Categories
On My Mind

Wiggles

About ten years ago, my mom sent an email, kvetching that the city where she lived was spending four million dollars to redo all the street corners.

Just so people in wheelchairs could roll up and down curbs.

FOUR MILLION DOLLARS for a few people, she groused.

Even without the smell of smoke jumping six inches off his body, his brown teeth revealed the habit. His stringy, shoulder-length hair — just turning to gray — brushed the shoulders of a snowmobile jacket. No one had seen him before, but the library tends to see new people on snowy days.

Needing help to get on the wi-fi, a flood of words parting the air before him, the guy steered himself toward the workers at the circulation desk. “Hey, yeah, so my phone doesn’t work right now, and I need to make some calls over the internet because I have some things to arrange – like, I gotta meet my landlord.” No problem, a worker assured him, bending his head over the guy’s phone. As he pointed to the screen, leading the patron from click to click, the patron’s deluge of words continued to wash over bystanders.

Eventually, in a kooky end stop to his tale of phones and landlords, the guy blurted to his wi-fi helper, “You ever heard of Pinterest?”

Sure he had. As media support to the masses, library workers tend to know the platforms. Curious as to where the question was headed, wi-fi helper nodded and asked: “Are you on Pinterest?”

Oh hell yeah, the smoky patron was more than just “on Pinterest.” In fact, he puffed proudly to the library worker, “I’ve got something on Pinterest that’s had over a million downloads.”

Unflinchingly supportive, the worker raised his eyebrows to convey awe. “Wow, that’s pretty amazing,” he said. “You should try to figure out how to make some money off that!”

The patron agreed: “Yeah, yeah, I should make some money off it, ‘cause then I could be in the Bahamas, sitting on a beach, drinking a beer with Jimmy Buffet. But I can’t figure out how to make a cent off this stuff. I’ve got Mark Zuckerberg calling me, Jeff Besos, too; they’re all gettin’ in contact with me, and still I can’t make any money off my thing.”

Realizing his phone was successfully connected to the wi-fi, he waved it in the air with a flourish as he headed outside to do business.

Popular rightwing meme on Pinterest

Less than five minutes later, he was back. “Hey, you guys got a phone I can use? Mine isn’t working. I can’t make my calls.”

“Sure,” said a different library worker — the one who bike commutes year-round — “we can do that for you. Just tell me the number, and I’ll dial it.” In short order, the smoky patron was holding the receiver, making arrangements to meet up with a buddy. “Much appreciated,” he called over his shoulder a minute later to the library workers, his hand already cupping the pack of cigarettes in his pocket in anticipation of air without rules.

In December of 2019, a thread on Facebook disintegrated from complaining about how slow the city of Duluth was to plow residential streets after a massive snowstorm into mocking the funding and space devoted to bike lanes in some well-trafficked areas. One wit dismissed: “We live in a climate where 10% can only use [them] 35-40% of the year . . . there is no sense to it. It’s for tourists.”

Five minutes later — the length of time it takes to finish a deeply inhaled smoke — the patron was back. “So, a while back I checked out a bunch of movies from the public library in a different city, and now they’re really late, at least a month, and I was wondering if you guys can do something about that?”

Unfortunately, the worker had only this counsel: “Because they are located in different systems, our library doesn’t ‘talk’ to that other library, so you’d have to directly contact the library you checked them out from.”

The smoky patron didn’t get this far in life without some moxie. “But I was thinking you could call them for me?”

The library worker didn’t get this far in his day without some patience. “Sure, I can do that. Let me look up the number, and I’ll dial it for you.”

Within moments, the patron again held the receiver, again negotiating a plan. “Yeah, I’ve got movies I checked out from you, and they’re really late. Can you help me out? I couldn’t return them because I was down in Brooklyn Center, kind of stuck down there.” He paused. Then, elaborating, he cryptically added, “Man, that was a dark trip.”

In a different location but a sharing a common mission, the library worker on the other end of the phone line created a plan for the movies’ return.

Wrapping up the call, the smoky patron nodded. “Okay, I’ll bring them in Monday.” Handing over the receiver, he again thanked his team. “I’m glad you guys helped me call them ’cause you saved me a lot of money there.”

With that, the patron, well satisfied, exited the building.

A crony of the Koch Brothers, Randal O’Toole asserted in 2016:

Whatever the service levels, [public] transit just isn’t that relevant anymore to anyone . . . more than 95 percent of American workers live in a household with at least one car, and of the 4.5 percent who don’t, less than half take transit to work, suggesting that transit isn’t even relevant to most people who don’t have cars.

The patron’s next cigarette went quickly. Four minutes later, he ambled up to the circulation desk once more.

“I need to call the animal hospital and check on my cats. Can you dial that number for me?”

The bike-commuting library worker obliged. It’s what they do.

Plus, there was the spectacle of it all. This time, the handset recognizing his grip by now, the smoky patron opened negotiations with disconcerting directness, asking the unsuspecting employee at the animal hospital:

“You got Wiggles’ ashes?”

Clawing toward comprehension, the recipient of the question strangled out something akin to “May I ask who’s calling?”

“Yeah, my cat, he died there. You cremated him and put him in an urn, right? And you drew his name WIGGLES on the urn, right?” From this line of inquiry, the smoky patron obtained the information he needed. Shifting topics, he announced, “Okay, now I gotta talk about my other cat. I think I need him tested for worms. How much is it going to cost to get a full test for worms? I need to know the exact amount, ‘cause I got $100 in my pocket, and I gotta take a taxi about ten miles, so I need to know exactly how much it’s gonna cost to be sure I have enough. I have his poop with me, so you can test it for the worms, ‘cause I’m pretty sure he’s got worms. He gave me a look today. I had another Coon cat once, and when he gave me that look, it was after someone had died in my house. Once the cat had seen death, he gave me that look.”

Knowing, from hours, days, years of experience that the storyteller was gaining steam, the library worker moved closer, signaling wrap it up. Not one to abuse privileges, the patron accepted it might be time for another smoke. “Oh, yeah, okay. I’m in the library. I gotta go. I’ll bring the poop. But before I get there, can you find my Wiggles?”

In 2017, New York Observer writer André Walker tweeted: “Nobody goes to libraries anymore. Close the public ones and put the books in schools.”

Business handled, the smoky patron — a “one-time” drop-in on a snowy day — headed again toward the exit doors, out to the busy street where a bus stopped every five minutes,

waiting as dedicated riders, challenged by limitations of terrain or road access, tossed their bikes into the rack on the front;

depositing the retiree who’d chosen not to own a car but who felt less alone when she attended the library’s Social Knitting for Seniors;

idling while the wheelchair ramp lowered for the regular with cerebral palsy, a young man who liked to roll down a few blocks to Starbucks for a treat;

dropping off the frazzled single mom with two kids who liked to play games in the big building with all the books;

picking up the downtown office worker who’d have liked to make more than $12/hour one day so she could start paying down those credit cards;

providing a blast of warmth to the crew of rough twenty-year-olds who fought, loved, and used loudly and publicly;

transporting a rainbow of people from the west end, the east side, up over the hill — those hundreds of individuals who relied on kind hearts and public services to get through their days;

pulling away from the shelter with a blast of exhaust in the frigid air;

leaving behind a pony-tailed man — head bent as he lit a cigarette — who was waiting for his taxi, a jumpy talker of a guy who called out to a passing acquaintance, “Hey, you need a ride? I’m about to go over the bridge to pick up my Wiggles.”


If you care to share, click a square:
Categories
books

Cranky Broads

Upon learning of my career as a teacher of writing, a former college professor wryly noted, “Composition is the armpit of the university.” As had also been the case when he commended Wallace Stegner as the United States’ greatest author, the former professor’s judgment was keen.

Certainly, teaching composition can be inspirational and gratifying. At the same time, it’s a profession of back aches, headaches, exasperation, and drudgery. However, composition courses are the substance of our department, and without them, we don’t exist. To put an even finer point on it, without the money generated by composition classes, a few other degrees and programs at our college would also cease to exist. Because we English faculty each carry a load of 150+ students and bend our necks over non-spell-checked essays for myriad hours each semester, smaller programs–say, welding or machining–benefit from the tuition dollars we generate.

Few things highlight the tight miserliness of my character more effectively than the look on my face when I consider a trades instructor whose entire teaching load comprises a two-student cohort.

Fortunately, I manage to right my attitude when I admit I couldn’t do what the trades instructor does, even with a mere two students (‘tho I daresay our college would get significant coverage in the local newspaper–“Finger Severed on College Campus!”–were I to become an instructor in the machining program. I’d create a one-woman publicity blitz, really). Nor could the trades instructor do what I do, for it’s a rare individual who can employ the subjunctive mood with the precision of a Swiss-style lathe. We each work to our personal strengths.

Also: I chose my profession, and I stay in it willingly, so I don’t have a right to kvetch.

I don’t always stay within my rights. Indeedy, I do kvetch, complain, and snark. These activities clear the professional sinuses. After a metaphorical horking out of the snot, I get back to cleanly inhaling my good fortune.

I do best at appreciating my job when I focus on the heart-moving students; every semester there are at least a handful of them whose personal stories make me cry in the kitchen as I debrief with my husband. I do best at appreciating my job when I remind myself of the autonomy and flexible schedule, two things that are instrumental to my happiness. I do best at appreciating my job when I take a break from marking essays, stretch a crick out of my spine, and think, “I am so damn lucky. I get to live a life of the mind, not the mines. Sure, it’s a life of the mind peppered with strippers and addicts and dealers, but doesn’t every inflated aesthete need that sort of counterbalance? It’s like I’m Valjean, my students are Fantine, and only a genius state employer could assign a salary to that kind of dynamic.”

And I do best at appreciating my job when I get to teach a literature class.

In our department, we generally offer three or four literature classes each semester. Since there are nine full-time faculty and five or six adjunct instructors, there’s not enough lit to go around. Thus, when it comes time to create schedules, we try to give each full-time faculty one literature class each calendar year. It doesn’t shake out perfectly, but for the most part, those without “release credits” (for doing other kinds of work for the college, in addition to teaching) will end up with nine sections of writing and one section of literature during the course of the year. In short, literature classes are the cherry on top of a towering sundae of cause/effect essays.

Even better is the fact that I have been able to teach literature courses online in recent years. Although many justifiably take issue with the online platform, I can make a firm case for the effectiveness of lit classes offered remotely, as there is no back of the room in cyberspace, which creates a class teeming with equal participation from all students; moreover, every contribution students make online must be supported with textual evidence–something that doesn’t happen in a traditional classroom, a place where three students do all the talking, and no one addresses the text when responding orally. Online literature classes are terrific, and they feed my teacherly soul.

But then. Both in traditional and online literature classrooms, sometimes students balk. Some students, usually of a fundamentalist or evangelical strain, refuse to read certain books because their perceived contents run counter to the student’s faith.

You can hear the echoing grate of my gnashing teeth here, yes? It’s fortunate I have a job that provides dental insurance.

I have had a student refuse to read The Red Tent because Anita Diamant had the audacity to re-imagine a biblically based story (“I will take a zero on all the assignments related to this book before I will pollute my mind with a fictionalized account of the Bible!”). One of my colleagues has had students in his Adolescent Literature class refuse to read Harry Potter due to the looming threat of Satan in those pages. These are but two representative examples of a larger trend.

It’s terribly difficult to respond to such students. If I were able to reel out my real self, the response would involve a skull-rattling shake of their shoulders, perhaps followed by a “Snap out of it!” slap across the face à la Cher in Moonstruck. After that, the offending student would be subjected to a three-minute finger wave about how true faith can withstand tests; how belief is strengthened when it considers conflicting ideas; how JesuseffingChrist the Bible as an historical text is already a work of fiction; how fantastical stories of wizards don’t create the black magic that lives in our hearts; how learning to think requires dancing with a capacious variety of viewpoints; how the whole point of college is to push our brains and values out of insulated walls and into challenging wilds.

I reel in my real self, though, because today’s community college students, shored up by righteous indignation and dislike of authority, do love to make an appointment with the dean. Instead, I give them a watered-down version of my reaction to their objections and then, with sadness in my psyche, type zeroes into the grade book or come up with alternate assignments.

In addition to the objecting fundamentalists, there are also the students of literature whose every analysis is rooted in “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it.” To a certain extent, I’m okay with those reactions because, at the very least, they indicate a connection to the text, and for students who have never read a book in their lives (which is often the case), being able to express “I didn’t like it, and here’s why” is significant. As the semester progresses, I urge students to stop using the first person pronoun in their discussions, for a move to third person point of view immediately boosts the quality of their responses. However, the majority of students aren’t ready to let go of “I”–they literally can’t see it unless it’s pointed out, which is a phenomenon ripe for psychological analysis (“So you can’t see yourself unless someone else notices you?”) and continue with “I think…” and “I liked…” all the way through the final exam.

Most important to me is that they justify their reactions and learn to examine and support their emotional responses. This is the toughest task of all. What I’ve discovered over the years, and I know I’m wielding a brush so broad I could paint a house with a single stroke, is this: retention and graduation rates at community colleges are abysmal compared to those at four-year universities and private liberal arts colleges. The primary reason drop-out rates are so high is that the backgrounds of many community college students make it so they crumple in the face of personal life crises. If an aunt dies, a student might go missing from an online class for two weeks. Last semester, I had a student get a gel shot in her hip, thus necessitating a ten-day hiatus from all online class work–during the days when her research paper’s rough draft, peer reviewing, final draft, and final exam were due. After not completing any of those major assignments in any appreciable fashion, she launched a barrage of messages, telling me how much she needed to pass the class. Apparently, she was able to work at the computer when it came to writing emails. She also was able to post a cute photo of her dog in the “Random Things” folder on the day she was to be critiquing her classmates’ papers. More than anything, she created in me a feeling of gratitude that she’s not my wife because I can’t afford the speeding ticket I’d get as I gunned my way to divorce court.

Both as an individual and a teacher, I find it important to acknowledge that the class continues regardless of what’s going on in the personal life, and if grief or health or meds or bad boyfriends or car troubles or nasty best friends or former addictions or video games or double shifts or evil roommates or tender stomachs or social anxiety or chronic procrastination or lost backpacks or getting fired get in the way, and the student can’t participate in class, then the student should withdraw from the class. If one’s personal life is melting down to the point of incapacitation, then the added stress of knowing one is failing classes should be removed so that focus can remain on handling the personal crises.

More often than not, though, the crises in students’ personal lives are actually just cases of “life happening,” and if they were better equipped to examine and support their emotional responses–skills that come from being students in a literature class, ironically enough–they could arrive at this realization: “My aunt died, and I will miss her forever, and I have a test tomorrow and a paper due Friday, so I can work on the paper in the car while we drive to Indiana, and I can ask my instructor if I can take the test early, after the memorial service, because it’s an online exam, and there’s Wi-Fi at the hotel in Indianapolis. Once I’m done with the test, I can go out to dinner with the family and reminisce about Aunt Mabel’s wigs.”

Truly, I realize compartmentalization isn’t that easy. It’s a skill learned over decades. To a startling extent, reading and responding to literature can help with the process. First, there is an emotional reaction. Beyond that, though, there is a moment of stopping, looking at the larger context, and asking oneself, “Why do I feel this way? Is my reaction valid? Are there other possible reactions? Would it make sense for me to adjust my thinking, given what’s on the page in front of me?”

Beyond the life skills that can be learned from literature classes, students also gain a deeper understanding of human beings and the human condition when they read stories and novels. Woefully often, though, they approach works with very limited criteria for what is “good.” They want happy endings. They want action. They don’t want long descriptive passages. They want likable characters. Were they to read blogs, I’d wager they’d say, “This post is too long. It needs more pictures. Maybe a numbered list.”

It’s my aim to ignore their criteria–gleefully–and assign to them works that are sad, slow, lyrical, full of prickly characters.

Right here, Gentle Readers, I am finally getting to the original intent of this essay. When I started, my plan was to crank out a short, quick post about a few books I’ve enjoyed, notable for their choleric characters. Approximately 2,000 words later, I’m still getting there. Ain’t that the thing about reading and writing, though? It starts with a word and an intention, and before we know what’s happened, we’re somewhere else entirely?

You know what else I never intended to do in this post? Get all meta on your asses.

Quickly, then, let me roll all my previous points about teaching and students and literature into a quick summary: I am never happier than when readers and writers embrace difficult.

Whether it be plot, setting, structure, or character, the best writing is like life: demanding, confusing, flawed, well-intentioned, untidy, and surprising.

Poor dead, bewigged Aunt Mabel never tolerated pap, nor should we.

Aunt Mabel’s wig would have been bobbing madly had she read the article “Novels Don’t Need to be ‘Nice'” in The Guardian, a piece that sums up everything I want students to know about reading fiction: “Why bother to engage with difficult, demanding characters when we don’t have to? This [attitude] is a great shame: it’s reductive, and antithetical to what literature is about … Literature, after all, is not some cosy textual coffee morning populated solely with friends we haven’t met yet: rather, it is a site where the full panoply of human activity may scrutinised – and this isn’t always pretty.”

It is with a gleam in my eye, therefore, that I present to you a tidy list of three books featuring nettlesome female protagonists. They are tough, reclusive, cynical, sardonic, unpleasant, charming, and exceedingly human. If you’ve been on a Nicholas Sparks kick in recent months, I recommend these reads as a counterpoint to the dreck you’ve been consuming.

1. Amy Falls Down by Jincy Willett: When I randomly picked up this book at the library, I had no idea it was a sequel. In fact, I read the entire book as though it was a stand-alone, completely taken by the crochety protagonist from the first scene when she slips in her yard and hits her head on a birdbath. Once I became aware of the book’s predecessor, I went back and read The Writing Class and Willett’s other novels. But Amy Falls Down is the best. The New York Times notes,”Essentially, Amy is a character who lives inside her head, and she needs to get out more.” That’s my kind of gal. Crusty. Solitary.

2. An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine: The Boston Globe review deems this book’s heroine, Aaliya, “an utterly beguiling misanthrope” while The Wall Street Journal describes her as “affectionate, urbane, vulnerable and fractiously opinionated.” All I know is that I loved to read her.

3. Florence Gordon by Brian Morton: The New York Times describes Florence as a “congenitally difficult protagonist–so caustic and cold she even walks out of her own surprise birthday party…” While the book as a whole could do more, in terms of establishing Florence as the thinker and feminist she is purported to be, it still effectively portrays a no-bullshit woman who is unwilling to suffer nonsense.

———————————–

So there you have it: a quick list of three books I’ve enjoyed! Yay! LOL! Thx 4 reading!

If you care to share, click a square: