This year, I really feel like I have added a new skill to my emotional repertoire: just not thinking about it. Just not thinking about it is a surprisingly effective method, I have found, of dealing with realities you can’t change in order to get things done, stay calm, and enjoy the many awesome things life still has to offer.

Last Saturday and last night, however, that method failed me.

Last night, as Michelle Obama’s speech got closer and closer, and I became more and more certain that I did not want to hear it. I know who I’m voting for. The Democratic ticket has my enthusiastic support. So, I went to go read my Norton anthology in bed. Our house is small, though, and our hallways echo, so I heard most of the speech and the preceding introductory video from my room. I should preface my reaction by saying, I admire the Obama’s immensely and I’m really, really happy for them & all their achievements and for us, as a country, to possibly have them as a first family. Really, I am. I am also disappointed, though not surprised, that the theme of the evening MO: what a lady. She’s a dedicated mother who quit her lucrative job to empower communities, because she knows money isn’t everything, and did I mention, she’s a dedicated mother? I’m not saying that I don’t believe there’s more to work than money–I’m a librarian. I know a big paycheck isn’t the meaning of life. I also know that no man would be questioned for behaving as if it was. No man would be expected to explain away his choices to make more money rather than less. I know being a dedicated parent is important, so why is it the first credential a woman is expected to offer and a nice quality in a man? I get why MO has to be presented as fitting comfortable narratives of American womanhood; they’ve got my vote, the votes they need are people who might find that reassuring. It just felt like a big let down when I was so close to seeing a woman running for president, not quitting her job to help her husband run.

This whole-hearted packaging of MO as an impeccable future first lady in all the ladiest sense of the word gives a little context to the fact that Biden’s little comment about his wife’s PhD pretty much landing under the radar, as far as the television news coverage goes. Seriously, can you believe there was a part of his brain that thought this would go over well:

“Ladies and gentlemen, my wife, Jill, who you’ll meet soon, is drop-dead gorgeous. My wife, Jill, who you’ll meet soon, she also has her doctorate degree, which is a problem. But all kidding aside. . . . “

(There’s probably a tizzy on in the pol blogosphere, but I haven’t checked.) And when it is covered, it’s covered alongside Pelosi’s brush-off of the significance of what was meant to be a joke:

“Lighten up,” [Pelosi] said. “We’ve got a planet to save.”

That’s right, SJ, lighten up. We’ve got a planet to save, and we had slaves to free. We can only be just so progressive all at once. Your turn will come. Just keep doing what you’re doing, and we’ll get there. And queue up that Stevie Wonder.

The larger part of me agrees with Pelosi. Just a few minutes before Biden made that remark on Saturday, I was wiping away unexpected, involuntary tears at the sight of him and Obama on the stage together. All those things I haven’t been thinking about, those 2004 things, those 2000 things, decided to remind me that I make the biggest show about being a cynic because I am probably the least cynical person you’ll ever meet. So when people do bad things, even bad things they could have been predicted to do based, it hurts. When I see the child of a single mother and a former single father on stage together, talking about their leadership for the country, it moves me. In the grand scheme of things, it is much more important that Obama & Biden get elected than that I feel good about how the US treats its women. I don’t want to be divisive. I don’t want to create trouble, or savage the people who are brave enough to do the dirty work of winning at politics. It could have been worse, it could have been Webb. It was such a slap in the face. For the first couple of minutes after Biden made that awful joke, I refused to believe he had said it. But he did, and my job now is to act like it’s not that bad.

Still, in my book, the distance between the world as it is and the world as it should be includes the need for women to tell stories about themselves that highlight selflessness and downplay ambition, for them to be beautiful in addition to being good at what they do, for them to say they want a better world for their daughters while they leave the one they live in undisturbed.

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One of my new colleagues recently loaned me her copy of Haruki Murakami’s new book, a memoir, entitled What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I’m a pretty big fan of Murakami (2005’s Kafka on the Shore got me hooked, and I read backwards from there), and I’m a pretty big fan of memoirs, and I’m a relatively big fan of running… but not like Mr. M is. Anyway, I found this to be a thoroughly enjoyable read–Mr. M has the same light, deceptively elegant touch in nonfiction as he has in fiction, and he’s good at seeming humble and just as confused as the rest of us about life’s inconsistencies. In fact, I’m convinced he might actually be humble, but I’d have to see it to believe it–how humble can you be when you’re hailed as the best Japanese writer of your generation, practically a shoo-in for a Nobel prize, and able to split your time between Harvard, Japan, and Hawaii? I’m just not sure that’s possible, but the memoir makes it seem that way, and that’s really all that mattered to me as a reader.

So, Mr. M likes to run. A lot. He started running around the same time he started writing, which, believe it or not, was not until he was 30 and had spent his 20’s going into debt owning and running a bar. Then he decided to write a novel–not to be a writer, to write a novel–and he did, and it won a prize and got published, and then he wrote another one, and then he quit the bar and became a writer. During this time, he also became a runner (after being more or less sedentary and a 60 cigarette a day smoker), and he credits running for much of his success as a writer (although this is anything but a how-to memoir). Since then, he’s typically run one marathon a year, and of late has done one triathalon a year. He doesn’t spend a whole lot of time talking about writing in this memoir, but the parallels with his running are clear. Anyway, there’s a couple of passages I really love.

This is how the book opens:

There’s a wise saying that goes like this: A real gentleman never discusses women he’s broken up with or how much tax he’s paid. Actually this is a total lie. I just made it up. Sorry!

Maybe you will find this obnoxious, but I found it totally impossible not to be charmed by the sheer silliness these lines. On a deeper level, I’m hoping he doesn’t mean that he feels free to make up the rest of his memoir… but I am preferring to read it as, if I’m making something up, I’ll just come out and tell you, but I reserve the right to make stuff up.

Okay, on a more serious note, this passage is the best description I’ve found of what it is like to do anything seriously, to wake up each morning with the aches and pains and anxieties that come with doing something demanding and beautiful. There’s a just a price to it, and you pay it:

I think certain types of processes don’t allow for any variation. If you have to be part of that process, all you can do is transform–or perhaps distort–yourself through that persistent repetition, and make that process a part of your own personality.

Indeed–and at some point, you have to decide that that transformation and distortion is what you want, and you have to stick with that. It’s part of you, and it’s important just for that reason. So for now, whenever I sit down to write or read poetry, or think about doing something as crazy as applying to English PhD programs, I think of these lines:

Running every day is a kind of lifeline for me, so I’m not going to lay off or quit because I’m busy. If I used being busy as an excuse not to run, I’d never run again. I have only a few reasons to keep on running and a truckload of them to quit. All I can do is keep those few reasons nicely polished.

Keep polishing, people.

The calm before

August 23, 2008

The more accurate title for this post would be simply “updates”–but I’m not the type to leave it simple now, am I?

D got here on August 9, ending a 40 day long distance period which, I am relieved to say, wasn’t hard at all on my end. Well, maybe it was hard for the first two days. And then I had a grand, perhaps long overdue realization: I can do this. I can live on my own. Once upon a time I could fill my whole day all by myself, and happily. This isn’t to say that being in a serious relationship and then being married had stunted me, I think, but more to say, it’s easy to lose track of your capacity for independence. It was much harder for him, w/o the novelty of a new job and a new town to distract him. But for me, it was perfect. I had a month to settle in to a new group of colleagues and a new set of responsibilities, and more importantly, a month in which no one wanted to talk to me when I got home, which made it much, much easier to get my butt in the chair. And in the chair is where it needed and continues to need to be–the radio silence I’ve once again slipped into over the past couple weeks is mostly due to the fact that I’m making a sustained effort to get my writing act together and get my head straightened out to commit to meeting some (mostly self-imposed) deadlines. I will be submitting work to journals this fall. I will be making a final decision about more graduate school. I will be coming up with a book-length manuscript to call a thesis and then tear apart and call my first book. As the Mistress of Wide Lawns and Narrow Minds and I discussed over local food in Iowa City this summer, it is important to decide these things and commit to the work it takes to mean them, regardless of the outcome. The outcome is not what I own. The work is what I own. I’m glad I had a month to practice before writing officially became the reason I only see my husband about two hours a day, even though we once again live in the same state. And that’s not just fine, it’s as it should be, at least for right now.

Shortly after D arrived, the rest of the new faculty arrived for their two-day orientation. At the college where I work, librarians are considered faculty (my title will actually be assistant professor now that I’ve completed my terminal library degree). Although I have absolutely no illusions about the parity of my intellectual accomplishment on this front (in fact, I have a major insecurity complex, as you probably know), it makes a huge difference to be included even if in name only. Instead of being shunned to my office, I got to spend two days with everyone else who is new around here, and they got to see me as some kind of peer. That’s important for the library, politically, and it’s important for me socially. It was also wonderful that tenure track and temporary (they call us “term”) faculty were treated equally during the orientation, and will be treated equally over the next year when it comes to conference funding and grant consideration. There’s a lot of very progressive things about this school that I will miss when I move on.

Anyway, the long and short of orientation was, D & me now have a social life! After a month without so much as a beer at the bar, we’re headed into our second straight weekend of having places to go and people to see. It’s just like new student orientation–this is a small town, and this is the time when everyone is silently asking will you be my friend, so I’m hitting up as many barbeques and happy hours as I get invited to. When I’m too busy, I can stop, but for now I can work around what feels pretty darn important–getting friends, being a friend. And last weekend’s Madonna’s 50th party left no doubt in my mind that indeed, I have found a fitting niche for myself this year, a place where I am viewed as not just an okay but a good dancer. Scary, right?

Things are about to get more intense as new students are pouring into campus as I type and classes start on Thursday. I think my workload, which has been kind of light, is going to take off, and I say bring it on. I’m ready to earn my keep around here. Still, it’s been nice to ease into it, and to have had some time to myself.

All of this is not to say that I’m not missing the company of a few select Floridians, ex-Floridians, and others. I have a few more letters I’m meaning to write, and some thoughts on other stuff I hope to get up here soon, and (bonus!) Iowa state fair pics. But right now I’m off to Saturday red, Iowa style. I’ll let you know how it goes.

You know, I was so happy that Emily tagged me, and then, I never contributed. But I have kept thinking about it, so here goes. And the meme is:

1. What is the best classic you were “forced” to read in school (and why)?
2. What was the worst classic you were forced to endure (and why)?
3. Which classic should every student be required to read (and why)?
4. Which classic should be put to rest immediately (and why)?
5. **Bonus** Why do you think certain books become classics?

1. You know, I honestly don’t remember being forced to read a lot of classics… my teachers tended to focus on grammar in class and assign book reports, which meant I got to pick most of my reading material. By the time I was in upper high school, and I had moved out of public school and into a school where you got to pick your English classes on a semester basis, so I kind of got to pick the reading there, too. But the best book I read for a book report was Jane Eyre. That was sixth grade, and it was slow going, but I read it with a dictionary right next to me and basically never struggled with a vocab quiz ever again. It remains one of my favorite books. I remember my surprise at realizing, underneath the diction that was initially very challenging, that it was a story about a girl I could relate to. I was hooked. Obviously there were a lot of cultural/gender issues that I was oblivious too at the time, but I was totally swept away and never scared of fancy words again.

Moby Dick is a very close second here.

2. My worst memory of a classic is probably Henry IV (part… I don’t remember). There’s something about me and Shakespeare histories that just do not mix. I find them very hard to absorb, and consequently I got an abysmal grade on the final for that book. I wouldn’t say it’s bad, though, I was just bad at it.

3. The Iliad. Preferably, no one should be made to read it in high school, but everyone should have to read it once  every year in college. I ended up doing that (as an English major and Greek minor, not surprising), and my relationship to it changed dramatically as I grew older. I think you read the Iliad one way as a very young person and another way as you  grow less young. The first time you read it, it’s all lists of names and gory battle wounds, but as you get older, it changes. Before my junior year, I much preferred the Odyssey. The Iliad was too violent. But then junior year, when I was studying abroad in England, two things happened: my grandmother (who was essentially my second parent, as my father did not live with us when I was a kid) died suddenly, and the Iraq war started. During that semester, I was in a Greek class devoted to reading the 24th (aka last) book of the Iliad. I had no idea when I signed up for the class that it was going to be so timely for me. But literally, as the first bombers were flying over Iraq, I was translating some of the most gut-wrenching words on the futility of war ever composed. And as I battled numbly through the cold days just after losing my grandmother, I was also reading some of the deepest expressions of loss. I don’t know what I would have done without that work to do and without those words. I think once you’ve had a couple of experiences like those, the Iliad isn’t just a book, it’s the book. It’s the most elemental narrative of the human experience I know. And in my dream educational world, it would be unavoidable for anyone who wanted to call herself educated. Bonus points if you can recite the last line: And so he was buried, Hector, breaker of horses.

4. Drawing a blank. But I will take this opportunity to state that I firmly oppose any eventual nomination of Ian McEwan to the status of classic writer.

5. I like Emily’s discussion. Other than what she said, it seems to be a mystery, but I do know that if your book is going to be a classic that’s around a long, long time, it helps if there are numerous copies of it to begin with. Or if people wrap mummies in pages of your writing.

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We’ve both been busy this summer, this year really,
so it’s been a while since we talked and I want
to let you know, I’m moving, and you are too.
We can be truck twins the way we were Proust twins.
There is none of that ripping feeling as I clear the
shelves, tape the flaps, sneeze, look out the window
for one of an uncertain number of last times. None
of that ongoing elegy we used to encourage. I know in advance
there’s not much I will miss here, except the place
I buy wine and a few people, who are bound to scatter
anyway. Maybe the Whole Foods. I’m just not sad this time
even though sometimes I try to be. I haven’t cried.
I often cried when I thought about not leaving.
(Don’t you know it!) Are you having this kind of thing too?
That it might be too easy? Or that it hasn’t gotten easier
we’ve just gotten lazier about keeping track of what was?
I don’t think I’m sad this time. But who can tell
before you’re actually in your car and you look up
in the rearview to see your street behind you
for the real last time. Like Claire in the last scene
of Six Feet Under. And it might be–why
would I ever come back to this cul-de-sac in Boca
to see an apartment. The beach, the pizza place,
maybe, but not this. It can get real then. Or when
I’ve blinked past that threat and it’s time to fill up
the truck past the half tank it came with and we turn
back out onto the road going the wrong direction
and Daniel makes a u-turn in the inexpertly weighted
truck rather than turning right and waiting for a place
to make a real turn, and suddenly the potential disaster
of everything is apparent. A u-turn in your UHaul
at the very first intersection. This seems inauspicious,
but he’s right. There’s only forward to go. Best luck
with moving and what comes after. I sent you
something, finally, and I hope you haven’t left
when it gets there.

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