Mar 99

In Praise of Elizabeth Wurtzel

If I were to ask the students in my class to quote any one line of ‘Ozymandias,’ I doubt that one of them could do it. Almost all of them, however, would be able to tell me that Shelley was a drunk and died by drowning. –quoted as best I can remember from JD Salinger; I can’t find the book at present

If there is one thing in the world I hate, it is people who express opinions of books they haven’t read. Of course, there are many things that I hate, and I express my views on Charles Dickens, whom I’ve barely read, all the time. But, to quote that ever-useful line of Walt Whitman’s, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.” This business of casting the ballot on books one hasn’t read happens all the time; in the past few months, however, one work seems to have born the brunt of it amongst the people I know: Elizabeth Wurtzel’s second book, Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women.

Wurtzel’s first book was a memoir, Prozac Nation, and I could talk forever about what a fantastic book it is, how it is one of the only true represenations of depression that I know, and how I think it forms a paradigm for a new kind of writing, a post-everything mentality, blah blah blah. But a lot of other people have written about that. The book made the New York Times best-seller list. I’m not too worried about its place in the world. Bitch, however, I would like to address.

Bitch is the most refreshing book I have read in a long, long time. But every time I start to say that, somone says “Oh, I read a terrible review of that,” or “Oh, Naomi Wolf says that’s pseudo-feminism,” or, most frequently and worst of all, “Oh, I hear that got terrible reviews,” which would seem to suggest that the utterer of that statement isn’t even stealing the reviewer’s idea, they’re stealing someone else’s idea of the reviewer’s idea. And of course there are the comments I get when I carry the book around (which I kind of like to do even when I’m not reading it; sometimes I even think of putting the cover on other books, kind of like that grade school trick employed to read comic books in math class, but then I wouldn’t have the book on hand to read excerpts from it, as I started to do for a small audience while waiting to get my oil changed). These are probably due to the cover, which I have kindly stolen for you, courtesy of the good folks at amazon.com.

Bitch is the most refreshing book I have read in a long time because it achieves all of the things which The New Rambler strives for: it is brazen, it says the hell with most journalistic conventions, it concerns things which nobody seems to care about (Amy Fisher, Margaux Hemingway) or new aspects of things which have been overdone (Nicole Brown Simpson, Hillary Clinton). Bitch remembers women who go unremembered, or who are remembered only for their deaths or their sins, as Shelley is remembered for his drinking and his drowning. At 400 pages, yes, it rambles (but of course we encourage that around here), but amidst that rambling is some of the only intelligent stuff about being female that I, Miss Anti-Women’s Studies USA, have ever read.

Wurtzel has been criticized for being overly inflammatory, for not having a clear point, for contradicting herself, and for being unduly disclosive, among other things. I don’t always agree with Wurtzel; in fact, I’d really like to grind an ax about Jane Austen with her sometime (I’m pro, she’s con). But I don’t always agree with my friends, either, nor do our arguments always come to coherent conclusions. If the course of human history hasn’t yet answered the questions posed about the role of women in society, it seems unlikely that any one book will provide all the answers. But to find the right answers, it is often necessary first to ask the right questions, and I think Wurtzel has a lot of those, questions about just why one bothers with dictums one did not invent. Referring only in part to the atrocity known as The Rules, she writes:

Well, I for one am sick of it. All my life, one person or another has been telling me to behave, saying don’t let a guy know you’re a depressed maniac on the first date, don’t just be yourself, don’t show your feelings. . . . I don’t like it. It seems like, all this, all these years of feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Simone de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf, Gloria Steinem, Susan Faludi–all that smart writing all so we could learn to behave? Bra-burning in Atlantic City–so we could learn to behave? Roe v. Wade–so we could learn to behave? Thelma & Louise–so we could learn to behave? The gender gap–so we could learn to behave? Madonna, Sally Ride, Joycelyn Elders, Golda Meir, Anita Hill, Bette Davis, Leni Riefenstahl–all those strong indefatigable souls so we could learn to behave?

Get out there, read Bitch, or read something, and remember how to think.

Mar 99

But Can She Type?

Ides of March 1999

I feel this issue ought to be about the Ides of March, or at least the number nine (number nine. . . number nine), but I’m afraid it’s not. It’s about typing.

When I was about, oh, say nine years old, I came across a poster in my grandmother’s house. In it, an old woman sat looking up at you with an expression on her face I still can’t place, and underneath was the caption, “But can she type?” I got the feeling that this was supposed to be a joke, so I applied to my grandmother for explanation. She informed me that the woman in the picture was Golda Meir, who had been the Prime Minister of Israel, and that yes, in fact, this poster was hilarious. I didn’t get it, so I just put it down to another one of those weird grown-up tics, like taking half an hour to finish a drink or engaging in long conversations with boring people after church.

Ten or twelve years later, I’ve grown up enough to realize that social chatter is necessary and not always boring and that one does not really want to gulp cocktails, but that poster still baffles me. Of course, I can see various possiblities for why someone might consider it funny. It could be pre-feminist “funny,” like ha ha, what good is a woman if she can’t type?, rather like the bit in The Bell Jar when Sylvia Plath’s–excuse me, Esther Greenwood’s–mother tells her that she’d better learn shorthand, because nobody wanted a plain English major. But an English major who knew shorthand was something else again. Everybody would want her. She would be in demand among all the up-and-coming young men and she would transcribe letter after thrilling letter.

It could be feminist era “funny,”–still what good is she if she can’t type, but this time like the punchline of the feminist lightbulb joke–“That’s not funny!” Or it could be post-feminist “funny,” as in, Look how far we’ve come and still the only question is, “Can she type?”, in which case it’s really not funny at all but quite sad.

The really sad thing is that Sylvia Plath’s mother was right–a plain old English major, or Classics major, or what have you, isn’t much good for anything. But throw in shorthand–or these days, computer skills, and suddenly they’re a much nicer commodity to plug into the machine.

I often say that I was a Classics major for the food, and as I made this little joke the other day, my friend remarked that one certainly didn’t go into Women’s Studies for that reason, and we had a laugh about Women’s Studies profs who probably think knowing how to cook is equivalent to laying down your life for the patriarchy. (I have no idea of the veracity of that; I never took a Women’s Studies course, as I object to them for my own reasons, which have very little to do with whether the cookies come from the oven or the store). That’s nonsense, of course: everyone should know how to cook. Food is a necessity of life, and you ought to be able to prepare it. But I can understand the problems it poses too, because I don’t think anyone ought to spend her life cooking, or typing, or cleaning, for others unless that’s what she really wants to do. I always cheer on Esther Greenwood/Sylvia Plath as she continues, “The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way. I wanted to dictate my own thrilling letters,” and decides that if she never learns shorthand, then she’ll never have to be a secretary. At the same time, though, I get irritated every time I see someone pecking out letters with two fingers. I’m proud of my typing ability (due entirely, I imagine, to the large amount of time I spent in college sending instant BroadCast messages to friends), to the point that I frequently put down “Typing, 63 wpm” on my resume. But it kind of sickens me at the same time.

Later this month I’m going to have the rather stunning experience of getting paid to write something, which seems quite odd after four years of shelling out thirty grand in order to have the privilege of writing papers about John Smith and William Bradford, or women in Greek drama. It brings a whole new level of understanding to the Ani Difranco couplet, “I want you to pay me for my beauty [or talent, in this case], I think it’s only right/’Cause I have been paying for it all of my life.” On the whole, though, I still agree with my father (and whomever he got the line from) that the only man who has freedom of the press is he who owns his own press, and that’s part of the reason that I started The New Rambler. But to publish yourself, you need to know how to type, and run a computer, and do some stuff with the Internet. . . and that, in the end, is how I justify those skills. Learn them for the Man if you must, to make a living–but use them for yourself. Golda Meir would be proud.

Feb 99

The Grammar of Time Travel

The New Rambler has not disappeared; it’s just been lurking. That’s why it’s called an occasional periodical, you see.

The web page has some new stuff on it and will have yet more shortly, so check it out. You can read about Burger King commercials and how they relate to the Department of Africana Studies at Vassar, the movie Life is Beautiful, and (soon) why you should stop what you’re doing and listen to the New Bad Things. Go there.

And keep your eyes on the Iowa City (and Cedar Rapids, though I generally choose to ignore that part) ICON in the coming weeks. . . you might see a familiar name in its pages.

But now down to business. . . .

“If you read science fiction, you’ll like Herodotus.” –a college professor to her advisee in Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

Generally speaking, I am not a big fan of science fiction, mostly just because I’m far too snobby about literature for my own good. Lately, however, I’ve been giving some thought to the genre, brought on by either watching too many X-Files reruns or rereading too much Madeleine L’Engle (supposing such a thing to be possible, which I doubt).

Mostly I’ve been thinking about time travel–not about the possiblity of it, since, as a friend of mine pointed out, if time travel existed we’d have known about it long since by way of visitors to the past, or present, or what have you, from the future (unless, of course, all those folk are equipped with little Men-in-Black lasers and they’ve wiped our memories out)–but more about why humans have thought up something they don’t have verb tenses to express. Somewhere in Robert Heinlein’s 1957 sci-fi novel (so much for my good taste in literature pose) The Door Into Summer (which I highly recommend to anyone who likes cats or is feeling in need of a Damon Runyon-esque fix), which is all about time travel and a man trying to fix his life through it, the narrator comments, in the midst of a bewildering explanation of his where and when-abouts, that if time travel becomes common, they’re going to have to invent a whole new class of verb tenses. He’s probably right–and yet think of the distinctions language already makes. I try to point out to my Latin students that, as confusing as they find Latin, English has just as many peculiarities and degrees of specificity. In Latin, for instance, “I carry,” “I am carrying,” and “I do carry” are all expressed by the same verb, while in English they all have a different connotation, despite the high school English teachers who try to squash this perfectly natural impulse to use the continual form when talking about continuing action (I harbor no grudges, I swear).

You see, I think that time travel does exist, and it doesn’t require machines–just words. If we can imagine completed action in the future (“I shall have carried”), action which, had it occurred in the past, would have produced a different outcome (“If I had caught the train, I would have made it on time”), action which, if it did occur, would produce yet another outcome (“If he should come, I would be glad”), to name just a few, are we not travelling around in time, at least in our minds? I used to get in trouble in history classes because I wrote all my papers in the present tense, a habit learned through writing English papers, which are traditionally written that way. I never did it deliberately, but when I tried to force myself to write in the past tense, it never worked. Latin and Greek both have something called “the historical present,” a way of telling about a past event in the present tense to make it seem more alive, a story-telling technique which most people use all the time without realizing it. And it seems to me that if you’re writing about history, you are necessarily reinterpreting it, and it is happening for you. Why not write in the present tense? Or (the horror! the horror!) switch back and forth–for, as a friend of mine in high school said, we don’t think or live in one tense most of the time–why write that way?
I’ve realized that I don’t have room to bring Herodotus into this issue–but then, he’s history; he’s not going anywhere. In the meantime, I wish you all a future more vivid (my very favorite Greek condition).

Feb 99

Clinton at the Movies

It frightens me greatly when I see the morning news and I haven’t actually slept yet, as it’s not usually something I intend to do. Insomnia aside, however, if I’m not hallucinating, it would seem that the little melodrama our government has been involved with for the past year might actually be winding down. This issue was planned some time ago to provide suggestions for alternative political entertainment–but even if the Senate trial does end, we still all might need some of that.

In 1993, my friend and favorite movie companion Sara and I attended two films–Dave (excellent) and the remake of Born Yesterday (not, of course, as good as the original)–which both were strong on overcoming dirty politics and bringing good back to the government and so on. At the time, I was taking AP Government, and I mentioned to Sara that I thought there was some connection between Clinton getting elected and all these happy-Washington movies. Two years later, I went to see The American President with some alums of that same AP Gov class, and I decided that my theory was holding up even halfway through Clinton’s first term. Of course, the government doesn’t actually tell Hollywood what to do these days (though perhaps they’ve put subliminal messages into the wallpaper of the Lincoln Bedroom; I don’t know), but the movie-makers did seem to be behind the President back then.

That in itself is interesting enough, but what I find really fascinating is the about-face which has occurred in the past couple of years: Clinton’s second term in office. The movies about Washington, and the Presidency in particular, have taken on a whole different tone. 1997’s Wag the Dog (war with Albania “produced” to detract the country’s attention from scandal concerning the President’s private life) and 1998’s Primary Colors (ostensibly an only slightly fictionalized account of Clinton’s 1992 campaign, which does not, needless to say, paint him in particularly sympathetic hues) showed quite a different picture from that of Kevin Kline cavorting through photo-ops or Don Johnson or Michael Douglas pushing Democracy in America (both the book and the concept). I guess Mr. Smith got the bourgeois blues and left town for good.
Although Clinton’s approval ratings continue to soar, the portrayals of him in popular media continue to sour. Hollywood, of course, is more often out to make a buck than to make any political point, and it seems they’ve decided that sleaze makes the buck these days better than sincerity. Neither Wag the Dog nor Primary Colors was a bomb, which leads me to wonder. . . what will happen next? A fictitious Clinton who murders and is hailed as a hero? Maybe he could go hang out with OJ Simpson.

Jan 99

Hopelessly Midwestern

Administrator’s note: Since this is a retroactive blog, it is full of retro references, such as those to URLs below. These ramblings are now just a portion of the larger New Rambler web site, which you can visit if you want to learn more about the author, namely me.

Welcome back to old subscribers, and just plain welcome to the few of you I’ve since added to the list (and my apologies to those who weren’t included before–the trial audience was rather small, and looking back over the address book just now I noticed there were a number of people I thought were there who weren’t). What you have here is the sixth issue of The New Rambler, an occasional e-mail journal which I started some months ago as a small little soapbox and which seems to have acquired a life of its own. If you’re confused, just keep reading–it’s good for your head.

The big news is that [drum roll, please] The New Rambler now has a web site, which contains, in addition to the back issues, several other articles I’ve written which I deemed to be too topical for general distribution, a few links of possible interest or relevance, a nifty guestbook, and probably some other stuff I’m forgetting. It ain’t pretty, but it will take only split seconds to load–and I like to think I’m keeping with the Web’s original purpose of disseminating information rather than adding to its current glut of crowded graphics. But, I shall prolong the suspense no longer–here’s the url:


So go check it out. . . it should all be in working order. . . I hope (of course, if you’re reading this on the Web, that should be proof positive).

In other news, I just returned from a whirlwind week in New York–Vassar, Brewster, and NYC all in the space of seven days. I’ve been telling people around here that the only reason I came back was that I was about to run out of money, which is partially true. When I’m in New York City, I can hardly imagine ever wanting to be anywhere else, and this trip was no exception. I went to see the Jackson Pollock exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, and, several hours later, when I emerged at the end, there were several moments in which I thought I could go blind right then and there, since I felt that I would be perfectly content if I never saw anything again. I didn’t, of course, and I did have to leave and come back here, and as always, as I was driving back to Iowa from Chicago (where I generally fly from), I discovered that that wasn’t at all a bad thing.

During that drive I thought, as I always do when driving long distance, about what a crazy, large, and varied place this country is. I’ve visited 23 of its states, and my goal is to make it to all 50. There are a lot of places I love–Chicago for its museums and its architechture and its skyline, which I think is the most beautiful one in the world; San Francisco for its vistas and its crazy bus routes and its weather (I actually like fog, and I love that it doesn’t get hot there in the summer); Maine, for the woods and the lakes; Wyoming, for the most amazing night sky I have ever seen. What I was thinking about as I drove was how lucky I am to come from the Midwest.

It’s often said that everything is in New York, and there certainly is a lot there–I can’t imagine why anyone who lived there would want cable TV, when a simple ride on the subway can expose you to more different sights and sounds and smells than you could ever get from a hundred different two dimensional channels. But at the risk of sounding trite, there are things you can’t get in New York, and things I think New Yorkers (and in general people who live in cities and on coasts) miss out on. Awhile ago my mother, who grew up in suburban Chicago, was telling me that before she moved to Iowa she never really thought of the weather as something people had to deal with anymore. Oh, sure, there were hurricanes and blizzards from time to time, but ordinary weather was something we’d conquered, something which didn’t affect the way people lived aside from the minor inconvenience of sweating outside in the summer and shovelling the sidewalks when it snowed. Living here, though, even if you don’t live on a farm or (like me) know a thing about farming, you still realize how very wrong that perception is. A few inches of rain too many or too few, an early frost, a hot summer or a mild winter–each of these has more direct influence on more people than you might ever think. Living here makes you more aware of that–closer to the land and closer to its history. Sometime in college I alluded to one of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books during a class, and I was met with blank stares. Finally someone said, “Oh yeah, those Little House books–I always thought those were stupid.” That experience was something akin to having a knife twisted in my gut, until, reflecting on it, I realized that everyone in that class was from an East Coast city–some of them–quite possibly all of them–had never seen a prairie (and I guess lacked the psychic ability of Emily Dickinson, who does go on about how she knows all about heather and waves though she’s never seen a moor or a sea). And then I just felt sorry for them.

One might, of course, argue that we Midwestern kids are equally deprived of a true understanding of, say, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by virtue of never having been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But Midwesterners are more likely to go to the alabaster cities (“Alabaster cities–New York City,” rhapsodizes Garrison Keillor in an old News From Lake Woebegon) than Easterners to go in search of amber waves of grain. “America the Beautiful,” though, includes all those elements–the purple mountains and the pioneers, the cities and the seas. I’ve been eyeing a new anthology called Writing New York in the bookstore for some time, considering whether I have the funds to purchase it, and right now I’m recalling Garrison Keillor’s commentary on it in the New York Times Book Review. He starts by talking about how just walking around NYC is one of the densest literary experiences you can have–or, as I frequently tell people, New York is fabulous because everywhere you go you’re somewhere. But that’s not true exclusively of New York–it’s true of everywhere. American writers do have a tendency to gravitate towards New York, but for as many as are drawn there, there are an equal number who resist its pull, and who have graced and illuminated so many other places with their touch–Mark Twain and the Mississippi, John Steinbeck and the Dustbowl and California, all those writers from the South.

People frequently ask me why I haven’t been to Europe, and while my explanations usually involve my shortage of funds and my inability to speak any living languages aside from English, the real reason is something far more intangible, something to do with the last sentence Jack Kerouac, whom I sometimes think appreciated America more than any other writer of the 20th century, wrote in On the Road: “So in America when the sun goes down. . . .” (Yup, you have to look up the rest of it yourself. Happy reading and happy travels.)

Dec 98


17 December 1998

The New Rambler will be on hiatus for some time now–probably until early or mid February–while I do various things such as moving to Minneapolis and trying to find a new job and teaching myself HTML and other such minor endeavors. But it will be back in full force–fear not–and with a web page featuring back issues, sundry information and links (I’d be happy to advertise the endeavors of my subscribers, you know), some ramblings on subjects which I thought were too topical or regional or generational to send out to the whole mailing list, and, I hope, a message board. A number of you have written me nice notes and pithy remarks and good insights and excellent commentary, and I haven’t been the best about replying to all of it, but I do appreciate it all.

I read [history] a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all: it is very tiresome, and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. –Jane Austen

Well. Today, 17 December 1998, is two days after my birthday, the day that impeachment votes were supposed to begin, the day after the United States added another chorus of bombing to what history may deem both a tragedy and a farce in the Middle East, and the day after Jane Austen’s 223rd birthday. In fact, I had a dinner party in honor of that occasion last evening. Listening to the radio reports as I prepared a trifle for dessert, I thought it an odd juxtaposition indeed, until I remembered once again the greatest boon I think I have gained from my education: that of perspective. Jane Austen lived, as we do (as has everyone, when you think about it), during a time of international upheaval, but she lived in a world where upheavals were caused by daughters running off with soldiers, or by passing comments made at parties at the expense of other guests, and it is that world that she wrote of, for that was the world she knew, the world whose history she could tell.

It is good to remember, from time to time, that all that will be has probably been before. I find it oddly comforting.

On a few occasions, people have asked me if I shall ever publish the writings of others in The New Rambler. I sometimes say I might consider it. Today that consideration becomes actuality, although I admit I did not obtain the author’s consent first. The following are excerpts from a class lecture by my father, John M. Crossett, which he used at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, the last place he taught before his death in 1981. His remarks are datedly funny (or funnily dated?) at times, but at others more timely than anything I’ve been able to say as I wrote and rejected various forms of this edition. Without further ado (since there’s probably been too much already), I present to you Isocrates, according to my father.

Most of you–I suspect all of you–have never heard of Isocrates. In fact, before the term is over–even before the lecture is over–you will confuse him with Socrates. Some of you are perhaps already confusing the names and saying, “Didn’t I hear this last week?” Well, to help you remember the difference, I shall do two things: first, I’ll give you a mnemonic device, a mechanical means for remembering: “Isocrates” begins with “I,” the same as the personal pronoun which you use to refer to yourself–and Isocrates is teh one you like; Socrates, on the other hand, is the one they killed, the one you’re supposed to like but really don’t. There, now that you have that straight, I can begin.

If you have read Isocrates’s essay, you will perhaps have some sense of what he was like. But it will help even those of you who have read it already to know something more of the man. Single-handed, he affected the Western world, and your lives, far more than did Plato or Aristotle. These two names, although they belong to men of infinitely greater worth than Isocrates, have a “press” which far outstrips their actual influence. We need only think of such facts as these: Aristotle’s works disappeared for almost 200 years after his death, and were not rediscovered until just before the time of Herod the Great and Christ; Plato’s works disappeared, except for a couple of dialogues, from the Western world for almost 1000 years. The kind of thing which Isocrates did–as we shall see–took form in political reality, not merely in ideas; and so those of you who believe that reality is more important than truth will easily credit him with being the more important man. If importance be measured by influence, you will be right.

Although Isocrates turned to rhetoric–to that “knack,” that form of “cookery,” so well analyzed and despised by Plato–he knew enough philosophy to try to redeem it from the vices which Plato remorselessly catalogued. In fact, he tries to re-define philosophy–to make it equivalent to what we call a liberal arts education: the kind of education which, in Milton’s words, “fits a man to perform justly, skilfully, and magnanimously all of the offices, both private and public, of peace and war.” (Milton, “Of Education” [emphasis mine])

It will be worthwile to observe a few of the implications to be found in Milton’s words. First, the word “offices.” It comes from the Latin officium, and it is the title of one of Cicero’s works. It signifies “duties,” that is, the kind of thing whcih one is supposed to do in one’s office. Nowadays, alas, the office is onl the physical building where one does one’s work; but one’s office in antiquity was in the man’s official role, not just in a building. It went with him wherever he was while he was acting in that role. For instance, President Ford is not just president while he is in the White House; he is also president while he is travelling from one city to another on his airplane, or while he is talking to and mingling people, or–especially, alas–while he is being shot at by assassins.

Second, these “offices” are both public and private. You may remember the last lecture, in which I mentioned that the Greek word for a private citizen was idiotes, from which we get our word “idiot.” The Greeks emphasized public life, not private–a fact which we can tell simply from comparing their public buildings, like the Parthenon (which we all know) to their private homes, of which we know almost nothing. But Milton, in the tradition of Cicero and Isocrates, equates both public and private–in short, what we could call “the whole man.”

If you have read the Nicocles, you will perhaps have noted the remarkable defence which Isocrates makes for virtue, for arete [a loaded Greek word which we translate as virtue, but of course it’s rather deeper than that]: “. . . . we practise justice and the other aretai not so that we can be less well off than others but so that we can lead lives full of good things.”

Who would practise virtue, asks Isocrates, if it was of no practical benefit? It is a view which should be near and dear to all of you; in fact, it is a view which is near and dear to all of you. After all, for several decades, now, American educators have been selling a liberal arts education to the American people on the twofold grounds that a) it is a good thing to do; b) it leads to better and more high-paying jobs. We’ll probably take up that point in class; but if we don’t, try to remember this: that Isocrates is a decent Callicles, an influential Girgias, a mellow Polus.

Well, Isocrates, then–if I am right–tried to re-define philosophy: for Socrates and Plato it has been a dialogue plus dialectic, concerned solely with ethics and the state of the individual soul and concentrating on the state of the soul in the afterlife. Such is the point of the great myth which appears at the end of the Gorgias. For Isocrates, however, philosophy became culture–what we call a liberal arts education–and its aim was this world, just as the education given here at Cornell College, like that of virtually all other colleges of liberal arts both here and abroad, is designed to equip you to face what we call the “real world.” Just think of that phrase, the “real world,” and recall, if you can, our earlier distinctions between what is true and what is real. You will measure your progress, or corruption–dependent on your point of view–in this course by the degree that you come to think what is true is more important than what is real.

Best wishes for the holidays and the new year to all.

Dec 98

Big Tobacco

2 December 1998

It’s been a bit hard to determine which dragon a solitary St. George should take on, when there seem to be dragons everywhere. –Robin McKinley, The Blue Sword

How true, how true. I feel this could turn into a litany of woes longer than “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” or the part of the Declaration of Independence that nobody reads, or the Book of Job (which, actually, I’ve never read, but I hear it’s pretty substantial). But we haven’t world enough or time to go into them all, so, plunging my hand into the hat of possibilities this evening, I come up with the subject of the big tobacco settlement and its relation to free speech and the apocalypse and stuff like that.

As I understand it, the tobacco companies are now going to have to shell out a lot of dough to all the states who signed on to this thing, who are, in turn, going to use it to offset the costs of the public health threat which cigarette-smoking has created, and that, furthermore, they’re going to raise the price of cigarettes some more and use that money to fund more anti-smoking education programs. And, last but not least, yet more forms of cigarette advertising are being banned. There are already so many things that give me pause here that I think I’d better stop to point out a few.

I’m not an advocate of smoking, particularly–it’s obviously not very good for anybody, so I suppose it’s nice that that’s getting some more attention. But last I checked, we were all perfectly well aware of the dangers and risks. Stating them more times doesn’t make them any more true, so I doubt that more education will do any good. As for the bans on advertising–well, this is where I start to get upset. The idea, I gather, is that they want to eradicate all images of smoking being cool from the minds of youth so that they won’t start. They’ve gotten rid of Joe Camel, but I don’t see any of these people saying we ought to get rid of James Dean, Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, and, for that matter, Leonardo di Caprio, who seems to have a penchant for choosing roles in which he gets to smoke.

Smoking as a cool activity is much more culturally entrenched than a two-dimensional cartoon character–and the advertising people over at Camel obviously know this. Have you checked out their ads recently? I think they’re hilarious, actually. They sneer so obviously. My favorites are the ones which feature a bunch of teenagers/twentysomethings in loud clothes, jumping around a house. In the bottom corner is a bubble just like the ones TV shows have these days, warning us that this situation involves sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, unsavory characters, disregard for authority, etc. You have to admire any advertisement that can mock Joe Camel opponents (by featuring pictures which look almost cartoonish), the Surgeon General’s Warning [with no disrespect meant to C. Everett Koop, who got the warnings enlarged in the first place, and of whom I am a huge fan] and TV-ratings systems all in one fell swoop. What lies underneath the humor, and what keeps the debates about TV-ratings and V-chips and porn on the internet vibrant, though, is an anxiety about the limits of free speech. At the considerably risk of sounding like a right-winger, I’m going to go ahead and say that free speech is more important than keeping images of tobacco icons out of the minds of the young and impressionable. I suppose when Voltaire said he’d fight to the death for your right to say something he disagreed with he wasn’t really expecting the explosion of advertising which various -isms have thrust upon us. It’s hard to defend the free-speech rights of a company as sleazy as Phillip Morris–but it’s necessary.

As for the apocalypse–no, I don’t really think the world is ending, but it does frequently appear to be going to hell in a handbasket. It’s a little hard for me not to be skeptical–not to mention cynical–about things when the first President of the U.S. I can remember started out as a B-movie actor. Actually, I find it quite appropriate that Reagan was President, for it seems like the perfect post for an actor to hold: the greatest role he’ll ever have (or she–but since not even Hollywood, who put Morgan Freeman in the job this past summer, has managed to make a woman president yet, I’m not holding my breath on that one). And it’s that cynicism, I suppose, which makes me wonder if not a few of the lawyers and politicians who won this big tobacco deal are going to spend a few bucks on some celebratory cigars. When they emerge from their smoke-filled rooms, I hope they take a look at the smoke which surrounds us all these days and consider a class-action suit against car manufacturers and oil companies. Cigarette smoke may contain carbon monoxide, but it takes a lifetime of it to kill you. A garage full of car exhaust can do you in in an afternoon.

Nov 98

The Decline and Fall of the Infinitive

To plainly put it. . .

So they’ve decided to abjectly give up, to like throw up their hands, to meekly toss in the towel, and whatever else one does to humbly signal the barbarians that they’ve won. After trying to desperately hold the line for centuries, the Oxford Dictionary people decided to realistically accept split infinitives.

Well, why not? What good is it to anachronistically maintain a semblance of proper English in a society that long ago decided to casually ditch any academic discipline? The baby-boon generation already directs math teachers to enthusiastically accept a “sincere effort” in place of a correct answer; why should English teachers be allowed to like endanger a kid’s self-esteem by, you know, imposing icky old rules?

We defy the grammatical grumps to honestly and with the sincere conviction of their calling point out a single instance where to with the lowest of bows to the Renaissance masters split an infinitive did anything to even the slightest or just barely noticeable degree detract from clarity.

–Reprinted without any permission whatsoever from the Editorial Board of the Des Moines Register, “The Newspaper Iowa Depends Upon” (10/30/98). Despite unfortunate circumstance of its motto ending in a preposition, I think it may become the newspaper on which we all depend. I have seen no clearer example of the evils of poor grammar than the preceding editorial. As the world goes to hell in a handbasket, so goes our ability to describe the experience–but fear not, a real issue of The New Rambler will be reaching you soon in an attempt to help put that to rights.

Nov 98


Election Day 1998

The wizard, to tell the truth, never minded explaining his cleverness more than once. –J.R.R. Tolkien

When I was younger, I had a theory that books never really got going until chapter three–the first two chapters were solely to introduce setting and characters and so forth. Well, I’ve since discovered that that isn’t always the case, and it certainly hasn’t been for The New Rambler. Having jumped right in to the picture in the first two issues, I shall now draw back briefly to give everyone a clearer view of the background, in the hopes that this will seem a bit less like blobs of paint and a bit more like a Monet (hey, if I don’t set my sights high, who will?)

Some of you are new to The New Rambler with this issue, for various reasons (I had misplaced, misspelled, or otherwise misplaced your e-mail address), and some of you don’t even know me, but little birds, or something told me you might be interested; the back issues which you’ve missed will follow shortly.

I started The New Rambler to save my breath. I feel like I spend every day of my life expounding to people about the things I’m angry about (and there are a lot of them), and that can get tiring. I thought maybe if I just wrote it all down and sent it out, that would help. The epigraph for today’s issue is my family’s favorite line from The Hobbit, and it’s true that I share (and possibly epitomize) our tendency to tell people about how clever, or how right, we are, and to make sure they all know it. In that light, The New Rambler is no better than a soapbox (a soapbyte? soaplink? soapsite?), but I’ve gotten enough positive feedback on it to gather that people don’t feel it’s a terrible soapbox, or a terrible idea. But beyond a simple desire to keep from going hoarse, what inspired The New Rambler was remembering several things from a course I took on the Enlightenment. At that time, prior to the whole of the Model T, the whole of the 19th century, the French Revolution, and all that rot, Denis Diderot and some other folks spending too much time in too many Parisian cafes and salons, drinking way too much coffee (kinda like college students, come to think of it), decided to write an encyclopedia, an encyclopedia whose purpose was, in their words, “to change the general way of thinking.” I can’t claim that The New Rambler is an encyclopedia, or that it will change a whole lot–but as I’ve always said, if you’re gonna dream, dream big. In that light, also, I chose the oh-so-original name of this periodical in honor of another fine 18th century gentleman (and my great hero), Samuel Johnson, who for a number of years published his Rambler essays to make some money and expound a bit on his views. I can only hope he isn’t turning in his grave.

Thanks for reading.

Oct 98


So, I just got back from a movie called Clockwatchers. In my case, it also could quite accurately have been named How I Spent My Summer Vacation–basically, it’s a month or two in the life of four female temp workers, and it depicts a lot of the stuff which the first issue was about quite vividly. I’m not going to draw out that topic any more at present, but fear not, I shall return to it.

In deference to the requests of several subscribers, this issue will include some more paragraphs for easier reading.

Television is the subject at hand. As some of you know, I am totally fascinated by TV. In fact, as I write, I am taping ER so that I can watch it later and fast-forward through the commercials (although I love commercials, too–but that’s another story). What brings me to this is a conversation I had in a car trip the other day. The idea was put forth that perhaps the reason students today have such a hard time composing structured, complete, balanced arguments (or sentences, for that matter) is that the story-telling they have grown up with is that of TV, which is, by its nature, a kind of story-telling in which the tale is never complete. It has to be a story capable of endless regeneration, sort of like a repeating decimal. Soap operas are the best at this–I mean, soap operas have been going for 20, 25 years, some of them, with the same characters (only now they’re played by different actors–which actually makes soaps more like theatre, where many different actors can play the same role, whereas in a sitcom, only Seinfeld can play Seinfeld).

I had been arguing that sitcoms and dramas are the closest thing to 19th century serialized novels (such as those of Dickens and Thackeray) which exist. And before you jump on me to point out that Beverly Hills 90210 is no Bleak House (though actually, I have neither seen the former nor read the latter, so I can’t really tell you), please remember that there were many many schlocky serial novels written in Victorian England which nobody except PhD candidates reads anymore because they’re not as good as Dickens. Most TV shows will also be forgotten in a century, but I expect that a few will survive. (No, I’m not going to make any predictions on which ones–we’ve all been a little too inundated with 100-best lists for the turn of the millennium lately). But it’s also true what my opponent said–those novels did end, though perhaps their authors weren’t orignally sure when or how that would happen when they started. But they were still in control of their characters–Thackeray didn’t figure himself as the Puppet Master at the beginning of Vanity Fair for nothing. TV shows, on the other hand, don’t really have that luxury. There is rarely one author of the whole thing (though I do get the sense that Chris Carter keeps a pretty tight rein on The X-Files). Actors come and go, producers come and go, shows change location, ratings rise and fall. So eventually (in nine years, if you’re Seinfeld, or nineteen episodes, if you’re My So-Called Life) this story which has been working so hard to expand and regenerate and keep itself going has to end, quite abruptly.

The audience, of course, wants the story to end (Aristotle trained us well, I guess) nicely. Everybody whined about the last episode of Seinfeld–and it was overly showy, grandiose, self-absorbed, and some other stuff. But I did like the very end, which ended with a conversation from the very first episode, and Jerry said, “Wait, haven’t we had this conversation?” It was kinda like Waiting for Godot. (My So-Called Life, on the other hand, didn’t even know it was going to end; it just serendipitously called what turned out to be its last episode “In Dreams Begin Responsiblities” (which, it turns out, is the title of a short story by Delmore Schwartz), which strikes me as pretty apt for a show which a lot of idealistic-types liked which got cancelled ’cause because the world is stupid, to put it briefly).

I still haven’t gotten to my point, which is maybe proving the point I started out with, that our young minds have been poisoned by endless TV plots and we can no longer think in coherent units. But I’m not so sure that’s true, because a lot of sitcoms end up okay each week–I mean, the Simpsons frequently manage to save the world in half an hour (minus time for commercials!) When a movie called Reality Bites (which is basically a music video about some college grads and some slackers and their impoverished full lives) first came out, the bit which the Time magazine review quoted was, “Why can’t everything go back to normal at the end of the half hour like The Brady Bunch?” The reply was, “Well, because Mr. Brady died of AIDS.” At the time (1994), I thought that was a pretty dumb thing to quote, but today it seems quite accurate. I mean, life is pretty much an endless, pointless, often repetitive plot (sometimes its a good plot, luckily). Why should art, or writing, be so different? Even Shakespeare acknowledged that–examples will be provided on request, but this thing is way too long already.