Careful With That Analysis, Eugene

And then one of their sons grew dreadlocks and opened a bar selling jerk chicken or fried conch or something.

Dry Foot Bwoy

“By writing this in rhymed iambic pentameter, Louise Bennett has sort of shoe-horned her Colonial Jamaican language into a traditional, white, almost entirely male literary form, and made it hers. It’s very impressive, and a powerful message.”

“Ummm…”

“Oh dear God what now, Andy?”

“So is it because it’s Thursday, or for some other reason that now we’re celebrating cultural appropriation instead of condemning it?”

No, I didn’t say that. I didn’t say that because you can’t. I didn’t say that because it is the “other reason” for which we were celebrating this kind of cultural appropriation. Literary analysis is frequently suffocatingly mono-directional. There are simply some analyses that are not allowed. I did say this:

“The family moved to England. They live in England. One of them got out of the house and learned to be English, and his whole family has shunned and ridiculed him for it. Haven’t we anything to say about them?”

We had nothing to say about them, except “bravo.” And so I didn’t say anything else.

Bt it’s all so obvious and so easy. Imagine, for a moment, if a white family moved from Texas to Jamaica and refused to pick up any of the dialect. Refused to sound in any way Jamaican. Refused any level of assimilation. The Republic of Friggin Texas was gonna stand tall and wave its Lone Star flag in a suburb of Kingston. And then one of their sons grew dreadlocks and opened a bar selling jerk chicken or fried conch or something, came home saying shit was all irie, mon, in his best Jamaican Patois, and then the Texas family wrote a reggae song full of “ya’ll” and “ain’t” to celebrate the fact that they kicked him out for being too black. And then Jamaicans in Jamaican colleges applauded them for it.

Small wonder I am feeling less and less capable of succeeding in there. I’m going to have to limit the depth of my interrogations if I want to finish as strongly as I started.

I have a different kind of problem with Philosophy. If I worry at all about my success in that class, it is because it is hard.  Thank God for the A on my most recent paper. The one about a foundational human principle. My thesis statement went like this:

The first principle of the human person is that we bond to things that are not ourselves, and we have no meaningful existence until we do that bonding.

Not world-shaking stuff, and not necessarily what I would say to the question next week. Turned out to be fairly prescient when we began studying Sartre, who is a big fan of consciousness needing something to be conscious of. I developed it well and impressed my professor, so mission accomplished. Have an excerpt:

This is sticky, but if my theory does not eliminate god (and it does not), then it also does not eliminate permanence or ubiquity. The bonds of art with audience are downstream bonds, subject to the bonds that came before, and move beyond what we’ve already discussed, into the realm of social relevance. They are not foundational bonds. They supplement or reinforce our existence, without being responsible for it. Therefore the bonds of meaning that the arts offer to us are sharable and broadly applicable across humanity. Interpretations can be common and shared, because the found meaning is the permanent thread. The social implications of “The Lady of Shalott” do not infiltrate the world as the isolated reactions of its readers, rather as the communal discovery of moral truths. Namely that, in her case as in ours, we are meaningless as long as we remain separated and unbonded from reality. That breaking out of confinement in order to bond with Truth is a permanent expression of The Good, and worth dying for.

It’s interesting, in light of that sample, that I am struggling with wrapping up a paper analyzing the Lady of Shalott for British Literature. Literary analysis has a restriction that philosophy does not, which is that in literature it can be bad to get too philosophical. In philosophy there is no such penalty for being too literary.

Thanks for being here lately.

Get Bothered

It ain’t nothing unless it isn’t.

Every time I’m all “maybe I’ll major in Philosophy,” something like this happens. The one-pager I am turning in today, after having Sartre forced upon me:

Readings from Group 2. Also Not-Group-Two. Also The Nihilating Interrogation of Both Group to and Not-Group-Too. Also Peter Wears Skis to the Café. Also My Mother Would Be So Confused.

I get Peter and the café. I get the nothingness of the café, the nihilation of its parts and sounds and smells into a ground that exists only to serve as a backdrop against which I get to know whether Peter is there or not. And I get why Peter not being there is a persistent nothingness – the café simply cannot help itself from showing me Peter’s absence absolutely everywhere in it:

“Look! There’s not Peter!”
“Thank you, café!”

Wellington and Valery don’t matter, and that’s cool, too. I have no expectation, and therefore have not initiated any nihilation to ground, and they remain unrelated to the café.

But WHAT IS GOING ON after this? I am the questioner, and I want to know whether Peter is at the café. My question supposes both Peter-at and Peter-not-at-the-café. My question creates the possibility of the non-being of Peter, because that’s what all questions do. My question supposes Peter, not-Peter, the café, and my question instantiates the nihilating withdrawal (to nothingness?) of the café. But why do I need to “wrench” myself “away from being” in order to make this possible? Is it because if the question originates from me, is connected innately to my being (“determined in the questioner”), then it no longer has any necessary tether to Peter or the café or their negations and nihilations at all?

It would definitely be easy to do the old “why bother” in a case like this. But I’m not a 41 year old Junior in college for “why bother.” I’m gonna bother, until it bothers everyone how much I’m bothering.

Sincerely, My Unnui

…so I know she isn’t just Piss-Christ all the way down.

No doubt even Richard Petty woke up every now and again and said “The next asshole who even says the word ‘car’ is getting demoted to lug nut sorting.” In other words, that we love something, and that we are fulfilled by it, and that we are happy because of it, does not preclude occasional, immense frustrations with it. Indeed, it would be hard to have had a day as poor as yesterday without being so terribly in love with every part of it. But it’s (current year), man, and no one wants to hear about love.

Well, that’s why I asked my British Lit professor “is there any kind of movement afoot to counter the shallow relativism of post-modernism?”

“OH ABSOLUTELY.” She lit up for a moment, which was very reassuring. But she studies the crusty, lovey old brits for her scratch, so I already know she isn’t just Piss-Christ all the way down. In fact, if she is anything, I would have to say she is fair. I think she sees good and bad – or at least is willing to look equally for them – in just about any period. She likes Virginia Woolf, yet bristled at Woolf’s notion that she had no grandmothers in literature to draw upon. No female role models from the past, as it were. Who, she wondered, are Austen, Browning, Bronte, Mary Shelley, George Eliot, Christina Rosetti, and on and on?

I digress…

“Oh, absolutely,” she answered. “There’s a thing called neo-sincerity, for instance.” And last night, needing something to deform my ennui – no, not ennui. Ennui implies a lack of engagement. It is engagement specifically – too damned much engagement – that was my problem. So whatever unnui it was or wanted to be, it needed rescuing. (Again, all apologies to post-modernists, I’m perfectly happy noting out loud that I could use a little rescuing now and then.) I looked up neo-sincerity. I saw New Sincerity and David Foster Wallace. I am neither intellectually dead nor particularly brilliant, so I have heard of David Foster Wallace, but know nothing about him. I know very little more about him after a browse of the Wiki, but there were useful inflations in there. Things that could fill me out a little bit before going to bed like a cold sausage casing in a hard puddle of grease. For instance:

“Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal”. To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness.”

“To risk the yawn.” I don’t mind risking the yawn. I’ll be happy to be called banal. If the Russel Brands and Lena Dunhams of the world are going to call me boring, well, I’ll gladly take it down a notch. I’m a sober, faithful husband and father who believes in God and permanent truths. I’ll be here when you wake up.

In other words: Look upon my works, ye mighty, and swipe left.

Everybody Must Be Stoned

I can get excited about Picasso and Duchamp and Braque for about 5 or 10 minutes, because for a while they actually look good.

You won’t know it, because I’ve already changed it, but that header image was far too dark. There’s an enlivening brightness out there today, the clouds having disappeared for now, and I logged in here to see a dreary picture from our snow day, all filtered down to mute sadness because I thought it made a point or something. No, no, not that. Never that. Never making a point. I rarely use art, especially photos, to make a point. I take pictures recreationally, and if I enhance them in any way, it is literally ONLY because I think they look better that way.

This is not a thing a modernist would admit to. Indeed, a modernist would actually have to negate it first, and then deny it. In other words, she would have to say “No, I swear I didn’t change that image ONLY because I think it looks worse that way.” Modernists are boring, though the early ones manage alright. I can get excited about Picasso and Duchamp and Braque for about 5 or 10 minutes, because for a while they actually look good. 

But then the messes and bicycle wheels just start looking like themselves again, and its not because I don’t get it. It’s because they just didn’t do it. And who could blame them? The impressionists beat them to the treasure, and put together the last beautiful moment in the visual arts. What could Picasso do after Monet vacated the stage for him, except to barely hold it together?

la-promenade

As for the writing. Gerard Manley Hopkins, technically a Victorian, wrote some invigorating poetry and left it trailing behind him while fled apace from the Victorians and the Romantics:

It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

How fun is that? And so far Virginia Woolf is also a good time. A small departure from the rigid, staid structure of earlier periods. She flows and rambles and loves the words, but never forgets to say what she has to say. The modernist period, as it moves forward from there, gets so much more enraptured with itself at the expense of the meaning that they simply give in and say, as if in coy secret knowledge, “You find the meaning, reader.” But not because the meaning is in there, rather, because the writer couldn’t be bothered. I read as much of “Ulysses” as I thought I was obligated to do, then recognized that I was no longer willing to give Joyce the satisfaction of my attention. There’s the sense, at least, that Joyce put his back into it a little bit. The painter just sought the easy path – the Pollock and the Rothko – and found it cleared of obstacles by a public who was tired of things being important. The public could form no bond with the important, and so they asked for, and received, something that looked as messy and meaningless as they felt. “We are not permanent. Please do not speak to us of permanent things.”

But they’re up against it from the start. If you’re a modernist, or a post-modernist, or doing anything which rests its meaning in negation, then it’s only useful once. By 1920 it was pretty much spent, and after that it was all just one kind of pooping in cans or another. Beauty is permanent. Reaction decays.

I don’t hate modern art. I hate that we give it space. But by its nature, modern art chased off everyone that wasn’t willing to clean up after it, and so it gained total control of its own momentum. And now there’s a huge rock in Los Angeles that we’re supposed to “appreciate,” once we’re properly told how to look at it.

 

 

Please Don’t Put Nuts in the Banana Bread

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There was a poem in my head
that dragged me from bed
and asked a few little things of me.
“Leave off the lights”
and
“Hold on to last night”
and
“Put me down here while you start the tea.”

So it sprawled on the table
while I lived in a fable
where my morning was mine at last.
But before the hot water,
came
“Good morning, Father!”
and
the kids ate my poem for breakfast.

Anxious Opus

I knew without flaw, I knew completely, that I had removed myself from The Process, and it had forgotten me.

Just amazing.

I have a little anxiety over my current assignment in philosophy. I remember school anxiety from 25 years ago, but it was different then. I was failing completely, and was never particularly concerned about assignments, because I simply was not going to do them.  My anxiety was either absent or total, depending on the day. School was a mostly silent fight between a simple institutional process that was indifferent to me, and me, who was indifferent to the process. First lesson of adolescence: you are not The Process, you are the input. And if you don’t take your place, The Process will forget you faster than you can say “gym class traumatized me.” So, on those days when my anxiety was total, it was because I knew without flaw, I knew completely, that I had removed myself from The Process, and it had forgotten me.

My current anxiety works a little lot differently. I have climbed back into my seat among The Process, so assignments matter. By Monday I have to write a very short paper about what I believe to be the first, foundational principle of human existence. My personal version of Descartes’ cogito ergo sum. Normally, I could whip out three pages with one hand on the coffee mug and the other on my son’s neck. But for some reason, with this I cannot shake the weight of its significance. As if it is to be my magnum opus, and I’ll be defending it at Oxford for the rest of my life. It isn’t, of course. It’s a 200 level University core requirement, and most of the people in the class aren’t even humanities students (and I’ll never be at Oxford). It’s almost all nursing and engineering students. One of them, who not only called me old, but seems to be giving my age sole credit for my success in the class, is writing her paper on our responsibility to protect the environment, because without an Earth, we cannot survive. So, as you can see, we don’t necessarily need to be machining humanity’s very first nut for the universe’s bolt. We don’t have to try to answer THE QUESTION, or anything.

My initial thought for the paper was that we cannot know the first principle. I do believe in firsts – that there is no such thing as infinite regression. Everything begins. But for reasons you’ll know when I post my paper, I don’t think we can find it. I am prepared to write on that. Stakes, implications, counterarguments, all of it. Too easy. Then I see on the list of Sven(!)’s possible topics that that very idea is listed at #11. First thought: Bummer. It’s not original. Second thought: Of course it’s not original. People have been doing this stuff forever. Third thought: Why did Sven(!) put an asterisk on that one?  Let’s find out:

*If you choose 10, 11, 12, or 13, you and I must talk about your choice because they can be particularly tricky.

Great. Of course. I called him on our recent snow day to discuss, and he called it the agnostic approach and philosophied all over me until I wanted to just throw it all up and say FINE IT’S LOVE WE’RE FOUNDED ON LOVE (that’s #8 on the list, btw. No asterisk). But I won’t do that, because this, anxiety and all, is fun. Depending on the course of my schooling, which obviously means “depending on money,” I want to lean on Philosophy pretty hard. My focus will remain literature and writing, because my God it’s awesome. But the way literature and philosophy shake hands and dance and brush against each other like a couple of languid cats is just magical. My essay for British Literature is going to be an application of Plato’s allegory of the cave to Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott. I was surprised as we discussed Shalott in class that Plato never came up. It seems pretty clear to me, so much so that I’m afraid to Google it until after I write the paper. Surely it’s been done before, just like my silly agnostic approach to our first principle paper.

The other new anxiety is that I care what the teacher thinks. I also care what that other student thinks, as she seems to hold me to a pretty high standard: “How’d you do on your paper? Are you ready for the test? What did you do to prepare?” Friday she asked “What did you think of the test?” I really, really wanted to say “Aced it. Sven(!) called me to talk about it. What did he say to you?” She would have lost her mind. Alas, I haven’t the meanness in me to string people along with things like that. I always feel that I am committing some huge crime of character. So I just said “I’m pretty confident about it.”

And I am. Hopefully Sven(!) is not disappointed.

This Letter Will Explain Nothing

They do not have your piffling little snow days.

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Snow day! Our kids go to a private sorry, independent school. And it really is independent. Many other of the private sorry, independent schools out here belong to the Northwest Association of Independent Schools. Saying “Association of Independent Schools” is like saying Socialism is a “Collective of Individuals.” You may be able to enumerate them, given the task. But you won’t be given the task. And you’ll never be able to differentiate them, anyway. Our kids’ school is its own thing. No associations, only a nod of approval from Washington State’s Superintendent of Public Education (The indelible thumbprint of the state, in saecula saeculorum). What does all this mean? That they make their own rules, and when the rest of the city’s children are out of school and creating logistical nightmares for their obligatory two working parents (nothing says fulfillment like absentee parenting. Progress!), well…

They do not have your piffling little snow days. Come if you can, don’t if you can’t. And if you’re really only skipping the day because snowball fights are awesome, well, just don’t aim for the head. They close the parking lot – to preserve its snowy majesty for recess. As we pull up to the curb half a block from the school, my daughter climbs down from the car, and says “I LOVE that we go to a school that lets us come even when it snows!” Totes adorbs, amirite? The Boy, on the other hand, spills out like a barely ambulatory Randy from A Christmas Story. A water bottle ejects an impossible distance from his backpack. “UGH! This is dumb!” Totes adorbs, amirite?

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I also go to an independent sorry, private school. They don’t care so much about the label dilution up there in the Collegiasphere. Everything’s a crushing student loan, anyway, so you might as well bask in whatever snobbery you can, while you still have the illusion of control. Free college never felt so good.

Someone recently lamented the brevity of GI Bill benefits, as it only pays out for 3 years. It was a friend, I can’t remember which. She (I remember that much) was probably trying to retrofit a compliment, saying that military service should be worth more than that. I get it, but this is a free Bachelor’s Degree in a world where the only stinking thing we all agree on is that college is too f#@!ing expensive, and not just by a little bit, but orders of magnitude. I mean, between the GI Bill and the Yellow Ribbon program, the government is paying me more than it did while I was serving. Three years of that is a windfall of Dickensian proportions. And as David Niven taught me in Curse of the Pink Panther, I never look a gift horse in the mouth.

Another miracle of the Government, is that since I began drawing benefits last April, I haven’t had any issues with payments or forms or crossed signals. After 8 years in the Army, I know too well just how Labyrinthian an odyssey that getting money from the government can be. The God of Government finance is Daedalus.

But that all stopped Saturday. Some notice from the VA came, saying an application or other has not been received. The college tuition has been paid, but my housing allowance has not, and I am assuming this letter they sent is the reason. But I’m not sure, because here is what I have to work with:

“This letter will explain what is needed to formalize your claim.”
“In order to act on the information you submitted, we must receive your application within one year from the date of this letter.”

Thanks for the clarity. Doesn’t sound too urgent. And the printed out confirmation pages I have from the actual submission of my application in December should right this ship toute suite. We’ll see.

I hereby release you (from not even being here). The snow is ridiculously wonderful, but the coffee shops are all overflowing with kids and nannies, so I am home with Spotify’s “Jazz Vibes “ playlist. It’s good stuff, and I’ll use it to get started on a Philosophy paper (Foundations. Where or with what does EVERYTHING begin?) that’s due in a week. Love it.

Go have a day!

Age is, like, Relative and Stuff, Anyways

You cannot arrive at a verb, or settle into a verb, or be comforted by a verb

There’s something so tremendously daunting about that “submit” button.

Two members have left the nest, and there’s only 47 years worth of (postpartum) human life in the house this weekend. Though I see those years as differently as my Philosophy classmates do. Bear with me while I get there:

“How did your paper go?” They asked. A couple of girls who sit in the front row alongside me. Come to think of it, I’m the only boy in the front. Five girls and me. And the whole second row is girls. I would do a headcount of boys and girls, but then I’d be tempted to apply that information sociologically based on what the class is, and wind up drawing some undesirable conclusions of a too-political nature about the gender makeup of certain fields in relation to personal choices. I would never do that, you know.

“How did your paper go?” They asked.
“By hand, mostly.”
“No, come on. How did you do on it?”
“I did well.” I don’t like grade comparisons. It’s the equivalent of getting to know someone at the party by opening with “what do you do for a living?” Probing for status.
“Yeah but, like, how well?”
“I got 135.”
“You got an A?”
“I got an A.”
“Well, yeah, I mean, you’re a little older, too. I mean, like, you’ve done more. Like you’re wiser -”
“This isn’t getting any better for you.”
“How old are you, anyway?”

They asked me my name, and said some nice things about my contributions in class. 5 weeks in, and the people sitting next to me don’t know my name. My t-shirt should read “I’m not an asshole, I’m an introvert.” I’m not even that quiet. I speak up in class, I chat a quite a bit, I joke. I just miss all the standard social checkpoints. Like, you know, names. It’s also possible that for the kids in class, the old guy in the room is enough of an oddity that it’s hard to know how to approach him. I could buy that. I do have a hard time seeing myself as significantly older than them, though. My children are 6 and 9 years old, so through that lens, my 20-something classmates might as well be my age. This is where it gets good:

“How old are you, anyway?”
“That wasn’t very delicately put, was it?”
“Sorry, there’s just, I don’t -”
“I’m 41. Forty-one.”
“HOLYSHITNOWAY.” And now the teacher is listening. And laughing. He is Sven(!) as previously referenced, and he is older, even, than me. Srsly. Class begins.

Philosophy is probably as good a class as any for ambiguation of ages, inasmuch as age has anything to do with identity. We’ve been going on interminably about identity (existence, to be far, far more accurate) for the past couple of weeks. And age isn’t any more relevant to the conversation than toenail thickness. We either are or we aren’t, and being 41 or 21 or 11 hasn’t any bearing on that. Being dead might not even have any bearing on it.

The Victorians are dead, as are the Romantics, and here I reach didactically back to the beginning of this post and my lamentation about “submit” buttons.  They are daunting, and especially today, as one such button was a necessary condition for the submittal of my British Literature Midterm. But my God how fun it was to answer those questions. I mean, check this out:

  1. Use the following passage, including literary features like imagery, character, and repetition, to explore the theme of home(s) in Great Expectations.

ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED? For realz, tho. A question like that tickles all the right places in my mind. Probably not so for you, but that’s ok. I’ve walked through the stark and dead computer sciences/engineering building, peered into the rooms lined with zombification screens and vitamin D supplements. You can keep all that. It’ll serve you better when asked by a stranger what you do for a living, but that’s where my envy ends. I love a question like that one up there because it lets me think and write things like this:

Home is “bodily pain.” Home doesn’t even exist, or at least he doesn’t have one. And as he contemplates it, the only names that come to him are not Joe or Biddy, as it should be. They have a home, and it is not his. The names he conjures are instead the decidedly unsafe characters of Estella and Provis, who are features of the home he went in search of. With Estella being a star – entirely unattainable. And Provis being proviso – a condition attached to an agreement. So even if there is anything like home, it is either beyond Pip’s reach, or it is conditional – incomplete. Ultimately, no matter how he conjugates his approach to the idea of home, he doesn’t end up there. He doesn’t even know home as a place – as a noun. He calls it a “vast shadowy verb I had to conjugate.” Verbs are not destinations. You cannot arrive at a verb, or settle into a verb, or be comforted by a verb. Also “vast and shadowy,” as in without any real form, and a verb that he “had to” conjugate. It’s not even voluntary. It’s an obligation, which could also be called a sentence. Pip’s fears and confusion are a sentence to homelessness.

Now go read Great Expectations again. It’ll change your life.

The Whole Sky, All at Once

You can’t look for the lightning
Dad said
or you’ll never see the flash.
He would pull the Buick out to the street
and we sat like crooked teeth
in the yawning maw of the garage.
A storm coming deliberately at us
and the tornado siren
wailing with a bored urgency
like the ambulance of the great plains.
We pulled over.

You can’t look for the lightning
Dad said
or you’ll always just miss it.
He would talk about seeing the whole sky
and we sat like crooked teeth
in the yawning maw of the garage.
We tried to look at nothing and everything
while the old corn across the street
whispered with a quickened urgency
like the dying secrets of the great plains.
We closed our ears.

You can’t look for the lightning
Dad said
or someone else will see it.