Blog Posts

Egypt January 2011: The Aswan Dam

The hotel shown in my earlier post was close to the Cairo airport, so it was relatively easy for our tour to catch a flight to Aswan, which sits at the base of the Nile River at Egypt’s southernmost tip. The first photo is of me at the Aswan Dam, an enormous piece of construction work undertaken by Egypt’s President in the 1950’s, Gamal Abdel Nasser. The so-called High Dam has succeeded in managing flooding, improving irrigation, providing hydroelectric power and in all these ways contributing to the economy of Egypt, Unfortunately, it also came close to extinguishing the ancient Nubian population around Aswan–farmers, mostly, who suddenly found themselves in an alien technocratic society. The huge man made reservoir resulting from the construction of the High Dam is called Lake Nasser.

In the background to the left a monument to Egyptian-Soviet cooperation in building the dam

The second photo is an instructive map of the African states to the south of Aswan, including, if you look closely, Sudan (a protector of the Nubians), Ethiopia, the Congo, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda.

The third photo shows you the Nasser Memorial (in the distance in photo 1) closer up. The tendency of Middle Eastern countries to play East against West and vice versa (as in Turkey’s current purchase of jets from Russia) was also evident back in the Cold War era when both the United States and Russia were interested in supporting Egypt’s construction of the Aswan Dam and Nasser looked to Russia to fill the necessary monetary gap. This stunning memorial to Soviet-Egyptian cooperation stands as a reminder of that period when, by the way, I was still in high school.

Finally there is this photo of a stern fellow I know nothing whatever about. I call him my “Egyptian buddy.”

A Visit to Egypt January 2011: Just Before the Uprising

The ancient origins of Egypt make it easy to forget the country’s proximity to others in the modern Middle East. You can take a bus to Cairo from Tel Aviv, Israel, or Amman in Jordan. Libya and Tunisia sit on the Mediterranean west of Cairo. My wife Mary and I happened to travel to Egypt from the last week of December in 2010 to early in January 2011. Very shortly after we came home we sat watching on television as Richard Engel sympathetically reported the January 25th Uprising on Tahrir Square in Cairo: its earlier stages, the forcing of the resignation of Hosni Mubarak as president, and at length the sinking of the revolution to a then indeterminate end.

We had watched the pictures of Mubarak smiling triumphantly on street signs as our bus tour of Egypt made its way around Cairo. The planners of our tour chose Tahrir (that is, Liberation) Square in downtown Cairo as the very last place we visited, not of course in anticipation of the Uprising there, but because the Square is the site of the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities where we could review the wonders we had witnessed on our trip–places like the palace of Hatshepsut, a 15th-century BCE female pharaoh, and the Valley of the Kings. (The photo below is of Mary in front of Hatshepsut’s palace.)

Our trip began at a Cairo hotel that welcomed Western tourists, as you will notice below, during the Christian holiday season. From there we flew (for quiet reasons of security) to Aswan, the subject of my next post.

The American Dream and the Ability to Change

The American Dream of achieving success is behind much of our country’s energy and innovation–in medicine for example, and advances in technology. But as I suggested in an earlier post, it is possible so to immerse ourselves in hopes of succeeding that we grow afraid of enjoying the little leisure we have left from work, as if thoughtful enjoyment were a forbidden departure from the relentless pursuit of our goals. So instead of leisurely reflecting on our lives and how satisfying or troubling they have become, we feel compelled to so something more “useful,” like re-checking our email.

But besides encouraging an obsession with work, the American Dream carries the danger of wrongly convincing us that the possibilities of success are limitless: “there’s no end to what you can accomplish,” we say to our children. We fall for the addictive fantasy that our work will open the door to a future of uninterrupted smooth sailing. Tons of work, we imagine, will eventually lead to almost no work and living with no leisure to nothing but leisure. Advertisements for retirement facilities are good at promoting this illusion. They suggest that “peace and quiet and open air,” to borrow a line from West Side Story, “wait for us somewhere”–more specifically, at their place.

Smooth Sailing

If we can ditch self-reflection for the sake of getting our work done, we can also ignore bad news because all that does is upset our unrealistic attachment to the limitless. Never mind reports that an accountant given to precision has raised legal questions about how the debts on so and so’s private jets, multiple homes, Jaguars, yachts and off shore bank accounts can ever be satisfied. Never mind the “bad news” about a billionaire caught paying for sex in a strip mall, the shooting at a local high school, the fatal overdose of an A-student on the night of his college graduation, or the latest suicide of a rock star. To the dreamer these are all just unfortunate exceptions to the prevailing rule of hitting it big.

The great representative of this dreamy American type is Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” So convinced is Willy that his son Biff will make it to the top that he shuts his ears as the young man admits that, in an effort to satisfy his father’s illusions, he has become a chronic thief. I only want “good news,” Willy insists. And yet we understand Willy because often so do we.

Unquestioning belief in the limitless opportunity offered by the American Dream makes it hard to adjust to the changing conditions of the limited lives we actually live. Our talents may be considerable but they are not unbounded, and neither is the uprightness of our behavior. (Willy Loman’s travels as a salesman included a mistress– more of the “bad news” he’d rather not be reminded of.) We may be healthy on the whole but we also have physical weaknesses it is foolish to ignore, as do those who refuse to visit a doctor until their cases get critical. Similarly mythical is the common idea that we must hold onto our homes until death is on our doorstep.

Long-term care, if we are fortunate enough to have it, now consists mostly of a choice between in-home care (aging in place) or moving to what used to be disparagingly called a retirement “home” but now, with the increase in our aging population, is more like a fancy, well equipped (and expensive) retirement palace. The American Dream will be of little help in deciding which of these options makes the most sense. The wisest solutions depend not on some grand preconceptions about what old age should look like, but on the circumstances of each aging individual or couple.

The Imprint of Hamilton College

For many years after I left Hamilton College in Clinton, New York to take up my long career of teaching, scholarship and service at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia I had occasion to be reminded of Hamilton’s imprint on me. Once, just before making our way through Clinton to Buffalo to visit my mother, Mary and I notified Dwight Lindley, my department chair during my time at Hamilton (and probably the one most insistent that I NOT stay on there!), that we would be passing through. Still as generous as when we first arrived at Hamilton years earlier, Dwight threw us a party, and a surprisingly high number of my former English department colleagues showed up to renew our acquaintance. A few years after that I sent Dwight a manuscript of the book about Samuel Taylor Coleridge I had started at Hamilton and at length completed. Protesting truthfully that he was no Coleridge scholar, he nevertheless read the whole of my book, suggesting slight revisions here and there. Soon after that book was accepted for publication, not on the recommendation of Dwight (a scholar of John Stuart Mill) but of a Jesuit scholar of Coleridge, a poet and philosopher born some 34 years earlier than Mill.

Dwight retired some 15 years after I first met him at Hamilton, and he told me then that he and his wife Janie hoped to do some travelling. They did manage a trip to Europe that included Rome and a Mass in Saint Peter’s at the Vatican, and when I asked him on his return how he, an Episcopalian, reacted to that Mass, he replied: “You Roman Catholics know how to put on a show!”

Janie, while in her car after shopping at a Clinton supermarket, experienced a cerebral aneurysm, and after that nothing was the same for her or Dwight. On a spring trip Mary and I took to visit Dwight, he told us of his daily trips on the New York State Thruway in the bitter cold of winter to see to her needs at a Syracuse hospital. He also showed us the bathroom adjustments he had made so Janie could shower without falling when she got home. Then there was the untended garden in the back of the house Janie and Dwight had built for themselves in anticipation of years of retirement that never materialized.

When Janie died, Mary and I made another trip to Clinton and the Episcopalian Church she and Dwight had attended. It was right across Williams Street from the apartment where Mary and I had lived with our two daughters when I taught at Hamilton College some twenty years before. In a conversation I had with Dwight several years after Janie’s death I asked him how he was doing, to which he said: “I’m getting along, but I miss her terribly.” But not one to pass up an opportunity for a joke, he added: “Don’t let anyone talk to you about ‘the golden years’. All the gold goes to the pharmaceutical companies!”

When my younger daughter Margaret came to making her college search, she decided all on her own to attend Hamilton College, graduating four years later with a Phi Beta Kappa key. She now regularly attends the yearly celebration for inductees into Phi Beta Kappa from Saint Joseph’s University, the school I taught at for over 40 years after leaving Hamilton.

Saint Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, at Saint Joseph;s University, the Jesuit University in Philadelphia

My friendship with Dwight Lindley did not end with his death and burial (next to Janie) in the Hamilton College cemetery. Their daughter, Anne, was a nine year old at the time Mary and I lived for over a week with the Lindleys before I started my first term teaching at Hamilton. I remember us seeing Anne ice skate at the Clinton Arena when Dwight and Janie invited us to see her there. When Anne grew up, she married a Spaniard as generous as her father, whom Mary and I met once on a trip we took to Madrid. Anne and Carlos have two daughters whose photos we still see yearly on the Christmas card Anne sends us from Madrid. People important to us die, but our relationships with them don’t.

The Prado, a world famous art gallery in Madrid

Owning My Choice of a Career Path: Hamilton College (1969-72) to Saint Joseph’s University (1972-2016)

Those who have read my previous post about being a Catholic faculty member at Hamilton College, a secular institution despite its Christian foundations, may remember me writing that my practice of Catholicism briefly raised the possibility of my staying on at Hamilton even though it was understood at my hiring that I had no chance of tenure there. This possibility seemed to have been created by some Hamilton students who valued me, some for my teaching and some for the kinship they felt with me by reason of my Sunday appearances at Mass in the Hamilton College Chapel.

Hamilton has a tradition of listening respectfully to student opinions doubtless because of its longstanding mission of encouraging students to think and act on their developing convictions. When a group of them heard I was slated to leave Hamilton fairly soon, they must have told Winton Tolles, the revered and longtime dean of the faculty, that they thought I should stay, a request he must have turned over to the English Department. So the department had one of its senior members, a friend of mine known for his sound judgment, invite me to a round of golf (I was then and remain now a terrible golfer) and as we walked and talked he asked me about the book I was planning to write on the Romantic poet and philosopher, Samuel Taylor Coleridge–more specifically, how far it had advanced. I replied truthfully that, even though I had visited the library of Coleridge manuscripts at the University of Toronto and hoped the book would benefit somewhat from the material in my completed dissertation, my research was still in its initial stages. I added that achieving my purpose in the book, which was to pin down how Coleridge’s understanding of Christianity had changed throughout his career, was a formidable undertaking.

My Office for a time at Hamilton was here

Dean Tolles was apparently unconvinced that my painstaking progress on the Coleridge book kept me from hopping on Hamilton’s tenure track because he phoned me to ask directly whether I wanted to stay on at Hamilton or not. I had by this time spent a miserable Christmas holiday at the Modern Language Association Convention in New York City, where I was unable to find even an interview. I did soon find one at Bryn Mawr College, which the obviously unenthusiastic interviewer seemed compelled to schedule, and another at the new and experimental Livingston College of Rutgers University where my multiple interviewers insisted that I sit on a pillow rather than a chair. When this interview was blessedly over, the department member who had invited me and who agreed with my somewhat rigorously academic point of view, was kind enough to tell me candidly: “you could never be happy here, Ron.” And neither, I suspected, was he.

Meantime my Department chair at Hamilton was careful to tell me that I was welcome to stay there for as long as it took me to find another job. But I was lucky enough to have been offered a position at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and was inclined to accept it for several reasons. I had met my wife Mary in Philadelphia during a one year teaching stint at Saint Joseph’s, where the English department for the most part remembered and valued me. Mary wanted to leave nursing for teaching and, if we stayed at Hamilton, that would have meant back and forth on the New York State Thruway in the middle of winter for education courses at Syracuse University. But most of all, since Mary was from Philadelphia where her parents still lived, if we moved to Philadelphia our two daughters would grow up close to their grandparents. Besides, I didn’t want to be known for years to come at Hamilton as a faculty member who had won favorable treatment because of his religion. So I accepted the job at Saint Joseph’s.

The Barbelin Building at Saint Joseph’s University

One of the students who had advocated for me at Hamilton made it a point to visit my home in Philadelphia early in the fall semester after I had left there just to make sure, as he said, that I was alright! Another, whose marriage to a Kirkland College student in Hamilton’s celebrated “Root Glen” Mary and I attended, and who has since become a highly regarded playwright, briefly took a light administrative job at Saint Joseph’s after his graduation, which he left almost immediately without ever looking me up. I remain unclear about why he did that.

Richard Nelson, once my student at Hamilton, now a distinguished playwright

It would be foolish to say that I have never regretted my decision to leave Hamilton. Hamilton is where I discovered why I wanted to teach college English: because it meant I could encourage still impressionable minds to think independently and share their thoughts with me and each other through their writing and speaking. To this day I believe in this ideal. Educating for a vocation is important, but a liberal education lasts longer.

A few important contacts I had with Hamilton after I left the school, which I shall mention in my next post, allowed me to own the choice of an alternate career path that I have described here.

On Being A Catholic Academic at A Secular Campus: Hamilton College,1969-1972

I was fortunate to have reached my late teens at a time when the Roman Catholic Church in which I grew up climbed out of its protective shell, looked around at American higher education (including graduate schools), and decided it was not that much of a danger to faith after all. Many of my teachers when I was a Jesuit seminarian (1956-65) had their doctoral degrees from Ivy League schools, and Roman Catholics with graduate degrees, laypeople as well as priests, were being hired by secular colleges and universities. But by 1969 a Catholic teaching on a non-Catholic campus, especially a small one like Hamilton College with a long history of choosing only white male Protestants as faculty, was still something of an anomaly.

A Jesuit priest I knew, faced with an oral examination on 18th century literature at Harvard, was asked questions only about Catholic authors until he had to beg the examiners to question him as they would any other Ph.D. candidate. At Hamilton, where I taught from 1969-1972, I faced nothing quite so awkward. The chair of the philosophy department, referring to the common joke about Thomas Aquinas’ questioning how many angels could stand on the head of a pin, graciously complimented the tradition I came from by pointing out that the passage in question in fact dealt with the philosophical problem of the nature of space. So Aquinas was hardly the fool it was so easy to make of him. Similarly endearing, though disparaging of the popular culture of the time, was the remark made to me by the most senior member of English department, who said he could not understand how a religion as historically rich in great music as mine could be assaulting the ears of 1960s congregations with guitar tunes like “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

Despite this graciousness I did notice some discomfort about my religion among my new colleagues. An historian, born Catholic, referred to me and my wife Mary who had registered in the local Catholic parish, as the “practicing Catholics”, as though the “practicing” part was a bit much. No such point was made about the faculty who attended the Presbyterian church in the heart of town or the Episcopalian who dutifully went to church with his family every Sunday right across from our apartment on Williams Street.

The Hamilton College Chapel

There came a time in my stay at Hamilton, however, when my Catholicism became a more important issue than I ever wanted it to be. At the invitation of some Catholic students who attended Mass celebrated by a Catholic chaplain in the Hamilton College Chapel, Mary and I began going to church there some Sundays and on others at our parish in town. I had taught a few of these students in my courses, but I think they all felt an affinity for practically the only Catholic faculty member on campus who made no bones either about his Catholicism or about “practicing” his religion, though without any fanfare.

I had been at Hamilton roughly two years by this time, having finished my dissertation, successfully defended it, and risen in rank from Instructor to Assistant Professor. My department chair, who knew I loved Chaucer, had also temporarily surrendered his claim to that course and handed it over to me. But according to the unwritten terms of my original appointment I had no chance whatever of becoming a permanent tenured member of the Hamilton faculty. That restriction, which applied not just to me but to other young teacher/scholars hired on similar terms, was based on the assumption that we were teaching at so prestigious a school that we were likely to find good jobs elsewhere merely by the fact of having taught for a time at Hamilton. But in the early nineteen seventies the job market for all aspiring faculty members was vastly diminished, a fact that gave rise to the pleasantry that most Ph.D’s were currently driving taxicabs.

How my Catholicism could have resulted in the lifting of my status as a strictly temporary member of the Hamilton faculty will be the subject of my next post.

Honesty in Professional Approval Post 3: Dwight N. Lindley, Hamilton College

By the fall of 1968 I had finished all my work toward a Ph.D in English except for my dissertation, which was still a work in progress. My three year U.S. Steel Fellowship at Case Western Reserve University left me free to take courses and study for two years but in the third required me to teach a basic course in English and to assist a Professor in grading, the latter a dreary task if there ever was one. In November of that third year a faculty member at CWRU who and had been an undergraduate at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York told me of a position just opened there to replace temporarily a senior professor going on sabbatical. He recommended me for the job, which was to begin in January of 1969 and, knowing that Hamilton took a liberal arts education seriously (and still does) I accepted the invitation to interview.

Landing from Cleveland at Oneida County Airport I was greeted by the Chair of Hamilton’s English Department, Dwight N. Lindley. Dwight was a co-editor with Cornell’s Francis Mineka of the later letters of John Stuart Mill and, to make conversation while we drove, he mentioned that his own role in that project was strictly minor. As I was to discover later, the only time Dwight’s honesty was questionable was when he spoke too modestly of his own accomplishments,

Mineka/Lindley Letters of Mill

My interview was at Dwight’s home on Fountain Street in Clinton. With only two or three other English Department members present, I sensed that the job was mine if I chose to take it. Dwight was the last one to put up the pretense of a formal “meeting” when the outcome had effectively been decided already. I took the job then and there and what followed was a couple rounds of Dwight’s s best Scotch, then a delicious dinner artfully prepared by his wife, Janie.

Dwight and Janie were generous people. Shortly after my return to Cleveland I had a letter from Dwight asking me what books were absolutely necessary to continue my work on my dissertation and promising to have them purchased by the library if they weren’t already there. They were to be available to me for as long as I needed them once I arrived at Hamilton in January. They were.

When my wife Mary and I did arrive from Cleveland in our Volkswagen bug, we discovered that Allied Van Lines had placed our student sized load of furniture in the back of the truck and could not deliver it until several days after the promised date. Dwight and Janie immediately put us up, told us not to fret about the length of our stay, and fed us for over a week as though we were part of the family.

Hamilton College, though considerably changed in the nearly 50 years since I taught there, remains centered on teaching students to speak and write effectively and to think independently while learning from each other. These goals accorded well with Dwight Lindley’s scholarly focus on John Stuart Mill, whose best known essay is “On Liberty.” Dwight’s desk at home was generally piled with papers from the Freshman English course he considered to be the core of all his teaching. He spent more of his time making his honest and careful way through these papers than on any of his many professorial tasks. More than any college English teacher I have ever known, Dwight fully understood that students, by sharing their ideas through writing, can discover what they as individuals actually think as opposed to the tired views they pick up from the social majority. Slighting student opportunities to do that will not produce the genuine liberty of differing individual thought on which, Mill argues, a democracy depends for its continued existence. All that gets students is the lingo that happens to be the intellectual currency of the times they live in. (For that reason I was never happy about papers ending with the certainty that their proposed thesis would “make the world a better place.”)

I was about to turn 30 when I met Dwight Lindley; he was 50. He had been an army sergeant major in World War II, blowing up bridges as he once told me. He had high blood pressure, or so I suspected, and was easily “irritated,” especially by sloppy thinkers set on overthrowing the existing order of things, of which there were a great many in the later 1960’s and early 1970’s. He once pushed his insistence on common sense, straightforwardness and forcefulness of opinion so far as to shout uncivilly at colleague during a faculty meeting: “that’s ridiculous!”

Kirkland, an experimental college then attached to Hamilton, once advanced an argument for substituting final grades with written faculty evaluations of each student. Dwight was “irritated,” just as he would have been by letters evaluating faculty members that slid over their possible limitations. I think this rigorous honesty was due to his fear of losing a hold on reality. If you are about to blow up a bridge, you had better not miss a person on your side of the war being on it. Dwight religiously picked up the daily paper before he drove from his home in Clinton up the hill to his Hamilton office. And when much later he was close to dying, he religiously called down from his room to the desk attendant to make sure he had the day, the hour and the minute entirely correct. Though I never laid eyes on a letter he wrote evaluating me, I was always confident that he would be fair while avoiding overstatements of my worth. When exaggerated approval seems to be the order of the day, as it does now, our professions may be in for some trouble.