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New Shoes

I scored big this Christmas. Some of my gifts—like the crockpot—were wonderfully practical. Others—diamond earrings, cashmere sweaters—were extravagant surprises. The most shocking present I got, though, was a pair of shoes that my mom picked out.

Shoes are a highly personal matter. Choosing them for someone else is a perilous, almost presumptuous, enterprise. I was, honestly, a little disturbed to tear off the wrapping paper and find a shoebox—it felt kind of like getting a bra from my parents. I could hardly have been more pleased with the contents, though, and my mom—actually well aware of the gift-giving risk she was taking—was just as excited by my response as I was by the footwear. "I walked past them a million times in the shoe department at Kaufman's," she said, "and they just screamed 'Jessica' every time I saw them." I was simultaneously flattered and awed, yet again, to discover that my mom knows me better than I think she does.

Glare
Truly, if I had to pick one pair of shoes to represent me, I would like to think that these shoes could do the job. I realize that I might be flattering myself, but, if I got to do the picking, these shoes would be the ones. They're a little bit girly, but in a punk rock kind of way. With the round toe, they've got a '40s-chic thing that borders on the cartoonish. They're not exactly comfortable, but then again, neither am I.

I have no idea what I'm going to wear them with, but that almost feels beside the point.

December 26, 2003 | Permalink | Comments (1)

The OC Flowchart

I had to fight my way through many layers of office bureaucracy to get access to the color laser printer. I had to get forms signed. But, since I really do have legitimate business reasons for using it, I was ultimately triumphant.

How often have I used it for legitimate business purposes? Just once, but my presentation was so much more persuasive in mesmerizing color than it would have been in uninspired, uninspiring grayscale.

Mostly, I use the color printer for stuff like The OC Flowchart, a PDF oddity posted at The Black Table. It's a little out of date—it doesn't reflect the startling events of Thanksgiving and Chrismukkah—and I don't really have trouble remembering that Luke is Marissa's ex or that Anna is from Pittsburgh, but it's much more fun to look at than the marketing department org chart that used to hang in its place.

December 11, 2003 | Permalink | Comments (1)

Nothingness

One of the common features of Gothic texts is an overabundance of meanings. When I was teaching Wuthering Heights, I tried to explain to my students how this can be exhilarating or it can be terrifying. It can point the way to infinite abundance, or the void.

Most of the time, I am excited about teaching. I have always been a relentless reader, and I feel lucky to be able to share my experience with students. Most of the time, I find research thrilling—that's really not too strong a word for it. I am, more often than not, struggling to decide what to leave out, rather than hunting down materials to fill up my lesson plans. Sometimes, though, my enthusiasm turns into doubt and despair. If a text is about demon lovers and the disappearance of God and the industrial revolution and the rise of the proletariat and a corrective to Paradise Lost, is it really about anything? Or is it just fodder for graduate students who need an original dissertation topic? I find myself wondering why I care.

I would like to say that I have an answer for that question, that I have a incontrovertible response that never falls to restore my faith in books and the teaching of them, but I don't. I could say that this existential crisis is just one manifestation of my general melancholia, and not a problem with books themselves, but that doesn't solve the problem. Rather, it opens it up. It's true: My problem isn't with books; it's with meaning and the absence of meaning, and here, perhaps, we discover why I teach the books I teach in the first place.

I don't believe in books with answers. I believe that these answers are—necessarily, inherently—lies. I believe that they are the product of limited imagination or cynicism, possibly both. I am skeptical of solace. Gothic stories don't offer the ease of solutions. They offer endings, but these endings are seldom consoling and often raise more questions than they answer. There's no comfort in this, but the constant terror and elusive joy of giving shape to nothingness.

December 9, 2003 | Permalink | Comments (0)

Introducing Frankenstein

Sometimes, when I teach, I feel myself lose my students. It's an almost physical sensation, like all the oxygen has been sucked from the room. It's awful.

I need my students. Even when they're not talking, I need their support, the sustenance of their attention and understanding. If I'm connecting with just one or two of them, I have the energy that I need to teach.

Today, I lost them. I was trying to explain the connection between the Enlightenment and the Romantic movement, and I got off on a not entirely fruitful tangent about the Declaration of Independence. As I turned from my chalkboard list of Enlightenment ideals to look at my students, it was like running into a brick wall. It almost made me dizzy.

This moment used to make me panic. My brain would empty, and I would babble and stumble, fumbling with my notes until I pulled myself together again. I'm much more smooth now—today I recovered with barely a stutter—but it's still awful.

Except for my unfortunate detour into the genius of the Founding Fathers, my introduction to Frankenstein was pretty good. I had photocopied a brief biography of Mary Shelley written for young people, but I took it upon myself to correct some of the elisions in this potted life-of-the-artist. As I suspected, the kids were impressed by the more dramatic details of Shelley's unconventional life. The teens love a rebel, which, I suspect, is part of the reason they love Frankenstein. I also grabbed their attention with a nineteenth-century depiction of a "galvanised corpse." You just can't go wrong with gore.

One of the things that I adore about my students is that I can count on them to say what's on their minds, so even when I have to lecture, I will probably be interrupted, and, in the happiest instances, the students end up doing a little of the lecturing for me. A discussion about Frankenstein's epigraph from Paradise Lost—"Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me man? Did I solicit thee / From darkness to promote me?"—turned into a lively debate about the ethics of cloning, of stem-cell research, of abortion, and the philosophical and theological questions posed by modern science. This debate was begun by one of my students, which was marvelous. While the young people are happy to argue with each other, if I had asked, "What kind of issues does cloning raise?", I would have been met with blank stares.

December 8, 2003 | Permalink | Comments (1)

Teaching a Monster

I read Frankenstein for the first time a few years ago. I could not believe how boring it was, how lumbering and prolix. I found the very shape of the novel exhausting: The conceit of Frankenstein and then his creature talking, endlessly, for page upon page, left me weary and raw, like a long train ride with a seatmate who will not shut up. Of course, the fact that the creature spoke at all, let alone in the high-flown language of a classical rhetorician, was a bit of a shock, as it must be for many contemporary readers.

My first exposure to Frankenstein's monster was (unless you count many sweet, pink bowls of Frankenberry) watching James Whale's 1931 picture on a long-ago Saturday afternoon. Boris Karloff's dumb, halting creature elicited a confused sympathy in my childish heart, like an ugly baby or a puppy who pees on the floor. His inarticulate roars and mewlings—his desperate and doomed attempts to connect—made him pitiful instead of grotesque. Mary Shelley's monster was, by comparison, exasperating: precocious, malevolent, and too longwinded to be charming. I don't remember why I even finished Frankenstein, but I do remember being relieved when I finally did.

When I decided to teach a class called "Monsters in Literature", it was obvious that I would not be able to avoid Frankenstein. I was trying to figure out if I could conceptualize skipping it as a bold break from the monstrous canon, rather than a selfish and irresponsible omission, when I looked at the customer reviews at Amazon. There were a lot of them, most of them raves, and most of them obviously written by youngsters. It occurred to me that there must be something to this strange, difficult, awkward book that I was missing. In deciding to teach Frankenstein, I hoped that my students could help me understand it.

Teaching Frankenstein did change my relationship to the novel. Not only did my students provide me with alternate approaches to the text, but my research enriched my reading immeasurably. Frankenstein remains a frequently infuriating and generally unmanageable text, but I have to appreciate those characteristics as aspects of its genius. As I embark upon the perilous adventure of teaching it to a new group of students, I hope to discover new wonders in its unruly and inexhaustible wilderness.

December 7, 2003 | Permalink | Comments (0)

I Like to Wear Men's Clothes

It's time to come out of the closet, as it were: I like to wear men's clothes. I've been fighting my menswear fetish for awhile, I think because unisex clothes—jeans, big t-shirts, sweats—are the default uniform of women who take no interest in how they look. I'm not talking about sporty gals with glowing skin and bouncy ponytails; I mean the kind of woman who can be seen at Wal-Mart on a Saturday afternoon, dragging several loud, sticky children through home electronics. I am never going to be a natural beauty graced with gamine athleticism, but I need to get over my fear that I'm going to look like a NASCAR fan if I wear chinos and a long-sleeve tee.

As much as I love the idea of sequins and marabou feathers, the fact is that I feel like I'm in drag when I dress up like a girl. I feel like I'm adopting a persona, putting on a costume. I'm so much more at ease in a pair of cords, an oxford shirt, and a jacket, and it's not just a matter of physical comfort: I just feel more like myself.

I do not, however, feel like a man, nor do I believe that anyone will mistake me for a man. I always have on something girly—lipstick, pretty earrings, femme fatale shoes. And I certainly don't look butch: My inspiration comes not from James Dean, but from Marlene Dietrich, Katherine Hepburn, and Jean Seberg The clothes I like best are informed by menswear, but cut for a woman: They accentuate my shape without making a big deal about it.

I believe the ensemble I wore on Thanksgiving was my ideal outfit: a beautifully tailored pair of pants, a perfectly fitted jacket, a soft satin camisole, and kitten-heeled mules. I think, in fact, that I might look more womanly in manly clothes. I certainly feel more womanly, as I feel more like myself.

From this day forward, I vow to embrace my masculine aesthetic, and shake my hips unabashedly even when they're encased in tweed trousers.

December 3, 2003 | Permalink | Comments (1)