You’ve Read This Post Before


The Glossary, a Los Angeles-based audiovisual marketing firm, has reinvented David Foster Wallace as a motivational speaker. This “fine purveyor of STIMULATING VIDEOGRAMS” edited the best soundbytes from Wallace’s graduation speech at Kenyon College, “This Is Water,” and then dressed it up with video, trendy animated scribbles, and sprightly background music.

The Glossary included the lines from the speech that haunted Wallace’s readers after he hanged himself:

Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

Returned to its original context as part of an exhortation to graduates to work towards mastery of their own perceptions – considering, for instance, that the overweight woman losing her temper in a checkout line might have spent the night with a dying husband and was not, in fact, just put on earth to annoy everyone in line behind her – the passage serves as a sort of radical motivation in which reimagination is the only way to keep oneself alive. Some critics, including Leslie Jamison, in his review of a Wallace biography, have rewritten Wallace’s suicide as a piece of postmodern performance art, with the “terrible master” passage a snippet of autobiography concealed by being waved in front of a crowd.

The less esoteric version has Wallace suffering from lifelong depression, forced to go off his medication because of severe side effects, and then, after falling into an even more severe depression and restarting the poison pills, discovering that they were no longer effective for him. Apparently, even if you are a genius, you still also have to be a person and a body with an uncooperative brain. Irreconcilable differences are bound to occur.

What surprises me about The Glossary video that has gone viral this week is that people find Wallace’s views so inspiring and revolutionary. In essence, he argues that most people ricochet back to the same mental point of origin, the panoramas that are so familiar we have stopped seeing them; but by prodding ourselves to consider other versions of what looks like reality, we are free to become better masters of our minds. He also acknowledges that getting outside ourselves is difficult, exhausting work, and he admits that sometimes he himself is too tired to engage in it.

To me, this celebration of possibilities is as good a definition of creativity as I’ve ever come across – something like mental Cubism, in which all realities can be embodied at the same time. But it also makes perfect sense to me that Wallace’s call to reinvent and reenvision, and the massive effort it takes to do so, would come from someone who was suicidal enough of his life for a bullet in the brain to become a metaphor. With depression as the random point in space from which you view the world, death is always right in front of you, blocking your view. To survive, you have to imagine a different frame, in which the option of suicide is somewhere far in the distance, behind a closed door, somewhere you might visit sometime when you don’t have so many other things to do. Once you know where the door is located, though, it is impossible to forget it exists or how to open it.

In a speech at the 2011 National Book Festival, Toni Morrison briefly discussed her dissertation, which compared William Faulkner’s and Virginia Woolf’s conceptions of suicide. Faulker viewed suicide as the ultimate defeat, Morrison explained, while Woolf saw it as a reasonable choice, in her case a rational alternative to putting herself and her husband through another period of psychosis. I tend toward Woolf’s view, and, I would guess, so did Wallace. Wallace’s “This Is Water” speech offers instructions for making other choices.

However, it is a more than a little paradoxical that the speech has been appropriated by a marketing firm. As a former (mostly mediocre) ad writer, I’m in a position to know that the whole objective is to create materials that act as magnets, pulling thoughts in the intended direction without infringing on viewers’ certainty of their own free will. Within a few days, the video had attracted 2.7 million views, dwarfing the popularity of previous projects (and, incidentally, using audio of Wallace’s Kenyon speech without permissions). In an Adweek interview, the creators claim, disingenuously in my opinion, “Our main goal was to expose people to the content of the speech.” Later in the interview, though, the creators concede, “…as a tiny company in an industry filled with so much talent and competition, it’s extremely difficult to get your work noticed…so we’d welcome anyone who enjoyed ‘This Is Water’ to get in touch with us.”

I’m reminded of the perennially puzzling sentences, “This statement is untrue” and “Question authority.” Wallace’s legacy will almost certainly transcend this little ripple in the information ecosystem, but I’m also fairly sure its undertow is meant to pull us down into the water.

Rubbernecking

from the Boston Globe

from the Boston Globe

It is fashionable to express contempt for those who drive past an accident and slow down to look. According to the critics, rubbernecking signifies a prurient interest in the misfortunes of others, a fundamental and irresistible inhumanity automatically triggered by the prospect of blood, gore, and emotional wreckage. The same principle applies to other varieties of voyeurism activated by celebrity meltdowns, tell-all memoirs, sexual indiscretions, mass tragedies, noble sacrifices, and spectacular acts of strength and courage. If we were a better species, not so prone to viewing destruction and exposure as entertainment, so the story goes, our curiosity would not be so much on display.

Personally, I’m not convinced that our human interest in calamity (and calamity barely averted) stems from something sordid that sprouts from the brickwork of civilization. In a work of literature, captivation begins where good luck runs out, and we attribute the burning compulsion to turn the page to curiosity or a search for meaning rather than bad character. When disaster hits bricks-and-mortar reality, though, the same impulse seems outré. If the medium is the message, then Twitter, facebook, Reddit, and the blogosphere seem to lead us towards the worst of both fiction and reality, where facts and meaning are equally elusive.

Yes, I am talking about the Boston Marathon bombings.

When I see a car accident, I always, always look. I am not ashamed of looking. I want to know two things: Is it someone I know? and Are the victims okay? I do not seek the frisson of adrenaline rush that comes from contorted metal or imagining something worse behind the ambulances and fire trucks. In a work study job cataloguing historical photos when I was an undergraduate, police photos of local car crashes comprised a good portion of the collection, but I couldn’t bear to look at them; and in high school Driver’s Ed, when we were forced to watch several editions of the car-crash scare series Red Asphalt, I became so terrified I would kill someone that once I finally got my license I didn’t want to drive. In other words, I am looking for reassurance, not a cheap thrill at someone else’s expense.

I think that something similar happens when someone seemingly “normal”—or at least normal enough—commits a large-scale atrocity. Some people complain that we are more interested in the perpetrators than in the victims, who are more deserving of media attention. But, to me (and, I suspect, to others), the victims’ role is not nearly as frightening as the perpetrators’. Certain horrific acts, like what took place at the Boston Marathon, or Sandy Hook, or Aurora, or Tuscon, make us seek answers to our most terrifying questions: Who could be capable of such a thing? Could I? Could someone I know? Would I recognize such a person? How does someone make the decision to become a terrorist? Could he have been stopped?

At least from the preliminary reports, both the Boston Marathon bombers turned to violence in response to ordinary human pain: parents’ divorce, immigration, a best friend’s murder. The evidently more volatile brother, who already felt out of place in the United States, lost the possibility of citizenship when he committed domestic violence, and, in response, threw away his own humanity to retaliate with terrorism. He went to Bunker Hill Community College (where I have colleagues), and then dropped out while immigrants with similar problems kept going. The younger brother, the one almost universally described as warm, kind, and popular, bafflingly went along with his brother’s plans—why?

Peter Young Hoffmeister, a high school teacher and former Huffington Post blogger, lost his HuffPost blogging gig when he submitted a post recounting his past as an angry, lonely, gun-obsessed young man. After being expelled for carrying a loaded, stolen handgun to high school, he got kicked out of two more schools before “the support of some incredible adults” and an outdoor program for troubled teens inspired him to straighten out. Compassion saves, at least sometimes. Maybe there will always be Loughners and Holmeses who spiral out of reach, but on the other side there are also Hoffmeisters who force us to ask, Couldn’t something have been done?

I have noticed that it’s much easier to throw around the “evil” label, to dehumanize, to call for the torture and death of the “monsters,” than to ask such questions—at least judging by the talk shows, media rhetoric, and inflammatory facebook posts that have rippled through my feed the past few days. Now that the victims are maimed or dead, it’s too late for compassion to make a difference in the outcome, but to look for reasons is to acknowledge that there might have been a moment, or even moments, when someone might have intervened, or some time when a few kind words might have helped prevent so many worlds from breaking.

Seen and Not Seen: The 98% Inauguration, 2009

Four years ago, the night before inauguration, some friends came up with a pair of tickets. For several hours, I felt like the luckiest woman in DC: new to the area and suddenly gifted with a chance to witness the inauguration of our country’s first black president. I felt only slightly less lucky when I couldn’t find a friend to go with me on such short notice. When the Metro stop I needed closed because of overcrowding and I had to get off a stop early, my luck meter wavered only slightly: I had functioning feet, after all, and moving around would help keep me warm on a day with 9 degree wind chill.

I squirmed off the train at Gallery Place Metro and saw this, which is meant to be a photo of the mob on the escalators, but is also a reminder that our Swedish friends are happy to help us change our living rooms if we can’t change the country:

2008_0210Inauguration0022 (2)It was a strange day in D.C. It took me a while to realize why people looked so different, besides that they all were walking (though “pressing forward” is probably more accurate) in the same direction: Almost everyone was smiling underneath their hats and scarves.

2008_0210Inauguration0028If everyone you meet feels lucky, it’s hard to worry too much when emergency vehicles start blocking all possible paths to the Mall. Just find the big cheese, and move when the cheese does.

2008_0210Inauguration0032Eventually I reached a turning point: Give up and go get coffee, or carry on? I carried on, looking for a route to the Mall. I even tried to slip through the lobby of a hotel, but I ended up routed back to the same spot, back with a lot of people who didn’t know what direction to walk.

2008_0210Inauguration0033Soon I couldn’t walk any farther because I reached a bottleneck – an entrance gate, supposedly – with snipers on all the rooftops and Secret Service trying (but failing) to steer a family through the crowd. One of the girls, probably in her late teens, started to cry, and a man who must have been her father kept shouting, “I own that building!” until it became clear that there was no way to move in any direction.

Welcome to the proletariat.

This is what I saw for the next four hours.

2008_0210Inauguration0037I am under five feet tall, and for most of my time in the crowd, we were packed too close for me even to lift my arms. The fence on the left was a temporary barrier. Periodically the crowd would press forward, unleashing the hope that we might actually get through the line. It became clear that all of us, even though we had tickets, were going to miss the inauguration, but we were squeezed too tight to turn away. Often I couldn’t bend my knees or feel my feet, and when the crowd moved, I was carried by the pressure rather than walking under my own power.

But it was a happy day. Nobody complained or argued, at least that I heard. When Obama took the stage, a young woman called a friend who was on the Mall near a Jumbotron and streamed the inaugural address through her Blackberry (remember those?) so that everyone around her could hear it. She was our hero that day!

2008_0210Inauguration0046But…we were still stuck between the crowd and the fence. Soldiers controlled the gate, letting people dribble through a few at a time. When the gates opened, the surges forward became more forceful as we got closer. Finally the crowd pushed forward, and though I couldn’t get my feet under me to stop, I saw the gate closing as I approached. For a moment I was sure I was going to be crushed, but the soldier left the gate open long enough for me to stagger through.

I looked back and saw the other people who were still trapped behind the fence:

2008_0210Inauguration0045This is me with a numb face, feet, and hands. I had a big smile for a bad hair day in a gigantic coat:

2008_0210Inauguration0047My inauguration experience ended shortly after I got through the gates. Already people were gathering along the parade route, showing off how prepared they were:

2008_0210Inauguration0055 2008_0210Inauguration0057Then I finally got coffee.

2008_0210Inauguration0054A USA Today journalist saw me walking to the Metro and asked me why I was leaving. I told the story you see here, some of which he got right (the part where I’m quoted is near the end of the article).

Today’s inauguration doesn’t even compare. For one thing, I had no interest in being there in person. It’s true that there’s never a second second time, but the view from my sofa was perfect. This year, the story is “I turned on the television. I turned off the television.”

In 2009, on the other hand, I had a story you couldn’t get on television, and that’s something that’s amply worth standing in sub-freezing cold to see.

Total B.S.: The Resurrection

whyprof
Careercast.com, joining the multitudes with an unnatural fixation on professor-bashing, has declared “University Professor” to be the least stressful career because of “high growth opportunities, low health risks and substantial pay.” High-level corporate executive jobs – yes, the ones that gobble up bonuses and sail away in golden parachutes, even when they lure both their companies and taxpayers into economic netherworlds  – were for some reason declared among the most stressful.

As with David C. Levy’s editorial claiming that faculty at my college are underworked and overpaid based on spurious information, the Careercast article is notable both for for its disconnection from reality and the Schadenfreude with which it is forwarded by people with much cushier careers. I love my job, and I’m not going to argue that it belongs on the Top 10 most-stressful-jobs list, but déjà vu moments are becoming more common than apocalypse predictions. Once again, the good writers have based their claims on faulty assumptions:

  1. Professors have high pay.  For support, Careercast cited the (yes, dizzying) compensation of faculty from Harvard, University of Chicago, and UCLA, ignoring the fact that most full time faculty at middle-tier institutions earn about half this amount and full time faculty at two year colleges earn about a third of this amount, even using the mysteriously inflated data in the study. My own institution, Montgomery College, only includes salaries of full time faculty and doesn’t list adjunct salaries, which are measly.
  2. Faculty jobs are multiplying. Careercast misleadingly declares, “To maintain the quality of education while meeting the increased demand, universities are expected to add 305,700 adjunct and tenure-track professorial positions by 2020.” The article briefly mentions that competition is fierce for full time faculty positions (at MC, we usually receive at least 100-150 applicants for every opening) and cites the “new emphasis” on adjunct positions. However, most of the growth in faculty hiring has been in low-paid adjunct positions, with a good proportion of full time hiring to replace retiring faculty who were hired during community colleges’ hiring heydays in the 1970s.
  3. The job has few physical risks. I don’t have any official statistics, but with the massive teaching loads at institutions below the top tier of colleges and universities, overuse injuries and stress-related illnesses (like migraines) are rampant among faculty teaching more than 100 students a term. I’m not talking whining about headaches, but instead injuries that have interfered with work and have needed ongoing medical attention. We’re not saving lives here, but my neck, wrist, and shoulders are never going to be normal again, and huge numbers of my colleagues say the same thing. (Also, if the wacky proposals to require guns in classrooms are successful, the lethality of the job could increase quickly.)

Careercast considered these other factors in calculating stress levels, although they didn’t provide scores for each category:

  • Travel. Most of my long-distance travel is nominally optional, but necessary to stay current in my field. My short-distance travel is almost always reasonable – but if you’d asked me when I was an adjunct driving 500+ miles a week to different campuses, you would get a much different answer.
  • Deadlines. As far as I can tell, our faculty lives are one big calendar of deadlines – for conference proposals, articles, reviews, committee work, collaborations, class preparation. Most notably, courseload directly determines the amount of deadline pressure to respond to student work. A professor who assigns 25 pages of writing during a semester to 125 students is going to grade more than 3000 pages of writing in a semester, not counting homework.
  • Working in the public eye. Even when the public eye is mostly closed – as for this latest article – our work is scrutinized. Public speaking is the #1 most common phobia, and when faculty step in front of a classroom, scrutinized by dozens of skeptical students and sometimes by their helicopter parents, it feels very, very public…witness the persistence of teaching nightmares.
  • Environmental conditions. Environmental risks vary by discipline, ranging from picking up illnesses students pick up from their children to dealing with toxic chemicals and toxic people.
  • Hazards encountered. We’re not exactly on the front lines, but considering that most of the mass shootings have involved students and colleges in some way and that we’re “first responders” for a variety of situations, I wouldn’t say our jobs are hazard free.
  • Own life at risk. Thankfully, our lives are usually not at risk, but occasionally domestic violence, gang violence, or mental instability can create some dangerous situations. These are handled confidentially so I don’t have statistics, but at my own college several threatening situations arise at campuses each semester.
  • Life of another at risk. When I worked in advertising, I can say with absolute confidence that nobody ever came to me afraid that she would be killed by a spouse or ex-spouse, that he or she was about to attempt suicide, that he had nothing to eat, that her parents had kicked her out, or that an addiction made him a danger to himself. Now that I am a professor, these situations come up several times a semester, and once in a while I’ve even probably had a small role in saving a handful of lives. That doesn’t even count the kinds of lifesaving that happens when the support of a faculty member helps a student escape a soul-killing future, which is what I consider to be a good-sized chunk of my job.
  • Meeting the public. What is it that Careercast thinks we do at the start of every semester?

As I said, I am certainly not arguing that my job is the most stressful, and in fact, because my work is so satisfying, the stress doesn’t seem to matter as much as it would in a job that was empty of social value. On the other hand, knowing that I am doing something important in a population whose last best hope is often education carries its own sort of stress, because every day I must weigh my own needs against the needs of others and balance all sorts of competing projects that represent competing values.

It is interesting to me that level of responsibility, amount of prioritizing necessary to get the job done, and public bias (few have knowledge of what we do, but everyone has an opinion about it) weren’t considered in the criteria, since they’re known stress factors, but I’m not a pollster, so whatever. As I tell my students, I am privileged to have the best job in the world. It’s just not the best job in the world for the reasons some people think.

The Tyranny of the To-Do List

Image

If I were a rose-colored glasses type, I would breeze through a list of everything I accomplished in 2012. Since I’m more the ochre-colored glasses type – in other words, I see the world in approximate shades of cat vomit – I have given a lot more thought to what has not been accomplished. A more puce-colored personality would hurry the leftovers into a list of New Year’s resolutions for 2013 and blog about them in case someone reading perchance gives a rip.

Being in an ochre mindset, though, I have realized that I will probably be much more successful if I strive for imperfection. In terms of learning experiences, I’m an overachiever; in terms of achievement, my record is mixed. My ambitions are a glass house from whose windows I can never quite remove all the spots. Better to chuck mudballs at the thing, I say.

Ochre Jill has hypothesized that the contents of the yearly to-do list, and not the dearth of checkmarks, might be the actual problem, and she has decided to drag Puce Jill vaguely in the direction of reality. Puce Jill, of course, wants to keep scrubbing the windows of the glass house in hopes that they will somehow be perfectly clean. Ochre Jill prefers to scream obscenities.

I’ve learned a lot this year. I have learned that I’m not a good multitasker and that I’m not especially efficient; that my skin is still on the thin side; that I can tell what someone really wants by what they actually do, even when I don’t want to see it; that I don’t know why I love my dog or why he loves me; that most of the time, if I don’t force myself to follow a recipe, I can make something decent with what’s on hand and skip the shopping trip; that the perpetual problem of balancing teaching and writing has continued to be perpetual, but that my relationship with procrastination has cooled…a lot.

Basically, I have decided to reevaluate my relationship with time and space. This year, I will fail again – but this time, I will fail deliberately. If my to-do list is a hoarder’s paradise, I have nobody to blame but its author. And really, there is no audience but me who cares about the ending, which I dearly hope is not “Here lies Jill: She crossed everything off her list.”

Because what is a to-do list, really, but a series of decisions about how to spend my time on earth? And do I want to judge my life by what I have crossed off, or by deliberate choices about what I have chosen to include?

jkronstadt:

Please visit Bloom (www.bloom-site.com) to discover other writers who published their first major work after 40!

Originally posted on Bloom:

by Jill Kronstadt

1.

Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin

In the fall of 1882, Kate Chopin’s husband Oscar lay dying of malaria in Cloutierville, Louisiana, where they had lived for the past three years of a twelve-year marriage. Several months before, Kate had departed for St. Louis soon after her husband returned from a sanatorium, a trip so conspicuously timed that it aroused suspicions of marital trouble. Summoned back to Cloutierville, she returned to find medical and legal bills mounting while her husband succumbed to a series of fevers and finally died.

She was thirty-two years old, with six children and more than $12,000 in debt.

Twelve years later, Chopin, on her way to becoming one of the South’s most popular writers, published her widely-anthologized “The Story of an Hour.” In the story, Louise Mallard, a young wife with a heart condition, learns that her husband has died in a train accident…

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