Will's Coffee House

John Dryden, Dramatist, Critic, Poet Laureate, and my ancestor, frequented a coffee house called Will's almost daily, where he would hold forth on sundry subjects with great wit and aplomb. Same deal here, only without the wit or aplomb.

Location: Large Midwestern City, Midwestern State, United States

I am a stranger in a sane land...

Saturday, December 31, 2005


From Washington, where my hosts were kindness and graciousness personified, the weather was surprisingly mild, I actually had a chance to take in live theater (the Shakespeare DC's production of Comedy of Errors--very funny, uneven cast, but they wavered between the brilliant and the competent, so a fine show overall), and my interviews went, with one exception, quite well. I think. One never knows. Coming from the world of theater, I always offer an analogy about these interviews (one I've shared with many people over the past few days, so bear with me if you've heard this one): Academic interviews are like auditions: you only know "how it went" if you completely and utterly tanked, went down in flames, crashed and burned, and fill in your vehicular point of comparison here. (Although even then, you can't always tell--Dustin Hofffman famously blew his audition for The Graduate, and we all know how that turned out.) But beyond jsut flat-out agonizing failure to do anything right, one can simply never tell what will follow. Totally and utterly brilliant you may be, but if the director decides that he wants someone three inches taller, you will not get a call-back. So I may well have been brilliant--and hey, I flatter myself that I was, once or twice--but if they decide they want someone who's more attuned to Gender Studies, or Poetry-versus-drama, or if I rubbed even one of the three-member committee the wrong way, I'm out. So we do not know, and we shall not know for at about a month for most of these places. I am once again in the realm of thumb-twiddling. Which is a rich and fertile breeding ground for neurosis, self-loathing, and unfocused anxiety. Gonna be a great New Year. (Actually, my mood is good, and with the start of classes, I'll be busy and therefore distractedly productive. All good, it will be, as Yoda might say...)

Happy New Year.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Semper Eadem

Christmas-time is here, by golly;
Disapproval would be folly;
Deck the halls with hunks of holly;
Fill the cup and don't say when!

Kill the turkeys, ducks and chickens;
Mix the punch; drag out the Dickens;
Even though the prospect sickens,
Brother, here we go again.

Thank you, Tom Lehrer, for expressing the mid-30s attitude to Christmas for the childless. I'm not really as dark as I sound, actually. It's sunny and warm and I seem to be recovering nicely from the illness with three days still to go 'til the trip to MLA and the seven (seven!) interviews thereat. (Apparently I'm excruciatingly lucky to have received this many. Either that or I'm exquisitely brilliant. I'm inclined to think 'lucky,' aren't you? No? Really? Aw, go on! You're too kind. Anyway--)

The problem with the interviews is that, of course, I cannot focus on the 'here and now' of Hearth and Home, which is a pity, since my family does Hearth and Home rather well; our experience of the holidays is not exactly that of the Cratchits (a. we're well-off, and b. it's a bit treacly, that scene, isn't it--I mean, the only point at which we all perk up is when Mrs. Cratchit starts going off on Scrooge--you go, girl!), but we're pretty much into the tree and the fire and the stockings that would be hung by the chimney with care if we had one that could support such adornment but we really don't. And it's nice, and everyone's genuinely happy to see each other, and we don't have to wait on tenterhooks for that point in the evening when that one family member has just enough to drink to bring up the skeletons in the closet and the ugliness that has festered between him and his cousin for forty-odd years and then the first punch is thrown and why can't you take it outside someone wails and oh man you know someone's gonna get thrown into that tree and knock it over and break Great-gramma Evelyn's antique angel ornament that she managed to smuggle out of Prague right before the invasion and is the only memory she has of her parents and what now is there for her to live for and down she goes with that second stroke and then you've gotta wait for the ambulance to arrive and well great we might as well get s***faced because here's another f***ing Christmas gone to s***, thank you all so much, you've made your mother cry again, and what's that, fourteen years in a row, way to go a**holes.

We don't do that. So, you know, it would be something I'd like to enjoy more than I am, but performance anxiety about these damned interviews is ruining all, thank you so much, MLA, you've made me cry again, and what's that, two years in a row, way to go a**holes.

Hope y'all are merry and bright and whatnot. Merry Whatever...

Sunday, December 18, 2005

New Developments

A. I'm sick, again. Pray God it'll be brief, and, really, it's not that severe and it's much better that it's happening now and not a week from now, when Christmas hits and the flight to Washington and interviews with prestigious universities follow. So, small favors. Speaking of which--

B. I've been invited for a campus visit. This is the final stage of the hiring process. A school has liked me enough to offer to fly me out and meet with me over a few days--and I'll probably have to give a lengthy paper in front of the whole department (no pressure there!) Anyway, this is the point at which I'll either get the job, or not. It's down to 3 candidates. Won't happen until late January, but if you feel like crossing your fingers now, it couldn't hurt.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

A Random Thought

I'm not sure where I'm going with this, but bear with me: What's wrong with America today? Well, plenty, but plenty's right as well, and yet there's a sense of something a bit out of control--the stridency of the right and the flaccidity of the left leaving the whole engine of government and culture heading out into the future like the proverbial runaway train. (No, I'm not deliberately citing Tom Petty--the analogy predated that song, thank you.) I'm listening to A Confederacy of Dunces in my car as I make my long commutes, and it strikes me, listening to a book of that era (late 60s), that maybe what we've lost is a memory. Officer Mancuso arrives at the Widow Reilly's house, and sees a weathered but still legible WWII poster about "Loose lips sinking ships" and it struck me as I heard that--that that was the collective memory of the people of that time. Not just of that war, but living through it--sacrificing and struggling and living with the fear of an uncertain outcome against a terrible enemy--and coming out the other side realizing that they'd just won perhaps the most important war since the Greeks pushed the Persians back on the plains of Plataea. And there was the memory of that in what they did with the rest of their lives--the sense that that achievement, that victory defined America. Sure, we devolved quickly into Communist witch-hunts and race riots and Kennedy's assassination--but through it all, I think that the men and women--that much-hyped 'Greatest Generation'--were able to look upon each other and the world with a sense of the fundamental justness and decency of their character because they had, in ways large and small, participated in that triumph.

But the sign on the Widow Reilly's door is fading, and what memory replaces it? Well, Vietnam, perhaps--certainly, it was a collective experience that brought with it little but shame--and I include--indeed, I foreground the treatment of the veterans of that war--receiving them with embarassment and slight, regarding them as 'losers'--our nation showed an ugly side in its treatment of those men. And the stupidity of the war from a political standpoint--the futility of it--that replaced, I think, the memory of WWII. We became the Bully Nation--the Cowardly Nation--the nation who acted out of self-interest, not justice.

But such cynicism has a relatively short shelf-life. It's self-abusive, and most people would rather be self-forgiving. No, I don't think it's the memory of Vietnam that has us careening along unseen tracks--I think it's the fact that we have no collective memory. No event replaced the fading Vietnam, and now, unable to be defined viscerally by our past, we don't know who we are. "America" is up for grabs, it seems--but as much as the Far Right tries to snatch it for itself, it's a Sisyphean task--without any history--any memory--to anchor their claims, they'll lose whatever ground they gain as fast as we can change the channel. (Witness the dismal failure of their attempt to sell "The War on Christmas" as the issue of the day.) We've lost our past. And without it--how can we know where we're headed?

Chaos ensues...

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

And the Black Fog Rolls in Again

What the f***ing f***?!?! I mean, will nothing put this depression into remission??? I finished the quarter with my usual teacherly aplomb, I got all my grading done in smoothly efficient time, I've got at least seven interviews scheduled for the MLA convention (sigh--I have to go to Washington in the dead of winter--but still, seven!), and, yet, somehow, I'm convinced that Life Sucks, I'm Worthless, and There's No Point To Any Of It. The advantage to having experienced depression before is that I recognize such thoughts as the products of a disorder, and not an objective reality, but still--come on, brain!!! We're supposed to be working together on this, right?!?!? Stupid serotonin levels. Damn them and such...

Thursday, December 08, 2005

This Thing Called a "Meme"

It's either grade papers and exams, worry about tomorrow's phone interview for a really nice job at a really good school, or frivel away the time by blogging nonsensically. Guess which one I choose? Thanks to "abd me" (check out her blog at http://probablyedandme.blogspot.com) for this form of procrastination, a kind of self-revelatory count-down called, I take it, a "Meme," which sounds vaguely Greek in origin if pronounced "meem," but probably isn't. Anyway, here goes:

10 Random Things You Might Not Know About Me:
10. I can 'crack' not just my knuckles, but virtually every joint in my body, often with disturbing loudness.
9. I'm not allergic to anything.
8. I can sing pretty much all of Gilbert & Sullivan by heart. Though if you're nice to me, I won't.
7. I'm addicted to computer RPGs, to the exclusion of food, sleep, and human contact.
6. (This is embarassing.) I love Romantic Comedies--even the dreadful ones with Jennifer Lopez. (Sorry, I should just say "even the ones with Jennifer Lopez." Although Kate Hudson is really giving her a run for her money in the 'dreadful' race.)
5. I have to sleep with a pillow over my eyes.
4. I used to smoke--and I miss it.
3. I think pugs are the coolest dogs ever. Shut up, they are so. No, you're wrong.
2. I really don't like white wine.
1. The life I appear to lead is not my secret identity, but oh, how I wish it were.

9 Places I've Visited:
9. County Cork, and yes, I've kissed the Blarney Stone.
8. Salem, Massachusetts, which has turned the hysteria-induced execution of largely innocent people into a source of tourism.
7. The top of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, which is more impressive than it sounds, since you have to climb a lot of stairs and ignore any latent vertigo.
6. The Louvre. And the Mona Lisa is called La Giaconde, and depending where you stand in the room, her expression changes. It's quite cool.
5. Mont St. Michel. "Hey! Let's build a cathedral city on a tidal plain!" "Why?" "Because it will look amazingly spooky and impressive and cool!" "OK, then."
4. St. John's College, Oxford. Where I delivered a paper on 18th Century Pornography.
3. Fanning Island. Middle of the Pacific, 3 Degrees north of the equator.
2. Alcatraz. Just to make sure I had the whole 'experience,' I tipped a couple of the guides to rape me in the shower. I still get Christmas cards.
1. The Mall of America, where I worked selling troll dolls in one of the most humiliating post-collegiate periods of my life.

8 Ways to Win My Heart:
8. Shut up and leave me alone; I'm reading.
7. Shut up and leave me alone; I'm XBoxing.
6. Just shut up and leave me alone.
5. Wait, come back, I'm lonely. Hold me. Lingerie helps this procedure. Unless you're a guy, in which case--eh, so long as it's tasteful...
4. Bring me coffee in the morning--Latte, with a splash of half-and-half, if you can.
3. Listen to me prattle on about pretentious crap with enthusiasm and/or patience.
2. Reach for my hand for no reason whatsoever. That goes double for hugging me from behind.
1. Put up with me when I'm at my worst. (Which is to say, "Put up with me.")

7 Things I Want to Do Before I Die:
7. Finish my g*d-d**ned novel.
6. Publish my g*d-d**ned novel.
5. Have at least 24 hours of sustained 'fun.'
6. Visit Rome.
5. See Wagner's Ring Cycle at Bayreuth.
4. Have a child (or two.)
3. Get a really good teaching job.
2. Really learn Latin. Then--
1. Really learn Greek. (Note: Neither this nor #2 will ever actually occur.)

6 Things I'm Afraid Of:
6. Rats.
5. Things that look like rats--mice, possums, even capybaras give me the willies. (Or the Willards, if you're inclined to bad horror movies and puns, which few are, I'll admit.)
4. Teaching the first day of a new class.
3. Change. (The process, not the coins in my pocket--those I'm fine with.)
2. Job interviews, especially ones that require me to travel cross-country.
1. The realization that I may very well have to deal with periodic and often lengthy bouts of severe depression for the rest of my life. (Sorry to bring the mood down, but it really does scare me.)

5 Things I Don't Like:
5. Plane travel. I'm not afraid of flying, but I just don't trust them to get me where I want to go, on time and with all my luggage. None of them seem to care about their jobs with enough fanaticism to inspire total confidence.
4. Artichokes. Ate a bad one once, got sick, can't do it again.
3. White chocolate. Ate about five pounds of it once at one sitting. Can't do it again.
2. People having inane conversations on cell phones in places where they shouldn't, like...anywhere I can hear them, basically.
1. Abridged versions of novels. Whom are these for, and how can we stop them from breeding?

4 Ways To Turn Me Off:
4. Answer a cell phone in the middle of our conversation. You're not a surgeon or a member of the bomb squad--let it go to voice mail.
3. Abuse, slight, or try to crack wise with a bartender, waitress, hostess, or busboy. They don't need your crap, and they don't think you're funny. And tip them right, for God's sake.
2. Ask me about plot points, actors' names and what else they've been in, or how the story ends--we're in a movie theater, will you please just watch the f***ing movie???
1. Complain about your relationship with your mother, your co-workers, your shrink, your ex, or your siblings before we've started sleeping together on a regular basis.

3 Things I Do Every Day:
3. Convert oxygen to carbon dioxide.
2. Bathe.
1. Check my e-mail. (Multiply #1 by approx. 473.)

2 Things That Make Me Happy:
2. Love. (I'd name someone whom I love, but it said "things," not people. Besides, you know who you are, and isn't that enough?)
1. Delivered pizza. Seriously, it's like magic--you ask for it, and it comes to you, perfect every time.

1 Thing On My Mind Right Now:
1. I'm in my mid-30s--shouldn't I be doing something more meaningful with my time than filling out a Meme?

Progress and Setbacks

Interviews are coming in with striking rapidity--we're up to four so far, so I only need one more to beat last year's total (which would be nice, frankly.) And the schools in question are remarkably good--one's even Ivy League, for Heaven's sake. So this is all to the good, vindication of the fact that, on paper at least, I don't suck, hurrah.

Unfortunately, along with the interviews, the depressive anxiety is likewise back with a vengeance. It had tapered off a bit since my last jeremiad-entry of three weeks ago, but now it's returned and it seems to have set up shop for a good solid spell. Much of the worry is based on these same interviews, of course--so much is riding on them that it's nigh impossible not to feel more than a trifle nervous. But there are plenty of other factors--it's the end of the quarter, and I always go a little nuts when transitioning from Teaching Mode and all of its deadlines and structure and patterns and habits (all things that make my fragile little psyche feel all warm and safe) to the sudden emptiness of...well, nothing really to do, much. I can--and will--find ways to fill the time. (Right now I'm whacking myself out of anti-anxiety meds and watching daytime TV--two activities that just go hand in hand like peanut butter and chocolate.) But one hopes that further progress will be made on articles--I have a few ideas kicking around and one should try to keep publishing, after all. So, that.

But the anxiety is pretty dreadful, a lot of the time. One wakes up with a jolt and the first thought is "Oh, f***." Your day is not going to be a good one if that happens--pretty much a take-to-the-bank rule, that. So I'm off to shrinks and pill-dispensers to see what, if anything's, to be done, and in the meantime trying to wend my way carefully and responsibly through the mountain of end-term grading and filing. Oh, and I'm sighing heavily a lot--I find that takes up a good hour, hour and a half each day. Nothing like passing the time while waiting for the brain to settle down...

Monday, December 05, 2005


...are starting to come in. Two so far. One phone interview (very low stress, as these things go), and one that will require me to decamp from the (relative) warmth and comfort of the Southland and head for the winter now-so-wonderland of Washington D.C. and the nightmare that is the Modern Language Association conference. Sympathetic shudders will be appreciated at this point...

An odd cross-cultural moment the other day. The radio in my car doesn't work--antenna's f**ed up and I'm too lazy/disorganized/cheap to get it looked at--so I listen to a lot of Books On CD (unabridged only, thank you, for those who're planning on buying me Xmas/B-day gifts)--and I was wending my way through Austen's (well, who else's?!) Pride & Prejudice. (Rather than see the movie with that flesh-toned praying mantis Keira Knightley, I thought I'd just let Miss Austen speak for herself, you see.) So I'm driving home, in my little utilitarian Nissan, listening to a lightly gravel-voiced woman (a voice with 'character,' so to speak) read, with clarity and vigor, the clear and vigorous prose of one of English's master stylists. A small, unassuming car, shabby little white-bread me, a quiet voice speaking beautiful notes of language in my ear. Got the picture?

I stop at a red light, and suddenly I'm side-by-side with a huge, seriously pimped-out 4x4--chrome wheels, hydraulics, running lights, the works. And from on high, the African-American gentleman (who was clearly no gentleman, though he could certainly have put me in my place, if he'd had a mind to) was blasting from his speakers (all 38 of them) what I'm fairly certain was 50 Cent at the usual filling-rattling decibels one associates with such men in such vehicles.

Me. Him. My car. His. Austen. 50 Cent. Side by side at a red light in L.A.

And for just a moment, all of Western culture looked at us and shook its head in wondering contemplation that two such souls could live in what really is essential harmony in the same nation, the same city, the same neighborhood. Was there a meeting of the minds? No, and I'm not so benighted as to think there really could have been--had we looked at each other, our first impulse would have been to sneer at the other. (I wouldn't have, of course, because I am a snivelling coward who has allowed popular culture to ingrain a sense of mindless racism into all my dealings with The Brother. Which would be sad, if it weren't so funny.) But still--there we were, and neither cancelled out the other. There was the tolerance of indifference. Which is some kind of historical progress--and in a world in which misanthropy is invariably the correct perspective, possibly as good as such cross-cultural interaction will ever get.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Tidings of...What, Exactly?

"It was late November, I think, and I was thinking about the whole Christmas thing: the birth of Christ, the Wizard of Oz, family murders, and quite frankly, I was depressed." -- from In the Bleak Midwinter.

Odd time of year, this--Christmas, I mean. I suppose it's very little fun for you Israelites and Mohammedans and atheists and other such abominable heathens who dwell among us, but for those of us who have accepted Jesus Christ as our personal savior (and are thus spared the eternity of hellfire that awaits the rest of you, ha ha), it's really not much better, oddly enough.

You all feel excluded by not being invited/able to participate, but there's an internal exclusion, too. See, it's actually a holiday for children and for people who have children. Those of us in-between those happy times look at all the decorations, and listen to the songs, and most of us, I think, feel a little empty. There's no Santa-Claus-based magic to experience or to bestow on precious young minds/hearts, and apart from maybe getting together with family--which we already did the week before last, at Turkey-fest--there's a sense of a time that used to be special, but isn't anymore, and it's a bit dreary.

Which sounds like more depression, except that--I hope--I'm speaking for more than myself. Myself, I'm not particularly blue--like my birthday, I don't set much store in Christmas--you get your presents early on that morning, never get what you want (because what you want isn't a gift, but the feeling of magic that attached to the gift back when it was made by elves and flown in by reindeer express) and then the rest of the day is just Thanksgiving dressed up in Red and Green. (Oh, and in my house, people asking me to read Dickens, which I usually give in and do--and very well, thanks. And don't roll your eyes--it's a remarkably well-written work; I've actually given a brief lecture on the argument that "Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it" is the most perfect sentence ever written in English fiction. But that would be a disgression.)

But I do remember, quite vividly, the time when Christmas--the whole month of December--was a time of excitement and joy and suspense and just...fun, when each window opened in the advent calendar was a moment of triumph and and disappoint and hope for tomorrow, because each day brought the season closer to its end, but also closer to Christmas Eve, that sleepless night of tormented anticipation and wildly happy excitement. But that time seems to be over now.

Also, I suppose I'm going to hate being alone quite a lot this month--more than the supposedly notorious Valentine's Day (which is so much of a joke that anyone with a scrap of self-esteem can laugh at it and move on), Christmas is a time when one misses love and comfort during a season that really shoves down your throat the idea that those are the only things that matter. And this year, such things are lacking...Ah well. Could be worse. I understand that Hannukah's even worse agony--and a fire hazard, to boot. And you've gotta fast during Ramadan. Yeesh...