Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Theodore Dalrymple on Self-Esteem vs. Self-Respect:
The problem with low self-esteem is not self-dislike, as is often claimed, but self-absorption. . .


In short, self-esteem is but a division of self-importance, which is seldom an attractive quality. That person is best who never thinks of his own importance: to think about it, even, is to be lost to morality.

Self-respect is another quality entirely. Where self-esteem is entirely egotistical, requiring that the world should pay court to oneself whatever oneself happens to be like or do, and demands nothing of the person who wants it, self-respect is a social virtue, a discipline, that requires an awareness of and sensitivity to the feelings of others. It requires an ability and willingness to put oneself in someone else's place; it requires dignity and fortitude, and not always taking the line of least resistance.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"[T]he whole point about a moment of insight is that it defies quotidian description"

. . .[S]he had suddenly appreciated the sheer otherness of Angus. Most of us go through life so absorbed in the cocoon of ourselves that we rarely stop to consider the other. Of course we think that we do; indeed we may pride ourselves on our capacity for empathy; we may be considerate and thoughtful in our dealings with others, but how often to we stand before them, so to speak, and experience what it is to be them?. . .

She looked at Angus, at his paint-bespattered corduroy trousers; at his somewhat battered Harris tweed jacket; at the Paisley handkerchief-cum-cravat that he had tied round his throat; at his shoes, old brown brogues which he obviously tended with care, for they were polished to a high shine. How often have I looked at him in this way? she asked herself. How often have I noticed or, indeed, listened to him? We talk, but do I actually listen, or is our conversation mainly a question of my waiting for him to stop and for it to be my turn to say something? For how many of us is that what conversation means--the setting up of our lines?

p. 216,
The Unbearable Lightness of Scones
Alexander McCall Smith

Friday, March 26, 2010

Sisters in Vienna

(The photographer blogs here.)
The Girl Who Never Rained
in Goest, by Cole Swensen

Oddly enough, there was always a city block of clear weather on every side / of her, a space just large enough that the casual passerby simply thought, / "What an odd spot of calm," and often even people who knew her well never / quite put it together, as, after all, it's not that unusual to have a break in a / storm, though they'd develop, after a while, an odd inclination to be with her / without really thinking out why. Other than that, her life was neither better / nor worse than most, except, of course, for the crowds.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Brief history of tears

On Monday evening, I cried.

I cried because I was tired of checking my email and finding nothing, of checking the mailbox and finding nothing, of finding something in the mailbox or the in-box that was only bad news or possibly bad news. I cried, too, because each week during the last two months has brought word of my peers' acceptance to universities and programs across the state, the nation, and the world. As I said through tears on Monday evening, "I want a letter too!" I wasn't prepared to give up--I was already making plans for Round 2 and a gap year--, but I wanted to.

On Tuesday morning, I cried.

I cried because a manila envelope arrived in the mail, and it said, "Yes."

"Yes, we have selected you for a Fulbright English Teaching Assisstantship to Germany. Just fill out the paperwork and graduate on time, and, and, and. But yes."

So it didn't hurt as much yesterday when the last school I was banking on gave me the equivalent of a "no." The thought of having to retest and rewrite and reapply next year is not quite as discouraging with a letter on my desk promising me a fully funded year abroad.


However, this is not to say that I am *not* disappointed. At the risk of appearing ungrateful, but in the interest of honesty, I am. Just a little. Disappointed. Not because I won a fantastic award and now I regret it (I don't!), but because, well, those applications were a lot of work and a lot of money, and it would have been sort of satisfying to have an offer or, better yet, to have a choice.

Perhaps, in my case, choice is overrated.

Here's what Gregory Peck says. He says, “You have to dream, you have to have a vision, and you have to set a goal for yourself that might even scare you a little because sometimes that seems far beyond your reach. Then I think you have to develop a kind of resistance to rejection, and to the disappointments that are sure to come your way.”

I'm working on that last sentence.


I'm good at dreaming dreams. Last summer, heading home from Germany, I drank a hot tea in the Frankfurt airport and tucked my last 50 euro note into my wallet. "I'm not changing this back for U.S. dollars," I said. "I don't know when or how, but I'm coming back. I'll need it."

Monday night, like Abraham's Sarah, I laughed. I said, "What a fool I was; I should change that money back."

The next day, I changed my mind. I left the bill tucked in my German-English dictionary, awaiting the final confirmation of my plans, the final granting of the award, and the final jolt of wheels hitting the tarmac on the other side of the world.

On Tuesday morning, I cried and was happy.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

From the chapbook

Excerpt from Zadie Smith's On Beauty. I don't know why I waited so long to read this book. Smith's dialogue sparkles and snaps, and she can tell a story! I especially enjoyed her irreverent running commentary on university life.

p. 311-312:
"That would probably explain it," she said. She lost her smile and replaced it with a thoughtful scowl. "Why you can't say I like the tomato."

Howard frowned. What game was this? He took out his pocket of tobacco. "I--like--the--tomato," he said slowly and pulled the Rizlas from the bag. . .

'It's a Wellington thing--it's a student thing,' said Victoria rapidly. . . 'It's our shorthand for when we say, like, Professor Simeon's class is "The tomato's nature versus the tomato's nurture," and Jane Colman's class is "To properly understand the tomato you must first uncover the tomato's suppressed Herstory" . . . and Professor Gilman's class is "The tomato is structured like an aubergine," and Professor Kellas's class is basically "There is no way of proving the existence of the tomato without making reference to the tomato itself," and Erskine Jegede's class is "The post-colonial tomato as eaten by Naipul." And so on. So you say, "What class have you got coming up?" and the person says "Tomatoes 1670-1900." Or whatever.'

You say 'tomato,' I say 'tomahto.' Either way, I like the fruit.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Study in color on the streets of Berlin (August, 2009)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Poetry that breathes (and talks back)

According to Billy Collins's poetry, poems are real: in a shocking subversion of metaphysics, they swing like bats from the rafters and scamper across the road like raccoons; on occasion we run into them wandering the streets of Paris or sitting at a cafe table savoring a glass of rosé. The gimmick gets old after a while, and I tire of tripping over poems within poems. But I think that, despite his overuse of the technique, Collins is on to something.

For most of us poetry is a thing exotic, set apart from the wash and rinse cycle of the everyday. In Collins's world poetry is the everyday. There is no question of whether or not we ought to make space for it because it's already there, nipping at our heels, offering opinions, and shaping the contours of our emotional and cognitive lives.

I have finished out the last two terms with a small stack of poetry books by the side of my bed. (In fact it might be fair to say that I owe my ability to finish each term to those pages of poems.) Some of the collections I browsed and then returned, others I waded through but found disappointing, exactly two are worth mentioning here:
  • Ballistics: poems is Billy Collins's eighth collection of poetry, and he writes like he knows it. His poems are funny, wry, and philosophically astute (well, except for the fact that he apparently think poems exist.)
  • Moist Meridian, by Henry Hughes, is a celebration of the things that make us human: the fears that keep us up at night, the memories that shape our future worlds, our sexual misadventures, and the moments of bright joy that make it all worthwhile. Highly recommended; I wrote about attending the author's poetry reading here.
Happy reading!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Nothing to report

This is me, still waiting for a letter of acceptance from somewhere and receiving nothing.

But I am not giving up hope; I am merely expanding it: I am preparing to extend its scope to encompass another year or two or three.

Some things are worth waiting for.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Counter-balancing happiness (or why I need to read more Schmitt)

A storm and the turnings of my own mind kept me awake last night. At 2am, when the crashings of wind and rain outside my window were no longer bearable, I switched on a light and began to read. Tolstoy and Camus on the meaning of life are not uplifting companions on weary winter nights at the end of the term, but they at least distracted my mind from its well-worn mental ruts.

I stopped thinking, for a while, about how to tutor students in logic; about how to inject students with confidence when confidence is decidedly lacking; about how to demystify patterns.

I ignored the fact that I had recently discovered that I know nothing about relative clauses, much less how to explain them.

I forgot that some of my appointments had gone late, and that, consequently, other appointments were cut short so that the person who needed the most help ended up getting the least.

I neglected the great What If's of the current month, stowing the "who will say 'yes?'" and "what if everyone says 'no?'" in a deeper drawer of consciousness.

I read until the clock imperceptibly tapped 4am and I fell asleep.

A lasting disgruntlement made the succeeding day drag on. I went to school early for a logic appointment that failed to materialize, attended a last class and a study session that were unremarkable, and returned home to two rejection letters: one for a school I had built a scaffolding of dreams around, the other for a conference I probably couldn't have afforded to attend.

There could be worse days, though. There are worse things than realizing that, after multiple tutoring sessions, someone is prepared for an exam, and I do not object to the conversation that went, "You're going to be a teacher? Now I can see that."

There are worse things than rain and gray skies, and there is something to be said for even the faint, numbing haze of tiredness that wraps around the end of a worn-out day.

"It's a fine rainy day," he said, leaning against the railing overlooking the garden.

While Helene had the feeling she was suddenly in prison behind the bars of rain, doomed to suffer endless hours of boredom, Antoin was starting his day with an appetite equal to the one he would have had under a brilliant blue sky.

"It's a fine rainy day."

She asked him how on earth a rainy day could be fine: he enumerated all the nuances of colors that the sky and trees and roofs would display when they went on their walk, and the savage might of the ocean, and the umbrella that would keep them close during their walk, and the joy they would feel rushing inside again for a hot cup of tea. . .

She listened to him. The happiness he felt seemed abstract to her. She did not feel it. However, an abstract happiness is always better than no happiness. She decided to believe him.

p. 37, "A Fine Rainy Day,"
The Most Beautiful Book in the World,

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt

From the chapbook

Excerpts from "Odette Toulemonde," in The Most Beautiful Book in the World: Eight Novellas, by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, translated from the French by Alison Anderson.

I bought this book last weekend because I remembered Schmitt as the author of Oscar and the Lady in Pink, which I read at least three times. I wasn't disappointed. Schmitt has a talent for coaxing surprise from well-worn plots and rounding out characters with an infectious happiness. He is, above all, an author of hope.

p. 152:
Odette had a talent: joy. In her deepest self, it was as if there were a non-stop jazz band playing lively tunes, pulsating melodies. No hardship seemed to get her down. When faced with a problem, she looked for the solution. Since humility and modesty were part of her personality, no matter what the circumstances she did not stop to think that she might deserve better and consequently she rarely felt frustrated.

p. 153:
She was well disposed toward all humankind, and was able to remain on good terms with people who considered themselves her exact opposite, because she did not judge them. Take her own hallway: she was friendly with an orange Flemish couple who were sunbed freaks and swingers; she fraternized with a brittle, peremptory town employee who knew everything about everything; she exchanged recipes with a young junkie who already had five children and was subject to fits of rage during which she would scratch the walls; and she bought meat and bread for a Monsieur Wilpute, an impotent, racist pensioner, on the pretext that "he may well spout a lot of nonsense," but he was still a human being.

Monday, March 08, 2010

"the maul of sense, the raised jawbone of poetry"

"No Things"
by Billy Collins
from Ballistics: poems

This love for the petty things,
part natural from the slow eye of childhood,
part a literary affectation,

this attention to the morning flower
and later in the day to a fly
strolling along the rim of a wineglass--

are we just avoiding the one true destiny,
when we do that? averting our eyes from
Philip Larkin who waits for us in an undertaker's coat?

The leafless branches against the sky
will not save anyone from the infinity of death,
nor will the sugar bowl or the sugar spoon on the table.

So why bother with the checkerboard lighthouse?
Why waste time on the sparrow,
or the wildflowers along the roadside

when we should all be alone in our rooms
throwing ourselves against the wall of life
and the opposite wall of death,

the door locked behind us
as we hurl ourselves at the question of meaning,
and the enigma of our origins?

What good is the firefly,
the droplet running along the green leaf,
or even the bar of soap spinning around the bathtub

when ultimately we are meant to be
banging away on the mystery
as hard as we can and to hell with the neighbors?

banging away on nothingness itself,
some with their foreheads,
others with the maul of sense, the raised jawbone of poetry.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

The definition of success

To appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to give one's self; to leave the world a little better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to have played and laughed with enthusiasm, and sung with exultation; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived... This is to have succeeded.

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson (via Mira)

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Alright already.

Two months is long enough, wouldn't you say?

She asked me this morning, "And how are you?"

And I said: "I am waiting for emails that are not forthcoming; my inbox is empty; and I am getting antsy.

"It's like waiting for Christmas. Except that I don't know what day Christmas will fall on, and I'm not even sure that there will be a Christmas after all."

Repeat, with emotion: I am not even sure.

All I know is that my possibilities are becoming exhausting, and I am ready for the waiting to be over so that I can execute Plan A or B, or move on to Plan C, if necessary. I am ready to know if I ought to buy a plane ticket for spring break and be ready to pack my bags in August, or if I will be settling here for another while.

In the meantime, I am telling myself that no news is good news and that the Christmas spirit never hurt anyone.



No, with conviction: Right.


(What it feels like to wait for an uncertain Christmas. In case you were wondering, I'm the one jumping. Photo Credit: C., the fiancee of my dear friend over at Nobody's Mind.)

Monday, March 01, 2010

"I Was a Teenage Illiterate"

At the age of 26, when I returned to New York after an inglorious stab at graduate work in medieval history on the frozen steppes of Chicago, I had a horrifying realization: I was illiterate. At least, I was as close to illiterate as a person with over 20 years of education could possibly be. In my stunted career as a scholar, I’d read promissory notes, papal bulls and guidelines for Inquisitorial interrogation. Dante, too. Boccaccio. . . . But after 1400? Nihil. I felt very, very stupid among my new sophisticated New York friends. I seemed very, very stupid, too. Actually, let’s face it, I was stupid, and it was deeply mortifying, as so many things were in those days. But I have since come to realize that my abject ignorance was really a gift: to be a literarily inclined illiterate at age 26 is one of the most glorious fates that can befall mortal girl.

(Kathleen Schine, emphasis mine)

I might add that to be a literarily inclined illiterate at any age is, indeed, a glorious fate for anyone.