The Artist’s Left-Brained Creative Sister

These are some of my dirty secrets:

  • I won first place in the Arizona state spelling bee in 1967, and I got a prize (not first) in the state math contest in 1971.
  • My entire freshman year of college, I had a calculus class at 7:40 a.m. Monday through Friday.
  • When I actually had a place to store them, my books and records (yes, it has been that long) were in alphabetical order.
  • I always put things back where I found them.
  • My favorite iPhone app is the American Heritage Dictionary ($19.99).
  • I can calculate square roots and do Celsius-Fahrenheit conversions by hand.
  • I have a poster on my office wall with several famous opening sentences in literature–diagrammed.
  • A friend from graduate school proposed that I infiltrate the Moral Majority because I would fit right in.
  • My culinary motto is “If you can read, you can cook.”
  • I suspect that I belong with the “instruments of precision” at  the end of Lionel Trilling’s short story “Of This Time, Of That Place.”
  • If you have read this far, the factoid that follows should be no surprise: On the pop-psych quizzes I love to take, I usually score about 75% left brained.

In sum, lists, schedules, logic, and order comfort me; the second law of thermodynamics–that entropy will win in the end–terrifies me. I am a master of linear thinking, induction and deduction, and the appeals of logos, ethos, and pathos. Continue reading . . .

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Finding World War I: Fact, Fiction, and Truth in Pat Barker’s “Regeneration Trilogy”

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We are living moment by moment through the centennial of the war that neither ended all wars nor made the world safe for democracy–catchphrases so cheap and aims so lofty that even as the armistice was being signed on November 11, 1918, cynics had taken them up in sardonic parody. In September 1916, a century ago, the bloody battles of Verdun and the Somme continued on the Western Front. Specifically, September 25, a hundred years ago today, saw Lesboeufs and Morval captured; Combles hemmed in by Allies; French progress at Rancourt, Le Priez Farm and Fregicourt; Zeppelin raid by seven airships on England, casualties, 43 killed, 31 injured.

We don’t know these battles, are scarcely aware that over a million British, French, and German boys and men perished in them during that one year alone. Of course, these casualties took place on foreign soil, and the United States didn’t even enter the war until the spring of the following year. We also have other excuses: Pearl Harbor, D-Day, Hiroshima, the Tonkin Gulf, the World Trade Center. I am reminded of the gut-wrenching opening of Lisa Peterson’s play An Iliad: “Every time I sing this song, I hope it’s the last time.”

However, to ignore the anniversary of World War I is to deny its undeniable legacies and the banality with which we recite them: chemical warfare, trench warfare, shell shock, and the machines of war–tanks and submarines and airplanes. The atrocities of that war made it easy for the Western world to accept the meaninglessness inherent in Freudian psychoanalysis and Einsteinian relativity. The horrors in the trenches likewise spawned the Lost Generation and “The Wasteland” and Dr. T. J. Eckleberg. Continue reading . . .

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Extrospection: Globe, Google Maps, and the Wound of Geography

I have studied with depth, breadth, and passion not only the literature, but also the history–both political and intellectual–of the American South. During the most impressionable years of my intellectual formation, I was reading Wilbur J. Cash on The Mind of the South  and Ulrich B. Phillips on “The Central Theme of Southern History”–and H. L. Mencken on “The Sahara of the Bozart.” And I can still experience a frisson of recognition when I read anew the exchange between Quentin Compson and Shreve McCannon in Absalom, Absalom:

“Tell me about the South. What do they do there? How do they live there? Why do they live at all? . . . Tell me one more thing. Why do you hate the South?”

“I don’t hate it,” Quentin said, quickly, at once, immediately; “I don’t hate it,” he said. “I don’t hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark: I don’t. I don’t! I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!”

Pat Conroy’s opening sentence in The Prince of Tides thus exposed layer upon layer of significance for this student of the South: “My wound is geography.” The South–specifically, South Carolina’s Lowcountry–was not just the setting, but a main character, in Conroy’s thinly veiled version of the Southern gothic. I understood the wound, but, to be fair, I also understood the refuge described in the following line: “It is also my anchorage, my port of call.” Because I have studied, written about, and lived vicariously in the South–and because I have for forty years lived actually  in the South (but never called it home)–it is easy for me to understand how mere geography could have such evocative power.

However, despite my penchant for introspection, I have seldom spent much thought on the formative geography of my own beginnings. Continue reading . . .


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Where There’s Smoke

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At the beginning of this month, I received an email from one of my online students. She told me that she was confused about an assignment and needed some help. “I can go to the learning lab,” she continued, “but the last time I went the lady who was assisting people with English was allergic to cigarette smoke and she could smell it on me and I don’t want anyone to have to get an allergic reaction or anything just because they are helping me.” Continue reading . . .

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Shared Experience, Shared Language: A Review of Lakoff and Johnson on Metaphor

Each of my efforts to write about George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By uncannily comprises a demonstration of its thesis.

As I started to plan my review, I wrote, I am late to the dance—referring to the fact that the book was published in 1980. As I began this very sentence, I was tempted to refer to the book I discovered only this summer. Previous drafts have included the idea that I devoured in two large gulps Lakoff and Johnson’s brilliant tour de force. However, as each phrase and clause entered my mind [does it ever stop?], I became aware that I was simply providing more and more evidence of the intricate arguments in the book.

Lakoff and Johnson denote the metaphors we live by in small caps; lacking those, I will use boldface. I clearly cannot express my admiration for their book without myself using metaphorical language, much of which fits their thesis about conceptual metaphors—i.e. that we think and communicate only via a consistent network of conventional metaphors grounded in our physical experience. In the italicized passages above, I have used the following metaphors, which we all share:

  • The scholarly conversation is a dance.
  • The written word is a hidden treasure.
  • Ideas are food.
  • Thoughts are light.
  • Argument is war.  Continue reading . . .
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It Quacks Like a Duck

I have learned many important lessons since beginning this blog three months ago, and I have relearned many others: Already this morning, I have experienced one of each (in reverse order):

  • I know a minuscule amount; and
  • Amazon Prime is the greatest   the worst  . . . the jury is still out.

That first lesson is one I suppose we all need to be reminded of often and with baseball bats. The second is its corollary.

Now that I have seemingly written about my entire supply of buttons easily pushed, I have turned to the list I have been keeping much longer than I have actually been writing a blog: “Blog Ideas.” But each topic I select hits me with one of those baseball bats. For example, I want to write about the mind-body problem as depicted in two well-loved novels, Lying Awake and Our Lady of the Forest. However, although the rough outline of the post is in my head, I would need to reread the fiction of Mark Salzman and David Guterson in order to articulate my ideas fully. And that reading assignment doesn’t even consider my woeful lack of schooling in the mind-body problem from Descartes to the present! I also want to write about ways of knowing as portrayed in All the King’s Men and Memories of the Ford Administration. Ditto from above about Robert Penn Warren and John Updike and epistemology.  Continue reading

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Our Whole Heart: Language and the Book of Common Prayer

Along with the King James Bible and the collected works of Shakespeare, the Book of Common Prayer has permeated the English language and given Anglophones worldwide some of our most beautiful and evocative phrases. Even the most secular among us get married (“to have and to hold from this day forward . . . till death do us part”) and buried (“ashes to ashes, dust to dust”) to its cadences. The rest of seek to combat our spiritual enemies, “the world, the flesh, and the devil,” when we “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the holy scriptures. Joan Didion even borrowed the entire title of Cranmer’s masterwork for a 1977 novel.

However, secularization has also removed context from the language of the prayer book. When Charles and Camilla married in 2005, I perceived in a BBC radio broadcast the gleeful schadenfreude of reports that the couple had openly admitted their previous affair when they acknowledged their “manifold sins and wickedness” during the wedding ceremony. With equal glee, I rushed home to report to my husband that these newscasters had clearly failed to recognize the language that Anglicans had been using in the General Confession since 1549–when they were “manyfold synnes and wyckednes.” Continue reading

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Acedia–In One Image

My initial goal for this post was to discuss acedia in 25 words or less. That opening line (including its ungrammatical modification of a countable noun) was meant as a joke, but it turned out to be not much more laughable than my actual intention, which was to express my understanding of and grappling with the so-called “noon-day demon” over the last quarter century. Even that proved too tall an order.

I started with my first exposure to the idea that something like depression could be considered a sin—in the characters of Sansjoy and Despair in The Faerie Queene. But then I had to backtrack and acknowledge that my quasi-theological upbringing would have led me to a similar understanding. My central focus was to be a discussion of Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life by Kathleen Norris. But I soon I realized that I am not equipped for the discussion. Continue reading

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Meditations All Too Human

I teach a college-transfer class called English 112: Researching and Writing in the Disciplines, whose objective is to present a crash course in academic writing across the university curriculum. To that end, and drawing on my experience as a disability examiner for Social Security, I require that my students select one physical or mental impairment as a semester topic and write papers on this topic from the unique perspectives of three distinct scholarly disciplines. They must write a popular science article, compile a social science literature review, and finally, analyze a novel, a short story, or a film. My personal objective, in addition to the state-mandated one, is epistemological. I want my community-college students to understand that there are many ways of knowing and that their lives will be richer if they employ several of them. I want them to know that there are many paths to Truth and that they are not mutually exclusive, but complementary.

To guide my students in their enactment of this lofty experiment, I chose the topic of ovarian cancer and wrote a sample paper for each essay project. What follows is my paper for the humanities assignment, in which I discuss the depiction of ovarian cancer in the stage play “Wit” by Margaret Edson. This paper is also a direct response to a conversation with John Boggess, MD, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at UNC, who told me while my own feet were in the stirrups that he hated the play (emphasis his). Finally, the play has enabled me to come as close as I have ever come to understanding what is inside the head of my husband, who has had one type of cancer or another since the age of 29 and who understands that despite his so-far successful stem cell transplant, he will always be a cancer survivor. Continue reading

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Not Exactly Epiphanies

At the age of 36, I decided to get a master’s degree in English. I have elsewhere–well, everywhere, including in the introductory lecture of nearly every class I teach–suggested that I was standing in a bookstore, staring at the American literature selection, when I made the sudden, if inward, proclamation: “I want to be an English teacher when I grow up.”

That’s not exactly what happened, though. I changed the name and location of the bookstore (it was really Wellington’s Books in Cary, North Carolina, not the Intimate in Chapel Hill) because they fit the story better, and I omitted the context. My Romanian friend, Marie Bugariu, was becoming a citizen of the United States. She and I had spent at least part of most conversations bemoaning the narrow and even boorish insularity of American culture. Having that instinct without experience, I was proud to be included in Marie’s eurocentric entourage. Continue reading

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