Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Transformations

One morning I logged onto a Webcam about 20 minutes before the local dawn. This Webcam is in a semi-rural area, where there is artificial light but not like in the city, so the field of view was dark gray. I left the window open and returned to it five minutes later. It was still grey and amorphous, but now I could see the movement of a train—not the train itself, no details, just the movement.

I forgot about it for a while, then came back to it a moment or two after sunrise. It was an overcast day there, but in only 20 minutes all had become brightly lit, with sharp details. It was night and day, literally and figuratively.

Only a few days before, I had been observing the area through the same Webcam an hour before sunset. In what seemed like no time at all, the view, which had been glaring with sunset, became impenetrably dark.

In both cases, there was a great sense of change, of something remarkable having happened. Yet it occurs every day, twice a day, night transformed into day, day into night. It is so regular that we take it for granted. It is so extraordinary that the experience is both amazing and moving.

Those who miss it because they are asleep, at work, online, watching television, or otherwise occupied, miss one of the few natural opportunities left to the urban/suburban dweller—the rhythm of the planet, the solar system, the stars, the galaxy, the universe. No matter how tedious our lives become, how smothered by the mundane and the senseless, even the hopeless, there is always the wonder of the sunrise, slowly waking the diurnal world, and the sunset, slowly waking the nocturnal one. Even if we cannot change everything that troubles us, whether it is work, family, spouse, money, or the simple boredom of everyday life, the sunrise and the sunset remind us that there is beauty in change and that we can experience the wonder of that beauty every day if we choose.

When Scarlett O'Hara says, "Tomorrow is another day" in Gone with the Wind, she's refusing to give in or give up. I don't have that indomitable spirit of optimism, of belief that tomorrow will be better or even that it could be better. I no longer have faith that it will hold opportunities that were not available today. That has not been my experience, and my spirit has lost its elasticity, its ability to bounce back and to shake its fist at the world.

But tomorrow is another day—another day with the mystical transformations of light, transformations that prove that change is not only possible, but that it is inevitable. And beautiful. And that makes me ache for it even more.

I will be up before dawn tomorrow.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Review: The Complete Claudine

The Complete Claudine by Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. Highly recommended.

  • Claudine at School
  • Claudine in Paris
  • Claudine Married
  • Claudine and Annie

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette wrote the Claudine novels when she was in her late twenties, when she was young enough to remember the single-mindedness and bitterness of adolescent fixations and old enough to have acquired the tempered wisdom and understanding of experience. Through Claudine's eyes, the reader sees how the unreserved passion of the young must, of necessity, burn itself out or be transformed into a more lasting love that expresses itself more deeply and less dramatically to ensure its own survival.

Not surprisingly, Claudine at School is the most delightful of the series. Our narrator is full of life and mischief, and never fails to indulge in scathing commentary on anything within her limited countryside range—the licentious superintendent of schools, the weak and pretentious assistant masters, and the assistant mistress and head mistress who are literally joined at the lip and hip. Claudine's barbs find targets in everyone, including her father, her former wet nurse and servant, and her best friends.

Like her creator, Claudine is a sensualist. She loves that which appeals to her senses, not necessarily her heart or her mind. Claudine craves her first "love," the assistant schoolmistress Aimée Lathenay, for her "slim waist," "lovely eyes," "golden eyes with their curled-up lashes," "complexion," and "supple body" that "seeks and demands an unknown satisfaction." Mademoiselle Lathenay proves her faithlessness quickly, and Claudine makes an abrupt transition from gushing would-be lover to "a chill that froze me." Astute and precocious, Claudine recognizes that Aimée's nature is "frail and egotistical, a nature that likes its pleasures but knows how to look after its own interests." Claudine, calling the loss a "great disappointment," seems to understand that the battle has not been for the love of Aimée, but for her possession.

Also like Colette, Claudine seems to sense that sexual relationships between women, a recurring motif throughout the four novels, are somehow incomplete. At this age, however, Claudine does not yet have the experience to make the comparison to a relationship with a man, especially since the men she knows are primarily her single-minded father, the silly assistant masters and the licentious superintendent.

Claudine soon learns what it's like to be the object of unrequited adoration and submissiveness, and protests—too much—that she doesn't like it coming from Aimée's younger sister.

Despite the 19th-century setting and the adult themes, Colette has captured the essence of the adolescent experience—the testing of authority and its limits, sexual exploration and emotions, interest in the things of the senses, a more realistic view of adults and their foibles, and a sense of being caught between the familiar comforts of childhood and the frightening prospect of adulthood. It's fascinating to watch Claudine slowly realize that she is not the sophisticate that she tries to project to adults and her peers, that there is more to life, love, and sex than she can glean from her racy books.

Claudine in Paris takes Claudine—and the reader—away from the country village of Montigny, to Paris, where Claudine will finally experience the delusions, illusions, deceits, ecstasies, and cruelties of adult love and lust. She, who naturally dominates women, longs to be dominated by a man, her husband. In Paris, in the adult world, and in the world of marriage, Claudine becomes less sure of herself as part of maturing. It is in this milieu, where her stepson poses for his portrait as a Byzantine queen, where her husband indulges her tastes (and then his), and where sex is a form of currency between those who want and those who have, that Claudine learns the distinctions between lust and love, the practical, the sensual, and the romantic. When her marriage is threatened by her desires and her husband's encouragement, she finally discovers what love is—and is not.

Claudine and Annie is a departure in the series; it is the only one of the four novels that is told by a different narrator, the housewife Annie. In some ways, it's more interesting than Claudine in Paris and Claudine Married because Annie is a powerful narrator in her own way, who loses her innocence when her husband goes away to collect an inheritance. In his absences, she sees how she has been subjugated as well as the crassness of her acquaintances, including her practical, faithless, domineering, money-grubbing sister-in-law. As she sees more of that from which her husband protected her—for his own selfish reasons—she experiences the paradoxical need to escape and to see more (not unlike Claudine in Claudine Married).

In this novel, Claudine has become a background figure whose voice is for the most part rare and strangely muted. The reader, who has watched Claudine mature and grow, can imagine how Claudine might have told this tale from the outside. At the same time, the strength of the Claudine novels lies in her voice and perspective, and in her catty observations, sarcasm, ironic wit, sensuous descriptions, and unique personality. In that sense, Claudine and Annie is an anticlimax—a loss to the reader of the Claudine we had come to appreciate (if not always like) in her prime. With her earlier return to Renaud, Claudine has lost her edge, which is only hinted at in Claudine and Annie.

The Claudine novels are filled with wonderful characters, including her unforgettable father and her equally unforgettable white cat, Fanchette. The Complete Claudine is a great read for Colette's distinctive voice and insights and for the view it provides of turn-of-the-century rural France and urban Paris. You may not always like Claudine (or Colette), but she never fails to entertain and to say that which is worth hearing.

Sunday, 29 January 2006.
© 2006 by Diane L. Schirf.

The anachronistic word processor

My first (and worst) full-time job was as the proofreader in a then Big 8 accounting/consulting firm's word processing department, proofing benefit plan documents, actuary's reports, responses to RFPs, etc. The word processors (people) used primitive stand-alone machines called Vydecs; enormous, flimsy floppy disks (the origin of "floppy," no doubt); and a printer that utilized daisywheels. This wasn't state of the art, even for 1983.

The professional staff, as they were known, used a mainframe computer with workstations in a central computer room to perform calculations, manage databases, and so forth. They also maintained hard copy workpapers as a paper trail. To revise or create new documents, they photocopied previous or similar ones and marked them up. The word processors would store the new document on one of the flimsy, oversized floppies, which I think could hold up to 30 pages per side. They were prone to failure, as were the machines. The Vydec repairman was a frequent guest in our office.

At some point in the 1980s, perhaps about the same time we moved to another building, we changed over to personal computers and WordPerfect (DOS). The word processors spent many hours converting Vydec disks. Later, because of a client relationship, we switched to the indescribably awful AmiPro, then to Microsoft Word.

As time passed, more individuals were given their own PCs at their desks (rather than sharing those in the computer room. For the most part, staff still marked up documents, and the relative ease and speed with which they could be produced and sent (via FedEx overnight) contributed to an increase in volume for the word processing center, which expanded.

With more new hires who were comfortable with computers, typing, and editing, slowly most people started writing their own documents on their own computers, coming to word processing only to have them "cleaned up" and finalized. The business of the word processing center waned, and a once-indispensable service became almost superfluous within a matter of a year or two. The proofreader who had replaced me spent half or more of each day reading books.

Someone had the questionable idea of transforming the word processors into graphic designers, as though access to QuarkXPress and graphics software was all it took, as though this weren't a specialized skill, like a dental hygienist becoming an orthodontist on the job and on the fly. At about the same time, someone came in to manage document processing as though it were a combination of graphic design and word processing. I have the impression that people were unhappy with the results, that there were personnel, workflow, and quality issues (all problems that you want your high-priced business consultant to have).

My understanding is that ultimately all of the department-specific word processing groups were centralized. If that still exists, I wouldn't be surprised if more attempts had been made to outsource the function, just as many organizations outsource mail and supply centers, copying, scanning, and so forth. With Microsoft Word templates, e-mail, and notebook computers, along with BlackBerrys and the like, it's even likely that there's no longer a need for any word processing function.

I remember the times that I went to work on Saturdays, even Sundays, to spend hours marking up documents in red pen, then verifying that the necessary changes had been made with the word processor and the project lead, while partners and managers continued to refine the scope, offering, verbiage, and numbers. Today I would mostly likely receive documents at home via e-mail or through connecting to a company intranet. I would redline them and e-mail them back or upload them for the next person to review. That person would accept or reject changes and make additional substantive edits—possibly from his or her home, too. What was once a painful, frustrating, laborious process is, I would hope, now more streamlined, efficient, and nonintrusive on personal time.

This was only nine or ten years ago. Much about how we work has changed. Everything is "teamwork" and "collaboration," even though it really isn't. There are no more secretaries who type and file; there are administrative and executive assistants who often have the inside track for operations positions. I wonder how many word processors are left—perhaps in law firms? But I wouldn't be surprised to find out that it had become an anachronistic profession, like chimney sweep. The irony is that the technology that created the profession has led to its demise.

On the other hand, 23 years ago very few people could write and spell well, and that has not changed. Even if the need for proofreaders and copyeditors is not admitted or acknowledged, it still exists. More documents, more pages, more words—more errors.

After reading some of the work produced in the new era, however, I wonder if anyone cares. Maybe proofreading and copyediting are anachronistic as well.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Pain management

"Take two aspirin and call me in the morning."

The other night I was on the phone with a friend when suddenly I felt cold. Cold to the bone. Corpse cold. Complete with uncontrollable shivering and chattering teeth. The room's temperature was 72ºF, but I turned on the heat, put on socks, and wrapped myself from head to toe in a quilt and two blankets—and shivered for another hour or two before falling asleep briefly. Then I woke up hot. My skin felt like I'd been broiling over an open flame. I shed the blankets and socks, turned off the heat, turned on a fan, and took my temperature. It was just short of 102ºF (for me, normal is about 96.8ºF). I took a Unisom (at about 2:00 a.m.) and woke up long enough to call in sick.

I went through the same thing later in the day, around 1:00 p.m.—chills, shivering, chattering, inability to warm up.

Naturally, when I felt like I could crawl out from under the blankets, I staggered to the computer and looked up things like "chills," "shivering," and "fever" on several health care sites, which helpfully suggested that "shivering" and "chattering" should prompt an immediate call to my doctor's office, as though this were a serious medical condition.

Except that my doctor is not available at 10:00 p.m. or 2:00 a.m. or most of the other times that my body stages one of these rebellions. He's also not available on Wednesdays, or during several other weekday hours. Physicians spread themselves out among offices and hospitals and rarely seem to have established, 9–5 hours at any of them. They tend to be elusive at 2:00 a.m. as well.

In fact, the only way for me to see a doctor immediately would be to go to the emergency room. Of course, you shouldn't go to the emergency room unless you've been shot in the head or a vital organ, protruding bones are making dressing and other daily activities difficult, your body temperature has ignited a three-alarm fire, or your heart is in the throes of arrest (in which case I'm not sure you how you motivate it to tick long enough to get you to emergency).

I've heard rumors of "urgent care" centers at hospitals for serious, non-life-threatening illnesses and injuries, but I can't say I've witnessed any in action. I did go, admittedly in desperation, to the doctors' office center at my hospital (which I shall not name) with such searing pain in both shoulders that several people in the waiting area were alarmed by my (presumably blanched) appearance and offered to get help. The woman at the desk, professional that she is, was unimpressed by my pleas. "You can't see a doctor without an appointment," she said firmly. If I had fainted at that point, my odds might have become slightly better, but I am not sure.

The same hospital has a sign posted with patient rights, one of which is: "You have the right to have your pain managed." This is true—but only after you've made an appointment with your doctor and your time has come.

I did try to go through channels once, when I had a fever and a strep infection. For hours, it felt likes someone was twisting a pumpkin carving knife in my throat and inner ear. I've discovered that, for me, pain is cumulative—I can stand a high amount for a while, but after a few hours and after nausea has set in, my fevered mind starts to wonder if there will be an end to it that isn't a self-inflicted end to all pain and if there isn't something someone could do for me—say, a doctor.

At 2:00 a.m., as noted, non-emergency doctors are scarce, so I did the next best thing; I called the CIGNA hotline or helpline or Nurseline (I don't remember the name; I was sick). Between fits of pain-induced nausea and involuntary tears and sobs, I explained the problem and how it was hindering things like breathing, sleeping, etc. I think I conveyed a sense of urgency and even anxiety about the pain. She (correctly) told me it didn't warrant an emergency room visit, but I could take aspirin/acetaminophen/ibuprofen and cough drops ("the numbing ones, like Sucrets"). And I should drink something warm and soothing. This sounded wonderful in theory, but the usual OTCs aren't that effective at a certain threshold of pain. I didn't happen to feel up to taking a stroll down to the 24-hour Walgreens for Sucrets just then, and the effect of any liquid or other substance in my throat was similar to that of salt on freshly flayed flesh. The nurse was kind and understanding, but kindness and understanding don't produce a physician with a prescription pad.

"Call your doctor in the morning." I did, because it was one of the days he was in. There weren't any times available that day, but I was fortunate to get an appointment for late afternoon the following day. He took a peek in the offending ear and down my raw throat, and produced the magic prescription pad. After three doses of antibiotic, I could breathe and drink without crying or feeling nauseated. I was virtually pain free.

I did have a right to have my pain managed, after all.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Review: The Oxford Book of Short Stories

The Oxford Book of Short Stories ed. by V. S. Pritchett. Recommended.

In his introduction to The Oxford Book of Short Stories, V. S. Pritchett discusses the short story's "relatively new and still changing form," an odd statement since one could make a case that the short story is ancient, whether in oral or written form. For his anthology of short stories written in English, Pritchett draws on approximately two centuries and writers from several countries, including the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Canada, India, and New Zealand.

Pritchett suggests that an anthology is bound to be a matter of personal taste. When I began reading this particular anthology, I learned that Pritchett is a much-respected short story writer, so it's to be assumed that his opinion and his taste are to be respected. Given the difficulties of editing an anthology, which he mentions in the introduction and which include copyright issues as well as the length of a story and how much it has been anthologized, Pritchett has done an adequate job of representing the short story in a relatively short volume.

For me, the problem with this volume—and the "still changing" form of the short story—is alluded to in the last paragraph of the introduction, where Pritchett says, "A modern story comes to an open end." In my opinion, this approach helps to negate the beauty and the power of the short story as distinguished from the novel, that is, "the novel tells us everything, whereas the short story tells us only one thing, and that, intensely."

This point is easily illustrated in great short stories, like Sir Walter Scott's "The Two Drovers" and D. H. Lawrence's "The Rocking-Horse Winner (both surprising choices because they are so often included in anthologies). Unlike Pritchett (and, I would suspect, many others), I do not see "Grace" as a story in which James Joyce's "genius was first signalled"; rather, it's a pointless exercise in tedium, like watching people you don't know doing nothing interesting, that left me feeling I couldn't justify the time wasted reading it. There is nothing "intense" about "Grace," nor about Pritchett's own contribution, "Many Are Disappointed," which is an apt description of my reaction.

When a short story is "intense"—and good—the reader cannot be left feeling indifferent by an "open end." Stories like "The Rocking-Horse Winner," with its straightforward narrative and fable-like simplicity, evoke strong feelings of horror and dread, despite the commonplace setting and people—a household perpetually in growing debt, like so many, and men who indulge in casual horse betting, like so many. The normalcy of the tone underscores the weirdness of the tale. Other stories, like "The Coup de Grâce" (Ambrose Bierce), "Sredni Vashtar" (Hector Hugh Munro, also known as Saki), "An Official Position" (W. Somerset Maugham), "The Woman at the Store" (Katherine Mansfield), "Various Temptations" (William Sansom), and "Parker's Back" (Flannery O'Connor), seared lasting impressions into my mind due to the richness of setting, characterization, situation, and plot. This is the type of story that makes this anthology worthwhile.

Between these gems of the craft are weaker stories that made little if any impact on me. For example, John Updike's "Lifeguard" seems to be a pointless exercise in the author's own wit. The much-touted (and frequently anthologized) "Hills Like White Elephants" (Ernest Hemingway) is also cleverly told and shows the potential of the short story, but left me cold and indifferent. (In fact, I've read this story many times in anthologies and never remember what it's about.) "The Tent" by Liam O'Flaherty shows an "intense" moment, but falls flat. The weaker stories fail to capture the imagination, the heart, or both.

The best stories seem to be those that make use of either quirky humor or underlying suspense and horror. Despite its dark theme, Bret Harte's "The Iliad of Sandy Bar" is humorous, with its two protagonists doing their best to outdo each other after what appears to have been a simple disagreement. Mark Twain's "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," also a favorite of anthology editors, is dry, witty, and folksy and is a good introduction to Twain. Many of the other stories mentioned, plus stories like Robert Louis Stevenson's "Thrawn Janet," are dark, unsettling, and disturbing. You cannot read them and be unaffected.

Indeed, The Oxford Book of Short Stories highlights why the short story format is ideal for humor and horror; these are life's moments of intensity that deserve to be told and heard. For this reason, the stories of the apparently mundane with an open end are the weakest, failing to leave a lasting impression or make an impact.

For someone interested in a very limited overview of the short story in English, this is an adequate book with which to start. I would recommend choosing an author whose story strikes you, for example, a John Cheever ("Goodbye, My Brother") or a Stephen Crane ("The Open Boat") and exploring their work in more depth. Find out what moves you and read more of it.

Sunday, 8 January 2006.
© 2006 by Diane L. Schirf.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Dream: The hidden wood and church

One day near the Flamingo, which may not have been a building but an idea, I found a hidden wood with a church in it. I thought I had heard rumours of it and that the choir area (in the back of the church rather than the front) was haunted. I was in the church when suddenly a Presbyterian service started. At first I was sitting, but then I found myself preferring to stand by the doors. I was bored and wondered how the church could be haunted as any ghosts would be bored. I spotted someone from work in the congregation but she didn't seem to notice me.

Just then a theatrical production started, during which I found myself, no matter where I was, constantly in the way. The production was not on a stage at the front but was fluid throughout the church. At various points, the congregation would face forward, backward, or inward from a circle. Sometimes they would be spread out. By the doors, I would be given various things to hold until someone came along to get the prop. At one point I was holding a weird, tiny animal on a display and shrouded in some kind of web, although it was alive, but the person who took it interrupted the production to say it wasn't a prop; it and several others she had were part of her collection.

Finally, I realized I was flanked on both sides by singers who were about to perform, so I had to get away through the one remaining door; the door next to it had disappeared.

I found myself in a magical park which an upside-down plaque at the bottom of an elaborately detailed sign proclaimed to be, "The Borland Park." Further along I found a mansion called, "The Borland House." There was something about it being the home of a printer. It was very long and either white or pink stucco or some similar "flat" material.

It was all unfamiliar, strange, and beautiful, and like nothing I would ever find.

Sunday, January 8, 2006

Waiting your turn

Once again, I'm writing about parents and children.

I had a visitor over the holidays, which prompted visits to the aquarium, zoo, and museums—the best places for an old, childless curmudgeon to observe parents and their offspring in action. It wasn't too bad, if you don't mind out-of-control children running into you (or over you, if necessary) or little feet kicking the back of your theatre seat for 40 minutes.

Up to a certain age, children are not empathetic creatures. They often do not realize how their behavior and actions affect others. For example, the young son of a friend didn't know that being pinched is very painful until someone pinched him. The child behind me in the museum theatre may have been annoying from malicious motives, but it's possible he didn't know. Kicking chairs is just fun. So is running through crowded areas, screaming, and plowing down strangers.

This is where parents come in, or should.

Many, however, seem to have forgotten that child rearing does come with certain responsibilities beyond basic housing, clothing, and feeding—teaching and disciplining, for example.

I was waiting in line for the women's room when an adorable little girl slyly tried to sneak past everyone in line, one by one. She did not lack empathy, however; she carefully looked at the face of each woman in line to see her reaction. Her mother, who was immediately behind me, timidly asked her to return to her place. She did, but soon snuck up again; her mother called her back. It was a game of seeing how much she could get away with, both with her mother and with the women in line. This went on for a few minutes. Everyone seemed indulgent and tolerant, perhaps because she was so adorable—which she clearly knew. Finally, her mother said flatly, "Hasn't Ms. Mary taught you about waiting your turn in line?" "No," the girl replied (which may or may not be true). "Well," said the mother, now showing the slightest sign of irritation, "Ms. Mary and I need to have a little talk about that."

About what? Judging by this and the rest of the conversation, I would guess "Ms. Mary" to be a teacher or in a teaching role. While she could be expected to reinforce good citizenship in the context of a classroom, e.g., "Don't steal your neighbor's crayons!" and "Wait your turn in line!" it's neither her role nor her responsibility to teach her charges the basics of good behavior. That's what parents are for—to teach their children about right and wrong and the difference between them, how to behave in a social setting, what is acceptable and what is not, and so forth. "Ms. Mary" can reinforce what the kids should already know, but she should be allowed to focus on teaching—ABCs, 123s, art, music, and so forth.

This mother clearly felt that her child's behavior was not her responsibility. More than that, she undermined "Ms. Mary's" authority by criticizing her to one of her charges—the charge for whom she herself is responsible.

It's all very neat. The child isn't responsible because she didn't know any better, and the mother isn't responsible because manners fall into the teacher's domain. And now "Ms. Mary" will get to face a clever child whose mother has affirmed that "Ms. Mary" is in the wrong.

I don't envy "Ms. Mary," who probably faces an entire classroom of similarly empowered children every day. Maybe she doesn't mind, but it could be possible that this is one of the factors that make good people shy away from the teaching profession.

When I was an education volunteer, I assisted with a family workshop. The first half of the paid program was held at my institution; the second half took place at another institution across the grounds and then across the street. Each volunteer was assigned a group to escort. Unlike the others, my group was a single family—father, mother, and two boys who appeared to be a year or two apart in age. A staff person pulled me aside and said, "We hand picked you to lead this family because they've been here before and can be, ummm, difficult, and we decided you would be the best person to handle them." I didn't know whether to feel flattered or hoodwinked (or both!).

It was a chilly, rainy day. Once outside, the boys started running, splashing, and screaming. We had 10 minutes to get to the class, but after a few minutes we were only about one-quarter of the way there. When I looked at the parents, they would talk about previous visits but made little if any effort to appeal to their offspring, not even timidly.

Faced with high expectations of my abilities and unthwarted childishness, I resorted to an unplanned secret weapon: my own childishness.

I stopped in my tracks and announced loudly, "I am NOT moving or taking anyone anywhere until you two settle down and walk with the rest of us." I had the comfort of an umbrella (no one else did), and I'm sure I looked and sounded like I meant it. I did. Mostly.

The little boys recognized a winning ploy when they saw one and, for the most part, walked the rest of the way with us in a docile manner. They even seemed to enjoy the program more, now that they had been persuaded to focus on it.

Meanwhile, I couldn't tell if the parents were relieved, or upset that I had spoken so to their children. I believe I told the staff what I had done in case there were repercussions, but there weren't.

My approach was spontaneous; it was the simple result of frustration. Yet it worked on a couple of levels. First, it pulled the boys up short. They were in run-play mode, and I put them into think mode. Then, more importantly, it put the onus of choice in their hands. They could either continue to run and scream, which they could do anywhere at any time, or they could get to participate in a special program and see, touch, and learn about interesting things.

I wasn't cruel or mean to them, and I didn't scar their self-esteems for life. I gave them an opportunity to make a choice, and, like most intelligent children, they made a good one.

I've no doubt that raising children is daunting and difficult. I was a child once, and I remember many of the tricks very clearly—carefully gauging how much I could get away with, playing my parents against each other, persisting until I got my way. I see kids test their parents; all too often, though, parents fail to realize they are being tested and manipulated, or their desire to be "friends" with their children rather than parents takes precedence over their common sense.

I don't think these children will grow up to be serial killers. I do believe, however, that we feel the effects of having raised a generation of children who ruled their homes.

My English visitor commented that "random car horn honking seems to be quite popular here."

It is—with those unable to wait their turn in line.

Thursday, January 5, 2006

Control freaks

My face is aging. Your face is aging, too. If that bothers you enough, you'll seek out a plastic surgeon to tighten your skin, lift your eyelids, and tweak your cheeks. Of course, you don't have to wait for the ravages of time to look for a plastic surgeon. If you don't like your nose, your cheeks, your chin, your buttocks, your breasts, or various other parts of your anatomy, you can have a plastic surgeon adjust them, too.

Plastic surgeons are certainly easy to find. Pick up an society newspaper or magazine, and you'll find dozens of advertisements for plastic surgeons as well as specialists in cosmetic dentistry. They generally don't advertise to victims of birth defects, accidents, or fires; they don't need to. Pandering, or catering, to human vanity is enough to keep them in business, and primary care physicians and others can always refer non-elective surgery cases to them.

For those who can't afford American prices but can't resist personal improvement through surgery, there are all kinds of options overseas at reduced prices (and possibly increased risk).

There are risks, no matter where you go or who you see. One writer desiring the beauty of youth (rather than accepting the beauty of age) died under anesthesia—an enormous price for what is an illusion at best.

Even teenagers can't resist the attractions of plastic surgery. If you don't like the size or shape of your nose or breasts, you shouldn't have to live with them—just get them "fixed."

The fragile human self-esteem is frightened of flaws and their effect on everything from social standing to potential mate selection. We'll claim we're doing it for ourselves, which is true in that we wish to elicit a positive reaction from others that will make us feel good—even if the others don't see the change as having been necessary. After all, wearing a new dress isn't satisfactory until the compliments come rolling in: "That blue looks really good on you!" "Where did you buy that?" "That suits your figure!"

I think there's more to the interest in plastic surgery than simple vanity, and that it begins with the human need to control our surroundings, our society, and now ourselves. As children, we have little or limited control over anything, where we live, for example. Parents may allow their kids to choose their clothes, even their diets—but can intervene at any time. Parents can dictate homework time and curfews.

When the child goes to college, finally there is the freedom to do what one chooses—even to skip classes to the extent one can get away with it. Single adults and childless couples, outside work, are limited mainly by time, budget, and the constraints of their relationships. Couples with children face the limitations of increased responsibility, but still make their own decisions about much of their lives and lifestyle.

Aging reminds us how elusive control is. The frail elderly often lose the power to choose, and become increasingly limited in their choices, like children. Their independence may be gradually eroded, until they are living in a place they might not have selected, without a driver's license—having lost what has become the ultimate symbol of emancipation for the teenager as well as of the transition from youth to adulthood.

Aging reminds us that there is only so much we can do to control the process and the progress. Nutrition, exercise, rest, and a healthy lifestyle can't prevent tissue from succumbing to gravity and wear and tear.

Aging reminds us of the one thing we cannot control—death.

Makeup, hair dye, wigs, plastic surgery—they don't deceive anyone, least of all death. Technology can keep heart, lungs, and kidneys working for a little while longer, but they can't prevent breakdown and they can't prevent death.

So much of life is about control. We try to control our environment, our government, our neighborhoods (through associations), our schools, and our churches. We try to control the people around us—our coworkers, our families, our friends. We try to control or at least influence the political and spiritual beliefs of others, either directly or indirectly.

But a large nose, a weak chin, or the beginnings of smile lines and crow's feet remind us that we are not in control. We struggle every day with the possibility that no one is. For some, there is no God. For others, God has given man free will. Then there are those who claim that God is in control, but who nonetheless try to take control.

What would the world be like if we let go of the fears that drive the need to control? If we settled lands that didn't need to be "improved"? If we accepted our faces and bodies and looks as the result of our own natural histories? If we accepted that aging is normal and has its own beauty? If we accepted that life is a cycle that doesn't need us and that death is just one part of the cycle? What we if stopped fighting the undefeatable and started living instead, free of the shackles with which our fears bind us and free of the illusion of control?

What would life be like?

Sunday, January 1, 2006

Wayne C. Booth and Ned Rosenheim

Wayne C. Booth, February 22, 1921–October 10, 2005

Edward "Ned" Rosenheim, May 15, 1918–November 29, 2005

I was privileged to have both Wayne Booth and Ned Rosenheim as professors. Unfortunately, I was too young but mostly too ignorant, too out of my element, too overwhelmed, too dysfunctional, and too depressed to appreciate and make the most of a truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I remember both of them fondly and regret that I did not learn as much as I could from them because I wasn't ready then—in truth, I may be no readier today.

Mr. Booth taught my first-year humanities course. I struggled less with than with courses in other disciplines, like social science, but I still struggled—through, I remember, Plato and Aristotle, among others. Even then, I read slowly and tired easily, and had difficulty following ideas that were presented in any kind of complex or wordy fashion. I had problems with philosophers in general because so many seemed to present their personal perceptions as fact, which made no sense to me, and to meander on with no useful point in sight. (Although I don't like structure and objectives, I require them from my reading, oddly enough.)

Something I'd read in Plato made me ask a theoretical question about a man on an island and civilization. It was perhaps the first and only time I had a basic insight into the purpose of philosophy. Mr. Booth liked the question and posed it to the class. He explored it and found the flaws in it. He made a great effort to get me to talk more, to pull me out of myself. He seemed to think that I had something to say, and he even said once or twice that I had potential—I assume he meant potential to be a thinker. Once, someone sit next to me in the class was bothering me. Mr. Booth caught us whispering and genuinely believed I had something significant to share with the class. I insisted I didn't, and we moved on. It was an embarrassing and humiliating moment, not because I'd been caught being disruptive, but because I felt I'd revealed my true, foolish, unworthy self to someone who had shown confidence in me and who had encouraged me to be something I knew I couldn't be. After that, I felt I'd lost his respect. That could have just been the remnants of adolescent angst rather than the reality; I'll never know. I may have lost some of my own.

Mr. Booth had a gentle sense of humor. In our class, there was a student from Jamaica named Geoffrey (the "correct spelling," he insisted). One morning a nasty snowstorm hit Chicago. Geoffrey did not appear for class. The rest of us were excited about the storm; it was one of those where big, puffy, distinct flakes fell thickly. Mr. Booth said, "Does anyone want to bet that Geoffrey can't make it in through the snow?" We laughed. Geoffrey did arrive for the last five to ten minutes of the class, covered with snow and saying, "Wow! Brrr!"

We liked Mr. Booth and our class so much that, at the end of it, we held a party; it may even have been at his home. I think he and his wife played a duet for us. I do remember a lovely evening and a sense of sadness that something wonderful was over, like the feeling actors have at the end-of-run cast party. An experience had ended that could never be repeated.

The class I had with Ned Rosenheim was perhaps two to three times larger—at first. The subject was "Fiction of the 1930s," which Mr. Rosenheim claimed he was uniquely qualified to teach at the University of Chicago because "I read all these books when they were bestsellers." He made a lot of humorous, self-deprecating comments about his age.

"Fiction of the 1930s" was a very popular class, one that students slept out for. I didn't have to because English language and literature majors had priority. As I said, the classroom was crowded the first day, almost like a chemistry lecture class. I remember Mr. Rosenheim making jokes abut the size of the class and wish I could recall what they were; I think he said something about people being in the wrong place because it was not a popular class and tried to convince us it was a difficult one; I'm not sure. He may have commented that chemistry and physics majors came thinking that English and other humanities classes were quite easy compared to, say, organic chemistry. Indeed, I found that was the consensus of the class.

Within a few weeks, the class had shrunk dramatically in size. I couldn't tell you why. I don't know how many papers we had to write, but I suspect part of it was the reading. Reading eight to ten substantial novels like The Late George Appleby, The Grapes of Wrath, and Studs Lonigan is not an easy feat, on top of two or three other courses. The holdouts were primarily the humanities majors, which was probably more comfortable for Mr. Rosenheim—that is, teaching people who shared a love of reading rather than those trying to get by easily.

Because of his jovial manner and cherubic appearance, most people seemed to think Mr. Rosenheim would be an easy grader. I picked up either a paper or an exam and had received a high mark, and assumed everyone else had as well. I discovered later that there were only a couple of As and Bs, many Cs, and a healthy amount of Ds. To me, that's how it should be, because if C means average, it should be the most common grade, while there should be very few As (outstanding) in proportion. I found this impressive because it demonstrated to me that one could be a witty, "nice" person, yet still be demanding and tough where it matters. (It didn't hurt that I had received one of the high marks!)

Dallas was a very popular television show at the time, and I had a silly T-shirt—actually unrelated to the show or the show's merchandise—that said "Ewing Oil" with a tagline. Mr. Rosenheim noticed it one day and made a comment about it (another that I can't recall!) and then had me stand up and model the shirt for the class, even having me turn around. I wondered if he did it because I was always trying to hide, and that was his way of making me visible. It was another embarrassing moment, although the embarrassment quickly faded into a happy memory.

At the end of the quarter, I was going to be late writing the final paper—so late that Mr. Rosenheim would not be at or returning to his campus office. He gave me his address, a lovely apartment at 58th and Blackstone, and told me I could bring it to him there. It was kind of him to offer me that chance, and he was gracious when he met me (I was nervous).

It seems terrible that I can't describe these professors' classes or the discussions in detail, as though I did not get much out of them. At the time, I was too overwhelmed by the entire experience of campus life to take it all in, and I had not adapted very well. (I never did.) But each did have an impact. Both gave me confidence that I had ability and even potential, at least in the humanities. Mr. Booth made me believe in questioning everything—including Plato and Aristotle, including everything we assume is true because it has always been accepted as such. Mr. Rosenheim helped me appreciate the subtleties of literature, to explore the text and the subtext.

As 18- to 20-year-olds, we no doubt thought Mr. Booth and Mr. Rosenheim ancient, at least 70 if not 80. I did, and in spring of 2001 it occurred to me that they must have already passed on, although I had not heard anything specific. Then I must have seen something about Mr. Booth, because realized that he was not only alive, but still active at the university. I visited the University of Chicago Web site on the off chance he might have an e-mail address—he did! Then I wrote to him knowing that there was little likelihood he would write back—but he did! He said he remembered me, although the memory was admittedly "dim," then suggested that I get together with him and his wife for lunch while they were still in town. He also said that, for some reason, my note had sparked him to pick up The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. I was stunned by the offer and the comment, which came at a time when I felt overwhelmed by the sudden decline my father's health was suffering. (He died July 28, 2001.) For whatever reason, Mr. Booth and I never did have lunch or the conversation about what was on our minds, as he put it. Another missed opportunity, another regret.

When I read of Mr. Booth and Mr. Rosenheim's deaths, I was surprised to learn they were both younger than my father. During all those years I had carried the impression picked up as a youth that they were very old men, and in reality they were only in late middle age and at the pinnacle of their academic careers and intellectual lives. What an odd thing perception is in the young, and how long it lasts.

Thank you, Mr. Booth and Mr. Rosenheim. You influenced so many of us in ways that others, such as politicians and other so-called leaders, can only envy. Thank you for making us think for ourselves, like the natural philosophers we are. And thank you for proving that the discussion and debate of even the most sensitive ideas do not need to be vicious or mean-spirited, and that they can be and are exciting and enlightening.

We'll miss you and your wisdom. And our lost opportunities.