Day 201: an even tension

In the first week of my undergraduate class on literature and attachment, we discussed excerpts from John Bowlby’s foundational work, A Secure Base (1988) and Bruno Latour’s essay “Factures/Fractures: From the Concept of Network to the Concept of Attachment” (1999). Although Bowlby and Latour approach the subject from very different perspectives, they agree on one thing: there’s no wriggling out of attachment.

As Bowlby writes, having explained the three basic attachment patterns—secure, anxious resistant, and anxious avoidant (based on the findings of his former student, Mary Ainsworth), “each pattern of attachment, once developed, tends to persist.”

As Latour puts it, “We can substitute one attachment for another, but we cannot move from a state of attachment to that of unattachment.”

For Latour, the important factor is not the attachment pattern but the object to which the subject is attached, and whether, as he puts it quite starkly, the object is good or bad, “morbid” or “redemptive.”

Latour doesn’t elaborate on what he means by good or bad but his main example is that a smoker cannot hope to become detached from smoking but only “that other attachments will come to substitute for this one.” Latour cites a study about substituting methadone for heroin, so I took that model to be what he had in mind, that model being one in which “the aim is to substitute methadone, a legal, oral opiate with a long half-life, for the illicit, parenterally administered heroin, which is associated with a high risk of morbidity and mortality. (Anderson, I B and T E Kearney. “Use of methadone” Western journal of medicine vol. 172,1 (2000): 43-6.)

Or, in the example I breezily presented to my students, “I get really distracted by my phone,” I confessed earnestly, “but my Mum just taught me to knit and I’ve found I’m spending much less time on my phone!” Here, I gestured smugly to the knitting stashed in my Virginia Woolf tote bag.

The class went really well and ended on a high note when one student posed a final question that used the Bowlby to gain a new vantage point upon the Latour.

She looked worried as she asked it. “So Latour says the important question is whether your attachments are good or bad. And that you can substitute good attachments for bad attachments.” But what,” she continued, “if you’re the anxious resistant type, and you’re just always attached to bad things. Or what if your attachment pattern makes things … even good things … bad?”

I was so jubilant at how she’d so deftly woven the two texts together that, in the moment, I just stood there, admiring the question as it hung in the air like a glittering spider’s web in the rain; and then we were out of time, so I just grabbed my knitting and left.

***

Knitting insinuated its way into my life so smoothly. These days when I leave the house for work my last minute check has an extra step: phone; wallet; keys; laptop; knitting. Part of the reason knitting integrated itself so seamlessly into my daily routine was that the knitting itself was easy. I was knitting a blanket square by square. Once I’d got the hang of casting on and off, completing a square was delightfully straightforward. My hands wanted to knit even when my hands were empty. Sometimes when I wasn’t knitting, I would fantasize about knitting. Dive under; loop over; push through; slide off; dive under; loop over; push through; slide off.

But then, a few nights ago, I hit a snag. A strange excrescence had appeared out of nowhere below my right needle, its lumpy appearance marring the effect of the rows of even stitches below it. What to do? I had absolutely no idea, I realized, of how to go backwards. Stay calm, I counseled myself. Theseus used the ball of thread to get out of the labyrinthYou just have to retrace your steps. 

I tried, gingerly, going one stitch back and then one stitch forward; but neither undid the mess. I felt myself start to panic.

What’s done cannot be undone.

I was completely stuck. Suddenly I was just holding a ball of wool and two sticks. What the fuck even are these, I thought to myself, staring at the knitting needles in dismay. The whole thing had become completely illegible to me, just a big, poky, tangle.

It was time to start reading stories to the younger and she’d gotten to bed late the night before.

She came in to see what I was doing.

“It’s all gone wrong!” I wailed.

She sighed.

“Just call Elo!” she urged.

“I can’t,” I whimpered, “it’s in the middle of the night there.”

She sighed again.

“Well just call her tomorrow.”

I knew I needed to lay the knitting down and start reading but I could feel tears filling my eyes at the very thought—at the idea that I would lay it down and not know where to pick up.

Let me just try to figure out how I can fix it, I thought. I Googled unraveling knitting and watched snippets of various YouTube videos and found a technique for unknitting stitch by stitch. But it didn’t seem to work and the sensible no-nonsense tones of the knitting YouTubers rubbed me the wrong way. I was left with even more of a mess.

My cheeks hot and my heart beating fast, I laid down the knitting and picked up Mary Poppins, which we’d just started reading. The younger was now overtired and fussy and I was irritable. She wanted Fudge-a-mania not Mary Poppins.

“But the thing is,” I tried to explain steadily, my voice growing shrill, “I actually don’t think I can read that book out loud again.”

There would be no spit-spot into bed that night.

***

When she was finally asleep and I went back to my own bed I thought about going to sleep but I just couldn’t. I picked up the knitting. It didn’t look so bad. But when I studied the two needles and the stitches held between and tried to imagine how to undo the defective stitches or transfer them from the right needle to the left, it engendered the same feeling of vertiginous panic as contemplating a horrendous equation. I felt nauseous.

All of my attempts at rescue produced more knots, but also, unfairly, a bigger hole. I watched more YouTube videos and finally decided, close to midnight, to attempt a drastic solution. I removed both needles and started unraveling my knitting down until I reached the part that was free of knots and holes. The yarn yielded stitch by stitch, as I gently pulled. It was pleasurable the way that ripping something along a perforated edge or toppling a line of dominoes is pleasurable. I could see the danger; once you started unraveling, it was difficult to stop. But I did stop. And then, holding my breath, I re-inserted the needle. It seemed to work. I knit forward with alacrity, eager to finish the square. The finished square was not perfect; there was a deviation in one of the rows, like a scar, I thought; but I felt ecstatic.

It was after midnight.

***

The next morning, galvanized by my triumph, I talked sternly to the younger, with Poppins-like authority, about dawdling at bedtime.

But as we were walking to school I admitted, “But it was my fault too. Because I wanted us to get bed early but then I got distracted by trying to fix my knitting.”

“Why did you get distracted?”

“I don’t know. I just felt like I couldn’t put it down.”

“It’s like knitting is your screen time,” she observed casually.

“Hmm,” I said.

“And then you stayed up till midnight knitting,” she went on. “You’re really addicted to it!” she exclaimed.

“Huh,” I said, uncertainly. “I guess I am.”

***

I have to finish proofreading something tomorrow. I had been putting off even starting it for weeks and today was the day I had resolved to start. So I went to the yarn store and picked out some beautiful soft yarn for a new project. It was thicker than the yarn I’d been using for the blanket so I needed some new needles, but I wasn’t sure what size. I asked the very patient assistant who had already been advising me.

“Well, it depends on your knitting style,” she said. “What’s your pattern, do you tend to knit loosely or tightly?”

I shook my head. “I really … I really have no idea,” I said … “Uh, perhaps you could look at my knitting and tell me?”

She smiled, but her gaze did not drop down to the knitting in my bag to which I was gesturing. Instead she held my gaze for a second, strode to the back of the store, grabbed something off a rack on the back wall, and then strode back to the cash register.

“I think these will suit you,” she said, handing me a pair of needles, each one the thickness of a fountain pen. I believed her.

 

knitting

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Day 200: I was very beautiful

Saturday morning. The elder is at kung fu. The younger and I are FaceTiming with Mum.

Mum: Oh, I was going to tell you, I ran into someone in Highgate Village yesterday who remembered you. I think she maybe had children who were similar ages to you and at the same school. Somebody Sainsbury? Do you remember anybody with the last name Sainsbury?

Me [not really listening, distracted by the various dolls whose heads the younger keeps pushing sinisterly into the camera frame]: Uh, no.

Mum: Well, anyway, it was quite interesting because the one thing she remembered about you, she said, was that you were very beautiful!

Me: [perking up, surprised and pleased and ignoring the younger, who is now making a barfing face and retching noises]: Oh! She said that I was very beautiful? Me?

Mum: Yes, you!

[I frown at and shush the younger who is now giggling and simpering in an English accent “oh, hello, my name is Sarah Kareem and I am sooooooo beautiful, la-di-dah!”]

Me: Well that was very nice of her!

Mum: Yes, wasn’t it? I said, “yes, she was. She was very beautiful.” [Then, in tone of mock-severity to the younger, who is now laughing hysterically]: And what are you laughing at, young lady, at the idea that your mother was beautiful? Well, she was!

Me [pause]: Wait. So you said to her, “she was very beautiful”? Why did you say “she was very beautiful”? Why didn’t you say, “why yes, she is very beautiful”?

Mum: Why, because she hasn’t seen you for twenty years! So that would have been a strange thing to say!

Me: [uncertainly]: Would it?

Mum: [decidedly]: Yes!

Me: Hmmm.

smaller sarah

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Day 199: Mer Ken: a dreamtopic vision

It was a Wednesday night. I was stretched out on my bed, knackered, and when the younger proposed using my laptop to scroll through the four hundred pages of Barbie dolls on amazon, it seemed like an excellent idea.

“I think I might just take a nap while you look,” I murmured, leaning my head against her shoulder. I drifted off.

“Mom, can I get something?”

I opened my eyes. “No.” I closed my eyes again.

“Mom. Can I at least show you something?”

“Sure. Show me.”

“OK, well, I have to find it again,” she muttered, beginning to scroll back from page 40. “I think it was on page 16 or 17.”

I closed my eyes again.

“Mom.”

I heard a voice summoning me from my slumber and opened my eyes to see a vision swimming before me. Was it a dream? No, it was better than a dream.

Screenshot 2019-01-13 10.44.05

It was Barbie Dreamtopia Merman Ken.

I gasped in joy and delight. Because this Mer Ken was totally dreamtopic. [1]

I think that my sense of beauty was most acute at about the age (eight) that the younger is now. Certain stimuli—satin ballet shoes; a My Little Pony’s luxurious mane; the gauzy outer layer of a party dress that my cousin gave me—elicited an almost dizzying, woozy sense of pleasure.

I could see in the younger’s shining eyes that she was experiencing that sensation now.

Although, in general, I can’t say that I’ve shared the younger’s devotion to Ken in all his iterations (for a start, they all—even those with man-buns—have plastic moulded hair as opposed to, uh, “real” hair, and where’s the fun in that?), here, finally, was a Ken worthy of my adoration.

I couldn’t stop staring at him. He was so perfectly proportioned, so beautifully balanced, his torso and tail sculpted just so, his head cocked just at the very slightest angle, his gaze intense and steady, a smile playing in the curl of his lips.

He’s a more evolved being, I found myself thinking. Maybe one day, if scientists play God like they’re supposed to, we can all look like this and what a dreamtopic world it will be!

It must also be said that Mer Ken is unquestionably superior to Mer Barbie. The eye glides easily along Mer Ken’s sleek, flowing lines, an effect enhanced by the elegant gradation of the coloring on his tail. By contrast, the gaudy coloring, tiered effect, and notable indentations on Mer Barbie’s tail, as if knee joints and calf muscles reside beneath, not only impede the line of sight but also create the curious (intentional?) impression, not that Barbie is a mermaid, but that Barbie’s legs are stuffed into a fake mermaid tail.

Screenshot 2019-01-13 10.43.17

Moreover, while Mer Barbie has a rather tacky tiara and, frankly, matronly bra top, Mer Ken has, according to the description, a tasteful removable shell necklace and sea-worthy wrist-cuffs.

I had the passing thought, while reading the description of Ken’s accessories, that maybe I should quit my job and write copy for Mattel, because it seems like a really fun job.

Let’s look at the whole description.

Screenshot 2019-01-13 12.11.59

I love everything about this description. It just gets more exciting with every bullet point. The opening characterization of Ken as “ready to dive into fantastical fun as a Merman” plays on the literal and figurative meanings of “dive” to signify on two diegetic levels: “as a Merman” he will, of course, be literally diving into the water; but “Ken” is also ready to dive into his role “as a Merman.”

The second bullet point takes a step back to an extra-diegetic perspective from which Ken is just a “Doll” with certain attributes, which will be described, in this and the third bullet point, with adjectives highlighting their salient features with increasing specificity. Most neutrally, Ken’s mermaid tail is colorful, while his necklace, as mentioned previously, is removable, opening up all sorts of narrative possibilities—loss, theft, exchange, etc.

The third bullet point zooms in upon Ken’s wrist-cuffs and, and makes the bold, bizarre claim that they are sea-worthy. This declaration is notable in at least two ways. In the first place, singling out Ken’s wrist-cuffs as sea-worthy raises the disturbing possibility that the rest of him is not. And both common law and the Hague Vigsby rules indicate clearly that seaworthiness as a concept applies to the vessel as a whole and not merely to accessories. In the second place, it is not at all clear that the wrists are in fact seaworthy, meaning that, at least in the U.K., Dreamtopia Merman Ken may find himself swimming afoul of the Merchant Shipping Act of 1995.

The final bullet point declares that “articulation at the waist allows storytelling action,” an assertion that—narratologists take note—introduces an entirely new factor—that of waist articulation—to the qualities of character and thought already identified by Aristotle as causes from which narrative action springs. [2]

All this for the bargain price of $7.94. No wonder he’s out of stock.

 

Notes

[1] Side note: what do you think Google asks you when you Google “Mer Ken Amazon”?

[2] See Aristotle, Poetics, Section VI.

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Day 198: how time works

Posted in honor of my darling youngest, who, according to the old rules of time, turns 8 today. May she and may we all invent new rules of time in 2019.

***

Scene: one evening a couple of weeks ago before the kids stopped school and I stopped attempting to regulate … anything.

Me: I’m setting the timer for 10 minutes and then you’re done with screen time.

A: OK.

[10 minutes later, the alarm goes off.]

Me: OK, time to stop.

A [defiantly]: No! That’s not right. That wasn’t 10 minutes.

Me [weakly, feeling I am being inexorably pulled into a fight the way that spaceships in movies are pulled into larger spaceships by tractor beams, or into black holes by gravity]: Dude. It was. Come on. Turn it off.

A [her energy seeming to grow as mine depletes, like she’s a Dementor]: NO. Mom, for real, your clock doesn’t work. When you set your clock for 10 minutes it goes straight to 9 minutes and THAT’S NOT HOW TIME WORKS. So I get an extra minute.

Me [losing patience and wrenching the iPad from her hands]: My clock is working, you don’t get an extra minute.

A [beginning to cry in fury and frustration]: but it’s actually not fair because your clock really doesn’t work properly, I’ve seen it.

Me [softening, unsure if she is messing with me or genuinely confused]: OK, let me show it to you so you can see how it works.

A: Fine.

Me: OK, so you see, I set it for 10 minutes, then I press start, and then—

time

A [interrupting]: IT WENT STRAIGHT TO 9, THAT’S NOT HOW TIME WORKS, IT LEFT OUT A WHOLE MINUTE. [Now full on sobbing in frustration]

Me: OK, I see why you’re confused, you think because the 10 turns to a 9 it’s skipped a minute, but see how it’s counting down 59, 58, 57 … we are still in that 10th minute until it gets down to zero, and then there’s 9 minutes left. Look, see, now it’s coming down to 9 minutes and now it’s—

A [incensed]: IT SKIPPED ANOTHER MINUTE, IT WENT STRAIGHT TO 8

Me: OK, I’m not doing a good job explaining this but you just have to take my word for this that my clock IS right, this IS how time works, and the 10 minutes IS up.

A [not backing down]: THAT’S NOT HOW TIME WORKS.

Me [my voice growing shrill as the urge to make this a teachable moment slips away]: Well, maybe it isn’t, but that’s what the rules are.

A: Well whoever made the rules of time was really stupid.

Me [mad that I have let myself become embroiled in an argument about the nature of time]: Maybe they were but these are the rules we have.

A: WELL THEY’RE WRONG.

Me [with the weariness of one who knows her actions belie her words]: I am NOT having this argument with you right now. When you grow up you can be a physicist and make up new rules of time and then maybe we’ll use your rules. But until then, these are the rules we’re using and—

A [yelling]: I WILL DO THAT AND I WILL DANCE ON THE GRAVE OF THE OLD PHYSICIST WHO MADE UP THESE STUPID RULES OT TIME.

Her declaration seems to come as a surprise to both of us.

 Me [still angry but unable to keep myself from giggling slightly hysterically]: you’ll do what? Where did that come from?

A: [speaking over me and also still angry but also giggling slightly hysterically]: I’ll dance on their grave. It didn’t come from anywhere! It came from my head.

Me [half sighing, half giggling and shaking my head]: OK, well, good for you, you can do that … later, but for now IT’S MY RULES OF TIME and it’s time to have a bath.

A: OK. [determinedly re-assuming a sulky demeanor] But that’s not how time works.

*The next day*

Me: I’m setting the timer for 10 minutes and then you’re done with screen time.

A: OK.

Me [hesitating before setting the alarm]: And none of that “oh-that’s-not-how-time-works” business when the alarm goes off. OK?

A: Fine. [under her breath] But that’s still not how time works.

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Day 197: top eight!

Last night, esteemed critic A. M. K, aged 7 years and 360 days, released her list of Top Eight Favorite Films. To wit:

  1. Ghostbusters (2016)
  2. Ghostbusters (1984)
  3. Groundhog Day (1993)
  4. Mamma Mia! (2008)
  5. The Christmas Chronicles (2018)
  6. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
  7. Hot Fuzz (2007)
  8. The World’s End (2013)

The list was released unexpectedly last night, when she was in bed, right before stories. In retrospect, the timing makes perfect sense, spurred by last night’s viewing of latecomer The Christmas Chronicles (filmed on an old camcorder on Christmas Eve 2018—i.e. four days ago!—truly a technological miracle that Netflix was able to bring it to the people so quickly).

Another film that I suspect benefited from us having watched it the night before last was Mamma Mia!, the only musical to make it onto the list despite me making everyone watch both Singin’ In the Rain and the original Mary Poppins earlier this year.

Not surprisingly—though perhaps shocking to some given the critic’s less-than-advanced age—the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy (dir. Edgar Wright, written by Wright and Simon Pegg, and starring Pegg and my fave, Nick Frost) swept in to claim spots 6, 7, and 8.

But it’s the top three that really counts, and your faithful correspondent may have let an “oh, I love you” escape her mouth when A. M. K. revealed that “Groundhog’s Day” had made the top three. Neither could I fault her designation of the top two spots. Some might dispute her elevation of the 2016 Ghostbusters above the 1984 original; but they would be wrong. The 2016 Ghostbusters deserves the top spot alone for the scene in which the Ghostbusters interview Kevin (Chris Hemsworth, in what is truly his best work) for the job of receptionist.

Pure. Cinematic. Gold.

mike hat

 

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Day 196: why did the Kindle go to the knitting store?

A and I are lying in bed. 

A: None of my jokes make sense.

Me: What do you mean?

A: OK, here’s one. Why did the Kindle go to the knitting store?

Me: I don’t know, why?

A: Because it wanted to make a sweater.

Me:

A: See, it doesn’t make sense.

Me: I do see. I mean, it kind of makes sense, it’s just not funny.

A: Here’s another. Why did the mean guy go the knitting store?

Me: I don’t know.

A: Because he was a knit-wit.

Me: Oh, that makes sense!

A: But that one doesn’t count because I got it from a joke book.

Me: Oh.

A: Here’s another one. Why did the frog get a Kindle?

Me: I don’t know.

A: Because he wanted to learn how to read. See! None of them make sense.

Me: Or maybe they make too much sense? Why do they all involve knitting stores or Kindles?

A: I don’t know!

Me: I think I’ve got a good knitting store one.

A: OK.

Me: Why did the woman go to the knitting store?

A: I don’t know.

Me: Because she was coming unraveled.

A:

Me: Do you know what unraveled means?

A: No.

Me: It means coming apart.

A:

Me: So she’s going to the knitting store because she hopes they can knit her back together!

A: It still doesn’t make sense.

Me: OK. [Feeling I’m on the verge of a breakthrough]: Is the reason why Kindles and knitting stores because Kindle begins with K-I-N and knitting store begins with K-N-I?

A [rolling her eyes]: Um, no.

Me. Oh, I thought of another. Why did the Kindle go to the knitting store?

A: I don’t know.

Me: Because it thought it was a spindle!

A:

Me: It’s because a spindle is a thing for making wool, like in Sleeping Beaut

A [interrupting]: I know what a spindle is! It still doesn’t make sense.

Me: because it was a Kindle but it thought it was a spindle.

A: [disparagingly] Oh, because they rhyme?

Me [meekly]: Yes … because they rhyme …

A: [mulling it over] Eh … it’s good enough.

 

A few minutes later M comes in.

 

Me [to M]: Hey, why did the Kindle go to the knitting store?

M: Umm … so it could tell its yarn?

Me [delighted]: Oh, that’s good!

A [primly, to M]: but that’s not the right answer.

Me: Yeah, but his is better than mine.

[to M]: My answer was because the Kindle thinks it’s a spindle.

A [to M]: See?

M [perplexed]: Uh …. no. Why would the Kindle think … it’s a spindle?

A [scornfully]: Umm, because they rhyme.

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Day 195: the place where we live

Donald Winnicott’s 1968 paper, “The Place Where We Live,” asks “where are we when we are doing what in fact we do a great deal of our time, namely, enjoying ourselves?” He notes that psychoanalysis tends to dwell either on a person’s experience in the world of objects—the outer world—or the world of dreams—the inner world. But there is a third zone, Winnicott says, where we live when we do things like “listening to a Beethoven symphony or making a pilgrimage to a picture gallery or reading Troilus and Cressida in bed, or playing tennis.” (In case his reader finds these examples too egregiously highbrow, he rather endearingly also throws in the example of teenagers “participating in a pop session.”)

It struck me walking back from drop off this morning that the place where the kids and I had been living this morning, Friday December 14, 2018, was precisely such an intermediate zone, raucous and poignant, sacred and profane, in which cultural references piled up and ran together. It was a zone in which the children tried (again) to teach me Orange Justice, at once delighted and horrified by my poor execution. It was a zone in which I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe aloud to the younger over the breakfast table while she ate yogurt and drew characters from Naruto.

We were (we remain!) at a climactic moment in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It is the middle of the night: Lucy and Susan, unable to sleep, follow the lion, Aslan, into the woods. He sees them and tells them that they may walk with him if they promise to leave when he says so. They walk on in the woods. The girls notice he seems dejected and ask him what is wrong. “I am sad and lonely,” he tells them, “lay your hands on my mane so that I can feel you are there and let us walk like that.” Then Lewis writes,

And so the girls did what they would never have dared to do without his permission, but what they had longed to do ever since they first saw him—buried their cold hands in the beautiful sea of fur and stroked it and, so doing, walked with him.

Reading the words aloud this morning reminded me of how viscerally this passage affected me when I first read it. As a child, reading these words made me realize that I too longed to touch Aslan, to bury my hands and face in his mane and smother him with kisses, as Lucy and Susan do before he leaves them to walk alone to the Stone Table, where the White Witch waits. Even as a child, my pleasure in Lewis’s evocation of Aslan’s lioness was bittersweet; that sentences could conjure such a semblance of softness and warmth seemed almost cruel, all the better to leave one feeling cold and alone when the image vanished—a bit the way, I thought to myself now, over the breakfast table, that enchanted Turkish Delight leaves Edmund longing for more .

I was adrift in these thoughts when the elder chimed in, ominously, as if he were a spy uttering a secret password, “The lion sleeps tonight.”

Then he added, “Was The Lion King really big when you were young, Mom?

“No, I was too old for The Lion King. But I loved that song when I was a kid.”

I found the song on my phone. Not the original—the version that was a hit in early 1982, when I was seven.

It transported me—not to the jungle, the mighty jungle, I hasten to add, but rather to the exotic climes of our living room in Tufnell Park, where I sat cross-legged on the floor, glued to Top of the Pops, completely entranced and quite sure that I would be perfectly happy to listen to a loop of the chorus (the part where the lead vocalist sings Weeheeheehee, dee heeheeheehee, weeoh aweem away) forever and ever.

(This feeling, apparently, runs in the family: I am typing this, I swear to God, to a background soundtrack of “in the jungle, the mighty jungle” in an endless loop, as the younger sings to herself in the bath).

At bedtime, I suppose—when she gets out of the bath, that is—we’ll pick up where we left off—at the stone table.

Oof.

It’s time.

The lion sleeps tonight.

lion

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Day 194: last words

Friday morning, 8:05 AM.

The younger is lolling on the sofa playing with her Squinkies. We need to leave for school in 10 minutes.

“Can I stay home today?” she asks. “I’m feeling a bit under the weather,” she adds, casually.

I scoff, unimpressed, and shake my head.

She clutches her throat.

“Ah! Death!” she intones, before convulsing in what I understand to be death throes, replete with much writhing and gagging.

I remain unmoved.

She staggers to her feet.

“I think I’m just going to sit by the kitchen window and wait for death,” she announces.

“K,” I say.

“And I might as well have one last Pirate Booty before I die.”

“Sure, why not,” I say, staring at my phone.

A minute later, she walks back into the living room with a fistful of pirate’s booty.

“When I finish this handful I will surely perish,” she declares indistinctly, her last words muffled by the enormous quantity of pirate-themed cheese-flavored rice and corn puffs filling her mouth.

pirate flag

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Day 193: what can we do about it?

My reading adventures in the strange world of instructional development continue apace.

This week I read a chapter from a book called Creating Significant Learning Experiences by L. Dee Fink. There were some things I liked about it and others I didn’t. But far and away the section that made the strongest impression was the bonkers part where he lists examples of questions he thinks literature professors should ask their students in order to promote, respectively, critical, creative, and practical thinking.

Screenshot 2018-11-29 08.58.20

Screenshot 2018-11-28 14.36.51

My main take away is that I have been doing professoring all wrong.

I mean, SO WRONG.

I’ve gotten distracted by teaching my students about, oh, you know, genre and linguistic effects and narrative structure and all that rubbish … when all this time I could have been putting those young minds to work solving real-world problems!

The good thing is, it’s not too late.

So let’s do this right here right now. Why are lovers sometimes cruel to each other and what can we do about it? We can small-group the shit out of this. We’ll reconvene in 15 minutes to hear each group’s Action Items for Cruel Lovers. And … go!

P.S. Actually send me your best actionable, outside-the-box solutions. I’ll also accept lists of ways in which Daisy Miller and Catherine Earnshaw were similar. This one’s tricker than it sounds. You’ve got to read the question carefully. I’m looking for ways in which they were similar. Before. I.e. not ways in which they are similar now. Ways in which they were similar. Got it?

I’ll also accept alternate endings to Wuthering Heights, or, as the younger insists on calling it–based on her intimate acquaintance with the novel in its mug form–Withering Heights. Will also accept full manuscript drafts and screenplay treatments for Withering Heights.

Withering Heights

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Day 192: on feeling stuck

I sat in my office last Tuesday looking out the window and feeling stuck. I was reading an article about the field known as medical or health humanities. The article portrayed the humanities as an expiring body in need of saving but also as an inoculation against “the influence of medicine.” The humanities, the article argued, needed medicine to save it from itself; in its new, invigorated form, it could then be made useful as a prophylactic to vaccinate subjects with judicious doses of “empathy” and “critical thinking” that would serve to “inoculate students against the influence of medicine.” [1]

The author’s vision is of an instrumentalized humanities writ large. But the question of what “outcomes” can be derived from humanistic learning is one I’d encountered earlier in the week in less grandiose terms—specifically, in a proposal that faculty develop “curriculum maps” showing the learning objectives and outcomes produced by particular courses.

Examples of such maps show a grid in which a class is analyzed according to whether particular “learning outcomes,” (like “critical thinking”) are “introduced,” “developed,” or “mastered.” You can learn more about these tools here.

I understand how such maps might be useful in giving a bird’s eye view of what a course is about. For example, one of the courses I regularly teach, “Literature in English 1700-1850,” could be mapped as “introducing” “outcomes” ranging from skills like “close reading” to particular bodies of knowledge pertaining to literary history, genre, modes and techniques. (I confess I rather like the idea of having one “outcome” for that class simply being: zeugma: mastered, bitch).

I would be less sure of how to map the class I’m teaching next quarter on attachment and detachment. Maybe, yes, it could be said to “introduce” attachment theory, and perhaps to “develop” students’ acquaintance with the novel form. But what would “mastery” look like?

In the presentation I saw about curriculum maps, the examples shown were all maps created for fake classes. The one that was clearly meant as a proxy for a literature course was one about “epistolary romance”; it received “D”s across the board for “Developing” particular outcomes (knowledge in field, writing effectively, etc.), and I thought, “yeah, developed sounds about right.” Because what would it mean to have mastered “epistolary romance”? What kind of evidence would you need to prove your mastery? An annotated copy of Clarissa? Written proof that you had successfully seduced your correspondent? Tear-stained pages? Has Valmont, in Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses mastered epistolary romance? Hasn’t it, arguably, mastered him?

I found myself asking myself these questions as I imagined what it would mean to assess my class next quarter on attachment via the rubric of “mastery.” This will be a class in which I expect the students not only to read works that theorize and dramatize attachment but also to experience and reflect upon their own experiences of aesthetic attachment.

Isn’t attachment something like the opposite of mastery? To be attached, after all, is to find oneself bound to an object, sometimes against one’s preference. As Elizabeth Bennet exclaims in Pride and Prejudice, upon her friend Charlotte predicting that she will find Mr. Darcy to be very agreeable, “Heaven forbid! That would be the greatest misfortune of all! To find a man agreeable whom one is determined to hate!”

***

I had turned my office chair that afternoon so that I faced the window, because otherwise the sun’s glare made my laptop screen too difficult to see. Facing the window, my gaze shifted between screen and window. The view from my second-floor office window is of course familiar to me, but I saw it differently that afternoon. My south facing window looks out onto a pedestrian bridge that joins my building to the physics and astronomy building across the road. A set of glass double doors connects the bridge on the physics and astronomy side; on our side, the bridge appears to terminate below the window of the office two down from mine. The bridge is not accessible from either end. Trust me, I’ve tried, over the years. I call it the “bridge to nowhere” in my head but that’s not exactly right. It’s a bridge between the humanities building and the physics and astronomy building; it’s just not a bridge that you can access from either end. Is a bridge that cannot be accessed still a bridge, I wondered, idly?

bridge to nowhere

A view of the bridge

For some reason, that afternoon, the sight of this inaccessible bridge, so near and yet so far, started to piss me off. I felt gaslighted. An entity shouldn’t look like a bridge and act like a bridge if it isn’t, in fact, a bridge. I tried, fruitlessly, once again, to see if I could access it from a nearby balcony. I asked around in the department office. Did anyone know why it wasn’t accessible? Someone mentioned a rumor that it had been closed off after someone had jumped off it a long time ago. Myself, I’d considered how it might be accessed in the past for the opposite reason: as a means of evading death. (Such things tend to cross your mind once you’ve experienced an active shooter campus lockdown.)

The reason, I think, that the bridge irked me that day, and irks me still, is because its inaccessibility creates a kind of ontological confusion. A locked door is still a door. A dirty window is still a window. But a bridge that doesn’t afford passage has reneged, it seems to me, on one of the essential conditions of bridgeness.

What if there were a way to redefine the space, somehow, so that it was not a non-functional bridge but a functional something else …. or a space in which its non-functionality could be a feature rather than a bug? What if the space were reconfigured so that its most important axis was not horizontal but vertical? What if it were filled with earth and plants, no longer a bridge but a hanging garden, tendrils falling down in a curtain through which pedestrians below would pass, ensnared by succulents, caught up in trailing honeysuckle?

I’ve become taken with this idea recently: not the idea of literally making the bridge to nowhere into a hanging garden, but the idea more generally of how and when passages become enclosures or enclosures passages. The forms of the vignette and the arabesque interest me because they share a quality of movement without progress. Like hanging gardens, vignettes and arabesques encroach into surrounding spaces but not in service of any particular end. A vignette, so named because it is “A running or trailing ornament or design in imitation of the branches, leaves, or tendrils of the vine,” is any embellishment, illustration, or picture uninclosed in a border, or having the edges shading off into the surrounding paper …” (OED).

Hogarth's shop card

Hogarth’s shop card!

Arabesque is a close cousin, a decorative pattern characterized by flowing, interlacing lines “typically of branches, leaves, and flowers” (OED).

anonymous Italian

anonymous, Italian, 18th century

In lieu of a straight line from A to B, an arabesque or vignette is all forking paths and detours with no discernible end. Such a form, William Hogarth suggests, is most engaging to the eye, if it “hath every turn in it that lines are capable of moving into, and at the same time no way applied, nor of any manner of use” (The Analysis of Beauty, 1753, my emphasis).

When I fantasize about making the bridge to nowhere into a hanging garden, I think that Hogarth is onto something: that is, I imagine the appeal of the hanging garden would reside in the play of its lines, not in its instrumentality.

And yet.

If you’re me, to imagine those hanging tendrils is also to imagine eagerly scaling them, as if they were Rapunzel’s locks; or swinging vine to vine, like Tarzan. As much as I chafe at the word instrumentality it’s also hard for me to let go of the desire to vault myself from A to B … of the desire to get. across. the bloody. bridge. To admit this feels like a failure of imagination on my part, a kind of constitutional basicness, a primitive need for sequence, plot, telos.

***

So maybe the curriculums maps are right after all. Maybe the desire for passage, the desire to get somewhere is too strong for us—or at least for me—to imagine mapping learning experiences other than in terms of where they can take us; that is, in terms of their application. But does that mean “mastery” is really the only valid metric? Aren’t encounters with aesthetic objects useful precisely because they acquaint us with mastery’s limits, with how, in the desire to know an object fully, to discern all its contours, what we run up against are not its edges but the limits of our own reach?

If I were devising a curriculum map, I’d expand the range of possible learning outcomes a given course could be expected to produce. I’d be happy to keep the first three stages: Introduced; Developed; Mastered. But then, a twist! After “Mastered” would come the following: Discomfited; Perplexed; Thwarted; Undone; Stuck and Boggled and Knowing Not Which Way To Turn. [2]

In the meantime, I’m still feeling stuck. And I’m still plotting how to get onto that bridge.

 

Notes

[1] (Craig M. Klugman, “How Health Humanities Will Save the Life of the Humanities,” Journal of Medical Humanities 38(4): 419-430, 425, 420)

[2] Cf. John Locke’s remarks on understanding in his Miscellaneous Papers, 1677: “our understanding sticks and boggles and knows not which way to turn.” (From Lord Peter King, The Life of John Locke: With Extracts from his Correspondence, Journals, and Common-place Books, 322).

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