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Archive for May, 2007

Since I entered grad school many years ago, I have been drawn to academic novels.  I think the first one I read was Jane Smiley’s Moo, which absolutely killed me because the big state university with its huge agriculture department sounded a lot like the place where I got my MA, except my school was in California.  Then I moved on to Russo, Lodge, Kingsley Amis, Amanda Cross, Joanne Dobson, and several others.  Recently I picked up Tom Wolfe’s latest Big Thing, I Am Charlotte Simmons.  This novel is certainly entertaining, but it is also quite strange, and I have to say that the ending infuriated me.

Charlotte is from Sparta, North Carolina, the smartest thing ever to walk across the stage and receive a diploma from the little high school.  She has been awarded a full scholarship to Dupont University in Chester, Pennsylvania, one of the top universities in the world.  Dupont, though fictional, is pretty clearly modelled on Duke, complete with its national championship basketball team.

Not surprisingly, much of the story follows the good ol’ fish out of water format, with Charlotte, an aloof genius hyper-conscious of her own superiority, realizing just how different her ideas of college are from the reality.  I found this part quite enjoyable, since, I, too, came from a small town, from a family not all that aware of the details of collegiate life, only to find myself dumped unceremoniously into the eternal hurricane that is U.C. Berkeley.  Charlotte often wonders why these students don’t really seem to be all that interested in the life of the mind, given that they are the elite of the elite, and I smiled as I remembered my own parallel thoughts over twenty years ago.

Charlotte is not just brilliant but is also gorgeous, although Wolfe does not do all that much to describe her.  She finds herself fending off the advances of three different upperclassmen, meant, no doubt, to represent three different types of college students.  One is the enormously tall Jojo Johanssen, the only white starting player on the basketball team, whose performance on the court is threatened by his lack of performance in the classroom.   Then there is Hoyt Thorpe, an amoral and ultimately sociopathic frat boy with a handsomely cleft chin and devastatingly seductive smile.  Rounding out the types is Adam Gellin, a brilliant nerd with ambitions to become the new century’s equivalent of Bill Clinton, with a Rhodes Scholarship clearly in his sights.  Each courts Charlotte in one way or another, and their respective charms and flaws make it difficult for her to figure out whose advances are the most desirable.

Wolfe is adept at the telling sociological scene, and this is both a strength and weakness of the novel.  At times, the scenes feel as if they exist solely for Wolfe to advance some theory about race relations in sports or the politics of the professoriate.  This becomes a problem when the characters themselves start mouthing Wolfe’s theories, making them seem less like people and more like actors in a brainy infomercial.

John Updike is the (in my mind) undisputed master of the brilliantly incisive and precisely worded observation, though Wolfe does a decent job at the same thing.  I did notice, though an interesting obsession.  Wolfe is apparently fascinated by the body culture that permeates college campuses, and he is especially interested in the Men’s Health-style body building culture where all men must have sharply defined abdominals and ripped arms.  His catalog of the male characters’ muscles is anatomically explicit:

The trapezius muscles running from their necks to their shoulders bulged like cantaloupes.  They were sweating, these bodybuilt young men, and the mighty LumeNex lights brought out their traps, lats, delts, pecs, abs, and obliques in glossy high definition, especially when it came to the black players.

Nearly every time Wolfe introduces a male character, he provides an almost identical list, sometimes expanding it in lubricious, homoerotic detail.

But the ending.  Much of the novel follows Charlotte as she tries to make the transition from brainy high schooler to brainy college students, and, predictably, her first semester ends with abysmal grades and academic probation.  She must face her problems and decide just what she wants to be, what she wants to do with her life at Dupont.  In the final chapter, we see her sitting in the basketball arena, cheering on Jojo, her new boyfriend.  Jojo had been about to lose his starting position on the team to an upstart freshman, but, we are told in this last chapter, Charlotte has somehow supercharged him and his game, and he is back to being a star, shining more brightly than ever.  She cheers, she basks in the reflected glory of Jojo’s dominance, she preens when she knows that the popular sorority girls are watching her every move.  I was left thinking, “This is what happens to her goals?  To become the little woman behind the big man?”  It was truly a maddening and inconsistent way to end the novel.  Wolfe, it seems, just cannot get past his outmoded, misogynistic views to create a character who better represents college women.  Charlotte, far from being a refreshingly different and strong character, ultimately falls into the trap of shallow conformity and stereotypical gender roles.

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Four-Oh

I turned 40 yesterday (thanks to all who left birthday wishes in the comments to the previous post!).  In a lot of ways, it is sort of hard to figure out exactly what I feel about this age thing.  Society tells me that I’m supposed to feel something, but I really don’t.

Dorothy got me a couple of new books–Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.  They are both books I have been wanting to read, and they look like they will be very interesting.  I like Kingsolver a lot, even though in her novels she can lean towards the didactic, and Philbrick is a great historical writer–In the Heart of the Sea is a fantastic book.  She also got me the new Tori Amos CD (excellent) and a new team cycling kit.

We got up early so that we could make the drive up to the Connecticut-Massachusetts border for a long hike.  We parked one car on Jug End road in Mass, and another at the Undermountain trailhead just below Bear Mountain.  It started to spit rain on us during the drive, and then poured quite hard just before we parked.  Once we started on the trail, though, the rain had quit, and by the time we summitted our first mountain (Bear Mountain), blue sky predominated.

The day was perfect for a long hike.  The clouds would race in to cool the air, cast dramatic shadows, and look ominous, and then disappear.  Standing on top of Race Mountain, I could see the shadows from the clouds surf up the slopes of Everett, making a kaleidoscope of darker greens mixed amid the sun-gilded foliage.  The trail down Race often followed the hard gray spine of New England granite as it curved through small pines, dripping laurel, and patches of moss.  When the sun melted through the clouds, it heated the rocks and the trees, and, in the right places, made the air light with the sharp green scent of pine needles.

We ended up hiking about 14 miles.  Muttboy was starting to get tired by the time we got to the end.  Usually, he hates to stop when we want to linger over a view, but after about 10 miles or so, he was content to use any rest breaks to drop himself on a soft patch of moss, where he would lie, panting, until it was time to move on.  We are all a little sore today, but it feels good.

It was a good, quiet birthday.  Maybe that’s what being 40 is all about.

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We went up to the Hartford Criterium today.  It is one of those downtown crits that runs around a big municipal park, one 90 degree corner, and the rest weird squiggly little s-curves and corners tougher than they look on paper.  There is a sort of strange vibe to the Hartford crit, I think partly because of the strange demographics of the city.  Hartford is, I gather from listening to long-time Yankees, not the city it used to be.  As a result, the race does not draw a lot of local, casual spectators–I think most people watching the race came specifically to watch the race.

Anyway, my race.  Dorothy has already posted on her race, and she was a bit too modest.  She really did a great job out there, hanging with the pack that featured some real serious powerhouses.  Velo-Bella/Kona had a couple of women there, and Independent Fabrications put out a strong squad, and the usual local speedy biker chicks were tearing things up.  The pack was moving fast enough to shed a bunch of women off the back (or OTB in cycling parlance), so Dorothy’s finish really was impressive.  I’m not the only one who thinks so–all of the guys on the team are terribly big fans of hers.

My race, the Cat 4, was the last race of the day.  About sixty guys lined up, and it started off fast: I glanced at my cyclocomputer once when we were slowing down and taking it easy, and we were coasting along at 25 mph.  The rest of the time, we were really rocking.  It usually takes me a few laps before I feel like I am going to live, and this race was no exception.  About halfway through, I started to feel like I was going to survive, and at 5 laps to go, I knew I was going to be terribly dangerous in the final sprint.  I felt wicked fast.

Then, at 2 laps to go, I was making my move up to the front of the pack–perfect strategy for a change.  Just as we passed the start/finish line, I heard that horrible crunching sound.  A guy next to me moved over, bumped my shoulder, but we stayed upright.  Out of the corner of my eye, I could see a bike flying through the air–no joke–and it did at least two complete spins before crashing to the pavement.

The officials neutralized the race–stopped it entirely, in fact–while the ambulance took away one of the guys who went down (he’s okay–a broken collarbone is the worst of it).  Needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway, the crash really shook me up and made me remember all too well my crashes last year.  The officials got us going again for three laps, but my heart had gone out of the race.  Then, after one of the three laps, another crash, this time right in front of me.  By the time I got around the guy who went down, the pack had disappeared around a corner, so I decided to roll in and drop out; there was no sense in sprinting after the pack for a guaranteed last place.

I feel disappointed, since I know I could have finished a lot faster, but I am glad that I didn’t end up on the pavement or the emergency room.  That, at least, is an improvement over last year.

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Silent Centennial

Tomorrow (May 27th) will be the centennial anniversary of Rachel Carson’s birth.  The New Yorker has a short article about Carson and the reaction to the publication of Silent Spring in 1962.  This book, which was first published in serial form in the New Yorker, is certainly the most important environmental book of the 2oth century.  It infuriated, exasperated, and terrified people and that it still does today illustrates its tremendous importance (for more on its importance, go here).  The conservative website Human Events gave Carson’s book an honorable mention as one of the “most dangerous books” of the 20th century; sadly, Carson failed to make the top ten.  This reaction to her book, says a lot about just how threatening some important ideas can be, and how very short a distance we have come since 1962.

When The New Yorker first serialized the book, the editor had to face down threats from advertisers, who feared that the article would cause “unwarranted fear” in consumers, who would then not buy their products.  The volume of mail the magazine received was staggering, and one letter in particular stand out to me.  This one was not published at the time but was printed in the magazine’s 70th anniversary issue:

Miss Rachel Carson’s reference to the selfishness of the insecticide manufactureres probably reflects her Communist sympathies, like a lot of our writers these days.

We can live without birds and animals, but, as the current market slump shows, we cannot live without business.

As for insects, isn’t it just like a woman to be scared to death a few little bugs!  As long as we have the H-bomb everything will be O.K.

Stunning, isn’t it?  The utter stupidity and complete lack of anything even remotely resembling logic makes me cringe.  Even worse is the condescending, misogynistic arrogance, belittling the hysterical woman for her hysterical fears–never mind the logical conclusion that any woman who advocates against the use of insecticides is probably therefore not afraid of bugs.  But picking on this letter-writer is too easy.

What is harder is convincing people that the attitude expressed by this author is foolish, unhealthy, and ultimately more harmful to our society than any “market slump.”  I once saw a wonderful quotation in someone’s e-mail signature line that said something like this: “If you are not an environmentalist, you are suicidal and should seek psychiatric help.”  The sentiment that this expresses is perfectly congruent with Carson’s larger point: if we destroy the environment through our own ignorance or, worse, stubbornness, we are only harming ourselves.

The problem, though, is that the message of Carson’s book is obscured by the caricature of environmentalism that persists.  No matter how hip it becomes to be “green,” no matter how many mediagenic stars like Leonardo DiCaprio make the covers of magazines, no matter how popular Al Gore’s movie becomes, the prevailing image of the environmentalist remains a foolishly negative stereotype.

Years ago, I was teaching Silent Spring at a very pro-business, conservative, anti-green college.  When I said that many critics of the book said that Carson was hysterical, a student immediately agreed.  I asked him why he thought that.  “Because she doesn’t use any facts or figures,” he said.  “She’s not logical and scientific.”  I opened the book at random and read a sentence that provided detailed statistics of pesticide use and the dangers that this use created.  “Well, that’s only one point,” the student countered.  “She’s just not scientific.”  I opened another page–again at random–and read a passage that carefully explained what a bioaccumulative chlorinated hydrocarbon is.  The student shut up, but he gave me that exasperated look that said, “These liberal tree-huggers will never see reason.”

Part of the difficulty is Carson herself, or rather, society’s reaction to Carson herself.  Because she is a she, she is not to be taken seriously, and anything she says can be easily dismissed as hysteria, foolishly emotional, or just flat-out wrong.  This is not to say that a man would have fared a lot better; we need only look at the charges of hypocrisy leveled at Al Gore to see that environmental skeptics are simply not willing to change their minds.  Gore’s electricity usage does not change the basic science.  In the same vein, Carson’s gender does not change the basic science of lipophilic, bioaccumlative poisons, but for those who feel threatened by her accusations, it is easier to dismiss her as a silly, foolishly scared little woman than to look carefully at inconvenient truths, at shared responsibilities, and moral culpability.

If anyone wants references to my Carson material, just let me know and I can provide a bibliography.  She was an important part of my dissertation.

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Your Score: Pure Nerd

100 % Nerd, 26% Geek, 43% Dork

  For The Record:

A Nerd is someone who is passionate about learning/being smart/academia.

A Geek is someone who is passionate about some particular area or subject, often an obscure or difficult one.

A Dork is someone who has difficulty with common social expectations/interactions.

You scored better than half in Nerd, earning you the title of: Pure Nerd.

The times, they are a-changing. It used to be that being exceptionally smart led to being unpopular, which would ultimately lead to picking up all of the traits and tendences associated with the “dork.” No-longer. Being smart isn’t as socially crippling as it once was, and even more so as you get older: eventually being a Pure Nerd will likely be replaced with the following label: Purely Successful.

Congratulations!

Also, you might want to check out some of my other tests if you’re interested in any of the following:

Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Professional Wrestling
Love & Sexuality

America/Politics

Thanks Again! — THE NERD? GEEK? OR DORK? TEST

Link: The Nerd? Geek? or Dork? Test written by donathos on OkCupid Free Online Dating, home of the The Dating Persona Test

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Dorothy and I signed up for a race on the other side of the state, and when the alarm went off at 5:00 this morning, I was not terribly happy at the prospect.  Add to the early hour a deeply gloomy sky and spits of rain drizzling down, and I found temptation stroking my back, saying, “Really, just go back to bed.  It’s okay to skip it…”  But I knew that I couldn’t skip the race, at least partly because I knew some guys from the team would be there, and they would know that I was a big, fat wimp.  So we drove, and I must say that I-95 through Connecticut is not all that bad very early on a Sunday morning.

The race venue was picturesque, with old, winding New England roads, bordered by fields where little goats stood, watching the pack of cyclists roar down the hill.  The course ran a clockwise loop up a fairly steep hill to the Jonathan Edwards Winery (and if it had not been for Connecticut’s silly blue laws, I would have availed myself of a bottle, just for the label), then down a steep hill (in view of the goats) and then over a series of rolling hills of varying steepness.  All in all, not a bad course for me, though the hill was steep enough to make someone of my size hurt (I’m not built like a climber) and we had to ride it five times.

The race promoters made the start neutral, which means that the pace vehicle drove very slowly to the top of the hill, and only then, after climbing the toughest part of the course, would the race really begin.  A guy from another local team and I took the lead during the neutral portion, riding right on the pace van’s bumper.  Once we arrived at the top of the hill and the van sped off, I started pedalling harder.  I looked back, and no one seemed like they wanted to race, so I stayed in the lead down the hill (top speed: 40.4 mph!).  After the road leveled out, I kept the pace high, but decided that pulling the pack the whole race was not a smart idea, so I pulled over.  No one pulled through, so I kept riding at the front.  This happened the entire first lap–I was all alone at the front of the pack, setting the pace and doing most of the work (more on this in a moment).

After the first lap, other riders decided to share the work, and I stayed in the top 20 for the rest of the race, sometimes riding at the front again.  When we passed the finish line for the final time, I was placed at about 20th, so I felt happy with my performance.

Racing, especially in the Category 4 races, is a strange thing.  Not one of the guys racing out there today is likely to race for a big team or get any serious sponsorship or turn pro.  It is for fun.  But there are still guys who approach it as if they were Lance Armstrong.  As I said a moment ago, I spent a lot of time at the front; since I was the first into the wind, I was doing about 40% more work than anyone riding behind me in my draft (and, since I am 6’4″ I am great to draft).  Once, when I pulled over to let someone else take a turn, the guy right behind me said, “No, I’m not going to do any pulling–you can just stay right there.”  I just had to laugh.  Here we are in a race that counts for nothing–the prizes were merchandise, so you couldn’t even buy lunch if you won–and he had to conserve his precious energy.

This same guy, I am very pleased to say, got himself seriously hammered on the hill, and he finished far, far behind me.  Though it’s not good form, this really makes me very happy.  The other thing about my race is that I had a blast.  It was fun pushing the pace and showing off my team colors at the front of the pack.  After the race, several racers came up to me and complimented me on the great pace I set and spoke about how strong I seemed to be–and these were guys who placed in the top three.

I have had to admit to myself, quite ruefully, that I will never race in the Tour de France.  I will never make the cover of Velo News.  I might not even be able to upgrade to a Cat 3.  Racing for me is not about sitting safely in the pack and sprinting for the win, but it’s about pushing myself harder than I thought I could and maybe making some of the other guys sweat a little bit.  It’s about the exhilaration of speed produced by my own strength.  It’s about hanging out at the finish line after a race and laughing with the other lycra-clad, shaved-leg crazies.  It’s about dreading next week’s race but doing it anyway.

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The Noonday Demon

Andrew Solomon used that phrase for the title of his book, and it is a great title.  The problem is that it is woefully inadequate.  I remember when I first heard of it about six years ago; I thought, “Wow, that’s perfect!”  But it’s not.  It suggests sun and limitations and a demon that leaves you alone except for right around lunchtime.

But it doesn’t leave you alone.

It is a persistent little bastard, always there, always hanging on my neck, making me feel as if I weigh three hundred pounds.

The other day I collapsed and started sobbing for no reason at all.  The past three nights, I have had the most violent nightmares of my life–full of torment, horror, bloodshed.  If I think about anything other than riding my bike or writing my novel, I feel suicidal within minutes.  I want to break things.  I need to go for an eight or nine hour bike ride, but I know that when I got home, there would be a dog needing walking, a dinner needing cooking, a paper needing grading, a something needing something that I just don’t have any more.

It’s been a pretty bad year, I guess.

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