HANGSAMAN

This book's weird title comes from an American folk song.

This book’s weird title comes from an American folk song.

Hangsaman
by Shirley Jackson

One of the things I find most interesting about adolescence is the fact that it’s such a new phenomenon. The teen ages (and puberty) have always existed, but for the majority of human history, ages 13-19 were considered a part of a person’s childhood or adulthood, not a separate developmental stage. While there isn’t an exact moment in history when the teenager emerged, in the U.S., it was really not until the mid-20th century that teenagers became a separate group. There are a lot of reasons for this. As earlier 20th century economies shifted from an agrarian economy to an industrial one and the Great Depression took hold, laws mandating compulsory education and child labor protections went into effect. Suddenly adolescents from a wider range of social classes were attending high school in much greater numbers and through this shared experience, a communal culture began to form. Marketers caught on and in the 1940s, they coined the term “teenager” for their newfound customer. The rise of the automobile is also considered a major factor in all this.

It was with some of this context in mind that I recently read Shirley Jackson’s 1951 novel, Hangsaman. You’ve probably all read The Lottery, Jackson’s short story about a town that holds an annual lottery to determine which of its members will be stoned to death by their neighbors. Hangsaman is equally dark in its own way. Its simple premise is this: a young woman begins her freshman year of college at a fictional version of Bennington (at the time, an all-women’s school for daughters of the upper class). But this is not your standard Bildungsroman, my friends. The story is much closer to a psychological thriller. With humor. It’s pretty bizarre.

But a mid-century gothic horror story is hysterically appropriate for a book that follows a hypersensitive, hyperaware young woman as she analyzes every last painful detail of both her family life and her introduction to college. Because what could be a greater “terror of the soul” than adolescence? It’s fair to say that this oddly named, oddly written book captivated me until its clever conclusion. I enjoyed Jackson’s metaphor of female adolescence as a neurotic nightmare.

And then I realized that 1951 was also the year that The Catcher in the Rye was published. It occurred to me that Catcher could be seen as the teenage boy’s neurotic nightmare. Yet The Catcher in the Rye is, well, The Catcher in the Rye—a classic, a part of the canon—and meanwhile who the hell has ever heard of Hangsaman, even with a title so weird it would be hard to forget.

Now you may be thinking, oh boy, here she goes, she’s going to try to tell us it’s some sort of a gender thing and that if Shirley Jackson had been a man, we’d all have read this blasted book back in the 10th grade and it too would be a modern classic. Honestly you guys, I’m not sure it’s quite as simple as that. First, I could never deny the genius of the narrative voice in J.D. Salinger’s book. Jackson’s book is good, but I don’t think I’d use the term “genius.” And I don’t know enough about the history of either book’s publication to say what would have or could have been. But I do find the duality of the two books interesting.

Both Salinger and Jackson were doing something utterly unique when they wrote their novels – they were chronicling the anxiety and alienation of a new demographic, the adolescent. Both were years ahead of the social upheaval of the 1960s, a time when many social factors would converge to create its particular climate. Certainly one of the biggest of those factors was the disillusionment of the teenage population. Both authors understood the psychology behind that disillusionment years before the zeitgeist caught on.

 

MAKING AMERICA GREAT AGAIN

Fuzzy HangHi guys, it’s been a while, so let’s just jump right in with this point of re-entry, from David Brooks’ February 9 Op-Ed column: “To hear Sanders or Trump, Cruz and Ben Carson campaign is to wallow in the pornography of pessimism, to conclude that this country is on the verge of complete collapse. That’s simply not true. We have problems, but they are less serious than those faced by just about any other nation on earth.”

Before you grow too baffled, rest assured that this blog is not being converted into a political forum. But given what I’ve been up to over the past seven months or so, I couldn’t help but feel a particular appreciation for Brooks calling out the fear/anger-mongering for the sake of mongering. Don’t get me wrong – questioning the status quo is an important and sacred part of a free society, but there’s a difference between intellectual discourse and baiting.

And you know who really resents the disingenuousness of the mongering? My 18-year-old clients. Regardless of their political persuasion, they don’t like to feel as though they’re getting played. Which brings me to: a) what I’ve been doing since we last spoke and b) what I’ve been reading. Hint: the answers to both questions are virtually the same and can be summed up in two words: college essays.

Both the beauty and the horror of 18-year olds is that (with some exceptions) they are innately optimistic. This isn’t to say they aren’t questioning everything that’s come before, but they tend to believe it will get better and they personally can be agents of change. Heck, one of my students wrote a whole essay about being an optimist and how such an outlook will serve him well as a scientist and entrepreneur.

Another of my kiddos described the moment when she knew she wanted to be a doctor. While lifeguarding at the local pool, one of her charges got a bloody nose and as my gal held a paper towel up to the little boy’s nose and tipped his head back, she realized the power of being able to use her hands to help someone.

Even the most mundane-seeming events in a young person’s life can be made meaningful through their sensitive and thoughtful perspective. Like my client who wrote about learning to make her often-grumpy Punjabi grandfather a cup of chai tea, a rite that wasn’t significant to her until she realized how much it meant to him.

And then there was an essay by one of my Chinese students that was so beautifully written, with a narrative voice so strong, I can’t do it justice trying to paraphrase it here. But I’ll just say this (as Senator Sanders often quips): at its heart, the essay was about his struggle to find his place somewhere between the two cultures he occupied as an international student in the U.S. Beyond his lovely writing, the part that slayed me was the raw vulnerability he displayed when describing the intense, to the point of agonizing, desire he initially felt to be American.

I work with a fair number of international students (and lots more who are their family’s first or second generation in the U.S.) and the essays that describe the agony and the ecstasy of this journey are a constant reminder that we’re doing something right over here. Even more encouraging is witnessing how so many of my students–regardless of their background–want to pay it forward. I can’t tell you how many kids want to develop renewable energy systems or businesses based in social entrepreneurship or organizations to address all those parts of the current system they don’t think are working. I’ve got young women who want to work with younger girls to encourage their love of math and science. I’ve even got someone brave enough to want to tackle big money in politics. Beyond their goals, the sheer magnitude of their energy is astounding. How could I possibly identify with the “pornography of pessimism” when this is my daily reading material? I think it’s pretty clear who is going to make America great again.

 

LOWERING THE BAR

Did you miss me? Aw, thanks, I missed you too. Why yes, I have had a nice summer. I’ve been eating a lot of fruit, reading a little and I went somewhere I haven’t been in twenty years: Paris.

Now usually a person doesn’t feel nervous and guilty anticipating a glamorous, upcoming vacation (unless of course that person happens to be my husband), but before the trip I had some concerns. The last time I’d been in Paris I was a college student doing her semester abroad and when I left in the summer of 1994, I assumed I’d be back soon, in the naïve, entitled way that a person does when they’re unable to realize how thoroughly they’re taking something for granted.

Trying to look cool = no smile

Trying to look cool = no smile

As the years went by and I traveled to other places but never back to the city that had embraced and challenged me, I began to wonder if perhaps I was still up for Paris – meaning mostly that I was terrified of speaking French again (which hadn’t exactly been my forte, even at my most immersed). If you are thinking, “well then just speak English,” you do not understand the solemnity with which the Parisians of my youth took their mother tongue. Rule #1: if you know any shred of French whatsoever, you speak it. It’s a sign of respect. We can get into the historical/socio-political context for this attitude another time. Just know that being the compulsive rule-follower that I am, respect I would show.

Cut to the summer of 2015. Paris is a significantly more diverse city than the one I left. It’s also cleaner, friendlier and generally younger (though maybe that last one has more to do with me being older). And pardon the abstraction, but it also feels more nuanced and layered in ways that are difficult to explain. Or were hard to explain until I reached a particular passage from our old friend Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose second volume of My Struggle I happened to be reading on the trip:

“When I was twenty what I had, what made me me, was so little. I didn’t know that, of course, because that was all there was at that time. But now that I’m thirty-five there’s more. Well, everything that existed in me when I was twenty is still there. But now it’s surrounded by so much more.”

I thought this was a great antidote to sentimentality – the idea that life becomes richer and more interesting as we get older because we are more enriched and interesting ourselves.

Does this mean j’ai parlé with the best of them? Let me put it this way. It’s amazing how fluent one can be in a language of 1,000 words. It turns out that just getting one’s point across, no matter how clumsy, can be a victory in and of itself. In fact, it can even be fun. Lowering the bar allows you to leap over it.

Le Metro I

Which brings me to this blog. During this past year, I wrote a post based on every book I read. The idea, as you’ve figured out by now, was to use the books as launching points for pithy little essays, rather than to write reviews (there are plenty of those out there).

This year there are new demands on the work and personal fronts—all good, but demanding nonetheless—so that both my time and mental energy are more occupied now.

So I’m going to lower the bar. I’m going to write in a language of 1,000 words, rather than 100,000. I’m going to post when I can but not freak out when I can’t. (The compulsive rule-follower in me has trouble changing rules, even when they’re self-imposed.) Hopefully the things I read will be inspiring enough that writing about them will be effortless, but I’m making no promises. I know, dear reader, at this point you’re shaking your fist at the screen and screaming out “WHY???” with a sense of bottomless grief. It’ll be a loss, I understand, but try to carry on as best you can during my absences. I’ll be back before you know it. I do, eventually, return.

Le Metro II

TWO GIRLS, FAT AND THIN

Two Girls, Fat and Thin
by Mary Gaitskill

You may remember a previous post about some books I’ve been carrying around for the past twenty years, the contents of which I could not recall. Let’s refer to these books as my “amnesia series.” On my second go-around, the following excerpt leapt out at me from the pages of Two Girls, Fat and Thin:

“ … for every imperfect entity, be it human or material, there exists a perfect counterpart; a lovely princess for every pimply shop girl. This perfection was not an annulment of the shop girl, but an ideal for her to aspire to … That is why advertising is deeply moral; its smiling billboards are neat openings into the air-brushed world of perfect beauty that we can all strive for and attain, to one degree or another, depending on our individual components.”

It’s been more than a week since the finale and I’m still thinking about Mad Men, the best novel I’ve ever watched. (If you haven’t seen the show and/or the series finale yet but plan to, you may consider some of the following a spoiler. If you haven’t seen the show and don’t plan to, I suggest reconsidering.)

Joan

Photos courtesy of AMC

There are so many things we could discuss about Mad Men, but the thought that lingers for me was how, somewhat to my surprise, Don turned out to be more cipher than hero or villain. This man who looked like a prince but acted like a pimple had an entire decade to reconcile his inner demons and emerge the better for it. But he couldn’t. He gained self-awareness, but not self-actualization. He just got better at being the same old Don.

Joan and Peggy’s demons, on the other hand, were external and while they each chose very different ways of handling those demons, both triumphed in the end. So while Don was our protagonist, the women were our heroes. They didn’t just “keep moving forward” as Don loved to say, they survived by learning and growing, ultimately realizing their full potential.

Peggy

The quote above describes exactly why we love duality in storytelling (and duality is a huge theme in Mad Men). Deep down, most people think of themselves as the pimply shop girl though they long to be the princess. Don understood that psychology as well as anyone, which is what made him the perfect ad man. It’s also why Bert Cooper, Ayn Rand devotee, loved Don so much – he knew how to feed the capitalist utopia.

So is this Mary Gaitskill book anything like Mad Men? That would be a no. There are some interesting coincidental parallels: a duality theme, a subplot involving a fictional version of Ayn Rand, some backstory about growing up a (very tortured) girl in the 1960s, but that’s where the similarities end.

And yet I kept the book all these years out of a form of nostalgia. Like a lot of things from the past, it was reassuring to read the book again and recognize that I hadn’t remembered it because I didn’t need to. I was okay without it. In one of Mad Men’s most iconic episodes, The Wheel, Don tells a room of Kodak execs that the word “nostalgia” means “the pain from an old wound” in Greek. I suppose we’re nostalgic for the things we’re still trying to sort out in our minds. Really good stories give us a lot to sift through.

Mad-Men-finale-690

This is my last post for a few weeks, I’ll be on sabbatical for a while. Read something good while I’m gone or re-watch Mad Menyou pick up a lot the second time around.

WHERE YOU GO IS NOT WHO YOU’LL BE

SafariWhere You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be:
An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania
by Frank Bruni

Frank Bruni has a big problem with me. But we’ll get back to that. Let’s start with the anxiety around college admissions. What’s it all about? Why is it so much worse now than it used to be?

One reason is the mythology around “brand name” schools, the idea that entrance to a highly selective and well-known college validates a student’s worth and will automatically set them on a path to success. Additionally, the rise of college rankings has created a cycle in which schools that already have 10 times the number of applicants they can accept go to great lengths to recruit even more applicants, thereby driving down their acceptance rate while simultaneously driving up their ranking. And then there is the special consideration afforded to athletes, legacy students, current/potential donors, children of the famous and those of faculty, all of whom, in addition to an increasing pool of international students, decreases other applicants’ chances.

Not to mention all the trouble I personally am causing. Like I said, Frank Bruni has a big problem with me. According to Frank, I am part of the nefarious cabal known as Private Consultants who strip unwitting families of their last dollars while “prepping and packaging students … festooning them with all the right ribbons and all the prettiest bows.” There is oh so much I could say in response to this depiction, but before I get too snarky or defensive, let me explain why I became a college essay coach and why I think helping students with their college essays is not in fact the problem, but rather part of the solution.

A while back, I started volunteering as a writer coach in the Berkeley schools, where I worked (and still do) one-on-one with the same students all year as they navigated their various English assignments. I found that the relationships I developed with the students were surprisingly meaningful and in particular, I enjoyed the assignments that required the students to write about themselves. From my own experiences, I knew how empowering it was to write one’s own story and I loved being able to share that excitement by encouraging kids to tell their individual stories as only they could. It made me want to do more encouraging, more coaching. And what bigger milestone is there in a young person’s life than the transition from high school to college?

As one of the experts in Bruni’s book puts it, “[College is] supposed to put you in touch with yourself, so that you know more about your strengths, weaknesses and values and can use that information as your mooring and compass in a tumultuous, unpredictable world.” When I read those words, they spoke to me because, on a smaller scale, writing one’s college essays (and really the whole college application process) should entail the same goals.

Despite Frank’s one-dimensional generalizations about private college counselors, I’m going to let him off the hook because he has an important point to make, one that I wish more people would take to heart. What one does is a lot more important than where one does it. Checking off boxes and accumulating status symbols only gets you so far. But to be an engaged, aware and actualized human being will allow you to soar no matter where you launch.

Thank you to Mary Boyer, patron of the arts and many a liberal arts college, for sending this one my way.

Safari 2

Fly like an eagle