Month: April 2012


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.       


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.


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.”


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.



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.


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.


“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.