Thursday, June 30, 2011


I just had to post this after my somewhat touchy-feely post on home earlier: I went for a run this evening and got lost in my own subdivision. I've lived here for almost fifteen years, but I guess that's not enough to be able to find my way home if I make a wrong turn. The subdivision did its best impression of a medina, with every street seeming to turn onto itself and no indication of a way out of the maze to be found. Given that there are only about four models of home on display in my subdivision landmarks were in short supply. I eventually found my way back to the main road and went straight back to my house, but it was touch and go for a few minutes there. Home: it's where you go to end up lost, I guess.


I'm sitting on a deck in suburban southern Ontario right now. It's warm, but there is a nice breeze blowing that keeps the heat from becoming oppressive. School just finished for elementary school students today, so despite the fact that there are four pools in backyards adjacent to the one I am sitting in, I've yet to hear a single child screaming and splashing around. Things are almost preternaturally quiet and peaceful (especially after living in a city for the past year).

I've been home for about twenty four hours at this point and it's just starting to kick in as I sit here in the sun looking at the trees. As soon as I crossed the border I was anxious to find the signs that would let me know I was home, something beyond a conscious recognition of the sentence "I am in Canada now." I needed to see something or feel something deep down in my bones. This afternoon has provided that, I think, precisely because I've stopped searching and just assumed that I'm home and I will recognize the fact sooner or later. I'm reminded of Barthes' description in Incidents of his home in France:
My second Sud-Ouest is not a region, merely a line, a lived trajectory. Whenever I drive down from Paris (I have made this trip a thousand times) I pass Angoulême, where there is a signal that tells me I have crossed the threshold and am entering the country of my childhood; a pine grove on one side of the road, a palm tree in a courtyard, a certain height of the clouds that gives the terrain the mobility of a face. Then begins the great light of the Sud-Ouest, noble and subtle at the same time; never gray, never low (even when the sun is not shining), it is light-as-space, defined less by the colors it imparts to things (as in the other Midi) than by the eminently habitable quality it communicates to the earth. I find no other way of saying it: it is a luminous light.
When I drive up from Buffalo on the QEW, as I cross the Burlington Skyway and see the Lake, I find myself in a similar landscape. I know the quality of the light here, and I know how to move within it. For a month or so, I'm home. Tomorrow is Canada Day, and I'm delighted to be here to celebrate my country.

Sunday, June 26, 2011


I had some friends visit last week, which should explain my total absence from blogging (and the internet in general). Anyway, I feel the need to put something up here so that it doesn't seem like I've entirely abandoned the blog. To that end, a brief list:
  1. While my friends were here, they convinced me to read Neil Gaimon's American Gods. I'd read the first two Sandman graphic novels and enjoyed them, so it wasn't exactly a hard sell. I'm happy to note that American Gods was wonderful. It reminded me a lot of Douglas Adams' The Long, Dark Tea Time of the Soul, though slightly more serious. What impressed me most about American Gods was its originality and ability to surprise me: I never felt that I knew what would happen next in the novel and the characters (even those with theologically/mythologically pre-determined natures) were unique and memorable.
  2. Also, my friends convinced me to rent and watch Thank You For Smoking while they were here. Again, an excellent call on their part: the movie was fantastic. I don't think I've laughed so much while watching a movie in quite some time. I'm already scheming up ways to show parts of the movie to my class in the Fall.
  3. Inspired by a ridiculous comment by the teacher of the German class I just finished taking ("When you think of the Industrial Revolution, you think of Pittsburgh"*), my friends and I spent the past week making increasingly ridiculous statements as we wandered around the city ("Pittsburgh invented Christopher Columbus;" "Pittsburgh invented America;" "Pittsburgh invented Elephants;" etc., etc.).
  4. I've been unable to get to work on any of the stuff I "need" to be working on--like those papers I said I wanted to get ready to send out--because another idea has popped into my head and won't let me go. Taking the advice I've received from the Object-Oriented Philosophy blog, I've decided to strike while the iron is hot and get to work on this idea. There will be plenty of time to get a rough version of this paper together and to work on those other things. Given that this is the first paper I've ever written without any outside prompting or context (like a class or a conference), I'm really anxious to get some feedback.
  5. Two short books I'm enjoying working my way through right now: Roland Barthes' Writing Degree Zero (although the chapters on "Writing and the Novel" and "Is There Any Poetic Writing?" are something of a slog) and Dick Hebdige's Subculture: The Meaning of Style. The former is helping me re-think some sections of one of the paper's I should be working on and the latter is helping me think through some problems I'm facing in the paper I am working on.
  6. I'm heading home for a month or so this coming week. I'm looking forward to being back in Canada and seeing some friends. I don't know if I'll have the chance or not, but it would also be nice to see my sister and my brother, his wife, and my niece. 
That's all for now. Here's hoping for a more productive July (though I've enjoyed my pretty vacation-esque June).

*For the record, when I think of the Industrial Revolution, I think of English cities like Manchester, Birmingham, and Liverpool.

Monday, June 13, 2011


Re-reading some stuff from Minus the Shooting (I was in the mood to read high quality sports writing today) and browsing the track and field results for this weekend (scintillating in Des Moines for NCAAs; poor due to weather at the NYC Diamond League meet) got me thinking about track and field and my relation to it as a competitor and a spectator. A long-ish post on that might appear at some point, but I had to split off this section on Usain Bolt as it grew unwieldy in the piece as a whole.

One of the themes that the writers of Minus the Shooting spent a great deal of time reflecting upon last summer was the psychological aspect of the World Cup, especially in the case of England's repeated failures and apparent compulsion to fail, but also in some rather brilliant posts on Brazil and their early exit from the tournament. Essentially, Mark Fisher's major point re: Brazil (see here, here, and here; see also Loki's comments here, here, and here; finally, see Digitalben's comments here) was that they'd already won the World Cup in terms of the pre-tournament narratives, and when reality failed to match up to those narratives--when Brazil discovered that they'd not only not already won the World Cup, but that they'd have to play (and beat) teams that did not consider them to have already won the World Cup--Brazil collapsed like, in the words of Eddie Izzard, a flan in a cupboard. Another key insight: England seems to continually berate its team for not being Brazil c.1970, even as the Brazilians are filled with the anxiety of not wanting to be Brazil (and not being Brazil) c.1970. 

Thinking about Usain Bolt, I can't help but wonder if the same thing might happen to him. Since 2008 (and especially following the IAAF's reinvention of itself c.2008/2009 as basically a massive publicity machine for Usain Bolt), the narrative before any race Bolt runs is that he's already won it. There's never any doubt that he will win, and, indeed, the mere suggestion that anyone could really challenge him is presented as laughable. The athletes themselves seemed not to believe it possible. There was already a difference in 2009 from 2008, though. Where Bolt's performance in Beijing was quite simply sublime, a massive vindication of Bolt as a championship performer (what he's touted as today despite a somewhat spotty record in this regard prior to 2008--look back at the commentary surrounding his performance in the World Championship at Osaka in 2007 for evidence of this) and a breathtaking spectacle, his performance in Berlin in 2009 (while superior in terms of his marks) was less thrilling, more mechanistic, the culmination of a narrative that had been written at the start of the year and never deviated from throughout the course of the season. Part of this was the effect of familiarity: while I expected him to win in Beijing based on his season up to that point, I never expected the absolute brilliance of his 100m final (the joy on his face and the audacity of his celebration twenty metres before the finish line is still thrilling to see) or the display of sheer force of will that was his 200m final; in Berlin, though, I expected both his victories and both World Records. Ho hum. I should also that part of the joy of 2008 was the schadenfreude of witnessing po-faced Michael Johnson eating, on camera, his obvious displeasure at Bolt breaking his 200m record after Johnson's declaration earlier in the week that the record was, essentially, unbreakable.

2010 saw yet another development: the narrative of already achieved victory failed to come true. Tyson Gay beat Bolt, and he beat him conclusively. This was not like the narrow loss Bolt had suffered to Asafa Powell, also in Stockholm, prior to the Olympics in 2008. The narrative proved false. Now, there's nothing particularly surprising about the second fastest man in history beating the fast man in history, even with the difference in their personal bests: 0.11 seconds in the 100m and 0.39 seconds in the 200m (both an absolute eternity in sprinting terms). However, this loss was significant enough for Bolt to shut down his season following it, citing injury. I'm not suggesting that Bolt wasn't injured (indeed, if 2011 has told us anything so far, it's that neither Bolt nor Gay will ever be healthy for a full season again. Fairly well-known and respected commentators were already making this claim in 2009. It's simply not feasible for the best guys to stay healthy running at the level they are currently running. Some were estimating the career [not the peak, the entire career] of a world-class sprinter in the “Bolt Age” at 2 years), but I think the injury had psychological and metaphysical elements to go along with its physical symptoms. Bolt was no longer unbeatable (not that he ever really was) and suddenly he had not already won every race he entered (not that he ever had).

Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of this was already apparent before the injury that ended his season: the talk about his freewheeling, party-loving persona was already beginning to fade. Bolt spent less time talking about staying out all night and dancing--though the press continued to do so unabated, even as the events they referred to seemed to recede more and more into the past (there was a distinct sense that Bolt c.2010 was less interesting that Bolt c.2008, so Bolt c.2010 was simply replaced by a constant repetition of Bolt c.2008, his own simulacrum constructed while the “real” Bolt continued to provide reasons for that simulacrum to exist: namely, running [and winning] races)--and more time talking about his discipline, how hard he worked, how many changes he'd made to his lifestyle, how much harder he was training now, etc., etc. In essence, even as his opponents struggled to become more and more like him--had dancing in front of one's blocks ever been as popular as it was in 2009?--Bolt was doing his best to become less like himself. He was starting to resemble, in fact, his greatest opponent, Tyson Gay.

This point was made clearer when Bolt finally reemerged, after not racing for over a year, at the end of May. He had a new hairstyle and a new, more muscular, physique. He still had his famous smile, but he seemed to be doing his best not to be Usain Bolt. After a profile of Gay revealed his discipline and focus--his dedication to track seems almost monastic; certainly, it's a far cry from the wild hedonism of Bolt's amazing 2008--Bolt made an appearance in which he was explicitly compared (with some dismay) to Gay: he was quiet and demure, politely sipping a drink rather than dancing with two in his hand as he'd done before (see here). The point seemed clear: Bolt did not want to be Usain Bolt anymore. He was, perhaps, tired of being Usain Bolt. What seems more likely is that he realized the danger of continually being Usain Bolt. How could he continue to win when the already destroyed narrative continued to be presented as the script he must follow: Usain Bolt must not lose. He must win, and win impressively. What human, and Bolt's favourite line throughout 2011 has been that he “is only human,” could possibly live up to such a narrative? Bolt further underscored this point by noting that, for the first time in his senior career, he felt nervous in anticipation of the race. But nervous of what? Of defeat? He'd been beaten before. Of failing to live up to the impossible demands of the narrative of Usain Bolt? The latter is most likely, in my opinion. How could a defeat, and the implications w/r/t to Usain Bolt the more-than-human athlete, not be a massive psychological setback at this point?

His first race, a 100m showdown against fellow Jamaican and former world record holder Asafa Powell (I'll not pain you with my own agonized and agonizing thoughts on Powell, my favourite athlete, whose sole function in the universe seems to be to deny himself and his fans the victory in a major championship that his talent so clearly deserves), revealed Bolt to be in decidedly average form. He won in 9.91 seconds to Powell's 9.93, in a race that Powell once again gave away in the final metres. At no point in the race did Bolt look like the man he'd been in 2008 (or 2009). An insightful internet commentator pointed out that despite a terrible race, Bolt had won and run a good time (though not good, obviously, when your personal best is 9.58 seconds and you are judged solely according to that number). He went on to note that the real question has become at what point is it reasonable to expect Bolt not to break ten seconds (discounting the early rounds of championships) in the 100m? Bolt's next race was another 9.91, though with less favourable wind. His victory was easier, though still not as impressive as we've come to expect (through continuously being told to expect it) from Bolt. His first 200m in thirteen months was last week. He beat distinctly second-rate competition and ran a world lead, 19.87 seconds (the obvious question now: at what point is it reasonable to expect Bolt not to break twenty seconds in the 200m?).

More importantly, perhaps, is that he seemed to buy into the narrative again: leading up to the race, he sounded more like Bolt c.2009 than 2011. While he continues to preach hard work and a “one step at a time” kind of attitude, he also seemed to not-so-subtly suggest that he could not be beat at 200m in his pre-race comments. With Gay's announcement that he's 90% sure he will not compete in the 200m at the World Championship, Bolt's victory seems to be a near guarantee. It's difficult to imagine that anyone can beat Bolt. Indeed, at this point it seems almost as if the World Championship has already happened and Bolt has already won. Even if he's begun to believe in his own myth again--and his comment after his 200m that he's yet to begin his speed work for the season suggests just that to me, a kind of indirect “come and get me, boys” to the competition--I'm still willing to tip an upset, though. What happens if he sees the ghost of 2008 or 2009 dancing down the track, arms outstretched, seemingly miles of open space between him and the nearest opponent and he finds himself failing to do likewise? What happens if he never regains that mid-race burst (or that vicious bend) that so effectively propelled him to victory in Beijing and Berlin (and his races in Rome and Oslo suggest that he lacks just those things, along with anything resembling a  decent start, right now)? Can Bolt play against the script? Can he succeed when (if) reality asserts itself against the myth of his indomitable self?

Consider the following: Gay ran a world leading time last weekend in the 100m (9.79 seconds--an (in)auspicious time: Maurice Green's world record, but also Ben Johnson's world record in Seoul in 1988), his fastest start to a season ever. In contrast, Bolt is running around the same times he ran in 2009 prior to Berlin in the 100m. It's not hard to imagine that Bolt will round into shape in time for August and win his third major title in the 100m. However, it's equally easy to imagine him failing to do so and losing. In fact, at this point I can't see him winning the 100m. If the dancing and the lightning bolt pose are no longer enough to transform him into a superman, if he is no longer a superman and is struggling against being synonymous with a superman, I'll pick an upset that right now doesn't look very much like an upset to me. Indeed, at this point, I'm convinced that if Bolt doesn't lose in 2011 in Daegu, he'll lose in 2012 in London and (re)experience the ignominy (for him) of the minor medals. Now, to state the obvious: Bolt doesn't need to worry about anything other than one week in South Korea this August. He's the only man in the 100m or 200m fields who can say this. Given Bolt's success in 2008 and 2009, and the success of his training partners during the same time period, it's safe to say that his coach, Glen Mills, knows a thing or two about having his athletes ready to go when it matters most. I wonder, though: can Bolt win not being Usain Bolt? Can he find a way to run the race he's in and not the race the ghost of his past success is running? Are the two really distinguishable, for Bolt and for us?

Sunday, June 12, 2011


I've spent a good deal of time during the past few weeks reading the advice posts over at Graham Harman's blog Object-Oriented Philosophy.They are, I think, incredibly helpful, both in terms of offering useful and immediately applicable practical advice about writing, professionalization, publishing, etc., etc. and in terms of keeping up one's morale, finding happiness in one's work, and avoiding the soul-crushing despair of life as a graduate student. Also, it's just nice to read someone who is knowledgeable about writing discuss how to get better at writing: how to write more effectively, how to write with greater speed, how to remove barriers to writing.

I find the constant encouragement Harman offers to simply do work--and to do it as often as possible--a wonderful spur to productivity. However, what I find most useful are his posts on publishing and the ins and outs of academic writing (minus some of the points focused specifically on the discipline of philosophy). I will be the first to admit I know nothing about publishing. In my MA program, the general approach to the issue was don't think about it, don't worry about, and don't try it (this might have been different from the advice given to the MFA students with whom I shared office space and classes. They seemed to be forever in fear of not sending things out for publication often enough). Even as I made my transition into a PhD program, the advice I left my MA program with was "don't even think of publishing anything before you finish coursework." My advisers suggested I focus on conferences and leave publishing to the advanced stages of my PhD (there was a practical consideration here; as one professor put it, a bad article will never go away, but no one knows about a bad conference paper after you give it).

So there I was, happily entering a PhD program with no worries about having nothing on the horizon in terms of publishing. I hoped to get into a few conferences, but I was generally focused on doing well in my coursework. Of course, once I started the program, I discovered something quite different: everyone was obsessed with publishing and having things ready to send out. Several people I met already had publications (and had not followed the no-publications-during-coursework guideline I'd received); others had things under review or were preparing things to be sent out. I was a little bit confused and a lot scared. What was I to do?

Full disclosure as to the extent of my naivety re: the professional aspects of my discipline: I didn't (still don't exactly, to be honest) even know how to send something to a journal. I didn't know how to find a journal to send something to. I didn't know you had to wait for a decision while your article was under review (I assumed you sent it in, someone read it, and you heard a “yay” or “nay” pretty soon after). Now it can be a painful, embarrassing, and quite scary experience to ask a professor you've just met (and whose approval you desperately want to receive considering your own painful self-doubt re: your abilities, the reasons you were accepted into the program, your relative merits w/r/t those of the other students in the program, etc., etc.) about those kinds of things. Mostly, I didn't ask those kinds of questions. Some answers I managed to pick up by piecing together various remarks from colleagues. Some answers I managed to guess by doing a bit of research. The vast majority of my questions are still unanswered, though, and it's difficult to make myself as vulnerable as I know I will feel when I ask those questions to a professor, so I don't ask them. I remain ignorant of these things (not a good policy, clearly). The advice posts at Object-Oriented Philosophy are answering some of those questions, and the answers are written in such a sympathetic (though not condescending or patronizing) style, even when they are dealing with the harsh realities of life in the academic world, that I'm beginning to feel a little better about things.

Anyway, my reading of these posts is quite timely: one of the posts mentions that presenting a paper at a conference and then not at least attempting to transform that paper into a publishable article is a waste of one's mental energies. Considering I've not looked at the last paper I presented since I read it, I guess it's time to dig that out and take a look at it. I'm actually fairly confident that I can turn it into a decent essay in a relatively short amount of time. I have no idea if anything will come of working on this paper, but I have to think that it would be better than leaving it rotting on my hard drive. Besides, if I don't try and do something with it (and, at this point, I've been working on this paper on and off for over a year), what am I left with? Certainly no prospects for scholarly success. It would be nice to go from zero to two pieces of work to send out in one leap. After all, as the advice posts I've been reading keep saying, going from nothing to something is the hardest step.

Well, it looks like I've just talked myself into another project this summer. My father has asked me to pressure wash and stain the deck he's just finished building when I get home, so I will presumably (after some physical labour) have a nice place to sit and work for a month or so. I've also got some concrete goals to work towards and I look forward to a productive (but enjoyably so, productive on my own terms) summer vacation before school and teaching start up again in August.

*I was introduced to this subject this year in Louisville at a presentation I'd decided to attend on a whim. I don't pretened to understand the real heavy-duty philosophy that Harman (and others in the loose constellation of philosophers working on similar themes and issues), but this is a nice example of how chance encounters can sometimes lead to the most productive new areas of information (a point Harman himself makes over and over again in the advice posts).

Friday, June 10, 2011


I watched The Hangover the other night with a friend. She had mentioned seeing the sequel with her family over the weekend and I (somewhat shamefacedly) admitted never having seen (or even really heard of) the original. My one sentence review: it is a better Very Bad Things (though that is not much of an accomplishment), and it pales next to both Wedding Crashers and Superbad in the boys-behaving-badly category of movies.

The strangest thing about The Hangover (and what really sank it for me) was how dated it felt. The jokes in the film (gags about Ecstasy, date rape drugs, and “crazy” Mike Tyson were the worst offenders) seemed as if they could have featured in a move produced at any point during the past fifteen years. In some cases--like the two jokes cited above--I actually think that the movie would have been much funnier five or ten years ago. As I watched, I kept experiencing this strange sense of laughing not because a joke struck me as particularly funny, but because I recognized that at one point it had been both topical and funny, and therefore I had an obligation to laugh in recognition of that fact rather than out of any actual humour being generated.

The plot also felt dated, particularly in the way the characters went about reconstructing the previous evening. Cell phones were virtually non-existent in the film and social networking is entirely absent. While all the usual clues help the characters solve the mystery (hospital bracelets, ATM receipts, photo albums), I couldn't help thinking that in 2009 when the film came out, I would assume that cell phones and social networking services (i.e. Facebook and Twitter) would be a much more likely source of information re: one's debauched night in Las Vegas.* In that sense, little about the film struck me as contemporary. I did not see my moment reflected back at me by the film; what I saw were previous films about partying in Las Vegas set in my historical moment. Minus the few cell phone calls that are made in the course of the movie (and the digital camera at the end), The Hangover  could have come out not long after Swingers (another movie whose charms The Hangover fails to match).

Overall, I can't say that I disliked the film, but I will say that it left me extremely puzzled and nonplussed. I doubt I will see the sequel (I cannot understand the logic behind its existence other than “the first movie made money, so . . .” and I don't think that's enough to get me to a theatre).

*A better (read: more interesting) plot for this kind of movie: characters attempt to use Facebook/Twitter to research activities of night before, but run up against never-ending maze of links/etc. in attempt to access information OR service is unavailable/over capacity at key moments, paralyzing their reconstructive efforts (star of film: the Twitter whale).

Sunday, June 5, 2011


 I've been working on and off on this for a few weeks. I had fun writing the first scene and I wanted to continue writing (I have no pretensions as a creative writer, but it is nice to indulge those creative impulses every now and then). I realized, though, that the first scene was far too “jokey”--not to mention that the joke was very much one-note and basically beaten into the ground by the end of the scene--so I set about making the rest a little more serious. Anyway, enough hemming and hawing about my “writing process” (I say that like I have one . . .). Here we go:
Scene II

ROOMMATE: Oh, sweet. [Looks past P.E.R.] So you . . . you, uh, went to the store? I don't see any bags or anything.
P.E.R.: [Not listening] Yeah, I went to the store. And I ran into Jesus outside.
ROOMMATE: OK, that's cool. So is there stuff in the car? Do I need to go outside and help you bring it in?
P.E.R.: No, dude. Don't you understand? I saw Jesus outside the store. He was just hanging out there like it was no big thing!
ROOMMATE: [Nodding] I do understand that. I do. But I don't see why seeing Jesus outside the store and getting stuff at the store are mutually exclusive things. They seem sort of like very related activities to me.
P.E.R.: But he was just standing out there. I mean, I went to . . .
ROOMMATE: Because, like, I've been really craving doritos while you've been out, and I told you before you left if you were going out to the store to get me something. So I just don't see why you would come home from the store and not have anything at all to show for it. Kind of doesn't make sense why you'd go out in that case.
P.E.R.: [Waves ROOMMATE quiet] Shut up and listen. Jesus was there and I talked to him. I asked him all about the Rapture thing and how come he didn't show up and was he still planning on taking people up to heaven and all that. And he said no and that he wasn't really into the Rapture but just said he was to be polite to me.
ROOMMATE: [Sits down] OK, yeah, so? I dig that, I mean, it makes sense, sort of.
P.E.R.: [Walks over to where ROOMMATE is sitting] No it doesn't! No it doesn't make sense at all. He just made me look like a huge asshole in front of everyone!
ROOMMATE: Yeah, but look at it from his perspective. I mean, you can be sort of really intense when you're into stuff, right?
P.E.R.: [Shakes head] What are you talking about? What does that have to do with . . .
ROOMMATE: [Holds up hand to silence P.E.R.] Just listen for a sec. So, you can be super intense about stuff. And Jesus, like, he seems like a pretty cool bro. So, I figure that he didn't want to make it a big thing when you said you were into all this Rapture stuff and kind of just went along with it. But then you started making an even bigger deal of it than usual. Like, you called all those newspapers to tell them about it and stuff. I've gotta be honest, it was sort of weird, man.
P.E.R.: [Angrily] How was I being weird? The guy's dad is in charge of the universe, right? He says he can Rapture people. I say that sounds like a good idea, how soon can he do it? He says anytime he wants and I say how about next weekend and he says yeah. I mean, that's a big deal right. [Waves hands around] THE RAPTURE? THE END OF THE WORLD? That's not so weird that I'd be kind of interested if the guy who can make it happen says “Oh yeah, how about we do that next weekend?”
ROOMMATE: No, I get you, man. I do. I see what you're saying and all, but, like, you kind of pressured him into saying it.
P.E.R.: No I didn't, he . . .
ROOMMATE: Hear me out here. It was kind of just a thing he was saying. But then you put him on the spot about it and he felt like he had to like show he could, or something
P.E.R.: He's omnipotent! He didn't have to prove anything. I knew he could do it!
ROOMMATE: Yeah, but the way you put him on the spot it made him, like, feel like he had to. Do you see what I mean?
P.E.R.: [Shaking his head with disbelief] But if he didn't want to do it, why did he make plans with me for this weekend?
ROOMMATE: I don't know. He's a chill guy, maybe he just didn't want to upset you? Maybe he was too embarrassed to say that he already had something going on. You were really into the idea, man.
P.E.R.: I wasn't “really into it.” I just thought it seemed like a good idea. Like it would be kind of cool, you know?
ROOMMATE: So, your idea of thinking something is a “good idea” and “kind of cool” is to write in to newspapers and go on national television to talk about it?
P.E.R.: Uh . . .
ROOMMATE: Like, I'm not trying to be critical here. I'm just calling it the way I see it. You came off as kind of weird and creepy about all this, dude.
P.E.R.: So, great. Now, on top of being a stupid asshole who was wrong, I'm weird and creepy.
ROOMMATE: [Smiles] Nah, it's all good. You're a decent guy, you're just really intense about the stuff you're into sometimes.
P.E.R.: And that's probably why Jesus said he was having people over tonight. Because he wanted to let me know I was being weird and creepy about this and normal people just have relaxing Saturday nights.
ROOMMATE: [Looks up at P.E.R.] Wait, he said he was having people over? That's kind of cold. But that probably explains it all. He must have just got the days mixed up. Maybe he thought the Rapture was tomorrow or next week or something?
P.E.R.: How do you mix up the dates on the END OF THE WORLD?!
ROOMMATE: To be honest, man, I kind of forgot it was supposed to be today, too. I mean, I know you'd been talking about it a lot lately, but I just sort of tuned it out, I guess.
P.E.R.: I left a note on the refrigerator! [Walks over and points to note]
ROOMMATE: Yeah, and I thought that was strange. I guess it seemed like some passive-aggressive thing about the electric bill or something. Like stop watching TV so much or something. I don't know.
P.E.R.: [Points to note again] It says “REPENT. THE END IS NIGH.” in big block letters!
ROOMMATE: So you see what I mean? That's ambiguous, right?
P.E.R.: How is that ambiguous? It's a general command! Everyone is supposed to repent when the Rapture is coming!
ROOMMATE: Yeah, see, that's what I mean. That's, like, the whole passive-aggressive part. You're trying to boss me around, but you're being kind of sneaky about it.
P.E.R.: [Under his breath] Idiot. [Out loud] Anyway, what am I supposed to do now? Jesus made me look like an asshole.
ROOMMATE: Whatever, man. I'm telling you, it's not like anyone cared or remembered about this thing other than you.
P.E.R.: [Desperately] People cared! They remembered! I was in the newspapers! I went on television!
ROOMMATE: [Smiles and chuckles] Heh, right. Yeah, you're pretty much screwed. You probably look like a crazy bastard.
P.E.R.: You're not helping right now.
ROOMMATE: Well, whatever. Look on the bright side. Uh, you're famous now?
P.E.R.: Famous for being the crazy guy who said the world was going to end and then it didn't.
ROOMMATE: Hey, it worked for Nostradamus. I mean, the Weekly World News used to print his stuff all the time, and no one made fun of him.
P.E.R.: Nostradamus lived in the sixteenth century. He wasn't alive when all his predictions failed to come true. Also, the Weekly World News wasn't a real newspaper. It was a tabloid printed for entertainment. Plus, tons of people make fun of him all the time.
ROOMMATE: Oh, I guess that explains why they kept printing him. Like that weather guy on the radio. I can't figure out how he keeps his job because he always gets the weather wrong and he said this weekend was going to be rainy, so I stayed in, but it's been sunny all day, so I don't know.
P.E.R.: [Holds up his hand to silence ROOMMATE] Did you ever actually look at the Nostradamus articles in the Weekly World News?
ROOMMATE: To be honest, I never read the articles, I just saw them in the checkout lines. But they usually put them next to, like, some magazine with a picture of some bangin' chick on the cover or something, and I'd get distracted.
P.E.R.: I never would have guessed.
ROOMMATE: C'mon, man. Don't be like that. Anyway, I'm starving and since you didn't bring back anything from the store, I need to get food. You wanna come? I think I'm going to hit up Denny's or something.
P.E.R.: No thanks. I'm just going to sit here and think about what a colossal idiot I look like to the rest of the world.
ROOMMATE: OK . . . well, don't wait up, I guess. See ya.
P.E.R.: Yeah, see ya.
P.E.R.: [Shakes head] Man, I can't believe he said I get too into stuff. I don't get too into stuff. I wasn't being creepy and weird. It was the END OF THE WORLD. I'm not crazy, right? That's a legitimately big deal. Like, anyone would be kind of excited about it, right? [Sighs] Whatever. No Rapture, and now I'm stuck by myself on a Saturday night again.
[Exit P.E.R.]

Thursday, June 2, 2011


I volunteered for an event being held on campus today and, as I had been warned it might be quite dull, I took a book with me, Jorge Luis Borges' Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings. I find reading Borges to be a lot like working out after a period of not doing so: it takes time to limber up and for the first few pages or stories, like the first few minutes of a run, I struggle to find the rhythm that I'm used to. After awhile, though, I'm able to find my rhythm and start moving pretty solidly through the pages (usually just in time for Borges to turn my mind inside out). After the usual period of struggle today, I found myself enjoying the bizarre worlds Borges conjures up seemingly out of the leftover scraps of other stories. I spent most of the day reading through the book, when I wasn't directing high school and elementary school students to the classroom they needed to find.

One passage in “The Circular Ruins” made me sit up and take notice, and I haven't been able to get it out of my mind since. During the lunch break, I'd sat with a friend and some visiting high school teachers as we ate the pretty terrible pizza that was on offer. The high school teachers asked us about our own teaching and wondered if we might be able to recommend some books, stories, or poems that we wish all high school students had read before they entered out class and to suggest the most important writing skills students could bring with them to university. Needless to say, this was a fun discussion. What made it so pleasant was that the high school teachers treated my friend and I like real teachers. We were not just grad students teaching the classes that tenured faculty couldn't be bothered with, nor were we some kind of bumbling apprentice who would someday figure this teaching thing out. The high school teachers we sat with regarded my friend and I as peers and colleagues, people who could share knowledge about the business of teaching and who had expertise to impart w/r/t to the classroom and the curriculum. After returning to my post and picking up Borges, I came across a description of teaching that damn near nails what I think is so magical about the encounters you can have in the classroom:

The stranger dreamt that he was in the center of a circular amphitheater which in some way was the burned temple: clouds of silent students filled the gradins, the faces of the last ones hung many centuries away and at a cosmic height, but were entirely clear and precise. The man was lecturing to them on anatomy, cosmography, magic; the countenances listened with eagerness and strove to respond with understanding, as if they divined the importance of the examination which would redeem one of them from his state of vain appearance and interpolate him into the world of reality. The man, both in dreams and awake, considered his phantoms' replies, was not deceived by impostors, divined a growing intelligence in certain perplexities. He sought a soul which would merit participation in the universe.
Cosmography and magic (and any number of other subjects) are all part of what comes out of a literature class at its best, I think. I know there are classes that I've taken where I've come home so charged with ideas, so full of newness, so disturbed, that it's been impossible to stop thinking and has taken me hours to settle down enough to do any work or to go to sleep. In the proper setting, new worlds are birthed, new horizons of understanding glimpsed, new perspectives found, new arguments raised, and new questions asked. This event is one of the reasons I find teaching freshmen to be exhilarating: that moment when suddenly nothing is the same for them anymore, when they've come further than they ever have before and cannot help but think new thoughts and entertain new opinions. It doesn't happen with every student, unfortunately, but I see it happen with enough of them to keep me engaged and interested. I want to help them find those souls that merit participation in a universe that is more difficult to live in than the one they live in now because I think life in that universe is richer than the one they live in now and they deserve to live in a richer universe (provided they work to get there).

At the same time, though, I understand why many of them get frustrated and choose not to head for this new universe. Everything is more complex there: no one will make their decisions for them anymore, no one will tell them how to think or what opinion to hold. Even the things they thought they knew how to do become defamiliarized. Reading can make things more confusing; writing can lead to mazes of uncertainties and doubts. Of course, there are positives to go along with this: reading can open whole new areas of existence and writing can offer the thrill of working right at the very limit of one's knowledge. I know it's those two sensations I'm always looking for and trying to introduce my students to. I love that sense that every word I put down is a step into darkness, into a place I've never been and that I'm creating as I write, or that every page I turn somehow makes the world, brighter, louder, more vibrant, more complex, more ambiguous, and more mysterious.

I felt something was missing from my teaching over the last half of this past semester. Somehow, I tried too hard or pushed in the wrong directions or something, but the experience was less “cosmic” and more tedious, I think. The promise of the circular amphitheater in which the stranger lectures was just not there. Borges' character ultimately abandons his dream of the classroom. However, I'm not ready to abandon the parts of his dream that I share just yet. He considers it a failure, a hallucination that will fail to bring about a new soul he can bring into existence. I don't know that I disagree entirely; I do think, though, that it helps to create the dreams that can do it, if nothing else. It's been nice this past month to have a break from teaching, but I'm starting to get excited again for fall and to return to the classroom. I'll be teaching at 8:00 am on MWF, so I will be the first teacher my students have in their university careers. This is the first time I've had this opportunity, and I can't wait. Maybe I'll read them that Borges passage on the first day and tell them how much we have to look forward to together.