Category Archives: Life

How I Spent My Summer Vacation (which lasted two years, apparently)

American Popular Culture in the Era of Terror

Hello! It’s been a very long time since my last post, which was October 2013. That’s at least 14 years in blog years. While I’m not coming back to regular blogging–not yet, anyway–if there’s anyone out there who remembers me, I wanted to share some great news.

I recently published a book, American Popular Culture in the Era of Terror: Falling Skies, Dark Knights Rising, and Collapsing Cultures (Praeger, 2015)It’s in some ways a vast elaboration of some of the topics and cultural criticism that I spent two years exploring on this very blog. Although, and I can’t emphasize this enough, it took far longer than a hour to write.

Here’s the description:

Bringing together the most popular genres of the 21st century, this book argues that Americans have entered a new era of narrative dominated by the fear—and wish fulfillment—of the breakdown of authority and terror itself.

Bringing together disparate and popular genres of the 21st century, American Popular Culture in the Era of Terror: Falling Skies, Dark Knights Rising, and Collapsing Cultures argues that popular culture has been preoccupied by fantasies and narratives dominated by the anxiety —and, strangely, the wish fulfillment—that comes from the breakdowns of morality, family, law and order, and storytelling itself. From aging superheroes to young adult dystopias, heroic killers to lustrous vampires, the figures of our fiction, film, and television again and again reveal and revel in the imagery of terror. Kavadlo’s single-author, thesis-driven book makes the case that many of the novels and films about September 11, 2001, have been about much more than terrorism alone, while popular stories that may not seem related to September 11 are deeply connected to it. 

The book examines New York novels written in response to September 11 along with the anti-heroes of television and the resurgence of zombies and vampires in film and fiction to draw a correlation between Kavadlo’s “Era of Terror” and the events of September 11, 2001. Geared toward college students, graduate students, and academics interested in popular culture, the book connects multiple topics to appeal to a wide audience.

Features

  • Provides an interesting new framework in which to examine popular culture
  • Examines films, television shows, and primary texts such as novels for evidence of cultural anxiety and a preoccupation with terror
  • Offers insightful and original interpretations of primary texts
  • Suggests possible conclusions about cultural anxiety regarding breakdowns of tradition and authority

 You can read more about it here at Praeger’s website, or you can go to good ole Amazon.

As it turns out, I miss writing the blog. And I have an idea for the next book, and some of the ideas  should work well as the kind of short explorations that blogs are known for, with the plan to revise and expand in book form later. Here’s hoping–for me, anyway, and maybe for you?–that I’ll be able to get that project underway and that, a few years down the road, it will lead to another book.

Sorry about the long internet silence, sorry about some more subsequent silence, and here’s hoping that 2016 is a big year for American Popular Culture in the Era of Terror as well as the beginning of the next project.

Cheers!

 

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Fall: Verb, Noun, Season, Metaphor

fall

Although I’m facing a late summer heat wave, and it’s  still about three weeks away, the beginning of school makes me think it’s fall.  It’s a strange word, “fall”: really a verb—action word!—technically also a noun.  Kids can recite “person, place, or thing” in a heartbeat, but fall is not any of these, not even exactly a thing.  Ideas are also nouns, but fall is not quite an idea.  Yes, in most parts of the world the temperature and weather literally change.  But seasons are also metaphors, and the idea of fall is the most powerful one.

Many people say they love spring.  But spring is a cliché.  Even the name “spring” sounds too eager to please, too self-helpy, archaic slang that should have gone the way of “keen” or “corking” or “moxie.”  Warmer weather, longer days, shorter clothes, life in bloom, fertility symbols like bunnies and eggs [1], school almost out, and, if you’re into that sort of thing, resurrections.   What’s not to like?  Spring ahead, fall behind.

It takes a special person to love fall.   Trees sense the cold and pull back unto themselves, sacrificing their own expendable body parts for the upcoming months of darkness to save the whole, like trapped animals gnawing off their legs.  The leaves self sacrifice for the greater good, tiny reverse lifeboats abandoning ship, each a desiccated little martyr and hero.

We imagine that it’s the leaves that do the falling.  But people also retreat in winter as well: into more interesting clothes, and the interiors of home and self, even more comforting knowing that it’s getting cold and dark outside.  And some of us like the feeling of falling.

Our language reflects fall’s pleasant equivocality.  We speak of falling asleep, as something that happens almost by itself, pleasantly passive even as millions actively take medication and work hard to achieve it.  You’d think falling would be easy.  Then, once we do satisfyingly fall asleep, many of have recurring nightmares. About falling.

Warning: this is not a metaphor!

Warning: this is not a metaphor!

We fall in love, the language itself shaping our understanding of life’s most delicate/ confusing/ overwhelming/ important/ wonderful/terrible feeling.  Fall suggests the suddenness of love at first sight, the helplessness, lack of control, and even danger.  I fell for her so hard.  Sounds painful.  Sometimes it is.  Unlike real falling, but like falling sleep, trying to fall in love will probably prevent it.  What would happen, though, if we did not fall in love, but, say, flew in love—or settled in love?  Floated in love, or ran in love?  Poured or drew or brewed or even stewed… in love?  Crashed in love?  When I met her, we didn’t dance in love right away, but gradually danced closer as we got to know each other.  Once we fall into a metaphor, we lack the imagination to get back up.

do-not-fall-in-love

Few of us have fallen in any serious way in real life, and if we did, it was likely a horrifying accident, not something we would wish for.  And if we’ve not just literally fallen, but fallen in something, it’s even worse.  What, other than love, can you fall in that’s not terrible? And why fall in love at all?  Even if I try to change the image, love is still, metaphorically, something to be in, a container, at best; an abyss, at worst.  But most of us pine to fall in love.  Sometimes it feels good to fall, as so many amusement park rides simulate.  And, in the words of Jeff Bridges’s character in Crazy Heart, “Sometimes falling feels like flying/For a little while.”

In some ways, though, the idea of the fall has shaped the views of our moral and mortal world.  Last semester, when I taught Paradise Lost, students were struck by the sadness, but also the hopefulness, of Adam and Eve’s fall, their expulsion from Eden.  Yes, the fall is bad.  But,as the Angel explains,

This having learnt, thou hast attained the sum
Of Wisdom; hope no higher, though all the Stars
Thou knew’st by name, and all th’ ethereal Powers,
All secrets of the deep, all Nature’s works,
Or works of God in Heav’n, Air, Earth, or Sea,
And all riches of this World enjoy’dst,
And all the rule, one Empire: only add
Deeds to thy knowledge answerable, add Faith,
Add Virtue, Patience, Temperance, add Love,
By name to come called Charity, the soul
Of all the rest: then wilt though not be loth
To leave this Paradise, but shalt possess
A paradise within thee, happier far.
(XII.575–587)

That’s precisely what’s better about fall than spring.  The happiness is internal, not just external.  it allows for paradise within.  Besides, you can’t have spring without fall, can’t regain paradise without losing, can’t love or sleep without falling, and you can’t fall in something that’s not already deep.  Spring—even Paradise—eschews fall’s depths.

The sunshine spring lovers love?  It’s carcinogenic.  The renewal of life? Life is a sexually transmitted disease with a 100% fatality rate.

Happy Fall!

Time: 60 minutes.


[1] And egg-laying bunnies. I shudder to remember the Cadbury Egg commercials showing a rabbit laying a chocolate egg.  KIDS: if you see this is real life, IT IS NOT CHOCOLATE.

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Reflections on Glass

I did this

I did this

I smashed my glass back door last week, a casualty of a drive-by pebble kicked up while weed whacking.  It wasn’t a dramatic shattering, Batman careening through a skylight—just a tap, a ping, and then the fracture spread.  I couldn’t see the ripples, but every time I looked it was wider and wider and more diffused, and I could hear it, tic-tic-tic-tic-tic, like the ominous soundtrack of children standing on thin ice.  It took at least twenty-four hours for the tempered glass to completely web over. 

I called the glass company with the best slogan: We Fix Your Panes.  Yes.  That is what I want. And I couldn’t help but think of all of the glass and mirror metaphors we live by, because we literally and figuratively see ourselves in our glass. (And our glasses, but that’s for another post.)  People who live in glass houses should not throw stones, or maybe we just need to be more careful about rocks lying near lawn tools and windows.  

Yet the resulting door looked, to me, deliberate, and beautiful.  We take transparency for granted, imagining that glass lets our sight out and light in without calling any attention to itself, an invisible shield against the outside.  We can be indoors but not see the door itself; instead, we think we see the world as it is.  The cracks made me see the window rather than through it, bringing the difference between insides and outsides into sharp relief. Not just through the looking glass, but at looking the glass. 

It has been over a week now and I’m still waiting for the replacement window to arrive, but I’m in no rush anyway. I find myself looking at and out the broken glass more than any of the others in the house.  I’m glad that I can’t see right through it, and that, unlike the other three adjacent glass doors, it does not reflect back on me in the same way anymore.  I prefer for mirrors to be mirrors and glass to be glass. And as any car’s side mirror will tell you, Objects in Mirror are Closer Than They Appear.  It’s less a warning to drivers than a snippet of found poetry, an accidental koan.  We rely on reflections to represent reality, when in reality they are only reflections.  

objects in mirror

I just finished creating and teaching a new class, a first-year general education Western Civilization class on the topic of Hell in literature.  And images of, and in, mirrors were a recurring theme, including Sartre’s No Exit, where hell is not just, famously, “other people,” but also a gaudy hotel room strangely devoid of mirrors.  The three trapped characters can see only each other, never themselves.  As they did not reflect on their actions in life, so they are denied the same in death. They can only see one another and are controlled by each other’s powerful gazes. 

Less famously but more elaborately, Gloria Naylor (who also wrote Women of Brewster Place) has a novel called Linden Hills, modeled on Dante’s Inferno (which we also read). Again, mirrors seem to follow characters everywhere, here as a way to force these still-living people (Linden Hills is a more of a hell-on-Earth allegory than a straightforward vision of punishment in the afterlife) to ponder what part of themselves—referred to as the mirror in their soul—they are willing to barter in exchange for greater material success. 

The book holds on to the possibility that  reflections can be truthful—“Mirror, mirror on the wall,” etc.  But I don’t believe they ever can be.  Teachers use the word “reflection” to describe a particular kind of writing assignment, one that asks for thought, retrospection, and maybe a little personal soul searching.  Dracula does not appear in a mirror, presumably because he has no soul, but also because he is not capable of this kind of human reflection: rumination, remorse, regret for his centuries of crimes. He cannot do anything differently.

But we need to be mindful of the problems of reflection as well: they can be fragmented, like my door; unflattering, like in a bathroom, or too kind, like in a department store; like the car’s mirror, dangerously close, or not close enough.  And even the best reflections are really reversals: not the way things are, but their opposite. 

Narcissus was never in love with himself; he was in love with his reflection.  In the end, the only person in the world that you can never see is yourself. 

And now, I need to call the glass company again. It has been longer than 4-6 days, and I my panes are still not fixed.

Jurassic Park mirror

Time: a ten minute rough draft yesterday and forty six minutes just now.

Hourman note: Thanks to the WordPress world and all my new Followers.  I hope you like what you’re reading. It’s because of you that I’m feeling motivated to get back to writing the blog on a regular basis.

Jesse Kavadlo

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Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Nightlight

Warning: may not be safe for children's emotional health

Warning: may not be safe for children’s emotional health

My son Dorian’s nightlight broke.  It was, I eulogized to him, truly an exceptional nightlight: its bulb was surrounded by blue glitter suspended in liquid-filled glass, its warmth combining the cool of a snow globe and the heat of a lava lamp.  It had comforted him against the darkness for several months, a talisman against invisible monsters.  But then I noticed that it was dripping—dripping directly into its electrical outlet, reminding me once again how companies routinely market the most gorgeous garbage imaginable.  To Dorian, freshly five years old, the nightlight was a sacrosanct promise of protection and a new day.  To me, it was an invitingly colored leaky cauldron of antifreeze plugged into a live socket next to my child’s bed, presenting any number of fatal opportunities.  It, obviously, had to go.  But Dorian’s tears flowed more freely than even his sodden nightlight’s, and no hugs, no kisses, and no declarations of replacement could console him.  The immediate substitute was a poor understudy.  Its ordinary plastic, inattentively embellished with the obligatory stars and crescents, only underscored the original’s brilliance.  Dorian lobbed thick sobs into his pillow and the night, the din punctuated only by the pregnant silences of lungs reloading.

Finally, my wife, Aura, managed to comfort Dorian by telling him a story: the tale of his older brother Jonah’s lost balloon.  Again, it was not just any balloon: it was a silver helium balloon in the shape of a diving dolphin.  We bought it at a parade when he was two, and he was so happy with it that he wanted desperately to hold the string himself rather than tie it to his wrist.  The ending was inevitable: he accidentally let go.  I ran after it, crossing the parade to chase it, and when it eluded me by mere inches, I heard the crowd gasp.  I didn’t mean to upstage the festivities, but it was clear that the brief saga of a father’s failed rescue of his son’s balloon captured the tragic mythos of parenting better than the semi-cacophony of a high school marching band.  We helplessly watched it float away, growing smaller and smaller.  Jonah cried for days.

But Dorian stopped crying.  And then he asked for more sad stories.  And so they came: about Aura’s butterfly ring, her only special possession in a Bronx working-class rental unit childhood devoid of house and car, to say nothing of fairy princess tea parties.  The ring was lost for days, despite frantic search and rescue efforts, until she accidentally found it, broken underfoot, while her friend Lauren was over.  Aura cried so much that Lauren, nonplussed, had to be sent home. 

And then more: about the time I threatened to pop my younger brother’s balloon and he, my brother, popped it himself to prevent me from popping it, and how I, not he, mourned.  About how the very same thing happened again, this time over a record we were arguing over that he then broke to prevent me from having.  About the tragic sunglasses trilogy: the ones I dropped while riding my bike, and how a car ran them over, and my futile effort to retrieve the shattered pieces and flattened frame.  About another pair lost on a water flume ride at Six Flags.  And another forgotten in a restaurant and how I stubbornly didn’t go back for them.  (I have only recently permited myself sunglasses again.)  One hour and a dozen dead treasures later, Dorian was asleep.  The next night, he was fine. 

Even at five, Dorian saw the horror in his loss.  More than a beacon, certainly more than a way to avoid tripping on the way to the bathroom, a nightlight is a surrogate parent: even after Mommy and Daddy tuck the boys in and go downstairs to do nighttime grown up things (read: eat ice cream), the nightlight, ever vigilant, ever loyal, remains on guard.  How could something so precious bleed?  How could it die?  Yet it could happen even to a nightlight, a sign of childhood but a symbol of life.  It could happen to a balloon, so much like a living thing, yet its membranes are even more fragile, its lifespan even shorter, yet its nature even more recklessly fugitive.  It could even happen to a butterfly ring, emblem of metamorphosis, of the wishful childhood change from ugly and earthbound to beautiful and free, to fly away, not rashly like a balloon, but with color and panache, transformed and brilliant.  If a nightlight can go out, if a suicidal balloon can abandon its young caretaker, if a ring can be broken, if sunglasses can repeatedly fall by the wayside, where does that leave us, aside from lying alone in the dark, balloonlessly, with no sunglasses?  If a nightlight can go out, then anything can.  Dorian may not have had the words for it, but he experienced his first intimations of mortality.  Everyone’s nightlight goes out.  It is, in the end, the very dread that leads many an adult to lie in bed awake well into the night, or to keep a small light on, just in case.  Parents included.          

FIN

FIN

 Time: another explanation. I wrote this a few years ago before I started blogging and timing myself, but with the attention WordPress gave me by Freshly Pressing Transference, my last entry, I wanted to follow up quickly with something in the same vein that I’ve never posted. Thanks to the WordPress editors and all of the new readers who found me.  So maybe now is not the time to continue my 2013 hiatus.

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Transference

 

DVD-Video_bottom-side

Two years after buying a recordable DVD player, one year after the threats from my wife got serious, I begin transferring the home movies of my children from VHS tapes to DVDs.  I know I’m still at least one platform behind, but any digital form is better than one that can be destroyed by light, air, and time.

Because they’re analogue, I need to play them in real time to copy them.  And as I do, I watch them, and I realize that the last time I watched them was the last time I transferred them, from camcorder cassettes to VHS.  Their entire existence rests on converting them from one obsolete medium to the next.  

As I watch, I see my young self and young wife, recent parents and, far more seriously, recent homebuyers.  I see my oldest son, now a teenager, as a baby, then a toddler, then an older brother to his new baby brother.  And I think, Ah, so young, so cute.  The kids, too.  The tapes from twelve to eight years ago show a new family in a small, snowbound Minnesota house, each of us swaddled and layered in Fleet Farm sweat clothes, the new baby in so many layers that he’s a Midwest Matryoshka.  All laughing and smiling, just joy, spinning, dancing.  Nine years, four houses, and three states elapse in two hours, and our daughter, now five, is born. 

Yet looking at these people on TV, I realize that I don’t remember the times this way. What I remember is the stress and mess, the lack of money, the ever-present question: what’s going to happen?  Not unlike now, but then even more so.   I never liked recording the movies, never feigned love or expertise manning the camera.  I always felt that parents who spent their time with a lens in front of their eyes were blocking their view of their children, already anticipating the minute when that very moment would turn to nostalgia: Ah, look at us. We were so happy fifteen minutes ago. 

But it has not been fifteen minutes. It has been fifteen years, and I can see not just how fresh but how fragile the moments were. I’m glad I didn’t film too much, the Warren Report of our lives, the volumes Proust would have filmed if he’d lived in the Midwest and owned a camera.  But I’m grateful that I have something, a few compressed flashes beyond the faded reel of my own mottled memory, and that these videos are more luminous and numinous than my mental VHS’s translucent haze.  I wish that I could transfer the images in my head to a newer platform as well, and as the last tape cuts to static, I close my eyes and imagine how today will look to the future me of the next transference, how I’ll look at the deteriorating self that I now see entering middle age, and instead I marvel at how young and thin, how thick the hair, how joyous the moments, since I have recorded proof that they will not last.

 

Time: less than an hour. Lost track.

This was published in the 2013 issue of Maryville University’s literary magazine, Magnolia.

Hourman update: despite two posts this month, still on hiatus.  Thanks for hanging in there.

–Jesse Kavadlo

 

 

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The New School Year! Or, Despair is Not Just for Students; Or, Two Cheers for Uncertainty

Dickens’ opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities—the famous “best of times; worst of times”—sometimes at risk of turning into a cliché, instead seems truer all the time.  I can listen to any song ever recorded and ingest better wines, cheeses, fruit, and fish than all the kings of yesteryear, even as the world is plagued by more apocalyptic scenarios that I can recount here, from scorched earth to possible pandemics to rogue nukes to real-life zombies to the end of year tax cliff.

In keeping, this best of times/worst of times dichotomy also works for the opening of the college term. For students: friends! College life! And best of all: possibilities.  And the worst, as they often discover after a class or two: the pressure, the exhaustion, the work. College would be so much fun if not for the classes.

I too relish the energy and opportunity of the beginning of the school year.  But I also feel doubt, even dread.  Unlike for students, the angst isn’t about work, which I love.  It’s existential. Does teaching students to read, write, and think make any difference in the world at all?  Americans hardly read books anymore; schools are teaching less and less fiction and creative writing; writers can’t stop plagiarizing anyway. So why bother? The majority calmly play Angry Birds while Rome burns, but is teaching writing and literature—or, worse, writing or blogging itself—any better, or just a more painful and equally pointless endeavor?

I didn’t always feel this way. If anything, ironically I worry more now that I have more experience and am, arguably, at the top of my teaching game. Unlike during my first few years, I no longer feel like an imposter, and unlike future decades from now, when I’ll remember the good ole days of online course management systems, discussion boards, and blogs before it all went downhill with the introduction of cerebral cortex implants in 2032, I still know what I’m doing.

Maybe it’s me.  An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education last spring suggested that mid-career professors were less happy than those who were starting out, despite better pay and job security: “The survey shows that on most key measures, professors are actually happier while working toward tenure than they are once they’ve earned it.”  This reversal calls for more clichés: journey not destination, be careful what you wish for, etc etc etc.

But in another sense, this dissatisfaction is a narrative problem as well: what do you do after you’ve reached the end?  I am applying for my final promotion this year, to what is commonly known as full professor, and after that, despite that I’m on the early side of midlife, I have nowhere left to go professionally. Except, I suppose, down.

Or maybe: it’s OK.

Not the problems, but the doubt, the ambivalence, the conflict.  In addition to more doubts, I feel a concomitant skepticism of the usual virtues of certainty and decisiveness.  It appalls me that the dictionary lists “weakness” as an antonym of “determination,” and that, say, Hamlet’s doubt is often taught as his tragic flaw.  If anything, the seven deadly sins get it right: pride is far more dangerous than uncertainty, since it is through doubt, even vacillation, that we grow, reflect, change, and learn.  If anything, Hamlet’s real flaw was the same as in the ancient tragedies: his hubris.  He believed that the world revolved around him, and that he could treat those closest to him, especially Ophelia, with caprice and contempt, BECAUSE HE WAS WRONGED.

The little voice inside that always asks, “Why should students have to do this?” is my students’ best advocate, so that when they think—or ask—the same question, they’ll learn that I do not treat the question casually or cynically.  It’s the best question I can think of.

One of my little pleasures is that the word “Commencement” means beginning; it is used to signal the opening of the term, but it is also now synonymous with completing one’s education, graduation, or what feels like the end of something for students.  Yet once they graduate, most jobs are about the same in September as they are in January or April, and the narrative wonder that’s built into the school year disappears.  But I cherish it, so that I always have another start, and a new conclusion that begets a new start and another finale, to look forward to. Students—and teachers—get to experience life with a series of beginnings and endings built in.  Everyone else receives only one ending.

At the risk of sounding trite, students should read because it’s fun, and a different, deeper, better, even more lasting kind of fun than Fruit Ninja.  And that sometimes, it also happens to be beautiful, or ugly, or compelling or—and I use this word despite doubt, skepticism, and ambivalence—true.

Although I reserve the right to change my mind on that.

Time: 60 minutes. Back on schedule.

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No Fun

“Anhedonia”: the original title of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, a motif in Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections, a word I felt immediately. Literally, it means “without pleasure” (an + hēdon), and it expresses something like the inability to enjoy things.  According to experts, it’s associated with clinical depression, depressive disorder, endogenous depression, and major depressive episodes.   I don’t feel depressed, or in denial about depression. I would even say that I am a happy person, give or take some seasonal affective disorder and how well I avoid cable news. But I frequently question why so many people find certain things pleasurable when I can’t. Pleasure, joy, amusement: these terms are obvious in the abstract—by definition, everyone likes “fun”—but they’re problematic in the particulars. Especially for me. 

Technically, I don’t have anhedonia, since it’s associated with a loss of pleasure in things that one used to take pleasure in, and there’s too much that I never enjoyed in the first place. No Code Red Mountain Dew, KFC Double Down, Cool Ranch anything. No “Two and a Half Men,” “[Anything] with the Stars,” “Bridalplasty.” No “Hey, Soul Sister,” “Tik Tok,” the double down of “Glee”’s cast singing “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Maybe these are easy targets. Maybe I’m elitist. Maybe my age is showing. But everyone else seems to like them, and I like other popular entertainment, and I would never have liked them, even as a kid. Especially as kid. On the contrary, I like to think I’ve grown remarkably tolerant and mellow.

I can’t listen to a human voice on the radio unless it’s singing. Without Autotune.  Or has a British accent on NPR.  I can’t tolerate movies featuring talking dogs, especially if they depict real dogs in digitized lip synch. I have never watched a game of professional baseball on television except long enough to change the channel.  I have never participated in any competitive sport, spending every high school phys ed class sitting in the bleachers talking to Tommy about Metallica. Mr. Arbuse didn’t care because I was wearing my gym uniform, as I’ve chronicled before. I now exercise only so that I may eat more ice cream. I have never sent a successful text message.  I prefer not to talk on the phone. I don’t really like to drive. When I finally took my kids to Disney World, they—and my wife—loved every second of our eleven-hour days in the park. As I carried the backpack of water, extra clothes, and a camera while occasionally pushing the stroller through the crowds, I endured only by picturing soldiers, waist-deep in the quagmire, rain sheeting down in cacophonous chime on their helmets, under threat of enemy fire, fifty pounds of gear on their backs, arms straining to keep their guns above their heads. Later I felt sheepish, and guilty, about comparing my three days in Disney, the Happiest Place on Earth, with War, which Is, according to trusted sources, Hell. But it got me through the week.   

At the risk of sounding like a personal ad, I like to play with my kids in a green, sunny park that doesn’t charge admission. I like complicated foods with simple, pronounceable ingredients. But I also like every breakfast cereal. I like to watch TV if the shows involve any two or more of the following: conspiracies, plot twists, glorification of dubious ethical behavior, foul language expressed in creative combinations, good-looking supernatural creatures.  I like abrasive music by brutal musicians.  I read as much as I can, preferably great, depressing novels where the main characters die. But I also like every magazine, and science for non-scientists, and superhero comics, where no one who dies ever stays dead. I eat pints and pints of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream but refuse all lesser brands. I can’t eat breakfast.  I like to play the blues on the guitar.  I love doing anything, or nothing, with my wife. I look forward to going to work. I write, not because I like to, but because I like to read what I wrote. 

Did not stay dead

Not dead.

Dead? No. And no.

I don’t, in the end, have anhedonia, even if there’s much that I can’t—or that I refuse—to take pleasure in. With literature, writing, and the blues, it feels good to feel bad. Or maybe more people should feel bad for feeling good. Or perhaps the measure of life should not be pleasure at all—anhedonia’s lack, or its linguistic opposite, hedonism, where enough is not enough. More than “fun,” yet another thing to have, perhaps we can instead substitute “contented,” something to be.  And I am. 

At least sometimes.  

Time: I wrote this a little over a year ago for my college literary journal and felt like revisiting and revising if for the blog.  I wrote one or two a year for the last eight years, and these short personal essays at the time usually also took a little over an hour.  They were, in retrospect, proto-blog entries.

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Are There Two Kinds of People in the World?

Who are we to call him Monster?

 

It was bad enough to wonder whether I was a man or a Muppet.  Now I spent all weekend worried that I was also the wrong kind of Muppet.

I blame Dahlia Lithwick, who wrote that there are two types of Muppets, “chaos Muppets” and “order Muppets,” and that, by extension, “every living human can be classified according to one simple metric: Every one of us is either a Chaos Muppet or an Order Muppet.” 

Lithwick elaborates:

Chaos Muppets are out-of-control, emotional, volatile. They tend toward the blue and fuzzy. They make their way through life in a swirling maelstrom of food crumbs, small flaming objects, and the letter C. Cookie Monster, Ernie, Grover, Gonzo, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and—paradigmatically—Animal, are all Chaos Muppets. Zelda Fitzgerald was a Chaos Muppet. So, I must tell you, is Justice Stephen Breyer.

Order Muppets—and I’m thinking about Bert, Scooter, Sam the Eagle, Kermit the Frog, and the blue guy who is perennially harassed by Grover at restaurants (the Order Muppet Everyman)—tend to be neurotic, highly regimented, averse to surprises and may sport monstrously large eyebrows. They sometimes resent the responsibility of the world weighing on their felt shoulders, but they secretly revel in the knowledge that they keep the show running. Your first grade teacher was probably an Order Muppet. So is Chief Justice John Roberts. […] It’s simply the case that the key to a happy marriage, a well-functioning family, and a productive place of work lies in carefully calibrating the ratio of Chaos Muppets to Order Muppets within any closed system.

Two things become pretty clear: 1) despite her ironic implications (”This is really just me having fun,” she protests a little too strongly; filing under “Dubious and Far-fetched ideas”), Lithwick takes her binary system pretty seriously; and 2) despite that “It’s not that any one type of Muppet is inherently better than the other,” she clearly prefers chaos Muppets.  So do I.  And, I’ll add, so does everyone.  Chaos Muppets have all the fun, and order Muppets are the straight men, the ones who get flabbergasted and frustrated and freak out while muted trumpets go “Wha wha whaaa” at their expense.

Which is why I found it so disturbing to realize, as I was obsessively vacuuming the living room, that I was clearly an order Muppet.  Even worse was the realization that my wife is also an order Muppet, even as Lithwick takes pains suggest that her classification system is crucial for life partners: “Order Muppets tend to pick Chaos Muppets for their life partners, cookies notwithstanding. Thus, if you’re in a long-term relationship with a Chaos Muppet, there’s a pretty good chance you’re Bert. If you’re married to an Order Muppet, you may well be the Swedish Chef. And by all that is holy, don’t marry your same type if you can help it. That’s where Baby Elmos come from.” No word on what becomes of the children of two order Muppets.

I didn’t feel this way after reading Heather Havrilesky’s “Steve Jobs: Vampire. Bill Gates: Zombie”  in the New York Times Magazine last October, which suggested that “Vampires and zombies seem to reside at the polarities of our culture, telling us (almost) everything we need to know about (almost) everything in between.”  It was clear to me that I was a vampire, and that the piece, like Lithwick’s, wanted us to feel as though the writer is disinterested in the distinction when really vampires come off far cooler.

As Havrilesky puts it,

Vampires are solitary and antisocial and sleep in the ground. Zombies are extroverts, hanging out in big, rowdy clusters, moaning and shrieking, and apparently never sleeping at all.

Why do these sound like people I know? Maybe because these two approaches to being undead mirror two very different approaches to being alive. You’re either a vampire or a zombie, and it’s easy to tell which one.

The vampires are the narcissists, the artists, the experts, the loners: moody bartenders, surgeons, songwriters, lonely sculptors, entrepreneurial workaholics, neurotic novelists, aspiring filmmakers, stock traders, philosophy professors. The zombies are the collaborators, the leaders, the fanatics and obsessives: I.T. guys, policy wonks, comic-book collectors, historians, committee heads, lawyers, teachers, politicians, Frisbee-golf enthusiasts.

“Sexy!”–New York Times

This is all meant to be fun and funny.  But we really are required to place ourselves in mutually exclusive binary categories all the time.  There’s Male/Female, of course, and even if biology or culture weren’t forcing our hand, our English pronouns leave us no gray area. (“Ze” is not a viable option yet.)  There is the dichotomy that still allows for, insists on, legal segregation: smoker and nonsmoker.  There is the dichotomy that no one thinks about but may be the most intrinsically important one of all: to borrow from Sharon Olds’s book of poems, The Dead and the Living.  There was the ancient Greek distinction, between themselves (Greeks) and barbarians (everyone except Greeks). That dichotomy was originally related to language, but like chaos Muppets/order Muppets and vampires/zombies, you know which side you’d rather be on.    

In The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Blondie (Clint Eastwood) says, “There are two kinds of people in the world: those with loaded guns, and those who dig.”

Tuco, though, has his own ideas: “There are two kinds of people in the world, my friend: Those with a rope around the neck, and the people who have the job of doing the cutting.”  They’re the same two groups for both men, but sometimes the ones who carry loaded guns wind up with ropes around their necks as well. You have to wonder, though, about a movie whose recurring motif is “two kinds of people” when its title clearly suggests that there are three.

Yet in many ways, these writers aren’t so different from the psychologists who want to squeeze all of humanity into two boxes, despite that context and mood probably influence our actions more than a temperament derived from multiple choice testing: extraversion or introversion; sensing or intuition; thinking or feeling, judgment or perception.   Nietzsche knew better.  He didn’t think in terms of two types of people, but rather two human impulses, as anthropomorphized by the Greek gods Apollo and Dionysius.  Clearly, Apollo is an order Muppet and a Vampire, while Dionysius is a chaos Muppet and a Zombie.  But as humans, we are both and neither, instead the product of constantly conflicting beliefs, moods, attachments, and desires.  Putting people into simplistic categories has the potential to explain as well as dangerously simplify the world. As writer Tom Robbins put it, “There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who believe there are two kinds of people in this world and those who are smart enough to know better.”

So now I know better.  

Time: one hour.

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Maurice Sendak, I’ll Eat You Up I Love You So

Even more than Dr Seuss’s verbal prestidigitations and Arnold Lobel’s elegies and ironies, I love Maurice Sendak’s simple words and striking pictures.  And so, the day after his death, I’d like to address what made so many of his stories so brilliant, effective, and scary: he understood and concretized every child’s worst fear. It is primal and simple.

It is being eaten.

And so the main motif of Where the Wild Things Are is food—the meal that Max would make of his mother (an idle threat), the meal the wild things would make of Max (highly plausible, given the reiteration of terrible teeth and claws), and the return to safety at the end, where the reward is supper–not the never-seen parent–waiting, still hot. And more importantly, supper is not Max.  My kids and I had many conversations about what was in that bowl, and the way the final image violates the first commandment of Children’s Lit: Thou shalt end with the main character going to sleep, not eating, or the parents will suffer another round of “I’m hungry.”

Max’s reward for returning? Food. Pierre’s punishment for not caring? Being food–eaten by the lion, a far more effective surrogate parent than Pierre’s real mother or father, who helplessly, impotently rail against Pierre’s apathy, whereas the lion provides what in today’s parenting jargon is known as natural consequences.  You don’t care if I eat you? Fine, I’ll eat you. And behold, suddenly, Pierre has a deathbed conversion!  Even with its allusions to early Christianity’s punishment, Daniel, and Jonah, the lion’s swallowing of Pierre seems more Greco-Roman, more Goya, and more Freud than Judeo-Christian.

Maurice Sendak

And who can forget Mickey, of In the Night Kitchen fame, put in the oven by triplicate cooks with matching Hitler mustaches?  The book raised eyebrows for its full frontal, um, Mickey, but its Holocaustic humor still seems beneath the radar.  A children’s book in the form of a comic decades before Diary of a Wimpy kid cashed in, In the Night Kitchen still strikes me as Sendak’s most dream-like and most nightmarish, the continued and sustained childhood fear that all of those seemingly loving culinary parental nicknames—Sugar, Honeycakes, Sweetie-pie, or, in the case of my daughter, Smooshy Cookie and, later, Pickles—are not metonyms at all but veiled threats.  I’ll eat you up I love you so. As Mickey’s parents slumber unknowingly, Mickey is, to switch from Jewish fear to Christian theology, being transfigured into food.  That he turns out to solve the mystery of why we have cake every morning, or that Pierre survives the lion’s belly, or that Max’s supper is waiting for him, still hot, are the feel-good endings that prolong the benevolent mysteries of childhood.

But the sustained conflict throughout—to eat, to be eaten, to escape, or abandon, the ovens, bellies, and faraway lands–encompasses the real, primordial wishes and fears of childhood. And while Sendak rendered the dread of being eaten by the ones you love literal, parents and adults can still understand and recognize  the possibility, even likelihood, of feeling consumed by those closest to you.

Time: 35 sad minutes.

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Textbook Marriage

Belvedere Castle, in NYC's Central Park. So romantic!

I read fiction about suffering, madness, and death.  Not brave quests to overcome seemingly-impossible obstacles.  Not lovable talking animals learning valuable lessons.  Not We-Disliked-Each-Other-at-First-but-Now-We’re-Falling-in-Love stories, unless untranslated from the original Austen.  No happy endings.  Fittingly, I am also a college English professor, down to my daily uniform of corduroy pants and up to my suede elbow patches.  So the books in my American Literature class this semester represent Unhappiness’s Greatest Hits, especially marital misery.  For all of its green lights, ash heaps, and eyes in the sky, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a novel whose plot boils down to adultery, filled with lines like this: “Most of the remaining women were now having fights with men said to be their husbands.”  So far, no student has asked how I personally feel about the subject of marriage itself.  They do not ask, Are you married? Or, What do you think?  So thankfully, I don’t have to tell.  As long as they don’t want to know, I can keep my personal life out of it.  That’s good.  If they did ask, I would be afraid to answer.

Neither great nor Gatsby, he's really a legume

Instead, we stick to the stories.  And I find myself in the position of persuading skeptical students—women at least as often as men—to see how, in Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening,” from 1899, Edna must have felt trapped in her marriage, even as she strives to exercise some semblance of control through her questionable decisions.  I need students to consider the possibility that, in the “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” the care given to the unnamed, seemingly unreliable wife by her husband could be the cause of her illness, not the cure.  And I want them to imagine that these stories’ turn-of-the century timeframe does not mean that their gender troubles have all been settled by our own enlightened turn of the millennium.  The conventions of first-comes-love, then-comes-marriage, then-comes-baby-in-the-baby-carriage are powerful traps—for women, certainly, but, in Ernest Hemingway’s and Nathanael West’s work, men as well.  Fortunately, students don’t wonder how I feel about marriage personally.  They think they know.

I know why the caged bird drowns herself

In New York, where I lived most of my life, maybe marital ambivalence is well understood—fewer and later marriages are the norm.  But where I now live in the Midwest, many of my students are engaged by their junior year.  Many more marry upon graduation.  When characters rightfully stand up to parents, my students say things like, “My parents and I are BEST FRIENDS!”  I roll my eyes and think snarky thoughts and generalize about the Midwest as though I don’t live here, too.

Yet there is something about me my students don’t know. Something that few, except for those closest to me, can fathom or would even suspect.  It’s a truth so clandestine, so potentially startling, that it casts a bright light over my dark, shiny veneer of authority and credibility as a writer, academic, and curmudgeon.

I have a happy marriage.  I am happy. 

Please.  Don’t judge me too harshly.  It’s difficult, not just in my line of work but in America in general, even in the Midwest once college ends and adult life begins, to admit to being happy.  Before I decided to write this essay, in fact, I needed to consult with my wife to make sure it was safe with her to come out. 

“It’s not something I can talk about with most people,” she agreed.  “When my friends start talking about their husbands, I just smile and keep quiet.”  For the record, she agrees that we’re happy.  And like me, she was happy before we met.  One person can’t make another person happy anyway.  Being happy is not a choice. While we’ve managed to meet other happy couples over the years, they also tend to keep their business to themselves.

Of course, no marriage is perfect.  My wife doesn’t like that I chew too loudly.  I don’t like that my wife doesn’t like that I chew too loudly.  As I keep having to explain, it’s temporomandibular joint disorder, and eating bagels is no picnic for me, either.

OK, our marriage is perfect.   But it’s not as though our lives are perfect.  We have struggled with money, with painful decisions, with bouts of dissatisfaction, with buying homes and raising three children, with health scares and the everyday array of American anxiety.  But through everything, it was and always is the two of us, together, against the world.  Never against each other.  

We knew we were going to marry each other on the night we met, when we left Webster Hall, a loud downtown club, at its 4 AM closing, to walk and talk together.  After stopping at an all-night diner for coffee, we went to Central Park to watch the sun rise as we sat in Belvedere Castle [top image].  Neither of us was looking to get married, so like an experienced screenwriter my wife threw in an obligatory Third Act conflict, declaring a few weeks after we met that she wanted to move to San Francisco, going as far as to fly there with an eye on an apartment in the Haight.  In my memory, our story unfolds like a movie.  What would be three quarters of the way through—or in real time, a month after we met and upon her return home—we were back together and soon engaged.  At the end, we married, in Brooklyn, eleven months from our first night in Central Park, wondering why it took so long.  

If our lives had really been that movie, I would not watch it.  Too Hollywood.  It would feature a long musical montage of us: walking up First Avenue with ice-cream cones, then ordering pasta dishes with different color sauces so we could mix them together at the table, to the cook’s dismay.  Flipping through bins of second-hand CDs, perusing stacks of used books, watching “Stomp” on Second Avenue, taking the L to Brooklyn, fumbling coins for our laundry, sitting on the floor and drinking a bottle of plum wine for so long that we missed our restaurant reservation and didn’t notice.  All while a Foo Fighters—no, worse, a Goo Goo Dolls—song played in the background of the scene.  Laughter, smiles.  An uplifting romantic comedy, when the only romantic comedy I like is “Annie Hall.”  But we really did do all that in our first months together, and the night we met was the first of thousands of beautiful, magical times we would spend together. 

Ugh.  You see the problem.  I wrote “beautiful, magical times.”  I know, I know: what people like us do behind closed doors, in private, is our own business.  We have no right to flaunt our happy lifestyle, to shove it in other people’s faces.    

Since then, every Valentine’s Day my wife cooks a heart-shaped meatloaf.  When our first son was born, I wrote Welcome Home to mother and child across the living room with dried rose petals.  For reasons I still can’t fathom, I was once singing the “Annie” song into a banana: “The sun will come out, banana, bet your bottom dollar that banana, they’ll be some.”  I looked up to realize I was not alone in my foolishness, only to hear my wife join in singing too: [together] “Banana! Banana! I love ya, banana.”  Giggles and hugs.  Our cars are matching colors.  And so on.  These and many more are the joyful, shameful secrets I must never reveal if I want to be respected, for they push the limits of tolerance, even in a free, Western, supposedly open-minded society such as ours. 

In addition to being an Expressionistic representation of modern alientation and angst, The Scream may also depict how you feel right now from reading this post. I'm so sorry.

Great thinkers, artists, and writers are supposed to struggle in their loves.   The best someone should hope for is the marriage of James Joyce and Nora Barnacle, passionate at first but then tense and drifting later on.  It could be worse: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Sayre’s drunken turbulence; or worse, Edgar Allen Poe’s creepy union with his thirteen-year old first cousin, Virginia Clemm; or worse, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath’s catastrophe.  Actually, I’m not sure which is worse.  But it’s not a contest; it’s like the opposite of a contest.  Of course, there are renowned literary romances.  Just not literary marriages.  The story of Darcy and Elizabeth ends once they marry, Catherine and Heathcliff marry others, and Romeo and Juliet, you know.  For every novel like Ian McEwen’s Saturday, including a happy marriage, there are hundreds, thousands, of unhappy fictional marriages.  From the impression I get from journalism, there are hundreds, thousands, of unhappy nonfictional marriages, too.

Yet even Tolstoy, who famously warned readers of happiness’s narrative monotony—“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” in Anna Karenina, another great and terrible novel of adultery and death—was, by most accounts, happily married.  Or at least, like Joyce, he was happily married for most of his life, before the marriage finally soured.  Thankfully, my wife and I have been married for only fifteen years, so there is still plenty of time for us to have the dramatic and tumultuous relationship we envy in others, the kind of traditional marriage that we can admit to in the open, without fear of intolerance or ridicule.    

For now, until the rest of the world is ready, I live in fear that one day, my literature students will find out who and what I really am: someone who makes them read only about misfortune in marriage, when my own is inappropriately happy.  And that I secretly hope my children will think we’re still best friends when they’re in college, too.

Jesse Kavadlo

 Time: OK, this requires some explanation. I originally wrote a 60 minute version for last Valentine’s Day, but when I was done I thought I might try to do something else with it. I spent a lot more time on it, in exactly the way I promised myself I wouldn’t for the blog, made it longer, edited it more carefully, and sent it to the New York Times Modern Love column.  Which, um, didn’t want it.  If you read “Modern Love” regularly, you’ll notice that they like stuff that’s far more depressing than this piece, missing the point that SO DO I. Oh, well.

It’s coming out in hard copy next week in Maryville’s literary journal, Magnolia, which is fine with me. Unless someone wants to buy it. Then email me.

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