well.

To a great extent, the last generation of Civil War scholarship has focused great attention on the African American experience, with a special emphasis on the agency of slaves in achieving their emancipation. This book is broadly consonant with that disposition, but situates it less in terms of liberation that swept down from the North than to the degree to which slave resistance emerged from the very heart of Confederate society. Once again, this hugely damaging power was a direct result of slaveholder inability to grapple with the implications of simply assuming that black people were property, an asset to be deployed to serve their own political ends. For this particular form of property had a mind and a will of its own, and its total exclusion from any rights or privileges meant that slaves had little if any reason, incentive, or loyalty to help advance to those ends (and indeed powerful motives to subvert them). McCurry says that slaveholders could not confront this reality, because their commitment to property rights trumped their patriotism. When a besieged Confederacy sought to utilize that property, the planters balked: the relationship between slave and master mattered more than the relationship between citizen and state. Challenging historians who argue the Confederates were willing to sacrifice slavery for independence, she shows that even in its death throes, slaveholders could not bring themselves to allow the conscription or arming of slaves until it was far too late, and even then in a hopelessly illogical and useless way. They were just too addicted to their peculiar institution.

Confederate Reckoning is not a perfect book. The last third seems a bit labored, even overdetermined. McCurry's moral fervor animates her analysis, but her zeal sometimes gets the best of her, as when she asserts, in the closing pages of the book, that "The Confederate political project had been tried before the eyes of the world and it had failed. The poverty of Confederates' proslavery political vision had been proved once and for all time." For once, certainly. But not all time: the past may belong to the historian, but the future is beyond her reach. We cannot escape history, but we can hope, however dimly, it can light our way.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Maria: Postscript -- and Prologue

The Maria Chroncicles, #59

This post marks the completion of a phase in an ongoing project. Eighteen months ago, I launched this blog as one means of trying to make a systematic exploration of new media and what it might mean for a person who considers himself a life-long writer. This was a foray in terms of form, but it was also a foray in terms of content. I wanted to write about the life of a teacher, and do so in a way that I haven't typically seen in my admittedly limited encounters with the literature of professional education. I began with "the Felix Chronicles," still available on this blog, in which I wrote about myself in the first person, changing details about students and colleagues in order to protect their identities. I perhaps should have realized that this would prove to be problematic. So I instead wandered into the realm of fiction, imagining a character who no one would mistake for me: a divorced 49-year old Chicana woman looking to start her life over at an institution somewhere in metropolitan New York that I named Hudson High School.

Fairly early on in the process, Maria began to take on a life of her own. I created a cast of characters who appear throughout, but found myself conjuring up new people, notably Jack Casey, the substitute teacher with whom Maria develops a relationship. Many of the events that transpire emerged organically; I didn't really know what was going to happen until I found myself imagining it. The posts that went up, once or twice a week, were typically written in batches.

This sense of the story taking a life of its own also applied to my sense that it was going to end of its own accord. At some point, I realized that I had said pretty much what I wanted to, and that the narrative was reaching a cadence. That I had, in effect, written a novel -- admittedly not much of one, and one in which professional issues tended to be foregrounded more than issues of narrative energy or character development. But that I'd nevertheless produced something that has a real shape, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. My guess is that there's no one who has actually read the Maria Chronicles in exactly this way, nor is there likely to be. But it's there for anyone who wants it, and the individual pieces have their own shape and integrity for those who have, or wish, to graze. This, it seems to me, is one of the really nice things about our contemporary media order: that an individual can make something and present it for anyone who wants to see without the economic, technological, and social barriers that might have prevented it in the past. To be sure, the potential reach of such a document is limited. But it remains part of my democratic faith that modest efforts by ordinary people can nevertheless produce results that someone, somewhere, at some point, might find of value. My sincere thanks to anyone who has taken the time to have a look. And I invite any and all to circle back again to the fifty-nine moments of what constitute a metaphorical hour in the life of a woman that I, at least, am very glad that I got to know.

Jim Cullen
New York, NY
June, 2010

Friday, June 11, 2010

Broken 'Rule"

In The Rule of Empires: Those Who Built Them, Those Who Endured Them, and Why They Always Fail, Timothy H. Parsons offers an intriguing, though muddled, vision of history

The following review was published last weekend on the Books page of the History News Network site. 

Timothy H. Parsons has an agenda in this book whose ambition is suggested by its simplicity: to show the underlying dynamics of empires across history and why they inevitably collapse. One the whole, his reach exceeds his grasp. But he makes some good points along the way.

Parsons's most important contribution to a recently quickening discourse of empire is his sustained attention to the issue of assimilation, which, as he shows, runs both ways between conquering and subject peoples. In her recently published Day of Empire, Yale law professor Amy Chua somewhat glibly suggests that cultural pluralism is the hallmark of all great imperial powers. (See my review of Chua's book here.) Parsons more credibly views assimilation as a much as a dilemma as an opportunity. Hegemonic powers need the cooperation of local elites to stabilize and thus legitimize their rule. But literally and figuratively buying such cooperation eventually leads to demands for equality, and a blurring of the line between ruler and subject that makes the extractive dynamic of empires harder to sustain, because citizens simply can't be exploited as easily as subjects. This growing difficulty in exploiting people is what Parsons says sapped Roman Empire, as well as the Umayyad Caliphate in Iberia, where Muslim religion became a vehicle for acquiring rights. Later empires, like the Spanish and British, tried to avoid this problem by drawing a firmer line between citizen and subject, with race as a convenient marker. But such sharp demarcations prevented occupying powers from sinking deep roots, ultimately resulting in strong and eventually decisive resistance.

An important sub-theme of this argument is the critical role of women in the dynamic of assimilation. In all empires, Parsons says, women are a prize to be claimed, often brutally. But women are also the crucible of social and political integration over the course of generations, and in some cases an important form of (usually passive) resistance. This dimension of imperialism is often overlooked in the recent discourse of empire, and as such represents a real contribution. Had Parsons limited his ambitions, and called this book The Dilemma of Assimilation or some such title, it would have had a much firmer intellectual foundation. Alas, whether out of a sense of academic overreach (or, as likely as not, sharp prodding from marketing people who like to pitch wide to perceived audiences), he tries to do too much with the material at hand.

The most obvious manifestation of this problem is definitional: Parsons fails to offer a workable definition of the term "empire" at the outset. In his introduction, he makes distinctions between terms like achieved "imperialism" and a process of "empire building," and contrasts "empire," which involves subjugation of a people, with "colonization," which involves their displacement in favor of settling conquerors. But in a project like this, you really need to pin down your key term in a single-sentence assertion that can subsequently pull forward the analysis that follows. Ironically, such a sentence surfaces in passing on page 447 of a 450 page book: "Empires are, by definition, a form of permanent authoritarian rule that consigns a defeated people to perpetual subjecthood, most often for purposes of exploitation and extraction."

That's not bad, but it should have come a lot earlier. So should a rationale for the choices Parsons subsequently makes to illustrate this point. Almost inevitably, a book of this scope will use a case-study approach, which makes sense. But Parsons never really establishes the basis of those cases. Why, for example, do three of the seven involve England (once as a subject of Rome and then as an imperial power in its own right in India and Kenya)? Why not the Belgian Congo, for instance? And if, as in the example of the British in India, the point is to illustrate how private enterprises no less than governments can establish empires, why not the Dutch? Why no cases from east Asia? You're never going to completely satisfy all readers in what will always be perceived by some to be a subjective slate, but Parsons doesn't do enough due diligence to counter a perception that his choices are merely idiosyncratic. (A professor of African history at Washington University, his chapter on Kenya is the most nuanced,  which constitutes justification for that one. The reason for others is less clear.)

This lack of discipline extends into the case studies themselves. The subtitle of this book is "those who built [empires], those who endured them, and why they always fall." Parsons (and his publicists) repeatedly emphasize the importance of looking at history from the bottom up, in contrast to scholars like Niall Ferguson. But for a big chunk of this book -- the first two chapters, at least -- Parsons doesn't really deliver. To a great extent, that's because he can't: the sources for ancient Britons or indigenous Incas to articulate their grievances in an intelligible way are largely lacking. To be fair, the situation improves in the latter part of the book, and Parsons is attuned to behavioral choices, like banditry in Napoleonic Italy, that can plausibly be viewed as forms of resistance. But for far too much of the time, he narrates a traditional string of dynastic intrigue and factional maneuvers that are largely indistinguishable from previous treatments of the specific subjects.

Yet even when Parsons gets to the kernels of individual chapters, those case studies fail to fit snugly into his criteria. As Parsons himself is explicitly aware, he's pushing the interpretive envelope in asserting that the Nazi occupation of France was essentially congruent with the other examples in the book. And in a narrow sense, it may be true. But at the very moment the Third Reich is orchestrating a Vichy regime in what Parsons considers a classically imperial pattern, it's also conducting the Holocaust -- genocide as opposed to extraction -- and "clearing" Eastern Europe in what Parsons himself would taxonomically consider a colonial operation of replacing one people with another. So is Nazi Germany an empire or not? More or less than the Soviet Union? (The USSR would appear to be a tidier example, except for the fact that Josef Stalin was about as vicious toward Russians as he was peoples of the satellite republics.) And if empires "always fall," is not the quantitative difference between the dozen-year Reich and the centuries-long empires of Rome, the Umayyads or Spain so great as to be qualitative as well? Sure, empires always fall. In the long run, we're all dead.

Indeed, what may be the most serious problem with The Rule of Empires is that Parsons never really offers what he considers a viable exception or alternative. Which people don't subjugate others in one form or another? Athenians? Mongols? Apaches? (Americans sure do, Parsons says: Iraq is exhibit A.) He asserts  that empire became a lot more difficult to create since the twentieth century, leading him to conclude that "imperial methods are no longer viable in the trans-national era." (Isn't his point that they were never viable?) Then, on the very next page, he says "there was never a static, idealized Aristotelian model of empire," that "imperial institutions evolved over time." So have we reached the end of history? A "viable" empire can't "evolve" any further? This strikes me as a failure of imagination.

Actually, there's a part of me that's less inclined to blame Parsons for such lapses in logic than the state of a publishing industry where editorial supervision, much less careful copy-editing, have become unaffordable luxuries. Professor Parsons embarked upon this book with good faith and moral energy. Regrettably, it could have turned out a good deal better.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Big School

The following address was prepared for the Senior Dinner, held at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School on June 8, 2010

When I learned that I was to be the speaker at Senior Dinner, which I regard as one of the great honors of my career, my first reaction was joy. My second, of course, was dread, dread of the sort I’ve been inflicting on my students for years. Now it’s my turn to try and be interesting. Touché, kids. That’s a French term. It means "also awake at 3 a.m."

One thing I’m always telling my students when they sit down to write for me is that they should always begin with a question of audience: To whom are you speaking? This is a simple question, but a necessary one. The answer for this particular assignment seems obvious enough: I’ve been chosen by the student body to address the student body. But insofar as it’s true, I’m not only addressing the student body. As my students know, if I was only addressing the student body, this speech would have a great many four letter words in it. But that would get me into a bit of trouble with some of the people John Love generously calls “grownups.” Of course, it should be said that my penchant for using four letter words is a piece of pedagogic stagecraft I learned from one of the important grownups in my life, my father. I don’t know whether my dad acquired his distinctive patois from his years on the New York Fire Department, or whether he got it from his father, a longshoreman down at Chelsea Piers, also known, thanks to our good friends the Bernsteins, as ECF South. Now, there, ladies and gentlemen, was a workingmen’s school. I will also tell you, good students of Fieldston, that if your apartment was on fire, my Dad would be cursing you every step of the way as he carried you from the burning building. That’s just the kind of guy he is. (When I mentioned this to him, he laughed and said, “Goddamn liberals.”)

Now, my dad isn’t here tonight. But of course your parents are here tonight. That’s why, as part of a Senior Dinner speech, I probably should be using phrases here like “precious cargo,” and expressing thanks on behalf of the faculty for lending us your children, and all that crap. This is also the place where I insert a joke about how writing that check to Wash U is going to feel downright painless compared to all these years of paying Fieldston tuition. Then I can cross parents off the checklist.

 Then it’s on to the faculty and staff. This is the point in my speech where I gently rib my colleagues by wondering how long it takes the inimitable Bob Montera to metabolize a cannoli (in some ways, probably about fifteen seconds). This is also where I reveal, on good authority, that Felix Adler loved Broadway theater, because Bill Werner used to take him to backstage to meet people like Eugene O’Neill and Lena Horne. “Act like you’ve been here before,” Bill would whisper to the starstruck Adler.

Then we come to the audience participation part of the speech.  I say, “blah blah blah Dotty Hanson, ladies and gentlemen, let’s give her a hand.” (Please applaud.)  I say “blah blah blah Mark Stanek. (Please applaud.)” I will now demonstrate my good progressive credentials: “Blah blah blah catering crew.” (Gesture.)  We’re like family, right, Liz? Never around when it’s time to clean up.

That done, I will pivot and turn my focus to the people who are texting about the party that will be starting about an hour from now, and that of course is you, soon to be ex-Fieldstonians. (Semiolon; close parentheses.) But insofar as I can possibly make things interesting tonight, I thought I’d tweak the formula by addressing you not as who you are tonight, but instead as the people you will be in ten years, because I think that’s about the length of the next segment of life course you’ve now embarked upon, that increasingly long stretch in our society  between when childhood ends and adulthood begins.

I want to begin the process of talking to your future selves, however, by first inviting you for a quick trip down memory lane and asking you to remember that long ago time when you were just starting the college process. Actually, as some of the people in this room know, I happen to be the father of a Form V Fieldston student, and this spring break we began that journey that you all recently finished. You remember how that goes: You start by thinking in terms of broad categories: near versus far; city versus country, and, of course, big versus small. From the start, my son Jay has been very open-minded about the process, but he was also clear at the outset that he wasn’t much interested in a small liberal arts college. Can’t be small. No Williams, no Amherst, no Sarah Lawrence, where his mother teaches (God forbid he should avail himself of the free tuition.) Small is been there, done that. Jay has loved going to Fieldston, but let’s face it: Fieldston is small – my own graduating class was one and a half times the size of this whole high school. Now Jay is a good kid, and he indulged his father and his college counselor Harry Dawe by paying a visit to Davidson College down in North Carolina three months ago, which is, by liberal arts college standards, on the small side. As it turned out, he really likes it, and he plans to apply. As you know, experiences like these can be formative ones in the life of a family. So it is only natural that a father like myself will bring his paternal instincts to bear and helpfully say, “I told you so.”

We of course have no idea what will happen with Jay and the whole college process. Though I will say that if all goes well, this time next year I’ll be sitting where you are now, glancing surreptitiously at my watch, and grousing that at least at Fieldston you don’t have to pay housing fees.

Now by that point, you all will have your first year of college behind you. You will have had that bizarre experience of freshman orientation, meeting and befriending people for little reason other than the fact that they happen to live two matchbox-sized rooms away from you and don’t like their roommate any more than you like yours. And in the coming days, you will find yourself standing beside one of these people at three o’clock in the morning, lending your moral support as she vomits profusely beside you behind the frat house. And as she retches, you will marvel how it is that you find yourself placing a gentle hand on her back – that in a life that has been so much a matter of deciding what you want, of choice, that you find yourself in relationships that are not entirely a matter of your control. Five years from now, you’ll be a cherished guest at the wedding of this cookie-tosser. Twenty years from now, you’ll be writing a check for her kid’s bar mitzvah. He’s a spoiled brat, but what can you do? This is what friendship means.

 But I’m getting ahead of myself. About four years from now, you’ll be graduating from college. It will turn out to be much easier than you expected, because after surviving a year of intensive chemistry with Compton Mahase, pretty much anything seems easy by comparison. And so your parents will once again be trudging through another set of rituals not unlike the ones you’re finishing up now. They’ll be gazing surreptitiously at their watches listening to some speaker making a lame joke about how paying tuition at Duke Law School will be a breeze because it’s only be a matter of three years rather than four. You’ll bounce around for a while in the months and maybe years following your college graduation – it’s likely to be one of the more unsettling moments in your life – while you try to figure out what you’re going to do with yourself. By your late twenties, you will either have started graduate work or started kidding yourself that you might go; you’ll be married or starting to wonder why you’re not; and a few of you will actually have children of your own while the rest of you try to avoid making the same mistake. Hopefully, by the time you’re at the end of your twenties you’ll have a pretty good idea about what you want from your life. You’ll spend your thirties chasing what you want; your forties realizing you’re not going to achieve what you want; your fifties realizing you’re going to lose what you have; your sixties actually losing what you have; and your seventies trying to find your glasses. In your eighties you’ll be hallucinating that you’re back in Form IV, telling a bewildered Coach Bluth that it doesn’t matter that you suck at basketball. You’re still a good person. “He knows,” your daughter will be telling you, placing her hand gently on your back. He knows.” But again I digress.

 My real point is that over the course of the next decade, I expect you’ll be paying periodic visits to your high school alma mater. At first it will feel weird, because life will have actually gone on without you, and you’ll walk into Lorenzo Krakowsky or Nancy Banks’s office to find that the kids there actually seem to think they own them the way you did. And as you walk around the campus, you’ll think: Jeez, this place is small. Way back when you were in seventh grade – and, of course, you’re old enough to have attended Fieldston before there was a separate middle school, back in those golden days before the catastrophic decline in admissions standards – the place seemed huge. Then it seemed to fit you just right. But now it’s shrinking. And it will keep shrinking over the course of the next few years.

And then a surprising thing will start to happen: Fieldston will start to get big again. You will have spent the last decade feeling so palpably that you’re a free agent, moving from school to school, job to job, city to city, establishing yourself. It will only be then, about ten years from now, that you’ll begin to see in a way you never quite fully grasped how much you’re a product no less than an agent, that you’ve been imprinted by an institution that has defined you all the time you thought you were inventing yourself. 

But here’s the funny thing about this institution: it’s based on an idea. Actually, this doesn’t happen all that often. Survival, economic gain, pleasure: these are some of the reasons institutions, even academic institutions come into being. But this one is premised on an idea, namely that the world can, in fact, be made into a better place.  Now, I will confess to you that I, who has been educated somewhat differently than you have, am not entirely sure the world can be made into a better place. And I’m mindful, as I know many of you are, that the people who came up with this idea, and those who of us who sustain it, can be a little full of ourselves.  But it’s a proposition that I’m willing to entertain, particularly because it’s one that has somehow conjured up a building in which toilets flush, emails get sent, and meals get eaten every day. Not bad for an idea.

But that’s not all this notion that the world can be a better has conjured. It’s also conjured up an institution where you can find a teacher whose work has been purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (That’s Nancy Fried; check it out.) It’s conjured up a place where an adolescent can not simply participate, but design, a community service action project that actually helps people. It’s conjured up things called MADs and FADs and ALPs.

All of this was in place when you arrived. But there are other things which, as you reflect on them in the decade since you graduated, were of your time, and which are now beginning to seem more striking. Perhaps that’s because they’ll seem ahead of their time, or perhaps it’s because they will be the kind of thing people make fun of, though more likely than not the people who do so will be ones you don’t like that much, like the idiot president we will no doubt soon have. (Because, let’s face it, kids: it’s all downhill from here.) I’m talking about things like fact that you had a “green dean” way back in 2009. Or that in a time when gay people were still being demonized in public life, you had a gay head of school, about whom the most relevant facts were how good he was at his job and how sorry everyone was to see him go.

And you’ll ask yourself: What does this mean for me? Who does this mean I am? And it’s at this point that I’m going to have to bail out on the prediction side of things.  Nor, since I am now a former teacher as far as you’re concerned, will I be dispensing any pearls of wisdom, which was never my strong suit anyway. Instead, I will end by expressing a series of hopes. One, that you will prosper in your chosen endeavors. Two, that you will savor the joy of friendship – which, among other things, will involve placing a reassuring hand on the back of a barfing friend at three a.m. behind a frat house. (You can always use the opportunity to reminisce at length about a speech you once heard by an old History teacher back at your high school, which I’m sure will go over very well.) And finally, that you will always have room for an idea – a good idea – a possibility that will remain alive because at the start of a life in which you remain blessedly young, you had the good fortune to attend a surprisingly big school.

All right, kids. That’s all for now. See you on Facebook.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Bon voyage, Ms. Bradstreet

In which we say goodbye to a new friend

The Maria Chronicles, #58

Maria is standing in the alcove of the church, wearing a beautiful cream-colored dress. She peers out into the congregation, surveying a crowd of friends and family. She's amazed when she suddenly realizes who's sitting in the third row: her beloved grandmother, Mamacita. Although she's not sure she should be wading into the crowd before the ceremony, she can't help rushing over.

"Mamacita! What are you doing here?"

"What do you mean, what I am I doing here? Por supuesto, estoy aqui."

"But how can that be? This doesn't make any sense -- "

"I'm always with you, mi cara bonita. Siempre."

Dumbfounded, Maria looks for her mother. Surely she can explain. But then Maria realizes that her mother is dead, too. This isn't right, she thinks, shaking her head. This shouldn't be happening this week. She needs to --

Maria realizes that it's Jack who's shaking her. "Maria? Are you OK?"

Maria opens her eyes and stares at him for a moment. He's fully dressed in black khakis and a gray dress shirt, sleeves partially rolled up. His is slicked back and his aftershave smells divine. "Bad dream?" he asks.

"Not exactly," she says, still feeling a little disoriented. "I was at my wedding with my grandmother."

"Having a flashback?"

"No, no. This was the future."

Jack chuckles. "Was this a dream or a nightmare?"

"Hard to say. I was so glad to see her. But it was so creepy, too. She's been dead for 25 years."

Jack stares at Maria for a moment, then takes a lock of her hair and wraps it behind her ear. "I guess this is kind of an intense time for you. But don't worry. I have no intention of proposing until I know you've got a good enough job to support us."

Maria reaches behind her, grabs a pillow, and whacks him with it. "Forget it, pal. I'm a ramblin' kinda gal. Can't be held down."

Jack smiles affectionately. "Well, you're not going to ramblin' anywhere if you don't get dressed soon. We have to be at the airport by 8:30. I was just coming in here to wake you up."

"How long have you been up?"

"Since about five. Needed to make a few trades on the Asian markets before they called it a day."

Maria suddenly smells coffee. She could get used to this. She struggles to sit up. Her iPad, a birthday gift from Jack, is beside her. She should check it. But Jack is fondling her.

"I thought you said I had to get up."

"You do," he says, smiling. "Just a little something to help you get going." He stands up. "The weather there today will be perfect. Sunny in the 80s here; a little cooler there. Dress light."

This is the rest of her birthday gift. Or is it her celebrate her sort-of-promotion gift? Or end of the school year gift? "They're non-refundable tickets," Jack said when he presented them to her. "I'm not going to do this often, Maria, because I know it will get your back up. But please, just this once." A tour of Spanish missions and some wine-tasting in Napa. They'll be flying in and out of San Francisco.

Maria finally puts her feet down on the floor of her apartment. I'm standing on my own two feet, she thinks as she heads to the bathroom to pee. "I won't be long," she tells Jack.

"Take your time," he says.

Heading down to the airport via Interstate 87 in her Prius, the sun almost up and Jack noodling away on his Blackberry, Maria sees the Radisson she stayed at almost a year ago after she decided to accept the job at Hudson. It's been a good year, she thinks. And now I'm ready to begin again.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Billion Dollar Baby

In Clint: A Retrospective, Richard Schickel offers a notably incisive and lively overview of one of the great talents in American cinema

The following review was published earlier this week on the Books page of the History News Network site. (See review of Eastwood DVD box set below (May 31 post.)

In the most obvious and important respects, this book is what it purports to be: a handsomely designed, lavishly illustrated piece of coffee table furniture. It certainly doesn't hurt that its subject is a piece of eye candy who has aged remarkably well in the half-century the book covers. It is also a very useful movie guide, with newspaper-article length reviews of every movie in which Clint Eastwood has appeared or directed, supplemented by an evocative introductory essay. So by the standards of its genre, the book is successfully executed -- and, at $35 (currently $23.10 at, a good value.

But the real value of Clint is as a document of a remarkable, decades-long friendship. Richard Schickel first met Eastwood in the mid-1970s, and the two men began a conversation that has continued to this day. Schickel is also the author of a 1996 biography of Eastwood, which actually points to the only real defect to this volume that I see: it's relatively weak in limning Eastwood's life from his birth in 1930 to his arrival at Universal Studios in the mid-fifties. But what it lacks in comprehensiveness, the book makes up for in resonance and candor. Schickel is frank in assessing the multiple duds in Eastwood's career (Paint Your Wagon, anyone?) and, remarkably, so is Eastwood, who provides a steady stream of juicy quotes that are the likely result of trust (he also wrote an introduction for the book). Clint may not be objective, but it's exceptionally credible.

Schickel foregrounds a number of themes in his introduction and the subsequent essays. Among them are Eastwood's lifelong identification with the underdog -- and here it's worth pointing out the notably progressive racial and gender politics in many of those films, which include a textured quality in matters like age and sexuality -- as well as an understated masculine ethos and a growing focus on family issues, literal as well as metaphorical. I myself was struck, for example, by the sophistication in Eastwood's treatment of Native Americans in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), or the unambiguous feminist assertion at the heart of The Enforcer (1976), in which Dirty Harry -- the quintessential embodiment of presumably macho, shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later masculinity -- gets taught a few lessons by a female partner (Tyne Daly, in her pre-Cagney and Lacey days) in a movie remarkably free of the dated, patronizing, gender conventions surrounding the portrayal of such issues at the time.

But the theme that's impossible to miss, either in the editorial commentary or in simply flipping the pages, is one of longevity. As Schickel notes at one point, Eastwood's film career covers one third of movie history as a whole. And that career has been marked by a remarkable sense of consistency in the sheer number of films in which he has acted and/or directed, and his proficiency in delivering those films on time and under budget. Even more extraordinary is the stunning intensification in the quality of his work -- films like Unforgiven (1993) and Gran Torino (2008) are extraordinary meta-genre commentaries, while Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) re-imagines the World War II film from a Japanese point of view. In a way that may well be singular in cinematic history, Eastwood has managed to be both the quintessential movie star as well as an important director for multiple generations.

But perhaps the most striking aspect of all this is that Eastwood appears deeply mindful, even haunted, by his good fortune, and his consciousness that others have not been so blessed. This is why, for example, he made his 1988 film Bird, about Charlie Parker (Eastwood is a passionate jazz fan and has in fact written music for his films). A fatalistic vein runs through his work, and alongside it a powerful sense of duty that suggests a stoic vision of life. This stoicism, which jostles with realized ambition, might well be the axis on which Eastwood's work spins.

"The American Dream is, in fact, composed of many dreams," Schickel notes toward the end of the book, a point made in my own book on the subject. But he goes on to make one I never quite apprehended before, which is that "the dream of an old age rich in competency is the last, largest, and most difficult to achieve." Clint Eastwood is, finally, an inspiring figure in his demonstration of the value of hard work for its own sake, and the hope, whether realized or not, that it might also have value for others.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Lasting day

In which we see Ms. Bradstreet finish her year by settling in

The Maria Chronicles, #57

Maria enters the faculty lounge on the last day of school juggling three dozen-sized boxes of Dunkin' Donuts and her briefcase. Her class has been nagging her for weeks to have a party for their final session of the year, and she finally broke down and conceded -- if they made it to the election of 2000 before the final exam. They did. Other kids will be bringing juice, cups, and the rest. Maria expects to spend her time signing yearbooks and asking about summer plans, which is fine. She's as itchy as the kids are for the summer to start, especially since the school has been an oven the last few days.

Still, she wants her morning coffee, hence her detour into the faculty lounge. Surprisingly, there's no one there but French teacher Edie Wilson, who is using a paper towel to dry off a recently rinsed mug that simply says "NO!" Edie, as always, has a look of perpetual irritation on her face. "I wish to hell they would just put syringes in here," she says. "It would be so much more efficient if I could simply inject the caffeine into my veins."

Maria smiles, genuinely amused, but lacking a witty riposte. Truth is, even after some relatively pleasant interactions, she remains a little afraid of Edie. Maria can't quite tell if her misanthropy is a protective shell or exactly what it seems to be.

"So," Edie says, pouring non-dairy creamer into her now-full mug, "I understand you're going to be with us a little longer. But it will be as a hybrid History-English teacher and as one of Ellie Bernstein's minions."

"News travels fast," Maria replies evenly, pouring coffee into her cup. "I didn't realize my minion status" -- Maria's first instinct was to avoid this, but decides it's best to both acknowledge and deflect it with an ironic overlay -- "was public knowledge."

"Just heard about it from Carl Kurtz," Edie explains. "Dani told him this morning, and he told me. Frankly, Maria, if anyone is going to be a tool of the administration, it might as well be you. They could use a good kick in the ass over there."

"Well, I'm glad you approve, Edie."

"You should be. But I wouldn't hitch my wagon too tightly to Bernstein's, if I were you. I figure she'll be here two more years, tops."

"Yeah, well, we'll have to see if I stick around in any case. How long have you been here, Edie?"

"Me? Twenty -seven years."

"Twenty-seven years? Wow."

"But that's not the relevant number."

"Oh no? What is?"

"Two-hundred and fifty K. That's what I'll have in TIAA-CREF a year from now. And then I'm outta here."

"Fair enough."

"You better believe it." Edie has finished stirring  in what looked to Maria like a half-pound of sugar and is now walking away. "If I don't see you, have a good summer."

"Thanks, Edie. Likewise."

"Naturally," she says without looking back. "I won't be here."

Maria is trying to figure out how she'll be able to carry the doughnuts, the coffee, and the briefcase, when an unfamiliar man wearing jeans and a plaid cotton shirt and sandals stands at the edge of the lounge without crossing the threshold. Probably a parent. "Can you tell me how to find room 527?" he asks.

"Sure. Go down the hall, make a right, up the stairs and keep going until you hit the 500s building. The room will be on the second floor."

"Great. Thanks."

He's going to get lost, Maria thinks. But at least she sent him in the right general direction. She then realizes that this is the first time she's ever been asked for directions since she started working in the school. It seems significant somehow. She's part of the place. After all.

Maria realizes, as she watches the man make the right turn, that the figure she sees to her left is her favorite student. "Willie!" she shouts. "Can you give me a hand?"

"Sure, Ms. Bradstreet! What do you need?"

"Can you help me carry these doughnuts?"

"Absolutely." But like the man before him, Willie pauses before the threshold. "It's all right, Willie. You can enter the inner sanctum."

She enters gingerly. "I've never been in here before."

"Yeah, well, the air is a little thinner, but you'll survive."

Willie grins and picks up the doughnuts. Maria picks up her briefcase.

"So, Willie, tell me what you're looking forward to this summer."

And the two of them walk, burdened and at ease with each other's company. For years to come, they will remember this moment with fondness.