Thursday, February 28, 2008


You know, I spend a great deal of time searching for inspiration that will reinforce my motivation. It’s not that I necessarily actively seek it out, but when I’m reading a statement or quote that jumps off the page, I might start thinking about how it relates to me and how I can employ the idea into my expectations and desires. Sometimes this works in the opposite way, and something negative I read about someone or something taps into my insecurity which, in turn, causes me to worry. But lately, happily, I have been experiencing the former more than the later. The biggest kick is when an idea jolts me into a new way of thinking. These ideas often stick with me and add to a sometimes prolonged period of well-being. I’m experiencing these more often now, which is odd, because I’ve never made less money than at this moment, I’m operating on a relatively strict budget, I live alone for the first time since I was twenty, I’m waiting in graduate school, scholarship and fellowship limbo, and it is gray February which, although it is the month that both my mother and my sister Emily were born, usually finds me low and moody.

But not right now for some reason. I don’t want to tempt the Gods of the Depressed State but these days I often feel downright giddy. It could be the regular exercise. Booker has discovered the joys of slobbery-tennis-ball-retrieval, and the other day I actually ran stairs at the amphitheater at Salem College. I haven’t lost any weight to speak of, but I haven’t gained any either so I’m seeing it as a good thing. (I think they say that you have to exercise and eat right—I’m only doing the first part). My house is clean (the downstairs anyway) the bills are paid (the ones that absolutely have to be) and most of the urgent personal matters are being kept consistently at bay.

But there are always opportunities to procrastinate. This leads me back to the original point of this post, inspiration. Today I received it from two sources, both within several minutes of each other. The first came from the fore mentioned February’s child Emily, who wrote about the 5 stages of denial we experience when putting off a required but unpleasant task. She explains, through dialogue with herself, that once she sits down and makes herself do the task she finds out that it’s not that bad after all—even enjoyable in some cases. She shows that the hardest part of these things isn’t figuring out how to start, often the hardest part is just starting.

The other point of inspiration came from the beautifully thoughtful piece by Litlove about choosing schools for her son. In thinking about her own schooling she said this:
“I learned to like work purely for itself. I might have been hungry for praise but I never expected it, and I enjoyed the sense of competing only with myself. It was in many ways a solid foundation for graduate study.”

What a fantastic approach toward study and achievement, competing with yourself with little to no expectation for praise, always trying a little harder than you did last time. This is easier said than done for me, but a goal worth striving for.

So I took these two pieces of inspiration and I applied them to my early morning slide toward procrastination. I had already begun to talk myself into believing that the pressing letter that I’d been putting off writing could wait another day and the follow-up calls to graduate schools didn’t really need to happen either. That’s when the words of those bloggers kicked in, Emily saying, “it won’t be so hard once you get started,” and Litlove saying “why don’t you try just a little harder than usual and get that letter finished?” I took both pieces of cyber-advice and completed both tasks, plus a couple of others. I feel very self-satisfied now, congratulating myself at great length. So it’s not always the Faulkners, Obamas and Mandelas that inspire me but often the lesser-known but equally brilliant philosophers-at-large. Sometimes these people even have blogs. Sometimes they’re even your sister!

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Geekfield's Guide to English Lit.

Last semester I took a lit. theory class. We had an assignment where we could do anything we wanted as long as it demonstrated something about English literature and theory. I started out making a CD, a song cycle of original material that would include major movements all set to the rhythm of a drum machine. What a bad idea. I still have the rhythm tracks but thankfully abandoned the project when the lyrics took a decidedly cheesy turn for the worse.

I ended up doing a comic book. I read enough of them as a kid to know the genre, the problem is my drawing skills are limited at best. But I plugged on ( I had to, I had waited until four days prior to the due date to get started). Let me make it clear that every other assignment I completed during undergrad was written in a very adult and academic style. If anyone wants proof I can send them a copy of my paper The Warren Court: Baker v. Carr and Reapportionment (Snooze!)

I will say that this was a very demanding project. I didn’t realize this until I was a couple of pages into it. It gave me great respect for graphic artists (the real ones) and cartoonists.

To view the comic, point and click on each image. If your browser is compatible it should create a larger, readable image. You have to backspace and repeat the point and click to get to the next page. I wish there was a way to improve the continuity. Also, please excuse the misspelled words.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Eagle Swoop

How many times have I started a post by pondering how long it’s been since the last post? At least a dozen or more times. I am so tempted to do it right now, but then I would have to launch into a list of manufactured excuses and I’m just not up to that. Just know that I’ve been really busy, really, I have.

Hark, was that was the sound of the lie-detector going off?

Several years ago, when my sister moved within short driving distance of a ski-resort, I decided to return to my childhood dalliance with downhill skiing. I learned the skill during annual trips with a church youth group. It was a youth group from a church my friend attended. My family’s church, to my knowledge, didn’t have a youth group unless you count teen-al anon (we were Episcopalians), so any combination of hormones and worship had to be found elsewhere. My friend was a Lutheran, so the trips were always very well organized, physically challenging and a bit daunting. Plus, they were to ski-resorts (hard to think of these places as resorts really) in the North Carolina mountains. Fellow skiers with chewing-tobacco-juice frozen to their chins might yell “yee-haw” as they tried to create a ten-skier-pile-up worthy of the Daytona 500. As I limped down the hall at school the following Monday, I always felt lucky to have survived one of those weekends

I also skied in Scotland when I was 19. By then I had learned enough to keep an upright if not somewhat floundering sort of form. I remember that there were less trees, which is always good when it comes to skiing as far as I’m concerned. I managed to end up with limited bruising—to my body, that is. My ego was another story altogether due to the little Frisbee attached to a bent pole that yanks you up the mountain. The Scots call this a ski-lift. You place your butt under this little disk, which is about the size of a bread plate, and wait as the pole, which seems to be controlled by some angry invisible troll, jerks the plate under your backside. When this happens, and there’s no telling when it will, you had better hold on because woe to the unlucky soul who falls down. You might get run over by a large man from Aberdeen shouting incoherent brogue at you. Well, that’s what happened to me anyway.

Since then I had skied only twice. This was when my sister—who seemed to be actively seeking out ski-areas to tempt, or possibly taunt, her brother—lived in a state that could be considered one big ski-resort, Colorado. We wanted to try the sport of cross-country skiing which seemed so genteel, so refined. We imagined skiing over pristine and unspoiled country-side, marveling at vistas and peaks. When our day-excursions were over we would traverse a virgin slope to the lodge where alcohol laced hot-chocolate drinks awaited. You know, like in the flashback scene in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

Unfortunately for that to happen you have to be a native of Norway or at least be familiar with a few techniques involved in cross-country skiing. We were neither. We were smart enough however to start with lessons. The lessons were helpful but woefully lacking in vistas, peaks, traverses or alcohol laced hot-chocolate drinks. We took our lesson in a little clearing, tucked safely away from any “real” skiers. I remember one point when the instructor was introducing techniques on how-not-to-fall-down my sister, as if on cue, promptly fell down. She was at a complete standstill. Our family, I’m happy to say, has never been one to stand on pride, or on solid ground for that matter.

The area where I would return to all this winter joy was in the northwest portion of Virginia. The resort has the innocuous name of Wintergreen. We bucked family consensus by even going up there, as the resort brings unwanted development to a rural part of the state. But judging from the experience we had, the family should have very little worry that we will ever return.

After several years away from the slopes I was uneasy about the fact that there was no beginner’s run. They used to call these 5 degree hills the Bunny Hop or something. Not that I needed it you understand, but sometimes one needs a little time to warm up. Plus I’ve always liked helping novices as they start out; it’s the teacher in me.

It appeared that a long steep dog-leg was the beginner’s run. I steeled myself for what was to come, threw caution to the wind, tried to think of another cliché in the interest of stalling, and started down. To my utter amazement I made it to the bottom without falling, and buoyed by a completely false sense of security I started eyeing the signs with the blue diamonds on them.

The ski-lift was virtually an elevated leather upholstered couch. It gently scooped up four skiers like a benign Ferris-wheel. As we dangled our skis and took in an actual vista or two, I realized that I had finally reached a point of appreciation for this winter sport. I was considering making this my new pastime, jetting off to Tahoe or Aspen to try my luck on a couple of black diamonds with, of course, the alcohol laced hot-chocolate drink waiting for me at every lodge. Experiences from childhood of being ten feet off (and parallel to) the ground after inadvertently skiing up a hidden mogul had mysteriously left my mind. The little Scottish Frisbee on the bent pole seemed to have never existed. I was, at last, a skier.

For about hour. After practicing all the techniques I could remember from the youth group trips and cross-country skiing, I began to get bored. For those of you who have never skied and are planning to try it, let me give you one piece of advice—never, ever, get bored. This one phenomenon has probably caused more broken bones, more widowed wives, and more orphaned children than any other element of skiing. If you do get bored find something to divert your attention that is not ski-related. Whatever you do don’t decide, like I did, to “take it to the next level.”

Before starting out I decided to consult with my sister.

“I think I’m going to try that slope there.”
“Which one?”
“That one, the Eagle Swoop.”
“Oh, but isn’t that a blue diamond?”
“Yea, but I think I can handle it.”
“Are you sure?”

Just at that moment a ten-year-old girl came skiing down the Eagle Swoop.

“Yes, I think I can handle it, unless you don’t think I can handle it.”
“I think it’s up to you to know if you can handle it.”
“Yea, but I want to know what you think.”
“I don’t know.”
“Well I think I’m going to try it.”
“Really, you think so.”
“Only if you’re sure.”
“I’m sure…I think.”

Anyway, this went on for several moments until finally I had said so much that there was no going back, I had to do it. I went in search of the ski-lift.

There was definitely a steep learning curve between the beginner ski-lift and this one. Green wooden single-seaters with peeling paint swung-around like those rubber ducks at a shooting gallery, and as I stood in line wondering if the sweat on my palms was going to freeze, experience skiers timed their butt placement and were shot up the hill in a series of whip-like jerks. I took mental notes. I managed to get scooped up without incident although I had to adjust quickly as I was lifted off the ground. The lift creaked and groaned me all the way up the slope, and as I neared the top I realized that this was a much more exclusive club than at the bottom of the hill. Before reaching the top I had already identified pedigree skiers with designer gear and attitude. When I skied off the lift I immediately fell-down for the first time that day. A group of skiers regarded me with wrinkled noses. This is how I made my entrance to the top of the hill.

After getting my bearings and deciding to "just go for it" I inched forward. I was the only skier in the immediate radius doing the “snow-plow.” The steepness of the slope voided this common technique that beginners use to slow down, and as I picked up speed, going faster than I ever had without the help of a internal combustion engine, I lifted my right leg off the slope in an effort to turn, and, using language common to my neck-of-the-woods, busted my fucking ass.

I got up, like they always tell you to do, and tried again. Thirty yards later I had done the exact same thing, landing on the exact same spot on my body, my left hip. The third time, same thing. The fourth time was slightly different because I found myself sliding down the mountain, head-first on my back. The fifth time was like the first, second and third times. The sixth time was like the others except when I fell the ten-year-old-girl swooped by me, kicking up snow on my battered body. I was beginning to see why they called it the Eagle Swoop. By the time I made it the bottom I felt as if an eagle had swooped down, picked me up and dropped me onto the pavement from a great height.

My sister met me at the top of the beginner’s hill.
“How did it go?” she asked.
“Pretty well.” I said.

I was not deterred in the least by my first run down the Eagle Swoop. But I rationalized that to have a successful run the next time I had better hone my skills on the beginner's run for a couple of hours or until the slopes closed, whichever came first. That wide dog-leg was looking much less boring to me for some reason. After a couple of runs which found me favoring my right side and wincing with every left turn I became separated from my sister. I thought she must have met up with my girlfriend who had sensibly declined to strap on skis and spent the afternoon shopping, taking photos and drinking hot-chocolate.

As I took the elongated Ferris wheel up the hill once again I noticed an emergency sled stopped half-way down the slope but I couldn’t make out what was going on. When I skied down to the scene I saw my sister sitting on the slope with an emergency team hovered around her. She had fallen on her face somehow. I tried to ski toward her in a professional manner in order to assist, but I had to fall down to stop, thus inspiring no confidence in the emergency crew who hovered closer to my sister as if to protect her from me. Darn, it looked like I wouldn’t have a chance to try the Eagle Swoop again, seeing as my sister was in distress and all.

It turned out that she was alright, but both of us retuned from the resort with numerous bruises and a healthy respect for the combination of mountains, snow and fiberglass. The bruise on my left hip was ten shades of purple. I had a photo made of it but no one should be subjected to a view of my posterior in the full light of day so I will refrain from posting it.

It has been at least five years since that last ski trip. Sometimes the subject comes up when my sister and I get together.
“We should really go back up to Wintergreen sometime.”
“Yea, we really should.”
“Let’s do that.”
“Yep, let’s do that.”
Then the subject changes quickly.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Darling

I’m not going to attempt a long critical analysis of the novel I recently finished, but I want to try to express some prominent "turns-of-emotion" I experienced while reading Russell Banks’ The Darling. I chose this novel after reading a short review of Banks’ latest book The Reserve. The review referenced 2004’s The Darling as a novel set against the atrocities of the Liberian civil war, and because I based my capstone research paper on colonists in Liberia I was drawn to this work of fiction. I wasn’t disappointed, although the events of this novel take place around 140 years after the period I researched. Still, the recent past, as portrayed by Banks, proves more horrific and inexplicable than anything I uncovered about nineteenth-century pedagogy and separatism.

Founded as a quasi-American colony through the patronage of an organization known as the American Colonization Society, Liberia gained independence in 1847. The independence was tenuous and heavily reliant on American aid, with descendants of relocated American slaves being the prominent members of a class-system based along ethnic and genealogical lines. By the mid-twentieth-century Liberia was experiencing a relative period of stability under the leadership of William Tolbert, underwritten by a cash flow from American corporations such as Firestone. (One of Liberia’s key exports is rubber.) From 1980, after the overthrow and murder of Tolbert, until the end of the century Liberia experienced almost two decades of bloody civil war. The country only just gained a marked amount of security with the election of American backed Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Charles Taylor, whom Sirleaf succeeded and whose life-story could be made into an outlaw western if he wasn’t guilty of so many atrocities, is currently standing trial on hundreds of counts of war crimes in the Hague.

The Liberian portion of Banks’ work spans from 1976 until the late-1990 by which time Taylor is leading the country. The narrator is Hannah Musgrave, an ex-1960’s radical who, to escape her stifling upbringing and the FBI’s most wanted list, flees to West Africa with a fellow militant idealist and ends up in Liberia, the wife of the Minister of Health in William Tolbert’s cabinet. Musgrave must endure every indignity in this highly patriarchal culture to remain with her husband and three sons, and as the situation deteriorates Hannah endures far worse. Her only true peace comes when she opens a refuge for abused chimpanzees. She finds solace in the unambiguous nature of these apes, who demand only food, water and company from her. They seem to live at the whim of some inexplicable natural force that dictates they live in the present at all times. This detachment from Hannah’s world compels her to name them her “dreamers.”

This is the first work I’ve read by Banks and I found it an absolutely unique, although not always pleasant, experience. I was halfway through the novel before I came to the conclusion that I was engrossed. I tried not to like it for about 200 pages, but found that I couldn’t put it down. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a novel this length (392 pages) in such a short time. (I won’t tell how long it took to save me some embarrassment from the speed-readers out there). My initial problem was that the narrative builds around meandering reminiscences and explorations-of- feeling by Hannah as she tries to explain her story to the reader and herself. I don’t have much patience for extended self-exploration, unless I’m the one doing it, and the first half of this work has this in spades. There is a great deal of second-guessing, expressions of resentment, regrets and ambiguity that had me zoning out a time or two. But somehow it all seems convincing, as if this is how someone’s brain must work if they have experienced—witnessed—great tragedy.

So when the atrocities take place in the book they come with a force that could only be rivaled by actual events. It has also been a long time since I’ve felt such a physical jolt while reading. Banks’ succeeds in getting the tone and suddenness of brutality, so when the acts of violence come it is as shocking to the reader as to the characters portrayed on the page. I will say here that if these types of descriptions bother you, it's probably best if you avoid this novel. But to me this is the novel’s greatest achievement. The Darling unmasks how the brutality-of-war and the reality-of-death shakes us from our own dreams, dreams built on self-delusion, faulty ideology and filtered news segments, so that the real story of Liberia is contained only in the abrupt downward stroke of a machete.

After I’d finished the novel I went out and rented Hotel Rwanda. I avoided this film when it first came out, I’m not sure why, maybe I just wasn’t ready for this story yet. The movie is good, and I found myself moved, but I also felt that as hard as it tries it just isn’t as good as it needs to be. There is hope, and a hero, and a happy ending and nothing can get the attention of the West like that combination, but something about this movie and the 1,000,000 lives lost during Rwanda’s crises didn’t seem to connect. Still, there is a point that the filmmakers were brave to make. Western society continues to revere Africa as a “less-than” in the world equation. While many of these Westerners also complain of corruption in African countries, I can only guess that corruption is the inevitable step-child of exploitation. We would do better to view Africa for its most valuable commodity, its people.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Thin Man

Can anyone guess that I’m a Bob Dylan fan? I’ve kept the Dylan Watch feature on the left side of my blog for the past three months, and the allure of this artist just keeps getting stronger as I age. If you’re one who can’t stomach someone blathering on about an artist or public figure like they have sole ownership of that figure don’t worry, I’ll spare everybody that. It’s just that I wanted to introduce this next post by drawing attention to the influence of abstract personalities on everyday people, and show, in one detailed example, how this has happened to me.

Sometimes an event can take a person swirling around their very existence and reinforce the theory that linear time is only a man-made invention. The other night I succumbed to yet another new vice called Itunes. This music download website offers thousands of music selections from Bach to The Bonzo Dog Band, which is a good example of how far my musical tastes go in each direction. The biggest problem for me now is not maxing-out my credit card (it’s a scary thing admitting to using your credit card over the internet) downloading obscure concerts by NRBQ and Tom Waits. But the selection beats anything that Borders could even hope to attempt, and to see all that music, at $.99 a song, in one place is just too hard to resist. Yes folks, I’m a consumer sheep.

So I had to download the March 27th 1988 Grateful Dead concert in Hampton Virginia that Itunes sneakily offered. They must have known I’d attended this show and the other two in the three-night-run. The set list for that night was brilliant, but I won’t go into the details because eventually I plan to get to the point of this post, and if I get off on a tangent about the Dead we may never get there.

Well let’s just keep moving forward then and see if we can’t get on the right path. The Dead, during this period, were having a close relationship with Bob Dylan. They had toured with him the year before and had learned many of his songs. The Dylan song they played on March 23rd was the famously bombastic put down of an out-of-place square-peg called “Ballad of a Thin Man,” where the narrator sarcastically sneers these lines at the lost intellectual: “something is happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?” Bob Weir took the vocals and snidely recited this character assassination with contemptuous brutality that surpasses Dylan’s original. It is a pop-culture monument to “othering.”

When I heard this version the other night so much about my twenties came back to me. Not only was I a “thin man,” back then (oh, for those days), I also felt remarkably clueless and out-of-place in the presence of my peers. I remember listening to this song in a friends dorm-room and not only did I feel as if Dylan were singing about me, I also felt that the other people present were reinforcing his words, showing me up as a phony and a poser. Here is one of Dylan’s more cutting verses:

You've been with the professors
And they've all liked your looks
With great lawyers you have
Discussed lepers and crooks
You've been through all of
F. Scott Fitzgerald's books
You're very well read
It's well known

Because something is happening here
But you don't know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

Many may know now that the subject of this song was Jeffery Owen Jones, a film professor. Jones was an intern at Time when he interviewed Dylan in 1965. Presumably Dylan was not impressed. If anyone has seen the interview segment of the film “Don’t Look Back” they know what could happen if Dylan was not impressed. The moral might be never piss off a songwriter, just ask that guy in Alanis Morrisette's song "You Oughta Know."

As for me, the sentiment in “Thin Man,” continued to affect my self-image. I took this insecurity to the Dead show that spring and never felt it so strongly than in the presence of these neo-hipsters. A Dead show could be a great experience, but there were many times when deadheads could be just as elitist and exclusive as the owner of Hollywood hot-spot or a member of an old-money country-club. This was certainly not the rule, but at times I wondered how different this alternative community was to the one they were escaping. They were still hierarchical, judgmental, and a disconcerting amount of them drove late model BMWs. The music always seemed to make up for this though.

The trip to Hampton that year was not an enjoyable one. The general mood, to me, was one of uptight restraint, as frat-boys picked fights with cops who seemed to be at their Southern-redneck worst. The group I was with seemed indifferent to my presence (creating more thin man paranoia) and the first and third night’s concerts plainly sucked. What was worse I was bored, and worried about the classes I was missing in order to be prodded around eastern Virginia to the sound of Jerry Garcia’s rapidly deteriorating voice.

And then, the second night, they played “Ballad of a Thin Man.” I vaguely remember feeling as if insult was being heeped upon injury, and I half expected to have a single spotlight illuminate my skinny frame for the entire song. I don’t know when I’ve ever felt so disillusioned. It was if I was desperately compelled to be there, but at the same time I would have rather been anywhere else. I breathed a sigh of relief when we headed back down to North Carolina.

I can listen to this song now and still feel like an outcast. I suppose I will never lose that insecurity, although I’ve gotten pretty good at telling myself that the outcast stance is a noble and healthy position. But back then I so wanted to belong, even to a group of rich white kids with their parent’s credit cards pretending to be experiencing something “real.” I also know that something is happening and I do know what it is, it just takes some courage and self-respect to understand that.