English Majors Unite

I finished The White Forest tonight, tried simultaneously to go slowly and savor the words and to speed through to the ending.  And then I sat for a few minutes and missed the concept of English classes.  Of walking daily into an hour and twenty minutes of literary discussion.  I want a professor to deliver some compact lecture on the Victorian obsession with the occult.  I want to “throw some themes on the board,” as we used to say.  There was a love triangle in novel, there was a question of humanness, of otherness.  There was sisterhood and the familiar notion of a terrible, beautiful female goddess. (here we’ll veer into feminist topics, boldly and on purpose)  There was nature, pristine and set in deliberate contrast to industrial London.

I would like to sit in a circle with some bona fide English majors and pare this novel into delicate shreds until we’re all laughing and no longer know when we crossed the wavering line that is over-analyzing.

I suppose what it means to graduate is not that you’ve learned all you’ll need to succeed in the world, but that you’ve learned how to learn on your own.

But honestly, where’s the fun in that?

whiteforest-selected

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Who’s More Somber: An Incan Mummy or Sigmund Freud?

My truck is still stuck on the ice in front of my house, icicles dripping from the doors down to the ground.  Inside is a stray program from a Guthrie performance, a few receipts, and my beloved hula girl stationed on the dashboard.  It’s a somber sight, like one of those frozen mummies found in the Andes, hair still intact and blowing about its face as if it’s merely resting, crouched in the snow.

My goodness, that was creepy.  Sorry, guys.  I’ll talk about my mummy obsession some other time.  (read an interesting article here, though)

Anyway, the purpose of this post is not to give you nightmares.  The purpose is to explain why exactly I haven’t been posting very frequently, and to use said explanation to gush a little bit about Virginia Woolf.  Because I’ve never done that before.

You see, although my Woolf class ended last semester, I didn’t feel done with her.  She’s a difficulty lady to get to know.  Since I have to complete a capstone project this semester anyway (in order to graduate with honors), I decided to take the opportunity to expand my existing Woolf paper from last December.  And because honors capstones have to be interdisciplinary, I get to bring my minor to the party and beef up my paper with historical context.

I won’t give away the paper topic, because I’m overly confident and wish to pursue publication someday if I possibly can.  But it concerns Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, and makes arguments about the nature of domesticity in the novel, and the nature of domesticity in the late Victorian era.  

I’ve been spending my days reading luscious books about fainting couches and powder puffs and beaded dresses.  There are grim parts too, of course:  there was a certain amount of oppression in the Victorian household, especially if you were a woman.  And there’s also Freud, who’s literally unavoidable if you wish to study the era, and who doesn’t make it a point to be particularly cheery.

Generally, though, it feels good to dive once again into a research project of this caliber.

My Favorite Shakespeare Play

The very first play we read in my Shakespeare class was Romeo and Juliet.  I was disgusted to see it listed on the syllabus, and huffed about the assignment with others in the class.

“But we read it in high school!” We exclaimed in mock-polite whispers,  “We discussed every scene at length, we watched the old version of the movie and then the Leo version.  We giggled when our teacher ran up to the monitor to cover up Juliet’s naked chest in the old version (although my high school teacher forgot, and couldn’t fast forward in time.  Poor Mrs. Stark.  She fueled many a cafeteria discussion that day).  We read scenes aloud, and acted them out in groups of three.  What else can we say about it?  It’s terribly romantic, and terribly tragic, but we have absolutely nothing more to say.”

But then I finally settled down on my bed, heavy Riverside Shakespeare in my lap.  And I began to read.

And, as you’ve probably suspected from the beginning of this post, I found a few things I hadn’t noticed as a sixteen-year-old.  I found that Juliet is far more aggressive than Romeo in hashing out the details of their union.  She utterly dominates the balcony scene; she is far from swooning against the rail.

I found that we might think of Verona as a sick city.  It’s not just the quarreling, it’s not just this certain couple and these certain families; the entire city is in a state of ruin.  There is plague, there is lack of faith, there is a gloominess that seeps up from the streets.

I found that I was disgusted by the adults in the play.  These poor kids are all of thirteen and sixteen, wading through strife and first love and big decisions, and they have no one to turn to.  Even Friar Lawrence, who is their supposed ally, cannot do more than give them a secret marriage and drug Juliet into a coma.  Furthermore, when he finally decides to get his act together and venture out of his cell, he is too late.  Romeo has slain himself, and Juliet has just awaken, understandably aghast.  And what does dear Fr. Lawrence do?  He runs!  He hears the guards coming, and he runs, advising Juliet to flee too as an afterthought.  Of course Juliet doesn’t, and therein we find our tragedy.

I found, finally, and perhaps most importantly, how very beautiful of a play it is.  Half of the romantic language we spout on Valentine’s Day is from Romeo and Juliet.  It is the first and last word on the subject of love.  Everyone knows it, and everyone wishes, in some small part of themselves, that their lives could be as struck with passion.

“It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden;/Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be/Ere one can say ‘It lightens.'”

“O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!/It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night/Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope’s ear”

“What, drawn, and talk of peace!/I hate the word as I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee”

English majors are fond of asking one another what their favorite Shakespeare plays are.  You get an approving nod if you say Hamlet or Macbeth, a fond grin if you say A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and a round of impressed applause if you say one of the histories.  No one ever dares to say Romeo and Juliet.  For, as I’ve said, that’s a high school play.  I myself have been saying Hamlet for four comfortable years now.  But perhaps, having rediscovered the tragic lovers; having written a long, rambling blog post; having sworn that the world simply cannot do without; I will finally get up my gall and be truthful:

My favorite Shakespeare play is Romeo and Juliet.  And I am not ashamed.

How My Good Days Work

I’ve said it before, and I’ll likely say it several more times:

When I have good days, I never have good-all-the-way-through-from-sunup-to-sundown good days.  I have no-sleep-last-night-zit-on-my-nose-could-this-get-any-worse days that magically morph into good days.

This morning, for example, all signs pointed to a bad day.  Well, by my above logic, I suppose that when things were dismal I should have suspected that a good day was on its way, although just because I’ve identified a pattern doesn’t mean I can make predictions…  Come now.  Who do you think I am?  (insert name of famous scientist/mathematician here)?

Back to the signs, though: I got six hours of sleep last night due to (I’m ashamed to admit) some last-minute wee-hours studying that was altogether unbecoming of someone in her last semester of college.  The temperature read -17 degrees when I awoke, and didn’t rise any while I ate breakfast, showered, and swathed myself in as many layers as I could find.

Long underwear, wool socks, fleece socks, Underarmour mock neck, sweatshirt, neck cozy (made up name.  It’s like a fleece headband for your neck, only about 6 inches wide instead of three), hat, mittens, winter coat, boots.  And so forth.

Once I had trudged to campus, thawed out a bit, sat through Feminist Theory and Shakespeare, talked a panicked anthropology candidate back from the cliff after he learned his application hadn’t been received, and eaten a very underripe pear, I received two pieces of news that turned a Bad day into a Good one:

1.  An important publishing company has asked the head of the history department (and one of my favorite professors) to do a review of a to-be-released tome.  They also asked if she could select a few students to review it as well.  And the professor asked me to be one of those students!  It’s a grand opportunity that will not only be enjoyable (we all know I go nuts for history), but that will also look rawthur snappy on a future resume.

2.  I’ve realized that for my Honors Capstone Project, I am allowed to use an existing project as a jumping-off point.  This means that I can combine my beloved Virginia Woolf with some extra research and, as the nasty saying goes, kill two birds with one stone.

This also means another semester of Woolf talk.  I hope you can handle it.  I suspect you can.

P.S. Just ate some cereal for a snack.  Just spilled said cereal all over Mac’s keypad.  Milk and technology don’t mix very well, for the record.  I’m trying not to view this as punishment for bragging so much about my good fortune.

The Waiters: A Short Story

Because it’s cold, and because I’ve been using said chill to justify a long afternoon of lazing around the house, and because having finally settled down with my Feminist Theory readings, I find myself engrossed, I’m posting a story.

I wrote this several years ago, submitted it to First Line Fiction, and won third place.  Having come a long way since 2010, parts of this were painful to reread.  You may cringe at the sentimentality.  You may wonder what on earth led me to disregard quotation marks.  But please know that I’m right there with you.

That being said, I do like a few things about this story, hence I’m submitting it to the Internet for the second time.

I also think this blog needs a little fiction every now and then, if only to punctuate many days of non-fiction ranting.

Here you go.  Happy MLK Day!

The Waiters

He brought in his shirt pocket the last photograph he’d taken of his son.

Poor guy.  You should have seen the way he walked into the office that afternoon.  He wore a yellow jacket that seemed inappropriate.  Its brightness contrasted with the hollow expression on his face so drastically that it was almost shocking.  I was relieved when he took the jacket off, carefully hanging it up on the rack in the corner of the waiting room. 

And then the man began to slowly cross, crumpling a little with each step.  I imagined that he’d be on his knees before he even reached the chair.  I imagined myself putting my hand on the shrugged shoulder, shouting into a wrinkled ear.  He made it though, sitting next to me as I knew he would.  There was no other place, after all.  The waiting room was full of people waiting, most of whom were buried in magazines or clicking on small phones.

He began talking as soon as he sat down.  Talking to me, or so I figured after a few seconds.

I had a son once, he said.

A son?  This was before I decided he was speaking to me and not to someone else.

Yes.  He died, though.  Car accident.

I’m sorry.  Because that’s what you say, isn’t it?  I’m sorry?  I’m sorry I can’t know what you’re going through, and I’m sorry that I’m going to try my hardest to comfort you anyway.  I’m sorry I don’t understand.

Thank you, he said simply.  I thought that would be it, and I could go back to staring at the wall.

He continued, though.  So many people die that way; it isn’t terribly original.  But my son doesn’t die that way.  My son doesn’t die.

He did, though.  I spoke softly, hoping he would know that I wasn’t trying to hurt him with my bluntness.  I wanted him to keep talking all of the sudden.  I wanted to know how this man had come to be folded into himself.  How his eyes got to be the way they were now.  Drowning.  He could see, but he wasn’t really looking out of them.  I saw all of these things in that waiting room, and I wanted him to keep talking.

The man paused for a moment, fiddling with the pocket at the front of his shirt.  Out of the pocket he plucked a folded bit of paper.  A photograph; it said Kodak across the back.  He unfolded the photograph and stared at it for a few seconds before folding it once more. 

He took a deep breath before he spoke again.  Afterwards, we all mourned.  No one talked during meals anymore.  My wife and I cried ourselves to sleep every night.  We tried to comfort one another.  I tried so hard.  But it is so very difficult to dig yourself out of the well of your own grief and reach for someone else.

Suddenly the man looked up at me, as if just realizing that he was talking to an actual person who was listening. 

He looked down again at the photo in his hands and continued.  My wife stopped grieving after awhile.  She got on with her life.  She went back to work.  She started running with the dog in the morning.  She drove our daughters to lacrosse and modern jazz.  She didn’t understand why I couldn’t get up too.  She used to become angry with me.  Why can’t you get over him?   She would yell.  Why can’t you see that he’s gone and that we’re left? You have two other children.  You have a job.  This needs to stop.  The man looked at me again, warily this time.  Do you have a job?

I nodded.  I deliver packages.  I drive a truck and I stop and I make people sign for brown boxes or tan envelopes.

The man took this in.  Do you enjoy your work?  He asked me.

I thought for a moment.  Then I answered.  I enjoy the people.  I watch them.  I guess what they’re like, what their names are. 

Do you ever get them right?

I don’t know if I do or not. 

The man frowned.  I would like to know.   He unfolded the photograph again and stared at it again.  I would like to know.

I saw that he was on the verge of crying.  His eyes squinted up and his knees shook a bit.  People across the room were beginning to look at us.  Not obviously looking, but peering at us every so often over their Newsweeks, as if to warn us that they didn’t want to overhear, but that they would if we spoke any louder.  They didn’t want to overhear.  They didn’t want a share in the anguish on the man’s face, the bewilderment on mine.  They read their magazines.

The man shuddered three more times and was still. 

He began to speak again after a few minutes.  I realized soon that I could lose my wife as well.  That she wouldn’t die, but that she would be just as permanently and irrevocably gone if I didn’t stop missing my son.  So I stopped.  I had to, you see.  I knew if I lost anything else I would disappear completely myself.  Everything tying me down would be gone.  I would be gone too. 

I stretched my legs out across the carpet and arched my back a little bit.  I wasn’t bored; I was only sore from sitting so long.  He knew I wasn’t bored.  Even if I had been, I don’t think he would have stopped.  We both knew now that he needed to say these things.  We both knew I needed to hear.

He kept talking through my stretch; his gaze wandered down to my brown boots and anchored on to them. 

I donated all of my son’s clothes, and cleaned his room.  I even took down his posters and painted over his walls with the spring green color my wife picked.  The paint erased my son’s smell until I couldn’t breathe in that room anymore.  I was about to shut his door behind me for the last time when I spotted the edge of something white sticking out from under the bed.

It was the photograph, wasn’t it?

The man nodded gravely.  I had taken it a few weeks before he died.  We were driving in my old convertible going west.  West like the pioneers, my son had shouted joyfully.  While we were stopped at a red light, my son dug the camera out of his backpack and thrust it at me.  We were laughing hard, like two teenagers instead of one.  My son rested one arm on top of the rolled-down window and leaned back away from me.  He grinned the same smile I had seen all his life.  My son leaned back into the wind against the highway and grinned while I took the picture.

It was all too much for the man then.  He dropped his head into the picture in his hands and sobbed soundlessly.  His back rose and fell with each rolling breath, and as I deliberated patting him gingerly on the shoulder blade, I intercepted a few raised eyebrows from across the room.  I shot those eyebrows straight back, sending most of the waiters diving back into their Popular Sciences.  I wasn’t a big man.  I wasn’t even a brave man.  Not then.  But I knew when things were private.  This was between the man, the photograph of his son, and me.

When the man finally calmed down he looked relieved.  Now he could finish.

Very slowly he opened the photograph in his hands.  I couldn’t quite see it, but I didn’t fail to be amazed at its proximity.  I only had to raise my eyes.  I didn’t, though.  I waited.

He spoke.  The last photograph of my son, the one I clung to when my wife wasn’t around, the one that allowed me to keep him and to keep myself together…He trailed off.  He wasn’t sure how to end, now that he had begun to end.

He tried again.  The last photograph of my son is something I both love and hate.  I can’t make myself throw it away, and yet it feels heavy in my pocket.  He stopped.

A woman had walked into the waiting room, and was now looking around with a definite air of impatient authority.  She called out a name.  I didn’t hear, but I guess the man did because he slowly stood and walked towards her with that same worn down gait he had entered on.

I sat back in my chair and looked around the room.  The other waiters stared boldly at me now.  I dropped my head, all defiance gone.  I sat and I thought.  I knew this was a story I would remember, not just another observation to drop in my brain like a marble.  I wondered if I would ever retell it.  I wondered how I would do it.  But mostly I wondered how it ended.

How did I know about the photograph in the man’s pocket?  Because he told me about it while we waited.

On his way out, the he passed me with only a nod.  Thank you, he said quietly, slipping either arm into that inappropriate yellow jacket.  I stared, decided.

Yes I must.  Sir!  I bounded after him past the alarmed waiters. Sir can I please see the photograph of your son?

He looked at me in his watery way, and then seemed to surface.  I imagined the last waves breaking around his eyes before receding like the tide.  Yes, he replied.  Yes of course you can see my son. 

Slowly he reached towards his pocket and drew out the creased picture.  He handed it to me without unfolding it.  Perhaps he thought that by unfolding it himself it would only make it harder.  Perhaps he needed me to take it from him, to hold his regret and his pain for a little while.

I unfolded the picture and stared at it for what felt like a long time.  I wanted him to feel me take it in.  But really it only took me a moment to understand.

As I handed the picture back to him and watched him refold it and set it gently into the same pocket, I listened to him speak the last words he ever said to me.  I had a son once, he explained patiently, as if we were starting over, as if we were just meeting each other.  I had a son once and he died.  I had a son once, and the last photograph I ever took of him captured only his elbow. 

I stood and saw the glass door swing shut behind him, watched it forget instantly that such a man had ever passed through. 

You know, with people you meet when you’re delivering packages, you can guess.  You can assume that a woman is snobbish, or that a man is out of sorts and late for work.  You can guess about them, and it never has to bother you if you’re right or if you’re wrong.  You can just let your imaginings hang in the air above your head.

Sons and photographs, I have come to realize, are a different matter altogether.  With them, you have to wonder your whole life why you didn’t look through the lens before snapping the shutter.  You have to wish that you had taken the time to aim, wish that you hadn’t been too captivated by the living, breathing boy to focus on capturing all of him forever.

Eventually, though, you have to know that when you tell the story of your son in a waiting room, when people listen, and when people look at the photograph of your son afterwards, that those waiters see all of him.  You have to know that those waiters see all of you too.

What Went Down

I want to talk to you about Wednesday and Thursday, as I’ve been building up those two days since the dawn of time (or since last week, at least).

Wednesday was my senior seminar presentation.  Basically, having cut down my twelve page research paper about fortune’s role in Pandosto down to eight pages, I proceeded to read those eight pages to an audience of professors, classmates, friends, and (bless them) my parents.  It sounds boring, doesn’t it, to read an eight page literary analysis to a crowd of people (many of whom were not, nor had any desire to be, English majors)?  Well, it sort of was, but I tried to use everything that I learned in high school speech.  I stood up straight, I used my clearest, loudest voice, and I tried to put feeling into my words.  I care a great deal about my topic, and I viewed my presentation as a chance to make the audience care as well, at least a little bit.

My legs were shaking for the first few pages, but then I began to enjoy myself (as I always do), and when I would look up from the page, I would see my advisor listening carefully in the back, or my friend Ben grinning, or my Dad enduring nobly.  It felt a great deal like my birthday party in that I felt supported and celebrated and (I’ll admit only to you) a tad teary.  Then there was applause, and it was over.

A few days later, I got an email from my professor containing my presentation rubric: I got a 99%.  The 1% deduction, she explained, was because I had pronounced a word wrong.  I’m not overly upset about that one, however, as it was spelled strangely in the citation I read it from, and thus I didn’t recognize it to be the word it actually was, and thus pronounced it the way I saw it, and not the way I knew the word it actually was should be pronounced (whew).

Thursday was my Teach for America final interview.  I’m not going to go into detail about this one, as we’re under an oath of confidentiality, but I think I can tell you that I rocked it.  That sounds arrogant.  I know it does.  But honestly, there’s no other way to describe how well I feel I did.  Despite having gotten five hours of sleep both Tuesday night and Wednesday night, and despite having had to navigate to/through Minneapolis at the crack of dawn, I was at the absolute top of my game.  I was confident and energetic in every step of the interview, and am now even more convinced that Teach for America is what I want to be doing a year from now.  I won’t find out until early January if I got into the corps.  If I got in, further, the same email will also tell me which region I’ll be teaching in, and which grade/subject I’ll be teaching.

It’s a long wait, but I’m not anxious about the results.  I’ve done my best, and have sought to represent myself accurately and positively throughout the admissions process.  It’s nice to know that if I don’t make the cut, then there must be a qualification or trait that I don’t possess.  It won’t be because I didn’t perform as well as I could have.

Those were the “biggies,” if you will.  I still have one five-page and one ten-page paper to write, my senior seminar paper to turn in (after some fairly minor editing), and two final exams to take.

I also want to mention that I’ve noticed more and more people have been following my blog lately.  Thank you!  I get excited with every single new follow I see, and I encourage you to comment on a post if you have a question/opinion or want to say hi.

Marathoning

I needed to write my Virginia Woolf final paper last night, and my friends, I was struck down by apathy.  Otherwise known as senioritis, otherwise known as the senior slide, otherwise known as post-Thanksgiving culture shock.  Suddenly, it all seemed futile: writing papers, doing readings, sitting through lectures, even serving on student government.  How would any of this help me with my life’s work?  I wondered.  How was it relevant, and why was I killing myself with stress and fatigue juggling it all?  Further, why did my intelligence have to be dependent on a literary paper, or a history exam?  Why are we forcing our young people to compete like this, and to stretch themselves so thin that they can hardly breathe?

Giving up, I went to bed at eleven.

I skipped two classes today so that I could stay home and write, but still, I couldn’t come up with a good idea.  A little of the apathy was gone, but the desperation that replaced it was even more paralyzing.

Now, sitting in an empty classroom in the social science building, To the Lighthouse propped open with my cell phone, Mrs. Dalloway marked over with pencil, I finally have an idea that could potentially become a ten page paper.

This is a small gain, however, as there are five more papers ahead.  And two exams. And a senior seminar presentation.  And a job interview.

The worst part about finals, let me tell you, is not the actual work: it’s the anticipation of the work, and of the effects said work will have on your well-being.  It’s knowing that you won’t sleep, will eat whatever’s quick, and will not have any social contact outside of class and the library.  It’s like a marathon:  We prepare ourselves for it, we put ourselves through the intense stress of the actual event, and then when it’s over, we feel triumph, but we also wonder (maybe in the back of our minds) why we ran in the first place, and whether we’re really better for it.

I don’t know, folks, but I’m gearing up at the starting line regardless.