Farewell

I went back to part-time teaching because, after a year, I still hadn’t found a full-time job, or any job. In less than two weeks, I will begin a new, non-teaching job. I probably won’t return to the classroom, so here are some things I want to impart: 

1. Teaching is the hardest thing you will ever do. 2. Adjunct faculty earn spit-on-you pay. 3. It’s impossible not to get chalk on your behind. 4. Sometimes when you read graffiti on bathroom walls you will mentally correct the grammar. 5. Be frightened if a student hands in a three-page argument paper with Is There a God? as the title. 6. It is never wise to accept jewelry from someone who is failing. 7. Don’t necessarily believe a student who tells you she can’t take an exam because her father has had a heart attack. 8. If you’re foolish enough to wear silk in the summer, make sure you write on the bottom third of the board. 9. Promise yourself you’ll never use a suitcase as a briefcase. 10. Always have a Plan C.       

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Yes, no, maybe so

A growing body of research conducted by political scientists, social scientists, evolutionists, psychologists, cognitive neuroscientists, and geneticists suggests that Republicans and Democrats are born that way.

In his newly released book, The Republican Brain, Chris Mooney calls upon this research to argue that conservatives and liberals have different brains and that beliefs held by one group are genuinely confounding to the other. The tendency towards resisting or embracing change, for instance, appears to be biologically determined, as does the ability to tolerate ambiguity or to perceive nuance. 

Apparently, those who believe that Obama is a Muslim, abortions increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer, the Founding Fathers worked indefatigably to end slavery, global warming is a myth, or the theory of evolution is just plain wrong can’t help themselves from doing so, even in the face of irrefutable evidence to the contrary.

But, I am not much comforted by a belief, mine, that liberals stand on moral high ground because, despite the fact that I have a very high tolerance for ambiguity, this feature has not always served me well. In general, I have done poorly on multiple choice tests, as an example, because A, B, C, and D have often seemed at least partially correct. And, while this tendency towards waffling might seem funny on its face, it points to a deeper problem I have: a capacity for hypocrisy.

Like many of my liberal brethren, I believe war is bad, capital punishment is barbaric, violence is abhorrent, and abortion is every woman’s right, and if asked I will tell you so. But, for someone like me, this is more the truth about my beliefs: war is bad, but I wouldn’t mind dropping a bomb or two on Syria’s Assad; capital punishment is barbaric, but I say we should fry Liberia’s Charles Taylor; violence is abhorrent, but, if anyone were to harm a hair on my daughter’s head, I would run a dagger through his heart; and abortion is every woman’s right, except my own.

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Mum’s the word

It can be a torture living inside of myself, but no more so than when I’m monitoring every word that comes out of my mouth. And it’s not just the words themselves that get the once over. I can become easily annoyed with every um and uh that exits.

This all started decades ago, when Marvin Mudrick, an English professor with an asp for a tongue, told me mine was a nice speaking voice but for all the you knows that polluted it. After that, I became a peep-mouse of a thing in his creative writing class, as you can imagine. 

It’s like and it’s a sort of have become my bull’s eyes, too, but, actually, these equivocators are pretty interesting to ponder. The former has been lampooned by comedians far and wide, so I have nothing new to add to that conversation. I haven’t heard anyone talk about the latter, though, so I thought I’d give it a try.

I’ve noticed that it’s a sort of is to the intelligentsia what it’s like was, in its heyday, to the so-called Valley Girl. As in “it’s a sort of exquisite double helix of DNA in biology” or “Derrida was a sort of deconstructionist.” For all of the hot air circulating about the Academy, though, there seems, maybe, a sort of uneasiness with the efficacy of one’s ideas, like “I have this brilliant thought, but, if you don’t agree, perhaps I’m not as married to it as you might think.” Or “I have this brilliant thought, but I don’t want you to know that I think it’s brilliant because God won’t let a braggart inherit the earth.”

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Wanna have a good time?

You know what’s really fun? Checking out the search engine terms people use that land them, perhaps to their chagrin, on your site. Last month, I wrote a piece about the BBC crime drama series Luther entitled “Sophia Loren’s face.” It was accompanied by a 1960 photo of the actress, which had appeared on the cover of Life magazine, and if you read the article you’d understand that anyone looking for information about her would be sorely disappointed.

So, it tickles me a little that the majority of recent searches showing up on my “Stats” pages have been by those looking for dirt on the buxom beauty, or so I imagine. Imagining, in fact, is what makes this little game so appealing. I try to envision the people driving these searches, and I can take myself to places far, far away. Perhaps the one who wanted more information about “sophia loren eyes” is an ophthalmologist to the stars who’s on the lookout for new celebrity patients from Italy or is herself a wanna-be star from Italy checking out the ophthalmologists real Italian stars use. Ditto for the one who googled “sophia loren plastic surgery,” if you replace “ophthalmologist” with “plastic surgeon.” The person who really got me to wondering, though, was the one who wanted to know something about “sophia loren eel.”  I can’t help but think along these lines: Freud, mother/movie star complex and/or penis envy. But, as Freud was said to have said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” so maybe Loren played an eel factory worker in one of her films. And the nosey parker wanted to see how well she handled the slippery things.

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Aloft

Anti-Darwinians notwithstanding, humans are enthralled by the goings-on of other species because we want to know who we once were, who we are now, and who we can become. We are made giddy by the discovery that we share 98.6% of our genes with chimpanzees and can imagine how, back in the day, it might have felt to swing through the branches, lick termites off twigs, and crack nuts with rocks. We can also see in nature the propensity all creatures have for violence and so are comforted both by the knowledge that we can’t help our darker impulses and by the hope that we can.

In his article I, Turbo, science and nature writer Eric Wagner captures this tension beautifully. Having spent six months in Argentina’s Punta Tomba region, Wagner and his wife, El, studied Magellanic penguins and observed firsthand their tendency towards savagery as well as their capacity for gentle good will.

Possessing what Wagner funnily calls a “Me” and “Not Me” take on existence, these jackass penguins, so named for their braying, were “breathtakingly indifferent to the welfare of their neighbors” and “had no qualms about using the desiccated remains of their dead offspring as nesting material”; yet, there was one, the irrepressible Turbo, whose joie de vivre and disarming sweetness belied the menacing underside of penguin culture. Where lesser penguins would brutalize the interlopers whenever they had the chance, Turbo would waddle out from the bushes to greet them whenever they passed by. Where the more fearful penguins would eschew all contact with the intruders, Turbo would nightly bill-rap on the couple’s trailer door so he could be let in.

In a PBS Nature special on the American bald eagle, we get to witness a display of transcendence that rivals Turbo’s, in which a young male takes a bride and treats her with such tenderness and kind regard that some of us might be tempted to trade in our partner for a raptor. At one point, when the two are preparing an intricate nest for their unborn, the female puts a stick here, some grass there, a leaf elsewhere while her partner looks on with a courtly indulgence only love can bring. As soon as she turns her back, though, he sets about to undo her handiwork and to rearrange it so it is more to his liking.

In another scene, he sits on a lone egg, a blizzard all but burying him and the nest in snow, while she goes off in search of food. She never returns—and never will return because she has died—but he waits nonetheless until cold, hunger, and perhaps heartbreak force him to abandon his eaglet and to fly off. The following spring he returns to the same nest and once more waits until the possibility of renewal arrives in the form of another graceful damsel.

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No one told him

This morning, as I was shampooing my hair, a memory I didn’t know I had beaned me. Some 30 years ago, my then-husband built a small wood bird feeder and secured it right outside our kitchen window. The birds would come so close that you could reach out to touch them, but for the shut window. 

One dreary day, I was standing in front of  the window and washing the dishes when I noticed a neonic parakeet amidst the squawking chaos of gray and brown and black. As a child, I had had a love affair with these fragile tropical birds, so I was especially moved by this tableau and thought I should do something to save one that had so obviously lost his way. Without my help, I was certain he would not survive another day of thick fog coming in off the San Francisco Bay.

With as much stealth as I could summon, I opened the window slowly slowly slowly and tried to grab the budgie, but he and the rest of the birds beat it and flew to the roof of a dilapidated garage that stood at the end of our driveway, where they lit. I was sure he was a goner, and I was so sad. If only I had been sneakier, I thought.

Several months later, I was washing yet another sink of dirty dishes, and I just happened to glance over at the garage. There, on the roof, I saw a row of gray brown brown black gray brown green and yellow gray brown black brown gray and so on.

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“Julia Roberts Stunning in a Bikini at 44”

My mother spent the better part of her life trying to cheat time, and she died a very sad and lonely woman because of it. Until her death at 73, she never felt she was pretty and thin enough or, in her later years, young enough to claim even the smallest of spaces on this planet. Once her beauty faded and she was left to make peace with the tormented woman she was, she took to her bed and pulled the blankets over her head. For my mother, there was no peace to be had.

Her life became my cautionary tale, and through the years I have tried to avoid her missteps. At times, though, the forces of inherited biology and culture have conspired to set me down on her very footpath, and, to right myself and point in another direction, I have had to summon up all the courage and steely will I could find. 

For my mother, a divorcée at a time when women did not divorce with impunity, beauty and economic survival seemed inextricably entwined. She believed that her good looks and feminine wiles were the only things that stood between her and the street, and, sadly, she was not wrong. With only a high school education and $78 a month in child support, she needed to become very clever.

Thankfully, I have had more options in my life than she did. I am well educated and so have always been able to land a professional job. But now, at 60, and having had to endure a protracted period of un and under employment, I have become well aware of the fact that destiny is not ours to fashion. We have only a little bit of say.

I didn’t imagine that at this point in my life I would find myself single and without work. But, there it is. Without a job that pays a livable wage and that affords me my dignity, I am very clear about where I would end up. Fortunately, I was offered a good job, which begins next month, and so I can put off the inevitable. At some point, though, my dyed hair won’t fool anyone, my wrinkles will simply guffaw at the face cream I slather on, my knees will hurt all the time, and I’ll be ready for bed at 7pm.

Like my mother, I have worshipped false idols, and I find myself now kneeling in front of a naked altar. Before it is too late, I hope I will come to learn what kinds of new offerings I must make to which kinds of gods. And save myself.

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Knuckleballs

This afternoon in the car I listened to a radio interview with knuckleball pitcher R.A. Dickey. Although I’m not interested in baseball, I made myself stay with it, as I might make myself eat spinach. I always think it is good for me to examine what it is I reject out of hand.

I was taken with him, though, and especially with his knuckleball descriptions. They were as much poetry as any poem.  When I returned home, I listened again to the interview and transcribed certain parts.

 

At least it was a loneliness of my choosing

 

A knuckleball is like trying to hit a butterfly in a typhoon.

It’s impossible to throw a knuckleball on the outside corner.

You just simply get it started in the right direction

at the right height and

the ball is going to do what

the ball is going to do.

It comes in like a buck-toothed termite trying to saw through that wood.

With most knuckleballers

the velocity is anywhere from

62 to 69 miles an hour but

my knuckleball is anywhere

from 69 to 81.

You have an angry knuckleball.

I start my knuckleball about two balls above

the catcher’s helmet.

If I throw a 100 in a game I want

85 to be knuckleballs

and the other 15 will be

sliders, fastballs, curveballs, change-ups.

What have you.

Your dad left your mom early.

And your mom had a drinking problem

and used to take you to a bar called Joe’s Village Inn

when you were eight years old

you were abused by a babysitter and then more brutally

by a 17-year-old boy.

You went to live with your dad, I guess.

In your teenage years. Right?

Because your mom’s drinking was becoming more apparent to you,

and we should say that she’s been in recovery now

for many years,

and that’s great.

Yeah, she’s great.

But that was a rough time for you.

When you began sleeping in

vacant houses.

What made you do that?

How did you figure out

where to go?

It was lonely at home.

I would go into the library and look at the classified ads.

I would tell my Dad I was spending the night out.

I would find a vacant home,

and there was always a key

under a mat or under a flower pot

or something like that,

and I would just let myself in.

We always stayed at this hotel. It overlooked the Missouri River.

For years I would wonder,

Can anybody swim across that?

I thought,

I’m gonna do it.

I’ve spent a lifetime not taking any risks.

My teammates got out there.

They watched me get down into the shallows of

the Missouri before

I took off and tried to traverse it.

It’s a big, fast-moving river. What happened?

Well, it’s big, it’s dirty, it’s fast moving.

Come to find out it has a significant undertow

and all of a sudden the river

swept me very far down, and my teammates

who were once standing right in front of me

at six feet tall

just looked like little ants

on the horizon.

I’m thinking I have a zero shot at getting to the other side.

And I know at that point it’s going to be a fight just to stay alive.

Every stroke was a determined stroke,

and I had given myself over to the fact that

this was it.

You know, I wasn’t gonna make it.

And I closed my eyes and started to sink.

I remember the sensation of weeping

under water,

and I was praying to God

to protect my family.

I had come to grips

with dying

and I started sinking

and right as I was about to open my mouth and

take in all of this water just to end it

quickly

my feet hit the bottom of the river and I surged up

and I survived.

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Filthy lucre

For a pipsqueak like me, The Millionaire was a godsend. Each week, the half-hour TV show opened with an exchange between puckish industrialist John Beresford Tipton, Jr. and his trusted secretary Michael Anthony, during which the former would give the latter a cashier’s check for $1,000,000 and would instruct him to hand it over to an unsuspecting, and always shaken, recipient, who was never to know where the money came from. Although Tipton well knew why he chose each beneficiary, we could only surmise.

Typically, those who were selfish with the money were undone by their own greed; those who were selfless with it were richly rewarded for their goodness. I knew things would go well for Tony Rogers, for instance, who used his money to help out a neighbor in trouble; or for Nancy Cortez, who used hers to coax her toreador husband out of the bull ring and into retirement. I didn’t need 30 minutes, though, to figure out what would happen to Nick Slade, an escaped convict who assumed the identity of Eric Lodek, a humanitarian who died shortly after receiving his check; or to Rod Matthews, who used his money to stick it to an old enemy.

The moral of each story was simple, really, and always boiled down to this: If you’re a conniving ass in real life, you’ll lose everything and end up all alone. I didn’t want to be a conniving ass. In my fantasies about what I would do with all that money, I was more a giver than a taker. If, for example, I bought my divorced parents tickets for a trip around the world, and if I also bought a ticket for my brother  just so I could get the little crapper to stop tormenting me, I could then feel justified in buying myself a few dolls, preferably ones that cried. If I bought a movie theater and Coney Island for my family, then I could buy myself a whole pizza and some baby turtles.

I was reminded of the show this past week because of the kerfuffle surrounding Mirlande Wilson and her claim that she had the winning ticket for Maryland’s Mega Millions jackpot, worth  a record-breaking $656 million. First, she said she hid it in the McDonald’s where she worked. Now, she’s saying she misplaced it.  As you can imagine, the media has crucified her, though it wasn’t difficult. All they had to do was to get her to open her mouth on the 11 o’clock news and then stand back.

I can’t help but think that things would have gone better for Mirlande had John Beresford Tipton, Jr., been her benefactor. With him, there was always the possibility of redemption.

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State of grace

When I’m not feeling ashamed of myself for a misdeed or an errant thought, I’m feeling ashamed of the human race, not because we are fallen before we arrive but because we become ridiculous once we get here. 

There are some, though, who redeem us. Jeffrey Gettleman is one such. East Africa bureau chief for The New York Times, Gettleman recently spoke with NPR’s Fresh Air host Terry Gross about his experiences as a correspondent covering Somalia and other countries. In the interview, he describes with so much humanity the magnitude of the suffering he witnessed while traveling throughout Africa with Times photographer Tyler Hicks.

Gettleman recounts, for example, how he saw “entire families sit on old-fashioned cholera beds, with basketball-size holes cut out of the middle, taking turns going to the bathroom as diarrhea stream[ed] out of them,” and he tells of an 84-year-old woman he interviewed who had been gang raped by young men. “Grandsons get off me,” she had begged.

Today, Gettleman receives the George Polk Award in Journalism for a story he broke in 2011 about al-Shabab, the militant Islamist group affiliated with Al Qaeda who just yesterday killed ten people at the National Theater in Mogadishu and then went on to boast about it in a tweet. In it, he writes about how the insurgents caused a famine in Somalia by driving out aid organizations and then prevented those who were famished, including a half million children, from fleeing the country. Hicks is also receiving an award for his wrenching photo of a starving child dying alone in a hospital.  

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Elsewhere in headline news: Kris Jenner tells the world that daughter Khloe Kardashian is fat…Jennifer Lopez has been a size 6 for the past decade…The Olsen twins appear on a recently released list of the 100 greatest fashion icons…Alec Baldwin is engaged to Hilaria Thomas, a yoga instructor…Actress Emily Blunt thinks First Lady Michelle Obama has skin like silk…Former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn had sex with a blonde employee last summer and then paid her off…The Redskins will face the Indianapolis Colts in the preseason…British teen Conor Maynard is labeled the new Bieber…Painkiller sales soar around the US…

Photo of Jeffrey Gettleman