Saturday, November 27, 2010

Book #33: The Turbulence of Moving

"As he walked slowly about the empty, echoing rooms on that bright September morning, the Professor regarded thoughtfully the needless inconveniences he had put up with for so long; the stairs that were too steep, the halls that were too cramped, the awkward oak mantles with thick round posts crowned by bumptious wooden balls, over green-tiled fire-places."  -Willa Cather, The Professor's House

Sadly, I have not been able to write or blog much lately, because we're in the process of moving.  Our loft has been dismantled into a series of half-packed boxes and our magnificent wall of books is no more.  (When Chris first asked me if I wanted to move in with him eight months ago, the thought of combining our book collections to expand his already impressive library was most alluring....  But now, the shelves are bare, leaving my soul feeling a little barren.  Tools are cast on the coffee table and the place looks like such a construction site that we've even stopped washing the dishes.)

I was thinking about novels about moving houses....  The Professor's House came to mind.  It's a novel about a professor who should be on cloud nine - he's just won a prestigious academic prize enabling him to build a luxurious new house - but instead he finds himself melancholy and nostalgic.  In the midst of packing, he becomes lethargic and irrationally attached to his old house, which, despite all its inconveniences and shabbiness, is replete with the memories he associates with "home."  So he turns inward, recoils from reality.  Curls up in a ball in his attic study.  Memories of childhood give way to fantasies of his best student, a young man named Outland who died in the First World War.  But before his death, Outland and the professor became close and the stories that Outland told him about his youth linger on in the professor's imagination.  Outland spent one summer exploring a mesa in New Mexico, where he discovered the relics of a dead civilization - the treasures of antiquity.  The romance of Outland's life catches hold in the professor's mind as everything his own life is not.  Vigorous.  Manly.  In touch with nature.  The more he fantasizes about Outland's adventures the more paltry his own accomplishments seem.

Moving, in other words, can be very dismantling to one's identity.  All the familiar objects that surround me in my everyday life feel strangely animate, touched with memories and emotions, as I rip them out of their familiar context and box them up.  Take them away from me and my very sense of "self" starts to slip away....

Since my undergrad days until present, I've moved thirteen times.  Maybe that's why I was so unstable during my twenties, while pursuing grad school, research fellowships and the peripatetic life of a professor peddling her trade, suitcase overflowing with scruffy books and crumpled syllabi.....  A lot of packing up house, a lot of purging (my books were always the hardest to part with).  I'm glad to have kissed that life goodbye.

Next week, Chris and I will be in our new place, and the front room with the bay window will be set up as our new library, where I will do my writing.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Book #32: My Ideal Therapist

"From the beginning, I wanted to be a difficult case.  I wanted my therapist to feel as if she were being challenged, taken to the limits of her psychotherapeutic powers.  I wanted her to have her mind blown by my psyche."  -Micah Toub, Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks

Back in grad school, I took seminars on Freud and Lacan, but no one seemed to be teaching Jung.  If such a seminar had been offered, I probably would have taken it, because psychoanalytic approaches to the study of literature/film greatly interested me at the time.  On the other hand, I have to confess that there always seemed in my mind to be something kind of hippy-dippy about Jung - I don't know exactly where I got this impression, but maybe it has something to do with how he's fallen through the cracks of the Ivory Tower.

Thank god that I've hightailed it from the Ivory Tower.

Coincidentally, it must have been three or four years ago, just as I was becoming disenchanted with the academic monastery, that I first met Micah Toub, a friend of my cousin Alex.  She took me to a party at his house and it must have been Alex who told me that he was working on this memoir about growing up as the son of Jungian psychologists, because I don't recall Micah and I exchanging more than an introductory greeting.  At the time, I was intrigued by the book concept, particularly because I'd just started therapy myself (sadly, my therapist wasn't a Jungian). 

Last week, when I saw Micah at a Spoke Club event discussing his memoir, I couldn't resist buying the book and this time we chatted about the vicissitudes of the memoir genre.  Over the weekend, while taking periodic breaks from working on my own memoir (chapter seven just about killed me), I read his at a leisurely pace and, I must say, reading about his neuroses was a lovely distraction from my own.  And I stand corrected in my earlier impression of Jung as hippy-dippy at all!  Jung emerges in Micah's book as offering a creative, flexible repertoire of tools for analyzing the self and tailoring an identity - so much less off-the-shelf than Freud.  The memoir skillfully cuts back and forth between elucidations of Jungian concepts and poignant, revealing anecdotes in the author's life, capturing the awkward, fumbling quality of identity formation and sexual experiences of all kinds.  I found myself laughing and indulging in that weirdly pleasurable embarrassment of self-recognition, recalling parallel moments in my own development, so excruciating at the time.

So now I'm ready to start therapy again.  Three years ago, when I was tormented about whether I should throw in the towel on my career as an English prof, and seeking utopian compensations in a bad affair, I started seeing my therapist, Harriet, but my treatment was not altogether successful.  She was a disciple of the new "positive psychology" which did not, so far as I could tell, have any philosophical depth at all.  I recall showing up at my first session with a little Moleskin notebook; over the past week, I had been assiduously recording fragments of my dreams.  But Harriet looked at me as if I were as outdated as a character from a Woody Allen movie.  I was disappointed to learn that according to "positive psychology," dreams don't occupy a special status or seem to be accorded much meaning at all. 

Too bad I'm not still depressed.  If I could do it again, I'd google a Jungian.

Photo from: here        

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Book #31: Not So Hard-Boiled After All

"I regret that in one respect my father and I were too much alike.  We both have a great natural reserve that makes it almost impossible to open ourselves to others.  I think he would have liked to confide in me more, but I wasn't ready at that time to push for a more revealing relationship."   -Jo Hammett, Dashiell Hammett: A Daughter Remembers

Yesterday evening, I was puttering around the library doing research on Dashiell Hammett.  It almost felt like back in my geeky grad school days.  But no, I'm not working on some dry dissertation, I'm writing what I truly want to be writing - my memoir about how reading changed my life.  One chapter deals with The Maltese Falcon.  My dad and I read this novel together a few years ago, during a rocky period in both our lives, when everything was spiralling out of control like in film noir.  As my dad and I were reading it together, I came to see him as bearing some remarkable similarities to the cynical, hard-boiled anti-hero Sam Spade, and the question of what had made him this way compelled me to delve into his past and discover some family secrets....  (More on this later....  I'm writing this chapter as we speak).

Anyway, I have to confess that the chapter feels like it's missing something, and I'm starting to feel very anxious about it.  Nauseous, actually.  I get that way when I'm writing.  Insomnia, teeth grinding, bizarre cinematic dreams.  So this was why I found myself at the library late last night....  I found myself wanting to know more about the author himself, because I'd gotten it into my head that the key to understanding my father lies in gaining insight into Hammett and Sam Spade.  Not exactly a logical leap, I'll admit.  But this is how my mind works.  

How lucky I was to stumble upon a memoir written by none other than Hammett's own daughter!  Jo Hammett's Dashiell Hammett: A Daughter Remembers gives an unflinching look at the man and the convoluted dynamics of father-daughter relationships, where the daughter is caught between idolization of her old man, guilt at having not done enough when he was dying, and an ever-present yearning to have been closer to him when she had the chance.  Hammett was no model father, indulging in bouts of drinking and womanizing and plagued by illness, yet Jo Hammett gives a surprisingly balanced portrait of her eccentric dad.  What emerges is a portrait of a very shy, self-conscious person, who needed drink in order to be around people at all, and his solitude was intrinsically tied to his ability to write.  Lillian Hellman, his long-time lover, understood this about him and often remarked on how his lust for solitude had taken its toll on her, cutting her off from society, especially as the couple aged. 

In a particularly moving scene, Jo Hammett writes about visiting her father at his San Francisco Post Street apartment, where he wrote The Maltese Falcon; she remembers the elevator, with its folding brass grille, closing.  For anyone who has read the novel, this memory is clearly reminiscent of the final scene, where the femme fatale is led out in handcuffs, yet Jo Hammett focuses instead on how trapped her father must have felt in that elevator - stomach constricted, air sucked out of his lungs.  He suffered from claustrophobia all his life.  Not a tough guy like Sam Spade, the Hammett she brings to life is full of vulnerability and depth.  Exactly the characteristics I want to bring out in my dad.

Photo from: here


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About Me

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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.