Tag Archives: Life

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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Commencement

commencement

 

 

This graduation season, you’ve almost certainly sat through one of the worst literary genres, the commencement speech.[i]  Yes, David Foster Wallace achieved greatness with his:

And there is always Kurt Vonnegut’s Wear Sunscreen speech.  But most speakers are shackled by the speech’s conventions.

They begin with a list of thank-you’s:

I want to thank all of the students, the parents, the professors, the college president, the board of trustees…

With a little self-deprecation…

…for letting me have this opportunity to speak with your class.  You’re a great audience, especially since you can’t go anywhere!

Followed by the story: narrating a personal obstacle that the speaker overcame…

…I may be the CEO of Ceo Industries now, but it wasn’t always that way…

…in order to laud the role of education in that success…

…In fact, when I first came to college, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.  I struggled with finding…

…while being optimistic, preferably with some Speech 101 rhetorical flourish:

…But I did know that I wanted to make a change. A change for the better. A change for the future. A change for myself.  A change for the world.[ii]

And, of course, a quotation from someone famous to wrap:

Because after all, as Gandhi famously said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Except much longer. You’re welcome.

Once in a while, someone makes news by violating the tacit agreement that speeches need to stay positive, like last year’s “You are not special. You are not exceptional” speech by David McCullough.     But a commencement speech seems to me an inopportune time to lay too much on the caps of the newly minted graduates.

For me, the problem may be, as usual for Hourman, time.  We keep thinking of commencement as  “the ceremony of conferring degrees or granting diplomas at the end of the academic year.”  

But it’s easy to forget that commencement means beginning.  Not end.

Commencement has turned into a phantonym, one of those words like inflammable that means one thing but seems to mean its opposite. Of course, we want to mark the end of college, the completion of the degree, even though many students have expressed some ambivalence about the ceremony when they know that they’re set to start graduate school almost immediately after finishing college.[iii]

So for many students, it’s not an end at all.  But is it a beginning?  What is it the beginning of, exactly?   For cynics who think that school is not real life, ending the year means entering the real world. But that never seemed right to me, given how much real life so many students have already experienced.  It’s not entering adulthood, which in many ways has also already begun for them, even as many people don’t see college graduation as the mark of official adulthood anyway, preferring marriage, or children, or, in my case, the purchase of real estate, which seemed more difficult to get out of than either of the others.

So let’s have two cheers for commencement, even commencement speeches.  We need to impose all sorts of beginning and endings to portion our time: day and night, even though they start at different times for different people in different parts of the world and year; the year itself, although it too is an arbitrary marker; the seasons, although they are cyclical and, this year, totally inconsistent.  We want to imagine that time, like the seasons, is consistent and linear—time flies like an arrow[iv], straight and in a single direction, when the way time and life[v] feel is more amorphous, scarily circular, or even sometimes unchanging, so that once in a while I’m surprised to see my older-than-24-year-old face uncannily staring back at me in the mirror. 

Without the decorative sign posts and pit stops—our commencements to celebrate what we would love to think of as the beginning of post-collegiate life, or the end of pre-collegiate life; the candles taking up more room on the cake each year; a wedding and subsequent anniversaries—life becomes a series of one damned thing after another.  A grim death march.  No wonder we’re implored in commencement speeches to see life as about the journey and not the destination.  We don’t want to go there.

Because in the beginning, and in the end, there is only one real beginning, and one ending, and we can’t remember either one of them.  Let’s celebrate the rituals we have, not in spite of the clichés, but because of them.  The speeches are trite, but maybe they’re the right ones for the occasion. And maybe, ideally, they even contain some truths.  Unlike Kurt Vonnegut’s sunscreen speech, which he didn’t write and wasn’t ever a real speech.   Unlike Gandhi’s famous quotation, which he never said.

graduation-caps

 

Time: 65 minutes. Wasted too much looking for links.


[i] Being that I have attended thirteen graduation ceremonies that I can remember, I believe I’m in some position to evaluate them.

[ii] This one is anaphora, about the most basic.

[iii] I didn’t attend my MA ceremony for that reason. Then I didn’t attend my PhD ceremony for a different reason.

[iv] But fruit flies like a banana.

[v] Not the magazines.

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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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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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No One Knows What Manhood Is Yet No One Will Stop Writing about Manhood

Just as I planned to write on new books about manhood—Time’s Joel Stein and Man-Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity , and GQ’s Glenn O’Brian and How to Be A Man–The New York Times goes and publishes a magazine cover story on the same topic, “Who Wears the Pants in this Economy?” an excerpt from a forthcoming book by Hanna Rosin.

Manhood, it turns out, is a deceptively elusive subject.  If the obscure definition of obscenity is “I know it when I see it,” then the definition of masculinity is even vaguer. Taking the two books and Times article together, here is a definition of manhood: We don’t know it when we see it, we don’t see it when we know it, or we don’t know when we don’t see it.  And I thought Flight of the Concords had this all sorted out in “Think About It”: “What man?/ Which man?/ Who’s the man?/ When’s a man a man? What makes a man a man?/ Am I a man?/ Yes. Technically I am.”

(see 1:18)

Take Stein’s book.  Please. [rimshot] The High Concept is this: the new father of a boy, Stein fears that his effete, metrosexual lifestyle will not allow him to raise his boy to be a real man, so he attempts all of the most stereotypically manly activities he can imagine, one per chapter—essentially hanging around with other men like Marines, day traders, hunters, and ultimate fighters—in order to learn the lessons that he’d like to pass on. Call it The Year of Living Manfully. The result is sometimes funny—“When I played Dungeons & Dragons, I was never a fighter or an assassin; I was always a magic-user.  Even in my fantasy life, I was a nerd”— and just as often not funny: “I am no human resources expert, but I believe Great Point Capital might have a much easier time recruiting female employees if it didn’t feel so much like Rape Point Capital.” But to pull off the conceit, Stein is too accepting of standard out of the box masculinity, pretending that decades of academic research into gender—across fields of sociology, psychology, literature, and entire fields of gender studies—never happened.

I guess that could be OK—this book is clearly part humor, part AJ Jacobs-stolen stunt memoir. Except that Stein keeps defining himself as an “urban intellectual” seemingly without irony (I thought post-William F Buckley, the word “intellectual” was now officially an insult) and therefore in opposition of the kind of manly adventures he chronicles here.  What kind of intellectual is this juvenile?  OK, I take that one back. But what kind of intellectual appears to have read nothing on the subject of his book, including parenting books? And while Stein will intermittently bring up race, class, and his suburban Jewish upbringing on rare occasions, he seems not to think of manhood in sociological, political, or class terms, even as they clearly, inadvertently emerge that way. As a result, the book mostly ends up supporting stereotypes about masculinity—men don’t like to talk; men like to kill things and sleep outdoors—at his own self-deprecating expense, since he isn’t like this. But the stereotypes are also at the expense of exploring, developing, and  challenging—or, if it suited him,  defending—traditional conceptions of manhood. Stein begins the book believing that driving a fast car and firing a tank will make him more of a man, and concludes that, surprise, they have.  Self-consciously calling his book a “stupid quest” does not inoculate it from the charge that it is stupid. It is.  But that’s actually OK.  My problem is that it was never even a real quest at all.

Glenn O’Brien’s book seems at first as though it is exactly what Stein did not set out to write. Stein: “I’ve decided to make a list of tasks that I hope will turn me into a man. My list will not include anything I have ever read in GQ or Esquire: I will not learn to fold a pocket square, mix cocktails, build my triceps, look up word bespoke, or get the right haircut for my face shape. That’s being a dandy. My book could beat up that book.” But it turns out that O’Brien did not write that book either, not exactly.  While there are plenty of sections on shirts, drinks, and style—not to mention that O’Brien clearly celebrates dandyism—what O’Brien has done it construct a deft collection of essays on topics related to manhood in the 21st century, while at the same times suggesting that some aspects of manhood are, indeed, timeless and archetypical.

So despite pages riffing on ties, O’Brien is far more intellectual than Stein—and therefore does not ever need to call himself one—suggesting that “A gentleman is reason personified” and referring or alluding to Socrates, Emily Post, the religious concept of acedia, Brad Pitt, Muhammad, Rocky Marciano, Andy Warhol, and hundreds more, in a way that seems erudite rather than namedroppy or shoehorned in.  So nothing about tanks, but rather, a confident book of ideas that I don’t always agree with but respect. And respect is a word that Stein reserves for his new friends but not himself—or at least the fake funny-guy persona he tries to foist on the reader.

Meanwhile, I can’t help but think of the Mark Twain adage, that to the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The Style Guy sees manhood in style.  In Stein’s book, rich men see manhood in money; martial artists in punching; hunters in hunting; ballplayers in playing ball; firefighters in fighting fires.  But what happens when they lose their hammer?

That’s where Hanna Rosin comes in, in The Times.  Her article is about men who have not only suffered the indignity of losing their jobs, but also of SEEING THEIR WIVES SUCCEED! Which is somehow salt on their wound, as opposed to, I don’t know, “Thanks, Wife, for saving my ass.” Quote after quote reinforces their sorrow: “Probably no one has had their wife move up the ladder as far as I’ve moved down,” says one; “We’re in the South,” Rosin quotes another. “A man needs a strong, macho job. He’s not going to be a schoolteacher or a legal secretary or some beauty-shop queen. He’s got to be a man.”  This is Stein stripped of all humor, purpose, and self-consciousness, manhood not as fodder for jokes but just fodder, or just a joke.

Of course, manhood’s perceived strength—which is, um, strength—is its weakness.  Part of Rosin’s point is that women feel less entitled to start at the top and are more flexible employees, and therefore are better suited to contemporary employment needs. Yet Rosin also misses that man’s rigidity means that her thesis is old news, destined to spark controversy before disappearing for another few years, when suddenly it is rediscovered, kind of like John Travolta.  Previously, in April 2003, the New York Times Magazine also published “Commute to Nowhere.”  with its thesis that “By the numbers, women have been hit as hard as men, but white-collar men tend to experience unemployment differently, organizational psychologists say. For most women, survival trumps ego; they simply adapt and find some job. For men, grappling with joblessness inevitably entails surrendering an idea of who they are — or who others thought they were.”

And in light of at least one other 2011 New York Times article, “The Gender Pay Gap by Industry,” maybe the problem of manhood is overrated to begin with: “Over all, women who worked full-time in wage and salary jobs had median weekly earnings of $657 in 2009. That’s 80 percent of what their male counterparts earned.”  Women are still only earning 80% of the pants.  They wear the shorts in the family.

In the end, if manhood can mean anything to anyone, then it doesn’t have any meaning at all.  In some ways, that would be a very good thing, especially to Rosin’s subjects.  I recently found out that Marlboro cigarettes, of all things, were originally marketed to women, pretty much proving that, at least in some arenas, gender is a total construct and fabrication with no intrinsic truth at all.  And that cigarettes’ flavor is whatever people believe it is, since the same ones are “mild” for women and full of “flavor” for men.

But in other ways, I’d like to see manhood stick around.  For all the emphasis on the South, the men of Rosin’s Times piece don’t know the first rule of manhood, inspirited by Rhett Butler: a man doesn’t give a damn about what anyone thinks about his manhood.

And personally, I’d like to think that I do know it when I see it.  And technically I am.

Time: 90 minutes. And I had to force myself to stop.

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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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Of Course The World Needs an Analysis of Regular Show

Family Portrait

For the past week, my five year old daughter has only watched Regular Show. I can see why my older boys, 13 and 10, who introduced it to her, like it: it revolves around two best buds, a bluejay named Mordecai and a raccoon named Rigby, although their being animals has nothing to do with the show (the bird doesn’t even fly), even if I’m sure that’s a big part of its appeal for kids. This promo, featuring human actors decked out as Mordecai and Rigby, winds up emphasizing that point and gives a few examples of the show’s shenanigans:

Mordecai and Rigby are fluffy Bartlebys, always preferring Not To:  slacking off, playing videogames, watching TV, and eating pizza and tacos, even as they’re supposed to be working at a park managed by a talking gumball machine, Benson, along with an albino gorilla[i] groundskeeper, Skips, a macrocephalic manchild geezer named Pops who technically runs the park for his ancient moon-headed father, a pudgy green creep named Muscle Man (who I assumed was named “Musselman,” like the applesauce, but the name is a joke), and Muscle Man’s friend, the personality-less High Five Ghost, who looks just as his name suggests.

At first, the show looks like yet another example of  People from Diverse Categories Thrown into an Unlikely Situation who then Realize that they have A Lot in Common, or “PDCTUSRALC,”  as I suggested two weeks ago of The Avengers. But the faux diversity is a façade—no one behaves any differently based on his species or whatever you want to call a talking gumball machine.  Notice the gender-specific “his” pronoun. The show is distinctly male, with the exception of occasional minor characters Margaret (a robin?) and Eileen (a mole? I consulted the expert, my daughter: “She’s half person, half beaver”) as female foils for M & R. 

While the menagerie suggests that the title “Regular Show,” like Muscle Man’s name, is meant to be ironic (Cartoon Network’s tagline: “Regular Show. It’s anything but,” in the sense of normal), it is regular in the word’s sense of “uniform procedure” or “periodic.”  Nearly every episode follows the same pattern: some prosaic game—Rock Paper Scissors, jinx, cards, stick hockey, bowling—yields some wacky supernatural non sequitur—a monster appearing in the sky to devour the game’s prize, a mirror-image Rigby monster conjured to break the jinx, a warlock who sucks the whole park into his fannypack, an underground Fight Club-like stick hockey den, a wager with Death, who, appropriately, looks and sounds like Lemmy from Motorhead, but better looking. 

Death

Death warmed over

Yet everything always works out: Mordecai and Rigby break the Rock Paper Scissors tie just in time; they break the jinx just in time; Benson turns out to be a stick hockey samurai just in time; Skips comes through in some way, usually solemnly intoning, “I’ve seen this before.”[ii]  You could easily play Regular Show Bingo, or maybe a Regular Show drinking game.  

So on second look, it feels like another genre: the Best Bros who are Both Dumb but One is Noticeably Dumber than the Other (“BBBDONDO” for short).  These duos spend most of the show screwing up and the last minute fixing it.  It’s a grand comic tradition emblemized by, of course, the movie Dumb and Dumber, but it includes laureates such as Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, Ralph and Ed, Fred and Barney, Beavis and Butthead, SpongeBob and Patrick, and The Man with the Yellow Hat and Curious George.  Acceptable Variations: Three Stooges (all dumb, but Moe is slightly less dumb) and Bill and Ted or Jay and Silent Bob (you could make a case for either being dumber). 

But mostly, the real dynamic is a kind of fairy tale family—fairy tale not because of the talking animals or the show’s regular supernatural plot twists, but because of the lack of mothers.  Like Peter Pan, the characters on Regular Show are a band of lost boys; like the spiritual song, they feel like motherless children.  Yet although Mordecai and Rigby seem like teens in this parentless limbo, their size and maturity difference (Mordecai, for example, is interested in Margaret, but Rigby isn’t into Eileen, although that could be because he can’t identify her species) suggests something more like siblings. And despite Skips’s and Pops’s old age, it is Benson, the gumball machine, who turns out to be the show’s surrogate father.  Benson spends most of every episode threatening, and then exploding at, the duo—you can add “GET BACK TO WORK!,” “[anything]…OR YOU’RE FIRED!,” and “UNBELIEVABLE!” to the bingo card/drinking game.  So perhaps it’s not surprising that I find myself relating far more to hapless Benson than to punky M or R.  His behavior is typical Bad Dad, what we may think or feel but struggle against saying.  On the episode Broken Cart, Rigby finally asks, “Benson, why do you hate us so much?”  Surprised and chastened, Benson answers, “I don’t hate you guys. I just hate some of the things you do.” 

Benson loses his marbels

Sorry, not you, Mordechai

Of course, when the boys inevitably screw up, in this case, taking a videogame break when they’re desperate to return the cart before the warranty expires that day, Benson, as usual, totally loses it:  “WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO LEARN THAT YOUR ACTIONS HAVE CONSEQUENCES?”  On Think Positive, he can’t lose it, under threat of being fired himself, and we get to see the helplessness, the impotence, behind his threats and anger.  Mordecai and Rigby will never, of course, learn that actions have consequences.  That would mean growing up, which would be the end of the show.  But ideally, talking gumball machines and park-eating vortexes to the contrary, this distinction is the biggest difference between Regular Show’s parental lessons and real life. 

Funnily enough, Regular Show seems to know its true audience.  That car seat safety public service announcement may have a quirky Portlandia feel to it, and the diaper rash ointment has the indie band sounding name Baby Anti-Monkey Butt.  But that doesn’t mean that these ads, like nearly all the ads on Regular Show, aren’t geared squarely toward parents.  

I thought I was watching along with my kids. It turns out that they were watching it along with me.

Time: 65 minutes.  I wasn’t really planning on writing about Regular Show, but it’s literally all my girl—and therefore, I—watched this week, so it’s burned into my brain.    Truth is, I feel a little funny going from Angels in America to Regular Show.


[i] After botching a few JFGI details of Adventure Time a few months (the creator’s name, a Jungian archetype), I figured I better look up Regular Show online first.  So: Wikipedia refers to Skips as a Yeti, but I much prefer to think of him as an albino gorilla. I didn’t bother the check what Eileen was.

[ii] Mark Hamill—Luke Skywalker–does Skips’s voice.  Hamill is a brilliant voice actor, here and elsewhere. Future blog: people who are famous for the wrong thing. Suggestions welcome in Comments.

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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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