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Category Archives: Politics & Current Events

Teachers and Students and Killers

at sign AROBAZE

Yesterday, a colleague of mine received a disturbing email from a man who had been urgently interested in enrolling in UCF’s MFA program. In her role as advisor to our current MFA students, she’d been providing him information about our program and advice about applying to it. I had also exchanged a few emails with him, as he was determined to enroll in a course I’m teaching in the spring semester.

The issue is that this fellow wanted to take a graduate course in creative nonfiction this spring. We do sometimes allow “nondegree” students to take our grad courses when there is space in them and they can demonstrate sufficient knowledge and background to work at the graduate level.

However, this person had the odd idea that if he took one such course, he would somehow qualify to get a tenure-earning job in creative nonfiction writing that is currently open at an area college. Now, I’m not at that college, but I know a bit about how these things go, and, of course, that’s probably not going to happen no matter how brilliant this man might be. In fact, over at that college, a pile probably two feet high is already accumulating with applications from across the country—from people who already have MFAs and PhDs, publications in the field, even books, and time spent teaching writing at the college level. In spite of clearly being an intelligent man with two advanced degrees already, this guy has none of that. I told him that one graduate course would not likely qualify him for this job.

He also didn’t seem to fully understand what creative nonfiction is, needless to say a serious deterrent to gaining a job in the area. My colleague had given him a few copies of The Florida Review so he could read some examples, and when he emailed me to request entry into my course, he sent me a manuscript that seemed entirely fictional, though perhaps heavily autobiographical. When I noted this to him, he argued, and told me that if Tim O’Brien is considered to be writing creative nonfiction, then so is he. I responded that most of O’Brien’s work is considered fiction. Perhaps I should have added, “as is noted on the ISBN page of each of his recent books.”

Eventually, after numerous emails where he was told that a) a committee has to meet to make admissions decisions, b) we only consider applications in the spring term for admission in the fall, c) my course is full and we won’t crowd a class for a nondegree student, and d) we can’t make exceptions, even for him, he became enraged.

In the email he sent my colleague, he noted that he had made it “crystal clear” that he “needed to begin in Spring. … I told you that this was the passage to the teaching job at [x college]. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be caught dead in the creative writing program at UCF.” He went on to add, among other insults (“inconceivable lack of competence”) and threats (“letter for your permanent file”), that “I have had the benefit of more and better education than you or anyone in your department and I was treated like an ugly stepchild. So,” he added, “take your stupid MFA and shove it up your ass.”

Amish schoolhouse, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Amish schoolhouse, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

In the wake of the Connecticut shooting just a few days before, this man’s email gave me a gooey knot in the pit of my stomach. After I read it and tried to comfort my upset colleague via email, I went back into the living room where my husband was watching the latest Batman movie, and said, “Maybe you should give me a bullet-proof vest for Christmas.”

I don’t mean to accuse this particular man of murderous intentions. Perhaps, in fact, those who take advantage of language to vent their spleen are less likely to do it with weapons.

Maybe it made me queasy because I regularly teach Jo Ann Beard’s powerful essay, “The Fourth State of Matter,” which chronicles the 1991 mass murder of five at the University of Iowa by a graduate student who felt he hadn’t been properly honored for his work. Perhaps it is because the shooter at Virginia Tech in 2007 was a creative writing student. Or that in 1996, while I was a graduate student at Penn State, a rare female shooter (and not a student) set out to massacre as many as she could on campus; fortunately, she didn’t have an automatic weapon, and her having to pause to reload allowed a young man to disarm her before she could kill more than 1 and injure another.

There’s also the fact that in 1989 when Marc Lépine singled out and killed 14 women at the École Polytechnique in Montreal, just because they were women who dared to study engineering, I was beginning to contemplate a teaching career. And that, although I had never driven past the particular Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County where in 2006 a truck driver went in and lined up the girls (not the boys), shooting 11, killing 5, and leaving 1 severely disabled, I had frequently driven past several such schoolhouses on my trips back and forth between State College and Lewisburg in the couple of years before I moved to Florida.

It’s not that only teachers and professors or only females are targeted in these attacks, though often they are the focus of rage. Sometimes men and boys are killed, sometimes it is even disgruntled professors who do the killing, as in the cases of the University of Alabama in 2010 and Concordia University in 1992. It’s not even as though all such shootings happen at schools—they happen at movie theaters, at houses of worship, at other kinds of places of employment.

668px-Gnu_teacher.svg

Still, teachers at all levels from elementary school to university graduate programs sustain irrational and unhinged attacks of all kinds. Usually, we take this verbal kind with a grain of salt because it happens so frequently.

We are seen as—and sometimes actually are—the keepers of the keys. We give grades and report cards, we evaluate other human beings, we determine who passes to the next level and who has to try again, we decide sometimes that a child or an adult doesn’t merit a degree or a certification or a diploma. There’s room for a lot of resentment about that, even though most of us go into our careers in order to foster learning and help people make the most of their lives.

Most of the time, we do help people make the most of their lives. This man’s email juxtaposes itself against the backdrop of physical violence in Connecticut, but also against the background of my own preparations this week as I produce a binder to apply for a teaching award. In front of me I have all the notes of thanks, all the end-of-term reflections and finished projects that show how much my students have indeed learned, the list of my undergrads who have gone on to prestigious graduate programs elsewhere. That is good and satisfying. I hang on to that.

Self-Esteem Shop photographed by Dave Hogg, Royal Oak, Michigan, 2005.

Self-Esteem Shop photographed by Dave Hogg, Royal Oak, Michigan, 2005.

The experts say that there has been no significant rise in the number of such rampage killings in the past decade.

Yet, I do sense changes, if not in the threat of death, then in the general demeanor and respect of my students and others I encounter in my work world. It’s not that I didn’t ever encounter over-demanding or angry students at the beginning of my career. Perhaps it’s just that I’m getting older and wish I got concomitantly more respect. Or maybe it’s just that behavioral paradigms are shifting to something more casual. Or that people all around are stressed by the struggling economy. Maybe it’s also that in the world of writing (and so many other realms), we are now all expected to be hucksters and self-promoters as much as contemplators and wordsmiths (or whatever work we do). All of this might be tending to make people more aggressive. There’s a sea of mud between healthy self-assertion and self-aggrandizing aggression.

Maybe it has to do with the self-esteem movement introduced into our schools and our society with great intentions back in the 1960s and reaching a peak in the 1980s. Like so many perfectly legitimate ideas—that it was important to encourage children and support their dreams—perhaps the self-esteem movement filtered down in an over-simplified way and got twisted. It got twisted into crap like The Secret and the whole idea that if you just want it bad enough you can have it.

This kind of attitude is often prevalent with my students, even some of the wonderful ones. They are certainly never afraid to ask for what they want, to demand it even. No matter that my syllabus states that 8 absences will earn an F for my course, students expect to pass. No matter that the assignment requires 12 to 15 pages, and they only turned in 6—if they “tried hard” and it was “difficult for me to write about this,” they think their grade should be fine. I had one student this semester who had missed numerous classes, had turned in 1 out of 9 smaller homework assignments, had failed to participate in most of the workshops, and whose own writing had earned her Cs… who came up to me the last week and told me she hoped she could still earn a B.

I won’t even bore you with the web of negotiations between myself and a stunningly talented young man who nonetheless earned a C in my class due to his inability to complete work or manage his time. Flattery? Manipulation? Sincere desperation? Promises of improvement? It was all there, just not the work.

More recently, a graduate student, reportedly a hard-working and lovely person (I have only met her once myself), informed me that she only checks email every few days so that if I want to reach her on short notice, I should use Facebook or Twitter. Since when is it up to a student to define the method of communication between herself and her professor? Since when is it part of my job to explain such basics? This kind of control-taking is noticeably more common among my students today than it was more than twenty years ago when I began teaching as a youthful 30-year-old.

Fortunately, none of these students is threatening. But, still, something is not adding up.

Violence_theme

Unfortunately, I can’t get it out of my head that this all somehow correlates with the rise of fantasy genres and the amount of time people spend in fantasy worlds, whether they are in book, movie, video game, or Internet chat room variety, even the uber-cheerful Facebook presentations that people make of themselves. I have environmental concerns about this, which I plan to discuss in a later post, but I worry about human expectations these days, too. I worry that we are making a world that is in reality intolerable and so people turn more and more to fantasy.

My students tell me this repeatedly. They are bored and stressed at the same time. They prefer escape to self-examination. They prefer to spend some time in a world, no matter how evanescent, where they can be heroic and romantic and good-looking and successful, often things they don’t feel like they are in daily life. But I can’t help but believe that we are all affected by where and how and in what modes we spend our time. We come back from these virtual worlds, but I’m not sure our expectations come back with us. And the virtual worlds grow more and more convincing.

In the past week, there has been plenty of talk about “evil.” Even President Obama evoked evil when speaking of the shooting in Connecticut. Yet, I don’t believe that shooter was evil, even if his act was. He suffered from some deep mental illness and desperation, the likes of which we see over and over in these cases.

Plenty of others have already written about the need for better gun control laws—assault weapons simply have no rationale for being readily available except for crime and gun-industry profits. While it is true that we will never prevent people from rampaging if they are determined to do so, the difference between a knife or a manually loaded rifle, on the one hand, and, on the other, an automatic assault weapon is huge in terms of the amount of death someone can inflict.

Plenty of others have written about the need for a better armed and better prepared set of first responders. We certainly have that, increasingly, and it has had little effect. It’s too late by the time they arrive. Here in Orlando, the nightly news has been filled with discussion of appointing an armed security guard at each and every school. I consider that a terrible idea for many reasons—the atmosphere for students, the inculcation of constant fear, the dangerous presence of potentially misused weapons, the need for that money to be spent on instruction, and pure ineffectuality.

Plenty of others have argued passionately that we need to care for our mentally ill better—we need to remove stigmas for early care, be watchful for early signs, provide the financial resources for such care, and provide facilities other than prisons for the mentally ill. Here, here. This is a massively complex issue, of course—de-institutionalization began as part of the Civil Rights era when it was recognized that this broad category of people didn’t always deserve to be locked up out of sight, that we might need to learn to deal with some kinds of mental difference. But support services for the mentally ill certainly need more attention, and families living with those who are showing signs of violence and major disturbance need better options.

Some have even written that we need to work against the culture of violence we have in the United States. How to do that is the question. Do we ban violence in our books, TV shows, movies, video games? Do we try to educate children about the consequences? Do we try to change our own behaviors when we speak with others? There’s a lot of blame that goes around for the culture of violence.

But this is what I have to add: It is violence in the context of fantasy that is the problem (maybe even only certain kinds of disconnected fantasy). I’m not even saying that we should ban these video games, absolutely not—I am not offering prescriptions or proscriptions—but when children and adults spend so much time shooting others, massacring others, without the consequences, and when they spend time communicating at so much further than arm’s length even with the real people they know or sorta know, then I believe something comes loose in the minds of those people. Some depictions of violence actually sensitize people to its effects. But not if those depictions exist in a fairyland where dead people return to life, where humans are monsters and monsters are human, where we spend the bulk of our time with characters and in scenarios that are designed to fulfill our most childish egotistical desires. Too often, when that is the frame of reference, disappointments in the real world then become a devastating source of rage.

I question myself on this—after all, I would never say that reading Alice in Wonderland or The Hundred and One Dalmatians or Tolkien ruined my sense of reality. And plenty of perfectly peaceable people have been fantasizing for a long, long time. In fact, I’m a great supporter of the imagination and love it in all its many varied forms. I believe that humans can work out significant issues in the realm of fantasy. Also, I have no evidence that any of the killers mentioned here deeply embedded themselves in fantasy worlds, and their type has been around since long before the electronic versions of such fantasies.

So, what the heck do I mean? Maybe it has to do with the fact that reality and fantasy are merging. I’m not really sure. I always hope that you, my readers, can help me reflect on such things. It’s just that I have a creeping sensation that a whole host of unrealistic expectations contribute to a culture in which psychic violence and aggression seem to me to be on the rise even if physical massacre is not. And I believe strongly that this is about culture as much as it is about mentally ill individuals.

Really, I’m on tenuous ground here, and I admit it. I’m only at the stage of associations crisscrossing my mind. What do you think? What images, memories, associations, and seemingly free-floating concerns have been on your mind since December 14?

L'ange de mort, 1919, by Carlos Schwabe.

L’ange de mort, 1919, by Carlos Schwabe.

Thoughts About Roxanne

Last night on the way home through the dark after an evening errand, as Bruce and I sped along the 417, Cream’s “Crossroads” came on the radio. Instantly, I had a craving to listen to some John Mayall. This kinda surprised me, since I was vaguely aware that Mayall was not part of Cream, which consisted of Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker.

When I got home, though, and looked up all that past music history, I found that Eric Clapton and John Mayall had indeed spent plenty of time playing together in roughly that same time period. I should not have been the least bit surprised at the resonance between their styles.

It’s odd, though, how one musician becomes a classic icon, as Clapton has, and another plays on in relative obscurity. Of course, that obscurity is relative—as it turns out, Mayall is still touring in Europe and the U.S. and has put out 40 albums since The Turning Point (1969) that burst into my mind last night. In addition, he’s put out several limited-release recordings of live performances, the most recent in 2011. Certainly anyone following the blues will have heard of John Mayall.

Perhaps his most famous song, “Room to Move,” with his hallmark harmonica-playing, is also from The Turning Point, but the one that I always remember is the sexy, patient, subversive, pensive “Thoughts About Roxanne.” Also from The Turning Point is “The Laws Must Change,” which I include here, too, and which also features the harmonica. Mayall’s was a protest song about Civil Rights, but it’s interesting that this past week we had some shifts in laws, too—legalizing recreational marijuana use in two states (Colorado and Washington) and gay marriage in three more states (Maine, Maryland, and Washington).

You can listen to “Room to Move,” or a whole host of other samples on Mayall’s own listen page (scroll down; for some reason, the top of the page is just black).

How Can We Work Together?

Photo courtesy of Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

The presidential election is over, and one of my enormous stressors has gone with it. We are all relieved, whether our candidate won or not, though I’m sure those of us who supported President Obama are more relieved than Romney-ites. Even now that the election is past, however, there’s been a lot of talk about the “two Americas” we now live in, how divided we remain.

I have searched my mind for a way to extend an olive branch to the many people I know and care about who don’t see eye to eye with me on politics—or who don’t seem to look even in the same direction. While I continue to think very ill of those in power in the Republican Party, and while I do believe that there are many in it who are out-and-out bigots of various sorts, I also know some people who are not this way. It’s hard for me to understand them, but I wish we could find ways to come together somehow. Naïve, perhaps, but sometimes our most naïve hopes are the most necessary.

What I want to say right now to anyone who might have voted for Romney is this: Take heart. No, not because the House remains largely Republican and grid-lock remains a real possibility. Take heart because the Dems’ goal is not to personally harm you.

* You will still benefit from the economic recovery underway now due to changes in policy introduced under the Obama administration.

* You will still be able to worship as you see fit.

* You will still be able to counsel pregnant women. You will still be able to adopt children that might otherwise be unwanted or born to those unable to care for them.

* You will still be able to rest assured that should you develop a chronic health condition (such as the diabetes that I’ve had since age 11), you’ll be able to get or keep health insurance and receive the care that you need all the more.

* You will still be able to hope for a secure retirement through the continued existence of Social Security and Medicare. No one will be expecting you to become your own investment expert or to risk the security of your elder years on vouchers.

* In the next election, the Democrats will still be trying to convince you that their policies are better for the nation than Republican ones, but no one will be trying to keep you from voting based on your demographic profile.

* You will still be able to marry whoever you want to marry. And to divorce legally should you desire to do so, no matter your religion, even though that’s frowned upon in the Bible and by the Pope and many other religions. You’ll still have the ability to remain in a less-than-happy marriage should you so choose.

* You will still be able to join the military and serve our country and receive opportunities for high-level technical training that may support you after you leave the military. You won’t be thrown out of the military because of who you love.

* Even so, you will likely benefit from a foreign policy based on diplomacy that is more likely to keep us out of wars that you or your children or your neighbors would otherwise have to fight and our taxes would have to pay for. You will benefit from the extraction of the U.S. from its current involvements in war where that is possible. You will still be able to welcome our soldiers home, as more of them finally come home.

* Your children will still have educational opportunities that, while not equal across the board by any means, will be supported as a right and need of our citizenry. You will be likely to continue to receive correct change in your transactions at the grocery store because the young man or woman working there will more likely have received well-funded schooling and something to eat to fuel his or her brain for learning when a developing child.

* You might even still have the opportunity to hear a symphony or view great works of art or receive in-depth information through NPR or PBS or work supported by the NEH, NEH, and NIH.

* You will still have access to some of the most reasonably priced, safest, and cleanest publically provided water in the world.

* You will still benefit from all the clean-air, clean-water, and other environmental regulations that protect our basic health and protect the future of our planet. You will benefit from clean energy policies that will combat the global warming that endangers us all.

* And when disaster strikes, FEMA will be there to make sure that you get help as soon as possible in a nationally coordinated effort. FEMA will not be privatized into some crazy quilt of corporations worried about making a profit on your misfortune.

We will keep taking care of you. The thing is that more of the rest of us will be more likely to be taken care of, too.

Democrats aren’t interested in taking anything away from most American citizens (though perhaps some more tax money from the wealthiest). We are interested in making sure that we all have basic care and opportunities. That even includes you, even though you might not return all of us the favor if you had won.

Yesterday, as I did my brief volunteer stint at the Obama volunteer coordination office in Casselberry, I really enjoyed myself. Because of my arthritic foot, I no longer feel it possible to torture myself with canvassing (which I have found utterly depleting when I’ve done it in the past), so I was doing data updates, keeping the various files organized, helping prep and send out the canvassers, providing snacks and water bottles, and generally helping out around the office.

As I greeted returning canvassers, I was touched by the reports from the field. We had men and women who came back from neighborhoods with stories of residents who had hugged them and thanked them for still being out there getting the vote out. I knew that my own brother still pounded the pavement in Massachusetts, working hard to re-elect State Representative Carolyn Dykema and helping to support Elizabeth Warren in her senatorial bid. My brother has been passionate about politics for as long as I can remember, and he’s an inspiration to me in his ability to withstand the confrontational nature of it all. I hoped that he was getting as friendly a reception in his last-minute forays as our volunteers were in Orlando.

My father before him maintained long years of involvement in politics—I remember him working at the polls in South Knox County back in Tennessee all those years ago. I remember him working long hours and coming home exhausted. At first I didn’t understand why he felt compelled to do it. But he provided a great example for my brother and me—we both find our ways to participate and to care about the future of our country. Everyone in my family has always felt compelled to understand the issues and to vote at the very least.

Late in the afternoon, I went to drive one voter to the polls who’d had knee surgery and couldn’t get there on her own. She was a funny lady—she was perhaps 65 years old, but it was hard to tell because her face had been altered by too many cosmetic surgeries and her hair dyed a brassy blonde. She was dressed to the nines to make the short foray around the corner to the polling station and had managed to pull on high-heeled black boots. I teased her that they might not be good for her knee as she limped into line, and we hoped together it wouldn’t be too long. With me in my jeans and sneakers, my hair in a frazzled mess, we couldn’t have looked more different. There was one car in her driveway and another sitting on the front lawn, but she told me that her roommate’s car wasn’t working and she didn’t want him to drive hers. The lawn had turned scrubby and long spikes grew up around one car’s wheels. I thought about all the tensions in her life and her dedication nonetheless to voting, and to voting for a candidate who respects the middle-class and the diversity of our country. At least superficially, it didn’t look as though we had much else in common, but we had that. (Well, maybe our poor yard care, too.)

When I got back from this errand, I stood in the office doorway watching the hub-bub and suddenly felt moved by what had surrounded me all day. I tried to imagine the same excitement and camaraderie at the Romney headquarters, and I knew it would be missing a crucial ingredient for me, even if I believed somehow in Romney’s policies (which I don’t). We’ve all seen the photos—at the convention, at the various rallies, at the headquarters around the country, at the concession speech—and The Daily Show has long ago made fun of this—but the uniformity of Romney supporters always stuns me nonetheless.

On the other hand, as I stood in the doorway of the Casselberry Obama office, I felt like a citizen of a great nation built on diversity, built on multiple backgrounds and a celebration of this broad range of humanity. Even in this single small office, we had volunteers young and old, white, Latina and Latino, African-American, East Indian, and various other shades of the human rainbow. We had one lady who swooped in in her Mercedes and others, like me, who showed up in ordinary or beat-up old cars. One woman came without a car at all, and I drove her over to a nearby neighborhood to canvas on foot. One woman sported a large “LGBT Community for Obama” pin on her T-shirt. An older black gentleman loaded provisions to take to those standing in the long lines expected after five p.m. One young mother brought her five-year-old daughter, who filled in with the hi-lighter all the columns that her mother checked off. Then I gave her some paper and she drew us all pictures of little girls beaming from the pages, the sun beaming above them. I taped them on the wall with the pictures of Obama and teased her that maybe one day she would be running for president.

The voter rolls we were updating were filled with names indicating all kinds of origins—plenty of Johnsons and Joneses mixed in with Rodriguezes and Garcias. I noticed names that were Greek, Arab, Indian, Russian, French, and African. I felt glad that immigrants to the U.S. no longer feel a need to Anglicize their names, and glad that I couldn’t even assume that these names were those of first-generation Americans. Decades ago, the country was conceived of as a melting pot, where we all were to blend in—that was the time when my ancestors came here from Scotland, Ireland, England, Germany, and France. That was one kind of diversity, but also the time when people tended to change their names to something more “American” soon after they landed here in order to “fit in.” I wondered about names that might hide negative parts of our history—slavery and Native American displacement. Nowadays, however, instead of the melting pot, we use the metaphor of the salad bowl—in which we mix but don’t have to blend to the point of disappearance or uniformity. And this is the country I love—one based on a mixture of people, both those who came before and those who continue to come as well as to be born into this rich amalgam.

At the Obama volunteer office, we were not all the same, and yet there we were, all working together. The challenges remain enormous, in spite of Obama’s fortuitous reelection and some fabulous wins in the Senate. I hope we can meet these challenges all together as a nation, even though we are not all the same. There’s a model for doing so in the Democratic party, and I hope the Republicans can join us in that.

Kinds of Help

Last month, two graduate students that I work with invited me to speak at a round-table event about blogging later in November. I agreed, enthusiastically, put it on the calendar, and then promptly stopped posting on my blog. The two things, I promise, don’t have anything to do with each other, but their juxtaposition nonetheless has made me more aware of both of them. If I’m going to go and talk about the benefits of blogging, what does it mean that I’ve gone inactive? And does there come a time when it’s better not to blog?

There is nothing worse than those blogs that never quite get off the ground, where the blogger posts promises about blogging and not much else. “I’ll be back soon.” Or, even worse, “I’m back! I’m committed,” and then nothing more. As one stumbles through the blogosphere, one sees many such entries. That’s one reason why I have not even signed on to explain my hiatus.

Yet, I do find that being on break from the blog has been yet another learning experience about blogging.

First, that I do sincerely miss it. I miss the sense of discipline, the accomplishment of writing something every week that’s self-contained and “done,” and the connectedness that comes with all the public and private responses I get. This has given me insight into the junkie nature of attention to one’s writing—I’ve never had much, but I can see easily how that gets to driving some writers, for better and for worse.

I have also learned that as much as I love the blog and feel devoted to it, there are other things that take priority. The main reason I haven’t been blogging is because I have been spending every spare minute I have working on the book with Oxford for which I have a contract. There are other secondary reasons—I’ve had to have a minor surgery, I’ve been out of town, I’ve been formulating a project and soliciting an illustrator for it, I’ve been back in the classroom again and attending to all the prosaic demands of the university bureaucracy—course descriptions, book orders for next term, making benefits decisions during open enrollment, etc. etc.

Frankly, I’ve also been trying not-so-successfully to deal with the stress and anxiety of it all. A couple of weeks ago, my neurologist’s nurse told me that my latest MRI looks “completely normal.” She asked if I’d been having any symptoms, and I reported to her that I seem basically fine but don’t feel like myself. I wondered if my forgetfulness, irritability, inability to get a training response to exercise, and lack of concentration are sequelae to my brain events or just middle age. After asking me a few questions, she came to a different conclusion.

You know how it is when someone tells you something that you already really know, but it just clicks? There’s an aha moment even though the idea is nothing new.

“I think,” the neurology nurse said, “that there’s nothing wrong with your brain. You have the classic symptoms of insomnia and anxiety. You need to get eight hours of sleep at least two or three nights a week.” (I was getting between three and six. Once a month, maybe seven.)

So, last week I discussed this with my endocrinologist. He’s one of the good ones—a doctor who cares, who knows his stuff, and who makes time to really listen. When I was in the hospital after my brain hemorrhage, either he or his nurse came by to see me every day, even though I was not under their care at the time.

Anyway, I came home with a new prescription to help me deal with the insomnia and anxiety, a very minor dosage of a mostly harmless medication. I feel better already. That’s not really the interesting part, though. The interesting part is that Dr. M. spoke to me very personally. I have never, ever had a physician do so before, and it was a red-letter day for me.

When I was telling him about how sometimes I would be in the car driving somewhere and forget how to get there, have to call my friend and ask which exit is the best for her house, he laughed and said, “That sounds just like me. I usually get off at the right exit, but sometimes I don’t remember how I got there.”

When I told him how I feel that the powers that be just make it harder and harder for me to do my job well, and how it seems that my colleagues who take short-cuts or behave selfishly are the ones that are rewarded, he nodded. I told him that I used to love my job and that I thought I always would, but that now I always have to force myself to find the good things in it and that if I won the lottery I would quit tomorrow. He said, “I feel the same way. The adminstrators are always telling us we are only allowed to spend five minutes with a patient, and I am always telling them that’s not enough for a Type 1 with a pump, but they don’t care.”

I told him that the medical appointments—all designed to maximize the amount the doctor can charge the insurance company—have run me ragged. I told him that I had to have a total of eight appointments to have the D&C I had a couple of weeks ago—the initial appointment where all we did was set up other appointments and then appointments for the first lab work, the ultrasound, the tests the doctor performed, the pre-op, the pre-op labwork at the hospital, the procedure itself, and then the post-op. “That’s eight appointments,” I said. “Not including all the procedures themselves and the waiting in offices, that’s eight hours of me just driving around town, a whole day of work just driving around so that the docs can charge more. The number of appointments could certainly have been cut in half. Easily.

He looked chagrined, and we agreed that the tail is wagging the dog. We agreed that these circumstances are designed to promote those who don’t care about the quality of their work, and that it’s a mystery why we all seem to agree to live this way.

“I’m not mentally ill,” I said to him, and he agreed. “I need medication because we have come to find ourselves living in a world that’s intolerable.”

In fact, the percentage of my friends and relatives and their kids and their spouses and their parents that take some kind of psychotropic medication is enormous. At least one in five Americans is now taking at least one such medication, according to the American Psychological Association. And the percentage of people who aren’t taking prescription help often participate widely in the phenomenon known as self-medicating via alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and illegal recreational drugs. (Studies noted by Mental Health America and Health Services Research indicate the severity of this issue.)

The APA notes that the recent rapid increase in the use of these medications indicates “inappropriate prescribing,” and I agree. I have known people whose diagnoses I thought were overblown and who seem to me worse off than before they were medicated. The insurance companies and the medical world have tended to turn away from the hard work of intensive psychotherapy for those with real issues and have turned toward the easy pop-a-pill (or four) mentality.

But there is also a societal change going on that contributes to this in a different way, I believe. I believe that recent years’ move away from concepts of the public good toward more personal greed and supposed “self-reliance” have turned us more and more toward dog-eat-dog. Community is not emphasized, helping out is not emphasized—it’s every man, woman, child, and dog for itself. This leads inevitably to stress.

My father retired when he was 56 years old. He has lived the past twenty years in a secure retirement. He did some consulting work, he helps his wife with her small collectibles business, he got into crime writing workshops and wrote a novel, he plays tennis, he’s taken care of aging and infirm colleagues and relatives. And now he and his wife babysit her grandchildren. He has remained an active and contributing member of society, and he is a classic case of why the middle-class is a great thing.

We are unfortunately losing the middle class. My brother and I—highly educated, hard-working people who had our first jobs by age 16 or 17—have no secure retirement to look forward to. We only hope it will be there, and there’s no way that either of us will be able to retire before we’re nearly 70 years old. The future is even less sanguine for my brother’s daughter and for my students.

These are choices our society has been making and continues to make. There is plenty of money in our society, though it is consolidated in fewer and fewer hands. And there are plenty of us who want to help each other and be parts of a community, not just self-protective egotists. Even those that I encounter in my work life who seem the most selfish, self-promoting, and communally harmful seem to me to really wish for something else. They only feel that they are doing what they have to do to survive. Who can condemn them for that? I myself have turned away from demands I can’t handle, that I have felt might sink me.

Sometimes I marvel over the fact that there’s so much stress involved in being an English professor. I always think, “Hell, it’s not like I’m an ER doctor or an airplane pilot who could take out hundreds of lives with one error.” Not to mention that I don’t live in a war-torn place or one where I’m likely to starve. As the Rolling Stones song points out, though, even cooking dinner can be a trial, and there’s something stressful about the compromises that we make to have our comfortable lives. Vivian Gornick captured the same idle desperation of English departments in her wonderful essay “At the University: Little Murders of the Soul.” There is nothing more deadening than corporate expectations (or perhaps housewifely ones). And corporate expectations have taken over everywhere. My students can’t even have a minimum-wage job nowadays without being constantly harangued about their enthusiasm.

I have a hard time reconciling this high level of psychological distress across society with the idea that we are all living the way we choose to live. If we have all this choice in our lives that the gurus speak of, if we create the world we dream of, if we only have to envision success faithfully in order to get it, could we please envision something more benign, something more cooperative and less manipulative?

I know this is probably not stuff I should discuss in public on a blog with my name on it. That’s probably one more reason why I’ve been hanging back from blogging lately–just too many unspeakables on my mind. But I just have to say that if this is scandalous, then I have to laugh. More likely, of course, it could give an enemy a vulnerability to attack. But one thing I have always liked about myself—among the admittedly many things I’ve longed to change—is that I go ahead and do what I think is right. I go ahead and say what I’m thinking. I try to do this in ways that aren’t designed to hurt others, but I am not afraid to be hurt myself. I’d rather be real than afraid. I’m not invulnerable, but I am brave. I don’t mean to make more of that than it is. There are many things I am not that I would prefer to be. This is no Facebook brag or depiction of my life as peachy and perfect, of me as a hero of all that I survey, a wild success, a best human in the world. Nope, nope, nope. But I do marshal on. Today, a little more calmly.

Disappearing and Reappearing

Shells, fossils, and china chits with their own submerged existence.

On my way home yesterday, I heard an interesting little spot on PRI’s The World about some 17th-century treasures being found in the drought-lowered Vistula River in Poland. Large pieces of marble sculptures, even fountains, had been looted and loaded onto barges by Swedish invaders, but not all these transports made it back to Sweden. Historical reports show that at least one, perhaps overloaded and too heavy, sank in the Vistula. It waited close to 400 hundred years at the bottom of the river. (Another article from the Irish Times and video from MSNBC here.)

I’m hard pressed to explain why it is that I find such relics of the past so fascinating, but I do. Even when I’ve spent days meandering along lakeshores in Pennsylvania or scrounging around the edges of strip mines in Tennessee, I have always been moved by the bits of water-worn china and glass and by the fossils of creatures long gone. Whether it was a family trip to Chucalissa, a hike through the abandoned homesteads of Cataloochee, or a school trip to Ft. Loudon, I always marveled at the lives people had once led, at how things had changed and how they had stayed the same.

Today, I think one of the things that I appreciate about the recovery of these lost objects in Poland is the way they tell the story of things that existed without public fanfare for so long. They existed just as much at the bottom of the river for the past 350-plus years as they do now that they are at the surface.

One of my colleagues, Pat Rushin, this week also greeted the news that one of his screenplays, The Zero Theorem, is in pre-production with Terry Gilliam (who also directed the recently discussed Brazil). In a sense, this is another hidden treasure finally rising to the surface. This screenplay was written years ago, and was once previously slated for production, and I like thinking about how it had value all the years that it waited for its current attention, and how it will go on having that value long after it is made as a film and does or doesn’t fade from view.

As artists, we have to believe in our work no matter how much attention it gets in any given moment.

And we shouldn’t let attention that we (or others) may get as determinative of our value, even though that is the only measure that is clear and too often, unfortunately, the only measure by which we are judged. The knowledge does not diminish my happiness for Pat’s success, but I try to remember that time hides beauties, time reveals treasures. They exist either way.

The Bureaucracy of Fantasy

Dobrynya Nikitich, a great Russian dragonslayer. Close-up of the painting Bogatyrs (1898) by Viktor Vasnetsov.

When I started drafting this post, I included a long list of my recent encounters with the medical and health insurance bureaucracies. I’ve deleted all those specifics—you don’t need them because you have a list of your own. Everyone does because virtually everyone lives embedded in bureaucracy. There are very few walks of life where a person doesn’t have to deal with red tape and forms on a more or less constant basis.

Just stop and think how many forms you have filled out in the past year, and how much of your life that has taken up. Then add on the time you’ve spent on hold or dealing with some low-level “customer service” rep on the phone or instant messaging, and the sad truth of these many wasted hours comes clear.

As a person with a chronic illness that is likely to shorten my expected lifespan, I have always chafed at this set of circumstances. While I understand the need for much of it—the driver’s licenses, the voter registration cards, the building permits, the medical histories—I have always grown very impatient with needless bureaucratic obstacles.

But today while I was thinking about this issue, I happened upon some good news for me: Life expectancy for those with Type 1 diabetes has improved greatly in the past couple of decades and for those of us born between 1965 and 1980 is only about 4 years shorter than those in the general population. When I was diagnosed in 1972, it was a whopping 15 or 20 years lower than average. Maybe I am no longer justified in my impatience.

It would be fascinating if someone would do a study about what diabetics do with those extra years we now get to live. I suspect that a goodly portion of it will be spent waiting in doctor’s offices, hassling with health insurance providers and third-party billing profiteers, shuttling medical records from one doc to another, and filling out paperwork related to treatments and benefits.

What I also fear—for all of us caught up in this increasingly bureaucratized world—is that we will turn more and more to fantasy as the antidote.

Because even the word “bureaucracy” is really boring, right? Who wants to even discuss the issue when every one of us has some version of it in his or her own life. Who needs more?

I have a theory that the rise of genre fiction (and movies and gaming and so on and on) has to do with the concomitant rise of bureaucracy all around us, even through and in us. We are living in ways that it’s truly unacceptable to live—inhuman ways that denigrate us. Not that we are living in squalor—perhaps the trappings of comfort and leisure (the TVs, the cars, the iPads, the flights to Paris) allow those of us in the middle class to ignore these cold wastes of time. After all, desperate living and working conditions, hunger and illiteracy, dysentery and violent repression all continue the world over, and are worse than mere bureaucracy.

Perhaps it is fitting, then, that we don’t answer the bureaucratic inhumanity with the rally or the march or the strike. These methods seem to have lost their effectiveness to a great extent anyway—people march and rally and strike, and the powers that be wait them out. Our “first-world” problems don’t seem to deserve that kind of outcry. When it’s attempted—as in Occupy Wall Street, which I greatly respected as an attempt to bring attention to these and related economic issues—the result is moderate and the fun-poking is huge. The reaction of much of the bureaucratized population to the Occupy movement was “Get a job.” No matter how unjust the implications, that tone has been common.

For the middle class, then, the main protest activity seems to be a retreat into fantasy. Fantasy seems to be something that almost everyone can get behind, no matter one’s political party, no matter one’s income level, no matter one’s level of education. Whether it’s interstellar space exploration or misty dragon-filled castles, whether it’s pretend wars where everyone can be a paintball hero or perfumed spas staffed by buff young men who will oil and rub one’s muscles, whether it’s in book or movie or video game or cosplay form—almost everyone seems more interested in an alternate world than the one we actually live in.

Never in my life have I seen a more prescient film than Brazil. It’s a film I will admit that I didn’t enjoy watching—it’s an ugly film and hard to follow. But the world that it presents—where the only escape from the bureaucracy is in a fantasy where the main character takes on armor and the wings of an angel—seems to me more and more like the world I live in now.

And I think that Brazil anticipates the way in which more and more extreme reliance on bureaucratic thinking about fitting in, strange self-fulfilling forms of meaningless success, pursuit of superficial beauty at any price—these things all lead us not to rethink our own world and its possibilities, but to fall back on hope in the magical.

The real horses are starving due to drought. It’s okay, though, because we can pretend that Dobrynya Nikitich and other dragonslayers will ride in on their beautiful steeds and save the day.

This strategy is fine with the powers that be, with those that impose further and further bureaucratic strictures. It is a great opiate. It lets everyone off the hook. It’s the religion without the requisite belief or morality. Win-win, I guess.

I’m sure that if I can only convince myself I have some angel wings somewhere, those waits in doctors’ offices and on hold won’t bug me so much. Until, of course, the end of the fantasy.

The Sun Is Shining

Tomorrow is 9/11—day of destruction, day of my friend’s birthday. Today as I drove home from the vet’s after Jupiter’s cancer check-up and my own entanglements with the human medical system, raindrops started pelting the car—big, enthusiastic raindrops out of nowhere. The sky was not exactly cloudless—it seldom is during Florida summers (and, yes, it’s still thoroughly summer here)—but I could see only a few fluffy white cumulonimbus ones floating in a blue sky.

For some reason, the kitschy Giles, Giles, and Fripp version of “The Sun Is Shining” popped into my head. The blue sky contrasting with the rain perhaps made me think of the cognitive dissonance of this song. And I was also reminded of September 11, 2001, when I had just started my teaching job at Bucknell University—how beautiful the weather was that day and what shared sorrow visited us at the same time. We could hardly believe that the weather continued to be so beautiful.

Perhaps “The Sun Is Shining” also came to me because last week I was revisiting The Prisoner and my college days, where I also had the pleasure to meet all kinds of new-to-me music such as that of Giles, Giles, and Fripp, as well as the better known King Crimson, and in metonymic rock ‘n’ roll fashion Fripp & Eno, 801, and Roxy Music. I had been so sheltered in my Tennessee country-rock-blues-pop universe that I had never heard of any of these. And I loved them. They were my ticket to a cool I had never experienced before. They exploded in my brain.

For one thing, I loved the fact that they could sustain both high drama and silliness. And “The Sun Is Shining” in all its smarmy truth suited my mood this afternoon. I hadn’t listened to the song in maybe decades, but it appeared in my mind full and funny, and I sang it through the pouring rain and sunshine all the way home.