Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Phishing in the UK

England is, of course, the native land of Izaak Walton, but certainly he never envisioned the sort of phishing I am now encountering in the UK.

Since moving to London at the beginning of September, I have been bombarded on a daily basis by offers to deposit thousands, even millions of dollars in my bank account. Nigerians of course (phishing being as central to the Nigerian economy as the arms trade is to America) but also my fellow Brits (or so they pretend to be) entreat emotionally (a favorite child has died, a beloved father, a national leader or religious leader has passed away and left an unsecured fortune) for me, a perfect stranger (or a long lost relative), to send them bank details they pass the ample sum on to me.

I am receiving at least ten time the phishes that came my way in the US. Why is this? I continue to love gmail, though I wish their spam filters would merely block all incoming messages with the words "deposit" or "bank details" in them. At least gmail allows the user to identify a message as "phishing." Are they reporting these messages to the Scotland Yard, the FBI, Interpol?

Sunday, October 08, 2006

My English Teachers (VII): David Lavery

It is not, of course, for me to say precisely what kind of teacher I have been, though the present highly subjective meditation on my own English teachers admittedly calls for it. The classroom is a quantum universe: the reality of the teacher, whether he or she is a wave or a particle, is in the eye of the observer. In the very same semester, in the very same course, different students have characterized me (on written evaluations) as deeply caring and nurturing and as condescending and aloof. ("He treated us like maroons" [sic], one insisted.) Which was I? If twenty years from now one of my students decides to write an essay about his or her English teachers and includes me, how will I be portrayed? I deserve such a fate, of course. I once heard an African American minister insist that children need to grow up to have children themselves in order to "earn back their raisings." The same might be said of students becoming teachers. I hope that student who wrote on a student evaluation form that "I would take a course on carrots if Dr. Lavery taught it" is the first inspired to remember me.

I know this much: I have changed a great deal. From the paranoid John Reinhardt observed in a 7th grade classroom thirty five years ago, I transformed myself into a very student-friendly teacher, interested in and anxious to acquire disciples. As a teaching assistant I was, in fact, probably more interested in being a guru than a teacher. When, at the University of Florida, a half dozen students, hanging on my every word, would follow me back to my office in the old World War II barracks that adjoined Anderson Hall, I felt fulfilled. I had discovered as a TA at St. Cloud that I felt more fully myself in a classroom than I had in any other aspect of my life. In front of a classroom I felt real, without pretension, able to speak in my own voice, without hesitation.

One of Lee Bluestein's favorite books was Hermann Hesse's Demian. When I found time to read it after his death I was most fascinated by Hesse's concept of "the Mark of Cain." As Hesse explains, the Mark of Cain is a sign possessed by certain individuals which identifies them as radically different from others, as a kind of mutation, if you will. Those with the Mark remain estranged until, as in Sufism, their singularity is recognized by another who also bears it. Not surprisingly, I found in Hesse's novel the basis for my own very undemocratic philosophy of education. My education had found me out, discovered my own Mark of Cain, my unusual pursuit of not just an education but higher consciousness, and it seemed only fair that I return the compliment.

I am more egalitarian now than I once was, but I will never forget the miracles and the metamorphoses that can transpire in an English classroom and will always seek to further their realization, even if I know nothing about them. Jackson Browne did not have English teachers in mind when he wrote the lines quoted as an epigraph to this essay, but he might have. Into a teacher I have grown from seeds many others, John Reinhardt, Lee Bluestein, Marvin Thompson, Bill Robinson, even Gil Neiman, have thrown. I am in part the reason they were alive, whether they know it or not. In turn, I have done some of my own choreography, though I will never get to see the final performance. "Teachers," Loren Eiseley once observed, "are sculptors in snow."

My English Teachers (VI): W. R. Robinson

Much of this posting is excerpted from my essay “Like Light: The Movie Theory of W. R. Robinson.” Seeing Beyond: Movies, Visions, and Values. Edited by Richard P. Sugg. New York: Golden String Press, 2001: 346-63.

The year is 1978. The scene: a lecture hall on the campus of the University of Florida, near the end of my pursuit of a Ph.D. in English. The occasion: a forum on film studies, hosted by the English Department. Three UF faculty were to speak. The first was a professor of philosophy who began his remarks by insisting that he was hardly an expert on film theory, and then went on to lay out some prolegomena to the future of the discipline, speaking in a jargon which would become only too commonplace in the decades since. Next was a junior faculty member in English who would in the '80s make a name for himself as paracritic par excellence; he prefaced his talk by explaining that he, too, was an amateur. The third speaker was W. R. Robinson. Walking slowly to the podium, he paused dramatically to take out his reading glasses, surveyed slowly the two hundred or so in attendance, and then announced with a wicked smile that "amateur night" was over.

It was not over, of course; the amateurs would have their night and their day. The very American, very 1960s movie theory of W. R. Robinson would become passé as we went on to decode signifiers, demarcate the diegesis, deconstruct the gaze, dismember the suture, foreground the enunciation, track the syntagmatic. But, etymologically speaking, I have, in playing off of Robinson's joke, mixed my metaphors: for it was, in fact, W. R. Robinson who was the "amateur": the lover, unrequited, of the movies. His movie theory was a product of that love.

Over thirty years ago, during the Fall Quarter of 1974, I enrolled in a graduate seminar on the films of Federico Fellini at the University of Florida. Though I was not, at the time, terribly interested in film, and my prior experience of Fellini was limited to a freshman-year-in-college late-night-screening of La Dolce Vita (which my then still vivid memory of its Legion of Decency rating led me to suspect, deliciously, might guarantee my eternal damnation) and the Gil Neiman-required screening of 8 1⁄2, the professor's reputation among the TA's with whom I shared an office was so high that I took the risk.

The seminar was a watershed, the metanoia of my own intellectual life. My rationality, under the influence of Carlos Castaneda and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Wallace Stevens, was rapidly dissolving: I had developed an intense dislike for some of my earlier heroes. I found Alexander Pope nasty, brutish, and short. I no longer believed that criticism was, as Eliot thought, "the correction of taste." I was becoming an adherent of the imagination, and I would remain one, always.

W. R. Robinson, "Bill," was unlike any teacher I had ever had. He was, indeed, the teacher I had always been looking for. I was in the mood for a guru, and though, as he later explained, nothing scared him as much as people who took him seriously, he nevertheless taught in a style guaranteed to acquire disciples. That semester he gained a dozen. We listened worshipfully in class, staying one night (if memory serves correct--for it seems incredible now) an hour and a half after the class was supposed to be over, so involved in the discussion that we did not even notice the time. After class, we went to the Red Lion bar on South 13th to listen to our visionary hold forth over beers. I remember discussions of the genius of Mickey Mouse, of Robinson's earlier, pre-college career as a truck driver, his love of handball, his dislike for the designation "film" (a "film" covers and obscures things; movies reveal). I remember his vaunting insistence that if he had not come to Florida (whose heat sapped his energy) he might have been "the Aristotle of the 20th Century." I remember his admonition, in response to a personal question I asked about my continued obsession with an old girl friend, that "light doesn't go backwards" and thinking it was the most profound thing I had ever heard.

We explored, too, in greater detail, the ideas we were hearing about in class. We mastered the Robinsonian vernacular, easier to pronounce than the semiotic/Lacanian/post-structuralist discourse that was to come, but in its own very American way, Gnostic to the core. I learned to distinguish character and genius, educated myself to differentiate between the Old Story and the New, verified the proper way to "get right with the light," trained myself to distrust the binary and love the trinary. I took pride that I was in the know, part of the inner circle.

It was in the Red Lion that I became a disciple. I am not one now. I fell away from the flock within a few years. By the time I wrote my dissertation, To Discover That There is Nothing to Discover: Imagination, the Open, and the Movies of Federico Fellini, a phenomenological approach which owed as much to the Geneva school and Merleau-Ponty as it did to Robinson, I was already considered a heretic. I was finding many of the pronouncements from on high difficult if not impossible to swallow. I recall the exchange where I mentioned to the master my interest in seeing the new Woody Allen film Interiors, only to be told that such a title was antithetical to the very nature of the movies (movies being superficial, concerned with the surface of things). I remember his dismissal of a new book on phenomenology which I excitedly shared with him because it was divided into two parts and must, therefore have been mired in binary thinking. I remember Robinson's loving description (in a class I was auditing) of the shotgun blast that kills the gangster in Bullitt--his insistence that such supreme violence had to be seen in purely formal term as "an eruption of vital powers," because movies do not refer. It is a characteristic of the modern, Karl Stern has observed, that "methods become mentalities." Inevitably, I grew weary (and wary) of the Robinsonian mentality.

Half way though the Big D, I explained to the master with a trembling, William Blake-echoing voice that "I must create a system or be enslaved by another man's," and his only response was his characteristic Olympian laugh. At the defense, as he coordinated the questions of my committee seated around a round conference table, he quipped with good-natured sarcasm, "We'll proceed counter-clockwise as Lavery goes backwards." (But light doesn't go backwards . . .) The final falling out, my excommunication, came later that year, not at the hands of Robinson himself but his disciples, when I refused to acknowledge to other Robinsonians the imaginative genius of Sam Peckinpah's Convoy. The break was fairly clean. I did not even need de-programming.

For a time, though, W. R. Robinson's theory of film was, quite literally, enthralling. I was under its spell, a True Believer in its powerful, liberating vision of the medium. So, too, were the many other students who became his disciples in the 1970s. The very titles of his essays promised so much: "The Movies, Too, Will Make You Free," "The Movies as a Revolutionary Moral Force." And the theory promulgated in these and other essays--on "Making Sense of the Movies," on 2001: A Space Odyssey and Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits and Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour, on the "movies as strip tease"--confirmed the promise. In their pages we learned to understand "the special assignment" of the movies as an art, these "products of the age of the image . . .":

to urge us to espouse as man's good the will to go on going on, to remain eternally young and continually grow, to expand, create, and realize, to open up and move out in adventure and joy on the frontier of life. ("The Movies as a Revolutionary Moral Force, Part I" [20])

We accepted the faith that

the imagination's method [is] a closer imitation of nature than reason's. And among the arts, obviously the movies, an art of light, emanate from greater depths within the living center than any other art in a universe of light. The essence of words, the mass of sculpture, the harmonies of tones-these modes, for example, are aesthetic epigones in such a universe. The advantage of the movies places them on the frontier of moral history, and so to them we must go if we are to know ourselves and exist in our time. ("Making Sense of the Movies" [168])

"The acute intelligence of the imagination, the illimitable resources of its memory, its power to possess the moment it perceives-if we were speaking of light itself, and thinking of the relationship between objects and light, no further demonstration would be necessary. Like light, it adds nothing, except itself." These words from Wallace Stevens' "The Figure of Youth as Virile Poet" W. R. Robinson quoted with proper veneration. But my excerption of Stevens' essay leaves out, of course, the words which immediately precede this passage, Stevens' epithet: "Poetry is the scholar's art." Movie theory was W. R. Robinson's "scholar's art." Its acute intelligence, its illimitable resources, its power to possess, its imagination seemed at one time "like light." As a teacher and as a lover of the movies, W. R. Robinson sought to add nothing, except himself, and in so doing he was and still remains for many of us who were, to use a word of which he was very fond, "moved" by him, the most liberating, most imaginative force in our life of the mind.

My English Teachers (V): Marvin Thompson

From 1971 to 1973 I pursued my M.A. degree at St. Cloud State College in St. Cloud, Minnesota, lured into the frozen North by one of the best graduate assistantship stipends in English then available. During my first year there, a year in which I taught on my own for the first time (among my freshman composition students was the young woman who would later become not only the producer of National Public Radio's Prairie Home Companion but the significant other of Garrison Keillor as well), I studied Shakespeare under Dr. Marvin Thompson, a man who inspired us not just by his dedication and his learning (I have never had a teacher better prepared for class--how many times, I wonder, had he re-read Hamlet?--or more concerned over his students' development) but by his courage.

A polio victim, Marv Thompson was a paraplegic with no use of his legs and only minimal use of his hands. Every day one of the graduate students came to his house, lifted his small body out of his home wheelchair, placed him in another chair, buckled him in, and pushed him to school, where he was again transferred, this time to his Riverview Hall motorized wheelchair. After completing a second course, a summer seminar on Christopher Marlowe, with Dr. Thompson, I was honored to be asked to become his "pusher" (as he liked to call it) for my second year at St. Cloud. During the following year we came to know each other well.

A certain bond develops in such a relationship; I picked him up on a daily basis; I pushed him through snow drifts, we skated along icy side walks together; we talked and talked. He told story after story (I remember in particular 1) his hilarious, Monty-Python-like, tale of frustrating attempts to use his not-very-good Italian while crossing busy intersections while studying in Rome and 2) a self-deprecating account of the time an inebriated former pusher had dropped him in a ice-covered parking lot, breaking his already useless right leg.) In the classroom, he was the most purely Socratic teacher I have ever seen; when he asked "Mr. Lavery, what do you think," I seemed always able to discover, though I knew not how, that I had an answer. In class or out, he was never in a bad mood, never depressed, never anything but enthusiastic about teaching and indeed every aspect of the profession. Though I was at the time a quite dark and morose being, undergoing my own Great Depression, struggling with a continuing religious crisis, agonizing over my personal life and my relationship with women, reading far too much existentialist literature and philosophy (my bible those days was Sartre's Nausea), I found myself uplifted in Marvin Thompson's presence, inspired by his zest for life.

My English Teachers (IV): Gilbert Neiman

He claimed to know Henry Miller and Anäis Nin and Bertrand Russell and Frieda Lawrence. He was one of the first to translate Garcia Lorca into English. He had, he insisted, written a version of The Godfather long before Mario Puzo. Like some escapee from an Edward Albee script, he was closing out his days at a small state college in Western Pennsylvania, hired as a tribute to his earlier accomplishments, not because of his current competence. After the war he had been a literary gadfly and bon vivant on the west coast, in and around Point Sur, where he had played host to Miller and his fellow travelers. (Miller's The Air-Conditioned Nightmare [1945] is dedicated to Margaret and Gil Neiman.) Word had it that he had been told that if he ever missed a class because of his alcoholism, he would be fired immediately, and as far as I know, he never failed to show, nor did he ever arrive sober. A classmate told me that, visiting his office one cold, snowy day in January, he found him sitting at his desk staring at the opposite wall, oblivious to the snow drifting through the open window to his right, covering the mess of papers on top of it in new-fallen flakes.

The one class I took from him (Advanced Composition) was completely incoherent. I never grasped what we were doing or why we were doing it. I never understood a word he said. It was hard enough just trying to comprehend what he said, so alcohol-slurred was his speech, let alone what it meant. He was returning exams one day, graded by his student assistant (or so rumor had it), untouched by him. In his usual stupor, his glasses forgotten (as usual) in his suit coat pocket (without them he appeared to be very near-sighted), he could barely make out the name on the top of the first exam. Squinting, he was finally able to read it and call out: "Mr. Key? Mr. Key?" No answer. "Mr. Key?" As the members of the class began to realize what was going on--that Dr. Neiman was trying to return not the test of a member of the class but the answer sheet for the test itself--snickers spread through the classroom; eyes rolled, including my own.

Twenty nine years after the fact, it is now hard to say how accurate my memories of Dr. Neiman are. I have learned only recently that the "Mr. Key" story I have told for years is in national circulation and may be aan academic urban legend. (The possibility exists of course that the incident did happen, that my memory of it is correct, that Gil Neiman and I are the true source of the story, and that its national dissemination is the result of my retelling of it over the last twenty years. I also have a friend who once put a poodle in a microwave to dry it off.)

Most of the evenings of my junior year in college were spent in predictable fashion: I read, wandered the library, hoping that the book that would change my life would serendipitously fall into my hands, played several games of table tennis (the only sport in which I had ever been competitive). On two occasions Gil Neiman disturbed my routine in order to fulfill class requirements.

One evening we were required to show up for a lecture by someone named Anäis Nin, a writer who, we were told, was Neiman's old friend. I remember only a little about that evening. I recall a very small woman in her sixties (Nin, 1903-1977, would then have been 66) who spoke with great verve and enthusiasm about modern literature. During the course of her reflections, she mentioned an American writer she admired a great deal, a man named Nahanael West, who she described as a surrealist. I took careful note of her recommendation and, over a year later, finally got around to reading West. Since his collected works (The Dream Life of Balso Snell, Miss Lonelyhearts, Cool Million, Day of the Locust) only amounted to 400 pages, it did not take long to read all of West, and when, two years later, I sought a subject for my M.A. thesis, I turned to his work, authoring a study, obviously inspired by Nin's original recommendation, of "Surrealism in the Novels of Nathanael West."

On another evening Dr. Neiman instructed us to attend a movie to be shown on campus that evening. His garbled introduction to it in class gave us little sense of what to expect, although we did learn that it would be a foreign film--with subtitles. The film turned out to be Federico Fellini's 8 1⁄2 (1963), and I understood not one minute of it. From the beginning (the famous scene in which Fellini's alter ego Guido Anselmi escapes from a Rome traffic jam to float into the sky) to the end (the equally famous circle dance of the film-within-a-film's cast and crew), I was lost, totally and miserably lost. Since I had absolutely no idea how to experience this quintessential work of high modernism, the film made me feel very, very stupid, and I was happy to join my classmates in hating it. Six years later, however, I would, with great trepidation, enroll in a Fellini seminar taught by Bill Robinson at the University of Florida, not because I had developed a taste for the great Italian director but because the professor was highly recommended. The seminar would change my life, converting me into a film scholar and giving me the subject of my dissertation (To Discover That There's Nothing to Discover: Imagination, the Open, and the Movies of Federico Fellini, University of Florida, 1978). Indeed, eleven years after suffering through Gil Neiman's required viewing of 8 1⁄2, my wife and I would journey to Rome and Cinecitta Studios to meet Fellini and watch the filming of City of Women (1981). (I will spare you the story of how Joyce ran into [literally] Marcello Mastroianni, how Fellini touched me on the cheek in response to a poem I had written about him . . . ).

I despised Gil Neiman and have had great fun at his expense for decades. I thought he was a lousy teacher, and he probably was by any objective measure. But only now has it begun to dawn on me the tremendous influence he had upon my life. After all, it was thanks to him that I had been introduced to the subjects of both my thesis and dissertation. Was not Jung convinced that, from a certain vantage point in one's life, all the devils of our experience come to seem like angels, instrumental to our destiny? Gil Neiman as angelic messenger would have been a tough sell for me at 20. In my fifties, I can now see that he, too, was there to guide me.

My English Teachers (III): Lee Bluestein

For my second composition class at Venango Campus, I had a new faculty member who had only recently earned his M.A. at George Washington University. On the first day of Comp II he walked into the room, wrote on the board, "Explain the universe and give five examples," and left. We sat confused and paralyzed. After a half hour he returned and delivered his lesson: that you cannot write an essay of any value without narrowing and focusing your topic. As the semester progressed, Lee Bluestein became much more than just my English teacher. This young, portly, penguin-like, Jewish man taught me to play table tennis (he could beat almost everyone with the exception of Lenny Abate, the mad Sicilian history teacher), play chess (he claimed to have earned the rank of chess master and could in fact beat almost everyone with two hands tied behind his back), act (I played Bobby Ken O'Dunc in a controversial Venango Campus production he directed of Barbara Garson's MacBird, a play that not only suggested that Lyndon Johnson had engineered the assassination of John Kennedy but included the use of the "F" word). Since I had no way home after play rehearsal, Bluestein would drive me each night, sometimes in some very inclement weather, in his usually-barely-running red MG convertible. We became quite close, or so I thought. Did he not show enough confidence in me to allow me to become his unofficial paper grader? Did he not allow me to construct my peers' exam on Walter Miller's A Canticle for Liebowitz, required reading for my class? Did he not go out of his way to teach me to pun? With the same twinkle in his eye that was visible when he was playing chess, did he not put me through my paces, testing me, demanding that I match his previous pun with a better one of my own? I learned not to disappoint him.

I know now that Lee Bluestein was probably a very lazy teacher, and I am not certain how much he actually taught me about writing or literature, but he did inculcate into me almost everything I now know about logical fallacies and propaganda devices. Day after day, we spent most of many class periods critiquing examples, both in print and on tape, of political, religious, racist, anti-Semitic tracts, which Bluestein would provide for our dissection, and he was never satisfied until our "crap detectors" were finely tuned enough to detect the way we were being manipulated by the specimens in question. And it was in his class one day that I may have had my first true moment of self-consciousness, my first discovery that, like the German romantic Jean-Paul Richter, "I am a me."

We were finishing our discussion of John Knowles' A Separate Peace, and as the period came to an end, Bluestein read and commented upon the book's closing lines:

All of them, all except Phinneas, constructed at infinite costs to themselves, these Maginot Lines against this enemy they thought they saw across the frontier, this enemy who never attacked that way, if he ever attacked at all, if indeed he was the enemy.

I cannot today recreate with any precision the emotion I then felt. I remember remaining in my seat, immobile, long after the rest of the class had departed, terribly conscious for the first time of the "infinite cost" I myself had paid, vigilant now to my own paranoia, to the "Maginot lines" John Reinhardt would still detect firmly in place four years later.

The summer after my freshman year I got a job with the United States Post Office, serving as a substitute mail carrier. One day on my route I found myself at the home of the Venango Campus librarian. Had I heard the news? she asked. Lee Bluestein was dead, killed in a head-on car crash in New York state, killed in the very same MG in which I had so often been a passenger myself. Rumor had it that he had been in New York to help arrange, in those pre-Roe v. Wade days, an abortion for a Venango Campus student, a woman who had played Lady MacBird with me earlier in the semester. Obviously there was much about Lee Bluestein I did not know. That moment was my loss of innocence. Death meant something specific to me now: it was something which could take Lee Bluestein from me, from all of us.

My English Teachers (II): John Reinhardt

My college education began at Venango Campus (pictured), a branch of Clarion State College, conveniently located in my home town. While other members of my graduating class intelligentsia went away to elite private schools like Gettysburg and Cornell, my family financial situation dictated that I would have to live at home and be a commuter at a community college. It seemed at the time a bitter pill, but in my two years there I was privileged to be the student of two of the most influential teachers I would ever know.

John Reinhardt had a carefully cultivated and much coveted reputation as a terrifying professor, gatekeeper, executioner, and general bastard. Every freshman registering for first semester classes knew his sections were to be avoided if at all possible. He failed almost everyone, word had it, and covered every essay with dripping-with-sarcasm red ink. I knew better, of course; my brother had also gone to Venango and had come to love the man. This fearsome, profane, 6 ft. 4 in. iconoclast with an imposing manner, muttonchop sideburns, a slight stammer, and a tendency to spit, had been to my house for dinner and proven himself to be a perfect gentleman before my mother and father. Unlike my classmates, I had no reason to believe that he would without provocation bite my head off. He did, of course, rip my writing to shreds (I started the year with a "D" though I improved markedly thereafter), and I was the recipient on more than one occasion of his sarcasm. One day in my second year at the Campus, I timidly approached him, flush with enthusiasm for my latest sophomoric literary discovery: the books of Ayn Rand. "Ayn Rand," I was informed without the slightest concern over my feelings, "is like puberty. The sooner you get over her the better." My Ayn Rand period ended that day, replaced, as I recall, by my Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. period (or was it my Hermann Hesse phase?)

From my two years of study with John Reinhardt I took away much more than emotional scar tissue. My interest in American writers from Melville to Hawthorne to Twain, my fascination with religious themes in literature, my own tendency toward irony and sarcasm, my developing preoccupation with the political, my consciousness of racial issues (he had us read Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice, Jonathan Kozol's Death at an Early Age, and James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time in a sophomore course); my unwillingness to settle for anything less than clear thinking, my love affair with teaching--these are all Reinhardt legacies.

After two years at Venango Campus, I went on to the main campus where I earned a B.S. degree in English. In my senior year I student-taught in the 7th grade of a junior/senior high school near Oil City, working under a deeply ignorant and prejudiced co-op (a re-tooled phys-ed instructor now teaching English) who kept student IQ score beside their names in the grade book to make sure each boy and girl was living up to his or her potential, a woman who was still reading from the Bible each morning years after a Supreme Court ruling had supposedly ended such a practice. It was a horrible, but educational, semester. While battling a psychosomatic version of mononucleosis for most of the term, I learned that I was no disciplinarian, that I was not cut out for public school teaching, that I wanted to abandon my plan to teach for a few years before pursuing my graduate education. As part of my student teaching, I was to be observed by a member of the English Department during the semester, and my observer turned out to be John Reinhardt.

On the day he came I was at my best, leading a discussion with my 7-A students of some aspect of grammar. After, in the teacher's lounge, Reinhardt and I met to discuss my performance. I was shocked to learn that he had found it inadequate. "Why are you running a paranoid classroom?" he asked with his usual incisiveness. "Everything you do in class," he opined, "is done to cover your own behind, to make sure you are not embarrassed. You're not concerned with their learning, only with your own ego." Needless to say, I was furious and did not speak to this man who had become my beloved mentor for over a month. Finally, after a period of deep denial, what Reinhardt had said sunk in: I had been enraged that he should have such insight into my teaching psyche when I had taken such pains to hide its dark side. I would never be the same kind of teacher again.

My English Teachers (I): High School

A product of the Oil City, Pennsylvania public schools, a school district which once fired the young John Dewey for his too progressive teaching methods, I had terrible junior high and high school English teachers. Though I learned by the eighth grade to diagram a sentence with the best of them (I remember being the only one in the class who could do Milton's "On His Blindness" [Sonnet XIX] on the board and even performed the stunt on parent visitation day!), by the time I reached high school I already hated English, thanks to a series of boring and incompetent teachers, all of whom seemed (especially their names!--is it possible that I actually had a teacher named Verna Truby?) like characters out of some not-very-subtle satire.

My disdain reached its peak in 11th grade. Mrs. D. was an imperious, white-haired woman who not only gave extra credit for every symbol we could find in The House of the Seven Gables (the chickens in the back yard = repressed sexuality, etc.) but concocted a humiliating scheme in which 11-A students would tutor 11-Bers, including me, thereby allowing close acquaintances to be more than ordinarily supercilious and condescending to their about-to-become-former-friend. The highlight of the year, however, was our discussion of Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." The poem, we were told, and we had to regurgitate what we "learned" on a subsequent test, is about Santa Claus; indeed Kris Kringle is the speaker, taking a break "without a farm house near" to contemplate the work that yet lies ahead in delivering all those presents. (The "little horse" is, of course, really a reindeer; he thinks it odd to pause in an empty field because there is no house to deliver presents to; the speaker has "miles to go before [he] sleeps" because he has "promises to keep" to all those little boys and girls, etc.-you get the idea.) Though not yet literary, not yet even a reader, I smelled a rat. Such an approach seemed silly.

How silly I realized only recently, while teaching introduction to literature at Middle Tennessee State University. In the required text, Michael Meyer's comprehensive Bedford Introduction to Literature, I was surprised to find an excerpt from Herbert R. Coursen, Jr.'s "The Ghost of Christmas Past: 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,'" an essay, originally published in College English in 1962, four years before I suffered through Mrs. D's class. A parody of poetic interpretation, a "how not to do it" guide, Coursen's essay had evidently been misread by Mrs. D. with all the literalism of the British audience of Swift's "Modest Proposal." She didn't get the joke, and she passed on her lack of discernment to us. All over Western Pennsylvania there are probably hundreds of people now in their fifties who think the poem is about Santa Claus.

For part of the year, however, we had a student teacher, a Mr. Jennings from nearby Clarion State College, who for several weeks became our primary instructor. (Like many co-op teachers, Mrs. D. was more than willing, as I would later learn first hand, to surrender the lectern to her almost full-time sub while she took it easy.) This young man's enthusiasm was captivating, and for the first time I found myself falling in love (Platonically) with literature. As he talked on with the passion of a beginner on "Brian, Sheets, and Kelly," literature started to seem the most interesting thing in the world to me. Up until that point, I could not be bothered with reading even those books I was supposed to report on. (I remember faking my way brilliantly through discerning commentaries, complete with the required ten new vocabulary words from the Vis-Ed box, on Kon-Tiki and other standard oral book report tomes.) It would be another year before I really started to read, before Allen Drury's Advise and Consent got me hooked (and I read it five times before it occurred to me that with my new found ability I could read other books too), but it was Mr. Jennings' influence that got me started. Due to his stimulus, I began to think about being an English major in college.

My English Teachers

Just do the steps that you've been shown
By everyone you've ever known

Until the dance becomes your very own
No matter how close to yours another's steps have grown
In the end there is one dance you'll do alone. . . .
Into a dancer you have grown
From a seed somebody else has thrown
Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own
And somewhere between the time you arrive and the time you go
May lie a reason you were alive but you'll never know.
--Jackson Browne, "For a Dancer"

A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.
--Henry B. Adams, The Education of Henry Adams

For five years in the late eighties and early nineties I was a member of the faculty of the Department of Theatre and Communication Arts at Memphis State University, where I taught film studies. For the first time in my career (and I have taught at the college level since 1971), I was not an English teacher, and I experienced a new, discernible but hard to identify freedom in the classroom. After a time in my new role, I realized its cause: for the previous seventeen years I had been forced to carry the weight, as all English teachers struggle to do, of the stereotypes placed upon me by my students, beginning with the first day of class each semester. Sometimes it would take the whole term for me to persuade them to see me as I was rather than through the distorting lenses created by their previous experiences with my kind. Often I never succeeded.

Media stereotypes of English teachers don't help matters either. With the possible exception of dentists, no profession has been more defamed in film and on television. The vast majority of cinematic or televisual English teachers are likely to be either a) pedants, b) eccentrics (please recall that Blanche DuBois was an English teacher), or c) womanizing bastards (perhaps the purest form of the latter can be found in Looking for Mr. Goodbar [1977]).

But English teachers once had English teachers, too. What we ourselves became owes much to our personal experience with those odd people whose ranks we joined. Now that I am, again, no longer an English teacher (in the Fall of 2006 I became Chair in Film and Television at Brunel University in London), let me tell you (in several upcoming posts) about mine.


The American body, my friend explained, is an aggregation of man and machine. The latest addition to it is the computer. Very soon, a body not seated in front of a blinking screen can be considered as ill as a body outside of a car.
--Andrei Codrescu, "The New Body"

Once, many years ago, when I was young and foolish, I was crossing the parking lot of a grocery store in Florida when I looked up to see a Cadillac traveling at least forty miles per hour (in a parking lot!) heading right for me. I do not know what possessed me, other than a personal hatred for bullies, but I stood my ground in a kind of social experiment to see whose sense of rightness would prevail. The car did stop, of course, but its driver glared angrily at me as if I had violated his freedom.

Now I live in London, where crossing the street reveals a great deal about the differences between the US and the UK. In London, nearly every block has a crossing signal, with a button that summons a little green electronic pedestrian announcing (along with an articulate beeping) that it is safe to cross the street. In addition, as every
confused-by-its-counter-intuitive-reversal-of-traffic-flow-foreign-visitor to the UK will recall, many streets exhibit welcome near-the-curb reminders to "look right" or "look left" in order to facilitate checking for oncoming vehicles in the right direction.

But it is the British crosswalk that truly fascinates me. All over London pedestrians will find clearly marked, cross-hatched paths which, the second they enter, stop oncoming traffic seemingly without fail. Nearby road signs, small and not clearly visible, alert drivers to these crossings, but, even after over ten visits to London,
I still find their power amazing. I am sure British traffic statisticians can tell me exactly how many people are run down on the cross-hatchings each and every year, but I trust them implicitly, in a way I would never trust any similar system in the US. Back home, I drive--and walk--defensively. Out and about in the public sphere, I assume the worst of my fellow motorized beings. The British seem so much more civil.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the word "pedestrian" has the following meanings:

1. a person who goes or travels on foot; walker.
2. going or performed on foot; walking.
3. of or pertaining to walking.
4. lacking in vitality, imagination, distinction, etc.; commonplace; prosaic or dull (my italics).

Pedestrian (meanings 1, 2, and 3) concerns are not always "pedestrian" (meaning 4). Sometimes pedestrian matters tell us much about the society in which we live.


On The Daily Show back in August (the week the terrorist plot against UK to US flights was uncovered), new British correspondent John Oliver reported the real reason the "enemies of freedom" were attacking our liquids. We live, Oliver explained, wonderfully reductio ad absurding Bushian rhetoric, in the "most easily quenched part of the world," and Al-Qaeda et al hate our superior slaking.

In my first month in London, my appreciation for slaking increased exponentially. In a warm September in which I was always on the go, boarding the DLR (Docklands Light Rail) or the tube or walking (ten times more in a day than I had in the US), seeing the sights with my visiting daughter Rachel, looking for a flat (an apartment, that is, not an automobile tire sans air), I was always thirsty.

But how to slake? A formerly coke-swilling, ice-requiring American can now be seen on the streets (and beneath) of England's capital gulping down a warm bottle of Volvic (or Evian or Tesco's own) and loving it. I never dreamed I could be so easily quenched, that I could be satisfied with something so elemental. Is it a sign of things to come? I don't have a car, don't yet have cable, don't have air conditioning, am living without a microwave or a dishwasher, have only a tiny frig, am eating less. My wants are fewer, my needs more easily met. How un-American!

Friday, October 06, 2006

What's the Deal with British Shopping Trolleys?

It's only natural, I suppose, that someone living in a foreign land, even one as distinctly not foreign as the UK, where I have now expatriated in order to become chair in film and television at Brunel University, will often sound like a Seinfeld stand-up routine. Any reasonably observant newcomer is likely to become an amateur "Martian anthropologist." So I expect to frequently ask here "What's the deal with [insert odd British trait, word use, convention, material object here]?"

What's the deal with British shopping trolleys (Americans call them grocery carts)? The first time I ever pushed one (in the Lewisham Tesco) I felt completely out of control (not a normal sensation in the UK). The front wheels turn and pivot 360 degrees, unlike American carts, whose wheels turn only round and round and not side to side. After my first weaving-down-the-aisle experience, I began to notice that everyone seemed to have similar trouble steering. Keeping the damn trolley going in a straight line requires tremendous concentration, particularly in the midst of all those distracting crisps and cherry tarts and Tesco's Finest lamb moussaka.

Why have these two species evolved differently? Is it America or the UK that is the supermarket Galapagos Islands (or Australia) with its own weird creatures?