Hard Travelin’

November 27th, 2006

Amtrak to DavisBack's feeling better this evening; I think doing exactly what my chiropractor tells me to do may, in fact, be the way to go. (Perhaps it's best to overlook the fact that he's also a rock 'n' roll bassist.) I was even able to walk to my son's school and pick him up today -- giving me hope that tomorrow I'll be able to resume my campus visits. It would really bum me out if I have to miss any more days (I had to skip going to USF this morning; couldn't move, pretty much). Each of my campus sojourns has been revelatory: it's one thing to theorize about what today's students are thinking about democracy, quite another to hear it from them directly. The picture embedded in this paragraph was from my first trip, to UC-Davis, via Amtrak. I was, as I always am when on my way to meet new people -- especially young people -- quite terrified. (I felt the same way about meeting young people when I was a young person myself, by the way.) Would my family stories -- each of which, I hope, will relate to democracy or citizenship in some way -- seem irrelevant to them?

The students at Davis -- and the wonderful professor who guided me throughout my visit, Larry Bogad -- turned out, in fact, to be intrigued by my project. And I got my first taste, in the 26 years since I was in college myself, of attending university. O, the pressure! It all came flowing back to me: being on the cusp of adulthood, longing for autonomy but at the same time missing the suffocating-but-comforting role of child. And these professors -- or, sometimes worse, grad students -- barrel on with their facts and theories, heedless of how desperately we are straining just to hold onto each side of the child-adult chasm. The "learning" we get can feel like just so much more weight piled on top as we dig our nails into the opposing cliffs.

Perhaps in the techno-future all college students will have the option to give up a few decades of their lives -- just go directly from their teens into middle age, where it seems to make more sense to read, say, Plato.

But hey, I had fun on campus. Not just at Davis, but in my subsequent visits -- to UC-Santa Cruz (pictured below, from my hotel room), West Valley College, and CSU-East Bay. My three-day stay in Santa Cruz afforded me the additional pleasure of hanging out with my old college roommate, Jonny Fox, a professor there, as well as his wife Helen (a provost) and their two strikingly wonderful children. Unburdening my nascent ideas about my democracy piece to Jonny, I was reminded of why Jonny graduated college with super-duper honors while I didn't graduate at all: Jonny is really, really smart. As Helen and I gnawed at the pomegranates that my wife had packed for my trip, Jonny went into their garage and came back with six or seven books that related to my project.

Santa CruzIt was a moving evening for me. Jonny's family took me in back when I was a lost-soul twenty-something; when his mom Sally, an effervescent nurturer, passed away recently, I felt a part of me pass away as well. As it happens Jonny's dad, Maury Fox, is a distinguished scientist -- and the Foxes, years ago, used to hang out with the large family of a brilliant colleague of his, Gordon Sato. So when -- many years after I'd lived with the Foxes -- I fell in love with Sara Sato, I unwittingly reconnected these two great families. ... On this evening Sara was at home in Berkeley with our son, and I was missing them very much; but in spending this time with Jonny and Helen and their kids, I was with my extended family, and that was good.

How far can our connections extend? We have our family and our friends, and sometimes our friends' families. And then there are the people in our neighborhood, and the other members of our PTA, or church, or antiwar group. And our fellow Californians (say), and Americans (say), and ... From what I've heard from students so far, most of them are sad -- possibly even to the point of hopelessness -- that the connections they hear of among participants in past movements, the passions that their professors sometime try to re-create from the mists of history, are inaccessible to their generation. They seem to feel that history -- at least, of the kind that is made by ordinary citizens -- is over. They see little or nothing out there to engage in. ... But I see tremendous possibilities in them, and among them. Or maybe that's just what I want to see. I don't know yet: I still have many more campus visits to go.

My college advisor, Sheldon Wolin, has pointed out that "theory" derives from the Greek word theoria, or "journey." So I like to think that -- despite my manifold academic shortcomings -- simply by continuing to travel along this road, I am, in some sense, being a theorist. Where will the journey take me tomorrow?

I must stretch!

Entry Filed under: citizenship,let's digress


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