Thursday, January 28, 2010

Reading like a Frog

If I ever become a professor I vow to:

1) Not be afraid to admit that I may be wrong
2) Be open to other views that aren't my own

Literature as I see it is pretty subjective. That's the value of the form. One inspired person writes a book, a million others read it; each is free (and encouraged!) to form their own interpretation, which are, in turn, shared, debated, and even published to ultimately further the artistic and intellectual exchange.

The wall I keep butting my head into as a lit student in France is that the French approach literature with the same assumptions that they bring to everything: that there is a "right" and a "wrong" way to do things, that there are "good" novels, and then, well, everything else . The positive side of this is that the French hold their literary heroes in very high esteem that they pass onto their children, and anyone with a basic high school education can extoll the virtues of Balzac, Flaubert or Molière in a reasonably intelligent and informed manner. The bad news is that their self-adoration is blind--any master inducted into the French cannon is automatically right, or good, and there is a sole, right way to approach their work.

The implications of this for me is that my courses here are heavy on lecture and not overly open to interpretation. I miss my literature courses in the U.S., where I was allowed to dislike works as long as I could defend my position with something substantive, where holding an opinion that differed from the professor's perspective was an invitation to discussion and possible movement on both sides. I really started to let my intellectual claws out during a guest lecture today--not because I disagreed with the lecturer, per se, but because her stuck-up, Sorbonne attitude didn't permit any sort of challenge to her own interpretation, regardless of textual evidence. There was a really terse half hour at the end of our workshop, and it was only because I made the conscious and difficult decision to bite my tongue that it didn't erupt into a full-blown argument.

I'm trying to value this insight into to the French way of thinking and learn to read like a Frog. After all, as frustrating as no-flexibility is there might be something to said for the traditional approach. I'll be the first to admit that American liberal arts, while fun, can veer towards pointless academic masturbation occasionally. And if my medieval literature course is any judge, there's still hope for the French. Although the gender-riffic observations in my reading journal for that class attracted the attention of my professor ("oh my, you really did find a lot of sexual undertones, didn't you? Is 'lesbianism' a word?") to her credit, she didn't mark me down, and even admitted that my interpretations had at least made her think about things differently, even if she didn't necessarily agree.

If I ever do get to be a professor, you can be sure that I'll be pro-discussion and pro-creativity, no matter what country I'm in. It will also be nice to finally have that respect that comes with the PhD, so that when a small-minded lecturer says something I disagree with, my "actually..." will command a little more respect.

Feminism, philosophy and fun with labels

When a friend mentioned in passing that she was attending a talk by Gayatri Spivak, my eyes almost popped out of my head. An Indian-American feminist, Spivak is a well-known professor and scholar whose article "Can the Subaltern Speak?" served as my introduction to postcolonial literary theory last year and inspired parts of my senior thesis. That evening found me trekking excitedly over to the Ecole Normale Superieure (France's version of an "Ivy") to see the woman in person and absorb whatever wisdom I could.

In a word, Spivak was spunky. She was surprisingly nonchalant as she sort of sauntered down the aisle and picked friends out of the sizable crowd to greet. This was her second speaking engagement after having arrived in Paris from India that very morning, but her intellectual acuity betrayed no sign of jet-lag. I had anticipated that she would speak in English (she teaches and writes pretty exclusively in English; in fact, this event was held in part to celebrate the much-delayed translation of one of her major works into French), but after offering a brief apology for grammatical mistakes she launched into better French than mine. She had a "translator"/moderator standing by when needed, but in general she ignored his suggestions for translations of critical terms that she preferred to keep in English, and flat out refused his request that she speak about one of her older articles. No, Spivak had her own cranky agenda and she was sticking to in.

She spoke frankly about her past, admitting that it was a personal identity crisis and family scandal that inspired "Can the Subaltern speak" and rejecting its famous line "white men are saving brown women from brown men" as overly rhetorical and sloganistic. In fact, she rejected most of her career, saying that everything she wrote before this most recent decade was in a period of disillusionment, and that she has recently experienced a reversal of perspective and moved into a more activist phase of her life. In particular she rallied against scholars' adaptation of the terminology she used in the article, particularly the idea of the subaltern, to apply to any mute population outside of its original context of postcolonial India. "That's not what I's not that the subaltern can't speak. They speak, but in a language that the hegemony can not hear or understand." In particular, she didn't like the application to Islamic societies, where she argues that postcolonialism is passé and the issue is more of class (im)mobility or oppression than stratification or colonial legacy. She also had some rabble-rousing commentary on terrorism and 9/11, although she (unfortunately) didn't really have the opportunity to elaborate much on those.

Her talk sparked some predictably indignant comments during question/answer from scholars who, like me, have done exactly what she denounced concerning her terminology. I don't really agree what she said, other than her concession that she doesn't have a copyright on "subaltern"--regardless of the original context, the terms she coined have since been evolved and been incorporated into a dynamic postcolonial vocabulary. It did make me think twice, though, about my use of the word. And in any case, I think she's a brave and inspiring woman to continue raging so strongly against the man and to admit that her past "masterpieces" are full of imperfections. Whenever I look back on something I've written, be it fiction or academic, I'm always able to find a huge handful of things I now disagree with or regret writing. It's nice to know you're allowed to change your mind even after publishing and fame (notoriety?) have set in.

I also find the hubbub over terminology in the liberal arts fascinating. It's pretty much impossible to write anything in my (intended) field without first decrying the very words you will afterward submit to using for being pejorative, noninclusive or overly simplistic. It's a given that the introduction of any critical book will address the terminology applied therein and defend its reasons for doing so. I suppose this attests to the continual conundrum of life as a literary analyst--language is too imperfect and limited to aptly express complex abstract ideas, but seeing as how it's all we have, it'll have to do.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

It's the little things

Tom met me at the airport. I had watched the "Three Days of Snow" episode of How I Met Your Mother a few days earlier, and so I imagined him showing up with a sign and a serenade, and me with a six-pack microbrew à la Lily and Marshall. In real life, I stumbled off the plane slightly jet-lagged bearing a root beer purchased in the airport, only to discover that problems with the RER-B line meant that Tom hadn't quite had the time to make it to the gate.

Ah, France.

Luckily, I managed to at least meet up with him at the airport-end of the RER in plenty of time for him to play packhorse for my luggage on the way home. He made up for the slight mishap with a few amazing home-cooked meals that really put what I let pass for "cooking" into painful perspective.

Since then it's been a pretty slow, pleasant week. Classes won't start up again in full force until February, so I'm lazily enjoying the temporary lull. Made Tom drink the root beer and relished the reaction: I was so convinced he'd hate it that he was reticent to let me be right ("it tastes...interesting. But not bad. Just not like food. Like mouthwash, you know?...") I guess rootbeer is one of those culinary miracles, like Reeses, that only Americans can appreciate. Saw Avatar (in English) in a cosy theatre that had couches with removable armrests in place of seats (it would have made the ideal movie date situation, had the giant 3D glasses not made everyone look ridiculous and be incapable of making any subtle, suave moves).Had my first tutorial and first class at Paris 7. Both centered on 17th century literature, which has to be THE most boring period. Ever. Fortunately, my professor is one of those who is absolutely enthralled by her own field ("what? you've never heard of this obscure 17th century theorist?? But he's brilliant, and American!") so hopefully her enthusiasm will be contagious. Toured Paris 3, where I'll have a class this term, which has to be the most ghetto of all the Parisian Universities. The bad news: I'll have to bring my own toilet paper. The good news: I might be able to sneak my way into an Arabic class, and the school is right near Rue Mouffetard, or bar/fondue central--I forsee some fun after-class excursions.

Being "home" for a few weeks made me realize how much like home Paris is beginning to feel. I was thrilled yesterday to once again be able to indulge in "my" bakery's lunch formule--a 5 euro special that gets you a baguette sandwich/quiche/pizza, a drink, and a dessert of your choice. I gobbled the chevre and broccoli quiche and Orangina on the spot, but I saved the chocolate and pear clafoutis for a treat later in the day. In comparison to American fast food, the care that the French put into something as small as a pastry--the ceremony of baking, buying, wrapping and carrying, not to mention savoring--makes my heart happy. I carried home my pyramid-shaped package like a jewel, and when I finally unwrapped it later that night, I decided it might even be better than one. Yum.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Oh, So' MD

Southern Maryland may be a bizarre red blip in an otherwise blue state, but after four years of college there it feels more like "home" than the DC-metro sprawl. Despite the fact that the area's small population can be divided between those working for the college and those working for the naval base, its bi-polar people and strip mall culture is not without its charms. This weekend's road trip was spent in the company of great friends, and was the most fun I've had this break. Here were the highlights:

*I was touched by the amount of food/drink my friends had waiting for me...including cider and waffles with raspberries (because maple syrup is, famously, for the uninspired). They remembered my favorites!
*Finally ate the jalapeno/mushroom/swiss burger I've been lusting after ever since I got home, washed down with a pitcher of my favorite cheap beer.
*Tied for third in pub trivia and got several hugs from my friend, the toothless bar lady, who loves me because I remember her name.
*Successfully (and deliciously) mulled and spiked cider at 2am.
*Was impressed by how much one of my best friends has grown from angry young man to a clean-housed, suit-and-tie adult now that he's working for the man instead of raging him ("business casual" Crocs notwithstanding)
*Was touched (and slightly nauseated) by the adorable behavior of my two recently-engaged friends.
*Rediscovered the magical power of a cheap Mexican food brunch to ward off a hangover.
*Was completely lost in the face of my friends' newfound Trekkie nerdiness, and subsequently grateful that I live in a city that has more to offer for distraction than Star Trek reruns.
*Wrestled a beautiful but mouthy Burmese Mountain Dog puppy that has gained about 60 lbs in the 4 month since I last saw him (it's like it ate a small child. Holy crap).
*Upon my return home, cringed at the dried dog drool on my clothing and was promptly snubbed by my cat.

All-in-all, great weekend. Now off to pack and run a few pre-flight errands...

Friday, January 8, 2010

Rest in Peace, Bluey

I bought my first car, a '98 little Chesapeake Bay-blue Toyota Corolla, before I even had my license. At $5,000 for six years and 50,000 miles, it was a real steal. My parents fronted $2,500 and the registration fees; the rest came from several summers of saved babysitting salary.

Bluey had quirks from the beginning. Her driver's side window never sealed quite right--it took one person holding the glass pane just so and another to hit the button to get it to close sufficiently, and even then I had to crank the stereo as soon as I hit 40mph to drown out the sound of the wind. Going through tolls involved putting the car in park and opening the whole door. This was a delicate operation in and of itself, as the door handle was loose and threatened to come off completely if you yanked with too much force. The cupholder, when it didn't stick too much to pop out, was flimsy and better served to hold iPods, glasses, tissues--basically anything that wouldn't result in Slurpee across your feet after every turn. The airbag light flashed intermittently--a flaw in the wiring and not in the airbag, said the dealership when we took it in to be examined, although passengers were less easily convinced. When the traction failed in slick conditions, even I would start to wonder; luckily Bluey's slight shudder and lack of shock absorption discouraged reckless driving. She may have had pretty good gas mileage, but her appetite still bled my minimum-wage budget several dollars a gallon. The breaks were always loose, but you got used to it (a little too much, perhaps--I still screech suddenly to a halt when I drive other, "normal" cars).

In short, she was a great first car. She gave me six good years, and even shared herself with Gramma regularly, and later with Dad when the Camry died. She protected me when I spun out on route 95 during senior year of high school, and kept me connected to civilization during senior year of college.

And then David happened.

My brother more or less inherited my car after graduation, using it as his mobile trash heap. Within a week he had rear-ended someone, leaving the hood slightly crumpled but the engine in working order. The car was too old to merit the repairs, my parents decided, so it remained on the road as-is. A week before I came home, he ran it into a ditch during a snow storm, where it stayed for several days before my parents had it towed out.

David managed to at least clean out the trash before I came home, but Bluey was in a sad state otherwise. With a dashboard lit up like a Christmas tree, she groans like she's in overdrive just to hit 20mph. The carpeted seats and floor stink of smoke and are stained with mold and unidentifiable fluids, the grey plastic borders of the doors are peeling in sharp splinters to expose a yellowed frame underneath. The inside driver's door handle is now broken; to get out, you have to roll down the (still broken) window and open the door from the outside, whose handle threatens to break off at any moment.

To be fair, Bluey's now more than ten years old and close to 150,000 miles. She also has (and has had, for a while) a cracked catalytic converter, meaning she was doomed to fail the emissions test she was due for a few weeks back. In short, it's her time, and when I leave for the airport in a few days it will probably be the last time I see her.

I had planned to give her a good bye road trip down to college to visit some friends. It seemed an appropriate destination for a nostalgic final voyage, and the drive through rural Southern Maryland would feel like putting her out to pasture, in a way. However, when I awoke to a fresh snowfall on Friday, Mom made the executive decision that it was too dangerous to risk Bluey's less-than-reliable state on the icy roads. While I missed Bluey, I have to admit that the new Camry offered a much smoother ride and made me eager for the days, surely not far from now, when I will be able to afford my own, nicer car. I should probably take this opportunity to construct some poetic passage using my car as a metaphor for growing up, but this is getting long, so I'll end simply:

Rest in Peace, little blue car. You were a true trooper. You will be sorely missed.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Creatures of habit

I've been going to the same dentist for twelve years now. Even throughout years of college and travels I was always home summers and Christmases--long enough to remember how much I enjoy a pantry full of food I didn't pay for, to find new inspiration for education in mind-numbing minimum wage jobs and to squeeze in twice-a-year teeth cleanings. As far as dentists go, I like mine. I don't feel like someone who opts to stare in people's mouths for a living is ever going to be real stimulating, but he's good at what he does. His office is based out of his house, so you drive into a neighborhood to get there. Aside from the inescapable smell of gloves, toothpaste and talcum, there's not a real clinical feel to the place. He has a daughter a little younger than me, and a son too, I think, although it's always the daughter he talks about. Ten years ago, when we drove up we'd park in front of a lawn littered with PlaySkool toys in primary colors. Ten years ago he made his first impression on me as a thin, boring but cheerful Chinese-American man, his cute but business-like wife manning the receptionist desk as he stepped briskly back and forth between the x-ray room and the chair. Today, the lawn was well-manicured but void of toys. Even the sports car that had long since replaced the Tonka trucks was away on a college campus somewhere, where his daughter studies economics and Chinese--a language infinitely more practical than mine, as he often reminds me. The same wife met me at the desk, strands of grey streaking her black hair. The dentist himself was as cheerful as ever, if a little less thin and energetic--he seems to have gone a little soft around the middle as he approaches middle-aged, and his smile is a little slacker on the old man jowls that are starting to pull at his rounded cheeks.

Twice a year is enough that the details of them become familiar, mundane, but not quite often enough that it goes both ways. Going today was like reading through a script that I've memorized with but that no one else seems to recognize. Walk in, about two minutes late. Spend five minutes admiring the freshwater tropical fish, and in particular the Pleco (plecostomus) who seems impossibly big for the algae supply in this tank. Wonder, as I always do, if it's the same Pleco from 12 years ago. Decide that this is entirely possible. Get fitted with a rubber bib and called to the chair by the hypochondriac dental hygienist, who's been at this practice at least as long as I have. She's chatty; she forces me to make small talk around the scraping tools that she wields with a little too much force. I comply, pretending I don't notice the rusty color of the spit that she keeps pausing to suck away.

"Are you currently on medications?" (Yes. The same ones.)
"Oh, asthma? How's that medication working out for you?" (Well. Same as last year. You were on Advair, then, but considering changing.)
"I'm on Advair. I don't like the side effects, though. I'm thinking of switching." (You won't.)
"Did you hurt your lip." (No. It's a genetic thing) "You've got a little blister here. Looks like you bumped it." (Don't worry about it. It's genetic. It's been there for a while.) "Oh, no, you know what it is? It's a little cold sore forming." (I don't get cold sores. It's genetic. I've had two cut off and biopsied already). "If it's a cold sore you ought to put some SPF lip balm on." (Lip balm won't do anything. It's genetic.) "I know it's genetic, but you should put SPF lip balm on it anyway. I bet it would help. That's what I use for cold sores. Works like a charm." (*sigh* Okay. ) "If it's been there for a while, you should get it check out. They might want to biopsy something like that."

After she's done, the dentist comes in to look things over. Things being my teeth.

"Aren't you about done?" (I thought you needed to look at my mouth?) "No, with school. Aren't you about done?" (Ah. Yes. Graduated. Getting my Master's in Paris now.)
"Paris? A Master's in what, exactly?" (French literature. I know you think that's an impractical academic pursuit with no concrete future. You tell me twice a year.)
"French literature, huh? Hmmm. That's...different." (Hasn't changed over the last four years.)
"And what exactly are you planning to do with that?" (Get a job.)
"Hmm. Well...good luck." He swivels around to look at the x-rays. "Hmmm. Hold-up, I might need to look again." (Yes, I had a cavity in 19, but you filled it already. It's a clear filling; it doesn't show up on the x-rays)
"Ah. Let me see...yes. Good memory!" We go back out to the reception so he can copy my Insurance card. "So. What kind of job do you think you can get?" (A professor.) "Ah. Yes, I guess that's about all you can do with that. French literature." He chuckles. (Well, you know part of that is that I can speak French, you know. And a little bit of Spanish. And a very little bit of Arabic. I'll be okay.) "Arabic! You could get a government job!" (I could. If I had to.) "Well anyway, it's at least different. From, you know, all the accountants, med students..." (Yeah, I get it). "Anyway. You seem like a smart girl. See you next time."

Yup, summer. See you then.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Rough Love for my Patrie

One thing I’m enjoying about America is our embracing of our own tackiness. I love being able to wear a hoodie and old jeans in public and not feel like a total slob. This goes for decoration, too. I spent Boxing Day in Compton and New Year's Eve in Hampden (both in Baltimore) and remembered how amazing bar culture can be when it doesn't take itself so seriously. Compton had a Christmas tree made of beer cans/bottles, and the painting in the window of local Mexican legend Nacho Mama's fused the Natty Boh (local beer) man, a sombrero and the infamous "Christmas Story" lamp to glorious effect. 34th Street in Hampden, already famous for the building-sized giant pink flamingo of the nearby "Hon Bar," was decorated from end-to-end with the most tacktastic set of Christmas lights I've ever seen, including a true Baltimorian tree made of Natty Boh, Old Bay and blue crabs. (If you don't now what those are, you need to visit Maryland).

Driving again is both stressful and fun. I don’t like traffic or paying for gas but singing along at the top of my lungs in an empty car remains one of my favorite simple pleasures, and it sure is nice to not be dependent on a train schedule to get home after-hours. In the same vein, it’s nice to have 24 hour snack service (in the form of 7/11s and fast food places) for munching night owls like myself; I’m squeezing in as many Slurpees as possible while I still can. Driving in dirty city snow also beats trudging through it on foot—and the US definitely handles snow better than France.

Shopping has been a mixed experience. While in Paris I have a hard time finding anything that fits. To be truly European I need to grow a few inches and lose a few pounds—Parisian clothes are made for wispy girls with long legs and no curves. Happily, the Old Navy outlet here is having a great sale; I bought a pair of jeans for $19 and a few cute tops. The odd thing is that the jeans are size 2, and are even still a tad big on me. While my figure, big in Europe, is definitely on the smaller size here, I have no business wearing something that small (meaning it took me three incredulous rounds in the changing room to realize it was what I needed). When I expressed my irritation to the two rather large fitting room attendants, they beamed as they reported that Old Navy had “shifted” its sizes—“and customers love it! Now we’re all skinnier!”

Doh. As much as I’m embarrassed by the European standard of sizing pants by waist and height ratios that points out my square-dimensions (seriously, my numbers are the same, it’s sad), it’s certainly a lot more logical than “shifting” already-arbitrary numbers to cater to the ego of an obese nation. In the same way, France's tactics of providing well-balanced, affordable school lunches (seriously, I eat them) and obligating junk food advertisements to feature a public health disclaimer do a lot more to keep European children fitting into those sizes than pumping high schools full of fast food franchises and vending machines.

The other thing that has been depressing to rediscover in America are the ads during daytime television, which consist in about equal parts of: 1) drug ads, 2) loan/credit/get-cash-now ads, 3) health care/Medicare ads and 4) affordable continuing education ads. To me, they represent a way to glean sobering insight into the American psyche. If you read between the lines you find a lot of fear: fear of the recession, of poverty; fear over the unavailability of health care, particularly for the elderly; fear over the expense of education and the vicious cycle of being too under-educated to score the career that will enable one to fund that education. I'd be the last to say that French education or employment are anywhere near ideal (pretty damn good health care system, though), but our system has flaws that run deep and hurt many, with very little reform in sight.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

0102 2010

Happy palindromic second day of yet another un-namable decade (the 10s?). If you're in America, that is--land of the free and home of the patriots who proudly retain our right to ignore the logical choices of the rest of the world to go metric, use Celsius, or sensibly list the date before the month. If you're anywhere else you'll have to wait until another month to enjoy a date that mirrors itself. Which means I'll get a second shot at nerddom when I'm back in France. 11 days and counting...woohoo!

I felt very American yesterday as I enjoyed our traditional New Year's day good luck supper: collard greens and black-eyed peas (with leftover Christmas ham, of course) doused in a healthy amount of French's yellow mustard. I read some of Bill Bryson's "I'm a Stranger Here Myself," which made me reflect fondly on the aspects of my motherland that I miss abroad, then followed it up with the chilling (and excellent) documentary "Food, Inc." which had the opposite effect of making me want to flee as far as possible from the American food machine.

Every moment of my time at home so far seems to provoke cultural reflection. For example: much as France seems to have *finally* discovered recycling, America is finally catching on to some basic green-living things that Europe hit on years ago. The front page of the Washington Post's Metro section this morning was an article praising Giant's new 5-cent reusable grocery bags (next step: start charging five cents for the disposable ones, too). A pre-film PSA at the Princess and the Frog the other day advertised the fact that appliances continue to use electricity even while off and advocated unplugging them when not in use. Baby steps, of course, but I love the movement toward awareness and education.

I have many more comparative cultural musings to share, but I should really stop blogging and keep writing my essay. Here's wishing everyone a wonderful last day of winter vacation; I'll have another post up by the time you're back at work and bored enough to read it.