“It is those deep, far-away things in him, those occasional flashings-forth of the intuitive Truth in him; those short, quick probings at the very axis of reality;—those are the things that make Shakespeare, Shakespeare. Through the mouths of the dark characters of Hamlet, Timon, Lear, and Iago, he craftily says, or sometimes insinuates the things, which we feel to be so terrifically true, that it were all but madness for any good man, in his own proper character, to utter, or even hint of them.”—Herman Melville on Shakespeare, from Hawthorne and His Mosses
One of the most popular units I teach is a pairing of A Confederacy of Dunces and the film The Big Lebowski, for my Literature and Film course (the unit is on cult classics). It follows on the heels of reading and watching The Big Sleep (which Lebowski is loosely based on) alongside other noir classics.
Most teachers do a double-take when they hear that I show The Big Lebowski in class. I am lucky. I work for an alternative private (mostly non-profit) high school, in an environment more akin to a start-up. Most of the students at our school are anxious, reluctant kids who have previously dropped out or been expelled from the other local public high schools, for a variety of reasons. I was also kicked out of high school in 10th grade, so I can relate. So much makes me mad when I see where these kids are at by the time they get here: bored, scared, given up on. My job, beyond the basics of teaching them the important difference between a comma and a semi-colon, is to get them to give a shit. About something, anything. And then to believe that they can do something about it. I don’t really care if it’s about literature. A lot of my passion about teaching is focused on creating interdisciplinary curriculum (see: The Literature of Sport, The Literature of Economics).
Anyhow, when I first proposed teaching this unit I got some Looks, most involving Eyebrows. Be patient, I told the owners of these Eyebrows. Wait. Watch.
Here is a list of a few essay titles from last semester:
He’s a Good Man, and Thorough: A Medieval Misfit in A Confederacy of Dunces
A Lengthy Indictment Against Our Century
We Believe in Nothing, Lebowski: Nihilism as Comedy
That’s Just Like, Your Opinion, Man: What Makes a Cult Classic
That Rug Really Tied the Room Together: A Compendium of Visual Motifs in The Big Lebowski
Urban Unachievers: A Character Analysis of Ignatius J. Reilly
Theology and Geometry: Fate vs. Nihilism
The Picaresque Dude
So, not only do they know not to leave their homework in a stolen car, but they can also now riff on Nietzche, noir, the picaresque, Jonathan Swift, and Boethian philosophy. I will take that over a five paragraph essay that reads like a needlepoint pillow, thank you very much.
Tell them there are no holes for your fingers in the masks of men. Tell them how could you ever even hope to love what you can’t grab onto.
—David Foster Wallace
I dreamed she married the only man I’ve ever truly loved. I’m sorry, she apologized with flashing green eyes, behind which something sinister swivels on a certain pivot we only sometimes glimpse and whisper about. I couldn’t help it, she says sweetly, earnestly. You understand.
In this dream I felt a shapeless anguish. No taut, clean lines, no clear words of reproach. He was long gone, anyhow. They all were, I guess. There is a certain nausea to this kind of deja vu: I’ve already felt these feelings, this spreading sick recognition, hot under the skin. Muscle memory. Why am I here, listening to these words, nodding. Even in a dream, a mask of contrition. In this dream was the third time I witnessed this slow-motion collision, of my heart standing outside of itself, its very own out-of-body experience. I-t c-o-u-l-d-n-‘-t b-e h-e-l-p-e-d, she mouths in slow-motion, apologetic, but also not. The heart nods, acquiesces, turns away. For I’ve already learned the hard way: what else is there to do?
In real life, this man is already long gone, married. We are friendly. But it’s as though my subconscious was searching out a hidden, ancient bruise to thumb. Maybe I am addicted to that wince.
I can’t walk away from what I don’t understand. This is probably why I teach. I look for motivations to be revealed. I ask myself, I ask everyone, Why would she do this? I have no answers, and maybe it’s the void that frightens me, that chasm of life in which swirls right and wrong, and the ways in which they fuck each other over, whispering sucker… to each other. Walk away, people say. What is the name of this flame I can’t step away from? I am that moth, beating my dumb head on the window, mouth agape. I can’t help myself. And I can see people look away in embarrassment.
In a busy Atlanta airport a man starts screaming. Blood-curdling, anguished screams. Everyone looks up. Locates the source, and then looks away. He is with people, he is being taken care of. Looks to be autistic, and something probably set him off. The why of things, maybe. We don’t want to be witnesses to that pain, pain with no discernible fix. We look at everything but each other.
It’s a basic inside/outside problem. I don’t know where I end and the world begins. My best guess? Skin. It’s the only actual boundary between the body and the world, between a body and any other body. Crush, at its core, is about rupture. The desire to touch, the gesture of touching, becomes dangerous, damaging, after the hand, withheld for so long, finally makes an attempt at contact. Simultaneously, and without pity, the natural world and its physical laws restrict the human form and its capacities. All of us are trapped in our skins and drowning in gravity. Physics is unforgiving. Nature is predatory. We do not walk through a passive landscape.
‘Touch’ is a word that comes from the old French ‘toucher,’ which is related to the Italian ‘tocco,’ to knock, stroke, and ‘toccare,’ to strike or hit, both of which emphasize the violence of contact. The violence of touch is a refusal that may be overcome in some other place, in some other way, perhaps by someone else. Touching contains within it an entire critique of Descartes; it is a force that makes us confront the fact of our mortality, our need for each other, and, as Butler puts it, the fact that we are undone by each other.
At approximately 4:52pm, the following took place in the front office of a private high school:
Me: How was your meeting with the head of the Education PhD program at [redacted prestigious university down the road]?
A: [motions me over, in hushed tones] Well….it was unnerving?
Me: Because it was [redacted prestigious university down the road]?
A: Well….actually…I walked into his office and he, well…he was sitting back with his right leg up on the desk, hands behind his head, very cavalier and….[demonstrates]
Me: Like…wide open? Wide stance? All up in your face?
L (school treasurer, work crush, wearing karate kid-style bandana): [mumbles] I don’t like this door….what do y’all think about taking the door to this office off?
[no one listens to him]
A: I could see [urgent whisper] the outline of his junk! I mean, what? Who does that? And he sat like that the whole time! And just stared me down! And kept cutting me off! I got so flustered! How could he not know?
Me: [rage sputter] Oh, HE KNEW. Classic male power move! You know what you have to do, right?
A: Never go back?
Me: You have to stuff your pants! And go back! It is BALL-OFF time. You need to out-ball this f*cker. Or at least unsettle him deeply.
A and I: [Both look up, realize there is now no door. In fact, there is neither a door nor half a wall anymore. And half the school is loitering in this new open space, listening to us.]
D____, 17: You gotta go back, Ms. A. You gotta outball this guy. She’s right.
How did Finland manage to elevate the role of teacher in the eyes of the population to something that is not just an honorable profession, but a revered profession, whereas in the United States, teachers are so regularly denigrated?
They really think about teachers as scientists and the classrooms are their laboratories. So, as I mentioned — every teacher has to have a masters degree, and it’s a content degree where they’re not just taking silly courses on education theory and history. They’re taking content courses that enable them to bring a higher level of intellectual preparation into the classroom. That’s the first point.
The second point is that they’ve defined professionalism as working more collaboratively. They give their teachers time in the school day and in the school week to work with each other, to continuously improve their curriculum and their lessons. We have a 19th century level of professionalism here, or worse, it’s medieval. A teacher works alone all day, everyday, and isolation is the enemy of improvement and innovation, which is something the Finns figured out a long time ago. Get the teachers out of their isolated circumstances and give them time to work together.
Roger Angell, a writer for the New Yorker since the 1940s, once described palindromes as “a literary form in which the story line is controlled by the words rather than by the author.” My sense is that Duncan would probably say that’s a description of other people’s palindromes. Because part of what makes him a master is his refusal to cede control. When things are going really well with a Barry Duncan palindrome, when he’s really in a zone, he thinks to himself, I’m making these letters do my bidding. Sure, he’ll have fun with word combinations, and he pens countless short palindromes that probably ought to be considered as coauthored by the words themselves.
There’s a joke he likes to tell, a pickup line he swears he’d never really use: “I’m a master palindromist, and I can teach you how to neutralize the letter h.” Not so lucky in love, he often teases his mother sarcastically by saying, “Mom, I don’t have a girlfriend. And I’m a master palindromist.” It’s fair to say that Duncan’s under no illusions about how the world perceives the invisible craft.
Duncan has tried writing in other styles, but his talent for more traditional literary forms has never approached his way with palindromes. “I have a real problem constructing plot,” he says, “and I think part of that is that I have little command of logic in my daily life. I mean, I just don’t know what’s going on.”
“I think people who enjoy short stories have a special gland, one that responds to the unexpected with little bursts of pleasure chemicals. I’m always suspicious of people who love to read, but who don’t like short stories. These people, I think, if they have the gland, have a shriveled thing, an atrophied little apple core. I pity these people. They are missing out on these inky little orgasms.”—Adam Marek, from “Short Circuit”
“I marvel at the calm of the Japanese haiku poets who just enjoy the passage of days and live in what they call “Do-Nothing-Huts” and are sad, then gay, then sad, then gay, like sparrows and burros and nervous American writers.”—Jack Kerouac, in a letter to John Clellon Holmes
Hi! I'm going to start teaching high school English in the fall. Can you walk me through a typical teaching day for you? Things you cover, how you manage your class. Thanks!
9:02am, Literature and Composition: Get to class two minutes late. Eat yogurt in your weird way where you layer each spoonful with a dollop of yogurt and sprinkling of granola. Shoot daggers at anyone who looks at you weird for this. Give them something to write about. When they ask if they can eat too, say yes, but remind them that all flavors of beef jerky are unequivocally banned from your classroom. It stinks. Also, tell anyone drinking Red Bull before noon that that is gross and that they have many remaining years to cultivate caffeine addictions: cherish this innocent time.
10:20am, Film as Lit: Show the scene in “Hamlet” where Ethan Hawke wanders around a Blockbuster eating Starbursts and mumbling “to be or not to be….” When someone comments that this is outdated, there are no more video stores, tell them that that is besides the point…this is a thoroughly modern text! See how it translates! Who hasn’t wandered around flourescent aisles, numbly pondering the point of existence? Well, Sheezy got there first, son. Point out that Shakespeare was writing about people having a subconscious before people even knew what a subconscious was. Blank stares. Remind them how Borges wrote about the internet 60 years before it existed, how impressed they were. Now, think about how long 500 years is. “Oooh…” Lightbulbs. E_____, 17: “Is it true Shakespeare smoked pot?”
11:45am, American Lit: Digression/scolding: “You know how much you hate when your parents nag you to get stuff done? So annoying, right? Like, enough already.” Yes. “Well, I hate dealing with your parents even more. I’m 30, I’ve earned the right to handle my own parents as infrequently as it suits me. Meaning: I don’t want to handle yours. Don’t put me in a position where I have to explain that you didn’t do your homework. Got it?” Yes.Important: Never yell. Ever. Keep them guessing. If they are nice, be mean (but not too mean). If they are mean, be nice (but not too nice). It confuses them, keeps them uncertain and most of all, paying attention.
1:28pm, Literature of Sport:C_____, 17 has finished reading Gay Talese’s “Silent Season of the Hero.” He looks up. “This is the best story I have ever read,” he says quietly. This is a kid who was kicked out of two schools. These are the moments that count, the moments you won’t forget.
2:50pm, Philosophy of Lit:D____, 16, authoritatively: “‘King Lear’ sucks. It’s pulp. Entertainment. I think people are into Shakespeare just because it’s ‘Shakespeare.’ You: “Interesting opinion…but you do need to write something on it.” D____: [crosses arms]You: “Would you rather write a critique of how we can read ‘King Lear’ as pulp fiction or would you rather write a persuasive essay on why Shakespeare should never be taught again?” D____: “Oh! Never taught again!” I call this The Illusion of Choice. Tricks them every time.
“Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle.”—Vladimir Nabokov (via dialogues)
First: you would tell your problems to musical counterpart R. Kelly, who is reinventing himself as a Paul Schaffer-style sidekick. He will creatively interpret your problem into a hip-hopera, playing all relevant parts himself onstage.
Second: My mom will then give you (via R. Kelly) advice.
Giveaways: Container Store-sponsored containers to organize your life on a literal and symbolic level. New and rare inventions in tupperware and ziplock technology. Post-it notes of various sizes, shapes, and affirmative sayings. A lifetime supply of hand towels. A hairbrush because your hair looks like “a rat’s nest.” Sweet tea vodka. Decorative vases not meant to hold flowers. Candles that can never be burned for aesthetic reasons.
Catchphrase: “My mom radar is going off!” while a siren blares, and (my personal lifelong favorite) “Are you sure there isn’t something else you need to tell me?” (Crowd response cue card: “Hmmm? Hmmm?”) Any brief hesitation will set off another round of sirens. She will always be right. ALWAYS.
"Will You Wear/Use it As Many Times as Dollars You Have Spent On It?"
Self-explanatory, yet eye-opening.
"Fake it Til You Make It"
Take a job you are sorely underqualified for yet bluff and sass your way through.
"Go Big or Go Home"
Plan a vacation like no other vacation. Caveat: you must save money by getting free room, rental car, and flight upgrades by the wit of your tongue alone. Double caveat: You may only roll your eyes at service representatives twice.
"You in Danger, Gurl!"
Frequent guest Suze Orman will join my mother in sighing heavily at your financial decisions and choice of boyfriends. They will lead the audience in group sighs.
“For art criticism we need people who would show the senselessness of looking for ideas in a work of art, and who instead would continually guide readers in that endless labyrinth of linkages that makes up the stuff of art, and bring them to the laws that serve as the foundation for those linkages.”—Leo Tolstoy, in a letter to Nikolai Strakhov
Police arrested an amateur biologist who flower-napped “Cosmonaut,” the only orchid ever grown in outer space, and planned to sell it on the black market to an orchid collector, a Soviet newspaper said yesterday. “Cosmonaut,” which was grown aboard the Salyut 6 space station and returned to earth in 1980, died during the bungled flower-napping. Socialist Industry newspaper said “Cosmonaut” was considered priceless because of its space origin.
Police arrested Vladimir Tyurin, 36, a down-on-his-luck amateur biologist. Tyurin, 36, who once worked on the cleanup detail at the Chernobyl nuclear power station, was the gardener at the Academy of Sciences botanical garden in Kiev. It appeared he had a Moscow buyer all lined up for “Cosmonaut” when police raided his apartment only to find the unique orchid limp and dying. The flower died before experts arrived, the newspaper said.
Friends, don’t let Ladies Home and Garden fool you into thinking that the Kitchen Ghost is a common pest. Kitchen Ghosts are not to be shooed, shushed, or shrieked at. Develop a relationship. Help them channel that lost and forlorn energy. Before long, they will be doing your dishes, sweeping the floor, facing the labels of your spice rack in a most helpful way.
Readers may recall that a perusal of my 5th grade yearbook from 1990 reveals that my career goal in life at the age of 10 was to become a “parapsychologist.” I’m proud to be the only 5th grader in Laurel Elementary’s history to express such an ambition for all future generations, thumbing through the pages in order to make fun of unfortunate early 90’s fashions, to see. There are, as I see it, two possibilities for the genesis of this career. 1) repeat viewing of Ghostbusters, a template-forming crush on Bill Murray. To this day, melancholy men with sarcastic humor undo me. 2) My dad forcing me to read Stephen King books from the age of 9. Unfortunately, I do not have the calm, cool, rational demeanor witnessed by paranormal investigators on shows such as “Ghost Hunters” or “Paranormal State” (my personal favorite, hosted by a morose fellow who has been stalked by a demon since childhood). It has been noted on many a grade-school report card that I have an “overactive imagination.” So! Take my kitchen ghost experience with a grain of salt.
I have had two potentially ghostly experiences, but only one was with a Kitchen Ghost. I lived in what was reputed to be one of the most haunted houses in New Orleans (and that’s saying something), so haunted that a German paranormal show flew out to investigate when it was reported that posted security guards were fleeing in the night once the building was abandoned due to eviction.
I lived with a boy, a dog, and a cat. The boy had always scoffed at the idea the building was haunted, but once him and I had the same experience on separate occasions, he scoffed no more. We slept in a loft, a loft that looked over the whole of the living area, and from the loft you could see the doorframe into the kitchen. Here are the hallmarks of what we both witnessed:
dead of night
banging/noises in the kitchen, dishes clattering
A strange light coming from the kitchen that was NOT our normal kitchen light
Neither person waking up despite shouting and shaking
In his case, he woke up to the noises, and also to our cat and dog perched eerily on the edge of the loft together, staring intently into the kitchen. He tried to wake me up, and I would not, which is unusual. Apparently he shook me and shouted: “Babe! I think there are ghosts in the kitchen!” And I merely mumbled, “Good for the ghosts….” He said he eventually went back to sleep, and there was no light on in the morning.
In my case, a few months later, I was asleep in the loft, while boy and dog had fell asleep below on the couch while watching a movie. I was woken up by the clattering noises in the kitchen, which sounded like someone doing the dishes. And a weird, sickly orange light coming from the kitchen doorway. I looked down at the sleeping boy and dog and hissed their names. Nothing. I scrambled down the ladder, and shook both boy and dog. Neither would wake up! Very twilight zone. I grabbed the sleeping dog and scampered back up into the loft, scared to look towards the kitchen. And eventually fell asleep.
I came to feel very safe in that house, very protected. I came to think of our ghosts as helpful ghosts. I never walked into a kitchen full of eerily, perfectly stacked dishes, but I’m sure the intention was there.