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A Day In the Life

March 27, 2015

A friend of mine and I used to share what all we did in a single morning when we had young children at home. My days are less packed now, but still I thought I’d try the “day in the life” exercise that’s being coordinated over at Love, Laughter, and a Touch of Insanity.

7:30: wake up, drink a cup of tea and eat cereal, read e-mail, facebook, tumblr, blogs.
8:30: shower and dress
9:30: at desk in living room. Send a reminder e-mail asking for recommendations to get student workers for next year and send application link and information to students who have already been recommended. Print completed applications and read writing samples online.
11: look at reading assigned for today’s class and come up with a plan for the class.
12: finish class planning while eating sandwich at table in dining room.
12:30: take car out to fill with gas, return library books, buy cat food.
1:45: arrive at office in Writing Center. Water plants, refill chocolate kisses, walk back into the library to make copies for class.
2:00: read e-mail, reply to students asking about special circumstances for applying, read writing samples online, exchange texts with my mother.
3:10: walk over to art gallery to teach class. Only four people in class this semester, people who were overseas last fall.
4: walk back over to Writing Center, which opens at 4. Answer a question from someone who is working. Go into office and reply to an e-mail. Gather papers needed for tomorrow’s meeting with Associate Provost and Writing Center Faculty Advisor, and leave office.
4:30: drive to pool, change into suit.
5: water aerobics
6:15: drive home.
6:30: change clothes, have a glass of wine, and decide with Ron about what to warm up for supper.
6:45: eat downstairs while watching one episode of Breaking Bad and one of Elementary.
8:15: come upstairs, clean up dishes, put in load of laundry, read, pet cats, check e-mail.
10: begin process of walking around checking to see what needs to be done before tomorrow. Put laundry in drier. Set dishwasher to run. Make a note about checking on hotel reservation for Eleanor’s college graduation in May.
10:30: read in bed.

You can see why I say I don’t work just part-time. Sometimes I manage to spend morning time at my desk at home writing a blog post, but the immediacy of replying to hiring e-mails and needing something to say to a class that same afternoon can crowd out time for writing and musing.

What’s a day in your life like? Do you wish you could make more time for anything?

Dirge Without Music

March 18, 2015

photo (59)Walker found Samson as an 8-week-old kitten at the local shelter, an orange kitten curled up in a child’s yellow Winnie-the-Pooh chair, and having been promised he could take home a kitten, said “this one!” He slept on Walker’s new toddler bed, let Eleanor pet his soft belly fur, climbed directly up the sheers in the living room, and had a silly little mew that belied his name. We soon took to calling him Sammy.

Sammy was always a loving cat. He startled easily; I will always bear the thigh scars from summer days when he was sitting on my lap and somebody dropped something or made a loud noise in the next room, causing him to imitate the kitten in Fritz Leiber’s story “Space-Time for Springers,” with the claws on his hind feet propelling him across the room almost instantaneously.

IMG_1768In his old age, he got deaf, which made him calmer. For sixteen years, he was perpetually on my lap if I sat down during the day, and reliably on my bed when I went to it.

Even though our other cats went in and out, Sammy mostly stayed inside. When we went out, he would sometimes come out and walk in the grass with us, but he felt safer inside the house. He had a strict code of cat behavior. He ate first, and he fussed at the other cats when they weren’t doing things the way he thought they should be done.

Sometimes when I took off my shirt and threw it into the laundry basket in my closet, I would hear a reproachful meow. Sammy liked to sleep on top of the clothes in the basket.

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Dirge Without Music” comes the closest of anything I’ve read to how I feel about his death:

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.100_1526
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the graveIMG_1657
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

Sammy had green eyes and orange fur. He liked to be where the people were, or where the blankets were, or where the sun fell across the carpet. He was a lap cat. His purring is gone and I am not resigned.

Lucky Alan and Other Stories

March 16, 2015

Random House sent me a copy of Jonathan Lethem’s new collection of short stories, Lucky Alan and Other Stories, because I asked for it. I’ve never read much of his work, despite my enduring admiration for his article about The Ecstasy of Influence, and decided it was time to read a few of his stories.

I wondered if he’s gotten too used to longer forms when I was reading the title story, which is first in the volume. Characters are sketched, rather than drawn. Plot is suggested, rather than set up. Words stand in for other words, and some of the observations that get me interested in the situation are stereotypical, like this one:
“He constituted a test that Blondy, who’d sledded on pure charm through so many controversies, couldn’t pass. He adored Zwelish for causing him, at this late date, to want to do better, try harder, give more.”
I wonder–is “sledded” used merely as an alternative to the cliché of “skated”?

Nevertheless, Lethem still has the power to turn a phrase and evoke an image. Even in the title story, one in which two men communicate a willingness to talk by such gestures as lowering a shoulder when they pass on the street, I love the observation that “here was the full horror of a relationship that both relied on chance meetings and was subject to utter estrangement: what you could miss in an interval. In this case, the whole end.” It’s true of these two men, and it’s true of most relationships conducted over the internet.

After reading the title story, I put the book on my bedside table and began reading a story before going to sleep each night. “The King of Sentences” is mildly amusing, abut a couple of undergraduates it’s easy to imagine as Kenyon students meeting their favorite writer, who they have crowned “the King of Sentences.” He cares nothing for this. One example of a sentence from this story shows you how style meets sense: “The King of Sentences only wrote, beavering away himself on a dam of quintessence, while wholly oblivious of public indifference and of a sales record by now likely descending to rungs occupied by poets.”

The style of “Traveler Home” both grew on me and became more normal with the number of others with whom the traveler interacted. Early on, alone with his dog, he
“trudges hip-deep in drifts at the side of the house. Raises broom into swirl, rattles ice on heaped dish, scoops snow from concavity. Icicles clatter to shards deep in snowbank. Dish freed, adequate. Through own window like yeti peeper, Traveler spots lit screen, image rescued. Distant stratospheric signal unblocked from local occlusion of particles. Unfathomable mysteries of science best ignored. Sleepless detective restored oblivious to malfunctional interlude. Empty rooms equally oblivious, carrying on without. Now only remains the Terrier’s peeing, then inside, cleave to warmth, boots-puddle melting by vent.”
At the end of the story, though, “Traveler raises his hand again and rolls up the window, drives, on, toward town.” His interactions with others, while far from normal, have nevertheless normalized the point of view from which his story is told.

In “The Dreaming Jaw, The Salivating Ear,” the narrator tells the story of how “I lay in wait inside the entranceway of my blog.” I’d like to know exactly where that is, wouldn’t you? If I lay in wait for you inside the entranceway of this blog, would it be behind the gate to the graveyard, or after the word “Lethem’s”?

This volume offers well-observed situations and interesting ideas, good fodder for strange dreams.

A Little Life

March 9, 2015

The irony of titling a 720-page novel that focuses on one person A Little Life should be obvious, and yet the person about whom the story is told isn’t present for the end of it; never sees the way he is remembered.

The irony of the title and the story of the life give me hope in the same way the last line of James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm” always gives me hope. Maybe I haven’t wasted my life. Maybe it isn’t such a little life.

I got my copy of A Little Life courtesy of Random House, I guess because I wrote about the author’s (Hanya Yanagihara) first novel, The People In the Trees. It was such a massive book I couldn’t resist picking it up, and once I started reading it, I had to go on. It also helped that our almost-sixteen-year-old cat, Sammy, has been sick, and I was providing a lap for him as long as I could.

At first I related to the characters, who meet in college, as a parent; when one of them, Malcolm, is 27 and still living with his parents, I sighed with that peculiar mixture of envy and trepidation that assails me whenever I see or hear of my friends’ adult children doing that.
“The next morning he’d wake determined: today he was going to move out and tell his parents to leave him alone. But when he’d get downstairs, there would be his mother, making him breakfast (his father long gone for work) and telling him that she was buying the tickets for their annual trip to St. Barts today, and could he let her know how many days he wanted to join them for? (His parents still paid for his vacations. He knew better than to ever mention this to his friends.)”

Increasingly, though, I found moments of sympathy with all four of the college friends: Malcolm, Jude, Willem, and JB—especially, with JB who is working on becoming an artist and sometimes looks at a piece of art and “found himself unexpectedly about to cry.” I like the way the novel isn’t afraid to reveal that, or to see, as Willem sees, that “to be in New York, to be an adult, to stand on a raised platform of wood and say other people’s words!—it was an absurd life, a not-life, a life his parents and his brother would never have dreamed for themselves, and yet he got to dream it for himself every day.” And I thought of my college friends who had been raised mostly in countries outside the U.S. when I read about how Jude “knew French and German. He knew the periodic table. He knew…large parts of the Bible almost by memory. He knew how to help birth a calf and rewire a lamp and unclog a drain and the most efficient way to harvest a walnut tree and which mushrooms were poisonous and which were not and how to bale hay and how to test a watermelon, an apple, a squash, a muskmelon for freshness” but didn’t know anything about sitcoms or movies, summer camp or going on vacation. I loved watching as Jude “experienced the singular pleasure of watching people he loved fall in love with other people he loved” and I missed the pleasure of having all my college friends together when Jude thought about how they “thought so differently than he did and who made him think differently as well.”

As the college friends get older, I continue to sympathize and want to identify with JB, who maintains his college friendships and “had somehow managed to contextualize so many of them. Despite his collection of friends from long ago, there was an insistent present tenseness to how JB saw and experienced life, and around him, even the most dedicated nostalgists found themselves less inclined to pick over the chaff and glitter of the past, and instead made themselves contend with whoever the person standing before them had become.” But JB is the kind of friend who sometimes says uncomfortable things without meaning to be cruel, just being stupid (or at least that’s how I saw it) and then his friends draw away because they can’t forget one or another stupid thing he’s said.

As Malcolm and JB draw further away from their old friends, Willem and Jude become more dependent on each other until that’s all there is, for either of them. It looks like an “adult relationship,” but as you read, you see that it’s also an excavation of their childhoods, that they each want someone “to remember them as they’d been.” Their relationship teaches Willem “the sinister pedantry of therapy; its suggestion that life was somehow reparable, that there existed a societal norm and that the patient was being guided toward conforming to it.” It teaches him that it’s “a miracle to have survived the unsurvivable” and that friendship is “its own miracle.” Their friendship takes them through the Alhambra together and into the realization that even though they’re mortal, “that doesn’t mean they weren’t happy years, that it wasn’t a happy life.”

Even the part of me that related to the characters as a parent has to be satisfied with JB’s final story about one of their escapades, told to a parent who thinks that love for a child is different from other kinds of love “because it is a love whose foundation is not physical attraction, or pleasure, or intellect, but fear” and who has survived the death of both his children “…after that,” he says, “you have nothing to fear again.” The story is JB’s version of what his friends meant to each other, and the novel is a look at how people build up meaning in each others’ lives.

Jenny and Teresa didn’t enjoy this book the way I did, because they thought the gradually-revealed secrets of Jude’s childhood are overdone, and they’re right. But the meaning of Jude’s secrets is something he has built up in his imagination, and the meaning of the novel lies in his own and his friends’ attempts to assign meaning to his life. I think what this novel reveals, after so much detail about the lives of these four friends, is that whether in the end one life matters depends on who is left for that one life to matter to. You can make art out of your life, but you can’t control the meaning that other people will assign to it. If you want your story told, you have to accept that you won’t have the last word.

Dear Committee Members

March 2, 2015

Last week at the public library I found a copy of a novel recommended to me by a friend who works in a university library, Readersguide. Composed entirely in letters, Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher, manages to tell most of what happens to the writer of all these letters of recommendation, the fictional Jason Fitger, who is a professor in the English department of a small Midwestern college.

Many of the letters are instantly recognizable to anyone who has, like me, worked at a small Midwestern college: the one for which the student asked for the letter only a few days before the deadline (often over Thanksgiving), the form that asks big questions but only allows two lines of type for each one, and the kind that nobody really reads but everybody requires, as Fitger puts it “to satisfy our university’s endless requests for redundant documentation.”

I got a little ticked off just reading some of the letters in the first section because I was reminded of similar ones I’d had to write. But then, in the second section, the fictional Fitger starts garnering my sympathy with letters like one he writes for his student applying to MFA programs, which are ludicrously difficult to get into:
“Iris Temple has applied to your MFA program in fiction and has asked me to support, via this LOR, her application. I find this difficult to do, not because Ms Temple is unqualified (she is a gifted and disciplined writer and has published several stories in appropriately obscure venues) but because your program at Torreforde State offers its graduate writers no funding or aid of any kind—an unconscionable act of piracy and a grotesque, systemic abuse of vulnerable students, to who you extend the false hope that writing a $50,000 check to your institution will be the first step toward artistic success.”

Finally I started actively rooting for Fitger when he writes to recommend a very junior colleague, “complying with your latest summons for superfluous information, I am, yes, thoroughly wiling to recommend Arabella McCoy for the position of teaching assistant mentor….You understand of course that Ms McCoy is a stranger to me….I have skimmed her CV and her letter of interest, both of which express the requisite theater-of-the-absurd language about pedagogy and the euphoria of learning. Suffering creature! By all means, yes, yes! I endorse her bid for the mentorship: may the bump in salary allow her to avoid scurvy by adding fruit to her diet once a week.”

By the final third of this slim volume, I was thoroughly in the spirit, enjoying Fitger’s temper tantrums as wish fulfillment. Especially this one, which echoes thoughts I’ve had but never articulated:
“In the context of the hiring freeze—purportedly imposed on all departments but inflicted mainly on English and the Lilliputian units—and in light of our diminution via recent retirements, we can’t afford to sacrifice even one teaching colleague to the funeral pyre of administration. You want undergraduates who can write, think, and read? Stop pretending that writing can be taught across the curriculum by geologists and physicists who wouldn’t recognize a dependent clause if it bit them on the ass.”
I must add, however, that the only time I’ve ever seen anyone diagram a sentence was in the green room of the theater at my undergraduate college (small, Midwestern) when a friend who now teaches physics at the college where I work (small, Midwestern) showed me how to do it.

If you’ve ever worked at a college or university, now that spring break season is upon us is a good time to enjoy the fictional ravings of someone who has more letters of recommendation to write than you do, and a less pleasant office to write them in.

The Madonna and the Starship

February 26, 2015

Eleanor and I started reading science fiction books by James Morrow over winter break. She read the Towing Jehovah series, which I’d read and enjoyed some years before. I read a few others, older novels. We’re studying up for our trip to Orlando (Orlando!) in March for the IAFA convention. Joan Slonczewski and James Morrow are the guests of honor. Joan asked me to come with her, and Eleanor is going with a friend whose mother is a SF editor. I’m going to be on a panel about satire in science fiction, so I’ve been on the lookout for good examples.

Morrow’s most recent novel is both satiric and contains satire: The Madonna and the Starship (2014). Set in 1950’s NYC, it evokes the wonders of the pulp science fiction era with a decidedly modern overlay of images and ideas.

Kurt Jastrow is the head writer of a weekly TV series entitled Brock Barton and His Rocket Rangers. He also appears in a ten-minute epilogue called Uncle Wonder’s Attic, in which he demonstrates some aspect of the science in the episode. One day he is contacted by blue lobsters from outer space who appear on his rabbit-eared TV to say “Greetings Earthling!….Salutations, O Kurt Jastrow! We have converted your television into a pangalactic transceiver! Even as you watch this broadcast, we are hurtling toward you from our home planet, Qualimosa in the Procyon system!” The blue lobsters inform Kurt that “all the brightest people on Qualimosa adore Uncle Wonder’s Attic,” although they admit that “Qualimosa’s engineers are still calibrating our planet’s TV antennas,” so they have only seen two other shows. They announce their intention to appear on Friday’s program to give him an award “for those who champion reason in its eternal war with revelation.”

The plot grows more sinister, however, as one of the aliens informs Kurt that “Qualimosa’s engineers strive incessantly to keep the torch of reason burning…. Recently they discovered that the scanning-gun of an ordinary cathode-ray tube can be appropriated to exterminate viewers of any philosophically problematic narrative borne by the electromagnetic spectrum.”
It turns out that the aliens find anything religious to be “philosophically problematic” and they’re thinking of wiping out the viewers of a show called Not by Bread Alone, a show Kurt’s friend Connie works on. Thinking fast, Kurt informs the aliens that “Not by Bread Alone is a satiric program….It mocks belief in the supernatural.” They agree to deactivate their weapon if the next show does turn out to be satiric. Kurt and Connie then have to write and rehearse the next week’s show, and they decide to call it The Madonna and the Starship.

The actors are delighted. The one who plays Jesus
“laid a palm on his script. ‘A Messiah driven mad by his premature burial,’ he said in measured tones. Hey, Connie, hey, Kurt—this is meaty stuff. Jesus as Quixote, as Lear, Ahab, Raskolnikov. I’m salivating like Pavlov’s dog. Sure, I’ll probably get some bad press in Daily Variety, ‘Yid Thespian Ridicules Redeemer in Blasphemous Broadcast,’ but hey, I can live with it.”
Another of the actors asks “how often does an actor get to play a gorilla who introduces Jesus Christ to Charles Darwin?”

From that set-up, the action continues to get more exaggerated and funnier. Kurt’s friends try to keep the aliens busy by feeding them macaroni and cheese and playing poker with them (they explain that “the rules are so logical and self-evident that the game has evolved independently on many worlds, as did chess and mahjong.”) The aliens keep threatening to unleash their “death-ray” and explain that their goal is “to exterminate a hive of irrationalist vermin thriving on your planet.”

The Madonna and the Starship is performed, with the addition of advertising for Sugar Corn Pops and Ovaltine included as part of the Eucharist meal and a special message for the Qualimosans. It doesn’t all go exactly as planned, but in the end, Earth is saved from annihilation.

It’s my favorite kind of satire, with the silliness exaggerated in order to recommend some more moderate course of action. As a bonus, there’s some satire on the ambitions of writers of genre fiction (“Dear Mr. Jastrow, you are an intellectual snob….However, the scene of the monk sucker-punching the orangutan was to delicious to pass up. Enclosed please find a check for $120.”)

Have you read any good examples of satiric science fiction that I should try to read before our trip begins, on March 18?

A Spool of Blue Thread

February 23, 2015

A new Anne Tyler novel! I read A Spool of Blue Thread as soon as it came in the mail, and have drifted around my quiet house thinking about it ever since. As I read about Abby Whitshank and the teenaged son who is eager to leave her behind him, I identified with her as strongly as I have always identified with Pearl Tull in Dinner At the Homesick Restaurant, who connects her children growing up with the “gradual dimming of light at her bedroom door, as if they took some radiance with them as they moved away from her.”

The way the story of Abby’s family is told seems, at first, to be organized oddly, and yet it makes psychological sense to start telling the story of a family with grown children from the perspective of their mother and then to begin to tease out the secrets this mother kept by following that story with the story of how she fell in love with their father, the story of how their grandmother fell in love with their grandfather, how that grandfather built the house they grew up in, and finally how the grown children and their father sell the house and thereby lose their ability to learn any more of their own family’s secrets.

The novel begins with Denny calling his parents late at night to tell them a secret that is probably not true, and is never mentioned again. His father, Red, thinks that Denny has achieved his desired effect, which is to upset both of his parents. His mother, Abby, is worried that they don’t know how to call him back after he hangs up. We learn that he is 19, and his parents have no idea where he is living or what he is doing. He is their youngest child.

Denny gets in touch periodically, and during the recounting of these periods, we learn the names of his sisters, Jeannie and Amanda, and his brother, Stem (Douglas), who live twenty minutes away and whose spouses and children routinely join them at Red and Abby’s house for family dinners and at a beach house they rent for a week each summer.

The first time Denny doesn’t come to the beach with them is “the summer he claimed to be gay: nobody knew that he wasn’t coming. They kept waiting for him to phone and announce his arrival date, and when it grew clear that he wasn’t going to, everyone experienced the most crushing sense of flatness. Even after they’d arrived at the cottage they always rented, and unpacked their groceries and made up the beds and settled into their usual beach routine, they couldn’t shake the thought that he still might show up. They turned hopefully from their jigsaw puzzle when the screen door slammed in an evening breeze. They stopped speaking in mid-sentence when somebody out beyond the breakers started swimming toward them with that distinctive, rolling stroke that Denny always used.”
I’d like to think that both my kids will continue to come and eventually bring their spouses and children to our week at the beach, but we’ve already experienced a bit of the kind of thing Abby and Red say about Denny, that sometimes it feels like he’s gone off and joined another family rather than bringing his girlfriend into his own.

Much is made of the fact that this family, the Whitshanks, aren’t special “but like most families, they imagined they were special. They took great pride, for instance, in their fix-it skills…. They liked to say that they didn’t care for sweets, although there was some evidence that they weren’t as averse as they claimed. To varying degrees they tolerated each others’s spouses, but they made no particular effort with the spouses’ families, whom they generally felt to be not quite as close and kindred-spirited as their own family was.” Stem looks and acts most like his father, although we find out that he is not related by blood; everyone except Denny is matter-of-fact about this.

The house has always been a gathering place. Abby is glad to hear that the children of her neighbors call it “the porch house,” and she thinks about how Red’s parents would appear on the porch “night after night to offer homemade lemonade to all the neighborhood gang.” But sitting on the porch by herself makes Abby think that “the plain fact was that no one needed her anymore. Her children were grown up, and her clients had vanished into thin air the moment she retired.” She believes she’d like to know “how everything turns out,” but what she wants is for her life to be at the center of the story (as it is in this first section of the novel).

No one goes through very many of Abby’s carefully-saved papers and poems and journals after she dies. In the next section, however, we get a look at how she saw the world when she herself was 19, when she “thought she couldn’t wait to finish her freshman year and come back to where she was cherished and made much of and admired. But all this summer she had felt so itchy and impatient,” much like we’ve already seen her son. We see her look at the man who will become her father-in-law and think “Oh, let Abby not ever get old!”  Although we know she has.

In the section about what happened between Red’s parents, we find out that Mrs. Whitshank, Linnie, thought of it as more of a romance than Mr. Whitshank, Junior, ever did. Except that he fell into her version of the story at some point. “He’d always known, even without her saying so, that she found him handsome. Not that he cared about such things! But still, he had been conscious of it, and now something was missing.” He has grown accustomed to her love and after a week without it he feels “the way a parched plant must feel when it’s finally given water” when she finally looks at him with love once again.

In the final section, her children hang out Abby’s traditional Halloween ghosts and Denny tells a story of how the blue thread he needed to mend his father’s shirt for his mother’s funeral fell out of her closet into his hand “like some kind of, like, secret sign.” Stories are continuing to be told, even though Abby is becoming peripheral to them, the things she found meaning in left at the curb and her children moving farther away from being able to understand what motivated the previous generations of Whitshanks.

It’s a wistful novel. It’s about how days keep stacking up and no matter how industriously a person works to record what has happened, no one else is ever going to care as much about seeing the world through that person’s eyes, or from the particular spot in the world where two people made their stand against the depredations of time, for a while.

It’s about how important it is to observe traditions and do things with your family, even when you’re 19 and drunk with freedom and power and never going to get old. It’s about how the story is not always about you, even when you’re the parent or the one in charge who gets to decide about the “right way” to live. It’s about family secrets, and when they matter, and maybe why we should try to keep fewer of them. Because what if, when we die, all our secrets die with us?

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