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Strange Days: The Florida School Shooting and the March

Readers, I just want to comment on how much I find the reaction to the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas invigorating and salutary. While shootings, school and other, are always horrific, I find the reaction to this one needed, because it points toward a new paradigm for response. Not just horror and sadness, but anger, of the “we’re not going to take this anymore” variety.

The students (and teachers) at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school and elsewhere are absolutely right to be angry and marching. (And by the way, let us not forget the mass shooting in Las Vegas this summer; it isn’t only teachers and students who are in danger.)

What really captivates my meta-ist self here is that they are changing the narrative of how we react to shootings. There is a script and a template here that is always deployed: calls for understanding, weeping, wondering, secretly or not so secretly, how parents could not have known that something was wrong. Bury the dead, and provide counseling for the students. It’s basically a therapeutic response, grounded in mid-twentieth century psychology.

But it also, on some level, does nothing to delegitimize school shootings. Many teachers have been saying in the wake of calls to arm them that such a move implicitly accepts the fact that more violence is expected. Well, so does the mourning model. It isn’t that anyone thinks shooting is okay, of course. It’s that it’s become routinized.

So I think damn mad and not going to take it anymore as a response is great. Because what needs to happen is that the school shootings and the therapeutic response need to be delegitimized. In a way, it needs to be delegitimized in the same way that other political responses, like it’s okay to discriminate against black people or women, need to be delegitimized.

They are very different struggles, of course, but the changing of the discourse is similar.

I hope the student march, planned for March 24 and at least initially envisioned at half-a-million folks strong according to the Washington Post, happens and knocks attendance records out of the park.

But I want to say on more thing, too. I have been very heartened by debate-team like behavior of some of the students I’ve seen interviewed, like these two on a recent PBS NewsHour. They are arguing for a ban on assault weapons (at a minimum), but take great care to also grant the legitimacy of gun ownership as part of American culture, and a Constitutional right.

In fact, they’re so careful and measured in doing this that if I’m not mistaken, I hear echoes of debate club advice, or their persuasive writing teacher. All that great advice, which I used to teach myself. If the other side has legitimate arguments, don’t deny them their legitimacy. Simply refute aspects of them, and advance the reasons you think your case is better.

And that is so much better than anti-gun fulminations that never grant the legitimacy of any opposing argument. As an example, we need look no further than the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnick. He writes an essay after nearly every shooting, which have become so gaseous that I skip them. (And, I should note, I am a great fan of Adam Gopnick’s essays in general.) From one after the Florida school shooting, about red state gun advocacy: “You should always try to meet the other side halfway, but you can only meet people halfway when you are both living on the same planet.” Adam Gopnick, Adam Gopnick, you need to re-enter debate club! Implying your opponent is from another planet is not reasoned discourse!

Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, on the other hand, has it right.

He has been advocating for essentially working with the NRA rather than consigning them to another planet for some time. His articles cast gun control as a public health issue, and stress the need for regulation and training.

This is the way we need to go, while completely delegitimizing the idea that, well, school violence is just going to happen again.


The Manson Girls and Privilege in America

Earlier this year, I read Emma Cline’s novel The Girls. This book has been widely praised and was subject to a publication bidding war.

The praise was deserved; it’s beautifully written. It’s also an interesting look at the 1960s; a young woman in northern California is drawn into a cult led by a charismatic, Manson-like figure. Charles Manson, of course, recently died in prison. He was the leader of a late 1960s cult in southern California that brutally killed about 10 people.

Here’s what I thought, reading the novel: the end is kind of a cheat. There is almost a thematic wrap-up at the end, where she mediates on the kind of rage necessary to commit the kind of murders these women did, and attributes it to…specifically female disempowerment howling for power, or being overlooked and unseen and desperate to be seen.

It’s not that I think these motives weren’t at work; it seems logical to think they were.

But. In reading around about Emma Cline, here’s what struck me. Part of this novel is about privileged Marin County, the suburb north of San Francisco. Emma Cline herself is a descendant of the Jacuzzi family, of whirlpool fame. Her family owns a winery there.

I can’t ascribe the novel to the author’s background, of course. But I can say that part of the protagonist’s Evie’s story seems analogous. In her case, a grandmother has been a famous movie actress and her money supports both Evie’s mother and Evie, so it’s significant enough to be a source of financial capital as well as fame.

So, shutting this book, I admired its style, but here’s what I thought: aren’t the Manson family murders equally about naked class resentment? Something we never like to talk about in this country? It’s about a type of revenge against the privileged, an “I’ll show you who’s boss” move. Big time.

One of the chilling things about the Manson family, I think – and a reason that those events resound with life in California — is that on the surface, the Manson family looked like what Joan Didion calls dreamers of the golden dream. They had long straight hair; they smiled easily; they took drugs and had a good time. They drove around in a van.

So did many middle and upper middle class people too. It seemed as if there was a linkage. It seemed they were all connected, by the ethos of the time, in which vans, drugs, and free love were the determinants.

But what struck me about the novel’s backdrop — which is true to the real proceedings in this particular — is the creepy hippy-esque poverty in which the cult lived. Dumpster diving for food. Wearing cast-off clothes. Stripping old cars for parts. In part, this was the style of the times if you lived in a commune. But wasn’t this also, in a way, the white underclass manifesting itself?

This thought was actually triggered by looking around for the whereabouts of the actual people involved. Part of the Manson family is still in jail. He recently died. Fortunately: their crimes were horrific, gruesome. Sharon Tate’s family reliably showed up at their parole hearings and argued against parole. Her one surviving sister still does.

The middle classness of the women in the cult was commented on by contemporary journalists at the time, and it’s become a staple in discussions of the Manson family. But maybe the long straight hair served as kind of a camouflage that made them seem like hippies rather than vagrants or small-time crooks, before the murders.

So they and their motives are often described in terms of romance, as in this review of The Girls in The Atlantic. What made them do it, kill so many people, when they were girls like us? Or in terms of popular music culture, as in this meditation on the death of Manson?

But Manson was a product of a specific underclass, with a mother who gave him away and served time in prison herself, as he did. Many of his followers had come from broken homes, lower middle class lives or, in Manson’s class, less.

Not that lower middle-class status made them criminals, of course. But it may have made the people they killed Other to them, symbols of privilege who deserved a big middle finger. And that’s a precondition for the acts themselves.

Sharon Tate was the daughter of a career military officer, and her handsome family — she may have been the movie star, but they were equally attractive — reek of a kind of San Diego-esque upper middle class privilege. When they’re pictured with George Bush for their victim’s rights activism, they look of a piece with him.

The Manson girls didn’t know Sharon Tate, as I recall the story. She was an accidental victim. But still, isn’t it more realistic to think they were all exacting revenge on the money and ease of upper middle class Californians? That’s who was killed, after all. Folger coffee heiresses. Wealthy restaurant owners, the next night.

Because the cult’s move into murder started (as the novel shows) as part of a series of microaggressions. In the novel, they start by simply going into people’s houses in Marin County and moving things about. In real life, they gradually took over a blind man’s property. Think about the sinister aspect of taking over power in the household.
It’s a criminal thing, microaggression. It’s symbolic. I can take what you have. I can fuck with what you have. And I’ll know it, but you won’t. And if you do realize it, you won’t be able to do anything about it.

It’s not that unusual for the relatively powerless to use it against the more powerful, especially if the powerful are unconscious and don’t react.

So, the Manson murders about female rage? Ok, yes. But also about class and privilege in America.

Blogs as Think Space

On the one hand, reader, I deplore the idea of using a blog, um, to write about a blog.  Even more, writing about the idea of blogs. It seems overly self-referential.

However, I feel I also want to explain the skipped months here. I’m kind of at a crossroads in terms of writing this blog. I hate skipped months—when I’m browsing through blogs myself, I always see skipped months as the equivalent of a cobweb. Weeds are growing around a once-vibrant space. I tend not to read anything with skipped months myself, because I feel like I’m browsing through abandoned space.

And I hope you don’t feel that way, readers!

So, here’s my dilemma. I am not writing in, or thinking about, this blog space as much as I once did. The first is that I became a writer for a living, and spend some of my time doing that.

The second is that I’m on the cusp of now doing what I hope will become a form of blog 2.0—publishing some of the stuff that would have gone in the blog in a published-by-other-people, larger space. So a lot of my ideas now tend to become notes and drafts of larger essays rather than blog posts.

It feels like that’s the proper hoeing and weeding of this blog, as it were: re-potting it to a larger space, where (hopefully) more people can read it. I greatly love doing this blog. But I also feel that a good blogger grows ever more in scope.

But the other side of this feeling is that the blog is one of the greatest think spaces ever invented. Writing one has certainly demystified writing, if ever that was needed. It’s very cozy and comfortable to know that you can leap into your blog with whatever issue you want to write about without any mediation. It’s a diary of ideas, of a sort.

But I have to say that I’m worried about my blog. Every time I start a subject, I think to myself: “wait! Couldn’t you publish that somewhere? And shouldn’t it be held until you can?”

So the thing that once spurred me on is now holding me up.

Any thoughts on how this should be handled, readers?

The Prophylactic Society

I’m back, readers! I’ve been concentrating on writing in forms other than my blog. But I miss my blog, and hope you do too.

I want to write on a piece of hopeful news. Yesterday, I ran across a profile of a Canadian named Harry Leslie Smith. The title kind of says it all, or at least says it interestingly: “Why Millennials Are Lapping Up Every Tweet and Podcast From 94-Year-Old Agitator Harry Leslie Smith.” I clicked on it because I wanted to know why.

And now I do. Smith is a Canadian-based expat from Britain, and his tweets, podcasts and books, are very popular with young people. His communications are all about life in the bad old days before the end of World War II, which brought in the Labour Party and thus healthcare and education for the working class.

I particularly like this because I spent part of my summer calling and e-mailing senators’ offices here in the U.S. about the attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA). It simply amazes me that there was an attempt to repeal healthcare insurance for millions of Americans. That the attempt at least initially was to not let people (including many members of Congress) even know what was in the bill.

That the attempt is apparently going on in other forms, like defunding the exchanges that are the gateway to the ACA, shortening the enrollment period, and even what seems to be an almost stealth repeal via a bill by Lindsey Graham and Bill Cassidy in Congress. (This seems to have died as I was in the midst of writing this post. Good riddance, I say.)

This could mean that millions of people are left without healthcare. If that happens, it’s a return to the bad old days of “just get sick and die if you can’t afford healthcare out of your pocket.” As it happens, these are among the bad old days Harry Leslie Smith remembers in pre-World War II Britain. So let him (and the Star of Toronto) tell it:

“One of his two older sisters, Marion, contracted spinal tuberculosis…and, with no affordable medical help, wasted away. One day, Harry’s parents pawned their best clothing to hire a horse-drawn cart. On it, Marion was taken, Harry recalls, ‘like rubbish they hauled away’ to a workhouse infirmary to await death. At 10, she was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave….It was a miserable existence through the Great Depression and Smith recalls that ungodly screams could be heard from neighbours’ homes, the dying unable to afford any type of painkiller. A visit to a doctor or hospital might cost at least half a week’s worth of a subsistence-level wage. ‘It happened often, people simply died when they could’ve been saved,’ he says.”

And this is a man born in the 1920s, no less. I mean, yes, that’s a long time ago. But it’s not exactly ancient history, either.

As I’m typing this, I’m imagining your response, reader. Overly dramatic, maybe? After all, we don’t hear the screams of the dying here.

But I really don’t think so. One of the most ghastly attempts to rationalize the gutting of the ACA seems to be that medical costs would go down if we had no affordable health insurance not linked to corporate life. But that simply ignores how expensive medical costs currently are if one gets a catastrophic illness. Read this article on a family’s grappling with the breadwinner’s contracting a rare form of cancer. The costs come to $7 million just for one year.

Now fortunately, that family has insurance. But what if you don’t, and the attempts to gut it are successful?

One of my favorite theories for why this isn’t a front burner issue is that we live in a prophylactic society, using the dictionary definition of the term. To wit: “Acting to defend against or prevent something, especially disease; protective.”

People in general are protected from the vicissitudes of life. In general, we don’t hear the screams of the dying. There is reasonable medical care for the majority of people. True, the number of people without insurance was climbing upward prior to the ACA. But, as part of the prophylactic society, the uninsured are a rolling ball and not condemned permanently. They also are not, on the whole, visible to the rest of us. (What I mean by a rolling ball: their status is not immutable. They may be uninsured, then have ACA, then have a job that offers insurance; then be laid off; and etc.) So part of the response to them, perhaps, is an assumption that this is temporary.

Even the response to recent hurricanes Harvey and Irma are part of the prophylactic society. The emphasis is on the devastation initially, but then we move to fix it. Devastation is seen as temporary, mutable. We protect against its ravages.

So it’s very bracing to have an eyewitness account of what it’s like when you and yours aren’t in a protective bubble. Let’s not go back there.

The Property Brothers and Permeable Boundaries

Sometimes, readers, ideas arise from the strangest places.

Recently, my car needed some work. So I was in a waiting room with a very large wide screen TV, which plays with the sound so on mute that it might as well be off.

And so it came to pass that I watched The Property Brothers for about 4 hours straight.

If you’ve never seen The Property Brothers, it’s a standard home show: house is desired, house is fixed up to the nines, obstacles are overcome, desires are met, and ultimately all is well.

The wrinkle in The Property Brothers is that the principals of the show are twin brothers. One, Jon, does the contracting work and is shown hammering and so forth. The other, Drew, is the business guy who talks money to the home buyers, and negotiates and irons out the financial details.

But because the sound was off, of course, I could focus on the more meta story of The Property Brothers. The details — were they in Toronto or Austin, with a couple or a single woman, a townhouse or a ranch? — were far in the background.

And I think the meta is this.

The Property Brothers is really about making the border between people who work with their hands and businesspeople/entrepreneurs potentially permeable. For some time now, American society has been increasingly separating the two. Folks who work with their hands are relegated to less and less of the pie. Businesspeople have gotten more and more. There is less and less interaction between the two.

The Property Brothers, though, works against the division while at the same time replicating it.

How? Let’s start with the replication first. In every show, Jon is what we might call “working guy” (tool belt, plaid shirt) and Drew is “entrepreneur guy” (suit, tie) who makes wealth out of the house not with his hands, but with his meetings, cell phone and so forth. Check out the pic below for how this works.

total binary

Then, let’s examine the way it works against splitting the roles. The show works to subtly move each brother out of their respective “working guy”/”entrepreneur guy” role as well, as the series goes on. Jon does occasionally talk to the home owners about the financial trade-offs of this or that alteration. Drew sheds his suit and walks around in an open-neck shirt sometimes.

Also, of course, the division is partly erased simply because of their visual similarity and kinship. They’re brothers, of course, and twins to boot.

I think the show works on a subconscious level as a kind of unification of “folks who work” with “folks who make money from investments.” It’s popular partly because it counteracts the increasing real life division. The imagery tells its audience “if we can morph between these roles, so can you.”

In addition, of course, the potential of rising real estate prices does make this unification between working stiff and investor possible for some people — which establishes the potency of the metaphor even more.

Here’s the pièce de résistance on their morphing between these two roles. The brothers have a web site devoted to themselves, http://www.thescottbrothers.com/, that is quite separate from the show’s web site. On it, Jon and Drew trade sartorial places. Jon, toolbelt guy on The Property Brothers, is dressed not only in a suit, but a three-piece suit. It’s quite spiffy as well. Drew, entrepreneurial guy, is in an open necked shirt. (There is a third brother, who works behind the scenes, and is right between the two sartorially.)

And, get this, they morph. The page that greets visitors is the page where their facial expressions keep changing. It’s as if they are saying: “this is all about morphing.”

Hillary Clinton and Comedy

There’s a momentous election tomorrow, readers, and I want to weigh in on a small piece of it.

And that is the kind of dreary impersonation of Hillary Clinton that viewers of Saturday Night Live see.

I don’t like the Kate McKinnon impersonation of Hillary Clinton, and I feel moved to write this before the election. I was watching some election-inspired comedy recently, and the impersonation really struck me as 1) a retrograde view of powerful women and 2) a not particularly inspired mimicry of Clinton herself.

Why retrograde? Because the SNL version plays Clinton as a crazed, power-mad bitch. She’s not a public servant with a lot of experience; she’s not an unfairly trashed politician; she’s not a lawyer; she’s not the grandmother; she’s not even a particularly savvy pol. Even, on the other side of the political spectrum of views, she’s not the secretive private e-mail hoarder or corrupt.

The crazed power-mad bitch element is seen best, perhaps, in this clip:

The end, where the Clinton character grades Trump as an F, and then promises to be “a stone-cold B” plays on two stereotypes of women.

The first one takes her experience and subtly recasts it as schoolmarmishness.

The second one is even worse — it’s the one that really caused me to write this post. The view that Clinton is a stone-cold bitch is exactly the kind of indictment that has been thrown against women who either do have some power in the world or are seeking it, or both.

The easy equation that powerful woman = bitch is misogynist. Pure and simple.

There’s very little political content, because it’s overwritten by the fact that Hillary is being subject to anti-woman clichés. She’s not being made fun of because of her politics, or anything related (speech, thought patterns, beliefs), as male presidential candidates are.

She’s being made fun of as a bitch.

I’m also surprised that SNL is peddling such an old, tired view of women.

This impersonation gets a lot of praise, like this, which calls it “genius.”

In fact, I don’t think that it is a particularly good impression except for the hair and the suits. Yes, McKinnon looks like Clinton when she gets in character.

But the crazy look in her eye doesn’t really match what one sees in Hillary Clinton. If the impersonation honed in on very real characteristics of the actual Clinton — her wonkishness, say, or her sometimes painfully clear discomfort with listening to voters, or the sense that she’s acting on the stump, rather than being authentic — maybe it would be genius.

As it is, it just falls back on a lazy, tired view of women. If they’re going for something big, it’s because they are power-mad bitches whose private lives are full of throttled rage (a theme in other SNL impersonations of Clinton).

So, to leave you with a genuinely funny woman on politics, here is Samantha Bee on the third presidential debate:


Eleven as E.T.: What Brave New World Is Stranger Things?

It’s Fall, readers!

So I’m going to weigh in today on one of the Netflix hits of the summer, which I watched in the (sigh) waning days of it. It’s Stranger Things.

Now, readers, I’m no particular fan of either science fiction or horror, the two main genres. But I also respect the abilities of both genres to be wonderfully, well, deep about what they are saying as they deliver time travel and monsters on the unbelievable side. By way of defining my fandom or lack thereof: I don’t relish Stephen King books, exactly, but I’ve read It. It is a profound look at the problem of human evil dished up with a narrative about scary and otherworldly clowns. It’s about the problem of human evil. The clown often appears — and is seemingly activated by — human evil: family abuse, racially motivated murder, and the like.

So, one of the things I liked about Stranger Things was its grounding of sci-fi/horror mysteries in a quotidian suburban world that in many ways is represented as the opposite of human evil. It’s a type of paradise. The birds chirping on the soundtrack are full of prelapsarian promise. it’s a world of calm and beauty, good friendships (among the four middle school boys), attentive and kindly teachers, and concerned parents. It’s also menaced with evil (a sinister government lab and eventually, an actual monster). Then there are the in-between characters who either let evil in or don’t fight it: family dysfunction (broken families; inattentive fathers, especially; drunk sheriff). It’s a war between good and evil. Sheriffs who can come back from the bottle and handle the weirdness choose the right side.

In that, it is (as many commentators have noted, see here and here) an homage to films like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the novels of Stephen King, and the films that were made from them in the 1980s. E.T. was also a movie that represented suburban life as a type of paradise, even given parents who were either absent or without a clue to the goings-on.

So, when the character Eleven came on in Stranger Things, the first thing I thought was “she’s the E.T. of the movie.”  eleven

Eleven is a girl who arrives seemingly out of nowhere. She has a shaved head (visually close to bald) and huge eyes. Those are the initial “visually reminiscent of E.T.” clues. (She’s named Eleven because of a mysterious tattoo on her arm.)

So it is that I take issue with an interesting paean to Stranger Things, published by Ashley Reed in Avidly . Reed posits that Stranger Things is about a feminist re-envisioning of the 1980s films like E.T. to better represent girls’ inner lives and “to create female characters who are not just props in boys’ stories.”

I think in many ways Stranger Things is a retelling that doesn’t particularly recuperate the women’s stories in a more feminist direction.eleven-on-bike

One of the reasons is that Eleven’s story may be one of an unusual girl, but her affinities with E.T. (the character) are multiple. They frame her more as an interesting alien than as an independent girl. It’s not exactly a big step up for portrayals of women that Eleven is (metaphorically) an alien.  et-swathed-in-towel

Like E.T., Eleven finds a home in the room of one of the boys on bikes. Like E.T., she conceals her distinctive head in a covering (towel for him; blond wig for her). Like E.T., she is a passenger on those bicycles, rather than an independent rider.

If she were an independent rider on those bikes, then we’d be talkin’ new roles for girls.

More strikingly, Eleven is the E.T. in Stranger Things because she has a pressing need to get “home.” In what the audience sees, she has been removed from an (unseen) mother to live in the sinister government lab. She has been used as something of a lab experiment on telekinesis in the sinister government lab. There is an appropriately sinister father figure, the lab director. It is implied that her mother was part of similar experiments. Further, the lab director might be her actual father.

Next: more on Stranger Things.

More Jane Smiley: Henry and the Cathars

Hello, readers, hello! My summers are often quite wild, so I haven’t written in a while. But not for lack of thinking.

What I want to do today is pick up on my last post, about Jane Smiley’s twentieth-century trilogy, composed of 3 novels, Some Luck, Early Warning, and The Golden Age. In my last post, I talked about Smiley’s use of the everyday as metaphor.

Today, though, I want to touch on another aspect of the books, one quite removed from the everyday. I want to explore the relationship between the meditations and work of Henry, the academic member of the fictional family at the heart of the trilogy, with the family’s place in time and with Smiley’s project.golden age, smiley

Henry is a bookish Midwestern boy who goes on to become a professor, specializing in Old English. There are touchpoints where he seems to be pointing to the older roots of the characters — older than their provenance in America and even their provenance in 18th and 19th century Europe.

How? Well, early in Early Warning, he thinks of their nearest place of twentieth-century commerce, Denby, as “village of the Danes.” That’s what it means according to his studies. And, that’s what it still means, if you notice that many of Smiley’s characters in Iowa farm country are of Scandinavian or German extraction, and take “Danes” broadly and maybe even metaphorically.

Later, though, Henry begins to think more broadly, about the Cathars. The Cathars,  for those not up on medieval history, were a sect in the medieval period. Henry’s ruminations on them have to do with their sexual equality (women could be leaders), their plague-filled time (there is talk of bloody fluxes), their beliefs (vegetarian), and their persecution (many were ultimately killed rather gruesomely as heretics against the Catholic church).

When Henry thinks of the Cathars, he clearly thinks of touchpoints between their time and our own. Sexuality equality; a mark of our time. Vegetarianism; ditto. Bloody fluxes; several of Henry’s friends die of AIDS. The only outlier is persecution.

So are we supposed to read “the Cathars are us” as one of the meanings, given those commonalities? If so, what about that persecution?

Well, possibly that too, since the trilogy spans a time of religious divides.

rue des catharsI don’t think, though, that is intended to be the ultimate meaning. We are distanced from the Cathars much more than from Smiley’s multitude of Scandinavian/German/Northern European extraction Iowa-born characters.

I think it is intended to deepen her references to current events. All three books are a welter of contemporary-for-the-time references, and at times, for all my admiration of these books, the decades-by-decades references lend the books a cartoonish quality. In Early Warning alone, McGeorge Bundy drops in on a brother-in-law to discuss CIA policy and San Francisco poet Gary Snyder helps a sister in a motorcycle accident on the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s references like this that make critics like NPR’s book critic Maureen Corrigan say things like it “occasionally feels like a flipbook of history-on-the-fly.”

However, there is a longer arc by century rather than decades. In the broad sweep of 100 years, the family in Smiley’s trilogy win and go ever upward. Once a local farm family, they end up bestriding the world, so to speak. Even with economic depressions, recessions, wars, and environmental concerns, the overall arc of their history is ascendant.

And, indeed, Americans often think of their history altogether as one of ascendancy.

With the Cathars, the book introduces a group that couldn’t, didn’t, meet every challenge. They weren’t ascendant. Perhaps it’s an intimation that empires rise and fall, and if the period of the 100 Years Trilogy is clearly a rise, the Cathars shadow a potential fall.

Several Years On

I have several posts a’workin’ reader, on such topics dear to this space as dance and books. But, I had to drop them to write a piece on How I Feel Now more than two years after starting this blog. Now that life has taken an alt-ac shape, and even something of a post-ac one.

I was inspired to write this by read posts of one of my favorite post-ac writers, Walking Ledges. He wrote a post a few days ago about how good it feels to sign a contract (for teaching) and know that the search is no more. (See it here.) That he no longer has to run around and get used to new things, virtually every year.

Yes. One of the most difficult parts of transitioning from graduate school is the search and the uncertainty.

My life includes a bit of teaching also. But as time transitioning out of graduate school has gone on, I’ve realized how nice the life of a freelance writer can be. Now, this is not really new news. If you count this blog, I’ve been writing for more than two years.

But a robust freelance career does not spring full blown from the head of Zeus. It’s taken me more than a year to fully transition to the point where I have good clients, interesting work and enough dinero to pay the bills.

I think what I want to write about, though, is the fact that I HAVE DONE IT. I’m successful! I’m happy! I’m been so focused on the push that it’s only been in the last few months that I’ve realized I slowly did climb the mountain. At least part of a mountain. I’m here where I can see the valley!

mountains and valleyI sometimes use the “climb the mountain not straight up but with switchbacks” analogy with students. That is, do something (in their case, study) steadily and methodically rather than trying to cram it in at the last minute, and eventually, as in the case of hiking with switch-backs, you’ll achieve a good altitude without muscle strain or broken bones.

Here’s what I really love about the life of a writer. I do what I want when I want. I have flexibility — as much flexibility as I used to have studying and teaching.

I used to spend research summers reading and writing in shorts and a t-shirt with the fan blowing. I loved it. When I realized how tight the academic job market really was, I had many thoughts. But chief among them was: I can’t stand to lose my research summers.

And I feel that I haven’t.

I think the whole short-and-t-shirt-with-fan is a beatific vision of being present in the mind, actually, and not having to be present in (to cite one alternative) a 9 to 5 office. It’s not that you can’t be present in the mind there, but present in the mind is (in my experience) rarely the focus. Present for a set of tasks and a social world that is sometimes Kabuki-esque. So my dream scenario, which I have now made the real scenario, combines present in the mind and comfortable in the body.

Can’t be beat, right?

It isn’t that there aren’t still things I want. I need some boost in income. I love working in archives, so I’ll be looking for a way to work that into the writing life. I’ll keep up this blog as a think space.

But life is good. Alt-ac’ers and post-ac’ers out there, light is at the end of the tunnel. Keep a’traveling on.

Jane Smiley and Her Trilogy

Hello, readers! Today, I want to write on books.

I would say “a book,” but in fact I’m writing about three. They are the three books that make up Jane Smiley’s The Last Hundred Years Trilogy: Some Luck, Early Warning, and The Golden Age. The century trilogy follows one family from the 1920s to 2020. (Yes, according to Smiley’s web page, she is prognosticating into the future!)

I think Jane Smiley is one of the best of contemporary novelists, and today I want to talk about one reason why.

She excels at making metaphor out of everyday life. In one section of Early Warning, which focuses on the 1960s, a soldier is going through basic training. Around him, other soldiers sing/chant the rhymed marching songs known as “Jody’s,” for the Other Man who appears in all of them. An example from the book: Jody saw your girl today/ How’s he gonna stay away / She turned your picture to the wall/ Left his boots out in the hall. Another: Ain’t no use in feelin’ down/ Jody’s got your girl in town. early warning

There are others: “Ain’t no use to sit and moan/ Jody’s got your girl back home” is one I can quote from memory, although it isn’t quoted in the book.

Although quoting a Jody could be seen as part of verisimilitude – it’s just a realistic picture of what a soldier’s life is like, along with learning alpha, bravo, Charlie, delta, foxtrot – it acquires a different resonance once we know what happens to the soldier, a grandchild of the original family. He dies in Vietnam.

Reading the book, it suddenly became apparently to me that the Jody’s are about dying. Though they are ostensibly rueful humor, they are also inextricably about another man replacing you. Because you’re not there. The soldier is always not there in the scene described by a Jody: his absence is a precondition of a Jody. The girl is with another man – pursued, courted – because the solider singing is no longer there.

How did this become apparent to me in the book? Well, for one thing, Jody’s are always doubled. They are a call and response form. As such, they are also, more overtly, about joining a group and being part of it, as a solider does in the army.

The call and response is the way Smiley actually represents them in the book, not in the quotes I’ve done above. Like this: “Jody saw your girl today! (Jody saw your girl today!) How’s he gonna stay away! (How’s he gonna stay away!)” (pp. 175-176).

Perhaps it’s the presence of English professors in the book, but it caused me to think about the literary purpose of the doubling. The singing/chanting soldier, there, marching, is always doubled by a soldier who has been taken away from his haunts and is no longer there.

The Jody’s are about being erased from the land you once knew. In that, they remind me of A.E. Housman’s “Is My Team Ploughing,”  from A Shropshire Lad. In that one, a Jody conducts a colloquy with the dead soldier.

More on Jane Smiley and her trilogy soon!