On Pride and Weariness

In which I connect a former poet laureate to a low-budget 90’s comedy.

While sitting at work last week, gazing blankly at one of my many market briefs, some random lines of poetry floated across the forefront of my brain. That tends to happen, actually—I’ll find myself internally quoting Shakespeare or Auden or Eliot at random times. It’s weird. English major problems. But the other day, it was Robert Frost. “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I’m actually not a huge Frost fan (I know, so un-American, but what else is new?), but this poem has always resonated with me. It’s simple on its surface, which is perhaps common to most Frost poems (no, I’m  not calling Frost simple—I just believe his poems can be read simply, and some people like him for that reason), but it’s considerably deeper than one initially expects, ending on a profound note of longing and resignation:

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.”

Miles to go, indeed. I’ve unexpectedly reached my breaking point in these last weeks; between keeping up with three jobs, taking 18 hours, and running two student organizations—oh, and making time for riding, which I will never sacrifice—I’ve  gotten a bit run down. (And yes, that’s why I haven’t written much recently. At some point, I had to make time for rest, too.) It caught me by surprise, but I’m clearly overcommitted. And now I’m wondering why I allow this to happen—why I continue to keep these promises when it would be so easy to just…stop. Seriously, existential crisis happening over here. Does anything that I do matter? It’s no wonder that final line has been popping into my head so much lately; it appropriately sums up that bone-deep weariness that pervades both body and brain. And I’m not the only one, because I know far too many of my friends share this tendency. It’s a little self-destructive, though, so why do we do it?

Time for a random tangent. Recently, someone persuaded me to watch Office Space at last—you know, that movie from the 90’s with the employee who stops giving a fuck and rebels against the corporation and ends up trying to launder money and then the office burns down. Okay, this is going somewhere, I promise.  Anyway, I was weirdly reminded of myself while watching this guy try to figure his life out—minus the money laundering and building burning. His struggles just felt so familiar. Sometimes, it really does feel like each day is worse than the last. And sometimes, I would like nothing better than to ignore all of the people who want things from me—assignments, editing, research, my presence, conversation, the list goes on—and just…do my own thing. And you know, sometimes I’d even like to take the office printer and bash it with a baseball bat. I’m sure plenty of you can sympathize with all of these.

But there’s clearly something keeping me from doing these things, because I’m still leading an excessively busy (read: moderately insane) lifestyle. And now I’ll get back to Frost, since I think he’s put things together pretty well. Because I do have promises to keep, and I’m not the kind of person to disappear into the woods. I might resent the situation, but at the same time, I know I wouldn’t have it any other way. I don’t like half-assing things. I pride myself on my ability to get shit done—even when that makes me want to collapse into a little puddle of exhaustion at the end of the day. And that is why I will never succumb to Frost’s metaphorical woods (which might be a metaphor for death in the poem, but that’s not what I’m getting at—point of clarification). I will always push myself—even to my breaking point—because it’s incredibly satisfying to look at what I’ve done and claim ownership. I’m too proud to give in.

Friends often tell me that it’s time to give something up, that I need to drop a commitment and make time for things like sleep. But there are miles to go until I can do so; I’ve got too much to accomplish, so I smile and nod and make noncommittal replies. Because I refuse to let myself disappear into the woods. I hope I can encourage others to resist as well. As long as you perceive some long-run benefit, fight the pull of the woods.

But I might go after the printer. Those things drive me crazy.

 

(n.b. for any future employers who stumble upon this blog: completely joking about the printer.)

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For the Love of Literature: A Top 10 List

Recently, a couple of my lovely fellow English majors challenged me to post a list of the top ten books that have influenced me. They’re calling it the Book Challenge or something on Facebook. Well, I compiled the list, and I posted it, and as I wrote each title into that little status bar, I realized this list was incomplete without exploration and discussion. What good is sharing the title of a book if I don’t describe why it made the list? Plus, ten is clearly an inadequate number. I’ll add a few in an “Honorable Mention” section, just for the books that didn’t immediately come to mind. Here we go!

Salman Rushdie, Shalimar the Clown

My first excursion into Rushdie did not, as one might expect, include Midnight’s Children or his Satanic Verses. Instead, on the suggestion of a friend, I delved into this fascinating novel that leaps from contemporary California to Kashmir in the 1960s to World War II and back again. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so incredibly shattered by an author’s ability to portray loss, heartbreak, violence, and the many other themes that contribute to the agonizing tale of Shalimar. Rushdie’s sheer delight in language shines in this richly textured novel; on more than one occasion, I wanted nothing more than to tear my eyes away from the pages so I could escape the suffering within them, but Rushdie’s language captivates. It’s luxurious. And so Shalimar the Clown made me fall in love with language all over again.

William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

My first attempt to read this Faulkner great (or at least the Benji section; I didn’t even reach the Quentin section before starting over) was miserable and painful. My second attempt ended in awe and admiration. See the previous post for the most profound reasons for this book’s impact on me; but beyond that, Faulkner’s stream of consciousness delighted me with its simple brilliance. I will always love Virginia Woolf above others, but Faulkner’s style is equally—and, in some ways, more so—impressive, especially in his ability to convey the impressionistic mind of developmentally-delayed Benji. Faulkner showed me that language can do far, far more than simply tell; it can show.

Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad

I don’t even know where to begin with this one; it remains one of my absolute favorites after several years. Egan is a beautiful writer with an impressionistic, transcendental style, in that she lifts you out of her story’s disjointed timeline only to drop you back into a new place, time, and life. Plus, I’ve never seen anyone write music as well as Egan—and by that, I mean she writes about its relationship to life and soul with startling dexterity. When I had the pleasure of studying Goon Squad in a class last semester, I came to the rather pompous conclusion that music is “the great unifier of humanity.” By this, I meant that music—as Egan tells it, at least—provides a common theme to life and its meaning: constant change. Goon Squad made me realize that we aren’t supposed to pinpoint the essence of life, as it were. We’re simply supposed to accept constant change and live. Hell of a message, isn’t it?

Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway was one of the first literary works I tackled on my own. In retrospect, that was a poor choice, but it has given me the added benefit of discovering new heights of meaning every time I read it—if only because I read it so poorly the first time. Woolf introduced me to stream of consciousness, and it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Encountering that mode of writing has made me more aware of my own processes of consciousness. Beyond that, though, Mrs. Dalloway is just a beautiful book. Woolf’s delight in language is even more powerful than Rushdie’s, considering the quotidian nature of her subjects; her ability to reveal so much significance in the everyday is powerful and inspiring.

Margaret Atwood, the Maddadam Trilogy

Atwood’s trilogy combines hilarity, pain, destruction, loss, and survival into one wild, shockingly realistic dystopian tale. I won’t go into specifics here. I can say, though, that this trilogy left me with the most profound feeling of despair for the future of the human race. If that isn’t impact, I don’t know what is.

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

This book has the longest-lasting impact of any on this list: it inspired a six year old to tackle a proper book on her own for the first time, triggering a lifetime of literary passion. I never tire of returning to this book; it’s like an old friend, and I know I’ll continue to adore it for years to come. I will shamelessly maintain that I probably received much of my moral education from Harry Potter, and it started here.

Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

Thanks to Rushdie and Roy, I gained a powerful introduction to South Asian literature, which has become a major area of fascination in my studies and personal reading. Roy has an incredible ability to write from children’s perspectives, and the gravity of the story she tells is only heightened by her young characters’ perspectives. With all the confusion and suffering in this small, beautiful, painful novel, Roy still managed to leave me feeling optimistic with the promise of “tomorrow.”                       

Pablo Neruda, Collected Poems

Neruda’s one of the sexiest poets around. Also: odes to random things like artichokes. He’s brilliant and quirky and passionate, and he showed me that poetry defies restrictions. His poem “Horses” remains one of my favorites.

T.S. Eliot, “Rhapsody on a Windy Night”

The beginning of my masochistic descent into Modernism. It takes an excruciating amount of effort for me to analyze Eliot (this one’s more straightforward, actually), but it’s so satisfying and thrilling to do so. Such brilliant language—I mean, I consider this brief moment one of the most powerfully affecting lines I’ve ever read: “Midnight shakes the memory / As a madman shakes a dead geranium.” Fantastic. “Rhapsody” began my love affair with Modernist literature.

James Joyce, Ulysses

Oh, Ulysses. I’ve never viewed a book with the same mixture of adoration, fear, and loathing; but I can’t deny that I overwhelmingly feel a great deal of affection for Joyce’s masterpiece. Of all the books I’ve studied during my undergraduate career, this novel has demanded the most intellectual effort. After Ulysses, I think—dare I say it?—that I have learned to read intelligently and discerningly. Also, I can’t deny that I absolutely revel in the madness of “Circe.” Oh, Leopold Bloom. Yes I said yes I will yes.

There are many more works that have left me with profound impact: Love in the Time of Cholera, 1984, any number of Emerson essays, the Communist Manifesto (only joking, honest), A Farewell to Arms (possibly the only book I’ve ever flung across the room while sobbing my heart out at 4 a.m.). To detail each one would take more time than I have, considering I’m preparing to publish this at 2 a.m.; perhaps another descriptive list waits in the future. For now, though, I’ve given you the first ten that came to mind in the moment. Cheers!

Quentin and Me

A tale of a budding English major, a literary encounter, and the meaning of stasis

During my freshman year of college—a time of less cynicism and more youthful curiosity, if you will—I had the pleasure of reading The Sound and the Fury with a certain lovable and enthusiastic English professor. I say “pleasure” in hindsight; at the time, I found the novel both a torturous slog through the quagmire of Faulkner’s stream of consciousness and a revelation in language’s intricacies and symbolic capabilities. But something clearly went right, because I ended up adoring the book and majoring in English—an early sign of madness? Anyway, to the point.

I remember with rather impressive clarity—impressive because of the soporific state that plagued my brain in the post-lunch hour—a single focal point during our discussion of The Sound and the Fury. We had reached the novel’s poignant, wrenchingly beautiful second section: the Quentin section. I’ll be honest; I had no idea what was happening. Well, I caught the plot, but I had to read the entire section twice to get any deeper (I was a freshman; what can I say?). I entered the lecture with an open and slightly confused mind, professor presiding imperiously over us at his ever-present podium, microphone at the ready, watching his students entering the hall with that unique expression of wisdom, mischief, and superiority I’ve come to know well (and, let’s be honest, I admire that blend a lot—it appeals to my inner narcissist). The hall filled; the class waited.

“STASIS!” thundered that paragon of fierce literary opinions. We jumped. Honestly, it was shocking. That man has impressive lungs, and the aforementioned microphone was not unused. So we sat, rather dazed, waiting for an explanation of that introduction, which was unusual even by the standards of that class.

What came next remains one of the most moving lectures of my college career. First, a quick definition: stasis indicates a state lacking change or progress. Now, Quentin Compson’s state of stasis, marked by his profound inability to grapple with the conflicts that plague his psyche and drive him to suicide (spoilers, sorry), enthralled me, opening my thoughts to the psychological elements of literary analysis that would become my favored method of exploration. Of equal importance, though, is the effect that discussion of stasis has had on my own psyche. This is not a literary analysis. This is a reflection.

I found Quentin’s plight deeply disturbing, if fascinating. That sense remained with me for a long time, and I don’t think I quite understood why—I mean, it’s obvious why, considering that he has some serious repressive issues, a tendency to fixate, and a life ending at the bottom of the Charles River; but it was deeper than that (now that’s a bad pun)—until perhaps a year later. I had entered my own period of stasis: something that had been lurking at the gate to adulthood, held at bay by ambition and optimism for only a short time until it burst—not with a bang, but a whimper—into my life. For a long year, depression immobilized me, and I felt the meaning of stasis. There was no “change or progress” in my mental state; depression is less a state of misery than a state of nothing. But I’ve talked about that before, and it’s boring; I’ll keep moving. Point: my mind was basically in stasis.

Depressing as The Sound and the Fury is, it left me with a preoccupation with Quentin Compson that had the opposite effect. Reading Quentin’s section fills me with pain for his pain—Faulkner writes pain incredibly well, you should check it out sometime—and it scares the shit out of me to realize that his struggle really isn’t that uncommon. Fear can be a good thing; fear is not the nothingness of depression, and fear forces the mind to adjust instinctively. I was afraid to descend into a similar struggle (not that I’m anywhere near on par with Quentin), so that fear pushed my mind into action. I kept dwelling on stasis. That’s my problem, I realized. So logical. Find the source of the problem; fight it there.

And so I fought stasis. Honestly, I continue to do so; sometimes my brain feels stuffed with honey or sludge or some equally sticky immobilizing substance for weeks on end (let’s go with honey, shall we?). Most of the time I can’t even write. But that fear of stasis—that glimpse of what stasis did to Quentin Compson—always pushes me to counter it. I won’t discuss how; for one thing, that’s a constant work in progress but it’s also not the point of this reflection. The point is to acknowledge a static state, because awareness is the first and most important step to a solution.  I feel it especially clearly at this moment, in between internships before the beginning of my senior year. The words “worthless layabout” describe me effectively at the moment. But I know that—and I know I need to fix it.

It’s a pretty odd anecdote. Studying a powerfully depressing novel that helped convince me to choose what might be the most depressing possible major ultimately gave me a handy little tool for pushing back against depression. Weird, isn’t it?

But now, when I feel it creeping up—when I feel that horrible sense of immobility paralyzing my mind—I catch myself. I bellow “STASIS!” at my mind. And I jump.

Here’s to keeping your mind jumping.

On Westerosi Weddings: 4.2

The second installment in my collaboration with Mason. Here, we take on “The Lion and the Rose” in all its gory glory. Enjoy!

R: Well, last Sunday’s episode was a shocker. Having read the books, I knew what was coming–and I thought it was about time–but, as usual, HBO raised the bar set by George R.R. Martin’s writing (but that’s another rant for another time). I shall, of course, address what is now being called the “Purple Wedding,” but first I’d like to mention the incorporation of some other plot threads, which was admirably done considering the overwhelming climax of this episode. I’ll limit myself to one and let Mason bring some others in!

The Bastard of Bolton proved himself as horrifyingly disturbing as ever, but the interactions between Ramsay, Roose, and Reek (formerly proud Theon) added an interesting element of tension. We hate the Lord of the Dreadfort after the Red Wedding–if you don’t shudder at his appearance, you have no soul–but he showed a subtle, slight regard for Theon that shows some cold remnant of morality. And his fury at his bastard son establishes the possibility of even more conflict in the Northern leadership. This element of tension lays a subtle foundation for events to come; I’m interested to see how HBO plays it out.

Anyway, let’s talk about the most exciting–and, for some, shocking–event of the episode: the demise of a certain boy king. I have heard some fellow viewers express their shock that Joffrey was killed off, considering the level of drama and gore his supremely sociopathic nature lent to the show. But–and this is a rare compliment–I think Martin was wise to eliminate him at this time. While Joffrey was indisputably a madman, the proclaimed legitimacy of his rule as the heir of Robert Baratheon did provide some manner of stability to the Seven Kingdoms. An odd claim, perhaps, considering the strife and chaos of waging two wars against two other claimants to the throne, but Joffrey clearly came out on top. Were he to continue his rule, the Seven Kingdoms would potentially find its way to–could it be true?–proper stability. And what would the Song of Ice and Fire become with stability? With Joffrey’s death, the realm will plunge into even greater chaos, and the Game of Thrones will continue at an even more vicious rate than ever. I’ll go into greater detail on the scene itself (Lady Margaery, anyone?) in a moment, but for now, it’s over to Mason.

M: Rachel, your lovely opening statement reminds me of a topic we forgot to broach last time ‘round. Since you’ve read all the available tomes in Martin’s Song of Ice And Fire saga (the final two remain to be released), you know an awful lot more about future goings-on in Westeros than I do. Since I merely tune into the show every Sunday, I’ve no idea what’s going to happen to these character’s after each week’s episode. Our respective situations afford us some unique insights, I think.

Anyhow. Yes. Ding-Dong. The King is dead. Which old king? The most hated one in the history of television, the only monarch real or fictional who stood to give ol’ Henry the VIII a run for his money. Indeed, the entire episode was centered around Joffrey’s poisoning. Yes, I know, the episode caught us up with Ramsey/Reek and Stannis/Melisandre prior to that Purple Wedding, but I think that even those scenes are there to sort of pre-emptively set up the new villains in a universe that has, by the end of this episode, lost its Big Baddie. In a show shot through with moral grayness, we need a few characters we can unambigously hate. Ramsey and Stannis’s loony wife are nowhere near as hateable as Joffrey, but their increased presence will help fill the emotional void left by his absence.

Not surprisingly, Rachel, I agree with you in that said absence is a big deal. I like how you remind us that Joffrey’s death is not just cheapie fan-service, but a way for Martin to shake things up yet again. Joffrey was a contemptuous inbred monster, but his cruel rule might have put an end to the endless jockeying for the Iron Throne—and the loss of life and limb that such a struggle entailed. This is part and parcel with Throne’s chief message—every decision has complex consequences. The sadistic death-dreams of a mad Joffrey Baratheon may sow seeds of peace, while the honorable attempts of a man like Ned Stark may let loose the dogs of war. Joffrey’s death is probably a net positive for those who knew him and suffered by associating with him, but God knows how much havoc it will wreak on the realm as a whole.

But all of that is for later episodes. This episode is, first and foremost, about a royal wedding that turns into a stage for Joffrey’s most depraved desires, and then into the site of his untimely death. The build-up to said death was, I think, too much. Rather than going for a subtle sense of mounting dread, a la the Red Wedding, the screenwriters resorted to dropping heavy-handed hints (“Killing a man at wedding? What sort of monster would do such a thing?”), and shoving in plenty of portentous close-ups. Once the sword hit the pie, however, Thrones returned to the type of nuanced emotional explorations that is one of its strong suits. Jack Gleeson has always played Joffrey as a monster driven purely by fear, abusing his power as much as he can in case it is one day taken away from him. It is appropriate, then, that in his last moments, the sheer terror in his bloodshot eyes pierces us like a blade.

It is a powerful performance, topped only by Lena Headey’s incredible work as Cersei. This woman has lost has both her official power and her beloved offspring within a matter of hours, and, in the episode’s final moments, Headey plays out the entirety of her dizzying emotional turmoil on her face. As she always has, Cersei takes her animal pain and turns it into useful rage. We have seen this process before, but never with such horrifying clarity. Cersei now stands where Catelyn Stark did in the moments before her death—a woman adrift, her life’s work undone in a matter of minutes.

Finally, I’ll just note that the Thrones slow-crawl technique was used to excellent effect in this episode. That movement towards Tyrion’s face as he realizes what deep shit he’s in allowed us to reach this realization alongside him—all without a single word spoken. The episode ended with another powerful, silent shot: a still frame of our young demon-king, who was dealt the fate we wished for him in a manner we would never wish on anybody.

R: I’m so, so very glad that you mention Cersei, and that’s a fascinating comparison to Cat; we love to hate one, loved the other, yet they’re  two undeniably similar women. Thrones forces us to see parallels we’d rather ignore.

In terms of the wedding feast scene itself, I certainly think you’re right to call the buildup to the climax a heavy-handed–ostentatious, almost–treatment of something that could have had even more shock value had those hints been less obvious. I’ll admit, however, that I rather enjoyed the way the episode manipulated our feelings during the feast. With its quick progression from encouraging disgust at Joffrey’s depraved choice of entertainment to inciting horror as he chokes to his poison-induced death, the episode juxtaposes two extremities of emotion in a very short time. And it left me reeling, even though I already knew the plot; that alone is testimony to Thrones’ incredible dramatic capacity.

Now, on to my favorite part of the wedding scene: the magnificent, ever-diplomatic, and brilliantly cunning Lady Margaery. We know that Margaery does not love Joffrey–but neither does she fear him, as has become clear in our glimpses of her conversations with Olenna and Sansa. Natalie Dormer is, as always, incredibly adept at showing us Margaery’s skillful navigation of Joffrey’s unpredictability. During the wedding ceremony itself, she appears demure, suggesting that she’ll fulfill her expected submissive role as wife and queen; but immediately before the ceremony begins, when the two mount the stairs in front of the priest, her face flashes with triumph and ambition. She’s got Joffrey where she wants him; Margaery Tyrell has no intention of playing the role of docile queen. Here, we see the realization of her earlier, incredibly powerful statement: “I want to be the queen.”

I’d like to discuss in greater detail one of the show’s most exceptional qualities: its neverending capacity to build tension to a breaking point. “The Lion and the Rose” was absolutely bursting with tension, and not only during the wedding. In the aforementioned scene with our favorite flayers, the tension between Roose, Ramsay, and Theon plays a palpable role. When Theon shaves Ramsay, that tension reaches an almost unbearable peak; I was almost convinced that HBO was about to abandon the plot line of the show and have Theon slit the Bastard’s throat. And, surprisingly, it’s simultaneously an incredibly subtle moment. For a few seconds, the razor pauses on Ramsay’s throat; we see Theon shaking, we see the razor pressing into Ramsay’s skin; and then it flicks up, continuing the simple task of shaving. So much physical and emotional tension.

The wedding feast practically runs on tension; you don’t need me to tell you that. What I want to highlight, though, is the manipulation of that tension, the way it comes and goes, the way it breaks and rebuilds. And no one is better at those manipulations than Margaery Tyrell. Throughout the feast, she works to diffuse the tension inevitably created by Joffrey’s cruelty. It reaches its highest point when Joffrey, in his usual efforts to shame Tyrion, attempts to force his uncle to kneel before him as a cup-bearer. As usual, noble Tyrion stands his ground while Joffrey becomes increasingly incensed. I began to fear either of two things: one, that Tyrion would give in and break my heart, and two, that Joffrey would reprise his earlier show of chopping things with his new Valyrian steel sword. Luckily, Lady Margaery eased my fears with her immortal exclamation: “Look! The pie!” Such an adept, non-confrontational method of shattering that tension. If Westeros were a democracy, Margaery would definitely have my vote. She’s diplomatic, effective, and incredibly clever, and I’m ready to see more of her in the future.

All in all, “The Lion and the Rose” was a delightful romp through the increasingly chaotic scenes of Westeros–well, delightful if you thrive on tension, as I clearly do. I worry that the title will mislead viewers as to the nature of the interactions between Lannister and Tyrell, as it seems to imply an adversarial relationship, but that’s not really my concern. You’ll get no spoilers from me! A warning, though: by now, we know that nothing in this particular game can be taken at face value. Joffrey’s death is no exception; do not make assumptions at this early stage. We’re making a descent into unprecedented depths of intrigue.

 

Watch The “Throne”: 4.1

In one of the greatest moves in the history of paldom, Mason and I have begun a collaborative weekly review of Season 4 of Game of Thrones. Here you have the first of our many thoughts.

So Beautiful or so what?

Well, friends, I’m excited to introduce you to a new feature on this here website. For several years now, I have been discussing and debating HBO’s Game of Thrones with my dear friend and fellow writer Rachel, who blogs over at Rising Above The Clouds. As Thrones enters its fourth season, we’ve decided to make our discussions about the show into blog posts, so as to share our thoughts. Think of it as a public service—or as a rather frightening display of narcissism. Up to you. Oh, and while I’m addressing you (yes, you), I’d like to encourage you to comment on these posts—especially if you also spend a disproportionate amount of your life in Westeros like we do. That said, do try to keep it spoiler-free, as only one of us has read the books. Finally, since we’re starting this a few weeks into the show, we…

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Forget Political Correctness; Give Me Grammar

I’m devoted to the English language. I study it; I work with it; I teach others of its nuances. Indeed, among my friends, I am the resident editor—I like to think they put up with my highly opinionated comments and my propensity for bloodying their papers with red ink because they think I truly improve their writing. It goes both ways, though. I enjoy receiving criticism of my own writing, because—while I am confident in my style—I can always improve. Skillful writing is an invaluable tool for expression, for persuasion, for description. When employed correctly, language is perhaps the most important key to success in almost any field. Regardless of whether or not you love language as much as I do, you should approach it with the same precision. It’s just professional.

Now, a close friend of mine just posted an article that inflamed my passions more than usual (which is surprising, as I get fired up rather frequently). The piece, Troy Camplin’s “Microaggression and Neglect,” discusses a recent phenomenon that has progressed beyond the already-tragic lack of concern for clear, correct, proper English—we’ll call it Standard American English. Now, evidently, grammar correction is an attack on a student’s culture, a blatant attempt to quell the cultural idiosyncrasies that may distinguish that student from “Standard Americans.” Camplin describes a recent incident at UCLA as a case in point of the retaliation against grammar correction. Apparently, graduate students in a “Students of Color” class protested the correction of minority students’ grammar and spelling as microaggressions against their minority culture. To be completely honest, I was incredulous at the resistance of graduate students to academic improvement, but perhaps my standards are too high.

I am not initiating an academic discussion. Rather, I am expressing my anger at the hypersensitivity of the extremists of political correctness. I’m all about cultural relativism; language is an especially distinctive component of culture, and quelling linguistic distinctions would be to quell culture in turn. But it is unacceptable for minority students to cry racism when they face grammatical correction in an academic setting. Context is certainly an essential component of grammatical accuracy; were these students being corrected in casual conversation on the streets, their anger would be justified. Even this blog post, with its informal style, leaves aspects of grammar and syntax to be desired (passive voice, my apologies). When it comes to academic English, though—the language of American professionalism—students should welcome the enhancement of a skill that will ultimately ease their paths to success.

I firmly believe that we must know the rules before we break them. When I tutor younger students, I’m incredibly strict about rules of grammar and syntax; as they grow to understand and practice those rules, though, I encourage them to experiment with style, to play with language to tailor it to their own preferences. One thing I am careful to avoid—as is any good teacher, as is almost every teacher from whom I’ve had the pleasure of learning—is the restriction of ideas. Correcting grammar does not stifle freedom of expression; it merely provides a structure for that freedom, enhancing its clarity and effectiveness. I am frequently ashamed by others’ disregard for grammatical correctness. We must hold ourselves to the standards of professional English; to do anything else indicates an apathy towards professionalism. Trivial though it may seem, the distinction between semicolons and colons matters. The distinctions between academic and conversational language matter. There is no room for sensitivities to so-called microaggressions. If students are unwilling to hold themselves accountable for their linguistic skills, let grammatical Darwinism weed them out.

“You Feel it in your Corazon”: The Soulful Sounds of The Cat Empire

This one’s for all you tricksters, hipsters, and prophets in the sky. As promised: my first music post. The artist is The Cat Empire; the album is Steal the Light, the band’s 2013 venture.

All credit goes to my dear brother for opening my ears to the magic that is Cat Empire; I never would have discovered these Australian geniuses on my own. Their sound is explosive, a wildly varied blend of ska, jazz, and funky rock with a distinctively Latin flavor. Delicious. Of course, I’m a sucker for anything Latin; they had me at that first soulful cry of a trumpet. But this band writes the kind of music that only gets better the more you listen, the more you explore the lyrical intricacies and idiosyncrasies of sound. I’ve been listening to Steal the Light on repeat since August. It’s fantastic. It shifts seamlessly between mellow funk lines and thrilling brass fanfares, between railing against materialism and crooning words of love. The album has a palpable texture that leads me on new tangents of exploration every time I run through it. Sometimes the trumpet catches my ear; sometimes the percussion; sometimes the fantastically witty lyrics. It’s a delightfully intriguing blend of dance music with profoundly encouraging meanings, inspiring both body and mind through the course of the album. Now, let’s get into some tracks…

I shall begin at the beginning, with the song that introduced me to Cat Empire: “Prophets in the Sky.” God, this song is almost indescribable, but I’ll do my best. For one thing, the music is incredible—a quick Latin pulse, some bold brass, quick ear-catching interjections in Spanish. The initial thrilling fanfare hurls you into an impassioned mess of questions, one that intoxicates you with its sounds and intrigues you with its words. I honestly can’t tell you what those words might mean; they’re still a mystery to me, so the song continues to fascinate. Whatever it is, it evokes some sense of primitive questioning that can’t quite be explained. Trust me, it’s brilliant. I can’t do it justice here; you’ll just have to listen for yourself.

“Can you imagine a love like that?”

All of the fast tracks are amazing; to discuss all of them would take another solid thousand words, so I’ll spare you. One of my favorites, though, is “Go,” an inventive diatribe against materialism. It feels like an enormous release of madness—which works, considering their opinion on the folly of materialism. The music, though, is one of the most incredibly compelling components of the song. A steady scale progression of the low brass balances against the wild flourishes of the high brass, simultaneously creating senses of menace and frenzy that warn of chaos. That warning is clear: let go of materialism. It’s an impressively commanding song, with some of the most pointed subject matter of the album. Now, though, I’ll move on to the slower tracks, which are delightfully deep wells of interpretive opportunity.

“Every little viper’s not your friend—and a million dollars is not how this story ends.”

The mellower tracks introduce a deep, penetrating richness that sneaks into your soul and lodges there, using sound to carve out a vulnerable little open space, only to fill it with words. “Steal the Light” is the first slow track on the album, and it took awhile to grow on me—probably because it follows “Prophets in the Sky,” which doesn’t exactly leave you in the mood for mellow. But it still grabs your attention with the almost-immediate introduction of the song’s heartbeat, a rolling bass line that creates a smooth, rhythmic undertone throughout the piece. The lyrics, once you catch them, are simply exquisite. They evoke a sense of that constant internal questioning that digs at all of us, the kind that makes you wonder what would happen if you just decided to fuck it all and did whatever the hell you wanted to, if you would just “open your eyes / and run into the clear,” as they say. The song appeals to a certain existential loneliness within all of us (or at least me. I can’t speak for the rest of you, I suppose) that eats away at any manner of confidence; the triumphant trumpets and anthemic vocals of “Steal the Light” encourage you to aspire to spontaneity. Such subtle inspiration is compelling.

“What if I’m lonely? What if the sky should fall and disappear?”

One of the relatively few love songs on the record, “Open Up Your Face” isn’t your typical ballad. For one thing, the music begs the listener to take it easy after the intensity of the previous song in the track listing (“Like a Drum”). The brass croons sweetly, soothing the ear while bongos establish a steady, calming rhythm; later, that rhythm progresses into a slow march, equally calming. But in terms of content, it’s painfully realistic, wrought through with earthy metaphors and gritty honesty. It’s that realism that makes this such a deeply beautiful song. Love is neither a storybook romance nor a tale of destruction; it is pain and glory, despair and trust, anguish and delight, and somehow this song manages to capture these feelings without sounding quite so dramatic. The language is simply stunning. The opening lines:

“While the traffic hums

When the madness comes…

Like a flower that reaches out its fingers to the rain,

Like a bird that flies above the gutters and the graves,

Open up your face.”

How’re those for metaphors? So unassuming, yet so evocative, they simultaneously capture both the realization that love is, in fact, an everyday matter and the sense that it can still elevate you above the quotidian. And it suggests that you can get away from the occasional pain of the everyday by getting into love. Honestly, it doesn’t feel like a love song until the chorus of “And I’ll know you want me, I’ll want you.” It’s really quite refreshing to be shown love rather than told about it, making this track yet another deliciously inventive song to tease the mind as well as the ear.

“Like a human cannonball that hears the match strike flame; like a prisoner listening to the rumble of the train…”

Finally, the last track in my long-winded discourse on Cat Empire. “Wild Animals” took awhile to grow on me. The vocals are a little strange, it’s a tad repetitive, and the lyrics progress a little too quickly to catch at first. But then I understood the lyrics. And they are astonishingly great. In a similar vein as “Steal the Light,” the track carries a theme of letting everything go and embracing the self. This song, though, directly questions the reasoning behind giving up intellectual and personal freedom, asking, “why’re you living your life behind bars? / Why’re you living your life in the past?” in its first compelling verse. It is a powerful reminder of what matters: nature, freedom, self-expression, authenticity of spirit. It pleads that we avoid living in bad faith—that state of self-deception in which we blame our social context for our actions rather than taking responsibility for ourselves—encouraging instead the choice to confront the conventions that limit our lives. It’s a beautiful message, really. And they make it impressively personal with this concluding verse, which anyone who has ever worked in an office can relate to:

“Look out the tiny window frame that sits behind your desk—

Past the big computer screens and the jars of fountain pens.

What are you doing in this prison with your psychopathic boss,

With your brokenhearted mornings and your backstabbing friends?”

As such a deeply touching and inspiring song, you’d think it would sound serious as well. But the music practically scampers for four minutes with an easy, rolling, cheerful melody. It sounds like what it discusses, which makes it even more subtly powerful. It’s one hell of a song—certainly one of my favorites.

You may have noticed that I truly adore this group. Cat Empire is a refreshing departure from most music—whatever you listen to, there’s not much like these guys. The accessibility of their music and lyrics is a rarity; personally, I think they’re universally appealing, although I’m sure some disagree. But with this fascinating convergence of genre and content, it’s hard to be disappointed in Cat Empire–and let’s be honest, there’s nothing catchier than a good Latin beat. Check out Steal the Light; it’s on Spotify, but it’s also definitely worth buying. I promise you will be dancing halfway through “Prophets in the Sky,” and rest assured that your mind will dance as well.

And remember: “Don’t let them kill the wild animals inside of you!”