Month: February 2012

Interphobia

I’m comforted by reading ArLynn Presser’s blog. A self-proclaimed agoraphobic who avoided leaving her neighborhood for three decades, Presser decided enough was enough after she turned 50. Vowing then to meet all 324 of her Facebook friends, she set out last year on a journey that would take her around the world, a journey that is all the more remarkable when you consider the extent of her fears: “I’m scared of travel,” she says. “I’m scared of flying. I’m scared of just about anything outside my door.” I understand this completely.

It has never been easy for me to leave my room, much less walk outside my door, but, in spite of this, I have traveled fairly widely, though never well; I have flown to places as far away as Australia, though almost always with foreboding; I have gone to a great many parties, though invariably with unease; I even went into teaching in part so I could overcome my shyness and my aversion to the spotlight.  

Granted, not everyone’s destined for a career on Broadway, and not everyone’s meant to hold forth on the Senate floor, but everyone deserves to live unfettered.  

At times I find that I am able to loosen my bindings long enough to venture out into those parts of life that alarm me, but I now find myself shackled with a different, but no less disabling, kind of fear, and one few people confess to or even discuss: a fear of the Internet, or interphobia, as it has been called. It is not that I am afraid to travel across cyberspace, per se, but more often than not it is with the same kind of remove I seem to practice in my “real” life.

Where others flourish on social networking sites, I wither. Where others forge bonds, I retreat into isolation. I bravely created a Facebook page but have provided no personal information, rarely post, and turn away from almost every request I receive to be someone’s “friend.” In fact, I can count on four fingers the number of people I have friended, or, I should say, have not unfriended: one is my daughter, one is someone I have known for forty years, and two are people I trust. Then there’s my LinkedIn account, where I also never post and only occasionally interact.

Many people are set free by the anonymity they enjoy on the Web, but I am made afraid by it; yet, here I am, blogging away with abandon and with a very great wish to connect. It appears I need a plan, though, in much the same way that Presser needed a road map for her journey into sunlight.

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Blogwood

Lana Turner was before my time, but her va-va-va voom is legendary. Née Judy Turner, the 16-year-old couldn’t possibly have known that her fate would be sealed the moment she decided to ditch her typing class and instead go grab a Coke at the nearby Top Hat Cafe, where the publisher of the Hollywood Reporter would be so knocked out by her spectacular good looks that he would ask her if she wanted to be in pictures.

After that fateful meeting, Lana “the sweater girl” Turner went on to become one of the most famous movie stars of her generation, and teenaged girls everywhere began showing up at soda fountains, dyeing their hair blonde, and stuffing their bras with tissue paper in the great hope that they, too, might be discovered.

Passed down to me by my mother, Lana’s story became the glittery stuff of my imagination, and, like my mother, I had dreams of playing the lead in my own Hollywood story. But, alas, my moment of fame came when I was cast as one of the Lost Boys in a high school production of Peter Pan–and went as soon as the curtain fell.

I no longer dream of becoming a movie star, but I am lately visited by another, more modest, ambition, which goes something like this: wide-eyed, unknown blogger moves to Hollywood in the hope of being discovered by a famous mogul, who serendipitously notices a riveting Ruminationville post on her opened laptop, which she has coyly placed atop a soda fountain stool in a trendy retro diner located somewhere on the Sunset Strip. 

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Fool me twice

I went into teaching, a second career, in part because I wanted to give students the respect they deserve. Anyone who has felt invisible in the classroom or who has felt shamed by a teacher, as I have, knows this is a noble goal.

For a decade, I taught college writing on the east and west coasts. At times, I would teach at as many as three institutions in a single semester just to make ends meet. Adjunct instructors, or “freeway fliers,” as we were called, are at the bottom of the food chain and earn very little when compared with their full-time colleagues, who also earn very little. This is particularly true in the humanities.

Low pay (and no benefits) is just one of the ways adjunct professors are devalued, but, as some might say, it was my choice to go into education and to accept an inadequate salary; I really couldn’t let myself be too glum about it, and I didn’t. For some 15 years, I had been in the business world, where people of my temperament can easily die, and teaching was my lifeline.  I loved my students, and I tried to give them the very best of myself.

Nevertheless, I left teaching about six years ago because I was exhausted and because I just couldn’t live on the hem of poverty any longer. I hadn’t imagined myself returning to the classroom, but when I lost my job of five years and was not able to find full-time employment after many months, I accepted a part-time position at a nearby community college.

A lot has changed in the intervening years. Most notably, student honesty seems very much on the wane. Whereas before I might have had one clear-cut case of plagiarism in a given year, now it is surprising if a student does not try to make off with another’s words. 

The reasons for the rise of academic dishonesty are, no doubt, many, and I don’t pretend to understand the complex forces at play here. Who, for example, can begin to know what young people go on to think after they witness corrupt businessmen committing wholesale crimes against society with impunity.

One thing is certain, though. It is easier to cheat now than ever before. Just google “cause and effect essay,” and, in 0.18 seconds, you will receive about 2,960,000 results. Even the best teacher-sleuth, and I consider myself to be a pretty good one, doesn’t stand the proverbial snowball’s chance of bringing every cheater to justice.

Last semester, I had 23 students in my class. Of those, six, or about one-quarter of the class, plagiarised all or parts of an assigned essay. Confronting these students was, for me, a torture, and I spent a number of sleepless nights trying to figure out what I would say to them and what actions I would take. This was the hard part because there are degrees of plagiarism, and there are also degrees to which students know they are plagiarising. In the end, I thought I handled it well. Above all, I tried to be fair. Too fair, it seems.

I gave two students the chance to write another paper because they conned me into believing they didn’t know they had plagiarised. Damned if they didn’t turn around and do it all over again.

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Life without book ends

I received a Kindle for Christmas. It was such a good gift to get. I so rarely feel part of the larger pack that having an e-reader made me feel like I might be able to grab a spot in the inner circle, even if only briefly. The first day, I brought it with me to a cafe and placed it on my knees for others to see. No one was looking.

I downloaded Guerilla Marketing for Job Hunters 3.0 because I have been without a full-time job and healthcare benefits for more than a year and a half and thought I could use some kind of power makeover. Turns out it’s a book for members of the pack, and for extroverts at that, but I got some great tips on revamping my resume, which I trimmed to one page from four. I digress. 

I liked trying to read Guerilla on my Kindle, though it was mostly an exercise in fortitude. Now, I am reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. It’s such a smart book, and, from what I can tell so far, I could be its poster child.  

Until today, I couldn’t put my finger on what was bothering me about reading an electronic book. I knew going in that I would miss turning and dog-earing pages, so I had allowed for that. What I hadn’t counted on was how disorienting it would be not to know when a chapter, or the book itself, was going to end.

With books made of paper, I can plan my life around endings. I can say to myself, there are only _ pages to go in the chapter or the book. It will take me _ minutes to read them, _ minutes to shower, _ minutes to dry my hair, _ minutes to primp, and I’ll still have _ minutes left before I have to go to _ (work, when I have work; my doctor, if I could afford a doctor; the market, when there’s money for food; a shelter, not funny).

They give me borders around my life, books. With Kindle, there’s a sense of free falling whenever I begin new ones. 

Cos

I came of age when writers were still at the mercy of editors and when getting published was a long shot. In my 20s, when I tried my hand at writing short stories, I sent my first effort to The New Yorker. It was an audacious thing to do, but I considered myself lucky that the rejection letter I received was written by an editor who appeared to have actually read my manuscript.

Getting rejected was a drawn-out affair, what with the mail making its rounds in slow motion, at least by today’s standards, and with the tacit understanding that you would submit your work to one publication at a time. Why, it could take a few years before you discovered that no one was interested in what you were selling.

I recognize that my idea of what it meant to be a first-rate writer was shaped by the times and by the narrow literary tradition that reared me, but at least I had a pretty good idea then of what good writing was supposed to look like.

I’m not sure anymore what it means to be a good writer, much less a great one, when publication is literally a keystroke away and when getting published in the traditional sense is just one of any number of options for those who want to showcase their work. If getting someone else to publish your writing is no longer the decisive, if flawed, measure of your talent, what is?

One way to measure it might be by tracking how many people visit your blog, if you have one. It’s not unlike counting how many messages you had on your answering machine when you returned home from work. Your sense of self-worth rose with the numbers. So it might be with the number of visitors you have at the end of any given day. The more visitors there are, the more talented you believe yourself to be.

A little more than a month ago, I started my blog because I wanted to begin writing again and because I wanted to do so in a way that imagined an audience. I had hopes that some would be drawn not only to what I had to say but also to how I said it. It’s too soon to know anything about my success or failure, but, so far, only a few have visited: my daughter, a couple of friends who wanted to show support, and those who no doubt stumbled upon it by accident.

Although there’s no lack of advice on the Internet about how to build a following, much of what I have read can be boiled down to this: create headlines that grab, use plenty of white space, keep your paragraphs short, include numbered and bulleted lists, provide plenty of pictures, have a friendly theme, and proofread. Of course, if I weren’t so wary about promoting myself in a cyber universe where revolutions have been launched and politicians have been brought down, Facebook and Twitter would probably be helpful, too.

One piece of flourishing advice that really throws me, though, can best be summed up by a blogger whose site I visited recently:

Each one of us has got our favourite bloggers. These blogs are written in a natural conversation style that resonated with us. They don’t try to be professional writers. When you write, envision yourself sitting with your best friend and having fun. How would you speak to him? That’s the way you should write….Let people love coming to your blog cos you speak with them, not write to them.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to use the word “cos.”

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Beyond time

Yesterday, I walked past a young reporter and her cameraman and afterwards found myself wondering why we have such a deep need to believe that we matter. This drive in us to be seen seems to go beyond our basic instinct to survive, though perhaps we become more urgent as we age.  

When I was small, my father worked for the children’s TV program Terry Tell Time, and I remember how proud I was then to be his daughter.  As the program name suggests, the show revolved around teaching children how to tell time, and it had at its center two lively puppets. Although I don’t remember much about them except that they were from Switzerland, in their own way, I know I was enthralled by the magic of making the inanimate animate. Some Saturdays, my father would be in charge of public relations events, and, once I grasped the concept and mechanics of telling time, he took me to one of these.

The idea was that I would dress up as Tina Tell Time, Terry’s sister, and then strut around gorgeously for as long as I was needed. Although I only vaguely remember the dress I wore, I recall with astonishing clarity what was done to my dull brown hair, which my mother braided and sprayed all over with gold paint. I thought I was the cat’s pajamas.

We went to a theater in Queens, where a line of screaming children was wrapped around the block, and I was told to stay in the lobby with my balloons until the doors were thrown open, at which point I was to greet my adoring fans with enthusiasm. Not content to remain still until it was time to get started, I paraded up and down in front of my admirers, whose noses were pressed against the glass, and batted the balloons up in the air as a kind of taunt. They could see me all right, but they would have to wait if they wanted to touch me.

I admit that my hunger for attention was overdetermined and could in part be traced back to my family, but I think there was something much more elemental at work. I remember how I felt on that day more than I remember what I did, and I can say now that there existed in me then the feeling of being completely alive. It is a sense that only occasionally visits me these days. I was such an open and creative child, as most children are, and so it must have been something about the puppets, the dress, the hair, the balloons, the crowd, the very notion of time itself that possessed me. It was my spirit that longed to matter.

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For heaven’s sake it’s just a cartoon

I laugh every time I look at the butt hurts cartoon. It’s funny for a few reasons. First, the idea of two dismembered chocolate bunnies speaking to one another is, in itself, darkly silly. What makes it even funnier, of course, is that neither bunny seems to know what’s causing its distress.

The image also dredges up a certain buried shame we have about our own animal nature and about our vast capacity to inflict suffering on those who are vulnerable. As hilarious as the visual is, we know that it was a member of our pack who ate these unsuspecting wabbits shortly before they became cartoon characters, so snickering at the wolves who live within us helps to take the bite out of this reality.

There’s something else about our nature that’s reflected in the cartoon: As much as we might wish to deny it, human beings, like all other creatures looking for their next meal, are inherently self-centered. The rabbit on the left absently tells the one on the right that it’s got a pain in its rear, and there doesn’t appear to be any awareness that the latter has an affliction of its own.