Kanye West Isn’t Sexy (but This Guy Is)

Hotdudesreading

Catherine Morland, the naïve heroine at the center of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey asks, “Have you ever read Udolpho Mr. Thorpe?” Mr. Thorpe replies, “Udolpho! Oh, Lord! Not I; I never read novels; I have something else to do.”

Never has man uttered a less sexy phrase.

As an avid reader and writer, books have chiseled my life such that I can’t distinguish who I am apart from the books I’ve read. Books contain universes, experiences, and challenges that I can try on and walk around in—to get the feel of a life—from which I have always emerge altered, changed, and cast anew. How is it that I can have such meaningful experiences in books, and yet someone like Mr. Thorpe believes his “something else” paramount to the life lessons that can be gathered within a book’s pages?

I strive to be open minded and nonjudgmental about people’s paths. I’m open to the unique ways in which people make their way through Life. But if I’m honest with myself (and you, dear reader), it turns out that, really, I’m not. I don’t understand people who don’t read. By strolling in a character’s footsteps, we develop new lenses through which we see the world and I find it difficult to trust folks who can’t be bothered to try on these other perspectives, places, and cultures.

A while ago, Scientific American published an article about the positive effects on the brain of reading literary fiction. Researchers at The New School in New York City “found evidence that literary fiction improves one’s capacity to understand what others are thinking and feeling” (Chiaet). I know that we aren’t all reading Joyce Carol Oates or Jeffrey Eugenides at every turn but by reading more literary fiction, we increase our “capacity for empathy.” Reading well-crafted stories about the trials and tribulations of another increases our ability to feel compassion for the diverse paths we tread. Our attempts to understand one’s story hones our appreciation for the struggles faced by others. Our ability to thoughtfully consider the needs of others forges deeper awareness of and intensifies our gratefulness for the relative fortune of our own lives.

The more pop-culturally literate among you may recall Kanye West’s emphatic declaration, “I am a proud non-reader of books.” In this, Kanye West has become the Mr. Thorpe of our modern age. How can one not read? How can he, or any like him, proclaim with pride the fact that they have “something else” that’s more important, interesting, or valuable than exploring those doors opened by reading? What does this say about his character? In the case of Kanye West, I think that answer is clear, but what about the rest of us?

I propose that books become the new martini, bookstores the new bar scene. If you want to get to know me, buy me a book instead of a drink. If you’re interested in spending time with me, tell me about the story that spoke to your soul. I don’t want to know how many Twitter followers you have, but I am eager to know which authors you read and which book you’d take with you on your proverbial trip to a deserted island. Why waste time? I’d be mortified to discover that I’d wasted even fifteen minutes talking to a Kanye West.

As always, please write, tweet, or Facebook me (links on the left). Unless you’re a Mr. Thorpe. Then, go read a book.

P.S. If you’re on Instagram, do yourself a favor and check out #hotdudesreading. You’re welcome.

Works Cited

Chiaet, Juliet. “Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy.” Scientific American, 23 March 2015. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/novel-finding-reading-literary-fiction-improves-empathy/.

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Merde

National Grammar Day

Three weeks into my freshman year of college, I failed my first assignment. Like ever. My paper had four marks on it. Four. Three editing marks and one black box with an X in the middle of it. I dropped it on the desk and looked up at my professor. He wore an ivory pin-striped suit and a woven-weave Panama hat with a thick, black stripe around it. He wore saddle shoes. He was an intimidating cross between Tony Soprano and Vampire Bill Compton.

“Professor Ziegler?” I asked. He turned toward me, his face icy and disdainful.

“Yes, Miss Grey?”

His tone caused me to raise mine several octaves. “I am wondering what these marks meant? I don’t see a grade on my paper.”

He arched one eyebrow, spun around, and strode purposefully toward the whiteboard. On it, he dashed out the symbol he’d written on my paper. All of us, together, watched him, breathing short, shallow breaths as we waited for him to bestow knowledge upon us.

“This is the French symbol for death. If you have this mark on your paper, you have failed.”

The sharp intake of collective breath in the room told me I wasn’t alone.

I stayed after class and approached his desk. The other students hurriedly packed their bags, and as they filed out I nearly ran after them. In the end it was just the two of us in this quiet, stuffy, third-floor classroom.

“Professor Zeigler?” I asked, the terror transforming my normally alto voice to that of a high soprano. He raised his head and looked at me. I swear he rolled his eyes. Just a little. Maybe I imagined that part. “I’m not familiar with these editing marks and I’m not quite sure how to fix my paper.”

“Miss Grey, my system is rather clear. You have three dots on your paper. These three dots correspond to the three grammatical errors contained in the lines near which the dots have been made. As a university student, you should be able to identify the errors and correct them.”

I looked down at my paper, squinting to find three miniscule drops of ink scattered over the first page of my essay. “So I just need to fix those and resubmit?”

He leaned against the back of his wooden swivel chair and smiled a half-smile, one that didn’t reach his eyes. A fake smile. A dangerous smirk that should have told me I was on thin ice. “Yes, please make the appropriate corrections and resubmit.”

I nodded, tucking the paper into my notebook. “Thank you, Professor Zeigler.” I made for the door. “I’ll make those corrections tonight and get it to you first thing in the morning.” I turned to go.

“Oh, and Miss Grey?”

“Yes?”

“I only read student essays twice, and only to the third error at that. Any new errors that are discovered in your resubmission will result in your official failure.”

Uh-huh.

People who know me might be surprised at the ignominious origin story of my career as a writer, English teacher, and self-proclaimed grammar geek. I love grammar, I spy mistakes reflexively, I hawkishly troll the Internet for ironic examples of misspellings, errors, and inappropriate usage. I think “Respect are country! Speak English!” is my personal favorite. But “Get a brain, morans” is a close runner-up.

Let’s be clear, I am wholly understanding of errors made by people who don’t speak English as a first language. I mean, talk about privilege. I promise you, my Russian grammar is far worse than yours in English. But if you grew up here, and do not have a learning disability, I take swift and severe issue with your willful ignorance of that which I know your lovely English teachers passed along to you.

I invite you to celebrate National Grammar Day with me. Which new uses of English force your eyes to roll more quickly than dice in Vegas? What are those transgressions that make your blood boil? Conversely, which correct uses make your heart sing?

I hereby give a shout-out to Safeway for their proper quick-check signs: 15 Items or FEWER. I might just kiss the person who ordered those.

Tweet, text, post, send me a smoke signal.

#grammarmatters #GrammarDay

The Words We Whisper

Whisper II

I stood in front of my restless students, patiently awaiting their attention. Excited, I smiled at each of them, eager to begin our unit on Gothic literature. This was the first day of my student teaching experience. I was simultaneously thrilled and terrified. I wore a smart, navy wool suit and my favorite pair of sensible flats. As the moments ticked by, I fixed my students with “The Look.” We all know “The Look” from having been students ourselves. It’s that pinched face one’s teacher makes when she has attempted to appear patient and yet she really has a rather full agenda and she’s painstakingly aware of the passing of each lost instructional moment into the ether of eternity.

I collected my thoughts into the present moment, clearing my throat. A hushed murmur rippled through the room. And yet, I heard a word, a whisper, bouncing across the room. I cocked my head, lilting my ear toward my students. I heard the word. I smiled. “Are you playing the penis game?” I asked loudly. “Because I just won.”

I think about this story in the context of my growing up experience. My family stems from hardy Scandinavian and English stock. Never before has such an inhibited strand of DNA collided to form a human more genetically predisposed to stuffing, to hiding, to whispering those words that aren’t used in “polite” company. Words like penis (Look at that—my computer didn’t explode as I typed those five little letters that, strung together, form one of the most oft used words on the planet).

In my house, there were always words we whispered. Words referring to bodily functions were uttered at such a low and breathy decibel that I’m not actually sure I really ever heard them at all. But there were other verbal transgressions that were not permitted the air necessary to give them volume. Words like cancer. Or alcoholic. Or period. AIDS was one in particular that was not uttered in our home until six years after my Uncle died from it. Words have power; but in not speaking them, in not giving breath, we hope to deflect their power away from us, into some other cosmos, where we are insulated, protected, safe.

As a recent college grad, I landed a job at an AIDS foundation called Cure AIDS Now! I found myself in many different classrooms throughout Miami-Dade county teaching HIV and AIDS education. I found myself fielding questions like, “If I have a friend who fisted a guy…could he have AIDS?” and “If someone has AIDS and they cut themselves while cooking for you, can you get AIDS?”

“How did I get here?” I wondered. How had I managed to shirk the whole of my DNA, packaged in the soundproofing of politeness, to stand in front of a classroom and use the words “dental dam”?

Truth matters. Your truth, my truth, the truth. Our collective truth as a species matters. The ugly truth, the whole story, the ‘warts and all’ version of the tale is honest, human, and important. Each and every one of us lives a life that cannot be denied. It cannot be whispered away. You have cancer. He has AIDS. I have anxiety. Every one of these blemishes, when revealed, makes us more real, more tangible, more honest with who we are and why we’re here to walk in tandem with each other. It’s all a part of the story. These bits and pieces connect our journeys, binding us in a shared, human experience.

Who are you? What are the words you whisper? What power do they hold over you? And how might you lessen their influence on your life by speaking them aloud?

Penis.

Your turn.