Of hunger, tricycles and continuing education

January 2013

I have made a friend at last? In November, I received, and posted with pleasure, a set of observations on the strange ways of people we might call petty ambitious bureaucrats. These observations were signed “Whyde Eide,” which seemed clearly a pseudonym, and indeed now, from the same e-mail address, I have received the following tale and reflections, signed “Carolyn.” While this may seem a more reliable or conventional name, I will not be surprised to next find something from, say, “Frank.” In any case, herewith Carolyn’s text, in its entirety:

Last winter I began taking a course at a local university: The History of the Idea of Women. The professor would say, Now this week read this writer, these pages. A woman who thought that the essence of womanhood lies in the fact that we menstruate or have to switch from an erotic attachment to our mothers to an erotic attachment to our fathers. Or another one who thought that the whole idea of there being two sexes, of splitting experience in twos—male-female, black-white, same-different, inside-outside—all this was artificial, she said, and moreover a male idea. Left to our own devices, our own thoughts, we women would not think in opposites like this. (I wondered if this writer had ever been part of or overheard one of those conversations among women that are devoted to regretting the flaws of some other person, usually another woman, who everyone at the table knows, but who, conveniently enough, is not there. This other is, at least temporarily different and on the outside, or, as the course taught me to say, “the other.” Btw: Myself, I have always assumed that these luncheon conversations were a variation on musical chairs. On those occasions when it was me who could not make it or who was not invited, well, then it could my personality or way of dressing, things I had said or done, which gave my friends something to talk about.)

In any case, what struck me most about this course I was taking were the assigned readings. I would go in the university library—it wasn’t even a large library, but there would be all these books, the B’s, the PQ’s, the J’s. Certainly more books than I or any human being could read in her or his lifetime. And yet these books represented just a few—a few constellations in one of the galaxies of books was how I came to think of it. And the professor was calling our attention to just a few stars—a dozen books. And then the syllabus told us: Read pp. 22-45 of this one, Read pp. 197-208 of that one.

It struck me that this was a much harder job than the professor realized. And I felt like I understood better why many of the students had signed up for and kept coming to the class. Of course we were all interested in women—because we were women ourselves or our mothers were, we wanted to get our heads up under the skirt again. Such warm memories. Plus some of the students were hoping to earn their livings writing about women or promoting women’s interests. But what a relief it was, too—above all—to know that it was important to devote a week to reading “‘Dueling Dualisms,’ in STB, pp. 1-29.” [STB = Sexing the Body, one of the textbooks.] We couldn’t go to the zumba class we sometimes went to or help our children with their homework because we had to read BUST Media Whores (pp. 265-272) & Bitch on Heels (pp. 283-285). (Not that many pages, I know, but this is the twenty-first century.) “Shame Guilt and Responsibility,” pp. 52-55. Feminism is for Everybody, pp. 19-24.

The week after the term ended, as by a mist moving up into a valley—or by octopussian tentacles—I was overtaken by a spreading depression. Not because the class was over in the sense of “I feel sad because it was such a good class” (though I did think it was a good class, and the professor was passionate about the subject and even more passionate about our getting as interested as she was in the history of the idea of women). But all of a sudden to be thrown back on my own resources, my own history and ideas of what might be important, my own suspicions that in fact I have no clue what is important, if anything is.

It seemed to me that it must be very tiring to be a professor, to have other people respecting and following your idea of how they should use the possibly precious hours of their only lives. For a semester, we students were depending on you, The Professor, to reassure us that something was important, that life had purpose and meaning, and indeed the specific meanings that you, consciously or unconsciously, were ascribing to it. “As much as you have time for this week in De Beauvoir, ‘The Woman Destroyed,’ pp. 123-254.”

Annette, the professor, neither had particularly eye-catching breasts, nor did she, with her oversized white turtlenecks and olive-green cardigan, dress in a way that called attention to her breasts. Yet I had a dream once in which she was sitting naked in front of the blackboard. Straight-backed, even prim, arms hanging down stiffly at her sides, but there were nipples all over her body, in strange places—on her forearms, cheeks, feet. (Did her adjunct’s contract include a clause about taking a particular medicine or undergoing a surgical procedure so that she would have such things—all these nipples?) And, above all, my dream had this urge, like a wave of urging in the classroom, among the students—me at the head of the class—a sort rushing forward like a sea of hungry little pigs (shoats).

This woke me up, and with a very unsettled feeling. I had to put on news radio to try to chase this feeling from my mind. Waking up from a kind of wild hunger. Had I skipped supper again the night before? Probably. Hours later I later found a half-eaten peach on the kitchen counter and could not think of what else I had eaten. A scoop of the rice I had made for my daughter’s dinner?

A “feeding frenzy” (I’ve heard that expression used in connection with schools of fish). On the radio a truck had gotten onto the parkway again, hit one of the bridges and tipped over. “And there’s hamburger all over the highway in Mystic, Connecticut.” Giddily, I was reminded of comedy lines that have been stuck in my mind for too many years. “Close the door and the light stays on!” It seemed as if my lips were a little tense and there was an odd dry feeling on my tongue. Had I actually dreamed of sucking on my History of the Idea of Women professor? And licking her, and licking my flannel sheet instead? Indeed, there was a wet spot just to the left of the pillow. Yuck. Thank God the housing market was reviving, but then again, a lot of middle-class people were being “priced out.” All signs suggested the weekend was going to be unseasonably warm.

Alexandra, my daughter, had already said it was fine with her if I signed up for another class, but, 4 a.m., I wasn’t feeling so sure. The years I had fought and re-fought to quit smoking. The years going back to church and taking Alex along with me—until I realized that I really didn’t like our fellow parishioners, or how they were at church. The rummage sale to which I had brought a tricycle for which I had paid close to $100, and one of the alpha rummage-salers sold it to Turrell, the janitor, for $2.50, proud of this act of charity on her part, and proud, too, to tell me about it. After which she promptly turned her back, allowing me to absorb the implications in private. I could not help feeling that my value in that community had been established ($2.50), and that the establisher, my tricycle seller, was looking forward, the next time she needed help around the house, to being able to call Turrell.

Meanwhile a drug company’s bestselling product caused birth defects, the Tigers had fired their coach, and the Devils had won three out of five. By 10:30 I had gone on the university’s website, submitted my credit card information, submitted my address, submitted my Social Security number. Religion and the Enlightenment: MALS 20421, Wednesdays, 6:30-8:30 p.m., Rm. TBA, 3 credits, cross-listed with HIST 71300. “We will read such key thinkers as Locke, Pufendorf and Rousseau on such critical issues as toleration, natural religion and the relationship between reason and revelation.” And the revelation is—drum roll, the envelope please—and the revelation is: Even after you’ve reached the middle ages, you still need training wheels.

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