Friday, May 30, 2008

We're Still in Kansas

They claim it's disappointing to sleep with your fantasy. Your high school crush rolls out of bed to play Warcraft; the one-who-got-away hogs the blankets. I wouldn't know: Alex Ross isn't responding to my advances and my high school crush smoked so much pot as to render himself insensate. I am irritated to report that I can contribute not one datum toward solving the Great Scientific Conundrum of whether or not your fantasy is worth boinking.

I can, however, state unequivocally that Kansas does not disappoint. It does this mainly by not sucking as hard as I thought it would. Kansas has trees! And hills! And peonies! Also ice cream and warm, wet evenings and sustainable burger joints. Granted I'm only a fingersbreadth of the way into Kansas, but it has already trumped ten-fold my vision of alternating feed lots and Wal Marts. Kansas proves that the key to happiness is to set your expectations so low that any movement of the world -a twitch or a shiver or a particular angle of sun- propels the present over the top.

On to the dreadful desert of tomorrow!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Over the River and through the Woods

That great prepositional song about grandmothers with its dippy lyrics and heaving intervals! It occurs to me, as I'm about to step off the precipice of this particular day, that this song contains everything you need to know about life. Never mind education, higher or otherwise. Never mind literature or love. The only essentials in life are a destination and a way to get there.

I have my old roommate, a Toyota Corolla, and an atlas. The whole bundle of us will be in San Francisco in eleven days. In the time between now and then, I will try my hardest to move through something other than words. I'm thinking sky, storm systems, states. A little bit of silence.

In the spirit of silence (not to mention the spirit of iffy internet access) I may not post for a while. What I will do is twitter to the blog. Because that way the 2.5 of you who read this regularly can follow along. And because everyone likes to make a little noise.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

At Sea

I read this article in the Atlantic. (Who-hoo! I get to say I read an article in the Atlantic! Don't I sound SMART!) (And how about my arch parenthetical aside, allowing me to demonstrate self-awareness while STILL publicly flaunting the fact that I did, in fact, read an article in the June edition of the Atlantic?) (Note the awareness of the self-awareness. META!) (How many levels of distance can I achieve from my point before you stop reading?)

I read an article in the Atlantic and I am not ashamed! Well, I am ashamed, about a lot of things, but not about this! The article is called "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower." It's written by Professor X, a harried adjunct English professor at a Community College, the type of professor whose Sisyphean task it is to teach people who can't write to write. I've given away the article's thesis with my adjective: our professor posits that the American education system, drunk on a heady cocktail of optimism and greed, now encourages people to go to college who simply are not capable of college-level work.

I've already referenced shame, so I'll confess that when I read this article, I experienced the same queasy thrill you feel when someone who irritates you gets dumped. There's the empathy, the Schadenfreude, the self-disgust. I've always had the sneaking suspicion that native ability counts for far more than we in the education profession are willing to admit. Some students are capable of more; some students are capable of less, and to think otherwise, to believe that everyone should achieve the same standard (NCLB, hello?) instead of falling along a nice, shapely Bell curve is naive.

On the other hand (oh, that other hand, with its snaky, sinister reach!), one could argue that Professor X has a naif's understanding of truth, in that he automatically assumes that if something is true, we must base our actions upon it. It's an unusual attitude for a professor of English; if books teach us anything, it's that truth exists in a complicated, frequently dysfunctional symbiosis with life. It may be true that you're hopelessly in love with your best friend's wife, but it's probably best that you not act on that truth. There's a real chance that you'll die in a plane crash, but that truth oughtn't to ground you.

It is almost certainly true that Professor X's students will never write at the college level. It doesn't necessarily follow, however, that he ought to fold up his tents and cease all attempts at education. If our actions do not owe automatic allegiance to truth, then they are free to respond to subtler imperatives. The incremental gain, for example. The sedimentary accumulation of progress; the joy of the attempt; what we owe to one another.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

At the Five-Year Reunion

We go on the tree tour. It’s early; not much of anyone is awake. We take cold, silent showers and then, without speaking, dress so that no part of our skin touches the air for a second longer than necessary. The front steps of the dorm are littered with broken beer bottles. There’s a dried smear of vomit, a wide blue sky.

Reunions are strange. This is our conclusion: deduced, extrapolated, winkled out from the raw data. Our education allows us this leap of intellect, guides us through the rush of goofy smiles, loose hugs, strange shiftings in our gut. We flutter our hands, flap our mouths. We discuss the way we look hard at every stranger, how no one has changed yet everyone has changed. We discuss that awkward moment when someone greets you and you dip your eyes to their name tag. Oh hi! we call out. And later: I don’t think I liked her. Isn’t it strange?

The tourers of trees are few. The three of us, to start. We are underslept, hungry for donuts. We lean on one another, even though we’re too young to need to. Next comes the tour leader: hat low, eyes bright, brief moons of dirt under his fingernails. There’s current student with a violin. Another current student with her parents. Then a smattering of older alumni, the ones who wear their name tags around their necks instead of self-consciously pinned to their hips. Our leader points out one tree, then another: pin oak, white oak, cypress, elm. There are stories behind the trees, some interesting, some not. An alumna pokes at the cypress and asks a question about wet ground, trees’ knees.

I could be sleeping. I could be draining the dregs of a beer at dawn. The amount of attention I paid to trees, when I was in school, was negligible. They offered shade, dimension, resistance to wind. I did not say to myself: trees, I need to tour you. I need to knew when you were planted, and how, and why, and what the disease was that ravaged you, slowly but thoroughly, in the late 1960s. I need to know about the buildings that were once here but were torn down to make room for more trees. I need, desperately, to know about the day in 1924 when the tornado goosed the river and the square flooded and children swam between the tree trunks.

I think about that flood all through the day, while I am exchanging greetings and hugs and brief, harshly edited biographies. Toward the end of the afternoon I begin to understand that it's the water that's the real strangeness. Not the reunion and certainly not the tree tour, upon which we are only trying to learn how things grew from the way they were to the way they are.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Earnest as I Want to Be.

This is an earnest post. A post from the SOUL including CAPITAL LETTERS which FLOW like TEARS from the DEEPEST recesses of my BEING (It's dusty back there.) There will by no sarcastic jabs. No irony. No prostituting one's talents for laughs. Only REAL EMOTION rioting over the page, unfettered by the chains of SHAME and STYLISTIC PRINCIPLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Especially not stylistic principle. Stylistic principle is the Emperor Palpatine of blogging.

In all earnestness, though, there is something hideously, SOUL-SHATTERINGLY wrong with K-12 education in the U.S. This is not to say there's not a lot right with K-12 education: schools are stuffed to the gills with well-meaning, orderly women (plus a few weedy, jovial men) who work like dogs in the service of our children. But there's a fly in the ointment, and after a few months working where I do, I'd hazard that at least part of that fly (the wings, maybe) is Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Let's sneak up on my point, cat-like, from a different direction. I live in a city. My city has a Large Urban School District (LUSD). People avoid LUSD like the plague. Unless you are poor, a minority, or do not speak English, it is common wisdom that you MUST find an alternative to LUSD. The results are manifold. Private schools spring up like mushrooms. LUSD schools, stripped of all students but the poor and difficult-to-educate (private schools tend to encourage uncontrollable kids to leave) struggle, leading parents who have the financial wherewithal to flee. You reach a point where SENDING YOUR CHILD TO PUBLIC SCHOOL IS CONSIDERED BAD PARENTING.

I have actually heard this said aloud, most recently by a parent returning to LUSD after her special needs kiddo was thrown out of Catholic school. I just wanted the best for my son, was what she said.

I just want the best. Give her the best. Treat yourself to the best. Where have we heard this before? Oh, wait! THE MALL. And on T.V., and in newspapers, and laser-printed on our grubby little consumerist souls. Excuse me: SOULS. In our free-market economy, buying things is about making choices. Choices -our "pursuit of happiness"- make up who we are. Ergo, the moment something goes on sale is the moment it becomes a status symbol, an identity marker, a class distinction, a boundary.


Phew. Gotta go. Earnestness makes me sleepy.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Waddling down the Aisle

According to the 5/18 NYT wedding section (yes, I went so far as to read the wedding section. But I had food poisoning at the time, so the words came right back up! OK, OK, I read the wedding section regularly. It's a chronic disease. Anyway). So according to the wedding section, 43-year-old Elena Weschler paid dating consultant Rachel Greenwald $5,000 a day to dole out the following advice:

"Always look for a guy with a dorky walk. They make good husbands."

Ms. Weschler apparently took the advice to heart, landing a software entrepreneur who "walks like a duck;" the couple is now enjoying their inaugural paddle in the marital pond. If Rachel Greenwald is onto something, then I'm way ahead of her: every guy to whom I've even been remotely attracted walks as if they'd been tortured in seventh grade. But has Rachel caught a scent, or is she just quacking in the wind?

There are two assumptions underlying her pronouncement. The first is that our lives impress themselves into our bodies, warping the way our muscles seize, the way our bones rub together. This is, I think, true: for better or for worse, how we move is who we are. A woman came into work today dragging two kids and a stroller; as soon as she bent to check the diaper of her autistic three-year-old, I knew she was a dancer. I can tell if you'd rather be running, or if it hurts you to walk, or if you had no friends when you were fourteen.

The second assumption, that damage makes you marriageable, is more interesting. Men with dorky walks are men who had trouble growing into men. People beat them up, or yelled at them; they didn't feel at home in their bodies. Does being hurt make you less likely to inflict hurt? Does suffering make you amiable? Should we gird all our young men with pocket protectors and turn them loose on the football field at halftime?

Mmmm....pocket protectors.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Fiction, Reality Distinct: THIS JUST IN

In the hierarchy of shameful acts, watching British period costume drama falls somewhere between lying to your mother and inspecting your nose hair in the driver's side mirror. Nevertheless, I am halfway through the Forsyte Saga, an over-orchestrated bodice-ripper comprising all the necessary ingredients of the genre. That is to say: wigs, illicit sex, architecture.

I ruin it by thinking. One is not supposed to think. Thinking is not at all in the spirit of the enterprise. Rather, one is supposed to vibrate, like a tuning fork, amidst the conflicting currents of passion.

And passion there is. Characters conceive unholy passions for characters who do not suit them; pain ensues. Characters topple irretrievably and inappropriately into love, as into a muddy retention pond; pain ensues. Feelings are unconquerable. Love is unconquerable. The only way to still your beating heart is to get run over by a carriage.

It all makes for fraught DVD viewing, but I wonder sometimes why we go to such lengths (constructing bustles, inserting establishing shots of sheep) to convince ourselves that what we feel has permanence, or at least gravitas. I know very few living, breathing human beings -as opposed to the simulacrums who populate screen and page- who are able to maintain grand passion in the face of indifference, time, distance, or the act of inserting dog shit into little plastic baggies. Real people forget. They move on. They get distracted by leaves, sunlight, music, wine. Real passion is a dull ache, a stiffness of the joints when it rains.

Hang on a minute. I just want to have a look at that interesting rock.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Ten Things I Accidentally Stole from You

*$20 cash
*One red tiddlywink. (No accident, in truth; rather, a vengeful thrust against The Man as personified by Mrs. Halliday, Montessori Full-Day Preschool.)
*Four Short Plays, Tennessee Williams
*That one cadential ornament
*3 keys opening 2 separate language/learning laboratories in Indiana and NYC
*2 brown hair barrettes
*The Big Chill
*Plastic alto recorder with teethmarks

Sunday, May 11, 2008

On the Run

Very early, the second semester of my freshman year in high school, I started taking French at the local university. It wasn't because I was brilliant or eager or seeking challenge; I was none of these things. It was because of the pattern the sun made at half past noon on the living room rug.

They gave you a hall pass, if you took university classes. It was a permanent hall pass, and every day, twenty or thirty minutes before the beginning of your class, you'd pull it out of your bag and clutch it like a talisman, just in case anyone was watching. Then you'd shoulder your backpack, find the nearest door, and emerge, blinking, into the noonday sun. Freshman year, a sophomore who'd just gotten her license drove us up to campus. Sophomore year, it was the mother of a friend who was taking Spanish. By junior year I was driving myself. I liked to time my classes for the lunch hour, or better yet, stagger them so that it was inconvenient, if not impossible, to make it back to the high school in between. By late senior year, I was attending high school only three hours a day.

I loved the anonymity of university classes, the way you could float through the semester in your own private bubble. Occasionally there were group projects, necessitating a trip to someone's beat-up, beer-stained apartment, but college students were more polite than their high school counterparts; they asked a few questions, then let you be. Back at school my friends ate their lunches huddled in the cavernous underground cafeteria. I ate mine at home, lying on the floor, watching the sunlight drag itself inch by happy inch across the rug.

This was high school, for me: a soft, grey sea I forgot even as I drifted through it. I kept my hands to myself in high school. I built no boats, burned no bridges, left no mark. Let me go, I begged high school, and I'll let you go, too.

One of us welshed. Yesterday was prom night in my hometown. I was out to dinner with my family when they started to trickle in: girls in stiff, sequined dresses and boys in suits (tuxes are passe). There were corsages, shawls, the obligatory kid in a fedora. The girls laughed too loudly. The boys' eyes slid up and down.

I was worse than the boys: I stared. I had drifted through prom like I drifted through everything else in high school: reluctantly, in something non-descript. Years out, I remember only snatches: the scent of floor wax, the prickle of cheap fabric against my skin, the crowning of a prom queen whose face I'd never seen. When it was over -the whole loud, endless muddle of it- I felt grimly satisfied. I'd come. I'd seen. I'd discharged my duty.

The trouble with bubbles is that they pop. In the restaurant, twenty impossibly young, improbably attired men and women settled into their chairs and took up their menus. One girl ground her heel into the carpet and shook off her boyfriend's arm. Another got her wineglass tangled in her corsage. I giggled. I snorted. Something in my gut clenched painfully. The high schoolers were happy, anguished, wildly self-absorbed. I was still heading for the door.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

At the Polls

I committed voter fraud. The fraud was delicate, small and shivery like the frond of a fern, but it was, nevertheless, fraud. Here's what happened: I moved. Then I got a job. I didn't quite get around to changing my registration to reflect my new county of residence. The deadline passed. Clinging like a limpet to my civic duty, I hied myself down to my old county of residence and voted a week early at City Hall.

Interestingly, committing voter fraud diminished not an iota my Election Day enthusiasm. I rose at the crack of dawn! I ate breakfast with my ear glued to the radio! I did some excited election day bouncing! I even fake-voted, accompanying my spouse to the polling place and then hovering outside, grinning insanely at my grumpy, sleepy fellow citizens as they exited the polls. Finally I hit the coffee shop, and all before 8:00 AM! Yay!

Then I went to work, came home, went about my business. The returns trickled in and sometime around around 1:00 AM, my state was called. For the other guy. Immediately, the familiar thought snuck out from its hidey-hole and whacked me over the head: Dang. My vote didn't matter.

It's a visceral feeling, low and raw and deep and...false. Mathematically speaking, one equals one equals one. I am Voter A. Let's take another voter, Voter B (maybe that woman with the gauze wedged up her nose). I support one candidate; she supports another. For the sake of argument we'll call them "Obama" and "Hillary." Just because Voter B's candidate carried my state doesn't make her individual vote worth 1.2, or 1.4, or any value over and above the value of my vote. Our votes are exactly equal in terms of their numerical contribution (how much they "matter") to the outcome of the election.

So given that voter A = voter B, and given that "mattering" is a dichotomous variable, the proposition "Voter A didn't matter" implies that Voter B didn't matter either. Only I'm not willing to accept that because it's weird and depressing, so that means Voter A's vote and Voter B's vote BOTH mattered and our proposition gets junked.

My vote mattered.

Too bad it took me two paragraphs of incoherent raving to prove it to myself.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Oscar Held on

It's all very well to hold a novel's hero or heroine up to your nose and see if you catch a whiff of yourself. "Identifying" is what you're supposed to do, the ladder down which you're supposed to crawl into all those cold pools of words. But what if you discover yourself in some minor yet redolent character? A Falstaff or a Lucy Steele or, God help you, an Eeyore? Or in chapter 18:

"He did not like it when Mrs. Stratton talked, as she often did, about 'the land around the subject...' When she spoke like this she would -she was doing it now- begin to pace. Oscar saw this land in his mind's eye -it was full of swamps and ditches. There were areas of tall grass and thick mist...Mrs. Stratton galloped across the 'land around.' She plunged into ditches and trotted proudly across bright green valleys She set up her question, then knocked it down -she argued that her own question was incorrect. She set a light to it and watched it burn."


Friday, May 2, 2008

I Stole this from Samantha

"What we have here are the top 106 books most often marked as "unread" by LibraryThing’s users. As in, they sit on the shelf to make you look smart or well-rounded. Bold the ones you've read, underline the ones you read for school, italicize the ones you started but didn't finish. Here's the twist: add (*) beside the ones you liked and would (or did) read again or recommend. Even if you read 'em for school in the first place."

Okay! Except I can't find the underline command on blogger, so you won't be able to tell what I read in the pursuit of academic excellence and what I was foolish enough to tackle on my own time. I am pleased to see that I've read less than half of this (very odd) list; this gives me the sense that I am not yet 87.

Here follows my first foray into chain blogging! Sigh. Those damn books are always leading me astray.

The Aeneid
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay**
American Gods
Anansi Boys
Angela’s Ashes
Angels & Demons
Anna Karenina
Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand makes me apoplectic)
The Blind Assassin**
Brave New World
The Brothers Karamazov (Four separate assaults, all ending in ignominious defeat)
The Canterbury Tales
The Catcher in the Rye (This book makes me itchy)
A Clockwork Orange (My ex-boyfriend made me read this book, which should have warned me off one or the other of them)
Cloud Atlas
Collapse : how societies choose to fail or succeed
A Confederacy of Dunces
The Confusion
The Corrections
The Count of Monte Cristo
Crime and Punishment*
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time*
David Copperfield
Don Quixote
Eats, Shoots & Leaves
Foucault’s Pendulum
The Fountainhead
Freakonomics : a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything
The God of Small Things*
The Grapes of Wrath (Ever since my toilet-books blog entry, I can't take this one seriously. Which is OK, because it takes itself seriously enough for both of us)
Gravity’s Rainbow
Great Expectations
Gulliver’s Travels
Guns, Germs, and Steel: the fates of human societies
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
The Historian : a novel
The Hobbit*
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
The Iliad
In Cold Blood : a true account of a multiple murder and its consequences
The Inferno
Jane Eyre*
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
The Kite Runner
Les Misérables (BARF)
Life of Pi : a novel
Love in the Time of Cholera
Madame Bovary
Mansfield Park
Memoirs of a Geisha
Middlemarch*** (Excellent)
Middlesex*** (Also excellent, and oddly similar to Middlemarch)
Mrs. Dalloway
The Mists of Avalon
Moby Dick
The Name of the Rose*
Northanger Abbey
The Odyssey
Oliver Twist
The Once and Future King
One Hundred Years of Solitude
On the Road
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Oryx and Crake : a novel
A People’s History of the United States : 1492-present
The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Poisonwood Bible : a novel***
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Pride and Prejudice*
The Prince
Reading Lolita in Tehran : a memoir in books
The Satanic Verses***
The Scarlet Letter
Sense and Sensibility**
A Short History of Nearly Everything
The Silmarillion (If you can hack your way through this privet hedge of death you are a better man than I)
The Sound and the Fury
A Tale of Two Cities
Tess of the D’Urbervilles
The Time Traveler’s Wife
To the Lighthouse
Treasure Island
The Three Musketeers
The Unbearable Lightness of Being*
Vanity Fair
War and Peace
Watership Down*
White Teeth**

Wicked : the life and times of the wicked witch of the West
Wuthering Heights
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: an inquiry into values

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Going on Nakation

You can read the whole article here, but it's pretty self-explanatory. You're naked. On vacation. Hence, "nakation." Apparently there's been something of a boom, nakation-wise, marking the first time in economic history that a boom has coincided with a bust.

Ha ha ha!!! I should probably be shot.

Anyway, nakationers "can now roll out a mat at all-nude yoga retreats, gear up for nude mountain biking in California's High Desert and saunter around the decks of cruise ships chartered specifically for clothing-free travel." Nude mountain biking? Ouch.

But what interests me even more than the catalog of nude recreational activities (and where, might I ask, is naked bowling?) is the odd justifications nakationers offer for their proclivities. Not that I'm frowning on said proclivities; I personally think clothes kinda suck. But please, folks, do we really have to resort to the following?

"I consider myself a minimalist. With this big societal push for becoming green, we need to kind of get back to our roots and I thought maybe this would be a good way."

-Suzann Zane, first-time visitor to Avalon Nude Resort

It took me a few minutes to recognize the argument, though I knew I'd heard it before. This "getting back to our roots" tack is, for all intents and purposes, the same one taken by early musicians and historical performance aficionados. By "roots" logic, we need to scrape away the encrustations of modern performance practice, the layers of cotton and Lycra, and get back to the pure, the good, the true. Never mind that all those naked Neanderthals were squirming into furs as fast as their little awls could punch, or that musicians in Bach's time were hungering for new instruments, clearer notation, and better tuning.

We assume the past is static, a neat little shoebox diorama of once-upon-a-time. This has the curious effect of wadding up history and stuffing it, like an apple down the throat of a goose, into the present tense. Gone is a sense of the past in the past or the future in the past, the past-perfect and past future tenses. Unlike today, everything "back then" happened NOW.

So there you have it: what early musicians and nudists have in common. It's a strange, even perverted desire, to get back to our roots and hunker there; to live, not in the present or even the past, but in some one-dimensional freeze-frame of history. I am reminded irresistibly of those cardboard Star Trek cutouts you used to be able buy to put in your living room, how Commander Riker puffed out his chest endlessly, eternally, his phaser forever on "stun."

And it IS kinda stunning that we contort ourselves in this way, go through this whole rigmarole of rationalization. Why can't we admit that we do what we do not from any high-minded sense of mission, but because, quite simply, we like to get naked?

Or maybe that was only my chamber group.