Wednesday, November 26, 2003

I Knew a Professor...

...who finally had enough of her lackluster, lackadaisical, generally suh-lacking students. One sunny day, the course readings were all about the horrors of lynching. The whiny students said, "It's such a nice day. Can't we have class outside? Let's have our discussion under that tree."

The professor, seeing her students had no ability to detect irony, said, "Sure!" She walked out of the classroom. She walked right by the tree. She walked directly off campus and all the way home.

How many students called out to the professor in confusion and protest? How many were confounded by her speed and her sudden deafness? And for how many blocks did the most dedicated among them try to follow her?

The professor strode up the stairs to her apartment. She didn't stop to collect her mail. She didn't even pause to pet Zooey, the hallway cat, on her way to the third-floor.

She snapped on the light, then snapped it off again. For once, the small, corner windows were enough to illuminate her dim space. She slid down the wall and sat, in pensive sprawl, on the floor by the doorway. She watched the windows until they turned black.

Monday, November 24, 2003

"Too Nice a Guy for this Business"

He was a gentleman, a gentle man. He wanted the world to be good and fair. He fought like heck for two more years in which to make it so.

Ron Clark, Pioneer Press editorial page editor, died on Sunday. Rest in peace, Ron. While I'm sad that you have left us, I know that you are in a better place, free of pain. I will remember you.

Sunday, November 23, 2003

Advice, Simple and Free

"'Tis a gift to be simple; 'tis a gift to be free." So goes the old Shaker hymn, which started ringing in my sleep-addled brain as I perused another's blog this morning. I've learned to pay attention to sticky tunes. They crop up mysteriously, but always for a reason.

SovereignRabble is correct when he says that not everyone is a good writer. But I have to disagree sharply with his assessment of what a good writer is, and how to become one.

How did David Sedaris get to be David Sedaris? For starters, he met Ira Glass. But getting a break doesn’t belie his talent, which I’ll wager he honed by writing every day. Peruse his material (or Jerry Seinfeld’s, for that matter) and notice how adroitly he gleans both humor and insight from everyday happenings. (Or, in SR’s less flattering terms, how he “attach[es] grandiose value to near meaningless observations or meaningless ruminations.")

‘Tis a gift to be simple… or a writer of clear, concise prose. ‘Tis a gift to be free…and, whatever his wobbly aesthetic, SovereignRabble is free to hold whatever misguided opinions he likes.

Good writing relies on so much more than good grammar. But since SR worries in another post about pronouns, I feel obliged to point out the error in “You are not him.” (Which makes me think of whimpering Moultrie from The Left-Handed Gun, but that’s another story.) The correct phrase is “You are not he.” You use the subject pronoun “he” because it is the predicate nominative of the subject, “you.” You are not he. See? Nor am I he. But shouldn’t we strive to be more than…wee?

Saturday, November 22, 2003


Short stories are my weakness. But it’s the artful, non-fiction essay that can really leave me in a contemplative puddle. Several weeks ago, I read one such essay called "The Love of My Life." The title is deliberately misleading, because it's not a story about the author Cheryl Strayed’s romantic love. The “Love” of the title refers to her mother, whom she lost to cancer. I was especially taken by the essay because, yes, it is brave and utterly lacking in cliché. But I also was moved by it because so much of it takes place in Minneapolis. (And Strayed wrote the story while finishing her MFA at Syracuse.)

Strayed describes how her mother's death left her wretchedly heartbroken, so much so that she rages at the conventional wisdom that she must mourn, heal, and get over it. Those who see a logic to the “stages of grief” have never truly known any, she says. Many people’s deaths leave us feeling sad, certainly, but only a rare few leave us trapped in the death-in-life feeling that, in Strayed's blunt assessment, means “I cannot continue to live."

Excerpt from "The Love of My Life":
"We love and care for oodles of people, but only a few of them, if they died, would make us believe we could not continue to live. Imagine if there was a boat upon which you could put only four people, and everyone else known to and beloved by you would then cease to exist. Who would you put on the boat? It would be painful, but how quickly you would decide: You and you and you and you, get in. The rest of you, goodbye.

"For years, I was haunted by the idea of this imaginary boat of life, by the desire to exchange my mother's fate for one of the many living people I knew. I would be sitting across the table from a dear friend. I loved her, him, each one of these people. Some I said I loved like family. But I would look at them and think, Why couldn't it have been you who died instead? You, goodbye."

I tried out the idea of the lifeboat on my husband, who responded characteristically to such a cruel game: “I refuse the question,” he said. And who could blame him? But I have a suspicion that Strayed might be on to something. It would be painful, how quickly we would decide: “You and you and you and you…”

Leave death and shattering loss aside for a moment and turn to a lesser tragedy: when far-away friends are in trouble or troubled of mind. In talking on the phone with my friend Kate this morning, my clumsy navigation of the conversational waters may have plunged her into a fog of hopelessness. So I leaned into the wind and tried desperately to drag her back. A lifebuoy: a sudden silliness, and a question about Thanksgiving pies. Kate half-heartedly offered up some tips on pecans and maple syrup, but the conversation continued to sink. Still, I think she may have recognized the effort. “Joyce wants you to know that we saw a contest for a 'cruise for twelve,'” she said, right before hanging up. “If you win the contest, you get to bring twelve friends along on the boat. And you are definitely in our twelve.”

A moment later, Kate admitted that neither she nor Joyce had ever gotten around to submitting the contest entry. Still, it was nice to be included on this roomier version of the lifeboat. And, bonus—as this boat sails, no one left on the dock need evaporate. We'll hit the water trailing steel drum rhythms and the blissed-out certainty that we are together and fully present to each other now. The end is coming. But have a drink, a dance because we're not over yet.

Friday, November 21, 2003


In the romance languages and British English, “to reduce” means to diet. While cooking, one can “reduce” or boil down a liquid to thicken it and concentrate its flavor. One can also “reduce” a fraction to its simplest, indivisible form.

“Reducing” conjures shrinkage, diminishment. Today we speak of reducing stress, taxes, or the price of gasoline. But the word reduce comes from the Latin roots RE + DUCERE (to lead or bring) and it originally meant “to bring back, restore, or replace” – or so says the Oxford English Dictionary.

This morning, I strained and squinted at three columns of the OED’s reduced font, which told the story of "reduce" and its recently reduced circumstances. From oldest to newest definitions, the arc of meaning went something like this:

"to bring back, recall… to carry back in time…to lead or bring back from error…to redress or repair a wrong…to bring into another language (to translate)…to set down or record in writing…to change (a quantity or figure) into a different form…to convert into a different physical state or form (to crush into powder)…to convert into metal, to smelt…to decompose; to convert into a simpler compound, into constituent elements…to resolve by analysis…to bring to order or obedience…to subdue or conquer…to reclaim or domesticate (animals)…to overcome, subdue, repress, moderate…to bring down to a bad or disagreeable condition…to weaken physically; to diminish the strength or spirit…to be compelled by want to do something (in passive, with infinitive)"

I’ll stop with that last one. If life feels reduced, then maybe one could also claim that, per the original meaning of that word, life is being brought back or restored. Being weakened or conquered is no good, but three cheers for the reduction through which a persistent, digging want compels one to do something. Although—no disrespect to the OED—I'd skip passive construction with the infinitive in favor of active construction with the imperative.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003


Tonight I asked my husband if he would ever have an affair with one of his graduate students. He told me NO, the answer I obviously sought. “No” would have been enough. “No” would have put “affair” in the same category as, say, his relation to khaki pants. No to khakis. No to ever having an affair. No story to be had here. No big deal. When rendered in a tone that is neither wary nor defensive, a simple “no” answer says, “I never think about this subject, mostly because it doesn’t interest me. It just isn’t my style and never will be.”

But Adam is professor of English. And, Strunk & White be damned, the one thing English teachers can’t abide is a pithy answer. Falling from their own lips, anyway.

He couldn’t stop at “no.” He had to offer a ponderous, 20-minute explanation as to WHY he would never stray. Granted, I tend to be a cynic, and so the assertions about being “totally fulfilled and happy” with his home life made less of a dent than did the reasoning that an “intellectual companion is not the same as a life companion.” (Hmmm?) He doesn’t mind that we argue, or that I come to him with “daily and mundane” things. After all, he said, having someone fawn over his ideas would be so very boring. And to take up with one's graduate student is such a cliché.

The cliché part is true. And here’s another: Sometimes I wonder if he isn’t so very “totally fulfilled and happy” with his home life because he has someone to orchestrate those “daily and mundane” aspects of life that never were his forte. Adam spent three hours this afternoon having coffee with a fellow prof and “intellectual companion” whom I’ll call Crystal (because that’s her name). I spent those same three hours grocery shopping and picking out table linens for next week’s Thanksgiving with my in-laws.

Adam’s too smart not to know when he needs to polish some apples. When the balance of the dish-washing, bill-paying, thankyou-note-writing, quotidian tasks of life gets too obviously lop-sided, he can be counted on for self-deprecating jokes and cajoling kisses.

I imagine us, forty, fifty Novembers hence. I see beloved brown eyes beneath altered hairline, in altered face. I feel us embracing, softer-bodied, slower and sadder of flesh. Melancholy joy. What is it that makes that future certain?

He’s no slacker, this guy; he’s just deeply in love with his writing and his books. And, I suppose, deeply in love with me.

Funny how a simple No could have made clearer the Yes.

Sunday, November 16, 2003

Fun for a girl or a boy

My childhood bedroom. The shaggy pink-and-red-yarn rug, like the pelt of a muppet. My odd "pretend pet" phase. I kept a cotton ball in a container full of water. The cotton ball gobbled salt, right from the shaker. Occasionally, I would lift the cotton ball out of the water and let it slide from one palm to another as if it were a slimy white fish.

Then there was the pet slinky. With a set of tweezers, I fed it staples (slinky nutrients, the basic building blocks of slinky life!). The slinky joined the circus. A traditional circus with three rings, three orange bangle-bracelets. The slinky had fans. Rows and rows of glass marbles set up like spectators on the small, inverted drawers of my wooden jewelry box.

We had a real cat named Jack. He was much loved, and much traumatized. He was all-over-grey. And he was slinky. Why then the hallucinations over wet cotton and toys?

Thursday, November 13, 2003

A pleasure to dish

A couple of years ago, I bought myself a set of brown dinner plates. They weren't the greatest quality, but I became very fond of them. They represented a rare, graduate-school-era gift to myself. They also represented a new life, a better life post-Doug. These are the dishes that I shared with Sarah and, later, with Benedict.

Two of these dishes broke back in MN. Another had a deep crack in it, and I kept expecting it to split any day. But, no. It hung in there for over a year.

Yesterday afternoon, I decided I couldn't wait any longer for that dish to break. So I walked it out the back door and calmly smashed it on the driveway. It was cheap stoneware -- more like pottery than glass -- so it shattered and scattered with a crash so pleasing that I immediately wanted to hear it again.

I returned to the kitchen, picked up two more of the brown plates, and took them outside to meet the same fate as the first. (crash!) (crash!)

One more trip inside. (crash!) (shatter!) (crash!) A private finale. It was with something like grace that I hurled the last three plates to the pavement in quick succession.

I don't know why I did it, but I felt better afterwards. I felt as if I'd finally said something out loud -- if only to myself. And so it was with a sense of satisfaction rather than shame that I carefully swept up all the many brown chards and threw them in the garbage.

Adam then came back to the kitchen to ask what we were going to make for dinner. I told him that, whatever it was, we wouldn't be eating it on a brown plate. He looked surprised. "Oh, did that cracked plate finally bite the dust?"

I told him that, in fact, all the plates had "bit it." He took the news very well.

A better person might have given those plates to someone who needed them. We didn't need them, although we used them a lot. We have left now the formal china plates that were a wedding present. We have Adam's small collection of all-white plates. And we have his truly hideous set of seizure-inducing, burnt-orange plates, which he picked up at somebody's garage sale. (It didn't even occur to me to smash those, as they were never "mine" and because I've too often complained about how ugly they are.)

I think I smashed the brown plates because they represent a place that I miss. And, more to the point, that cracked plate represented a change that just wouldn't come.

Sometimes you have to make a change happen for yourself.