After watching the first season of Dexter, I was curious about what factor plays a bigger part in the development of sociopaths, nature or nurture. Instead of doing a lot of time consuming research and actually learning something, I went to my old friend Wikipedia. However, the section on sociopaths is a particularly ill written mess with little useful information. But I soldiered on and was rewarded with the following extract, which seemed to have no connection to the rest of the entry:
The one area still being discussed regarding cruelty to animals is within the feline realm. Although cruelty towards them is not what is called into question, ironically it is the individuals who own four or more of these animals. There is increasing evidence of deviant behaviour associated with these individuals. There have been reported cases of cat owners losing perspective of society as a whole, believing that their cats are equal, and in some cases superior, to the population around them. They begin to lose perspective and begin to feel it is their obligation to “rescue” every cat they see and believe they are the only ones capable of judging the appropriate household a cat should be tended.
As the owner of six cats I think this was a rather unwarranted and unfair attack. It seems that Mr. Wikipedia author has a personal ax to grid. Maybe he was feeding his cat Cheetos and Diet Coke three meals a day and is still bitter that some do-gooder took Fluffy away. The only “deviant behavior” my cats have driven me to is the desire to dress them up in capes. Now this is bad, I grant you, but do I really deserve to be lumped in with the bed wetters and fire setters? It seems more of a harmless fetish than anything. And why is four the magic number? It should at least be six, the number of the beast. And don’t think I missed the ironic quote marks around rescue.
I spent a week with my grandparents this summer, in a small Missouri town with a population of less than 500. There is one gas station, one café, and one bar, which has a dirt floor, no windows, and the nomenclature of “Bucks and Does.” After a week of Lion Club breakfasts, afternoon tea, and small talk with people who have a median age of 80, I gave up trying to explain what I do for a living and realized that I will always be a school teacher to the denizens of this town (And a rather stupid one at that – otherwise, why would I still be in school myself?). Therefore, I was thrilled when I learned that my uncle would be in town during the last two days of my visit.
For reasons that are not abundantly clear, I have always looked up to my uncle. He is a nuclear technician who is permanently out of work due to a brouhaha with the government that ended in a two-year prison sentence over refusal to pay taxes. The male side of my family is highly paranoid and rather crazy when it comes to the government. We reminisced while my grandparents watched a Walker: Texas Ranger marathon, and of course my uncle asked what I did professionally. I proudly discussed my area of study, and how in the future I will be both a teacher and an academic, who will surely produce many books and papers of surprising depth and wonderment. My uncle was rather glassy-eyed at this time, perhaps an effect of boredom and gin, and he proceeded to shake off his lethargy by telling me that I was contributing nothing to society, especially if I planned to write with the goal of getting a job, getting tenure, and retiring in ease and splendor.
My uncle’s attack was unexpected, as everyone else I know accepts what I do because they love me or because they themselves are embroiled in the same sort of pursuit themselves, but that does not mean that I am not aware of the paradoxes inherent in academia. I do want a good job and tenure, but I don’t write so I can get them; I want them so I can write. I did not choose my specialties because they are profitable or trendy (I still have no idea of how marketable my interests will be), but because I enjoy them. That said, I worry constantly about getting published so I can someday have a job, and I would not flinch at putting a project close to my heart on the back burner to write an article or prepare a presentation that has a chance of being accepted. To my uncle (who, by the way, is 55 and living in a trailer in his parent’s backyard, and so perhaps should not be questioning others’ contribution to society), such writing is a waste of time. I do see his point, as academic writing is a bit solipsistic, but this is a slippery slope that can lead to the banishment of all art – the next thing you know we’ll all have four-wall vid screens and compulsory TV programs. To me, academic writing is a lot like the space program. Once it was established that there were no Martians to date or Cylons to fear, I lost all interest. Yet I continue to support space exploration because I don’t have to understand or even be interested in something for it to have value; it is important to both the morale and image of our country, and exploration for the sake of exploration is a noble, if unprofitable, goal.
Me: My bedroom is freezing! It’s the coldest room in the house.
Father: No it’s not. It’s always warmer upstairs; heat rises.
Me: I sleep in that room and I’m telling you it’s cold.
Father: No it’s not.
(At this point I draft my mother to go upstairs with me to confirm the relative coldness of my room)
Mother: She’s right. Her room is really cold.
Father: I knew you women would conspire against me, you always do. That room is the warmest in the house.
Me: I can tell when a room is cold! Go check for yourself.
Father: I’m not going to waste my time checking to see if a room is cold when I know it’s not.
(Mother hustles me out of the room before an incident can ensue)
My mother, father, and I watch Juno. My mom was reluctant, but as usual my father and I bulldoze over her opinion and pop the movie in. During the sweet, cheery song at the end my father and I discuss how charming the movie was and we both turn to my mother so she can reinforce our opinion, only to see that she is crying. At that moment my father and I remembered that my mother gave a baby up for adoption when she was 15, and the cheeky, irreverent tone of Juno was more painful for her than any dark exploration of teen pregnancy would have been. We also remembered that we are insensitive assholes.
Best statement made by my uncle: “The Mexicans are killing American with their language. It’s a scientific fact that a country can’t survive if the people speak more than one language.”
On Memorial Day my grandfather and I are at the Wal-Mart outdoor garden center searching for flowers to decorate graves. I’m on the opposite side of the center from my grandfather checking out the lilies, when he starts to whack at his pants in a frantic manner. He hops up and down, cussing freely. I start to hustle toward the peonies to see what’s wrong, when my grandfather drops his pants, revealing his tightly whities and a pair of battling bumble bees. I veer off toward a display of fake flowers, which I become deeply interested in. Later that night, on a midnight trip to the bathroom I see a startlingly white and emaciated figure lumbering evilly down the hallway and I give a shriek of fear and surprise before I realize it is not the ghost of an Auschwitz victim, but my second sighting in one day of my grandfather in his underwear.
Last week I finished Eden’s Outcasts, Matteson’s wonderful biography of Bronson and Louisa May Alcott. I have read biographies of Louisa May Alcott before, but never one that also focuses on her father. What I have learned is that my father and Bronson Alcott are soul brothers. Perhaps Bronson was reincarnated as penniless mid-west philosopher to make up for his 19th century god-complex. If so, he has still not learned his lesson.
Bronson Alcott was an ambitious dreamer who dragged his family from city to city looking for a population that would acknowledge his greatness. He could not stand dissention, and willfulness of any type in his family was construed as a personal insult. His wife and daughters would labor at lackluster, soul sucking jobs to keep the family fed and clothed while he read and visited his great friends, refusing to descend to labor that he thought was beneath him. If it sounds like I’m being hard on both Bronson and my own father, I am. They both had a wonderful, loving side and tended to error more from blindness than inclination. But the parallels between my family and the Alcott family were startling, though I realize they should not be. Bronson Alcott was no harder on this family than Percy Shelley or Edger Allan Poe was on theirs; people of genius are not easy to live with. That said, people searching for genius, but never finding it, are just as hard to live with, and there are a lot more failed than ascending genius in the world.
I also started reading Quiet, Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarian. Written by Scott Douglas, who I have adored as a McSweeney’s correspondent for years, I was quite looking forward to this book. Sadly, it has been a bit of a disappointment. Flashes of Douglas’s sardonic yet affectionate humor are still present, but it is mostly hidden behind a clumsy and heavy- handed apparatus that make it impossible to get into the story. Douglas’s personal narrative is constantly interrupted by surprisingly uninteresting sidebars and needless footnotes. I am all for footnotes in the style of David Foster Wallace, but I don’t need to be told what a class visit to a library is. The whole narrative is also very episodic, which works well for a blog or the McSweeney dispatches, but it oddly unsatisfying in a book. I hope Douglas keeps up his contributions to McSweeney’s and perhaps branches out into other magazines/newspaper. His style is perfect for that venue.
Today was the first day of summer vacation and I spent the first 30 minutes trying to decide what book I want to read first. For the last couple of weeks I have been perusing book stores, libraries, and various online sellers, compiling my summer reading list. No matter that I have gathered more books than I will ever be able to read in three months, let alone three months in which I will be taking a class and trying to supplement my meager income with freelance writing gigs. Half the fun is in the gathering.
My first literary conquest of the summer (not including The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which I read while I was completing my final paper and grading my students’ final projects) is Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father by John Matteson. Even though I have officially dedicated my life to British Victorian lit, I still have a soft spot for 19th Century American. Other books appearing on my reading list, in no particular order, are:
- Monstrosities: Bodies and British Romanticism by Paul Youngquist
- Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London by Seth Koven
- Number 9 Dream by David Mitchell
- The Italian Boy by Sarah Wise
- Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky
- Frankenstein: A Cultural History by Susan Tyler Hitchcock
- Kafka on the Shore by Murakami
- Discipline & Punish by Michel Foucault (Someone has questioned my patience when it comes to reading this book. Now I have to finish it just to prove a point.)
- The Detective and Mr. Dickens by William Palmer (The author is one of my professors. I’m very curious about his mystery novels.)
- Our Vampires, Ourselves by Nina Auerbach
- A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful by Edmund Burke (This is a guilt read. One of my professors found out I had never read it and her distain still gives me nightmares.)
- Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu
And a bunch more, but I am tired of typing and no one cares but me anyway. This hording of books may seem silly, since it’s a free country and you can read anything you want at anytime. This is not true for literature grad students, who almost always love reading, but must bow to the cruel literary whims of their professors and dissertation committees. The freedom to choose what I want to read is so rare that it’s intoxicating.
In a trip to the library today, to gather more books for my ever growing army, I ran into a student. His surprise at seeing me away from Purdue reminded me of how I felt when I was 10 and I saw one of my teachers at the movies. This surprise might have been enhanced by the fact that I was covered in dirt from weeding my yard, and both my jeans and my shirt had holes in them. I really need to take more pride in my appearance. Anyway, he told me he was going to spend his summer “reading the classics.” He only had one book in his hand, Michael Moore’s Dude, Where’s My Country. Far be it for me to discourage a student from reading liberal rhetoric; I have read it myself and thought it was great. But I do wonder what list of classics he is going off of.
I just finished A Tale of Two Cities and I must say that I’m quite disappointed in myself. Do you know the closing lines to this famous Dickens’s novel? It’s quite possible that you’re smarter and better read then me, but just in case I’ll reproduce the lines here:
It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.
This is perhaps the most famous line in literature and I had no idea where it came from. What’s worse, I have heard this line hundreds of times in silly sitcoms and out of the mouths literary parrots, and most likely parodied them myself, without knowing the origin. Really, that’s rather sad. Why are we, as a culture, using lines that we have no idea of their origin? For all I knew this quote could have come from a KKK recruiting pamphlet. As it is, these lines are spoken by (or thought by) an innocent man walking to his death, because he feels he is not as good as another man who happens to look a heck of a lot like him. “Rest” equals death. Sydney Carton has one serious inferiority complex and, in my opinion, is much sexier than that goody-goody Charles Darnay. But that’s not my point. The point is, unless we know where the quote comes from, we really should not be using it, especially when the lines involve a walk to the guillotine. Or Madame Guillotine, as Dickens would say.
On a related note, while writing this blog I am watching Smash Lab, a show on the Discovery channel where they spend 60 minutes blowing up buildings and the like. The narrator just said, in reference to the Smash Lab team building a fake wall to be blown up, that they like “a fine and private place” to conduct their explosive experiments. What possible connection can that allusion have to the demolition of brick walls? Is our narrator a frustrated Marvell scholar, or did he hear that phrase on a Simpson’s episode? Either way, it made me happy, like I was in on some snobby joke, which is the true secret to why allusions are so popular.