Short Attention Span Theater? – Laura Shea

April may not be the cruelest month, but on the Broadway stage, it is definitely the busiest. Almost nightly there is another opening, another show. To be considered for a Tony Award, and everyone on Broadway wants to be considered for a Tony Award, shows must open by the Tony deadline, which this year is April 27. The Tony Award may exist to reward artistic excellence, but it is also a marketing tool, a stamped seal of approval for potential ticket buyers debating which show to see this season.

What several shows have in common, whether musical or straight play, is the distinct lack of an intermission. Ninety minutes, you’re in, you’re out. In 1879, when Henrik Ibsen wrote a controversial play called A Doll’s House, after three full acts, and following the most famous door slam in literature, Nora Helmer leaves her husband and children to become her own person rather than exist as the dancing doll she is expected to be, merely an ornamental feature of the household. Twenty years after the play was written, Ibsen was still disclaiming that he consciously worked for women’s rights, saying, “I am not even quite sure what women’s rights really are. To me it has been a question of human rights.” If the play is interpreted as an argument for the basic human rights of those who lack them in the nineteenth century, that would certainly include women.

In A Doll’s House, Part 2, a new play by Lucas Hnath, Nora (played by Laurie Metcalf) returns after 15 years to see the family she left behind. It’s not so much an emotional journey as a practical one, and each of the four characters (Nora, her husband Torvald, Anne Marie, the nanny, and Emmy, Nora’s grown daughter) have their say. Although a recent online ad described the play as “A Mother’s Day Gift Every Family Can Enjoy” (I guess it would depend on the family), the discussion ends after ninety minutes whether or not issues have been resolved. Does that leave room for a Doll’s House, Part 3?

A very different show that goes intermissionless is Amelie, a musical based on the quirky 2001 French romantic comedy, with Phillipa Soo, who originated the role of Eliza Hamilton in the musical Hamilton, in the title role. Amelie is a shy and isolated waitress in Montmartre, who begins to engage with the world when she is inspired by the philanthropic work of Princess Diana, and decide to improve the lives of those around her.

Musicals usually have a running time of two and a half to two and three quarters hours (after three hours, there’s overtime to pay). Imagine my surprise when the running time of Amelie was listed as ninety minutes. How do they get everything in, including the music? Answer: They run. The role of Amelie is beautifully sung by Ms. Soo, who moves non stop through most of those ninety minutes, with multiple trips up and down a staircase that curves above the stage. She is followed in hot pursuit by the rest of the cast who inject an energy into those ninety minutes that never flags.

So whom can we thank or blame for this recent mini-trend? Producers love ninety-minute productions. That usually means a single set instead of expensive scenery that must find its way to the stage, probably mechanically but possible under human power, and has a tendency to get stuck, especially during previews. But plays are written and musicals assembled long before a producer is attached. We can always blame technology for shortening our attention spans and our willingness to sit still for over two hours. In reality, the current audience member who can afford a ticket to a Broadway show is closer to Social Security than Snapchat. While baby boomers have mastered their smartphones, they grew up without them, and are not conditioned to check them as frequently as millennials do. And is the intermissionless evening in the theater really such a bad thing? I must admit, I was a little relieved to find out the Amelie would be a fleet ninety minutes than a lumbering two-plus hours. In no way did I feel cheated by this production or by the equally speedy A Doll’s House, Part 2.

Another show on my theatergoing schedule is the revival of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, in which Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon alternate in the roles of Regina, the rapacious Southern belle who will do anything to gain the money that is her only route to power, and Birdie, her sweet, sad, defeated sister in law. Written in 1939, Hellman’s play relies on melodrama to make its points, but it does offer different portraits of female characters and the choices available to them. Somewhat surprising is the fact that the two-hour play manages to include two intermissions. Act I and Act II are thirty-five minutes, each act followed by an intermission. A seventy-minute first act would not have strained anyone’s attention span, but Hellman included the intermissions to serve the play, and the play is performed as written. But the multiple intermissions reminded me of a time when people went to the theater for the intermissions as much as the play, to see and be seen. Now there are other platforms on which to make our presence felt.

Conferences – T.J. Moretti

My conferences over the past week have been all about the weather.

Friday, 4/7, I “present” my second conference paper in the span of one week.

I go to conferences for two reasons: to try out and learn about new ways of reading literature, and to hang out with other academics who are also managing responsibilities like teaching, scholarship, college service, home life, maybe partnership or marriage, maybe kids, or pets, or plants (you know, tending the garden), inner work, physical health, community work, civic engagement.

Well, anyway, first, what I tried out at those two conferences.

Last week I presented at the Renaissance Society of America’s conference in Chicago: to about a dozen or so people, I read my paper on the early modern bible, the problem of Christian rule, and the weak, dithering Henry VI in Shakespeare and company’s Henry VI, Part 2. This week, I participated in a seminar called “Terrestrial Shakespeare” at the Shakespeare Association of America’s conference in Atlanta, with a paper on ecological fantasies in Henry V.

In each essay, I investigate early modern fantasies that in some curious, frightening ways might broadly parallel our own. The first is the fantasy that a truly religious person—in Henry VI’s case, a devout Christian—could uphold central tenets of their faith even as they assert and maintain political power over their subjects. The second is the fantasy that humans can invade territory in war or can penetrate the earth for sustenance and economic benefit without harming themselves in the process.

I like to ask, how can Shakespeare and his contemporaries deepen our concern over current issues? What does it mean to read a play in a way that draws our attention to some of the political, social, economic, and ecological crises of our day? At the same time, I do not want to fall into the trap of superimposing current concerns onto literary texts written at a distant time in a distant place for a distant group of people. So, I try to root my close reading of texts within a well researched historical context. But whenever I notice concerns similar to our own, I feel like my work is helping me process my own anxieties and frustrations over the issues of our moment, and I hope that by sharing my work with others that they too can deepen their engagements with those issues.

Second, I go to conferences to socialize, have fun, hang out with people I only get to see face-to-face once a year, because socializing online doesn’t get me much, I’m afraid. I still post and tweet to colleagues and fellow academics, but what’s really beneficial about conferencing—heck, about any personal interaction in my mind—is the kind of shared feeling found in face-to-face interactions, a feeling that can be shared in an instant with a look, a gesture, a hug, a frown, a laugh. When posting something on Twitter or Facebook, I wait for a future acknowledgment: a response, a like or something. When I interact with someone face-to-face, I can feel the future in an instant.

Oh, and I go to conferences for the stories. This year’s major story: the weather. Want to know about it? Let me know, and I’ll tell you about it, face to face.

I LOVE LIMMY – Dean Defino

I have always believed that the best scholarship grows out of passion, not intellect. That it begins with falling in love, and wanting to tell the world. The application of reason and critical framing is merely a way of justifying, or amplifying that declaration of love. Over the past few years, I have been immersed in a massive, shapeless writing project having to do with comedy—specifically, UK television and stand-up comedy–because I want to share my love of such TV programs as PEEP SHOW, IT CROWD, and REV., and the brilliant stand-up of Stewart Lee, Daniel Kitson, and Josie Long.

Today I want to declare my deep and abiding love for Limmy. Not Lemmy, the recently deceased front man for the seminal British metal band, Motorhead, but Limmy (a.k.a., Brian Limond), a Scottish comedian, author, and TV and Internet phenomenon, known to only a select few in America. This is understandable. We import virtually no Scottish comedy into this country, and he speaks in a heavy Glaswegian accent that, without subtitles, would be nearly impossible for most American ears to understand. But it is a profound shame. The world would surely be a better place if we all knew Limmy.

The best introduction to Limmy Is his sketch program, LIMMY’S SHOW, all three seasons of which are currently streaming on Netflix. It is, hands down, the best sketch program I have ever seen, and a contender for my favorite comedy program, period. In a genre that tends to have far more misses that hits, Limmy never lapses, never disappoints. Often personal, sometimes surreal, occasionally satirical, Limmy’s humor is at once hilarious, sad, angry, kind, and full of wonder. It is not always laugh out loud funny (though there are plenty of those moments), nor does it always abide by the basic narrative structures of the joke (set-up, complication, resolution; call-backs; punch lines; etc.), but it is always distinctive, generous, and wise in subtle, surprising, and occasionally breathtaking ways.

This is partly due to the abundance of extraordinary characters Limmy has created, and inhabits himself. The pilot episode of LIMMY’s SHOW introduces you to such memorable figures as the crudely-drawn cartoon schoolyard gangster/entrepreneur, Wee Gary (illustrated and voiced by Limmy), who scams fellow children out of money, and when they refuse to pay, has the class bullies mete out a cruel punishment known as the “pole crusher” (which needs to be seen to be believed); or the ex-junkie, Jacqueline McCaffrey, who has a massive chip on her shoulder because polite society does not seem to fully embrace her, and her sordid tale of addiction and recovery (Jackie is played with deadpan sincerity by an unshaven Limmy in pumps and a flowing platinum wig); or Falconhoof, a fantasy role-playing character in a call-in game, whose callers are less interested in playing the game than complaining about it, or airing petty grievances; or the psychic medium, Raymond Day, who seems only to commune with spirits bringing bad news to their loved ones (many clearly communicating from Hell). While at first glance these might appear to be of a piece with the outsized, absurd, overblown types sketch shows like PORTLANDIA or KEY AND PEELE trade upon, Limmy is deeply interested in his characters, and never plays for easy laughs. He wants us to know the people who inhabit his fictional world, to sympathize with them, and to recognize ourselves in them. More often than not, the laugh catches in one’s throat as one realizes the full implications of characters’ circumstances and actions. LIMMY’S SHOW constantly reminds us that all great comedy comes from, and returns to pathos.

Besides playing all of the key roles in the series, Limmy writes, produces, and directs. This is DIY TV at its finest. The series was commissioned by the BBC after they had seen scores of Limmy’s homemade videos, posted on the Internet over the previous half dozen years: most notably on his popular vodcast, LIMMY’S WORLD OF GLASGOW. He began making these short pieces to amuse himself, and to cope with his life-long, often crippling bouts of depression. In some cases, the characters embody an aspect of his own personality (a stoner named Dee-Dee, who slips in and out of hallucinatory reveries, is Limmy’s version of himself in the throes of depression-think); in others, they simply evoke the tiny dissonances and misunderstandings that prevent us from fully connecting with each other on a social or personal level (a man takes inexplicable pleasure from covering his face with a lampshade, and the habit eventually destroys his marriage; another believes that it is the generosity of his smile, rather than his grotesque facial features, that convinces others to do his bidding). Though the sketches are often built upon silly, flimsy formulations, they rarely fail to convey deep, and deeply human feelings.

Which is why I, and so many who know his work, genuinely love Limmy. By which I do not simply mean that we love his work, and love his sensibility. We love him. We love that he exists, and chooses to share his existence, and his perspective on it with us. In a time when it is easy to see media as something that disconnects us, and displaces analogue communities with virtual ones, Limmy manages to reach through. Never sentimental or mawkish, often dark and disturbing, his comedy nonetheless touches us, if we let it.

So let it. And don’t forget to turn on the subtitles.

THEM, APPLES – Dean Defino

A boy sees a farmer feeding apples to a pen full of pigs, one apple at a time. The boy asks, “Wouldn’t it be quicker to just dump the whole bushel into the pen?” “What’s the rush?” asks the farmer. “The pigs have nothing better to do.”

I don’t remember where I first heard this joke, but I remember wondering what it meant. Obviously, part of its meaning is clear enough: the farmer mistakes the intent of the boy’s question, which is to suggest that the farmer is wasting his own time, not the pigs’. But like any good joke, it is shot through with absurdity and irony: that is, it attempts to hold up two opposing views of reality (human and pig), while mocking the ludicrous notion that it is possible to do so.

Ludicrous or not, we do this sort of thing all of the time. In fact, it has become something of a cliché to measure a person’s level of intelligence by their ability to hold two or more opposing perspectives in their brains at the same time. Some might see this as a form of madness—an endless loop of equivocation—but “smart” people (and I will presume to number myself among them) see it as an essential part of critical thinking, believing that we must let in at least two opinions to test the validity of any particular one. Which isn’t to say that high levels of intelligence do not sometimes appear to correlate with madness. To return to the joke in question, perhaps the truly mad are those who finally refuse to come down on the side of human or pig, who refuse to finally nail a banner to their mast and pledge allegiance, who refuse to be held to account. Or to introduce another metaphor, at some point we have to stop spinning plates, take one down, and tuck into our dinner. Which, in this instance, is probably pork-based.

But jokes do not need to declare themselves one way or another. They are only critical frames and not sentient things (human or porcine), and therefore beyond any moral or social obligation. The teller of the joke does bear these burdens, but the joke itself, like any text, remains stubbornly separate and—because it is built on absurdity and irony—unresolved. That’s what makes it powerful, and hopefully funny.

Which brings me back to the farmer, the pigs, and the boy. Several things strike me about this joke. Some might not be of general interest, like questions of age and gender (why a boy and a man?), and social class (what does it mean to be ‘the farmer,’ besides the obvious, that he ‘farms’?). But other questions press themselves on all hearers, because it is in the nature of jokes to do so. Whether we are able to say with finality what the message or meaning of a joke is, we still need to take a position within it. Quite literally. To use the old slip-on-a-banana-peel gag as an example, we need to ask ourselves whether we identify as the spectator to the slapstick, as the person dropping the peel (wittingly or unwittingly), or as the person slipping on that peel.

So, who am I on this imaginary farm? The farmer, the boy, or one of the pigs? The boy seems like a safe bet. He’s the most apparently rational, framing reality in a way that is familiar to us, in terms of human time and value. If the farmer works faster, the boy’s implied logic suggests, he achieves a higher level of efficiency, which increases productivity and/or leisure for the farmer. In other words, he is better compensated. That compensation is measured in money and time, yes, but also in pig flesh. From the boy’s perspective, the pig’s value is measured in purely economic terms, as something traded upon. And if he’s grown up on a farm, he’s probably looking at the pig and thinking, “pork chops,” or “bacon.”

The farmer’s view is a bit more complex. He is a kind of poet in the piece, who acknowledges the validity of alternative states of being (pig time vs. human time). Like the Surrealists, who refused to give greater weight to waking reality than dreams and hallucinations, he does not assume that his experience of reality is the only one with merit. Of course, this does not prevent him from trading in pig flesh. Even poets have to eat.

The pigs, if I may presume to speak for them, are less inclined to think in terms of time or money, or indeed leisure vs. productivity. All they see is the apples. Red, green, ripe, rotten: all are indiscriminately gobbled with the same greedy determination that has led pigs to be identified with gluttony and excess (“Don’t be such a pig!”) and stubborn, single-minded pursuit (“Don’t be so pig-headed!”).

Of course, there is another perspective: that of the apple. Like the banana peel, it looks to play the role of the vehicle rather than the subject of the joke, because it lacks a will of its own. At best, it is the currency of the joke, the verb in the sentence that is the joke (okay, there are more than one sentence in this joke, but you see my point). The farmer ‘apples’ his pigs, and the boy wonders why the farmer ‘apples’ so inefficiently. But the apple is also done to. Or maybe it is better to say that it is done in by the joke. If the boy makes the farmer the butt of the joke, the apple is its more concrete victim. Even the pig is prized for its flesh. But the apple is just the fodder that makes the pig flesh, that in turn feeds farmer and boy (and, in industrial farming, other pigs).

By all appearances, it sucks to be the apple. As it has, seemingly from the beginning. In Eden, the apple was the instrument of damnation; in the story of Johnny Appleseed, it is the currency, rather than beneficiary of abundance. In myth anyway, apples have ever existed in the service to others’ transformation, but never their own. They remain, despite genetic cross-breeding and the occasional caramel coating, apples, plain and simple.

Which is why, I suppose, my first impulse is to speak for the apples, as the Lorax presumed to do for the trees. And also why I pause. After all, the Onceler might have been an amoral free-market capitalist without a thought for the environmental impact of his massive Thneed operation, but he was right about one thing: the Lorax was a self-satisfied, self-righteous, humorless scold. I certainly don’t want to be seen that way.

And there are other complications, as well. By what right do I claim to know the plight of apples, or to serve their welfare? Who am I to say what it feels like to be an apple, and what an apple wants or needs? I see them as victims of an oppressive narrative, a hierarchy where they are rendered powerless, incidental. But isn’t that critique informed by my own limited view of power dynamics?

Here’s something I do know: there is no joke without the apples. They are not merely the vehicles of the joke, but—if you’ll excuse the pun—the core of the paradox within. They are the creative tension, the frisson that makes meaning, both grist and grease for the mill. Whether as symbols of the transitory nature of existence (‘stuff’ as energy in a constant state of transformation), or digestible, but otherwise irreducible objects (‘stuff’ as ‘stuff’), they are essential. But like so much that is essential, they also appear to be indifferent to the transaction of the joke. They have no clear stake in it, which is why they may be fodder for the joke, but they are never the butt. Talk about a paradox!

So even if I can’t presume to stand up for the apples, I want to stand with them. They may pay the ultimate price in the joke, but they never submit to its tyranny. Within the many transactions of power and meaning, and the web of intersecting human and pig realities that complicate those transactions—in which I, the hearer, invariably get lost–they remain, stubbornly, themselves. Apples. Which of us can make that claim?

Besides, isn’t the underlying truth of any joke the same? That we all get eaten in the end?

Linking Past and Present – Christina Carlson

Tuesday I attended my first class of a study tour of medieval Spain, which focuses on the Camino de Santiago. It has become clear to me that this will indeed be a journey, not just through space but through time, a going back to go ahead. The course is being run by Prof Richard Gyug at Fordham University, where I earned my PhD. He has been doing this for a decade or more and I have wanted to do it with him for some time, but the scheduling was never right. However, when I found out that he is retiring this year, I recognized that it was my last opportunity to do it with him. I e-mailed him to get his thoughts on the possibility of my accompanying him, and he graciously invited me to join the group; I felt like the Chaucerian narrator at the beginning of the Canterbury Tales “I was of hir felawshipe anon.” (GP 32)

Of course, this is not a pilgrimage to Canterbury, England but one to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, and we are not beginning at a London tavern but in a classroom, FMH 322 to be exact. There is no Knight, no Miller, no creepy Pardoner (thankfully); rather a group of roughly a dozen students, almost all female, almost all Caucasian (as seems to be the trend in study abroad generally), plus a PhD student and two professors. And me. I find myself, unintentionally but perhaps not surprisingly, a bit like the Chaucerian narrator, in the sense that I am a liminal figure in the group. At this point in my life I too am a professor of medieval studies, one who has traveled with students to the pilgrimage centers of Rome and the Isle of Iona. This is in part my reason for wanting to go along, as I would like to offer a Camino course at Iona and I need to learn how it’s done. But this of course also makes me a student. It is not lost on me that it has been 20 years since I took Prof Gyug’s medieval history class, in spring 1997. The other students coming on the Camino were not yet, or just, born. As I watched the grad student offer her overview of medieval architecture (a similar overview to one I give my own students when we travel to the Cloisters, or Iona or Rome) it occurred to me that I taught my first class as a grad student in that same building, perhaps that same classroom, or one identical to it. And so I find myself (like Chaucer’s narrator) identifying with each of my fellow pilgrims on some level, and yet different, separate, from them all (and now, like him, recording the experience for you, my audience).

This difference was thrown into full relief when we all had to share the bravest thing we’ve ever done. For many of the students, just coming to Fordham, to the Bronx, was their answer (how long ago my own move seems—I came to the borough 21 years ago. It’s the longest I’ve lived anywhere, almost half my life). Prof Gyug admitted that volunteering to chair Fordham’s committee on core revision was his (and having just seen that process unfold here at Iona, I believe it!). Mine? Having a C-section, which was terrifying in its own right (giant needle in the back? Check. Being conscious while people are cutting you open? Check.), but also marked the beginning of motherhood, a daunting and enduring journey all its own. It was the obvious, immediate answer for me, and yet, as I looked around the room, I became acutely aware that I was the only mother in the group. I had my daughter after I had hit all my academic/professional milestones (PhD, job, tenure), so I tend to see her as separate from that process. And yet, she comes with me to campus, to the Cloisters, to the Isle of Iona, to Rome. And there she was again, creating distance between me and my fellow pilgrims, or maybe bridging it—I’m not quite sure which, maybe both.

The Camino is not just an event—it’s a process. For me, it’s multiple processes. As a professor, I’m thinking about logistics: how does the class work? How would I need to adapt it for Iona? What is the budget? What are the risk management issues? As a student, I am trying to learn. Although I suspect I know a good deal of the general information we will cover (the course is intended for undergrads), I am by no means an expert in medieval Spain and I am excited about filling in this gap in my own knowledge base, and also perhaps excavating six lost years of Spanish classes buried somewhere in my memory. Of course, I am also a pilgrim. My interest in medieval studies grew out of a desire to understand my own Catholic upbringing, and when I read or visit the texts and places of medieval Christendom, it is never with complete intellectual detachment, but rather with a sense of connection, of continuity. Our next class meeting is Tuesday, Feb 28–Mardi Gras, or Carnival. The course will span the entirety of Lent and the Easter Triduum; we will be in Spain for Pentecost. It is a time of spiritual rigor and renewal. And of course there is the physical aspect of the pilgrimage—we will be walking, 10+ miles a day, for two weeks. This is, perhaps, the most challenging aspect of the Camino (which I know from my lost Spanish simply means “walk”), the one that will require the most preparation from me. So how to prepare? Like any physical endeavor, it requires a training regimen. This is where being a professor, a student and a mother gets tricky—where do I find the time to practice being a pilgrim? And where can I walk the necessary distance in a place that is safe for me training on my own when I do find the time, as it is likely that I won’t be able to make all the group practice walks b/c of family obligations.

I was mulling over this question when inspiration struck. As Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz observed (and I’m paraphrasing), sometimes you need to travel to discover what is in your own backyard. Or, since I (still) live in the Bronx and don’t have a backyard, in the park across the street. I live at the corner of Van Cortlandt Park and Broadway, at the end of the #1 subway line. I looked it up—Broadway is 13 miles through Manhattan, another two here in the Bronx. That’s about the distance we need to be able to cover each day of the pilgrimage. And so I’ve decided to start with what I know and practice by walking the length of Broadway. From a practical standpoint, it’s perfect—it is literally right outside my door. It is paved, busy, safer then trekking the Putnam Trail on my own. And I would never be more than a few blocks from a subway station if I needed to get home. But I also love the idea of being a tourist in my own city. I have probably at some point or other traversed most of the length of Broadway, but I’ve never done it intentionally, or comprehensively. I expect to take lots of photos on the Camino, but why not start with the Great White Way—I’ve heard rumors that it’s a travel destination as well. But apart from being safe and convenient and interesting, there is also a personal aspect to it as well. I now live at one end of Broadway, the northern terminus of the #1 Subway. But there was a time, growing up in Staten Island, when South Ferry, the southern terminus, was the beginning. A time in grad school when I would visit my dad at his office at 17 Battery Place, a short walk from the start of Broadway, and let him take me to lunch or dinner. And then 9/11 happened. A week after I began working at Iona. I have not really been to the southern tip of Manhattan since, beyond driving under and past it, with one notable exception—I traveled from Iona to the SI ferry via public transit to meet my dad and go with him to his oncologist on SI during Heritage Week 2009. I was 4 ½ months pregnant. We found out he had a cancer that could not be cured, a cancer that may well have been caused by the toxic fallout of the Twin Towers.

Childhood, motherhood, academia, all converged and collapsed in that moment. Since then, my daughter has entered the world, my dad departed it. And I find myself staring at Broadway and seeing in it an opportunity to link my own past and present with a ribbon of asphalt, to draw it all together by experiencing the length as a whole rather than discrete parts. And all this in the service of preparing for the Camino, which also has me linking past and present in a different way, against the backdrop of the liturgical calendar, which medievalists will tell you is both linear and cyclical (it is quite possible I picked that up in Prof Gyug’s class in 1997). It all seems right and fitting.

So this week I start walking. I saw one of the Van Cortlandt Park hawks flying up to a tree with her breakfast, all shaggy with her warm winter feathers—I haven’t seen her since October, assumed she had migrated. But there she was. I watched her as she surveyed her domain from her perch in Van Cortlandt’s Tail, the little greenspace next to my building, just south of the park proper, on the corner of Broadway. I used to watch the hawks at Fordham, nesting high on the façade of Collins Hall. I just taught the book H is for Hawk, about an academic who loses her father. I took it as a good sign.

 

Procrastination and How to Overcome It – Ivy Stabell

#HowIProcrastinate

In college, I was the Empress of the All-Nighter. An absolute champ. I’d open up a blank Word document, spread my class notes and books around me in a 360-degree rubbish heap of thoughts, crack a Red Bull, and just go, for hours and hours. I’d mutter to myself, half nobly and half self-pityingly, the lines of Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”: “But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.” The deadline pressure made me focused and strong, and I’d crank out page after page in the sortof silence of a college dorm at 2am. I even liked it. There’s a particular pleasure that comes with the next-day weariness of enormous academic output, and the nap I’d take the next afternoon when classes were done for the day – oh yeah, that was good stuff.

These days I’m somewhat reformed. I no longer cram major intellectual labor into one epic night, now knowing with age and experiences of both triumph and shame, that I’ve got better ideas when they’ve percolated over days, weeks, even months, and I’m more crafty in my delivery when I’ve been through several careful revisions. I break projects up into daily tasks and try to get through them all, one at a time, at a reasonable pace. And generally speaking, when I finish my work these days, I’m proud of what I’ve written, and it’s done on time. Maybe not well in advance of the deadline, but at least on the right day, by 11:59pm, Pacific Standard Time.

But I’ve still not conquered the day-to-day procrastination problem. I’m the worst. I’ll call random friends, make 19 cups of tea, answer not-at-all-urgent emails, and of course, click on random internet bullshit.

Here’s my list of the Top 5 Categories of Internet Distraction I am Likely to Click On:

1) shark or orca videos. Never cats. Gross.

2) photo galleries of Kate Middleton’s outfits.

3) 100% of theonion.com

4) political articles, especially the kind that make me angry

5) personality quizzes, all varieties. Today I discovered in the “Which British Film Acting Legend Are You?” quiz that I’m Dame Judy Dench. Unexpected, but I’ll take it.

Recently, I asked one of my classes to write for a few minutes about what their writing process looks like, what they like about it, and what they hoped to change. There were lots of cool things in that stack of papers, but one frustration shared by many was a penchant for procrastination. Over the years, I’ve had many a student sheepishly admit to this problem. But never fear. I assure you, this particular brand of self-loathing is widely shared amongst students and faculty. I therefore dedicate this blog post you, my people! My fellow distracted, stalling people! Solidarity!

But also, mentorship. Procrastination is far from the deadliest of sins, and we shouldn’t feel too terrible about being engaged in non-work things that give us joy. Joy, I think, is downright essential. But, beyond the penalties that go with missing deadlines, procrastination can have another harsh consequence. When I was in college, I was smart, engaged, and interested. I did all my work and was invested in the ideas my courses engaged me in. But because I was overbooked, bad at planning, and a terrible daytime procrastinator, I wrote all my papers at the last minute. I always got good grades, but I never had the satisfaction of knowing I’d drained the tank on a particular task. Each time, I knew I could have done more. So let me share my very best anti-procrastination tips with you, as one who knows the struggle, and as one who knows the lingering disappointment that comes at the end, when you know you had more to give. We can’t get it right every time, but my goal for myself and for us all: feel this way as little as possible.

Top 5 Procrastination Curbing Practices:

1) The Buddy System: find a friend who is far better at focusing than you are, and beg them to be your work buddy. Ideally someone whose disapproval you dread enough to shape up and buckle down. Clark and Moretti are both good picks, for the record.

2) Internet-Free: so important. Find an Iona wireless deadspot or a cheap-o coffee shop that won’t give you their password, or if all else fails, turn off your wifi. If you can’t bear the idea of leaving your phone behind, bury it somewhere in an inconvenient corner of your bag.

3) Inspiring Environment: I like spaces that make me feel like its time to be SERIOUS. The Harry Potter room on campus is pretty good, or find the fanciest local library you’ve got.

4) 3 hour Chunks of Time: never write, study, etc. for more than 3 hours of a time. Take a break. But also, really crank during those three hours so that you deserve it.

5) Take Inspiration in Your Successes: when I’m starting something new and feel like I’ve completely forgotten how to write a good sentence, or whatever the task may be, I look into my archives of Done Work. It’s so reassuring to remember that I know how to survive this task and even do it well.

Reading Black Women Writers Saved My Life – Timothy Lyle

“Reading Black Women Writers Saved My Life”

I remember the first time I uttered these words aloud to an audience. In fact, it was the first time I’d ever said them or, honestly, had ever thought them at all—at least in the frank and urgent manner in which I delivered them at that moment. I was in the middle of an academic job interview, and one of the committee members focused on my embodiment of whiteness and my relationship to the literary and cultural traditions that I study. The curiosity, shock, or even resistance that I often navigate in these moments was not what was troubling in that moment. It was her insistence that I did not—could not—have a relationship to the literary tradition that I’ve spent most of my life studying that gave me pause. The interviewer’s commentary and its undercurrent felt very wrong to me. It was wrong.

When I started answering her exact question, I began with familiar talking points, but before I realized what was happening, I experienced a sobering moment of vulnerability and verbalized a deep truth. Admittedly, it was an accident, but one I realized too late to stop. Causing visible shock to everyone in the room, I said it: “honestly, reading black women writers saved my life.”

As a young child growing up in a lower-income part of rural Georgia, I had a father who, however well-intentioned, was unable to love or to affirm his family, particularly not his oldest child and only son who could not—for whatever reason—conform to rigid ideas of American masculinity. Couple an unhealthy father-son relationship with the fact that I was a gender non-conforming young person in the deep south with an emerging but fraught queer sexual orientation, and you have prime conditions for haunting familiar results: troubled self-worth, difficulty building sustaining community, and a fundamental absence of specific and relevant resources to navigate the world. (Even though this was certainly a different historical era, some of these realities persist, especially in certain remote parts of the country).

Finally, because I was reared in a strict, conservative Southern Baptist religious circle, I was convinced that God was not on my side either. Similar to a young Celie in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, I was not sure if a God was listening to me either.

Without affirming models that reflected my worth, without visible alternative narratives to counter negative, derogating ones, and without recognizable, available community, I struggled to move through childhood and my emerging adolescence. And, of course, when my body started freaking out and feeling like an enemy (the usual suspects here—unrelenting acne, teeth that needed braces, and a voice that could not make up its mind about its tonal qualities), I fell deeper into myself and into the oppressive thoughts that never yielded messages of care. Indeed, it would be easy to highlight my whiteness and my maleness to undercut all that I share now, but do remember that the person charged with my care—the person who indelibly shaped my worldview—reminded me daily, hourly, by the minute—that I did not qualify. And, to be sure, other adults and even children in my community regularly reminded me of how and why I did not count in their conceptualizations of valuable folks either.

It was in this emotional and mental state that I began to encounter and to engage with the writings of black women. The abbreviated version of this lengthy story follows a young, inquisitive (one might substitute nosey as an accurate descriptor) boy who regularly asked too many questions of his conservative, southern educators. Growing tired of asking his teachers repeatedly about black writers and consistently receiving frustrating, unsatisfactory answers, he looked outside of formal educational spaces to find answers. Using silly, uninformed phrases at the local library like “can you show me the black books, please,” this young man makes me both laugh and flush with the redness of embarrassment today. Nonetheless, he fortunately met a kind, no-fuss librarian at the local library about half-a-mile from his house who was kind enough to lead him to the near-back portion of the small library to a collection of books that might interest him.

Now, memory starts to fail me a bit here because I cannot, hard as I try, recall all that was on those shelves or specific details about how the classification of materials actually worked. Was it African American writers? African writers? Writers that might fall under the broader umbrella of “minority literature?” I cannot be sure. What I do remember is a comfy beanbag chair on the floor right next to a window that flooded that portion of the room with the warmth and light of the Georgia sun. And I recall profoundly the characters, the plots, and the emotions that I experienced in those pages.

Because I was unable to acquire a library card without parental supervision, the librarian let me read the books while in the library, which provided me with the perfect excuse to leave a household that felt less than safe and stay gone for extended periods of time. We often hear phrases like “books are my refuge” or “reading introduces you to new worlds.” While I believe that those phrases have a lot of truth in them and regularly share the memes along with other book lovers on social media, when I think back on the contours of my childhood, I see clearly the literal applications of those phrases. I see how the library and, more importantly, how the writings of black women that captivated me daily for hours and hours at a time were actually a refuge. One that served as a (temporary) buffer from the abusive behavior of my father and one that provided an invaluable escape from my own whirlpool of negative thoughts and emotions. The closest thing that I could imagine to “safety.”

I should pause here to be abundantly clear about something. This is not some scene from The Help or some 1990s-version of Imitation of Life (even though I do make space for subversive readings even of those films). Nor am I conflating my—however crappy—circumstances with the trauma endured by black women in America. These writers were not writing about me. They were, in large part, not writing to me or for me either. Their careers do not exist to assuage the pang of my violent childhood necessarily, and they certainly do not acquire their value because a white male reader learned how to love himself in and through them. But their work did accomplish those things as well, however obliquely.

Rooted in their fundamental particularity, women like Zora Neale Hurston, Audre Lorde, Ann Petry, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange, Gloria Naylor, Lucille Clifton, and so many others taught me lessons that became life-giving. By engaging with their fictive communities and worlds, I encountered models of communal care, palpable examples of deliberate revaluations of self, vibrant meditations on the dynamics of love without possession, ruminations on the dangers of viral quests for power and domination, and roadmaps for how to navigate a world not ready for you (or not even built for you to thrive).

Their reverence for orality captured the ears of an emerging young reader. Their language always said “come on in and sit for a spell. Let’s talk.” Their characters offered testimonies of healing. And, from a very young age, their narratives exposed me to complicated ideas like “intersectionality” in practice—even if I would not have the theoretical or political vocabulary to describe them until graduate school and beyond.

Though I know clearly that I did not even begin to scratch the surface of these stories and their complexities in those early readings, I did develop a life-long appreciation for, dedication to, and deep love of writing by black women writers. I am happy to share today that that relationship has never dissipated. These women writers taught me what it means to belong to communities, how to love self and others, and how to exist with the natural phenomena that surrounds me in ethically sound ways. How to “get right” when I forget.

When I was twenty-six years old, I was packing to make my move to Washington, DC to begin my Ph.D. program in African American literature at Howard University, and I came across two journals from days gone by that I was sure I had destroyed. I immediately panicked. Had my mom read these? Who—for whatever reason—had ventured through them without my knowing? While I was successful in destroying most of them years before (perhaps a cardinal sin for an English Professor, I now realize), two remained because I had hidden them so well that I forgot where they were.

Honestly, I did not have the courage to read them all cover-to-cover, but I did read enough to remind myself of the darkest of times when my understandings of self were the most polluted and when the future seemed completely out of view.

As I sort of marveled at how this young person managed to persist, I came across a line that I had written down and surrounded in quotes in one of my more defiant entries: “I found god in myself, and I loved her fiercely.” Even though I neglected to attribute the quote according to MLA format like a dutiful scholar, the incoming doctoral student in me immediately recognized Ntozake Shange’s words from her famous choreopoem: for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. Though I knew that I wasn’t the lady in red, brown, green, blue, orange, yellow, or purple, I still bore witness to their boldly black feminist testimonies, and I thank a pro-feminist, pro-queer, and unapologetically pro-black spiritual being that I did.

If you had asked me years ago how I avoided self-harm throughout my adolescence, I might have half-seriously answered “a combination of accident and the internet.” While I still believe that online communities were vital, I realized during that moment of consciousness raising in my job interview that it was the writing of black women that somehow kept me pushing forward to claim a future that I now firmly know that I deserve and that the world can benefit from.

In my larger career development, I eventually learned how to engage with the field professionally and how to hold myself accountable for producing responsible scholarship that is theoretically informed and robust, but affective studies has shown us time and time again that these emotional dimensions matter as well. Theoretically and otherwise. We should be cognizant of how and why they impact our complicated relationships with texts.

Though great emphasis is often put on detached, “objective” scholarly inquiry, I would be remiss if I did not—at least in some spaces—refuse that professional position as my only engagement. In fact, the development of the literary traditions that I study found their earliest manifestations by writing for life and death situations and by using experimental knowledge as a critical way of knowing. A way of knowing that has substantial value. And I am not sure that the tradition has ever lost that sense of urgency—that fundamental effort to help folks get free. To make life more livable. It might, actually, form part of its essential life-blood. For that, I am eternally grateful.

Writing about this even today, I realize that when I uttered the words “reading black women writers saved my life,” I was not being hyperbolic or offering dramatic effect. I accidentally but sincerely articulated one of my most important life truths about my relationship to narrative. And I have trouble imagining who I would be as a person or a professional without it. Thankfully, I don’t have to.

TEN LIFE-GIVING READS (in no particular order)

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

Alice Walker, The Color Purple

Ntozake Shange, for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf

Toni Morrison, Sula

Gloria Naylor, The Women of Brewster Place

Audre Lorde, Zami: a New Spelling of My Name

Lucille Clifton, Good News about the Earth

Janet Mock, Redefining Realness

Toni Cade Bambara, The Salt Eaters

Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Writing on Paper – T.J. Moretti

#howIwrite

I like to write. I haven’t published much, so I wouldn’t call myself a “writer,” certainly not a poet, though I started writing things when I wrote poems to cope in junior high. They were cheesy love poems for my first or second crush. Rejected, I wrote more poetry, either sighed a lot, or (more likely) bingewatched Video JukeBox until Green Jelly’s “Three Little Pigs” or Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or Dr. Dre and Snoop Dog’s “Nothin but a G Thang” came on (YouTube it all, folks), or (just as likely) gorged myself on Super Nintendo or Genesis games to prepare for my first year in high school.

I don’t have those poems anymore. Don’t ask.

I wrote those poems on paper because it wasn’t until my second year in high school that I learned how to type on a computer and format a document.

I still write on paper whenever I can: poems, drafts of short stories, character sketches, ideas for novels, dreams, parts of an academic essay. I didn’t write this post on paper, I admit, but I tend toward paper, because writing on paper helps me remember what I wrote, what I changed.

My last writing: I wrote a poem for an Advent booklet distributed through Iona’s Office of Mission and Ministry. I started it on paper. Take a look at a section of an early draft.

See how messy it gets? I cut here, squeezed there, interrupted myself twice. I look back and flinch at some of my early word choices, like “numbing cold,” (like really, I could have done something else there, I mean, there was no need for me to even write that phrase down).

When I write on Word or Google Docs, I lose a history of those edits, those lessons in real-time, those signs that I was really thinking hard, really struggling to find meaning in an image, to find meaning at all. (I could just use “Track Changes,” but all the colors and lines seem too messy for me to untangle).

I don’t keep all drafts of all my writings. I’ve scrapped drafts of articles that have been published, or early, terrible versions of dissertation chapters that took my advisor hours to edit. I don’t feel the need to hold onto that history.

The poems, though, and the short stories, and the ideas for stories, and any drafts of unfinished scholarly articles demand that I document the changes, in the body of the writing or in the margins.

I want a written record of those changes.

I don’t want to tap “Backspace” or “Delete” to erase the history of my thought-process, my habits of mind, my search for meaning in art and my search for art in meaning.

Those writings demand that I take stock of my work, that I study the documents of their past, that I learn from those documents what I thought, felt, or thought I felt.

I need to write on paper to remember.

I can still write on Word and still make the final version permanent, but I find myself in the quirks of the drafts. Without a record, I don’t have a way to remember the quirks I changed, even if I can notice in the permanent version those quirks I can’t change. Take, for example, the final version of my advent poem:

The Advent Wreath: A Vigil

You fear what the dark means,

or might, you don’t know enough

to know why the holly, why the pine,

why four candles on a wreath

when coal for boys and girls

gone bad, born to the bad they know,

they know not, they know not what

they know.

Round and round

trace a bruise around an eye or wrist,

purples wrenched from pinks,

hope numbed cold.

Round and round loop the yarn by a lamp

near a hearth into stockings empty for more

quick picks, scratch offs, Crayola wax

to waste on stick-figure-family smiles

and North Pole lists next to Guida and Oreos

on the oak veneer table.

Round and round the barrel bomb

in Aleppo once, twice, more than three,

smote your peace.

Your hara feels what the dark means,

what excretes through pancreatic ducts

toward your right, your core—

call it your duodenum—

for food that feeds your life for more

than round and round until aground.

A square of candles, vertices on a circle of pine.

Light one, two, the third, four the sum.

Purples into a pink to purple,

you see in flickers—

dawn rays through dew on hydrangeas,

there is a peony—

the halo like a white oak

aspiring from winter’s ground

to rival the snow: I will green again.

Wax melts and puddles and sets

into the wounds of the world.

The wreath, the pine,

the wicks aflame,

the mess below,

or nest, a womb, dark aglow,

you know you know

you hope you know

See? Nothing I can change there, even in stanzas 2 and 3, which really need work. And stanza 1…

Well, I could edit this blog post, I suppose—take a screenshot of before and after or something. But that just sounds like so much work, you know?

Moana in Our Moment – Christina Carlson

When I teach my Disney princess course, one of the things we look at is the historical context for each film. Without going into detail here (I’ll be offering the course in Fall ’17, so come find out then!), suffice it to say that each of these films is a reflection of its moment in time. Much has been made of the fact that Disney’s latest offering, Moana, is a different kind of princess movie, and having seen it over Thanksgiving with my seven-year-old daughter, I would agree. I could list many ways in which it breaks the mold here, but I’ll save that for 2017. Rather, I’ll focus on one way in which it does this: rather than being reflective of what its historical moment is, it is aspirational about what its historical moment might be.

 

When the writers, animators and composers (bless you, Lin-Manuel Miranda!) were creating this film, released November 23, 2016, they could not have imagined our nation would be waking up to the reality of a Trump election a mere two weeks earlier. While no one needs reminding of the ugliness of the campaign he ran, for me, and I suspect for many, there are three elements of it that stand out in particular: his xenophobic rhetoric, aimed specifically at Mexican and Muslim immigrants but really targeting anyone not of European ancestry; his misogyny, threatening to attack female bodies both through the law and with his very own (tiny) hands; and perhaps less obviously but no less dangerously, his imperiling of the Earth itself, with his denial of climate change, threats to withdraw from the Paris accord, and promises to reinvigorate America’s fossil fuel industries by doing away with government-imposed regulations. This is, sadly, the reality we have to look forward to in 2017. But Moana offers a different vision, one that stands beautifully, and aspirationally, for a different kind of future.

First, Moana is not a European fairy tale. Rather, it is about a culture literally from the other side of the world, a celebration of the people and traditions of the Pacific islands. And it’s not just a shameful act of cultural appropriation (although I can already see the tie-in with the newly renovated Polynesian Village resort, but I’ll let that go for the moment)—what Disney got right here is that it actually consulted with and involved Pacific islanders in every aspect of the film’s production, which may be why Moana doesn’t ring hollow like some of Disney’s other attempts at telling the story of non-white princesses. But beyond immersing us completely and engagingly in a totally non-European culture, it is also a film that embraces the very act of immigration. When Moana, the titular character and sea-faring heroine of the film, discovers that her people have not always inhabited their little island, it is revelatory, liberating—they were once voyagers, people who were unafraid to take to their boats to look for a better life. While the idea of dark-skinned people in boats looking for a better life clearly terrifies some people, in Moana, it is a cause for rejoicing.

Perhaps the aspect of Moana that has garnered the most attention is its utter lack of a prince—not so much as a passing reference to one–and surely, in this way it is radically different from its predecessors. But Moana is a “female” film in more profound ways than this. Not only does Moana have a living mother, which sets her apart from most Disney princesses right off the bat, but she also has a grandmother, the village “crazy lady” who, like so many women who have been labeled crazy, is really a repository of cultural wisdom with a different account to share of her people’s history than the party line offered by men, in this case, her son, the tribe’s leader. It is she who sets Moana on her journey, she who is there to reassure her granddaughter at its darkest moment. And unlike the princesses before her, with the notable exception of Elsa (who I like to think is so popular with little girls not just because of her magic but because, as my daughter is always quick to remind me, “she’s a queen, not a princess!”), at the end of the film, Moana gets to rule in her own right, not just through inheritance, but because she’s earned it. I’m not going to lie— when Moana finally places that perfect, pink, gynic shell atop the phallic tower of grey stones, representing that she has taken over leadership of her people, I burst into hysterical tears—as much as anything else, it was a catharsis for all the pent up anger, frustration and fear from this election season, a perfect cinematic wish-fulfillment fantasy, and a grieving for the election that might have been.

If Moana is different from other Disney princess films in not having a prince, it is also different in not having a clear-cut villain (unless you want to count a bunch of freakishly cute sociopathic coconuts and a very glittery crab). I could go on all day about the gender dynamics of Disney’s traditional wicked stepmother, who may or may not also be a powerful sorceress, as well as variations on the theme of the person who should be looking out for you actually being your worst enemy (Prince Hans, anyone?), but I’m going to save that for Fall 2017. When Disney made the live-action Maleficent, it was tapping into a venerable tradition (Grendel, Wide Sargasso Sea, Wicked), of retelling a story from the villain’s perspective to show how she, or he, became the monster we all know and hate. Moana renders this kind of prequel unnecessary, as the story of how the film’s perceived villain is actually its greatest victim is an essential part of the narrative. We learn that Moana is chosen by the sea to return the heart of Te Fiti, an island goddess, which had been stolen by the demi-god Maui and is now the reason that crops are failing and fish are disappearing. When she sets sail (against her father’s wishes, but with her grandmother’s blessing) and enlists Maui’s grudging assistance in this task, he tells her he took it so that he could give humans all that they wanted. In the film’s climactic moment, Moana must find a way to navigate around the ugly, angry volcanic enemy Te Ka to complete her mission. At first, this moment seems familiar from epics past, like some combination of Scylla and Charybdis and Sauron, and when Moana successfully sails past, we are conditioned to sense that victory is at hand. But we are perhaps as surprised as she is, perhaps more so, to discover that Te Fiti is gone…no, not gone; that the thing she seeks is one and the same as the monster trying to keep her from it, that deprived of its heart, Te Fiti turned into the ugly and dangerous Te Ka. What happens next is perhaps more surprising, esp. in our current political climate—Moana recognizes what so many do not, that the trick to peace is not defeating your enemy but understanding it. She turns to face Te Ka, says “I know your name,” and returns what rightfully belongs to it. Instantly, the “monster” transforms to its true self—Te Fiti, a benevolent mother goddess, a Pacific Eden island that is the source of all life. Balance is restored, and the lie that’s it is OK to rip what we want from the Earth is exposed for what it is: the real cause of what threatens our soil, water and air, as well as the human communities that rely on them.

It’s telling that it is a young, brown-skinned girl who is brave enough to uncover this truth in the film. Unfortunately, in 2017, we face the real danger of watching old, white men take what they believe they’re entitled to, leaving us all in peril. And this highlights one last aspect of this election which I’ve not yet addressed but which is central to this film, and that, of course, is youth. As we now know, the 18-25 demographic overwhelmingly rejected the dark, inward-looking vision of our current president elect. And of course, Moana is aimed at an even younger demographic. This is their film, and it could not come at a more crucial moment. Although I rarely say this about a Disney princess, in this case I hope our daughters, and our sons, do learn from Moana’s example. We still have things to aspire to…

 

Reading Through Failure – T.J. Moretti

T.J. Moretti

How I became a Shakespeare scholar and literature and humanities enthusiast is buried somewhere in the shell of a story about my failure to be a man.  Perhaps it starts here: when I was in high school, just starting out, I figured that my 5’8” 140 lbs body was fit for football.  When lying dazed on my back after two offensive linemen plowed through me during a scrimmage game my sophomore year, I figured I should go with something else.  So, I decided to focus on what I was good at: Math. Chemistry. Notice, I haven’t mentioned anything about my high school social skills.  But all that—the math and chemistry, I mean—I had trouble applying to anything.  I mean, I could do the work well—I understood mathematical formulae and processes, I knew that a mole was not only some critter digging up peonies in my grandparents’ front yard but also a certain number of molecules—but I could not make the connection between that kind of work, that kind of information, and my life.  So, I filled in “English” in the intended major space on my college applications.

My brief gloss over almost 20 years of my life tells me that my decision to major in English was not based on the sort of rational exercise that we English folk are told to use to decide what we should major in.  “What will you do with an English degree?”  “What are your plans?”  We’re told either directly or tacitly that these are the questions to ask and answer because, and I quote, “It’s a tough world out there, you need to know what you are going to do.”  The assumption is that we can only teach or write, which are activities that hardly guarantee financial success.

We ask a follow-up.  “Why is it a tough world?  What makes it tough?”  Literature teaches us the answer: to quote the title from the late Chinua Achebe’s novel, things fall apart.  Not much a career can do to really prevent that from happening.  Parents and grandparents and great grandparents can tell you that.  Work hard, buy a home, sell a home, buy another home, invest in a 401K, set aside money for your children’s college education, have some to spare for trips, or a car, or a vacation home, then watch as economic calamity strips your retirement money away through no fault of your own, or watch as a storm floods your basement, your first floor, your attic as you stand on the roof waiting for a boat.  If you’re fortunate, if Fortune has been kind to you, then maybe those things haven’t fallen apart, but other things will.

This is not a prediction.  Watch as your parents quarrel, divorce, fight over a couch or a dining room set or a grandfather clock or child custody.  Things fall apart.  Someone dies.  Things fall apart.  Christmas dinner or a Passover seder or a Ramadan dinner turns into a nightmare that you have to sit through.  Things fall apart.  Your dream to become more than a joke on the football field ends with you as a joke on the football field.  Things fall apart.  Your blog post in the new Iona English blog gets trolled.  Things fall apart.

Let me step back for a moment.  All the skills that we have learned and continue to learn in our discipline—critical thinking, textual analysis, persuasive writing and speech, research methods—are keys to success in publication, in politics, in entrepreneurial pursuits, in law, in banking, in tech. Mid-to-upper level managers, human resources administrators, business owners, even corporate officers can teach you business practices, policies, and methods, and trainers can teach you the new software, the new program, the new spreadsheet model.  They will not teach you to write well or to speak well. (Just check out this link for how that’s a problem in our economy: http://www.inc.com/kaleigh-moore/study-poor-writing-skills-are-costing-businesses-billions.html.) They will not teach you how to organize your work load, how to manage your time, how effectively and efficiently to research.  So, when someone asks, “What can you do with English?” you can respond with something like, “A lot.”

So, let’s get that problem with perception out of the way.  People who do not see the tremendous, practical value of an English focus are wrong to conclude, therefore, that there is no tremendous, practical value of an English focus in college.

But that problem is not the problem that worries me.

What do we do in a world where things fall apart?  How do we cope?  How do we manage?  Literature does not so much tell us the answer as it deepens our appreciation for those questions as we continue to seek answers.

An example: when I was a child, I belonged to a very traditional family. The father was the breadwinner and the rule-setter and the authority figure.  My mother was the caretaker, the soother, the sympathizer.  I was one of three boys.  From my father, I learned that to be a man in this world, you have to be aggressive, loud, and assertive at home and at work.  He was a police officer and an owner of a landscaping business.  He and my mother divorced after I failed at football (not for that reason?). They’re still around, but as a child, I saw my father as a mean, angry person and I vowed to myself as early as 7, that age of reason, that I would not be like him when I grew up.

Such a dream—to prevent the sins of the father from passing to the son—seemed less and less likely once I read and learned about literary mainstays like The Great Gatsby and Absalom, Absalom.  As I read more and more literature—think Mrs. Dalloway, Mr. Fortune’s Maggot, The Road, King Lear—I came to think that the things that matter fall apart, but the things that you do want to fall apart will not fall apart for you.  Depressing.  But still, I had this drive to figure out a way to distinguish myself from my father, and I continued to read literature, sometimes, whether I knew it or not, to sort through the messes around me.

Shakespeare, Hamlet.  Nope.  My uncle didn’t kill my father and marry my mother.  But maybe I was reading literature incorrectly.  Rather than search literature for a pattern of life that best resembles my own, I should pay attention to my desire to put myself in the trappings and suits of the characters that had meaningful things to say.  So, when I was in England for that year-abroad in college, I started a quote journal.  You know, I would read whatever I was reading—a poem by John Donne or a novel by Virginia Woolf or a play by Shakespeare or a mystical text by Nicolas of Cusa—and I would write down quotes that meant something to me for some reason.  The quotes maybe spoke to me about an issue or a condition that I could relate to, or they gave me insight into the pain and hopes and fears and desires of the literary character whom I found so fascinating.  “We live as we dream—alone,” or “All thy suffering be divine,” or “We live in a night ocean wondering what are these lights?”  I also wrote down definitions; it took me hours just to read 20 pages of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim.  Over years, I wrote down quotes, sayings, both wise and funny, odd and lasting, that, even if for a moment, had something to say to me.

Eventually, I was fortunate enough to discover a book that said something to me about others and that said something to me about my own desire to avoid the sins of my father, too.  Russell Banks, Affliction.  It is a story about a high school football star whose success as a teenager did not carry over into adulthood.  Once he was a man’s man as a teenager in New Hampshire, but we find him as a middle-aged divorcee who cannot maintain a relationship with his daughter and whose own anger at his father fuels his anger toward others.  No spoilers, but what mattered to me when reading this novel is that there was someone else out there who could write about an issue so much better than I, who could relate the father-son problem in terms that profoundly affected me, who could, through fiction, through literature, teach me that my wish not to be like my father was rooted in the same anger that I blamed my father for having.  So, why not try to strengthen  a relationship with my father not rooted in past anxiety and fear, but rather rooted in love and mutual respect.

Things fall apart.  But then, as English students, we look for things to say that help us to put things together.  Aside from the skills key to career, we learn how to marshal other human functions—imagination, introspection, comedy, empathy—to cope, to mature, and to find the good.  We look for new ways to see our experiences and to mend relationships. We discover that some relationships are not worth mending, and we understand others without ridiculing or bullying them.  We grow into our humanity.  Things fall apart, so we say things, write things, read things to put things back together.