Monday, September 29, 2008

There's nothing romantic about it

My undergraduate advisor was also one of my favorite English professors--a 40-something woman who seemed to me, then, like she had it all: intellect, humor, common sense, and a bold eye for fashion (she had a pair of purple leather pants that she, and only she, could get away with wearing). As a professor now myself, I often am struck by how much of what I do in the classroom is still deeply influenced by the teachers I had as an undergrad, and especially by her.

Recently, though, I've been reconsidering one of my mentor's proclamations. At one point in a class, she remarked that there was nothing better than being sick and lying in bed reading Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. I remember her raving on about the decadence of illness, and how doubly wonderful it was to wallow in one's misery while reading about someone else's. It made having a chronic, long-term illness sound like something to look forward to, a bibliophile's dream.

I still haven't gotten around to reading Proust, but I can tell you that I know that it would probably be the last thing I'd pick up if I were wasting away. For the last month now, I've been fighting off some kind of upper-respiratory bug that just will not go away. If it were just a case of the sniffles, that'd be fine with me--or if it were some massive case of bronchitis that forced me to stay in bed and sleep for days on end, that would be OK, too.

But this is one of those middle-ground things, where you feel like complete and utter shite, but not bad enough to take to your bed. The coughing and laryngitis don't even bother me, really. It's the damn brain fog that's driving me completely insane. I constantly feel like I'm about five beats behind, sometimes more. I'm confused, disorganized, unfocused, and dull--all things that I hate to be even temporarily, much less for four weeks straight.

So, shut your pie-holes, Proust and Professor Know-it-all. There's nothing good about feeling bad.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

An old favorite

Regular readers out there may recall that "I Hate Evil." I recently had occasion to reread an old favorite of mine in the 'medieval fantasy novel' genre: Lord Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter. And while I didn't recall it at the time I wrote that earlier post, I see now that one reason I love the book is because there's not a bit of evil in it--though there is plenty of foolishness, plain old madness, and even a little willfulness to spare. And there's magic just about everywhere.

Dunsany's book was first published in 1924, and if you needed any further proof that it's a pre-Tolkien work, it's the hugely bearded King of Elfland: what self-respecting post-Tolkien elf could possibly exhibit his masculinity so clearly? But that's exactly part of the book's charm and why its such a shame that it's so rarely read these days: it reminds us so powerfully that there's another way to write fantasy, and that magic doesn't always have to be linked up to a great and terrible evil force. (And as final confirmation of the power of Tolkien's vision in the contemporary world, I'll just point out the the spell-checker here on marks "Dunsany" as suspect, but is perfectly okay with "Tolkien," which must therefore be in their dictionary. Dunsany apparently once had five plays on Broadway at one time, and in the 30s and 40s was, undoubtedly, a much larger literary figure than Tolkien--but not on

Instead of evil, the characters in The King of Elfland's Daughter struggle against things all too familiar to the rest of us: the power of time to bring change, on the one hand, and the feeling that stability is only a tiny step away from stasis, on the other. Even more remarkable, given these conflicting powers and anxieties, virtually all of the major characters in the book end up getting pretty much exactly what they ask for: it's a happy ending all around.

And the miracle of the book is that there's still a sadness to that happy ending that makes it even sweeter.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

An unintentional snappy comeback

Recently I've heard the infamous strains of Heart's "Barracuda" a number of times--over the earbuds in my iPod at the gym, and also in connection with She-Who-Cannot-Be-Named, aka John McCain's VP candidate.

Apparently, this was the Alaska gov's nickname in high school, and was used at the RNC as a sort of theme song for her. Heart, unsurprisingly, has issued a cease-and-desist order to block further use of their song by the campaign.

[If you can't remember the tune, check out the creative phonetic representations of its signature guitar riff over at Historiann.]

Anyway, I'm a little chagrined to admit that "Barracuda" was also my nickname in high school...or at least, the nickname my biology teacher called me. And, in the context of the "snappy comebacks" (non) discussion, I feel compelled to tell the story.

One day very early in my sophomore year, I was sitting in biology class, listening to the teacher, Mr. Logsdon, trying to get some discussion going about the previous night's reading. He'd asked a question that no one was inclined to answer. This wasn't too surprising, given that he was a pretty sarcastic and intense guy, which made him mighty intimidating to a group of 15-year-olds (or to me, anyway).

Suddenly, he says, "Well, Ms. Hathaway, you're sitting back there looking like you know the answer; do you?"

I did, in fact, so I replied, "Yes."

It turns out that what he'd actually said was "Well, Ms. Hathaway, you're sitting back there looking like you know everything; do you?"

To which I had just replied "yes."

So, he assumed I was a total smartass and an egocentric jerk, to boot. For Mr. Logsdon, however, these were apparently badges of honor that earned me the nickname "barracuda," which he continued to call me right through the senior biology class I took with him a couple years later.

I never could bring myself to disabuse him of his misconception, largely because I sort of enjoyed the idea of someone thinking I was an uppity smart mouth, and not just a nerdy freak (which was closer to the truth). In my heart of hearts (or should I say my Heart of hearts), I probably would have wanted to answer his actual question by saying "yes." So why not imagine that I had?

So, my one snappy comeback was, in reality, the result of poor hearing. It still had a similar ring of satisfaction, though.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The art of the witty (and timely) comeback

My previous post (and Jane's response to it) as well as Tom's dream vision, below, put me in mind of that rarest of rhetorical triumphs, the witty comeback. You know, the kind that you usually think of hours or days too late. Only a select few are graced with the right retort in the moment.

The best snappy-comeback story I know of is one that my friend Christina tells. Years ago, when she was in graduate school, she took her car into a local garage to have some repairs done. It was a father/son operation, and she was dealing with Mechanic the Younger at the front desk, while Dad Mechanic was working on something in the vicinity.

As their conversation wound down, Christina said to Mechanic the Younger, "By the way, could you take a look at the horn while you're working on the car? I think there's a short or something in there because it doesn't always work."

From the back of the shop, Dad Mechanic piped up, "Oh, sure, that's just what these women need, to be able to honk their horns more often. We oughta just disable it!"

Christina turned to Mechanic the Younger, batted her eyes sweetly, and said, "Actually, if you could fix it so that it says 'F**k off' instead, that would be even better."

Ah, I get a vicarious thrill just repeating that story.

Alas, I have no good tales to tell. In some ways, I think kids handle this stuff better than adults do--when we study children's folklore in my classes, we talk about how kids are armed not only with a host of traditional insults, but with a parallel set of traditional retorts: "I know you are, but what am I?" "I'm rubber and you're glue; what bounces off me sticks to you." "So's your mother." Maybe we need to come up with a lexicon of quick-draw comebacks for grown-ups, too.

So, faithful readers: any good comeback stories to share?

If I were Chaucer

If I were Geoffrey Chaucer (and I were living today), I'd write a poem in which I fall asleep watching John Stewart's Daily Show, and then I'd dream that I saw Barack Obama, himself now on The Daily Show, responding to the inevitable claims that his "lipstick on a pig" proverb had been sexist. Obama would look around (in my dream) at the right-wing pundits and politicians making those claims and he'd say "You guys calling me 'sexist,'? That's like the pot calling the kettle black."

And maybe then I'd wake up, and I'd let the poetic (and proverbial) chips fall where they may.

[Sorry, but it's Chaucer week on the Tom Show.]

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Meet the new right, same as the old right (now STFU)

The first presidential election I could vote in was in 1984, and I campaigned energetically and naively for Mondale/Ferraro because of Ferraro's being the first woman on a presidential ticket. I got to see her speak on campus at Ohio State, and got even more fired up. Of course, we all know how that turned out.

That all seems like a million years ago--in fact, I'd almost forgotten the whole episode. This time around, I didn't get excited about Hillary's candidacy because she was a woman, and while I'd like to think that's a sign of my and the country's growing sophistication, the Women's Media Center video below shows that I'm dead, dead wrong about that.

On a happier note, we do seem to have arrived at a point where other major media outlets can slice-and-dice that kind of hypocrisy:

[Side note: THANK GOD for Jon Stewart. As I heard a commentator say on a "This American Life" piece once, I would drink his bathwater.]

Now, we all know Karl Rove is an a$$hole, and we all know how unbelievably skillful the right has been at appropriating the political rhetoric of the left and turning it against them. But frankly, to hear Karl Rove denouncing others as sexist was the last straw for me.

It certainly helped me articulate the problem I've been having all along, which is that I'm fed up with the right wing coming along decades too late and slinging accusations like this without first acknowledging that yes: the left had it right (no pun intended) when they got behind feminism (and civil rights, and the 40-hour workweek, and on and on and on). The left takes the heat for trying to corrupt the nation with its wicked, culturally destructive ideas, and then the right gets to sweep in and say, "Hey, you know what? That was a good idea after all. Gimme some of that."

It's interesting to hear McCain's policy advisor in the Daily Show video, above, talk about being insulted by media "attacks" on Sarah Palin from her "female" and "feminine" point of view. Dammit, you were insulted because YOU'RE A [closet] FEMINIST. If you're going to steal rhetoric, you gotta steal the whole package, and be prepared for the backlash.

What Karl Rove knows, and what he's so freakin' good at, is tying up the conversation so that the left can't say anything without spanking themselves.

And he gets this, I think, from the left's idea that "the personal is political." Years ago, when I was in grad school, I was walking up the sidewalk to my apartment building when a teenaged boy walked by with a friend and said, "If you weren't so fat, I'd go out with you."

Now, this wasn't the first time in my life I'd had a random, unknown male say something to me on the street. I've heard it all, both the insulting and the (allegedly) "flattering." But that was the moment at which I fully understood what that maneuver was about: power, and the reification of (white, middle-class, straight) male privilege. The only men I know who have had such experiences are gay: a high-school friend at whom another guy shouted "AIDS case" to on the street, for example. And I got it, the ways in which sexism and homophobia are rooted in the same kind of hatred.

Now, though, if I share that experience, I'm "playing the gender card." And if any of you out there want to disagree with me, you're automatically being "sexist." The right, once again, has shut down all conversation about the issue, which is what they've been doing so skillfully and carefully for over thirty years. And it's how they plan to win this election (as they have in the past).

The only way to fight back? As The Temptations say, "Rap on, brothers [and sisters], rap on!" Crank up the volume!

--With deep thanks to friends and fellow bloggers at Historiann and Leaf-Stitch-Word for the inspiration.