Friday, March 27, 2009

Out Like a Lamb

March is almost over, and it's come to a head. I think it's going to pop today.

This month has been the most harrowing, all out, balls-to-the-wall scholastic (and extra-scholastic) experience of my undergraduate career. And I think I'm ready for the focus of grad school now!

With help from too few of my philosophy club members, I'm completing the lobby display for the school's theater production of Horton Foote's "Habitation of Dragons" today. We titled the display "What is Tragedy?" and used Greeks and Elizabethans to explain why people like to watch such horrid business unfold. Aristotle says it's cathartic. Nietzsche says it gets us in touch with the chaos of nature, our Dionysian side.

Whatever it does, I'll find out tonight because I'm an actor in the play too, and it's opening night. I've a fairly big part. I'm on stage most of the time until I take my anti-climactic leave (most characters have memorable, bleary-eyed goodbyes) to make way for the play's climax.

Finally, the club is hosting the pre-show discussion next Wednesday, an Aurora University tradition for the show's first night back. It looks like I will be doing most of the talking (with copious help from our faculty advisor). And I'll be in costume, because there's no other way. I hope nothing falls on anyone's head because of my violation of theatrical superstitions.

All this while planning next month's club functions. None of them require any manual labor on the part of my unwilling tribe, so hopefully there will be a resurgence of involvement. I have rallied these kids left and right, provided them with food, given them things to do and things to talk about within a fairly organized framework. And nothing much has happened. This mounting stress over my thankless presidency has made a month that could have been busy-fun into busy-madness.

This whirlwind of activities has gotten me behind in my schooling, but luckily for me most professors in the humanities have existential conflicts about giving bad grades to smart kids. Not to mention, they all enjoy the theater, and most appreciate my tireless efforts to get other students involved in non-scientific modes of being. So I am pretty safe.

In my philosophy courses (Modern Political Philosophy and Philosophy of Aesthetics -- German Romanticism) we have moved now into the 20th century thinkers. For the first time since declaring that philosophy minor I have had trouble articulating my thoughts on the readings. Heidegger's "In Poetry Man Dwells..." and Schmitt's seemingly outmoded political theologies have me grasping for word-straws. I haven't decided if this is because the "moderns" (like the poets) are difficult across the board, or because I am living in a tunnel visioned sort of dream world these past weeks.

It's probably a bit of both. Heidegger is well known for his difficulty, yet I feel we are kindred spirits (in philosophical thought, not in political leanings). He loves him some language. So I think my poor articulation in discussing this last essay was from sheer exhaustion. I actually had that feeling I've heard about where one wants to scream "I don't get it!" Luckily I didn't jump the gun and utter those terrible words aloud. I'm sure I do get it now. But it was quite a world-blasting few moments I had there when I didn't!

Schmitt, on the other hand, is very easy to read. I think I actually have some clear thoughts on him -- that he is outmoded and not all that relevant -- and these are the very thoughts that keep me from wanting to talk about him very much. But after next week, I'll be done with the madness and I'll find out what's really going on in all these books I'm reading.

So March has come to its fruition I suppose, after weeks of tilling the rocky soils of this career-oriented, non-humanist campus. The fruits may not be of the highest quality, owing to the adverse environmental conditions here, but they will taste sweet to me beause my own grunts, groans and sighs of labor and thought are bound up in them.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Le premier étage, part deux

I am on the second floor again (first floor in France, remember?), in the bibliothèque. This time I won't talk about procrastination or stalling. This is a warm-up.

I'm writing about Hamlet, and comparing a couple of essays that use specific types of criticism to interpret the play. I chose two that I think can be reconciled and even complement one another: Marxism and New Historicism. The critics who wrote these essays didn't just do a bland interpretation by the book of their school of crit. They both have specific ideas about the world of Hamlet and how it relates to political and social upset of the time.

The Marxist has Denmark turning into a giant carnival. Carnival, that is, in the celebratory social order turned upside-down sense where you can get away with things during masquerade. Think Mardi-Gras. This is a recurring theme in discussions of Elizabethan literature. Those critics of the early modern period love them some Carnival. And this Mike Bristol fellow digs it more than most. His essay is titled after some foodstuffs mentioned once in the play, the "funeral bak'd-meats."

The New Historicist also takes a narrow focus on the Danish court, and looks at the circular relationship between madness and treason. Must one be mad to commit treason? Does one go mad because of treasonous thoughts? Or is "mad" the label that is applied to anyone who acts up, as an explanation of their behavior? The last option is most likely. Hamlet's madness is feigned at first, but as Claudius becomes suspicious, Claudius makes sure everyone knows Hamlet is mad. Hamlet is labeled mad, and possibly becomes even more mad because of this mess. This correlates with the court practice in England at the time. Anyone who threatened the queens authority could be proclaimed mad, and treated accordingly (which usually meant beheading). Madness is used as control, and the label becomes a reality as the politics unfold.

I passed on writing about the Freudian psychoanalytic essay --
although, the bedchamber scene is a good'n.

I thought the madness essay was better than the bak'd-meats one, but it can borrow some of the carnival to flesh it out. I'm thinking that just as Carnival is the excuse for (temporary) social upset, madness is the monarch's "excuse" for why someone would cause social upset except on a holiday! The paragraphs above were summary of the secondary texts. What follows is my preliminary attempt to synthesize them.

The madness/treason circle in the New Historicism essay is explained above, but there is a circle in the meats essay too: Carnival for the monarch and Carnival for the subject. When a nobleman uses Carnival to raise his status, he has appropriated it for himself. Carnival is supposed to be for everyone. That's the point. The entire political system being based on a Carnivalesque foundation (an incestous "o'erhasty" marriage ) leads to real chaos, not just a masquerade ball.

Hamlet also has his own private Carnival (his mask of madness) which leads him to his death. Claudius is perfectly willing to create social upset for his own gain, but cannot accept it from his nephew/step-son. At first opportunity, the madness label is applied to Hamlet because he refuses to join in Claudius' carnival (Hamlet's excessive mourning, black clothes) and because Claudius needs a good explanation for his subjects as to why his joyous marriage and happy monarchy are not delighting the prince of Denmark. The only person who could resist the festivities of this happy time is a madman. Hamlet is mad, so when the king tacks treason onto his public suspicions about the boy, no one doubts that it is true.

There is an interplay of two conceptual pairs here (social upset/social order, madness/treason). This is what always happens to me. It's easier to deal with one pair of things. But I always have four things with crazy relationships. Well, this paper is supposed to synthesize two essays, or prove them irreconcilable. We'll see which of those things happen as I actually start to write it.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Winter Reading

I wore celery green shoes with no socks today and I was rewarded with 29 degrees. So be it.

This is my spring break but I can't do much breaking in this weather. I assumed that would be the case, so I checked out eight books on my first day off.

Much Ado About Nothing
Richard III
Merchant of Venice
The Friendly Shakespeare
On the Road
Gulliver's Travels
Borges' The Aleph and Other Stories
Heidegger's Poetry, Language, and Thought

Some of them have school importance, and some are for fun. But looking at my stack of books, and at the rotating piles of books that slipped in and out of my bag for the first half of the term, I began to wonder what idiot coined the term "summer reading." I get the most reading done in winter.

Does anyone have time to read eight books at once in the summer? And even if they did enjoy a lazy summer, would they have the focus to read? Nothing heavy anyway.

Perhaps in "summer reading" there is an implied ease-of-reading, a promise that nothing on the list (whether it is assigned or self-assigned) will be too intense. But it can't really be a long list either. Because the plane rides and the brief beach pauses are the only times to read. The rest of the summer is constant movement, or purposeful stillness; a stillness that even page-scanning eyes would interrupt.

I know people expect themselves to read in the summer. We all make lists. I have one too. I'm using this summer to fill in the holes for my GRE Literature in English subject test. I need to brush up on my multicultural writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and my American poets like William Carlos Williams. I think those are realistic goals. Fiery Colombian storytellers and moody poets sound like fun. I don't plan on reading anything philosophical or analytical or long. War and Peace can sit on the shelf for another nine months.

We make these lists but we all know that this kind of stuff, the inward heady stuff, takes care of itself in winter. In winter you don't even need a list. There's always time to read and the reading gets done.

For student, the cold months are also heavy with assigned reading. For school I've read over seven hundred pages of Marx this semester, and well over a thousand of political philosophy altogether. Also, scores of critical essays and they texts those essays were concerned with, including Milton's lengthy and soporific Paradise Lost, and a whole book on how to be a formalist. Throw in a few short novels and a thick book of metaphysical poetry, and that only brings me to midterm. Jesus Christ, I totally forgot about German Romanticism, Hegel, and Nietzsche on aesthetics.

Do I intend to read like this in the summer? I have to say, no effen way. Not even if it was assigned.

So I think the term "summer reading" was coined with the best of intentions. Teachers wanted to make use of those three months away, to get the students ready for next year. No one ever finished the list, except maybe in third grade when the selections included Bunnicula and The Secret Garden. And then when those third graders are sixty-five and on the beach with no intention of swimming, they might start catching up with the list again.

I think adults who tack books on their list all year must do so with a sense of irony. Summer reading is an awfully romatic notion for us. We think we can balance our summer sensuality with some culture. But it doesn't really work that way. So often, "I'll put it on my summer reading list..." is followed with a chuckle.

The solution to this problem of book list neglect is to face facts and title the list "winter reading." If there is something that truly needs to be read, a classic that you know you should have under your belt, or a difficult book you have never made it through, this is a wintertime project. The thousand page novels, the epic poems, the late Shakespeare, Proust, anything by a philosopher -- read it now while it's cold out, or save it for next year.

Anything marked for summer should be light and easy, maybe with the exception of some heavy poetry for late nights. Straightforward novels of the twentieth century, spiritual and lyrical stuff, a book of short stories, the occasional Victorian treat. This is the stuff of summer reading. If you select something from each of the categories I mentioned, take care not to expect yourself to finish.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Bengal Gram and Other Edible Treasues

So often I come back to food. Usually my food musings are really yearnings inspired by hunger and boredom. But today, a big yellow bowl of bengal gram dumplings is my muse. Bengal gram is what they call chickpeas in India. These little chunks are like squishy falafel floating in yellow currry. Mmm-mmm.

I often think this thought: "I like almost any food I can think of yet so many people out there are picky eaters. What's wrong with them?"

When I say "any food" I mean foods that would be served in some corner of the United States. And maybe a few outlying delicacies. There are unimaginable foods, I'm sure, eaten in the wilds of Africa or on the shores of Ecuador that I would not care to sample. But as far as the ethnic fare I've been exposed to goes, I dig all of it.

Fried Guinea Pig -- An Ecuadorian Treat

But I'm not just talking ethnic food either. Even though I still hold that people who refuse to try sushi or Indian food or whatever are just being big babies, these people also refuse to eat things like mushrooms or celery or avocados.

I understand that everyone's palate is different, and I respect rigid food choices that are made for health reasons. But the refusals I see happen every day are not educated or health concsious ones, but childish "eeew!" reactions. I too have foods that I like more that others or that I would rather not eat if something else is available. But I can't think of anything I would completely refuse if nothing else was available, save meat (and that's not because I don't like it).

Since the internet loves lists, here we go.

Foods I like that many college kids don't eat:
Indian food
Thai food
Hummus and other Middle Eastern salads like Mama Ganoush, Tabouli, Tahini sauce...
The icky vegetables (broccoli, spinach, raw tomatos, etc)
Fancy beer
Unsweetened soymilk
Flavored waters with no sweeteners
Honest Teas (5g sugar, compared to Lipton's 24g)
Hot Tea

The only foods I can think of that I would rather not eat:
Meat (I'm a vegetarian, otherwise I'd be all over it. And when I did eat it I liked weird stuff like Prosciutto and goose liver pate)
Eggplant (No one ever cooks it right, but I can take it in Baba Ganoush.)
Chips (I am always thirsty and they just make it worse. They do taste good though.)
Raw Squid (I tried it several times before I made it official that I don't like it.)

Many people are much pickier than that. Some have arrived at their decisions by trial and error, but many have not based their rejections on any developed sense of taste. They flat out refuse foods that contain one unfamiliar or pungent ingredient, and deaden their mouth senses even more by eating repetitively and by consuming flavor-engineered processed foods. The same people can't eat or drink things that don't have added sugar, because they can no longer taste natural sweetness. The same people end up in the bathroom if they eat a few fresh vegetables.

Another list.

What the girls in line at the "Cart" (our snack stand at school) always buy:
Cherry Pepsi
Bagel with four cream cheeses
Mountain Dew
Frosted Flakes bowl
Technicolor yogurt bowl
Fluorescent orange Buffalo chicken chunks
Coffee with ten creamers (the older students)

So I guess I am blaming the destruction of the American palate on the food industry. Scores of kids grow up drinking Sunny D and eating chicken nuggets with ketchup, and their tastes never develop beyond adopting the adult versions of these foods -- sports drinks and KFC and any tomato based sauce. It's as if people who don't eat this crap can handle stronger flavors (i.e. curry, pates) as well as more delicate flavors (i.e. cucumber water), and appreciate both.

Eating crappy stuff has begun to have a cool factor as well, which in the age and land of cool doesn't help matters. If you're in the car with your buddies and you refuse McDonald's, telling them you need to stop off at the health food store and grab a vegan burrito to-go, you won't hang around with those buddies long. As for the popularity of fast-food salad these days, I think it's laced with something.

I can't get into the whole food conspiracy here. It's an evil industry and we'll leave it at that. My favorite health food store is in Tucson, Arizona and it's call Food Conspiracy Co-op. I am not sure if they are referring to themselves as a haven from the enemy (the processed food conspiracy), or as the counter-culture conspirators who smuggle healthy food into town. Probably both.

I just wish young people (and some older people too!) could get past their fears of ethnic, unsweetened, raw, or strongly naturally flavored foods. I am embarrassed for them. And so are my bengal gram dumplings.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Do You Believe in Adulthood?

Today, in the unseasonable March warmth, I had a brief intimation of adulthood. I can't pinpoint what triggered it, but I can tell you how it went.

I walked to my car, after finding out class had been canceled and Spring Break was getting an early start. After exchanging comments of relief with a passing classmate, I pulled my keys out of my jacket pocket with a little flick of the wrist and swung my bag back around behind me. As I stuck the key in the door, I suddenly felt like I was being filmed. And that on the film, I would look like a reasonably attractive twenty-eight year old who knows how to open a car door.

What I mean by that is this: I am ten years into my majority, and I still feel like a child. Fairly often. I enjoy the advantages of being young at heart, such as not being afraid to dance in public, or make funny sound effects that describe people's actions (when the situation calls for it). But I do not enjoy the lack of confidence and overactive self-consciousness that besets me at times. It's not usually apparent on the surface. And it's certainly not debilitating. But I must admit diminishes my quality of life, ever so slightly, and in subtle ways every now and then. And it may be the reason I am still an undergraduate student at 28. The fleeting thought that a person passing me on the street could pick up confidence and maturity from my simple key-flinging moves really got me thinking.

I do things all the time that require confidence. I landed myself a great part-time job. I bought a house. I audition for plays. I offer help to strangers. I founded and preside over a club at school. I plan events. I go talk to professors about things without being invited. I submit writing to be published.

I think the big reason I am feeling so backwards about this (my adulthood) is that I am at a very different stage in my career than many twenty-eight-year-olds.

I went to a gifted school as a kid, before I moved to Arizona. Almost every friend I had there has grown up to be and do something mind-boggling. My best friends from fifth grade? One is now in politics and helps stop human trafficking and crimes against women in eastern Europe. She even worked for Interpol! The other is a Senior something or other (Senior sure is fancy though) at a huge enterprise management company. My little "boyfriend" from fifth grade went to MIT. He is now a molecular biologist and still lives high on the hog in Massachusetts. The older brother of my friend at the management corporation? He grew up to be gorgeous, and now has a TV show on the Travel Channel. I had the same education as these boys and girls right up until the eighth grade. And then I went to Tucson.

Should I blame Arizona? No one I went to high school with there has done any more than I have. My AZ friends are just as intelligent as my old Maryland friends who made it big. But they have regular working-class jobs and struggle with paying for school (or deciding whether to continue) just like I do. I know some of you may read this, and I'm not saying any thing bad about any of us. I'm just wondering how much a high school's reputation or a hometown name or capitalism has to do with this. And if those factors are what lead to confidence -- the very confidence I and my AZ friends are sometimes lacking, even if we have no real reason to doubt ourselves.

Forgive my rambling, but I am sorting this one out as I write. It's true that the quality of my schooling declined after eighth grade, but my "quality of mind" did not. What fostered this lack of confidence that may have led me to leave college after my first year, to my inability to create artwork under pressure at art school, to assume, now, that my professors won't like what I write even though I've been writing essays for over ten years?

I want to be a Marxist and say "economy!" My life story screams "product of material conditions." My dad was a truck driver and my mom mowed golf courses. I lived in a trailer park for seven years. Sounds convincing, but I can't ignore the other data I have to draw on. My AZ friends had more means than I and were not first generation college students like myself. While they did not grow up ridiculously rich like my Maryland friends, they were middle class at least, and two of them have successful lawyers for parents. But now we are all even-Steven. So perhaps we are all just products of Tucson schools and a Tucson environment?

The only conclusion I can arrive at is this: that every adult has a lack of confidence at times, but they know how to suppress it or overcome it. My friends from the affluent DC suburbs are masters at this, just like when they were kids. They can wear this confidence mask because they've always had support. And I think I wear it every day too, as I write articles for work, stand and deliver lines on-stage, or talk to a professor about a project. My mask is fashioned from a life of striving, of pride in coming from nothing.

But I have never been able to do this on a grand scale, as in, when considering a life-altering decision such as a school or a career. The mask gets sweaty and it has to come off. The great confidence that I have in my ability to become an English professor is a new thing. Maybe I am growing up. Maybe that's my real face that's smiling at the prospects. Or maybe I can smile that way about it because there's about six more years before I'll actually have to face the outcome! I'll be a grown-up by then. I think.

So, applying to grad schools is going to be a big test for me. Let's see if I can aim as high as is appropriate (adults are realistic you know) without holding myself back as I have done all these years. And I hope that all my wonderful friends from Arizona will do the same when they consider their returns to college.