I was remarking to my best friend about the fact that I come across quite deep and gloomy on this blog, but in real life I am primarily silly, and she said, "Well, be sillier on the blog!" So I thought I'd get the ball rolling by telling one of my favourite jokes. Well, I'll tell two, because one is silly and one is silly but also witty (which is a bit like deep, and thus just makes me look deep again). Here's the silly one:
A man walks into a bar with a small lizard on his shoulder, and he says to the barman, "I want two drinks. One's for me, and one's for Tiny here." The barman asks him, "Why do you call him Tiny?" And the man says, "Because he's my newt."
I think that's a brilliant joke. But I think this one is perhaps even more brilliant:
A football (soccer) coach buys a new player who has a bit of a strategic problem: he plays fantastically well in the first half, but in the second half he gets exhausted, lags behind in play, and drags the whole team down. So before the first game the coach takes the player aside and says to him, "Okay, here's my strategy. I'm going to put you in for the first half, and I want you to play all out. Then, at half time, I'll pull you off." And the player looks at him and says, "Wow. On my last team at half time they just gave me an orange."
God, I love that joke.
Incidentally, "Shut up and Let Me Go," by the Ting-Tings, is fab.
Earlier this week my friend S. informed me that he had started keeping a blog. By complete coincidence, he is also using blogger.com. How nice to be connected without knowing it! Anyway, I went and had a look at his, and I was surprised. I wasn't surprised by what it said or how it sounded compared to the person I know - it sounded exactly like the him I know - but I was surprised by how breezy and contented it sounded. He was observant, thoughtful, and engaged with the world around him, but his tone managed to be relaxed and unconcerned even while he was so. Very different from my tone here, which seems to be serious and dolorous, even though I don't think of myself like that at all.
For some reason, reading his blog and thinking about him, and the way I am with him, made me decide to devote an entry to him. I think about S. quite a lot, as it happens, at least once a day. This is certainly because we've been friends for a long time (nearly 20 years), but I also think it has to do with the fact that he's truly like no one else I know. The funny thing is, I couldn't really tell you how. I once tried to figure out what I would miss about him if I stopped being his friend, what specific attributes made him irreplaceable (which he certainly is), and I couldn't do it. In the end, it became clear that it was just his "S-ness"; his ness is irreplaceable. Which is a way, I suppose, of saying, All of him.
So this is the story that I always tell when I tell about my friendship with him. If he's reading this, he knows exactly what story I'm going to tell. But it's quite a good story, anyway.
When I first met S., he was in his final year at University, and I was doing my junior year abroad at that University. In the spring, therefore, he had to take his third-year exams, in his case in Drama and English (at least, I think it was English). I helped him study (this meant, among other things, that I read every play Arthur Miller ever wrote, so S. is to blame for part of my freakish over-reading). He studied EVERYTHING. I just remember a whole run of nights where he would study and study, and I was reading all this stuff so that I could be helpful if he needed it (I should say at this stage that if you were a student abroad you didn't get all that much coursework, and I'm a very fast reader, too).
Then, maybe the day before the exam, he had one of those little anxiety attacks that you have right before a very important exam, where you think, Ha-ha! I have studied everything. And then a little voice says, Wait, what if I haven't? What if there's some secret question that I haven't thought to study, and that's the very question they ask? We were sitting at a refectory table, and he said to me, "What if they ask me a question I don't know the answer to?" I responded, "S., you have studied so much that any question they ask you will seem like child's play." And he said, "Yes, that's right. They'll bring me the list of questions, and I'll read it, and then I'll say, 'But these questions are jejune! Bring me some others!'"
18 years later, that remark still makes me laugh. And when you add to that the fact that for the Drama portion of his exams he made, from scratch, by hand, a pair of puppets in the shape of frogs (don't ask...), and those puppets were not floppy half-assed frog versions, but scrupulously accurate renditions of frogs, beautifully sewn, you can perhaps see why this person would be irreplaceable.
So this entry ends with me saying, Huzzah! for S., who, by the way, has a lovely wife and charming son, and all in all has made a raging success of his life. So, Huzzah! and, Well done!
Here is a list of some topics I have contemplated with my Advanced Romantic Poetry students this semester:
1. What it feels like to change from a human into a werewolf;
3. Gender reassignment surgery;
4. What the soul looks like;
5. Why snake women are bad;
6. Why you should try to feel like a member of the opposite sex, just for a moment;
7. Whether heaven is crowded;
8. The fact that Percy Shelley was a complete bastard;
9. The nonetheless greatness of his poetry, including the total rockingness of the second and third stanzas of The Mask of Anarchy;
9. The wonders of Gregory Peck;
10. How difficult it is to sever a rotting head from a rotting carcass with a dull knife;
11. Relative rates of circumcision in America, Britain, and Muslim countries;
12. The complete coolness of the Learned Pig;
13. The power of feet, as compared to heads;
14. Whether or not Byron was a good lover (no, in my opinion, in case you're wondering);
15. Bizarre but applicable remarks by my parents and my friend Jennifer.
Here is a list of topics I have not covered with my Advanced Romantic Poetry students this semester:
1. Wordsworth's engagement with Kantian philosophy
2. The influence of the slave trade on Romantic literature and culture;
3. Any women poets at all;
4. The connection between the Cockney School of Poetry and political liberalism;
5. The Romantic rejection of Enlightenment tenets and poetic structures;
6. Virtually any relationship between Romantic poetry and Romantic culture at all.
Do I feel guilty? Yes. Do I feel like I lack as a teacher this semester? Yes. But the truth is, I had a wonderful semester teaching them, and since my semester was quite, quite horrible in other ways, I'm feeling that maybe it doesn't matter. And they do all seem to be producing astonishingly rich and complex papers, so perhaps I stimulated them after all.
So, next time I teach Romantic literature, a way more historically based course. But this semester, no real regrets.
Today one of my students gave me a length of sari fabric. This is a wonderful gift, and the fabric is very beautiful (I'm not able to take a photo of it, but I put a picture of a similar sari here so you can get the idea). Actually, a number of my students are very good to me in this way: they e-mail me randomly, or pop in to say hello. But only this one brings me gifts, and I'm honest enough to say both that I'm touched and that I love it.
Anyway, my student promised to come back on Wednesday and show me how to drape the sari, but I remembered that I own a book that offers similar instructions (this book, incidentally, is Schott's Original Miscellany, which I highly recommend. It contains all sorts of random but deeply handy information). So I scurried home with my beautiful silk sari fabric. As it turned out, Schott's Original Miscellany was slightly confusing, because it gave only a diagram. By now I was filled with sari-draping fire, so I went on the Net and sorted it all out. And then there I was in my bedroom, winding and tucking and draping.
Now, I'm kind of short. And when I looked down at my be-tucked and be-draped (and be-wound) body I discovered that sari material is, perhaps, designed for slightly taller women. In any case, there were about six inches of fabric pooling around me on the ground. And it looked so silly, and it was so the story of my life -- everything is always too long -- only transmuted into a material that is so not the story of my life -- I never wear a sari -- that I burst out laughing. And then I burst into tears. Because standing there laughing at how even this foreign item demonstrates my size, I suddenly felt (not even realized; it was too fast) the fact that there was no man there to appreciate that, or to show it to, or to enjoy my smallness with me, or to join me intimately in this moment, and that was so painful for me. And then I thought that laughing and bursting into tears is exactly the sort of thing that a pathetic, sorrow-ridden woman in a movie would do. And I was ashamed of myself for being such a woman, such a cliche.
I don't have a good picture to illustrate this one.
Last night I went to a party. There I got into a conversation with a woman who, when I answered her query about why I'm not happy here by telling her that I didn't believe I would every meet a man here, said to me, "Yes...This town is full of great women. I know so many great single women here. But there are just no men."
I hate the phrase "great single women." It never comes as part of an optimistic sentence, or a positive remark about those great single women; without fail, it comes in a sentence like the one above, or a sentence such as, "I know all these great single women, and I can never figure out why there aren't men for them" - that remark itself without fail made by an attached woman. It's patronizing and, I always feel, faintly self-satisfied.
Contemplating this woman's presumably unknowingly oafish remark on the way home, I wondered if, however, this is a thing men say to men about each other. Presumably the world is filled with single men, since until relatively recently the birth rate was slightly higher for males (106 males for every 100 women). Do spliced men say to single men, "I know all these great single men..."? Or, given that men might not confide to other men their dissatisfaction at being single, do men alone say to themselves, "Wow, I think I'm awesome, so why can't I find someone?"? I'm not trying to be all angry and feminist-y here, but I do wonder why it is that it's okay for someone (often another woman) to suggest to a woman that it's her lot as a great woman to be left on the shelf (after all, there are so many of us...), but it doesn't seem that this is also okay to do to men. Or perhaps I'm wrong, in which case I'd love to hear about it.
I suspect that, in fact, there are a lot of great single men, too.
When I was walking to school yesterday, a huge truck with a scoop attached to it was parked beside the stream I pass on my route. I thought, A-ha! I bet they're going to clear away the silt that's clogged up the stream. Because for the three years I've been here silt and mud have progressively encroached on one portion of the stream until, now, that portion is nearly dammed. And I was right! When I walked to school this morning, the stream was burbling along in a wide swathe, something I've never actually seen it do. I was struck by how Romantic it was - probably I was struck by this because I'm a Romanticist - and actually stopped to contemplate. I think that must have subconsciously set the mood for the day, because when we came to discuss Mont Blanc in my poetry class today I was all filled with a sense of the quiet marvellousness of Nature.
Mont Blanc is a hard poem. A haaaard poem. This was my first time teaching it, and it's been a while since I was taught it, so I focused on the only aspect of the poem that seemed absolutely certain to me: Shelley is asking where power dwells, outside or inside the human understanding. And as I thought about this while I was teaching, it seemed to me that by engaging with this question about power, Shelley is also engaging with, perhaps even facing off against, faith. Since the question the poem seems to end with is, "Is there an outside Power that stands apart from human cognition, or does human cognition produce that supposedly outside Power?" it was hard for me not feel that Shelley was indirectly asking about faith: that is, Is there an entity in which we have faith, or does our faith produce an entity that we then have faith in?
In order to explain the central question to my students, I asked them to give some reasons to believe in God and some reasons not to. They gave lots of reasons, but oddly enough none of them said faith, and none of them said Grace. It was left to me, an agnostic in the loosest sense (that is, I pretty much think there isn't a God, but because I can't know, I admit the possibility that there might be), to remind them of the existence of Grace, of the peace that passeth understanding. I said, "You know, the way you can pause and just feel Grace within you?" They looked blank, and I said, "Okay, just hush for a second." And we all fell silent. And I did feel within myself what I meant, which is a kind of blossoming calm that fills me with peace. I said, "Did you feel it?" No, they shook their heads. So I did it again. No, they still shook their heads. And these are deep Southern kids, raised in the Bible belt, most of them raised with faith and a good number of them still churchgoers! And I thought how odd it was that I, a non-believer, should be describing the feeling and experience of Grace to them.
Do other teachers do this in their classrooms, I wonder? Do they remind their students that God comes in the still small voice, even if they don't believe in the still small voice? Do they try to get their students to feel Grace? Do they tell their students what they imagine the soul looks like ("like a one-ply tissue," I said today), and remind them of all the rustling, murmuring legions of people they have shuffling around inside them, and give lectures about syphilis, and use Robert Mitchum as an example of manly man, and tell them that they think a good deal of education is designed to make people feel that concepts are complex and inaccessible when actually they're pretty simple? I don't think of those thoughts, or those activities, as unusual - I mean, surely other people must wonder what the soul looks like, or how your life might be different if you had a different name, or what it was like, REALLY like, to be John Keats, or put their hands inside Byron's corrective inner boots to see if they can experience him and what he felt. But when I tell the students, or sometimes other people, that I do these things, they laugh, or look perturbed or confounded. But I think it must just be that I admit to doing the things that other people do but won't say.
Anyway, Grace. Just be silent for a minute and try to dissolve yourself into that silence through listening. I expect you'll feel it. Because as I said to the kids a few minutes later, it's really only happiness, or calm in the middle of business, and it's just because we don't usually feel those things that we think it's something Divine.
A roving wit, scholar, and raconteuse (and the sort of person who knows the feminine is "raconteuse"). Currently delightedly expatriated, I'm using this blog to record the flotsam and jetsam of my mind and experiences. Let's see how it goes.