It’s the pose my son Ethan makes when we have run out of "good" cereals and he's imploring me to buy something better (i.e. something with the word Frosted on the package). It’s the look I see in the eyes of a student who comes to visit me—for the first time—the week grades are due. It’s the tone Gabie adopts when he wants to get out of cleaning the bathroom because the chore is the plague of his 7-year-old life. It’s the feeling I experience often, when I find myself at the mercy of strangers because I lack enough knowledge to solve my own problems. It’s the state of absolute supplication at the heart of a painting I saw last week on campus (here’s the exhibit link). The painting is mostly about Gypsy beggars and a little bit about the rest of us.
In Burgess’ painting Licensing the Beggars in Spain, a laundry pile of Gypsies lines up in front of a magistrate to beg. They beg for the very right to beg. If they gain the magistrate’s favor, he will grant them each a license to beg on the streets of Sevilla, where the will kneel, once again, at the mercy of passersby willing to give them food or money. The sympathetic-looking magistrate sits calmly in his high-backed chair, his legs crossed casually over a small patch of rug. He holds a pen in one hand and a license in the other, but really, he holds the lives of the Gypsies in his hands and he knows it. The Gypsies know it too. The old man in front bows his head, clutches a crucifix and touches a wrinkled hand to his chest in a gesture of deference. A stumbling cliché, he wears ratty clothing, leans on a crutch for support and bends a crippled leg behind him. Even his dog (my favorite detail) has perfected the begging routine. The most pitiful of the group is the young girl to the side of the blind Gypsy. She wears a haunting expression. She tucks her chin and points her morose, oversized eyes straight at the man with all the power. She holds her tambourine as if it’s a shield over her chest, a sign of her vulnerability and a reminder of the paucity, the emptiness, the lack that brings them all here.
When I lived in Spain many years ago, our apartment overlooked a large undeveloped field of dirt hills and pits full of discarded building materials. Spread out all over this field, in clusters of tin and cardboard shacks, was a Gypsy camp. At the time, I didn’t understand the history of the Gypsies (or Gitanos as the Spaniards call them) or the reasons for their low social status. I had no idea why they suffered oppression and indigence. I was just afraid of them. To me, they were panhandlers. They were thieves. They were stealers of naughty children (or so my brothers told me when I was being naughty). They were very different from the Spanish culture all around them in their language, their dress, their customs. It wasn’t until the Fourth of July that year—when my brother Steve and I lit sparklers and celebrated our displaced national holiday by dancing and singing in the field below our apartment—that I saw a few Gypsies watching us and I realized we had something in common. We were both crazy foreigners. But my family would be going back home to the U.S. soon. The Gypsies had no real home. They had been treated as crazy foreigners for hundreds of years.
The other thing I have in common with the Gypsies is that I often find myself, by virtue of things I lack, totally at the mercy of forces I don’t understand and can’t control. Forces that have the power to squash me like a bug, should they choose. Forces that often refuse to listen to my appeals. Forces that control essential parts of my life, like my ability to teach or communicate, or write. I’m talking about the sometimes benevolent, sometimes cruel forces of technology.
The more I rely on technology, the more it toys with me and screws up my life. My votive offerings to the e-gods must displease them (not enough wailing? maybe I’m charring the wrong kind of extension cords?) because I continually face frustrating messes when my computer at home or the media tech podiums in my classrooms fail to do even basic functions like read email, play a video clip, or—as was the case the first three class periods this semester—allow me to OPEN anything. This sends me to the brink of insanity and despair on a regular basis. I hate that I don’t know enough about computers to save myself. And it’s not that I’m a Luddite. I once was the “go to guy” in my office for all things computer-related. But this was back when it was possible that a few DOS commands and a good memory for WordPerfect function keys could make you look like a genius. The high-tech world has long since passed me by and I have long since plummeted to total techno dorkitude.
So last week I was having problems accessing my email. I tried to fix the problems myself; I made things worse. I tried to get assistance from the folks at MSN; they responded with, of course, emails I couldn’t access. I considered calling one of my three brilliant brothers who make their livings as computer nerds, but I really hate doing that. I hate it for the same reason I don’t call my other brother who’s a nurse each time someone in my family gets sick. If I started bugging them with my problems, I would be bugging them every single day, probably multiple times a day, for the rest of my life.
Luckily, I work for a university who hires dedicated Computer Support Reps (CSRs) for each department. I arranged to take my laptop in for them to fix, even though—and I was reminded of this several times—it’s not a university laptop and they technically weren’t supposed to touch it so they were doing me a huge favor and I let them know I really, really appreciated it and this was about the point where I began thinking of the Burgess painting because I felt like a beggar even though I was twice the age of these CSRs and had earned twice their degrees, but possessed—and this was all that mattered—a fraction of their computer expertise. I begged for an exception to their rules because I use my laptop for everything teaching-related and the lovely iMac assigned to me by the university never gives me any grief which could be because I use it only once a week and the other six days, it sits there on my desk, a very ergonomic, very pricey, very hibernating piece of office decor.
So my illicit laptop and I spent over an hour at the mercy of a CSR who was nice and obviously knew a lot about computers and could multi-task three phone calls, carry on a conversation with a coworker, hum along with the music playing in the background, and fiddle with my computer all at once. He was clearly fluent in Tech-ish, a language in which I know the equivalent of the following tourist phrases: “How much for the postcard please?” and “Thank you point me to the American Consulate.” The CSR cleaned up my superfluous files, he looked for ways to increase my processor speed, he fixed the toolbar Nora had flipped around six months ago but I hadn’t known how to reset, he downloaded a slew of updates. And he was friendly the entire time he failed to solve my problem and, in fact, still friendly when he accidentally deleted my entire suite of Microsoft programs and couldn’t reload them because it wasn’t a university laptop (aargh!) and even more friendly when he sent me on my way with a “Good luck finding the 5-year-old disks for those programs and I’ll just write this ticket up as ‘resolved’ unless you call us back.”
My classroom computer was a whole other issue and I finally gave up hope that the tech podium would ever cooperate (since the IT guys were very patient but every time they tried to recreate my problems, there were no problems and it became clear to me that the technology gods just have it in for me) so I switched my classes next door where so far the podium has worked beautifully—knock on polycarbonate—and the only thing I have to contend with is the big blue letter “J” someone has written in the middle of the white pull-down screen in permanent ink that will apparently feature in every video clip and slide I show this semester like a graffiti watermark.
Still free of the distracting nuisance of easily-accessed-email, I’ve had a few days to wax philosophical about things and I have come up with the following: When I find myself banging my head, or my tambourine if I have one handy, against the keyboard, it is only a reminder that life is full of opportunities for greater humility. This is not a bad thing. We all have to depend upon each other. Now I await help from higher-leveled CSRs who have promised to load some new software on my undocumented laptop when it becomes available for purchase “in a few weeks.” In the meantime, I’ll muddle through. If I knew everything and could solve all my own problems, I’d develop hubris and then the gods would have to punish me anyway because I've read my Greek tragedies and haven't forgotten that when Oedipus thought he knew everything, that’s when his hard drive crashed.
I also can’t leave the Burgess painting behind without pointing out the obvious religious metaphor. Aren’t we all a bit blind and lame and homeless? How often do we beg forgiveness of each other and of God for our mistakes and infirmities? Probably not often enough, but in this sense we are spiritual Gypsies. We lack the knowledge and power to save ourselves. In the painting, a statue of the Virgin Mary stands in a niche behind the line of beggars, her hands crossed over her heart. For many (and especially my Spanish friends), she is an intercessor, one who directs our pleas to a higher power. Mary doesn’t play as large a role in my own religion, but she is still a beautiful symbol of compassion, mercy and grace. We need all these things, all of the time. And how do we know we need these things unless we’re continuously brought to the floor?