Summer 1997, Bethlehem, PA. I went up to Moravian College to work as a teaching assistant for the Center for Academic Achievement, an offshoot of the Center for Talented Youth run out of Johns Hopkins.
I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into.
I knew that I was going to be the assistant to a more seasoned teacher. The course was Public Speaking. The audience was gifted junior high school students.
The more seasoned teacher was Nathaniel Cordova, a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland. He was known as “Nacho.”
I found out that Nacho died this past Monday. It has hit me pretty hard. Nacho had an enviable perspective on life and death, as recounted by Darrel Enck-Wanzer. He was ordained into the Order of Interbeing, and so had many variations on the theme “we are connected in death, in this endless cycle of being and becoming and hopefully transformation, always not knowing.” Although I am shaken by grief, I want to honor Nacho by dwelling on a few memories and observations in the hope that I can move my own sorrow, and perhaps others’ sorrows, into something more transformative.
Of course it is times like these that the weaknesses of pre-digital recollection make themselves manifest. I wish–and I think a lot of people probably wish–that Nacho memories could be bottled up to be endlessly relooped. But, as I think Nacho would have been the first to say, memory doesn’t work that way (even with digital preservation) and we have to relish the fragments we have. So here are a few fragments from that summer of 1997…
Nacho used to sing lullabies and love songs in Spanish during a mandatory nap time we instituted in the class, and the students loved it. This is hard to explain, but it is my favorite memory of Nacho. This three week camp was intense. We would be in the classroom 8 hours a day, then the students would have some organized activity, and then they would stay up most of the night talking to their roommates. They were always tired. After about a week, I think Nacho sensed this waning energy in the early afternoon. He would have them lay down in the classroom. We turned out the lights. Half the time I joined the students and half the time I watched Nacho. He would usually begin by telling a story. I’m pretty sure the story always started the same way: “you are in a green field, and everywhere there are fluffy bunnies.” There would be some plot convention that had the bunnies doing something purposeful but surreally amusing, and then Nacho would say “and you see a fluffy bunny, and you go over to it, and you put your head on the fluffy bunny fur, and you feel how soft it is, and how warm it is, and you gently drift off to sleep.” I think the first time this happened, half the students were asleep by this point and half of them were fighting back giggles. It was usually at this point that Nacho would quietly sing. My grasp of Spanish was never good enough to understand the lyrics, but every once in a while Nacho would lean over to me after he finished a song and slyly say something like “that song is about summer in Puerto Rico; it is one of my parents’ favorites.” His voice–in speech or in song–was a beautiful instrument. I’ve always been amazed that Nacho could have this entrancing effect on a bunch of hyperanimated junior high school students.
The comments on his memorial blog underline what a great teacher he was, and I got to see it first hand. He was perhaps the best person I’ve ever seen at adapting his pedagogy to an audience. He had the students do all kinds of silly things that turned out to be excellent preparation for public speaking. One day, we spent an hour practicing potential nonverbal gestures. Nacho had us follow his gestures. He ran through a wide gamut of possibilities, from the banal to the absurd. I think this was designed to be a much shorter exercise, but the students wanted more, and we ended up doing it throughout the week. Looking back on it, I think this was kind of an exercise in mindfulness; an invitation by Nacho to feel one’s body moving in space.
We had a great teaching rapport. Early on he figured out that I was a pretty good impromptu speaker from my time in debate. He would be lecturing on a topic like how to give an introduction to a speech and would throw out a topic to me. “So, let’s say you’re giving a speech about organic farming. You could tell a story. Damien, give an example.” And I would. “Or you could share some amazing fact. Damien, give an example.” And I would. “…Or you could tell a joke.” And I’m sure I made some terrible pun that Nacho would think was great. Even though I was technically a teacher, I felt like a student at the knee of the master. I wanted to show Nacho that I could do these little impromptu examples, that I could excel at whatever he threw at me. Most of his students felt that way–you wanted to show Nacho what you could do because you respected him so much. Of course, Nacho always liked to keep things interesting, so the examples he asked for became increasingly absurd and difficult. I vaguely remember Nacho throwing to me with the topic of M&Ms, which the entire class found just stupendously hilarious.
One of my favorite things about Nacho was his ability–and demand, even–to decompartmentalize. His website “about” page sort of says it all: “among many other ‘things’ I am a faculty member in the Rhetoric and Media Studies department at Willamette University, a private liberal arts university in Oregon. I’m also a photographer, budding technographer, father, brother, grinner and lover…” He wasn’t just the senior instructor in this summer class–he readily decompartmentalized and became a mentor for all of us undergraduates working the camp. We would sit for hours on the picnic bench between the staff dorms, drinking beer and talking. It is those conversations that I wish I had a stronger memory of…I feel the traces of them, I know how deeply grooved they are into my body, but the flux of memory and time has disappeared the specifics.
After that camp experience, we sort of lost track of each other. He was finishing up his graduate degree and I was finishing up my undergraduate degree. Then, 5-6 years later, I ran into him at the annual meeting of the National Communication Association. It was a happy reunion, and we saw each other regularly over the past few years, though it was always difficult to find a pocket of stillness in the craziness of the conference. However, this year I saw him at NCA and at Western States and we actually sat down and talked for a long time. Obviously, those conversations are weighted with much more significance for me now, but I didn’t think they would be the last ones we would have.
And as soon as I write that, I hear Nacho saying “that wasn’t the last conversation we’ll have.” Nacho was a presence, and he left behind all kinds of traces of cool beans and hot rice.
After I heard the news about Nacho on Monday, I spent the rest of the day following those traces. And I learned a lot about my friend that I didn’t know. For example, I didn’t realize how into photography he was–he had a wonderful eye for it. He photographed with a traditional camera, but had apparently gotten into iPhoneography in the last few years. His photographic legacy is a remarkable one, and, fortunately, a very public one. Nacho was not just a photographer, but he was an avid participant in these online communities. I can’t help but feeling that there is a powerful lesson about publicity and vulnerability at play here: Nacho put himself out there not to be self-aggrandizing but to mark moments of everyday being. He did this with his own photography, and he did it by commenting on others’ photographs (so much so that several of these sites created memorial threads as they heard the news). As I followed Nacho’s traces, I ran across his description of this artistic outlet: he was interested in “the exploration of photography as mindful endeavor.”
As I wove my way through hundred of Nacho’s photographs, I couldn’t help but think about how these photographs demonstrated the mindfulness at the heart of Nacho’s relationships to others and the world. And it brought back a memory of something I had recently read, a book review of David Foster Wallace’s last manuscript (another artist gone too soon):
Above all, [in his novels] he developed a philosophy of attentiveness…he spoke of the need to renounce the deep (and infantile) belief ‘that I am the absolute center of the universe’ by ‘simply paying attention to what’s going on in front of me.’ Rather than defining the self by what it helplessly desires—this is the kind of reframing that’s exemplary of Wallace’s immense moral intelligence—we can define it by what it wills itself to be aware of.
The echoes between this paragraph and Nacho’s own statements about mindfulness are remarkable. Like Wallace, there is a theory of mindful attentiveness that is at work in Nacho’s photography, but Nacho’s attentiveness is rhetorically inflected. In particular, I think it is inflected through the rhetorical figure of ostranenie. I have come to that word through this photograph of Nacho’s, Untitled Legs:
In his description of this photograph, Nacho wrote “The key was seeing the image I wanted. My vision saw a chiaroscuro that would add a sense of drama and mystery to this image, that would take the legs out context, and make them ostranenie.” I will confess that I had never heard the term ostranenie, though I was familiar with the idea it captures: art defamiliarizes experience. My unfamiliarity with the term’s fundamental strangeness set me off on a path to think about it in terms of Nacho’s photography. Nacho’s mindfulness in this moment is signaled by what he can see–this moment could have been perceived but not registered; Nacho saw the moment as pregnant with potential. Using his iPhoneographic craft, he left us with something that forces us to look twice and thus resist drawing such an everyday moment into a familiar circuit of recognition.
The Russian literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky is most closely associated with the theory of ostranenie. He wrote in his Theory of Prose
In order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, [hu]man[s have] been given the tool of art. The purpose of art, then, is to lead us to a knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition. By ‘enstranging’ objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and ‘laborious’…After being perceived several times, objects acquire the status of ‘recognition.’ An object appears before us. We know it’s there but we do not see it, and, for that reason, we can say nothing about it. The removal of this object from the sphere of automatized perception is accomplished in art by a variety of means (6).
Ostranenie makes the familiar strange. It frustrates re-cognition, which too often follows established patterns of meaning-making and categorization. It opens up news ways of thinking/feeling. And, perhaps most importantly, “estrangement seems a good antidote to a risk we all face: that of taking the world, and ourselves, for granted” (Carlo Ginzburg [pdf], 15). I think Nacho knew this, and tried to help us know it as well through a visual medium capable of encouraging sight and not just recognition.
There are a number of specific strategies that Nacho uses to defamiliarize experience. One of them is, quite simply, excellent choice in subject and composition. Many of the images are of street life and his children. There is a high level of technical sophistication as well as tenderness to these images that rarely resorts to visual cliche. Another way he defamiliarizes experience is through titling each photograph. Some of the titles are descriptive, but many are simply evocative and invite the viewer to make sense of the verbal-visual interaction. His embrace of iPhoneography amplified his defamiliarization strategies. His more recent pictures often layered two images on top of each other; one might provide texture for the other or simply act as a container. This, I think, was part of what he was calling technography–he was calling himself a “budding technographer.” I wish that I knew more about Nacho’s thinking on this. Nacho was making a move much needed: theorizing how technology can amplify mindfulness through art instead of increasing mindlessness through mere information.
A colleague of Nacho’s reminded us that Nacho was fond of saying “to be an academic is to think otherwise.” Here, too, is a marker of ostranenie. To be an intellectual is to complicate common sense, to introduce variant ways of understanding, to attend to things in a different way.
In a world where we move fast, through ever-proliferating datastreams, “connected” to more and more people, it is all too easy to let automaticity of perception take over. The cruise control of everyday life is a button we push all too often. But there is an alternative that Nacho lived that implores us embrace the strangeness of/in everyday life and be mindful of it.
Unexpect the expected.
Find the everyday in the beautiful.
Be surprised, see more.
I carry this Nachoness in me. It is unbearable, but it is.