Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Tennis balls and butterflies

Our conversations on these sunny summer afternoons go mostly like this:

How ya doin Miss Allison?

Alright Sam-I-Am. Howre you?

This as he wheels down the road to the library, the tennis courts, the plaza in front of the student center while I walk beside or behind him.

He begins, always, with a hook, Do you know what I did the other day when you were late? When I was waitin in the room?


I caught a fly and pulled his wings off.

I am horrified and tell him so. How could you?

He was just a fly and I didnt want him to get away. Beside Miss Allison he was smaller than me and a lot weaker.

Doesn't matter dude. That was unnecessary.

I dig into my stock of counterfactuals: How would you feel if. . .? Imagine if you were that fly. . .

He rolls his eyes.

Today we went to the park with a net of bright green tennis balls. I threw balls, barefoot in the grass; he caught them, hands agile. He fired balls backwards over his shoulder until one of them fell splashing into the fountain at his back.

Go get it Miss Allison.

Because he can't use his feet, I use mine. Over the graveled ledge of the fountain and into its basin, chlorinated water rushing up in suds through my toes. The ball is soaked and instead of throwing it back I cup my hands to scoop up the water. Great handfuls that I toss, round and shining, into the air where they burst over his head and scatter in heavy droplets across his pudgy eyes screwed tight with laughter, the bridge of his nose.

Do that again, he said.

Wheels grinding against the base of the fountain, as close as he can get. Gurgle of laughter and hands flapping. Fistfuls of fountain water pouring sky-high before leaping down to christen shining sunburnt face. Until he sees a monarch butterfly burst through the air to hover, wings whole and flapping, against the curtain of water.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Piecemeal summer

This is the beginning of the third week of summer break. In addition to reading, I have been working. Three days a week I tutor S. in math and reading. S. is ten and has spina bifida, a deep aversion to math, and an affectionate sense of humor; we get along marvelously and spend a part of every day arguing about whether or not he will do his math. My first day with him he told me he was too tired to do it. I told him I was tired too. "I've just finished four years of college," I said. "Four years?" he replied. "It took you four years to finish college? I don't know anyone who takes four years to finish college!" "Well, I can be slow," I said. "So you're going to have to show me how this math works." Two days later, after I outwitted him at a game of tag, he confessed that I was "actually pretty smart." And a week after that he proposed to me while we were walking to the library: "Miss Allison, will you marry me?" I told him I was a little concerned about our age difference.

My other job is one day a week. I am having one last go at the Writing Center before I leave. I work from 10-4. Last week I expected to have one, maybe two, sessions during that time; I was almost completely booked. Clearly our advertising is working.

I inquired into a job at one of our local wineries last week (because the wineries pay triple what I can earn tutoring and almost double my Writing Center wages.) But while the interview yielded a bottle of red wine (to be enjoyed this week in the company of a good friend under a sunset sky), it hasn't (so far) yielded a phone call.

Today I need to order a transcript to send to Toronto and sometime this week I have a TA application to fill out. I have been to the post office so frequently in the last six months that they recognize me now. I walk through the door bearing boxes, packages, and envelopes addressed to other countries and states and they wave me to the counter, "Our favorite customer," they say. It's not a bad thing to have the post office on your side.

So this is week three, and it feels like it's going fast. Please, someone hold back the clock until I finish reading all the books on my list.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Threat of contentment

The Likeness, Tana French, 165:
"You know what it is?" Abby said out of nowhere, a few hands later. . . .

She leaned sideways across me to pull the ashtray closer. Justin had put on Debussy, blending with the faint rush of rain on the grass outside. "Our entire society's based on discontent: people wanting more and more and more, being constantly dissatisfied with their homes, their bodies, their decor, their clothes, everything. Taking it for granted that that's the whole point of life, never to be satisfied. If you're perfectly happy with what you've got--specially if what you've got isn't even all that spectacular--then you're dangerous. You're breaking all the rules, you're undermining the sacred economy, you're challenging every assumption that society's built on. That's why Rafe's dad throws a mickey fit whenever Rafe says he's happy where he is. The way he sees it, we're all subversives.We're traitors."

"I think you've got something there," said Daniel. "Not jealousy, after all: fear. It's a fascinating state of affairs. Throughout history--even a hundred years ago, even fifty--it was discontent that was considered the threat to society, the defiance of natural law, the danger that had to be exterminated at all costs. Now it's contentment. . ."


I forgot to say this last month, but May marked The Autumn Rain's five year anniversary. It's been a good half-decade; I can't wait to see what happens next.

Thanks for coming along for the ride.

Finding others and oneself

After a while, the books start blending together, a stream of stories, puzzles, and theses. Frequently, their contents overlap. This week I've been reading Pascal Mercier's Nachtzug nach Lissabon (Night Train to Lisbon) and Tana French's The Likeness. The Mercier has been a project for almost a year now; it's good, but I haven't had the time or patience to really dig into a German language book until now. The French was a newcomer. Both of them are mysteries involving academics.

In Nachtzug nach Lissabon, Gregorius, a professor of Latin at a school for boys, and a long-time resident of the ivory tower, leaves his class mid-lecture one day and sets out for Portugal to find the mysterious, and possibly revolutionary, author of a book that has deeply touched him. His quest is epitomized in this passage (my [rough] translation follows):

Die Geschichten, die die anderen ueber einen erzaehlen, und die Geschichten, die man ueber sich selbst erzaehlt: welche kommen der Wahrheit naeher? Ist es so klar, dass es die eigenen sind? Ist einer fuer sich selbst eine Autoritaet? Doch das is nicht wirklich die Frage, die mich beschaeftigt. Die eigentliche Frage ist: Gibt es bei solchen Geschichten ueberhaupt einen Unterschied zwischen wahr und falsch? Bei Geschichten ueber das Aeussere schon. Aber wenn wir uns aufmachen, jemanden im Inneren zu verstehen? Ist das eine Reise, die irgendwann an ihr Ende kommt? Ist die Seele ein Ort von Tatsachen? Oder sind die vermeintlichen Tatsachen nur die truegerischen Schatten unserer Geschichten?

The stories that others tell about one, and the stories one tells about oneself: which come nearer the truth? Is it so clear that one's own are? Is one his own authority? But this isn't really the question that troubles me. The real question is: Is there, for such stories, even a difference between true and false? Of course there is for the external things. But when we set out to understand someone from the inside? Is that a trip that ever ends? Is the soul a place of facts? Or are the alleged "facts" only the deceptive shadows of our stories? (p. 168)
Tana French explores the same question in her novel, a psychological thriller set in contemporary Ireland. The plot is jump-started by the discovery of a dead girl who is the physical double of Detective Cassie Maddox--and who had been using an alias that Cassie abandoned four years earlier. In a breathtakingly bold attempt to discover the murderer, Cassie resumes her previous alias and moves in with the girl's housemates--four PhD students who are known for their close-knit friendship and their chilly resistance to outsiders.

Gregorius goes on a hunt for an author; Cassie impersonates her alias to discover the murdered girl's real identity. Along the way, both of them realize that what they're really looking for is themselves: Who are they? Why are they here? And how do they sort the fact of the matter from the personal narratives swirling around them?

I haven't finished the Mercier yet (really, the German takes me forever). I finished the French in three days. I highly recommend both of them: the French because its careful prose and complex plotting redeemed the pop thriller for me (or mostly redeemed it--her dialogue was sometimes hackneyed); and the Mercier because it's a philosophical mystery (you can probably find an English translation of it, but I can't vouch for the translator.)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

As the years passed, the dissertation became much more substantial than most of those submitted in the early years. In the Philosophy Department a peak was reached in 1966 when John Quinn submitted a thesis on St Bonaventure consisting of 1,443 pages bound in four stout volumes. Father Edward Synan, who was assigned the thankless task of appraising it, strongly recommended that the department set an upper limit on the length of theses. He proposed it should be 400 pages, inclusive of notes, and the department in plenary session agreed. But the idea had become widespread among the graduate students that a thesis, to be acceptable, had to be a monumental work. The consequence of this mistaken belief was that candidates spent ever longer on their dissertations, and many quietly gave up the attempt and faded away . . . Candidates forget that the dissertation is an exercise like all other academic exercises and should be treated accordingly. Instead, it comes to be thought of as something more, but exactly what is more is never very clear.
"Graduate Study in Philosophy,"
in Minerva's Aviery: Philosophy at Toronto
p. 303


The Pleasures (and pains) of the autodidact

From The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, p. 53:
I have read so many books. . .

And yet, like most autodidacts, I am never quite sure of what I have gained from them. There are days when I feel I have been able to grasp all there is to know in one single gaze, as if invisible branches suddenly spring out of nowhere, weaving together all the disparate strands of my reading--and then suddenly the meaning escapes, the essence evaporates, and no matter how often I reread the same lines, they seem to flee ever further with each subsequent reading, and I see myself as some mad old fool who thinks her stomach is full because she's been attentively reading the menu. Apparently this combination of ability and blindness is a symptom exclusive to the autodidact. Deprived of the steady guiding hand that any good education provides, the autodidact possesses nonetheless the gift of freedom and conciseness of thought, where official discourse would put up barriers and prohibit adventure.

Like any good student, I have been trained to appreciate the value of secondary scholarship, that "steady guiding hand" of a good education, but I like this description of the serendipities of the autodidact. In high school I refused to read any introductions to my English books until I had read at least half of the book myself. I wanted to encounter the book on my own, without any of the hermeneutic scaffolding that years and centuries of scholarship had built around it. And in general this was a much more rewarding experience: taste the book first, see what I make of it, and then see what the rest of the world thinks. If I allowed myself to turn to other people's interpretations before I'd tried enough of the book, I often let a single interpretation do the work of decoding the text for me, and the guiding hand became a crutch.

The danger, of course, in the autodidact's pursuit is that it's easy to become very, very lost. Ability and blindness commingle. We mistake personal hermeneutics for elegant, more sophisticated interpretations. But what are a few quixotic interpretations among friends? The pleasures undoubtedly outweigh the pains.

Monday, June 21, 2010


My reading this summer is delight-directed, guided occasionally by online reviews, the recommendations of friends, and the impulse to buy or borrow (and then actually read) what I find on the shelves of libraries and bookstores. The only rule is that there are no rules, although I can usually uncover reasons for why I've chosen something.
  • Solar (Ian McEwan)
I borrowed Solar because I am an Ian McEwan fan and this is his latest book. Like his other books, Solar is written in McEwan's impeccable style and keeps up a hilarious running commentary on the awkwardness of being human, but the protagonist (much to my dismay) is entirely unlovable. Michael Beard--a Nobel Prize-winner, erstwhile physicist, and incurable philanderer--brought his disasters upon himself; a little resolve, a lot of hard work, and some decent human honesty, and he could have extracted himself from the difficulties that ultimately sink him. When I first finished the book, I was annoyed with McEwan for subjecting me to so many pages of pathetic wallowing, but I am beginning to wonder, now that I am several days away from it, if perhaps this was the point (and if perhaps the point was better-made than I at first gave McEwan credit for.)
  • Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Martha Nussbaum)
Nussbaum's title describes her main thesis: democracy, she argues, needs the humanities. The training in empathy and critical thinking that literature and philosophy can provide is exactly what the model citizen needs. It's too early to tell about this book, but I do like Nussbaum's style; concise, pithy sentences are the name of the summer reading game. I'm also hopeful because I need to stock up my reasons to indulge in the humanities. I'm usually pretty bad at coming up with compelling arguments in favor of them, despite the fact that I'm ready to devote the rest of my life to furthering the project.
  • The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Muriel Barbery, trans. Alison Anderson)
I was worried when I saw this was translated by Anderson. She translated something else I read earlier this year, and I thought it was poorly done. I worried too much; this translation is fine. The writing is not nearly as astute as McEwan's, but it's possible to empathize with the characters, who are genuinely decent and affectionate. One of the main characters gives phenomenology a hard rap; however, I like her and her autodidacticism, so all is forgiven.
  • A Girl of the Limberlost (Gene Stratton Porter)
I loved this movie as a child, and I thought I would try this as a read-aloud with my youngest sister this summer. The girl of the Limberlost lives on the edge of a swamp in Indiana and collects moths, butterflies, and other sundry insects. She also wants very badly to go to high school (which is where the story begins). So far, it's a keeper, although we've determined that the characters have a rather silly tendency to break into tears whenever anything remotely exciting/emotional occurs, but this is probably because the books was written in 1909, so we make allowances.
  • The Dragon in the Ghetto Caper (E.L. Konigsburg)
Konigsburg is one of my favorite children's book authors. I found a set of her books at a used bookstore last week and bought all of them, save one, which had a cover that didn't match the others. I read the Dragon in the car on the way home and enjoyed the snappy dialogue and Konigsburg's descriptions of the unusual friendship that develops between the protagonist (Andy, a young boy who can't draw anything but dragons and wants to be a detective) and his neighbor (Edie, a newly-wed whose husband is never home).
  • Murder at Midnight (Avi)
Another read-aloud, this one with a little boy I'm tutoring this summer. Avi's books are usually action-packed, and I'm hoping it will keep S.'s attention. So far, the main characters, a magician and his apprentice, have been delivered an ultimatum: find out who's been distributing mass copies of pamphlets throughout the city, or suffer the punishment for it themselves. The magician also admits that he's not really a magician, but prefers "philosophy, logic, and thus reason" to trickery. Avi gets bonus points for that!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Blessings on your head

Lincoln City, December 2009

To celebrate we went that evening to the beach. After we walked parallel lengths along it, gathering driftwood for a fire which we built beneath a sandy bluff; after the fire was stout enough to withstand the breezes whipping along the shore; after we impaled steaks over the flames and ate them, juices running down our fingers and chins; after we had begun to sing--progressing to praise choruses from Wee Sing--, someone staggered toward us through the shadows.

"Don't stop," he said, taking the glowing cigarette from his mouth.

So we didn't. We sang while he stood, hunched and swaying, above our fire, "amens" and "praise the lords" occasionally erupting from his mouth with the ashes of his cigarette.

"You all are real good," he told us. "Real tight, a real white band. Do another one."

This time he clapped while we sang.

Between songs we asked him where he was from and where he went to church (from Dallas, Texas, he said, and to a Baptist church on the corner of two streets, whose names we didn't recognize, in Portland.)

He bent nearer the fire and stretched out his hands, threw back his head in time to the bursts of our melody. "Hallelujah!" he said at last. He threw the remnants of the cigarette on the sand and stood up. "I have to go back, but you all know: the Lord is gonna bless you all. Yes, indeed. He's gonna bless you for the rest of your days."

We thanked him.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Here we are.

N.B. I am not wearing a cap. This is because after removing it post-ceremony I promptly lost the tassle. I think that mortar boards sans tassels look even more unattractive than their decorated counterparts.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

This week I took my last final (my final final!), bought a plane ticket to Toronto, wandered through Powell's City of Books (which is really the only way to celebrate being done), and wore a bright red robe on hot, sunny day to receive my degree. Tonight I am going to have a bonfire and watch the sun set over the Pacific.

Let summer begin.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Dear Finals Week,

This is just a reminder that I am over you. Also, the word bank is empty. Please tell the paper and exam to go away.

That's all.


Tuesday, June 08, 2010


What I appreciate most about my church are its baptisms. The participants wear white robes and sit in the front pew of the church; they range in age from 5-95. The rest of us make time out of our evenings to join them. We sing hymns, listen to a brief message, and then we watch as the candidates file out the side door of the church and re-emerge in the window of the baptismal font. One at a time, they stand with the pastor, waist-deep in the water, and one at a time, we make our way to the microphones on either side of the church to talk to them. We are parents, grandparents, siblings, teachers, and friends; we are sharing our life verses, thoughts that have been (and are) important to us as followers of Christ, and the words we wish to bless them with.

Last night I watched two of my younger sisters step into the water, watched their faces glow while their mentors encouraged them to fight the good fight, and walk graciously and humbly with God.

I don't remember my baptism being like this. I wanted to be baptized, I took some classes, and then I did it. I remember the swift immersion and the wet hair. I wish that I remembered the people coming forward to encourage and bless me.

Which is not to say that I regret my own baptism, but merely to say that my church now is doing something right. Baptism is a symbol, of course, but it's also an expression of community: publicly, we profess our faith, and in my church, publicly, we are affirmed. What is important to us is also important to our friends and family. And that, I think, is (at least) part of why the symbol is meaningful.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

We can't remember the last time we went to a concert this good. We can't remember the last time we heard a voice this good. Smith Fine Arts went out with a bang this year.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Today is my last day of class. After that, I have approximately 3,000 words to write and a final exam to take (next Thursday). This is not a heavy workload (I am delighted by the way my infinite to-day list has been pared down to size.) However, I regret to report that I have no more words left. I am not speechless in any traditional sense; it's just that the wordbank is empty. I haven't a single word more to weave into an essay on David Lewis or a paper about nondualism. (Perhaps I should stop using up my words here and transfer them to the blank Word documents that are due next week.)

I stayed up late last night looking at pictures of Toronto. I think I'm going to like it there, but I am reserving my final word on the matter until next July or August.

So, today is my last day of class. In Greek we will be translating the last bit of a funeral oration; in philosophy we will be reading some Brandom and doing a little review--I will be presenting the minutes from last time. After that I will continue writing my paper on Lewis, and I will listen to this album by The Format. My new favorite.

Most of all, today I am going to resist sentimentality. It's not over yet.