Wednesday, March 31, 2010


Life's been a bit hectic the past couple of weeks. Doesn't that sound so cliche?

Re: the post below this one, I'm finally making headway on the BIGGEST writing project in my life. What else? Well, my friend Catherine and I are digging through online travelogues and our own frenetic minds to figure out the best itinerary for Italy Adventure 2010. I'm still workin' my little arse off serving espresso by morning and dealing with history students by afternoon-light. The sun is back, and the temperature is finally regularly hovering above 60 degrees. Oh, and I've had some enlightening conversations (and debates) with various fine folks about health-care reform. I've been conceptualizing it as a long-overdue revolution. Every generation needs one, or more even, and this is one of ours. The thing is, none of this should HAVE to be a revolution. Health care (and health-ful-ness more generally) is a fundamental right and a very human struggle within which we all apparently need a hand--whether to heal a sickness or sprout some compassion. I refuse to get too negative about the reform package's backlash, in fear of letting negativity "win," but the conservative middle and upper-middle class response to all this really got me thinking...

Right now I'm reading Phillip Roth's American Pastoral--to note, the NYTimes Book Review's runner-up for the best work of American fiction in the last 25 years. Three-fourths of it is a novel within a novel, a re-creation of the life of a Jewish-American businessmen (and former storied high school athlete) by his little brother's old chum from the their school days in Newark, New Jersey. The premise is that Nate Zuckerman (Roth's alter ego) remained near-obsessed with Seymour "Swede" Levov for most of his life, mesmerized by Swede's athletic grace and generally positive (and seemingly simplistic) outlook on life. Though he only spoke with Swede a handful of times, Zuckerman takes up the task of painting the man's life into a narrative struggle. Swede's brother brought this on, by revealing to Nate at their 45th high-school reunion not only that Swede has died but also that his life was a lot less perfect than anyone thought. Most notably, that his first daughter (who Nate never knew existed) went into hiding in 1968 after setting off a bomb in protest of the Vietnam War, killing a by-stander and irrevocably altering her father's ideas of an "ideal" life.

The best part of Roth's work here is his constant attention to the conceptualization of generations and the transitions between them. In short, Americans have been conditioned to work hard, work honest, and work for the "hope" of the generation that will come after them. Make life better for your children, we've all been told, so that things will be easier and they won't have to struggle quite so much. The Swede's father quite literally sweated his way out of poverty as a new immigrant and built a comfortable middle-class existence for his sons. Nate the writer reminds us that this was what everyone was supposed to do. Because every generation gets better, right? Smarter, luckier, has more opportunities laid before them. Nate believes that Swede had chosen his life-plan carefully, following all the rules according to his post as the head of the "next generation"--college, training in the family business, and then a beautiful wife and a too-big, over-decorated house in the trendiest suburb. He followed the rules, in other words, and yet his daughter didn't. She rebeled outright--dressed herself down, put on weight, taunted her parents, and then set off a bomb. She ruined the pattern, right?

Roth writes that this pattern is expected, lauded, but thin as paper. Swede's daughter proves that. At his 45th high school reunion, Nate looks around at all the wrinkled face and saggin bodies and wonders where the great hope and promise they'd all once felt had gone. They'd been told they were the GREATEST generation, after all, in the wake of World War II and the rise of the consumer's republic. Had they followed all the rules only to be laughed at by those younger than them? Or are they all just survivors--proof that life never works out the way you planned, but it can still be good?

All this brings me to a point about the recent health-care situation. Like Roth points out in some poignant passages, the American middle-class often gets way too comfortable. The soccer moms who speak of "being blessed" with abundant happiness and an abundance of things. The businessmen who work like dogs and then blow all their money on five-star dining and trips to the Caribbean for Lord knows what. Or even the college kids who sit in large classrooms with books in front of them because they've been told they deserve to be there, that they should be there. Middle class life is comfortable, it's repetitive, these days it's Pottery Barn and Prozac and Priuses. But what happens when life busts open that paper-thin bubble, dudes?

That's Roth's point. That life is unpredictable, sometimes horrific, even for the best and most hard-working among us. Which is WHY we need health-care reform in this country. The wealthier folk who are protesting all of this...I just don't understand how they don't see how close we all are from the fall. Don't we all want a cushion? A helping hand in our darkest hours? Some reassurance on the scariest days?


Saturday, March 20, 2010


"William Bartram walked through the Georgia woods in April of 1773, shattered timber skeletons already underfoot in a place that the Georgia Trustees told their settlers was pristine, like a garden waiting to be planted."

And with that, my dissertation has become a real animal, an entity, with function and form. I've avoided posting anything here about my academic work in large part because I feared giving it metaphorical bones and blood. I've spent four years dancing around this document, talking about its fabled conception in conference rooms, over beers, on countless porches. Coursework and comps (and even the proposal process) have allowed me, until now, to feel still a bit disconnected from its execution.

It seems to me that you can tell a lot about a person these days in relation to the organization of their digital documents. It's too easy to give anything a label now; I have calendars in five digital places, but even the one staring me in the face on my Blackberry screen stays haphazard. I feel accomplished when I plug something in, give an event or a task a name, but the execution, again, is a completely different matter. I spent four hours this morning cleaning up my digital life--streamlining calendars, condensing Word documents, erasing fanciful folders that held nothing but miniature pipe dreams. I suppose in the digital age, I can have a digital catharsis.

The second important step was pulling all the wayward diss passages into a single document. Right now the sentence above is the first of the introduction. That might change, but my feelings won't. I won't call myself a revelator. This needed to happen for quite sometime. But I do feel like I'm finally moving forward again. The title is "Papermen," but the project is no longer a straw-man.

It's in the seventies today here in Athens--sunny, perhaps even more hot that warm (and particularly after this unusually frigid winter), busy with the noises of joggers and strollers and beer clanking, not so much restless as on the cusp. I just signed on for a trip to Italy in May (again with the digital life--funny how an email confirmation can rock your socks off). And now here I sit, on the back porch with iced coffee and an increased heart rate, finally ready to committ to this research-baby I've been fostering for five years.

It was a day not so much unlike this one, five years ago, when I stood in a field full of pine skeletons, a camera in one hand and a file folder in another. Inside it were the names of the paper mill workers who would change my perspective on everything about work. The slowness of life in the piney woods of North Louisiana felt oppressive, but I was just about to discover that a place can look bland but be vibrant, and that the folks that history almost forgot to remember have the most beautiful stories.

So...cheers to the real work, and to writing a dissertation that both honors those that have helped and changed me AND speaks relevantly to the struggles of workers and the land they labor on.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Good reading.

This one's short and sweet. Just an emphatic recommendation.

The quarterly Oxford American, self-professed "Southern magazine of good writing" (how true it is though!), doesn't get as much word-of-mouth or circulation as it should. But the people who subscribe to it obsess over it, including yours truly. This magazine publishes the best southern fiction AND non-fiction writers out there--the work of big-wigs you'll recognize from other places like The New Yorker alongside pieces by thoughtful grad students, artists, and also...just ordinary folk. Its aura is witty, but you can settle into an issue like an old couch.

A few years ago the magazine, which is published in Arkansas, embraced a full-on thematic model. Each issue is a collection. The food issue, the music issue (where I originally discovered Dale Hawkins), the fiction issue, etc. Right now the Southern Food issue is on stands, actually, and I recommend you go eat it up.


Currently: listening to Brett Dennen, "Darlin' Do Not Fear"/smelling like eucalyptus/about to start Philip Roth's American Pastoral.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Luck was his lady.

I keep reading these books that tempt me to decipher the male psyche. That's dangerous! And I may just be doing a plum awful job of it. Feel free to tell me so.

Lucky Jim is not a famous book in more general terms; it is a very famous book among academics, though, and particularly grad students. Published in 1954, it's British and a bit old, but it remains one of the only works of fiction truly submerged in the cloistered circles of academic life in the humanities. Kingsley Amis tears down the ornately- (but, at least in his world, very thinly-) crafted walls of tenure with little ceremony; his character Jim Dixon, a first-year junior faculty member in the history department of a provincial university in England, has already given up on the dog and pony show at novel's start. He got his degree, sold himself as a Medievalist, and now he's walking the streets of this tiny college town chain-smoking cigarettes because there's not much else to do and because he knows he'll probably get fired after the first year unless he impresses the tenured folks. How would he do that? Publish in the best journal, perhaps (although, here as in real life, sadly even the most esteemed journals have about ten dutiful readers per quarter, and the rest of the recipients just toss it next to the telephone as a notepad or a coaster every few months). Or he could join the boys' club, smoke fancy cigars, and whine about budget cuts. Ah, he'd rather embrace his still-youthful cynicism. Jim's a drinker, too, and curses himself for the comprising positions he finds himself in...but does them anyway. He's been semi-involved with a half-crazy female colleague. He's in brown-noser cahoots with an absent-minded senior professor named Welch, but secretly Dixon knows that Welch probably wants to can him. The old man just wants someone to listen to him, really. And then Dixon gets all involved in a love quadrangle that is ultimately his acamedic undoing.

Or is it?

I realized about halfway through this book that although Amis' commentary of academic life is pitch-perfect, right down to the finagling of the price of a beer in a bar or the pitfalls of heading over to a colleague's house for tea, there's a reason his title does nothing to betray his subject. This thing's all about luck, and about luck and ambition juxtaposed against privilege.

See, Jim is really, really smart. You have to be to finish a dissertation, to please a committee and convince them that you've mastered a whole lineage of historiography and that you care enough about the professional vocabulary to want to make it your livelihood. It's just that once he starts to practice the damn show, he realizes he's facing a life sentence of second-best. That's because in academia, only a few truly become the top dogs. It's more ferocious than some might think, this world, which is often built atop a shaky foundation of ulterior motives and raised noses. The pedigreed ones, the legacies, they make it. And the ones who, by sheer chance in many cases, happen upon a topic that cashes in on a historiographical trend? They make it too. But there are many more of the workhorses out there--the Jims who have had enough bad luck and rough edges to understand that they're hanging on to this world of intellectual privilege by only the skin of their teeth (or, in this case, the publication of a half-assed article). The Jims latch on to this world as grad students, initially, because they believe that belonging to even the periphery of the intellectual elite will satisfy their desires for a career, for comfort, for mid-grade prestige.

So at first, luck is bad for Jim all around; he does what so many of us often do when faced with really awkward or compromising turns-of-events. He blames the circumstances, and he blames those around him for the fact that he doesn't exactly fit into the academic mold. He wakes up one morning after a departmental function only to realize that he's burned cigarette holes into the bed linens at the colleague's house at which he's crashed. Bad luck, right? The universe is out to ruin him, right?

Not exactly. But first I want to unpack the concept of "luck" just a tad. Amis does this great thing with Jim's psyche, especially in the beginning. He describes other peoples' appearances, but filtered in great detail through Jim's eyes. Every nervous twitch, every change of expression, every crease of the aging eyes. Margaret, the lovelorn professor who's got eyes for Jim, a chip on her shoulder, and a questionable suicide attempt in her past, well she reminds us (through Jim's musings) that even the most brilliant among us are fragile--rather, easily bruised by the accidental but painful happenings in adult life. Jim reminds us that human interactions, even in seemingly professional settings, require compassion. There is such a thing as bad luck, and unless you're fortunate enough to have stockpiles of money and a direct line to the Queen, there might be times when you'll be at the very bottom of the proverbial totem pole. So yes, in an ideal world there's an allowance for bad luck.

Amis juxtaposes Jim against Welch's son Bertrand--a son of education and money who drags around a beautiful girlfriend and a suitcase of cocky smiles. Welch doesn't believe in luck (much like Cal Hockley didn't in the movie Titanic, but the 13-year-old in me will ward off such digressions); he believes that men like himself have a right to the good things in life.

Jim's charade comes crashing down once he gets involved with Bertrand's gal, and that whole experience turns into the straw that breaks the camel's back--and the camel, of course, is his future in academia. Back to the original question. Was it his fault that he didn't feel accepted or wanted in the hallowed halls of the history department? Amis, it seems to me anyway, wants the reader to realize that it is, actually. Jim Dixon is so well-equipped as a person, mentally anyway. He's got the brains, the right amount of practicality and cynicism to take things as lightly as most things should be taken, and the compassion that wills him to care about the plight of those around him. He realizes he's been hiding out in a world that he has no passion for. And one of the reasons that so many judge him there is that they can tell he doesn't have any! It's easy to complain about something; it's much harder to change it or simply leave it behind.

Ultimately Jim uses a string of bad luck to make some good decisions. Moral? Bad luck exists, but we also make our own. Or, better yet, take a bad luck lemon and make "start-a-new-life lemonade."
And at that thought, I shut the book with a smile on my face.

I guess some hardcore academics are at peace with this book because it's so well-written, it's so funny, and it still allows room for those doing the "real" work to go about their business. In other words, Amis writes Jim out of a picture that goes on existing, and might actually be better without the Jims running it amuck. I tend to accept its full weight, though. It's a send-up of a system that's been in place for a long time and certainly shows its age. Jim Dixon is a restless characters, young and unimpressed with the maze of people he's told to impress, to work for, or to pay homage to. He's modern because he (at least in the end) decides that his integrity demands straightforwardness. People need to mean what they say and say what they mean. Politicking gets you nowhere but dark, expensive bars and in awkward conversations with people you don't even like that much. Honesty opens doors all over the place, even if some of them end up sucking too. All these cliches are true.

Congrats. You made it through another disjointed book review.

If you're a grad student, read this book. It'll make you feel super smart for having made the same cynical observations about your tenured faculty and their rusty habits. (It did me!) But like any great satire, it's exagerrated. And the disclaimer here is that I am NOT hell-bent on feeding all of academia to the wolves. I'm just joining an increasingly vocal group of scholars, journalists, laymen, you name them, who want to see the system overhauled and improved.

[Thanks to the Huff household for this amahzin' stack 'o books on my coffee table, of which this was the first tackled.]

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Good intentions paving company.

I never intended for this blog to be a venue for music recommendations. Music is a huge part of my life, though (as per the Mix Tape post down the row here).

I find that often I conceptualize albums as short novels. Oddly enough, one of my favorite bands, the Decemberists, released their Hazards of Love album last year as a novel, but it felt disjointed to me. The epic, fatal love story, and a cast of characters that included a gorgeous Queen and a haunting choir of children who drowned....well, I know that it was supposed to be a rock opera of sorts. A few songs spoke to me; I never related to the product as a whole. But their Crane Wife album from a couple of years before, that one read like a solemn fairytale to me. Love found, love lost, love spoken through ancient allegories. The song "Yankee Bayonet" was this environmental history of the Civil War, "the sea-swelled Carolinas" and a "sun-bright swallow that sings upon the birch bough high," but did you see "all the dead of Manassas, all the bellies and the bones and the bile." Or O, Valencia!, a more modern tale of deceit and goin' all crazy over a girl. It was like one man's love-journey through time.

Wow, am I digressing big-time. Apologies. The main point of this short post is to recommend, with fervor, Joanna Newsom's new album Have One on Me. I was first introduced to Newsom through my friend/music rec guru Tore, who threw her older stuff on a mix CD (see?!) for me because he knew I loved female singer-singwriters in a bit of an older tradition. I fell in love with her sound immediately, which is hauntingly reminiscent of Joni Mitchell's but edgier, a little more nervous-sounding. Newsom is young (only in her late twenties), but her voice has the tension of an ancient soul who has seen much, still fears much, and has a lot to say. Her influences feel often southern, even though she's from California, and I've read in several reviews that she does admit to "Appalachian folk" inspirations. It's all a unique mix of this southern gothic and a distinctly-avant-gardish modernism.

If you're to sample just one song before committing to the album (three discs, with six longish songs apiece), download "Good Intentions Paving Company" for an upbeat peek. I've been streaming this one for days. Lyrics like: steeling the "will to remain for the duration" and getting, like a "bump on a log," "into a fist-fight with the fog."

I'm increasingly convinced that the tradition of southern gothic literature is now found more in musicians like these than in anything being published by a press.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

"Truth is stranger than fiction."

I don't think a whole lot of people realize that the quote in the title line of this post is actually Lord Byron.

I've had many an entertaining little chat this week, with friends who've humored me and digested my post on "Byrony" below. I'm actually kind of shocked that anyone was interested, but, alas, yes! One person requested excerpts, and I'm ashamed that I originally failed to provide them. Here are a few of my favorites; each is ripe with musings of "Byrony," if you will--that strange desire to critique the finaglings of the world and its social mores while wanting nothing to do with any of it in one's own life! Byronically, being a critic of something spells emotional involvement in it. Right?

What is the end of Fame? 'tis but to fill
A certain portion of uncertain paper:
Some liken it to climbing up a hill,
Whose summit, like all hills, is lost in vapour:
For this men write, speak, preach, and heroes kill,
And bards burn what they call their "midnight taper,"
To have, when the original is dust,
A name, a wretched picture, and worse bust.
(from Don Juan)

Pleasure's a sin, and sometimes sin's a pleasure.
(from Don Juan)

And, how could I have forgotten this haunting gem, found scrawled in one of Christopher McCandless' notebooks when they found his body in Alaska:

There is pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes,
By the deep sea and the music in its roar;
I love not man the less, but Nature more.
[If you haven't read John Krakauer's Into the Wild and/or seen Sean Penn's film adaptation, talk to me! I'll lend you both!]

And how amazing is this?:

"John Keats"

Who killed John Keats?
'I,' says the Quarterly,
So savage and Tartarly;
'Twas one of my feats.'
Who shot the arrow?
'The poet-priest Milman
(So ready to kill man),
Or Southey or Barrow.'

Check ya later.