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Archive for February, 2008

Reading and Relating: A Rant

“I just can’t relate to the story,” several students complained.  “The characters’ problems just aren’t real to me.”  I tried.  I worked harder in front of a class than I have in years.  I dug into the story.  I pulled in historical context.  I explained the political situation.  I outlined the social constraints.  I agreed that this novel is a difficult and problematic text, but said that we just needed to probe a little more carefully to get it.  Still.  “I can’t relate.”

What does this mean?  Why do students sometimes shut down when they can’t “relate” to the story?  Reading is about making an effort, about trying to reach out and touch someone who is not you, who is different from you, and find understanding.  Not relating simply means you were not willing to approach the story on its terms.  Not liking a story is one thing; giving up on it because you can’t “relate” is simply lazy thinking.  There are a lot of books I don’t like, books that don’t work for me on any number of aesthetic and intellectual levels, and I am not saying that we have to like everything we read.  I am saying, though, that we do tend to blame the failure on the book far too often.

My area of scholarship is 19th century American women writers–the domestic and sentimental stories.  There is no way that I, a white male born in the late 20th century, could “relate” on a superficial level to the characters in these stories.  I am not an orphaned nine-year-old girl who is taught to deny herself for Jesus.  I am not a young mother transplanted to the wild woods of Michigan.  Yet I can understand and appreciate their stories because I took the effort to understand these characters and their conditions.  In other words, I found a way to relate to them.

The all too common “I couldn’t relate to the story” complaint is sloppy, lazy, and arrogant thinking.  It demands that the characters be like you or you won’t make the effort to meet them on their own ground.  It demands that the stories accommodate you instead of the other way around.  It insists that reading is a passive instead of an active skill.  Reading is not TV.  Reading is not American Idol, where your vote counts!!!  You need to get up off your lazy ass, and get in the author’s face.  When something confuses you, you are supposed to scream at the author, “What the hell is going on here?”

Because when you do that, you will get an answer, and you will find yourself relating.

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Celebrity Cycling

A few weeks back on our Epic Tuesday Ride (TM), we stopped at a bakery in Westchester county. One of the riders, Apu (more on his nickname in a minute), went back into the bakery for more and, while he was in there, made a celebrity sighting. He came back out with a huge grin on his face.

Stanley Tucci is in there!” he exclaimed.

“Stanley Tucci? Really?” we replied.

“Yeah! He was in The Devil Wears Prada! I love that movie–I’ve seen it twice!”

At this point, we were all howling with laughter. Apu does not seem like the kind of guy to like a movie like that. “Isn’t that…a chick flick?” one of us asked. “Nah, nah,” he insisted. “It’s really good. It has a great soundtrack!” It wasn’t the movie that had us all laughing, though. The really funny thing was just how excited Apu was about the movie and his celebrity sighting–he was gushing like a twelve-year-old.

Of course, the rest of us had to find an excuse to go back into the bakery so we could get a glimpse of Mr. Tucci. You could tell he was a celebrity because he kept his sunglasses on inside. It was sort of dumb, but fun–I loved him in Big Night.

Apu was glowing the rest of the ride, and every time he brought up Stanley Tucci, we all started laughing so hard we nearly crashed our bikes. Apu is that way, though–he gets more enjoyment out of something like that than anyone I know.

Now, here’s where his nickname came from: Later that same day, we were rolling along a relatively flat section when someone said he was hungry. Apu immediately offered some of his food. “I have Junior Mints, and some chips, and a Power Bar, and some Clif Shot Bloks, and a gel…” And he went on and on. Again, we all started laughing and weaving all over the road, and I asked him if he was a rolling convenience store. Fender Nazi immediately said, “That’s it! That’s your nickname–Apu!” Apu, the proprietor of the Kwik-E-Mart on The Simpsons. Apu didn’t seem to be as happy about his new nickname as he was about the Stanley Tucci sighting, but the name seems to have stuck.

And so has his Tucci-obsession. Last week, we were on another ride and stopped at another bakery. Three nice old ladies were sitting in the bakery and started chatting with our group–where did we come from, how far were we riding, how long would that take us, and so on. Apu walked up from purchasing his chips and other goodies to restock his rolling convenience store and turned on his charm.

“How are you ladies doing this fine day?” he asks. I should mention here that it was not a fine day–the temperatures were hovering just above freezing and it was threatening to rain and we were thirty miles from home. But for Apu, nearly every day is a fine day. They were immediately taken by his charm and chat with him. He then launches into his celebrity-sighting story. When they don’t immediately recognize the name, he helpfully tells them, “He was in The Devil Wears Prada, with Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep.” The rest of us start laughing, and I seriously worry that Trigirl is going to fall out of her chair and have convulsions, she is laughing so hard. When Apu tells the ladies that the movie has a great soundtrack and he likes to listen to it in spin class, Trigirl snorts some coffee out her nose.

When you’re doing four or more hours on the bike in January and February in Connecticut, you need all the laughs you can get.

On a related note, I did four hours today, bringing my weekly total up to over eleven and a half hours and 193 miles.

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Rolling Meditation

Sometimes I don’t know where I am going to ride.  This does not happen very often, since I tend to be more than a little bit obsessive about knowing my routes, but there are times when I surprise myself.  A few weeks ago I went out with a fairly clear idea of the roads I would take, but there is one intersection where I can turn right and head home, making a 23 miles ride, or I can go straight and make a 30 mile ride.  Up until the point that I had actually gone through the intersection, I did not know where I was going to ride.  “Oh,” I thought after I crossed route 58, “I’m going on a longer ride today.”

My ride today was a little bit like that.  I knew I was going to go on a longer ride, but I didn’t let myself think about it.  I would just ride and let things happen.  On this ride, I could turn home at the one hour mark (for a total of about 2 hours or 35 miles) or I could keep pushing northeast a little longer (for 42 miles total).  Until I kept straight instead of making the turn on Hut Hill Road, I had not thought about my route.

In instances like these, it feels as if my body knows what is going to happen, or what needs to happen, before my mind does.  Today that was very helpful since there are long stretches of road that I do not remember riding, though I know I must have.  My mind went into that soft-focus zone where the thousand things I have to complete before March all have that fuzzy, Vaseline-on-the-lens quality that makes them insignificant.  I don’t know if the bike forces me to put things in perspective, or if the bike makes it easier for me to block out things I should be thinking about, but it does help.

So far this year, my riding has been much better than last year.  I am getting some serious miles in my legs and am building a solid base.  Last year, my epic Tuesday rides were sometimes the only miles I could get done.  This week alone, I will have about 200 miles if I go on the long shop ride tomorrow.

But I won’t plan on it.  I’ll just let my bike and my body decide what we’re doing when the time comes.

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