Monthly Archives: October 2006

Scary things

I’m not very into scary things. This is going to be a lame Halloween post. I realize I’ve got a strange relationship to Halloween, now that I think about why the holiday doesn’t interest me much — I celebrated Halloween in the normal way for a while when I was a kid, maybe until I was 5 or 6, but at that point because of the evangelical Christianity I’ve written about recently, my parents decided Halloween wasn’t an appropriate holiday for us to celebrate and I never dressed up to go trick-or-treating afterward. Instead, we had Halloween-replacement parties of one sort or another — usually just regular old parties at our church with food and games, and we’d pretend they were as cool as real Halloween parties.

So I have a very short history of dressing up and getting into the pagan spirit of the holiday, and I haven’t gotten back into it as an adult. The Hobgoblin, good pagan that he is, makes up for my lack of spirit a little bit; as I type, he’s downstairs carving pumpkins. We’ll pass out candy to the neighborhood kids, and that’s about it.

I can be such a spoil-sport sometimes. Actually, intellectually, I’m interested in the holiday and think it has a fascinating history, but when it comes to celebrating — I just have never really felt comfortable with it.

And, continuing with the theme of me not being comfortable with things, I’m not particularly interested in scary books — or movies too, for that matter. Scary movies really scare me, to the extent that I stop having fun. I don’t really understand the enjoyment people feel in being scared by them. For me, it’s not a pleasurable fright; it’s a “please, please, please make it stop!!!” kind of fright. So I don’t watch scary movies much. I can’t remember the last one I saw.

I’m a tiny bit better about scary books, but I can only say that because I just read Dracula, which I didn’t find all that scary. If I were to pick up a Stephen King horror novel, I have no idea how I’d take it. Except for Dracula, I can’t remember the last scary novel I read.

I’m willing to work on this, though — unlike scary movies, I might be able to handle scary books. I think I did okay this season, adding one scary novel to my usual list of staid realist fiction. Perhaps next year I’ll read two of them. And maybe I’ll choose something likelier to scare me than Dracula. The farther away things are in time, they less likely they are to scare us, perhaps? Older horror and gothic novels from the 18C and 19C are more likely to be funny than scary, I think.

Any recommendations for this reader who’s afraid of being afraid?

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The Time Traveller’s Wife

I’m about half way through The Time Traveler’s Wife and it was exactly what I’ve been needing: something absorbing and long but that reads quickly so that I don’t feel I’m getting bogged down or that I’ll be reading it forever.

What an interesting book it is! The basic premise — and I’m not giving anything away — is that of the two main characters, one of them, Henry, travels through time. The other, his girlfriend/wife, Clare, doesn’t. What makes the book interesting, I think, is that time traveling turns out not to be glamorous at all; rather, it is a huge pain in the neck. Henry has no control over when he will travel through time, so he’s constantly worried about disappearing at the wrong moment. He won’t drive a car, for example, for fear that he’ll time travel while driving and cause horrible accidents.

And when he time travels, he leaves a pile of clothes behind him and lands in his new time completely naked. So the first thing he has to do, always, is find clothes before people find him and he gets into all kinds of trouble. He becomes a first-rate thief in order to steal clothes and food — he’s also always ravenous when he time travels. He runs obsessively to keep in shape so he can flee pursuers. Clare loves him deeply but just about everyone else in the novel finds him suspicious, and it’s clear that Henry is a complicated, potentially dangerous, mysterious, and difficult person.

He tends to travel to times and places in his own life that caused him great stress. This means he revisits some awful memories again and again. Because he travels to scenes in his own life, he meets older and younger versions of himself. He also visits Clare, which creates some very odd situations. He visits her when he is older, in his 40s, for example, and she is younger, say, 6. Can you imagine such a scene? Meeting your spouse when he/she is a child and you are an adult? So when Clare meets Henry in “real time,” she’s already spent hours and hours with him because of his time traveling.

This book is a mind-bender.

It’s written in first-person, switching back and forth between Henry and Clare, and the switches occur frequently, so I sometimes get confused about who is talking and have to turn the page to check. The effect of this, I suppose, is that the two main characters blend together, although I do like getting their different perspectives on the same scene.

One of the interesting characteristics of Henry’s time travel is the way he’s more likely to disappear into another time when he’s under a lot of stress. So he tries to keep himself calm in order to stay in one place. This leads to some high drama on his wedding day — because what could be more stress-inducing than going through a wedding ceremony? His particular problem is that this stress might mean that he leaves his bride stranded at the altar.

Henry talks about his efforts to keep calm as attempting to stay in the present moment. So the phrase “staying in the present” that we use to mean staying focused on what’s going on around us rather than wandering off to other places in our minds becomes, for Henry, something physical as well as mental. His “staying in the present” means, literally, not traveling to the past or the future. So in a way, Henry’s struggles to stay in one place become a way of thinking about the efforts we might make to “stay present,” or “stay grounded.” Who wants to be absent from their own life? The novel plays with the mind/body relationship: is a wandering mind that much different from a wandering body?

I shall let you know how I like the second half of the book …

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George Sand’s Indiana

I liked this book very much; unfortunately, I wasn’t in the mood to focus closely as I read it or to take notes or even gather my thoughts much about it as I read, so I won’t have a long or particularly intelligent post.

But I do recommend it if you haven’t read it and are interested. It’s a good story, and it takes up a lot of interesting ideas, chief among them, for me, about women’s lot in a society run by men. Indiana doesn’t get a great education and she doesn’t have much experience in the world. A lot of what she learned about matters such as love and marriage come from novels — always a sign of danger to come. It is a long and venerable tradition to use a novel to warn against novel reading.

She is married at 16 to an older man so she has no time to explore life and look around her as an adult. She lives in a time when emotional displays are valued in women, but rationality is not; Indiana seems not to have had the opportunities to develop her mind and the male characters seem lacking in the ability to value emotion. How is she to judge Raymon when he comes along? How is she to know she should stay far, far away? She has no real grounding from which to make sense of her situation.

And what an odd situation it is. She is married to Colonel Delmare, a jealous and violent man; she is watched over by the reserved and mysterious Ralph, a childhood friend; and she is pursued by the charming but untrustworthy Raymon. Her closest female friend dies early in the novel, leaving her quite alone. So the men vie for her attention and she falls for Raymon, not realizing that he is incapable of returning her love. The novel becomes the story of Indiana slowly making that realization — that she is a much better, stronger person than the one she loves — and dealing with the consequences.

I was shocked at the descriptions of Delmare’s violence toward Indiana. This struck me as a harsher, more direct condemnation of men’s power over women than I’m used to seeing in novels of the time period. Stefanie pointed out the horrifying scene when the dog Ophelia is brutally killed, and I think you can see this as an echo of what happens to Indiana herself — she is portrayed as an innocent creature brutally struck down by a cruel world.

Ralph is an odd character, with his perfectly impassive face and his seeming heartlessness, although we learn by the end of the novel that seeing him as heartless is a mistake. But through most of the novel he hovers about, shadowing Indiana and rescuing her repeatedly, but not making clear his intentions or his role until the novel’s end. And what makes Ralph an even odder character is his semi-incestuous relationship with Indiana. He’s described as being her brother, her guardian, and her lover. In this sense, I’m not sure what it means that Indiana ends up with him at the end — has she found her true love, or has she settled for something more familiar and calm and safe?

I understand that the novel’s ending is controversial. The question seems to be whether we should see Indiana as subdued once again by the patriarchy — she seems lifeless and spiritless at the end — or whether this is actually a hopeful ending, illustrating how one woman escaped from the two men who caused her so much pain and established a comfortable life devoted to helping others. For she and Ralph decide to spend their time and energy and money buying the freedom of slaves.

I feel conflicted about this. It was my impression as I read that Indiana’s voice and energy were written out of the text; in the final pages Ralph tells her story and all she seems to do is retire early to bed. This didn’t seem like the Indiana of the earlier part of the novel. On the other hand, though, she has escaped, and, most importantly, escaped alive and she will live on to affect the lives of many people — those slaves that she and Ralph are working to free. We are led through the novel to expect her death and to see death as her only option, but the novel’s final word thwarts this expectation.

I’ll be curious to see what others have to say about this.

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My teaching demonstration, Part III

My teaching workshop is now over, and while I learned a lot, I’m happy to be finished. It was hard to spend all day in a workshop when I had lots of work to do at home. And doing teaching demonstrations for my peers is stressful, and I’m glad I don’t have any more to plan.

But the last one went well; it was probably my best. I did another lesson on metaphors, a follow-up to last week’s lesson, this time looking specifically at metaphors in poetry. This is the poem we discussed, by Linda Pastan:


My husband gives me an A
for last night’s supper,
an incomplete for my ironing,
a B plus in bed.
My son says I am average,
an average mother, but if
I put my mind to it
I could improve.
My daughter believes
in Pass/Fail and tells me
I pass. Wait ’til they learn
I’m dropping out.

This poem worked well because it’s short and it’s got one main metaphor that’s possible to discuss satisfactorily in 10 minutes. I asked the class to write some quick thoughts about the speaker’s feelings in the poem, which we discussed, and then I paraphrased a part of the poem, taking out the metaphor, and asked which worked better, my paraphrase or the poem. The answer is obvious — the poem is much better than my paraphrase — and we talked about what metaphors have to offer a poet.

Another workshop participant did a great lesson on connotations in poetry; she put about a dozen words on the chalkboard and asked us in small groups to write down the associations we bring to them, which we discussed for a while, eventually beginning to make connections among the words. And then we learned she took the words from a poem by Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays,” which we could make almost immediate sense of because we’d spent so long looking at some of its individual words.

I loved that way of approaching a poem — closely considering some of the important words out of their context, so that in context we brought a lot of thought and depth to them immediately. I think that this could work really well with students who are intimidated by poetry, because they can get comfortable with the words before being confronted with the poem itself. It was almost like we were building the poem ourselves, starting with the same building blocks the poet did.

The other great part of the day was doing a social styles inventory — categorizing ourselves into one of four different types: the driver, the analytical type, the expressive type, or the amiable type (those labels bug me because they’re not parallel). The driver is the take-charge person; the analytical type is organized, methodical, and thoughtful; the expressive type is artistic, imaginative, and talkative; and the amiable type is the friendly people-pleaser. The idea is that each teacher fits into somewhere in one (or more) of these categories and each of our students does also, and as teachers we should try to reach out to students with different styles and not always use the style of interaction that comes naturally to us. Analytical teachers tend to teach best to analytical students but might lose the expressive ones, for example.

I was not surprised to find that I fit the analytical type the closest, and am also pretty strong in the amiable category. My scores in the expressive and driver categories were extremely low. That struck me as absolutely right — I’m reserved, introverted, thoughtful, organized, detail-oriented as analytical types are, and I’m also in tune with other people and eager to make other people happy as amiable types are. And I think I tend to lose the expressive type students in my classes, which is something I can work on.

I tend to be skeptical of personality tests — I never feel like my answers to the questions are all that accurate — but the results to this one seemed right on.

I’ve come out of this workshop knowing more about teaching, but also knowing more about myself. It was worth giving up a month’s worth of Fridays for, I think.

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Further adventures in cycling

Yesterday I had one of those rides where everything goes wrong. Almost everything. I set out on my ride around 11:00, planning to ride for an hour, shower quickly, gulp down lunch, and make it to my mid-afternoon class. But 45 minutes into the ride, I got a flat.

This is never good, but today it was only in the mid-40s outside, so I was worried about cold. And it’s hard to change a tire when your fingers are a bit numb. But I got started. Another rider from my racing team rode by and stopped to see if I was okay. I said yeah, no problem, I’ve got all the equipment I need. He stuck around for a while, suggesting that he could wait until I finished so we could ride into town together, but I urged him to go on – partly because I wanted to be nice and keep him from getting cold but mainly because I’m slow at fixing flats and would have felt embarrassed to have him hanging around while I fumble with the tube and the tire levers. So he rode on.

I got the tube in the tire and was ready to use my CO2 cartridge to fill it up – those cartridges are so much easier to use than a regular old bike pump and are easier to carry – but it wouldn’t work. I tried, but in the process of trying, I let all the CO2 out into the air, where it did me no good.

So, I was stuck 4.5 miles from home without a way to fix my flat. I don’t carry a cell phone on these rides, although even if I had one, I didn’t have anyone to call. The Hobgoblin was in class and couldn’t come get me, and I couldn’t think of anyone else who would be home.

So I walked. I watched what felt like hundreds of SUVs pass me and construction vehicles and pick-up trucks, and I thought oh, why don’t you stop and ask if I’m okay! Because I’m not! I thought about hitch-hiking, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I kept hoping a police car would pass me so I could wave it down and get a ride, but no luck.

I ended up walking 2.5 miles. Walking 2.5 miles isn’t normally a big deal for me, even with a bicycle at my side, but I was wearing those fancy cycling shoes that don’t bend in order to get maximum efficiency as you ride and that have plastic cleats that snap into the pedal. So basically I had horrible walking shoes. I didn’t have a normal stride with the stiff soles and the cleats get slippery on the pavement.

At mile 2.5, though, things got better – I came across a group of men working on a construction project, just hanging out next to a couple of trucks, and I said any chance you can give me a ride? One of the guys put my bike in the back of his truck and drove me the rest of the way home. He told me how his secretary rides also, and how she’ll be thrilled to know he helped out a cyclist because normally he gives her a hard time about her riding. He doesn’t understand the point of it.

It turns out I didn’t mess up with the CO2 cartridge, which I thought I had, since I’ve had trouble getting those things to work in the past – the trouble was that I had the wrong kind of tube. I needed one with a longer stem. Even with a bike pump, I wouldn’t have been able to pump up that tube.

I did make it to class on time.

I can’t have great rides without having some terrible ones, I suppose. And this one wasn’t so bad. If I lived in a different time and were a man, I think I’d get a kick out of hitchhiking – there’s something about traveling and not knowing exactly what’s going to happen that I find appealing. And that’s a little bit true about every bicycle ride – most times they are uneventful, but other times, I have no idea how I’ll get home.

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Can you guess the book?

I’m stealing this from Dr. Crazy who got it from Anastasia. I’m all about memes these days. They are great when I’m feeling tired and uninspired.

1. Grab the nearest book.
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the text of the next 4 sentences on your blog along with these instructions.
5. Don’t you dare dig for that “cool” or “intellectual” book in your closet! I know you were thinking about it! Just pick up whatever is closest.

“His work no longer seemed as inevitable as before. I began to wonder whether originality really shows that great writers are gods, each of them reigning over a kingdom which is his alone, whether misleading appearances might not play a role in this, and whether the differences between their books might not be the result of hard work rather than the expression of a radical difference in essence between distinct personalities.

We went in to dinner. Lying beside my plate was a carnation, its stem wrapped in silver paper.”

Hmmm. I don’t think that’s hard to guess at all, especially if you’re a regular or semi-regular reader of this blog. I could have picked something harder, but I was following direction #5 to the letter, and went for the closest thing. And my chair is right next to my … oh, never mind. Just guess. And then try it for yourself!

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Musings on writing

Courtney has this great post on running and writing where she compares the two and concludes that they are more alike than she thought. She says, “Like writing the novel, running is all about showing up, going further than you think you could, under circumstances you previously never would have considered.” Now that strikes me as absolutely true. I don’t have experience writing a novel, but I do have experience writing a dissertation, and I learned from it that there’s nothing more important than just showing up every day. Or even just showing up most days.

I got through the dissertation one hour at a time. I realized fairly early on that I’m terrible at working long hours on an intellectual task as difficult as scholarly writing, and so I didn’t ask myself to work long hours. I just asked myself to work for one hour, or sometimes even for a half an hour. That worked. Even a pace as slow as 5-7 hours a week will get you a dissertation eventually, and the novelists will probably tell you it will get you a novel too. Now I wasn’t a stellar dissertation-writer, and I took longer to graduate than I should have (I never had to ask for an extension, but that still left me with years and years of time available), but I finished.

I expected that I would have to work long hours at the end; I have the impression that most dissertation-writers have to go through a crazy period where they are frantically making revisions and finishing up that last chapter and furiously hunting down references, but it wasn’t like that for me. I kept working an hour a day, a page or two a day, and I kept doing it and doing it until I reached a point where I didn’t have any more revisions to do and then I stopped. At that point my dissertation advisor and I set a defense date, and then I waited a month to give people time to read things, I defended, and that was that. I did have to add on a short conclusion, something like 8 pages, before I turned in the final copy, but that wasn’t difficult. It was rather anti-climactic, really. I was writing an hour a day and then I wasn’t. Simple as that.

Actually, what happened is that my hour of dissertation work a day became my hour of blogging a day.

As I was writing I kept cycling and backpacking metaphors in my head. Showing up at my computer for my hour of writing was like taking a ride. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but take enough rides, and at the end of the year, you’ll have ridden something extraordinary like thousands of miles. Or it’s like a day of backpacking. One day’s walk doesn’t get you very far. But walk every day, and you can walk the entire Appalachian Trail, from George to Maine, and you’ll finish in a matter of months. You’re not doing anything extraordinary each day; if you walk 10 miles a day, you can finish the Appalachian Trail in about 7 months. Healthy, able-bodied people can walk 10 miles a day without working too, too hard, especially once you’ve given yourself time to get used to it. Walk at a meager 2-mile-an-hour pace, and it’ll take you 5 hours. Do that every day, and you’ll have walked across a continent.

Similarly, write a page a day, and you’ll have something 365 pages long at the end of a year. And how long does it take to write a page?

Well, okay, sometimes it takes a while to get to the point where you can write a page; certainly I had to do an awful lot of reading before I was ready to write my pages, but even so, when it comes to dissertations if you do an hour of preparation a day, you’ll be ready before you know it. Or if, in writing your novel, you decide you need to discard half your pages, you’re still left with 180 at the end of the year.

So for me, writing is an endurance sport. How about other writers – what metaphors do you use?

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