Thursday, December 30, 2010

Prep—Welcome Back to Adolescence

I have spent this week cavorting with old high school friends, and to recover from a rush of memories and too many late nights, I spent four hours today trying to chronicle the infinitesimal changes I saw in my friends, but mostly how these perceptions really reflected how much or how little I have changed since high school. It was a trying task, I deleted, erased, cut and pasted and what have you until I finally flung away the computer in disgust and went to the library.

On whim I picked up Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, a book that had sudden exploded across the benches and hallways of my high school when I was a junior. The white cover, bisected by a pink ribbon belt, made me think chick-lit and I decided then and there never to read Prep. Not because I hate chick-lit, I love it, but because if I was going to be caught reading a rom-com, it would be rom-com no one had heard of, so I might be able to pretend it was something heftier.

Prep is something heftier, and better, absolutely spell-binding despite its heft. In an author interview Curtis Sittenfeld discusses the importance of melding plot and Literature, capital L intended. Prep is proof that she practices what she preaches. I began Prep over dinner and did not move until I finished hours later.

Prep is the story of Lee Fiorna, who leaves her home in South Bend, Indiana to attend a ritzy East Coast Boarding school. Prep chronicles Lee’s four years at boarding school, alienation, friendships, a tangled romance. But this is more than a boarding school story, it’s a finely wrought bildungsroman that details the bruises of adolescence with sharp insight that is a little too painful to call humor.

Lee is wickedly observant and as insightful as she is awkward. She is not always likeable, but she’s relatable, a girl with a genius for observation who is paradoxically paralyzed by what she observes.   

“I often messed up with people, it was true, but it rarely happened because I was reading them wrong; it was because I got nervous, or because I could see too clearly I was not what they wanted. And in fact, it was in falling short that I truly excelled. I might fail to be what the other person sought, but as a failure I’d accommodate them completely—I could be obsequious or truculent, sad or earnest or utterly silent.”

A sober portrait of reality
Sittenfeld has some lovely technical touches—fourteen year old Lee’s essays read like essays by an average fourteen year old (not a feat many writers can pull off), dialect and realistic dialog—but the best part is how effortlessly she keeps the reader turning the page. Actually, Sittenfeld turns the page for you, she keeps you wide awake through breakfasts in the cafeteria, spell bound English class, and salivating for more when the lights go out.

Yet, it is midnight now, and I have a headache. I have spent the past four hours growing up, going from fourteen to eighteen as a painfully self-conscious and deeply introspective girl. If I have any complaint, it is this, if adolescence was painful, if all too often I did not know what to do or say, if I often wished to be someone else, there was also a bright hilarity about adolescence, moments of stupid joy: running up and down the hallways whooping, coaxing teachers to emerge from the stiff masks of their professionalism, laughing with my friends in the cafeteria until our stomachs hurt and we wheezed.

If we were depressed, we were also dreamers, if we behaved impossibly we also allowed ourselves to believe in the impossible.

Sittenfeld captures the exquisite pain of growing up, the complicated humor, but none of the joy.

Photo Credit:
Real! Owl by the incomparable S. Dorman

Friday, December 24, 2010

Beneath the Wheel

In high school I sold my soul to academia. This was not a conscious decision, if I'd known my soul was involved, I probably wouldn't have agreed.  I just thought I was being a good student. In fact, I was obnoxiously proud of being a good student. I don’t mean that I was brilliant, I mean that I was stupidly good, the kind of person who never got a detention and would rather be trampled by rampaging elephants than turn in a homework assignment late. In other words, stupefyingly boring.

I went to a college preparatory school where the teachers kept the piles of homework coming, the students saw themselves as walking college applications, and the person who got the least amount of sleep got bragging rights. (We were scintillating conversationalists.) If you wandered around the hallways during free periods you could see students fast asleep on benches.
Selling your soul is exhausting

By the time we crossed the stage during graduation we were hollow-eyed zombies,  run down by years of sleepless semesters, the stress of trying to stay on top of the work, of constantly feeling like we should be doing more, doing better.

But this, we were convinced, was worth it, because we were getting an excellent education, an education that would enable us to live successful lives.

Four years later, I don’t know. I’m about as self-actualized as a peanut (fine, self-actualization was never promised to us in the package), and I don’t even know what success is let alone how to acquire it. I still have nightmares about tests I’ve forgotten to take. Worse, I don’t remember the math and science I studied, just the misery of waking up at 4:00 a.m. to complete problem sets, the bitterness of coffee I chugged to stay awake, the rising panic as the minutes ticked by and my homework was still not finished.

Enter Hesse’s Beneath the Wheel, the story of Hans Giebernath a gifted young boy growing up in a small Black Forrest town. His talents are recognized early on and they are cultivated by the entire community, which is proud, if a little wary, of their resident genius. Under the watchful eyes of his community, Hans studies day and night. Occasionally he gets wistful about fishing or raising rabbits but he mostly studies, and he studies, and is admitted into an elite academy where he….wait for it…studies some more. The rabbits become a distant dream. Hans becomes progressively more miserable. True scholarship becomes a euphemism for soul death.

(It really killed me that Hesse wouldn't let Hans have his rabbits. I feel like Hans could have kept a hutch in his room and petted them while he studied Greek. No one would have minded. It wouldn't have lessened the horror of Hans's education...okay, fine it would have.)

I’m nursing a hardcore Hesse addiction, partly because of his prose which is so limpid, reading it is like eating white beams of light: 

It was remarkable how everything had changed, how beautiful and exciting it had become. The starlings which had fattened up on the apple-pulp shot noisily through a sky that had never looked as high and beautiful, as blue and yearning. Never had the river looked like such a pure, blue-green mirror, nor had it held such a blindingly white roaring weir. All this seemed a decorative newly painted picture behind clear new glass.

Mostly, I love Hermann Hesse because his books ask troubling questions, the sort of questions that will occasionally occur to you and then must be buried under a pile of mundane routines if you expected to carry on the business of daily living with any success. Hesse isn’t afraid to root through the pile and dig them all up: Why live? Why follow society’s rules? And in, Beneath the Wheel, what’s the value of the educational system?

The disappointment of reading Hesse is while he offers insight on how to begin answering the questions he raises, he rarely ponies up a satisfactory answer.

Very well, the educational system where students grind away at books without resting is bunk, much of what academia has to offer is out of touch with reality, but what should replace it? Hesse shuffles his feet and mumbles something about the satisfaction of working with your hands, but that isn’t quite a satisfactory answer. Not everyone is good with their hands, some people really do yearn for thick books--but do thick books have a place in society? Much of education is out of touch with providing real and tangible job skills. Should education be changed to a more vocational system? Tell us what you want Hesse, just tell us what you want!

No go. Hesse stares at the ceiling, whistles, and winds up his book by taking the easy way out.

 But because this is Hesse and I am biased, I’m going to theorize that possibly Hesse is saying there is no one good answer, that we must arrive at our own conclusions, and that his gift to us—he gets us thinking and keeps us thinking long after we've finished his books.


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Great Lions Have Loved to Piss

Home for the holidays and reading like books are Bacardi and I’m out to trash myself into a starry oblivion for Christmas. I’ve got three books going in parallel, I’ll chug one down for hours, come up for air sputtering and then switch to another book for a different flavor, a taste of a different world, one must have variety you understand?  Still, even two books is unsatisfactory, for a shot of inspiration, I must have a third book, and I am reading for balance, for love, for madness, and then, that too becomes too much, and I am sprawled on the floor looking hazily at the ceiling as the faint echoes of words drift through my head—a break before I begin the cycle again.

 1. Power by Jeffrey Pfeffer

Despite the good amount of time I spend plotting to escape cube-land, there’s a little owlet in me who wears a pant-suit, totes a leather briefcase and dreams of boardroom meetings.

Former consultant and current Stanford MBA professor, Jeffrey Pfeffer, knows the boardrooms backwards and forwards. Power—an examination of power within organizations, what it is, who has it, and how to get it—is the fruit of decades of observation within corporations and MBA classrooms.

Apparently, knowing the boardroom backwards and forwards turns you into Machiavelli. The biggest mistake you can make, Pfeffer says, is to assume the world is fair. It’s not.

But that’s okay, because Pfeffer is here to make the world fair. Intelligence, he says, doesn’t do much except give you an ego. With a bit of practice and a lot of hard work, anyone can acquire power.

And that’s where Pfeffer has me hook line and sinker despite his Machiavellian tendencies. Pfeffer brings it all back to the basics. Do good work. Be nice to people. Stick up for yourself. Be confident. Ultimately, how you make people feel is just as important as performing well.  

Reading Power sets off an adrenaline rush like no other. I started Power the first night I got home and I wanted to jump back on a plane so I could get back to work and test out a dozen game plans for stepping it up at work. That, ladies and gentleman, is inspirational at its best.

Pfeffer infuses his book with an addictive fast pace can-do energy that promises to make any dream attainable. Yet, post-reading Power I’m drained. Pfeffer insists the world is a competitive alpha male environment with clear-cut haves and have-nots and anyone who believes otherwise is fooling themselves. There isn’t room for other perspectives, I am a little nervous because while there is a business owlet in me, there are half a dozen other owlets, wanna be poet owlets, madcap owlets, sleepy owlets who want nothing more than to sit in a warm room watching snowflakes drift in the wind.

Rot! Pfeffer would say. It doesn’t matter whether if you like someone or if you can identify with them, what matters if what you can learn from them.

I suggest reading his book in the same spirit.

2. Death in Venice and Other Stories by Thomas Mann

The first time I heard of Thomas Mann. I assumed he was a philosopher in the style of Nietzsche. I had no idea who Nietzsche was, so I assumed both of them were pompous old men who sat in bars eating fat sausages and puffing on round cigars. I decided I was best off avoiding both of them.

Mann, it turns out is German-Brazilian, prone to crushing on pretty young boys. The joy of reading Mann is that he knows the most wonderful people. In his head, I mean, I don’t know if he knew them in real life. His stories are filled with strange and twisted men and women (well, okay, mostly strange and twisted men) who are beautiful in their twistedness. There is Tobias Mindernickel, sad and haggard, who is chased by children and sups on sorrow, Detlev Spinnell who  is a perfect humbug of a writer, and yet falls to his knees when he hears passion raging on a piano, and awkward and tortured Tonio Kroger who writes because he loves and loves and loves yet again.

Where did Mann meet these people? How did he come up with them? Mann would smile secretly and say this is the privilege of true artists. While Pfeffer says the business world is open to anyone who is willing to put in the time and effort, it is not so with Mann and art. Mann believes all artists are born with sacred mark on their forehead which sets them apart from the rest of the world for life. This is Mann’s artist, and at some level, Mann’s description of himself:

He worked, not like someone working in order to live, but like someone who, because he places no value on himself as a living person, wants only to work, someone who seeks recognition solely as a creative artist and otherwise goes around grey and anonymous, akin to an actor without make-up, who is nothing so long as he has nothing to act out. He worked in silence, isolated, invisible and contemptuous of those insignificant rivals for whom talent is a social ornament, who, whether rich or poor, whether they went about wild and disheveled or in monogrammed-tie luxury, were basically concerned with living happy, loveable, bohemian lives, not seeing that good work only arises under the strain of a miserable life, that he who lives cannot work, and that only after having undergone death can one completely become a creator.
—Tonio Kroger

On most days I suspect I am a charlatan, this wanting to write business is a light fancy that is doomed to plague me every now and then like a case of arthritis that flares up every now and then, but this passage officially confirmed my charlatan status.  

I am fat with happiness, at loath to trade in the easiness of my life for ‘undergoing death to become a creator.’ In fact, I found that whole passage so traumatizing, after copying it out, I stopped writing and played Spider Solitaire for a good half hour.

Traumatizing, I say, but with great envy. Perhaps if I chucked my cellphone out the window, retired to an isolated cave in Northern Alaska equipped with nothing more than a pen and paper…?

No. It will not happen. Once I finish writing I will call a friend, make plans for tomorrow, and I will be very very happy. I will not write, but then, very seldomly am I moved to write.

Perhaps it is this guilt that makes me want to say rather meanly, Mann might have been an even greater artist if he wasn’t so hung up on his own artistry.

3. The Gift: Poems by Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky

If Pfeffer is the democratic MBA professor who is hounding you to do a better job, and Mann is the elitist artist who frowns at you for being too bourgeois to appreciate art (unwise Mann! Do not intimidate your audience!) Hafiz is God’s messenger.

Reading Hafiz is like having God reaching out of the sky to hold your hand and smile down at you, saying, it’s alright, darling, I love you.

I write this as a committed atheist who has no conception of God and a severe dislike of religious sentimentalism. The man was a Persian, a Sufi mystic who died in 1390. He should be completely inaccessible.

His poems dance on the page.   

Pay attention. This is Hafiz:

Is the
Root of all these
One thing: love.
But a love so deep and sweet
It needed to express itself
With scents, sounds, colors
That never before

Hafiz is funny. Did you know that? You can write love songs to God, they can strike a chord with atheists, and you can do this while being hilarious. That’s what it means to love other people, to see them as a reflection of God.

A royal temple has been built
In a scared forest

On the exact spot
Where for thousands of years
Great lions have loved to piss

God does not like this:

His cherished beasts
No longer have the ability to leave
Their holy scent in the jungle
Near a favorite resting spot of God’s
Left toe.

Daniel Ladinsky wept as he translated Hafiz, and it shows, each line of poetry is infused with intimacy and tenderness. Sometimes Ladinsky gets carried away and adds a few touches of modernity that are jarring:

Let’s turn loose our golden falcons
So that they can meet in the sky
Where our spirits belong—
Necking like two
Hot kids.

Falcons to necking? But Ladinsky must be forgiven because he brought Hafiz out of the grave and across the ocean to us.

Read Hafiz, read him when people have been shouting at you, read him when you have been throwing yourself against the bitter brick walls of expectations and are bruised and battered beyond repair, read him when you want to laugh, when you want to feel that all is right in the world, because all is right in the world, Hafiz will make it so.

Poor Thomas Mann. Poor Jeffrey Pfeffer. They know nothing of joy.

Entrepreneur? Artist? Whirling Dervish? Bum? Bum.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Crude and Rude Rules for Reading Poetry

I wear the same four shirts to work. This is because I cannot be trusted to dress myself. I don’t own orange and purple because I would try to match them. In college my room mates had to forcibly prevent me from walking out in sweats and a trench coat. I still don’t see what the problem was, but I’m assuming there was one because they sat on me. Fashion is an art I will never understand.

I feel the exact same way about poetry. Give me a piece of prose and I’ll tell you exactly how I feel about it, my reasons for emoting, what worked, what didn’t, what kind of mood the author was in when they wrote it and whether they were loved as a child. Kafka wasn’t. Nabokov was. Maybe a little too well. (I’m sorry. That was crass.) I'll be making most of it up, but at least there's something to make up.

But poetry? Unless a poem is so bad it’s good—say, rhymes baleen with spleen—it’s above my head. If someone tells me a poem is good, I nod. If someone tells me a poem’s bad I nod. If one person tells me the poem is good and one person tells me it’s bad, I flip a coin.

Not for the faint of heart

I hate that. I really hate getting owned, but it’s one thing to get owned by your wardrobe. It’s another thing to get owned by poetry.

So I decided to hack the system.

New rule: All poetry is shit unless it falls into one of these three categories.

1) Gorgeous

What makes a poem gorgeous? I dunno. What makes a person gorgeous? Cheekbones? Jawline? Graceful hands? It’s like that with poetry too. Sometimes gorgeous means badass imagery. Sometimes it means a nameless charm that compels you to read line after line. It’s a highly subjective quality, it changes from person to person, mood to mood, but you know it when you see it. And sometimes you change your mind. That’s allowed too.

This is gorgeous:

I wrote the first faint line,
faint, without substance, pure
pure wisdom
of someone who knows nothing,
and suddenly I saw
the heavens
and open,
palpitating plantations,
shadow perforated,
with arrows, fire and flowers,
the winding night, the universe.

-Poetry, Pablo Neruda

This is not:

I slouch in bed
Beyond the streaked trees of my window,
All groves are bare.
Locusts and poplars change to unmarried women.
Sorting slate from anthracite
Between railroad ties:
The yellow bearded winter of the depression
Is still alive somewhere, an old man
Counting his collection of bottle caps
In a tarpaper shack under the cold trees
Of my grave.

-Two Hangovers, James Wright

But, Owl, you’re comparing a description of the heavens to a description of well, lying in bed being depressed. Yes. But Neruda also does depressed, and it’s still gorgeous.

I don't want to go on being a root in the dark,
insecure, stretched out, shivering with sleep,
going on down, into the moist guts of the earth,
taking in and thinking, eating every day.

-Walking Around, Pablo Neruda

Two Hangovers falls into the category of poems that make me angry, poems that are clever and sleek in their poeminess, and I read them and I do not understand what I am supposed to get out of them. Under the new rules this is a shit poem. Sorry Wright.

2) Catchy

Catchy like one of those top hits played on the radio 24/7. There are fancy words about meter and rhythm to describe this, but I’m going to avoid them. My friends used to drum out meter on my head whenever I had to write a sonnet for class. I have done my very best to forget everything I know about meter and rhyme.

Catchy means you read the poem and the words spin through your head over and over again. Dylan Thomas’s "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" is catchy. Sylvia Plath’s  “Mad Girl’s Love Song” is catchy. Villanelles generally are.

This is catchy. Read this out loud. No seriously.

Hear the sledges with the bells -
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells -
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

-The Bells, Edgar Allan Poe

I have a slight problem with tintinnabulation (what does that even mean?) but it’s pure magic the way you can hear the clanking and clashing of giant bells tolling in your voice as you read.

3) Moving

There are poems that are like gigantic silver airplanes that catapult you into the sky. And then there are poems that are quieter, like catching the eye of a stranger at a party and chuckling together over the rim of your glass. I like wheeling across the sky. I also like chuckling. What matters here, is that the poem forges a connection. Whether it’s comic, or tragic, or a little of both, you read it, and something clicks. Ah. Yes. That. I know that.

This is not moving (or gorgeous, or catchy):

'Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land,
Taught my beknighted soul to understand
That there's a God, that there's a Savior too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
"Their color is a diabolic dye."
Remember Christians; Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.

-On Being Brought from Africa to America, Phillis Wheatley

I—don’t get me started. I just want to slap her. I should make allowances. She was kidnapped as a child and had a hard life.

This is the chuckle:
At dawn I rose to escort the Doctors of Art;
In the eastern quarter the sky was still grey.
I said to myself, “you have started far too soon,”
But horses and coaches already thronged the road.
High and low the riders’ torches bobbed;
Muffled or loud, the watchman’s drum beat.
Riders, when I see you prick
To your early levee, pity fills my heart.
When the sun rises and the hot dust flies
And the creatures of earth resume their great strife,
You, with your striving, what shall you each seek?
Profit and fame, for that is all your care.
But I, you courtiers, rise from my bed at noon
And live idly in the city of Ch’ang-an.
Spring is deep and my term of office spent;
Day by day my thoughts go back to the hills.

-Escorting Candidates to the Examination Hall, Bai Juyi (translated by Arthur Waley)

This isn’t overly gorgeous, there are moments of awkwardness like Prick/ to your early levee? That sounds obscene. I blame the translator. But, I laughed when I read it two years ago, and though Bai Juyi died in 846 AD, he’s on my brunch partner wish list.

And this, this, is like flying:

All this time
The sun never says to the earth,

'You owe

What happens
With a love like that,
It lights the

-The Sun Never Says, Hafiz (translated by Daniel Ladinsky)

It is these poems, the moving ones—even if they are as gorgeous as pond scum, or have lines that clang, or even if there is a lot of deadwood and the only moving part is the last line—it is these poems I scrawl onto scraps of paper to keep forever.

Edit: Perhaps I am being unfair, but what makes me angry about poems like Wright and Wheatley's, or well, to be very biased, poems I don't like, is that they leave you going, erm, well, that was clever, but what does it mean? Reading good poetry is an almost religious experience. You don't have to be well educated or smart or poetical by nature to be moved by a good poem. The poem will do all the work. If it doesn't, something's wrong. But clever poetry will merely make you go, erm. I am sick of the tyranny of bad poetry, the way it drowns out good poetry and chases away would-be poetry readers when poetry really is the language of one soul shouting hello to another.

Photo Credit:
Rich Ercolani 

Note: All of Owl's photos are of rabbits because
a) Her camera is broken so she's relying on a stock
b) Her beanie baby, erm, avatar is in a different state

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Shop Class As Soul Craft

When I was small I wanted to be a carpenter. I was going to conquer the world by turning wood and power tools into furniture. I would be like God except with a chain saw. 

Sadly my parents refused to let an eight year old anywhere near the chain saw. Instead my dad brought back bars of hotel soaps from his business trips and I spent hours carving them into birds with a butter knife. Well. They looked like birds to me. Most people thought the looked like pre-birds. In other words, eggs.

Anyway, my desire to be a carpenter died a quick death in middle school shop class, when I discovered that yes, you actually have to measure pieces of wood before you cut them, yes, using power lathes meant for right handed people when you’re left handed means you will hurt yourself, and yes inhaling the deep rich scent of wood shavings when you have asthma will land you in the nurses’ office.

 …My shop teacher was a dear sweet man and he was so happy when I stopped taking shop class.

Still, woodwork has never quite lost its magic. The idea that you can take a tree and turn it into a chair continues to astound me.

tree eating chair
I am a beautiful little tree.I eat beautiful little trees for breakfast.
Okay, when you put it this way, it doesn’t seem environmentally kosher, but still magical.

So when I read the blurb on the back of Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soul Craft,  I was sold.

“Those of us who sit in an office feel a lack of connection to the material world and find it difficult to say exactly what we do all day. For those who felt hustled off to college, then to the cubicle, Shop Class as Soulcraft seeks to restore the honor of the manual trades as a life worth choosing.”

Technically I modernize financial systems. I go to meetings about these systems. I draw diagrams about these systems. I write papers on them. During moments of pure madness I compose songs about these systems.

I can’t picture them. I’m not supposed to. They're invisible. Actually, it's a little disheartening when you realize you spent your day writing reports about invisible systems. You start wondering if you’re invisible, kind of like a unicorn. You hear about unicorns all the time but since no one has ever seen one so common sense insists they don’t exist. Actually, I hear more about unicorns than the systems I work on. Does that mean unicorns are more real than my job?

Matthew Crawford can sympathize. He got his Ph.D. in political philosophy and went on to work on a think-tank where people seriously specialize in unicorns. Then he decided he was oh-so-done with unicorns so he quit his job and opened up a motorcycle repair shop.

Unicorns are not motorcycles

I was all set to do some serious idol worship. Then I made the mistake of actually reading the book.

Unfortunately, Matthew Crawford, Ph.D., former think-tank braniac, and current motorcycle repairman, writes like, like….oh hell, you just have to read it for yourself. Here’s a passage:

“The factory service manuals tell you to be systematic in eliminating variables, but they never take into account the risks of working on old machines. So you have to develop your own decision tree for the particular circumstances. The problem is that each node of the new tree, your own unquantifiable risk aversion introduces ambiguity. There comes a point where you have to step back and get a larger gestalt.”

Did he accidentally eat all his Ph.D. textbooks and vomit them on the page? Is he trying to convince the reader he is Smartz For Realz? Maybe he bought a new dictionary and he’s trying to get his money’s worth?

Forget soul craft, where is writing craft? No wonder he hates the abstract, when you habitually salt your conversation with words like “gestalt” everything is an abstraction. If Crawford was talking about Gestalt theory or psychology, or even philosophy, I could forgive him. But he’s talking about fixing motorcycles.

You know what another phrase for gestalt is? The bigger picture. If you’re feeling fancy you can even use holistic. Of questionable taste but permissible. But. Don’t. Ever. Ever. Fucking. Use. Gestalt. Mark Twain will come out of the grave and smite you.

Oh my God. Can you imagine eating breakfast with the man? ‘Darling, after examining my decision node I’ve decided pancakes will optimize the number of utils derived from ingesting carbohydrates.’

Words should never obscure concepts, they should clarify them. I mean, yes, it’s pretty sweet to think up an idea, but if you can't communicate your idea clearly, the idea is of no use to anyone. You might as well go back to picking your stomach lint instead of dreaming up ideas. Shop Class as Soulcraft is about how all the abstract concepts we learn in college do not outfit us for the real business of living, yet it is written in such absurdly abstract collegiate language Crawford utterly fails to get the message across.

Perhaps Crawford is trying to be ironic.

Photo Credits:
Unicorn, Rich Ercolani

Saturday, December 4, 2010

There Is Another Sky

Whenever my boss calls me into his office to hand out an assignment, I get a pop-culture quiz. Thanks to the fact that I’ve never lived in a house with a TV, I fail all of them. He got a little twitchy around the mouth when I asked him if the Rose Bowl smelled nice, and when I mixed up Star Trek and Star Wars he almost cried.

Assignments have now been supplemented with lectures on pop-culture.

Since I suspect Boss is secretly a ninja assassin, I figure the quizzes are actually thinly disguised lessons on how to level up as a ninja, so I pay attention. Sometimes it’s pretty hard to figure out what the message is. Okay, to be honest, I haven’t figured any of them out which is why I'm not a ninja. Yet.

Anyway, this week's lecture was on why watching football was Good, Right, and Moral. To supplement his argument, Boss cited Jean Paul Sartre, and the Newtonian principles of physics.

(Does that happen when you hit forty? You wake up one day and suddenly physics is no longer a traumatizing memory, but something that you can lob at unsuspecting victims? Damn. I can’t wait for forty.)

Boss: Look, all I’m saying is become conversational. You need to be able to talk to people.
Owl: Um, I can talk about books.
Boss: Child, this is America. We’re all too fat, dumb, and happy to read.
Owl: Oh.
Boss: Now go watch the NFL.
Owl: National Forensics League…?

I decided to prove Boss wrong. I can hold a meaningful conversation without resorting to football foolery. (For God's sake, footballers don't even use a proper ball. Maybe footballs start out as proper balls but then they get squashed during the course of the game?) The key was practice. I’d start off with my coworker and work my way up to speaking during meetings, which surely would morph into becoming a social butterfly and hosting balls, before I hit my stride as a talk show host a la Opera or Oprah or whatever her name is. Yes. Practice was going to take me places.

Here’s how it went down in my head.

Owl: Okay we’re going to have an awesome conversation so I don’t have to learn footballese. What do you want to talk about?
Coworker: There is another sky.

[In college, my all time favorite professor waltzed into class one day and said, “Can you imagine running into a stranger who said to you—‘There is another sky!’" Honestly, I couldn’t. But ever since I’ve been hoping.]

Actually, as I practiced I realized the problem with a line like “There is another sky” is you can't actually top Emily Dickinson.

But that’s okay. I decided music would suddenly pour out of this other sky so I wouldn't have to reply and we would all burst into Handel’s Messiah and prance through the hallways until the entire office was belting out Hallelujahs.

In books this is called a deus ex machina. In real life it’s called a miracle.

Yeah. I was all set to do this conversation thing.

Monday morning I stopped by my coworker’s cube and cleared my throat meaningfully. I’d done my homework. I’d practiced. This was going to be awesome.


Owl: How was your weekend?
Coworker: Good. Yours?
Owl: Good.

[Awkward silence.]

Owl: It’s your turn to say something.
Coworker: …
Owl: *helpfully* For instance, you could say—There’s another sky!
Coworker: What?

[Owl waits. Long silence. Apparently coworker is not going to say there is another sky.]

Owl: If you said "There's another sky," we could sing Handel's Messiah.
Coworker: Have you been hitting the happy juice?
Owl: You know, I like imaginary you much better.
Coworker: …Imaginary me?
Owl: The version in my head that I practiced this conversation with. Imaginary you quoted Emily Dickinson and could belt out Handel's Messiah like no one's business.It was a good time.
Coworker: If you weren’t blocking the entrance to my cube I’d be backing away slowly…

At that point there was nothing else to do but claim an urgent meeting and sulk in my cube.

And so, I have decided to give up on conversation and figure out another way to earn my ninja laurels. In the meanwhile I plan to devote myself to blogging. Here at least I can say—

There is another sky!

Ninja courtesy of Rich Ercolani