I saw the movie The Jane Austen Book Club a year, or so, ago. Of course, I liked it. I didn't love it, but it was a good movie, I would watch it again and that says something. One of my students wants to read Persuasion after seeing JABC. I didn't discourage her, but I did warn her that it was a little different from the normal chick lit novels that I have seen her pull out of her bag on breaks from class. Persuasion was the first Austen novel that I read; long ago in one of my favorite undergraduate english classes. We read it alongside a gore fest of icredibly male books and plays: Titus Andronicus, The Crying of Lot 49, Fences, Buried Child, and the Bacchae were all companion texts. The sort of hidden theme was family dysfunction. Persuasion was not my favorite after than class, instead I became obsessed with Crying of Lot 49, reading it close to 80 times in the next couple of years. But, now, Persuasion is by far my favorite from that class.
After talking to my student and promising to loan her a copy of Persuasion, I looked through my books and sadly, I only have Sense and Sensibility and Emma. I don't know what happened to the others. Suddenly, I realized that I hadn't read Austen for a long time. When I lived in London in 2002--or was it '03 hmmm, how quickly things are forgotten-- I bought a complete works and I read them in Hyde Park on weekends. There was something so lovely about reading Austen in London, although I have been told since then that it prolly should have been in Bath. I left my book in London because I did not have room in my suitcase for such a large book. I regret it now. Well, not as much as I regret leaving my favorite blue raincoat. But it is close.
The last time I read Austen was in a somewhat infamous UNR seminar on Satire in 2007. We read Emma and that experience resulted in a spirited discussion between myself and the professor in which he asked me to stay after class to talk to him. He told me that "that is how I hope seminar discussions will always go, well done." Which was flattering, but odd, considering that everyone else in the class thought I was being reprimanded. Praise in public. Chastise in private. Or not. I wrote a paper on Emma in that class in which I compared the social risks in Emma to the political risks in Gulliver's Travels. It was an okay paper. I wrote a similar paper several years ago compaing Emma to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I guess I like the idea of emphasizing the very real social peril that Austen puts her characters in. Something that many filmakers (Gwyneth Paltrow I am looking at you) forget or miss.
I am very interested in the Austen films. I try to watch as many different film versions of the books that I can. I watch the films whenever they are on Masterpiece Classic, although the latest ones were a little wonky. I love watching film makers try to add more and more romance with each ensuing version. The Keira Knightly Pride and Prejudice had more kissing than all the Austen books combined. One of my favorite Jane Austen movie references is when Liz Lemon on 30 Rock says she got rid of all her Colin Firth movies just in case the woman who is doing her adoption interview "thinks they are erotica." That P&P was far more smoldering with far fewer changes to the text. But really, it might be best if film makers understood that Austen isn't supposed to smolder... no, she really is more about longing and propriety. But that is okay. I have to confess that I did love Becoming Jane. But, then maybe I just love James McAvoy, even if he could totally fit into my pocket. Now that film smoldered.
So, anyway, all this to say: I am going to nerd out on Jane Austen for the next couple of months. If anyone is interested in joining me, it would be really great to have someone to chat to. I am starting with Sense and Sensibility (because that is the book I have, and I will need to go find (buy) the others). Every Sunday, I will post a Jane Austen Post. Feel free to join me for Jane Austen comments, or if you have a blog post something too. I am by no means a book snob, so comments and insights based on books, films and quasi-Austen films including Bridget Jones, You've Got Mail, the wonderful Bollywood Bride and Prejudice, and yes, even Jane Austen Book Club are welcome.
Bonus points to anyone who begins using Approbation in everyday sentences.**
Yesterday, I read Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones. I started at six am and finished at midnight. I didn't read all day, I also made apple butter, ginger muffins, cooked three meals, walked several miles, and cleaned the bathroom. But, in between things, in the hours of darkness that begin and end the day, I read. It was a good book, not great, but good. But for me, it was amazing, because I have stopped reading. This is a shock considering that I am ingrained in the culture of words. I am an english teacher, a writer, and a scholar. But, for years I have not read. A book here and there begun, but cast aside or read painfully slowly, yes; but for the most part, nothing. Recently, this has changed. Last weekend, I read Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero, a book given to me for my brithday two years ago, but until recently had lain unopened. Today, I have begun Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility.
Growing up, I read all the time. I always had a book in my hand. I did not watch tv. I played outside. I rode my horse: and I read. As a child I was obsessed with reading whole series' of books. I read the entire Wizard of Oz, Bambi, and Narnia series (twice) by the time I was 8 years old. In high school I was obsessed with high lit, Harlequin romances and Louis Lamour. I read War and Peace in a weekend on a dare. I read the entire Louis Lamour collection in a summer. I read a book a day, at least. I would stay up late into the night huddled under the covers with a flashlilght reading. Books were my food and joy--I would eat books consuming them as fast as I could and then suck their marrow. I would ingest them. Swallow them in whole bites. Once I picked one up I read until I was done. I had no need for bookmarks.
In the past 20 years, as I finished two degrees in English, and embarked on a third, the University was killing my appetite for reading. As I became essentially a professional reader, I lost my desires for them. My early habits had taught me the discipline that I needed to get all my reading done quickly, and for that I will always be thankful, but the joy was gone. Turned off by encounters with bad books, the pressures of seeing the books in a predetermined light, by reading them through academic eyes, and by the knowledge that I would be expected to write about them my passion was still present, but definitely cooled. The death blow came with a mentoring relationship that killed my joy for books, and nearly destroyed me. In the last years of grad school I read nothing that was not assigned, (and sometimes not even books that were). I lived in a book culture, but I was not interested anymore. I read less and less. Books disappeared from my life. I boxed them up. I gave them away. I smiled at friends as I slid great and wonderful books from birthday and christmas wrappings knowing that they would go unread.
Eventually, it all became too much. I left grad school physically and emotionally sick and tired. Too exhausted to think, read, or write. Televsion became my solace. I didn't have to think. I didn't have to explain what it meant. I could just sit and let these stories roll over me with no expectations or accountability. I associated books with a litany of professional and personal failures. Books were accomplices with personal disasters that were so painful that even the slightest allusion was a virtual dismantling. Moby Dick,Country of the Pointed Firs, anything about the sea, anything from the 19th century, anything with words, flayed me like lashes. Opening certain novels tore into unhealed wounds, and I was tired of nursing all those sores. It was easier not to. I turned my back on words.
In retrospect, I am grateful to those hours of television. The numbing healing power of TV's nothingness kept me from picking at those sores and allowed me to erase myself for a time. But now, I am ready to return to books. I have unpacked my boxes. When my nephew picked up my copy of Moby Dick and looked excitedly at the pictures of whales, ships, and ambergris I was able to tell him a story about each picture without much more than a twinge. I know now that I am ready to return to grad school. It will not be easy, this I know. I will always have the scars. But, with time, and with a returning to the innocence of words I am healing. I have not read The Country of the Pointed Firs or anything associated with my dissertation yet. For now, I am reading the fun stuff. Chick lit, decadent novels, pulp, I am eyeing that giant stack of Louis Lamour in my garage. The important thing is that I am back. I am reading.
Yesterday, in a one-on-one conference, I told a student that her essay was like an ABC After School Special. She stared at me blankly. I said, "You don't know what that is, do you?" She said, "Nope." I just laughed. And then I explained, even taking the time to retell the plot of one of my favorite ones..."And then the kid from The Wonder Years throws Candace Cameron from Full House--who is also Kirk Cameron's little sister--in the bottom of a lake, and the lesson was to tell someone if you are being abused." She said, without any hint of irony, "And you watched these after school?" I returned to talking about her essay, just a little bit sadder than I was a moment before.
In a separate, and much more serious conversation, I asked a student to "Help ME, Help YOU!" and without a flicker of recognition he said, "Just do your thing, and I'll do mine." After I pointed out that "his thing" was resulting in a D, I couldn't help it, even in one of the most difficult conversations with a student of my entire career, I had to say, "Jerry Maguire? You haven't seen Jerry Maguire? Tom Cruise yelling at a naked Cuba Gooding Jr in the shower? Really? He won an Oscar..." I think I was more taken aback by the fact that he didn't know what I was talking about than the fact that this student was refusing my help. Much later in this conversation, even as he walked out on me--also a first for me--as I offered a weak and tired, "Just remember you are the one who is walking out." I was still thinking, really? Not even Jerry Maguire? Huh.
Now, it would take a pretty good bit of manuevering to classify Gulliver's Travels as pop culture, but still, my students have NO idea. At all. I said something about Yahoos, I may or may not have called my class this, I neither confirm nor deny this. Anyway, in explaining what the term meant, I asked about Gulliver's Travels. One girl had seen a film in her high school english class and described it as "This freaked out movie where all these weird and terrible things happen." I stopped her mid-sentence, with a perhaps overly harsh, okay, thank you Megan. After I explained about Hounyhnhms and Yahoos and Jonathan Swift and Gulliver and Satire they nodded and a few of them said,"That sounds like a cool story." And I just said, "Yeah, it is."
I have changed a student's life. I know, that sounds grandiose and perhaps a little exaggerated, but really, this time it is true. As a teacher, I get my share of students who don't want to be there. They may not want to be in college, in english class, in MY english class, or just there, but whatever the geography of their disenchantment, they make it clear through a thousand signs that they do not want to be there.
Jose* was one of those. He sat in the back of the room, against the wall, as far away from me as he possibly could. He stared at the floor, out the window, at his books; he looked anywhere but at me. In the very brief moments that I could force his attention, I liked him. He seemed smart and funny, but totally disengaged, even a little bit afraid of me. He turned in little or no work and when he did turn in something it was late and wrong. Finally, after several weeks of trying to engage him, I scheduled a mandatory appointment.
He looked panicked when I told him I wanted to meet with him. He tried to get out of it and promised he would work harder and made all the promises and excuses that students make when they want to get out of something. I remained firm. Sometimes, they just don't show up and then you have to keep badgering them, thankfully, Jose did show up.
I was prepared to ask him the questions that I always ask students. How are you? How are you doing in your other classes? What is your major your career? Why are you in school? Where do you want to transfer?... etc etc. But, he didn't let me get that far. He said "Can I tell you something?" I assured him he could, and then he said the thing that I think all students feel in this situation, but that so few of them say. He said "I'm really scared right now." And just like that we began to talk. He didn't want to go to college, he wanted to move to Hollywood and work in the entertainment industry. He had secretly applied for jobs at TMZ and Entertainment Weekly. His family and friends made fun of his desire to be in show business and told him to forget about it and that he had to go to school. Yes, when he said he wanted to be the "next Ryan Seacrest" it was very tempting to laugh, and I am sure that he has been laughed at before, and often, for his dreams.
But I didn't laugh. Instead I talked to him about how to use school to get to Hollywood. I talked about needing to write well, and having the credentials to put on his application, I encouraged him to take drama classes, write for the school paper, and to apply for internships in local media.
Right then, in a matter of minutes, I watched him transform. From scared and unsure to boisterous and excited. Now, he is a top student in my class. He has begun talking to local radio stations about summer internships, he has started his own entertainment blog. He turns in work early and asks for feedback, and quite frankly, I can't get him to shut up in class. It is amazing. Will he be the next Ryan Seacrest? Who knows. But, I am pretty sure that he will transfer to a four year school, and that he will get a degree that prepares him to work in the entertainment industry at some level. And that is a long long way from the kid who was secretly trying to move to LA and who wouldn't look me in the eye.
I have been hanging by a thread these days; and that thread is my last nerve. I am out of patience. Everything annoys me. The dogs annoy me. My family annoys me. My students annoy me... My computer's latest habit of loading at a snail's pace and then randomly crashing makes me scream and pull my hair...Fox baseball announcers drive me to drink. I actually dropped the f-bomb in class last week because I called one of three identical blonde girls by the wrong name. Again.
I am not a good person right now. For the first time in my life I understand people who hit their loved ones. There are times when I have to restrain myself from smacking our overly exuberant slightly insane australian shepherd. Just for the hell of it. I snap at people for the smallest of offenses. I have road rage. I hate people for minor trangressions. I have yelled at my mother. I am just angry. All the time.
So it should come as no suprise that I got sick; and last week when I went to the doctor for Strep Throat my blood pressure was 40 points higher than usual. My doctor gave me a round of antibiotics and after our regular appointment I was standing in the hallway talking to the recpetionist and he turned to me and said "Oh, yeah, I almost forgot, your blood pressure was a little high. What are you going to do about that?" I said that I was working on recovering from grad school, which almost killed me. I was about to get to the whole "I teach adjunct for about 10 cents an hour" when he must have heard the warble in my voice, because he took me by the arm and walked me back into the examining room.
He told me all the things about stress that I already know. It isn't the events themselves that cause stress, it is how we handle them. I am the only one who can control how upset I get no matter the circumstances. And I nodded along with him, because this was not news to me. Even though I knew everything that he was saying. And that I had, in fact, heard it all before. I was moved. This doctor, with a very busy general practice, in the middle of flu season was spending 20 minutes, or so with me talking about meditation. I do not have health insurance, he knows this, he was only going to get the sixty dollars cash for the visit, no matter how long he spent with me. But, he really cared about me. He spoke gently and kindly about taking care of myself. He told me that I needed to build a life I was proud of. He was careful not to offend. This is a very conservative area of Northen California and he knew that he was taking a risk talking about meditation and he was careful to explain meditation in really neutral terms. He talked about native americans, and catholic nuns, the buddha, and christian philosphers who all meditated. He wrote out a prayer by St Theresa and had me recite the first two lines with him right there in his office,
Let nothing upset you.
Let nothing frighten you.
He recommended (prescribed) a book called God Makes the Rivers to Flow by Elanath Easwaran. Later I joked that this is what he tells all his patients without health insurance to do. But, in reality I think that 20 minutes may have saved my life. It is St Theresa's words that I use to calm me when I find myself getting upset. But it is the fact that for 20 minutes the busiest and most important man in the room sat down with me and reminded me that I am smart. I am special. I am worth something.
Since then, I find myself repeating those two lines whenever I start to get upset. It isn't a perfect system. I am still dealing with anger and impatience, but, I at least feel like I have a tool to help me out. I know too, that I was so touched by that doctor's kindness that it made my hyper aware of how little kindness and gentleness I get these days. It is as if being ministered to was so rare to me that when it came it was like a salve on my wounded heart. I am making changes in my life. I am walking and eating healthy again. I am standing up for myself at work. And there are other big changes in the works that I can't share here just yet. But, change is a comin'.