An English Professor Gives Feedback on Sex Spam Subject Lines

 

  1. “There is no problem for me to sleep with strangers, from Abigail.”

Abigail, that’s great, but there is a problem with your “there is.” In this case, those two words are an expletive construction, meaning they don’t add value to the sentence. It’s like how “fuck” is a filler word with no real meaning (though it can be a verb too—I guess I don’t have to tell you that!) Be more concise. Why not just say “I have no problem sleeping with strangers”? Save your energy for your other endeavors.

  1. “I’m so lustful. I can’t be a modest one.”

I like the short, staccato sentences to thematize breathless concupiscence. The anaphora created by the repetition of the first-person pronoun is also nice. However, “I can’t be modest” would be a stronger statement. As written, the sudden switch from the definite “I” to the indefinite “one” is problematic. James Thurber wrote of this kind of error, “Rare examples of it still exist and are extremely valuable as antiques, although it is usually unsafe to sit or lie down on one.” Especially in your case, I’d imagine.

  1. “So just one chance for you to hook up with me.”

Be sure to proofread for dropped words. Microsoft Word won’t catch the missing verb, perhaps “remains,” in this sentence. I find it helpful to read my work out loud. Do you have a cat? Read it to him, a john, whomever!

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A Tale of Twin Queens of Hearts

I’ve been thinking about why we love the art we love. In some of my most formative encounters with creative work, like Lolita, trauma fueled the attraction; in others, such as butoh dance, I was lured by an exotic vibration that turned familiar with time. But for Twin Peaks and The Tale of Genji, two of the works that shaped and soldered me, both trauma and the tension between exotic and familiar fostered my love. And this contemporary television series/movie franchise and this 1000-year-old Japanese novel are both obsessed with doubles.

When I first read The Tale of Genji in college, a friend remarked on the theme of the double. Its protagonist, Genji, loses a forbidden love to taboo (she’s his stepmother) and religion (she takes the tonsure), so he grooms her very young niece to take her place. In the novel’s radical last third, the antihero Kaoru replaces Oigimi, a lover who dies, with her half-sister Ukifune. My friend observed, “Twin Peaks is the same story when it comes to Dale Cooper’s infatuation with Annie,” a young woman and love interest who resembles his dead beloved, Caroline.

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The Polish Resistance and Me

1.

My family once knew how to resist great evil.

Less so now. Based on the current generation, we seem unlikely candidates for such heroism. The truth is, we’re average. Some of us have done better than others by whatever metric you might judge a life—career, money, education, length and frequency of marriages, number of offspring. We’ve fallen ill mentally and physically. We’ve divorced and failed in all of the other usual ways. We bicker, ignore, criticize, lie.

But during World War II, from their base at the foot of the Tatra Mountains, a batch of my first cousins, once removed, fought the Nazi regime. They glided to legend the same way they traveled to Christmas Eve’s midnight mass when snow was piled high: on skis.

The Marusarz were poor Polish-Catholic farmers whose children had to quit school after eighth grade to help with chores. But several of them—Stanisław, Jan, and Helena—showed unusual talent as skiers and turned competitive in the 1930s, winning national titles in ski jumping and downhill. Stanisław competed in his first Olympic games in 1932 and participated in four more. For a while, my distant cousins seemed poised to transcend their limited circumstances.

Then, on September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland. After a brief but passionate fight, Poland was occupied by the Germans. The borders were sealed, and Zakopane, where the Marusarz family lived, was declared a closed town. The Tatra Mountains, which rose steeply from its limits and divided Poland from present-day Slovakia, were the one escape route left open. As a precaution, the Germans forced the local citizens to hand over their ski equipment on pain of death. Stanisław, Jan, and Helena chose to keep theirs and use it for good as ski couriers, transporting intelligence and refugees over the mountains and to resistance headquarters in Budapest, in the Armia Krajowa, or “Home Army.”

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Anthony Bourdain Lived and Died Around the World

Anthony Bourdain Lived and Died Around the World (revised)

*I published a version of this essay about four years ago. This is an updated version to commemorate the fourth anniversary of his death.

“There’s something very strange about you, because you look normal,
but it’s all going on inside. Yes, you have got a slight pleading look in your eyes.”
– Nigella Lawson to Anthony Bourdain, “London”

When Anthony Bourdain killed himself, a lot of people on news outlets and social media expressed astonishment that someone so successful would die by suicide. I was stunned that they were stunned. For my part, I’d long been surprised and impressed by the fact that he chose and was able to maintain, for years, a functional life after heroin and crack addiction. To me, that was the unlikelihood.

Yet on some level, I understood other people’s reactions. It wasn’t just because Bourdain had received accolades, amassed wealth, and scored what seemed to many of us the perfect job. We know enough about suicide, or should, to grasp that it is usually not a reaction to one specific event, and even objectively good circumstances may not preclude it. I think the shock was compounded by the fact that Bourdain was always chasing and articulating something so elemental to the human spirit. As a companion in the “Spain” episode of Parts Unknown puts it while they down tripe-spiked tapas: “Sun. Plaza. Guts.” If Bourdain couldn’t be happy with regular dosages of all three, then it seems like we’re all kind of fucked.

I was a fan of Bourdain’s No Reservations series years back but had never watched his more recent Parts Unknown episodes. Shortly after his suicide in 2018, I watched all 64 segments that were on Netflix at the time; this chunk represents two-thirds of the series. I viewed them to enjoy them and to mourn, and also to try to comprehend why Bourdain ended his life—which is, of course, impossible. But it is so tempting to wonder, to treat death as if it has an answer. If it has an answer, maybe there’s a solution too.

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Claudel’s Commitment

Note: A version of this essay appeared on the website, The Ekphrastic Review, in 2019. Because there’s no dedicated link to the piece on the website, I decided to post it here too.

Paul Claudel, the brother of French artist Camille Claudel, had her committed to a mental institution in 1913, just after their father’s death. Although her forms indicated that she had been voluntarily admitted, they were signed by a doctor and Paul, not by Camille.

After about a year, she was moved to another hospital as protection against the advancing German front. But Claudel was a prisoner of war within her own family. Her brother rarely visited and never told her of the death of her loving father, which had allowed him to do what he had likely wanted to do for a long time. Hide away the unmanageable sister who embarrassed him with her unconventional behavior, which included living openly as an artist and having an affair with her mentor, Auguste Rodin.

“I’ll come again,” Paul might have said on those very occasional visits, as he hastened to leave. The poet-diplomat brother crossing enemy lines—for every mental patient is behind enemy lines.

Despite the fact that several of her doctors protested her confinement, her brother and mother chose to keep her hospitalized until her death in 1943.

**

Aside from Claudel herself, the greatest casualty of her illness was that art. Prior to her commitment, she destroyed many sculptures in psychotic fits. Only about ninety remained by the time she was locked away.

Perhaps she pictured them living on after she had smashed them. Did she feel their cold reproaches could no longer hurt her? Or did they still mock her, freeing themselves from night’s monolith and shambling toward her bed, their derision a crack in marble only she could see?

I am glad that she spared some, like La Vague. La Vague was a departure for her, so fitting it told of a wave, of a change about to move water and land as one. Bronze and marble and onyx, more delicate than what had come before. I wonder if critics were comforted when they saw it, perhaps thinking that the aging spinster had swapped her lurid embraces for decorative arts, as was proper. But Claudel had seen woodblock prints by the Japanese artist Hokusai and been inspired. In Hokusai’s work, nature is pruned and perfected but loses none of its power. His waves are as pretty as the hair of a doll but still they crash out of the frame. Maybe that’s what Claudel was after, or what she was. Rodin wrote to her in a letter, “In a single instant I feel your terrible force.”

Did she ever wish she had destroyed La Vague? In the sculpture, the wave looks like it is reaching for three young girls. It arches like the back of a woman making love, but when it touches them the faces pooling in the water are men’s. Her doctors, her brother.

**

Did Claudel wait for release from the asylum, as she had once waited for Rodin? Always waiting for something to happen—a love, a life—shaves softness from the mind, sharpening it like a sculptor transforming marble from innocence to experience.

During her years of confinement, Claudel may have longed for her child, the one she aborted in 1892. Or perhaps she thought an unborn son or daughter—especially a daughter—should be grateful to have been spared being cast in bronze for life’s exhibition. If what we quickened in the womb had to pass muster before the members of the academy and be given permission to come forth, like some of Claudel’s sculptures, this earth would be deserted.

Locked inside the hospital while the blood of World War I soaked fields outside, Claudel must have fought for her own truce. I wonder how she brokered peace with her mind and her situation. Did she think Rodin was still out to steal from and kill her? Maybe she pictured advancing troops made up of huge sculptures instead of men. Her work fighting her lover’s before forming a pact, then turning on her.

Back when they were lovers, Claudel and Rodin conceived a romantic contract together. It said he would leave his partner Rose and stay true to her, taking no other lover or model. Romantic and sexual contracts are the erotic flipside to commitment forms for the allegedly insane. They tease out the power dynamics of legal-judicial language in order to deliver pleasure, not penalties. The affair between Claudel and Rodin was passionate, tumultuous, so the idea of a contract to calm (or prolong) the storm must have made sense. But with lovers, sometimes appeasement masquerades as collusion.

Rodin violated its terms, of course. Who knows if he felt it to be his artist’s prerogative or if he had chosen his words based on momentary terror and need. I imagine his lover hoped he’d crafted them with assurance and strength, the way he created his unions in bronze.

Devoid of legal recourse, her demons named for her, maybe Claudel dreamt of a contract between herself and her world. One that promised a liberated woman would not be punished.

Maybe she dreamt that she would not be cast in bronze in the asylum, that she would wither and crumble, broken plaster littering the floor of a huge atelier.

Maybe she dreamt that madness was not set in stone. And maybe, through that dream, it wasn’t.

Tiny Libraries and Nowhere Classrooms

We’ve entered an era of hyperobjects and microcosms. Plastic fills the ocean, and structures like capitalism are everywhere and nowhere, oppressive and debilitating. But their antidote may be the proliferation of small learning communities, gemlike chips off ivory towers.

The city of Victoria, where I live, is dotted by dovecote-size lending libraries on people’s front lawns. Further up my street, Arts and Crafts houses preface their intricate stories with these mini versions of themselves. The little lending libraries, like the houses, often feature prominent roofs and small-paned windows, and are painted in complementary colors. Bright curlicues and calligraphy invite passersby to take or leave a book. Even when public and university libraries closed down due to COVID-19, these small stores circulated tales and advice, history and dream. Continue reading

Hair Care Tips for Lupus

When I suffered a life-threatening lupus flare five years ago and lost half my hair, I despaired, especially because many internet articles suggested the loss was irreversible. One blogger said we just had to accept that lupus would take away our hair along with our health.

Fortunately, this is not true! While a patient with discoid lupus, which can cause scarring on hair follicles, might endure permanent hair loss, there’s no reason why someone with systemic lupus erythematosus can’t regrow her hair. I’m wishing that these ten tips for coping with the fallout and growing your hair back better than ever will give help and hope to someone with lupus. Continue reading

Sick Social Media Stars

These days, the cultural conversation about illness unfolds on social media and kindred outlets. And for about five years before COVID-19, illness was the most glamorous it had been since hysteria in Freud’s heyday. Like with an autoimmune disease, there are periods of remission during which popular culture doesn’t dwell on such downfalls much—but then the focus flares. The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to alter our views on sickness, if it hasn’t already. The ill are no longer outliers, and the run-of-the-mill are harder to eroticize. But before its outbreak, celebrities vied on Instagram and other platforms for the title of sickest-but-fairest. Continue reading

Favorite Books, Films, and Television of 2021

Favorite Books (and Plays) 2021

 The Shadow King: Ekphrastic terror and haunting music

The Vanishing Half

The House of Breath

Moby Dick

Klara and the Sun: It’s no Never Let Me Go, but Ishiguro makes an interesting attempt to imagine the mind of a non-human

Macbeth, Othello, and The Merchant of Venice: I’m slowly reading through all of the Shakespeare plays that I missed during my first four decades. These three are the last of the unforgivable omissions, with Macbeth’s wintry, witchy poetry my favorite.

Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life: A great companion to . . .

 

Favorite Films 2021 Continue reading

Post-Pandemic Curricula

One of my employers, the University of Victoria, turns 58 this year. Its late middle age coincides with a profound shift in pedagogy, as well as the onset of the post-pandemic period. (It will inevitably be called that though more pandemics are sure to follow in our unsustainable world, making that moniker itself unsustainable.) Two pedagogical trends seem worthy of wider interest in this post-pandemic jungle, especially for those of us living with chronic physical and mental health issues: trauma-informed pedagogy and curricula designed around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Continue reading

Kuma’s Favorite Things, Part II

  1. For Kuma, it’s all about the packaging, not what’s inside. In particular, bright-colored ribbons tickle his fancy.
  2. Our sunporch. We live in a top-floor, corner unit of our condo building, what a friend on the second floor generously calls “the penthouse.” Standing in our enclosed sunporch, I adore the views of the mountains in Washington State on days clear of clouds and wildfire smoke. But Kuma keeps tabs on the birds and other cats in our neighborhood, spending hours staring out the sunporch windows, and meowing to alert us when he spies a feline rival.
  3. His lint brush. This one’s going to sound weird, but stay with me. A few years ago, my husband was using an adhesive lint brush to remove Kuma’s fur from his clothing after brushing our cat. Then it hit him: Why not roll the brush over Kuma’s fur to remove excess hair? I was appalled, thinking it might catch in his fur, but Kuma absolutely loves it. When Mark breaks out the brush, Kuma comes right over and purrs loudly as he’s groomed. It works especially well at the vet, where he sheds madly due to stress.
  4. “The Rainbow Connection.” No creature has ever appreciated my lullabies as Kuma does. His new favorite is “The Rainbow Connection” from The Muppet Movie, but I replace every instance of “rainbow” with “Kuma.” He closes his eyes and purrs along.
  5. The smell of strawberries. Summertime was heaven for him as he inhaled the fresh strawberries in our fruit basket

Recent Interviews and Readings

This month, I’d like to post links to recent interviews and readings rather than a written piece, partly because it’s still August as I prepare this entry, and I’m feeling late-summer lazy.

First, I want to share a link to an interview I did with the wonderful Rebecca Gagan, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Victoria and the inspired mind behind the podcast, “Waving, not Drowning” (title inspired by Stevie Smith’s poem, “Not Waving, But Drowning”). Rebecca is doing important work by interviewing faculty and staff about their own challenges with mental health as students and how they developed resilience, in the hopes of offering support to current students. But I was also interested in sharing my current and past struggles with mental illness and lupus because I feel that we need a much more open conversation about faculty and staff health at colleges and universities, particularly as we return to campuses impacted by COVID-19. This is especially the case at universities in the United States, which rely more and more on adjunct and associate faculty who may not have any health care coverage through their jobs. Even as we teachers are striving to support our more vulnerable students, our own vulnerability must be admitted and considered as part of the university ecosystem.

Interview with Rebecca Gagan on “Waving, not Drowning” from August 6, 2021: https://www.instagram.com/p/CSPQoKDl2eS/

And here is a link to my reading of the first three sections of the essay, “A Woman in Trouble: My Life and Illnesses Filtered Through Twin Peaks,” published by Witness Magazine in their Spring 2021 issue: https://youtu.be/SxFmGvXrFi4

Anti-Bengal Bias in Veterinary Medicine

Given my usual literary preoccupations, which include equity within medical care, the title of this essay may seem like a spoof of my own writings. But it’s not. To me, the topic is deadly serious, as my husband Mark and I are the proud parents of Kuma, a bold, beautiful, loyal, 10-year-old Bengal cat.

Anti-Bengal bias is present, and prevalent, among vets. Bengals are the Borderline Personality Disorder patients of veterinary medicine, immediately stereotyped as “difficult.” It’s true that Bengal cats bear some savage DNA, an atavistic wildness, due to an Asian leopard cat ancestor, generations back. They don’t like to be prodded by strangers and may hiss and fight to get away from a physical exam. But Bengal cats are, in many ways, more domesticated than most domestic cats. Kuma waits for Mark by the door when he goes out, a feline Hachiko. He happily walks on a leash. He is gentle, if cautious, with strangers who want to pet him, including the many children who flock to him during our strolls. Continue reading

Grief

In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry talks about how physical pain steals language. Grief robs something else: movement. It paralyzes. When grief is in response to someone’s death, the irony is that they have moved on, but we survivors are stock-still.

A few days ago, my father died. People who have read my essay, “The Man in White Underwear Thinks I’m Crazy,” will know that his and my relationship was irrevocably fractured. I hadn’t spoken with him for several years. I don’t feel that I didn’t get to say what I wanted. I feel that I didn’t get the time to think of what I might have said.

Now, as I’m mourning, it’s not that I can’t describe my grief in language. I could. Grief is the swell of a wave that never breaks; it’s the broken edges of pottery not patched with gold; it’s an hour of lead; it’s soot and ash; it’s a black crow feathering the heart.

But I just don’t have the energy.

There are places I can’t go. I used to cry promiscuously. I used to thrill and hum like a cathedral spire. My journeys stay close to home today.

Maybe I would say to him: I was built for joy as well as suffering. But not now.

Poetry for One Body or Billions

Fall 2016: One Ill Body

Donald Trump is elected president on November 8, 2016. A few days later, I start to weaken. At first, I think I’m just suffering from somaticized depression. Who isn’t? But by the following week, my temperature has climbed to 105 degrees. By the end of November, I can’t walk and am admitted to the hospital. Three days later, I am diagnosed with systemic lupus. The average lupus patient, with her chameleonic symptoms, takes six years to be properly diagnosed. Perhaps the fever—or the political crisis—has imploded time.

Meanwhile, bitter partisanship cleaves the United States in two. At the time, I am teaching in Kofu, Japan, but living abroad can sensitize you to the bumps and sways of your native land, like how some drivers feel carsick when they’re made passengers. If you don’t enjoy the illusion of control, sudden movements alarm you even more. Continue reading

In The Hole: Hiroko Oyamada Goes to Ground

While reading The Hole, the second novel by Japanese author Hiroko Oyamada to appear in English, I recalled the saying, “出る釘は打たれる”—the nail that sticks out must be hammered down. It’s an indictment of Japanese society’s pressure to conform, though this ubiquitous maxim does its own amount of hammering. In reality, Japan is less homogenous than it suggests, with rebellious grandmothers dyeing their hair purple while the nation’s artists, designers, directors, and dancers push the boundaries of the global avant-garde. Perhaps alert to the irony, Oyamada chooses to literalize this saying as her characters sink into human-sized cavities in the ground. Continue reading

Fifty Years Ago, Yukio Mishima First Staged Death as Spectacle

I wrote this piece last year, but I think its message is still relevant.

            During a 1961 session with photographer Eikoh Hosoe, the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima shared his special gift: He could keep his eyes open, without blinking, for up to two minutes. This ability came in handy when modeling and could serve as a metaphor for his novels. In particular, his Sea of Fertility tetralogy, completed nine years later, fixates on the violence of watching. It seems almost inevitable, in hindsight, that on the day he finished it, Mishima would force the world to watch him die. We’ve been speaking of the male gaze for decades, but Mishima pioneered the forced gaze.

I specialized in modern Japanese literature during graduate school, and when I lived in Japan, people would query me about my favorite writers. I learned quickly never to mention Mishima. He’s the country’s disowned child. He drew attention to Japan for all the wrong reasons, and even today, his name is a billboard for national shame. Continue reading

The Ten Most Shaming Summaries on Netflix

“A 1939 American Civil War epic known for its racism. To learn more about Black lives in America, search for ‘Black Lives Matter.’”
(Actual description of Gone with the Wind on Netflix)

  1. Gone with the Wind, continued: That you would even click on this disgrace is testament to your deplorability. You’re the reason Afro-pessimism exists. Ta-Nehisi Coates should pen a long letter gently excoriating your white privilege. And no, lusting after the Duke on Bridgerton doesn’t mean you’re woke.
  2. Schindler’s List: You like your Holocaust fare lite, don’t you? What, you’re too busy to watch Shoah? If you’re going to indulge in this pro-German, apologist kitsch, you might as well slap a Camp Auschwitz t-shirt on yourself and descend on Capitol Hill.
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From Flesh to Word: Female Disembodiment in Literature

I’ve been thinking a lot about disembodiment lately, probably because I spend hours holding court in Zoom’s kingdom of floating heads. As I discuss literature about illness with my students, I savor the irony: we’re discussing texts obsessed with the body even as we’re estranged from each other’s.

Literature glories in disembodiment. In fiction from around the world, limbs disappear. Whole bodies fade. Human flesh is lost in fabric or spirited away to spectral form. Sometimes, these happenings serve as political allegories or erotic fantasies. In other cases, they dissect notions of identity, memory, gender norms, racism, or cultures of violence.

Inspired by our current predicament, I decided to anatomize the literary body of works about female disembodiment through fiction and nonfiction by Yoko Ogawa, Yasunari Kawabata, Carmen Maria Machado, Gaurav Monga, Anne Boyer, and Murasaki Shikibu.
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Favorite Books and Television of 2020

I didn’t read as much as I ordinarily do this year, despite the quarantines. Instead, I taught 12 courses, designed two new literature courses, did major revisions of my two books-in-progress, wrote a handful of new essays, and bought my first home. Exhaustion and exhilaration went side by side. But believe me, I know how lucky I am to be busy with work during a pandemic.

I also watched fewer new films, but I did indulge in a ton of television, and I enjoyed many of the books I did finish. So here goes: Continue reading