Alexi Caracotsios to launch Pando Days Salons
Coming up in the Pando Days ’22 schedule, we’re prototyping a new event: Salons. We’re thinking of them as gatherings in which students come together to, well, think – maybe eat something and have some coffee, but mainly to think – with no clear answers. That’s it. Just think. Because thinking is in short supply. And because it’s a Pando Days event, the thinking is all related to sustainability. Not about the “hows” or “whats” but, rather, the “whys.” To question assumptions.
Leading the Salons will be Pandomaniac Alexi Caracotsios. We sat down and talked with him about what’s envisioned, the place of Salons in the Pando Days program, and why his own eclectic background makes him a perfect fit for leading them.
PANDO: Great to have you on the Pando team and great to have you spearheading the Pando Days Salon events – which we’ll get to shortly.
But first, help me with your name. You’re the only “Alexi” in the Pando world that I know of, and definitely the only “Caracotsios,” which took me a long time to be able to pronounce.
My father immigrated from Greece when he was in his mid-twenties. Alexi is actually a very common name in Greece despite its relative obscurity in the states. While our last name sounds very Greek, it actually is made-up, and has a whole history to it. It comes from a slur one of my great-grandfathers had bestowed upon him back in wartime.
So he adopted the slur, saying in effect, Yeah, that’s me – you’re looking at him – and took it as his own last name? That’s a pretty gutsy thing to do. Doesn’t sound like the kind of person who’d easily be slotted into his place. Was he a revolutionary?
Yes that’s exactly what he did; and yes he was.
So how did his great-grandson make his way to Pando?
Well, long story short, my aunt is Sister Maureen Meyer, who is a member of the Maryknoll Sisters community in Monrovia, where Pando was working for a few years. One thing led to another, and I found myself where I am today.
I guess we really are all connected. I’m delighted you connected your way to the Pando team.
You mentioned meeting your fiance in Central Asia. That’s a little off the beaten path – for us anyway. What’s the deal there?
I have always been the type of person who was interested in doing everything, reading everything, seeing everything, exploring everything. I have studied a verifiable potpourri of foreign languages, lived in half a dozen countries, and am constantly learning.
Academically, I followed a similar path. I majored in Spanish with a focus on Argentine literature and history, but I also studied Islam, Russian literature, and Chinese language and culture in my time as an undergrad. Since then, I expanded my own horizons and learned more about my own cultural heritage in Greece, as well as…Central Asia.
Funnily enough, Central Asia, despite seemingly being culturally and geographically the most distant place I could study, has had the largest impact on my life. So, I was studying there for a while learning languages and culture and looked up and there she was – my future wife.
That’s as romantic as it gets. I love your love of the world.
The world simply always has amazed me, and this sense of curiosity has led me all over the place.
You’re that lucky bit of the universe with eyes, ears and taste buds – to see what’s going on and drink it all in.
I try to be open to pretty much everything – including jobs. I’ve done basic labor on vineyards, run garage concerts, helped create Greek language courses, processed mortgages (well, this one was done a tad less willingly), delivered flowers. Now, I am a jack-of-all trades at Pando.
I also love music and have played in a ska band…
Ska is a music genre that originated in Jamaica and found its way to become combined with punk after becoming popular in the USA and the UK. It is more or less faster paced reggae with horns and, in our case, a good deal of chaos.
OK – go on.
What else can I say? I suppose I should add that I’ve boxed in what was effectively a fight club in the basement of a beauty salon. That was fun. And, now, I am trying my best to survive the desert in Arizona amongst the plants boasting swords instead of leaves and bugs so powerful they can kill you. My fiancee is in medical school here. I’ll drive into Los Angeles for the Salons.
If readers want a deeper dive into my own personal journey, they can read an interview I did and hear some cool music.
You obviously haven’t spent your life studying for a particular career path. Generalists are a rare breed. It’s easy to get misinterpreted as amateur.
To start, I would just say that breadth does definitely not exclude depth; it is just a different type of depth.
Like all things, there are negatives to breadth. However, I think the positives are overlooked and undervalued in our current society. To start, I think that breadth allows you to see connections where others do not.
That’s very Pando.
It is. And breadth implies transdisciplinary endeavors if taken to a deep level. And connections. You make a lot of friends, meet interesting people and expand your horizons.
However, truly transdisciplinary organizations, academic departments, and people are rare. So, a person needs to be curious in exploring networks to find and make their own connections.
The connections are there, but you have to venture out.
It has surprised me the degree to which curiosity has seemed to vanish as I get older.
As kids, we can be an astronaut, cowboy, rockstar, writer, architect, and dinosaur hunter all in the span of an afternoon. As adults, in the span of thirty years most people are expected, at best, to be one or two things.
I know you draw a connection between that and social change.
Insatiable curiosity is necessary for an insatiable appetite for asking questions – and, therefore, necessary to truly challenge the status quo.
You’re putting together our Salon events for Pando Days. How do Salons fit into all of this?
The ancient Greeks classified the pursuit of learning into three domains: knowledge, skill, and wisdom. The Pando Days projects do a great job at uniting knowledge and skill into actionable work.
The Pando Days Salons are a way to help foster wisdom, in many ways – that is, the ability to see a problem from multiple perspectives and act in a timely, appropriate manner. Salons are not designed to develop deconstructive thinking skills in which one attacks an argument trying to show how empty or incorrect it is. They are based entirely on trying to understand one’s own and the other’s position and think deeply – even adventurously – about it.
At large, I do not think formal institutions spend time trying to encourage the development of wisdom, self-awareness, and such things. Honestly, I think if, in my time at university, I were required, for instance, to meditate every day and engage in the types of thinking the Salons will include more regularly, I at least would be a happier person – and might make a better contribution to the world.
Give us a teaser of what the Salons will entail?
Sure! FIrst, the setting is relaxed – over pizza or sandwiches, or at least coffee. The audience is student-only.
Each event is structured around a single question that grows out of Pando Days – something like, When we talk about “sustainability,” what is it about the modern world that you want to sustain? Or, What defines moral action in our age, How does the common good factor in? Questions like that.
Students are asked to drill down into their ideas – something I call the “five layers of why.” Pretty much, after each statement, a student has to ask themselves the question “why?” It’s hard to keep going if you’re open to going as deep as you can.
Since you started this…Why? Why are you doing this?
I think it is beneficial for students and all of us to think about why we believe what we do, and this allows that process to start.
Salons, as we’re thinking of them, aren’t meant to be “seminars” or “discussions.” I think of those things as events where typically peoples’ opinions are argued at face value and very rarely do we ever get to find out how someone arrived at their conclusions. At best, one gets grilled on their first, maybe their second layer of why.
We want to go further down. Trying to get to that level not only allows us to better understand our own opinions but also connect with others on a deeper level as humans. If you’re willing to stick with it, asking why takes you to a level beyond easy answers, and certainly beyond finger-pointing.
Oh, it gets fun! Because next, we ask students to argue the exact opposite of what they just thought through. For instance, if they originally said that climate change is bad, now they have to argue how good it may be. And why.
I want to join!
There are relatively few places in which people can freely play around with ideas these days. It seems like politics has gotten into everything. Oftentimes, just verbalizing an opinion can get somebody immediately branded: “Oh, they are like that!” It shuts down any thinking.
You can’t think when you’re afraid and boxed in. You need space to think, to try something out, to wear it and see if it fits. To think – not parrot but think. And then think again.
You want this to be pretty open.
Yeah, I do. For example, I want the salons to be a space in which a student could, if they wish, argue fervently that in the present moment of world history we do the greatest good for the greatest number by pumping more oil out of the ground, not less. It’s not that I have to agree. I’m just looking to create a place where students are free to think and experiment with every kind of idea, including ideas that might seem so wrong.
People need more grace to think through their ideas. Maybe, they do believe “X” is correct but only partially so. Maybe they believe “Y” about sustainability but are afraid to say.
You run a risk.
But the opposite risk, the risk of not thinking, is much greater. There’s nothing redemptive about holding sacrosanct ideas about the Earth or anything else that require the sacrifice of the intellect.
Salons are about fostering intellectual thought, and hopefully an intellectual life. Action will follow.
It’s the kind of solid foundation on which the civic engagement that’s the hallmark of Pando Days can be built.
Of course it is. But, the point of Salons is not to be right or wrong, correct or incorrect. The whole point of these salons is for students to explore new ideas, question their own ideas, and unravel a sense of curiosity.
Like your own curiosity that you mentioned at the top of this interview, that brought you to live in places all over the world and pick up half a dozen or more of its languages.
I always think about how young our species is and how young our “environmental problems” are. I hope we solve the most pressing ones in the near future. However, as we move forward into a new world, we also need to be thinking longer term. What do we value? What do we want to value? What should we keep – what should we “sustain” – and what should we throw away?
And how will the coming change affect us and our relationship to, well, everything?
I hope that the Salons can encourage this sort of questioning, a sort of positive uncertainty, and lead to a drive to understand, connect, help and, at the end of the day, love our planet and all its inhabitants.
You may have to attend a Salon for yourself and ask exactly that.