humor in the language that starts with M

I’m having an affair with a professor who’s nearing retirement– the grotesque differential of our ages and the fact that he’s married put me off somewhat, I’ll own– but then, when I’m in his presence, I’m compelled by his personal magnetism, pulled to him irresistibly. but also I’m tired of waiting around for him to get to me– after all his more important buisiness, lecturing and so on– so I go to campus to find him, feeling bold and confident. only when I see him evidently busy and important, all he says to me is, “did you translate your joke?” and then my heart sinks, because I remember that I’ve been given this tiny piece of homework to do, so small, two lines only to be translated into an obscure eastern european language– and I’ve forgotten to do it. so I go off then to take care of it, this one little responsibility of mine in the complicated heist-type thing we’re planning– my part to waylay the foreign personnage by telling him this joke, and then, once he’s distracted, all the other cogs can move into place. but first I’ve got to translate it. so off I go to the library of this tiny liberal arts college, in search of a dictionary of… not moldovan, some other language whose name starts with an M… probably made-up. and I’m browsing the reference works that are stacked on top of the old card catalogs, but there are all these dumb happy students standing around the place, going through the card catalog in a leisurely manner and yammering away– so annoying– so at last I grab my dictionary on the obscure M language and go off to find a quiet place to write my translation. but there are these dumb happy leisurely students seemingly everywhere I look, clustering together at tables in twos and threes and big cumbersome groups– one of these last is strung along one long side of a library study table, all facing in the same direction– so I look off, trying to determine the object of their gaze, but all I can see is a carnival set up on the horizon– and I choose a chair very near the end and sit down close to the table’s edge so as not to impede their view.

herbert hoover

poor guy. what a bum rap he’s given.

I like to go out to the museum and homestead in west branch, iowa and read about the bootstrap boy, the self-made man. what tragic timing– blamed for the Depression. as if one man might singlehandedly effect so much. but we have historically granted our public figures such inhuman stature. lionized and demonized.

I like to drive into the farmland and look at the hair wreath woven by his mother. artifact of an entirely other age. think of it! to build a decorative object out of one’s own hair. and I understand it was not an uncommon craft. such a dark and tangled object, so suggestive.

and, golly, what an age to live in, and through. to draw yourself up out of, to stride across wide, low-slung hills– to step across the slow mississippi and on into the East where the world begins, where America in fact got made. to take an active and determined role in all of that, by choice.

unfathomable from here.


“now give me.” “a lot of.” “wow, yeah, you need.”

preoccuppied out of sleeping by the documentary I watched earlier today, born rich by jamie johnson– heir to the johnson & johnson fortune, who made a project out of interviewing his inner circle friends about the unmentionable word. fascinating. depressing. surprising (particularly seeing a young man I actually know on the screen, being interviewed, and whom I did not realize–perhaps simply because I’d never stopped to think about it, but more likely due to that hushed characteristic of the wealth– belonged to that echelon).

and what interesting timing in my own life to be watching this and considering specie in its most phenomenal form. because I am currently and most personally, and have been for the main of the last few months (certainly not the first such period), chronically short of cash. as in, thank goodness for overdraft protection. as in, frequently unable to scrape together change to buy cigarettes. as in, raised with plenty and yet unpossessed of the tools to either manage or create. compelling, humbling, and generous lessons from life.

because if I hadn’t had to go through this, lightly bottom out, as it were, I probably never would have found occasion or means to confront the kernel of disfunction. the shame. the anxiety and apotheosis.

raised patently upper middle class but consistently with an air of just-hanging-on-by-the-hair-of-our-chinny-chin-chins (one that was indelible if quite likely manufactured), I reached post-college adulthood and the first lesson out of the gate: “um, what the fuck do I do now?” as in, how do I provide for myself adequately, capably, and maturely. and all these years later, the answer continues largely murky– only just, and through most-embarrassing-insolvency, beginning to come clear: manage it. look it in the eye, at last, and count it, make an accounting of it. somehow this, seemingly indispensable, part of the equation never made it into the original construct.

and consequently my siblings and I have all suffered our financial throes. none of us is especially good with lettuce. no, let me amend that. we are, all four of us, notably bad, characteristically and spectacularly unadept where the almighty dollar is concerned. we spend it, and that seems to be the extent of our literacy on the subject. so some of us have been fortunate in our choices of spouses, helpmeets to assist and offset our clan debility. and some of us have not. this one of us at least sits with her own incapacity on a daily and geometrically compounding basis, and finally comes to understand the white devil in her blood. attains its name if not the ability to command it, just yet.

and those kids on the video screen. those most elderly and ignorant and urbane kids you’ll ever see– their lives cast and commanded by the dollar sign. so deeply enculturated by it, by money. by money alone–how weird that is. well, of course not money alone, of course as well all its addenda of privilege. but money primarily, money nominally if widely unspokenly, money essentially. fascinating, as I said, and dreadful. deeply depressing– not for want of it, not in envy of that privilege, the shiny clubs, the tailored hair– no no– only pity. yeah, that’s what I said. what awful creatures of an all-consuming master, what a pitiable state of being.

and then I realize this boon: that I was never so rich, and there is, in this, hope for me yet.

also, I should add this: good for you, young mr. johnson. for daring to venture through the passage where the rest, your cohort, your elders (your own father) quailed at the prospect of entry. forbade discussion as strict taboo. leveraged the law, outright suing you for the hubris of the breach. and still you persevered, cracked that tight nut right open and laid the contents out for the world to consider– yourself not least of all. and I sincerely hope it may do you the greatest good.

aneuploidy & enallage

thanks to a fine and cleverest new friend, I’m reading this morning about mosaics, chimeras, and freemartins. fascinating stuff, not to mention poetically named. although the science starts to get a little scary and even pretty awful once they get into grafting baby animals… for those with a soft heart, I recommend you stop reading before you hit the geep. the folks up in arms about dolly would go wacko over this one, I suspect.

and then there is enallage. this is one I’ll have to share with my approaches to teaching writing students– the intentional breaking, or twisting, of rules. what hey.

borg me

so, yeah, the rumors you’ve heard are true: I, sarah holmes townsend, have eaten crow and, at long last, joined friendster after having vowed never to touch it with a high-jump pole.

a friend asked me recently, “so what’s with all the social networking?” and I was thinking about it the day before yesterday in the car and felt compelled to pull out my little car notebook (man, that thing’s getting a workout these days) and, right in the middle of the burlington/gilbert intersection, start scribbling down my response. here it is:

let’s just say I am not unlike the fabled groundhog– at the first whiff of spring, I clamber from my burrow into the light (this year apparently in full regalia) and cavort about.

and then I started thinking a bit more about that regalia, and it occured to me that, tho rather novel, it bears striking similarities to what/who I’ve been in the past. I seem to be seized of late by a spirit of fresh combinatorial self-invention: ’80s hair, ’90s overalls, and ’00 body.

also, I suspect, the diss kicking into gear may be having some influence upon my productivity level (read: mania)– at last the tunnel ahead reveals a pinhole of brilliance. I cannot shout it forcefully enough: WHOOPEEEEE!!!

the same friend as above reacted with particular surprise (dare I say disdain) to my recent friendster membership: “do people still use that thing?” I’ve, obviously, been trying to work up an appropriately withering retort, with little success. the best I can come up with is, “no, they don’t. at least not the cool people. only us lame-o third-wave latecomers.”

and then I think about maybe sticking out my tongue and going, “nyeah, nyeah.” what do you think– too much?

picking up on an earlier conversation

…I suppose the central and most honest question, from my perspective, becomes: what are your main objects in a) teaching writing and b) writing yourself?

because, for category a), answers I’ve witnessed include, in no particular order: i. self-aggrandizement, e.g. increasing your readership/fanbase/cult of personality to the extent, in some notable cases, of recreating the world in your own image; ii. making a living; iii. contributing to the production of quality literature in the world; iv. helping others learn, grow, and develop new understandings of self and the world around them.

for category b), answers I’ve seen include: i. to get famous; ii. to scratch an itch; iii. to discover what you think you know and open it up for revision.

I’ve seen way too many people engaged in subcategory i (or probably that should be I) pursuits. it consistently makes me mad, and then subsequently sad. I mean, really, who the hell would *want* to be famous? just *look* at the kinds of lives hollywood stars live. yeah, so they’ve got the cash and nice houses and great bods and whatnot, but I have to ask myself if they even really *live* at all. maybe angelina jolie– she is taking flying lessons after all. but they can’t even go out in public without getting mobbed and tabloids publishing and twisting their private relationships to shreds. I know there are a lot of people who feel sympathy is wasted on the rich and famous who’ve clearly chosen their own paths. I’m just saying: fame. can you honestly tell me it’s a GOOD thing?

I dunno. maybe you think so. we all have differently-compelled and -enabled egos. mine says to me:

“make stuff that’s fun and whimsical, sometimes even weird. take a risk, explore; poke and gaze and work it all up into something lovely and captivating– then put it out on a little table on the front lawn for people who walk by to look at, pick up and shake, sniff, sing to, etc.

“and then pick up by the seat of its pants what you know, and what you’re in the process of learning and reassessing, and go into a classroom– and take a can opener to other people’s heads. put that can opener into the people’s own hands and invite them to poke around inside. make a place where everybody involved can lever out the grey lump and work it into stupendous concoctions. go, ooooooooh, collectively.”

dubious attics & barge-driving lessons & groundhog hillside & artificial sight

lisa and merritt have moved into another big old house with a mansion-sized fireplace and rooms without 90 degree angles– instead the sides of rooms angle gently inward, forming outside alcove courtyards. lisa is selling shares in some enormous roll of carpeting that they’ve gotten ahold of, and I buy in and then immediately regret it because I know I can’t afford it. I keep wanting to see the attic and then being told all over again that it’s not a good idea and going, oh, yeah. right. I forget now what’s wrong with it, but something ominous.

there are barge-driving lessons on the river, and I’m taking part. there is some discussion of a canoe-type boat and whether or not it’s what people are calling a tanker.

I’m walking across a hillside, my arms swinging at my sides, when the knuckles of my right hand brush over one of the many holes in the ground– and something clamps on– not painfully, just alarming me. I look down, and in my hand is a prairie dog (though the word in my head in the dream is “groundhog”). I shake it off, and, there, still in my hand, is it’s baby. it’s miniature and adorable, and I think about hanging on to it as a pet, but then think better of it and place it gently at the mouth of the burrow it’s parent has disappeared down. I continue across the hillside, realizing the ground is full of burrows and small creatures, vulnerable at my feet.

someone points out a man in the room and tells me he has artificial sight– he was blind in one eye, and another of the tenants devised the solution– there’s a chip implanted, not in the damaged eye, but rather in the tip of his nose– it’s mapped to a vast universe of coordinates the designer has spent the last twenty years plotting. he shows me examples of the patterns penciled on the wall of the room, travelling all over it, describing it entirely.

busy brain

these days as soon as I wake up, the dreams fly right out of the room, driven by the force of whatever waking idea comes barrelling in. this morning I wake up writing part of my dissertation, fleshing out an idea on the page by using the puppet-people from my dreams themselves to play out the discussion with one another or else sitting at a desk writing out the ideas I intend to, and do, get to myself once I’m more awake.

homeowner to-do list

3:30 a.m., post-bath.

– connect roof vent tube to bathroom vent, reconnect fan
– back bedroom: paint walls, floors, closets; put in low cupboards on eaves closets, built in shelving above; put rods in closets proper
– stairway: runner; shelves?
– fix up basement front room for a workspace: add shelving; paint walls, ceiling, floor; put in carpeting? area rugs?; get new dehumidifier; figure out why dehumidifier keeps tripping the circuit breaker
– laundry room: add three-quarter bath; paint to brighten walls, ceiling, floor
– all basement: new window well windows to brighten

perennial overwhelm

sometimes, even tho there’s never any question about any possibility of keeping all these balls in the air, I drive myself nuts trying. sometimes, when my head aches for two days straight like this, I suspect it might be ready to blow. sometimes I’m juggling jobs, for pay or pro bono (though in my line of work that’s more the rule and therefore seldom named as such). often what I’m juggling is sarahs— the poety sarah, the teachery sarah, the researcher-scholar sarah, the friend sarah, the sister sarah, the hermit sarah, the cut-to-the-chase-and-say-what-nobody-else-is-willing-to-air sarah, the movie-watcher sarah, the hikey-campy sarah (god, somebody please wake her up– it’s been like a hundred years already), the arty sarah, the hand-makey book sarah, the homeowner sarah, the bill-and-tax-payer sarah… phew. that’s all I have the energy to track at the moment. but, believe you me, it’s a house of mirrors in here (and you thought juggling out in the open was difficult…)

so sometimes I put on the socks with the individual toe sockets and no-skid ladybugs on the bottoms and feel better instantly.