Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

Lately it seems that I’ll do anything other than what will conduce to my mental, physical, or financial health.

So. We’re all familiar with the stereotypes of the Irishman – a drunken idiot more interested in carousing than in learning how to do anything the right way, a ready victim for its more self-controlled neighbors. FitzPatrick’s stories do nothing to change this perception. The constant perpetuation of negative stereotypes really turned me off to her writing. I suppose that without conflict there is no story, but there are ways of being Irish that are healthy and constructive. Any people who have maintained a sense of distinct identity and ethnic pride over thousands of years deserve a little more respect, even if you are one of them.

The other stereotype at play here is one I’ve contended with more directly, the one about how people who are good at school are terrible at everything else. Smart people in these stories go crazy, poison the world, die strange deaths, get raped, and are marginalized by a society that refuses to accept them. So. Let’s talk about what a pain in the ass it is to be smart.

When I was in high school, I had a series of seizures which I believe left me less intelligent than I was before. People remark on my brains now, but back then I was brilliant. It was hard for me to relate to other people because my mind worked so much faster than theirs, and could hold more information in short-term memory. This sort of mind represents power, and adults find power in children to be threatening. I spent my childhood being told that I couldn’t do things when all I really needed was a few more tries to get it right. I got locked into this habit of dropping activities that I didn’t excel at initially because people were so happy with my failures, and I was so ashamed. This is what makes people become supervillains, by the way – the keen sense that humanity rejoices in our pain.

There were times that my intelligence was useful, though – administrators liked the fact that I made their schools look good with very little effort on their part. Or mine either, I suppose. When they’d talk about school statistics, I felt used.

Being smart meant that I was isolated from my peers, who laughed if I got any questions wrong. I don’t mean quiet snickering; I mean, a full-class disruption that lasted for several minutes. I suppose I talk less than most people because I had to be right the first time, or suffer the disproportionate response of my classmates. I just couldn’t communicate on their level. I’m sorry, that sounds elitist; it would be more accurate to say that communication was difficult because I had dramatically different interests and a wider vocabulary. Later on, I would meet people who were equally as intelligent, but it was still hard to talk to them because I didn’t have the social skills they developed by having friends.

My younger sister used to warn her teachers at the beginning of the year not to expect her to be like me, because she wasn’t. She was equally exceptional, but in athletics instead of academics. She has always had a facility for being happy that I have never had, and I’ve been envious for most of my life. If intelligence is supposed to be its own reward, it ought to translate into something more positive than a bullet point on your resume, ten years in the future. When she’d joke at home about these conversations with her teachers, I felt rejected. I was busy being rejected by nearly everyone in my life at the time, so I had more urgent pain to deal with, but looking back on that now, it hurts.

Being a smart kid for me meant being alone, unhappy, and unwanted. And sometimes forgotten. I suppose I can’t blame all of this on intelligence – it probably also has to do with manner. I wasn’t reticent about my intelligence, and maybe people would have been different if I had been more patient and more kind. Then again, maybe being friends with me would have been just too much work, and they had their own stuff to go through. There’s a girl that I went through school with, and we reconnected on facebook a few years ago. But it took me a while to recognize her because she’s so happy now. She grins from ear to ear in every photograph she takes, and I have no memories of her smiling as a child. When I mentioned this, she agreed that none of us had much to be happy about back then. Life was so Faulknerian back then – not cheerful, Cash talks Darl into going to Jackson Faulkner, I mean Quentin Compson getting his head dumped full of incestuous revenge tragedies and going to the watch shop before drowning himself Faulkner. Like Quentin, being smart was just depressing, and adding up the pieces of our lives and synthesizing them leads to adult forms of truth we’re not ready for. Being smart was a bit like a disease, and no one wanted to catch it from me.

I’ve passed it on to my kids, though. When I went to college, I met someone who was also smart and felt as rejected as I did, so of course we got married and reproduced. My children seem happier and more socially adjusted than I was, but that could just be me projecting my desires onto them. My youngest seems to have absorbed my childhood habit of saying things that are true and unpleasant, like the fact that he is less drawn to me than his brothers are because he was still just a baby when we got divorced. The fact that he said it so plainly to me makes me think that some adult said this when they thought he wasn’t listening, and he’s been trying to use this fact to make sense of who he is. I worry sometimes that he doesn’t like me the way the other two do, but that might be related to the fact that he’s right, we don’t connect as easily. But maybe I was hard to connect with at that age too.

It’s like the whole teacher thing. A lot of people think that smart people become teachers, but that’s a load of bollocks. People become teachers because they had positive experiences in school, which is why cheerleaders and football players teach high school and late-blooming misfits teach at colleges and universities. I was really unhappy as a child, so now it’s hard for me to relate to children, even my own. I didn’t have any really close friends until I was eighteen, and that’s about the age of students that I can start connecting with. I do better with adults. Even as a kid, I was more drawn to grown-ups than to people my own age.

So, wrapping up. Society seldom values intelligence unless it’s partnered with common interests and emotional accessibility. FitzPatrick’s book was five dollars at a used shop, but you can buy it new on Amazon for only $4.50. There are some funny moments, but I found the cumulative effect depressing, which is sort of to be expected from a self-consciously literary book from the 1990s. Unhealthy stereotypes of Irish people and intelligent people, and putting them together you get characters who are just not suited to the real world.

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These winter holidays have just been a whirlwind. I feel like I haven’t stopped running since Thanksgiving.

A couple of Tuesdays ago, we closed down the library for the vacation and I came home to pack. On Wednesday, I packed up my landlady next door and drove her to Florida, and her little Toto-looking dog, too. We stayed with a friend of hers, a philosophy teacher with a taste for the occult, so someone who’s a lot like me, only older. The weather was amazing, and the room he put me in had a private bath and a screened porch with large trees for additional privacy. I thought to myself, if I lived here, I might never put clothes on again.

Seeing an older version of myself, I’m rather concerned about my future. I think swearing is fun, and I occasionally have little outbursts at the injustices of the world when I’m among friends, but he had a lot less control over his tongue than I do. An additional forty years of living alone meant that he sort of melted down over any contretemps, and I could see myself easily becoming this if I let myself. It was also frightening to see someone insist on doing things that are unsafe, like driving a car when he’s blind in one eye and has a tendency to doze off at inconvenient times. I was afraid I might die, or at least become so severely injured that I wouldn’t be able to meet the rest of my appointments during the vacation.

On Thursday we went to the Salvador Dali museum in St Petersburg. I thought it was a little pricy, as I always do when going to a museum, but it was a valuable experience. I shunned the guides because I object to being told what to look at, and one of the guides was so loud and obnoxious that I found myself ducking around corners trying to hide from his voice. Another was so quiet that I barely noticed she had a group, which I found much more congenial to the enjoyment of beauty. When I’m focusing on the emotional effect of an experience, I find quiet to be essential.

In some ways, the irritating guide highlighted what feels to be basic, essential differences between myself and mainstream humanity. He kept asking rhetorical questions like, Who else would make the head of a crucifix the bullet hole in Lincoln’s forehead? And I would think, That makes perfect sense to me. While both Lincoln and Christ did good things, they both cemented their martyr status, securing the love of millions, by being killed. They would have little fame without their deaths, so yes, juxtapose their mortal wounds. It feels wholly logical to me, but the guide’s question made me feel like Dali and I are both in some way inhuman, divorced from our own species by having a different perspective. I suppose fragmentation and connections between apparently unlike things come naturally to us both. While others were marveling at the strangeness of Dali’s work, processing the cerebral surrealism, the main impression with which I left the gallery was that he paints such beautiful sadness.

As I came around the corner and saw this one, I thought, What a handsome man.

dali

There was a special exhibit of Dali’s duets with Elsa Schiaparelli, a fashion designer. They did a lot of plays on the phrase “chest of drawers,” combining women’s bodies with furniture. Which explains why some women’s dresses have tiny little pockets on the front that make them look like an old card catalog system. The print dresses they designed were just amazing. I know I don’t discuss women’s clothing often, but when it’s done well it’s clear that clothing is just as much of an art form as painting. And as I’m sitting here thinking of it, the women I spend time with do tend to dress well. [I’m thinking of the ones I know in real life who also read here.] I should probably compliment them more often.

Friday we went to the metaphysical shop where she used to give readings. We’ve been around to some of her old friends in the psychic community here in North Carolina, but it’s the ones in Florida who seemed really excited to see her. In many ways, getting back to Florida is as much a homecoming for her as North Carolina is for me.

She asked one of her friends to do a reading for me, and it was really good. I believe she was trying to be Yenta, putting her two gay male friends in a room alone together, but nothing of that sort happened. Yes, there was some connection, in many ways our energies are a good match, but we are in very different places, both geographically and emotionally, and besides, he’s a psychic. If he had seen a future for us, he would have asked me out.

There were a good many things he said that either confirm what I’ve been feeling or what other people have been saying to me. Professionally: the work I have been doing was good for a while, but now it’s sort of turned to shit and I need to do something else. I already know what, I just need to go ahead and pursue that. I’ve already commented on how little satisfaction I get from teaching and how much more I enjoy working in a library, so I’ll continue to focus my energies there. Personally: if I choose, then of course I can keep living on the edge of nowhere and be single and lonely for the rest of my life. But if I want to meet a presently unattached gay man who will love me, I have to go where the unattached gay men are. He’s known men who would make great husbands, but they end up alone because they’re so busy expressing their domesticity that they never get out of the house. If I don’t want their fate, I need to stop modeling their behavior. One of the things that has been making me hesitate is my need to take care of other people, but it’s time to stop doing that and take care of myself. The other people will do just fine without me. There was some other stuff too, like my oldest son trying to figure out how he and I fit into each other’s lives, but I don’t think that’s uncommon for sixth graders. He’s growing up, and his relationships with his parents are likely to be as confused as his relationship with himself for a while. And there was a skinny dark-haired man surrounded by hills, but I don’t think I’ve met him yet.

In the shop, there was a necklace that called to me, so (not wearing jewelry) I hung it up on the rearview mirror of my car. Ever since, I’ve felt driven to learn about Wicca.

Saturday I drove back home alone. She had other friends to see, but I had an invitation to see my kids for the holiday, which hasn’t happened in my six years of separation and divorce, so I wasn’t about to miss it. The drive was absolutely miserable; I seriously need to rethink driving during the holidays. But on Sunday morning my children were delighted to see me. They really liked the things I made for them, and they were excited about giving me a gift too – my middle son realized this year that I always give them things, but they never give me Christmas presents, so they put their heads together and bought me a concert ticket. It’s for a band that I don’t listen to much since the divorce, but it’ll be a good opportunity to leave the house and get drunk in public.

I spent Christmas day by myself, which is what I really wanted from this holiday. I opened my mother’s gift straightaway, without cleaning the entire house or eating breakfast first (rules from childhood). She got me a pair of lounge pants with cartoon characters on them, in an extra large. I have never been a size extra large. When I called her about that fact, she pointed out that they had a drawstring, so I could make them as tight as I liked, never mind the fact that they’re six inches too long. I did not mention the fact that it has been several years since I’ve worn clothing with cartoon characters; I like dressing like a grown-up. It’s generally agreed in my family that my mother’s mind is starting to go – just starting, but starting nonetheless. Having watched my grandmother fade out with Alzheimer’s, I’m rather apprehensive about my mom’s future. There might be seven of us, but none of us can afford the care my grandmother had.

Tuesday was a day of diminishing resources. I had a check in my hand and an empty checking account, but the banks gave their employees another day off for the holiday, so I couldn’t use the money I had. I had brought some snacks home from the work Christmas party, so I stayed home and ate snack foods and read all day. Not a bad day, but I would have liked to get out a little. Wednesday I deposited my check, returned the lounge pants, and drove back to Florida. The landlady next door was starting to talk about staying longer, so while my ostensible purpose was to pick her up, I really just wanted to go back down there.

I spent Thursday and Friday with my dad. His visit to Illinois was really awkward, so I’ve been sort of avoiding him, but he sounded so pathetic on the phone, talking about missing me, that I gave him some time, and I’m glad I did. The awkwardness had passed away, and it feels like things are back where they were. He is aware of my immorally liberal lifestyle, and I’m aware of his racism and conservatism, but we try not to push those things in each other’s faces. We can bond over watching science fiction, but really, we let his wife pick the movies, so we saw Dr No and some old monster movies. So many of the James Bond movies are perfectly silly, like Moonraker, that it can be hard to remember that the first two were actually quite good. The only Bond I like as much as Sean Connery is Daniel Craig. While this isn’t a fashionable opinion, I also have a soft spot for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, where George Lazenby makes an entire resort full of girls think he’s gay.

Friday we spent all day working on my car. A few weeks ago, the driver’s seat moved itself all the way forward and wouldn’t move backward, so in all of these journeys my knees had been pressed into the dashboard and I looked like a praying mantis trying to steer. We got the seat disassembled to reach the motors underneath, and Dad attached a battery to the appropriate pieces of electronics to push the seat all the way back. We left the motors disconnected, so now there will be no more unwanted scooting forward. I say we here, but he’s getting a lot better about directing and letting me do the things. My dad is losing his fine motor coordination and his hands shake, so that’s another thing for me to worry about as I grow older.

Saturday I drove back down to the southern part of Florida, to hang out with the landlady and her son. He’s handsome, kind, my own age, and perfectly straight. But we’re becoming very good friends (his girlfriend is really great too), and I’m happy to know him. The mother is a smoker on oxygen for her COPD, but hadn’t been using her oxygen enough on the long car trips, so she had an episode and spent a night in the hospital. People say she’s bouncing back quickly, but a few days later she was only sitting up for an hour or less at a time, so I don’t know whether that’s quickly or not.

The young’uns of us stayed up late, drinking wine and playing board games most of the evenings I was there. One night his roommate brought out something to smoke, and I hadn’t participated in that since I was in Brazil, so I agreed. It’s amazing what I’ll agree to after three or four glasses of sweet red (Jam Jar is my jam). Oddly enough, some of the pattern was repeated – in Brazil, it was the men who would smoke pot, and the women tended to decline, so we’d go off down the street a ways and share a joint about the size of a grain of rice (a little thicker, but not really longer). Here, the son’s girlfriend declined, so we went out to the garage, but this time instead of a tiny little thing there was a pipe, and it was full. So I got rather more of the THC than I did before, and I got really giggly and really ruthless in the board game. I won. I also don’t remember much of that night. The next day, though, I was really sick. Part of it was not being used to smoking, part of it was drinking too much, and part of it was spending most of the week with cats, to which I am allergic.

We got out to do some hiking, though for me that word implies a change of elevation, so maybe it’ll be better to say we walked through the woods some, in a few different locations. I wanted to see some manatees, but the water was too cold. One spot we went to had some kind of Devil Tree, where all sorts of terrible things are rumored to have happened. There are some documented murders in the near vicinity. But when I touched the tree, all I felt was a great sadness, as if the tree had seen some serious shit but was in no way responsible. Farther off the trail behind the tree there are the remains of a few buildings, and those set all of our spider-senses a-tingling. In thinking about the experience, I’ve been wondering about my response. I hear, Hey, there’s this evil thing over here, and I say, Great! Let’s go see it! I feel that there’s something bad in a place, and I run towards it. Past evil draws me like a magnet. I don’t yet understand why, but I aim to find out.

I drove back on Tuesday. It was hard to leave, particularly when I could tell that no one wanted me to, but the traffic had somehow returned to normal levels, so I guess Jan 2 isn’t a bad travel day. I’m taking today, Wednesday, to rest and recover, and then tomorrow I’m back to work. While I was gone, the temperature dropped significantly, so even though my heat’s been on all morning it’s not warm yet. Something in the water line is frozen – we have expandable pipes, so they won’t break, but I won’t have running water until the weather turns. I hope it’s soon.

Until two weeks ago, all of my experience with the state of Florida had been with the northern part, where there are palm trees but the culture is still remarkably similar to the southern parts of Georgia and Alabama, so the energy there is sort of conformist and threatening. But the area where I was over the break was very different. It was very uplifting and life-affirming. I enjoyed my holidays much more than I was expecting to. Here’s hoping for more serendipity in 2018.

mythologies

I’ve been working in a library for the last few weeks, and I’m finding it quite agreeable. It allows me to use both my retail warehouse experience and my academic experience. I’m enjoying it so much I’m considering going back to school next year to qualify for a full-time job. One of the benefits is getting a close look at the collection, which is really very interesting. As is essential with small libraries, the collection is highly idiosyncratic; big sections on medicine and sociology, not as much in languages or the hard sciences. I sometimes think that we must have had an amazing collection forty years ago, but then I realize that these books that were cutting edge in the 1970s probably weren’t acquired until the late 1980s or 1990s.

This is from work rather than from my personal collection; I’m the first person to check it out, but now that there’s a stamp from 2017 it’s likely to have a spot reserved on our shelf for some time to come. This is a book of essays about French pop culture in the 1950s, translated to English in the 1970s, but Barthes’s observations seem oddly congruent with American society of the 2010s. Far from being a dispassionate observer, Barthes seems to get quite angry about things, and the things that make him angry are the same things making my friends angry now.

The petit-bourgeois is a man unable to imagine the Other. If he comes face to face with him, he blinds himself, ignores and denies him, or else transforms him into himself. In the petit-bourgeois universe, all the experiences of confrontation are reverberating, any otherness is reduced to sameness. The spectacle or the tribunal, which are both places where the Other threatens to appear in full view, become mirrors. This is because the Other is a scandal which threatens his essence. Dominici cannot have access to social existence unless he is previously reduced to the state of a small simulacrum of the President of the Assizes or the Public Prosecutor: this is the price one must pay in order to condemn him justly, since Justice is a weighing operation and since scales can only weigh like against like. There are, in any petit-bourgeois consciousness, small simulacra of the hooligan, the parricide, the homosexual, etc., which periodically the judiciary extracts from its brain, puts in the dock, admonishes and condemns: one never tries anybody but analogues who have gone astray: it is a question of direction, not of nature, for that’s how men are. Sometimes – rarely – the Other is revealed as irreducible: not because of a sudden scruple, but because common sense rebels: a man does not have a white skin, but a black one, another drinks pear juice, not Pernod. How can one assimilate the Negro, the Russian? There is here a figure for emergencies: exoticism. The Other becomes a pure object, a spectacle, a clown. Relegated to the confines of humanity, he no longer threatens the security of the home. This figure is chiefly petit-bourgeois. For, even if he is unable to experience the Other in himself, the bourgeois can at least imagine the place where he fits in: this is what is known as liberalism, which is a sort of intellectual equilibrium based on recognized places. The petit-bourgeois class is not liberal (it produces Fascism, whereas the bourgeoisie uses it): it follows the same route as the bourgeoisie, but lags behind. [Barthes’s italics]

Barthes’s main point can be summarized pretty quickly, actually. One of the most important problems with people (specifically, the bourgeois, or we might say conservatives or Trump supporters) is that they confuse Nature with History. They look at the injustice in the world and they assume it is the natural order of humanity instead of a culturally specific situation determined by social, political, and economic forces (what he calls History). Nowadays we call it being blind to privilege and it’s the fashionable complaint against our political opponents, but it’s the same concept. The consequence of this confusion is what I call The Myth of Human Powerlessness, the idea that no one can do anything about things. People don’t fight against injustice because they think that they can’t (powerless) and that they shouldn’t (it’s natural, so no one is responsible for it, least of all me).

The first part of the book is a set of short pieces, each three or four pages long and inspired by something happening around him. Some of the pieces come from performances, like a wrestling match or a striptease, but others come from reading the sort of magazines that these days are found in the supermarket checkout line – Elle, Paris-Match, and L’Express. These pieces are focused on concrete facts and events, which makes them fairly simple to understand.

The second part is a fifty-page essay of post-structuralist theory, which is highly abstract and less simple to understand. He refers to Saussure and Freud and seems to prefigure Derrida, whose first major essay was written around the same time, but most of whose work came later. Barthes defines mythology as a second order of signification: a concept is represented by a symbol, and the relationship between the two is considered a sign, which is a simple dialectic that I can understand. I saw Bell, Book, and Candle for the first time recently, so let’s talk about it. Most of the main characters are witches, but if they fall in love with the opposite sex they lose all their power, so they are constantly fighting against heterosexuality. So in this film, it seems like witchcraft is a symbol for gay sexual orientation; homosexuality is the signified, witchcraft the signifier, and our connection between them (which includes them) is the sign.

The trick with Barthes’s definition of mythology is that it’s a second-order sign: the sign itself can become a symbol for another concept, and the relationship between the two can be considered a myth. Or in other words, what does the fact that we equate witchcraft with homosexuality mean? The narrative surrounding homosexuality in 1958 told the story of anti-American sexual deviants who had no place in proper society; these witches lead similar lives of secrecy and hold similarly dismissive attitudes about the people who demean their community and deny their right to exist. For Barthes, this is the sticking point: modern mythologies point us to injustices in our society, and for someone who understands that Human Powerlessness is a myth, injustice can and should be corrected. When I was in school people talked about how post-structural linguistic arguments were politically motivated, but I think I’m just beginning to understand that now.

Barthes includes a section on left-wing myth, but he points out that mythology is primarily a conservative drive. It’s the people on the right who have a vested interest in keeping things the same (hence the name conservative), so they invent complicated mythologies to maintain their privileged position. The examples of this are too numerous and too painful for me to pursue right now, and besides, the internet is full of people pointing out the injustices. I sometimes feel like my facebook friends are expecting me to fix all of the injustices right now (ALL OF THE INJUSTICES!!!!!!!), and while I don’t believe myself to be powerless, I don’t see how I can do more than I’m doing already, teaching my students to spot their own prejudices by guiding their reading of essays used as rhetorical models. Because I don’t think it’s enough to spread articles on facebook to raise awareness; I think awareness has to be coupled with a concrete plan of action to remedy the injustice. For example, people raised my awareness about the tragic hurricane in Puerto Rico, and then they included several links to pages where I could donate money to support the relief agencies traveling to the island to help the people. This one is good, but most of the others don’t tell me what I can do to relieve the pain. Hence my frustration with the MeToo hashtag, which seems to tell me not to sexually harass or assault women, but I’m already exhibiting that behavior. How much of this awareness-raising is being targeted at people who are already demonstrating the target behavior? How many of the people using that hashtag are actually friends with someone who would assault them or denigrate them because of their gender? And for men, the limit of what people seem to expect of us is that we won’t assault women. I can’t volunteer in a facility for women who have become victims because the mere fact of my maleness could be a trigger for them. My presence would make them relive their trauma, so I stay away. But I feel like there ought to be something I can do other than feel the weight of suffering of hundreds of people and carry it on my shoulders like Atlas.

The world is a beautiful place where good people live. But there are still problems, and Barthes’s strategies can help us elucidate those problems and work toward solutions. He doesn’t reach any solutions in this book (other than something like “treat people with more respect”), but he raises questions and models thinking that will push us in the direction of solutions. He’s raising awareness. And if it takes us another sixty years to find solutions, then at least we’re moving in the right direction.

untitled

Sometimes I get to the end of a book and joy lodges in my throat like a stone I can’t breathe through until I’ve undammed my eyes and tears flow as freely as love. This one was different. I wasn’t crushed by happiness; I still had to stop reading and give the emotion space, but it was an expanding joy, as if my chest contained the entire universe still gently growing, my heart a world in a sea of constellations, the infinity of space the air I breathe. I loved this book the way I love my own freedom, the limitlessness of my potentiality, the vastness of experiences I have yet to taste.

This book is part of the same project as Byatt’s Ragnarok, which I still love as my favorite book, but this takes a different myth. Winterson explores the story of Atlas, he who carries the world on his shoulders. She pictures him not just as the strongest man in the world, but as a gardener and a father who guarded too jealously what he thought of as belonging to him. So he loses everything he had and has to support the weight of everything that was never his.

Atlas has a role that never changes, so there aren’t many stories about him. There’s his origin, but once he starts carrying a planet he’s stuck. There’s just one other story – the time he meets Heracles. The great hero, in Winterson’s telling, wanders the world with a weapon in one hand and his dick in the other (it’s a short book, shorter than a lot of films, but he beats himself off in front of others twice). She doesn’t see him as being especially bright, but good at tricks and possessing an immense vital energy. Heracles takes the burden so that Atlas can perform one of his tasks for him, then drops the world back on him and scampers off. You can tell Heracles is working-class British by the way he compulsively calls Atlas ‘mate’, as if it’s a conversational tic that doesn’t mean anything, like the way the Brazilian gauchos call each other ‘tchê’ or Americans who grew up in the 1980s call each other ‘dude’. This is the first time they’ve met; what claims to friendship is Heracles trying to invoke?

Heracles also brings Atlas a question, Why? Why must we accept the decree of the gods and submit to Fate? Hera nudges the question forward a bit by reminding him of all the possibilities that every moment contains. But Atlas feels responsible, and old habits are hard to break, so he keeps holding the world on his shoulders. This resonates with me in a lot of ways, but right now I’m thinking of professionally. I never got into education because I wanted to be a teacher; I wanted to read books and talk about them with people, preferably people who would have something intelligent to say in response. For a while it seemed that becoming a literature professor would be a good way to manage that, so I started teaching composition as a way of building toward that, but my applications for doctorate programs were never quite good enough, so I got stuck bearing the weight of teaching. Many people fall into careers tangentially like this and end up loving them; I haven’t. I like to learn, so I read up on teaching methods and styles and such, but unlike when I read novels, in education articles the words turn into a sea that my eyes can float on the surface of without penetrating the depths. I’m working at a library now (in addition to, not instead of, teaching), and in many ways I’m finding it more personally congenial. But with one of my colleagues retiring at the end of the year, I’m being confronted with a choice: do I apply for the full-time teaching job, which would offer financial security the likes of which I have never known, or do I apply for library school and continue to chase the new experience? A good part of this year has been about reassessing priorities and living according to what I love and not what is merely expedient or easy, which probably means that I’m going to choose library school over a teaching career. Thinking in terms of Atlas, teaching is a weight I would gladly shift onto someone else’s shoulders.

Winterson discusses the story in terms of her emotional weight, as an adopted child rejected by the parents who once wanted a child they could not have.

I am good at walking away. Rejection teaches you how to reject. I left my hometown, left my parents, left my life. I made a home and a life elsewhere, more than once. I stayed on the run. Why then, did the burden feel intolerable? What was it that I carried?

My burdens and rejections are different to hers, but the pattern fits. As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been saying No more than Yes lately, and Winterson uses this same phrasing, but while I do want to say Yes more often, I still think it’s important to take care whom and what I say Yes to. It’s taken me some time to get comfortable saying No, so it seems like that word is a gift from the universe right now, allowing me to choose rather than drift along in the currents of time. No is the rudder I use to steer my ship of Fate, and while I may never reach the harbor I’m aiming at – I may never reach one at all, harbors being as illusive as horizons – manning the helm is my job and I’m not giving it up to impersonal forces or supernatural entities that have no stake in the results. It’s my life, and I’m going to own it.

Which leads us to the Russians. In the United States we tend to think of ourselves as the only astronauts, forgetting that it was the cosmonauts that inspired us to shoot for the moon. The Russians lost a dog in space and were about to put it down when Atlas rescued her. He also loved the space station Mir, which is a word that can mean either peace or the world, which implies that for the Russians the two concepts are blurred.

Atlas spends his immortality staring into space, watching the rocks on Mars, seeing the stars turn in their constellations, galaxies moving through infinity, the entire universe whirling like an Eastern Dervish. Staring at cosmos and wondering why he submits to gods that the world itself has forgotten, Atlas never asks the question, Where did the world sit before I held it? Why is it essential for the world to rest on him? What kind of hubris demands that he carry so much weight? Atlas doesn’t look back to prehistory; his concerns are solely with the future – he only asks, What catastrophe will happen if I put it down? And that question keeps him stuck in his old patterns for millennia. His belief in the catastrophe is his prison. Heracles keeps wandering free, he even liberates Prometheus, but Atlas stays, until Laika the Russian dog shows him the new world he couldn’t see.

Atlas had long ago ceased to feel the weight of the world he carried, but he felt the skin and bone of this little dog. Now he was carrying something he wanted to keep, and that changed everything.

I love this book. It’s weird (Deianeira worrying that one day soon men will no longer want to rape her), it’s funny (Heracles stepping off the world to offer Atlas a hand job), and it’s beautiful (Atlas and his dog walking away from the world into the universe). I wish there were stronger and more descriptive words I could use – everything I think to say seems too dull a tribute.

 

house of the dead

So apparently I’ve given up sleeping. I don’t know why, but this week it’s just been really difficult for me to stay down. Two days a week I’m at work for twelve hours, so I ought to be exhausted, but I still pop awake after a few hours. I suppose there are more stressors in my life than I realize, and I’m probably not dealing with them appropriately.

This book is not nearly so Halloween-y as its title implies. When he was in his late twenties, Dostoevsky was arrested for publishing articles that were inconveniently political, and he spent four years in a Siberian prison. This book was his way of understanding and communicating that experience. This was very early in his writing career, so the effects of it ring out through his better-known works, like Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. There are some gestures toward fictionalization, but I tend to think that there’s not much fiction in it, so as I’m discussing this I’ll probably conflate the author with the narrator. I know that’s a logically problematic choice, but I’m going with it.

In many ways, the prison is a microcosm of the society as a whole, or at least as men experience it. There is a strong division between the working class and the moneyed class which prevents them from ever crossing over and making friends. In the United States, we sometimes talk about our society as if we really were all created equal, but the Russians of the nineteenth century have no illusions on this subject. They see humanity as divided between servants and masters, and what you are is what you are. When First-Person Narrator arrives at the prison, he tries to be egalitarian and make friends with all sorts, but they are quick to put him in his place – he was raised in the upper class, so he has no business mixing with the workers. It’s not his social peers that class him off, it’s those who are lower who exclude him.

Some people think that if convicts are well fed and well kept and all the requirements of the law are satisfied, that is all that is necessary. This is an error, too. Everyone, whoever he may be and however down-trodden he may be, demands – though perhaps instinctively, perhaps unconsciously – respect for his dignity as a human being. The convict knows himself that he is a convict, an outcast, and knows his place before his commanding officer; but by no branding, by no fetters will you make him forget that he is a human being. And as he really is a human being he ought to be treated humanely. My God, yes! Humane treatment may humanise even one in whom the image of God has long been obscured. These “unfortunates” need even more humane treatment than others. It is their salvation and their joy. I have met some good-hearted, high-minded officers. I have seen the influence they exerted on these degraded creatures. A few kind words from them meant almost a moral resurrection for the convicts. They were as pleased as children and as children began to love them. I must mention another strange thing: the convicts themselves do not like to be treated too familiarly and too softly by their officers. They want to respect those in authority over them, and too much softness makes them cease to respect them. The convicts like their commanding officer to have decorations, too, they like him to be presentable, they like him to be in favour with some higher authority, they like him to be strict and important and just, and they like him to keep up his dignity. The convicts prefer such an officer: they feel that he keeps up his own dignity and does not insult them, and so they feel everything is right and as it should be.

As with the officers, so with the owners of the means of production. I’ve seen this same fact in working with students – not the ones who come to college, but the teenagers who are having a rough life. When I lived in Washington I sometimes was assigned to the school for ‘troubled’ kids: the ones who have to be escorted to school by law enforcement officers, the school with a padded room for students whose emotions get the better of them. It was a difficult assignment for me because I felt nothing in common with these people, and I lack the firmness they require. I am too familiar and too soft for this population, so they don’t have much respect for me. But I like being who I am, so I’m not going to ‘toughen up’ to satisfy a group that I may never have to work with again. This is why I prefer teaching adults; kids who are like this are still forced to come to school, but this is the type of adult who doesn’t see the purpose of continuing his education, so doesn’t. I won’t deny that some of my students may have fit this category in their past, but by the time they get to the community college they are mature enough to recognize that I teach for their benefit, and that it’s their responsibility to take the benefit from what I teach.

Circling back to the guards, the ones he writes about are seldom the fluffy successful type described above. He talks more about the ones that remind me of the stories of Auschwitz guards, and in some ways the Siberian prison camps were a lot like the German prison camps a hundred years later. The same emphasis on work that doesn’t produce anything, like moving a pile of rocks from one place to another and then back again. The same temptation for the guards to become almost inhumanly violent and cruel.

Tyranny is a habit; it may develop, and it does develop at last, into a disease. I maintain that the very best of men may be coarsened and hardened into a brute by habit. Blood and power intoxicate; coarseness and depravity are developed; the mind and the heart are tolerant of the most abnormal things, till at last they come to relish them. The man and the citizen is lost for ever in the tyrant, and the return to human dignity, to repentance and regeneration becomes almost impossible.

Unlike with the Nazis, though, there is a safe haven: the hospital. Prisoners come to the hospital when they need a rest for a few days, and the doctors are actually kind and lenient with them. Some of the convicts choose a sort of slow suicide: they steep their snuff in vodka, then drink it off. I don’t know the mechanism behind it, but this somehow gives them consumption, from which they die a horrible death. This passage reminds me of some of the stories I’ve heard about people dying of AIDS; I don’t understand why, but AIDS stories always make me extremely emotional.

And now as I write this, I vividly recall the death of the consumptive patient, Mihailov, whose bed was nearly opposite mine, not far from Ustyantsev’s. He died, I remember, four days after I came in. Possibly I have mentioned the case of the consumptives through unconsciously recalling the impressions and ideas which came into my mind at the sight of that death. I knew little of Mihailov himself, however. He was quite young, not more than five-and-twenty, tall, thin, and of extremely attractive appearance. He was in the “special division,” and was strangely silent, always gently and quietly melancholy, as though he were “drying up” in prison, as the convicts said of him. He left a pleasant memory among them. I only remember that he had fine eyes, and I really do not know why he comes back to my mind so distinctly. He died at three o’clock in the afternoon on a bright frosty day. I remember the glowing slanting rays of the sun pierced through the green frozen panes of our windows. The sunshine was streaming full on the dying man. He was unconscious, and lay for several hours in the death agony. From early morning he had scarcely recognised those who went up to him. The patients would have liked to do something for him, seeing his distress; his breathing was deep, painful and raucous; his chest heaved as though he could not get air. He flung off his quilt and his clothes, and began at last to tear off his shirt; even that seemed a weight to him. The other patients went to his help and took off his shirt. It was terrible to see that long, long body, the arms and legs wasted to the bone, the sunken belly, the strained chest, the ribs standing out like a skeleton’s. Nothing remained on his body but a wooden cross and a little bag with a relic in it, and his fetters which might, it seemed, have slipped off his wasted legs. Half an hour before his death the whole ward was hushed, we began to talk almost in whispers. Everyone moved about noiselessly. The patients did not talk much, and then of other things; they only looked now and then at the dying man, who was gasping more and more terribly. At last, with a straying and uncertain hand, he fumbled at the cross on his chest and began pulling it off, as though even that were a weight that worried and oppressed him. The patients removed the cross, too. Ten minutes later he died. They knocked at the door for the sentry and told him. An attendant came in, looked blankly at the dead man, and went to fetch a medical assistant. The medical assistant, a good-natured young fellow somewhat excessively occupied with his personal appearance, which was prepossessing however, soon came in, went up to the dead man with rapid steps that sounded noisy in the silent ward, and with a particularly unconcerned air, which he seemed to have assumed for the occasion, took his wrist, felt his pulse and went away with a wave of his hand. Word was sent to the sergeant in charge: the criminal was an important one and could not be certified as dead without special ceremony. While we were waiting for the sergeant, one of the convicts suggested in a low voice that it might be as well to close the dead man’s eyes. Another man listened attentively, without a word went up to the dead man and closed his eyes. Seeing the cross lying on the pillow, he picked it up, looked at it, and put it round Mihailov’s neck again; then he crossed himself. Meanwhile, the dead face was growing rigid; the sunlight was flickering on it; the mouth was half open; two rows of white young teeth glistened between the thin parched lips.

One of the things that I noticed here, again and again, is that FPN always notices and comments on whether a man is handsome or not. He seems to really enjoy spending time with men who are young and handsome, but he doesn’t expand on why, and this question of why does seem to bother him at times. I’m not saying that Dostoevsky was a closet case; I’m just remarking on a trend. It also seems to me that the convicts have no privacy or personal space, not even to bathe. The bath-house is far too small for them, so they’re packed in as tightly as possible, so tightly that the water runs off of one man and onto his neighbors. It does seem like a great opportunity for some homosexual voyeurism, but Dostoevsky doesn’t go there. FPN sees a mass of limbs but doesn’t get into specifics.

There is a great diversity in this prison – there are some Poles, some Muslims from farther south, and even a Jew. The groups don’t always mix, and the Muslims mostly don’t speak Russian, but sometimes when we read Dostoevsky it seems like Petersburg, Moscow, and a little patch of countryside are all that Russia amounts to, but even at this time it was a vast empire, and convicts from all over got sent to Siberia. The one element of diversity we don’t see is in gender. For the convicts, there are two types of women: good wives and mothers who love unconditionally and are universally absent, and whores. The whores may not be good (or deserve names), but at least they’re here.  There is one exception to this rule, in the story “Akulka’s Husband.” Akulka is a good girl who gets treated like a whore, a passive object for others to project their fantasies on, and so she gets beaten a lot and eventually dies.

I mentioned this as a story – the book is not a continuous narrative. He compresses all of his time into a year, like Thoreau did with Walden, so that we have that same autumn-winter-spring-summer progression that we get in an Austen novel. It’s like someone sat down next to him and said, “So, Dostoevsky, tell me about Siberia.” I recognize it because it’s the same sort of unorganized rambling that I do when someone sits next to me and says, “So, Occ Man, tell me about Saudi Arabia,” or “What was Brazil like?” or “How does someone like you, raised as a Mormon and a true believer, get married, have kids, come out of the closet, get divorced and leave your church?” It’s too big a subject to handle in normal, polite conversation, and the person asking rarely wants a complete answer. It’s taken me a while to figure out how to answer to the other person’s satisfaction – tell a story or two that show a little foreignness but not too much, and make the stories funny. Avoid telling them about the depression and isolation because that’s not what they want to hear. It’s a bit like the first half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – they want to hear about the adventure, but they don’t want to know that most of the adventure involves being tensely bored, and they certainly don’t want to feel the tension or the boredom. How does one make these intensely difficult experiences into entertaining nuggets to share at cocktail parties? I’m still working on that. The funny stories don’t spring to mind all the time, so I could talk about the two-foot-high sunflowers or the stray cat that got adopted at the desert compound, or I could talk about tromping through the jungle and drinking out of a stream or walking on a road built by slaves two hundred years ago, or I could talk about how much I loved my ex-wife and that my divorce was just like a straight man’s or how it took me seven years to stop being afraid of my own feelings. Dostoevsky’s book is written from the vantage point of the guy who has just finished the experience but hasn’t yet figured out how to share it.

FPN says that prison is the first time he’s ever spent time with the working class, and from the homogenization of them I’d guess it’s Dostoevsky’s first time too. I grew up among the working poor, but my mother did not, unless you count the maid, and in her stories I always felt that we had somehow come down in the world. We might be the poor children of an air-conditioning repairman, but her father had worked closely with Eisenhower during the War, attended Cornell University, and become a civil engineer for the federal government. Sometimes I can still hear her voice in my head, telling us not to act like the neighbor kids (of whom she did not approve, but we were way out in the country and there was literally no one else to play with), or not to act like a black person (that was for my younger siblings, never for me), or not to act like a fairy (that one was for me alone, never directed at the others), because we were better than all of them. Before I finished high school I had worked out that she was wrong, that no person is better than any other, and that money and culture do not determine a person’s worth, but I had to work that out on my own. Dostoevsky learns that lesson too, but here in prison.

There is no standard by which to measure the soul and its development. Even education itself is no test. I am ready to be the first to testify that, in the midst of these utterly uneducated and down-trodden sufferers, I came across instances of the greatest spiritual refinement. Sometimes one would know a man for years in prison and despise him and think that he was not a human being but a brute. And suddenly a moment will come by chance when his soul will suddenly reveal itself in an involuntary outburst, and you see in it such wealth, such feeling, such heart, such a vivid understanding of its own suffering, and of the suffering of others, that your eyes are open and for the first moment you can’t believe what you have seen and heard yourself. The contrary happens too; education is sometimes found side by side with such barbarity, such cynicism, that it revolts you, and in spite of the utmost good-nature and all previous theories on the subject, you can find no justification or apology.

This is one of the things that we come to Dostoevsky for, this understanding of every person’s individual worth and dignity, what George Eliot describes as ‘sympathy,’ but in this book he’s still developing that understanding. I feel like it hasn’t quite become a habit of mind yet; this is me as a kid on the playground, wanting to be involved but left on the outside because I wasn’t athletic and I talked funny (Boston accent in rural North Carolina). The author hasn’t yet reached his maturity. That makes this book an interesting signpost in his development, but for fans of The Major Novels, the ones in The World Literary Canon, it’s a little disorienting and disappointing.

Henry Miller has such a reputation, I was rather expecting something racy and exciting, and then again, there’s the title. In that respect, this one was a bit of a disappointment. It’s like reading Jack Kerouac all over again, but with more of a message.

When peace comes it descends upon a world too exhausted to show any reaction except a dumb feeling of relief. The men at the helm, who were spared the horrors of combat, now play their ignominious role in which greed and hatred rival one another for mastery. The men who bore the brunt of the struggle are too sickened and disgusted to show any desire to participate in the rearrangement of the world. All they ask is to be left alone to enjoy the luxury of the petty, workaday rhythm which once seemed so dull and barren. How different the new order would be if we could consult the veteran instead of the politician! But logic has it that we ordain innocent millions to slaughter one another, and when the sacrifice is completed, we authorize a handful of bigoted, ambitious men who have never known what it is to suffer to rearrange our lives. What chance has a lone individual to dissent when he has nothing to sanction his protest except his wounds? Who cares about wounds when the war is over? Get them out of sight, all these wounded and maimed and mutilated! Resume work! Take up life where you left off, those of you who are strong and able! The dead will be given monuments; the mutilated will be pensioned off. Let’s get on – business as usual and no feeble sentimentality about the horrors of war. When the next war comes we’ll be ready for them! Und so weiter . . . .

This makes me think about the veterans I’ve taught – for example, a twenty-one-year-old Marine with brain damage from an IED in Fallujah, which prevents him from operating a motor vehicle, and yet he can’t get any sympathy or slack from college professors in terms of attendance policies or length of assignments. Yes, war is bad, but my protest of the Iraq War does not consist of limiting opportunities for success for the kids who fought in it. They’re just filling a need – it’s the politicians who create the need, and they are the ones responsible. But they sometimes have no military experience of their own, or they felt the experience to have built their character or some such nonsense, so they don’t let themselves think of the thousands of lives they put at risk every day. One of the things I really liked about Obama was the fact that he worked with veterans, so he had seen the effects of war and its impact on the daily lives of the young people we send into the world. When he talked about finishing our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, he had specific faces in mind, people he knew who had been there. I didn’t get excited about all of his military decisions, but I respect the position from which he made those decisions.

Miller also addresses the immigrant experience.

But the real reason, as I soon discovered, was that I wanted to be among English-speaking people; I wanted to hear English spoken twenty-four hours of the day, and nothing but English. In my weak condition that was like falling back on the bosom of the Lord.

Yes. Leaving Saudi Arabia to vacation in Paris was amazing and fantastic and all of that, but sometimes we need to be surrounded by our native language. Language is an essential part of identity, and it is overwhelming to spend a few years being constantly reminded of what isolates you from the people around you. The irony is that Miller leaves Paris for London, but his writing is riddled with late-1930s, early-1940s American slang. He makes it across and talks with the border guards, but they speak a different English than he does, and they reject his visa application and send him back across the Channel. Speaking English does not make us all brothers.

My favorite story of the collection is the longest, “Astrological Fricassee.” It is about Miller’s meeting with a gay Hollywood astrologer, after which he goes to a huge party the astrologer is hosting. Miller fakes an interest in the zodiac to get in, apparently to drink free liquor and meet girls. The feigning becomes pretty obvious, though, so he’s not as successful as he would like with the ladies, but he’s very successful with the drinking. It becomes clear that Miller is not the sort of guest one wants to have, because he’s still there hours after everyone else has left, after the host’s boyfriend comes around and starts acting affectionately (after the party, remember what year this is), after the host has stopped being polite and has started asking him pointblank to leave. Eventually Miller and the two other obnoxious guests who won’t leave make enough noise that someone calls the police, and the gay couple disappears into the night. I guess alcohol gave people some leeway, or they gave themselves permission to be what they truly were when everyone else was elevated. It’s a world that I have a hard time understanding, because for me proximity to alcoholic beverages was a result of coming out of the closet, not being inside it.

I didn’t have much love or laughter from this book, and toward the end it just gets weird. If you’re on a Henry Miller kick this won’t hurt you, but if you want a good introduction to him, I’d choose one of the more celebrated works, like Tropic of Cancer. I may not have read it, but it must be a better sample of the goodness of his writing.

Those of you who read this blog to keep up with the developments in my life will be pleased to know that I’m going to publish a number of posts that I wrote without putting online. Back at the end of May, I was losing my patience with my relationship, and that frustration sort of exploded one day while I was writing. I wasn’t sure if he was monitoring my online activity, so I kept it on my hard drive, along with the next few months of posts where I worked out what to do. In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have worried so much – after the first few months with him, I wrote a letter about the frustrations I had then, and he said that I was just blowing off steam, so he gave himself permission to disregard the honest expression of my feelings. Shortly thereafter he asked me to stop verbalizing everything I was feeling because I was too up-and-down for him. Well, I never stopped being a volcano of turbulent emotion, I just stopped sharing with him who I am. With thirty years in the closet, I have a lot of experience in hiding inconvenient feelings. But I’ve moved back to North Carolina, and he didn’t break up with me, but he didn’t come with me either. A wise friend suggested that he’s going for a slow fadeaway instead of an immediate breakup, and that seems right, and one more example of how I feel he’s not fair to me and doesn’t respect or understand my emotions. He once accused me of being a coward because I dislike conflict so intensely, and while that may be true, I’m not the one who’s afraid of being single.

The plan?

Simple.

Murder multiple motherfuckers, save one asshole.

McCrary has a few lines that are absolute gems, like this one. Most of the book, though, was not very satisfying. It’s a tawdry action flick written down. The titular Remo is a New York defense attorney, severely alcoholic and addicted to Ritalin (keeps him focused because he comes to work drunk), who is on the run because of the singular good deed he’s done in his life. He threw a robbery case, found and dug up the money, and donated it to a charity that supports the families of the people who were killed in the robbery. He’s sort of worthless as an action hero, but that can lead to funny situations sometimes. However, McCrary’s is a grim sort of humor, at its best.

Leslie likes to fuck men. Sometimes she ends up fucking some dudes that she doesn’t really like. It happens.

So what?

When you’re a thirty-three-year-old woman living in New York and you like to fuck men, you may find yourself bedding a few pricks. Yes, the literal nature of that statement is understood, but you get it. An attractive woman in a demanding job, working ridiculous hours, surrounded by men of loose moral fiber may have to drop her standards in order to get some.

Sex or the high road. The low road has an impressive win/loss record. Again, it happens. All of this swirls around Leslie’s pretty little head as she nudges back and forth on her back. On a desk. In the dark. Having sex with one of those previously-mentioned pricks.

Reading this book and wondering why anyone would either write or enjoy it, it seems like pure wish fulfillment. Remo is rich as anything (and we poor people would love to be rich like that), but he’s also miserably depressed (and we poor people want to believe that rich people are deeply unhappy and morally bankrupt). Yet, he is also approachable, because most of us can identify with being bored with our jobs and yearning for a life with more meaning and focus. I know, since I’m a teacher it’s practically blasphemy to admit that my professional life is not a constant blend of Mr Holland’s Opus, Freedom Writers, and To Sir, With Love, but there you have it. It’s a job, not a divine calling. My life feels focused and meaningful not when I’m teaching writing, but when I’m actually writing – using words instead of explaining their use.

And, in the end, justice is done. The bad guys get killed, Remo connects with the son his ex-wife keeps away from him, and the get-away driver who converted to Jesus takes it as his life mission to keep saving Remo. The Acknowledgements section implies that he was killed in an early draft, but that a test reader encouraged McCrary to keep Lester alive. Saving Lester does make for a better book, and since this one spawned a whole series, I’d predict that he becomes a sort of sidekick. I find the idea of my continuing the series to be rather unlikely. There’s so much unhappiness, and not much humor to lighten it up. If you like tight, action-packed thrill rides, go for it. It reads quickly and easily. But I’ll go back to my Victorians.