February Book Log

February 28, 2010

I am really starting off the year on a fabulous note. I keep picking one fantastic book after another to read. I just hope this keeps up.

1. America America by Ethan Canin (5.0/5) – Apparently, I need to start reading books written by anyone Paul Winner included in any way, shape, or form in the writing class I took with him in college. I found a Canin essay while digging through some papers, decided to try him out, and was knocked over. This book is really wonderful. Thematically, it really is a modern-day All the King’s Men, but the writing is certainly different. Robert Penn Warren saunters where Canin runs at full speed. Both are wonderful.

2. The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris (5.0/5) – I really liked Ferris’ first book, but I thought it had some flaws. Correspondingly, I was interested to see if this book would correct those. It does. The primary problem with Then We Came to the End was a lack of unity in the narrative, that is not the case here. This book knows exactly what kind of book it is. Ferris’ writing manages to be both sad and vibrant. This is remarkable only because the book is so very sad, in general. I will be eagerly awaiting anything else he writes.

3. Possession by A.S. Byatt (5.0/5) – This book was an impulse buy during our monthly trip to the bookstore. I picked it up because her newest book, The Children’s Book, caught my attention, but was still in hardback, and thus rather expensive. Possession is one of the most complicated books I have ever read. I feel reasonably certain that it is not a book for everyone. None the less, I do think it was a kind of masterpiece and I enjoyed it a great deal.

4. The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson (4.5/5) – Bryson excels at writing neat books, and this is a very neat book. I am aware that there has been criticism of some of the scholarship, but that does not change that it made me think differently about language in general and how English should be treated in specific. In particular, it was nice to see it clearly illustrated how ridiculous the rules of English are (because they are Latin and Latin is not English).

Side Note: I started, but did not finish, The Kingdom of Ohio. I did not finish it because I do not think it was very good. At all. I think, frankly, that it is terrible. The characters are flat and the women, if you took away their reproductive parts, would be almost entirely invisible. It is possible that it improves, but after 100 pages, I found that I no longer cared to give it the benefit of the doubt.

Winter/Spring Book Queue Update:

America America by Ethan Canin
The Damnation of Theron Ware by Harold Frederic
Rabbit, Redux by John Updike
Parallel Worlds by Michio Kaku
Great Plains by Ian Frazier
So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin
Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo
Dune by Frank Herbert
One of Ours by Willa Cather

The One Thing…

February 23, 2010

We started a new trimester recently and it really brought home something I deal with constantly throughout the academic year. If there is one thing I really struggle with and one thing that could really drive me from the teaching profession it is this: You have to be on all the time.

I’m not going to claim to be the most experienced person in the world, but I’ve had plenty schooling, more than a few jobs, I’ve never encountered anything else with this requirement. Before, I was always allowed to have a bad day. It’s not as though they happened all the time, but it was nice that, every so often, I could kind of check out for the day. Just do what needed to be done and head on my way. It made it easier to deal with those days when I really did have to be on for one reason or another. Boy, is teaching not like that.

Everyday, I deal with class after class of teenagers who do not care at all that my daughter kept me up last night or that I’m a little under the weather or that, for whatever reason, I’m just not feeling it. Of course, I have to be aware of all the tiny things that throw them off. That is the difference between working with children and adults.

I don’t mean for this to come off as a purely anti-teaching post, it’s not that (though I’m sure it kind of reads like it). It’s simply that this is the one part of my job where I really feel like I am just not that good at it. Sometimes, I really do want to come in and just say, “Here is the work. Figure it out and leave me alone.” But I can’t do that.

On Simplicity

February 16, 2010

I have, of late, been giving a fair amount of thought to the current make up of our consumerist society. Though I had been thinking about it for a while, it was a column in Bill Bryson’s book I’m a Stranger Here Myself that pushed me over the edge into the actual writing of a blog post. In the column (“A Slight Inconvenience”), Bryson writes about how, often, time-saving devices do anything but. That is, all these things require time to learn how to use. Also, they break. Also, they cost money, which means you need to work more (an thus have less time) so that you can buy the time saving devices and pay for the repairs on time saving devices that will allow you to work still more and acquire more things to make your life at home very convenient. At least, for the three minutes a week you spend at home when you are not asleep.

I am in more or less full agreement with Bryson on this. I am a teacher at least partly because it allows me to have more time than most people have that is not spent at work or thinking about work or doing work while at home. I would carry it even a bit farther. I hate few things more than snow blowers and gas powered lawn mowers. Unless you are disabled, I see nothing wrong with a shovel or a mower that is entirely propelled by your legs. These things rarely break and they do not require earplugs to operate safely. And really, how big is your driveway or your yard?

But there is, I think, more that can be said on this topic. I have, over the years, thought periodically about how silly old people were when they complained that our whole culture is going to hell in a hand-basket because we can get everything on the internet now and when you make a phone call to a business, it’s always a recording, and so we just aren’t encouraged to interact any more. Until recently, I always sided with those who said, “Why do I want to interact with some idiot teenager just to get the new Richard Thompson album?” But recently, I had a sort of realization…

When old people talk about those halcyon early days when all were forced to interact with each other, acquiring the basic necessities of life occurred in a completely different context. I have written in this blog before that we frequent a local farmers’ market. I cannot explain how different this is from a trip to the supermarket. At the supermarket, there are endless products designed specifically to deceive us. No one who works at the store can tell you anything about them (other than the aisle in which said products are located) and the cashiers have no useful knowledge beyond a series of numbers that should be input in the unlikely event that you purchase something that actually grew out of the ground and thus does not have a bar code plastered on its side.

At the farmers’ market, however, we purchase meat and vegetables from people we have actually gotten to know. Beyond that, we are purchasing from people who care deeply about what they are doing. They are not farmers because it provides a paycheck (often, sadly, it does not). Rather, they are farmers because they care about growing things. They see value in what they do.

You can see this kind of distinction everywhere, if you look close enough. There is the local bookstore where the people actually read good books and can recommend things. Then there is Borders, where they look at me cross-eyed when I ask for the new Michael Chabon and stock Walden in “fiction”. There are any number of chain music stores where you’ll find whatever is new, whatever is hip, and whatever is played on classic rock stations. And then there is the local music store where (until a recent steep, sad decline), I could walk in and instantly here something I’d never heard before and where everyone who worked there was familiar with even the most obscure new release (and, chances are, had listened to it already and could tell you what they thought).

I could go on, but you get the idea. This, I think is what older people are talking about. They did not come of age during a time of chain stores and giant box retailers. They grew up at a time when people sold the things they cared about. When they knew about their products. When you could talk to them and know they cared and general feel like they weren’t trying to scam you or spout some required company line about how you should really try this new historical mystery even though anyone looking at the books your picking up could tell you’d be more likely to be interested in an updated catalog of the characteristics of North American trees.

And so, I find that I sympathize. Sure, even the internet is now capable of recommending books to me that I will probably like, but, you know, sometimes those recommendations are sponsored, and so, once again, I can’t help but feel as though I might be being scammed. So, I sympathize. I understand the desire for interaction with other people. Not the incompetent teenagers we see now, but with people whose passion are the same as yours. Or if not the same, then, at least with people who have found a way to stay connected to the things they care about and who take pride in what they offer beyond what it will mean on their paychecks. There is value in that. I wish I had come of age in a society that knew better than to cast it aside.

Of course, I know this is idealized. It was probably never quite like I imagine it above. In coming back to the beginning and Mr. Bryson, though. I cannot help but wonder if it is any coincidence that at about the time we started to cast away these kinds of values, we started to have a lot more shit in our houses that we don’t really need.

A Story

February 6, 2010

Here is a story. It is rather short and I don’t know what else to do with it and I had mentioned posting some of my “serious” writing here, so I am doing that now. I had actually intended for this to be my entry in a local literary contest with a 2500 word limit (I find it hard to keep things under 2500 words these days), but then I forgot and the deadline passed and now it’s just sitting there. So, anyway, off we go. Enjoy…


“Such a bright child,” his parent’s friend said. “He’s really going to be something. You can just tell.”
“Come here, William,” said the friend’s husband. “What are you going to be when you grow up?”
William shrugged his shoulders. He did not know what he was going to be when he grew up. He thought maybe an astronaut. That would be neat. He was a little afraid of heights, but maybe he would get over that when he was older. He would like to go to the moon, though he worried about what would happen if your helmet came off.
“I bet you’re going to be an inventor,” the friend’s husband continued.
“No, no, that won’t be it at all,” said his wife. “William is such a good speaker. He’s so articulate. He’ll end up in politics. A senator. Or maybe president! Inventors are awful, awkward little people. They don’t speak like William speaks, do they William?”
The question was addressed to him, but it was clear by now that responses were not required from him.
“Oh, William can do anything he wants,” his mother chimed in. He was always grateful at first when his mother would chime in, but later, sitting in his room playing a video game or sorting through baseball cards, he would start to worry. Does she really believe that? Anything? This bothered William very much. People were always planning out his future. His parents. His teachers. His aunts and uncles and older cousins and classmates. “You’re so smart! So talented! How did you do that? And at such a young age!” He lived in a world of wonder and exclamation points. All bafflement and enthusiasm and all directed solely at him. He started to assume that it must be very important to decide what he was going to be. Right away.
“Hey, mom… mom.”
“What, dear?”
“What do you think I am better at – math or reading?”
“You’re good at both of those things. You always make A’s in math and that story you wrote for me was so sweet. I don’t know which one you’re better at.” She was trying to be a good mother. He was too young to be pushed in one direction or another, after all.
This was not the answer William was looking for, but he took it to heart. He decided he would have to be good at everything.
“Still keeping those grades up, Billy?” He was older now, thirteen, but the questions were still the same.
“Straight A’s like always,” said his Father, answering for him like always.
He was old enough now that he did not like to be around his parents when they had friends over. They either talked about things he did not care about or, even worse, they talked about him. He made an excuse about homework and slunk up to his room.
It wasn’t an excuse, really. He did have homework; he always had homework. Plus, there was a science fair coming up, and he was expected to win because he always won. The other kids – at least the ones who cared about such things – hated him for it. He entered everything. He had to. Or, at least, it felt like he had to. He didn’t want to think about what would happen if he said “no”. The school had recently taken to sending the flyers for academic contests to his parents in the mail. Billy was their little darling, and he was putting the school on the map. They were determined to get everything they could out of him, every little bit of prestige possible.
He had no idea what to do.
The science fair was in a week and he had ideas. Loads and loads of ideas, but they were all for things he should have started on weeks ago. There was data that would need to be collected, parts that he would need to scrounge up. A week just wasn’t enough time.
“Hey mom, I think I need some help.” William did not ask his parents for help with school. He wasn’t supposed to need help. He knew this, but he didn’t have a choice.
“Help with what, dear?”
“I’m not sure what to do for a science project. There’s only a week to go, and I can’t think of anything I can get done in time.”
His mother had a sour look on her face that clearly said she had hoped this day would never come. Her little genius, her little darling, had admitted to weakness. “William, your father and I both feel that it is important for you to do all of your own school work. That’s the only way you’ll learn.” She recited the answer without any real emotion. Like a child’s toy with a pull string. “You can be anything” – pull the string – “You just have to work for it” – pull the string – “Don’t doubt yourself.”
Obviously, his parents had had a discussion about this before. “But I don’t need you to do it, I just need an idea.”
Pull the string – “You’ll think of something, I’m sure.”
But he didn’t. Nothing that would work. None of the old standbys – the volcano, the homemade water filter – would do it. His teachers expected more of him. If he did any of those things he might not win, and he HAD to win. He had to because everyone expected him to and if he didn’t, then what would happen? He didn’t want to think about it. He needed to give them what they expected. He was almost in a panic. Can’t they see I’m drowning? I just need a little help.
“Oh William, that was fabulous. How did you ever find the time to get it all done so quickly?” His mother, like the judges and teachers and the few other students who were smart enough to understand it, was dumbstruck by the brilliance of his project. He had won, of course. His project was a charting and analysis of the population trends of forest amphibians as a barometer of environmental conditions. Amphibians were the first to go whenever nasty chemicals or other pollutants got involved in the water supply. They were so sensitive with their slick, absorbent skins.
“I just did it. I didn’t sleep much this week.”
His father beamed at him. All the doubts he had roused in his parents had been quietly laid to rest. Their perfect little genius was restored to his pedestal.
He was lying. He’d found the data on the internet. He pulled his charts and tables straight from the website. He was careful to change the colors of the graphs and throw in a few mistakes here and there. He wanted to make sure he lost at the state level before he really fell under scrutiny. He’d never done anything like this before, but he knew no one would question him. They wanted to believe.
They did not question him, not even at the state level where, though they did notice his mistakes and he did not win, the judges praised his effort and assured him he would have a bright future if he kept at it. Part of him really enjoyed this. After years and years of working extremely hard, here he was getting credit for something he had put almost no effort into.
He was confident at everything, but this was something new entirely. He knew he could do science, but he had not, until now, known that he could lie about it well enough that even very smart people would not notice. He suddenly felt that when it came to science, and especially biology, he had nothing to fear. He could not fail because he could invent and borrow if he needed to and people would believe him and he would never be a failure because he could not be a failure. Failure, of course, was so unthinkable, that he never thought about it.
He didn’t do it often after that. Only on rare occasions, when he was overwhelmed and just needed something finished, would he borrow liberally from another source. He never thought of it as cheating – he was careful to keep that word out of his mind. Just getting help. Just borrowing. He became a biologist almost completely on his own merit and his dissertation, which was solely his own work, was well received. It got him a bit of renown and a nice position at a university.
Around the time he hit thirty, he found himself suddenly comfortable. He had a married a woman he loved very much and had all the job security he could ever want in his chosen field. He did not, however, enjoy getting up in the morning. For the first time, he had the mental space and energy to wonder why. Several months of thinking passed before he finally realized he had never really liked biology. He had only become a biologist because he had guessed, correctly, that he would be successful at it. In his spare time he began writing poetry, which is what he decided he really liked doing, and eventually, he even had a little volume of it published. He even managed to convince the university to let him teach a workshop every spring.
His parents, unaware of his internal struggles, were pleased with the diversity of his success. They’d done a good job, they thought. He had met their expectations.

A Thing that Happened

February 3, 2010

Eleven years ago, when I was eighteen, I was diagnosed with something called a desmoid tumor. A desmoid tumor is not malignant – that is, it is not cancerous – but it does grow pretty quick and it causes problems. It doesn’t kill you, but it hangs over you like a threat.

They took it out and it came back.

For a while it got really big, but they put me on some medication and I went through a few other treatments and that seemed to contain it pretty well. It got a lot smaller and even when it stopped shrinking, it didn’t grow anymore. But there was the medication. I’m still young(ish) and no one thought it was a good idea for me to be on this medication for the rest of my life (it is still fairly new. There aren’t long term studies). So, a year ago, as an experiment, my doctor and I decided to stop it with the medication and see what happened. The goal was for it to remain stable for a year.

Six months went by and I had an MRI and everything was good. A few days ago, I had the second. I hadn’t noticed any changes, but for some reason, I was not optimistic. I don’t know why. I normally would have been, but this time I just wasn’t. I had a hard time believing that things could go this well. But they did. The MRI said exactly what we wanted it to and that is why I am writing this blog.

Saying that my life stopped eleven years ago, in addition to being untrue, would be overly dramatic. I carried on and I carved out a nice little existence for myself. But there was always this thing. This unpredictable thing that was literally inside of me and that we weren’t exactly sure how to control. I have been a guinea pig for eleven years. Whatever excitement comes with being a guinea pig, I can tell you, does not last long.

It takes something away from you, not knowing what to do. There are always things you can’t control, of course, but rarely do they live as a hard mass inside your body. It isn’t powerlessness, exactly, so much as a diminishment. I cannot control my body. The thing that should be most under my control, is not. I suspect this is something older people often feel. I have to think it’s harder to take when you’re eighteen and it comes all at once and suddenly you cannot use a shovel or throw a baseball. When you have to learn to wash your hair with your left hand only because your right hand won’t reach.

Today, for the first time in my adult life, I do not feel any of that. If I am lucky. I will have two more MRIs (one in a year, another a year after that), shake my oncologist’s hand, and not come back. This thing is still inside me, but it does not feel out of my control. It is not hanging over me anymore. Now, for the first time, it feels like a thing that happened, not a thing that is happening to me. Today is a big day for me. It is a happy day, so perhaps you will permit me to go just a bit over the top.

Today, I am not afraid.

I feel free.

I feel alive.