Jan 00

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (No. 18)

My favorite play not written by Shakespeare is one called The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht. (If nothing else, “Brecht” is really fun to say. You should try it some time.) All humor aside, though, I’ve had occasion to think about this play a lot lately.

The story of the Chalk Circle comes from a Chinese fable, as I understand it. The birth mother (who has abandoned the child), and the current mother are both claiming custody. The judge orders that a circle be drawn on the ground in chalk and the baby placed inside. Then each mother must try to pull him out. They both pick up the baby and begin to pull, until the current mother realizes that if she keeps pulling, the baby will be torn apart, and so, tearfully, she gives up. The birth mother cries in victory–until, that is, the judge rules that she can’t have the baby, that it should go to the other woman, who obviously shows more concern and love for the child’s well-being.

Now, as attentive readers will doubtless have deduced, either from the story itself or from my diction (which was, and I apologize, making a rapid descent into jargon), I’ve been thinking about the Chalk Circle a lot lately because of the latest rounds of judicial battles over custody, which have been so highly publicized that I won’t bore you (or myself) by going into the details.

I’m not going to advocate the use of chalk circles in the US; I’m far too afraid that parents and courts might actually rip children apart literally. I think enough of them already do so figuratively. Nor do I have any kind of answer about where any kid ought to grow up. I don’t think I, or anyone else, am informed enough to make that decision, because, as terrible as this may sound, I think that in the end it’s one of those things that’s so important it doesn’t matter.

Some of you will know that phrase as one which my father used when people were dithering about where to go to college, but I find it useful–and strangely comforting–in a number of other situations. It’s so important it doesn’t matter.

In The Caucasian Chalk Circle, the judge who orders the drawing of the Circle is not a real judge at all. He is Azdak, a drunk guy who takes bribes and got to be judge by one of those weird twists of fate that occur during periods of civil unrest. And yet Azdak, because of his drunkenness, or iconoclasm, or unpredictability, or something, and despite his lewd remarks and unsavory character, dispenses the closest thing the poor people have ever seen to justice. What is one to make of that?

Awhile ago the minister at my church told a story which I’ll take the liberty of repeating (thanks, Jason) about a youth group which he once led. He was asking them what they thought about the people Jesus had selected as apostles. After a period of silence, one kid said, “Well, I guess it shows that Jesus was a pretty poor judge of character.”

That sounds kind of blasphemous, but it’s really true. The Apostles are mostly not people I’d probably vote for, just as Azdak is not someone I’d ever appoint as a judge (and Falstaff is probably not someone you’d really want your kid to be friends with, etc., etc.). But these things are so much easier to accept in literature than in life. One votes for good people who then do bad things, and then some bad people do good things, and it all ends up so confusing that, if you’re like me, you begin to wonder what the point is anyway.

There are about eighty-seven (give or take a few) trite things that I could say here, but I think, once again, that it’s so important that it doesn’t matter. I do believe that it’s worth your while to try to do some kind of good (even if it doesn’t work, and even if it ends up with negative results you didn’t envision, kinda like managed care), because otherwise, what are you doing here? So, since I tend to think other people say things better than I do, and since I always find it cheering, and sometimes even inspiring, I’ll leave you with the last lines of Brecht’s play:

And after that evening Azdak vanished and was never seen again.
The people of Grusinia did not forget him but long remembered
The period of his judging as a brief golden age,
Almost an age of justice.

But you, you who have listened to the Story of the Chalk Circle,
Take note what men of old concluded:
That what there is shall go to those who are good for it,
Children to the motherly, that they prosper,
Carts to good drivers, that they be driven well,
The valley to the waterers, that it yield fruit.

Dec 99

Thanks-giving (No. 17)

Some of you have complained that there hasn’t been one of these in awhile (the nerve). You’re right. I have been busy applying to graduate school. Actually, I am still doing that, but I have reached the hour of ultimate procrastination–I even vacuumed yesterday, which, as you might guess, means that I am far gone indeed. But enough of that.

The large burlap sack from which I get all my ideas is full to bursting–in fact, I can see the little devils squirming around in there, all trying to push each other out of the way and get out on top–presidential candidates, the World Trade Organization, the College of (Mis)Education, the constricted world of video games, even the passive voice is speaking up these days. But, since in my part of the cosmos, this is the season of forgiveness and reassessments and new beginnings, and since I am, as I mentioned, a most excellent procrastinator, I’m tossing the whole damn bag in the back of the closet, in the hopes that by the time I dig it out for spring cleaning a few of the suckers will have suffocated, although of course with my luck, they’ll probably breed. Spawn of Satan indeed. But not today: today I’d like to talk about thanks-giving.

Awhile ago I heard a commentator on NPR talking about how she hated that books these days came with pages of acknowledgements, and that instead of just offering a terse word or two to a spouse or an editor, people were thanking their hairdressers and their therapists and their ministers and, God forbid, their friends. Now I love acknowledgements, particularly when they’re long and drawn-out and overdone and thank everyone down to the garbage collectors, because, quite frankly, without them, it’d be a pretty ugly scene (smelly, too, but I’ll leave that to your imagination). Thankless work is given that name not just because it’s hard and frequently miserable, but also because it is taken for granted. We don’t generally thank the people who do the dirty work–that would require that we take the time to consider the dirty work at all which, frankly, I think we’d all rather not. Well, that sounds pretentious: I’ll amend. I don’t like to think about it, and I’m guessing that I’m not alone.

I would like, sometimes, to be one of those people who just goes out and buys clothes and food and books and stuff without giving much thought to it beyond, “Gosh, this looks nice” or “I deserve a break today” (yeesh, how many McDonald’s slogans ago was that one?). It would be pleasant, I think, not to spend any time thinking about sweat shops or migrant workers or environmental pollution or the local and global economy. On the other hand, I spend a lot of my time explaining to people why it’s important to pay attention and understand the words they use and how they use them, and I would be willing to bet that an economist (are there any of you out there?), even one opposed to all I believe, would say it is worthwhile to know about the processes which brought a product to your table.

But I’m getting off the subject again–I wanted to talk about thanks. Some years ago, when my hero Woody Guthrie was a young man writing songs, a plane deporting a bunch of Mexicans crashed. As the story goes, Guthrie read a newspaper story about the crash which gave the full names of the pilot, co-pilot, and all the crew, and, somewhere toward the bottom, mentioned that there were a bunch of aliens who’d died, too. Guthrie, incensed that these people almost didn’t get mentioned, much less named, wrote the song “Deportee,” telling their story, giving them names.

There are a lot of other stories I could tell–about the retreat in junior high where we were given rice and beans or bread and water for dinner one night and told that this is what most of the world’s children would be eating, which was all very well, except that then they had us throw out our bread, water, rice, beans, and styrafoam plates and cups and led us into the next room where we all dined on pizza and Coke–or about the first time I read George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (The Book That Changed My Life, or one of them)–and there are a lot of platitudes about counting blessings and such that I could offer you right now. Since, however, I’m not trying to bore you to death or make you gag, I’ll pass all that over. The leaves are all off the trees here in Iowa, and the cold air makes everything just a little more distinct, from the harvested fields to the homeless people downtown. It’s a good time to look at the world a little harder.

Thanks for reading.

Oct 99

Call Me When You Find America (No. 16)

This may come as a surprise to many of you (truth be told, it surprises me), but when I was a young person, I was very patriotic. I loved studying American history, and I loved the idea that there were times when it was “necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them to another one” because when government becomes destructive to the ends of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, “it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new Government.” I loved the idea that I was descended (well, more or less) from such a group of people and that I lived in a land under a government they had created.

The problem came, of course, when I started to understand that American history was not all Boston Tea Parties and The Bill of Rights and Daniel Boone: a lot of it was slavery and property and Japanese internment camps and so on. I ran across the best summation I’ve ever seen of this idea in a book called Dharma Girl: A Road Trip Across the American Generations by Chelsea Cain, who explains a little of how her mother went from being a suburban Catholic daughter of a military family to helping her husband dodge the draft and living on a commune: “Her identity had been closely wed to what it meant to be an American, and when what it meant to be an American suddenly included napalm and mortar fire, her self-concept began to unravel.”

* * * * *

Once in college during a lunchtime argument about the lack of women in politics, my friend Hope finally said, Well, why don’t you run for office, if it upsets you so much? I probably didn’t have the answer for her at the time, but what I tried to express was that in order to participate in something–from the government to a 12-step program–you first have to have some faith, some basic belief that the thing works, and that it is good.

I am currently involved in any number of things that I am not at all sure I believe in, and it is not a pleasant state in which to exist, if you give it any thought. Happily, as I pointed out to someone the other day, the entire world is not composed of people like me, or there would be no toothbrushes. Of course, there probably wouldn’t be any Christian Coalition, which would probably be an improvement, but there also might well not be any social services, schools, or libraries, not because I don’t believe in these things, because I do, but because if all the workers of the world were like me, they’d wake up each morning wondering if it was even worth getting out of bed, if their labor and life was not in some way inadvertantly damaging the world and its people.

But I didn’t mean for this to get so bogged down. There are still things I do believe in; I just have a hard time remembering what they are some days. “I really love America,” says John Prine. “I just don’t know how to get there anymore.”

Sep 99

Why I Hate Book Reviews and Why I Write Them Anyway (No. 15)

The quick answer to the second question, of course, is that I do it because I get paid (which, I might add, Samuel Johnson, the patron saint of this endeavor, said was the only reason to write anything), but since I do not, according to most people, get paid enough to make it worth my effort, there are in fact a number of other reasons. But first things first: Why I Hate Book Reviews.

For a few months during my junior year of college, when we had some extra cash and were feeling full of first-apartment pride, my housemates and I subscribed to the New York Times. It was so great. I would wake up in the morning, make breakfast in my pajamas, and sit in an easy chair drinking coffee and reading the Times. Sundays were especially good, of course, because that is when we got the Book Review. The problem with all of this, though, was that I found I could occupy entire days just reading the Times. I could just absorb news and opinion and features and never go to class and never read anything less than a day old that didn’t leave ink on my fingers. Then we all started to run out of money, so we cancelled our subscription, and I started paying attention to my classes, and remembered that there were decades, and even centuries and millenia other than our own.

Of course, I lost some of my scintillating conversation. I was no longer up on The View of everything, nor could I open comments with, “That reminds me of the article in last Tuesday’s Times. . . .” What I did notice, though, was that I started reading books again. I didn’t talk about books as much (because what can you really say about the Inferno the first time you read it, other than “Wow”?), but I read them much more. When we got the Times Book Review, I would read it and marvel at all the books out there that I ought to read. And even if the book itself didn’t sound like something I’d want to read, I’d devour the review if it was written by some author I admire. But I never read any of those books. I’d watch as they moved from front-page headliners to “And Keep In Mind. . .”, and then they would vanish completely. For a few weeks I had some names in mind, and perhaps a witty comment or two by John Updike or Margaret Atwood, and then those would vanish, too.

I do not remember a single book review I have ever read, but I recall almost all the books I have read clearly. When I read book reviews, I feel that I am really with it, that I know who’s who, what’s up and coming, what the real writers think, but therein lies the problem: when I read reviews, I cease to think for myself. If reading books opens up whole new worlds, stretches the mind and the imagination and exercises the process of thought, reading most book reviews, for me, at least, closes the world. This is what the book is about, says the reviewer, and this is what it made me think about and what I think of it, and since the reviewer is often someone whom I respect and admire, I am easily sucked in. I will adopt her views and then for weeks walk around saying, “Well, so-and-so said that. . . .” Perhaps some of you are tougher-minded than I, and you do not buy what the reviewer tells you. If so, I admire and envy you. For most of us, though, I imagine that it is easier simply to agree.

So why do I write book reviews then, if not for the money (although I admit I find it an incentive, along with the free book and the opportunity to talk to writers, usually on someone else’s phone bill)?

The answer is obvious to me. I write book reviews because I think that maybe I can make them better. Maybe I can write reviews which would make me run out and buy that book right now, or find how how soon the library will have it in and get there first thing that morning. I don’t know that I actually do succeed in writing book reviews any different from those of the rest of the world–I don’t think so. But I like to try. I like to think that I can get people to read books, for I believe that there is no better or richer experience in the world (and if I you don’t think that, I think it’s because you haven’t met the right book yet, but that’s another story for another day).

In fifth grade, we did a novel unit on Survival. We all got to pick from a list of novels, and we wrote reports on them, and then we all had to do a little speech, a review of the book which was videotaped so that future generations could watch the tape and choose what books they wanted accordingly. My review was of a book called Incident at Hawk’s Hill, about a boy who falls down a hole and is raised by badgers, and how he eventually comes to live in the world again. I believe it is based on a true story. Anyway, for my review I spoke briefly of the premise of the book, and then I read aloud two excerpts. Later, the teacher asked everyone which books they’d heard about that they’d like to read. Nearly everyone in the class said they’d really like to read Incident at Hawk’s Hill.

That was probably the biggest ego boost I’ve ever had, but the truth of the matter is, I didn’t sell the book–the book itself did that.

Aug 99

Survey Says. . . (No. 14)

15 Seconds of Fame. . .

As some of you know, or may have noticed, a letter I wrote to NPR’s “Morning Edition” was read on Friday. The letter was a response to a commentary by Jon Carroll, all about JFK Jr. and life and death and stuff like that. Thanks to the wonders of technology, you can hear both the Commentary and the Letter online at NPR’s website (provided you’ve got RealAudio, which you can download for free from a link NPR provides).

* Go here to hear Jon Carroll
* And then go here, and if you wait a couple minutes, you’ll hear Bob Edwards say my name, followed by a few choice words.

Survey Says. . .

As of 1 August 1999, there have been 26 respondents to the Very Short Survey (approximately 22% of the current readership, or at least subscribership). Of those who responded, 9 (34%) had fired a gun–the kind with gunpowder and bullets and stuff. BB guns, waterguns, and paintball guns just don’t count. A number of those who hadn’t said they’d like to; one or two said they had no desire to. The overwhelming majority (all but 2) had read The Catcher in the Rye. About 60% reported liking it on first reading; the average age of first reading was 16-17 (the youngest was 10, the oldest 40), and there was no apparent correlation (as I had thought there might be) between age and liking. You can read some of the responses if you’d like.

So, for those of you who’ve been wondering why I was curious about guns and The Catcher in the Rye, some explanation:

One reader wondered if there was some correlation between gun nuts and Catcher. I don’t think so, though I suppose Mark David Chapman might disagree. (For those of you who weren’t succumbed to the mind-numbing documentary about John Lennon’s assassin which I got to watch in high school as part of Salinger Seminar, Chapman spent a full weekend in New York City using Catcher as a guidebook, doing everything that Holden did, except of course he then shot Lennon and ended up in jail instead of pricey mental institution in California). And if you’ve seen Six Degrees of Separation (a most excellent play and movie, I might add), one character presents an argument linking Catcher to youth violence. . . but I’m not going to get into that. The two questions were originally quite separate in my mind, and I’m going to keep them that way.

As it happens, I have shot a gun, or a rifle, to be more precise. I was 12 years old and had been sent from my lovely camp to the disgusting boys’ camp (which was not across the lake) for the day. This was supposed to be a great treat, since there was a Dance in the evening. Whoopee. Anyway, during the day we got to do activities, including Riflery, which was of course not offered at our camp. I was pretty psyched, as I was a big fan (and still am–there is no sweeter sound than that of an arrow hitting the target) of archery, and I figured this would be even better. You could pierce a small tree with the bows we used, but this was gunpowder!

It was a great disappointment. Archery is a beautiful sport, full of clean lines and elegant angles, understandable physics. The graceful curve of the bow, the perfect pull and release of the string, the sweet sound as the brightly-feathered arrow hits the bullseye and buries itself in the straw. Archery puts one in mind of Robin Hood’s cool green forests, or of lazy afternoon lawn parties. Riflery, by contrast, involves the awkward positioning of yourself and your rifle, targets which are no more than black and white pieces of paper tacked to something, and the ugly sound of explosives. I may, of course, be biased towards archery, which I had a natural affitinity and talent for. I had no such success at riflery; I don’t think I hit the target once that day.

But I’m glad I did it. I’m opposed to guns, generally, for the unsophisticated reason that they were designed to kill things (so, of course, were bows and arrows–yet strangely, one doesn’t hear about many bow-slayings). Being opposed to something, however, does not mean you should be ignorant about it: on the contrary, I think the more you are opposed to something, the more you should know about it. It’s why the CIA exists, after all: knowing what the enemy thinks. But it’s also why Clarence Darrow is so brilliant in Inherit the Wind. He can quote the Bible as well, if not better than, William Jennings Bryan; he matches him line for line, point for point. If you like to win arguments as much as I do, knowing what your adversary knows is a useful skill. More importantly, though, knowing things, and having the experience of them, is worthwhile for its own sake. I never thought I’d say this, but I shall: Go fire a gun if you haven’t. Don’t aim it at someone, don’t join the NRA, don’t vote for people opposed to gun control. But know what you’re up against.

As for The Catcher in the Rye, I had an idea that it was a book you only enjoyed if you read it at a certain age. That theory has been blown out of the water, and I have no new one to replace it, but I was fascinated by the responses I got. If you haven’t written, or if you have more to say–positive or negative–I’d love to hear it. A great many books get referred to as “a Catcher in the Rye for this generation,” a phrase which has always annoyed me, as it suggests that books need remakes. (Have you ever heard anything referred to as “a Pride and Prejudice for this generation”? I thought not). But the phrase suggests a certain resonance, a this-book-changed-my-life kind of quality–and I would like to think that books still have the power to do that.

If and when I come up with any new theories on Catcher, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, you might want to check out some of the responses, which I’ve posted anonymously. If yours is there and you want it taken down for some reason, or if you’ve got some thoughts you’d like added, just let me know.

Jul 99

A New Rambler Supplement and a Very Short Survey


There are now 114 subscribers to The New Rambler. In age they span about seven decades, in geography, three countries.


Over the past few months I have been using three different computers. I have tried to keep the mailing list consistent, but if, for some reason, you have missed an issue, or gotten an issue twice, or something, please accept my apologies. Back issues are available on the web (www.avalon.net/~rambler), or via e-mail, by request.

Remember back awhile ago when I sent out the notice asking for favorite poem submissions? Well, I haven’t forgotten about them completely. Submissions so far have been

  • “Spring and Fall: To A Young Child” Gerard Manly Hopkins
  • “Song on St. Cecilia’s Day” John Dryden
  • “Yes Yes” Charles Bukowski
  • “Each in His Own Tongue” William Herbert Carruth
  • “fair ladies tall lovers” e. e. cummings
  • “Atlantis” Mark Doty
  • and a number of Shel Silverstein poems

Someday when I’m feeling more ambitious I’ll type a few of them up.

Several of you have heard tell of the Star Wars interviews that I did back in May. Ostensibly these interviews, conducted with various people waiting outside the Englert in downtown Iowa City in the three hours prior to the premiere of The Phantom Menace, were for a book I’m theoretically going to write someday about being a kid in the ’80s. (Actually, I think that might be kind of a dumb topic; mostly, it’s reactionary. I’m so sick of reading books about the ’60s. But I am fascinated by the 1980s, and by the idea that Star Wars was a term being bandied by both George Lucas and Ronald Reagan. . . .) Anyway, in the meantime, I shall be transcribing said interviews, and they’ll be available on the website, or via e-mail or hard copy, by request. Don’t hold your breath, though.

The last issue, No. 13, has sparked considerable confusion, my own perhaps more than anyone’s. When and if I’ve made it any clearer to myself, I’ll pass on what I can. The very first New Rambler I ever wrote started as an e-mail to a friend one evening, until, at some point half way through, I realized I was just telling her a lot of stuff she already knew. I thought about junking it, but, either because I hate throwing things away or because I was feeling angry at the world and cut off from communication as I had come to understand it, I didn’t. I added several dozen e-mail addresses, called it The New Rambler, No. 1, hit send, and waited for the recriminations to come in. Only they didn’t.

When people have told you your whole life that you are good at something, you tend to discredit it. Most writers say that writing is incredibly difficult. I have never found it so. Writing that others may read–read and possibly misunderstand, disagree, or dislike–that is hard. I claim that I write to make people think, but of course that is not the whole truth. I write to make people think like me, and to say that I want you to think like me, is, of course, tantamount to saying I really don’t want you to think at all. That I keep on writing despite that contradiction suggests to me that I either have weak morals or an arrogant will. Since neither of these is an admirable trait, I try to avoid thinking about it–but it makes it very, very difficult to write.


One word answers are sufficient, but anything more you’d care to tell me would be excellent. There is no precise purpose behind this survey (apologies to statisticians, psychologists, and others who may find such lack of direction an abomination)–I’m just testing out some hypotheses and satisfying my curiousity.

    1. Have you ever fired a gun?
    2. If you have read The Catcher in the Rye: How old were you when you first read it, and did you like it at the time?

Please e-mail your answers to me.

Thanks for reading.


Jul 99

Men and Women, Take One (No. 12)

“There have been parallels, individuals who’ve made great leaps foward in understanding–Galileo, Newton, Stephen Hawking–these men. . . .”
–Mulder, The X-Files, 5th season finale, emphasis mine

Several weeks ago I watched (yes, really) the dazzling made-for-TV docu-drama Pirates of Silicon Valley, about the rise and fall of Steve Jobs (Noah Wyle) and the rise and rise of Bill Gates (Anthony Michael Hall–remember him?), respective men behind Apple and Microsoft. Its primary initial effect was to make me want to stay the hell away from computers, which may explain the unnaturally long lapse between issues. Around this same time, I was reading a book of my mom’s called Young Men With Unlimited Capital, by John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, and some other guy, which is about how the first two, both venture capitalists, put up the money, and then did a lot of the dirty work, for Woodstock. Since then, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about rich white guys, who are generally a group I try to ignore. Consequently, I do not promise that this will be at all coherent. (But what am I apologizing for? This is my damn e-mail journal).

Near the beginning of Pirates, the Steves (Jobs and Wozniak) narrowly escape being teargassed at some Vietnam (?) demonstration at UC Berkeley, and Jobs says to Woz, “Those guys think they’re revolutionaries–they’re not–we’re revolutionaries.” And so the two of them go blundering on with their machines and their computers built inside wooden boxes, working out of Jobs’s parents’ garage and totally oblivious to how foolish they’re being. Bill Gates and his cronies are doing the same thing, only with software. It’s the kind of story America is supposed to love: guys bumbling about in the basement suddenly figure it out, and, after years of hard work, strike it rich.

One might say that Roberts and Rosenman are the opposite of this story, although they also thought of themselves as revolutionary, in a way. But they started out with a lot of dough and proceeded to sink almost all of it into that mudhole which has somehow become a defining generational event. (Sorry, I didn’t mean that as entirely insulting–just a knee-jerk reaction to all things Boomeresque–the book gives you the impression that it was actually quite a feat).

What struck me most about all these men–Jobs, Gates, Roberts, and Rosenman–however, was how damned sure of themselves they were, and what incredible jerks they were at times along the way (the latter two much less than the former two, but then, I was getting their side of the story). It is enough to make one think that the prevailing characteristic of genius, or of success, is not just tunnel vision, but also the inability to conceive of yourself as anything but right–and thus it is that several young men took over the world, or at least Max Yasgur’s farm.

There are flaws in this thinking, but I’m not going to point them out. I end with an anecdote:

A group of about a dozen is dining in a small Italian restaurant. A waitress, in her early or mid teens, leaves for the kitchen, and a man explains to some of the group that she is the daughter of the owners. “But she’s just gotten really shy in the past year for some reason,” he says, bemused. Three of the group are young women themselves, college-educated, in their early twenties. “Yeah,” they all say knowingly, simultaneously, and then look at each other and at the rest of the table, a look of almost shock on their faces–the shock of recognition, and the shock that none of the other people at the table quite seem to grasp it. “Does that happy, really?” the man asks. They nod. “We should get her a copy of Reviving Ophelia,” one says.

Jun 99

The White Guilt Issue (No. 11)


The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.

The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people.

Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.

–Langston Hughes

When I was in fourth grade, around the time Black History Month started getting widespread attention in my school, our teacher handed out a worksheet, photocopied from some book designed to promote multicultural teaching during the month of February. At the top, it quoted “My People,” by Langston Hughes. Then there was some information, probably about the Harlem Renaissance, or something, and then it asked you to write a poem about your people. I remember that I, usually so eager to leap into writing assignments, sat there, staring at the blank lines in front of me, completely at a loss. I was an upper middle class white girl. I had just learned about how my people, my race, had kept Langston Hughes’s people enslaved for the better part of American history. I knew also, from social studies earlier that year, that my people were responsible for wiping out most of the Native American population. And though I hadn’t yet studied it, and hardly knew its name, I had a vague idea that white people were also responsible for the Holocaust. What good could I possibly say of my people? I had, I thought, no right even to attempt to write a poem like Hughes’s, which was so beautiful, written about a people so deserving.

I know that eventually I wrote something, but it seems that I disliked my response so much, felt it was so wrong, so misconceived, that I did not save it. I do not know what the other kids in my class, who were, by and large, WASPs just like me, wrote. I do not know if they were overwhelmed with the sense of cultural guilt which struck me first on that day and has remained with me. Since that day, I have always had a peculiar awareness of the groups I belonged to, by accident of birth, realizing that none of them were things I wished to claim for my own. I knew also, though, that I could not abandon them and take up residence with some other group: I had no right to be black, or Jewish, or gay, and perhaps I even had no right to claim some kinship, or some understanding, with any of them. It is a lonely place to be.

Arbeit macht frei,” I added, realizing that Timothy wasn’t Jewish and probably wouldn’t get my morbid reference to Auschwitz.

One of the creepiest moments for me was discovering that six million Americans had taken Prozac. As a Jew, I had always associated that precise number with something else entirely.
–Elizabeth Wurtzel, Prozac Nation

By the time I got to college, I had succumbed to the idea that I was a white girl and there was nothing I could do about it. I used to tell people that I was majoring in Dead White Men, which was basically true, although as a Classics major these days, you are informed that the society you are studying, which lasted several decades in one form or another, and spanned, at times, most of the Mediterranean, was, in fact, one of the most diverse societies ever to exist. My senior thesis was about Herodotus, whom I think I admired most not for his inclusion of women (the topic of said thesis) but for his ability to travel, to go everywhere, and, it would seem, be accepted by everyone.

On the whole, though, I steered clear of multiculturism, and it steered clear of me, except for the one fascinating thing I discovered–there was, in many of the people I met, a preconceived notion of a subtle anti-Semetism on my part. Well, perhaps anti-Semitism is a bit strong–but it was assumed that, like the Timothy Elizabeth Wurtzel speaks of, because I was not Jewish, I knew nothing of it. Further, because I was from Iowa, I could not possibly know anyone who was Jewish. Judaism, it seemed, was a religion and a culture which extended no farther west than 8th Avenue. I became immediately defensive. I have Jewish friends, I wanted to say. I’ve read the All of a Kind Family books and the Diary of Anne Frank. And I was once told by an acquaintance in high school that, by virtue of my maternal grandfather having been technically Jewish by birth, I was “Jewish enough for Hitler,” thus making me feel, if only for a moment, that I belonged in some small way to the club. But I would always stop, midway through. I was no expert. And to say, “I have Jewish friends”–what an awful thing to say, as if that is the only reason I chose them as friends, so as to fill that segment of my multicultural quota. I wanted so badly, though, for people not to view me that way. I knew the meaning of Arbeit macht frei and the deadly signifigance of the number six million. The result of these accusations of a subtle anti-Semetism on my part had the effect of creating that feeling in me. I would catch myself thinking, What makes these people think they’re so special, that only they can know about the Holocaust, or even about something as innocuous as lox?

At lilac evening I walked. . . in the Denver colored seciton, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night. . . . I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a “white man” disillusioned.
–Jack Kerouac, On the Road

A few months ago a friend of mine confessed she felt incredible sadness at the thought that, no matter what she did, she would never be a gay man. At first I laughed, remembering a guy I knew in high school who used to say, “But I really want to go to Wellesley!” But then I remembered Kerouac, a man not generally endowed with any degree of political correctness (and in fact, I could easily construe several readings of the passage above as quite racist) and his lifelong desire to break on through, to belong to something other than himself, his mother, and the Lowell of his childhood, and, in the end, despite his virtual invention of a new American prose style, his complete inability to do so. Perhaps that is why am drawn to Kerouac, despite his misogyny: it is the way he “shambled after. . . the people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones. . . .” But where Kerouac’s desire to belong to some other people was fueled by a desire for kicks, a desire for something more in life, mine still remains a simple desire to escape from guilt. Both of us wish to leave a culture which is dying if not already dead, because some aspect of it is stifling to us. Kerouac never really found another place to go: he died in his mother’s house in Florida at the age of forty-seven. I am still looking.

I don’t have a conclusion to this issue; these are all things which have been preoccupying me for years, which were brought to the fore today after reading the title essay in Daphne Merkin’s collection Dreaming of Hitler. I feel I should report that about a year ago, I did play a game of pool volleyball with a bunch of people from Vassar. In a moment of inspiration, as we were trying to decide how to divide the teams, one person yelled, “Jews versus Gentiles!” and so ensued the game to end several thousand years of religious conflict, an hour of volleying slurs as well as balls across the net (“You friggin’ pork eaters!” “Christ-killers!”). Unfortunately, nobody thought to keep score, but we did succeed in scaring away the rest of the pool guests. I’d like to say that it just goes to show that if you spend enough time playing in the water in your underwear with people, the tensions of the world will be solved, because I’d like to end this on an upbeat note–but I can’t quite do that. I’m just going to have to let it dangle—-

May 99

On Not Knowing Math

8 May 1999–

for Ruth Greenwald, with immense gratitude, and Eugenie Hunsicker, with best wishes for the future

The other day I was talking to a girl from my English class, having, for the umpteenth time, the “I Suck at Math” Bonding Conversation. There are, of course, a number of these conversations among college students, the most popular being the “I Had No Friends in High School” Bonding Conversation and the “I Will Be Paying Back Student Loans Until the Year 20xx” Bonding Conversation, and I have engaged in all of them many times. Generally speaking, with the exception of the student loan conversation, these discussions have a limited basis in fact and are more like histories which you invent in order to better fit in with the group of people you now find yourself with. In my case, though, none is such a fabrication as the “I Suck at Math” speech, because it’s not true. I’m good at math, and while I do not have the natural affinity for it that I feel for languages and literature, I still like it pretty well. And yet over and over, I find myself saying, in order to fit in better, “Oh yeah, I’m no good at math either. All those weird little symbols, all that definition–it’s just beyond me.” And I’m guessing that the same is true for at least a few other people.

But why? What is so awful about math that people feel a need to hide from it, that people brag about their lack of ability with it? I have never once heard someone say with pride that she can hardly compose an English sentence, much less string several of them together in order to make a point, although I know many people for whom that is the case. Of course, there is an on-going cultural tendency towards telling girls that they’re not naturally apt at math and that they don’t need to be. A great deal has been written about this, and I often think it’s a rather tired issue, until I remember that there were traces of it even here, in my supposedly liberal, highly educated town.

I was lucky enough, for my first two years of high school, to study math under Ruth Greenwald, surely the best teacher, of any subject, that I or any of her other students have ever had. Miss Greenwald was not just a teacher of mathematics, she was, more than anyone I have met, a true teacher of liberal arts, a teacher of thinking. In that class you did, as William Blake put it, “see a world in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower/Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/And Eternity in an hour.” Ruth Greenwald was also adamant about excellence, and adamant about behavior. Excitement and inquiry were welcome in her class; showing off was not. And you were never permitted to do less than you could. I still have, tucked away in my filing cabinet, an algebra test with the grade D, and the injunction, “You can do better!” That is the only time I have ever been told that–and not because my work was always of top quality. The very next year, in Pre-Calc, I had a different teacher, whose methods bored me. I quickly lost interest, and my work began to slip. This teacher informed me at the end of the year that if I took AP Calculus, I would flunk it, and encouraged me to sign up for something called Discrete Mathematics. I told her if she didn’t want me in her class, I wasn’t going to bother with math at all, and I took an extra free hour.

It was that conversation, I think, that began my earnest participation in the “I Suck at Math” conversations. I do not think that that teacher’s comment was particularly related to my being female, for I know a number of other young women who liked her and viewed her as a role model. This teacher was popular, and she won a number of teaching awards, based mostly on the numbers of her students who went on to score well on the AP Calc exam. I think it is more likely that she didn’t view me as a potential high scorer and therefore didn’t want me in her class–by contrast, she encouraged several exchange students who were doing well to take the exam–to spend $70 on a test which would have no relevance when they returned home, just because they would do well on it. What sickens me is the idea that only the superior students were worth bothering with, that those who were merely good, or mediocre, were, rather than encouraged, shunted aside. I suspect this happens in all subjects, but math seems particularly prone to it. Why exactly that is will remain a subject for a future issue–this is long enough already.

NOTES: Some of you have sent in favorite poem submissions (see A New Rambler Supplement, 4/26/99)–thank you. As for the rest of you, while Pinksy’s collection is over, the doors here at The New Rambler remain open, so send ’em on.

The title of this issue, as some of you may know, is borrowed from Virginia Woolf’s excellent essay “On Not Knowing Greek”–but my explanation of the relation between math and Classics will also have to wait for another day.

Apr 99


As many of you are probably aware, a terrible disease has overtaken this country, a disease whose primary symptom is the renaming of all months, days, and weeks, so that they no longer honor the gods of the ancients or the Sabbath or whatever else, but rather secretaries, veterans, mothers, mental health, stuttering awareness, and whatever else it has been decided needs to be recognized especially, or only (depending on your point of view) at a certain time of the year.

Since I can think of no way to beat this tendency, and since it does occasionally produce good things, I have decided to join it–not that I’m going to name a Samuel Johnson Appreciation Week (though that might be kinda fun). But, I am going to jump on the tail end of the April Is National Poetry Month Bandwagon, and urge all of you to contribute to Robert Pinsky’s 200th birthday present to the Library of Congress. It’s pretty simple: basically, you send an e-mail to stating your favorite poem–anything goes (although if it’s not in English they ask that you provide a translation, and they’re not accepting unpublished work). Robert Pinsky, as you may know, is our poet laureate, and he’s been accepting submissions all year, I think. Anyway, he’s going to have 1000 respondents read their selections onto audio tape, and some more onto video tape, and then put the whole mess in the Library of Congress as a sort of time capsule. So, get out your Oxford Book of English Verse or copy of Where the Sidewalk Ends or collection of haiku or whatever, and send in your selection by April 30th–that’s Friday–sorry about the short notice. And if you CC your submission to me, I’ll compile a list of favorites of The New Rambler.

Some of you may also have heard me talking about my Alphabet of Verse project. It is now done, in hard copy, and I’m working on getting it up on the Web, but that may not happen till this summer. Poetry, should, however, be a year-round preoccupation, so I trust you will all be as happy to spend a September evening with Ted Hughes or a drear-nighted December with John Keats as you are to spend a cruel April drenched with sweet showers with Eliot and Chaucer. Enough erudition–and a real New Rambler will be on the way, sooner or later.