Monthly Archives: November 2007

My Last Frances Willard Post

Yes, I have finished A Wheel within a Wheel and am now very sad that there is no more left. But surely I can find other things Frances Willard has written, such as Writing Out my Heart: Selections from the Journal of Frances E. Willard. There is also a biography of her available.

I’ve valued Willard’s ability to tell some incident or story about cycling and then turn the story into some larger philosophical or moral point; in one of my favorite instances of this technique, she starts off by describing how difficult it is for a person to teach another person to ride a bike because it’s so hard to understand what the other is experiencing, and then she says this:

For one of these [people] perfectly to comprehend the other’s relation to the vehicle is practically impossible; the degree to which he may attain this depends upon the amount of imagination to the square inch with which he has been fitted out. The opacity of the mind, its inability to project itself into the realm of another’s personality, goes a long way to explain the friction of life. If we would set down other people’s errors to this rather than to malice prepense we should not only get more good out of life and feel more kindly toward our fellows, but doubtless the rectitude of our intellects would increase, and the justice of our judgments.

I’ve often thought something along these lines — that when we misunderstand each other or when conflict crops up, it’s so often caused by a failure of imagination. We don’t see what the other person is experiencing and can’t grasp what emotions they are going through. We are quick to think they have offended us on purpose, when they really had no such intention or were simply caught up in their own thoughts and feelings to pay attention to ours.

I also appreciate Willard’s witty turns of phrase. I love her line “the amount of imagination to the square inch with which he has been fitted out” — I wonder how much imagination I’ve been granted for each of my square inches! And then there’s this clever analogy she uses to describe learning how to mount a bicycle:

As has been stated, my last epoch consisted of learning to mount; that is the pons asinorum of the whole mathematical understanding, for mathematical it is to a nicety. You have to balance your system more carefully than you ever did your accounts; not the smallest fraction can be out of the way, or away you go, the treacherous steed [she loves to call the bicycle a steed] forming one half of an equation and yourself with a bruised knee forming the other. You must add a stroke at just the right angle to mount, subtract one to descend, divide them equally to hold your seat, and multiply all these movements in definite ratio and true proportion by the swiftest of all roots, or you will become the most minus of quantities.

And, finally, one more quotation that is not witty but is fascinatingly open-minded. She has just told the story of falling off her bicycle and breaking her arm. Before the doctors treat her, they give her some ether to dull the pain. Under the influence of ether, she has fabulous dreams, and then the most profound feeling of peace and love she has ever experienced settles over her. She is convinced that “there is no terror in the universe, for God is always at the center of everything.” And as she comes out of the ether-induced visionary state, she concludes:

Little by little, freeing my mind of all sorts of queer notions, I came back out of the only experience of the kind that I have ever known; but I must say that had I not learned the great evils that result from using anesthetics I should have wished to try ether again, just for the ethical and spiritual help that came to me. It led me out into a new world, great, more mellow, more godlike, and it did me no harm at all.

She advocates the mind-opening, consciousness-changing recreational use of drugs! Well, sort of. She includes a caution about the danger of such use. But still!

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A Thanksgiving Cycling Adventure

Apparently I am doomed to have one of these adventures at least once a year (click here to read last year’s episode). I was riding happily along, enjoying the warm day (it was probably in the mid 50s when I was riding, although it’s since gotten up into the 60s) when I noticed a bunch of glass on the road, and I was riding right through it. It was too late to do anything, so I kept riding, hoping I’d get lucky.

I didn’t. I got a flat right away, and so I settled in to change it, very grateful it was so warm. I thought I was doing a good job — I got the wheel off quickly (the back one, unfortunately, which is much more complicated to change), got the tire off with a minimum amount of trouble, and pulled the tube out. I knew that I needed to check the tire carefully to make sure the glass wasn’t still there, ready to cause a new flat. I found the place in the tube where the puncture was, found the corresponding place on the tire, and saw that there was no glass remaining. So I was good to go. I got the new tube in and the tire back on, and pulled out my CO2 cartridge. Now I haven’t quite gotten the hang of those things; I always seem to waste a bunch of the CO2, or fail to use the whole cartridge. This time was similar — I got some air into the tube, but it wasn’t a whole lot. I thought it would be enough to get me home, though — I was about 5 miles away — and so I set off.

But the air pressure seemed really low, distressingly low, and so I stopped, pulled out my second CO2 cartridge, and thought I’d try again. Maybe between two cartridges, I would be able to get enough air into the tube. I filled up the tube pretty well this time, and set off once again.

But soon enough I noticed the air pressure getting low again. I realized what I’d done — I’d failed to get all the glass out of the tire and had caused myself a second flat. Now I was really in trouble. I had some CO2 left in the second cartridge, but I didn’t know how much, and I had no bike pump.

At this point I did something silly — and I’m a bit embarrassed to tell it: I began to think that maybe I’d put the wrong tube back in the tire, that maybe I’d accidentally grabbed the one that was originally in the tire, thinking it was the new one. This was highly unlikely, but I was grasping at straws, hoping I could figure something, anything out. I get a little panicky when this sort of thing happens and I don’t always think straight. As I didn’t have anything to lose at this point, I pulled the wheel and tire off again and checked the tubes. I discovered I was right the first time. The problem really was that I’d ruined the second tube, as well as the first one.

So I assembled the tube, tire, and wheel again, resigned to walking home or riding some of the way home on a flat tire, when a woman asked me if I needed help. She surprised me, as I hadn’t noticed her approach; she was out running and had just caught up to me. Thank God! It looked like I might not have to walk after all. I was on a busy street with lots of traffic, but I hate the thought of waving people to stop so I can ask for help; I would have preferred to walk the whole way (on my stiff-soled cycling shoes). But if someone volunteered??

I asked if she had a cell phone, thinking that I could call Hobgoblin to come get me, but she didn’t have one on her. Instead, since her house was just up the road (lucky me!), she offered to run home and fetch her cell for me. So we arranged that I would walk the half mile or so while she ran home to get the cell and that I’d meet her at the end of her driveway. When Hobgoblin didn’t answer the phone, I figured he was out on his own bike ride, but the woman had already offered to give me a ride home, and I gratefully accepted.

On the way there, in one of those odd coincidences, we discovered that she works at the university where I used to work. We didn’t know each other, though.

So, on this Thanksgiving, I’m very thankful for the kind people who offer me help when I do stupid things on my bicycle! Last year it was construction workers and this year a marathon runner and former work colleague. Thank you kind strangers!

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Cycling Fashions

As I hoped she would, Frances Willard discusses the issue of women’s clothing, specifically, what women wear when they ride:

If women ride they must, when riding, dress more rationally than they have been wont to do. If they do this many prejudices as to what they may be allowed to wear will melt away. Reason will gain upon precedent, and ere long the comfortable, sensible, and artistic wardrobe of the rider will make the conventional style of women’s dress absurd to the eye and unendurable to the understanding. A reform often advances most rapidly by indirection. An ounce of practice is worth a ton of theory: and the graceful and becoming costume of woman on the bicycle will convince the world that has brushed aside the theories, no matter how well constructed, and the arguments, no matter how logical, of dress-reformers.

Hear, hear! I love the idea that the bicycle could be a driving force behind dress reform — and I love the idea of dress reform! As someone who will never, ever wear anything uncomfortable (no high heels for me, thank you very much!), I find 19C clothing for women fascinating, but absurd. Here is what Willard says about it:

A woman with bands hanging on her hips, and dress snug about the waist and chokingly tight at the throat, with heavily trimmed skirts dragging down the back and numerous folds heating the lower part of the spine, and with tight shoes, ought to be in agony. She ought to be as miserable as a stalwart man would be in the same plight. And the fact that she can coolly and complacently assert that her clothing is perfectly easy, and that she does not want anything more comfortable or convenient, is the most conclusive proof that she is altogether abnormal bodily, and not a little so in mind.

Oh, she makes me laugh. She’s a woman after my own heart, for sure. If I lived in the 19C, I’d be right there with her, wearing my sensible, comfortable clothing, whatever it was that would allow me to move about best. I do wonder if she would be shocked at the cycling clothing of today — all that close-fitting lycra and skin showing. Probably she would be shocked at first, but then perhaps, once she got used to our modern way of dressing, she’d see the sense in it.

The bicycle is capable of changing women’s fashions, and it’s also capable of advancing the cause of women’s equality (the “we” here refers to Willard and a friend; Willard is recounting a conversation they had):

We contended that whatever diminishes the sense of superiority in men makes them more manly, brotherly, and pleasant to have about; we felt sure that the bluff, the swagger, the bravado of young England in his teens would not outlive the complete mastery of the outdoor arts in which his sister is now successfully engaged. The old fables, myths, and follies associated with the idea of women’s incompetence to handle bat and oar, bridle and reign, and at last the cross-bar of the bicycle, are passing into contempt in presence of the nimbleness, agility, and skill of “that boy’s sister”; indeed, we felt that if she continued to improve after the fashion of the last decade her physical achievements will be such that it will become the pride of many a ruddy youth to be known as “that girl’s brother.”

Willard would be a staunch proponent of Title IX wouldn’t she? Her prediction in the last sentence has partly come true, as there many women and girls known for their athletic abilities, but I don’t think we’ve reached full equality when it comes to athletics — I don’t mean equality in terms of ability so much as that of opportunity and social acceptability. Those old “fables, myths, and follies” are still around.

If you’re interested in buying this book, don’t worry that I’m giving away all the good bits — there are plenty of great passages I haven’t quoted.

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Best American Essays

I have begun reading the 2007 version of The Best American Essays. Every year I consider not reading this book, but most years I end up changing my mind and reading it after all; this time around, I saw it sitting in the library and couldn’t resist giving it a look. Last year the editor, Lauren Slater, irritated me, but this year it’s different — the guest editor is David Foster Wallace, and I found his introductory essay both amusing and thought-provoking.

He starts off by saying that hardly anyone reads the introductory essay as an introduction, so you, the reader, are probably coming to him last, if at all. Then he uses that “freedom” — the freedom of possibly not being read and certainly not being considered the most interesting — to express some doubts about the essay form and the book itself:

… just about every important word on The Best American Essays 2007’s front cover turns out to be vague, debatable, slippery, disingenuous, or else ‘true’ only in certain contexts that are themselves slippery and hard to sort out or make sense of — and that in general the whole project of an anthology like this one requires a degree of credulity and submission on the part of the reader that might appear, at first, to be almost un-American.

As soon as I read this, I knew I was in the hands of a writer I would like. After the above quotation, he says that surely, after reading such doubts, most readers are now giving up on the introduction and skipping ahead to the essays themselves. But I doubt it, and I suspect Wallace doubts it too. There’s something very fun about deconstructing a project like The Best American Essays even as one is working on it, so I followed him all the way through the introduction and wasn’t tempted elsewhere.

He goes on to say that he’s not sure what an essay is (me either), and, worse, that he not sure about and doesn’t care about the difference between fiction and non-fiction (same here). He also critiques the word “editor,” choosing to call himself “the decider” instead, in honor of our president (and he points out that it’s really Robert Atwan, the series editor, who does most of the deciding), and he shows how the selection criteria for the “best” essays are necessarily arbitrary and biased. He’s happy to point that out directly:

… I have no real problem emotionally or politically, with stopping at any given point in any theoretical Q & A & Q and simply shrugging and saying that I hear the caviling voices but am, this year, for whatever reasons (possible including divine will — who knows?), the Decider, and that this year I get to define and decide what’s Best, at least within the limited purview of Mr. Atwan’s 104 finalists, and that if you don’t like it then basically tough titty.

Yes, exactly. What’s “best” is ultimately arbitrary and let’s admit it outright. So he goes on to describe his selection criteria — no confessional memoirs, no celebrity profiles, no “willfully opaque and pretentious” academic writing.

Interestingly, Lauren Slater in her introduction last year also complained about academic writing, saying that “the academic learns to hide his insecurity behind bloated verbiage.” Wallace has the same doubts, but expresses them much more fairly. First of all, he admits that he is “allergic to academic writing” because he “has a lot of felt trouble being clear, concise, and/or cogent.” He can be guilty too! But he also recognizes that not all academic writing is difficult or bloated or poorly done. Just some of it is, and that I can agree with.

The end of the essay takes a turn toward the political; he says he prizes essays that make some kind of sense out of what he calls the culture of “Total Noise”:

a culture and volume of info and spin and rhetoric and context that I know I’m not alone in finding too much to even absorb much less to try and make sense of or organize into any kind of triage of saliency or value.

He has looked for essays that manage facts well, that guide us through the clouds of information we’re so easily bewildered by:

It is totally possible that, prior to 2004 — when the reelection of George W. Bush rendered me, as part of the U.S. electorate, historically complicit in his administration’s policies and conduct — this BAE Decider would have selected more memoirs or descriptive pieces on ferns and geese, some of which this year were quite lovely and fine. In the current emergency, though, such essays simply didn’t seem as valuable to me as pieces like, say Mark Danner’s “Iraq: The War of the Imagination” or Elaine Scarry’s “Rules of Engagement.”

I’ve read only three essays so far, two of which have been political in their orientation; we’ll see how many of the remaining ones are. I feel ambivalently about this political bias, but I’ll write more about that later.

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Poetry Out Loud

Cipriano wrote an interesting comment on my post about poetry from yesterday; here’s part of it:

Secondly, I too, prefer to visually SEE a poem, rather than hear it being read out loud. Also, I detest reading aloud, any of my own poems, mostly because how they visually APPEAR [how they are lined out] is as important to me, as what they say, and what they sound like.

I generally assume that poetry is meant to be read out loud, that its origin lies in an oral culture and that this origin has shaped the poetic tradition we know today. I know there are exceptions to this idea — that there are poets who prefer to have their work read rather than listened to, just as there are some plays that the playwright didn’t intend to be performed, even though the vast majority of plays are written for the stage. I’m not sure that analogy works, actually, since performance seems more closely related to plays than oral reading is to poetry. But my point is that I do tend to think of poetry as best experienced out loud.

But I do like Cipriano’s point that seeing a poem can add to its meaning. Seeing where a poet ends the lines and breaks up the stanzas matters (although I can’t always tell you why it matters). And certainly the line breaks don’t always (or even often) come through in an oral reading. I’m not quite sure how one should read the line breaks — I mean, whether one should pause at the end of a line or continue on if the phrase or the sentence continues and there’s no punctuation. Is there a consensus on this? I usually compromise on this matter by making a very short, barely perceptible pause at the line’s end if there’s no ending punctuation, and a longer, more dramatic pause if there is. But I’m not sure what the “rule” is, if there is one.

Then, of course, there are those poems that create a specific visual effect like George Herbert’s “Easter Wings,” a poem that looks like wings on the page (check out the link for a picture of what the poem looks like in a 1633 edition). Or there are poems like this one from Susan Howe where the words are scattered all over the page, some of them sideways and upside down. It’s not clear at all how one could possibly read that poem out loud.

So perhaps I’m too quick to associate poetry, especially contemporary poetry, with the spoken word.  The picture is more complex than that.

By the way, check out this video of a Billy Collins poem, over at Chekhov’s Mistress.

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Poetry Reading

I spent some time this afternoon reading poems by Billy Collins at a library event; the library has a reading series where they have poets come read their work, and then they end the series with a session devoted to some well-known poet, with local residents doing the reading. I’ve become known to the woman in charge of the series because of the volunteering I’ve done at library sales, and so a few weeks ago, she asked me to participate.

I’m glad I did because it can be so wonderful to hear poetry read out loud, and to read it out loud oneself. We were a small group, maybe 13 or 14, in a small, cozy room, and most people knew each other, so it was comfortable. I had chosen five poems to read, and as I read I was surprised when people found the poems funny and started to laugh. Now Collins can be a funny writer, but I don’t laugh out loud when I read his work. But doing a reading with an audience changes things; what’s mildly amusing on one’s own is laugh-out-loud funny in a group.

I knew that poetry is often meant to be read out loud, and that it’s often better experienced that way, but it’s another thing entirely to experience that directly.

It reminds me of the poetry reading that took place at the conference I went to last month; a bunch of us sat around in a room and read 18C poems out loud to each other. It was wonderful to hear poems I’ve known and read on my own being read out loud; they were funnier or more moving when experienced that way.

I’m not particularly good at listening to poetry if I’m not already familiar with the work; I am such a visual person that I have trouble following words if there’s no text. But when I know the work being read, then listening to poetry is a pleasure. Perhaps I should see if my library has any poetry on CD to listen to in the car … I wonder what that would be like.

Here’s one of the poems I read today; it’s one I teach, as it’s a good way to get students to think about the sonnet form:

Sonnet

All we need is fourteen lines, well, thirteen now,
and after this one just a dozen
to launch a little ship on love’s storm-tossed seas,
then only ten more left like rows of beans.
How easily it goes unless you get Elizabethan
and insist the iambic bongos must be played
and rhymes positioned at the ends of lines,
one for every station of the cross.
But hang on here wile we make the turn
into the final six where all will be resolved,
where longing and heartache will find an end,
where Laura will tell Petrarch to put down his pen,
take off those crazy medieval tights,
blow out the lights, and come at last to bed.

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Frances Willard is my hero

fwillard.jpg I promise I won’t post on Frances Willard’s A Wheel Within a Wheel every day, but I have come across another quotation I can’t resist recording here:

I finally concluded that all failure was from a wobbling will rather than a wobbling wheel. I felt that indeed the will is the wheel of the mind — its perpetual motion having been learned when the morning stars sang together. When the wheel of the mind went well then the rubber wheel hummed merrily; but specters of the mind there are as well as of the wheel. In the aggregate of perception concerning which we have reflected and from which we have deduced our generalizations upon the world without, within, above, there are so many ghastly and fantastical images that they must obtrude themselves at certain intervals like filmy bits of glass in the turn of the kaleidoscope. Probably every accident of which I had heard or read in my half-century tinged the uncertainty that by the correlation of forces passed over into the tremor that I felt when we began to round the terminus bend of the broad Priory walk. And who shall say by what original energy the mind forced itself at once from the contemplation of disaster and thrust into the very movement of the foot on the pedal a concept of vigor, safety, and success? I began to feel that myself plus the bicycle equaled myself plus the world, upon whose spinning-wheel we must all learn to ride, or fall into the sluiceways of oblivion and despair. That which made me succeed with the bicycle was precisely what had gained me a measure of success in life — it was the hardihood of spirit that led me to begin, the persistence of will that held me to my task, and the patience that was willing to begin again when the last stroke had failed. And so I found high moral uses in the bicycle and can commend it as a teacher without pulpit or creed.

I feel the truth of Willard’s point that the mind is at least as important as the body when it comes to riding; where I’m limited as a rider, it comes from mental weakness — laziness and fear, in particular. I could work harder and ride more if had more mental drive, and I am limited by my fear of riding fast, particularly in a large, tightly-packed group, and especially around corners. At times I’m haunted by the “ghastly and fantastical images” Willard describes — images of terrible crashes and collisions with cars and severe injuries. This fear probably only hurts me rather than helps keep me safe — I’m not at all likely to be reckless and so don’t need fear to hold me back, and timidity, at least when riding in a group, can get one into trouble.

And yet, on a more positive note, her point that what “made me succeed with the bicycle was precisely what had gained me a measure of success in life” is a wonderful one, and true for me as well; where I’ve had success, it’s come from endurance, doggedness, and showing up regularly, qualities one needs to learn how to ride well. One also needs patience, determination, and the help of a few good friends. It hasn’t been about talent (I have no idea what amount of innate talent I have for cycling or athletics generally — I was a reasonable long-distance runner in High School, but nothing stellar), but about making the best use of whatever ability I’ve got. So I, along with Willard, feel that I can “commend [the bicycle] as a teacher without pulpit or creed.”

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