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I’ve been reading almost all day today.  This is the first time I’ve done that in over a year.  I remember the list time I was reading all day was last summer–reading through some of the more appealing Pulitzer Prize winners.  I haven’t kept up that habit this summer, opting for the easier task of watching movies and going to weddings. And then there was the beach house, at this point a holy ground of my life.  I think if I ever thought I was going crazy that place would cure me.

While I was reading, I took a chance to smell my left hand’s fingertips.  They smelled like the handsoap in my bathroom–lavender, I think.  Something flowery like that, at least.  And for a moment I wish they smelled like cigarette or cigar smoke.  I wouldn’t take hookah.  Too sweet.  I could do without sweet right now.  I could do with bitter and dingy.   There was always something about cigarette smoke on the tips of my fingers.  I’d always smell for it in a shower, scrubbing all over my body but using my fingers as the litmus test.

When I smelled the right hand, it smelled clean like baby powder, I slap it on the back of my neck on warm days, and pretend it does anything for the sweat.  I used an spray can air freshener this year in my classroom, something called Powder Fresh.  It smelled exactly like baby powder.  I used to spray it at the floor around the kid who had just farted, and that always eased my worries–but that smell always smells like tabula rasa, indelibly blank and unbelievably clean, simple, and pure.

I wanted to smell used, and thought for a moment I’d go buy a pack of cigarettes and smoke one or three on the porch to ease my worries.  Then I’d take a shower and make sure my finger only barely smelled like impending cancer.

This is a strange thought because I’ve only ever smoked about a pack of cigarettes in my lifetime, and only a few more cigars.  And lately, I haven’t smoked anything but hookah and even that hasn’t been for months. That was my bargain with myself–just hookah, and I’d feel healthy.  Unfortunately, I did feel healthier.

So I thought about drinking, but I only have a bottle of nice wine, and all my other liquor is either sealed in my old bedroom in Tallahassee, sitting in a closed store in Philadelphia, or corked up and staying that way here in my month-old apartment.

Drinking alone and smoking.  Those are my ritualized habits of self-destruction and vice–the activities that will rot my brain and blacken my soul and one day probably send me straight to Lucifer himself for a one-on-one.  If only life would be so cruel to make those a little more popular, I think I’d be a happy man.  But drinking alone sounds a little alcoholic, so I’ve only had one drink this summer, outside the aforementioned weddings.  And a smoker has become such a pariah that even the places that promote public drinking have banned it.

So I was reading in bed, and have been all day, but that felt far too normal and banal and abominable.  I twitch my hands instead and think about ways to help my brain buzz into unfocused splendor.

I’m waiting for the school year to start, to start teaching again, but all I can really think about is the inevitable vice that stress will bring.  I guess I’m preparing my to-be-tarnished soul.  I would watch Jeopardy, or Wheel of Fortune, but I’ve decided to forgo cable this year, and don’t really miss it.  But the ritualized gambling of game shows would, by proxy, take a load off the feeling I have to do something unhealthy.

In waiting for the school year to begin, I’ve been making worksheets and copying out pages of workbooks for the students, to be on top of my game for the upcoming onslaught of inevitable stresses on my time management, patience, and professionalism.  I don’t know, but something about a 16-year-old high school freshman shouting obscenities at me or another adult seems to stretch my civility before 8 AM.  Instead, I wrote six quizzes, a three day project, and a homework sheet this morning before noon.  I hardly didn’t know what to do with myself.

So it goes–the most valuable lesson I’ve learned from my reading.  Thanks Kurt Vonnegut.

I mean, sure.  There are those wonderful themes about racism in To Kill a Mockingbird–but “to kill a mockingbird” doesn’t really sound right in any situation and doesn’t roll off the tongue so neatly as “so it goes.”  It’s become a motto of me, not in the original literary sense of accepting death, but in the sense that teenagers are always going to be teenagers, and teenagers do stupid things and they won’t be happy about the punishments of it.

But I won’t be happy about having to always be around the suck of it, and I won’t always be happy about doling out consequences, and I won’t be happy hearing the troubles of children who think so infantilely for having had such adult experiences, but most days they aren’t mollifying so I find myself stuck in another year that promises to be just as interesting as all the rest.

With students coming, I seem to be smelling my fingertips and wondering why they don’t smell like smoke, and I check up on my stock of liquor, and I think about Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune and the $100,000 Pyramid and even Match Game–for no good reason other than that seems to be the show I watched most when I was home in high school and had the time to flip the channel to the Game Show Network.

All the while I try to imagine nothing.

So it goes.

We read a short short story on the origin of the word tantalize from the myth of Tantalus.  After we read it, I had them write a paragraph stating how they would have dealt with Tantalus if they were Zeus.  One students wrote:

“Of course, if Tantalus didn’t have snitches all around him he would not have got killed.” 

 

That’s life in urban Phila.

The one thing I was told to do during my time as a teacher was to keep writing about the experience.  And I haven’t been able to keep that up.  Why can I not take such simple advice? 

Well, to be fair I have been busy, but that’s no excuse.  I’ve still managed to get through the last two seasons of Heroes over the weekends, and Saturday has indeed once again become my “Do-Nothing Day” in an attempt to regain those preciouse “old days” that I remember so dearly right about now.

When I first got to my school I knew I was lucky.  I am in a brand new facility.  I am a part of a very small school, with small classes, smaller classes, and a small and very close, and very supportive faculty. 

By all accounts I won the jackpot of Teach for America placements.  And the students at the beginning of the year seemed to generally understand the basics.  I thought to myself, “this won’t be bad at all.” 

And then I started grading their homework.  And the deficiencies these students have when it comes to putting down what they understand so well verbally in class is apalling. 

Some don’t know what a noun is.  Some don’t know what a verb is.  Some don’t care.  Some don’t write in defiance.  And those who don’t still claim they want to go to college.  But they think high school is nothing like college, and definitely won’t prepare them for the real world.

And I wonder.  If they knew what I knew, would they still think that way?

The students are so much more advanced than I was at their age.   They know so much more.  They live in a city where so much more happens that in the suburbs of a midsized north Florida town.  They have to deal with so much including being economically impoverished, subjects of a terrible education system, and still the hope of some parents who expect them to work, do well in school, and be the first student in their family to go to college.

And all of those expectations I somehow find on me. 

How?

When did I become so empathetic?

 

Regardless, I am enjoying teaching so much.  The goal everyday is to walk into the classroom and have fun.  I’m the one who is supposed to have fun.  And I do.  I do not expect the students to have fun.  I do not expect us to have fun together.  But I expect to have fun, and I think some of the students notice my enthusiasm and attitude.  Some do and just don’t like it.  Some notice and are skeptical.  Others don’t even notice, and those are the students I still haven’t notices three weeks in.

Those are the students I am most concerned about.  Those are the students I feel I’m already failing.

I get it, (wo)man. I get it. You know, it’s a reality. This TFA Induction business is awkward territory all the way around. Especially for an area like Philadelphia that’s a little large with approximately 180 new corps members. And, we’re only given one highly-structured week to maintain involvement with all the demanding–and sometimes useless–sessions that we have to go to all day long, but are also expected to meet each other, many of us looking for potential roommates. It’s just awkward.

Every introduction goes like this: “Hey, how’s it going? What’s your name? Where are you from? What school did you go to? Oh! Really! That’s cool. I had a friend who went there…yeah, did you know Jane Doe? No? Oh well, your school’s so big I don’t know why I thought you’d know her. Oh me? Well, I’m John Doe, and I’m from State 51, and I went to University of State 51. Yeah, it is really far away, but I really pref-ed this city because I wanted a real change of scenery and a big challenge. Yeah. It’s cool. Yeah. … … … OK! See you later!”

And really, you found out nothing. You could learn more looking up people’s facebook profiles, but it’s not like we have time for that. Because let’s be honest. I don’t care about where you’re from or what school you went to. I care about if you’re cool, if I could possibly live with you, if you think you’d want to live with me, and how soon can we start looking for a place because I want to find a nice one and that’ll take some looking around.

That’s what’s important. And I haven’t been asking about what books or movies or music people like (because it’s not like people even give honest answers about that anyways, deferring to Latest Indie Artist Person X Heard About [Shearwater], or Fashionably Intelligent Foreign Film from Oscars [The Diving Bell and the Butterfly], or Atypical Novel from a Surging Popular Author [All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy, because everyone’s been reading The Road or No Country for Old Men], and they’re just being impressively independently fashionable in a self-conscious way, and if they really said [boyanswer/girlanswer] Miley Cyrus/Coldplay, The Little Mermaid/The Departed, and Anything Dan Brown/Twilight they’d be embarrassed about how people would judge their really favorite things so they don’t let them out to this world of strangers) because that search is usually fruitless, honestly.

But seriously, if one more person compares this to how awkward their freshman orientation was, I will get so annoyed I’m probably going to choke an Asian baby. That’s how mad I’ll be. I’m tired of that analogy more so than the darn same introductory question I’ve been using for the past two days. Geez, it has only been two days and people are already stating self-conscious ironies as a way to make awkward moments less awkward.

Note: That never works.

PS. It’s great to be a Florida Gator in Philadelphia. Go Marreese Speights!

You’ll have to forgive this entry if it is uninteresting, but I keep coming across the topic of stars in my reading (as I roll through the Young Adult section of Borders) and in the music I listen to and I wonder if I’m reading too much into things, or if this is legitimate.

One can generally assume in Western Literature that if it’s a reference it probably comes from one of three places: Shakespeare, the Bible, or Greek/Roman myth. Right? Right. These are the three pillars of Western literature pretty much. There are others, of course, but these are the Big Three, if there were any at all. And, at a cursory glance, the stars in the night sky seem to pop up a lot as symbols for practically everything. They are a big part of the current world’s modern mythology, for more than a few reasons.

So just chew on this for a moment:

  • Probably one of the earliest references would be in the Bible’s first book Genesis (15:5, KJV) when God commands to Abraham–currently childless–to “Look toward heaven and number the stars if you are able to number them… So shall your descendants be.” So initially stars symbolize a promise, and they symbolize the future, and they symbolize fertility. All at once in those two little sentences. But there’s more–much, much more.
  • And according to Ovid in the Metamorphoses when a god created man he created him upright with his head towards the stars in the heavens, and not like other animals whose gaze is constantly directed at the ground. And then, in another creation story they become the sign of man’s intelligence, of his higher being, or his status as master over the animals, of his privileged place in the world, and of that which man can accomplish, even–that being anything. Limitless potential.
  • The stars are also the symbols of astrology and take on the role as guides of fate and fortune.
  • And then there’s Shakespeare. I could write a thesis about all of his references to stars, just in his tragedies, and all that they mean; but I’ll take one of the more popular references: When Romeo begins his little “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?” as Juliet appears on her balcony he continues on saying “Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven/Having some business, do entreat her eyes/To twinkle in their spheres till they return.” Getting us to the more basic symbol of beauty, not getting into to the lengthy discussion of eyes as the portals into the soul and what starlight in those eyes could mean…
  • And, just to get more modern more quickly, there is the classic Walt Disney animated motion picture Pinocchio where “When you wish upon a star” … and I’m assuming you know the rest, where the stars here are promises for the future, wish granters, almost representative of gods you could pray to and grant your deepest desires.
  • And just to give these bullet points a nice symmetry, I’ll just end with the reference from Lois Lowry’s book Nubmer the Stars, the title she borrowed from the passage in Genesis, about the Jews of Denmark in the escalating years right before and in the beginning of World War II. There the stars are the Jews, the descendants of Abraham, the people who were represented the Star of David, the fulfilled promise from ages before.

And then I hear a song like “After Tonight” by Justin Nozuka. Here are some select lyrics

There’s something in your eyes
Is everything alright
You look up to the sky
You long for something more

Darling, give me your right hand
I think I understand
Follow me and you will never have to wish again

(Chorus)
I know that after tonight
You don’t have to look up at the stars
No, No, No, No…

And I can’t help but wonder if he’s consciously or unconsciously taken in all of those cultural references about stars, even if just from watching Pinocchio as a kid, and the power that they seem to hold in and out of literary, cultural, and collective imagination.

I will admit up front I am a sucker for books that win prizes. If you couldn’t tell from my earlier post, however, I’ve become suspect of those awards over the years. But because Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road won the Pulitzer Prize, (also chosen for Oprah’s Book Club) I picked it up and scanned the first few pages. I liked it, so I bought it (a few days later at a used book store) and used it as my recreational read during school. And I was glad I did. The man alone has a great vocabulary, had me running to the dictionary more than a few times, and a really great style. He is also the author of No Country for Old Men, which is a really good movie.

Because of that I looked into his other works and picked up one of his other novels Blood Meridian. And I did that entirely because of the quotation from the review on the front cover which says “‘A classic American novel of regeneration through violence. McCarthy can only be compared with our greatest writers, with Melville and Faulkner, and this is his masterpiece.’ – Michael Herr” (I know, this is the perfect example of me judging a book by its cover, but seriously, covers can be informative. But I’m still not sure who Michael Herr is.) But that’s a serious recommendation if I’ve ever read one, so I decided right then and there I’d buy it and read it. And I did. And I was amazed. It is unlike any other book I have ever read.

The first thing about the book is it’s style. Particularly because it’s style is probably unlike anything you’ve ever encountered before. Cormac McCarthy is smart and you can tell immediately. He writes words you’ve heard but never seen before. He writes with the confidence of genius in his voice. He references mythology and the Bible in his language and plot. The closest book I can possibly compare in uniqueness alone has to be Beloved by Toni Morrison, if only because they are such contained novels both in this world but certainly only of their author’s imagination.

This is why, finding myself in a rare mood, I will take the plunge and say Cormac McCarthy the author is a man worth reading. Even though I have not read all of his books, or even half, or even a quarter, from what I have read I have only been astounded. And you have to discover them for yourself. His books are simply one of a kind creations that you will not find anywhere else.

I found this in his wikipedia article:

B. R. Myers, in his article “A Reader’s Manifesto“, identifies McCarthy’s writing as an example of what he believes to be the “growing pretentiousness” of contemporary American literature. Myers comments specifically on word repetition, “parallelisms” and “pseudo-archaisms” present in McCarthy’s works.

He criticizes McCarthy for muscular prose, and “an unpunctuated flow of words.” But his criticism I find partly (which he argues against) is seeing the trees and not the forest. And especially in the case of some instances a sentence that simply packs a large amount of action connected by “and”s reinforces the intended projection. Because it is not very important, all of the actions were shoved together into one sentence altogether, nothing emphasized and therefore nothing important. I find the overall effect of McCarthy’s prose to be infective and expansive.

This man’s body of work is definitely something to read.

Rule #1: Don’t settle for mediocrity.

It seems, the further and further I delve into British literature, that the Booker Prize is really just a more British version of Oprah’s book club. They ooze this latent angst of middle-aged women, British restraint, and demand either that post-imperialist feel of old lands in new times or the distinctly reserved British home life.

I’m also convinced that each book picked for the Booker Prize in the last ten years was a cop out. A good book, doubtless, but ultimately a questionable book. And a book that was picked because that all couldn’t agree on one book, and so they had to settle on another. Or do you think they have the discussion of “We should make this award accessible, instead of literary…”

I’m of the opinion that they do. That all the selection committee (an ever shifting group) just picks a book they think the populous will like. A book for the housewives, and small time businesswomen who have a long ride on the train to work. The women who handle small businesses during the day and read those books for lack of anything better to do.

What is great about he award is the grandiose way those who award it treat the Booker prize. They take the books they’ve already awarded and say “That’s not good enough. Let’s give an ultimate Book prize.” which they gave to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. That was a good choice. But now they’re doing it again, and I can only imagine that since J. M. Coetzee won the Nobel prize for literature that the second ultimate Best-of-the-Bookers-Booker-Prize will go to Disgrace, even though I’m having trouble discerning the magic in his words.

Maybe this is all just a sign that the world of words is going to crap. Or, maybe it’s just the awards for literature that are going the way of the west wind. John Banville, a winner of the Book prize, said in an interview with the Village Voice “…the Booker Prize and literary prizes in general are for middle-ground, middlebrow work, which is as it should be. The Booker Prize is a prize to keep people interested in fiction, in buying fiction.”

I think he hit the nail on the head.

Here are the winners of the Booker Prize to date:

2007 The Gathering by Anne Enright

2006 The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
2005 The Sea by John Banville
2004 The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
2003 Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre
2002 Life of Pi by Yann Martel
2001 True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey
2000 The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
1999 Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee
1998 Amsterdam: A Novel by Ian McEwan
1997 The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
1996 Last Orders by Graham Swift
1995 The Ghost Road by Pat Barker
1994 How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman
1993
Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle
1992 The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (co-winner)
1992 Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth (co-winner)
1991 The Famished Road by Ben Okri
1990 Possession: A Romance by A. S. Byatt
1989 The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
1988 Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey
1987 Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively
1986 The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis
1985 The Bone People by Keri Hulme
1984 Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner
1983 Life & Times of Michael K by J. M. Coetzee
1982 Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally
1981 Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
1980 Rites of Passage by William Golding
1979 Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald
1978 The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch
1977 Staying on by Paul Scott
1976 Saville by David Storey
1975 Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
1974 The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer
1973 The Siege of Krishnapur by J. G. Farrell
1972 G. by John Berger
1971 In a Free State by V. S. Naipaul
1970 The Elected Member by Bernice. Rubens
1969 Something to Answer For by P. H. Newby