Monthly Archives: August 2006

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The price of writing for the public

Six months after I took my first editing job, at Terrain, I got a phone call from a disgruntled reader. The reader was the mother of the previous editor. The previous editor had given me her job, then left Berkeley for the East Coast. My predecessor’s mother had been getting Terrain in the mail for those few months since her daughter had left the job, found it displeasing, and wanted to cancel her subscription. “It’s not worth the paper it’s printed on,” she told me.

She may have been right. I was a new editor, and almost as new a writer. Still, the remark stung. I replied mildly, hung up, took her name out of the database, and went for a walk until the hurt went away, which turned out not to happen for about two days.

When I first came back to Earth Island Journal, I was hired to make some sweeping changes in the publication. Aside from copy, pretty much every change I made in the magazine was signed off on by Earth Island’s executive directors. But the previous editor had a following, and five years later I still get a fair number of letters telling me that my editing, my writing, and pretty much everything else I do sucks. Here’s a mild example, excerpted from the most recent such letter:

First, I admit I have a problem with your writing. I feel I need a translation of your editorials that appear in each issue…

I feel that you have diverged from the philosophy of founder David Brower, who wanted a hospitable planet for the flora, fauna and scenic wonders he was able to protect. I miss Gar Smith and the far superior Journal he edited which has two to three times the print volume of today’s Journal. And I never had a problem understanding Gar’s editorials or articles, and never read one I couldn’t support.

If the management supports your philosophy it may be time for me to terminate my relationship with the Earth Island Institute.

Do I enjoy receiving letters like this? Not usually, though sometimes they’re hilariously clueless.

Would I prefer not to get them? No way.

The warm glow of praise from people who admire your writing is a wonderful thing. I am luckier than many writers: I have a community of readers on this blog who are humblingly generous in their praise, and in their constructive criticism as well. And next time I complain about not getting enough comments, y’all are free to remind me of the nature of the comments I do get. But if all I got was that warm praise, as lovely as it is, I would consider myself a failure as a writer. (I am here including editing as a form of writing.)

There is a storm raging on a number of feminist-oriented blogs right now, an unpleasant series of arguments on a topic on which I have no strong opinions other than that coercion, physical or economic, is a bad thing, and that debasement is a form of coercion. There are two main sides, each of them with a number of reasonable (if upset) adherents, a few adherents who seem to me to be arguing sloppily, and one or two who are just arguing in palpable bad faith. (In other words, a typical day on teh internets.) And the topic is important, but this argument might well be happening about any number of emotional topics, and I don’t wish to address the particulars of that argument here, because who needs it?

But at the center of the argument on one side is an implicit question. That question: if a person writes publicly about a private, personal aspect of her life, or a personal choice she has made, does she have a right not to be criticized by her putative allies?

That’s easy to answer.

No.

Nor does she have a right not to be misinterpreted, mocked, derided, piled upon, dropped from blogrolls, insulted, or fisked, even nastily.

Once you write your ideas, they become the common property of humanity. Not that anyone other than Michael Jackson or Disney can profit financially from your words without your consent, mind you. But you lose, in the act of publishing your words, the right to control how people respond to them. This is a good thing. Were it not for your losing control of the response to your words, you yourself would not be able to write about anything that matters.  No responses to antifeminist diatribes, no ruminations on poetry or music, no answering flirty letters from your blogcrushes, no outraged defenses aimed at those you feel have misinterpreted what you wrote.

To write is to provoke reaction. One hopes that all the negative response your writing gets will be constructive and fair, but that just happens really fucking rarely. The drive-by insults are easy enough to deal with. Misinterpretations are more troublesome, and misinterpretation is in the eye of the beholder. There are misinterpretations that occur because the reader is sloppy, or drunk, or agenda-driven, or not entirely literate. And there are misinterpretations that happen because the writer did a bad job. It’s tempting to ascribe the really annoying or hurtful misinterpretations to the first category, and yet that assumption is the field mark of piss-poor, careless writing. It’s best for the writer to assume misinterpretations are her fault, at least at first. Is that blaming the victim? Maybe. But if your writing is careless, it may be the reader who’s the real victim. If you’re writing to communicate, assuming the misinterpretations are your fault until it’s demonstrated otherwise helps you hone your skills. If you’re writing not to communicate, but rather merely to conduct destructive testing on keyboards, why publish at all?

“But they shouldn’t pile on,” say a number of combatants in the current battle, “because what does piling on do to solidarity?” There is a small degree to which this is an appropriate criticism: a minor, 25-reader-a-week writer really might not expect to have her casually-tossed-off thoughts scrutinized by the entire online world. And yet — and I say this fully aware that charges of condescension have already been flung in all directions in this meta-argument — the expectation that those words won’t be raked over the coals is a form of naïvete. Wonks estimate the Internet now has more than a billion users. The old saying had it that you should never email anything you didn’t want your grandmother to read on the front page of the New York Times. (OK, that’s a portmanteau of two old sayings. You get the point.) If you write something you don’t want a billion people to read, don’t put it on a publicly accessible Web page.

But the notion that written criticism should be squelched for fear of undermining solidarity? That is a notion that would be perfectly at home in Donald Rumsfeld’s brain. I haven’t weighed in on the particulars of the subject, and I ain’t gonna. But if you tell writers not to write because you don’t like the political ramifications of their writing, you are my enemy, and I don’t give a flying fuck whether I agree with your politics or not.

I understand how much it sucks to get piled on when you’re not used to it. New writers often have a thin skin. Some old writers do as well. The net has allowed lots of people who never considered themselves writers to become widely read. That’s a wonderful thing. But it doesn’t change an important fact: people will almost certainly respond to your writing in ways you neither anticipate nor enjoy. If they don’t, it means they’re not reading your work. This is a feature, not a bug. I’ve learned more about writing well from one cutting comment than from a hundred glowing backpats. Pronghorn are fleet of foot because cheetahs ate all the slow ones for tens of thousands of years.

But if you can’t handle that, there’s another old saying that’s relevant, about heat and kitchens and egress therefrom. Do your writing in a blank book, and then put it on a shelf where no one will ever see it. Or make your LiveJournal “friends only.” You’ll be happier, and so will those of us who might have been castigated for pointing out where you go horribly wrong.

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Keep Manhattan, just gimme that countryside

Am in receipt of Michael Bérubé‘s latest, What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? Classroom Politics and “Bias” in Higher Education. I’m about 250 pages in at the moment, and it’s a good read.

Full disclosure: I am mentioned in the acknowledgements, and my copy arrived gratis from the author with a kind and generous inscription. It would be wrong, however, to let Michael’s kindness interfere with my review of his book. Generous gesture or no, I cannot in good conscience refrain from saying that this book is the single finest work of literature in the history of the English Language. Which is not to say that it is without its flaws. It has absolutely the perfect number of flaws. With fewer flaws, one might have become suspicious that the book does not actually exist.

And yet somehow I didn’t make the back cover. Bastard.

As I mentioned, I’m not yet finished. It’s quite good so far. Readers of Michael’s work will recognize some of the writing right off. The introductory chapter is a filling out of the author’s notorious Chronicle of Higher Education piece involving John, the disruptive conservative student, a piece that Erin O’Connor and other conservative academics portrayed with shocking disingenuousness as having equated conservatism with mental disability.

In the book, Michael tackles the conservative complaint that Academia is more liberal than conservative by saying, more or less, that:

1) well, duh;
2) but it’s not nearly as bad as you all make it out to be, because look at all those economics and engineering departments that Horowitz and such pundits usually omit from their surveys;
3) besides, when was the last time a conservative theorist had anything useful to add to the discussion of Bérubé‘s field, American Literature? A long time ago, because;
4) any useful classroom discussion of a work of literature, which would attempt to inculcate an understanding and appreciation of the work as a whole, necessarily demands at least some examination of the political, economic and social attitudes and realities, stated or imputed, of the author and of his or her social environment, and that while this is not necessarily a liberal technique, conservatives for some reason find it anathema, despite the fact that one could as easily approach the task from a conservative as a liberal point of view, and anyway;
5) aren’t you guys content with running the entire rest of society at this point?

A sensible enough analysis, and Michael limns it entertainingly, though I suspect he’ll get at least a few wingnut Amazon reviewers complaining that they didn’t understand why he went on so long about The Rise of Silas Lapham and the Great Gatsby. The author makes his case painstakingly, describing the process of working with an undergraduate class on nearly a page by page basis. A risky gambit, but I think he pulls it off: his writing is engaging enough that it has the feel of repartee in an animated classroom.

Michael does engage in a bit of shorthand that makes me flinch, and he does so despite my having gone all the way over to his blog on numerous occasions to tell him to stop doing it. But does he listen? Well, er, yes. That’s pretty much what spurred the acknowledgement. But it seems somehow that shorthand is too compelling to give up. To wit: Michael repeatedly conflates the lunatic sectarian and cult-of-personality left tendencies into a nebulous “far left,” or — on occasion — “far, far left.” I find this less than helpful. Of course, I tend to see people like Bob Avakian as significantly to my right, were we to map all political thought onto a one-dimensional spectrum, which is probably a fool’s errand. There are lots of different forks in that arrow, from social democrats who envision a workers’ paradise reached entirely by electoral means (in whose company I think Bérubé secretly places himself on good days) to Marxist-Leninist or Maoist vanguardistas to the very broad range of people who, like myself, are strongly influenced by anarchist thinkers from Bakunin to Chomsky, and who mainly see people like ANSWER as those who would jump at the chance to re-enact Kronstadt with Code Pink and Food Not Bombs in the role of the Russian Fleet.

But that’s not what I came here to talk about tonight. I came here to talk about the draft. parochialism and cosmopolitanism.

In the course of a surprisingly interesting discussion of his teaching the debate between Habermas and Lyotard, Michael writes something that caused a few disparate territories in my mind to bump into one another, plate tectonics style, to form a common, coherent country. He writes:

Lyotard found allies in feminist standpoint epistemology, which championed “local” and “situated” knowledges against the domineering “view from nowhere” from which follows precisely the kind of false universalism that sees dissidence and difference as illegitimate. Yet this knee-jerk academic-left defense of “local knowledges,” I fear, is every bit as strange and as blinkered as the knee-jerk academic defense of language games. I have never run across a fellow academic leftist who regarded Mormons or Islamists as practitioners of “local knowledges”; on the contrary, when we speak of “local knowledges” we tend to imbue “local” with all the warm and fuzzy feelings we progressive lefties have for our local independent bookstores, our local independent food co-operatives, and our local independent media. “Local,” in this sense, is good; it is opposed to “corporate” and “transnational” and “Wal-Mart.” “Local” preserves difference and always offers alternative healing methods and organic produce from neighborhood farms; “universal” is homogenizing and oppressive and puts a McDonald’s and a Starbucks on every street corner. I remark on this not to denigrate local bookstores (I’m as fond of them as anyone) or to claim that Lyotard had food co-ops on his mind when he was writing The Postmodern Condition. I’m only pointing out that just as the academic left tends not to think about whether religious fundamentalists might also be covered by an appeal to the heterogeneity of language games, so too do we tend to neglect the possibility that our defense of local knowledges might also cover the local small-town newspaper editor who supported David Duke for president in 1988. Perhaps, as I tell my students, it is possible to point out that “local is often a synonym for parochial without thereby committing yourself to global imperialism or a career in Wal-Mart’s public relations bureau. For “parochial” is quite literally another name for the local; it denotes the perspective of the person who has never left his or her parish.

It’s not quite so common as it once was that people in my line of work ask why “so few African-Americans are environmentalists.” White environmentalists have gotten slightly more savvy on that score, recognizing that wilderness issues are not the only environmental issues, and that African-Americans are doing huge amounts of work in the arenas of toxic pollution of urban and agricultural areas, of promoting and protecting urban parks, and the like. But I still hear the question asked with regard to those wilderness issues. Go hiking in California, or along the Appalachian trail, and the vast majority of people you’ll meet will be white, with not a few Asians and Latinos in the mix. There are black people that backpack, to be sure, and plenty of them. But as a percentage of total backcountry users, African Americans are underrepresented compared to the population at large.

Why is that? I imagine there are plenty of reasons, of some of which I am almost certainly clueless, and that none of them apply to every single black person who doesn’t use the wilderness. Discussing issues like this, especially as a white guy, I risk both generalization and stereotype. Economics likely plays a role: most of the African-American hikers I’ve known have been middle-class. Then again, hiking need not be an expensive pursuit. Maybe it’s just one of those elusive and not particularly value-laden cultural differences.

Or maybe, as African-American environmentalist Carl Anthony has suggested, it is that for a long time in African-American life, the backcountry has signified danger from whites. The boundaries that divide “small town” from “rural landscape” from “wilderness” are often indistinct. Cities, on the other hand, signify freedom. The migration from the sharecrop farm to Harlem and Detroit and Chicago has its roots in a literal escape from slavery, and later in escape from a system of economic and terrorist oppression that differed from slavery only by way of technicality.

The massive scale, the cosmpolitan nature, the anomie of the city means freedom. The rural, the small town, the wilderness is intensely local, and thus forever intimate. There is no crowd in which you can lose yourself. That local intimacy demands confrontation, whereas in the city one can simply walk away from an opponent and hope never to see them again. It’s not that there were fewer racist whites in Northern cities (or in Southern ones, for that matter) than in the rural South. It was the anomie, the palimpsest of communities in the city that made the difference. If you didn’t get along with a group of people, you could just… find someone else to spend time with. And once the migration picked up speed, having growing Black communities sure as hell didn’t hurt.

And of course, it wasn’t (and isn’t) just African-Americans who are driven out of more local settings, though historically they have certainly had the most pressing impetus to so move. Gays and lesbians and transgendered folks are much more widely accepted now than they were even five years ago, but given the choice between moving to New York or staying in Van Horn with the people who beat the crap out of you in high school, the choice is rarely too difficult. Geeks and goths and nerds do better in cities than in small towns, as a rule. I left my family’s historic territory in rural upstate New York, dragging my parents and siblings with me, because the city offered more educational opportunities. People who are less than contented living with two restaurants, three radio stations, and no museums? They leave.

This is not to say that all liberals, all non-conformists, all gay people have left the rural landscape, any more than it is to say that all Black people abandoned the rural South. But the political and demographic shift within the US over the last century or so is undeniable. Those people who felt the most oppressed by small-community mores, or who simply needed more cultural stimulation than was available in their small town, often pulled up stakes and left. The fact that we left some like-minded people back home doesn’t change that.

We abandoned the local for the cosmopolitan in the physical sense, but we did so in the cultural sense as well. Small communities have always been derided for their insularity. By 1948, when the migration from the farms and small towns reached a new post-war peak after they’d seen Par-ee and Tokyo and London – the year San Francisco native Shirley Jackson wrote “The Lottery,” drawing on her experiences living in a part of upstate New York not an hour’s drive from where I was born – the belittlement of the local had been enshrined in American Culture. Michael writes at length about teaching Silas Lapham, a good example. Lapham, a parvenu, had been given significant wealth literally out of the ground of his Vermont farm. He tries, and fails, to fit into cosmopolitan Boston. Author William Dean Howells treats Lapham sympathetically, as a man of fine moral character, but it’s clear that he is tracking local dirt onto sophisticated carpetry. The dynamic is so familiar that it barely needs spelling out. Refugees of rural oppressions, large and small, often adopted this traditional sneer without a second thought when they moved to the cities.

There has always been countermovement as well, to be sure. The history of American utopian thought shows one experiment after another in rural, intimate living based on principles that were, as often as not, remarkably progressive for the times. From the merely communal such as the Amana and Oneida Colonies, to avowedly anti-capitalist experiments such as the Kaweah Colony, and even including the “back to the land” movement still in progress since the 1970s, some progressives have worked to counter the ceding of the local. They have always been in the minority, excepting some places like Humboldt County in relatively close proximity to megalopoli. Many “Beverly Hillbillies,” if you will; few “Green Acres.”

A glance at the famous “purple map” from the November, 2004 elections shows a result of all this. We have ceded the local to the right. With a few exceptions — heavily Latino rural districts in Texas, a bit of rural New England, the nutbar-right Central Valley cities in California — urban counties went for Kerry, rural counties went for Bush.

We’ve ceded the local not only politically and tactically, but philosophically. The image of the soil, of the local earth and the politics that grew out of it, has changed dramatically. Populism, the usual name for the expression of local-roots politics writ large, was in the 19th century a progressive force, albeit with abysmal race politics on many occasions. Populism today, despite the best efforts of the Jim Hightowers of the world, is instead populated by the Pat Buchanans of the world. Look at the one reference in “What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?” to politics coming from the land, on page 221:

For while there’s a sense in which the faculty of instrumental reason, left to its own devices without any moral mooring, can sit down one day and try to figure out the most rational and efficient method for exterminating Jews, Lyotard underestimates the profound influence of German anti-Enlightenment thought on the Holocaust — the appeal not to universal reason but to emotional, irrational celebrations of “blood and soil.”

That’s not intended as a swipe at Doctor Bérubé, I hasten to add; he accurately describes the Nazis’ philosophy as emotional and irrational, and as celebrations of blood and soil. My problem is that those two separate criticisms are, to so many minds, inextricably linked. But even the hardest-headed rationalist has emotional and irrational aspects of her character, and would be a monster without them. She would last only a few seconds without blood, and not much longer without soil. Blood can symbolize more than spurious racial crackpottery, and soil more than empire.

Let’s face it: even the most committed urban high-rise apartment dweller seeks close-knit community, though perhaps of a more mutable form than to be found among Jackson’s rock-throwing farmers. That rootedness is a source of strength that the right, largely, enjoys and that we the opponents of the right, largely, do not. To point out that much of what that rootedness needs to sustain itself is to be found in the progressive rather than the reactionary agenda is to recapitulate Thomas Franks’ work, and he did it better than I could.

Could it be, though, that the knee-jerk Wal-Mart opposing, the reflexive prizing of locally grown tomatoes over Heinz canned paste, the snide choosing of Peets or Caffe Trieste over Starbucks, are not so much left identity marking as (perhaps halting) progressive attempts to reclaim the local? Less coffee table posturing — though that aspect certainly exists — and more a multifaceted and disorganized campaign to retake an arena that we ceded too readily, though we may have had the best of reasons? That this knee-jerking is but a single inadvertent dance step in a loose party with High Country News and other regionally affiliated media and ten thousand watershed groups and Hudson River Keeper and regional poetry associations and community-based schools and community-based policing all in attendance?

Is it possible, at last, that both modernist and postmodernist literature, the distinction between which Michael admits to chronic difficulty in delineating, might be supplanted by the literature of the local? The Stegners, the Hoaglands, the Boyles and Tempest Williamses? Gary Nabhan predicted, tongue slightly in cheek, that 20th-century American literature would mainly be remembered for its quaint, illusory, and temporary separation from the landscape. Might he be on to something there? 

Because from my perspective, and I’m not the only one who thinks this way, urban globalism in its current form is doomed. The project of modernism feeds on cheap energy. By the time today’s kindergarteners start taking literature classes at Penn State, that era of cheap energy will be solidly relegated to history. In all likelihood, the economic system that allows large cities to function will have collapsed. At worst those cities will collapse. At best, they will truly become what many of the older urban cores already tend toward: very crowded constellations of small, distinct localities.

And the sooner we progressives learn once again how to live, to interact, to work with neighbors and organize and feed ourselves and make art in small communities, the sooner we reclaim that knowledge that we gave up to the right, the more comfortable I think we’ll all be.

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Owners of Eaty Amin Dada and Kim Il Soup were unavailable for comment

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The owner of a restaurant named after Adolf Hitler said Thursday he will change its name because it angered so many people. Puneet Sablok said he would remove Hitler’s name and the Nazi swastika from billboards and the menu. He had said the restaurant’s name — “Hitler’s Cross” — and symbols were only meant to attract attention. Sablok made the decision after meeting with members of Bombay’s small Jewish community.

“Once they told me how upset they were with the name, I decided to change it,” he said. “I don’t want to do business by hurting people.”

Sablok said he had not yet decided on a new name.

Hitler’s Cross opened five days ago and serves pizza, salad and pastries in Navi Mumbai, a suburb of Bombay, also known as Mumbai.

via Poplicks.

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Pedagogical abuse

The marvelous Jennifer Ouellette has a post up announcing an initiative to promote scientific literacy, and possible career aspirations, in young girls. It’s a great idea, and I’m glad to help spread the word:

The Feminist Press, in collaboration with The National Science Foundation, is exploring new ways to get girls and young women interested in science. While there are many library resources featuring biographies of women scientists that are suitable for school reports, these are rarely the books that girls seek out themselves to read for pleasure. What would a book, or series of books, about science that girls really want to read look like? That is the question we want to answer.

You’ll find several requests for specific proposals at our website. One calls for scientific detective stories based on the life, research, and discoveries of real women scientists. Another calls for stories featuring real young women — aspiring gymnasts, ice skaters, actors, dancers – using a knowledge of science to help them become really good at what they do. A third recognizes how popular Manga and graphic novels are with girls, and asks for imaginative new collaborations between Manga writers and artists to create adventures about girls who use real science to accomplish their goals. If any of these three book ideas interest you, please check out our website (http://www.feministpress.org) for more information about deadline and how to submit proposals.

By way of setting up the announcement, Jennifer relates an all too familiar story, describing the factors that thwarted, temporarily, her long-assumed career in the sciences.

The chemistry teacher—rather than admitting that perhaps his teaching approach might need some adjustment, if so many otherwise decent students were doing poorly in his class – simply told us that we clearly weren’t cut out for the hard sciences, and that if we hated chemistry, we would really hate physics. It filled everyone with trepidation about senior year, if not outright dread. Physics phobia set in early for most of us as a result of one teacher too proud to acknowledge his own shortcomings.

Things didn’t improve with the one introductory astronomy course I took my freshman year of college.  It’s astronomy! The stars! Galaxies! Supernova explosions and black holes! How is it possible to make that stuff boring? And yet somehow, the professor did. Again, the focus was on dry, uninspired lectures, made even worse by the fact that on the first day of class, he told us that he didn’t give a damn about the course, or whether we learned anything. After all, we were only there to fulfill some stupid requirement, and why should he bother teaching those who would never become science majors?

It will come as no surprise, I trust, that this experience isn’t limited to girls. Nor to the sciences. I spent about two decades certain that I hated the study of history. This is an odd thing to say considering that I read stuff on 19th century North American politics for fun and relaxation these days. In fact, when I get around to writing that post detailing books that ought to be required reading for voter registration, Bernard De Voto’s Year of Decision: 1846 is definitely going to be on it.

But I thought I hated history for two decades, and the reason can be summed up in words: John Pattantyus. Pattantyus was — for lack of a better word — a teacher at Calasanctius, the school in Buffalo where I idled away the years 1968-1973. Among other subjects, he was charged with instructing us his students in World History. His pedagogical technique consisted of three stages:

1) spend each class telling students which words to underline in our World History textbooks
2) assign homework consisting of copying that day’s underlined words out longhand onto lined paper
3) grade according to how closely to verbatim we were able to write out that same text during exams

I’ve mentioned before my gratitude for some of the teachers at Calasanctius, including biology teacher and CRN reader Dave Roycroft, who managed to infuse a potentially deadening curriculum (getting 11-year-olds to comprehend the Krebs cycle is no picnic) with enthusiasm for the topic. I will admit that I probably learned more about biology, botany in particular, hanging out with Dave outside of class, in greenhouses looking at fern prothallia or hiking around in sphagnum bogs on weekends. But that’s no criticism of his classroom technique, which in fact prompted the pubescent me to want to spend valuable weekend time slogging around in swamps with a teacher.

But damn, that line Jennifer relates about “not being cut out for the hard sciences”… that brings up a painful and humiliating memory.

Calasanctius had an independent study program, not unlike a thesis, required for graduation. This was, for some inexplicable reason, called a “Seminar.” Students could work in any of a huge range of topics: music, English, history, whatever. A student would prepare a work and then defend it before a jury of teachers. The research and writing counted for about the same amount of your grade as your verbal defense or, I suppose, performance.

I never had a moment’s hesitation in deciding on my general topic area. I was doing biology. During my practice run, which was called a “preseminar,” I designed an experiment to test the effect of the hormone estradiol on response speed in the trigger hairs of Venus fly-trap leaves. My ADD got in the way: Nothing triggers the yawn reflex in an 11-year-old like spending Saturday afternoons in the library at the local state university poring over Biological Abstracts. (You see, children, in those dark days before Google Scholar, doing a literature search involved looking through hundreds of shelf-feet of bound tissue paper covered in 6-point type, looking for one keyword after another. Ye who do homework, count your blessings and praise Sergei Brin.) During my preseminar defense, my advisor Raymond David, the school’s chemistry teacher, faulted me (and rightly so) for methodological flaws in my planned experiment, insufficient review of the previous literature, and my pronouncing it “estriadol.” He suggested I find another topic.

And I did. I found a description of an interesting experiment in which rats were dosed with strychnine, then given varying amounts of amobarbitol, and survival recorded. The experimenters thus calculated the amount of amobarbitol it took to neutralize the strychnine. Here it was all laid out, methodology and rationale and procedure, and no one seemed to have done the same thing with phenobarbitol. So that’s what I’d do: copy their experiment but use a different barbiturate.

I don’t even remember all of what Ray David said about my presentation, as I stood there in front of the impassive jury of teachers. He did fault me for using the word “titration” to describe the procedure, unfairly in my view as the paper I was lifting the idea from had it right there in the title. I imagine lack of attention to detail played a role, as did the usual effects of procrastination and hurried deadline work. But I do remember what David said at the end of his critique, the closing sutures in the new asshole he’d ripped me:

Mr. Clarke, it is obvious that you do not possess the discipline necessary to perform a Seminar in a scientific field. My suggestion to you is that you choose a topic in the humanities.

The thing about being 12 is that you don’t generally have the experience necessary to be able to determine when an adult is being a massive dickhead. Instead, you tend to internalize the criticisms the dickhead makes. In retrospect, I have no trouble granting the truth of the criticism of my study habits. Still, those habits had somehow earned me As and Bs in his chemistry class. It was in the humanities where the effects of my desultory habits truly shone: failing grades for years in Russian, in Japanese, and — oddly enough — in History, where I never had the slightest learned discussion to distract me from the joyous task of using up the ink in my highliter.