Wednesday, October 16, 2019

In my younger and more vulnerable years

my father gave me some advice I have been turning over in my mind ever since. "Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone," he told me, "just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the same advantages that you've had."

I didn't write these lines.

But if you're an American literature geek like I am, or someone who was mildly awake during a high school English class at some point in your life, you might recognize where the lines come from. It's the opening of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I know these lines (and the last lines of the novel, as well as several other passages) by heart because I have read the book at least fifty times.

The first time was my junior year in Mr. Fay's English class at St. Thomas Aquinas High School.


Look! That's my copy from that class and the same copy that I read the 50+ additional times.When I was a high school English teacher, I taught the book to my classes of 11th graders. I just now thumbed through it and saw both of my children's names written on the inside cover below my name, their notes from their time reading the book in school, scrawled next to my own notes as a sixteen year old and later as a teacher.

When I was sixteen, I think it was the romance that drew me in, the obsessive love Gatsby had for Daisy, but more, it was his yearning, his dreams, his desire to make himself over into someone who would be worthy. And the tragedy of it all when we find out that it none of it was enough.

Still, all of that striving was worth something regardless, right?

That's how Mr. Fay taught Gatsby anyway. We also had discussions about the class system in America, corruption, wealth, the American Dream, and the Jazz Age. And then we watched the kinda dumb movie with Robert Redford, who was too pretty and polished to be Gatsby and Mia Farrow, who was too drippy and blah to be Daisy. Or maybe not. Daisy was at the core fairly drippy and blah.

Gatsby's a good book to teach to high school students, for a variety of reasons, I later learned, when I taught it to roughly 800 students over the years. It's only 182 pages-- with nine chapters, something you can easily cover over a two week period in an average classroom. Also, to snag the attention of your students you can play up the mystery, the romance, the bling, the murders. Trust me when I tell you that in the classroom, in terms of keeping teenagers awake, Gatsby easily beats out The Scarlet Letter, another book I've read 50+ times.

And then there's the fun symbolism that all English teachers love: the green light at the end of the dock, the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg, and what's the deal with Daisy crying over Gatsby's beautiful shirts? So many fun essay questions...

Oh, and the book holds up under multiple readings-- which is good for the teacher having to read it 50 times-- because there are always interesting details to puzzle out. The cuff links made out of molars, Myrtle's pathetic dog, the weird interlude with Nick and another man at a party, the shitty book that Tom's reading about white supremacy.

I can go on and on. And recently, if you've talked to me, I have been going on and on about it. There's a book out about Gatsby that I've been listening to on audio written by Maureen Corrigan. It's titled appropriately So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures.

Maureen Corrigan is a book reviewer on NPR's Fresh Air and for the record, she is my favorite book reviewer, mainly because I love her voice. It's not "full of money" (Gatsby fans will recognize the reference) but I would venture to say that it is "full of books."



Before I started listening to Maureen (can I call her Maureen?) talk about Gatsby, I wondered what she could possibly say to me that I didn't already know about the book.

Well.

I don't know who's left reading this blog post at this point, if there are any other people like me who are in the exact center of the Venn diagram of People Who Have Read Gatsby 50+ Times and People Who Love the Sound of Maureen Corrigan's Voice, but if You are one of those people, I beg you to please check out the audio of this book, so we can chat.

I will end this post with-- what else?-- the iconic last line of Gatsby:


So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. 


The End



Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Twenty six years ago today I was cleaning my kitchen

I don't remember if it was particularly dirty. All I remember is I had the uncontrollable urge to clean it. I am talking clean clean, the kind where you fill a bucket with sudsy, hard-core cleaning detergent and get down on your hands and knees and scour the corners. We had a big kitchen back then, bigger than any kitchen we've had since, come to think of it, so there was a lot to scour.

I was channeling my cleaning-obsessed Italian grandmother, scrubbing out the oven and emptying the cabinets so I could rid the dark edges of any dropped crumbs. And then I moved on to the bathrooms. It was a Saturday.

Every once in a while my husband would poke his head into whatever room I was presently scouring and say, hesitantly, So, um, are you finished yet?

At some point he dragged me outside to take a walk. We had a loop we used to do around our neighborhood. It started in our humble subdivision and reached up into a much fancier section that seemed like would be forever out of reach for us. Our habit after we both got home from work was to take this same walk. My husband was big into goal-setting and planning. He would say stuff like, What's our five year plan? What's the ten year? Twenty? Thirty?

I used to laugh at him. As much of an imagination as I had, I couldn't project out that far. We were twenty-six and twenty-five years old and had been married for three years and had just bought a house, things I couldn't have foreseen five years before. Five years before, I was, to put it plainly, a mess. The fall of my senior year in college I was in a dark place.

The truth is, I was suicidal. I mean, I was seriously thinking about how I would do it. The only thing that was saving me was that I was too tired. I remember going to bed one night and feeling like it was the end. I wanted only to stop the pain I was feeling. I wasn't afraid of death anymore and I couldn't imagine anyone would miss me if I were gone. Some part of me knew that this was an all-hands-on-deck situation because I started to pray. I am not a praying person, but that night I did. The prayer was a simple one:

Help. Help me understand why I should want to stay in this world.

The next morning I was exhausted and wrung out. I walked to class, stopping on the way to get the mail, how I always did, even though most days there was no mail. That morning there was a letter from my favorite professor. He was on sabbatical for the year and had never written to me before.

It was a strange out -of-the-blue letter. Basically, he said he'd been thinking about me and wondering if I was doing okay. He said, I hope you realize you have a lot in you that's wonderful.

After I read the letter it was like a veil lifted, and suddenly, I wasn't in a dark place anymore. I was outside looking in on myself, thinking very logically about my future, a future that the night before I could not envision.

I still couldn't envision it--at least not the particulars--but I knew with a weird degree of clarity that I could keep going. I could grow up. I could meet someone, get married, have a job, buy a house, have children...

Instead of dread and sadness and anxiety and fear, I felt curious. I wanted to hang around for the things that were potentially going to happen.

A few weeks later I met the man who would become my husband. Flash forward five years, and we are walking around our neighborhood where we've bought our first house. I've just finished scouring the entire place. "Oh, I understand now," my husband told me, "All of this cleaning. It's like the What to Expect When You're Expecting book says. You're nesting."

It turned out he and the book were right. That night we rushed to the hospital. In the morning we welcomed our first child into the world.

Tomorrow, he will be twenty-six years old.