Thursday, December 17, 2009

On charity and the spirit of giving...

...and all that jazz.

I'm about to get all True Meaning of Christmasy on you. Bear with me. It was inspired by a discussion of holiday charity giving. This isn't even a Christmas story, actually, because I don't have any idea when it happened and part of my point is that you just do it without foofaraw or special occasions. Though now that I think of it, it does have certain overtones: "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."

My father was one of the hardest working people you could ever meet. He grew up hard in the Depression, plowed cotton with a mule, worked in a sawmill for ten cents an hour, and sharecropped for his uncle (who raised the rent on him). He was a Combat Engineer in WWII, was in three invasions (North Africa, Sicily, Normandy) and eight campaigns, and then came home to work for the Georgia Highway Department, later the Department of Transportation, for forty years.

He also had eight children, of which I am the youngest, and participated fully in our upbringing. He was in no way an absent or distant father. He was often heard to remark that he could have had money or children, but preferred children.

This is a story that was told at his funeral: One day when he was out on a bridge site, a man approached him for a job. My father, who was always observant, noticed that the man's pregnant wife was sitting in the car, and drew the obvious conclusion, that she was with him because they had nowhere else to stay.

He hired the man right then, but that wasn't all. I was not there, but I know how he talked: "When it gets to be quittin' time, you come on home with me." Knowing him, he probably didn't explain what he was up to. He didn't like to make promises until he was sure he could deliver, but if he said he would do a thing, you could count on it absolutely.

He brought them home and invited them to supper. He found them a place to stay for the night and later helped them find a place to live. He got them clothes and furniture.

I do not remember this incident myself, but extrapolating from other incidents and general knowledge of his character I can tell you he did not make a big deal of it and took care to be courteous and save their pride. I bet he didn't ask them how they got in that fix, though he would have listened politely if they wanted to talk about it. He did not pry or tell the business of people he helped. He never told me about this story himself; I heard it from other people.

This is the model in my head of how to act when someone needs something and appeals to you for help. Do it decisively and thoroughly, without judgment, and without holding it over their head. Do it up right. Let other people tell the story.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Write like a man

Just the other day I was chided for "spouting tired feminist dogma." (That person is no longer in my personal universe.) I'm sure you've been told that feminism is no longer necessary, women have all the equality they need, and that anyone who says otherwise is just a whiner who can't get a man. (Interestingly, they were telling Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony the same spiel.)

The story here: a struggling freelance writer was getting few jobs, low pay, lots of crap and demands for revisions from clients, and did one simple thing that raised pay and customer satisfaction through the roof.

What, you ask? What amazing secret brought her jobs, money, and praise?

She started submitting her work under a male pseudonym. That's it. I cannot adequately express my rage. I'm glad the author of this article was able to sound reasonable, because all I seem to be able to say is, Holy crap. Holy fucking crap.

Write like a man

Posted using ShareThis

Thursday, November 19, 2009

I am THAT teacher

Stuff I've done in class:

Used a hand drum to teach prosody.

Referred to Monty Python's "Dead Parrot" sketch as an example of the ubiquity of Shakespeare. ("He's shuffled off this mortal coil and joined the choir invisibule!")

Used a silk flower and a rain boot to explain why you shouldn't let your participles hang down.

Assigned "Hamlet (Facebook News Feed Edition)" as a reading.

Shown Johnny Cash's video for "Hurt," Nine Inch Nails' video for same, and P!nk's "Stupid Girls" in class. Also Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Assigned "Living Like Weasels" by Annie Dillard and then told my students to write like weasels.

Tomorrow, I plan to drop a pen on the floor. Then write "I dropped a pen on the floor" and the formula for rectilinear motion under acceleration on the board and ask them to tell me which statement describes what just happened. Then go on to explain the relevance of this to essay writing.

I totally live for this stuff.

Monday, November 16, 2009

On the resurgence of Ayn Rand

The Bitch is Back

Goddamn, the experience of being 19 years old and reading Ayn Rand! The crystal-shivering-at-the-breaking-pitch intensity of it! Not just for that 19-year-old, but for everybody unfortunate enough to be caught in his psychic blast radius. Is "experience" even the right word for The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged? Ayn Rand's idolization of Mickey Spillane and cigarettes and capitalism—an experience? Her tentacular contempt for Shakespeare and Beethoven and Karl Marx and facial hair and government and "subnormal" children and the poor and the Baby Jesus and the U.N. and homosexuals and "simpering" social workers and French Impressionism and a thousand other things the flesh is heir to: experience?

"Isn't that book the Bible of right-wing losers?" - Lisa Simpson

Ah, Ayn Rand. Human beings don't work the way she says they do. Societies don't work the way she says they do. Economies don't work the way she says they do. Her books are painfully awful and warp the term "literary art" even as one hesitates to apply it. Yet her ideas and novels persist because they feed the most indestructible and gullibility-producing force in the universe, human egotism.

I do grant, as a reviewer on Goodreads said, that the books are useful. Anyone who is a fan of Ayn Rand is someone to avoid. It's good to know that before you get too involved. And unlike more personal questions, it's easy to work into casual party conversation: "Hey, what do you think of Ayn Rand's books?" If the person's eyes light up and they declaim upon their admiration of Howard Roark or John Galt, you have the opposite of a keeper. You know to throw that one back.

I, like many people, read The Fountainhead as a teenager. I intended to enter the essay contest the Ayn Rand Institute runs every year. They offered a lot of money, and I'd already won a couple of state-level writing competitions. I was seventeen or eighteen, and no less arrogant than bright eighteen-year-olds generally are: the target audience.

I couldn't bring myself to write anything that wasn't scathing.

"This is not a book to be set aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force." - Dorothy Parker, on Atlas Shrugged.

The books are terrible in all respects. They are bad art, bad writing, foully mis-representative of human behavior, laughably improbable, bone-headedly self-contradictory, morally putrid, and pragmatically incoherent. Even the supposed free-market ideals which Rand espouses with such Darwinian cheer don't actually appear in her books. There is something the characters call that, but even they don't actually believe that it should apply to them. For example, Roark's clients don't like his work and he can't make money as an architect. This is seen, incomprehensibly, as evidence that they are stupid and he is a genius, instead of being the only real example of the free market winnowing someone out that actually happens. When he blows up his own building this is proof of his ideals instead of an appalling waste of resources; instead of being rightfully excoriated as a trifler and an inefficient wastrel he's a hero. Why? We don't know. There is no sensible reason given. Nothing any of her characters do in The Fountainhead makes any sense, or bears any resemblance to how actual persons behave. If you dare ask why of a Randroid, you will be told that you just don't understand.

They are all like that, her books. They are brick-sized cesspools of badness held together with binding glue. They are wastes of ink, and of the effort required to lift them from the shelf and turn the page. You could spend those calories and that time watching Wife Swap re-runs.

If it were only that. If only...a waste of time is perhaps not a good thing, but it's your own business. You might read Ayn Rand, or watch Fox News, in perfect peace for all of me if you would just exhibit a moderate degree of decency and decorum and keep it to yourself. I myself like to read and chuckle with schadenfreude. It is a perfect waste of time, and not nice of me, but essentially harmless.

Alas, no. Rand devotees are right, they know they are right, and they have to share, with, as noted in the GQ article, a grim impervious defiance of logic rivaled only by Fundamentalists.

And that points to the real, true and basic contradiction of the Randroids. They declare, with that special dollop of Nietzschean contempt, that they are free and the rest of us (of course) are sheep. But if you cannot ever reflect upon an ideology, if you can't evaluate its limits or especially admit when it fails (and the Randian philosophy has spectacularly failed on all levels and by all measures; even its name, Objectivism, embeds a lie), if you not only can't admit that it might be wrong but believe anyone who dares to disagree is actually evil, then you aren't free at all. You are ideology's slave.

And I have a little secret to tell you. You aren't the genius you think you are, either. All of the Randroids I know are kind of mediocre, maybe a little brighter than average but not all that. All the most brilliant people I know, and I know several truly brilliant people, are altruists.

I've heard of some people threatening to "go Galt," that is, to withdraw from participation in society and their imagined contributions to it. To which I say, God I hope so. Go Galt and get the hell out of the way. It's actually possible, I deem, that if all the people who actually produce and do and accomplish things in the world left or quit doing what they do, society would crumble. However, if all of the self-absorbed, self-aggrandizing, Rand-addled egomaniacs with a firm belief in their own superiority and entitlement left, there would be nothing but a huge sigh of relief.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Song for Butterbeans

I wrote this when I was seventeenish. It won a prize, which went to my head. Later the Agnes Scott literary magazine foolishly took it, encouraging me further, and and thus you find me here years later a broken wretch of a creature, teaching Freshman Comp and still writing poetry as well as committing fiction on a regular basis. Behold my late adolescent poetic sensibilities, complete with inexplicable line breaks, erratic punctuation, and whimsical rhymes. Actually, judging by some of my recent stuff, neither the inexplicability, erraticity*, nor whimsy have changed all that much...

Song for Butterbeans

Heat rises from damp earth,
add my own humidity
I, a country girl, pick
With embarrassing unfluidity.
Green smell: “Pod No.5”
hundred eighty million
Will I make it alive
To the end of the row?
Vines leafed brown lace
Wrap around my ankle,
The Bean From Outer Space
Attacks stealthily: Beware!
Butterbeans with nearby green entwined
Like cousin lovers hid behind
A ragged screen of weeds I find
Tomatoes do not care.
My whole body itches. Dive bombed
By bumblebees seeking morning glory and such,
I like butterbeans.
But not that much.

*Yes, I do believe I made that word up. Wanna make something of it?

Monday, August 31, 2009


Going to DragonCon in Atlanta this weekend, to talk about steampunk, Victorian literature, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Virginia Woolf. Yes, all at once.

I go also to wear clothes. In high school, I was given an award for "Most Unusual Fashion Sense." I was a punktastic proto-Goth who once wore a trash bag as a dress, with dog collar. I haven't changed much, except that I now have a drab collection of "work clothes." Even being a TA in an English department sometimes gives me the feeling of being oppressed by the sartorial sensibilities of the Man. Part of what I love about SF conventions is the delightful feeling that I can wear whatever I want, and not only will I not get weird looks, I'll be solidly middle-of-the-road in most cases...somewhere between the t-shirt-and-blue-jeans brigade, and the cosplayers. It's hard to look flamboyantly peculiar next to someone dressed as Tweety Bird wearing Storm Trooper armor, is what I'm saying.

This isn't a costume. These are my clothes.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Fun tip!

When in a group of academic specialists on Southern literature and history, bring up Gone With the Wind. Sit back, drink your beer, and watch the fight break out.

(For the record, and for once, I was not the instigator this time.)