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December 20, 2007

Every new day is like a little gift from my enemies.

The cup of coffee I drank at the cafe this morning had the precise, overpowering aroma of wet dog.

The day pretty much went downhill from there.

I'd like to give a "shout out" to the jerks at the laundromat, my car, all undergraduates, my phone, ants, my iPod, my tooth, and my computer. You all know who you are.

Also, my car now receives only the following two radio stations: the terrible college station, which was playing a very long earsplitting song that sounded like funk mixed with opera, and a station calling itself "The Positive Alternative" which plays Christian hits for not-so-edgy youth. And interviews with Jars of Clay about their missionary work in Africa. Seriously, who knew Jars of Clay was still around?

I see what's going on here, though. Just because you're sticking it to me isn't going to make me believe in you, you jerk.

Posted by katie at 08:45 PM

December 11, 2007

Comparative Review: 1000 Identical Historical Novels

One occupational hazard I deal with is reading a very high volume of very bad literature. When I was 17, a freshman in college, and an idiot, I basically thought that graduate school was where you would go after college to re-read all your favorite books without the royal pain in the ass of going to class. I thought everyone could write his or her dissertation on one of the fifteen most famous books ever written, not worrying too much about saying anything new, and go out and get a job and teach courses like the ones I spent a lot of time designing, stoned, in my dorm room, when I was avoiding reading the fifteen most famous books ever written. This was largely because one of those books turned out to be The Faerie Queene and another one Paradise Lost, two books which I still regard with loathing and, possibly not coincidentally, incomprehension.

A few years later I learned from one of my graduate student instructors, one of the nicest and most perennially fatigued and harried educators I had at Cal, that it is totally still possible to write a dissertation on any of the most over-read, over-analyzed, beaten-to-death famous literature if you want to; you just have to find an angle no oneâs taken before. This GSI was such a nice fellow that I donât want to run any risk of his finding his dissertation snickered about in my blog, because Iâm about to explain why I think about him every single day as a cautionary example of how badly a dissertation project can get out of hand if youâre not careful. So Iâll simply explain that his dissertation was on a topic very like the use of prepositions in Danish translations of D.H. Lawrence. Very, very like that. And when he would explain what he was in the middle of working on, years in and apparently with quite a way to go, it was totally evident that he had no idea how heâd gotten there and that heâd never, as a stoned, naive undergrad, pictured this as his lifeâs work. But this is what happens if you want to write a PhD dissertation on D. H. Lawrence nowadays: you have to find some angle that no one in his right mind would already have taken.

The pit of Danish prepositions yawned beneath me when I started grad school with dreams of writing a dissertation about the single most feted and written-on â and best â author in US history. But I appear now to have marched myself down the other path, which involves hunting down and writing about stuff that no oneâs written a thing about or even heard of, which will preferably lead to finding a book so obscure that only one copy was ever printed and that one was remaindered immediately. The good thing about this is that if there turns out to be one single thing worth saying about that book, Iâll damn well be the only one saying it.

Unfortunately, the novels Iâm interested in are all popular fiction, all dealing with the same subject, all written during a specific historical period before TV, when people were desperate for entertainment and would read anything as long as it wasnât the almanac again, and all genre fiction, which means theyâre all the same. In my apparently endless quest for the ever-more-obscure, the lost-to-history, the ready-to-be-rediscovered, I have read approximately a million of these novels in the last several months, and Iâm now prepared to share my initial findings. Ladies and gentlemen, history seems to do a pretty decent job of deciding what itâs going to preserve and what can go ahead and get lost to it. Itâs not like all these novels are awful; some are great. But some are bad.

As a budding connoisseur of the bad book, Iâve learned a few things. One is that not all bad books are immediately unworthy of reading; some of them are actually quite bad in very interesting ways, and some are at least interesting although they are quite bad. Another thing Iâve learned, at least about the kind of historical fiction Iâm reading, is that contrary to what you might think, the more stupid and outlandish the charactersâ names, the better the book is likely to be. This is a purely statistical observation. If your main characters have names like Eliphalet or Pinetop or, God help me, Miss Pussy, the bookâs probably at least going to be a well-paced and interesting read. If theyâre all named John and Betsy, brace yourself, because youâre in for 400 pages of nothing. One of the things to keep in mind about this is that, while I cannot find any record of such a law on the books, I have inferred that some legislation must have been passed in the mid-1880s requiring every novel to contain at least one beautiful young woman named Virginia and at least one male personage named Ezra; these names are therefore strictly to be excluded from consideration in assessing the probable quality of the book. If the setting of the book happens to be antebellum, the male slaves are required to be named Cornelius, Shadrach, and Scipio, and the novel is likely to throw in an actual Aunt Rhody and Uncle Ben just to be safe; this is likewise unworthy of notice.

Itâs also kind of amazing how many novels start the same way, with some kind of Mad Libs variant on:

Toward the close of a [Month] afternoon in the year 18[Year], Miss [Spinsterish First Name] [Jarring and Arrhythmic Last Name], having learned by heart the lesson in [Subject] she would teach her senior class on the morrow, stood feeding her [Name of Domestic Animal] on the little square porch of the [Puckered-Sounding English Name] Academy for Young Ladies.

or, for the masculine version:

[Virile and/or Biblical First Name] [Name of Ice-Cream or Donut Franchise], Esq., of [Last Name From Above] Hall, in the county of [Name of Former British Monarch], was no inconsiderable man in his Lordshipâs province of [State], and indeed he was not unknown in the colonial capitals from [Obscure Village] to [Long-Abandoned Backwater].

Those templates are from Ellen Glasgowâs Virginia and Winston Churchillâs Richard Carvel, respectively, but really they could be from any of about a hundred novels. No, not that Winston Churchill.

Given that so many of these novels are very, very similar, itâs always nice to find one that has its own thing going on. This weekâs darling is S. Weir Mitchellâs novel In War Time.

In case the name S. Weir Mitchell doesnât ring an immediate bell, he was a famous doctor in the second half of the 19th century. This was just as modern psychology was developing and before it was professionalized, so I donât know quite what to call him, but he was an early head-shrinker who specialized in female nervous disorders â basically, what the medicine of the day called neurasthenia, which was Greek for âfeeling blue, agitated, and cooped up because your lot in life ainât so hot.â He developed the preferred âcureâ for neurasthenia, which was, of course, enforced bed rest and utter deprivation of company, sensory input, and mental stimulation. He was the doctor who confined Charlotte Perkins Gilman to her bed and drove her insane, and at whom she wrote âThe Yellow Wall-Paperâ after she escaped and ran away to California and married her cousin, and before she killed herself. (In case, like me, you like to immediately go and look these things up for yourself, she calls him out by name on the fifth page.)

Oh, and in 1884 something possessed him to write a Civil War novel.

Like any good monomaniac, he certainly sticks to his theme. Reading his novel, youâd hardly know there was a war on, except insofar as it provides background for him to talk about such things as:
The medical profession, changes in;
Neurological research, the importance of;
Shutting up and lying in bed, the advisability of;
Women, the social-climbing aspirations of;
Teenage girls, the childlike qualities of; and
Young doctors these days, deficiencies of.
War also comes up vaguely in order to furnish the occasion for one wounded soldier to develop a disorder called âpyaemia,â which at that time apparently meant âfiguring out that your hospital roommate is probably the guy who shot you,â and it sometimes comes up in the passages in which Mitchell, in a philosophical moment, is wont to reflect on Moods, the changing nature of. This is a passage about how our young protagonist Dr. Wendell is Not Having a Good Day:

With some people, their moods are fatal gifts of the east or the west wind; while with others, especially with certain women, and with men who have feminine temperaments, they come at the call of a resurgent memory, of a word that wounds, of a smile at meeting, or at times from causes so trivial that while we acknowledge their force we seek in vain for the reasons of their domination.

Thatâs actually kind of lovely, but do not think that this dreamy stuff, this damned poetry, is all that this novel is made of. No, within two sentences weâre talking about the balance of humors in the body, and then this happens two pages later when we catch up with our effeminate Dr. Wendell on his walk home:

He was rapidly coming to a state of easier mind, under the effect of the meerschaum [pipe]âs subtle influence upon certain groups of ganglionic nerve cells deep in his cerebrum, when, stumbling on the not very perfect pavements of the suburban village, he dropped his pipe[.]

It is also important to note that Dr. Wendell, possessed though he may be of a nervous disposition, and (as we are told on page 5) not a little adversely affected by having to walk past trees with reptilianly-textured trunks, is himself a good enough nerve doctor to spend most of the early pages of the novel popping into patientsâ rooms and telling them to shut the hell up and lie still.

In addition to his interesting approach to medicine, Mitchell is also the only person I have ever encountered who, when endeavoring to describe a fifteen-year-old girl upon a train, would choose to evoke her youth and freshness thusly:

But this little existence, now sent adrift from its monotonous colony of fellow polyps to float away and develop under novel circumstances, was a very distinct and positive individual being.

Or, several pages later, to sketch her heart-rending reunion with her dying father the pyaemic in this charmingly clinical manner:

He made no sign in reply. Nature had not waited for man to supply her anaesthetics, and the disturbed chemistries of failing life were flooding nerve and brain with potent sedatives.

The novel keeps going and going; we talk about virtue and toothbrushes, whether sponges can be considered alive, why itâs a good idea to have three pen-wipers on your desk, statistical evidence in favor of vaccinations, and how to confess love to a girl when you only know how to talk like a 19th-century medical textbook. You might think this sounds like a bad book, and it probably is, but I think itâs great. Itâs kind of a rib-tickler, although I canât tell whether itâs meant to be, especially because Mitchell doesnât sound like a guy with much of a sense of humor about his profession. Better yet, although thereâs an Ezra, at least so far thereâs no damn girl named Virginia with roses in her hair. There are microscopes and surgeons instead of swords and cavaliers, nerve tonic and milk punch instead of juleps and Confederate Pickle. Contrary to my hypothesis, it moves along nicely for a novel without a single Lemmuel or Jeff-Jack or Aunt Pittypat in its pages, no white men named Powhatan, no Brother Tombs, no Rainy-Day Jones and no slave named Leviticus. Even more surprisingly, Mitchell seems to have allowed all his female characters to get up and walk around and do things; only the soldiers are confined to their beds, left to pick at the wallpaper in the amputee wing of what is actually called, so help me, the Stump Hospital.

And anyway, it does not do to nitpick or fault-find or look at things too closely, for, as Mitchell reminds us, âIf our eyes were microscopes and our ears audiphones, life would be one long misery.â True words, my friends, true words.

Posted by katie at 11:01 AM

December 01, 2007

Kiss the girls and make them cry

When a kid is having the standard suite of troubles with other kids â teasing, exclusion, general meanness â adults love to claim that the kid whoâs picking on you is only doing it because he has a crush on you. Even as a kid, when my parents would look at my red, frustrated face and say, âOh, he likes you,â I was frankly astonished that adults could be so willfully naive and inductive about the ways of children. If Iâd had any introduction to symbolic logic at that point, I could have made my case, but at the time I was reduced to simply glaring at them and mumbling hopelessly under my breath.

Look, it goes like this: Teasing is one accepted tactic that you can use to simultaneously signal and conceal your crush on another kid, but that doesnât mean that any kid you tease is a kid you have a crush on. This would subvert the entire logic of teasing the kids you like, in the first place. The point of teasing someone you have a crush on is to safely and ambiguously signal the crush without actually declaring it. The whole reason that teasing is the way to do this is because teasing is also what you do to the kids you really, genuinely, donât like. Teasing the kids you do like and the kids you donât like, at the same time, is an incredibly effective way of eliding the difference in your feelings toward them. Itâs like mixing the placebos and the real pills together so no one can definitively tell which is which. Except that you also make sure, safely, that everyone who can properly read the code can tell the difference between the kid you tease in a somewhat friendly or flirty way, and the kid you really do just call names because you think sheâs a dork. These codes are totally obvious, set in stone at each individual school, and unmistakable to anyone under the age of eleven or the height of four feet.

No, I was one of the girls who got teased because that group of boys just really disliked me. I am referring to a small band of mean, dumb fatheads whose full names I recall perfectly but will not reproduce here because, now that I myself am older and stupider and somewhat misty about those playground days, I like to imagine that they have grown up to be nice men, all about to turn 30, acting like adults, in mature relationships with women they treat respectfully. Except for Eliot, who I hope is having a really rough time. Eliot was a jerk to me from second through ninth grades, and it was patently obvious to everyone that it was actually because he disdained me utterly. Actually, specifically, it was because I was a dork and I wasnât one of the Pretty Girls. When one of the Pretty Girls got name-called and teased by boys, you could generally assume that there was in fact a crush operating in there somewhere. For anyone who wasnât one of the Pretty Girls, you could pretty much assume there wasnât. Iâve occasionally wondered what it was like to grow up as one of those Pretty Girls who could go through life knowing that anytime someone was being a jerk to them, it was because that person thought they were pretty and didnât have a better way of expressing it. I wasnât one of them, and though at my school (as, I suspect, at most) the Pretty Girls represented a small minority, not being one was a crime punishable by torment and bullying from the boys.

In elementary school, Eliot, who had the best work ethic of all my self-appointed torturers, mostly applied my punishment through name-calling and by sharing his general and specific theories of my lameness with all his friends, loudly, within earshot of me and my friends, every time I did anything he thought was stupid. Which was pretty much everything I did. He was also putting an interesting twist on crush-related teasing, because he had a crush on one of my friends, and he teased me instead of her. By denouncing me so that she could hear, he was able repeatedly to send her the coded message: âI am comparing you to your lame friend, who is lame. You are not lame, and I am implicitly proving this by pointing out all the ways in which she is lame and you are not.â My theory â that he gave me crap because he disliked me, not because he liked me â was later borne out in junior high, when teasing was abandoned as a sexual technique and actual sex was put in its place. Eliot liked another one of my friends by then, and got to âsecond baseâ with her by buying her a stuffed cow. Without the need to use me as a medium of communication, he simply stopped interacting with me altogether. I, seasoned by years of loathing, tried to treat him as someone likewise beneath my notice, but one thing that Iâve found about ignoring is that you have to be the one to do it first. Otherwise, you just look like someoneâs not talking to you and itâs unclear whether youâve caught on yet.

I have, as I say, wondered what it was like to grow up as a Pretty Girl. I certainly saw many examples of how this might work to the detriment of oneâs character and ability to work well with others. One cold winter morning in fourth grade comes to mind, when several of us normal girls arrived at the classroom with every intention of thawing our fingers at the wall heater, as usual. Only, on this morning, the area around the wall heater had been blocked off, and a sign had been posted. âCLASSROOM SAUNA,â it read. âENTRANCE FOR MEMBERS ONLY.â The sign had been posted by a group of the Pretty Girls, of which a particularly unpleasant young lady I will identify only as Caileen was the ringleader. The teacher had let them âreserveâ the warmth of the heater for their pretty, popular friends and deny it to the rest of us. The teacher didnât think that was what was happening, because she made the stipulation that they had to give a âmembership cardâ to anyone who asked for one. You would think that a rational person who spent all day with fourth-graders and knew what they were like would be able to figure out that such a requirement would make it unlikely for âanyoneâ to actually procure a membership card, because it would necessitate going to the Pretty Girls and asking for one, and thereby legitimizing their authority. Several of my friends and I made a point of spending our mornings out in the cold, stamping our feet and mouthing the word âbitchesâ through the window, rather than knuckling under to those girls. It makes sense to me: these girls knew they were Pretty and therefore Popular, and they had the absolute â and accurate â confidence that most people would want to be in their club. Some of us rebelled, but it was purely formal, and self-defeating because we ended up being cold. Our rebellion â or mine anyway â wasnât born out of a confidence in Right that matched Caileenâs confidence in Popularity; it was simply the only possible, self-fulfilling expression of my frustrated knowledge that my righteous rebellion was completely impotent to trump her popularity. (Caileen came to power the same way a third-world generalissimo does: through the mute, fearing obedience of the masses. Not enough of us believed in sticking our necks out far enough to make real revolution possible, and those of us who engaged in symbolic rebellion were no real threat to her, consigned as we were to mornings in the gulag outdoors while she smoked cigars and tangoed with her cronies - including the teacher - inside. My god, she was a 4th-grade Pinochet. She was Trujillo. She was Pol fucking Pot.) I canât imagine that itâs any accident now, by the way, that Caileen is evidently working in television, and I am an impoverished, single graduate student. Because she must still be a Pretty Girl, and I am still a Dork.

In fourth grade â the same year as the CLASSROOM SAUNA incident â I was in a Girl Scout troop composed of fourth- and fifth-grade girls. Like actual shrews, these creatures looked adorable and were absolutely vicious. Also, like shrews, we apparently needed to eat our own body weight in random junk every few hours just to survive. A lot of time at Girl Scout meetings was spent eating, as I recall, and drinking those colored-sugar-water drinks that were intended to taste like flat orange soda or fruit punch, and which came in the little plastic bottles with the caps you would remove by first unwinding the plastic tab. There was a girl named Jenny in my troop who had not mastered the art of drinking from those bottles and often had a delicate pink or purple circle around her lips when she was done. Jenny gave me palpitations. She had a pale, somewhat round face, and long, straight, glossy dark hair which fell over her kelly green sash in a perfect curtain. She had big dark eyes. She had those tiny little faint freckles on her nose. But Jenny was not a Pretty Girl. I think this was a fundamental component of the crush I had on her, which I think was my first real crush â the first time I remember looking at someone and feeling like all the air had just been kicked out of my lungs and I couldnât breathe but it was okay because even if Iâd been able to draw a breath I wouldnât have been able to speak anyway. I was in instant, bewildering love.

In Jenny, I saw immediately a girl who was, to me, absolutely beautiful â and I have no doubt that wherever she is now, sheâs ravishing â but not, at age nine, possessed of the kind of conventional beauty that is necessary to avoid the immediate antipathy of your peers. She was, I suspect, a Dork like me: she was quiet, and bookish, pale and interesting, but not sunny or outgoing. Because she wasnât outgoing, she was an outsider, and because she was an outsider, she had no way of developing a sparkly insider personality. Even over the course of a yearâs worth of meetings I could see that vicious cycle operate, inexorably and efficiently, on her personality. Part of the reason I remember so clearly what her hair looked like falling across her uniform was that she spent so much time sitting with her head tilted down sort of sadly, when she wasnât being forcibly noogied or actively teased.

In that group, I was very normal: not capital-P Popular, but not an outsider like Jenny. Because I liked her so much and recognized what was happening to her, and knew how it felt, you might think I would have used my status as a normal, insider kid to bring her into the fold and protect her. It would have been really easy: all it would take would be to sit next to her and talk with her a few times. It would have brought her in, and signaled my approval of her to the group. But I didnât do it. This wasnât, as it might immediately seem, to save my own hide, or to keep her in the unpopular position to make sure I didnât fall into it. That wasnât it. I was never one of the popular kids in any setting, but I was never the outsider, either, even with Eliotâs constant barrage of jackassery back at school. I had plenty of good friends and didnât need to protect myself from imminent unpopularity. My failure to befriend Jenny was, simply, lovestruck paralysis. I couldnât sit next to her because I would then have to talk to her. I couldnât talk to her because I couldnât treat her like a normal person, since she wasnât just some normal person to me. Nothing about the crush I had on her could be made to compute in my head, and even if I had been able to figure out some way of dealing with it from the standard playground codes, those codes wouldnât apply in a Girl Scout environment. Here, the rules had always seemed easier, because there were no sexual dynamics going on; now, the rules were inadequate and unclear. Maybe, actually, there was an element of self-protection in staying away from Jenny, since there didnât seem to be anything that I could say or do with her that wouldnât instantly signal a level of interest that didnât make sense.

Because I didnât torment her, either; I just stayed away. I sat next to my own friends in our circle. I stayed a few feet away and tried not to look at Jenny. I didnât say or do anything if, when the troop leaderâs back was turned, another girl would reach over and give Jenny a sharp, painful noogie, our troopâs favorite form of torture. I watched her, sometimes, sitting by herself, head down, hair falling across her uniform sash, a ring of orange around her mouth. I felt like a lovesick puppy watching her, but I realized later that to her, I must have seemed just like all the other girls, staring at her, not talking to her. She spent a lot of time sitting slightly apart from everyone, making friendship bracelets out of embroidery floss. This made me feel somewhat better, because I was able to imagine that this Girl Scout situation was aberrant, and that back at her school she had friends and didnât get picked on. Jenny and I went to different schools, and at my school, though some of the girls were into making friendship bracelets, my friends and I were not. One day, Jenny accidentally dropped the bracelet sheâd been working on, and when no one was looking I picked it up. It was pink and green, and I carried it in my pocket for weeks, maybe months, until it was grubby and gray. Because my friends didnât make friendship bracelets, I couldnât wear it at school without an explanation, and anyway I couldnât wear it to meetings because I didnât want Jenny to see it and think that I had stolen it to be mean, or worse, for her to ask for it back.

Instead, I went to fourth grade, and stood stamping in the cold in the mornings with my friends. At that time, the undisputed sex god of the fourth grade was a popular, tanned, blond boy named David â the polar opposite of Jenny in every way â and his sexiness was the topic of every conversation that he wasnât actually involved in. My friends and I would stand around with our hands in our pockets to keep warm, everyone talking about how hot David was and how much they wanted to French kiss him, and everything was normal and codified. I talked as loudly and obscenely as I could about David, while inside my pocket I held Jennyâs friendship bracelet tightly coiled in my damp hand.

Twenty full fucking years later, Iâm still shy and awkward, and I still havenât figured out how to talk to girls I like. I wrecked it recently with yet another girl who had seemed to reciprocate my interest, and while there was a lot that went wrong there and much about the situation that legitimately made me feel awkward and kind of pissed, I canât help but think that someone else might have been able to create a sparkling, sexy conversation rather than turning into an angry robot. Or the girl I watched dumbly while she moped around lonely boring Santa Cruz for months - just like I watched Jenny â watched her right until she packed up her shit and moved out of town. Eliot, for example, would have gotten to second base for sure. And perhaps this is the answer, to adopt his approach. If Iâd thrown things at her friends and made them cry, or given her a stuffed animal, I bet I couldâve touched her boobs.

Posted by katie at 12:54 PM