Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Step One to Back Problem Recovery: Admit you have a problem.

Step Two: Do something about the problem.

Step One, as it turns out, was a piece of cake. The doctor made me walk on my toes, lie on my back and do a couple of knee bends. He then recommended me for physical therapy.

It took me a few weeks to actually get in there because of late nights with the newspaper, grading essays, global warming, insurance runarounds...oh hell, mostly it was dread. Dread over what I knew would happen.

I got right in there around 6:45 and was sitting on the examination table shortly afterwards. The therapist did some stress tests, then asked me to stand.

That's it. Just stand, like I would normally stand.

Her eyes rolled like marbles. Apparently, my posture sucks: I've adopted the Al Bundy life-has-defeated-me slouch for so long, it's putting pressure on my upper back. I'm supposed to square my shoulders and tighten my abdomen to improve my posture while standing. She said this is the intended way the body is to stand. To me, it feels like I'm imitating George Reeve in Superman.

So now I'm supposed to do a series of exercises every day that aren't even exercises. Ab tightening, back-stretching and other routines designed to improve flexibility and loosen/strengthen my ligaments. They aren't particularly grueling, but they take about a half hour to do. Yes, I've been doing them and everything, and I've been hating every minute of it. It's not so much the effort. It's the fact that, were someone in shape to watch me, they'd fall over laughing.

If my brother were to scoff, that would be one thing. But when a mid-twenties physical therapist with a potbelly of her own watches my leg tremble while doing a leglift and has to put a hand over her mouth to keep from laughing, you know you've hit some kind of bottom. Bottom, here I be.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Confessions of an (un)aspiring novelist; Cholera in a time of (love?)

All week long, all I could think about was spring break, and now that I'm here, unlike other years where it's felt like charging headfirst into your favorite bar, surrounded by friends and dollar-a-pint prices, this time it's more like getting into a hot bath after a day working out in cold weather. Muscles relax. Blood pressure decreases. I wound up canceling my plans (yes, I'm the only person alive who has to call in sick for a party), watched TV for an hour (of all things, Scrubs episodes I already have on DVD), read for two hours and was asleep at nine a.m. Up this morning at 4:30, finished the book, made coffee and stared out the window impatiently, waiting for the newspaper. My old man, I do take after.

I do have a checklist, of sorts, for the next eight days. Projects and papers to grade, lesson plans to prepare, etc. But there are a few books to read as well. In a fit of ill-advised ambition, I offered my sophomores extra credit to read and review James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me over break, then realized I'd have to read it myself. No matter. I'm a fan of revisionist history. Every time Rush Limbaugh or Anne Coulter sounds off about "liberals who want America to fail," I have to wince and shrug embarrasingly. No, I want to tell them, it's not about wanting your country to fail. It's about wanting the people who "run" your country to fail. When a president goes to war because God told him to, when an administration congratulates itself on a "reasonable proposal" by offering members up for testimony without oath, and when think-tanks doing precious little thinking give shitty advice on Capitol Hill, I find myself waiting for the fifth act, when hubris is punished and, if the righteous don't prevail, at least they get to say, "I told you so." I've been able to say such words to several people lately, but have gotten no joy out of it. Maybe when and if Patrick Fitzgerald goes after President Bush, I'll be able to crow a little.

But I digress. Before I can tackle Loewen and how my history textbooks got it all wrong, I had to finish Jane Smiley's Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel. I stumbled across the book in a Salon.com article reviewing books about how to read, and I picked it up more or less on a whim. I've read two Smiley novels, and neither made much of an impression on me. However, I've come to realize this had less to do with her writing style than it did with my attention span--I read both of them in grad school, on off-hours not spent studying or grading undergraduate themes, and just seeing her name and recognizing her cadence brings back some of those memories. Smiley's meditation on the novel and the novelist is a tad circular since she constantly brings up the same novels as examples, and she is fond of pointing out that (maybe) novelists are good at their craft because of their inability to engage successfully within their own social circle. But I could listen to her go on about the particulars of novels for twice as long as she does in the book. I like how she points out that most, if not all novels are destined for some level of failure, whether through the passage of history or the disparity of today's multimedia audience, and I respect how she willingly offers herself up for sacrifice by walking us through the composition and editing of her novel Good Faith (which I have not read).

What's probably the most alluring part of the book, though, is the last two-thirds, where she offers encouragement to would-be novelists by reminding them to write to please themselves rather than get rich and famous, and where she offers her own two cents on one hundred novels she read over a two- or three-year period. I've only glanced at a few of her reviews, and I plan on only skimming the rest, but I have to admit, I'm a sucker for reading about reading. Nick Hornby does it in The Polysyllabic Spree and Housekeeping vs. the Dirt; Jonathan Franzen bemoans both his own and the public's lapses in novel-reading in How to Be Alone, and while I have yet to finish it, Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading is no less intriguing for its social commentary about why we read and why we read what we read than it is for its insights into the psychology and even sexuality of reading (did you know your eyes are skipping all over this page even as you follow the words? or is that because you found some porn somewhere and are getting distracted? come on, share the wealth, asshole).

Gulity confession: I used to want to be a novelist. Sometimes, in spare moments, I still do. I've started maybe a dozen novels in my lifetime. Some fought for existence heroically, uttering strangled last words melodramatically on a death bed. Some came into existence, chuckled contemptuously at the lot that had been cast at them, and died without a murmur. The example that sticks in my head most vividly: in the summer of 1998, while working for a mosquito management company, I spent days trudging through forest preserves and suburban back yards spraying larvae and thinking up third-rate horror stories. One tried to become a book about a vampire who tries to give up blood drinking by switching to substitutes, only to have his possessive witch of a mother trick him into backsliding with a girl he's trying to start an affair with. I was smoking fairly heavily at the time and unsure of the teaching credentials that I was shopping around the state, and figured, way way in the back of my mind, that this could be a means to avoid the drudgery of work, of an alarm clock and a briefcase filled with essays on Why My Parents Don't Understand Me. What's always precluded me from pursuing a career in writing has been twofold: I find myself questioning why I want to do it in the first place, and I wrestle with the guilt that comes with struggling valiantly over something so middling while working in a profession that, by necessity, demands creativity, innovation and dedication. Elmore Leonard wrote some of his first work by hiding it in a desk drawer while at his office job. Geoffrey Chaucer was a civil servant his entire life; The Canterbury Tales were more of a hobby. Were I to do likewise, my students would be watching a lot more movies, and I wouldn't be able to sleep at night. Every time I sat down to write something halfway decent, Jack Roeser would leap up in my head, chuckling over how well-paid I was and how many kids would never learn to write coherently because of a middle-of-the-road drama about an alcoholic ex-priest visiting his home town.

Then along comes Smiley with words of encouragement, arguing that a finished first draft of a bad novel is in itself a success, that only through looking at the trees at first can one eventually see a forest. "Just write," she seems to be telling me. "The worst that can happen is you won't finish it, and that's already happened, what, a dozen times?"

Well, don't sit by the phone, Reading Public. "Write a novel" is on my list of Things to Do Before I Die, and I'll most likely get to it before long, but I'm still in the process of deconditioning my must-publish attitude towards the whole thing. I'm also having way too much fun reading novels, not to mention histories, biographies, essay collections and, yes, even the occasional student essay.

Among the pile: Maugham's The Painted Veil. I picked up a copy at Target on an impulse (and before anyone gives me any static about that, let me just point out that there hasn't been an independent bookseller in my neck of the woods in years, and that I regularly frequent the Chicago bookstores, not to mention independent sellers on line) and read it over the space of a week. I like Maugham. I don't know why, but I do. Of Human Bondage is a book I'd love to teach, although I have no idea how I'd go about doing it. Maugham has symbols, foreshadowing, style and substance, but it's all just so there. Things just happen. I think it was Jane Smiley herself who wrote the foreword to the Bantam edition, in which she points out that the progression seems more an afterthought, as if it's an excuse to watch the protagonist struggle with his passions, his lack of money and his ostracism. My cup of tea. The interior conflict has always been something that, when executed well, I can eat for breakfast.

The Painted Veil is different, though. Kitty Fane is caught in an affair with a big-talking diplomat, and in a fit of passive agressive punishment, her husband Walter, a doctor, takes her with him to treat cholera victims in an epidemic sweeping through rural Japan. Kitty is superficial, but changes when exposed to true suffering, true love, and the example of the Catholic church as it treats cholera patients, and she learns to see her husband through her new eyes. The ending could have been melodramatic, but Maugham does a better job wrapping up Kitty's journey of self-awareness than he does Philip's in Of Human Bondgage--she's lost too much and made too many mistakes to have a happy ending, but she can at least step in a new direction, and it's from there that I derived the most enjoyment.

Unfortunately, the one factoid that kept running through my head while reading was Maugham's homosexuality. Critics, I believe, keep returning to that as an explanation for his treatment of women: they're either complete and utter bitches, like Mildred Rogers, or confused yet immoral roundheels, like Kitty (and is it any accident that she's named after a slang term for either a prostitute or a vagina? I doubt it). So I was preconditioned to be skeptical of her portrayal, and I think I bought into it. Leafing through the pages once again, I still can't see deep pathos on her part, just a matter-of-fact account of her second thoughts and self-ruminations, almost as if she's going through the motions of having a soul.

But then, pathos in fiction has never been my strong suit. Like Eleanor of Acquitaine, I am not moved to tears, but I should at least be able to recognize when I should be so moved. It's something to work on, I guess. How else could I write my own deathbed scene, many years from now? "As the life left his eyes and his head slumped on the pillow, she felt as if she were floating over him, untethered, free yet precariously so, like a balloon drifting into the atmosphere, at risk of popping because of the inverted atmosphere." Sure, that will do the job just fine. God, I could have gotten a paper graded in the time it took to write that. Damn you, Roeser, you win this round.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

NYC-49th and 6th-TROPIC zone bar is a lounge-type place with pounding yet manageable disco music, plenty of space, and waitresses in string bikinis. Journey's End turned out to be an outstanding play chronicling the pathos of the Great War. But it didn't have any waitresses with string bikinis. So I think it's only fair to turn my attention back to the excellent service I'm receiving.

I like this blackberry. This could be a problem.
NYC-88th and 1st Ave--Blogging from Matt's Blackberry. He tells me it's a work-related device, which means it's not to be used frivolously. So hopefully, this is costing his shit company money, and I'm getting the bastard in trouble.

46 degrees. Off to Battery Park. Then Broadway, then the bars. As the Black Keys sing, You just got to be.