Archive for October, 2007

No Sex on this Beach

Ian McEwan’s novel, On Chesil Beach begins in 1962, when Florence and Edward, a nice young couple get married.  Like many of their generation, they approached the altar, as the saying goes, chaste and pure, with Florence’s white dress perfectly justified.   Edward eagerly anticipates the long-dreamed-of conjugal bliss awaiting him as the couple eat their late dinner in their hotel room on Chesil beach.  The butterflies in Florence’s stomach, though, are not from nerves, or not the nerves one would expect.  She is not merely apprehensive about the approaching consummation but is positively dreading the act and the horrifying repetition of that act for years and years.  Although she loves her new husband, she is repulsed by too much physical contact; his kisses disgust her, and the thought of getting naked in front of him and actually touching…well…that…is almost more than she can bear.

McEwan begins the action slowly, teasing his readers with tiny, titillating details of the courtship and intimate glimpses at the couple’s thoughts.  During their first married meal, Edward thinks longingly of his moment of triumph, the culmination of his erotic desires, when he can finally take his beloved to bed.  He thinks of the time they met at a nuclear disarmament meeting.  He thinks of their early dates.  He fondly recalls their first kiss, the first time he touched Florence’s breasts (safely encased in bra, shirt, sweater), the first time he was allowed to see (but definitely not touch) those breasts.  In the meantime, Florence recalls the same episodes, but her anxiety about the physical aspect of their relationship overwhelms her memories.

After many pages of flashbacks, fondly recounted in both their memories, Florence, wishing simply to get it over with, suggests moving to the bedroom, and Edward is too happy to follow.  With the coldly clinical yet somehow pornographically disturbing words of a marriage manual singing maddeningly in her mind, Florence is determined to close her eyes and think of England.  Or something else equally quiet and pleasant–anything, in fact, other than the reality of such horrifying things as “mucous membranes” and “testicles.”  Gross.  Predictably, the grand First Time ends disastrously.  Edward, in his eagerness to elevate his experience to Romantic heights, had foregone his habitual masturbation for the week before the wedding.  He is thus overeager, and, we may infer from McEwan’s description, overfull, so he prematurely ejaculates all over his blushing bride, and her dress, and the bed.  She, horrified and disgusted, runs from the room.  The marriage is over before it had really begun.

The emotional core of the novel slips and slides around.  Most of the interior scenes take place in Edward’s head, though we do frequently see Florence’s thoughts as well.  As a result, Florence at first comes across as a frigid, imperious, and haughty person, more interested in her musical ambitions than in Edward.  Her domineering mother (an Oxford don) and her strangely ineffectual father live cold, distant lives in a cold, distant house.  On the other hand, Edward’s family is rough, dirty, troubled, much more human.  His mother has had brain damage for the past 18 years, and his father, the village schoolmaster, tries his best to keep the household minimally functional.  Their little cottage, in dramatic contrast to Florence’s family’s large house in town, is a cluttered, dirty, chaotic mess.  Edward seems the wrongly spurned man, the eager, passionate lover thwarted by the cold, narcissistic, haughty bitch-goddess.

But the operative word here is “seems.”  When we get to the emotionally torturous encounter the two have on the beach after the failed attempt at sex, we see Edward as a loud, harsh, critic, whose failure to understand his wife’s fears makes him at least as blameworthy if not more so.  When Florence begs him to consider some alternative to the usual sexual arrangements, some sort of open marriage, he flies into a disgusted rage, tossing Florence away from him.  Only later does he realize that her offer is really a plea for more time, a plea for understanding and compassion and not a morally depraved arrangement.  Florence’s apparent selfishness becomes a sort of selflessness while Edward’s righteous anger decays into self-righteous petulance.

The novel could be read as a comment on the crucial transition in Britain from the straight-laced postwar years to the freewheeling hedonism of the latter part of the decade that was ushered in by the Pill and the Beatles.  This is, though, oversimplifying a complex and deeply sad book.  The last portion of the novel delivers a sort of epilogue and eulogy to the marriage that never was.  We follow Edward as he jumps into the sixties scene in London, with brief, shadowy glimpses of his scattered and unfulfilling relationships.  We catch rumors of Florence’s musical career, and realize that she has directed all of her passion into her violin and her quartet.  Finally, by the end, Edward appears to be a small shadow of himself, a man approaching old age with nothing much to show for it and no great deeds or great love to warm his cooling heart.  Loss, sadness, failed connections, the very inability to forge emotional bonds haunts the novel.


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I was going to post on Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, and I will soon, but I read Emily’s (aka the Queen o’ Memes) meme about moving, and I had to jump in. I am, you see, an expert.

  1. What was your most memorable moving experience? In August of 1995 I moved from California to the Bronx. I had packed up my books, computer, and a few other things I would need for grad school and shipped them through UPS. I flew into JFK on an overnight flight, arriving at 6 in the morning. Although I was shipping a lot of things, I still needed to have things to keep me going until UPS delivered, so I had a backpack, a garment bag, and a large duffel, all terribly overstuffed; when I weighed the bags before leaving, they came to 95 pounds. I grabbed a cab at JFK and gave the address in the Bronx, to an apartment I had never seen but had rented over the phone. The cabbie didn’t know the Bronx very well, and I ended up navigating with my map. Since I didn’t know where the apartment was, exactly, I had the cab drop me off on the correct street, and I decided I would walk to find the right place. It only ended up being about five blocks, which isn’t bad unless you are dragging 95 pounds of luggage. When I got to the apartment, it was Sunday-morning quiet, and I ended up waiting on the porch for about an hour, ringing the bell every five minutes or so until someone finally woke up. The grad student who greeted me did not know that I was coming, and did not know that the landlord (who lived in Florida) had rented the place. Finally I established my legitimate claim to the apartment, but there was a catch: the grad student/tenant who had the key to my apartment was visiting his girlfriend in Tennessee. I decided to force a window, and climbed in to unlock the door. It remained unlocked until the guy with the key got back from his vacation. I lived there for three years.
  2. Have you ever made a move you regretted? I had a sweet little apartment all to myself on Josephine Street in Berkeley, just around the corner from Fat Apples, a Jack London-themed restaurant that served a tasty burger. It was tiny, with a little built-in kitchen and one small room, but it was perfect for me. I let my girlfriend convince me that I should move in with her, and I always regretted it, not the least because said girlfriend turned out to be more than a little crazy. She once confided to me her dream in which she cut me in pieces while I slept. But that’s another story.
  3. If money/work/significant other/family were no object, and you could move anywhere, where would you move? Tough question. Hmmm. I sometimes think a small tropical island would be cool, but then I feel that the cycling would be not so good there. Then I think Provence would be perfect–pretty scenery, good food, the Tour de France. Then I hear the land of my ancestors calling, and I think a farm in the Gaeltacht would be my ideal.
  4. How many times have you moved in your life? Dad in the army until 1972=7 moves. Family on the run for various reasons until 1981=9. Family still settling down until 1985=4. College peripateticism=5. Post-college moves=4. Grad school moves=8. Marriage, career moves=3. Total=39. I win.
  5. Is there anywhere you never hope to return to live? The town of my birth–Taft. The original name of the town, back in the late 19th or early 20th century, was Moron. I am not making this up.
  6. What do you find to be the most difficult aspect of moving? Packing. I always realize how much crap I have accumulated, and I feel extraordinarily guilty about it. I feel I should throw all of it away, and I usually do end up throwing away something that I will miss years later. This, though, is the worst story: For Christmas one year, I received a radio-controlled R2D2. It was very cool, if a bit boring after a while. When we moved to Colorado, I sold it in a garage sale. For $10. Do you know what that thing would bring on Ebay today? I weep to think of the bike I could by for that kind of money.
  7. What do you find to be the most exciting aspect of moving? The clean slate. Everything is fresh and new, waiting to be discovered. That room that was so sterile and empty will soon become a familiar and intimate place, but for a time it will be neither foreign nor domestic, perfectly in between.
  8. How have your thoughts/ideas about moving changed throughout your life? When I was little, I always hoped that the next move would be the final one, the move where everything would be resolved and life would finally come together and present itself the way I knew that it was supposed to. Now, moves just make me weary.

I tag you.

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Five Writing Strengths

I was tagged for this meme by Charlotte, and I am, like everyone who has done it, more than a little afraid.  Deep breath.  Jump.

The meme is self-explanatory: you name five strengths in your writing.  Self-explanatory, yes; easy, no.

  1. I write quickly.  Although this might not sound like any kind of strength at all, I think it is.  When I have a clear writing goal in mind and a few minutes of time, I can easily compose 1,500 words or more in an hour.
  2. I write synesthetically.  When I write, I can feel the words–their textures, their shapes, their tastes.  A really good sentence fills my mouth the same way the first bite of thick, chewy, fresh from the oven brownie fills it.  I can feel the words melt together and each ingredient–the butter, the flour, the melted semisweet chocolate, the eggs–contributes something to the sensation.
  3. I write fairly clean copy.  I do need to revise, but my first drafts are usually strong.  Major revisions–the tear it down and toss it out sort–are relatively rare.
  4. I try to be true to my voice.  To go back to my cooking metaphor, I know that I am baking brownies or chocolate chip cookies and not Roasted Scottish Langoustines with Lemongrass Melon Velouté, Cured Lomo, Minted Yogurt Dressing.  I’m not even sure what a Velouté is, but I am sure that a brownie is probably better for me.  My voice is my voice, and I like it.
  5. I know enough to let the guys in the basement do their work.  A little less than a year ago, when I was just getting going on my novel, I thought about Stephen King’s notion that the guys in the basement–or the unconscious–do a lot of the heavy work of creating, hauling ideas around, banging out metaphors, forging figures of speech, and welding symbols.  I try to let my basement guys drag a lot of the stuff out into the light before I get them to step back and let the guys upstairs do their magic.

And that’s five.  If you have not done this meme yet, consider yourself tagged.

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Off the Map

For some reason, I have lately felt like going off the map.  As I said in an earlier post, I have discovered some old, apparently little-used trails in the park where Muttboy and I roam.  We have spent a couple of hours just wandering, not really knowing where we were or exactly how to get back.  It has been a lot of fun, just following our instincts–or my instinct and Muttboy’s nose–to wherever we happen to end up.  I’ve been doing the same thing on my bike rides lately as well.

Last Saturday, I decided to follow a route that I had only been on once, and then I planned to add some drama by veering off and finding a different way to my halfway point.  It worked out well, and I discovered a great new road with a killer descent.  It felt good to strike out and try a new series of roads, not knowing if they were hilly or flat, though in this part of Connecticut, the real question is not hilly of flat but how hilly.

Today, I added even more drama.  I planned to take yet another road, and then I would piece together several other routes to form a Frankenroute–a ride of unknown length with surprise variations I could throw in depending on my whim.

Here is what I ended up with:

  • 103.67 miles
  • Duration:  5:51:34
  • Average Speed:  17.6  mph
  • Maximum Speed:  My computer screwed up and claims 94 mph, which is not true, I am sure.  Let’s say 45–I remember seeing that on a descent.
  • Feet of climbing:  My computer does not have an altimeter function, but I’m guessing at least one million.  And that’s a conservative guess.
  • Calories:  5,671

I nearly killed myself at about mile 88.  I was cruising along River Road, concentrating on avoiding the worst potholes and the broken glass (I think the high school kids like to drink on River Road and toss their empties) and trying to look cool while riding no-hands and eating a Clif bar when I saw a bike up ahead.  As I got closer, I saw that the rider was on a flatbar hybrid bike, he was wearing baggy shorts and a t-shirt and no helmet, and he had on a backpack.  In other words, the dude was begging to get dropped.  I got even closer and realized that the dude was ripped–big body-builder muscles, and I started to rethink my dropping plan.  Just then, the dude noticed I was behind him and stood up to sprint away.

With the gauntlet thrown like that, I had to crush him.  I passed him on a hill and eased back into my rhythm.  I glanced back and saw him pushing to keep up with me.  This was bad news.  When you drop someone, you have to make it stick.  Luckily, I had a turn coming up.

I turned and then heard badly adjusted v-brakes squealing as the dude decided at the last minute to make the turn as well and chase me.  There was a little bit of a climb, and I wasn’t worried about that, but the descent afterwards made me nervous.  I looked back and the dude was there, chasing me about one hundred yards back.  I picked up the pace without looking like I was picking up the pace using my top-secret spin method (I would tell you what it is, but then I’d have to kill you.).

Once the road leveled out, I looked back again.  The dude was still there!  He was about 400 yards back, so I was gaining, but still.  I decided to try psy-ops.  I sat up, no-hands, and pulled a Clif bar out of my jersey pocket, to make it look like I was not only not trying to dust this guy, but was so unconcerned that I was eating.  It worked.  The next time I looked back, he was toast.

Despite my stupid testosterone-fueled smackdown, I ended the ride feeling okay.  Tired, achy, hungry, thirsty, but okay.  It was the longest unsupported, solo ride I have ever done, and it felt good to do.  I liked the freedom of not having a set route and taking whatever roads felt right at the time.

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Patience, Grasshopper

I have two sections of American lit this semester.  Each class has a distinct personality, with the night class dominated by a very smart and well-read girl who has some boundary issues; she does not know when she shouldn’t wave her hand wildly and digress to show off how much she knows.  I can deal with her, though.  I gently tease her:  “No,” I say.  “I’m not calling on you again until someone else says something.”  The day class has a completely different vibe, as we used to say in California.  So far, I had been feeling a little down about them–they had no spark, no kick, no interest.  Getting them to talk was like lugging a huge load of cold, wet blankets up a dark, narrow staircase.

Today, though, they came alive, thanks to my good friend, Ralph Waldo.  We rocked and rolled on “The Poet,” and for about twenty minutes, I had to do virtually nothing but point at the next hand that was in the air.  One girl in particular got it.  She is a multiply-pierced goth chick, and I had been getting especially frustrated with her, because I sensed there was something literary burning behind the dark mascara and dyed hair.  She herself writes poetry, and when she raised her hand before I even finished my introductory remarks, I thought, Finally–she’s going to show how smart she really is.  When she made a point on her own that I thought I would have to sweat over for half an hour before I could make the class understand, I wanted to hug her.  Without too much prodding, people were drawing connections between Nature and today’s reading, seeing that because words are symbols of natural facts and natural facts are symbols of spiritual facts, the poet, the namer and sayer, must be guiding us through the path from word to nature to spirit.  Wild.  When Emerson proclaims that the poet is a liberating god (a liberating god!!) we jumped back to “man is a god in ruins” and we ran with it.  We were liberated ourselves.

Patience.  I sometimes try to force things, but every class cannot be golden.  Some groups need to slop through the muck before enjoying the sunshine. Set the stage, prime the pump, cue the music, mercilessly mix your metaphors as Ralph Waldo teaches, and let it happen.  Don’t force it.  Patience.

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Intellectual Geeks

I had a conversation today with one of my colleagues about one of our English majors who has decided to leave our university for another.  We are disturbed by this student’s decision, though we understand her reasons, because she is one of the more talented of the new crop of majors.  However, she feels that our school does not offer her the intellectual atmosphere that she dreamed of when she thought of college.  When she visited a friend at a high-powered New England liberal arts college, all of the things she craved were there–the lofty philosophical discussions, the interest in politics, the acceptance of differences, the fact that it’s cool to be smart.  Here–not so much.  She is tired of the girls calling each other “bitch” and “whore” as if it’s a cool thing as they gossip about how, like, totally wasted they got last night, omfg!  Or how they’re, like, totally into, like, Abercrombie?  And shopping?  And, omg! can you totally believe how stupid that prof is!  What’s with that stupid earring?!  And the hair?

Today, another student came to my office hours to talk about her paper and various other class concerns.  As we were talking, Angela, one of my TAs, dropped by.  Kate was talking about what a true geek she is, because she was very excited about going to a Barnes and Noble with her mom (and, yes, I’m lucky, because these are the students who gravitate toward my classes and office hours), and because she just loves bookstores.  Angela leaped from her chair, her eyes sparkling and mouth open in a huge grin, to give Kate an enormous hug.  Kate, recovering her poise, then asked if we had any book suggestions.  Before I could open my mouth, Angela rattled off three or four must-reads, which Kate dutifully wrote down.

All of which makes me think:  We are somehow failing our students, if being smart in college is still seen as something you just should not talk about.  It’s like an unpleasant odor–it would be rude to mention it, and if we plaster a fake, glassy smile to our mugs and talk about trivial matters, maybe it will just go away.  There is only so much I can do to combat this.  I can try to present interesting and exciting lessons, and I can project an interest in reading and intellectual ideas, but, really the cool factor of a 40-year-old professor is pretty low.  Low to nonexistent.  So I am not exactly the model that the too-cool-for-school fools want to emulate.

On the other hand, some students do want that intellectual stimulation.  I’ve been thinking about how to provide it outside the classroom.  As I was driving home tonight, I had an idea that is either pretty interesting or terribly stupid, but maybe it’s so stupid it’s smart.

This is it:  A bookstore tour.  No, wait a minute and hear me out.  There are a lot of interesting old bookstores around New England, with a couple of them right here in my town.  Why not get a group of four or five interested students and spend a Saturday carpooling to someplace like this, which is truly an awesome, funky, weird, and well-stocked store?  Or this place?  Or this one?  Or make it an epic field trip and go here for 18 miles of books?

What do you think?  Stupid?  Smart?  Missing the point entirely?

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I entered my manuscript in a contest, because at this point, I am willing to dance naked on national TV to get my novel published. This is the contest: The Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. If I win, I get published and a $25,000 advance. Plus a big screen plasma TV–seriously. I’m not sure who thought up these prizes. Anyway, part of the contest involves the reviews of Amazon customers. Once the novels are posted, I am asking all of my blogging friends to flock to Amazon and essentially stuff the ballot box. Don’t do anything illegal or unethical, but review me and get your friends to review me and get their friends to review me, and so on. My odds of winning are no worse than 1 in 5,000, since they are stopping submissions once they get that many entries. I figure that is at least as good as my odds of getting an agent. I’ll keep you posted as I get more details.

P.S.  I will skip the self-publishing prize if I win one of those.  I’d rather not publish than self-publish.

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