Fragments From A Week

This afternoon, struggling with my son to remove the packaging from a yoga mat my husband had just got me (classes start on Monday, heaven help me), I said to him, ‘oh by the way, I don’t know whether you’re interested, but I happened to notice on the internet news that Playstation 3s and…’ ‘…and Xbox 360s are coming down in price due to the credit crunch,’ my son said. ‘Yes, Dad told me in the car. Sorry, I already knew so there’s no need to finish your little speech.’ I was entertained and aghast in equal measure. ‘Is that how I sound?’ I asked my husband. ‘Do I do nothing but give little speeches?’ My husband shrugged. ‘It’s terrible the things children reflect back to their parents,’ he said, philosophically. But of course, I knew it was quite true. I do talk in little speeches, just as I think in paragraphs and write in finished arguments. It’s awful what twenty years of unbroken academia will do to you.

Earlier in the week I’d conducted my first ever group session. I had just got started when, abruptly, the phone in my rooms began to ring. I was astounded; it was the first time in about three years that it had done so in my presence. In the end, I asked one of the students to pull the plug, as I don’t think it’s possible to talk sensibly over a ring tone. ‘What if it was an emergency call?’ one of the students asked, wide-eyed and teasing. ‘What if someone was ringing you up because they needed learning support, immediately, right now, because they were completely desperate.’ ‘I haven’t quite turned into the flying doctor yet,’ I told them, laughing. But we were all imagining, from our differing perspectives, the possibility of a student calling up because they had got very, very stuck on an essay. I guess it’s a matter of time.

I try to do my best for you in finding amusing posts, but sometimes my courage fails me. The newsletter from the writing group I’ve attended a couple of times arrived in the post last week. It’s the only stamped, hand-addressed envelope I receive these days, and I am always inordinately full of expectations and then resigned when I realize what it is. Under the grand heading ‘Successes’, someone had sent in the triumphant news that a piece they had read out in a meeting had gone on to form the body of a letter published in the local newspaper. Call me a writing snob if you wish, but that’s not what I would classify as a major step forward. Anyway, I digress. The first announcement concerned the January social, a little party, in other words. Knowing that you have found my missives from this group entertaining in the past, I wondered whether I had enough spirit to brave a whole evening of my life in such a dreaded social situation. Tentatively, I emailed the group’s secretary and asked whether it was the kind of event that I could drop in on for a brief while. He replied that nothing would surely be lovelier for me than to have a voluble, rapid conversation with his French wife. Well, that made up my mind. No way was I going. If you are rendered highly anxious by the prospect of making small talk in your mother tongue, you can imagine all the horror evoked by the prospect of doing so in a second language. I’ll go to another meeting, but I have to write something in order to do that, hence the delay.

My son is an extremely private person. He’ll happily chat about everyday matters, but try to get him to talk about something that matters in a deep, emotional way and he will raise defenses worthy of a nuclear bunker. So we were astonished a week or so ago to hear him complain quite virulently about one of his classes. It was so unprecedented that we contacted the school, asking if we could come in to school for a quiet chat with his form tutor. She wrote back breezily, ‘sure, don’t worry, my kids complained to me about everything’. And then she added, ‘I’ll have a word with him, shall I?’ Before we could reply to say: no, she had already done so. My son came in from school none too pleased. ‘She said I probably knew all about it,’ he said, fixing us with an inquisitorial glare, ‘and I didn’t.’ At which point he clammed up completely about the problem that was bothering him and refused to say anything other than ‘I’m fine.’ I was furious. I can’t remember the last time I was so angry. I think it was because I exercise enormous restraint with my son, trying not to pry into his life, not to ask questions he doesn’t want to answer. This one time when I really did want to get to the bottom of something, and really needed to find the exact right moment to discuss it, I’d been thwarted and made to look like an idiot. The next day I wrote an email that expressed my displeasure in terms of glacial politeness. It wasn’t a solution, alas, for all that will happen is the teacher will hate me for the rest of the year, but I don’t care.  Bring on parents’ evening.

I’m reading an awful lot of books. John Updike’s Rabbit Run, which began slowly and made me wonder whether I’d like it, but which has stealthily grown into something exquisite; Sarah Turnbull’s Almost French, an Australian woman’s guide to Parisian culture shock after she ends up moving in with her holiday romance, which is good, but kind of like a series of extended magazine articles; Inside Lives, a guide to the growth of personality by therapist Margaret Waddell, which is making me feel terrible retrospective guilt towards my son for not doing all the things she says babies need to have done for them; Seulement l’amour by Philippe Ségur, in which a neurophysicist learns how to travel back in time (think Audrey Niffenegger in French); and Passionate Minds, a collection of essays on women writers by Claudia Roth Peirpont, a witty, sharp-tongued Madame whose sentence structure sounds delightful by the second time I read it. I’ve got The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov waiting in the wings and I must also dig out my copy of Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry for the Slaves discussion on 31st January. Oh and wasn’t I reading a little something by William Gaddis a while back? What is it about that book that makes it resistant to easy, repeated dipping in? Is it just the sheer size of the thing? It’s a very good book to write about, though, so I must get back into (or rather, create) a routine. So far, January seems to have been busy and eventful; on the whole that’s good – it brings the spring a little closer.

15 thoughts on “Fragments From A Week

  1. I’m smiling at your comment about making small talk in French – sounds dreadful! And what a distressing situation with your son’s teacher! No wonder he doesn’t like the class.

    I do like Updike’s Rabbit series, although it’s been years (and years!) since I read them – there are four in all I believe, so much more for the list!

  2. Litlove, you started reading Gaddis before Faulkner and Updike, and forgive me for being pleased about that. I do like Faulkner, mind – especially _Absalom, Absalom!_ [I think it has an exclamation mark] – and also _The Sound and the Fury_. Both are definitely worth reading. David Markson is another unites statesian writer to keep in mind (he must be in his late 70s now), and so is Gilbert Sorrentino (died in 2007, I think). Joseph McElroy – still alive – you might try _Actress in the House_ before going to _Women and Men_. They’re all good to read.

    As for the tutor, dear me, what a mess there. I wonder if your son might expect you to be fierce on parents’ night.


  3. Emily – I might not get to Faulkner first, seeing at this is my second Updike, but he has definitely made it onto my list, thanks to your advocacy. I’m very glad you feel the tutor was out of line. I try to keep out of school things and not interfere. This event was not possible to ignore, but alas it reminded me why I don’t get involved if I can help it! Becca – do the books progress in chronological order through Rabbit’s life? I was confused by that, reading the publicity in the back of my copy. And thank you for the kind remarks – I am so happy to help people who are shy, uncertain or troubled, but if that person is me, I find it very difficult to assemble the right company! 🙂 JB – nothing to forgive there, as far as I can see! David Markson is on my list for this month, or February, but McElroy I’m not sure I have ever heard of. Thank you as ever! I always follow up your suggestions. Charlotte – you could probably hear the sound of my teeth gritting over in Germany! But at least he seems fine now – perfectly cheerful as far as I can see, so I guess that will have to be my guide.

  4. I totally understand about staying away from that party! I would stay far away too. And I’m sorry about that teacher — she botched that one, for sure. I wonder if she has any idea?? I’m not sure how Faulkner came up, but I loved Absalom, Absalom! and so will put in a plug for that.

  5. Bad tutor, stepping over the line like that. Is she new and young? I hope whatever the issues may be get worked out. I ame very interested in what you think of the Rabbit books. For some reason Updike has ended up on my short list of good writers I don’t want to like. Perhaps you will be able to rescue him. As for Gaddis, I know exactly what you mean. I haven’t read him for a couple weeks now. Sigh.

  6. That tutor should have known to keep her mouth shut–how frustrating! And I know how you feel, trying to get any information out of an adolescent boy without coming off as prying. That’s my life! I would have stayed away from that party, too, by the way…

    I haven’t read Faulkner since university, but you remind me I should reread. Also Sexing the Cherry, which I read when it first came out. And I’ve got The Master and Margarita waiting for me, too 🙂

  7. Dear blogging friends – you are all SO kind about my run-in with the form tutor. Big virtual hugs all round as I find it very comforting.

    Anne – Lol! If it turns into a fight, I don’t doubt I would post on it! But I think I’d do better with words 🙂 Bug hugs! xxx

    Dorothy – I find it tremendously reassuring to think you’d have stayed clear of the writers’ evening, too. It started to look soooo intimidating. And I love the name Absalom for some unknown reason, and that does make two votes for that particular book….

    Stefanie – Alas, she is not (I would say more but had better not! ;). I can understand why you wouldn’t like Updike – his representation of women through the eyes of his male characters is NOT very PC. I find him interesting, and some of his sentences are amazing, but you know, there are other authors out there just as good. As for Gaddis – I’m very glad I’m not alone! I will set time aside for him next week and see how that goes…

    Gentle Reader – you are such a sweetheart. I was wondering whether you’d have a similar situation sometimes with your son. Mine will chat away about WoW, but try to find out whether he’s still friends with someone who hasn’t called by in a couple of months is impossible. I’d love to know what you think of Sexing the Cherry, and the Bulgakov!

  8. Surge of fury directed at your son’s tutor – it should hit the northern hemisphere overnight. That’s completely outrageous, and she should certainly have known better.

    One pressing question: where are you getting all your extra hours from? Is there a store? A coupon book? Do you order them online? I am a voracious and brisk reader, but I can’t keep up. I’m fascinated – are you secretly battery-operated?

  9. What a funny little post from you. I do enjoy these relaxed little peaks into your world!
    Your son – I get into that kind of trouble all the time. I am constantly thinking I can “fix” something for my children, and before I know it I have stepped on teenage toes, with no turning back, and invariably making things worse. My oldest has me trained to MIND MY OWN BUSINESS, but the learnings haven’t trickled down to my behavior with the youngest yet.
    And how odd – I start my yoga class next week. What do you think it will do for you?

  10. I do like Mr. Updike; I will buck the trend and say, read some Phillip Roth alongside the Rabbit books! They complement each other nicely, although you can never go wrong with Faulkner.

    Your poor son – I was one of those very quiet kids who had occasional fits of passion and a vast interior life. It’s hard on the kid but it must be agony for the parent. I think mine just sort of pretended I was forty and let me do my thing – we all survived, anyway.

  11. I agree completely about the tutor stepping over the line but speaking as an ex-teacher who was badly (verbally) mauled by an irate mother at a teacher’s evening and still has the scars to prove it, could you perhaps be confrontational and understanding at the same time? I’m sure you will be your tactful self but I do wince when I read about fights with teachers 😉

    Good call on the social and I’m also proud of you for choosing Gaddis over the popular Updike and Faulkner (although now that Faulkner is taking on the character of an underdog I will have to read him as well). Also realised, with whatever metaphor is appropriate for shame, that we’re not supposed to comment on Sexing the Cherry until 31 Jan. Ooops, sorry for the bad form. No wonder I got mauled at the last PTA that I can remember attending!

  12. Doctordi – lol! what a great comment! I look forward to that surge, thank you. And whilst I have lots of books on the go, it means it will take me an age to actually finish one. 🙂 In truth, I find that if I pad out my day with a little compensatory reading after each tough thing I have to do, and top and tail the day if possible with a few pages, then I get through books quick-ish. But I can’t possible read more than 2-3 a week. I did laugh when I got to the words battery-operated – I wish!

    Qugrainne – well, it was supposed to be nothing more than asking a few discreet questions at school, and those only for information. So I got most annoyed because it ended up looking like a real meddler when I had no intention of doing that. I mean, I’ll take the consequences when I am going too far (which I’m sure I do on many an occasion), but think it’s unjust when I was conscious of not wanting to. But that’s life, isn’t it? I think I might just have changed my mind and opted for a t’ai chi class instead – at least for the next few months. Yoga is still certainly in the picture. But I want something gentle, some exercise, and something meditative. I don’t like aerobic exercise and I need to put on weight rather than lose it, so exercises that strengthen gently are just what I’m looking for. Do hope you enjoy your class very much! 🙂

    Boxofbooks – Roth is a very good idea. I’ve only ever read The Human Stain, but I loved, loved it. Glad you like Updike, too. I think he has some extraordinarily beautiful sentences going on. My son seems much cheerier now, happily, although being me I worry that he is just putting a good face on things so as not to worry me. And then I am telling myself that that way madness lies. Your comments did put a smile on my face, so thank you for that.

    Pete – oh don’t worry. I cannot bear confrontation or conflict and would never, ever make a scene in public. And in any case, it wouldn’t get me anywhere. I much prefer strategy, and I would infinitely rather find the right buttons to press to make sure this teacher pays good attention to my son and looks after his wellbeing. I can talk big on the blog, but there is never really any justification for being aggressive physically towards a teacher. I’ll always be polite.

    You can comment on Winterson whenever and however you like. You might feel like adding to what you’ve said so far on the 31st and I hope very much you’ll join the discussion. The Slaves are most laid-back and welcoming in every way, I’ve always found. Here in the UK I have no idea who is popular and who is the underdog when it comes to Americans, but I am enjoying very much exploring new authors!

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