Saturday, September 30, 2006

What, now?

Cruising the Winger blogs, I'm given to understand that torture and the suspension of habeas corpus is no big deal and we should not be worried because it is "only" going to be done to non-citizens.

First of all, what?

Second, WHAT?

Did I wake up in Nazi Germany this morning?

And also, while we're on this point, are you idiots high?

This is not "America where we only protect the rights of some individuals," is it? The last time I checked it wasn't. This is not America where "some people are equal and others we can lock up and torture if we feel like it," is it?

Or well, you know, wait. I guess now it is, isn't it?

Yay, Bush.

As I was saying -- the terrorists won. We're now them.

Carry on, you fucking beasts.

Friday, September 29, 2006

It happens here

Our government suspends habeas corpus and votes to allow torture.

So that's that.

The terrorists won.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

But Gas Is Really Cheap Now!

Intel Dump has a must-read Post up here:

Just an excerpt:

Iraq is now more violent than it was in 2003, 2004, or 2005. The number of attacks on US and Iraqi government forces are at an all-time high. Sectarian violence is prevalent, and most observers, with the notable exception of the Bush Administration, admit that Iraq is fully engaged in an internecine civil war.

North Korea has not only admitted to possessing nuclear weapons, but is conducting missile tests on a frequent basis.

Iran is continuing with its nuclear weapons program.

The Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan. Opium production has reached record levels.

Osama Bin Laden is still free.

The president has recently admitted that Iraq had no ties to Al Queda (something that all national security professionals knew long before we invaded - Al Queda hates all secular regimes in Islamic nations, including Saddam's Iraq).

The president has admitted there were no WMDs in Iraq.

The commander of Fort Eustis recently admitted that the Army was ordered not to plan for the post-war occupation of Iraq, and that when Army leaders continued to argue with Secretary Rumsfeld over the critical need for a post-war plan, he threatened to fire the next person that mentioned the subject.

The National Security Agency, the nation's largest and most expensive intelligence-collection agency designed to collect information on our enemies, has been ordered by the president to spy upon Americans by warrantless wiretaps in violation of a law passed by Congress and the US Constitution.

The administration is in open conflict with Congress over whether CIA interrogators can torture detainees without legal repercussions, and wants to "clarify" the Geneva Conventions despite every JAG general stating no such "clarification" is needed because the Conventions are clear already.

Iraqi troops are now digging trenches around Baghdad.The intelligence on Iraq was admittedly wrong, and admittedly based on discredited sources of information. As a result, CIA director Tenant was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


This here is why I love Joe:


Just some stuff here:

  • Gave my Comp I students yesterday, as an exercise, an essay that argued that spanking and poverty are linked -- that is, that children who are spanked tend to grow up to earn less money. The more a kid is spanked, the lower his or her income will tend to be; and the greater chance he or she will have of being in a lower income range. The purpose of the exercise was just for them to (a) list the thesis of the essay and (b) say whether the essay gave support for the thesis (that is, did it list its sources). But I like to use this particular essay because of the outrage it always generates among my students, who have, as you can probably guess, all been spanked a great deal as children and who are, hey, get this, mostly from poor families. And -- you can guess the rest! -- will all insist, to a student! -- that no correlation could possibly exist there! I don't get involved in the debate. I put them in their groups and hand out the essay and give the assignment and watch it happen. It's always lots of fun. One or two came up to me afterwards to ask what I thought. I told them, and they looked surprised.
  • Took the Kid to the fair -- Yes! The Arkansas-Oklahoma State fair has arrived yet again! The Other Liberal Professor and I and our families go together each year. Miles and the kid go on rides together. Mick, who is two now, was old enough to go with them this year. I bought a bag of cotton candy for the Kid and turned Mick onto it. The Other Liberal Professor was appalled, but I told her it was my job to corrupt her children. She said she would pay me back when the Kid get a bit older. Eeek. The Kid and Miles won stuffed dragons at the dart toss, breaking balloons very professionally, I must say, and gyros and corn dogs were eaten, and we saw chickens and cattle and canned okra and quilts and science fair exhibits and many of the school mates of both our children and us. Everyone goes to the Arkansas-Oklahoma State Fair, apparently.
  • The weather was viciously hot yesterday, but it is cool again today. My power bill came -- a hundred dollars less than last month, but still shockingly high. Yikes.
  • We're doing Middlemarch in Vic Lit. It is a deal more racist than I remembered. How did that happen?

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


In our country. Mine.

The president got everything he wanted. What he calls the "program" -- and which much of the world calls "torture" -- will continue unabated, arguably even stronger, as a result of this legislative "compromise."

In his celebratory statement Thursday night, the president was absolutely right when he said: "I had a single test for the pending legislation, and that's this: Would the CIA operators tell me whether they could go forward with the program, that is a program to question detainees to be able to get information to protect the American people. I'm pleased to say that this agreement preserves the most single -- most potent tool we have in protecting America and foiling terrorist attacks, and that is the CIA program to question the world's most dangerous terrorists and to get their secrets."The White House's Dan Bartlett put it best, and most accurately, when he said: "We proposed a more direct approach to bringing clarification. This one is more of the scenic route, but it gets us there."

Only the Bush administration could speak of taking a "scenic route" to torture. But Bartlett's description, creepy and chilling though it may be, is not mere spin designed to make a compromising president look triumphant. Bush, in fact, did triumph and did not compromise in any meaningful sense, because the only goal he had -- to ensure that his "alternative interrogation program" would continue -- was fulfilled in its entirety as a result of this "compromise" (with the added bonus that it will even be strengthened by legal authorization from Congress).

But hey. Gas is way down, close to two bucks a gallon, so what do we care?

Monday, September 25, 2006

Rosh Hashanah

So Friday we went down to throw the bread in the water.

mr. delagar thought maybe we could just go to Ben Geren Park and do this, instead of to the Arkansas River, as Friday was a viciously hot and sunny day (as Rosh Hashanah tends to be in these here parts) and as we had invited The Other Liberal Professor and hers over to celebrate the New Year with us, and they were to arrive at six, and mr. d. had lots of cooking to do if he was to have things ready by then.

But no! The kid objects!

Apparently when we thought we had just been doing stuff, we had been forming Traditions!

"We have to go to the river!" she cries. "It's a tradition! We have to go across the railroad tracks! And Mama has to make that joke! And I have to walk on the rock wall, and Mama has to make the other joke, about the word that starts with e and ends with e and has only one letter in it! And we have to walk around the old fort! And--"

So off we went. And it was a beautiful day, mind you. The sun on the river was brilliant, and the wind was fine, and we saw an egret wading, and I do love the rocks. And I made the joke, which was the one my father always used to make to us, whenever we crossed a set of railroad tracks (which is, "Hey, I see a train has been here!" "Oh? How can you tell?" "Heh! It left its tracks!" How long, exactly, will the kid continue to be amused by this? About two more years, if my record holds) and we made it back in time for dinner.

Oh yes -- and we did the winter dance, and it is nicely frosty here again today.

So all is well.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Winter Comes

When the kid was little, not yet two years old, one of her favorite books was Angus Lost, by Majorie Flack. She had it memorized, I swear. She couldn't actually read yet, but she would sit and turn the pages and recite the thing, word by word: "When winter came, Angwus gwew tiward of the same howse and the same cat and the same yawd and all the same things he knew all about. (Turns page) So one day Angwus went out onto the (pause) WIDE WODE!"

All of this to say that -- yay! Winter is coming.

And I am glad.

After a summer when we had, I swear, six or seven weeks when the temperature broke 102 every single day, I am more glad than usual, and I am always glad when winter comes.

It is gray and windy and chill here now. Leaves are blowing. Rain happens often. We sleep with the windows open. I am hoping for no more long hot spells, though I know, from history, we will likely get at least one. This Friday is Rosh Hashanah, which the kid and I subvert slightly, by doing our annual winter dance afterwards, on the banks of the Arkansas River (we go down to the river to throw the bread in the water for Rosh Hashanah, and on the way back up, the kid and I do the winter dance to bring winter on faster, and mr. delagar looks very pained, because how can I pollute his religion that way?) and maybe that will help.

Here's hoping.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Five, Huh?


on Bitch PH.D

says Ophrah says we should find five things to be grateful for.


Well, I'm game.

(1) Ain't I pleased women are cool to swear these days? What if it was fifty years ago, and women couldn't say shit? Wouldn't I be fucked? It's bad enough trying to teach in Pork Smith, when I can't say damn in the classroom without getting it from the dean, which does happen. At least most of the time I can use my native language, which, I must tell you (well, I imagine you have noticed) is appalling.

(2) I am grateful for mr. delagar. What if I had, like some ijit, married one of those destuctive guys who got all snitty about a woman who spent the past year writing five novels instead of, oh, say, (ever) cooking dinner or (hardly ever) buying groceries or doing laundry or mopping floors or like that? Plus (and this is so cool) he reads the novels and tells me how to fix them. I mean, yay!

(3) I love that I have a job I love. I was teaching The Death of Ivan Ilyich in WLIT II the other day and my students start in claiming that Tolstoy means us to read Ivan as a good man in a good life and I went OFF on them. WHAT? I shouted. WHAT? WHAT IS GOOD ABOUT THIS GUY? WHAT IS GOOD ABOUT HIS LIFE? ARE YOU PEOPLE INSANE? Well, it develops that they think no one likes the job they do. Ever. I told them this was unso. I told them, for instance, that I, me, right here in front of them, I love my job. They looked startled. I then told them that if they, right now, them, were studying for a job they did not love, that something was fucking wrong. (I had to cough and choke and say some other word besides fucking, but they knew what I meant.) I told them they had to follow their passion or they would end up like Ivan. They looked *shocked* at this news. Ai.

(4) I'm grateful the muse is back. Whatever the muse is. I don't know. I'm not poking it too hard to find out. I spent 8 years not able to write anything worth reading hardly, and now? Five books in a year? And they're just burning out of me? O muse don't go away, I am SO grateful. Whatever you want. Stay baby stay.

(5) I am grateful to my writing group. I suspect 4 is connected to 5. Thanks, y'all! Sorry about all the socialism!


...we love Le Blog Berube?

When I heard that a prominent conservative blogger had gone after a young feminist blogger because she had dared to have breasts in the vicinity of former President Clinton in the course of a meeting between Clinton and liberal bloggers (“she wears a tight knit top that draws attention to her breasts and stands right in front of him and positions herself to make her breasts as obvious as possible”), I thought, “well, what do you expect from these Dorito-flecked guys typing in their mothers’ basements—they literally have nothing better to do.”

Monday, September 18, 2006


I'm over here on Dooce, and it's this post on deal-breakers, and I'm reading it, thinking to myself, hmm, I ain't think I have any deal-breakers, do I?

I mean, I've done married mr. delagar anyway, and it's no way I'm divorcing him, because I am not going back to dating, not going through all *that* again, uh-uh, never, so it's a moot question, son, but just if it came up, I don't think I do have deal-breakers.

But then I start reading the comments, here:

And sure, yes. I wouldn't do a Republican, that's true.

Because who would?

And yes, I agree. Gold teeth? Yick.

And yes, all right, being rude to waitstaff, I couldn't do a guy like that.

And I'm with Dooce. If he said, "Homosexuals are stupid," or anything like that, yes, that would be that for Mr. Idiot.

But some of these other objections?

No liars or thieves?

No bad grammar? No cussing? No atheists or agnostics? No tattoos? No small hands?

Good shit, dudes. If you don't date liars and thieves, who do you plan to date?

I'm just saying.

Oh Boy!

I mean, Argh, Maties!

Tomorrow is Talk Like a Pirate Day!

(You know what a pirate's favorite saubject is, don't yer?

From Joe.My.God., an excellent first-hand account of September 11:

And in my group of evacuees was a dog walker, who had about 8 tiny dogs on leashes. Once on the tugboat, it was noticed that the deck of the boat, which was an open-grill of sorts, was too wide for the little dogs' feet. So we were each handed one of the dogs to hold while we crossed the Hudson. I got the pug.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

I Ain't Read That

So I'm teaching Frederick Douglas in WLIT II, his autobiography. Those of you who have read it the text know it's a highly literate work, deliberately so: Douglas set out, among other things, to establish that a black man was capable of advanced rhetorical discourse. And Yikes, does he pull it off.

So much so that my students, sophomores in Pork Smith, are frequently lost as he employs rhetorical moves and 19th century literary flourishes, not to mention employing words like obdurate and exculpate. He also does a nice job of documenting the abuses of slavery along the way, but I thought it might be interesting to give them a look at texts that employed a different sort of discourse.

So I linked them to five pages off of this site:

Which is the WPA site, the one that has scanned in interviews with ex-slaves. I picked narratives I particularly like, including my favorite, Heywood Ford tells a story,

(drrr...I can't get my link to work -- but Vance in comments has one! Go use his!)

trying to give a certain amount of balance (that is, I included, as much I didn't want to, one narrative from the many slaves who say things like "my marster was really good to me," and "things were better when we were slaves" -- you'd be surprised how many of these there are. Well, I'm surprised. There aren't really that many of them. I'm surprised that there are any of them. I knew if I gave the students even one of these narratives, half the class would seize on that narrative to claim that slavery was not a bad thing -- see? EVIDENCE! -- so I didn't want to give those narratives to them. On the other hand, if I excluded those narratives, wasn't I suppressing evidence? So finally I gave them one that was sort of positive, so that that side was represented, and four that weren't. Of course you can guess what happened.)

Anyway. Here's what I want to blog about: what surprised me about the exercise: the large number of my students -- I'd say about a dozen, out of a class of 33 -- who claimed they "could not read" this assignment, because it was in "ebonics."

"What do you mean?" I asked, puzzled. I mean, yes, it's not standard English. But it's not fucking Latin.

They claimed they couldn't read "that stuff." That they literally could not understand it.

I looked at the page. I looked at them. "You're messing, right?" I asked, with some doubt. Because, you know, it said "ain't." It had an occasional double negative, and it dropped a g here and there. (Most of them, may I add? speak the same way) It said dat instead of that. Nothing anyone with any sense would have any trouble figuring out.

"I don't read ebonics," one kid said.

"Oh," I said, grasping the problem.

BLACK English, don't you see. I get it now.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

TBogg is right. Bush is just lying.

“It’s unacceptable to think there’s any kind of comparison between the behavior of the United States of America and the action of Islamic extremists who kill innocent women and children to achieve an objective,” said Bush, growing animated as he spoke.

Not that this should surprise me -- fuck knows why it should surprise me, in this non-reality based joke of a President -- but Good Shit it's sickening.

See Here

Scott kicks the teeth out of Ann Althouse:


Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Conversation at the delagar Household

The Kid: Mama, what makes you go goozey inside?

Me: Ah. Goozey? You mean, like, all warm and fuzzy?

The Kid: Right.

Me: (pleased, b/c, you know, I KNOW the right answer to this one, which is an important thing, for us feral children): "You do, sweetness. When I think about my sweet baby, I get all goozy inside."

The Kid: Oh.

(Apparently this was NOT the right answer.)

Me: Um. What makes you go goozy inside?

The Kid: I was talking to Katy. You know. At school? What makes HER go goozy inside is baby rabbits.

Me: Oh, is it?

The Kid: Yep.

Me: And what makes you goozy?

The Kid: Wolves.

Me: Wolves. I like wolves too.

The Kid: Wolves feedin their babies...

Me: Mmm...

The Kid (with such an expression of sweetness on her face, you would not believe it)...feeding their babies regurgitated baby rabbits. I totally love that.

Meme, Mutated

How Long Have You been Blogging?

We’re coming up on my two-year blogoversary, I do believe. I still miss Pete, who broke me in.


Hah. These are always weird. What I think I look like? What I’m afraid I look like? What I wish I looked like? (Because don’t I wish I looked like a pirate? Really?)

Actually I am the shortest one in my family, which leaves me taller than the average bear, I am solid, as your total peasant stock tends to be, with totally unruly off-brown-kind-of-blond hair that won’t do what its told and I ought to keep shorter than I do. No make-up, no piercings, no tattoos. No jewelry except the wedding ring. I dress very badly, I’m afraid. As I said to one of the English Ed professors in the corridor this summer, who said, “But look how delagar is dressed!” I said,“Well, but you don’t want to count me. I’m the low bar of the English Department.” (I had on jeans and a khaki teeshirt that day. It was, however, my very best khaki teeshirt. The one without the frayed hem.)

Why do readers read your blog?

Don’t I hope they come for the quality of my writing. Heh. Or the insight of my political acumen. Maybe my wit? My brother, I know this because I asked him, reads my blog to get pissed off at me. Well, that will do.

What’s the last search phrase someone used to get to your blog?

Since I don’t know what this means, I’m answering a different question instead:

What’s your favorite way to find blogging material on a slow day?

I cast my net over the right-wing waters. I have, saved on my favorites, a whole list of sites I call, fondly, Lunatic Right-Wing Blogs. Not all of them, actually, are lunatics. Some are just right-wing blogs, normal enough folk who happen to be to my right. But I browse around until something hits my outrage button – et voila! Blogoriffic!

Your current favorite blog?

This isn’t fair. Who has just one? Here’s my list of the ones I read every day:

What blog did you read last?

Le Blog Berube.

Which feeds do you subscribe to?

I don’t know what this means. Here’s a different question:

Why are you so technologically fucking useless?

That’s a good question! I blame it on (a) my useless education. I was educated in the Louisiana public school system, Jefferson Parish, at a time when the schools were sexually segregated, so that the boy’s high school got all the money and the best teachers. They learned physics and calculus and Latin. We got "advanced math" and health ed. Also (b) I’m a classics major. Caesar didn’t know from computers, you know, so why would I? And (c) this whole math thing. I don’t really have an excuse for this one. But anything with math in it makes my head go fuzzy. And doing things with computers, it looks like math. I don’t know if it is, but when you people start showing it to me, it looks like math, I have to tell you. And it sounds like math. And then the buzzing starts, and next thing I know I’m out in the parking lot and it’s two days later and I have coffee grounds in my ear.

Essentially, as you can see, I have no valid excuse.

Who do I tag? Zelda.

Monday, September 11, 2006

So a Professor Walks Into A Bookstore....

As a writer of SF, and a teacher of classes in SF, I like to keep up with work in the field. I subscribe to two of the print magazines, Analog and Asimov's, and I follow several of the online journals. When I go into any bookstore, it’s generally the SF section I head for first. And yes, I do watch Battlestar and I do follow SF blogs and I know more than I should about slash.

And we were in a bookstore this weekend, waiting for the GSA party to start. I was browsing through the new annual best collections – BEST SF of 2006, 2006 Best SF Short Stories, you know the drill. About sixteen different titles come out every year and I usually end up buying them all. I was scanning the table of contents, though, this year, looking for names I knew, names I wanted to read, and not seeing many. Seeing all the usual suspects. And noticing something, well, disconcerting. Something I had been noticing a general trend toward lately, at Analog and FS&F.

mr. delagar comes up with S. M. Stirling’s new book. He’s gotta have it. It’s the latest in that series, you know. One of those alternate history cycles where a band of brothers is transported into some other world history where something did or didn’t happen and so the world is radically different -- mr. delagar loves books like this.

In this world, I think, there’s no electrical power. And guns don’t work. Bummer. But as always, the effect is the same. Patriarchy Rulz!

mr. delagar tried to get me to read these books for a while, on the grounds that they were SF, and I liked SF, didn’t I? As I frequently tried to get him to read Octavia Butler, on the same grounds. I finally refused outright. “I’m sick of that story,” I told him.

He was confused. “What story?”

“World-changing event,” I said. “Women get driven to their knees. Real men rise up and rescue the women. Why don’t the women ever band together and rescue themselves? What is up with that, son?”

He thought for a moment. “Well…it’s realism, isn’t it?”

“Yes, in my ass it is. Because women are helpless victims. Aren’t they? Waiting to be raped and murdered and they will always fall apart in a crisis?”

He thought some more. “In that story women banded together and rescued themselves. What was that story? By Bujold?”

I laughed. “Written by who was it now? A woman?”

He laughed too. “Well, yes.”

About ten years ago, maybe a bit more, my brother was visiting my apartment, when I was a graduate student in Fayetteville, browsing my bookshelves, and he snorted in contempt. “Look at all these books by women,” he said. “Do you just buy books by women? Is that it? You won’t buy a book unless a woman writes it?”

I looked up from what I was working on, surprised. Then I got up to look at the shelves with him. I actually did a count. To no real surprise of mine, slightly half of the books on the shelf were, in fact, written by men. No, in fact, I did not select my books by sex. Yes, in fact, I bought books based on what I wanted to read.

Why had my brother seen women when he looked at my shelves? Why, because any books written by women were too many books written by women, of course. Because all the books on his shelves were written by men. Because only books written by men are real books.

What did I see, looking down the list of stories in the Best SF Stories of 2006?

I bet you can guess.

What do I see, every month, when my Analog arrives in the mail?

Why do you suppose this is? Because no women are writing SF? Because no women are writing SF that is good enough to be published? (I find this hard to believe, given the quality of stories I see in Analog every month.) Or might it be that editor of Analog is a man?

When I was a writing student at the University of Arkansas, I was told the men students were winning all the awards and fellowships and prizes because they were simply better than we women students were. No woman ever won any of the prizes – not a single one, the whole four years I was in the program, or the five years I was a graduate student afterwards – because no woman writer in the program was good enough to win one. That’s all. The men were just better than us. Nothing to do with the fact that all the judges were men and our names were on the drafts. (This is very like with the American Philological Association journal – men used to publish at a rate far outnumbering that of women professors, until they went to blind submissions, and then! Lo! Suddenly women professors began to get their papers accepted at a rate roughly equivalent to that of male professors. WTF, dude?) And you know? I believed them at the time. I believed I was losing because I was just no good.

That’s how they shut us up.

Chick flick. Women’s writing. That crap. Who wants to hear that story? It’s about girls. Books by women? Who cares?

Nine Eleven

One of my students comes into the office for his conference and asks me, earnestly and with sweet sincerity, whether I remember that today is the anniversity of the attack on the World Trade Center -- have I remembered that? We need to remember all those tragic deaths today.

I do remember, I tell him.

A very bad thing, he tells me sadly. So many people died.

I study him across the desk. He would have been -- what? 13? 12? I wonder if he knows people are still dying. I wonder if he counts Iraqis as people. I wonder if anyone he knows is in the Armed Forces. (He's one of our few rich white kids.) I don't say any of this. I just remind him of the Memorial Service, being held at noon by the Bell Tower, and send him on his way.

I do remember the September 11 attacks. I remember where I was when I found out they happened. I remember my students, who had families at the Pentagon, I remember thinking, fiercely, that my brothers were safe. I remember driving across Charlotte with fear bitter in my blood.

I remember, too, what the country was like right after those attacks. I remember how the country felt then -- that shock, the way we all walked around like we had broken in half and the glue was barely holding. I remember the way we did feel like one country, for just a brief while.

I remember not believing -- I did not believe -- that Bush would start a war for no good reason. He would not use the September Eleven Attacks to start a bogus war. I believed that.

But then he did, of course.

Bush spat on the deaths of those killed in the 9/11 attacks, to start this evil war.

And since then he and his team have been driving us further and further apart.

Do I remember?

I remember everything.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Why I Hate GSA Parties

Went to mr. delagar's graduate student party last night. This is an annual party which welcomes all the new graduate students into the graduate student program, that party, with bad food, and piped in music, and big round tables, at a rented room in downtown Fayetteville, off the Square. And mr. delagar always goes, and makes me go.

Boy, do I hate parties like this. OTOH, I always make him go to my departmental parties, so it ain't like I have grounds to set my heels. I go.

The kid went with us, in her party dress. Acting out. Well, acting eight. She was hungry. She was bored. The party, organized by graduate students, got a late start. I took her for a walk around Fayetteville's Town Square. She was enchanted. It was just dusk and the sun was going down over the Boston Mountains, which can be seen from the Square. "I love Times Square!" she cried.

"Um," I said. "Well, you will love Times Square. Bu this is Fayetteville's Town Square. It's a bit different."

"What's Time Square?"

I explained. She asked if I had ever been there. I said I had. I told her about New York, the museums and the bookstores and the subways, and especially the part about how things are open all night long (all the stores on Fayetteville's Square were closed, of course, at seven o'clock in the evening) and how if you want a sandwich at three o'clock in the morning the guy in the bodega will make one for you, which was my favorite bit. Now she wants to go live in New York. Hah, I think to myself. My work is done.

We had to go back in and hang with the graduate students, who were bemoaning their unwritten dissertations and discussing Fredrick Jameson and the superstructure and the guy in someone's office who changes his clothes right there in the office and what they would do now that their assistantship are running out and why, why, why wasn't there a class in writing dissertations, and I would have liked all this much more, maybe, if I hadn't had an eight-year-old melting down at my elbow, because the food was nothing she wanted to eat, a kind of pasta thick with onions and olives and half-cooked tomatoes, also gummy fake whole-grain bread. She wouldn't go near either. There was some cheap wine. I did consider telling her that was Kool-Aid.

Then, to make things perfect, some of my old professors showed up. (I was in this same program, 15 years ago -- it's where I got my doctorate.) One of them remembered me, one of them didn't. On the whole, I have decided I prefer not being remembered.

Plus, I couldn't even drink heavily, since if I drank heavily I would certainly act out. ("Oh, cut me a fucking break -- just write your dissertation, will you? It's NOT THAT FUCKING HARD!") So I had to endure four hours of graduate students I did not know, ex-professors, a bored eight year old, bad food, bad decor, and bad music on nothing but DIET COKE.

Oh, feel for me, people, please.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Knife-Shaped Objects

So I’m teaching Monkey to my World Lit students. We’re on the section where Tripitaka and Monkey come to Cock-Crow Kingdom, at the behest of the drowned king, to look into his murder and rescue his usurped throne – it’s that story again. You know it. Shakespeare did it with Hamlet, Aeschylus did it with Agamemnon, it’s as old as the hills.

But in Monkey it’s a different tale, as it Monkey it always is. The king who has usurped the throne is a good king.

“You can’t be right,” the king’s son tells Tripitaka. “These past three years have been the best ever. The people have prospered. The heavens have shed abundant rain. Our borders are strong. The fields bloom, our women are happy, our craftsmen work hard, our judges yield fair decisions. The kingdom is paradise. If that is not my father on the throne, who is he?”

What does this mean? I asked my students. What question is being asked here, about kingship, about what a king is?

They gape at me. No, I swear to you, they do.

All right, I say. Let’s ask that more simply. What is a good king?

They keep staring at me.

I pace up and down the front of the room. More simply, I say. Is this man, the magician who has stolen the kingdom, a good king?

They gape at me, outraged.

The son says he is, I point out.

He’s been lied to, one of the students tells me. He thinks it’s his father. He has no idea –

Well, but is this his father? Does it matter what you think something is? Is there a difference between what you think it is and what it really is?

(Now I have truly confused them.)

What I’m asking, I say, getting maybe a tiny bit annoyed, is whether it matters whether he thieved the throne or not, if he’s doing a good job with the throne.

Of course it matters! declares the student who told me the king was a liar. It’s not his throne!

So even though the old king was doing a lousy job, I say, and all the people were dying, and being invaded, and killed in wars, and this new king is doing a brilliant job, and everyone is happy and the country prospering and no one is dying, he should be kicked off the throne?

They stare at me.

What is a king? I demand, annoyed. These are supposed to be Americans, after all. Are you a king just because you’re sitting on a throne?

Yes, says a girl on a front row.

I stare at her. I stare around the room. They’re all looking at me earnestly. Yes? I say. You all agree with that?

They nod. They agree with it.

You’re a king because you inherit a kingdom? You’re a king because it’s your kingdom?

They nod.

And everyone should do what you say, I say. Because you’re the king. Forever. No matter what you do.

So long as you’re the king, says the girl in the front row.

I look at her, and at the rest of the class, and I swear to you, all of them are nodding.

I back off. Okay, I say. Let’s get this simpler, I tell them. Think of a knife.

The whole room relaxes. Oh good, they’re thinking. We know what knives are.

Define a knife for me, I say.

A piece of metal, says a boy in the front row.

I nod. Any piece of metal?

A sharp piece of metal, he says, patiently.

Any sharp piece of metal?

We go on like this a bit until I have a knife defined as a sharpened metal blade with some sort of handle, used to cut with. I write that on the board and draw an outline of a knife below it. Then I step back and study this. They study it with me, mildly interested.

What if, I said, the knife doesn’t cut? Is it still a knife?

Yes, insists the girl who said a king was a king no matter what.

I give them my best bland idiot look. Really? It’s a knife if it doesn’t cut? Suppose this knife – I tap the chalk drawing – is made of plastic. Is it still a knife?

The girl is nodding emphatically. Most of the rest of the room isn’t. They’re looking thoughtful.

Or, I say, strolling toward the other side of the blackboard, is cutting part of the definition of knife? (Those of you who have read Aristotle will know that I am stealing his material here.)

The class is frowning deeply. Obviously cutting is part of the definition of knife. They have just said so. But they can feel, deep in their bones, that I am leading them down a path.

Is a knife that does not cut a knife? I ask. Or is it a knife-shaped object?

It’s a knife-shaped object, the boy who came up with the original sharp-metal bit says.

(I throw in my usual joke here, about how mr. delagar used to call this useless dog I had a dog-shaped object. It always loosens the tension. The class laughs and cheers up.)

What, I say, would you think of me, I say, if I did not teach?

They look intrigued. They have, after all, had teachers who did not teach them.

Suppose, I say, instead of coming in here and teaching you, I sat at this table and did crossword puzzles all class long, and told you just to read your text? Would you say I was a teacher? I mean, I point out, the university system would still be calling me teacher – at least until I got fired. Would I be your teacher? Or would I be a teacher-shaped object?

The boy grinned. A teacher-shaped object.

Should you endure me? I asked. Or should you, oh, rebel? Go and complain to the dean?

I move on without waiting for an answer. What is a good king? I ask. Is it not a king who kings? Who takes care of his people? Who runs his kingdom well? Under whom the kingdom prospers?

They see where the curve ball was coming from now and are restless in their chairs. The girl in the front row is especially unhappy.

If a king is a bad king, I say, is he a king? Or a king-shaped object? Does it matter whether it’s his kingdom or not? What does that even mean, his kingdom? How do we judge that, what’s really real, what ought to be true? Isn’t what’s true what actually is working?

These, I say, are the questions Monkey – Monkey the text, I add, not Monkey the Monkey (this is a joke, to get them to relax a little) – raises.

Keep reading, I tell them. Go think about them. These questions matter.

Don’t they, I say, and I say it to the girl in the front row.

Who does not look happy.