“Nix” Rhymes with “Six”–A Review of Nathan Hill’s The Nix

As reviewers go, I am easy. I give lots of five-star ratings. Maybe it’s because seeing a book all the way through to its finish feels like being in a relationship to me, and just as I’d stick up for a friend or a partner, I want to applaud a book for all the things it’s done well to get me safely to this important moment. Kind of like a kid tying his shoes for the first time, or going off to college: some things are really hard, and when someone gets the job done, you just want to support.

It’s also true that the last few books I’ve read–Lincoln in the Bardo, Everyone Brave is Forgiven, Still Life with Tornado–have been genuine five-star winners. So there’s that. It’s not that I’m a total pushover.That said, The Nix made me wish I could give six stars. I’m a teacher, and the way I felt when I finished this book was how I feel when I give, say, a ten-point assignment to the whole class and one kid just goes so far above and beyond in her answer that I want to give her eleven points just for being amazing, even though I know that’s probably not exactly fair to the rest of the group. The book took me on such a journey from its earliest stories–Samuel as a child, telling his mother he was going to be a writer; Faye committing that first fateful act that wasn’t at all what we thought it was; Laura Pollard throwing her first hysterical fit about the Hamlet paper she “owned”–that when Hill wove each one of these strands into book’s masterful close, it came as a genuine surprise to me to be reminded that those first stories of Samuel, his mother, and his student, were even part of this specific volume. We–the characters and I–had grown so much that it was hard to remember who we’d all been at the start of our journey together.

Nathan Hill is a phenomenal writer. The side-splitting humor of so many scenes and the all-too-apt descriptions of so many characters; the choose your own adventure section and the rhetorical fallacy section; the life truths that catch you unawares and force you to reconsider a page you just swallowed whole: it all swirls into the mix of 700+ pages of wit and wisdom that could have been twice as long and just as readable. I have to tell you a story, then I’ll share some tidbits:

I turned, one morning, to page 570 in my edition: Chapter 3 of Search and Seizure. “Today was the day he would quit Elfscape,” it began. Ahhh….Pwnage was back. It had been a while since he’d eaten those greasy nachos with Samuel and taught him his philosophy of life and video games: “Enemy, Obstacle, Puzzle, Trap.” I couldn’t help but notice that the coming paragraphs seemed awfully….long…. I turned a page….turned another page….and another….and realized to my horror that I was looking at a 13 page long paragraph. No–a 13 page long SENTENCE. I can’t hold my breath that long! It took three tries before I could even bring myself to plunge in and tackle the thing. But here’s what happened: I kind of just gave myself to the prose. I let it carry me along with it through the events of the chapter, coming to understand relatively quickly why it had to be written exactly like that, and by the time I reached the end I was so breathless I had to pull students aside to tell them what had just happened in my reading and in the book. Truly, it was an extraordinary experience. In some ways it reminded me of Saramago’s Blindness and McCarthy’s The Road, both of which play intentionally with sentence length and structure to make specific points for their books. The Nix is full of intentional and exciting writing moves like that.

Here’s a fave passage to tickle your fancy:

“Faye…knew that way down deep she was a phony, just your average normal girl. If it seemed like she had abilities that no one else did, it was only because she worked harder, she thought, and all it would take for the rest of the world to see the real Faye, the true Faye, was one failure. So she never failed. And the distance between the real Faye and the fake Faye, in her mind, kept widening, like a ship leaving the dock and slowly losing sight of home.
“This was not without cost.
“The flip side of being a person who never fails at anything is that you never do anything you could fail at. You never do anything risky. There’s a certain essential lack of courage among people who seem to be good at everything.”

How true is that?

There’s a description of one of the characters, Bethany, playing the Bruch violin concert (page 165) that comes as close to music as it’s possible for words to come. Check that out.

The book tells us, at one point, that “something does not have to happen for it to feel real.” The Nix is about as real as fiction gets. Six stars, for sure.

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The Hanger Rule

“The Hanger Rule is in effect.”

In my house, this means something’s up.  As in, stress levels are up;  complications are up;  the possibility of catastrophe is up.  And this means pay attention.  Take extra care with smaller routines of your day lest those little things, the ones we take for granted, bite you in the butt when you’re least expecting it and make everything about a gagillion times worse .  Let me explain how this works.

Remember those old school wire hangers?  the ones Joan Crawford really hated?  the ones that made a tangled mess every time they even came within spitting distance of each other by tangling and  tightening and threatening with their raw, unfinished ends to rake bloody the flesh of anyone who dared to try to untangle the mess?  which was you, because you needed the hangers to do what  they were supposed to do, which is hang, tidily and tamely, from a closet rail and keep your clothes presentable?   Those hangers.

Here’s the thing:  say you wake up in a bad mood, or something happens early on to put you in a bad mood.  You have a big project due, it’s been raining for three days, the one with the upset stomach wasn’t quite finished puking when you moved him back into his bedroom from the bathroom.  That kind of bad mood.  You walk into the closet and take your frustration out on the nearest thing at hand–a hanger–grabbing the shoulder of your shirt and yanking down just because you can and because that gesture expresses exactly how ridiculous whatever’s bothering you is, and exactly how right you are to be annoyed.  It’s a self-righteous kind of gesture, an emphatic “I TOLD you so!” kind of  gesture, an “I really don’t NEED this right now!” kind of gesture.

But this is where the problem begins.  Because when you exact revenge on a poor, innocent hanger for something that was done to you by someone or something most assuredly NOT that hanger, the hanger is now involved.  It’s implicated.  It’s now a player in your little drama and it needs to assert its annoying little wire self in the best way it knows how, even it means it’ll spend closet eternity tangled up with its equally obnoxious neighbor.

In a moment such as this, the hanger rules.  And you don’t want to go there.

Mangrove Geometry (notes)

(April 19, 2011)

 

 

sisters out of mystery
watchers from prehistory
older than myth
wiser than time
leggy ladies
wait patiently
step lightly
politely
underover
neighborsister
in a geometric
frenzy
of arcing parabolas

 

 

 

 

 

lichenlike the
greygreen

 

wall across the
water

closer, the midnight
green
gives way

 

within
to sundappled clearing
secrets for the mangrove
alone

no human ever set
unwelcome foot
in this wildness

 

no human ever could

earth is an indulgence
where this strange seed
grows out of the air
Tantalus invert
yearning waterways

 

miraculous paradox

 

arachnid tangle of
hysterical roots

green skirts lifted
at low tide
they dangle
knobby toes in
primeval mud

 

at high tide
grateful leaves
kiss the darkling water’s surface
as they stride over each other
and themselves

a groaning creaking grove
green gold grey

way leads on to way
hiding shadowy tunnels

endless possibilities

sunlight never pierces
through to a heart
of infinite midnight

Mirror, Mirror….

Ambushed by a mirror. Again. Sheesh–it wasn’t even somewhere you expect to have to deal with your own reflection for an extended period of time–a beauty salon, for instance, while you’re getting your hair cut. No, we were in Best Buy, of all places, looking at laptops. Just a pleasant, sunny, school-free afternoon with my family, and we wandered in to poke around and see what we could find. My husband wants to buy me a laptop for my 50th birthday, which is in three weeks, so it was actually a cool thing in light of the fact that I’m feeling pretty good for 50. So we walk in and split: boyz go over to check out big-screen TVs and the new Nintendo gadgets, and I strike up a conversation with Alex, who graduated from Palmetto Ridge last year and knows about a gagillion times more than I do about laptops. Or she sounds like she does, anyway.

I’m dutifully doing my research, my little compare/contrast thing, when the boyz wander back. They don’t amble into the land of Toshiba and Asus, though–they go straight for the Mac playground. So I join them. I mean, that Mac Air looks like a piece of paper, for pete’s sake, and certainly deserves our attention on that basis alone.

Alex knows what will appeal to both boyz, young and old: she pulls up an image manipulation app (or whatever you call it), and suddenly we see ourselves, only in a fun house mirror. My son figures out where the center of the swirly effect is, and he starts to have some fun moving around so his eyes and mouth disappear and reappear, twisted around like his features are being sucked down some kind of drain.  The camera is in the computer, so to my horror, as I step in front of the keyboard, I see….me.  Actually, about eight me’s, each one distorted or manipulated or twisted up in some interesting way:  there’s a crayon me, a charcoal me, a day-glo me, a neon me…so, so many.  And they all look just horrifying.  Pale, featureless, old.  It doesn’t help that I’m looking down at a 45 degree angle towards the laptop, as this just accentuates lines and rolls I try to ignore by keeping my head high under any other circumstances.  But I look truly awful.  Bloated, eyeless, hair pulled back in a distinctly unflattering, Saturday morning kind of a way.  And here’s what goes through my head, quickly and without editing:

–I look awful.  Is it possible that I really look like that to the rest of the world?

–It’s not possible.  This is completely different from the self I saw in the mirror this morning.  It’s got to be the technology/unflattering lighting/the angle/the camera/the picture.

–Step to your left.  Stay away from the camera.  Let Jackson play.

–Wait–there’s Jerry over to the right.  He looks….like Jerry….and if he looks like Jerry, that must mean this must look….like me…..

–Oh God.

funhouseYou see, this is not my first encounter with a mirror that told the truth, and more importantly, let me SEE the truth, but I’m getting a completely different message this time.  Last time was 20+ years ago.  This first time, I was walking through the Brandywine River Museum in Delaware, just a few months after a fairly major emotional upheaval in my personal life.  This upset caused me to rethink a number of my priorities and goals;  it also caused me to lose a fair amount of weight, because I think I was pretty well depressed for quite a while.  Anyway, here I was at the museum with some friends, and my sense is that it was at a time when maybe I was starting to put some of the pieces back together again.  In any case, I remember walking through a gallery and seeing, as I turned a corner, a woman walking towards me.  This is what went through my mind on that occasion, again quickly, and without editing:

–Wow–that woman is walking just like me, with her hands clasped behind her back.

–Wow again–she’s wearing exactly what I’m wearing:  blue jeans, a dark blue cable knit cotton sweater, and a silver pin in the shape of a lion.

–Except she’s a lot thinner than I am.

–That is my reflection in a large picture window.

For that one split second in picassomy life, I saw myself absolutely objectively.  I really believe it:  this was the only single second in my entire life when I could be completely objective about myself, because I thought that what I was looking at wasn’t me.  And you guessed it:  as soon as I realized I was looking at myself, I/the other woman became fat again.

Because–and I really believe this–I don’t think we are capable of seeing ourselves objectively at all, when we look into mirrors.  I think this is why anorexics truly believe they’re still fat when they look at themselves in the mirror, even though you and I see skin and bones.  They’re not seeing what we see when we look directly at them;  they’re seeing some image of themselves filtered through a brain that’s biased for whatever reason, and distorting what you and I would call the “truth.”  And in these kinds of cases, certainly, what really matters is the self image, because it’s that and not the objective reality that drives behavior and decision-making.

I have reflected on my museum mirror moment many times in the intervening years, and I’ve shared this story with students because I find it helpful and empowering.  Many kids, certainly, do not like what they see when they look at themselves in the mirror each day, and so I hold out to them some hope when I suggest that all those well-intentioned friends and relatives who tell them how pretty/handsome/appealing/charming/ cute/attractive they are aren’t kidding:  that they really are lovely, but that they themselves can’t see this truth about themseBroken_Mirror_by_ludomanxDlves.  Certainly most of us are harder on ourselves than anyone else could possibly be, and so even if my moment of truth only lasted for a moment, at least I know that there’s a truth out there that contradicts what I think I’m stuck with when I look into that agenda-free piece of foil-lined glass.  But here I am, now, looking at these funhouse images of myself, and despairing.  My only hope?  I reassure myself with the idea that my devious brain took advantage of that one instant before I saw myself, realizing that if Jackson could see himself, I would be next.  And that’s all it took for said devious brain to be ready to show me exactly what I don’t want to believe I look like.  Does that make sense?  And unless I’m going to avoid mirrors for the next 20-odd years (not likely),  I have to find some comfort in thinking my brain has it in for me, and that the truth, as they say, is still out there.   That’s the good news.

 

Time Bandits

(I originally wrote this for the CSN C.O.W. ning, but I really liked it so I re-posted it here.)

Once again, we reach the end of another semester. Once again, we parade our students through their classes so they can perform for us, as once again, we ask them to demonstrate what they have and haven’t retained of all we’ve shoved in their general direction over the course of 16 harried weeks.

I know I sound frustrated, and I probably sound cynical, but after 25 years of hourglassteaching English I think I’m just beginning to figure some things out. And most of those things have to do with the general subject of time, in one way or another. More precisely, they all have to do with the lack of time, and how we use what little time we have. And you know what I’m going to say next: I don’t have time to tell you everything. In another blog post I’ll probably never write because I don’t have the time, I could tell you how it feels to look in the mirror and see my mother looking back at me, how it reminds me of that Bonnie Raitt tune, how it confuses the heck out of me to look old and feel young. That’s time, in a big way. Then I’ll write the post about the half hour before we leave home for school each morning, and how my lack of time is probably shortening my son’s life because of all the stress I heap on him in those frantic moments. That’s also time, in a littler way. But I only have the time (and the fortitude) to tell you about school.

One thing I’ve realized, this year and last, that I’m really ready to learn some new things and that I’m hungry for whatever books or people or conversations can feed me. My husband thinks that after all these years in the classroom I should be “promoted” to an administrative job, and I loudly protest by asserting that for me, a removal from the classroom would be a clear DEmotion, taking me away from what I love best, what feeds my soul, which is reading and writing and talking with kids. But I do know I’m ready to think about teaching in a new way, and though the scramble of just getting from one day to the next will never end–it’s the nature of the beast–and I’ll always have a good piece of literary fiction close at hand–because life is too short and fiction is too important not to–I find myself newly interested in professional reading, as well, and am hungrily gathering more books about teaching writing than I know I’ll ever have time to read. But they’re there should the opportunity present itself. The fact that a lack of time keeps me from tackling this new interest full-on is frustrating, yes, but also strangely exciting, because it means there’s always wonderful learning to look forward to, and the anticipation is like a little present that comes with each day. All in all, it’s a little confusing.

spiral-clockThat’s not my biggest beef with time right now, though. I just finished the first experimental, exploratory, exciting semester of a high school writing elective, and as a result of this experience, I’ve realized one very poignant thing: in 25 years of teaching “regular” (grade-level, year long) English, and over the course of grading however many thousands of papers that adds up to, I bet I’ve only rarely seen what could be termed my students’ best writing. I’m startled by this, but I’m also sure of it. Because even though this semester has whipped by at a blistering speed (you thought a year wasn’t long enough to get to know your students? try a mere semester to meet them, get to know them, trust them, coach them, assess them…), the twin luxuries of teaching only writing and teaching in a workshop have allowed my students time to settle in to a piece and work it through slowly, detail by detail if they chose, until finally I have to impose some kind of deadline and we call it “finished.” Whatever that means. Spending so long on a single piece of writing (or a single type of writing) was HARD, because my internal teacher’s clock is like Deb Lefebvre’s tourguide (“And we’re walking…and we’re walking…”), always trying to tell me we’re late, hurry up, time to go, time to move on. I took my cues from the students, who were happy (relieved?) to come to class each day, boot up, settle in, and carry on. And then again the next day. And the next. Until I asserted my boring old teacher self and told them it was time to print it up and turn it in. Yes, for a grade. Ew–how predictable.

Anyway, here’s what happened: I watched kids grow–slowly, incrementally, splendidly– as writers, developing a nascent awareness of themselves on the page and carrying hard-won confidence with them from one piece to the next as proof of their steadily maturing styles. It was spectacular. I think of kids who began the course producing that kind of mind-numbing descriptive vagueness that relies exclusively on linking verbs and begins every sentence with “There are…” No kidding–my heart sinks when I read this kind of work because the challenge seemed insurmountable and I feel utterly uncertain of where we were going or how we were going to get there. But you know what? We just wrote. I mean, we read a lot, too, and talked about what we read, and I tried really, really hard to get them to focus more on the “how” of what we were reading than on the “what,” and ultimately that didn’t go so well because they still really struggled to shift their focus from content to language. I’m still working on that. But at base, we just came together happily each day to write, and over time, it was just the sheer fact of the writing that made the biggest difference for him and for all of them. The more they wrote, the more intentional they became, the more determined they became, the more effective they became as writers. Peter Elbow says there are three things you have to do to become a better writer: 1. Write. 2. Write. 3. Write. Well, I’m a witness. It works.

And this is how I know I’m only rarely getting my students’ best writing when it comes to the work I assign for an “English” class. In these year-long courses, where we’re also responsible for thousands of pages of important reading, and lots of juicy vocabulary, and even the occasional punctuation or grammar lesson, the first thing I do is ask the students to take an assignment home and work on it there. By themselves. In contrast to the message I send when I have the luxury of giving over classtime to writing, I think this immediately somehow lessens the importance of the work the students are doing, at least in the unspoken subtext we send in how we choose to use our time. Then I have to require a deadline, because it’s Tuesday and that means we have to move on to Conrad. If you know what I mean. It all becomes part of the grand juggling act that is the net experience of an independent school student, and the writing of the paper–the thinking, the planning, the crafting, the revising, the editing–is carved up and shaped to fill spaces in a daily schedules of days between assignment and due date. And then, as the teacher, I’m usually the only person to read this kind of writing, which means it’s all part of the strangely fake academic construct of writing for an audience of one, which is never something real writers do, because only rarely is that what real writing is for. Finally, I put a grade on it, which is just horrible for both of us. And again, never something real writers do or want or need. And the grade itself more frequently closes doors to real learning because kids almost never get the grades they want or even think they deserve, and they frequently don’t understand why, and that makes them resentful and sad and unless they’re very brave they don’t often come talk about this and then we start the whole process all over again.

So put it all together and this is why and how I think I rarely get to read my students’ best writing, because I rarely give my students a chance to WRITE their best writing. I’m aware of the hypocrisy of my stance, of course, because I’m also an AP teacher, and if there ever were a pedagogical philosophy that makes learning a race against time, it’s AP. It’s kind of the anti-workshop mentality. And this raises more questions than I have answers. That’s the stuff of another post, I think–I gotta fly. It’s time.

Strange Irony

We’ve been doing some home improvement. Finally convinced there’s no way we’ll sell this house in less than a couple of years, we’ve given up putting things off til we put it on the market. We figure there’s no point in waiting to make the place nice for other people when we could go ahead and make it a little nicer for ourselves. So we’ve been puttering around doing small jobs and treating ourselves to relatively small things like lanai furniture. Jerry laid some lovely slate along the edge of the driveway so you don’t step from the car into the flower bed; we pulled out the ratty stuff trying to grow by the side of the garage door and replaced it with bougainvillea; we built a lovely little breakfast nook for the corner of the kitchen. We even had the outside of the place power washed and painted, and it’s amazing what a difference that made! Looks like new. Okay, almost new, but it certainly looks better than it did!

While we’ve been busying ourselves settling in, though, a family down the street is moving out. A few days ago, they started loading furniture onto an open trailer and securing it with bungee cords. We thought at first that just the younger generation (daughter, son-in-law, grandchild) were moving into a place of their own, but somewhere around yesterday morning it became apparent that this whole family was going, grandparents included, and the reason we knew was that they were emptying the place. And I don’t just mean furniture.

Last night (under cover of darkness?) they removed the air conditioner and the water heater. Earlier today we watched a load of floorboards head off down the street to parts unknown. This evening, it was kitchen cabinets, light fixtures, and toilets.  Toilets.  An open door into the house through the garage confirmed our suspicions: this family, likely in short sale or even foreclosure, was gutting their house and leaving the neighborhood to absorb the loss.

For while we patiently waited, ever hopeful, for the market to turn the corner to a slightly more robust frame of mind, one more family was giving up and going under, tugging the neighborhood back down with it for that much longer. I suppose this should make me just that much more glad we went ahead and spruced up our place, knowing we’ll be in it for just a smidge longer now as a result of this other family’s misfortune. Nonetheless, part of me felt a bit more powerless, even a bit resentful, of the fact that through no fault of our own, the value of our home will now drop because of what happened down the street.

empty-house-1

Pyrex 1, Mom 0

So. We’re minutes–maybe seconds–away from plating the whole Thanksgiving dinner (glistening turkey, fluffy mashed potatoes, gorgeous stuffing…the whole nine yards…only the gravy and the biscuits are as yet unfinished) and I’m washing the Pyrex measuring cup to try to get some dishes out of the way before supper.

As I’m moving to my left to put the measuring cup in the dish drainer, it slips out of my hands and I, of course, try to grab it. Suddenly, there’s blood everywhere.

“I’m cut,” I say matter of factly to my husband, and he can see right away from the look on my face that I’m quite serious. I just don’t want to alarm Jackson, who’s sitting over to my right at the breakfast nook table. Strangely enough, nothing hurts, but there sure is a lot of blood in the sink. I can see that it’s coming from both hands, but I can also tell that my right hand is worse than my left, and specifically, my right ring finger has a problem. Jerry is at my side in a matter of moments and wisely tells me not to look.

“Jackson, go get dressed.” Our son can hear from his dad’s voice that now is not the time to ask why, and by the time he reappears ready to go, Jerry has my hand wrapped in paper towels and a bandanna, the stove and oven are turned off, and we’re headed to the car and the hospital, leaving a perfect Thanksgiving dinner spread out across the kitchen counters. Talk about bad timing.

Three hours later, we’re home again, eating our still-warm supper and admiring my now thoroughly bandaged hand. The Percoset they gave me in the ER has just kicked in, so even the memory of getting stitched up before the nerve block had fully taken effect isn’t bothering me too much.

When was your last Tetanus shot? they asked me. Um…today? I guessed. One doctor came at my left arm with an alarmingly large gauge needle, while the other held down my right and administered the repeated sticks of the nerve block at the base of my finger. Did they do this on purpose, knowing that if they attacked on both sides at once I wouldn’t know which way to turn? While Jackson hid himself behind the curtain, my husband stood right in front of me and did what husbands do to show support while someone poked needles and thread through my flesh. I am now the proud, albeit temporary, owner of five hairy blue stitches along the length of my right ring finger.

Obama wins, though–he had 12.