Parental Rage And Giving Babies The Bird

Rebecca Schuman–who often pisses off many on the Internet thanks to her writing on modern academia–recently made herself the target of a great deal of vitriol thanks to a post on Slate that featured her giving her sleeping baby the bird. The usual avalanche of abuse, characteristic of Internet furores, spilled forth: threats to report her to Child Protective Services, death threats, and of course, the ‘bitch’ and ‘cunt’ endearments that are so well-known to women who write online.

For any not-entirely-clueless parent, Schuman was simply articulating–in jest, with a pair of middle fingers–an emotion that is all too familiar: parental rage, one grounded in frustration with our little darlings, our angels, the loves of our lives. It’s not just ‘go the fuck to sleep,’ it’s also ‘will you please eat your fucking food,’ ‘sit still so I can put your fucking clothes on,’ ‘let’s fucking go; you’re fucking making me late for work.’ The number of f-bombs that have detonated in my cranium over the past thirty-two months would easily stock the arsenal of a mid-sized militaristic nation. And sometimes they don’t just go off in my head. (Earlier this morning, after carefully negotiating with my daughter the terms and conditions under which she would agree to eat her breakfast, I found out the contract had been torn up; but there was no one to turn to report this breach; and no way to convince the offending party that she had attacked the very foundations of a liberal society. Seethe, seethe, seethe; then subside.)

Lack of sleep and the mind-numbing catatonia it induces are to blame in part. So is the basic fact of parenting: a long, sustained encounter with a brand new human being, with all his or her personal vagaries, one seemingly put here on this planet to test your patience and fortitude. Schuman was merely expressing one facet of the emotions that surge through a parent who so desperately wants to sleep but is unable to; things will get much worse when that little ‘angelic’ infant will become a toddler with a louder wail, a fine repertoire of tantrums, and a functioning vocabulary with which to get sassy, talk back, and say ‘no’ an infinite number of times.

Quite honestly, I’m unable to understand the anger directed at Schuman. The folks who so raged at her were, at best, sanctimonious prigs; at worst, they were clearly misogynistic. For Schuman’s biggest mistake was to suggest–and this is not news at all–that motherhood or parenting is not an unqualified blessing. Unsurprisingly, it was a conservative woman twitterer who led one portion of the mob; for that demographic, even humor directed at the institution of parenting is sacrilege. And equally unsurprisingly, as will be evident from the nature of the abuse directed at Schuman, there was ample hypocrisy and just plain old incoherence on display.

Schuman will ride this one out; and when it is all over, she should publish a few photos of her baby giving her the finger right back. That’s what they seem to do on all too many occasions.

Donald Trump And The Art Of The Presidential Deal

Shortly after I arrived in the US in 1987, I began working in my campus cafeteria (at the then minimum wage of $4.25 an hour.) One of my non-student companions at work was a young man who worked on the weekends as a replacement for the weekday staff. He was frivolous and funny and irreverent; he brought a little sparkle to what was otherwise a dreary pair of eight-hour shifts. Among other things, he introduced me to the colloquialism ‘dead presidents,’ telling me that collecting them was his favorite pastime, the hobby that was way more useful and relevant, in this day and age, than philately or lepidoptery. (I realize the latter is not a hobby, but you catch my drift.)

And one fine day, he informed that the person he respected the most was Donald Trump. Who?

I did not know who ‘the Trump’ was. My friend informed me, in a slightly breathless and incredulous tone of voice, that Trump was a ‘go-getter,’ ‘a man who knew what he wanted,’ ‘a leader.’ He knew how to make money; he didn’t put up with bullshit. The evidence was there for all to see: all those buildings he had ‘built,’ the millions he had amassed–he was, you see, a great and accomplished collector of dead presidents.

Intrigued by this transparently sincere account of hero-worship–and still fascinated by the phenomenon of the American businessman as cultural hero, a fact which I had noticed in the adulation directed at Lee Iacocca–I resolved to read Trump’s ‘autobiography’, The Art of the Deal. (I had also read Iacocca’s autobiography, unimaginatively titled Iacocca: An Autobiography, by then.)

Book-length brags by corporate tycoons are not unknown in publishing; Iacocca’s book was a good example of it. Trump took it to the next level. The rest of the world merely put up barriers; Trump destroyed them. The world consisted of bureaucrats and those who would choke the honest, money-making ambitions of good Americans; they stood in the way of all that was good and pure about the American Dream[tm]. Trump fought them all. And he won. It was, truth be told, a curiously thrilling story. There was adversity; it was overcome. There was grime and dirt and squalor; majestic–even if gaudy and architecturally loud–buildings rose over it all. (One of them even offered the cleanest public restrooms in New York City; they had pink walls!.) And money, the thing that seemingly enabled the good life, was made. Lots of it. The Rising Tide of Trump floated the boats of all those who jumped in on the deals he made.

I lost contact with the legend of Trump after that. From time to time, I would receive periodic updates: perhaps a divorce, a television show, an intervention in politics. He never seemed to move too far away from the spotlight. His presidential candidacy was unsurprising; he must have known all along that he excited a curious fascination in the American mind, that his tale of big money and relentless ambition and hustle would resonate with many.

Trump is not a fool even if he is a buffoon. He is wealthy and ambitious; he knows what resonates with those who believe this rigged world is their oyster in potentia. He knows that if he spends enough money, he could win this all. And write another bestseller about the experience.

Confession: I do not know if Trump is serious about his presidency bid or if he is simply angling for a new television show.

On Stumbling While Reading

Sometimes your reading runs aground. You read and read, moving on smoothly, even if not effortlessly, taking in the written word, perhaps admiring the art and craft on display, perhaps envying a competence and creativity beyond your own, and then, abruptly,  jarringly, there is no more purchase, no swell to lift the boat. You stare at the page; it stares back at you. You re-read to no avail. You have lost contact with the author; that outstretched hand, which was guiding you across the shoals of a difficult theoretical movement, is now gone, suddenly frustratingly elusive. The trail, the track, is lost; you back up and try again. Again, to no avail. You find familiar territory somewhere in the rear, and you retreat to its safety, reassuring yourself that you have not lost the competency you once thought you had. You venture forth again and stumble back, chastened and defeated. This might be where the trail runs out, where you come to a halt.

Reading is a funny business; in this age of perennial distraction even more so. But even without distraction there is still something magical about how it proceeds, how our reading ‘voice’ becomes internalized, about how the reader finds purchase in the text and ventures forth into the unknown, carrying on a dialog with the author. This is a process that sometimes goes wrong even when it is going well. The comprehensible text, the flowing text, can become the incomprehensible, the statically frozen, the impenetrable. This occurs, at least in part, because the challenges of writing are not fully solved by the writer and thus become the reader’s.  The ‘finished version’ is merely the ‘last draft’; it is not uniformly accessible to the reader; it contains within it bad neighborhoods all of its own. Here might be where a particularly tangled web of the text’s narrative became a little too dense, a little too resistant to the author’s attempts to clear it away; here might be where a complicated argument got out of control and resisted taming. All the rewrites have not helped; the towel has been thrown in.

These zones of confusion can be large or small; they may offer temporary swamps or permanent barriers to progress. They may only interrupt, or they may derail. Sometimes the only option is to leapfrog them; to move on, and beyond, with nary a glance backwards. This can be occasion for bruised pride, for a bewailing and gnashing of teeth. But that is to protest too much; we should not expect every step of a journey to be an easy or painless one. To be sure, we run the risk of having missed out on the most crucial passages of all, those stones without which the foundation of the text before us will crumble. But perhaps that is a risk that is unavoidable, a discomfort that must be made bearable, if we are to ever to carry on, to discover what lies ahead and beyond. Besides other sectors of incomprehension.

Stepping Up To The Plate For Another Fall Classic

Around mid-August or so, my normal ‘auto-chattering’–the monologues I have with myself as I walk around the streets of New York City–picked up pace. I began rehearsing dialogues with an imaginary audience, holding forth, declaiming, answering questions, parrying objections–the whole package. The reasons for this are not hard to find. The 2015 fall semester begins today.

Which means, of course, that the summer is over and that teaching is upon me, once again. I have now completed thirteen years at Brooklyn College, but the feelings that provoked the extended rehearsals I note above have not ceased: stage-fright, performance anxiety, and apprehension of that moment when you step out, from behind that comforting desk, right in front of a group of strangers who hold the power to induce both the sublime and the sordid into your life. Those eyes on you, those expressions; will you see respect, contempt, or worse, just plain old boredom in them? Fourteen weeks to find out, I suppose.

Unsurprisingly, given the semester’s sequence of upcoming events, the conversation I have rehearsed the most during my recent perambulations is the opening day’s discussion of the syllabus. (Which begins in about an hour’s time for my Philosophy of Law class; an hour and a half after that, I will meet my Political Philosophy class; next week, I will meet my Introduction to Philosophy night section.) This is the time when I seek to lay down the ground rules for the semester: all those administrative and bureaucratic details that are designed to make my running of the class smoother. No late assignments; no laptops or smartphones; no plagiarism; do the reading; don’t come late to class; and so on. I hope, and I hope, and I continue to hope, that my students will read the syllabus and internalize it, that they will take my strictures seriously and see behind and through them to what I want to accomplish: a series of engaging discussions with them about the philosophical texts I have selected for their edification.  Some will, some won’t.

Opening day is tinged with, besides the apprehension I note, excitement too. There are many new readings on my syllabus–I cannot wait to encounter them with my students. There are old readings too–I wonder what I will find out about them in on this visitation. I wonder if there are students in my classes who will force a new reckoning of familiar material upon me; I look forward to those moments of creative discovery that so serendipitously occur in the midst of a classroom discussion. (Needless to say, I remain resolutely unexcited about the prospect of grading papers.)

I don’t have this teaching thing figured out yet, even though I’ve been doing it for over twenty years now. (I taught my first class as a graduate teaching assistant in the fall of 1988.) That’s why I need to keep on rehearsing, practicing, asking for feedback, and hardest of all, swallowing my pride. Someone or something will remind me of that at some point during the next fourteen weeks.

Lorrie Moore’s ‘A Gate At The Stairs’ And An Implausible Grieving

There is much to like in Lorrie Moore‘s A Gate At The Stairs: there is Moore’s trademark dry humor, her dazzling vocabulary and eye for natural and urban detail, her exploration of weighty issues–race, adoption, gender, families, parenting–with a writerly touch that is deft and light in equal measure. But there is a crucial implausibility in the story, which when encountered by a reader like me, is liable to ripple out and weaken the hold of the novel. And reduce in significant measure its emotional impact.

[Spoilers ahead; turn back or hold your peace forever.]

At the heart–or at least, somewhere vital in the novel’s body–is a terrible tragedy, the worst of all: the death of a young child. It is the black hole in the universe of Sarah Brink, who has now found a nanny–the central character, Tassie Keltjin–to look after her adopted bi-racial child, ostensibly representing the start of a new family.

But Sarah and her husband, Edward, lost their son in no ordinary manner. Instead, his death came about quite directly as a result of actions taken by his father. While driving on a highway, their son had repeatedly engaged in loud, disruptive, and disobedient behavior; his father, finally losing his patience, had snapped and forced the boy out at a highway rest stop; once the lesson had been learned, the boy would be let back in to the car. Thanks to a series of confusing interactions with the traffic behind them, the Brinks are forced off the rest stop and back onto the highway and as they frantically try to turn around and retrieve the boy, he wanders on to the highway and is struck and killed by oncoming traffic.

Lorrie Moore now expects the reader to believe that after such an accident, involving the death of their only son, one caused by the inappropriately angry actions of the father, that the mother–who had protested the father’s actions throughout the incident–stays on in the relationship, and that the couple somehow endures and carries on with their lives. Now scarred, of course, but they do endure.

This, I’m afraid, is entirely implausible. Forgiveness in this matter will not be easily forthcoming, if not impossible. The death of a young child very often tears the relationship of the parents’ apart; this is because haunted and grieving parents, looking for some explanation of this most inexplicable of events, will, quite understandably, blame and indict any entity, material or otherwise, for it. All too often, the love for, and the relationship with, a romantic partner and co-parent, will not survive such a lashing out. It will especially not survive when one of the parents is so clearly to blame.

Parents understand the rage that children can provoke in their parents; some might even–from a distance–empathize with Edward. But very few, and I’m one of them, will be able to comprehend how a grieving mother could ever ‘get over’ the knowledge that her co-parent’s impatience and anger had caused the death of her child. To err is human, to forgive is divine; but gods do not walk this earth. Only flawed humans do.

Fraternities: The Curse Of The Sylvan Campus

‘Fraternity’ used to be a perfectly good word–remember Liberté, égalité, fraternité? Used to be, when you saw that word in print, you thought of revolutionaries, the brotherhood of man, the formation of political and social bonds that spanned class and caste and creed. But then it was taken over by a bunch of drunken rapists-in-training, mysteriously granted leasing rights to large mansion-like houses in some of this nation’s finest institutions of academic learning.

The ‘brothers’ of these fraternities have some distinctive features: they consume vast amounts of alcohol (most of which, I believe, they regurgitate in foul streams of vomit, thus suggesting that a good nickname for a fraternity brothers’ band would be The Bulimic Bros); they do not like ‘sisters’–you know, members of the opposite sex, regarding them as mere sexual objects and playthings, only useful as comatose sexual prey unable to offer consent to sexual activity, and for the much-desired ‘notch on the belt’; but they do like to maintain the pretension that they engage in socially meaningful acts of charity and public services work.

The Sigma Nu fraternity at Old Dominion University made its signal contribution to the burgeoning presence of university fraternities in our contemporary rape culture with some welcome banners for incoming women students for the new academic year. They read: “Rowdy and fun/Hope your baby girl is ready for a good time,” “Freshman daughter drop off,” and “Go ahead and drop off mom too.”

Frat

Such behavior is not an outlier for fraternities:

This isn’t the first time, of course, that frat boys have shown their asses in such a fashion. In 2010, DKE pledges at Yale walked around campus chanting, “No means yes/ Yes means anal,” which Anna North described at this website as a “transparent plea for attention.” Texas Tech frat boys put up a similar sign last year. Over the summer, a Sigma Nu member at the University of Central Florida was caught on video chanting “Let’s rape some sluts,” only months after being accused of sexual assault by a fellow UCF student.

I have been remiss, of course, in my summation of fraternity brothers’ characteristics above. For besides the abuse of alcohol (which plays a notable role in the hazing and initiation of new brothers and sometimes leads to their death by alcohol poisoning; bizarrely enough, making someone swallow a liter of whisky is dangerous business) and their misogyny, fraternities are also notoriously racist. Sometimes they dress up in blackface, sometimes they indulge in chants filled with the n-word, the list goes on.

Fraternities are a campus curse. They offer a sexist, misogynist, racist haven for those men who like to drink to excess; they offer a four-year extension of adolescence and a four-year postponement of adulthood; their houses are a safe haven from ‘political correctness’. And best of all, you get to do all of this with your ‘brothers’–comrades in arms at the keg.

Solidarity in the most manly of ways: booze and broads, what’s not to like?

A Grandmother’s Gift: A Curiously Significant Number

I’m a numbers nerd; in all probability, this stems from being a sports fan. I calculate sports statistics in my  head; I can effortlessly multiply any pair of two-digit numbers in that same location; I retain an astonishing number of odd numerical markers in my cranium. As such, some numbers acquire a significance that goes well beyond their mathematical properties. Over at ESPN-Cricinfo, in the course of my blogging on cricket, I’ve written two posts on ‘curiously significant numbers’;  here and here. Some numbers, of course, possess a significance that owe little of their provenance to sporting connections. One such number is 7290.

That number represents the amount, in Indian Rupees, that my plane ticket to the US–for my original, home-leaving journey–cost in 1987. But I didn’t buy the ticket myself; my grandmother did. That’s what makes this number special.

In the summer of 1987, shortly after I had obtained my student visa from the American Embassy in New Delhi, I traveled to Central India to visit my grandmother (and sundry other members of my father’s side of the family.) My grandmother was not happy to see me go; she remained entirely unconvinced I needed to travel so far from home to obtain an education and find a career; she was concerned about the effects of ‘Western culture’ on me; she worried I would marry ‘a Christian woman’ and be lost to our family forever, discarding my familial and cultural roots and transforming myself into a stranger. But she could not bring herself to discourage me from going; she could not, indeed, muster up more than a worried query or two about whether I would be sufficiently resilient in the face of all the temptations that would soon be sent my way.

The reason for this reticence, of course, was that my enthusiasm at my impending departure was palpable and visible; I was eagerly awaiting the date of my long flight and my first glimpse of what would be my new home. My grandmother knew I had encountered many disappointments and frustration through my undergraduate years; she had heard me kvetching about them on many an occasion; she knew I had invested considerable hope in my graduate studies; and she knew the US had come to represent a promised land of sorts. She would not piss on this parade; she would not dampen my glee with wailing about how she was going to lose her beloved grandson to the evil forces of cultural imperialism. I like to think she trusted me to not lose myself; I like to think she loved me too much to not have too many ambitions for my life.

So, putting her troubled thoughts temporarily to rest, she resolved to give me a going-away gift. One afternoon, the day before I was to return to New Delhi, she called me into her room, and told me she wanted to give me a little something that would remind me of her in the US: she would pay for my ticket to the US. She asked me how much the ticket would cost. I told her the quoted price. She called our family accountant and asked him to bring a checkbook. Then, sitting on her bed, she bade him write me a check for the amount I had indicated. I returned to New Delhi with that precious check in my baggage. I paid for the ticket a week later. And caught my flight another week later.

My grandmother passed away in 1998. I visited her five more times–in 1990, 1992, 1993, 1994, and 1996. On each occasion, not knowing whether I would see her again, I burst into tears at the time of departure. In 1998, I received news from my brother she had passed away–at the ripe old age of 87.

She had been right; I never forgot her gift. Or her.