Friday, April 19, 2013

Making Sense of Nonsense

Making Sense of Nonsense

How to be pertinent? We here at MIT have been locked down since late last evening. The sound of sirens has seldom not been heard. Students gather around their laptops listening to police scanners. We know what is going on.

One of our police officers was killed two blocks from here responding to a disturbance call. He was doing his job. He was 26 and grew up a few miles away. He knew lots of students, went camping with those in the Outing Club. Being a public safety officer was his calling.

For our students this is their 9/11. They were between seven and eleven when the Towers crumbled. Now here it happens again. Not as dramatic, but in some ways more realistic. It did not just happen and then we responded. It seems this is playing out over a longer period and the villains are just like our students. They are our neighbors, they are our peers.

The site of the officer’s death is just down the Infinite Corridor, through the Stata Building. We all go there every day or two. A mother called last night wanting to hear from her son: “He studies in the Stata Building.” And he did, and he called her.

Across the river a mile away, there was another bomb found. Down Massachusetts Avenue the sidewalk on Boylston Street is still stained with the blood of those who died and those who were injured as they waited for family and friends to finish a race.  Can we ever be safe again?

After Monday it was easier to respond. Impersonal horror can be thought about, compartmentalized.  But then on Tuesday it got personal. One of our students knew the family of the youngest victim. He was his babysitter. Tears came easily –for all of us.

Then we learned that the young woman from China was known by our students. She had gone on retreat with them. So we gathered on Wednesday and challenged one another to do what we do best: solve problems. That is the MIT way. We would design bionic limbs for children to grow with.  We could make a better world for eight year old boys and girls from China where they can live full lives, where hatred is not an option. We can do that. Or so we think.

And then last night happened.  It is not so easy to simply reflect when it is so close to home. It is not so easy to turn the issue into a design problem when you think of a young man called to be a public servant killed before he could get out of his car.

Christianity came into being on the occasion of great pain and suffering. A family lost an eldest son. A mother watched and wept. That is where we are now. Watching, waiting and weeping. I hear the sirens again. We are still locked down and it shows no sign of abating.

Steven Colbert helped us through the early days of the week, but now the anger comes unbidden. I got a call from the leader of the Muslim community worried about the hatred he feared might surface.  It has not yet but it may. If it does then we are no better than those who have harmed us.

Today we know the fear Israeli students on their way to school know; what parents in Iraq know when they send their children out for groceries; the fear men in Afghanistan know when they leave home to get petrol. Around the world there are families who never know the kind of peace we take for granted. Now we have learned another name for fear, Chechnya. We see the world through new eyes.

At 4 PM I have a wedding rehearsal. Maybe that is the way to derive meaning from days like today. Look evil in the eye, affirm your love for one another and step forward. That takes a courage that can banish fear.

Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute
Cambridge, MA

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Words Matter

Words Matter

I wrote earlier about the challenges of interfaith dialogue and how difficult it is when you do not allow differences to emerge because you want to avoid conflict and the clash of ideas. In the modern university there is another area of tension where ideas do not necessarily clash but where words do.  Here the degradation of what I call polite conversation poses enormous difficulties.

An acquaintance remarked about the state of  conversation by mentioning that he remembered when Rhett Butler saying “Damn” raised all sorts of reaction when “Gone With the Wind“ was first released. I didn’t tell him how devastated I was when Tarzan of the Apes first uttered “Damn” in one of the early Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan books. The book had been written in the early 20th century, but I read it more than a  decade after Gone with the Wind. How one reacts to the most modest of swear words tells volumes about your educational context. It also explains how hard it is to raise the issue of inappropriate language. For some,  words are what comes out of the mouth; for others, and I count myself in this group, words are almost sacred. They matter and how they are used is important.

By the time I was ten I could swear better in Spanish than I could in English and that was to my advantage since my family did not understand what I was really saying. Or maybe they did, as I was soon moved from a predominantly Hispanic grade school to one where acting out was measured by whether or not you spat on the asphalt playground.

Even as the homogeneity of spoken language has made our public voices sound alike, the influence of urban America and our military adventures have introduced to public discourse language that Tarzan would never use in the presence of self-respecting apes. The crude stream of rap passing as music makes it appear that there are no limits to what may be said and few seem willing to speak out and say that there are limits to what ought to pass as appropriate conversation.

The proof may be easily seen on un-moderated e-mail lists in the university where invective and vulgarity rule. The other day a young woman told me that some friends had referred to her as a whore in conversation on line not because she was known to sleep around, but simply because they thought it funny to use the word to refer to women. She thought it odd that I challenged the word as inappropriate. In her world she felt she could give as good as she got, but the suggestion that no one needed to talk that way gave her pause. Why hadn’t anyone told her she could take offense?

On another list a young man found new and creative ways to use the F-word and when I suggested that choice of words and repetition make his litany less effective than it might have been, his only reply was that speech ought to be free. What would happen, I asked, if a prospective employer found his public rant? Was he trying make a point or simply engaging in performance vulgarity? There are lots of things you can say that you do not need to say, I suggested.  He understood, but thought his freedom of speech was being compromised. Again, I asked, was he talking to be heard or to offend?  Maybe we all need to think about how we might introduce moderation in language into the world around each of us.

Speaking up to call out those who think every verb begins with F is not as easy as it might seem and that is in part because a lot of younger folk have come to believe that because they know a word they can use it. Do not go to the movies with them as they can yell fire pretty loudly.  Free speech seems to mean that I can say what I will about anyone no matter how ugly the words. If no one says that being foul mouthed is not cool, the words simply keep falling out.

Once I recovered from Tarzan’s heresy, I found occasions where strong words made points that could be made in no other way. But I often kept quiet when others spoke as if they were imitating a verbal sewer. My point when I did reply was often simply that four letter words have only limited impact in  contemporary discourse. I remind students that we use words to communicate ideas and strong words can get attention and may help make a point. When all words are equally strong the effect is cancelled. Too many swear words strung together have no impact except to remind the hearer what happens when the tongue gets lazy and the brain shuts down.

All of this is matters little if  we all look down and ignore hurtful language that is both foul and foolish. I have found that asking if someone really means what they are saying can cause enough reaction to foster real dialogue. But it takes a village to start the conversation. Here in the university we have the opportunity to change what is acceptable, but it is not clear that we have the courage to speak up lest we be thought prudish. It is assumed that chaplains are prudish so I have little to lose, but what about the rest of you?

Robert M Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute
Cambridge, MA 02139

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Life, Lessons and Songs

I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

-Maya Angelou

My father Arnold was a man who liked to be at home. He was a World War Two veteran who had been a supply Sergeant in a Negro unit, as it was called in the racially segregated U.S. Army of the 1940s. His quartermaster company coordinated efforts with the Red Ball Express, a transportation convoy that rushed supplies to the front in 1944. They advanced through France and Belgium and went on in the direction of Germany. He had little desire to revisit his grim memories of that time but there were three stories that I remember him telling me when I was a boy.  The first was how he, having finished three years of college, wanted to go to officer’s candidate school and how his commanding officer would always take his application, glance at it, ball it up and toss it into the wastebasket.  The second story took place in England and was about a man known as Big John who took on a group of American soldiers from the south who did not like the idea of Negroes being in an English bar.  Big John, my father and two other black soldiers had to fight their way out of the pub but only after Big John had thrown two antagonists over the second floor banisters. The last was how most of the black men in his company during Basic Training came from the Deep South and how they enjoyed having a little fun with the northern ones by putting snakes in their beds.

My father had been drafted shortly after Pearl Harbor and was not discharged until late 1945. He didn’t believe in lecturing children.  He told brief stories and let me think about them. I learned that it was important to be prepared for things that may cause you trouble. I learned that you needed to work if you were going to get anything in life. I learned that you needed to believe in something greater than yourself. My father and mother took me to church, museums and libraries.
I also got to see a lot of movies, especially the ones with Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, Pearl Bailey, Brock Peters and Harry Belafonte.

I am very fortunate to still have my mother Corrine who is lucid and energetic at 88.  Although she has a few of her own favorite stories about conflict and adversity, she is essentially the family’s optimist and has always focused on the importance of faith, personal growth and enrichment. She would not just take me to the library or museum, she would bring my friends along as well. I have always associated her with learning.  When I was in grade school, I can remember her reading  “A Street Car Named Desire,” which seemed a strange title for a play.  She once showed me a novel by Richard Wright and pointed to his picture on the cover so that I would see he was an African American. I read some of her copy of Salinger’s “The Catcher In The Rye” until she took it away and told me that this one was for later.

I never considered that it was a privilege to grow up in a household that loved music. The songs in the air were like the furniture or the pictures on the wall. In the morning something by Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra might be playing on the radio. When I came home from school, my mother would be ironing clothes and have Symphony Sid’s jazz show on, coming in from New York City. In the evening, my parents would frequently play records.  To my young ears, Count Basie’s big band arrangement of  “Taxi War Dance” featuring Lester Young on tenor saxophone left an impression larger and more lasting than any late inning World Series home run or gruesome horror movie. I remember looking at a glossy album cover with a young Miles Davis in an elegantly tailored suit. He was holding his trumpet, while staring indifferently at the camera.  He could make made that horn sound as evocative as a great actor’s words on the stage.

And there were the memorable vocalists Nina Simone and Billie Holiday, whose beautiful voices bordered on being unearthly. They were unlike any performers that I had ever heard.

But what caused these women to express so much pain and sadness?

It was not until I started college that I discovered there were formal courses dedicated to jazz, its history, and the music’s theory and composition.   I learned then that this music was more than a comparatively young art form. It was a great narrative and a vast repository for talent as well as experience. It had many older and some newly emerging episodes, all of them parts of a steadily growing story.

And now, when I look far back on childhood and my family memories, it is with   deep gratitude. My  mother and father gave me a legacy of love,  hard earned wisdom and their  most thoughtful  attention. They have given me many wonderful moments, as well as lasting and forever useful lessons.

I wonder if I have done nearly as well with my own child.

W. S. Merwin, "Grandfather in the Old men's Home"  

Gentle, at last, and as clean as ever
He did not even need drink any more
And his good sons unbent and brought him

Tobacco to chew, both times when they came

To be satisfied he was well cared for.               
And he smiled all the time to remember

Grandmother, his wife, wearing the true faith

Like an iron nightgown, yet brought to birth

Seven times and raising the family

Through her needle's eye while he got away  
Down the green river, finding directions

For boats.  And himself coming home sometimes

Well-heeled but blind drunk, to hide all the bread

And shoot holes in the bucket while he made

His daughters pump. Still smiled as kindly in 
His sleep beside the other clean old men

To see Grandmother, every night the same
Huge in her age, with her thumbed-down mouth, come

Hating the river, filling with her stare

His gliding dream, while he turned to water,    
While the children they both had begotten,

With old faces now, but themselves shrunken

To child-size again, stood ranged at her side,

Beating their little Bibles till he died.   

Arnold R. Henderson, Jr.
Associate Dean
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