Saturday, September 24, 2011

Chapter 5: Things You See in Paris at Night

For those of you who have ever read Edmund White's The Flâneur, or for those of you who know what a flâneur is (an idler or, according to Charles Baudelaire's usage of the word, a person who strolls around a city to experience it), you'll know the main way a person gets to experience Paris is by walking, particularly at night. I've been doing this myself. A lot. Without much loyalty to quartier and with little sense of purpose. Kind of whorishly adrift, frankly. I've turned, you might say, into a bit of a flâneusie. And here are some things you might see if you were a flâneusie, too.

An iron bridge covered with thousands of locks. Each lock with the name of a couple, the key thrown into the Seine.

The last store on earth that sells Polaroid cameras.

Policemen advancing on a small knot of young men who tense, turning to negotiate with each other about their next move.

A café full of North African men smoking hukas.

A young man asleep on a mattress covered with dung pellets, two small black rabbits beside him, each wearing a leash, one of them eating slices of apple someone--maybe the young man--cut up and left in a dish for them.

An elderly man in black toreador pants with green and gold vines stitched up each leg trying, with dignity, to ignore his crying wife.

Groups of extremely beautiful young black women in high heels and leather jackets smoking outside a nightclub on rue de Charonne and laughing. None of them, to your admiration, has straightened hair.

Shops that sell antique ivory book covers and calling card holders chiseled out of whale bone.

A man grumpily dragging an IKEA bag full of laundry to the lavarie.

A chocolate shop display of an enormous chocolate gorilla and a set of chocolate pencils.

Fifteen college students playing boulle and smoking.

A group of Americans walking along the Canal St. Martin. One of them says to the others, "I'm half-Lebanese. But I'm not committed to that or anything."

A store that specializes in pest-control with a window display of taxidermied rodents.

Graffiti of sperm. Graffiti of names. Graffiti upon graffiti.

A metro station that contains little glassed-in dioramas of astrolabes, of steam engines, of interlocking wheels.

A young, curly-haired man clutching a bloody handkerchief to his nose, his friend walking alongside him, yelling.

Families sleeping on mattresses next to the Bastille Opera House.

A shop full of elegant black and white pants, shirts, vests, kimono-tied blouses and coats. It looks like the fall Jil Sander collection until you get up close and realize it's a waitstaff and culinary outfitting store.

Knots of high schoolers picnicking in the stone parks along the quays.

A tiny tea shop that sells "writers' tea."

Two young men laughing as they speed past on their motorbike. They are laughing because they sped up just to see if you would start running across the street. Which you did.

A store that advertises Tampons Industriels. It doesn't sell what you think it would.

Women standing, in a line, looking at a Dior display.

Badly translated movie advertisements.

A parked car with an English sign "You hit it, you pay for it" adhered to its back window being nudged forcefully two feet further down the block by the nose of another car, whose driver is trying to carve out more room for himself to park.

A police entourage for the prisoner's van being driven through the 10th. As they pass, the prisoners, not chained or buckled down to their seats, jump up shouting, banging on the glass, yelling at the people on the streets.

A perfectly renovated white 1950s FIAT.

Crowds of teenagers and couples in St. Germain-de-pres staring at an 18th century fountain overflowing with bubbles from the laundry detergent someone poured in as a joke. On the other side of the street, a group of EMTs standing outside a cordoned off area at the entrance to an apartment building, waiting to take the body, or bodies, down.

A rat the size of a ferret running across a park.

A man with a little sign that says "Cherche nympho" who smiles at you and holds it up as you pass.

Parades of young black and white mixed couples on the streets, in the cafés. In the back of the FUSAC English magazine you find later at the Irish bar, three French ads written by middle-aged men for "une femme asiatique."

A taqueria.

A cemetery.

More ambulances than you remember.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Chapter 4: Movies

The first days I spent alone after Sean left to return to his life 3,000 miles away from me passed in a flurry of useful activity: laundry, grocery shopping, revisions, getting work ready for submission, finding phone cards, anything that would momentarily stopper the terror-drip my heart has begun, steadily, leaking into my system. When I got this award, and when I accepted it, I knew that I would be spending a year apart from him, from my family and my dogs, from my job. I knew this. I just didn't understand it. I thought Sean would somehow, magically, never leave. Or, more accurately, that I wouldn't be leaving Sean. In my imagining of this year, time here would pass in a series of light-hearted, fiscally unremarkable adventures that would culminate in one or two poignant moments of deepened self-awareness, moments that would add up to a book project, as well as--ironic as this may seem to anyone reading this--bring me closer to my not-here husband and family. I thought this, even having already experienced what living abroad is really like. In reality, living abroad is spending a great deal of time standing in various lines, studying metro maps, trying to find the soy products aisle in the grocery store, losing things, underlining words in dictionaries, panicking about the use of cell phones, dropped skype calls, and arguing frenetically with sales people in a language that gives you the mental capacity of a two year-old.

It is also being very, very lonely.

Loneliness is the key ingredient in the heart's Terror Drip Solution. It poisons the stomach and the throat. It feels like ice in the blood stream. And if you already feel guilty about rearranging the lives (negatively, of course) of your most beloved, the Terror Drip Solution can also start to clog up your arteries and bronchial passageways. It begins to freeze you up from the inside, but slowly, so that it may be weeks before you realize that you feel as if you are suffocating, that your brain has in fact come to a near standstill, and you are now gasping and shivering, clad in a thick winter coat even in the humid tunnels of a crowded Paris subway.

When you start to feel these things, there is no option left for you. You must go to the movies.

Movies are the ultimately ineffective, but nonetheless momentarily pleasurable antidote to loneliness. I have seen a lot of movies--terrible, terrible movies--in countries across Asia and Europe over the course of my life. The fact that my very first night without Sean had me fleeing to the Bercy Cine-Cite was a very bad sign: it meant that I was going to be spending a lot of time in darkened theaters across Paris, and considering that a single ticket costs somewhere around 13$, my loneliness for Sean would also be financially ruinous.

There must be a psychological term to describe the emotional state lonely people experience when watching movies. I find I can be totally and embarrassingly moved by films in hotels or foreign countries that I would walk away from--laughing--at home. Book tours and readings particularly get me, as I'm usually holed up alone in a nice, anonymous hotel somewhere, tired but still jittery from the performance, unable to sleep with a t.v. screen so temptingly close to my head. Recently, I went on a two-hour crying jag after watching the Hallmark channel, which was broadcasting a film about some Japanese dog that waited everyday at the train station for its master (dead at work from a sudden heart attack) to return home. The dog--a very handsome orange Akita, as I recall--sat there, day after day, looking shabbier and thinner by the week, refusing to leave, shunning every tempting offer back into a life of pampering from his master's still-living friends and relatives. In the end, the dog--hobbling now, his handsome orange fur rubbed off in patches--has a fantasy that his master (played by Richard Gere: a good indication of the film's cheese factor) finally arrives at the train station, smiling, briefcase swinging when he spies his faithful friend. The dog goes crazy, jumping up and down, barking and licking and carrying on as the camera slowly pans out, turns fuzzy, finally mists over. Because the dog is dead now. THE DOG IS DEAD. IT DIED WAITING FOR ITS BELOVED MASTER TO COME BACK TO HIM.

I just about died myself. Three a.m., weeping hysterically, tearing apart the hotel's guidebook to find the room service options. There were none. Because it was three a.m. So I kept on crying until 4:30, when the Cindy Crawford skin care infomercial came on and I called in to buy 100$ worth of squash-extract eye cream.

I hate myself.

Anyway, I've seen some horrible movies. Oleaginous chick flicks, stutteringly voiced-over martial arts films. Indie movies so relentlessly ironic they could make your eyes bleed. I've seen things you would make you shudder, reader, that would freeze the very blood in your veins were I to tell of them. Once I even spent a nail-biting afternoon (right before I was getting divorced, a fact which might explain my reaction to this movie), holed up in a motel in Rock Springs, Wyoming, freaking out over the original "Stepford Wives."

I mean, if that isn't loneliness, I don't know what is.

So what did I see last night? "Crazy, Stupid Love." And how was it?

Let's just say, this time I didn't cry.

I did, however, learn a few things. 1. You can totally write down semi-legible vocabulary lists in the dark. From that movie, I learned how to say "Va-jay jay" in French ("fouchone") and new ways to work "tiens" into a sentence (as in, "I got this, bro." Totally handy phrase. Will be saying this much. Not. Look! Eye-bleeding ironies have begun!) 2. I also learned I might trust my terrible French some more. When the woman behind the popcorn counter asks if I want my enfant-sized popcorn "sucrain," I should NOT assume she isn't offering me sweetened popcorn, which I thought at first would be both impossible and insane. She is in fact offering sweetened popcorn, and it is NOT insane or impossible to give popcorn the lightest possible sugary touch, so light and sweet and delicious, so much better than our cruder caramel corn in fact, that you will eat the whole box in ten minutes, quickly enough that the couple sitting next to you will shudder at the sight of your popcorn-flecked clothes and face and hair and wonder, sympathetically, if you have recently escaped from one of the famine-struck regions of Somalia. (There are very good reasons to distrust my French in general, however. Besides being a terrible speaker, I'm a fairly lazy translator, as my experience in grocery stores has taught me. The free range eggs here are advertised as being laid by "poulets en plein air" which, having long associated this term with landscape paintings and basic outdoor amusements, I translated this phrase to meaning "chickens at a picnic.") 3. The French like to begin their movies with advertisements, as we do, but unlike the U.S. the French will advertise the arrival of the newest Paul Auster novel (!), the newest performance of Aida (to be simulcast at the cinema itself!), AND THEN the possibility of recording video messages for your future children and grandchildren to be played AFTER YOU ARE DEAD. This is, if I am getting this right and I might not be but I'm still on the popcorn high here, a service you can purchase from a company called (wait for it) "After Me."

I bet you are all going to run out right now and do this.

Such an astonishing series of ads this was, I actually stopped eating for 30 whole seconds to consider them. (I probably looked like one of those gophers you see by the side of the road, pausing mid-chew to contemplate placidly whether the shiny tractor was on its way to mow the whole nut-stuffing family to pieces or would just motor on.) But as delightful as these learning experiences have been, they would have been a thousand suns more shining and delightful if Sean had been there with me. Knowing the French word for "cooch" is hardly worth being separated from your husband for a year. In all honesty, I've begun to feel as if everyone's life is surging forward while mine is stagnating or, worse, slipping back. This might be because all the people who are living like me are in their 20's and early 30's. They're students or they're unemployed or they're just French (what is it with France and closing everything during the first two days of the workweek? And why don't kids go to school on Wednesdays?); regardless, the only people I see around me during my trips out are people whose own lives seem to be in stasis, which makes me feel like I'm emotionally hibernating myself.

In short, I miss Sean. Tellement.

Fortunately, Paris has--if Google is any indication--several pages worth of movie theaters. The winners of the Cannes Film Festival are being played right now around town. There are three theaters within close walking distance of my apartment, five more only two metro stops away. I have to bundle up, however, if I plan to walk. It's so cold right now, I can't stand to take off my coat.

There are 20 euros left in my purse. Tonight, I'm thinking about a film called "Restless."

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Chapter 2: In Which We Discover Our Inner Sharks

One of the wonderful things about Paris are the views. Like this one:

Or like this one:

Or this:

Or this:

Or these:

These views are, as you know, easily accessed by walking. They are also, unlike most things in Paris, free. (I actually had a moment the other day where I walked into a clothing store in the Bastille, turned over a price tag on a pair of jeans and actually jumped up and down, squealing, "It's AFFORDABLE!" The jeans were $150. How quickly does one acclimate to the horrors of the Euro.) But if you decide to walk around Paris to take in the sights, you have a problem. The sights are everywhere and they don't stop. You could, as Sean and I have learned, simply just keep on walking.


Which is what we've been doing. For hours every day. For weeks, actually. Trudging, endlessly, from one great cathedral to the next, palace to palace, park to park, cafe to cafe. "It's like we're on a death march of beauty," I muttered, rubbing my calves which had now swollen to Popeye-like dimensions. Sean said nothing, busy as he was wiping the crumbs of his last pastry from his chin. This is the only time we stop: to find something we can stuff into our mouths before slogging off again. "If we stop, we'll die," Sean says. "We're the Paris sharks. Great white mouth-breathers of the deep."

I stopped walking for a moment to concentrate on maneuvering my enormous flan slice into my mouth just as a woman in a size 0 leather dress motored by in platform heels. She looked at me, looked at the flan, raised an eyebrow. "Oh, shit," I said, tossing my half-eaten slice of flan guiltily in the trash. "I'm fat."

"Not that fat," Sean soothed. "You bought something in an expensive store that proved it." Which is, sadly, true. All through the Marais I was so upset to find store after store with nothing larger than a size 36 hanging on the racks. At Comptoir des Cotonieres, in a panic, I seized the one and only dress in size 38 to see if it fit and was so relieved when it did, I bought it.

"You paid $200 just to prove you could fit into something in France," Sean sang as we waddled past the Louvre. "You are so stuuu-pid!"

"I don't care," I said grumpily, but blushed nonetheless. I could tell it was going to be a long few months of me buying random clothing that happened to fit: sweaters knitted with kitten faces, tartan skirts, beaded dresses made out of paisley fabric, insanely structured skirts. By December I was going to look like Camille Claudel just hit the thrift stores.

"Just ask for a larger size," Sean said. "They keep the other sizes in the back, to shame the fatties."

I know this. But this would mean shuffling up to the counter and gargling out some French. Something I can do only after massive psychological preparation on my part. I've always been like this about still-living languages: too chagrined about my accent and halting grammar to get past the

Wait: we have to take a break here. Jacque Brel's girlfriend is treating us to another concert. Brava, mademoiselle! Encore! Encore! And bravo to you, too, Jacques. Congratulations on your many evident skill sets!

stubborn shamelessness it seems is required to lean how to speak another language. In Korea, it was like this too. I'd hit one comprehension level, flounder, learn another grammar snippet, break through to some new level of speaking ability, flounder some more, pick something else up, then, well, hit a wall. The wall was how I knew I was coming--or not coming (unlike our fortunate mademoiselle upstairs, fnah fnah, who is coming all ze time!)--across. I hate sounding like a five year-old. And I hate waiting for the store keepers or waiters to be cruel about my French, tensing my neck a little each time one speaks to me in preparation for the inevitable onslaught that, weirdly, never comes. So far, no matter how bad my French, no one's been mean to me. Which makes me relieved and a little anxious. Like, wait a minute, why aren't you being mean to me? You're French! I'm paying good money in your country in order to be berated!

Of course, people immediately switch to English once they hear my French, maybe out of a gently pointed snobbery, maybe out of a need to hurry things along (hey, they have jobs to get do here), or maybe because they're a little thankful as there's a lot of people here who don't even attempt to speak French or who are coming from countries where the required second language is only English. I had a nice moment with a Korean woman the other day who came up and asked, in halting English, where a particular street was and I responded in Korean, at which point she let loose a flood of Korean that amounted to something like, "Holy cow, you speak Korean! Why do you speak Korean? Oh THANK GOD someone can speak Korean, I'm so tired all the time, I hate English, I'm still in France, my feet are fucking killing me, I'm getting fat from the flan and some woman in a leather dress just gave me this look, wait, WHY do you speak Korean?" until I finally had to calm her down and tell her that I had no idea what she was telling me.

Still, I'm surprised the French aren't nastier about having to speak (continually!) someone else's native language in their own city as Paris--even at the end of tourist season--is absolutely drowning in Americans.

But who knows what they're doing to my food when I turn my back?

Sean, in comparison, is a very good speaker. He's a fucking flood of French, which is both terrific and a hinderance, as it keeps me from speaking more than I should. I'm the one who sounds like a bad seal act, going up to the waiters and honking disconsolately until, out of pity, someone throws me a baked good. In order to placate my sense of guilt about this, I've been working on polishing my French reading skills, wandering around town studying all the placards, improving my vocabulary through close readings of the zoo's animal information cards (I now know the words for beehives, rain forest frogs and toads!) and the packaged food aisle at Monoprix. In this way I have learned that the word for turkey (dinde) is also the word for a stupid woman. "Time for a little dinde on dinde action, I see," Sean now chortles whenever he catches me eating a sandwich.

This week, to impress Sean, I'm reading two novellas translated into French by (of course) Ernest Hemingway about (of course) toreadors.

Why did I spend all those years learning ancient Greek exactly?

Anyway, should you come to Paris to find me, you'll see me trudging, gamely, around and around the various sites, mouthing to myself in French, taking in language in breathy snatches, making my way through the shoals of grammar, hundreds of new words and idioms breaking just over my head. I'm learning the language the way I'm learning Paris, by circling aimlessly, hour after hour, through the brasseries and museums and quartiers that make up this city. If I stop, I think I'm going to die.

"Hey, wait," Sean calls. "We forgot to take a picture of ourselves."

"I hate taking my picture. I hate the way I look in photos."

"You look bad in photos because you're always making weird expressions."

"No, I'm not!"

"Just relax and you'll look fine."

"You always say that and then I look like hell!"

"Well, open your eyes then and look at the damn camera."

"I am opening my eyes!"

"Stop moving!"

"I'm not moving!"

"Christ, just once I'd like to have a normal photo of the two of us. Are you ready, then? Are you ready?"

"Oh, just take the fucking picture already."

Friday, September 16, 2011

Rankled About Rankings

So I signed a letter recently against the way that Poets & Writers Magazine ranks creative writing programs. As someone who's taught in creative writing programs for the past ten years, and who has recently directed a program (which, in case you were wondering about any potential sour grapes on my part, ranks in the top five PhD programs in the nation according to P&W), I think it's important to shed a little light on the pitfalls and problems of rank when applied to writing programs, especially as application season starts to loom. I know many of you out there probably aren't interested in this and just want to know what the hell I've been doing with all that grant money besides spending it on bad apartments and wheels of cheese. To you, I apologize. Please come back in a few days.


First, as an ex-program director, I'd like to apologize for NOT filling out the annual Poets and Writers' survey. This was not why I was stripped of my title (the directorship at Utah is a revolving duty and my time thankfully just revolved) and likely this will discount my following remarks on the grounds of administrative laziness (which, frankly, it initially was), but my decision was ultimately based on what I thought were good reasons. The first reason was that the survey was mostly based on three distinct sets of questions that all revolved around numbers. Roughly paraphrased, the questions boiled down to the following categories. First: How many students apply each year to your program, and for which degree and in which genres? Second: How many students do you accept in each genre and for each degree? Third: What is the fellowship amount awarded to each student?

These are good questions to ask, I think, because it gives the potential applicant a sense of her competition, as well as a basis for understanding just what--monetarily--she is competing for. It's something any applicant would want to know. But sadly, I didn't have accurate enough numbers to keep track.

Why? you ask. Because every damn year these numbers change.

For instance, one year we'd have over 300 people apply, another year over 400, another year in the high 200's. (Lately, and I think you can guess why, our numbers have been increasing.) In terms of genre, the numbers are all over the map and show no annual consistency. Even the fellowship numbers change, as our MFAs are funded less regularly than PhDs, and occasionally with different packages. (Our MFA program at Utah has a Modular MFA that allows students interested in Book Arts, Environmental Humanities, and the American West Center to take graduate courses in these fields rather than in English, which means these students have different funding streams based on their interests.) We also have new fellowships constantly being added to the list, and as the budget crisis continues to tornado through the university system, it's not always clear just how many overall fellowships we'll have, nor how many applicant spots we can finally offer.

Essentially, our program--like many--is dynamic, and the numbers (useful to have, I admit) are annually unreliable.

Ah, you say. But why not just give the roughest estimate you can while still indicating that it's all in flux? Cave applicantor and all that?

Well, there's the laziness problem, which is significant. But more importantly, outside the funding numbers (which I think are hugely important), I didn't think the other numbers were useful ways to rank programs. Good questions to answer for applicants, but bad questions to use in ranking programs.

Graduate degrees in creative writing are weird beasts-- weird even for the humanities, which are chockablock with looney tune research fields. I sympathize with students trying to pick the right program, considering the variety and amount of information they'll have to process. Generally, they should look to their counterparts in literary studies at the MA or PhD level to see how a successful applicant approaches choosing a program. This is how it goes:

1. The applicant figures out what her discipline is, and likely knows what her speciality is going to be. She learns who the people publishing in this particular speciality are, where they teach, and what kind of graduate courses they offer.

2. The applicant starts to ask the directors, faculty members, alumni and enrolled students of her programs of interest about the program's pedagogy, social life, publishing and mentoring possibilities. She emails frequently. She risks, frankly, being a bit of a pest.

3. The applicant then makes a list of schools that specialize in her field, with the funding package numbers for each of them. She applies to a variety of these schools. She understands she will be choosing her school based on personal interest, financial opportunity and faculty-student mentoring possibilities.

Which is all a very dull way of saying: SHE MAKES HER OWN DAMN RANKING SYSTEM.

Leaving aside for the moment some of the obvious differences between literature and CW degree seekers (organizational skills and the ability to lie effectively being the main two that distinguish the successful lit applicant. Can I tell you, seriously, how many students approach me about getting a PhD in poetry who confess they don't like to read poetry and have never taken a workshop before? Seriously?), the problem with the P&W list's fascination with numbers is that, ultimately, it treats all MFA and CW PhD programs as the same without allowing for formal and aesthetic specialties. This is NOT the expectation we would have with, say, other literary studies degrees at the graduate level. Certainly, there are ranking systems for graduate degree-conferring universities, including those in English literature (is Yale still #1? Go bulldogs!), but people pursuing graduate degrees also know that this ranking system doesn't capture the full picture. If you're a medievalist, it's nice to go to Yale, but you REALLY should go to Notre Dame.

The same works for creative writing. If you are a formalist narrative poet, you would be wasting a reading fee applying to Brown. If you are an experimental fiction writer, likely Denver is your place.

In general, public ranking systems of degree programs exist for a variety of good and bad reasons but, increasingly, I think they largely remain in place to help settle internal college disputes. During departmental hiring debates, it's notable how often ranking numbers come up, and certainly a highly ranked program gets the lion's share of budgetary attention come crunch time in the College of Humanities. But in terms of its public value, ranking systems exist to assure future employers of the status of job candidates' particular degrees. Thus, what these rankings systems--whether for literature or for creative writing--implicitly measure is the degree-holder's marketability.

And therein lies the second problem for me about the P&W ranking system.

Because it's implicitly NOT being used as a method of evaluating the best place to become a writer and artist, but as a measure of particular creative writing degrees within the university and literary marketplace. This is a problem because--and let's all take a deep breath here and reach for a shot--as programs contract and teaching lines dry up, there is no university marketplace. And the literary marketplace doesn't much care about degrees.

I've been on many hiring committees, and we have never, NOT ONCE, looked askance at or more seriously over the application of a candidate based on where she did her MFA degree. Hiring is about the quality of the publications, not the school. And no school, no matter how good or highly ranked, can ensure good publications.

I want to take a moment here to admit that my complaint goes beyond what the P&W list is trying to do and is more about the changing use-value of ranking lists in a university system on the verge of collapse. P&W isn't responsible for that, of course, and I do think the attempt to bring some kind of order to the chaos in which we are all working is a noble one. But I wonder, if numbers are important, whether we are looking at the right ones. What--and who--should we really be quantifying? In short, what DOES the P&W list really tell us?

Here's something that struck me about the list. Each year I noticed that the program I was directing kept ending up in the top 5 for the PhD degree, yet disappeared off the charts for the MFA.

Well, you say testily. It's because you never wrote in the damn funding packages your MFA students receive on that survey. And while people know about Utah as a PhD program, they aren't interested in the MFA program.

OK, I say. That makes sense. But there's still a little problem in the ranking system.


Seriously. Same workshops. Same faculty. Same students in the classroom. Same reading series. Same books and paper requirements and mentorship and publishing opportunities. Same focus on studio time. Even some of the same funding packages.

Maybe that's the problem. Applicants want their PhDs to be PhDs and their MFAs to be MFAs. But I have a hard time wrapping my head around that. Really, if the instruction is so good at one level, why is it not valued at the other one? Why the big discrepancy?

Because the ranking system is primarily based on the numbers generated by applicants themselves. Basically, the more people that apply to a program, the higher that program is ranked in the P&W list.

Which means that if people coming out of the gate are primarily applying to MFA programs they've heard of before, those programs get consistently high numbers. It seems that students do know about Iowa and Michigan and Syracuse and USC and Houston (which the school ranking numbers imply) and a host of other schools maybe from the ads in P&W or their time at AWP. So the students go there, and their reading list expands, they get more professionalized, and now they know to apply to Denver and Utah and FSU for a PhD because other people have applied there. What these rankings track, therefore, is less what a student may want or need in a graduate program than what information that student already has available to her when she applies. It's more about program advertising--or lack thereof--than the program itself.

This kind of ranking model seems to me a little like rating McDonalds a great restaurant because over 6 billion other people were once served there.

Something else worries me about the P&W ranking system and what it tells us. The numbers for certain schools are extremely high (given the number of respondents to the P&W questionnaire): disproportionately higher, maybe, than what we might expect in a rational admissions system. (Aside: These numbers aren't UNWARRANTED. That is, the highest ranking schools are all indeed excellent; the question is whether they are disproportionately represented.) These numbers might make sense if everyone applying was of equal ability and schools made no effort to distinguish based on ability: we just take what comes our way. But we don't. We have a system that admits people based on talent and demonstrated ability. Think about this: Does every person apply to MIT? No. Only students who are interested in the subjects that MIT specializes in, and who recognize themselves to be of the caliber of student that MIT might admit will apply. This limits the number of applicants through appropriate self-selection. There's a spread for sure (some people do get lucky or are related to famous people, so why not?) and more people will apply to MIT than Dumspville College, sure, but will more people apply to MIT than Cal Tech? Or MIT than Loyola?

Maybe it's because this is the arts, and we think that art schools are more subjective, thus the kind of self-selection I'm talking about (which depends also on great GREs, a strong GPA, great letters of rec, not to mention fabulous critical writing samples) isn't so necessary to consider as the creative sample. We all want to believe we are great writers so we all apply in great numbers to all the best programs, hoping for the best. But the fact is that there are better and worse students of creative writing, as there are better and worse students of any subject in any field. TO REALLY RANK THE MERIT OF A PROGRAM, YOU NEED TO RANK THE QUALITY OF THE ADMITTED STUDENTS, NOT THE ASPIRATIONS AND NUMBER OF ITS APPLICANTS. Which gets me to my last two points:

1. What the P&W ranking system accidentally reveals is that people applying for MFAs, unlike people in almost any other academic discipline, aren't appropriately self-selecting. This is kind of interesting and kind of worrisome at once. Rather than focusing on what their own strengths and weaknesses and interests really are, students are turning into admission lemmings and looking at the MFA system as little better than a lottery. And we're letting them do it.

2. The P&W list isn't responsible for the lack of appropriate self-selection, but I think it helps encourage this kind of McDonaldsy applicant behavior. It can't help but do this because the numbers it relies upon are so limited and so endlessly self-reflexive.

We don't have many ways of monitoring "excellence" at the university level--inside or outside of MFA programs--which may be why we fetishize lists of this sort. It suggests someone's done the heavy lifting to ensure that the product we are all clamoring for and serving up to each other in great steaming piles is worth the cost. But to me, the numbers that matter are largely financial: Does the program offer up a fellowship large enough for the student to live on for two or three years? These are numbers that absolutely have to be taken into account, as almost everything else about the degree--including the value of the teaching and the workshops and the writing time itself--can only be individually quantified.

So, as you can see, I have some issues about ranking systems. I understand the need for them, and I'm certainly sympathetic to the compilers of lists and the students that use them. With over 200 programs to choose from, demanding that an applicant research each and every one is a little, well, insane. P&W provided a quick and dirty approach to a system that itself has turned quick and dirty, as the popularity of the creative writing industry in the academy now means that we have two terminal arts degrees duking it out at the MLA every hiring season.

Perhaps now is a good time to remind everyone that a graduate degree in creative writing means, sadly, nothing. It won't give you easily marketable skills. It will take years away from specializing in something more lucrative, perhaps in something even more enjoyable. It doesn't assure that you will get a teaching job in anything anywhere ever, nor that you will be published. It gives you time to write and the opportunity to learn how to do it. That's it. Whether you went to Iowa or Dumpsville, the degree gets you nothing more than this. WHATEVER STATUS IS INHERENT TO A PARTICULAR MFA DEGREE IS IMAGINARY BECAUSE THE DEGREE ITSELF HAS NO POWER IN THE MARKETPLACE. Any ranking system, even when well-intentioned, merely tries to whitewash this reality of the post-MFA landscape by implicitly suggesting that there IS something quantifiably of value, something that can later be translated into capital power.

Maybe agents or editors or future employers will care that you got your MFA at this school and not that one. But in my limited experience, agents and editors and employers care about the writing. They care that you wrote a kick ass story or novel or poem; they don't give two shits if you came from a school that was once on the top of a list. (And if they do, maybe you should consider running.)

So this is what I suggest be the "ranking" system, and I propose it knowing full well that Utah won't come out on top. Considering that the only useful and truly quantifiable data for a program is the fellowship information, I propose that P&W simply list the programs, in alphabetical order, that offer money and what amounts they offer. That, to me, is the only series of numbers that means something in the marketplace, and it's a good starting place for students thinking about spinning the wheel of fortune with this degree.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

An Elegy

Ten years ago today I was stepping out of the shower to find my husband, looking grim, handing me the phone. It was the producer from NPR I'd been working with the past week on a piece on living in Wyoming that was supposed to air this morning, a piece that had already caused numerous headaches for me to finish writing. I'd been dreading this day's work nearly all week and now the producer was calling to tell me it was cancelled. I began to make silent, celebratory gestures at my husband, but he cut me short. "No," he hissed. "No, it's not good."

The producer told me something was happening in New York. Something or someone had hit the Twin Towers, and now something had just hit the Pentagon as well. It wasn't clear if they were related or not.

"The Pentagon?" I asked.

"Yes," the producer said, her voice fraying a little.

"My cousin works at the Pentagon. He's in the Navy wing."

The producer paused. "My cousin works at the towers," she finally said.

"Have you talked to him?"

"No," she said. "Do you need to call someone?"

"I think so. Do you?"

We sat silent on the phone for awhile, as my husband rushed to the next room to turn on the radio, our only source of communication. The producer turned to speak to someone just behind her, and then came back on the phone.

"Oh my God," she said, but didn't clarify what this referred to. Then she added, "Good luck."

I wished her good luck as well and went to find my husband in the living room. He was standing by the old stereo he'd bought in grad school, black, the one with one of its speakers still blown out from a Halloween party. He was standing with his forehead furrowed so tightly I could see one of the veins in his temple throb. He turned to me. He said, "We need to get a television."

The rest of the day was spent in an odd fog, as my husband and I tried to go about our day in Laramie, Wyoming, while all around us televisions and radios were turned on full volume, people gathered in small groups in front of the screens and speakers, listening, talking, crying as they called friends. Each time I entered a room with a television in it, the towers had just finished falling or the video in which people were running away from the twin towers had just started up again. People in the rooms who'd seen the video footage were crying or shouting at the screen. But I never saw the towers fall.

My cousin Jon worked at the Navy wing in the Pentagon. AA flight 77 hit the Pentagon at the ground level in the Navy wing at 9:37 a.m. Jon, like many men in my family, was a military man: he'd gone to the Naval Academy in Annapolis and graduated in the top 10 of his class: a distinction all the more impressive to us as he was also one of the few Asian Americans in the academy itself. He went on to command a nuclear submarine; he was, in fact, the person in charge of deploying some of the first missile strikes against Iraq in the first Iraq War. At home, my parents and I liked to joke that he was the "awe" in the "shock and awe" campaign. Jon was my favorite, most revered cousin--revered not just by me, but by my entire family, as his good looks and quiet, intense intelligence regularly left us speechless with pride and a little intimidated. Not only was he the most ambitious member of our family, he was the most focused, the most driven. He was always a little out of our league, we thought, which may be why we took to calling him "Jon-Jon," as if he were one of the Kennedys. When flight 77 struck the Pentagon, shearing into the very section of the building where Jon worked after he had retired from active duty, it killed over 40 people that Jon worked with and had been close to for years. The only reason Jon himself was unharmed--the only reason he is alive today--is that he was stuck in traffic that morning on his way to Langley, where he was supposed to get promoted.

But we didn't know that for many, many hours.

Two months after that morning, I was at a conference in Oxford, England, at something called The British American Project, which gathered together what the conference called the "best young minds" of Britain and America, to talk shop, schmooze, sit in little conference rooms in small groups to discuss the topic listed on the dry erase board for us. I never really understood the point of the conference, but the people were all smart and interesting, and there was a lot of booze. And then, one afternoon, my group was asked to talk about September 11. We were each supposed to go around the room and say, one by one, what that day meant to us.

Most of the people in the room were British or from Northern Ireland, so they kept their memories short. There were only four Americans in the room that day, including me, and two were from New York City. When it came to our turn, the New Yorkers--unsurprisingly--started to cry. While I understood and generally sympathized with their emotion, this also made me a little angry. The whole situation was designed to make us teary and upset: I didn't want us to play into that conference's expectation of us. I certainly didn't want to cry; I had no plans to turn myself into a side-show of pain for strangers, and I didn't want to see other people have to do that either. After all, we were in a room filled with people who were NOT Americans, and many of them had already experienced, from their time living in London or Belfast, the real costs of long-term terrorism on their own soil.

But when it came to me, and the moderator asked what my experience had been on September 11, I opened my mouth to say "My cousin Jon worked at the Pentagon--" and then, horrifyingly, I started to cry.

An argument immediately erupted. "I get that this is horrible for you all," a young man from Belfast said. "But in time it will get better."

"What are you TALKING ABOUT?" snapped a woman from L.A. "You have no idea what this is like for us. What do you mean IT WILL GET BETTER?"

"I mean that the pain will fade," he returned angrily. "And in its place will be an understanding for why this happened, what America's place in all this has been."

"I'm sorry," said one of the New Yorkers, a film director who had recently put out a film on drag queens in Paris. "You come to my place in Brooklyn, you stand with the windows open and smell the smell of burned flesh and scorched metal and god knows what else, and you tell me this will fade."

"He doesn't mean your emotions aren't raw," an academic from Cambridge broke in, "but this will be a reminder that the event--tragic and horrible as it is--isn't historically unusual. It was extreme in its creativity and effects, but it isn't unusual. America is like the rest of the world now."

"How can you say that?" the woman from L.A., a producer or agent or lawyer (I never figured out what she did), cried. "Name one other country that this has happened to!"

"Pakistan, Israel, Northern Ireland, England, France, Spain, India, Indonesia," the Cambridge academic began.

"But nothing like this! Nothing like this!"

I sat silently, drying my eyes. I agreed with the woman from Cambridge and the man from Belfast, but my tears--uncontrolled, unbidden--had put me on the side with the other outraged Americans. In truth, I was probably in the middle of the two groups--outraged, terrified, but also aware America had now simply joined a long list of other nations of the world living with terrorism. The attacks made victims of certain Americans, but it did not make America innocent. We were ridiculous to think we could continue to do--politically--what we'd done for generations without some nightmarish cost to pay.

But there I was: a lumpen, sodden mess, snivelling and--when it was really important to explain myself, to say that it was all fine, my cousin Jon was not killed, I was not myself wounded or injured, I was not one of those hawkish war-mongers seething in our congress--silent. And that, for me, has been what's been like, living in America the past ten years. All of us caught between two impulses in conflict--the emotional and the rational impulses behind patriotism--that have progressively destroyed our nation. Around the time of September 11, I read a New Yorker article about Al-Qaeda that had a line in it that's stuck with me. Paraphrased, it's this: "What the leaders of this movement are most afraid of is modernity, its challenges, and its sense of competition." That has haunted me to this day. Because that day, crying in front of a bunch of other strangers about something I didn't even cry about when it happened, I, too, was afraid of modernity. If this was what the modern world was--a place of sudden and extreme violence, being victim to political and economic and technological forces you can barely understand, let alone control--then I didn't want to be a part of it either. It strikes me that this fear of modernity has infected America as a whole as well. We're the country where major political contenders now disagree with evolution, disbelieve science, want to slash federal funding to schools, public arts and news organizations, health care, social security: all things that have, in part, defined the secular humanist values of modernism. We're the nation that has a man running for president who thinks fasting and prayer are the way to solve a deficit crisis. We're the nation that mistrusts the educated, and forces political candidates to explicate their religious beliefs and affiliations at length. If a fear of modernity is what, in part, defined Al-Qaeda, then it certainly defines us now as well. We went from being one of the nations that shaped the political and cultural advances of secular humanism to being a nation in numb retreat into fundamentalist ideology.

You tell me that the terrorists haven't won.

I finally did see footage of the towers falling, two years after September 11. I had just moved to Salt Lake City for my new job and was in the Broadway Theater, alone, watching a Canadian film about a family in Montreal. It was the sequel to another film, The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, I think it was called, which I'd once seen in my twenties. This film was meant to follow up on the themes of capitalist collapse, though I don't remember much about the film itself. Nothing, that is, except that at one point the entire screen fills with news video footage of the towers in the act of falling, masses of smoke twisting and seething as floor after floor after collapses--fast as a chain of dominoes--all the way to the ground.

"Oh my God!" I shouted. The whole theater turned to look at me. Who is THAT? someone muttered. Who the hell hasn't seen THAT before? Tears were once more--dismayingly--running down my cheeks. I couldn't control myself; my hands were trembling. All those years without a t.v., I'd never seen it. The other patrons were still looking at me. I scanned their dark faces in the crowd, thinking I'd see the same stunned look on some of their faces looking back at me--how are we living like this? How can we bear thinking of it?--but found their faces, even in the dark, were blank. The look the other patrons gave me--bored or surprised, a little annoyed at the interruption--made me blush, embarrassed for myself. "Sorry," I whispered. And the other movie-goers, shrugging, turned back in their seats.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Chapter 1: In Which We Meet The Box of Doom

So. I'm in Paris.


Which is, you know, kind of fabulous. For the past few days, I've been wandering around the city with Sean and my English in-laws (!) visiting my new city of residence. We've been going to places like the Musee d'Orsay and the Jardin du Luxembourg and the beautiful little side streets around St. Germain-de-Pres, bickering pleasantly about which cafe we should eat in, whether or not to tip the waiter, the accuracy of so-and-so's subjunctive in French, and how best to translate "massif" when it follows "sol." (You wouldn't believe how long this discussion went on in the Jardin des Plantes. Hint: "CLUMP.") But mostly I've been walking around Paris bursting with little exclamations of glee at all the awesomeness that is now my temporary life. "Holy crap!" I've been bleating at the plethora of churches and bookstores and bridges and clothing boutiques. "This shit is BANANAS!"

It turns out that grand displays of civic beauty send me into something akin to moral outrage (probably a hangover from living almost a decade in Salt Lake), so that as the days wear on and ever more amazing sights are revealed to me, this awe has gotten a touch, say, frenetic. "How is this possible?" I keep demanding of Sean, punching his arm while glaring at the perfectly manicured paths of the Tuilleries. "How can people live like this, every day, all day long?" Stomping my foot outside the Louvre, waving my hands in despair outside the little macaron shop filled top to bottom with gold and pastel pink and blue boxes of confections. "I mean, this isn't even a shop anymore, is it?" I wail. "It's insane! It's like the perfect idea of cookie deliciousness housed in one place, beside which all others now are mere corruptions of cookie. It's like Plato's Fucking Cave of Candy in there!"

"Calm down," Sean said. "Buy a box."

"I can't!" I howled. "It's too much for me!"

This is the thing: you can walk for hours in these beautiful parks, along these yellow gravel paths among French children with their unbelievably charming little wooden boats which they will sail in the pristine(ish) waters of 18th century marble fountains. You can find a lovely cafe beside a medieval church and spend all afternoon there for the price of a coffee. You can walk along the Seine, watching the tour boats and bicyclists drift along as clutches of college students giggle past you, taking a break for dinner in a candlelit bistro somewhere on the Ile de la Cite. You can do all these things, and mostly they're free (except for the bistro bit. Who here knows the French for "'This will cost you your first-born"? I do! I do!) and they're all pretty much fantastic, and they all make you want to jump up and down and squeal and grin like a lunatic with joy all the while you are, at the very same time, dying inside just a little.

Why? Because it's almost too much to believe.

Which may be why I came to be in front of a softly glowing Palais du Luxembourg the other day, smacking my forehead as I shouted, "Are you fucking KIDDING ME?"

But before everyone out there reading this in blogville starts throwing rotten fruit at the screen, you should know that--as I write this very entry--it's not all brioche and Edith Piaf for me. For instance, right now I'm taking a little break in Tonbridge, England, to hang with the new hubby's family. Tonbridge may be all things Anti-Paris, if the monotonous lanes of brick row houses, and lumpen overcoats soaked from drizzle and lank-haired girls shrieking at their mates at the one bus stop by the one roundabout by the one Boots are any indication. Culture here seems limited to the (admittedly impressive) list of adult education courses available for Tonbridgians, as evidenced in the catalogue which arrived today in the mail for my in-laws. These courses include lectures on "Angry Angevins," "The Calamitous 14th Century," "Famine, Plague and War" or (my favorite) "The Revolting People of Kent." The Revolting People of Kent seem to like stained glass window workshops and sign language courses as well, if the wide availability of these classes in the catalogue is to be trusted, and so I've been spending the day wandering in the rain here with Sean (who has come down with a head-cold) looking to see if the good people of Tonbridge do a lot of lip-reading near church naves.

They don't.

But the other thing you might want to know, dear reader, about my time in Paris that might just make you feel just the tiniest smidgen better about your own time not living in Paris is this:

My apartment sucks.

It doesn't suck in the ways that most student flats or bedsits suck. It sucks in the way that meth houses suck. It sucks in the way that extreme hoarders' dens suck. It sucks in the way of Arizona trailer parks and work releases and scary lairs of manic depressive sculptors just about to depart in the dead of night for the south of France after they've beaten their girlfriends half into a coma. Someone's ear might have been chewed off here, or maybe the place hosts a European pedophilia ring's annual secret meeting. I wouldn't be surprised by any of this. Because this apartment, my friends, is probably the worst place I have ever rented in my life.

And what makes it so terrible, outside of its tiny cramped bathroom with the bucket-sized and showerless tub you still have to climb onto a plastic stool to get into, its minuscule kitchen with ancient foodstuffs baked onto the hotplate screwed into the wall, its mold smell emanating from every surface, its mirrors fogged over with grease and age, its swaths of grime gritting the corners, its paint cracking off in cottage-cheesy chunks, its chair that looks as if it were found by a dumpster after being abandoned for a month in the rain then dragged back inside and dried out with a hair dryer? What, besides the fact that every other night my upstairs neighbor, "Jacques Brel" as I like to call him now, wakes me up at 2 a.m. screaming French pop songs at his girlfriend? What, besides the fact that said girlfriend also seems to be trying out for a starring role in the world's loudest, longest porn film, so that quickly following Jacque Brel's interminable chansons I am then treated to AN HOUR of sounds I didn't even know the human body could make? What? What, beside these things, could make this apartment so completely, horribly, unremittingly awful?

The notes.

My apartment is covered with little handwritten notes. These notes were left for me, and for years of previous renters as suggested by the fading inks and cracking tape, by a landlord hell-bent on saving us all from our own stupidity, and from the inherent electrical evils of Paris itself. The notes warn of wiring disasters, sudden gas explosions, slippery surfaces, clogged plumbing, lost keys. "DO NOT TOUCH THIS OUTLET WITHOUT WEARING SHOES!" screams one note. "TAKE YOUR KEYS!!!" shrieks another. "NO HAIR! NO HAIR! NO GELS DOWN DRAIN!" wails a third by the bathroom sink. There is a space heater that comes practically gift-wrapped in warnings of catastrophe, such as "THIS SPACE HEATER CANNOT BE LEFT UNATTENDED: IT WILL CATCH FIRE! IT TIPS! IF YOU SMELL BURNING TURN IT OFF! DON'T RUN HEATER FOR MORE THAN 5 MINUTES! DON'T KICK IT! DON'T ROCK IT! DON'T LOOK AT IT SIDEWAYS!" Every light fixture, every appliance, every doorway and cabinet comes with a note. There are warnings literally taped to other warnings, along with business cards for various local electricians and plumbers. "FLUSH WITH CHEAP VINEGAR OR HARD WATER WILL CLOG!" cries one such missive by the toilet, along with a dog-eared card for a man named Jean-Paul. "DO NOT SET THIS WATER HEATER ON HIGH! TURN DOWN! TURN DOWN!" is the note taped by the tub, which--if I follow its other directions precisely--means that a hot shower will last at most 40 seconds before the water turns to ice, something that may be fine in late summer but which will be agony come December.

If the notes aren't enough, there is also a handbook left by the landlord for my further edification. "Almost all apartment fires in Paris are caused by space heaters," the handbook intones. "And almost all space heater fires are fatal."

"It's not so bad," Sean soothes. "The location is good. The rent is cheap. It doesn't look so much like the photos on the internet, sure, but maybe you could just, well, buy the place some fucking violets or something."

But violets won't cover up the real problem, I insist, which is that my apartment continually declares itself a site of Potential Disaster, making me too jumpy to touch anything (which may be fine; you couldn't pay me enough to sit in that chair), and far too aware of the jerry-rigged electrical wiring looped from water heater to light fixture to toaster oven. In short, living in this apartment is like living in a moldering shoebox filled with someone else's anxieties--my own little Box of Doom, as Sean now calls it--which makes me wonder what it's going to be like if (when?) the charm of Paris wears off and I'm here on my own, mid-winter, trying to, you know, like WRITE something.

Will I be able to survive this apartment?

This may sound precious, but I worry a little about living alone, far away from the one I love most (yes, that would be Sean) amidst all this mold and neurosis. I pride myself on being the most mentally stable poet I know--a low bar to set, we must admit-- one who is also probably healthier than 1/3 of all American (but not English) fiction writers. Let me be clear: I'm not unhinged or anything. In terms of mental security, I'm better than most musicians, worse than a lot of painters. I'm on par with photographers, and way above average for a sculptor. That said, I have--to put it euphemistically--certain dark spots inside me. Compared with artists and writers overall, I'm pretty stable, I'm Doris fucking Day, but compared with normal people--people, that is, who do not spend their lives crafting something no one else ever wants to read or look at without a pressing financial reason attached to it-- I'm a bit of a mess.

This is why I am a manic exerciser, why I try and get 8 hours of sleep a night, why I have gone into and out of talk therapy, have tried the drugs, have ditched the drugs, have tried the meditation, why I spend so much time repeating in my head, 'What would a normal person do or say right now?' and consciously use that answer as my guide in every conversation. I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to shape myself into someone chipper and upbeat and positive because all this is something I am, by nature, not. I also believe it is something that can help alleviate, if not entirely tame, what the mental health profession defines as my "high-functioning depression." (Aside: I was kind of proud of that diagnosis. At least I'm above average in something.) I know that these habits can occasionally make me sound naive, falsely so as well, and it is absolutely exhausting to keep up with them (sometimes I go home and just collapse from all the effort), but if it is between being myself as a functioning, even happy person and being myself as a slovenly mess (what I was through patches of the past 15 years) then I will take the occasional naivete, the relentless one-liners.

I will work, goddammit, on being happy.

And now there's this apartment, a.k.a., my own rent-literalized Box of Doom. What, I have sometimes feared in the past, my mind itself might look like without the excruciatingly conscious care-taking of it that I provide. And are these notes the kind of writing I might do if left mentally unshepherded? Will I too turn into a series of cracked walls plastered with reams of aging notes? Will I become part and parcel of this greasy, nausea-inducing scenery?

Thankfully, mercifully, there is still Paris. Paris, just outside my door, wafting past my caulk-flaking window. Paris just outside the reach of Jacque Brel's bedsprings and lungs. Paris just outside the mold stains. Paris with all its glittery lights, its espresso cups, its parks and chestnut trees.

So. Here's Chipper's newest survival strategy.

I'm going to go out early every day and stay out late each night. I'm going to write with the windows open. I'm going to haunt Lanvin. I'm going to eat my face off. I'm going to find some head phones.

And then, my friends, I'm going to go out and buy myself some fucking violets.

P.S. I know I'm missing accent marks all over the place. Am trying to figure this feature out on the iPad keyboard. Also, there are pictures I want to post but don't have the transfer cable with me and I have a deadline to meet with this blog. (Don't want to keep my two fans waiting, you know, ha bloody ha.) Will post pics soon. In the meantime, just imagine really pretty stuff in the suitable text places. And ugly stuff everywhere else.