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.

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.

John Cheever On Computer Programming

In The Wapshot Chronicle (Harper and Row, New York, 1957), John Cheever writes:

There was a demand that year for Tapers and he pointed this out to Coverly as his best bet. The government would pay half of Coverly’s tuition at the MacIlhenney Institute. It was a four-month course and if he passed his exams he would be taken into government service at seventy-five dollars a week,.  Advised and encouraged by his friend, Coverly enrolled in some night classes on Taping. This involved the translation of physics experiments into the symbols–or tape–that could be fed into a computation machine….

The first lecture was an orientation talk on cybernetics or automation, and if Coverly, with his mildly rueful disposition, had been inclined to find any irony in his future relationship to a thinking machine, he was swiftly disabused. Then they got to work on memorizing the code.

This was like learning a language and a rudimentary one. Everything was done by rote. They were expected to memorize fifty symbols a week. They were quizzed for fifteen minutes at the opening of each class and were given speed tests at the end of the two-hour period. After a month of this the symbols–like the study of any language–had begun to dominate Coverly’s thinking, and walking on the street he had gotten into the habit of regrouping numbers on license plates, prices in store windows and numerals on clocks so that they could be fed into a machine….[pp. 155]

Coverly passed his Civil Service examination and was qualified as a Taper. [pp. 164]

These little excerpts are notable for several reasons:

  1. I have never seen the programming of computers in that early period of computing history referred to as ‘taping’; neither have I seen programmers referred to as ‘tapers.’ I have not been able to find instances of this nomenclature elsewhere. (I have, of course, seen human calculators referred to as ‘computers.’)
  2. Cheever’s descriptions of ‘taping’ and the process of learning a ‘programming language’ are not elementary; I wonder if he had some experience with computers and working on them. (Incidentally, the method of instruction–the memorization of a set numerical quota of symbols every day or week–reminds me of a story a Taiwanese friend once told me about how Chinese is taught to young children in elementary schools.)
  3. Cheever refers to Coverly being employed at “one of the rocket-launching stations where Tapers were employed.” The Wapshot Chronicle was published in 1957; NASA only came into being in 1958, so the activities Cheever would have been referring to would presumably have been those of the US Air Force’s Atlas missile program or perhaps an experimental project run by NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA).
  4. Cheever indicates that Coverly was “qualified as a Taper” on passing a Civil Service examination; I wonder whether there was such an examination and if so, who administered it, what it was called, what its contents were, etc.
  5. I wonder if such a reference to computer programming is among the first–if not the first–in post-war mainstream fiction. (By which I mean works not classified as science fiction.)

On Being Of Only Average Intelligence

Around the time that my teen years were to commence, I took an IQ test. My brother had stumbled upon one of HJ Eysenck‘s famous IQ books–it would have been either Know Your Own I.Q. (1962) or Check Your Own I.Q. (1966)–and after testing himself, insisted that I do so too. Intrigued by this mysterious entity called ‘intelligence quotient‘ and possessed of a–what else?–childish trust in the power of quantification to reveal reality’s contours, I took the test.

The scores were humbling. I emerged with a 120 (on a scale of 200, if I remember correctly). Eysenck’s scale informed us that this score placed me in the ‘average’ category. Well above the ‘deficient’, the ‘retarded’, the ‘mentally infirm’ but well below the Mozarts of this world. And certainly well below some pesky teenager the Guiness Book of World Records had anointed the world’s IQ king. I had arrived at the same score as my brother, so at least he hadn’t bested me, but this was scant consolation; I had been hoping to show up–in this cerebral domain–someone who was certainly my physical superior.

My score was mortifying. I had been assured by many around me–my parents mostly, but also many of my aunts and uncles–that I was ‘very smart’, that I was ‘so bright,’ destined for bigger and better things. This assessment of my intelligence was, I think, based on two factors: one, I read a great deal at a rapid pace, and two, my spelling was impeccable, the closest I’ve come to achieving perfection in any walk of life. But now, this strange test that asked me to–among many other species of mental trickery–manipulate shapes and find patterns in numbers, all the while keeping one nervous eye on the clock, had rudely brought me down to earth. I was one of the lowing, bleating herd; I was unexceptional; I was a follower, not a leader.

Unable to fully reconcile myself to this demotion on the grand totem pole of human worth, I resolved to take the test again. I did so. My score unblinkingly returned to the same point on the scale. Distraught, I told my mother the bad news. Contrary to her suffused-by-motherly-love assessments, I was only ‘average.’ My mother told me to not worry. A little later, when I conveyed my grim tidings to my father, I received much the same instructions. (I do not know if I invited them to take the test; perhaps my anxiety about finding out that my parents too were merely ‘average’ stayed my tongue.)

It was with some relief therefore that I greeted the skepticism directed at these quantitative assessments of a supposedly monolithic entity: I was suitably receptive to the arguments that scorned the crude shoehornings of something quite as indeterminate as human intelligence into a neatly marked off numerical scale. Such claims fell on fertile ground; I was ready to receive reassurance all was not lost, that I could hold my head up again and hope for vindication on some other intellectual battleground.

I’m still waiting.