Sunday Salon: The Climb up Mt. Grademore

It's hard to illustrate "I've been sunk in grading all week," so I've given you instead this object lesson in why proofreading is important, from the lovely Lunenburg, NS.  Also, check out those amazing seamen top right.

This time of year, the hills are alive with the sound of academics bitching about the tedium of grading. With songs they have sung for a thousand years.  In all seriousness, I am willing to bet that medieval monks rolled their eyes exhaustedly every time a student brought a scratched-over piece of vellum to them for appraisal, and muttered in Latin to each other about the lack of proofreading and cavalier attitude to original texts.  I'm sure that's why Socrates developed his method - to elicit student involvement in such a way that he wouldn't be burdened by huge drifts of scrolls demanding response and correction.

Who am I to buck the trend?  I've been in the throes of grading torment all week, and I only emerged on the other side of my mountainous pile after two solid days of barely sleeping, barely eating, and timing my encounter with each paper to prevent pigritudinous slow-down or obsessive micromanaging in the margins of these essays.

But, frankly, there are always moments, both of brilliance and of inspired error, that conspire to delight and entertain me on the slog up Mt. Grademore.  Here are some of the best from this round:
  • A glancing mention of the importance of "the suspense of disbelief" to the theatre.  
    • I am fascinated by this slip: it seems to imply that disbelief is always waiting to be proved wrong, the element of hope transforming it into belief (the doubt of doubt, the skepticism of skepticism).  Should I believe?  Should I? Can I?  The suspense is killing me!  
    • A colleague hastened to say that perhaps the phrase implies that doubt is more dramatic or suspenseful than belief, rather than that doubt always ends in belief.  I agree.  
    • What is most intriguing about it, however, is the fact that suspense is, in essence, a hybrid endeavor, lingering somewhere between belief (I know what is coming next...) and disbelief (...will it actually happen?)
  • "Through their melodic vices, the Chorus played the role of an average citizen who would observe and comment."
    • I wish my vices were more melodic. Maybe if I got together with some vicious friends they could even be harmonic?
  • Just delightful: "In the everyday world, were Oedipus a friend or worse, a relation, you might not find his reactions justified."
  • Or: "The Chorus [of Bacchantes] is not content with shrieking about past events or with the simple information dump and dime store piety offered by other Greek Choruses."
    • I love how so many of these papers are filled with a wry, teasing affection for the texts we are studying.  Like the average Greek Chorus is their eccentric aunt.
  • Earlier in the week I intervened when a student spent a whole paper talking about his intention to "analize" certain aspects of a play.  Finally I wrote in the margin, "Alas, this word (even if it existed) wouldn't mean what you think it means...."
    • But maybe I was just underestimating the profound Freudianism of his argument.
    • Or maybe, just maybe, I was overlooking his desire to become a chronicler (annalist) of the play for all posterity. That's right - posterity.
    • "Alas" is a word that shows up frequently in my marginal comments - more than perhaps in should in contemporary conversation.  It isn't conscious, but when I turn my mind to it, I think it gives corrections a more sympathetic, if wilting, air.  But it does seem to fill my responses with a tone of melancholy lament.
 So today, like most Sundays, will mostly be taken up by class prep and marking a few stragglers that tumbled off Mt. Grademore as I was making my descent.  But what news do I have from the week that's past?  Well:

We had the first meeting of my new book club this week - the first for which we had actually read a book, that is, rather than just chatting, planning, and getting to know each other.  It is an extraordinarily good group; if only my classes had conversations this lively.  Our first choice was my suggestion (although voted on by the whole group): Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping.

This was the first Robinson I had ever read, and forty-eight hours before the meeting (which I was supposed to lead) I was only on page 25.  "This is not a novel to be hurried through," Doris Lessing says on my cover, "for every sentence is a delight."  Sorry, Doris: I slammed through it over the next three days, and although that wasn't the ideal method of consuming the novel, which is rich with slow, subtle, elegiac poetry, it did prevent me from bogging down in the marshy liquidity of the prose.  Some of my fellow book-groupers did, and were profoundly turned off by the narrative, which they felt you couldn't get any purchase on.  It slips through your fingers.

Interestingly, I had gone into the meeting with a very strong set of sympathies (for the narrator Ruthie and her eccentric aunt Sylvie, and against her pragmatic and conventional sister Lucille), and prepared to talk about how Robinson manipulates you irrevocably into this sympathetic stance.  But the majority of the group had quite the opposite reaction: they felt that Lucille's harshness about the unconventional ways in which Ruthe and Sylvie "keep house" was a desperate bid for survival, and a necessary attempt to escape the horrors of her upbringing.  I was shocked, and then impressed by the novel's ability to evoke such disparate responses.  "It's like a prism," said one of my friends in the group, "You turn it this way and it produces one reading, and you twist it that way and it produces another."  But it can never produce both at once.

I also finished the Miltonic first season of Justified, and am filled with antsiness about how long I have to wait until the second season airs.  Luckily I have the three final discs of Deadwood sitting in front of my tv, or I might go into Timothy Olyphant withdrawal.  And no one wants to see what that would look like.  Messy.

Lastly, I'm a hair's breadth from finishing George Elliott Clarke's Nova Scotian cycle Blue, and frankly I have been putting off reading the last two poems because I am not yet ready to be done with it.  Perhaps I should pin a copy of his "Marginalia" (a model of pithy advising) up on the wall while I hike up Mt. Grademore, strewing "alases" like wildflowers here and there in my students' margins:

Grace is excellence performed casually.


Virtue is like bootleg liquor:
Don't claim you got any unless you got a lot.


Ugly don't age
and it don't wear out.

Ugly be thoroughly dependable. (152, excerpt)

If only I had advice this good to give.

Happy Sunday, Saloners....

    Won't somebody *please* think of the words?

    Enthralling.  I've started with "pigritude" (laziness, sloth), but I have a feeling that I am going to have a vasty word-family before I am done with Save the Words.  Go over there and commit to using an unloved, endangered word today.

    Heaven Can Wait

    I have always been a bit more immune to the famous "Lubitsch touch" than I ought to be.  After all, what is there not to love about witty dialogue batted briskly between stylish characters, splashing in tidal pools of double entendre?  But the three films by the director that I have seen (Trouble in Paradise, To be or not to be, and Ninotchka) left me sadly cold.  All struck me as potentially scintillating films that descend into sentimentality, predictability or falsehood.

    When I began Lubitsch's Heaven Can Wait last night, I thought Ernst and I had finally understood each other.  It begins likea  hellish counterpart to Powell and Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death (1946).  Where the British film follows its hero from a technicolor earth to an infinite, shining black-and-white heaven, Lubitsch opens Heaven Can Wait (1943) down below, in the glossy, vast waiting room of Hell, where an oddly compassionate Devil (all waxed mustaches and toothy smiles) waits to judge whether you've been bad enough to earn a fast trip through a flaming trap door.  If not, it's back into the elevator for you, and we'll see whether they'll take you above.

    So Henry van Cleve, child of privilege, charmer of parents and grandparents and legions of women, sets his considerable persuasive skills to work on Satan.  By way of earning a place in Hell, he recounts his life story, starting with a mischievous, spoiled childhood spent getting drunk with the French maid and making astonishingly filthy jokes (for Code-muzzled Hollywood, at least):

    That woman with the elaborately expensive dress and the ludicrous accent is the maid, by the by.

    The early part of the film is the most ingenious, because it is in the carefully drawn stereotypes of his various family members (a father who can't give utterance to any sentiment but the need to maintain a stiff upper lip, for instance) that the film strikes its richest comic balance between affection and the harshness of satire. On learning that our hero has been sneaking out to drink champagne at a restaurant with the French maid, this is how his family reacts:
    Goody Two-Shoes Cousin Albert:
    "But that's not all, grandfather.  It seems, from what I could gather, that Mrs. Asterbrook, of the Asterbrooks, who was sitting at an adjoining table, resented bitterly the idea of Henry dropping a nickel into her decolletage and complaining to the management because no chocolate bar dropped out of Mrs. Asterbrook."
    "Mrs. Asterbrook?  How can I ever face her?"
    "What a disgrace!"
    "I'm going to teach that boy a lesson."
    "Yes, that what he deserves - throwing nickels around like that.  Knowing the Asterbrooks, I can tell you right now we'll never see that nickel again."
    The grandfather is by far the most appealing character in this familial menagerie. He is all bluster: stern disapproval masking a boyish love of hijinks.  (The scene above ends with his congratulation of his grandson Albert, whose willingness to rat on his cousin apparently does the family proud.  No sooner does Albert make his smug way downstairs then he finds himself on the receiving end of a glass of water his proud grandpapa has poured from the landing above.  There is much giggling and grandparental creeping-away that follows this dousing.) This aged ancestor wields the words "I love you" like they are a club to bludgeon his family with at the end of a string of insults. [Anything after this point, by the way, might be accounted a spoiler by the more... plot-squeamish among you.] Even when his beloved grandson falls in love, marries, and drives his beloved away with his perpetual infidelities, who is on hand to help the scamp win her back but grandpa!  Naturally.

    Don't worry: the heroine will get her own Dickensian nightmare of a family, all of whom are simultaneously affectionate and unbearable.  They are meatpacking magnates, their company represented by a cartoony cow who gleefully proclaims her joy in being eaten in singsong verse.  "We're very proud of Kansas," her mother declares in funereal tones, upon first being introduced to New York society. Her parents are so ensnared in conflicting midwestern puritanisms that every breakfast descends into an apocalyptic battle for the funny papers of Dr. Strangelove proportions.  It's a remarkable scene when we are given a glimpse of these morning maneuvers.

    Despite an abundance of scenes like these, scenes which would make sublime short comedies in their own right, the movie falls flatter and flatter as it goes on.  In part this is the same problem I've had with Lubitsch before: the pacing isn't as crisp as this style normally warrants. It isn't as sharp and rollicking and mercilessly paced as Wilde or Coward or Sorkin or Shaw working with similar material.  But this isn't even the real problem.  This I could forgive when weigh in the balance against the abundance of great scenes like the breakfast table battle.  No, the problem is the heroine: Gene Tierney really sinks this film.

    I don't ever remember hating Gene Tierney before, although I have to admit that it has been some years since I have seen anything of hers. (I LOVE Laura, so I'm not going to hold this or The Ghost and Mrs. Muir against her.)  But here she is stiff and undernourished and paralyzed by artificiality. The words that fall from her careful pout are somehow both diffident and tortured.  And, thanks to bad styling and some truly terrible wigs, she is not even particularly lovely for most of the film.  Of course, she has a hard row to hoe: while Don Ameche gets to be the dashing, energetic playboy, beloved of all who see him (with the notable exception of a showgirl he encounters in middle age, who really gets the best of him), she has to play the befuddled, put-upon wife, doomed to perpetual cycles of betrayal, disillusionment and forgiveness-against-her-better-judgment until finally she perishes (some years after her self-respect must have died).  She does get some phenomenally complex scenes, however, the best of which is the one where, having left her philandering husband and returned to Kansas, she tells her parents and smug Albert that she won't be judged for the years of her marriage under any circumstances.  It wasn't ten years of suffering, she says, and she refuses to be cast as that kind of woman.  It was a decade of highs and lows, like any other marriage.

    Oh, it begins so very high. Henry sees her at a public telephone, lying to her mother about why she isn't home yet. Smitten, he pursues he  into a bookstore, where he finds his beloved perusing a book titled "Making your Husband Happy."

    What is a man to do in a situation like that but pose as a sales clerk and persuade the young lady that she needs neither the book nor the man she myopically believes she is marrying.  After an astonishing sales pitch, the disguise begins to crumble:
    "If you don't change your attitude, I shall have to complain to your employer."

    "I'm not employed here.  I'm not a book salesman. I took one look at you and followed you into the store.  If you'd walked into a restaurant, I would have become a waiter. If you'd walked into a burning building, I would have become a fireman.  If you'd walked into an elevator, I would have stopped it between two floors, and we'd have spent the rest of our lives there."

    D, a word to the wise (by which I mean anyone smart enough to fall in love with a bibliophile): anytime you want to say those words to me in a bookstore, I'm yours.

    And let's not forget the film's best (only?) elevator: the one that takes hell's rejects up to the other place.  It's hard not to remember this part of the bookstore scene at the film's end....

    A Move to WordPress - What think you?

    I am so fed up with the rampant ugliness (and glitchy aesthetic unpredictability) of my Blogger site that I am seriously considering a move to WordPress.

    But there are some things I am uncomfortable about, and I am unsure whether they will be dealbreakers.

    1. You can't use outside widgets (like my beloved LibraryThing widgets) with WordPress.
    2. There seem to be a lot more things (like the ability to edit your template's code) that you have to pay for with WordPress.  This makes me very uncomfortable.  
    3. When I set up a twin site at WordPress to test it out (go take a look and tell me which you prefer), a lot of my posts from Blogger seemed strangely diminished.  For instance, all the embedded videos I had posted had been stripped down to simple links.  Is this something I can easily fix?
    I've used WordPress before in my teaching (for class blogs), and it worked really beautifully.  But now that I am so entrenched in the way of things at Blogger, I am strangely reluctant to learn new conventions.  So what say you?  What do you use to blog?  What would you recommend for someone who has no coding literacy and a desire for sleeker aesthetics in her blog? Should I move or stay?

    Exercising the Franchise

    Yesterday my first ever absentee ballot came back to me, marked "insufficient postage."  Despair.

    But that's not the worst electoral story I have heard in the past twenty-four hours.  Connecticut (where I am absentee-registered) is not a swing state, although if that WWE executive gets elected, I will know it is my fault.

    No, this is the worst story I have heard this election day:

    I have a friend who just got a job at The Ohio State University.  She registered to vote in her new home state, and when she showed up this morning at the polling place and presented her passport and out-of-state license to prove she was the person who had registered, one of the three poll workers turned her away.  No, you have to provide a pay stub, a credit card statement, or a hunting/fishing license.

    "So," she said to the worker, in distressed tones, "If you don't hunt, fish, have a regular salary, or have a credit card, you aren't allowed to vote in this state?"

    "Do you watch anything other than PBS?" the poll worker replied, "Because maybe if you did you'd know what you needed to bring."

    What has become of Halloween?

    My neighborhood sees a lot of trick-or-treaters.  Last year: 300.  This year I am estimating it to be around 200.   This is wonderful. 

    Less wonderful?  They are all wearing the same 4 or 5 store-bought costumes. (Iron Man, Spidey, Princess Jasmine, Snow White....) Last Halloween I leaned down and asked a little girl in a rayon ball gown, "Which Disney Princess are you?".  She looked at me with scorn and incomprehension in her eyes: "I don't know." (Subtext: "Why would I even care?")  Then she grabbed a handful of candy, and was off in the blink of an eye.

    This year, the tone was different, but no less dispiriting. I asked a child what kind of candy he wanted from the trick-or-treating bowl and received this reply: "Something without fat, please."


    Half an hour earlier a mother encouraged a child to pick his own candy from the bowl, and when he chose a candy bar, plucked it from his hands with the words, "You can't eat that!", and grabbed a lollipop for him instead.  As they walked away she muttered (audibly), "We don't eat that junk."