Friday, May 21, 2010

Fantasy and Reality

Thursday I attended a lecture by Professor emeritus Pete Wetherbee (known to the inmates as "Doc") who began teaching classes in what he describes as a "one-room schoolhouse" in the mid-1990s in the Cornell Behind Bars program. This program provides instruction and college credit courses to inmates of the Auburn Correctional Facility. "Doc" started this program over fifteen years ago. Currently the program has a number of Cornell faculty involved as well as some undergraduate and graduate students. The inmates have the opportunity to receive an Associates Degree from Cayuga Community College. He provided a remarkable glimpse of prison life and the challenges of surviving in the prison community. Apparently the current culture of incarceration in New York State is one mostly driven by punishment with relatively few resources directed toward rehabilitation. Survival in this rather brutal environment means adapting to the situation and developing strategies that work on a daily basis.

Beyond the description of the program operation and the characteristics of the students, I was most impressed by his remark about fantasy and reality. He observed that the inmates cope by having fantasies that give them some sort of hope and relief for their existence. However he further stated that the abrupt return to the reality of their existence can also be devastating. Thus their life is driven by a delicate balance of comfort of their fantasies with the brutal realities of long term prison life.

Those of us that live our lives in the greater society exist with both our fantasies and realities as well. Perhaps our fantasies may be driven by a hope for improved family relationships or more success in our jobs or professions. In some cases our fantasy of the dream job comes back to crushing reality of the drudgery of some tasks. As a youth, I wanted to learn to play a piano but family circumstances did not allow it to happen. When I retired, I dedicated myself to piano lessons and practice for about five years. It was a satisfying period of mutual learning with my daughter who was also taking lessons from the same teacher. My grand fantasy of becoming of competent pianist never materialized. The harsh reality was that my more advanced age of starting lessons prevented me from going beyond a certain plateau of achievement. In the vernacular of lesson levels, Level III seems to be my limit. However disappointing this reality, I still fantasize about being able to play some great jazz pieces. Fortunately I can entertain myself at the level I achieved.

I think that many of my skiing and tennis friends join me in having fantasies of being more successful and skillful in those endeavors. We all look for that perfect ski run or that set of tennis with high first service percentage. Or if you are a golfer, frequently shooting par. Fortunately the reality of simply the joy of participating and being active is sufficient most of the time.

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