“A smile. Ink from a chop. He’s become his own map. . .” (Ron Strauss)

Athlete

Athlete

(Please note: I realize I have written about tattoos—my tattoos—recently; however, that post is one I inadvertently deleted. This is not, however, a replacement for that post.)

In the summer of 1972 I lived and worked at the Robert and Francis Flaherty farm in Brattleboro, VT. At that time it was the center of study for Flaherty’s films (Nanook of the North, Man of Aran, and Moana), administered by the School of Theology at Claremont (California), under the direction of Professor Jack Coogan.

I was assigned to catalogue and file still photos from Moana. The work was tedious, but the situation was intellectually stimulating, and the farm, located at the foot of Black Mountain, was idyllic and naturally inspiring.

Moana would be seen as even less appealing than “quaint” to modern film-goers. It would be almost impossible to endure for most of the students I’ve taught in colleges. Black and white. Silent (with subtitles—and, in versions available online, with theater organ accompaniments). Naive, I suppose—Polynesian kids running around in a blissfully innocent idyll playing and cavorting in the least sophisticated (by 21st-century styles and rituals) activities imaginable.

It was made before rock ‘n roll was invented, an eternity before rap or any of those other new musics. The film has not a single “special effect” or murder or explosion in its entire 60-some minutes.

Last week, a conversation with a young man from Tonga (the South Pacific islands) jogged my memory about Moana.

He asked me about my tattoos. He was fascinated and wanted to know if they “mean” something. He explained that his parents had asked him not to get any tattoos until he considered the “rite of passage” tattoo of many Polynesian Islands.

Tattoo.

Published in 1769, James Cook’s memoirs of his travels to the South Sea Islands introduced the word tatau into the English language from the Polynesian word referring to the practice of inscribing the skin with indelible ink. This word quickly morphed into ‘tattoo’ in English and spread through other European languages. . . (Fisher, Jill A. “Tattooing the Body, Marking Culture.” Body & Society 8.4 (2002): 91–107.)

When I was in 3rd grade, a new boy joined our class. He was also the new boy at church, the nephew of one of the pillars. My parents insisted I play with him even though everyone at school thought he was weird (I knew most of the kids thought I was weird, too). I was willing as long as it was at home and no one saw us together. David had an older brother, out of high school, thin, muscular, wearing t-shirt and jeans like James Dean in Rebel without a Cause. He was not handsome, but he was so sexy I could hardly bear to be in his presence. He had several tattoos. They were not socially acceptable in 1955.

My being tattooed may be a case of arrested development. I still think of Casey now and then when I consider the history of my emotional development. I know the image of his tattoos (I do not remember what they were exactly) is one of those from childhood that inhabits my most private memory.

So I have tattoos because, when I was 10, I was in love with a playmate’s 19-year-old-brother who had tattoos? I’ll admit that’s possible. Arrested development.

It’s also possible that it has something to do with my life-long search for my true identity—and my (limited by creativity but nonetheless real) unwillingness to fit my life to some pattern some unidentified power would prescribe for me. I’m a shy, introverted (unspectacular, even meek) non-conformist. That I knew at age 10 I wanted to be tattooed but waited until I was 69 to do it does not speak well for my being a rebel, with or without a cause.

All of my life I have been in professional positions in which it would have been out of the question to be tattooed unless one were a far more extroverted non-conformist than I.

Many of the student athletes I work with now have tattoos—not simply a few scattered about their bodies, but elaborate swirls of ink over large parts of their bodies. I’m not sure when that became fashionable. My guess is Dennis Rodman made it popular; I don’t know.

Is it possible that these young athletes and I have the same motivation for our “body modifications?”

My tattoo in Arabic

My tattoo in Arabic

(Ernest)Becker has argued that one of the ways of dealing with the terror of death is to take a heroic attitude. Even though we know we will fail, we try to fight death by all means. (Strenger, Carl. “Body Modification and the Enlightenment Project of Struggling Against Death.” Gender and Sexuality 10 [2009]: 166–171. Referencing: Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press [1974].)

In his poem “Tattoo,” Dr. Ron Strauss tells of meeting a patient covered with tattoos, one of which the doctor thought said “J.S. Bach.” He was mystified until he discovered the tattoo read “S.S. Beech.”

A smile. Ink from a chop. He’s become his own map.
You were either “on the boat” or “on the beach”
explains “SS Beach” himself.
He’s become his own map, his own guide to what he will become.

Will he die or live forever through the permanent marks he has made on his body.

. . . as society focuses increasingly on the material body, individuals feel alienated from their own commodified bodies. This alienation stems from experiencing the world with rather than through the material body. Identity is fixed on what we are, rather than what we are becoming. The tattoo can serve as an indelible identity marker inscribing the boundaries of possibility for the body (Fisher).

The boundary of possibility is death. Even though we know we will fail, we try to fight death by all means. . . Identity is fixed on what we are, rather than what we are becoming.

I doubt any of this was in my consciousness as I sat for my first tattoo. The truth is, I could not have told you, had you asked, why I was in that chair letting Joe work on my arm. I have read many times and absorbed Flannery O’Connor’s story, “Parker’s Back.” I have studied and taught Orlan’s body modification of. I have read Becker, Strenger, and Fisher.

Perhaps I’m struggling against death. Perhaps I’m expressing non-conformity. Perhaps I’m trying to be as sexy as Casey (and the students I work with). Perhaps I like my tattoos.

Finally, the fourth function of tattoos is decorative. Regardless of their particular psychosocial function for the individual, tattoos are images (even words become images as/within tattoos). By modifying the body with tattoos, the individual has chosen to add permanent decoration to his/her body. (Fisher)

Soon I’ll tackle tattoos as “denial of death.” Stay tuned.

“The Tattoo,” by Ron Strauss
Pushing aside the nursing home curtain that’s come within reach,
a diehard sailor flexes a biceps.
For an instant we see “JS Bach” instead of “SS Beach.”

Down the street, the usual kvetch
of speed-metal pours from the local reptile shop
as if to further tattoo the curtain of his skin. The sweeping reach

of aquamarine vines and blue-green rosettes. Pitch
black nipples. A smile. Ink from a chop. He’s become his own map.
You were either “on the boat” or “on the beach”

explains “SS Beach” himself. Or in the clutch
purse of the deep. If only that crepe
of a curtain which Shelley calls “the painted veil” could come within reach

of the hand that would lift it. If only such
a hand were not itself caught in the grip
of the inching histiocytes that had blurred the distinction between “JS Bach”
and “SS Beach.”
From all across the map
a chorus of twenty-some-odd kids warms up
behind a scrim curtain, beyond his reach,
JS Bach instead of SS Beach.

Mine isn't Bach, but it's music

Mine isn’t Bach, but it’s music

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may. . .” (Robert Herrick)

rosebudsOne of my students is on the cusp of failing because she has not submitted the longest essay of the semester. The essay is a 10-page expository essay on the work of the French performance artist ORLAN (I’m not shouting—that is legally her name, not Orlan).

I have written many times about ORLAN. I think she’s one of the most fascinating people in the world, and, while Paris is not one of the places I’m anxious to see before I die, I would buy ticket there if I knew I could meet her. The best of my writing about her is from three years ago—best because I am going to get my tattoo either today or tomorrow.

I’d guess most people think ORLAN is crazy or at least has some deep-seated psychological issss-ues that cause her to want to hurt her body. I don’t know. I’d also guess that anyone who is invited to lecture at the University of Nebraska—Nebraska?—can’t be publically certifiable.

I can’t imagine why my student has not finished her essay—she has written one almost-spectacular essay about ORLAN already, and she’s the only one of my students fluent enough in French to read ORLAN’s writings in the original.

I plan to become an authority on ORLAN—perhaps write a book about her after I’m sure I understand Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Julia Kristeva, Maurice Merleu-Ponty, and all of the other (mostly French) thinkers who’ve influenced ORLAN according to C. Jill O’Bryan.

But back to my student. For some reason as I was trying to elicit an email response from her (six of mine to her—with notice requested that they were read) the cliché “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” popped into my head. Not that my class is rosy nice or anything, but she has a chance to get a grade in Discourse 1313 or she will have to take it over. Every student at SMU has to get through a section of Discourse 1313, and I can guarantee her none of the others are as fun as mine (except perhaps the one taught by one of my colleagues with Bart Simpson as its main research topic).

At any rate, I’ll bet almost everyone who might be reading this will be as surprised as I was to discover that “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” is the first line of a bona fide poem that could be studied in a section of Discourse 1313 in which students research 17th-century English poetry. What, I’d guess, most people would assume being an academic is all about. Ugh!

Sans-titre-1

But back to my student. Music academia has an honorary fraternity for graduating student musicians. Pi Kappa Lambda. I don’t hold it against Linda that she was the one person from my college graduating class inducted into the fraternity. I think it was because the university knew Frederick Loewe would rather have dinner with her than with me. That’s right. He attended the University of Redlands—never graduated—and gave the School of Music lots of money, and the Pi Kappa Lambda inductee went to Palm Springs for dinner with him.

The Chairman of the School of Music told me one of the reasons they chose Linda over me was that, even though my GPA was high enough to graduate with honors (I didn’t because I didn’t finish my honors research project—do you see where this is going?), the faculty was distressed because they thought I had never worked up to my potential. The example he used was the Advanced Counterpoint class in which all of my work was A-quality, but I earned a B because I submitted nearly every assignment late.

So here’s my very bright, talented student getting ready to blow her chance to be inducted into Pi Kappa Lambda (well, she can’t be because she’s not a musician), and all I can do is sit helplessly by and wish it were not so, and beg her to “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.”

I, of course, am only now submitting her class’s grades because I’m still in the process of grading those essays on ORLAN. I have a reason—I was sick enough to go to bed for four days the week before finals, so I started the process a week behind. I have a good excuse. I wonder what hers is.

I’m not going to get into an orgy of self-flagellating for my regrets. I’ve never been able to get myself organized. There are at least three reasons for that—which I’ve also written about here. Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, Bipolar II Disorder (diagnosed before it became the disease du jour), and simple lack of understanding the need to be organized Johnny-on-the-spot in this world. Pi Kappa Lambda isn’t the only honor I’ve not been awarded.

What most people probably don’t know (unless they were English majors) is that Herrick’s poem is titled “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.” It’s about sowing wild oats—pretty explicitly sexual oats.

Well, I sowed my wild oats—sexual and otherwise—when I was in college. And that’s why I am so grieved by my student’s incipient failure. She would be the last person in my classes I would expect to fail. Bookish. Smart. Inquisitive. Bilingual. Has everything in the world going for her.

One aspect of teaching I will not be sorry to leave behind is the grief—I’m not being hyperbolic or maudlin—I feel every time a student fails. Surely an 18-year-old has plenty of time left to find out how difficult it is to be a human being on this planet. Especially to live in a society in which enough is never enough and too much is simply the incentive to get more.

“To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” Robert Herrick, (1591 – 1674)

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying,

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry;
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.

The prize for winning the prize

The prize for winning the prize

“. . . an angel who flew in midair with one eternal gospel to proclaim. . . “

Michael Blumenthal says "Be Kind"

Michael Blumenthal says “Be Kind”

Sometimes the way things happen in tandem is almost too bizarre to bear. Or so much fun not to rejoice. New Age folks call it “synchronicity.” Old Age folks might give it some religious connotation that makes me equally uncomfortable.

Yesterday I was searching on B&N’s website for an eBook version of one (any one) of Michael Blumenthal’s collections of poetry (apparently none is in eBook format yet, so I ordered a hard copy of his No Hurry: Poems 2000-2012). I’ve written about Mr. Blumenthal’s work before—his “Be Kind” (at the hyperlink) is one of my favorite poems. We should be kind not simply because Henry James said so.

Blumenthal’s work is so compelling I couldn’t help writing to him awhile back. He answered my note, and then he put me on the distribution list for his Christmas letter. I’m not sure why I woke up this morning thinking I should get one of his newer collections—and get in touch with him again.

When I logged on to B&N, I discovered three books in my “cart.” I had forgotten about them, of course. One was Blumenthal’s book of short essays, Three Minutes, Please, essays he has written to read on NPR—an eBook, which I ordered. It showed up on my iPad almost immediately, and I read the first of the three-minute essays. It is about Blumenthal’s first surgery (to repair a herniated disc which had given him excruciating pain for many months) when he was something over 60 years old. He says,

The first surgery of one’s lifetime is a kind of loss of virginity: There is, of course, the anticipation of relief and future pleasure, but it is commingled with uncertainty, dread, and, yes, the fear of ineptitude as well (page 16).

Blumenthal was born in 1949, younger than I am by four years.

Is pain anachronistic?

Is pain anachronistic?

The second book in my cart was Save the Last Dance: Poems, Gerald Stern’s 2008 anthology (he won the National Book Award for poetry in 1998—you can look up his other many honors). I had decided to order it because of his poem “Apocalypse” about making and losing contact with people who are important in ways that are difficult to describe—a phenomenon everyone his age and mine understands. He was born in 1925, 20 years before I was born—and he’s still publishing poetry.

“Apocalypse,” by Gerald Stern
Of all sixty of us I am the only one who went
to the four corners though I don’t say it
out of pride but more like a type of regret,
and I did it because there was no one I truly believed
in though once when I climbed the hill in Skye
and arrived at the rough tables I saw the only other
elder who was a vegetarian–in Scotland–
and visited Orwell and rode a small motorcycle
to get from place to place; and I immediately
stopped eating fish and meat and lived on soups;
and we wrote each other in the middle and late fifties
though one day I got a letter from his daughter
that he had died in an accident; he was
I’m sure of it, an angel who flew in midair
with one eternal gospel to proclaim
to those inhabiting the earth and every nation;
and now that I go through my papers every day
I search and search for his letters but to my shame
I have even forgotten his name, that messenger
who came to me with tablespoons of blue lentils.

Remember a Scots vegetarian?

Remember a Scots vegetarian?

The third book in my B&N cart was ORLAN: A Hybrid Body of Artworks. It’s the newest (2010) study of ORLAN, the French performance artist and was compiled with her help. ORLAN’s work has consisted largely of surgeries (cosmetic?) to change her appearance. Michael Blumenthal might be interested in her assertion after her first surgery (which was to abort an ectopic pregnancy) that, “I wasn’t in pain and what was happening to my body was of profound interest to me. Pain is an anachronism. I have great confidence in morphine.”

She took a film crew with her for the surgery, and that began her series of plastic surgeries which she made available to audiences on closed-circuit TV. She has spoken and written about her work extensively.

I have a great (probably irrational) fascination with ORLAN.

ORLAN was born in 1947.

ORLAN’s life and her work are the subjects of the research projects for my students this semester as they have been several times in the past.

So here we have a synchronous morning of random events all of which point toward one reality. Age is not a predictor of anything. 1925, 1945, 1947, 1949. Not bad years to have been born. I’ll toss myself into the lineup with those famous old folks. We all know stuff that younger folks can’t possibly know. We know to be nice, we know about surgery (some odder than other), and we know about keeping track.

Keeping track of those vegetarians we meet in Scotland. Or those other old folks we exercise with at the fitness center. Or our nieces and nephews. Or those folks we went to church with thirty years ago. Or the kids in our classes today. It’s important “. . . now that as [we] go through [our] papers every day [and] search and search for [their] letters . . . [we will not] have even forgotten [their names].”

OK. Enough of the maudlin. Synchronicity may yet save us from our old selves.

Too synchronous to ponder

Too synchronous to ponder

 

“. . . to show the grotesque nature of society’s beliefs about women’s beauty. . .”

Orlan. The grotesque, or. . .

Orlan. The grotesque, or. . .

Yesterday a student came to my office to talk about her final writing assignment–from last semester! She took an incomplete in December so she could go home to be with her family as they sorted out a trauma that no family should—but very few families don’t—experience. The violence to her family happened the last week of last semester.

I assume all of her professors did what they could to ease the burden that had fallen on her. I knew that giving her time to finish her work was the only legitimate response to her situation. Twenty years ago I would have reacted the same, I am sure.

However, my response was based on a very different premise than it would have been twenty years ago. Twenty years ago I would have imagined I had the ability (the power?) to help rescue this young woman from the horrible ordeal she and her family were experiencing. However, neither in December nor yesterday did I have any illusion that I could make anything right for her. The only thing in my power to do was to help her understand the writing assignment she needed to finish in order to change her incomplete grade to a letter grade.

And be kind.

And let her know that what she was doing was perfectly acceptable both to the university and to me. And to check once more to be sure that she had followed through with the counseling from the university’s student life center that I had helped her arrange. What we were doing was totally about her and her work. I did not need to tell her anything about my own personal experience of the kind of trauma she had experienced, was still experiencing. I did not need to try to fix anything. All I needed to do was be open and as generous as it is possible for a professor to be.

Her essay is a two-part study of the work of Orlan, the French performance artist. The first part is research—to write a description of Orlan’s work and discuss Orlan’s ultimate “project.”  The second part is to write an argument either pro or con for the proposition that Orlan’s artistic work is “grotesque.” The topic of my seminars in Discovery and Discourse is “writing about the grotesque,” and the students write about short fiction in light of Flannery O’Connor’s essay “Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Literature.” They also write about the 1956 film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The work on Orlan is the culmination of this thinking about what makes a work of art “grotesque.”

I was prepared to read the last of 60 essays from the semester arguing that “Orlan’s work is/is not grotesque because – – – “ I was dumbfounded to read, “Orlan’s project is to show the grotesque nature of society’s beliefs about women’s beauty – – -“

In nine semesters of using the topic of the “grotesque” for my classes’ writing and researching, I have not read another paper in which the student turned the proposition on its head. The grotesquery has nothing to do with Orlan; rather, society’s almost universal understanding of beauty for women is grotesque.

The student was, in fact, using the academic assignment to work through and talk about the trauma of her family. And doing it brilliantly. Her essay will be one of the two I submit for publication in our department’s annual journal.

. . . the grotesque?

. . . the grotesque?

To have drawn the conclusion I did about my interaction with the student is perhaps self-serving. But my conclusion is this. My willingness to give the student a tiny (one hour!) bit of extra help, simply to be kind, and to help her summon the courage to seek the professional help she needs gave her the freedom to use a purely academic assignment to begin to work through what had happened to her.

I did not talk with her about the importance of what she has written, but I will find a way to discuss it when she comes back for the final review of her essay.

My response as a 69-year-old and what might have been my response as a 49-year-old may not on the surface seem different. But when I was 49, I would have been sure that I was supposed to DO something, that the result was up to me. That, from the goodness of my heart and my concern about the student would come some wonderful result for her.

But today I know that simply being where I am supposed to be, doing what I am trained, paid, and expected to do, and doing that with compassion and concern is enough. Watching the student think through a topic from a new perspective, and knowing she will be OK in spite of her almost impossibly difficult situation is my reward—for doing my job.