My Current Problem with Death

I teach a class in the Philosophy of Death.

Let’s talk about the ridiculousness of that for a moment, shall we?

First, the details. This class meets twice a week for 45 minutes. I have four students in it — the youngest is fourteen; the next youngest is seventeen; and the last two are eighteen. All four of them are engaged participants in every single class. They take  diligent notes, and even discuss passionately with me the structure of those notes, wanting to make sure that what they’re writing down is what I’m trying to get across. I shit you not. The class ends at 12:00pm, lunch time, and every single class, at least two if not all four students choose to stay in their seats and continue our discussion (including a student whose hunger knows no bounds).

These incredible young students come to class every week and expect me — me! — to teach them about the Philosophy of Death.

That’s ridiculous. Utterly ridiculous.

What do I know of death?

I’ll tell you what I know of death. One of my students died this year. He was nineteen years old. The young man was no saint, and he died in the company of known criminals, of a gunshot wound, shot in the early hours of the morning in a parked car with his friends, on a dare, with a stolen gun, obtained from a house where the homeowner was assaulted during the robbery, by one of the kids sitting in the car, where my student dared his killer to shoot him, and the shooter did.

I was this boy’s teacher at the last school he attended before dropping out. I was his last formal advisor. He was going down this path before he met me. And he continued down it after me. If anything, I only stalled him for a while and tried to put a smile on his face. I’m not sure I should have tried anything more. I did of course, but not by the end. By the end I only wanted him to know that I still cared. But this isn’t about me. It’s about death.

My great-grandmother’s death is the first one I remember. I remember it in part because my mother often tells the story of how I behaved at the funeral, but it’s not just the story I remember; it’s a visual. We’re seated near the front of the chapel, the priest is just a few yards from us, on my right, and up high, and he’s saying something, and then my eyes go incredibly blurry and I turn my head to the left, looking down and away from the priest, and then my shoulders are shaking, and my breath is coming and going in sobs, and my mother puts her arm around my shoulder and squeezes me tight, except now I’m making such a commotion that she has to take me out the side door of the chapel while the service is still going. In the story, my mother asked me if I understood what the priest was saying, and then she says she could just tell: I understood every word. I was four or five years old.

I really only have one memory of my great-grandmother, but even this could be based on a photograph I’ve seen: she’s seated on a folding chair in the middle of a shaded, sloping lawn. We’re at my family’s summer cabin, and she’s sitting alone up on the grass. Her feet are crossed at the ankles. She’s wearing what appears to be a thin bathrobe over eighty-year-old raggedy bones, but she’s someone who is always nice to me, and her bones don’t scare me. I can feel myself approaching her from her right. I can’t see her face, but I can see that bathrobe and the bones in her arm, her hand lowering to the ground near my head, moving towards me, welcoming me in.

When I was in my twenties, my best friend’s mother died. My memories of her are as strong as my memories of my own mother. I’d known her almost as long, and felt from her almost as much love. She wasn’t a daily presence in my life, especially not by the time I was in my twenties and living in a completely different state, but her son was my best friend and my brother, and so I was in contact with the spirit of her on almost a daily basis. Her death changed him (and changed me) for the better. In her death, she offered with such grace and love her life’s final lesson: this is what courage and dignity looks like.

There have been other deaths in my life. Friends. Family members. Acquaintances. Celebrities. No more than most others, and significantly less than some.

So what do I know of death, and what qualifies me to teach philosophy on the subject? I mean, I’m using the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as my guide, for God’s sake! — and when I say “as my guide,” I should say that what I’m teaching my students is the Encyclopedia; I’m teaching them its entry.

I know, I know. Lame.

In a class on the Philosophy of Death, you don’t just want to look at one source, and if you do, you sure as hell don’t want it to be an encyclopedia. That’s a rookie move.

In a class on the Philosophy of Death, you want to check out all the weird shit from Asia and Africa and South America; and you want to see what the Egyptians had to say about it — after all, if anyone made an art form of death, it was the Egyptians, the first dead people anyone decides to teach us about, in the sense that elementary school teachers seem to not show us pictures of George Washington’s grave or discuss the Colonialists’ burial rituals; they do, however, show us the pyramids and tell us they’re built as monuments to death and filled with kings and queens who have been mummified by priests, a process which could be considered totally creepy (hence, the Mummy as a monster), but is discussed more for its novelty than its sense (or lack thereof) of humanity.

But you also want to make sure it’s a philosophy class, and not just a class for a multicultural tourist. True, it’s a high school class and not a college class, so you don’t have to get too deep on the philosophy side of things, but you ought to reveal some of the major questions around the topic.

Even more, you want to make sure it’s an engaging class. You want the kids to experience philosophy in action. You want them to criticize what you’re trying to teach them and doubt the ideas you put on the board. You want them to scrutinize the language you use and to document your logic while not accepting its dogma. You want them to point out your lesson’s flaws and double-check its facts, even the most basic ones, such as what philosopher said what when. You want them to disagree with each other, challenge each other to define their terms. You want them to discover moments of both clarity and confusion and feel a passionate compulsion to express any questions or doubts.

But you’ve only got so much time in the day. And you have other classes, and other responsibilities, not least of which are your responsibilities as both a father and husband. As a whole person, and not just a teacher, you can’t just be studying death all day. So as a teacher, you have to make choices.

As a teacher, I have to make choices. Should I choose to put my effort into engaging my students each week with 90 minutes of active philosophizing, or should I help them develop a slightly deeper understanding than they may already have about some of humanity’s most cherished ideas?

To do the latter would be to invest a lot of energy into my own education, and would become an almost all-consuming project. It wouldn’t take into account my need to teach a class on women’s studies, a class on academic writing, and a class in which I must lead four young adventurers on an original and yet more-than-improvised campaign of Dungeons & Dragons. It would also mean neglecting many of my responsibilities beyond the classroom.

To do the former, however, to provide my students with the experience of philosophy, all I have to do is spend at least one or two extra hours a week really studying the topic, and then just try to teach the students whatever I learned the week before. Because the information will be so new me, I won’t really know what I’m talking about, which might sound bad, but that will give my students ample opportunity to criticize and question, and then watch and listen as I wrestle out loud with their implications.

With two hours of studying outside of the classroom, I’ll  definitely know at least little more than they do. And of course, I’ll already possess an undergraduate background in Continental philosophy, which means not everything I read will be exactly new to me. That background should also allow me to put up reasonable (or at least time-wasting) defenses on any of the arguments I haven’t fully researched or understood, which again, sounds bad, but will force the students to penetrate to the heart of an idea from more than one angle.

Two hours a week studying the philosophy of death? I can do that in my sleep. Literally. I can lay down at the end of the day with any text even tangentially related to the topic and study it as I fall asleep. Right now, on my own time and out of my own sense of interest, I’m already reading the King James Version of the New Testament, the book most responsible for what America’s dominant culture thinks about death. If I can support that by also reading some more analytically sound thoughts on death, I should be fine.

But I don’t want to read a whole book on death, per se, so articles it’ll have to be. But how to distinguish a reputable article from another? How to find an article or series of articles that will give me enough scope of philosophy’s take on the subject while also making sure I don’t get bogged down in any academic squabbling about details?

The Stanford Encyclopedia. I’ll start there. But shit, have you ever tried to read that thing? They don’t just give you a short entry on something. They break that shit down, take on various theories, reveal various biases on the part of the authors, etc. I’ve only got one to two hours a week, man! I can’t just knock out the Stanford Encyclopedia and move on to the next article. If I’m going teach anything about it, I’ve got to think that shit over. I’ve got to read it slow and re-read certain sections, make sure I understand the logic.

So that’s what I’ve been doing.

Which means, for the past three weeks. I’ve been teaching my students what the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has to say about Death.

Unfortunately, I’m only about halfway through it, and it’s starting to get old. The entry basically explores the philosophy around two central questions: What is death, and does it harm us? While those questions are interesting (I guess), they’re also not very exciting — or at least, the way they’re discussed by an old white man is not exciting.

I want to show my students more than what an old white man seems to think.

For that, I’m going to need something that comes from the darker cultures (in every sense of that word), something I can pull up from the moist wet soil of the Earth, a cultural philosophy of death that was once buried and forgotten but has now been returned to us, alive and vital.

I don’t want to talk about the Egyptians, unless it’s the Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood and the military junta, the deaths of people in the streets. Nor do I want to talk about the Indians, unless its the rituals of the telephone operators when they go home at night, contrasted with the rituals of the farmers in the south. I don’t want to talk about the west Africans, or the Aztecs, or the Incas; not the Navajo, those stand-ins for the peaceful Indians, nor the Apache, the Spartans of North America. The Inuit is a possibility; northeastern Russia as well. Japan and China would be little more than a cliche, a blind-eyed choice that excludes the Koreas, Vietnam, and all the other cultures to the south, each with their own rich heritage.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead, alone, could be its own nine-week class.

How to choose? And how to figure out the reasons to choose? I’ve only got one to two hours a week, one to two sleepy hours, and at least a portion of those two hours must remain committed to reading something analytical, if only to exercise the analytical skills I need to successfully teach the class for ninety minutes a week.

But wait a second! Don’t I work at a democratic school?! At a democratic school, the teacher doesn’t have to be the one who makes the choice. I only have to present the options as openly as possible to my students, and let them decide. I’m confident I’ll be able to take it from there.

But then it strikes me — What if I’m going about this all wrong? Shouldn’t a class on the Philosophy of Death consider more than just the human community?  Shouldn’t it embrace the entire community of life? It could explore if animals mourn, for example. Enough videos on YouTube prove that other species process the loss of loved ones, so why not use the class to explore that? Why not bring up some environmental and ecological questions about death? I could pose the question of death from the point of view of climate change and political terror, as the death of humanity as we know it, and the potential extinction of all life on Earth.

So many questions. So many possibilities. And only so much time to figure it all out. That’s my current problem with death.

Trying to Money Like An Adult

I’m not good with money.

True: I own a house and lease a car, and I’ve got a savings account for my daughter’s education, so I’m not as bad with our money as millions of other people around the globe.

But still, like most Americans, we basically live paycheck to paycheck, and my family is a single unexpected disaster away from not being able to make ends meet (luckily, my wife and I both have very supportive parents, so if we needed the help, I’m confident they would offer it — but still, that’s not what you want as an adult, right?).

It’s kind of silly because my wife and I are both employed full-time as experienced teachers, and I have a second job working as a relatively well-paid adjunct at a local college.  According to the Pew Research Center, we are firmly in the middle income-tier in Vermont.

Most of our income goes to paying down our debt in the form of student loans (20%) and credit cards (19%). The mortgage eats up another 13% each month. The rest goes to a car payment, plus regular obligations like heat, electricity, water, groceries, subscriptions, etc. (and way too much of it goes to dining out).

I’m trying to get a handle on all of this. The main driver is the need to make repairs on the house. We got water damage in our bedroom ceilings a couple of years back; the slate steps on our front porch are falling in on themselves; and the slate roof needs some repair. The kitchen needs work too, but that’s a major overhaul that is years down the road.

The secondary reason is because I want to make sure the family can weather whatever unexpected disaster ends up happening to us (where “disaster” is defined by the need to drop more than $400 on an unexpected service or item).

To help us accomplish our goals, I’ve started using two different tools.

The first is YNAB, which stands for You Need A Budget. Prior to YNAB, I used Mint, but the budgeting tools on Mint didn’t help as much. Mint’s budgeting tools revealed where we spent our money, but it didn’t provide any tools to help us change our spending habits.

YNAB, on the other hand, requires us to be more active with our budgeting. I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered the process, but I’m definitely more engaged with it, which is a start. The rules powering YNAB are simple:

  1. Give every dollar a job.
  2. Embrace your true expenses.
  3. Roll with the punches.
  4. Age your money.

I’m still trying to figure out the best way to comply with Rule #1, but the important part is that I’m actively working on it.

The second tool I’m using is called Qapital. Qapital is basically a savings account, but it uses customizable rules to trigger my bank to transfer money into our Qapital account.

One of the rules we use rounds up every transaction we make using our debit cards to the nearest $2 and transfers the difference into our savings account. Another rule transfers $1 for every article I read using the Pocket app (i.e., I pay myself to finish reading long articles). Yet another one transfers $25 for every post I write here on my blog (i.e., I’m paying myself to blog).

But we don’t just save money every time we do something. I can also save money when we don’t do something. For example, I usually spend around $30 a week on my lunches. I absolutely DO NOT want to be doing this, and yet, come lunch time, I still find myself slipping next door to the school to get a slice of pizza. So, to help motivate me not to do this, I set up a rule so that if I spend less than $15 a week at the pizza place, the difference gets transferred into my savings.

I’m still not killing it when it comes to managing our money, but with YNAB and Qapital, I feel like we’re making a lot more progress than we ever have before.

The real test will come this summer. Will we have enough money to do repairs on the house? Will a successful use of Rule #4 on YNAB mean that the money we spend each day was actually generated more than 30 days prior? I don’t know for sure, but I’m working to make it so.

My New Learning Plan

Yesterday, I spent about an hour working on something called a Learning Plan. At the school where I work, we use Learning Plans to record where each student stands in relation to their education.

A good education doesn’t just happen to a person. Education and learning are activities to be worked on. A student has to want an education, and they have to be willing to put some effort into it (incidental learning is all well and good, but incidental learning should not be a goal; active and engaged learning should be the goal).

To accomplish this, my school puts the student in charge of their own education. The school is there to provide resources — the time and the space to work on projects; the support of caring and curious adults who actively want to see them succeed; access to a network of community partners eager to collaborate with them on a mutually beneficial internship; material support in the way of computers, books, paper, and pencils; and, not the least, the opportunity to receive financial backing for well-researched investments in their future — but (and this is important) the school itself is not there to provide an education.

Only the students, themselves, can do that.

The Learning Plan is one resource we use to help them. The product of several conversations between the student and their advisor, the Learning Plan records the student’s long-term goals and short-term objectives.

It starts by asking them to identify their passion. This is a tough-ass task to accomplish. We use all kinds of tools to get at possible answers, but unless the student wants to seek their passion, coming up with the right answer is all but impossible.

So next we ask the student to consider their interests. They may not know their passion,  but they can almost always come up with something that fascinates them: sharks, battle-axes, tornadoes, etc. If they can’t come up with a detailed answer, they can come up with a broader genre: video games, science, blowing stuff up.

Between their passions and their interests, we can come up with a project or a class that has some real teeth to it in either an academic and/or skill-building sense, something that the student can enthusiastically say “Yes!” to (the best ideas come out of the student’s mouth, of course).

But that’s not the whole Learning Plan. Because a student can’t just come to my school, do whatever they want to do, and then graduate with a high school diploma. It’s not that easy.

As a school, we decided that it means something to earn our high school diploma, and it’s not the same thing as earning a diploma from one of the state-based high schools (and when I say “we decided as a school,” I mean “we” in the broadest sense because my school is completely democratic: staff and students have equal say in the way the school runs, provided they show up to make their voices heard). As a school, we decided that our diploma means the student has accomplished not only the development of basic or college-ready academic skills (which is what most diplomas signify), but that the student has also developed their social and emotional skills.

Every student who graduates from my school must accomplish a suite of over 100 different goals, spaced out over the lifetime of their career. These goals range from the development of their reading skills to the development of their ability to cope with adversity. They not only have to know how to write and do  algebra, they have to know how to build and maintain healthy relationships and understand and manage their moods.

The Learning Plan is where this progress gets recorded. It’s completed on a quarterly basis and attempts to stand true for a period of nine weeks. The students use the Learning Plan to record which specific goals they’re going to pursue and how that pursuit fits into the long-term development of their passion and/or interests.

(Sometimes, because of a failure of either time or imagination, the student and the advisor fail to succeed, and nine weeks pass with very little progress. That’s okay. We don’t penalize either the student or the advisor for that. Students do not “fail” or “stay back” at my school — we refuse to place a label on their progress — instead, students give and receive honest assessments of their work. Education isn’t a race with winners and losers; it’s a craft, requiring patience and discipline from both the apprentice and the master, and its method of assessment should respect and reflect the time and effort put into it.)

But the Learning Plan attempts to capture all of that, and to do so in a single document. That was my job yesterday afternoon. To imagine a bureaucratic form that could best entomb such a living and dynamic process.

We kid ourselves when we tell the students that the Learning Plan is a living document. It’s not. It both captures and kills a whole lot of effort on everybody’s part.

There’s a superstition among creative writers that says it’s bad luck to talk about your works in progress because telling someone your story tricks you into thinking you’ve written it.

The Learning Plan has that danger as well. It sometimes takes so much effort to create a Learning Plan that it saps all of the student’s inspiration and energy, and the rest of the nine weeks may pass with little to no movement. This sets them up to feel like a failure as they neglect to get any real work done.

But here’s the thing: When a person has a Learning Plan, they know what they’re supposed to do, which means they also know when they’re not doing it. This can be a lot for the teenage mind to handle, and it can lead to feelings of depression and guilt, which then can manifest in behavior that looks like anger or aggression. Make no mistake: It’s dangerous goddamn work putting effort into the education of an American teenager, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it.

Of course, one of the goals of the student and the advisor is to either avoid or learn to cope with such feelings and/or behaviors by making steady progress on an academic and/or social-emotional level.

But how can a bureaucratic form do that utterly humane and naturally chaotic process any real justice? It’s like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. If you want to know exactly what direction a thing is moving, you can’t also know exactly where it is in space. A Learning Plan can show us where a student is right now, but it can’t show us how quickly they are moving.

That’s why my form needed to strike a balance between long-term goals and short-term objectives.  It can’t tell you how they got here or when they’ll get there, but it can tell you where they are right now.

What’s hilarious to me is that when all of this thinking is going on in my head, my students just see me with my feet up on a chair focused on my computer screen. If they actually come around to look at my screen (as they often do), they see some new form on Google Docs with spaces for things like “Name” and “Today’s Date,” and bulleted lists with placeholder text that reads “Select here and start typing.” It must look so friggin’ boring to them.

Little do they know that the Learning Plan I pursued in my twenties and thirties led me to a job where every day I get to utilize my passion for systems-thinking, further my drive to constantly extend my knowledge and comprehension, and act on my desire to make a difference in my community.

It may look boring to my students. But when it comes to my career, I wouldn’t want to do anything else.

Did I finish the form? I did. And then I assigned it to my students. The due date is Friday.

Seriously, doesn’t the completion of a form like that seem like a full time job, yet at the same time, so rewarding? As if it would take a lot of hard work and serious thinking to provide honest answers to its questions, but also and at the same, be totally worth it in the end?

But no, my students won’t see it that way. They’ll see it as homework. And homework is something you do at the last minute, if you do it at all.

Goddamn, it’s frustrating to work with teenagers 🙂

Reading Christ Without Faith

I am an atheist, but I read a lot about Christianity. I don’t read a lot of books about Islam (though I have read some), nor do I read about Judaism (though, again, I have read some); nor about Buddhism or Hinduism or Taoism or Shinto (though again, I have read some).

Christianity. That’s mostly what I read about.

The reason seems simple: I was raised as a Catholic in the suburbs of Boston. How Catholic? Well, not only was I baptized and confirmed as a Catholic, but I volunteered as an altar boy, and on Saturdays, I worked as a receptionist for my parish’s monsignor. I also played basketball for and went on overnight field trips with my local Catholic Youth Organization. Parish priests came to my house for dinner on more than one occasion, and I considered them (and still consider them) my friends.

A Hindu pandit, on the other hand, has never passed me the green beans, nor has a Buddhist monk. I wasn’t raised on the banks of the Ganges or at the base of Mt. Fuji. Yes, I did grow up in a town that felt at least half Jewish, and yes, I attended several Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and yes, I broke bread at least half a dozen times with a rabbi, and yes, I would argue that one can’t really read about Christianity without also taking in a fair share of Judaism, but even when I read about Judaism, I usually do so as one who is there to find Catholicism.

(Just as a side note: Maybe the best book I’ve ever read on religion and spirituality explores Judaism through a conversation with the Dalai Lama; it’s called The Jew in the Lotus, and I can’t recommend it enough.)

I guess what I’m wondering is, why? Why my fascination with Catholicism? Is it really as simple as, “Because that’s how I was raised?”

I hope not.

I mean, of course it is — it absolutely is — but I also want it to be more than that.

First, I’m fascinated by the politics of it all. Back in high school, I was introduced to the fact that after Jesus died, his brother James the Just became the leader of the apostles, sharing power with Peter and John (“James and Cephas [Peter] and John, who were acknowledged pillars [of the Jerusalem church]” {Galatians, 2:9}). Then along comes Paul, a former hunter of Christians who never met the living Jesus, proclaiming that he knows Christ’s message better than those men who walked beside Him during His ministry and witnessed Him in His resurrection (“And from those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders (what they actually were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those leaders contributed nothing to me” {Galatians, 2:6}).

The difference between what Paul preached and what the Jerusalem church preached was wide. Paul preached what we now consider the Christian message: “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians, 13:13). But the Jerusalem church must have preached something entirely different.

Remember, the Jerusalem church was a recognized band of fundamentalist revolutionaries whose politically assassinated leader called for a new definition of all that was held holy. James, himself, was enough of a nuisance to be stoned to death by Jerusalem’s high priest, an act that came not only from the early church’s ministry but also from the newly appointed high priest’s desire to make a big splash early in his career (he failed; his rash decision to murder a man whose epithet was “the Just” didn’t play well with the crowd, and the priest was quickly removed from office).

While we don’t know exactly what the Jerusalem church called for, the epistle of James differs from the epistles of Paul in that a) James does not refer to Jesus as the Son of God (he barely refers to Jesus at all), while most of what Paul writes ultimately finds its reasoning in the divine nature of Jesus Christ; and b) Paul writes that a person can be saved by faith alone, while James argues forcefully that “faith without works is…dead” (James 2:26).

These are two major differences. For Paul, Christianity’s validity comes from its revelation via the divine Lord, and its saving grace comes from the believer’s faith in that divinity. For James, however, Christianity is not a faith, per se, but a way of life, revealed by the prophets and embodied in the Lord Jesus Christ. For Paul, Christ is the law. For James, Jesus demonstrated the law.

The history of that argument is fascinating to me, especially since Paul’s argument was victorious and yet James’ argument feels more sound. Add on history’s iconoclastic takedown of all that the layman believes about Yeshua ben Yosef, and it’s easy to understand my fascination with the politics and the history.

Second, I’m fascinated by the theology. Christianity is the only major religion that declares God’s descension to the mortal realm (“And the Word became flesh and lived among us,” John 1:14). Judaism and Islam both declare their truths through the Word of God, as revealed by the prophet(s), but God remains fundamentally separated from the human, an abstract notion when He’s not communicating through a burning bush or an angel.

Hinduism’s concepts of the Atman and Brahman might allow an interpretation that comes close to Christianity’s God in the flesh, but Hinduism (like Shinto) is fundamentally polytheistic, so even if we stretched the metaphor in friendship, it would ultimately have to collapse in foolishness.

Both Taoism and Buddhism are godless religions (in the best sense of that phrase), so while the wisdom of the universe may be obtained there, that wisdom itself is never embodied the way John and Paul tell us that Jesus embodied God’s Word.

So that’s pretty ballsy, from a theological perspective.

Third, I’m fascinated by the message of it. I don’t know what Yeshua ben Yosef actually preached in the backwaters of Galilee in the first century CE, but I know over the next two thousand years, his disciples developed a rich and wise account of how a human ought to live: with faith in the future, hope for those among us, and love in our heart. I can get on board with that.

Fourth, I’m fascinated by the contradictions of its most avid devotees. I’m not talking about right-wing Christians who proclaim that Jesus wanted us all to get wealthy and to hate fags and communists and to arm ourselves against Islamic jihad. I’m talking about actual saints and Popes, the individuals who seem to believe with all of their heart and yet who also seem to stray from the path their Lord revealed to them  (I’m a fiction writer and reader, and thus a sucker for complex characters).

So yes, the reason I read so much about Christianity is because — without a doubt — I was born and raised a Catholic; but it’s also more than that. It’s a fascination with history, theology, morality, and humanity.

And those are topics in which my lack of faith still feels justified.