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Category: articles

Farther Away from Jonathan Franzen (part 1)

– Day 3 –

2013-10-19 11.21.28 The view from Arthur’s Seat, October, 2013

As a few of you might already know, I’ve just gotten back from a whirlwind trip to UK. As I nursed this coffee and rubbed my bleary eyes this morning at the respectably normal hour of 8:32, I accepted with satisfaction that I am officially (more or less) completely over jet lag, and committed to rejoining Life as I Know it.

Saying I “visited the UK” feels a bit misleading. Actually, saying that I had been visiting anywhere at all feels a bit strange. We have been slammed in work all summer, set back after set back taking us down a myriad of foundational roads we had perhaps naively assumed would have already been constructed prior to our arrival. That old “There’s a hole in my bucket” song comes to mind as I write this (maybe compounded with Beethoven’s ninth?). Compounded with huge changes in my personal life, two moves, a bike accident and arguably the most colds I’ve had in my life (that’s what working in a hospital will get you!): it’s been a crazy year.

I feel as though I’ve had to shelve a lot of my personal thoughts to keep things together and stay focused. I’ve thrown myself into work with a vengeance and spent as much of the balance as I can outside, bike riding or swimming to take my mind off things (water heals all wounds). As we passed in our final draft report two weeks ago, I decided to ask for the Friday off to recuperate. I realized a few hours later that I needed more than a long weekend, and the next day (thanks to my incredible boss) I was able to take the following week off instead – and four days later I was in Scotland.


Reading Farther Away, August, 2013

Staring at my bookshelf this morning (I spend a lot of time staring at my bookshelf), I realized that I had just experience what Franzen was trying to achieve during his terrifically farther, more exotic trip. The title essay of Jonathan Franzen’s most recently published collection of non-fiction essays, Farther Away, is just over 40 pages long (originally published here in the New Yorker, in April, 2011). I have an uncomfortable relationship with Franzen, he’s the kind of author that gets under your skin, challenges you and makes you feel a bit uncomfortable. I’ve read both Freedom and The Corrections and loved them most for the discussions I was able to have afterwards. The bright blue hardcover dust jacket is simple, the only diagram instructions for folding  piece of paper into a boat, and the essays span from personal reflection, to activist essays on the plight of endangered birds and the panda.

In Farther Away, Franzen takes a similarly prompted whirlwind trip to Mas À Fuera, a remote, tiny island (44 km sq) located about 750km off the coast of Chile. It’s name literally means “farthest away;” the closest island is Robinson Crusoe’s Island, where the true story inspiration behind the shipwrecked survivor tale actually took place. Franzen sets the stage by describing his ridiculous trek to reach this far flung land and the abysmal weather and challenges he faced to achieve total isolation and a break from his own personal life. Effectively, this was a big part of what I wanted to do by going on my own trip. I needed to physically assert the distance I’ve been feeling with my current life, and to emotionally, professionally and psychologically completely unplug: to quite literally weather the storm. Unlike Franzen, I couldn’t commission a boat to take me 750km off the coast of Latin America, I was also physically exhausted and low on survival gear.

I needed to go somewhere where people would speak English, where my credit cards would work and where I would feel safe, but also a place where I could be afforded the luxury of knowing someone well enough I could be silent with them. Someone once told me that Rilke wrote a lover’s most important duty to another is to defend their solitude. I was fortunate enough to have a good friend in Scotland who would host me. There was no need for being “out there,” every day, being challenged by strangers and having my loneliness invaded. By being with someone with whom I could say anything, I was able instead to say nothing at all. I spent at least five hours outside everyday just walking. Sometimes I would listen to music, but more often than not I would just walk. There was physical distance and a mental grappling that needed time and physical space, wide open spaces, to process everything that has been going on over the past year. I didn’t even need to consciously think about it, I just needed to give it time to percolate. To have one other person there, a singular familiar lens with whom you can look back and reflect on your life, provide updates to, this is also helpful on crafting your own perspective. These self-made stories we tell to our old friends are effectively the tenuous threads that string our lives together through time. Franzen captured the need for these communiqués through his relationship with David Foster Wallace:

The curious thing about David’s fiction, though, is how recognized and comforted how loved, his most devoted readers feel when reading it. To the extent each of us is stranded on his or her own existential island…we gratefully seized in each new dispatch from that farthest away island which was David…fiction is a solution, the best solution, to the problem of existential solitude.

Edinburgh was the opportunity  to provide my own dispatches and updates to and from my life from a distance, to be forced to reflect back and articulate about my own island, to physically manifest this solitude and journey through seven leagues of darkness to daylight.

Please note, for readability posts this month are capped at 1000 words.

Continued tomorrow.

 Edinburgh, October, 2013

2013-10-19 11.21.05


The unsung exploit of the philosopher kings

Philosophy lovers, prepare to be outraged.

I’ve been trying to stay focused on my job search, but this article, published November 5 in the Atlantic caught my attention and momentarily derailed me back to WordPress (Should Science Majors pay less than Arts Majors?). The article briefly outlines a proposal by the state of Florida: devine the subjects most likely to result in growing the economy, and then encourage enrolment in these fields based on lower tuition rates:

Students would get discounts for studying topics thought to be in high demand among Florida employers. Those would likely include science, technology, engineering, and math, among others. But Art History? Gender Studies? Classics? Sorry, but the fates are cruel. Unless a university could show that local companies were clamouring to hire humanities students, those undergrads would have to pay more for their diploma… The hope appears to be that by keeping certain degrees cheaper than others, the state can lure students into fields where it needs more talent.

Tax dollars are scarce, and the public deserves the best possible return from its investment in education. That means spending more generously on the students who are most likely to help grow Florida’s economy once they graduate. Second, he argued that too few young people consider their career prospects carefully when picking a major. “The tuition differential will increase the probability that there will be some introspection about careers and livelihoods,” he said.

My opinion of higher education has changed drastically over the past decade. I was strongly encouraged to pursue sciences and medicine. A woman in science, one who liked math – was good at math even, was touted to be rare. I was assured opportunities would be there for me, that doors would be open. I pursued a program in bio-chemistry, intending to go into pharmacy or medicine after my five-year undergraduate was complete.

I did not consider my job prospects outside of medicine after my degree. Not succeeding in those fields was not an option I ever even imagined; not liking my program or the work I would be doing was something else that had never crossed my mind. My first year was hard. We had between 39 and 42 hours of scheduled class or labs a week. Then we had hundreds of pages of technical reading, pages of practice problems for calculus and statistics and lab-reports for three or four lab sessions (normally taking between 6-10 hours each). Half of the first year was anticipated to fail out.

At times things were interesting, at times I wanted to learn more, but more over what I remember is the heavy pull of the lab, the drab whitenesss, the enormous, faceless classes the unforgiving fatigue. Walking across the empty barren parking-lots at 8am with Kyle, also another renegade jaded scientist/secret lover of foreign films, ice crystals forming in our insulated cups during the ten minute trek to lecture. Our friends snuggly tucked in their cozy beds, visions of Beowolf dancing in their heads.

In my “spare” time, in order to try to prep for med school applications, I signed up to volunteer for emergency work with the local Red Cross. On the way home from one of our first orientation sessions, I took the bus with another Biochemistry student, well into his Masters. We chatted. He asked me how my program was going, empathized with me over physics, laughed over the crazy bell curves and then in all seriousness confronted me if I liked it or not: “Do you like the labs?” he asked, pointedly. I nodded vaguely, shrugging, trying to say first year was always hard. He shook his head: “Yes, first year is hard, but it leads to more of the same. Next year you will have 6 hour labs, sometimes longer. If you screw up an experiment, you will be there all night. And when you are done, what will you do? More experiments.” His faint French accent allowed him to be blunt while also appearing unassuming. He wished me luck. I nodded, and thanked him, mullin over his words in my head for months. Apparently 80% of biochemistry students that graduate end up employed in the petroleum industry.

I don’t want to say that you don’t work hard in humanities. What I do want to say is that very very few 17 year olds are really in a position to look ahead into the realities of their future. They are prone to simply taking the advice of their parents, their teachers and their peers. It is easy to commit years and thousands of dollars on a path to a destination where you didn’t fully read the brochure. This type of thinking and examination needs time – the type of time most highschool students, desperate to get into the right program at the right school don’t have. The old adage of investment in a good university = an investment in your future is no longer proving as true as it once was, and is not a course to jump into head first before assessing the depth of the water. The educational journey is incredibly important. However university is not the only option for education, nor the best.

I don’t necessarily agree that arts degrees should cost more, but I think that the system is in desperate need for reform. Capping programs would improve their quality and usefulness. Maybe funding and seats could simply remain more open for programs in higher demand. We could train more doctors. That being said, not everyone can be a pipe fitter or a hydraulic engineer, but I think that is article starts to examine some difficult questions.

Like, if Canada was going to devote 10 million dollars a year to it’s olympic team and we had 900 people are interested in gymnastics, 90 people interested in hockey and 10 people interested the biathalon, how do we break down our Olympic budget? Gymnasts are cheaper and easier to coach, but maybe the might considerably less opportunity to win. Should everyone be allowed to be a gymnast? We need more hockey players and they will doubtlessly go on to perform well…do they need more per player support? What about our biathaletes? What if we only have six biathaletes but they are incredible, best in the world, but they still need their own course. Should their program receive equal funding? Should each olympian get equal funding?

Science programs require more money to run, more lab time, supplies, more face-to-face lectures, more marking – is it fair to recoup these costs by increasing their class sizes? Or raising their tuition? If ultimately petroleum engineers will contribute more back to our economy and tax base due to their higher salaries should they then have to pay more or less for their training? Should they be entitled to better training if their jobs are in higher demand? If most of the gymnasts are never going to the olympics anyway, why not just devote some of this funding to other leisure activities?

This was a heated article for me to read – and for many of my friends. There is no shortage of student debt for twenty- and thirty year olds. I don’t necessarily think that our academic pursuits costing more would let us change our opinion about them, but I would argue that a paradigm shift in how we perceive university education would be helpful. There is so much pressure on students right now to go to university to show that “they’re smart” or for “personal development” yet their are so many amazing ways to develop yourself. There also seems to be a huge stigma against going to college – which provides amazing opportunities for a lot of young people, and an excellent avenue into the working world. Maybe part of the solution to the underemployment/student debt equation is to (in part) allow academia to retreat back into it’s Ivory Tower. While education should be accessible to everyone, does it necessarily need to remain a requirement for entry into society? The huge pressures and health issues that are prevalent in many university students are also surely arising out of (mis)conceptions of future career prospects and forcing many people to conform into a system that might not be right for them.

There also seems to be a shift (especially in BC, Ontario and Australia) to move towards self-funding universities…in part by attracting foreign students (who pay an unsubsidized, much higher tuition). My question is this, why not attempt to shift more resources into attracting more members of our aging demographic? If these “leisure studies” (as quoted in the article) are believed to be pursuits for the affluent and bourgeoisie why are young people being exploited and (in part) deluded into thinking these are valid professional paths into the working world, and unfounded entitlement claims to non-existing jobs.

It isn’t that they aren’t legitimate jobs within academia, it is that there are gross misconceptions surrounding how easy and accessible these career paths are.

This was a very emotional piece for me to read, I would love to hear any reactions you have to the article.