Friday, April 29, 2011

Middle-aged golden boys and girls

Given my last two posts, it's appropriate that this week delivered to my doorstep the alumni report for Cosimo's college class: a big red book containing contact information and vital statistics for everyone the university has on record, as well as individual narratives for everyone who chose to submit them (I'd estimate 70%). Since Cosimo is several years older than I am and this year is a big round-number reunion, there's a lot of stock-taking and self-appraisal going on.

Some people's narratives are thoughtful, others are merely informative, and still others are hilarious and self-deprecating. However, to a snarky non-classmate like myself, the most fun are the writers who conform to every stereotype I've ever had about people of their age and class (which is to say, basically, my own age and class):
  • "Although I still work in corporate litigation, my real passion is for Iyengar yoga."
  • "After living in eight countries since graduation, I've finally put down roots in Vienna, the most beautiful city in the world."
  • "I recently stepped out of the rat race, took a 50% pay cut, and moved to Albuquerque. What I lost in prestige I gained in sanity. Try it, you might like it!"
  • "Even though I'm now 'just a homemaker,' I sit on the board of both our children's schools, I'm involved in fundraising for the civic opera and the art museum, and I mentor young women thinking about careers in journalism."
  • "How to pick out the high points of the past five eventful years? Summitting Kilimanjaro was definitely a memorable moment, as was being profiled in the Wall Street Journal."
  • "We recently relocated back to the States, and now live in D.C.--well, the 'burbs, a decision prompted by a great French immersion program and our desire for our girls to remain bilingual."
  • "Believe it or not, I've really gotten to have it all."

I realize that reunions cause some people great anxiety, and that much of this boasting or defensiveness can be ascribed to preemptive worries about being judged, personal fears about not having lived up to their potential, or maybe just a radical miscalculation about the tone or genre of the alumni update. (Unsurprisingly, the classmates who have achieved actual fame tended not to write in at all.)

Still, it's rather fascinating to see 1,000 people of the same age and educational background wrestling, collectively, with early middle age and what they have or haven't yet achieved in their lives. Only a few people mention setbacks or disappointments (divorces, lost jobs, stints in rehab) and even those narratives all have happy endings. Many people refer to their "blessings" or "good fortune," and a fair number announce how happy they are and how much they love their lives. I assume that most of that happiness is genuine, but it does often seem to be tinged with nostalgia or the fear that this--however good this is--may be it.

It's both touching and insufferable. I can't wait to meet them.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Narratology bleg

Okay, theory peeps: I need a quick and dirty introduction to narratology. Right now I seem to be muddling toward a line of argumentation that I suspect there's already a well-developed discourse surrounding, and I want to make sure that I'm not reinventing the wheel and that the terms I'm assuming have coherent and stable meanings actually have those meanings.

Briefly, I'm looking at what seems to be the failure or breakdown of narrative in specific circumstances: the attempt to narrate an experience that seemingly can't be told (possibly because it doesn't unfold in time or follow the accepted patterns of causality; possibly because there isn't a cultural framework that would allow others to understand that experience). So as written huge parts of the story might be omitted, or its chronology might be blurred, or it otherwise just doesn't make sense.*

Can anyone help a blogger out? I'd be grateful to be pointed toward works that provide either a general introduction to narratology or that seem to deal with the specific phenomenon I'm interested in. (The only article I'm familiar with that discusses something like it is Gerald Prince's "The Disnarrated.") Many thanks!

*And, uh, yes: I do seem to talk about this sort of thing a lot. But it's only recently that I realized I'm interested in it in my research, too.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Becoming lesser

A few weeks back I was feeling disappointed and mildly depressed about the course an old friend's life has been taking. Nothing dramatic or bad has happened--I just expected something more or different from him as a person and a personality. I chatted about this experience with a few people, trying to figure out whether I should be disappointed, or why it mattered to me at all. Part of an email from Victoria both summed up and illuminated what I was feeling. She wrote: "Persons often don't become their better selves. Lives aren't structured like those of bildungsroman protagonists. People stagnate, become lesser versions of themselves."

Huh! I thought. That's right. Sad, but right. I walked around thinking about this idea for a couple of days, and then, because I don't have a commonplace book wherein I inscribe Wise Sayings, I posted that sentiment (in quote marks, but without comment or attribution) as my Facebook status. I hate it when people do this sort of thing--post vague declarations that seem to demand concerned follow-up questions--but I liked Victoria's formulation and I figured no one would be interested enough to comment anyway.

To my surprise, I got a flurry of responses, most of them negative. Even after I'd provided some limited context and explained that I believe quite strongly in the potential for personal growth, but that it's useful to be reminded that not everyone chooses to pursue their own potential, I still got pushback from people insisting that I was denying personal agency; that everyone does grow, even if it's not in the ways we expected; that there are different kinds of success; and that it's ridiculous to hold someone else to our personal ideas about their potential.

None of this commentary was hostile--a lot of it seemed anxious, and eager for everyone to come to some consensus--but the experience startled me. I consider myself as optimistic as any American about the human potential for growth and change, and as flexible as any creative-class liberal in my definition of what counts as success or provides personal fulfillment; I don't regard stepping off the career fast track or becoming a stay-at-home parent as evidence of stagnation. But you'd have to be a moron not to recognize that some people shrink rather than grow over time, becoming less rather than more mature, open, generous, or interested in the world around them.

It's hard to know whether my interlocutors' comments were about deeply-held philosophical objections (or even more shallow ones: every day, in every way, we're getting better and better!), or just an anxious response to the life stage at which many of us now find ourselves. When your life has always been a series of goals--getting a degree, getting a job, getting promoted, finding a partner, buying a house, having kids--it's hard to know what to do with yourself once there are no more goals (or once the goals feel less necessary, or come more slowly, or aren't yet visible on the horizon). If there's no Next Thing we're focused on, or if there are no penalties for not achieving it, will we just stagnate? Have we already failed to live up to someone else's idea of our potential?

These are understandable worries, I think, but they miss the point. Growth and progress aren't measured by easy external markers. They're measured what you think and do and feel and how you relate to the people and the world around you.

Which means that maybe I am wrong to feel disappointed in my old friend; we're no longer close enough for me to know what's going on in his head or his personal relationships. But I'm not wrong to believe that we're capable of becoming lesser as well as greater, or that we should bear this possibility in mind, if only to guard against it.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Mainstream Christianity on your t.v.

Among the many things that I find remarkable about Friday Night Lights (whose second season I'm now midway through) is its matter-of-fact portrayal of contemporary Christianity. Which is to say, just about everyone appears to belong to a church, there's a locker-room prayer before every game, and there's a plot line about one of the characters getting born again. All of the characters appear to be nondenominational Protestants and some of their churches are clearly megachurches--but nothing about their religiosity is depicted snidely or ironically or played for laughs. At the same time, the church-goers aren't romanticized or presented as unusually good people. They're just people: flawed, complicated people, trying to live up to their professed pieties. And as realistic as all that sounds, I'm pretty sure I've never seen anything like it on t.v.

I've long maintained that contemporary fiction (broadly conceived as novels, movies, and television) tends to ignore religion, and especially white Protestantism. I can think of novels that deal with religion in a complex way when the characters are Catholic or Jewish, or when the characters are immigrants or racial or ethnic minorities. But unless the characters' religiosity is intended as a sign of their shallowness or hypocrisy, I've virtually never seen an exploration of mainstream, middle-class Protestantism in a novel; the only exception I can think of is Marianne Robinson's Gilead (which is set in the 1950s).

T.V. and movies strike me as even less likely to depict religion in the variety of ways it actually gets lived in America. One of my all-time favorite t.v. shows, Six Feet Under, managed to do so: the fifty-something mother of the family goes to church every Sunday. . . but so does her 30-year-old gay son, who met his partner there. And when his sexuality eventually causes some friction in that particular church, he doesn't abandon his faith; he finds a more liberal church with a female pastor.

But I'm not a cultural omnivore, and I've probably missed plenty. I'd love any of my readers' thoughts about or examples of how religion gets portrayed in contemporary fiction.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Professional-class parenting

I have the usual feministic mixed feelings about Caitlin Flanagan's work, but I found myself agreeing with much of her article in the April issue of the Atlantic. Nominally, it's a response to Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother--or really, a response to the many responses to Amy Chua--but it winds up being mostly about the high-stakes college admissions process.

Flanagan argues that the real reason so many decent, thoughtful, upper-middle-class mothers are upset by Chua's book is that they simultaneously believe that their children should be less burdened and overscheduled, more imaginative and more free to follow their own passions--and that their creative intelligence and own-bliss-following should win them a spot at Princeton. They're therefore made frantic by the conflict between their beliefs about progressive parenting and the reality of college admissions. Ivy League schools have so many applicants that they don't have to choose between admitting quirky, creative kids (whose one or two great passions mean their report cards are a little patchy) and admitting overscheduled, super-achieving automatons. Princeton could fill an entire entering class with superachievers who are also quirky and creative and passionate.

Now, I haven't read Chua's book and I don't have children, but Flanagan's analysis rings true with what I hear and see around me in the debate about top-tier colleges and universities: admission to such schools is seen either as a real and significant judgment on an adolescent's intelligence and abilities--or as a process that rewards only the dull and the driven, who spend long hours coloring, furiously, within the lines. In my experience, neither is true--or maybe both are, but to a much more limited degree than either the Ivy League's obsessives or its detractors suppose.

I'm therefore supportive of Flanagan's proposal that those parents who really care about their children's individual passions and intelligence adopt what she calls "The Rutgers Solution" (where "Rutgers" = the flagship state school of your choice):
If you make the decision--and tell your child about it early on--that you totally support her, you're wildly engaged with her intellectual pursuits, but you will not pay for her to attend any college except Rutgers, everything will fall into place. She'll take AP calculus if she's excited by the challenge, max out at trig if not.
Now, Flanagan doesn't seem to be serious about this proposal; she's just making the rhetorical point that upper-middle-class parents in certain areas of the country, like the NYC 'burbs, would never seriously encourage their kids to drop AP classes or enforce their bedtimes--thus solving the problem of stress and burnout--because even as they bemoan the academic rat race they would also consider sending their kids to Rutgers a sign of their failure.

But I think parents might benefit from taking her proposal seriously, at least with some caveats: it strikes me as unnecessarily limiting to tell a child that you'd only pay for her to attend a local university--some of us were motivated precisely by the idea that we might go someplace we'd never have to see any of our high school classmates again--and it's not the child's ambitions that are really the problem anyway; teenagers drive themselves hard either because they genuinely enjoy the work they're doing (and/or desire its end result), or because they've erroneously been led to believe that they will only be happy and successful in life if they attend one of approximately 15 different colleges.

So rather than saying, "We'll only pay for you to go to college if you go to Rutgers," say, "We expect you to go to college, and if you work hard, you'll get into Rutgers." And then see who your child is, and what she can do, and recalibrate. If the kid has other ambitions, she can bring up other colleges on her own (or not). If the kid is having a hard time, tell her about all the other academic and life options available.

This is more or less what my own parents did. They attended every academic and extra-curricular event I was involved in, and they were hugely affirmative about my accomplishments, but they never suggested that there were better colleges than the local flagship; other options simply weren't on their radar. Once I started looking at fancier schools they got interested and involved--but I still never had the impression that they cared (in any neurotic personal way) where I wound up. They were equally cool with my brother's decision not to go to college right after high school; they were happy about and interested in his high-tech job, and equally happy and interested when, a few years later, he applied and went away to college.

In the end, then, Flanagan's essay is a little incoherent; she takes, as always, too much glee in exposing what she sees as the hypocrisy or limited self-knowledge of "professional class parents," seemingly more interested in flagellating than in reassuring them, even though her essay could provide cause for reassurance. Toward the end of the article she notes that rejection from an Ivy League school is no great tragedy, since there are lots of colleges and universities out there, full of good teachers and smart, interesting students. However, she doesn't conclude on that note, but on this one:
most children today can't have it both ways: they can't have a fun, low-stress childhood and also an Ivy League education. This is what [Amy Chua] understood early on--as the good mothers are about to learn, when the heartbreaking e-mails and letters from the top colleges go out this month--that life is a series of choices, each with its own rewards and consequences. In a sense, that is the most unpalatable message of her book. . . that the world really doesn't lie before us like a land of dreams. At best--at the very best--it can only offer us choices between two good things, and as we grasp at one, we lose the other forever.
And all I can say to that is: give me a fucking break. This isn't a real double-bind, or at least not for any parent who is genuinely concerned about her child rather than the values or judgments of her fellow parents.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

SAA: Day Three

My last day of SAA was a long one--9 a.m. to 1 a.m.--and not having a room to return to for some midday recharging was hard. I have an unusually long battery life for an introvert (and sitting in panels is less taxing than having to be continually socially on), but I still had to disappear myself to a distant café for a couple of hours to regroup.

Still, it was excellently eventful. I saw one panel descend into shouted polemic (it began well, and I'm at least half in sympathy with the substance of the polemic, but after a number of detours into Crazy Town and someone yelling something about boa constrictors, I had to leave). But I also saw Cosimo give a great paper, on what may have been the best panel of the conference, to a packed room. In between whiles I drank a lot of coffee, gabbed with everyone who was around, and bought far too many books; I feel an obscure imperative to buy all my friends' books, even those barely tangential to my own research, and though I buy them as cheaply as possible it still makes for heavy carry-on luggage for the return.

The least successful part of the day and indeed of the conference involved the hotel bar. At every SAA I've attended, everyone winds up in the hotel bar at the end of the night; it's the place everyone promises to see everyone else, and it's not unusual for 70 of the 700 conference-goers to still be there at last call. However, the Hyatt bar had a very loud cover band that was also very, very bad. And according to the hotel's liquor license, no one could take drinks outside of the bar itself, even to the lounge-y seating area nearby. And while I had no wish to quarrel with the terms of the liquor license or with the officious young man who was just doing his job in shooing my friends and their drinks over the threshold back into the bar, I have a firm belief that I know best--and that tackiness, inefficiency, and social stupidity are my own personal job to eliminate.

So I marched up to the officious young man and told him how awful his bar was and how much business he was losing. For reasons that are unclear to me, he seemed to care deeply about my opinions while being totally unwilling to accept that the bar could drive anyone away.

"Actually, this band is a big draw. People come here for this. It's the only bar with live music on the Eastside. People drive in from Seattle!"

Maybe, I said. But they have bad taste.

"This isn't bad music! I mean, it's not like they're playing Journey, or Bon Jovi."

A younger (prettier, blonder) friend joined me. "No," she said. "It's awful. "This drink? Is the only one I'm paying for. Normally I'd order three or four. And see all those people? They would, too."

The two of us and the hotel employee went around and around about the badness of the band for some 10 minutes before he reminded me of something I'd forgotten: the opulent steakhouse at the top of the hotel had a bar. And great views.

"It's a little. . . older." He said. "A quieter crowd, kinda stuffy? But you and your friends might like it."

Ignoring the implied insult, we seized the suggestion, grabbed a few more friends, and jumped in the elevator.

The doors opened to a bar crammed full of people not noticeably older or cooler than the people downstairs. And it was loud, mainly because there was a guy at the piano shouting Billy Joel's "Piano Man" into a microphone.

Maybe I swore or maybe the half dozen of us in our conference-y clothes just looked out of place, but a woman at the bar sneered and told us what a legend the singer was, and how everyone in the joint was there to hear him. "You're from out of town, right?" She said. "well where do you think is better than this? you think Seattle is better than this?"

It's possible that I lost it. It's possible that I told her how many places in the world were better than that particular patch of real estate and that pathetic excuse for a nightlife scene. But whatever angry tirade I may or may not have uttered, I stalked back to the elevators, trailing astonished colleagues.

And then? And then we did what I have never done: we went to the Malone Society Dance. And the dark hotel ballroom with its overpriced drinks and wedding-D.J.-music-stylings (Erasure, Madonna, the B-52s, and, yes, Journey) was still so very much better than the hotel bar.

I might have wound up on the dancefloor. I might even have sung every word to "Living on a Prayer." But you'd have to have been there to confirm it.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

SAA: Day Two

Briefly: good panels, papers, etc., and a no-more-tedious-than-usual annual luncheon.

I'm not hugely in favor of the SAA leadership's new plan to archive personal conference memories (can't all those memorialists just get blogs? which I can choose not to read?), and I did not love the speaker's repeatedly dissing the location of his first job and telling the crowd (a large number of whom were, as he noted, grad students) about the awful hardships of the 1970s and 1980s job market, and how it forced his generation to go to ridiculous jobs in ridiculous places. (Because--cry me a river.)

But then I went home to recoup for a few hours, and all was well.

Friday, April 08, 2011

SAA: Day One

I love the fact that the first day of SAA always starts just after lunchtime--thus avoiding the shock to the system of a conference that begins at 8 a.m. after everyone has gotten in late the night before or the irritation of a conference that starts at 4 p.m. and whose first sessions most people miss anyway. And because of my unusual housing arrangement this year, the first day was especially nice: I slept for 10 hours and awoke to a grey, damp day whose chill was immediately alleviated by a fire in the fireplace, fresh espresso, and homemade Belgian waffles.

So any worries about being isolated from The Real Conference Experience were mostly quashed. Turns out? Waiting in line to spend $7.50 for coffee and a pastry in a hotel café ain't much to regret. Moreover, my folks live so close that after a short drive I found myself in an elevator from the parking garage to the conference hotel lobby. . . and it was just like having taken an elevator down to that same lobby. And since conference hotels are the same the world over, and the crowd of friends and colleagues and acquaintances exactly as it would have been anywhere, I forgot for long stretches of time that I had any personal connection to my location. (At one point, someone asked whether I were originally from the Northeast, and I said, brightly but mechanically, "oh no! I grew up outside of Seattle, in a town called--oh.")

My seminar met on the first day, and for the first time ever, I had a submission that actually dealt with Renaissance drama. Responses to it were extremely warm (except for the eminence who said, more than once, how much my paper had troubled him and gotten under his skin), and the seminar participants themselves were lovely people doing interesting work. However, the auditors looked like they were dying a slow death, trapped in the room listening to us talk about stuff none of them had read. I've never quite figured out why people did it--sat in on other people's seminars--and though I've tried it every year and regretted it every year, watching the fidgety agony of our own auditors decided me against ever doing so again.

So the conference got off to a good start, marred only by a poorly-conceived opening reception. The food was great, but the event was a sit-down dinner in a generic, windowless hotel ballroom that replicated all the bad parts of the annual luncheon: a grim little room, no ability to circulate, and an anxious, disgruntled, middle-schoolish scrambling for friends and tables. Still, an open bar goes a long way toward mitigating all that, and Flavia after a large whiskey followed by two glasses of champagne always decides that she's what every grad student most wants: a solicitous oracle of advice and commiseration. (Grad students may in fact not want this, but it makes her feel happy and generous--and she imagines she's doing her bit for SAA's reputation as a friendly and inclusive conference. The friendly crazy drunk lady is still friendly, after all.)

Then we went out and shot some pool at a bar I didn't know existed, the average age of whose clientel appeared to be about 22.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

SAA: Day Zero

In January I mentioned some of the ways that my conference-going (or at least my MLA-going) experiences have changed over the years, but never have I had the particular experience that I'll be having this time around at SAA.

For reasons that remain obscure to me, SAA is being held in my own personal hometown. Not the city that I tell people back east I'm from, but the actual place I'm from--a sizable city in its own right, and not without its quirks or charms, but whose downtown is dominated by upscale malls and Lexus and BMW dealerships. It's totally not cool (and neither is it a great site for a conference), and with T-minus 18 hours I'm already over all the whining I expect to hear from conference-goers disappointed not to find themselves in the hipsterish enclave they thought they were headed for.

On the other hand, I'm staying with my folks, in the house I grew up in, and they've lent me their car (which they filled with gas before I got here!). I have personal knowledge of the cool places to go and a means of getting there. But I've never commuted to a conference before, and I have no idea how comfortable the shift between my familial self and my professional one will be. My childhood home is only eight miles from this year's white-hot center of Shakespeariana, but it feels much farther.

Monday, April 04, 2011

King hereafter

Cosimo and I just had our bid on a house accepted. It's been a panic-attacky 36 hours (offer! counter offer! counter-counter offer! someone's gonna walk!) and the next week will be only moderately more sane: I leave for SAA tomorrow and the moment I return I have to jump in my car to drive back to Cha-Cha City for the home inspection.

But we're totally in love with it: built in 1920 and featuring the original hardwood floors, leaded glass windows, and gumwood trim—plus an enormous front porch and a backyard full of blooming things.

Oh, and? It's on a street named after a Shakespeare play. Fucking ridiculous.