Sunday, May 30, 2010
What made me want to become a prof in the first place? As I desperately searched for a new career, it was a question people often asked me.
Ten years ago, while finishing my undergrad, I’d stumbled across a novel that wasn’t on the syllabus for any Honours English seminar. Hanif Kureishi’s The Black Album. It’s a novel about Shahid Hassan’s journey through the peeling halls of a London community college known “less in the academic area but more for gang rivalries, drugs, thieving and political violence.” Shahid is bedazzled by an alluring, tormented prof named Deedee Osgood. As soon as he walks into her locker-sized office, she interrogates him with “difficult questions about Wright and Ellison, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison,” all the while tantalizing him with her body language:
“Off he went, being exemplary, until, that is, she crossed her legs and tugged her skirt down. He had, so far, successfully kept his eyes averted from her breasts and legs. But the whole eloquent movement – what amounted in that room to an erotic landslide of rustling and hissing – was so sensational and almost provided the total effect of a Prince concert that his mind took off into a scenario about how he might be able to tape-record the whisper of her legs, copy it, add a backbeat, and play it through his head-phones.”
Years later, while standing on the other side of the lecture podium, I tried to rationalize why I coveted having this effect. Was it sheer boredom? If Henry James wasn’t quite cutting it, then lecturing in stilettos gave my mood a boost? Since the dusty town had nary a single man, I found myself lost in my own libidinal energies, which sought compensatory expression in fashion and makeup. Or perhaps I had such fond memories of my own university crushes – on strange looking men in shabby jackets and balding like smurfs – that I thought, How much more potent, if the erudite train of thought comes delivered in a sleek black suit, smelling of jasmine.
No doubt, there were certain kids who came to my office hours and glued themselves to a chair. It was amazing how the most banal comments – “The Waste Land was shaped by World War One” – set their faces alight. But up close, their youthful, innocent expressions started to make me feel like a tawdry, old woman. In the end, I was too much of a goody two shoes to be a Mrs. Robinson. Unlike my heroine, Deedee Osgood, I would abstain from absconding with a student into the hallucinogenic world of the London club scene.
Deedee is a terrible role model as a professor, but as a complex literary character she knows how to get under the reader’s skin. Not afraid to expose her vulnerability, she hesitates when Shahid asks what drives her: “I’m trying to find out. Other things. Culture. When I can, I do a lot of nothing. And I make stabs at pleasure. Yes.” She's as lost as her students, stumbling along some path to self-discovery without any grand epiphanic moments. Yes, it was time to admit it. So was I.
Photo from: here
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
I stood outside the house where my father grew up, snapping pictures. A stout woman in a house dress came out and scowled. She swept the porch, practically beating it.
"I'm not a speculator," I said. I explained that my great-grandmother - "Granny Shimo," as everyone used to call her - had bought the house in the 1950s. The woman's face softened in recognition. Evidently, her father had told her about Mrs. Shimo driving a hard bargain.
The woman invited me in. Walking around inside, I found myself imagining my grandfather, Kaz, in various stages of decline. Staggering around the house, bumping into furniture. Passed out on the sofa, drunk and high. Bundled up in a rocking chair, catatonic and shaking, his face ashen. I felt like the boy in James Joyce's “The Sisters,” haunted by the ghostly memory of Father Flynn:
“I imagined that I saw again the heavy grey face of the paralytic. I drew the blankets over my head and tried to think of Christmas. But the grey face still followed me. It murmured and I understood that it desired to confess something. I felt my soul receding into some pleasant and vicious region and there again I found it waiting for me."
There's something moving about the crazy old priest, whose beliefs have fallen by the wayside. The “idle chalice” he clasps in his coffin – an eerie reminder of the chalice he broke shortly before his death – crystallizes the story’s central theme of mania and malaise at the centre of the church.
I wished that Kaz's life could be grasped according to some similar symbol or “epiphany.” Joyce is famous for creating these beautiful epiphanic moments where the ideas of his stories converge on their exact focus and the implications of all events become ironically clear.
But nothing came to mind as I peered into the dusty corners of the house. No flash of insight. My grandfather remained a blind spot, as always.
“Where did Kaz die after his stroke?” I asked my father later that evening. I was thinking of that cramped bedroom, the smooth white bedspread stretching out.
Daddy’s eyes twitched like he’d been given a shock. I watched his bewildered expression from the corner of my eye.
What wasn’t he telling me? Did he think I couldn’t handle the truth?
Image from: here
Saturday, May 22, 2010
Tinsel-shot scarves floated by. Men with jutting bellies swaggered past. I bumped into a shoulder and a face spun around, scrunching up like a bulldog. Swearing at me in some language I didn't understand.
But beneath the show of arrogance: a small, hard kernel of disappointment. I could see it glowing through the lines etched into his face.
As I turned onto St. Clarens, I was thinking about my grandfather, Kaz. I was thinking of him tripping on the cement cracks, whiskey bottle in hand, laughing into the empty air.
By the time he'd moved here in the 50s, he'd reached the end of the line. He'd dropped out of dental school, messed up as a bookkeeper, and had the wrong temperament for managing a dry-cleaning shop. After a while, he stopped trying in favour of strolling up and down the street. That was when he started hearing the voices in his head.
As my own career prospects narrowed, I feared that I had a similar self-destructive impulse ticking away.
And I kept walking. The sidewalk flowed into the distance, an endless white line.
Earlier that morning, I'd been reading "The Boarding House," a short story by James Joyce in Dubliners. I love how Joyce brings to life all the oddballs of Dublin - their funny, sad lives. Take, for instance, this description of Mr. Mooney, the man who owns the boarding house:
"He drank, plundered the till, ran headlong into debt. It was no use making him take the pledge: he was sure to break out again a few days after. By fighting his wife in the presence of customers and by buying bad meat he ruined his business. One night he went for his wife with the cleaver and she had to sleep in a neighbour's house."
My grandfather had been a Mr. Mooney. Strange things that no one wanted to talk about had happened on this street.
Photo from: here
Monday, May 17, 2010
Boarding houses have long fascinated me with their louche, transient quality. In his memoir, The Enigma of Arrival, V.S. Naipaul reflects on the boarding house he first inhabited upon immigrating from Trinidad to London in the 1950s:
"I felt that at one time, perhaps before the war, it had been a private house; and (though knowing nothing about London houses) I felt it had come down in the world. Such was my tenderness towards London, or my idea of London. And I felt, as I saw more and more of my fellow lodgers - Europeans from the Continent and North Africa, Asiatics, some English people from the provinces, simple people in cheap lodgings - that we were all in a way campers in the big house."
People of diverse backgrounds live in close proximity - fragments of their pasts butt up against each other, all the while remaining largely unreadable. Ironically, it is only years later, after Naipaul has become a celebrated writer, that he realizes the boarding house would make prime literary material. At the time, as a fledgling writer, he was obsessed with validating another "idea of London," one that he confesses was drawn from Dickens. A London based on class and hierarchy, the very principles being eroded upon his arrival in the 50s.
Until recently, my father's childhood was veiled in mystery, too. He grew up in 1950s Toronto, at Bloor and Lansdowne - not an easy place to inhabit amidst the post-war discrimination against Japanese-Canadians. While researching my own memoir, probing my dad with questions, I discovered that the house at Lansdowne had been a boarding house. My pulse quickened. One day, we went there together and as I stood in front of the sagging porch, the place caught hold in my imagination. Ancestors and family members came alive as characters, from my fragile, ex-beauty queen grandmother to the grandfather I'd never met. He'd died under mysterious circumstances the year before I was born, and no one in the family liked to talk about him, save the rare allusion to "Kaz's dark side." Later that evening, I started a short literary piece to explore a family in decay.
But now I want to find out what really happened. To connect with the past. Later this week, I plan to revisit the house.
Photo from: here
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
The streetcar this morning is almost empty. As it chugs along Spadina through the gritty mist, I’m reading The Year of Magical Thinking. With every lurch, my stomach turns to jello, and all the moments of loss in my own life come back with vivid force, lulled by the rhythm of Didion’s sentences:
“People who have recently lost someone have a certain look, recognizable maybe only to those who have seen that look on their own faces. I have noticed it on my face and I notice it now on others. The look is one of extreme vulnerability, nakedness, openness. It is the look of someone who walks from the ophthalmologist’s office into the bright daylight with dilated eyes, or of someone who wears glasses and is suddenly made to take them off.”
Not that I can claim to have suffered anything comparable to what she endured. Just days after her daughter fell into a coma for mysterious reasons, her husband John Gregory Dunne collapsed and died of a massive coronary. “Life changes in the instant,” she tells us throughout the book, folding us into the embrace of her grief.
But the beauty of Didion’s writing is the way it also triggers all the smaller gradations of personal loss and shock.
The slap of my surgeon’s words when, at age thirteen, I was told that I would need to have four vertebrae fused to prevent my spine from growing curved like a snake.
The death of my vain, beautiful grandmother, whose life only became interesting to me in the last six months of her life.
The feeling of heaviness that overtook my entire body after my first break-up. My father drove to McGill and I slouched down in the backseat of his SUV and the weight of my moondrop earrings pulled at my earlobes. Montreal vanished through the rear window, with all its shabby elegant brownstones, overflowing recycling bins, dépanneur wine.
“Life changes in the instant.” Wise words from a wise woman.
(A footnote on time: whereas my previous two entries explore my state of mind from two years ago, during the time I was still a professor in Nova Scotia, this entry shifts to the present, when I’m back in Toronto, taking the streetcar to work).
Photo from: here
Monday, May 10, 2010
Day by day, as I sat at my childhood desk, I could feel myself slipping. I couldn’t bring myself to return emails from old friends – smart, practical friends who’d seen the writing on the wall and baled on English literature after one degree and gone on to law school and HR certificates. Their career prospects appeared to be soaring – job offers in New York, business trips to Frankfurt – while I languished in this dead-end profession.
Maybe that was why Edith Wharton spoke to me. She knew how to make beauty of the mess that misguided, bleary-eyed girls make of their lives.
Wandering through a used bookstore, I found a dog-eared copy of The House of Mirth, and re-reading the opening paragraph was like rediscovering an old perfume, the smell of Chanel No. 5 as it first smelt at age eleven: “Selden paused in surprise. In the afternoon rush of the Grand Central Station his eyes had been refreshed by the sight of Miss Lily Bart.” From there, the intriguing images unfold before you, from Lily’s “desultory air” to her “air of irresolution which might, as he surmised, be the mask of a very definite purpose” to Selden’s fascination with “the modeling of her little ear, the crisp upward wave of her hair.” Everything about this woman – from her unpredictable moods to the minute details of her appearance – catches Selden’s fancy. Yet thanks to her aspirations to marry the biggest Sugar Daddy in New York, Selden is all too aware that he’s “far out of her orbit.” He’s like the nice, nerdy guy in high school who befriends the beautiful, popular girl by flirting when she’s had a bad day and offering to do her homework.
The thrall and mystery of female beauty. What woman doesn’t secretly desire such power? A guilty pleasure, no doubt. As modern women, we’ve transcended such nonsense – the vanity, the narcissism, the endless desire to be desired. Long evolved beyond all that, we’re supposed to be rushing off to meetings dressed in boxy suits, staying up late to write the Long-Term Plan, kicking butt at the Curriculum Committee Meeting. Yet Wharton’s brilliance is that she can awaken flutters in even the most liberated of readers by showing what it would feel like to possess, vicariously, Lily Bart’s power and vulnerability – to be immersed in the milky, mesmerized gaze of some idealized admirer.
I remember that when I first started really enjoying sex (by this point, I was on my third boyfriend), it had everything to do with seeing that look on his face, as he shoved a firm pillow beneath my butt and his eyes swept over my flesh. I reveled in the feeling of relinquishing control, and the sense of suspense was irresistible.
Photo from: here
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
I’d tried to make the best of moving to the boonies by imagining a great escape to nature was in store.
"To walk in a winter morning in a wood where these birds abounded, their native woods, and hear the wild cockerels crow on the trees, clear and shrill for miles over the resounding earth, drowning the feebler notes of other birds—think of it!"
"I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude."
Startling epiphanies were just around the corner. Or maybe I’d just been reading too much Walden.
Right. Nature. Through the eyes of a naïve city girl. What had I been thinking?
Now that I had my first semester of teaching under my belt, I knew that was fiction and this was reality.
Reality was having to call in sick and take the bus two-and-a-half hours to Halifax to see my therapist, Harriet, to deal with these emergency days that incapacitated me every so often. Days when I just couldn’t bear to get up in front of the swarm of rosy, all-too-wholesome faces that blankly stared while I lectured on the figure of the madwoman in the Victorian novel and cross-dressing actors on the Shakespearean stage.
Harriet was a pudgy blond woman with sad lines fanning out around her eyes. She looked at me like she really did understand my suffering, but so far I’d been less than dazzled by her insights.
"The students hate me," I said. "They look at me and they don’t see a professor. They expect a professor to look like a grizzled old hag whose life has passed her by."
"Well, thank god you’re not in that camp," Harriet said. "You hardly look older than the students."
Maybe it was true – I was a fake. The eve I defended my dissertation, I had no idea what I was getting into. I didn’t have a clue what was involved in becoming a professor. Who could have foreseen the amount of work involved in writing lectures on the fly to teach a full course load? Although I’d pulled my share of all-nighters as a grad student, those were nothing compared to the string of sleepless nights that left my brain feeling like sawdust behind the lecture podium.
My office clock said 11:55. Once again, I’d fallen asleep at my desk, my face plastered to a sandwich wrapper. The night lights from the football field outside my window streamed in, giving my bookshelf an eerie glow. So much for marking papers.
As I waited for the elevator in the pea green corridor, a bearded man came out of nowhere.
"Howdy," he said, standing too close. My stomach did a back flip.
But he was just the caretaker. Smiling awkwardly and standing a little too close.
I rushed outside and stood on the cement piazza surrounding the Arts Building. Beyond the empty parking lot loomed the low, undulating hills known, for some strange reason, as "the highlands."
I remembered how when I’d landed this job, I’d imagined myself going for long walks in the woods, communing with birds, brushing against ferns, my ears attuned to every rustle and sigh of a blade of grass. Like Thoreau, who'd luxuriated in his sojourn living in a cabin at Walden Pond, my thoughts would become serene: "This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore. I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself."
The hills around me weren’t very high, yet they hemmed my soul in. They might as well have been the Andes.
Photo from: here
- Leslie Shimotakahara
- Toronto, ON, Canada
- Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.