the best anxiety dream, ever

Because it was also a wonderful revenge dream.

When I was up for tenure at the University Michigan/Ann Arbor, things were tense. The tenure review process at UM is harrowing. In the humanities the turn down rate (at that time) was about 80 percent. Once I heard the dean say that they would rather err on the side of getting rid of a good person than holding on to a bad one. She said this openly, without apology. As if it were no more important than chosing between chicken and beef on a menu. Of course she was talking about whole careers, about people who (some of them, at least) have all their self worth wrapped up in the tenture decision. She also said: we give negative evidence more weight than positive evidence.

Oh, lovely.

So people tended to get really squirrley when they were up for tenure review. Me, I got defiant. My committee said, should we ask for a year’s extension so your new book will be out? No, sez I. Absolutely not. They can take me or leave me as I am. I was very cranky, during the whole process. If they had turned me down, I wouldn’t have been surprised. I would have gone off to do something else. Angry, yes. But not surprised, and certainly not unprepared.

A few nights before the decisions were announced I had a dream. In the dream I was in the front room at home, reading (always, always reading). There was the sound of a plane flying very low. Very, very low. I went out onto the porch and saw a small plane, the kind that seats about thirty people, circling and sputtering directly over the house. As it came lower I could make out the faces pressed against the windows, and I recognized every one of them. Adminstrative faculty types. The kind who make tenure decisions, particularly the ones who made the process as difficult and depressing as possible. Including the dean.

And the plane crashed, right into my garden, and it all went up in smoke, and all those administrative types? Literally, pushing up daisies.

Then I did get tenure, but somehow my anger never quite went away.

Beff's got questions

I read Auntie Beff’s Sum of Me weblog pretty much every day but as she’s got a very particular commenting policy, usually I can’t tell her what I’m thinking. And I do actually think a lot about her, because she’s got an interesting life and way of looking at things.

And now she’s come over here to ask questions, so my dilemma is solved. Here are the answers.

What was the other anxiety dream?

I’ll save that for a bedtime story. Mwahhahahaha.

How’s the writing going?

It could be going better. There’s something missing, something to tie the story together. I think I maybe might have an idea, which I am going to work on today. But I can’t talk about this until it’s solved, so later.

Should I ever speak to my mother again?

I’m actually glad you asked this.

You know you’re never going to change her, right? She is who she is, and she gives you what she gives you (or doesn’t). If you can take her at face value, you can probably have a cordial relationship. I imagine at this point your anger and disappointment and hurt are overwhelming, so logical decisions are hard. Here’s something my therapist told me twenty years ago that I still think about: you can define yourself, your history, your needs and wants, or you can let person X do all that for you. But person X’s you and your you are never going to be the same person. If you can’t be comfortable with person X’s version of you, you might well be better off stepping away.

I haven’t spoken to my person x in those twenty years. I think about her sometimes. Not so much anger now, but a clearer set of emotions. There’s a little regret mixed in, but mostly I know it was the right thing to do. Now, this is not my mother I’m talking about, but it’s a blood relative who claimed responsibility for raising me, so the parallel is pretty strong.

It’s a shitty situation, Auntie Beff. If I were closer I’d make you quiche (see below) and pat your head and listen while you talked. I’m sorry I’m not.

Do you have any good recipes for quiche?

You know quiche is just savory custard, right? Eggs and cream beat up and poured into a pastry shell. You can add anything that isn’t so wet that it disturbs the egg/cream ratio. Cheese is the usual (and to my mind, indispensible) but you can add any kind of vegetable (precooked if it’s something knotty), fruit, meat, fish. Salt, pepper, toy cars, whatever. The golden ratio is 4-5 eggs per pint of cream. You can use half and half, and your arteries will thank you.
Oh and, bake the pastry shell before you put the custard ingredients into it. Seal it with egg white, or you’ll get a soggy crust.

Who invented liquid soap and why?

A little known fact: Liquid soap was invented by a Mrs. Hortense Cole of Walla Walla, Washington. When asked what the original purpose intended for her slippery concoction, Mrs. Cole blushed and shut the door in this reporter’s face.

books out of mind

One of the bonuses of cataloging all our books is running into stories I haven’t thought about in a while. Today I came around a corner and there was Rebecca. Du Maurier’s Rebecca, of Manderley.

Now, there’s a well done first person narrative.

Question: How can I have gone so long without re-reading this novel? It feels like going to a class reunion and running into somebody who was once a wonderful friend, somebody you haven’t seen or really thought about for years. How sad, that long absence. How nice to see her again.

Of course with this lovely bonus comes a downside, and that is the height of my to be (re) read pile. Which reminds me of a panic dream I had when I was studying for my doctoral exams. A recurring panic/anxiety/holyshitexams dream.

In the basement of the main library at Princeton there are study carrels. Something like a walk-in closet, with a sliding door. Glass window in the door and next to it. Just enough room for a long desk-like slab, two chairs side by side (sometimes people actually had to share these closet-carrel thingies). Four long shelves for books, right to the ceiling.

Dead quiet in the bowels of Firestone Library. Florescent light that made everything seem slightly Brazil-like (I’m thinking of the movie, either you know it or you don’t). Studying sixteen plus hours at a go, you could forget what time of day it was, if it was day at all. People stumbled around at three in the morning, mostly so other people would see how studious and unkempt they were.

In this dream I was sitting in my carrel studying. Every surface covered with books. The door open, for fresh air (or what passed for fresh air down there). Suddenly I look up and realize that the sliding door has slid shut. And, what a lovely touch: there are now bars on the windows, and a slot in the door.

Footsteps coming down the hall, and the sound of a cart being pushed. Dinner, I think. The slot is pushed open, and books start coming in. Fast. So fast I can’t grab them, and they start to cascade across the floor. I’m up to my knees in books. I scream: STOP. I CAN’T KEEP UP.

The cascade stops.

From the other side of the door comes a woman’s voice. Calm, authoritarian, inflexible:

Now of course I don’t have to read faster, even though my pile of books is growing by leaps and bounds. Because nobody is going to sit me down in a chair and ask me to talk about the editorial history of Grimms Deutsches Woerterbuch or how to reconstruct Proto-Indo-European consonants or to outline the underpinnings of a theory of universal grammar. If I feel like it, I might tell you about Rebecca after I’ve re-read it. Maybe. If I feel like it. And you promise not to quiz me.

Back to work. And I just remembered an even better anxiety/panic dream. Tomorrow, maybe.

more on first person narratives

some interesting suggested reading came up (thanks, Sillybean) in the comments to yesterday’s post, and I began to think more about first person narrative. So I went and looked on my bookshelves and found a few first person novels that are (in my estimation) well written and good enough to re-read (which is my ultimate test).

Here they are: To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee),
Sophie’s Choice (William Styron),
Ethan Frome (Edith Wharton),
Animal Dreams (Barbara Kingsolver), Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier).

John Mullen wrote a thoughtful essay on first person narration for the Guardian as part of a larger analysis of Donna Tartt’s Secret History. That novel didn’t make it onto my list, because I have no urge to ever re-read it.

“The choice of a first-person narrator must have seemed natural for a novel whose central character helps commit a murder. From Moll Flanders to Lolita, the first-person narrative, where the voice of the novel belongs to one of its leading characters, has been the means of drawing a reader into disturbing sympathy with that character’s misdeeds. Confession has long been a form in which fiction is cast.”

This is interesting, but it doesn’t quite work for me. The classicly extreme unreliable narrator (which really is what Mullen is talking about here) has never held much attraction for me, though I admire the skill that can pull something like this off. It’s just that I don’t come across it very often.