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“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Ghost Haunting 710 Crowder Court

        Long before I was an atheist and scientific skeptic, I was fascinated with and scared shitless by ghosts. I remember watching a show called Sightings with my best friends down the street. Their Filipino mom was superstitious and had told them all kinds of stories, like one about a baby born in the Philippines with horns and a tail, and because of the distinctive cuisine the house always had a strange smell. But it was their dad, who had met their mom while in the navy, who really scared me. Those guys were my best friends for years, but I don’t think I ever heard their dad speak. I had met the two boys at school years earlier and become fast friends with the younger one because he appreciated my ability to make up ghost stories on the fly. He was the one who first introduced me to Alvin Schwartz, whose “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” would be one of the delights of my childhood.  

       After watching Sightings, the three of us would try to regale each other with stories of our own experiences with ghosts. It would have been around the same time that I started hanging out with another aficionado of the horror story who went to the same school but lived the next neighborhood over. This guy had HBO and it was at his house that I first saw Tales from the Crypt. I can’t think about this period without picturing the strip of woods separating the two backyards forming the border between our neighborhoods. Too often I made Ichabod Crane’s mistake—though I wouldn’t read that story till years later—indulging in all the stories I loved so much only to have to walk home in the dark, along a poorly kept trail through those woods, scared half to death.

As a kid I was imaginative, suggestible, and prone to vivid dreams—hell, I kind of still am. But I only ever had one ghostly experience that I didn’t quickly attribute to being less than fully awake and still dreaming. I remember recounting it to my best friends after watching an episode of Sightings in their strange-smelling, uncomfortably silent house. The oldest boy had just told us about how he’d been doing homework and heard someone enter the room. Thinking it was his brother, he made some snide remark only to turn around and see that he was alone in the room. But the dangling cord from the telephone was swinging back and forth. As he sat there frozen, trying to figure out what had just happened, the light hanging from the middle of the ceiling began to flicker, sending him out of the room shouting for his brother. It was the same room we were sitting in now. I looked over at the telephone. Then I looked up at the light. I was glad there were no woods between our houses.

            Now that it was my turn I began to tell the story of my first night at 710 Crowder Court, the house my brother still lives in to this day—but not for much longer (he's moving). I had learned from the younger of my two friends down the street that some years earlier the family who lived there before us had experienced a tragedy. Their little boy had slipped while running near a pool, hit his head, and fallen into the water. He had drowned. I actually remembered hearing about this, and at the time I recognized the boy’s name. I want to say Eric now, but that was another little boy I knew from a much earlier time. Eric had died of leukemia; his funeral is one of my earliest memories.

            The boy who’d died in that pool had an older sister, who apparently moved into what had been his room in our new house because the walls and the carpet were pink. I’m the youngest in our family, so I got the last pick of the bedrooms. My friend assured me the pink room had in fact been the boy’s bedroom when he died, giving me two reasons to dread moving into it. But move in I did, and I’ll never forget my first night sleeping there.

            I woke up terrified, as if from a nightmare. It was still dark but I sensed there was someone in the room with me. The reason I couldn’t dismiss what happened next as the remnants of a dream was that I lay there wide awake for what seemed like hours. My eyes were peeled open and my heart was pounding. I was completely frozen with fear. Next to my bed was a digital clock, but it took me some time to work up the courage even to turn my head. Like I said, it was completely dark when I first woke up, but what finally prompted me to check the clock was the graying light of morning coming in through the window. It was before six. I began to calm down, hoping I might still get some more sleep before my alarm went off.

But that’s when I heard it. I immediately tried to ascribe the sound to the expansion of pipes. My stepdad must be up already, I thought, getting ready for work. He’s running hot water. Then I heard the sound again. If it was a pipe, then it had to have been running directly over my bed. I’d spent enough time in houses still under construction, seeing them as playgrounds of sorts, to know how unlikely that was. I lay there frozen in my bed as the rising sun gradually lit the pink walls of the room. The third time I heard the sound there was no mistaking what it was—the pathetic moan of a little boy. I didn’t budge again until over an hour later, when the room was fully lit by the morning. I never heard anything like that sound again as long as I lived there.

But there was another sound I heard that would keep me up through countless nights over the following years. Whenever the wind came up at night, I heard what I at first took to be tree branches scratching against the vinyl siding outside my room. I took this explanation for granted for a while. I still recall the first time it dawned on me, while I was pushing the lawnmower around after a night of particularly intense scratching, that there weren’t any trees or bushes remotely close to the siding. I turned the lawnmower off and began pushing and pulling at the vinyl slats, trying to reproduce the sound—not even close. After that, whenever I heard the scratching, it heralded a long, sleepless night.

            Years later, long after I’d moved to my dad’s house on Union Chapel Road, long after I had largely outgrown my fascination with ghosts and such things (sort of), I got in a conversation with my mom about my stepsister. Mom was mad at her because she was starting to skip her weekend visits to her dad’s house. As a teenager now myself, I tried to explain that it was perfectly natural for her to prefer spending weekends with her friends, that nothing sinister should be read into it. “No,” my mom said, “she says she can’t sleep here because she thinks there’s something scratching on the wall outside the bedroom.” She was talking about the pink bedroom--even though by then the walls had been painted.

Friday, October 28, 2011

How To Be A Man

Women are attending and graduating from college at higher rates than men. The recession of the past few years has hit men harder. And skills like communication and nurturing that women traditionally excel at seem much better suited to the way the job market is sure to develop in the future than qualities like risk-taking, aggression, and physical strength, the ken of men. All this has lead Hanna Rosin to declare “The End of Men” in a fascinating article for The Atlantic Monthly. The same magazine declared, or rather asked about, "The End of White America?" a couple years ago, but it really does seem like something strange is afoot with manhood at this juncture in history. Penny Nance, on a Fox News blog asks, "Why Does America Have So Many 'Peter Pan' Men?". Nance's biggest concern, the statistic (which I haven't tracked down) that boys ages 12-17 actually spend less time playing video games than 18-34 year-old men.

But what else is a man-child to do? They don't want to go to school or try to get hired at some job where they'll probably be outshone by their female counterparts. And who do men have to look up to? Linda Holmes, in her blog on the NPR page, "Congratulations, Television! You Are Even Worse At Masculinity Than Femininity," complains about a new season of sitcoms, foremost among them How To Be A Gentleman, for positing "a dichotomy in which men can be either delicate, ineffectual, sexless weaklings or ill-mannered but physically powerful meatheads," and that "there are gentlemen, and there are real men, and each might need to be a little more like the other."

This dichotomy is even represented in literature. Jonathan Franzen's novel Freedom, for instance, features two college buddies plying their respective virtues in parallel attempts to seduce and hold on to a mutual love interest. Walter Berglund is an environmental activist and the quintessential nice guy. Richard Katz is the devil-may-care rock star. And Patty Berglund's dilemma seems to be shared by a growing number of women.

Kate Bolik, in another Atlantic article, "All the Single Ladies," relates how she and her friends, along with a growing cohort of the female population, are broadening the scope of their attraction. "Now that we can pursue our own status and security," she writes, "and are therefore liberated from needing men the way we once did, we are free to like them more, or at least more idiosyncratically, which is how love ought to be, isn’t it?"

Bolik continues:
"American women as a whole have never been confronted with such a radically shrinking pool of what are traditionally considered to be 'marriageable' men—those who are better educated and earn more than they do. So women are now contending with what we might call the new scarcity. Even as women have seen their range of options broaden in recent years—for instance, expanding the kind of men it’s culturally acceptable to be with, and making it okay not to marry at all—the new scarcity disrupts what economists call the 'marriage market' in a way that in fact narrows the available choices, making a good man harder to find than ever."

This strange longing for what she calls "traditional" men, and her and her friends failure to locate them, belies one of her central points--that what women want is somehow changing in a fundamental way. In a discussion of the Guttentag-Secord theory, Bolik relates her own experiences with a certain type of male:  "My spotty anecdotal findings have revealed that, yes, in many cases, the more successful a man is (or thinks he is), the less interested he is in commitment."

She later asserts that, at least in the "hookup culture" of college campuses, something called the "Pareto principle" is at play. It's "the idea that for many events, roughly 20 percent of the causes create 80 percent of the effects," and so "only 20 percent of the men (those considered to have the highest status) are having 80 percent of the sex, with only 20 percent of the women (those with the greatest sexual willingness); the remaining 80 percent, male and female, sit out the hookup dance altogether."

It may merely stem from my own scientific leanings, but I think Bolik is trying too hard in her article to fit her evidence into a scheme of extremely variable human mating behavior--even as she presents findings to the contrary. Bolik decries "singlism," discrimination against single women, because she's ridden her biological clock all the way to "marriage o'clock" and beyond but is perfectly happy and successful. It's a great article, and as a single, soon-to-be 34 year-old man, I sympathized quite a bit.

But what does any of this leave us with beyond status, self-perceived or otherwise, as the mark of an attractive man--or as a man as distinguished from a videogame-obsessed teen-aged boy? Let's go back to Richard Katz from Freedom. He's a bad long-term mate, maybe even a bit of a man-child, but he's such a good musician he gets away with it. This is a common theme on TV too. Dr. House gets away with being a sociopath, within narratively convenient limits, because he's such an awesome diagnostician. Then there's Don Draper, who gets to be bad because he's so good at advertising. I've recently begun to watch Californifation, which features the novelist Hank Moody, whose gift actually isn't his writing--which gets mixed reviews throughout the series--but his ability to charm women.

It could be that what makes these men attractive (they attract audiences of course, not just fictional women) is their passion for what they do more than their childish inability to delay gratification. But then of course women can be passionate about what they do as well. They can even be so good at whatever it is they do well that they get forgiven for bad behavior. And here we run into the problem that's been plaguing everyone who's been trying to figure out what roles men and women should play in society for the past few decades: as soon as you light on a possible answer, you can count on someone accusing you of sexism.

Men like objects and abstract concepts. Women like social interactions. But not all men and not all women fit the trend. And how dare you suggest that male nurses aren't manly! Or that female engineers aren't feminine! There's even a poststructuralist brand of feminism that views "gendering" as a high crime.

All accusations aside, and without going into cross cultural analysis, I think there's something to be said for a definition of manhood having something to do with a willingness to risk physical harm and give up material comforts for the sake of altruistic punishment. This is a point on which Chuck Palahniuk's  Tyler Durden is eloquent.

There's something to be said about being careful with your compromises and accommodations, knowing who you are and valuing what you do without reference to the opinions or lame assurances of women. Yes, women can be this way too, assured, independent, cocksure. But it seems to me there ought to be a way to recognize positive roles and hold up positive role models without encouraging negative reactions to men or women who don't fit those roles.

Maybe the way to be a man is simply to know what being a man means to you. Whether you base it on evolutionary psychology or on your own father or on some other model, you choose your ideal self and you do your best to be him.

There's even something to be said for being able to smash some shit when necessary--rhetorically and otherwise.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Occupy Fort Wayne

What is one to do when the purpose of events like this is to rouse passion for a cause, only he believes there's already too much passion, too little knowledge, too little thinking, too little reason?
Heather Bureau from WOWO put a camera in my face at one point. "Can you tell me why you're here today?"
I had no idea who she was. "Are you going to put it on TV?"
"No, on the radio--or on the website." She pulled her hair aside to show me the WOWO logo on her shirt.

"I wanted to check it out. We're here because of income inequality. And the sway of the rich in politics. Plus, I guess we're all liberals." I really wanted her to go away.
The first speaker filled us in on "Occupation Etiquette." You hold up your arm and wave your hand when you agree with what's been said.
And the speakers use short sentences the crowd repeats to make sure everyone can hear.
The call and response reminded me of church.

Rallies like this are to gather crowds, so when talking heads say their views are the views of the people they can point to the throngs of people who came to their gatherings.
But what is one to do about the guy carrying the sign complaining about illegal immigrants?
What about all the people saying we need to shut down the Fed?

What about the guy who says, "There's two kinds of people: the kind who work for money, and the kind who work for people"?
Why was I there? Well, I really do think inequality is a problem. But I support the Fed. And I'm first and foremost against tribalism. As soon as someone says, "There's two types of people..." then I know I'm somewhere I don't belong.
We shouldn't need political rallies to whip us up into a frenzy. We're obligated as citizens to pay attention to what's going on--and to vote.
Maybe the Occupy Protests will get some issues into the news cycle that weren't there before. If so, I'm glad I went.
But politics is a battle of marketing strategies. Holding up signs and shouting to be heard--well, let's not pretend our voices are independent.
Some fool laughingly shouts about revolution. But I'm not willing to kill anyone over how much bankers make.
Why was I there today? It seemed like the first time someone was talking about the right issue. Sort of.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Tyler Durden and Occupy Wall Street

"Without pain, without sacrifice, we would have nothing."
Dear Occupy Wall Street,

It's true that wealth inequality in America is a disgrace.

It's true that we've allowed PR and marketing to become monsters.

We've given up our minds for the sake of convenience and entertainment.

It's true that far too many of us have bought into the bullshit narrative that markets have magical powers, that allowing businesses to poison the earth redounds to the collective benefit, that the existence of multibillionaires is somehow good for everyone.

I agree with you completely on these points. And I agree that the rich have far to much political sway.

But messages mean nothing unless they cost something.

Occupy Wall Street--good work so far, but way too few people really care what you have to say.

Being heard is not a matter coming together and shouting. There's something pathetic about how much your protests resemble parties and festivals.

In Vietnam, monks protested by lighting themselves on fire. Gandhi went on hunger strikes.

It's not what you believe or what you're willing to shout or Sharpie on signs.

How seriously people take your message is a matter of how much you're willing to give up.

Some boring writer

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Celebrities Reading Books: Marilyn Monroe


Literature and Rock n Roll

I ended my Intro Rhet Comp class early on Thursday. I’d scheduled fifteen minutes of the class for discussing the chapter of the textbook assigned for the day, and fifteen minutes after that to a group project based on the reading. After calling on two students randomly and getting a bewildered look from both, I asked for a show of hands to see how many of the eighteen present had read the chapter. One hand went up. Suddenly, the class’s performance on the last paper began to make more sense. Bewildered now myself as to how so many students could be so cavalier about their grades, how they could be content with doing the bare minimum and constantly testing to see if they could get by with even less, I floated the idea of daily quizzes by a few of my fellow TA’s who share an office with me during our pointless office hours.

“I don’t see my job as making sure students do the reading,” Darlene said. She’s a returning adult, one of the women who frequently derail classes by straining to apply their personal and family experiences to the questions raised by professors. “I look at the textbook as just a guide they can use if they need it.” It’s her first semester teaching.

A visceral antipathy toward reading is pervasive on our campus. I read it in my students’ faces every time I discuss an upcoming assigned chapter, this look of “Why are you doing this to us?” But I also encounter it in advanced Lit courses. Last week, after having been arranged into groups of five by the professor, I was excited to see what my classmates had to say about Gatsby, an old favorite of mine. Before getting started, though, we did what had become an obligatory round of disclosing how far into the reading each of us had made it. I was the only one in the group who’d actually finished it.

Undeterred, I kept an eye on my classmates’ Blackboard postings over the following days. The few comments that appeared that were actually about the novel were resoundingly, astonishingly, negative. “The characters are superficial and the plot is confusing.” But mostly people wrote about their difficulties making sense of the “tricky” narration—as if Fitzgerald had let them down instead of the other way around. And these are people who profess to enjoy reading.

Seeing those responses was shocking, uncanny, and oddly encouraging. This past summer I finished a draft of a novel and, after asking on Facebook who all was interested in reading it, sent out fifteen copies. My goal was to get as many responses as I could from educated people who weren’t necessarily English or Literature majors. I got three detailed responses. One was from a fellow English grad student. The other two I would see echoed almost word for word two months later in my classmates’ postings on Gatsby. They complained about not getting the characters, but they’d also missed key elements of the plot which would’ve brought the characters into better focus. I could’ve responded to the poor reception—the twelve copies that went unanswered were somehow worse—by blaming the readers. Instead, I became pretty demoralized. Seeing how many people had the same response to Fitzgerald didn’t exactly reassure me of my bright future as a novelist, but it did hang a question mark over what had for those two months been a period.

Still, I have to wonder if literature has become one of those geeky pursuits, like video games, Dungeons and Dragons, or magic, that so many people--males in particular--obsess over, only to experience more and more isolation because of it. At the opposite end of the spectrum lie passions for sports and music, the crowd-pleasing passions, which are really just as pointless except for their wider followings and the social sanction of popularity.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Monks: a Short Riff on Hemingway and Porter

        We always talk about work, whether we each can tolerate our individual job or if we should try something new. Since we don’t know anyone who has what sounds from the outside like a dream job, we opt for tolerance. I spent a lot of time talking about lost opportunities. I always seemed to be in love with one woman when I could have been having fun with several.

        He told me the story of a third member of our tribe trying to get him to participate in a threesome. I pretended like I’d never heard it happened. In truth, some new details emerged. As he spoke, I looked over his shoulder to watch the cook through the service window. She was cute, rangy but in a graceful way. She looks really young. They all do.

        We were talking about the woman, the mistress, the third, about whether we should feel sorry for her. I feel sorry, I said, for anyone on the decline. Women have it especially bad. Just imagine part of what makes you special, a large part, a majority, is your youth and your beauty. Only you never fully realize how major a part youth and beauty are playing until yours are on the wane.

        “It would be like coming up with a program for success, having it work really well for years, only to realize that the program you’ve been following is actually useless because your success stems from the fact that you happen to be a genius—and the way you discover this is that you start becoming less and less successful because for whatever reason your genius is fading.”

        “That’s a really depressing thought. That’s depressing me. Why would you be thinking about that? Are you depressed?”

        “No—well, I’d say I’m lonely. A little frustrated that nothing seems to be happening in my life. But, no, I’m not really depressed.”

        I’d brought up a woman I work with and how much of a turnoff it was to hear her talk about how much she wanted to get married—how it always seems like women who talk like that put their preplanned schedule ahead of finding the right guy, and how that doesn’t seem as tragic as it used to because we both have come to the conclusion that even the idea of there being such a thing as the right guy or girl is pretty suspect.

        As much as it still doesn’t sit right with me, I explained, I could see the logic in having your life scheduled out. Women have a briefer window in which to establish their family lives, and their general success tends to begin with healthy family ties. Although, in the context, I was putting two and two together and getting a sum of being a man ain’t no different.

        Walking home from the pub we talked about “making it” and about how we don’t care much for big houses and cars. They’re not worth the work. I guess there was a pretty overt strain of asceticism being expressed. Still, when he said, “We’re monks,” it surprised me a bit. It surprised me because I’d actually anticipated our conversation after inviting him over and thought about saying I was living like a monk to sum up my situation. So, when he said it, I had to wonder if I’d said it in an earlier conversation, or whether he might have said it and I picked it up from him.

        Back at my apartment we got high and talked about how excited we got as kids about skee ball and the prizes you could get with the tickets. He’d been to Cedar Pointe and was talking about the abandoned arcade he’d wandered into when his neck was too sore for any more rides. We laughed at how foolish we’d been.

        “It’s really stupid, but really when’s the last time you got that excited about anything?”

        We talked about Christmas and Star Wars toys and pellet guns—about how all briefly thrilled before all briefly disappointed before all permanently faded into oblivion. Prizes no longer compel us forward. If we move at all, the impetus comes from discipline. I want to lose a little weight. I want to get a better job. I want to meet more people. I want a woman I can love.

        I was drunk, and then I was high. So, naturally I talked too much about the woman I haven’t been with for close to a year and a half. The cook through the service window at the restaurant reminded me of her.

        We talked briefly about politics, about how the free market solution for deadly chemicals and toxic customer service was supposed to be the consumers’ perogative to vote with their feet. But you can’t vote for an option that doesn’t exist, or against one that’s an industry-wide standard. We talked about getting badgered every time we try to buy something. Everyone’s trying to squeeze just a little more out of you. In the short term, they may make a few extra pennies—but, big picture, they’re probably depressing the economy by gently punishing consumers. People in China and India are starting to want more. The seeds of a middle class may have been planted.
This was me riffing on a theme from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises:

        Women made such swell friends. Awfully swell. In the first place, you had to be in love with a woman to have a basis of friendship. I had been having Brett for a friend. I had not been thinking about her side of it. I had been getting something for nothing. That only delayed the presentation of the bill. The bill always came. That was one of the swell things you could count on.

        I thought I had paid for everything. Not like the woman pays and pays and pays. No idea of retribution or punishment. Just exchange of values. You gave up something and got something else. Or you worked for something. You paid some way for anything that was any good. I paid my way into enough things that I liked, so that I had a good time. Either you paid by learning about them, or by experience, or by taking chances, or by money. Enjoying living was learning to get your money’s worth and knowing when you had it. You could get your money’s worth. The world was a good place to buy in. It seemed like a fine philosophy. In five years, I thought, it will seem just as silly as all the other fine philosophies I’ve had.

        Perhaps that wasn’t true, though. Perhaps as you went along you did learn something. I did not care what it was all about. All I wanted to know was how to live in it. Maybe if you found out how to live in it you learned from that what it was all about.
And from Katherine Anne Porter’s “Theft”:

        In this moment she felt that she had been robbed of an enormous number of valuable things, whether material or intangible: things lost or broken by her own fault, things she had forgotten and left in houses when she moved: books borrowed from her and not returned, journeys she had planned and had not made, words she had waited to hear spoken to her and had not heard, and the words she had meant to answer with; bitter alternatives and intolerable substitutes worse than nothing, and yet inescapable: the long patient suffering of dying friendships and the dark inexplicable death of love—all that she had had, and all that she had missed, were lost together, and were twice lost in this landslide of remembered losses.