Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Treating Asthma

Last night we took my mom and dad to dinner for my mom’s birthday and then went to their friend’s house to play dominoes. On the way to dinner, we got to talking about my brother’s children, with whom Mom had spent the day “playing.” The topic of asthma came up: all three of the kids have moderate asthma. The two older ones (4 and 9) have been taken on numerous midnight visits to the hospital emergency room after waking up unable to breathe. The four year old takes steroids. So, in the midst of this discussion, my mom mentions that yesterday the youngest of the three had gone for his “asthma treatment,” and I ask, “what treatment?” I’m thinking fancifully to myself of iron lungs, giant syringes, and gurneys lined up on a beach. My dad says, “You haven’t heard? Ben (the two year old) goes and sits in a room while someone else gets a backrub,” and my mom hushes him in an exasperated voice and then tells me that the two year old goes with his other grandma once a week to an accupressurist who puts vials full of allergens in his socks, which she rests against his foot. Then, the accupressurist applies pressure to points on the other grandma’s back while the other grandma holds Ben in her lap. When I finally stop guffawing, my dad says, “that’s what I thought, too,” and my mom acts offended and says she guesses she must be more “open minded about alternative treatments.” I try to point out some distinctions between “alternative treatments” and “magical thinking.” I also ask if they’ve tried faith-healing or at least a good dousing in chicken blood. Have they tried mailing toenail clippings to the Pope? I ask if he even has to go to the appointments—could the other grandma go get the massage and Ben still enjoy the relief, maybe while standing on a box of cat hair at home? I go on and on, until my otherwise highly rational mother tells me I can laugh all I want but it works. And like every poor skeptic who runs up against the broad, dumb wall of faith, I can only sit and stare out into the night.

House-Hunting and Some Observations on Children

The Russian and I went house hunting with our agent, Paul, in Kansas City Saturday. We looked at 9 houses in 3 hours. Since we're buying the house as an investment for Russian friends, I have to be careful not to become too concerned about what I like or don't like. I constantly have to remember that I will only be in the house for 2-3 years. It does not need to express my personality or be somewhere I can imagine entertaining my brother's progeny's progeny. All that matters is that in a couple years the place will sell for more than we pay for it now. That's cool. It's just hard to remember. Oleg does not seem to have as much a problem with this as I do. Anyway, we found one house that was 2600 sq. feet with three bedrooms, a huge walk-out basement, and two cat doors--one to the basement and one into the pantry. We don't have cats, but cat doors seem like a real selling point to me.

We're staying at my parents' house in KC, which means being around my dad who is pretty much bonkers. He's entertaining and infuriating, at times terrifying. He is frequently inappropriate--really inappropriate. He's been downstairs opening and closing doors for 15 minutes. We don't know what he's doing and discuss the possibilities. Oleg suggests that he's rearranging the basement or building a safe-room in which to hide from birds. Yesterday, Oleg and I saw a tornado room in one of the houses we viewed--it was a tiny space with one open side and three, three-foot-thick concrete walls and ceiling--so he's got that on his mind. My mom has no guess and simply says, "who knows" and continues her game of spider solitaire--but then supposes he's looking for something. My guess is that he's killing a bug. He's made a lot of noise killing a bug before, so this isn't as stupid as it may seem. Neither is Oleg's idea about the birds, since my dad is terrified of birds and there were two or three thousand of them sitting on the roof of the house earlier in the day. We would hear nothing for five or six minutes, and then the birds would scrabble around, making a sound like the frozen tree branches that scrape our roof in Vermillion on windy nights. Then, all at once, the birds would lift silently and, in a body, pass flickering across the sunlight coming through the windows, settling finally in the limbs of the hackberry trees that line the yard. The trees used to act as a windbreak for the farm field behind the houses on my parents' street. In the summer, starlings gather in the same trees and laugh at us. My mom shoots them with a pellet gun because she claims that otherwise they poop on her new deck. All of this causes my dad distress. He suffered some kind of childhood trauma that involved his mother and an aggressive goose, so he has a true phobia of birds--totally loses his mind when birds fly around near his head. Screeches and whimpers. As it happens, he was not building a shelter from the birds, though, or killing bugs. When he came upstairs later, he said he was looking for something, but nothing in particular--just looking around. That seems reasonable to me, since I like looking around, too.

Today, my brother's kids are here. My mom watches them once or twice a week. They're nine, four, and two. She just gave the younger two a bath and supervised the shower of the nine-year old. Like my dad, the presence of these children puts me in a state verging on catatonia, a deep-seated exhaustion that precedes any effort at entertaining--or bathing--them. It's 11:00, and Oleg is still in bed, evidence of the fact that he experiences an extreme version of the same uneasiness. Plus, he has a cold. Mom has been jumping from room-to-room, running baths, drying hair, putting green or pink frosting on waffles (uh, gross), playing alphabet games, finding socks. All I've done of any note all morning is send the four-year-old girl into hysterics by freaking about her putting a plastic bag on her head. I was trying to find a picture of a cicada on Google Images to scare the two-year-old with, and I look up, and Maggie has a plastic bag over her head. I very sternly told her NEVER to put a plastic bag on her head. Told her about six times in a deep, booming voice with blue fire shooting out of my nose and sharp claws poking out of my fingertips. Her very-large-to-begin-with eyes got bigger and bigger, and I could feel exactly how she felt--frozen with fear and mortification and not knowing why this big person suddenly doesn't like me. But my adult brain, feeble at best, I was thinking, "at least she'll remember not to put a bag on her head. I may be saving her life!" But then the walls crack and it's heartbreak and she's four and I'm her Aunt Mandy and there are tears and we "want GRANDMA!!!" Now, she totally hates me. She's standing on the steps staring down at me. I say, "you have Winnie the Poo on your shirt!" and she goes back up the steps, starts crying, and says quietly to my mom, "I don't want to wear these pants." My mom says, "Why? why are you crying?" And she says, "I don't like Winnie the Poo." Winnie the Poo is on her shirt, not her pants, which my mom points out, and then they change her clothes. After the drama, Mom asks what she wants for lunch, and she says, "birthday cake." The two-year old has poked a head-sized hole in his blanket and is walking around like Pig Pen in Charlie Brown, with the blanket trailing after him. The nine-year old is sick and bored. I have a headache that knows no bounds.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Things were not as bleak as I thought Monday. A couple hours after my Angry Episode with the Toshiba, the Russian (my husband) got out of bed and put the cord back into the converter box whence it had become disconnected. Computer fixed. Then, when I asked him how he wanted to go about retrieving our only working vehicle from the distant parking lot under the current conditions (-15 degrees), the Russian said the car was in the garage, had been in the garage since yesterday evening, that he had not ridden home with another soccer player as he had led me to believe the night before. What a prankster.


Speaking of things that end well, the Shakespeare reading group in which I participate held its last monthly meeting of the semester last week. We meet for 3-4 hours to read a Shakespeare play aloud. I LOVE it. Our hostess is a Shakespeare scholar who brings key info and insights to the material but never seems to be "teaching." I go for the language, the sensuous pleasure of speaking Shakespeare's lines--feeling them on the tongue and hearing them spoken. I like, I guess, the kinesthetics of the tongue, the way saying links to understanding--the song and the sense. I read aloud to myself sometimes; I particularly like to read Hopkins, Yeats, cummings, and Melville--and perhaps oddly, Edward Taylor. Disparate, but they share a lot (besides being all Anglo guys!)--the first and the last, along with Shakespeare, for example, have a great deal of sound play, and all seem to me exemplary of a rich suggestiveness of language, signification that glances off big meanings. I like poems with enough mystery to hold me up--negative capability I think Keats called it. I like to feel on the threshold of an idea. The sound of the line is integral to that enjoyment for me. And plus Shakespeare's words are lovely in the mouth. So, we've been reading the comedies, which are my least favorite Shakespeare works, but I'm not complaining--they're still splendid. I prefer the tragedies. Lear. And I like to teach the sonnets.


One of my students put a book, a gift, in my mailbox yesterday. It's a 1908 copy of Shakespeare's stories--not plays--but stories distilled from the plays and rendered in prose for children. They're wonderfully illustrated, too, with pen drawings of little Kewpie-(Cupie-?) looking children dressed for different scenes of the plays, mainly the comedies and romances. I haven't had a chance to do more than poke around in the book, but it's a quirky, cool gift.

I am feeling disappointed by the blogging experience. I find that much of what I really want to blog about I don't have the guts to write online. A reasonable reservedness or out-of-date fear of transparency? I'm thinking of getting a new, more anonymous blog.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Worser and Worser

To sweeten my already painfully sweet life, today at 6:45 am, my fucking Toshiba, my only computer with Word on it, stopped working while I was grading papers. There has been a short in the place where the power cable plugs in for a long time; it seems to have given out completely. Then, within three minutes, the whole thing went off because I haven't had battery power for a couple years. Now, I have 14 papers to grade, no MS Word. Just this piece of crap with Works and tiny letters that make the windows to my soul ache. Plus it is negative 15 degrees on my outdoor thermometer, and our only working car is a mile and a half away where we left it yesterday afternoon through a delightful bit of mutual idiocy and poor communication.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Just a few things before I rush off to office hours and grading drafts of final papers. Life speeds up in the 15th week of the semester, a measure by which time is divided not into two portions but into 16-week segments of progressively frantic reading and writing and grading that will climax in this and the next week before abruptly bottoming out to a luscious calm in the following week. A long way of saying that I've been too busy to write and still am.
  1. This morning I observed a beautiful sunrise and that my fingernails are growing at significantly different rates, something that has never before been the case.
  2. I've had several peculiar dreams lately. Last night I dreamt that I masturbated and had an orgasm, which was pleasant but also disturbing, since I do not like being uncertain about what my body is up to while I am asleep. I also dreamt that I was in a big house and had a distinct feeling that the house should have something peculiar or hidden in it. I spent a long time in silent distress because I could find nothing mysterious. I kept trying to call my mom, who was also supposed to be there, but the buttons on the phone were so tiny I couldn't dial the right ones and had to start over and over. Several nights ago, I dreamt that I was a nanny and was trying to get some children to make their bed. I caught their attention by pointing out how most things in a home are in the shape of a square or rectangle.

Since the dream, I have been unaccountably preoccupied by the banal thought that so many things are squarish in shape--I pondered it through the whole of my one-hour drive to the therapist's office Monday morning, for instance. It's not even very interesting but I cannot get it out of my head.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Thanks and No Thanks

Having successfully made it through the end of November, I find myself facing just two more weeks of the penultimate semester of my career as a university professor. I am feeling vaguely apprehensive about who I will be in May and am wondering whether people in other lines of work wrap their identities so closely around their jobs. For the Thanksgiving weekend, the Russian and I went to KC--or, rather, I went to KC. Oleg was already there. This year, he would not attend Thanksgiving Day dinner at my aunt's but insisted on staying behind, alone, at my parents' house. A couple months ago, my uncle and cousin offended him, and he has since determined that eating at their house violates his principles. Maybe it's my medication, but I just could not work up the sense of outrage I thought would be an appropriate response to this defection. I tried, but I wasn't that interested. I wouldn't go if I were him either. I wanted to see my niece and nephews, and that was my only chance on this visit. Thanksgiving always disappoints me. People say they prefer Thanksgiving to Christmas because there's less commercialism associated with Thanksgiving. In my experience, there is nothing associated with Thanksgiving. It's nice to see the family and all that, but the holiday itself strikes me as peculiarly empty. If I were calling the shots for Thanksgiving, I would have every Thanksgiving commence with a reading from The Plymouth Adventure. Then we would listen to the President, who, rather than pardoning a stupid turkey, would deliver a radio address at noon in which he would offer a national thank you. There would always be hot apple cider. And, I would try to have something like an apple press going or some corn to husk. People could rake the yard or shovel snow, if nothing else. And, there would be no television at all, and no video games, and everyone would eat in one room, at one big table, no matter how many people, no matter how squished together. I would most definitely do something like go around and have each person say one thing for which they are thankful. And for dinner, we would first have popcorn and squash, maybe some clams. Then venison and hasty pudding. After dinner, we would sit in front of a fireplace and read a few American Indian tales and think about how everything for which we give thanks comes at a great cost.

While in KC, Oleg and I also went house hunting. He has convinced a friend in Russia to buy a house in the US as an investment. We will live in it for three years and then sell the house--making a profit of some sort for the friend and providing ourselves with a place to live. (I don't even want to get started on all the nightmare scenarios that come to mind in relation to this little scheme.) Anyway, while looking at houses, I kept forgetting what we were doing. I kept thinking about whether I would want to live in the house forever, and I would forget to think about whether someone else would want to buy the house from me later. Apparently, no one else would want any of the houses I like, and all the houses I picked out have now been rejected. So, I've lost interest in the search and am working on reconciling myself to the prospect of living in exactly the kind of house I never wanted to live in, likely located in a neighborhood of the sort I so hated and longed to escape as an adolescent. Life seems such a let-down.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Seems odd that we are almost to Thanksgiving. The amount of time it takes me to grade a set of rough drafts for a class I teach stretches out to feel infinitely longer than the amount of time it takes to get from Halloween to Thanksgiving. Where is my focus? Yesterday, I spent scattered moments throughout the day watching the most appalling horror movies on SciFi channel with my husband. The first featured an "abominable" snowman without snow. The film was entitled "Abominable" and the characters very clearly agreed about the creature's not being a "bigfoot," because bigfoots, unlike the abominable, avoid people. The monster pulled a woman through a 2x2 foot window waist-first. You could see her head and feet go through together, although it was very quick. Later in the day, another movie also revolved around an abominable snowman, this time called a yeti, who was terrorizing a group of students who survived a plane wreck in the Himalayas. Whenever the director wanted the monster to run or leap, the film seemed to speed up, so that the monster that was lurching around more or less realistically one second would suddenly and very jerkily leap ten or twenty feet forward. Then I caught the first part of a movie about some giant spiders at a ski resort which were less frightening than the movie's awkwardly developed romance between Vanessa Williams and some cocky, washed up ski champion. Finally, a movie about some British special ops soldiers on a training mission in a heavily wooded area. Since the moon was full, the forest was also soon filled with werewolves who organized themselves to feed on the soldiers. I enjoyed the werewolf movie more than the others, but only because the parts I saw never depicted the creatures full-on; instead, they appeared in fragments and fleetingly, as shadow or silhouettes. Things seem much scarier to me when I can't quite make out what they are. But, things also seem much less scary when viewed broken up through the tiny cracks between my fingers or with the sound off. I kept trying to get Oleg to tell me what he would do if a yeti were attempting to get in the house. He wouldn't respond, but I decided I would dump a bunch of water on the floor, cut the cord of my hair-dryer where it connects to the hairdryer, strip back the plastic to expose the wires, plug in the cord, and wait on the kitchen counter. When the yeti came through the door, I'd throw the cord into the water on the floor. Oleg said this would probably work. I have a number of intricate security systems about the house that I won't get into here. Not to foil yetis, of course.

My outdoor thermometer read 19 degrees this morning. I'm sure it feels colder, and last night my toes began to show signs of pernio, which I get every year. The wind blows all the time which supposedly makes the air feel colder, except in the summer, when it's 92 degrees and the wind feels like hell's door blown open. That is, if hell were filled with cow dung and fertilizer. A friend in Rhode Island says it has grown colder there, too, but she still has flowers blooming in her yard. Her kind heart may explain the flowers, but Rhode Island smells better than South Dakota in general.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

My Knee, My Loss of Speed, and My President


This is my most recent soccer injury. I have decided that this is a "moderate level quadricep contusion." I found that on the internet. The bruise is located just above my left knee (to the right in the picture), where I was cleated by a goalie in a co-ed game. He had no reason to be slide-tackling me. I still cannot bend the knee much past 90 degrees.


When I was in junior high, some 25 years ago, I used to play indoor soccer 5 times a week. We'd have games starting as late as 11:30 at night. I played soccer until I was 19 and then didn't play again until I was 25. I stopped again and didn't start again until I was 33. I hate the way my body has gotten slower. Even when I'm in shape, I don't have the speed and quickness today at 38 that I had even at 33. When I was 33, I played indoor on three teams and was always getting hurt, which should have told me something. But I played with a 45-year-old woman who could run circles around the women in their twenties and I figured I should be able to do as well as she. During that period, I went to the emergency room for concussions on two different occasions, one of which came from hitting my head on the wall and the other from catching a shot on goal in the face. The second hit me so hard that I couldn't fully open or close my jaw for two days. The other time I went to the hospital was for my collarbone, which I thought I might have cracked. There is still a hard lump there. My legs are relatively short and muscular, which is why I think I have never had problems with my knees and ankles. When I trained for a marathon in 2005, I did have some illiotibial band tightness and pain, but I managed.
I was about 33 when I started to notice that I was aging. It's an odd thing, since I'd always heard people older than me joke and laugh about their bodies falling or drooping, cellulite and jowls developing, and so on. Certainly, there had been people whom I noticed aging in the face, their hair turning grey or white, usually friends of my parents. But I never noticed any sign of it in myself. There were a few mornings after long nights of decadence in college when I'd looked in the mirror and thought, wow, this is how I'll look when I'm 50, but things generally snapped back into place after a day or two. I don't have much vanity about my looks--I'm not unpleasant to look at, unless I'm crying or angry. But I am certainly nothing to start writing poetry about either. Still, as a member of a society that places such tremendous value on the visual qualities of most everything (except what cannot be seen), I am certainly conscious of how I look and try not to sicken myself or others with my appearance. What was my point? Right, so my body is getting old. I have a little brown spot on my hand that I know will grow into a liver spot eventually. And there are deep creases between my eyes, over my nose from glaring at computer screens and books and students all the time. I have two grey hairs on my head that appeared around my 30th birthday and even one grey pubic hair. The worst thing though are my legs, especially just over my knees. When I stand with both my feet on the ground, all of the skin and fat sort of settles above my knee. I am pretty active so it doesn't fold over or anything, but I can spot the beginnings of some puckers. In principle, I care nothing about aging; I try to regard growing old as part of living. Aged people are often quite beautiful, especially if they are content with their lives and have their health and are able to participate in something that interests them. Happy people, regardless of their features, tend to be beautiful--animation is part of it, but also happiness is pleasant to look at. In principle, then, I am not opposed to aging or to looking older, but still, one gets used to looking a certain way. And it seems like being older hit me suddenly and accelerated quickly. Really, I am more disturbed by how slow they've become than the appearance; I could attribute my short strong legs to my peasant heritage or something. But the slowing down: where's the burst of speed, the stopping and starting, the weaving and darting?

I was thinking about aging last night while listening to Obama's acceptance speech. Presidents always look much older after four years in office. Somewhere I saw before-and-after photos of several presidents--a magazine article maybe. It was striking how profoundly the stress affected the men's appearance.

While listening and watching Obama's acceptance speech on TV, surfing the web for images of knee injuries that looked like mine, and thinking about how quickly soccer-playing women and presidents age, I was also on the phone talking with a friend about the rhetoric of race, or what there has been of it, in this election. I am puzzled by the repeated use of the phrase "first black president," since the man is bi-racial. Is he "black" because he has chosen to affiliate with that aspect of his heritage over the European? Is it better to be "black" than bi-racial? More noble to claim African descendancy than to claim both African and European? If Obama says, "I am a black man," everyone nods. What if Obama said, "I am a white man"? Would that be equally acceptable? It would be agreeable to think so, but I am skeptical about the public's ability to err in both directions. Is he "black" because fathers are more important to their children's identities than mothers? Is he "black" because, as a nation, we still operate by some form of the "one-drop rule"? Is he "black" because for others or for Obama himself to call him "white" or even bi-racial would look too much like denying affiliation with a racial group that for too long has been denied full credit for its part in helping to begin, build, and keep this country going? Is he "black" because that is the least complicated rhetorical road for him to travel at this point in history? Well, none of this is all that much about Obama himself. I would have voted for him regardless of what racial identification he claimed or that others assigned to him. I agree with my friend Joanna, though, that it seems rather late in our history as a nation to still be having so much difficulty with the idea of bi-racialism or multi-racialism.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

It is a good day for this country, a very good day.

Monday, November 3, 2008

I was listening to NPR on my way home. The topic of conversation, only the middle of which I caught, seemed to be what listeners think about polling. So, this man calls in and compares two surveyers who recently telephoned him. The caller says that he viewed one more positively than the other, and the host asks why. The caller says that he didn't like the first, that it was a computer. He could tell that the program was designed to generate follow-up questions tailored to his responses. The caller didn't like it. Again, "why?" "I don't know," he says, "I just didn't. I can't put my finger on it. It just seemed so ersatz."

What does that mean? I know what ersatz means (although I'm not entirely sure the caller did), but what kind of "view" is that? Did this guy call up his radio station to share this opinion? Is it just me, or does it seem like we are so caught up in the notion that everyone should have an opportunity to say what they think that we've lost sight of the thinking that should precede the saying? Is it true that everyone's thoughts should be heard?

I have similar questions about student evaluations. Students are not experts in the subjects they take in school, and they are not pedagogical experts either; for the most part, they have never taught, and despite what they would claim, they do not even have that much experience in the classroom--at least not compared to the person teaching them. They don't know what is effective in a broad sense. All they know is what they "like." We are so committed to giving everyone a "say" and making everyone feel as though his or her opinion is valuable, no matter what, that nobody dares to ask whether every opinion really is significant. There don't seem to be many people who have informed reasons for liking, disliking, supporting or not supporting things. And it is scary that, on the basis of whatever whim or dyspepsia or arbitrary bad association, everybody gets to vote, evaluate, and speak out. If I were running for office, I would endorse a public service campaign to promote more thinking and less speaking out.

I guess you don't have to be a card-carrying Derridean to know that this blog needs to end immediately.

Saturday, November 1, 2008




It's a beautiful day in South Dakota--windy, as usual, but warm and bright. My husband is catching walleye at a nearby lake. The phone call came this morning from a friend of his. They had caught four "keepers" in an hour of fishing. The husband was out of bed and gone in a flash.

I am inside looking out my office window. I've been composing a job recommendation letter for a graduate student with whom I work. He's a great guy and a promising scholar. Just received email from another student. She's finished next week's reading early and wants to get a start on her next paper. We won't be discussing the book until Tuesday, but she wants me to email my thoughts on the characters and events to her, so she can begin work. Earlier today I wrote a long blog about my graduate student years and erased the whole thing with one click. I felt awful for having wasted an hour writing when I could have been working. Working?

Have I mentioned that "It's a beautiful day in South Dakota--windy, as usual, but warm and bright." It's Saturday. I feel guilty for not working. I want to reply to my student: "Sorry, I don't work on Saturday." Or: "I am only teaching that book in class--not once to you in email over the weekend and then again in class next week." It's nice that she's so committed. An "exceeds expectations" teacher would probably meet her for coffee this afternoon and have a discussion about the book. Before I got the email, I was reading the "balancing life and work" forum thread in the Higher Chronicle. This is the thread where some faculty go to complain about their jobs and support one another in trying to muster the gumption to quit. One writer says that she has already quit and now feels much, much better. I have already quit, too, but I really don't feel that much better. I still feel manacled to the computer and guilty when I'm not doing something job-related. I constantly have to remind myself that I can relax, find something enjoyable to do, keep the work contained within certain hours. I don't need any more lines on my cv.

I'll be voting on Tuesday. I'm afraid my parents are both voting for McCain, and just thinking about it makes my heart race. I was mulling over whether I might be a Federalist in the car the other day, and Thoreau's words on voting kept coming to mind. He wrote that to vote is pretty much a game of craps, that no choice of moral importance can be made in such a way--at least not for people who feel deeply invested in a question. Thoreau writes, "All voting is a sort of gaming, like chequers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voter is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men" ("Resistance to Civil Government" Thoreau).

What Thoreau says about the character of the voter's not being staked is true. In some sense, we are not supposed to care too much about the outcome of a vote; after casting our ballots, we are encouraged to let go of an issue and let the process do its work. The vote substitutes for my continuing identification with a stance or my moral connection to a decision. I put my preference in the vote and send it out to join the other votes, punchcards. My vote goes into a box and separates from me. Hours later, a decision emerges. The social contract which impels/implies my consent dictates that the decision, the output, be accepted as my law, even if, as Thoreau points out, that output is morally repugnant to me. As a citizen in a republic, I agree to respect the system that allots power to a majority. But the republican form adheres to the majority decision not because the majority is right or wise or moral, but because the system of accepting its decisions is expedient. I wonder if voting itself may be worse than amoral and, in truth, immoral, since it forces a buffer between my knowledge of what is morally right and my ability to live out that knowledge. "Cast your whole vote," Thoreau writes, "not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight." These are brave words, but it's difficult to conceive of what they would look like in action. I've read and seen movies about the people in this country who won't pay their income taxes because, as they argue, the federal government has no jurisdiction to collect taxes on individual income. Nothing ever seems to come of the claim or the resistance--except jail time for the tax-evading individuals. When the Patriot Act passed, one might have expected to see a movement of some sort, but nothing significant emerged. Elections are sometimes called quiet or peaceful revolutions, and certainly they can bring about changes. But I think Thoreau is right to recognize that the changes are morally neutral in as much as they reflect no decision of right and wrong and may be immoral in that they separate decision making from moral responsibility. I will vote, but I am not very excited about it.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

In Defense of Anger

I was raised in a suburb in the midwest. After I grew up and moved away, I learned that, throughout my childhood, the neighbors who lived on both sides and behind my family regarded us as unstable and possibly dangerous. Had I known, I would have gloried in it, but I did not know. Most of the trepidation had to do with my dad. The thing about my dad--there are a lot of things about my dad; he's an interesting guy--but the thing that so alarmed the neighbors was my dad's explosive temper. To illustrate, take a fine fall morning, any weekend, circa 1979, and we find my dad fixing himself a lunch. He gets out the cold cuts, probably olive loaf or those thinly sliced squares of processed beef, and goes to toast a couple slices of white bread in the toaster. He waits. The toaster does not pop up the toast, despite the evident burning that has begun. So, my dad has to try to extract the bread with his finger. By now, he is cursing in a low but intense voice--something about engineers who design things like this toaster. He burns his finger slightly and the cursing gets louder. If you were there, you would be able to hear him throughout the house and from the front or back porch, even if the doors and windows were closed. He turns the toaster over and shakes it, and maybe he yells, "you godDAMN piece of SHIT!" Then, let's suppose that the toaster slips from his hands as he's shaking it and crashes to the floor, dumping his toast and a half cup of burnt toaster crumbs on the linoleum. Things quickly escalate. My dad introduces new, more powerful terms into the yelling, which is coming out pretty much non-stop. The volume rises significantly. At this point, the neighbors hear a word or two from their own yards, or, if the windows are open, from their own kitchen tables. Next, his foot slips on the crumbs. He doesn't go down, but the sudden movement to catch his balance causes the blood to rush from his hands and sends adrenalin pumping through his system. He feels a small spasm in his back. Now, he is in a true rage. Now, he bellows forth the poetry of fury. If the neighbors haven't yet realized a show is on, they learn soon enough when dad yanks the back door open (things get even better when the sliding screen door comes off the tracks), bursts on to the back deck, and cursing at the top of his lungs the whole time, hurls the toaster into the back yard. Then, he turns back inside where my mom has appeared, with her eyebrows up and her lips pressed together. Dad goes and sits on the couch, still puffing a little self-righteously, and pretty soon mom brings him a sandwich. She's not friendly about it, and he will still be trying to get her to talk to him at dinnertime, but he gets fed and the kitchen floor is magically wiped up. Over the years, the toaster is followed by a hairdryer, blender, telephone, a small black and white television, and of course the sliding screen door. No body ever gets thrown into the backyard, but I can imagine them now, the neighbors, half-smiling, feeling superior and biting their lips, peeking around their curtains, wondering if it is really very safe to let their kids play over there.

I don't blame my dad for his behavior, even though I did grow up feeling weird about having friends over and sort of nervous about when he might start flipping out. The really bad thing is that I either inherited or learned his rage--or both. I don't usually throw things, but I certainly get so mad that I can't hear or see, and then I act impulsively and say and do things that most people would never do. Once in Rhode Island during the peak of the shopping season--mid-to-late December, I found myself driving around and around in a shopping center parking lot with a bunch of other cars playing a tense kind of duck-duck-goose game. I stopped when I saw a woman approach and get in a car and start the engine. She didn't move and she didn't move, and she didn't move. I could see her. She was on her phone. She pulled down her sunvisor and put on some lipstick. She lit a cigarette, opened her window a bit. I waited. Finally, I put my car in park, got out, and approached her driver's side. She looks at me. Blows smoke out the window. Are you leaving? I ask. When I'm ready, I'll leave, she says to me, holding her cell phone down from her mouth a bit. I was heart-thumping mad when I got out of my car. Now, for a split second, I cannot see, and there's no specific sound in my head but I cannot hear anything around me either. A dizzy pulsing in my brain, and then it passes. I turn and get back in my car and very slowly roll forward to park directly behind her, so that my passenger's door is pressed up flush against her back bumper. She's still jabbering. She doesn't even notice. I get out and walk about half a soccerfield's length across the parking lot before she realizes she's been blocked in. All of a sudden I hear screaming and turn to see her waving her arms, her face red. I wait as she runs across the parking lot. Ready to leave, now? I say. People are smiling as they walk by. Squawk! Squawk! Squawk! I walk back, get in my car, and go home. I feel good, really good, like I've solved an important social problem, not at all like I am a social problem. I don't know if my dad ever felt like that when he propelled cheap, poorly designed appliances and other household goods into the back yard, but I do sense an affinity between us. All of us face the world with so few weapons; it reminds me of Ahab telling Starbuck of his need to punch through the mask--hit back at the big, dumb uncooperative universe of contrary people and things that defy and withstand our will! Hi-yah!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Why it Seems Like I Twitch a Lot When I Talk to You

Sometimes I feel guilty for things I haven't done. I don't mean large-scale social injustices like race discrimination. Although I am probably guilty of that, too, on some level, given the unbidden and unearned privileges I enjoy on account of my "white" skin. But I am not talking about that right now. I am talking about being guilty of things like shoplifting or lying. I have this recurrent feeling of guilt in certain situations, even though I am doing and have done nothing blameworthy. Many times I have had the experience while shopping. I gradually feel my neck and shoulders tightening, because I know I am being watched. And once I realize that I am being watched, I feel suffused with guilt, as though I am shoplifting, even though I've never stolen anything from a store in my life. If, under these circumstances, a salesperson catches my eye, I am compelled to look down or away, and I am overly conscious of my arms and legs. I am thinking the whole time about how I'm not stealing anything, don't even intend or want to steal anything, but my body is actively performing as though panicked because I have been caught stealing. Except I am not stealing. Other times, I will be in the middle of talking to someone, looking them square in the eye, centered in what I'm saying, when I am all of a sudden apart from myself (not visually but in my head) listening to myself and thinking, "yeah, right." Even though I always really, genuinely mean what I am saying, another part of me has split away and doubts (or maybe plays with doubting) it, and that part begins to affect the part that believes what I'm saying, so that despite my sincerity, which is real, I can feel my eyes start to look like they are lying. And sometimes I'll stumble over my words, or I'll suddenly scratch my face when I don't even have an itch--a "give," as that old movie about the gambling psychiatrist--House of Cards--called it. And the thing is, I know I am not lying, but I also know I feel like I am and I look like I am. Then, instead of spinning my head around and spitting green stuff, I usually tell my self /ves that I don't really care if it looks like I'm lying, and I bluster my way through, telling sweet truth the whole time but getting none of the credit or enjoyment from it that I deserve. These are the things that make social interaction difficult for me.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Whew! Glad I got all that off my chest. Today, a fit of nostalgia instead of guilt. I somehow got to thinking about a long-past obsession I had over a Portuguese guy on my co-ed soccer team in Rhode Island about five years ago. Part of the obsession was my first husband's fault. He wouldn't sleep with me for 33 months because I once said he smoked too many cigarettes which made me not want to have children with him. I figured he would be likely to die before they were able to drive. It was not a particularly sensitive thing to say, but the intention was good: I wanted him to quit smoking. Addicts are astoundingly skilled at protecting their habits; he immediately transformed my words into "You are not good enough to be the father of my children, you dirtbag." This imagined insult had such a hurtful effect on him that he never again had sex with me. Really. No matter how many times I told him that my words were directed at a behavior, not at his essential being, he insisted on misunderstanding what I said. It was absurd. So, around the age of 30, at my sexual prime, I was married to someone who, for the next almost-3 years, refused to sleep with me. We never had sex after that point. To keep this short, despite my growing resentment (and increasing libido) I did not violate the agreement that was our marriage until after I filed for divorce. Then, I went after this guy on my soccer team. I didn't and don't even know that much about him. What I did know indicated that it would be difficult to find anyone less likely to be an appropriate love interest for me. Still, the barbed-wire tattoo on his arm and the stories he told about Portugal gave me goosebumps. And when it all came down, I was so overwhelmed by this intersection of my day-to-day life and what had become a painfully constant fantasy world in my head, I really think I lost all sense of reality. This was probably the closest I have ever been to psychotic. The guy was barely literate. He had finished 8th grade. He was nice, but probably not very. Maybe it was chemical. I read in an alumni magazine last year an article about research on the influence our sense of smell has on our emotions. The research reported that a head cold that lasts for two weeks can prevent women and men from processing smells unique to their partners that keep them emotionally primed for intimacy. These are specific smells that attract some and repel others; the scientists have even developed a natural selection process based on smell. Why am I writing about smells? Anyway, I was blown AWAY by this guy--or my ideas about this guy (or his smell?). I don't know how I got anything done that year. All I thought about was being with him--not necessarily sleeping together, although that was a significant part of it--but also the satisfaction of being wanted after being concertedly not wanted for several years. Anyway, today, I was remembering that period and how I had once found a passage in Othello that captured exactly what I was feeling. I looked it up in an online concordance. And the weird thing is that when I read the lines I could feel my heart clinching up and my ears going cold--an inexplicable ache, a yearning in the bottom of my throat.


[ . . . ] If it were now to die,
'Twere now to be most happy; for, I fear,
My soul hath her content so absolute
That not another comfort like to this
Succeeds in unknown fate. (Othello 2.1.974-978)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

At Night

Fold and squint and cringe. I find myself thinking about non-being or, alternatively, the emotional and physical pain of people I love. To hold these thoughts is unbearable and also unstanchable, like the smooth flow of water over a flat plane in a fountain, from one level to another, but seeming like forever.

I dream of the back yard of my childhood. Animals--wolves and deer and other fast-moving creatures--roam the space, trotting across a trimmed lawn and along the back fence. I watch them from the deck and dart inside when I sense they've noticed me. I am full of a nervous foreboding.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Food and other Follies

Earlier this evening I indulged an abnormal eating behavior that I rarely have time for these days. When I was in grade school and even later, in high school, I read a lot. I was sort of a bi-vert, sometimes an extrovert but often not, and in any case, would spend entire days and nights reading. Usually, if I started a book, I would read it non-stop until finished. I can still do that occasionally, when I take a plane somewhere, for instance or allow myself a day or a couple days in the summer with a novel. As a kid, one of the things that always struck me most powerfully about what I read were scenes that involved eating, especially scenes in which some single item of food was painstakingly detailed--fetishized, I guess we would say. I remember a few of these, though I've probably got the details wrong: little Laura Ingalls's uncle bringing her a delicate, heart-shaped cookie covered in crystals of white sugar in Little Cabin in the Big Woods; Heidi's grandfather toasting thick slices of crusty bread with cheese bubbling on top in Heidi; the crisp brown roast pig and assortment of pies that seduce Ichabod Crane in The Legend of Sleepyhollow; the buffalo hump that Natty Bumppo--or Long Rifle or whatever he's called at that point--feasts on with the squatters in The Prairie (which hump, incidentally I mentioned to a Lakota woman, an author and sometime sojourner in this area; she claimed never to have heard of anyone eating buffalo hump, seemed not to know anything about buffalo humps. Yet just recently I noticed that Melville, like Cooper, refers to buffalo hump as a delicacy in MD, so maybe this is a mythical meal imputed to the mythical West by nineteenth-century New Englanders?). Anyway, it wasn't just that I liked to read about food. I liked to work up little imaginary scenarios for my own eating. I would take a break from five hours of reading and get a couple Saltines or a small bowl of cottage cheese. I'd reach to the back of the shelf where we kept the drinking glasses and get the miniature A&W Rootbeer mug and fill it with milk. Then, I would eat and drink very slowly, nibbling and chewing so daintily that every tiny morsel was completely savored, and I would imagine that I did not eat regularly and felt awed by the wondrousness of each curd of cottage cheese. Or chew the Saltine into a doughy ball and flatten it on my tongue and chew it up again, pondering the whole time how the food had arrived just in time to save my fading life. Then, I would imagine that other people were watching and encouraging me to go slow or else I would make myself sick, since my stomach could surely not handle so much sudden bounty. Or I would put a piece of bread in the microwave with slivers of cheddar cheese on top and stand next to the open back door chewing on soggy bread and wet cheese, listening to the wind whistle and imagining a fire crackling behind me, an old man knitting or darning a sock or something. Tonight, somehow, a chapter of statistics sent me to the kitchen where I thought about Moby-Dick and dry ship biscuit and salty, oily whale steaks and imagined myself a sailor just home from years at sea. My legs felt shaky--probably scurvy. I quickly slurped my way through an overripe pear and tore the skin off a grapefruit. Twice juice squirted directly into my left eye but so intent was my body on the need for Vitamin C that I didn't even feel the sting and kept digging the sour pulpy segments from the skin that clings so tightly. I eyed an apple but decided that my sea-faring stomach needed a rest. It was a harmless indulgence, and the pear needed to be eaten. I can't imagine that anyone would see such a thing as an eating disorder, although I was telling a friend recently, I used irrationally to associate inappropriate sandwiches with eating disorders. This was prompted by a roommate I once had who criticized a sex partner of hers for eating leftover spaghetti in a sandwich. She was majoring in Psych and said told me that putting everything in a sandwich was the sign of an eating disorder. I don't know how much of this I remember and how much I'm making up or made up in my own mind at the time, but I recall that the reason such sandwiches are a problem is that the person making these inappropriate sandwiches does so because he or she feels that by reducing the entree to an on-the-go sandwich, s/he has reduced a meal to a snack. This sort of delusionary behavior = red flag for the roommate who was obsessive about weight, eating, drinking, smoking, and sex.

Having nothing at all to do with food, except maybe the grocery-store setting, here is one of the weirdest things that has happened to me in the past six months. In May, I was getting out of my car in a grocery store parking lot, when the wind yanked the door from my hand sending it crashing into the car sitting in the next spot. I wrote a note with an explanation, my name, and phone number and was walking around the car to stick it on the windshield, when a woman and man approached. I asked if the car belonged to them; it did, so I explained what had happened and gave them the note with my phone number. The next day while I was playing soccer, the answering machine took a message from a woman who identified herself as the person whose car I whacked and left a phone number. When I returned the call, I also got an answering machine, so I too left a message--this is the person who dented your car in the parking lot, I am home, call me, blah blah blah. A few hours after that, I get a phone call from a woman who tells me she called the number I gave her but it was the wrong number. I say, "I'm confused. I only gave you my number and you just called it." So, she says, "I mean the number that that guy you were with gave me--your husband, I think--the number he wrote down." This really confuses me. I tell her I wasn't with a guy, that I was completely alone. I start to think she's putting me on somehow and ask her where the incident she is talking about happened. She says it happened in a Walgreen's parking lot in Fargo, North Dakota, where she was visiting, but that she's now back in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Well, I'm in Vermillion, South Dakota, I say, and my accident happened at HyVee--here. We're both silent. I ask for her phone number and check it against the number I called. I had dialed a single wrong digit . The person whose car I hit with my door had the same phone number except one digit as this other person who had been involved in nearly the same series of events on the same day, and of the ten digits, I misdialed that one. This is so much more exciting if you believe we live in a random universe!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Last night before bed I logged in to my Sharebuilder account. I've put money into this account half-heartedly, a little at a time, over the past three years, choosing stocks randomly or because I liked their names--Clean Fuel Technologies and so on. The only one that has done anything is Abbott Labs which I chose because I began browsing at "A" and was already bored by the time I reached the "Ab's." I have never had much over a thousand in the account altogether, and the last time I looked, several months ago, there was about $900. Last night, the total read $564, which means that my stock has lost about 40 percent of its total value. I'm not too broken up over it; I had no plans for the money--wasn't counting on it. But it's still mind-boggling. I cannot conceive how horrified people with 401K and other retirement plans must be these days. We are being spanked by the invisible hand.



Like many if not most children, there were periods of time when I was a child that I stayed with a babysitter during the day. These were mothers themselves who took in a number of small children and kept an eye on them for however many hours each day. As I recall, my babysitters were decent people who fed their charges healthy meals and kept them happy and entertained. I had one babysitter who shared my first and middle name. In addition to the name, I remember nothing about her person but her fingernails, which were a high-gloss, fire-engine red. While I cannot bring her face into mind's view, I have distinct memories of her fingernails tapping down rapidly one after another, again and again, on various hard surfaces: a kitchen counter, the metal lip of the kitchen sink, a coffee table in a TV room. With this image comes Helen Reddy singing, "I am Woman," although I can't be certain that the fingernails and the song actually ever met. Possibly "Reddy" and the red nails occupy the same space in my long-term memory.



This particular babysitter had her parents living with her. The older man and woman must have been occupied elsewhere during the day, since we never saw much of them. Or they may have avoided children. I remember the grandfather in particular, because one day when it rained and we were denied the yard, some of the children, including me, wandered down into the unfinished basement. I recall finding what appeared to me to be a very old man with a beard, sitting on a stool in a corner, painting a picture. Somehow, my memory has run the image together with the story of Rumpelstiltskin--maybe, the grandfather told me the story, or maybe he was painting a scene from the story. Or, maybe, my five-year-old mind combined the parts, adapted the scene: a princess (me? the grandfather?) in a dungeon creating something of beauty and value. The man had a long beard as I recall, like Rumplestiltskin's beard, or like the straw--or like Rapunzel's hair, whatever she has to do with it.


During that year or some other, after the grandmother smacked my little brother on the butt with a wooden spoon, we left that babysitter for another.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

I gave notice at my job in August. Nine-months notice. If I were inclined to draw bad analogies, and I am often so inclined, I would say something about giving birth to my new self, which would make this very moment part of my self-gestation. I am creating myself anew, quitting this life for new possibilities. I am torn between viewing my decision as quitting and abandoning, on the one hand, and seizing and storming, moving and rising, and such things, on the other. What does it mean when a person gives up a secure professional life, a good salary, and a certain kind of prestige--all the result of much hard work--in order to start over from scratch? And to make that move as the economy is coming apart at the seams?


I have been trying to think about other things I've quit. I dropped Chemistry my senior year in high school at mid-year. I quit playing soccer after my first semester at college. I quit debating after my sophomore year. I quit being a wife to my first husband after three years, although it took another year to convince the Rhode Island courts I was serious about it. I quit being a Republican when I was 18. I quit smoking when I was 32. I quit ballet dancing when I was 10. I quit throwing tiny celebrations whenever I noticed that the time was 11:11 sometime last year when the time no longer moved me. Quitting has a negative ring to it, like "making excuses." Everyone knows that "losers make excuses" and that when you fall on your face, you get up and try again and again and again and again, even if you hate every minute of it, because when you finally succeed ... oh! Is Benjamin Franklin responsible for this? I can remember in recent years interviewing students for scholarships and asking them to describe their response to an instance when they'd been defeated or opposed in their goals somehow. How would I answer that question? "When I did not get promoted in my fourth year, I quit." "When I realized that 4 out of 5 my students wanted nothing more from me than a snappy performance and a good grade, I quit." "When I figured out that no matter how hard I work I am not going to be as brilliant as all that, I quit." "When I saw that working 65 hours a week would not be enough time and that people would always ask me how I like having my summers off, I quit."


It takes courage to quit this job. This profession. Quitting means more than ceasing to affiliate with an institution. I am throwing off an affiliation, an identity I've claimed for 15 years, truly, a way of life: the "life of the mind," as one of my mentors calls it. A New York Times column last year reported an MIT study in which students were asked to make choices with a mix of known and unknown outcomes. Even when it was irrational to do so, students would keep as many choices available to themselves as possible, refusing to commit to one clearly good choice because it meant giving up others that remained uncertain. The writer of the article contrasts the thinking of these students with that of a legendary Chinese general who was known for his great successes. His strategy was to burn his own ships and supplies when he landed an invading force. His troops knew that retreat was no choice; their invasion would succeed or they would perish. Just before writing and sending my resignation, I reread that article and considered myself brave. I would burn my bridges, cut off retreat. I would not quit my quitting.


Monday, October 6, 2008




This is my first blog. I should be working on something else. I've never regularly read a blog, "followed" a blog as they say. I once read the entire archives of a blog written by a college kid with cancer, but that's different, more like reading a finished product. I have viewed and admired a colleague's blog, Octopus's Garden. But I'm not sure who has time to read other people's blogs on a regular basis, and I am not sure who would stumble across this one. Even so, I am feeling very self-conscious.


This morning I took a work guest from the small South Dakota town where I live to a slightly larger South Dakota town an hour away so she could fly home to Italy. She has been studying the rhetoric of two recent, female candidates for American national public office, Hilary Rodham Clinton and Sarah Palin. I don't know what she (the Italian visitor) had to say about Clinton and Palin, since I didn't attend the presentation she gave, and in the car we got caught up in bemoaning how hard we work, but I have a few thoughts myself on the subject.
One, neither these nor any other modern political figure, male or female, says much worth hearing. Even when I agree with a candidate's views, her public comments are predictable and flat--newsbite comments. There is no analysis, possibly, because the public wouldn't follow. But more likely, the candidate doesn't know the issues well enough. Any close look at healthcare, the banking system, tax codes, the budget, or global military commitment presents a candidate with the risks of factual error or, worse, with offending some segment of her audience. Regarding the latter, I listened to an NPR program Sunday about the Latino/a vote and the lack of any engagement of immigration issues by the major candidates. The point made by one caller was a good one: neither McCain nor Obama can address immigration--in any way--without making someone (i.e., a group) mad, someone whose vote he needs. There are simply too many strong feelings running in too many directions for a candidate safely to articulate a stance. Instead, they leave out the issue altogether or gesture toward it in overly general ways. Campaign strategy, one might say, thoroughly sucks the brains out of campaign rhetoric. But, and this is two, the science of politics and the strategy of marketing for votes seems to leave us with political speeches and debates that are deathly boooorrrrring as well. Not just dumb but lacking in pathos. No art. Verily, these are not the days of fiery speechmakers like Daniel Webster or even the Hollywood-grandad glow of Ronald Reagan. When the honest antics of political rhetoric do occur they tend to be second-rate--and are followed by such a media go-to as to discourage subsequent performances. Howard Dean howled his enthusiasm and paid a high price indeed. Women, in particular, are pressed to show their professional bona fides by avoiding the appearance of anger, sadness, or undisciplined joy. This unofficial rule has at least a practical (practically monstrous) rationale: who would want a world leader, after all, for whom emotion might influence the decision to make war? Who indeed. Three, it would not be too much of a stretch to describe both Rodham Clinton and Palin as overdetermined by male-dominated political machines that obscure our ability to read their rhetoric as "their" rhetoric at all. Both--not unlike their male counterparts--follow the mandates of political parties, advisors, planners, speech-writers, media consultants, and, in the case of Palin, co-candidates. Seems like Hilary never quite shook Bill's potent shadow, and Palin has yet to register as much more than an obedient puppet (albeit one with a very dangerous potential for autonomy).