The Cult of Grad School

Last year, when I went away for my grad school residency, I posted every day about the things I was doing and thinking. For my first residency, I pushed myself to read the required reading for every lecture and presentation, and I tried to do all the recommended and suggested reading as well. Then I got here and found out that even if I hadn’t read the texts, the presenters usually didn’t rely exclusively on them for the content of their lectures. These aren’t multi-part classes where we’re being quizzed on the minutiae of a single text. These are discrete lectures of one or two hours where we’re exploring some big concept as illustrated by one or more texts. It just wasn’t that big a deal.

What I had forgotten about, though, was the physical and emotional toll residency took on me last time. It’s worse this time. What I forgot was just how much of a cult this place is. I looked at the ways that cults use coercive persuasion to bend the minds of their followers.

1. People are put in physically or emotionally distressing situations.

There are too many of us, packed into a few rooms of a corporate office building. There are no desks, so everyone either taps on a laptop (a sound that makes my skin literally hurt, so that I want to claw at my clothes as I’m trying to concentrate on the lecture) or (like I do) uses a clipboard or a notebook to take notes the old-fashioned way.  The schedule is so packed that there’s often a choice to be made about where to go next, so that anyone who isn’t careful finds themselves double-booked.

2. Their problems are reduced to one simple explanation, which is repeatedly emphasized.

Write more. Spend more time thinking about your edits. Who are you in relation to your characters? There’s not a single, simple explanation to all our problems as writers, but the about five explanations there are get repeated ad nauseum. While that can be good if you haven’t already heard that particular solution to your writing problems, it gets exhausting after a while. Last residency, it was “question your beliefs.” It seemed that most of the lectures harped on some aspect of that theme, and it led me to go back to some of my work and think hard about my characters’ motivations, but after a while, I had to question my questioning. And what did all my questioning lead to? It led to me believing that I needed to come back and ask more questions. Back here. Where I am now.

3. They receive what seems to be unconditional love, acceptance and attention from a charismatic leader or group.

Every single person here is happy to see me. When I show up in the morning, people want me to sit by them and talk to them. They show me their websites, looking for my approval. They show me pictures of their spouses, their children or their pets. They act like they’ve waited for six months to hang out with me, and maybe they have. I do know that I am fond of a lot of these people, and it’s nice to see them after such a long separation, but I also still feel that fierce need to spend some time alone. And of course, everyone talks about the program chairman as though he walks on water, and there is always a queue of people trailing after him in the halls trying to talk to him about one thing or another.

4. They get a new identity based on the group.

Here, you are put into several groups at the same time. You are given a group name based on when you entered the program. Everyone who came in at the same time as me is a jacaranda, and our color is purple. There are blue spruces, yellow aspens, red sequoias and sycamores whose color I don’t know. Maybe they’re green. The aspens are the outgoing cohort, and a bunch of them have elected to wear yellow sparkly capes to show their solidarity and pride. That’s all fine and dandy, but a bit creepy at the same time. You are also sorted by genre: poets, fiction writers, creative nonfiction writers, writers of literature for young people.  They often don’t attend the same classes, so they see each other at the cohort events.

5. They are subject to entrapment (isolation from friends, relatives, and the mainstream culture) and their access to information is strictly controlled.

I’m only entrapped here by virtue of the fact that I’m such a long way from my own family and friends. My best friend lives down here, but he’s got his own life going on. The trickier form of entrapment is keeping us so busy that we voluntarily sequester ourselves so that we can complete everything that’s being asked of us. We’ve got classes, forms to fill out, evaluations, summaries, contracts, all of which has to be done at specific times in specific ways and eats up a lot of what would otherwise be free time. While we have all the access to the outside world we could possibly want, we don’t necessarily have time for it. And our access to information about this little world we’re in is limited to the intranet platform – we use separate email rather than our own email, we have a separate site that houses all the news and information we need from this place.

Given the indoctrination we’re being subjected to, I think I can be forgiven for being a little on the emotional edge. And all that stuff about it being a cult aside, there is some amazing thinking and analyzing going on here. The outgoing graduates have once again been exploring aspects of literature I had never before considered, and I now have the benefit of a brain dump of their previous two years of research. We’ll see what this residency’s themes end up being.

Sherlock Holmes and What Is Real

girl with fairy

Of course, everyone knows that in real life, fairies are horrible, evil creatures.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, inventor of the detective Sherlock Holmes, was often asked by readers to solve their own real-life mysteries. He couldn’t respond to their cries for help, though, because unlike Holmes, Conan Doyle was famously gullible. His most embarrassing gaffe was the Cottingley Fairies, a hoax perpetrated by two girls who took photographs of themselves next to cardboard likenesses of fairies and gnomes and represented the results as real meetings with fanciful beings. Conan Doyle embraced the photos as proof of other beings and was roundly denounced for it, but I find myself entirely sympathetic to him.

As authors, we’re always asking ourselves “what if?” What if there were a man with a mind like a computer who could solve even the most bizarre crimes? What if there were life on other worlds? What if I were another person with another life, thrown into difficulty and danger? Our ability to sympathize, to imagine, to create the reality we wish to see is at the heart of our gift, and I think that Conan Doyle wasn’t necessarily being gullible, but was opening his mind to the possibility that fairies could exist in the same world that he did.

Weird Tales magazine cover from 1934

Bringing you fabulous tales of “what if” since 1923!

I find myself opening up to possibility all the time. Back when I lived in San Jose, I would drive down Quito Drive, which had long stretches of orchards, and for months I saw a sign that read “Mary Ferguson Offered” outside a house situated in the middle of a grove of fruit trees. For months, I wondered who Mary Ferguson might be, and what she might have offered to the maker of the sign. Whatever it was, it was remarkable enough for the sign maker to want to publicize the event. It was only after I’d seen the sign for at least six months that someone pointed out that it actually read “Massey Ferguson Offered,” meaning that the owner of the house was getting rid of a tractor. It was a letdown.

I’ve seen the Sydney Opera House being carted down the highway on the back of a flatbed truck, I’ve seen a dead cat in the gutter that maintained bodily integrity for nearly a year, I’ve seen a skyshark. And none of those things is out of the realm of the possible in the world I live in. Just today, my neighbors were vivisecting a hippopotamus.

What is the truth of the things I’ve seen? It’s what it appears to be, because I accept what my mind tells me without question. If I see a foot-high man wearing a brilliant-blue vest and black trousers walking down the street toward me, I believe it. If I am looking at it, obviously, it’s possible, right? And, to tell you the truth, it’s kind of a let down to realize that it’s just one of the neighbor’s peacocks walking along the road toward me. The truth is usually less interesting than what my mind invents.

cover of Yann Martel's "The Life of Pi"

I like the Cheshire catness of this tiger

If you’ve ever read the book The Life of Pi by Yann Martel, you know that it’s about a boy who drifts in a lifeboat on the Pacific for 227 days with a Bengal tiger as his only companion (once the tiger has eaten the orangutan and the zebra that started the journey with them). At one point in the story, a pair of Japanese insurance agents question him. He tells them his story, but he also tells them a different story where, instead of a tiger, he’s in the boat with the ship’s cook, a sailor with a broken leg and Pi’s mother. The strictly human story is horrifying and grisly, lacking any of the wonder and hope of the story of the boy who survived more than half a year in the company of a tiger. In the end, Pi asks the insurance men which story they like better – the one with or without the tiger.

In my world, there is room for tigers, for Sherlock Holmes, for the Cottingley fairies, and tiny men wearing brilliant blue vests and black trousers. And there’s room for you, too.

Sex in Translation

Once again, sorry for being away. Okay, I’m not that sorry. Like a lot of people, I have a life that doesn’t always allow for sitting around and thinking up things I want to shout into the void. I started typing out a little of what I’ve been up to, but even I dozed off in the middle of the process, so I won’t bore you with the mundane details.

One of the things I’ve been doing is listening to the audio version of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. Haruki Murakami has never shied away from sex in his stories, and this one is no exception. There are all kinds of sex scenes between all kinds of people – willing and unwilling sex, drunken orgies, masturbatory thoughts. Sex is one of the many themes of the book, so there’s a lot of it.

I don’t speak Japanese, but I do know this about it: it’s a language spoken by human beings. And one thing I know about human beings is that they have lots of words to describe their genitals, and different words have different connotations. Prick, dick, cock, dong, shlong, manhood, sex, pussy, snatch, cunt, ladyparts, and that’s just the ones I could type without stopping to think. People like to talk about their privates without sounding like a doctor, so they come up with all manner of colloquialisms.

On the other hand, none of those fun words made it into 1Q84. In that story, no matter the circumstances of the sexual encounter, no matter how sensual or violent, no matter how happy or unhappy or confused it made the people involved, a penis is always a penis, a scrotum is always a scrotum, a vagina is always a vagina and breasts are always breasts. At one point, one of the characters says that “every couple of weeks, he visits a prostitute he knows and has sex. Like getting a haircut.” It’s a great description of every single sexual encounter in the book.

It’s one thing to know a language well enough to have a perfunctory conversation about bus schedules or restaurant orders. It’s another level to be able to listen to a news broadcast and understand it all. Yet another level is knowing the language enough to be able to tell jokes and understand wordplay. And then there’s pillow talk. It makes me wish that one of my friends who speaks Japanese and who may have read the book in its original language would tell me how the words translate in English.

My greatest fear is that Murakami didn’t use any slang at all, and that he wrote all his sex scenes using the most clinical, dry language possible, stripping them of all subtlety and sensuality, stripping the mood of the sex scenes away and leaving nothing but the physicality. In a way, it’s like inside-out Hemingway. With Hemingway, there is no interior life in his characters and the reader has to guess at what might be going on in his characters’ minds. With Murakami, his characters most intimate moments are so stripped of any nuance of language that the reader has to fill in any accompanying emotions. Actions devoid of thoughts can be hard to understand, but thoughts devoid of feeling are no clearer.

Observing the Decencies

I’ve drawn the Pirate into listening to Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety. It’s the kind of audio book where we stop the playback every few minutes so that we can talk about what’s being said.

One of the points he made was this: “As our standard of living goes up, the luxuries become the decencies, and the decencies become necessities.”

I realized that I had only considered two classes of things: necessities and luxuries. When those are your only choices and you divide all the stuff you own into one of those two camps, you either sound like a delusional hedonist who classifies having a car for each person in their household a “necessity,” or like a rich liberal apologizing by classifying owning a computer as a “luxury.” Granted, what qualifies as “necessary” depends on your circumstances. If you work from home at a tech job, a computer is a necessity. For families living in dense urban areas with public transportation where only one spouse has a full-time job, having more than one car isn’t necessary. Convenient, but not necessary.

Here’s where the idea of “decency” comes in. It’s the idea of a thing that isn’t a luxury, but is a step up from a necessity. The wonderful world of hygiene is a great example. We all agree that keeping clean is a necessity: the first line of defense against diseases ranging from the common cold to cholera to ebola. If we agree that hygiene is a necessity, and hygiene means soap and water, we also agree that soap is a necessity.

If you are the hardy type, you can mix the same lye you use to unblock your drains with some water, add your cooking oil (including bacon grease and meat trimmings), and create a soap that will burn your skin, smell bad and serve your purposes. That’s necessity. Buying lye in bulk and using only your used cooking grease, soap made this way would cost a just under two and a half cents per ounce. When I was a kid, my mom always bought Ivory soap. It didn’t smell weird, and it was inexpensive. You can get Ivory soap for about 13 cents per ounce. Necessity or decency – your call. What happens when you get to things like Lush? Depending on your preference, you’ll be paying $1.99 to $2.64 per ounce for this high-end soap – two orders of magnitude more than the DIY version. There’s no way anyone can justify that kind of outlay as “necessity,” and calling it “decency” is disingenuous.

It’s been making me think about my own definitions. How much do I need most of the things I use and enjoy? How do I justify to myself the purchases I make? I need to think harder about the choices I make. I need to make sure that I’m not buying things just because I’m being lazy or self-indulgent. I need to remember that I’m not alone on this planet, and that I need to play fair, share, and leave some stuff for others.

Your Kid’s Marriage Is Already In Trouble

In the past few days, I’ve been catching up with an old friend – “Can This Marriage Be Saved?,” a standing feature in the Ladies’ Home Journal. I’ve loved that column since I was a kid for the same reasons that I slow down to check out accidents. Schadenfreude.

The format has been the same since I can remember: first the wife tells her side (this is, after all, a women’s magazine), the husband tells his side, then the counselor gets a turn. I read the feature uncritically when I was younger, but now I’ve started taking a harder look. The counselors tend to be Freudian in their approach to problems, meaning that they look for the root cause of each person’s issues in that person’s childhood. People who tuned out when their spouse expressed dissatisfaction had distant, cold parents. People who couldn’t let go of any wrongs done to them had suffered some defining trauma early in life that they couldn’t get past. People who assumed incorrectly that they shared goals and feelings with a spouse who was silently seething with pent-up resentment had parents who never talked openly, and the spouses had parents who either fought all the time or never fought at all, making the spouse need to avoid conflict at all costs. The fact that the sitcom format of problem and resolution that resolves itself in just a few column inches gives the illusion that if you can just learn to speak in “I” statements, count to 10 before responding to criticism and plan 2 dates nights a month with your spouse, no amount of lying, cheating or fighting will put your union asunder.

I spent yesterday at The Exploratorium in San Francisco. The place was packed to capacity with groups of parents and their children acting in the same ways that you see them act at Disneyland, the zoo, the supermarket, in restaurants, at the movies, etc. As adults, we may act differently in the office than we do at home or out with friends, but as parents with our children, our act never varies.

What fascinated me most were the kids that drive everyone else nuts. These kids were losing their shit. Screaming, throwing themselves on the floor, clamping themselves onto their parents legs while begging for whatever they felt they can’t live without. Every time I saw a kid melt down when Mommy had her hands full and was looking the other way for a millisecond, or kids who ran between tables terrorizing other patrons while their parents ignored not only their kids’ behavior, but the reaction it was getting from other adults, I thought “Your kid is going to grow up, get married, and end up on the pages of Ladies’ Home Journal, and it’ll be your fault.”

The kicker came after the museum closed. The Pirate and I waited outside for the girls to finish up their tour of the Tactile Dome. A boy of about 12 tackled his grandmother, knocking the woman to the ground. The woman sat there, looking dazed and monitoring herself for possible injury for a few minutes while the kid stood over her, grinning. A man I presumed to be the kid’s father came up and scolded him, but the grin never left the kid’s face, he never apologized, and once granny got up and went away limping, the kid ran off to play with his siblings/friends. Even the adults said nothing about it among themselves, acting as though it was perfectly okay that this woman would certainly have bruises and scrapes (she had fallen hard on a concrete sidewalk) and could have more serious injuries (she fell right onto her tailbone – a sure recipe for back injury). Nobody walked the older lady to her car or looked in her direction as she shuffled away.

This kid is going to grow up with the sense that his actions have no consequences about which he need ever be concerned. He’s going to think that no matter what he does, it’s someone else’s problem. He will never feel that he has to monitor himself or take responsibility for any mess he makes. What kind of adult relationships can he look forward to?

I despair of a country that sees children as either decorative imbeciles too stupid to be given any responsibility or as bothersome pests, best ignored until they’re old enough to make entertaining party conversation. Neither does anything to prepare children for the life of a responsible, self-actualized adult. But maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe I should be more grateful that parents everywhere are grooming their children to entertain me by becoming the subject of columns with titles like “I’m a Hoarder and My Husband Hates It.” Your husband may hate it, but I can’t get enough of that stuff.

Between the Covers

First of all, I was gone for a couple of days (and trust me, I’ve been BUSY in that couple of days), and you all abandoned me. I feel like you and I were at a party, having a lovely conversation, really getting to know one another, then I excused myself to go to the bathroom and when I came out, you were standing with that loudmouthed guy who was telling that story about his truck and the deer and the bean dip and you waved to me, and turned back to loudmouth just when he got to the part about hitting the possum with his golf cart. And I didn’t blame you. I can’t even begin to compete with that. I’ll be honest, though. It hurt.

Anyway, back to the whole blog post thing. Books. I’m talking about books. A big part of grad school has been the enormous amount of reading I get to do. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve finished V for Vendetta, Rashōmon, Dracula, Quiet (The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking), The Woman in White, The Windup Girl, and I’ve just started Status Anxiety.

The thing that I love about “annotations,” as opposed to book reports, reviews or anything else I could write about the books I read, is that they’re personal. They’re influenced by the other stuff I’ve read, the events in my own life, the mood I’m in. When I’m doing annotations, I feel like I am at liberty to bring in every connection I think of while reading a book. I can talk about my connection to Buddhism and depression when I write about Rashōmon, or about Occupy Wall Street when I talk about V for Vendetta, or about my own dark thoughts about our world’s future when I read The Windup Girl.

When I write annotations, I end up looking at the whole thing as a kind of therapy. I can certainly look at how Hemingway created stories out of nouns and verbs and admire that, but I can also think about how racist, sexist, generally asshole he was, and how that informed the kinds of people he wrote about, and how I wonder whether that narrow worldview contributed to his depression. Sometimes, I get myself so wound up about the kind of person I should be that I can’t stand the kind of person I am. Is that what it was like to live in Hemingway’s ultra-macho world?

I think that we all look for ourselves between the covers of every book we read. We want to be the hero; we want to be the super-cool villain who has money, power and good looks; we want to be the mom everyone loves, the son everyone’s proud of, the kid who’s quiet and unassuming until she saves the world. That’s great when it’s fiction and somebody gets to win in the end (even if that somebody is the bad guy). But when the subject is human’s desire for love, as is the case in Alain de Botton’s nonfiction book Status Anxiety, I’m just as apt to put myself in the shoes of the unspoken subject of the book, the person who worries about other people’s opinion of them and how that opinion is influenced by how much money a person has, how good-looking they are, what kind of job they have.

Sadly, I’m a writer, so I have no power whatsoever. I’m not good-looking, although because I’m just words on a page to you, you can imagine whatever you want. The same goes for my finances. In short, I’m worried about what you think of me. But I guess I don’t need to worry anymore. Given the fact that you’ve chosen the guy with the truck and the dead possum and the bean dip over me, it’s pretty clear where I stand.