The purposeful path is nice, but the fringes will delight

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By Ramnath Subramanian / Special to the Times

POSTED:   12/26/2013 12:00:00 AM MST

 

When a page turns, there is a new story, or a new chapter to an old story. The charm and challenge in life is to make the story, be it old or new, count for something.

My father used to tell me that before a man walks a mile he should ask himself what he expects to find on the road. This is important, for a journey of purpose will take that man five miles, not one. Purpose brings on discovery, which in turn makes the man “strong in will to strive, to seek, to find.” Thus is life lengthened and enriched.

As a page in the calendar gets ready to turn to bring us to a new year, I remember my father’s wisdom, for it has served me well on many occasions, and I resolve, where new journeys begin, to embrace it to the fullest.

The shortest distance between points A and B is a straight line as long as destination is our focus. What if we shift that focus to embrace the journey itself? Then does the curve and all the tributaries of pathways that define it take on significance and cast the straight path into penury.

When I was teaching, I started each morning by asking myself this question: “Where am I going today, and what do I expect to find on the road?” Odd as it may seem, I would get to school well ahead of the starting bell, close the classroom door behind me, and meditate on this question.

Can an encounter with Leonardo da Vinci in a poem lead us, courtesy of a detour, to a discussion of art, architecture and mathematics? The answer is “yes,” of course, because the Renaissance man could design a canal and delve into a mathematical problem just as easily as he could paint a fresco.

A poem itself is petaled in many directions, but with foresight and vision, we can turn it into a cathedral of magnificence or a machine of elegant complexity.

Can a day’s path be changed because a turtle appears on our doorstep with rain on its back, or an injured dove looks for succor from inside a tuft of tall grass in the yard? Most certainly, and just as surely as a child’s question can change the planned trajectory of a lesson towards new turf.

Peter Matthiessen went in search of the snow leopard in the Dolpo region of the Tibetan Plateau in the Himalayas. He did not find the snow leopard but he discovered diverse treasures along the way.

A man who travels with a purpose has a place to go to, but he is also willing to set his compass towards destinations that are not marked on the map.

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” asked Andrea del Sarto in Browning’s poem by that name.

One can proceed cautiously between the here and now, where “all is silver-gray, placid and perfect,” to catch the light just so, at just such and such an angle, or run around the corner to a single delight perched in the mouth of serendipity, to change the climate of the place and the heart.

Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote that “there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take, no matter where it is going.” In other words, the very idea of travel is imbued with romance when we allow discovery to set new destinations.

As so often happens, a walk to the lotus pond becomes distracted by a girl wearing jasmine in her hair.

The great art of living is in knowing the many paths that intersect with the main road, and being prepared for all the ones that might connect by happenstance and surprise.

Ramnath Subramanian, a retired public-school teacher, writes for the El Paso Times on educational topics. Email address: marianramm@yahoo.com

The stranger, the mistletoe girl, and a surprise envelope

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By Ramnath Subramanian / Special to the El Paso Times

POSTED:   12/19/2013 12:00:00 AM MST

 

The young girl set up her table in the park. She then reached into a large bag and took out several Christmas ornaments that she had crafted from mistletoe cut from her uncle’s farm.

The day held promise, and she sported a smile full of white teeth as she attached a homemade sign advertising her wares to the front of the table.

“Whatever money I make will help me get a set of braces,” she told herself.

Every so often she looked inside the can that sat at the edge of the table and inspected its contents.

“The lunch hour will bring more customers,” she told herself.

That was the case, but the afternoon also brought a surprise in the form of a security guard.

“Young lady,” said the guard, in a gruff and authoritarian voice, “do you have a permit to be selling things in the park?”

The girl was taken aback. “No, sir,” she replied.

“I must ask you to move on, then. City ordinance says you can’t be here.”

Just at this juncture, a robust voice introduced a new man to the scene.

The man’s size, clothing, and white beard gave him an avuncular look. In a booming voice, the man spoke as though he was speaking for himself and the guard. “What lovely ornaments. Officer, can’t you let her stay? No, I suppose not. You must do your job, and I must do mine.”

The man then turned to the girl and said, “Let me take a picture of you. A big smile, if you will … The Mistletoe Girl. And I know your story already. And here’s an envelope for you. A small present. Open it on Christmas Eve.”

The guard had surprised the girl when he burst upon the scene, and now the sudden appearance of the jolly old man, his one-sided conversation, and equally sudden exit convinced her that the day had gone awry.

“What an odd fellow,” she said to herself. “I wonder why he took a picture. And what’s in the envelope?”

The girl’s reverie was broken by the guard’s voice. “C’mon, c’mon. Got to get moving. I haven’t got all day.”

The Christmas tree in the girl’s house was a real one; it had been cut from her uncle’s farm. At its base lay a small arrangement of presents, most of them recognizable by their shapes. One was a mystery: the envelope.

On Christmas Eve when it was time to open presents, the girl could barely contain her excitement. She also braced herself for potential disappointment. After all, the man was a stranger, and most definitely on the eccentric side.

“Why, it’s a newsletter,” said the mother, as the girl pulled out a sheet of paper from the envelope and unfolded it. “And look, your picture is on the front.”

“That’s the picture the man took of me in the park,” the girl said.

The father read the story. It was all about his daughter: a short, biographical sketch that toward the end introduced the mistletoe ornaments and the need for the girl to raise money to buy braces.

Attached to the newsletter was a handwritten note. It read: “I have received advance orders from my readers for your mistletoe ornaments. I will let you know how many in a future newsletter. My reindeers and I will take care of next year’s delivery. Payments have been deposited in a bank account established in your name. Merry Christmas, Santa.”

The girl flung her arms first around her mother, then her father, and then her uncle, and gave each a hearty hug. “It’s going to be an awesome Christmas,” she said, showing a flash of teeth that soon would have braces on them. After a pause she mused: “I wonder how the newsletter got inside the envelope.”

Ramnath Subramanian is a retired public-school teacher. E-mail address: marianramm@yahoo.com

Education has many doors of entry, but passion is key

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By Ramnath Subramanian / Special to the El Paso Times

Posted: 12/12/2013 12:00:00 AM MST

Once I entered college, I never took any classes in English literature. In the Indian system of education, one chose one’s major at the start, and mine was physics. Consequently, my collegiate years were devoted entirely to physics, mathematics, and statistics.

Some people are surprised to discover this piece of information about me. “Your columns are so full of literary allusions that I assumed your schooling was in literature,” a friend said to me once. “Besides, you’ve had several books of poetry published. That does not fit in with the trajectory of a physicist.”

“I am self-taught in English literature,” I said. “However, I cannot discount the delectable immersion in fiction and poetry that I received during my high-school years. I could quote Emerson’s ‘Brahma’ just as readily as Browning’s ‘Andrea del Sarto.'”

The seeds of English literature were so deeply planted in me at an early age that even as I tackled the Carnot Cycle and Coulomb’s Law in college, I felt the compulsion, in whatever time there was left, to read books that led me dancingly from Apollinaire to Zola.

It was while I was sojourning in Germany and teaching astronomy for the international division of the University of Chicago that a registrar, who was well versed in liberal arts, half-jokingly suggested that I should take the GRE literature In English test.

This appealed to me for a good score on the test would point to mastery of the subject matter emphasized in the undergraduate curricula of English literature.

“It would earn you college-level credits, as well,” the registrar added, sweetening the idea.

I bring up these matters merely to point out that while a lecture on “Lycidas” delivered by a professor at Yale can be illuminating, it is not necessary for the understanding and appreciation of this pastoral elegy by Milton.

I have read this poem several dozen times, in diverse moods and milieu, and each time I have gathered new insights and new appreciation. Were I but a formal, degree-seeking student, it is possible I would have set “Lycidas” aside soon after the professor had rendered a grade.

Ironically, that which we are passionate about in non-materialistic terms, yields material benefits, if material be counted by the ambit of the mind.

For the record, I must state that I passed the GRE test with flying colors.

We may enter education through many doors, and more importantly, we may spin that education into the finest yarn and most regal of clothing, as long as what we take fancy to and our passion are walking side by side.

I have long held the belief that a primary and important goal of education is to get students enthused about what they are learning. There can be no doubt that a student who discovers magic in the subject he is attending to, will build a school for himself and become its most distinguished teacher.

A good education can land one in a great job and lead to a sanguine lifestyle, but it has another function and usefulness that is rarely talked about: to quote Thomas Fuller, “Learning makes a man fit company for himself.”

A student of mine who became an accomplished cellist once told me that she was most grateful for music for it was like a friend to her. “Whenever I feel sad or things are not going my way, I go to my room and play the cello. It smooths out the rough edges and brings harmony.”

I, too, found harmony in literary peregrinations. Many were the times when turning the pages of a trusted book or revisiting a poem of rare elegance and beauty took me to a place that was brisk with joy and rejuvenating powers.

Ramnath Subramanian, a retired public-school teacher, writes for the El Paso Times on educational topics. E-mail address: marianramm@yahoo.com

The word of the year proves we can’t help ourselfies

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By Ramnath Subramanian / Special to the El Paso Times

Posted: 12/05/2013 12:00:00 AM MST

The word of the year, according to researchers at the Oxford English Dictionary, is “selfie.” Prodigious use of the new word gave it the crown. The announcement says two things about our contemporary culture: it is narcissistic; and, it is superficial.

For those who are living in the shadows of social media — I happily count myself in that population — a “selfie” is a picture one takes of oneself, usually with a cell phone, and then posts on Internet sites for sharing.

So popular is this sport that even the pope has succumbed to its allure.

A “selfie” can create a buzz around what one is wearing — a smile or a new hat — or what one is not wearing. New technology has made it possible for people to share their puerile and reckless ways. Demure demurs and takes to a path of fashionable defiance.

A quick lean away from the lens, a click, and something pedestrian or tawdry gains currency.

In fact, the more that something leans toward the outrageous or the sensational, the greater the odds that the posting will go viral, and perhaps even land on the evening news.

All of this could be dismissed as being quite silly were it not for the fact that the cultural trend steeped in the empty self has implications for society.

Add to the idea of “selfie” miles and miles of inane text, and a condition is created wherein people no longer hear words that curve upward.

Then does the rose lose all its beauty to common color and picayune phrase.

In class, as in other places, teens wait tensely for the small tinkling sound announcing the arrival of some new posting on the tiny screen of their cell phones.

This triviality is so burdened with expectation that a youngster would forget his food, ignore his girlfriend, and even walk directly into traffic to receive it.

Adults are not immune to this tech disease.

While driving an automobile, a driver may keep one eye on the phone in his lap to see if something new got added to a string of conversation. The more daring will compose a short text message on the go.

Clearly, “selfie” stands for something that powers the modern mind to seek a new landscape for human relations, and to adopt new risks for the journey. It is more than a word.

Like the sirens, it is an enchantress that will draw social-media sailors to shipwreck on fuliginous shores.

“Selfie” is a symbol for a world in which no one notices the length of a politician’s nose or the dexterity of the devil’s hand. Where a small rectangular screen becomes raison d’etre, the earth loses its curvature. In the clutter and cacophony of text, Homer is lost. Swift is swiftly denied, because no one cares for or understands satire. And the Brooklyn Bridge — “O harp and altar, of the fury fused” — loses mettle and might to downcast eyes.

From inside a million-dollar home in America’s suburbia, a young and beautiful woman puts out daily vlogs about nothings: the clothes she is wearing, the haul from a supermarket, details about dinner at a fancy restaurant. Her channel has more than a million subscribers.

On the other hand, a talented teacher who is creating science and math videos struggles to get a few dozen subscribers.

At a university, organizers found it difficult to fill the seats for a lecture on physics delivered by a Nobel-prize winner. Had a Kardashian been brought on, the riot police would have been called to keep the crowds at bay.

“The age demanded an image for its accelerated grimace.” We got it in the form of a word: Selfie.

Ramnath Subramanian, a retired public-school teacher, writes for the El Paso Times on educational topics. E-mail address: marianramm@yahoo.com