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Notably Quoted

It’s good for an artist to try things. It’s good for an artist to be ridiculous.
Sheila Heti in How Should a Person Be?: A Novel from Life (p. 18)


Life Will Break You

I can’t believe that winter break is almost over. For the last week the campus has been closed, so faculty and staff have been able to go their own ways to celebrate whatever version of the holidays they choose. My time has been spent, for the most part, in solitude: I have cleaned house, run errands, written job applications, sent out and replied to emails, taken naps and hot baths, gone on long walks, made up new playlists, Photoshopped pictures, driven to Albany for lunch, and, generally, tried to relax. (With only modest success on that last item, I might add, despite the apparently-leisurely, non-work schedule!)

Also, I just finished a novel that I spent a little time with each day: The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich. I learned of this book by listening to NPR on Sunday morning, October 2, 2005 , and I immediately ordered a copy from . I admit I had never heard of Erdrich before, even though she has published several novels. I was intrigued, though, during the NPR piece, by the description of the story, as well as by Erdrich’s voice. The NPR website indicates that “novelist Louise Erdrich returns to the Ojibwe world in her latest work, but The Painted Drum also explores human relationships.” In my post of December 18th, I mention my attraction to works that explore the human condition, and this book certainly fits that category. I was totally drawn into the narrative, as Erdrich proves to be an incredibly-skilled storyteller.

Erdrich has published other novels with Native American themes and characters; this is not typically subject matter that I’d be attracted to. So, without having heard the brief description on NPR, I’m fairly certain that this book would not have leapt off the bookstore shelf at me. I am immensely gratified to have been listening to Liane Hansen that Sunday morning, though.

As I’ve indicated in another essay, I’m not really interested in doing book reports, per se . And, I’ll certainly leave literary criticism to those more suited for such activity, such as my good friend the Dean of Humanities. I found several things about The Painted Drum to be extremely compelling, however. The theme of loss was pervasive, exemplified, in part, by the deaths of a couple of young girls, a marriage torn apart by betrayal, and the diminishing eyesight of one character who had fought in the Gulf War. The complexities of the relationships, and the connections between, children and parents were also featured elements. And, too, the distance-closeness aspects of the relationship between Faye (one of the narrators) and Kurt, her free-spirited artist friend-and-lover, were explored. All these dimensions, and many more, are to be found in the context of this story of a mystical, magical drum, believed to be a “living thing.”

One of the reviewers of this book at says that “Louise Erdrich is a verbal artist. Through her carefully crafted prose, I could smell the dust rising from the prairie, hear the wind rustling the grass and feel the texture of the drum. The Painted Drum gives us a snapshot into the lives of people who must reconcile tradition with reality.” And I agree. Erdrich’s prose is absolutely lyrical. What hooked me was a paragraph she read during the NPR interview:

Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself that you tasted as many as you could. (p. 274)

I had a phone conversation with my old friend J this afternoon, and, in recommending this book to her, offered to read this passage. My out-loud rendition, however, came up short. There is emotion and intensity in the above words that I dared not attempt. I held back, given our history I suppose.

Read this book. I doubt that you’ll be disappointed .

The Class of ‘65

This week I received a CD with the photos from my (40th) high school class reunion, held last July in Rice Lake, Wisconsin. I don’t know exactly what took so long to produce and distribute the disk (they were all straight, un-manipulated digital files), but, at long last, I have the pictures. I went about copying everything to my hard drive, and, with some degree of anxiety, proceeded to take a look.

Here’s just a little bit of the story…

I had believed the journey to Rice Lake for the reunion was going to be a typical one: fly from Portland to Minneapolis (through Denver), rent a car, drive to Rice Lake (about two hours from the airport). It takes most of a day, but it’s always been a pretty manageable trip. Well, this time it was a little different. When I got to the airport here in Portland (early in the morning), the United Airlines kiosk would not allow me to check in. I found out that my flight was, at the very least, going to be significantly delayed, perhaps cancelled. The ticket agent looked for flights for me, and she was immediately able to find ones from Denver to Chicago to Minneapolis much later in the day, leaving only (only?) the leg from here to Denver in question. Well, without going into all the details: I waited and waited, and finally was able to make it to Denver after about a two-hour delay here in Portland. I missed my original connection in Denver, though, and had to wait (nine hours in the Denver airport) for a flight that evening. I had been scheduled to arrive at MSP late afternoon, but instead I arrived at midnight. I waited in line until about 1:00 a.m. before I had my rental car. By then I was thoroughly exhausted, though I started driving anyway. As I was weaving my way out of the airport, I realized that I surely was taking my life in my hands driving in this condition, but pressed on for another half-hour or so until I found a Super 8 that had a vacancy. I checked in around 2:00 a.m., as I recall.

Of course, I was so fatigued and stressed I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned until about 9:00 a.m., then slowly gathered myself up to be able to make the rest of the drive. I took the “long way” through Eau Claire, and made it to Rice Lake a little after noon. This calculated out to a full 30 hours from the time I left my house. I had missed the first night of the reunion (Friday), and the second evening’s festivities were scheduled to start in about six hours. I tried to take a nap at my brother’s house, but to no avail. I showered, dressed, dropped by my parents’ house to say hi, and arrived at Lehman’s Supper Club on time.

This was, I think, the fourth class reunion I was about to attend, though the first time I was actually showing up all by myself. I had, on the other occasions, always arranged to be with Bruce and/or Pete, two friends from the class who I’m still in contact with. Pete had remained at home in Arizona, and Bruce, although he was planning to go to the reunion with me, had called me that afternoon from his home in Minneapolis to say that he was sick and wasn’t going to be able to make it.

So, here I was: arriving at the reunion site alone. I had spent more than a full day getting to Rice Lake, on very little sleep. And, as I exited my rental car, I was wondering what the heck I was really doing this for! (This question had always been one that came to me as I arrived at every reunion.) Very likely, the folks in attendance, absent Pete and Bruce, were going to be ones that I had little interest in (and wouldn’t even recognize…thank god for nametags). But, here I was, trying to talk myself into going inside.

It was a long evening, as I hung out a lot longer than I thought was going to happen. And, to make this a manageable length essay, there are just a couple abbreviated stories I’ll relate about the evening…the first pertaining to my anxiety about the event photos.

I spent part of the evening talking to Gary and Diane: two from our class who had married each other. Diane was the class president when we were seniors; Gary was a person I had once worked with at a local grocery store during high-school years. (Oh, yeah, I once had a date with Diane. That happened, I believe, at some point when the two were taking a break from each other during their high-school romance. I recall being pretty infatuated.) Our conversation on this particular reunion night was very “real.” In my fatigued state, I imagine my defenses were at a low level, and when they asked how I was, I told them. I talked about my job uncertainty and stress, and about a years-long relationship that had ended just that spring. I tried to explain to them about my experiences with rejection and heartbreak. I imagine they were outright flabbergasted that I was so forthcoming about the state of my life. This was not, after all, the typical reunion small-talk that was going on all around us. After I had shared a good portion of my story, Gary observed: “no wonder you’ve shown up here tonight looking like you’ve been hit by a truck.”

I think my reaction was a stunned silence: perhaps even tacit agreement given my run-down state. At any rate, that remark is one of my two most memorable events of the night. Actually, it’s one that I could have done without, too. Please, Gary: Hit by a truck? Really? I looked that bad? (I left the building and called it a night shortly after that comment.)

Yeah, and if it really were true, did you have to say it? Geez…I’ve agonized over this for months now. (Very likely because, as I joke around and talk about my experiences at class reunions, I invariably mention that I walk in, look around, and ask myself the question: who the heck are all these old people?)

So, of course, it was Gary’s observation that came to mind as I was starting to browse through the photos taken that evening. I knew I was in at least a couple of them…was I going to see that it really was true? Had I really shown up looking like that?

The other story is a happier memory for me. Earlier in the evening, just about the time we were sitting down to dinner, a woman I had last seen at graduation spotted me from across the room and came over to talk. We chatted for a few minutes at the table, then I got up and walked us over to the other side of the room, away from the dinner activity, affording a modicum of privacy. Jeanie (we called her Carol in high school) was absolutely as delightful — and smart and beautiful — as I had remembered. She was our class valedictorian, and she and I sat next to one another during our graduation ceremony forty years ago; I had not seen her since. We talked about our lives, trying to cram eighty years of collective living into a few minutes. An impossible task. But, I thought our connection during that few minutes was totally delicious. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. (Jeanie: thanks!)  

Here’s a photo of the two of us. [You decide: “hit by a truck?”]



 Jim Arnold & Jeanie DeRousseau
Rice Lake, Wisconsin
July 2, 2005
Photo by Rick Vesper 

Finally Together

A Wedding in December is the fourth novel by Anita Shreve that I’ve read. (The others: All He Ever Wanted ; The Weight of Water ; The Last Time They Met.) The reason I keep going back to read Shreve is her ability to communicate about people, emotions and relationship. Yes, yes, if her books were movies, they’d be “chick flicks” — but I can’t help it, novels with this kind of depth and character development appeal to me. In an Anita Shreve work, I feel I get to know and care about the characters, and by the time I finish reading, I don’t want to let them go.

If you go to, you can find the remarks of some folks who were less than thrilled with this novel. I wasn’t disappointed, however. The story revolves around a reunion — a “Big Chill” kind of event, in a sense. Seven former high-school classmates gather together at an inn in the Berkshires to witness the wedding of Bill & Bridget — two who were high-school sweethearts, but did not end up together. Each of them, ultimately, married someone else. However, at their 25th reunion, they reconnect: Bridget a single mom of a teenage son; Bill still married, with a daughter. They resolve to finally pursue a life together, even though it is at the cost of Bill’s marriage. Bridget then gets breast cancer, and they decide to get married, to make public their commitment to each other. Nora, one of the former classmates and owner of the inn, hosts the event at this idyllic setting in the mountains.

But, this is not really intended to be a book review! What resonated with me, and why I am writing about this today, were the pervasive themes of “distance” and “closeness” in relationships, and how Shreve juxtaposed them. Nora & Harrison, Agnes & Jim, and Innes & Hazel are couples at great emotional and geographic distance. These all, are stories of love denied, love delayed, love hidden, love forbidden. In each case, there is evidence of great pain and sacrifice given the distance and unavailability of one for the other.

Then, there are Jerry & Julie, and Rob & Josh, couples who are currently “together.” Jerry & Julie’s relationship, however, seems to parallel the emotional distance of the other relationships.

The only two couples who are really “together,” and devoted to each other, are the ones for which the obstacles appear to be the greatest. Rob & Josh, of course, are gay men. Bill & Bridget have had to endure the dissolution of his marriage (and the rejection by his daughter) for them to be together — and then they become destined to tackle the challenges of Bridget’s cancer: a condition that may severely limit any real time (or really good time) they may have with each other.

Bill & Bridget waited 25 years to decide that they were meant for each other. They’re finally together, though, despite the obstacles. Nora and Harrison come together during the weekend, but it’s unknown, at the end of the story, whether or not they have a future. Agnes & Jim, Innes & Hazel: how will these couples do? Will they eventually seek out a way to be together after years and years of distance?

Here are my personal dilemmas: How long does one wait in this existence for one’s true love? A lifetime? When you give away your heart, how do you retrieve it? If you can’t really be with the one you love, is it actually possible to love the one you’re with?

The Kindness of Strangers

I like to go to the post office on Sunday mornings these days. The self-service facilities are great, there are few others there at that time, and I don’t have to stand in line to mail a package anymore. This morning, as I was getting out of my car in the post-office lot, there was a rather pleasant-looking young woman, standing on the sidewalk, waving at me and trying to get my attention. She was probably 20 years old, nicely dressed, but shivering in the cold and wind, nervous, and seemed to be near tears. She timidly asked if she could have some change, as she was trying to get enough together to afford a bus ticket to Salem. She kept saying that she’d never done anything like this before, and that I must “think her weird.” I asked her what the story was, and she said haltingly, in a very quiet voice, that she’d been living up here in Portland for about three weeks, but that her boyfriend had just kicked her out, so she needed to get back to Salem. She said that she thought she’d try asking people for money to see if she could get the sixteen dollars together to pay for the Greyhound to take her south (and “home,” I inferred).

She looked afraid and vulnerable; she was trembling. I very rarely open my pocket or wallet to strangers on the street, but this seemed like a good cause if there ever was one. I had a $5 bill in my wallet, so I extracted it and handed it over to her. She asked if I wanted it mailed back to me, but I said no, wished her luck, and told her to “be safe.”

As I was in the post office, I immediately got to thinking that I should have done more. It was cold out there today. What should I have done? Offered her a ride to the bus station? Paid for her ticket to Salem? Well, yes, to both of those (after) thoughts. I finished up mailing my package, went back out into the lot to find her, but she had disappeared.

I am kicking myself for not thinking faster: for not taking the risk of offering more, and more complete, assistance. Why didn’t I? Why did I hold back? Well, my own fear would appear to be the only answer. I feared the unknown: in terms of getting involved with someone for twenty minutes that I didn’t really know and could turn the tables on me, or enlist me in some kind of bigger “con.” Are those OK reasons?

Oregon’s Schools

An editorial in The Oregonian today discussed the recent death of the “CIM” (Certificate of Initial Mastery) for public K-12 schools in Oregon. The “CAM” (Certificate of Advanced Mastery), of course, never, really, had a life. Both of these initiatives were products of school-reform legislation passed by the Oregon Legislative Assembly in 1991 (as the “Oregon Educational Act for the 21st Century”) but, from the beginning, faced impressive amounts of resistance from a number of constituencies: politicians, educators, parents, and students alike.

So, here we are, fourteen years later, admitting the failure of these proficiency-based approaches to student learning…at least as they have been implemented here in Oregon. Susan Castillo, our current State Superintendent of Public Instruction, indicated yesterday that the CIM and CAM embraced “...high standards, strong accountability for student performance and creat[ed] a relevant learning experience…” (The Oregonian, December 10, 2005, p. B4), and vowed not to abandon those goals. What she plans to propose to the Oregon State Board of Education and to the legislature, in the place of CIM and CAM (if anything), remains a mystery.

Really, folks, even after years and years of effort, the CIM and CAM never had a chance in this state, despite the superhuman efforts of so many who wanted to see them succeed. The Proficiency-based Admissions Standards System (PASS) of the Oregon University System (public higher-education’s response to lower-ed’s reforms) was, in my opinion, always similarly doomed. Why? Well, timing might be one response, but lack of leadership, funding, and commitment are really the answers.

In 1991, when the initial school reform legislation was enacted (it has been amended in every legislative session since then), Oregon voters had just passed Measure 5, the property-tax limitation initiative, in the 1990 election. When I moved away from Oregon in the summer of 1990, I knew of no one who gave Measure 5 a chance of passing. But, come that November, it did. And, in terms of the political and economic landscapes of the state, Oregon has never really been the same. Certainly Oregon education, at all levels, has quite dramatically changed since then.

We are idea rich and dollar poor. Well, truthfully, we're probably idea poor as well. The “no new taxes” mantra of the first G. Bush, has been translated, by Oregon voters, into “no taxes.” Period. It seems the citizens of this state expect government, and the education systems it supports (K-12, community colleges, public universities), to do their jobs with less and less. But, to the point here, Oregon passed school-reform legislation at the very time that we were beginning to seek ways to implement Measure 5, and there just has never been enough money to do the job. School reform really wasn’t (and isn’t) that bad of an idea. It’s just that it takes resources, and, of course, leadership. The likes of Norma Paulus, Stan Bunn, and Susan Castillo, our elected State Superintendents since 1991, simply put, have been prime examples of poor educational leadership.

Oregon: we deserve better. We need resources. We need leadership. We need an enlightened public.