Sunday, September 30, 2007

A Very Moral Tale

Fellow Christians,

Now that Sister DeWitt has gone amongst the cloven-hoofed Mohammedan horde, to convert their numbers by main force should the light of reason fail, it is up to her brothers and sisters in Christ to continue preaching the Good News. It is with profound humility that I answer the call of true Christian service and undertake this mission by offering this moral tale of a teacher and his Joynob.

Yours in Christ,
Fr. Francis Xavier Mithridates

Last year, about this time. I was teaching Introduction to Prose Fiction. As though I were free.

On the first day, I read through the list of names on the attendance sheet and came to a difficult one: Joynob.

I thought: Joynob. Suffering Christ, how am I going to say this without laughing?

Joynob came to the rescue. Seeing that I had difficulty pronouncing her last name - I read last names first, I don't know why; probably a stodgy distancing technique - she told me to call her Joy.

Joy. That's easy. I can manage Joy.

Still, I thought this pretty amusing. I would tell my friends about this name and they would say, So what? and, I don't get it. And I'd say: Joynob? JOYNOB? This doesn't suggest anything to you? No.

Awkward; immaturity reconfirmed.

Anyway, weeks go by. Imagine a mild autumnal montage. Images fade in and out; music plays, violins, cellos; pages turn, leaves fall; shots of me trying to find slaves on the Internet, to buy drugs from the homeless dude on my corner, to not burn my landlady alive. Typical fall.

I notice that Joynob is good friends with another student. Always chatting, laughing. It doesn't bother me at first. But gradually it does - I stop lecturing, give them looks, square my jaw, ask them to please stop.

One day they're at it again, talking and tittering. Suddenly there's a loud slapping sound. Sort of like a giant bag of meat had been slung onto linoleum. I'm just about ready to yell - which I never do in my college-level classes - and I notice that Joynob's got her head on the desk.

Friend o' Joynob: Don't get mad.

Me: What? Why would I get angry? What's the matter?

FoJ: She isn't drunk.

Me: OK. What's the matter then?

FoJ: She'll be OK in a minute. She isn't on drugs or anything.

Me: Uh, OK. But WHAT'S the MATTER?

FoJ: She has this rare medical thing.

Me: Like narcolepsy?

FoJ: No it's--you're going to be freaked out when she wakes up because she heaves and gasps for air for a while.

Me: . . .

FoJ: It's not narcolepsy. It's like vasobagel or something.

I've never heard of bagels having such an adverse effect on an undergraduate.

I think she means vasovagal, but this isn't the time to hairsplit.

FoJ: When she wakes up you're going to freak out. But just act normal. Don't let her know you know because she'll get embarrassed. And you're not supposed to move her either, you just need to let her be.

Me: Is she breathing? We need to call the EMT. Now.

FoJ: Trust me, this happens every day.

I start to hear echoing snippets, at this point, of the prosecuting attorney's opening and closing statements: Negligent-gent-gent. Callous-llous-llous. Stupid-upid-upid. Evil-l-l-l. Ten to fifteen years-ears-ear. Full extent of the law-aw-aw. Negligent-gent-ent-nt-t-t. Prison-ison-ison-son-son-on.

I start thinking: I'm not so sure I'm interested in getting routinely sodomized for the next fifteen years. Although I could write a good prison memoir. And it would give me more time to read. And it would get me out of this PhD thing. But getting shivved in the intestines?

That does it.

Me: No, I'm sorry, I'm calling the EMT.

I call the medical center. They say they will be here in ten minutes. Fine.

Then I think: What are they on bicycles? Ten minutes??

FoJ: Please please please just act normal. Just continue the class.

Me: Uh, OK, class. Sorry, but uhhh. OK. So Frederick Douglass. Right. Uh. We were talking about how he represents the passage of, uh, time. Right. Soooooo.


Me: I'm sorry. I can't do this. I need to do something.

FoJ: NO! You can't move her, it's too dangerous.

Me: How does Douglass represent the slave's experience of time in this passage? How --

At this point, Joynob suddenly comes out of her brief coma. She sounds as if she is hyperventilating or suffocating. Whichever one sounds like someone trying to breathe gravy. There I am asking the class about word-choice and such against background audio of someone being garroted. Lucca Brazzi's final moments. Instant dada.

I tell her friend that this is ridiculous, that I need to do something, but she insists I do nothing. Joynob is still in a state of unawareness, a sort of twilight state. She's going to be very embarrassed if she wakes up and sees that all our attention is on her. So I go on, pausing every once in a while to accommodate a particularly loud choking sound, until she fully regains consciousness. She shivers and cries so I go over and try to make her feel less afraid and less embarrassed. Joynob's friend looks at me disapprovingly.

EMT arrives.

Me: I called you twenty minutes ago.

EMT Guy: There was a line.

I don't say: A line where?

They ask her some questions and take her off to the hospital.


In the all walnut-wood office of the Head of Undergraduate Studies. The HUS looks like an animated bag of flour. He doesn't have any knuckles. He's perpetually smiling, even when listening to unpleasant news. It's as if his permanently plastered smile was some kind of punishment, some kind of spell he had to suffer.

I tell the story of Joynob to his sympathetic face.

HUS's first response: Well did she disrupt the class?

Here's what I don't say. I don't say: Well, uh, a.) obviously: have you been listening? and b.) that's not the POINT, you knuckleless baloney-sausage! You blotterbrained cankle, you!

It might seem superficial and indeed fat-ist to hold someone accountable for not having any discernible bone-articulation at the base of the fingers, but it seems to me that, in interactions between adult human beings, both parties should at least have knuckles. In the rapidly thinning category of things that separate infants from adults, knuckles are an imperative in my view.

I say: Yes.

HUS: Well, we can't have this. Did she show you a doctor's note?

I don't say: You mean when she was passed out or when she was choking?

I don't say: You dumb smiley-faced abortion, you.

I say: No.

HUS: Well [every sentence, it soon becomes clear to me, begins with Well; this is probably the other part of his punishment] you just let me handle this: I'll take care of it from here. [Smile, or rather an intensification of already smiling face, a further warping of the fool's mask; awkward silence]

HUS: Oh, by the way. Forgot to mention. How's she doing?


Anonymous said...

Well maybe what i'm going to say isn't on the subject of this post a bit, but:

Russia. All people here don't like to knuckle. They almost always do this, they become very angry all the time when they hear stupid questions, they hate such things and try to show their supremacy. Well not always, of course. But, well, 10 years ago this was unbearable from them.

Once i personally broke my arm while i was practising judo. And the trainer sat me on the tatame and told that i should be calm and just wait for doctors. Local doctor came and gave me some medicines and recommendations. But, in 20 minutes, when the emergency arrived: At first they brought me to another room with chairs and asked me to tell them about me some necessary information. And I saw my extremely unproportionally broken arm and was answering their questions. That was odd, then very angrying. It was broken right in the middle! It is like sitting in a movie and watching it and fixing some of your things at one time because you can't miss the movie.

Mithridates said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mithridates said...

Anon: No, very apropos indeed, very on subject (although I'm not sure what you mean in your 2nd paragraph; maybe you could clarify for me?. . .). Thanks for this wonderful response.

It's always interested me that, in the few crises I've been in, some people ask obvious or inessential or just inappropriate things. We don't know what to do. In this particular instance, I almost went on teaching the class, if that can be believed, and would have had I not thought of all the horrible consequences of doing so. I was lucky to have had enough good sense about me to call the people who know how to deal with this. Although I WAS baffled by the line that the EMT guy fed me: "There was a line."

All of this reminds me now - a little - of the great opening to a Javier Marias novel translated into English as A Heart So White. A man's daughter shoots herself in the heart in the bathroom during a family dinner. Everyone rushes to see what has happened - and acts inappropriately. One man catches himself in the mirror and fixes his hair; the father stands holding his head with his food still in his mouth, the meat moving from cheek to cheek "as if he did not know what to do with it"; and so on. It's really quite an astonishing first eight pages or so to a novel - just that one frozen moment in which the world is completely shattered and everyone continues to behave almost as if it hadn't happened, sort of like Wile E. Coyote continuing to run after the pavement has disappeared beneath his feet.

Anonymous said...

People who came very calmly tested me on subject of my registration in this country, asked me everything about me without even looking at my arm. They just glanced at it and then...
Very odd. I would even go so far to say oddd.

I wanted to say that those people don't actually care about me or anobody else. They have their job, they do it. Recently on bbc I've learnt that such people are called jobsworth (there is a feature there to learn 1 new word everyday.

I mean, what a stone heart one must have that he or she doesn't even care about another person. And it is so natural (here).

I hope I clarified the situation much enough. Sorry, I know it not so good!

"Post-Google" by TAR ART RAT said...

"fat-ist..." that is goingt o be ringing in my brain all day.

and how surreal to read Helen's happily hijacked blog-

Mithridates said...

I tried fattist, which looks better and prevents it from sounding like fay-tist, but I thought people might think it an actual word. Coinages are harder than they look.

Did you know that there's a growing discipline in American universities that centers on the study of fat-ism? Fat Studies. It's not called that. It's got some other ridiculous name - I can't remember exactly what it's called right now. Someone's trying to publish a journal on this stuff.

My girlfriend was reading Freud's Dora a while ago and was horrified that anybody took him seriously. She said that a hundred years from now a branch of cultural criticism would sprout up from the work of Dr. Atkins, creator of the Atkins diet, which, in case you don't know, cuts most carbohydrates from your diet. Imagine an Atkinsian reading of Moby Dick! It might dovetail nicely with the pioneering work that's being done in Fat Studies.

It was nice of Helen to ask me to blog-sit. But I feel like I'm graffitying the joint. I had twenty or thirty ideas but was afraid I was turning into the sorcerer's apprentice and that the blog would somehow become flooded and taken over by an army of brooms. I lost my grip on that metaphor.

Even my responses are long-winded. Thanks for reading!

Mithridates said...

Anon: Don't apologize, please! No, this was a great response. I just wasn't clear on that one part; I must not have had my coffee that day. But I understand now. Thanks!

Elatia Harris said...

People, I don't want to hurt any feelings, but this bit would have read better in Greek.

Mithridates said...

Elatia: No hurt feelings. After all, doesn't everything read better in Greek? But tell me: does Greek have an equivalent for "fat-ist"? Someone who is prejudiced against the obese?


Anonymous said...

I have questions unrelated to this blog - perhaps you post something fresh so my unrelated questions won't seem so ________. Or maybe.. hmm... do you accept emails? Wait, don't respond! Just post something.

Helen DeWitt said...

fat-ism cd be lipophobia, on the analogy of homophobia, xenophobia and so on, or perhaps misolipy on the analogy of misogyny, misanthropy and so on. English seems to use phobia in compounds both for irrational fear (agoraphobia, claustrophobia...) and for prejudice against (homophobia) which makes it tricky to come up with a coinage encapsulating attitudes to fat. There are people who would appear to have an irrational fear of fat (anorexics, bulimics, some others), which may be a result of internalising a widespread prejudice against fat - lipophobia or any other coinage could reasonably apply to either the fear or the prejudice, but wd not be very helpful if it conflated the two.

mith, i am appalled that you had 20 or 30 ideas for posts and have suppressed them.

anon, if you want to send an email to pp you can click on Contact PP; if you would like to send an email to one of the contributors I think clicking on the contributor's name provides access to an e-mail address (but I may be wrong, have never tried having contributors before).

Elatia Harris said...

So that, to be a fat-ist, one would need to be a militant lipophobe. Unless being a fat-ist analogizes better to being an ageist in the original sense it was used by Patty Hearst: ageist pig. Meaning, an old person seeking to impose tired vintage values on radical young thinkers and doers, like her kidnappers and her Stockholm Syndrome self. The term mutated to mean its exact opposite, but shorn of its context, fat-ist could mean either thing, one who labors mentally either for the triumph or for the expulsion of fat people.

Mithridates said...

I always have 20 or 30 ideas for everything and throw most of them out. Thinking, for me, is sort of like rooting through a vaccuum cleaner bag to find a lost earring. Wads and wads of hairy thoughts end up deep-sixed.

I love misolipy, accent on the "ol," though for something like this I usually prefer gnarled Germanic roots to Greek or Latin ones.

Unknown said...

Out of subject again, sorry:

Mithridates, could you help me with Latin? I laways wanted to learn it, but i don't know a good way of doing it.

What am I to do? What can you advise?

Next time I'll be under a very easy name: esears.

Unknown said...

My google account appears to be suitable here, so ара not esears (if your computer is able to display russian letters.)

Mithridates said...


I’m no expert on this. I know there are some readers of PP who are. Perhaps they can help. I’m a learner, merely.

Here’s what works for me so far:

1. Working every day at it NO MATTER WHAT
2. Memorizing the grammatical tables
3. Writing out each table for all the nouns, then all the adjectives, then all the verbs (all that are given in the tables, of course, not ALL nouns, verbs, adjectives of course…)
4. Working through actual Latin (for example, in Lingua Latina) once you’ve worked through the grammar

What has not worked for me is simply working through Wheelock’s Latin. I don’t know what the Russian version of Wheelock is; perhaps it’s better. But you can’t simply perform the exercises and move on. You have to make sure you KNOW the whole lesson by heart.

I got this method from William Dowling’s homepage. Dowling is a controversial and surly professor at my university. He teaches in the English department but refuses to teach grad students. With pretty good reason, I think. But it’s unfortunate because I’d like to meet him.

Anyway here’s his homepage:

And here’s his page on learning Latin:

Unknown said...

Thank you very much. :)