Out of France and into the Fire

I don’t live in France anymore. I spent my last moments in the Pézenas apartment taking a bath—planning to explore that metaphor more later—kissed my lover goodbye, and flew home. Basic communication with strangers isn’t daunting any more. Pastries are a non-event. There are a lot of American flags attached to pickup trucks in my day-to-day. Small towns are no longer constructed of old stone and vine revolving around a central church, but instead large stretches of asphalt from one beige stucco house to the next to the Walmart to the southwestern wilds that are like nothing else in Europe.

That’s where I am. Kind of. Well, I’m in a trailer in a state park named after a dead horse with a beebee gun in the cabinet and blues on the radio. I’ve traded killing time speaking English in front of classrooms of disinterested French high schoolers to dripping sweat over the dry Arizonan soil with a cohort of four American high schoolers who think that a good way to spend their summer is doing hard manual labor under a sweltering desert sun. That’s where I am. With my six-foot-something coleader sleeping in a tent in the front yard amid a screaming chorus of crickets and a night sky that only the dry desert air can display.

This summer, I’m working for the Arizona Conservation Corps as a mentor for the youth program. My location is the Verde Valley (pronounced VUR-dee), a region of Arizona consisting of a few small towns with names like Cottonwood, Camp Verde, Cornville, Clarkdale, Centerville, Jerome (an abandoned mining town turned artsy hippie community). The small towns are deeply American, just as the landscape is deeply southwestern: cactus, red dirt, expansive blue skies, cottonwoods and willows weeping over the Verde River, the longest free-running river in Arizona.  I’m getting battle wounds from the mesquite tree thorns here that may never go away.

Said days usually start with coffee around six in the morning. Cowboy coffee: beans soaked in boiling water which usually end up getting consumed too. Oatmeal. Pick up the youths. Fifteen minutes of physical training and fifteen minutes of stretching. A few hours of pulling invasive weeds or trees, some of which are so volatile that every pore in your body leaks in protest. A few hours of trail building. Maybe mixing up mud for planting seeds. Hiking. Collecting dragon fly larvae. The jobs vary, but the heat is a constant, boiling away my skin and humidifying the sweat under my thick collared uniform. The brilliant sarcasm from my corps members is another constant. Laughing so hard I can’t get my body to keep working. Two fifteen minute breaks and a thirty minute lunch. We finish at 3:30, and I get to hike, bike, fish, paint, write, go to Taco Belle with the rest of my afternoon.  Then dinner, make lunch for the next day. I’m usually in bed by nine.

The days are steady and predictable in a way that only a day constructed around eight hours of hard work can be. Slow days built by slow work whose effects feel dubious from such close proximity (what is five hours of pulling napweed when it will only be back in a matter of months?). But the river here is not a strong one anyway.

It meanders. Sometimes, you wonder if there’s a current in its water at all, sitting idle between its grassy banks with something that looks like rotten peanut butter on top. This is all just a lesson in slowness anyway. This river that gives no heed to here or there has supported life for centuries. Look to the ruins at Montezuma’s Castle or Tuzigoot. Look around and see all the miraculous green for which the Verde is named. Listen to the bugs. Watch out for snakes.

Baths don’t always get you cleaner. Rivers don’t always display obvious force. Time is just a labelled bag.

This is where I am.

The Three Pound Mammoth: Thoughts on David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and the Value of the White, Male Author

It now lately sometimes seemed like a kind of black miracle to me that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end.  Could dedicate their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately — the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly. To games or needles, to some other person. Something pathetic about it. A flight-from in the form of a plunging-into. Flight from exactly what? These rooms blandly filled with excrement and meat? To what purpose?

Infinite Jest
David Foster Wallace

I was first introduced to David Foster Wallace my freshman year of college in a class on American literature from 1860 to the present. We did not read any essays on tennis or excerpts from Infinite Jest about, well, tennis or any YouTube interviews where he talked about tennis. We did not consider any lobsters. We read his commencement speech to Kenyon College’s class of 2005, which is now known as This Is Water. It is about the meaning of a “real education,” and how it is not so much facts and skills that make this “real education,” but the acquisition of the ability to question what we are given, ranging from media to even our own selves. It is hella worth a listen. (And, if you would like to ponder that a bit more, I think my high school English teacher gave a lovely Tedx Talk following in its footsteps.)

The following summer, just before heading off to the wonderful reading world of summer camp, I went to the library for Infinite Jest, but they did not have it. Instead, I got The Pale King, the novel Wallace was writing when he killed himself in 2008, and was able to read it within a week. I don’t remember much about it except that it was about taxes, and that there was a character named David Foster Wallace who spoke in the first person. And, of course, that I thought it was absolutely brilliant in the cheeky, post-modernist kind of way Wallace is known to be.

A few weeks later I bought Infinite Jest. Two years of lit-majoring after that, I’d still never had the time to read the 1,079-page, three-pound mammoth.

This year, though, working as an English teaching assistant in France and, basically, never actually having to do the whole “work” thing, I finally had the time to tackle Jest. It’s taken five months, equally having to do with its length, my preference for reading slowly, and the fact that I am usually reading around three to five books at any given time right now (a book in English, a book in French, a book of poetry, maybe a book of poetry in French, and some literary journal). Now, after five months of lugging around this cumbersome stack of dead trees and flipping back and forth between my two bookmarks (one for the normal chapters, one for the endnotes), I am not sure how I feel about Jest.

I would say up until page 700/month 3.5, I was really into it.  I liked the idea Dave Eggers brought up in the foreward that we should all read Infinite Jest because “[w]e have an obligation, to ourselves, chiefly, to see what a brain, and particularly a brain like our own — that is, using the same effluvium we, too, swim through — is capable of.” One of my friends, upon starting the novel, told me it blew her mind in a very good way. I’d liked his previous work. And, for the first 700-pages, I mostly liked what was going on with Wallace’s effluvium here. It had a cool conversation going on between the obvious, familiar manifestation of addiction and messed-up pursuits of happiness through a halfway house of, well, addicts, and with the less obvious, but intensely-more familiar world of American sport/school/film/government with the Incandenza family, whose parents founded and ran a tennis boarding school academy and made artsy films on the side, and whose kids attended said school, one of which going off to become a pro-football punter. There were a couple of transvestite spies on a hill talking late into the night about desire/addiction/the American lifestyle whose chapters were weaved through the two main narratives to supply the philosophical groundwork upon which the more narrative chapters were given context. It is funny. Like, absurdly funny, in a kind of dumb way that made me feel like I was just making jokes with my (beloved) dorky friends, even if, later, I found out in this interview, Ole’ Dave did not see why people said his book was so funny when everything was supposed to be sad (which, I think, is obnoxiously obtuse. There’s a women who creates steam when she gets sexually aroused). Most of all, it is, clearly, the work of a genius.

But, like Wallace said himself in “This is Water,” everything is up for questioning, and the thoughts of a genius ought to be among that everything. There seems to be a bit of the “genius theory” school of thought going on in approaching Wallace that implies geniuses should not be subjected to editing from others. I think Wallace needed a fucking editor though. Two of the biggest stylistic choices, I gather, in Infinite Jest that make it such “a…mind-altering comedy” [back cover of the book] are its length and its end-notes. However, I really don’t see either of these elements working towards anything substantial. Although I get the meta- nature of having to plow through 1,079 pages to talk about America’s need for entertainment and gratification,  there is a lot of stuff that did not need to be in this book, and I’m sure there’s a reason I started to resent the process around page 700 when “long” books would have normally ended. Does one guy really merit getting to say that much just because he’s a genius? Is boring your reader from time to time with lengthy descriptions of things nobody cares about (ahem. Tennis) really necessary to achieve a thematic end? The endnotes, too, do not seem to really have a distinct purpose. I know in the interview I referenced earlier, Wallace says he likes the endnotes because they give him a space for a different voice, but I did not see much of a distinction between the voices in the real chapters and the endnotes. And, unlike the length which at least conversed with the reader on the theme of boredom and entertainment, the endnotes did nothing special for the reading experience other than seeming to “ask something of the reader” for the asking of asking something from the reader.

Beyond stylistic choices, though, there is an almost unbearable whiteness, ableness, heterosexualitiness, and cis-ness going on throughout the book (and yes, it does address every one of the issues directly at one point or another. From the position of the privileged each time, too). One cannot help but notice that all the real main characters are able, hetreosexual, white, cis-men, with a few women (a mother and a love interest, of course), two cross-dressing spies, and a disabled little brother appearing so regularly that I wonder whether they too are main characters or not. But these characters are very clearly an “other” to the main ones. They are less developed. They are there to serve as a prop in the human setting that the white, male characters live in. The “Moms” is a caricature of nurture; Joelle van Dyne is a love interest/muse whose beauty is her most defining characteristic until she is later deformed. Mario’s disabilities clearly serve as a means to make him some inhuman creature that makes him better than the fucked-up standard Wallace focuses on in everyone else. The spies’ cross-dressing is just some lame joke that doesn’t seem to ask much more of the reader than to laugh at the skin-deep image of two men dressed up like women. The insight into any human condition is all done through the accepted standard of white, able, cis-, heterosexual manness.

And, yet, I still want to like Infinite Jest. While reading the book, I recommended it to a friend who I saw having a similar sense of humor and was sent this article  in response, which talks about how the big Wallace fans are white men who feel like Wallace gets ~their problems,~ and they, subsequently, always try to force his literature onto those around them, and more white man literature is not as valuable as literature from other voices. And so Infinite Jest, for me, has become a sort of culmination on the very discussion of white male writers’ worth that I’ve been hearing for a while. White men have too much of a presence in our English canon. Yes. Obviously. But, at the same time, I feel like the themes and artistry in Infinite Jest, among other white, male authors (my favorite author right now is Ander Monson, who is also a white male) are something I can connect to and enjoy as a woman. I am a human. I am American. I’ve struggled to understand just how to pursue happiness before. Orin Incandenza was a character that especially got me. In a fictitious future that features a sort-of Netflix, when Orin is asked what he misses, he says the subjected boredom of mass television. There’s a passage about sex — “It is not about consolation. …It is not about glands or instincts or the split-second shiver and clench of leaving yourself; nor about love or about whose love you deep-down desire, by whom you feel betrayed. Not and never love, which kills what needs it. It feels to [Orin] rather to be about hope, an immense, wide-as-the-sky hope of finding a something in each Subject’s fluttering face, the need to be assured that for a moment he has her, now has won her…that there is now inside her a vividness vacuumed of all but his name: O., O. That he is the One” — that has never pinned down my feelings so exactly. I keep thinking back to an article I read in Poetry Magazine‘s December 2016 issue, “A Politics of Mere Being” by Carl Philips. In it, he says, “To insist on being who we are is a political act — if only because we are individuals, and therefore inevitably resistant to society, at the very least by our differences from it. If the political must be found in differences of identity, who gets to determine which parts of identity are the correct ones on which to focus?” And while this is of course referring to non-white men’s ability to write from a place outside “the other,” I can’t help but think of it in terms of an ability to see my individual self in the work of another individual who does not share the same societally categorized characteristics as me.

Wallace would have done better not to mock certain groups of people based on their very belonging to those groups (I’m thinking specifically in terms of gender queerness and disability), but, at the same time, everybody in Infinite Jest is a flat characterization of our own selves, and he seems to be asking us to mock what we see reflected back at us with him (spoilers, there’s even a mirror held up to a drug addict’s face by the mob as, like, an intimidation tactic at the very end of the book). Of course he wrote the book from the white male perspective, as he is himself a white male. We all see the world through this lens of “self” and “other”, and Wallace’s shifting perspective and voice throughout the novel indicate (I think?) an encouragement to sympathize with everybody and nobody, main character or someone acting as furniture to a main character’s identity.

Going back to “This Is Water,” we don’t know the stories of everybody around us, and, therefore, everybody must deserve our love, sympathy, and withheld judgement. After 1079 pages, I may know the stories of the white male characters a little better than the others, but I think what is more important is the very surface, caricature-like characterization that is rife among everybody in Infinite Jest. We come out still not really knowing anyone, yet somehow feeling deeply connected to their problems. What exactly is the endless joke here? we wonder, even if played out through the view of what has long been the narrative norm of the white male lens.

Infinite Jest is too long. It is problematic. It does style stuff just for the sake of style stuff. There are many better books out there. But, in the end, I am happy I read Infinite Jest‘s three pounds (I think?). If for nothing else — and even though David Foster Wallace said his masterpiece is “deeply sad” — because it was fucking hilarious.

*Photo courtesy of Chelsea Moreno

Olargues and Bédarieux

For my last week in France, my fella decided to show me the village Olargues, a village officially listed as one of les plus beaux villages de France, with a stop by Bédarieux on the way home. I seem to be having some luck with forecasted rain and surprise sunny, perfect days, as was the case when I went to St Guilhem le Désert for my birthday Thursday, and again in this instance. We wandered some streets, explored some castle ruins on a hill, sat on a bridge, had coffee at the most adorable organic marché/café in Bédarieux. Despite my hesitancy, we hitchhiked home in the perfect weather, and it was just magical walking along the road in the sunshine between rides.

Pour ma dernière semaine en France, mon gar a decide de me montrer la village d’Olargues, une village connue officiallement comme une des plus beaux villages de France, avec un arrêt à Bédarieux en route chez-moi. J’ai la chance récement avec les prévisions météorologiques pour la pluie qui résultent en les journées ensoleillées et parfaits, comme quand je suis allée à St. Guilhèm le Désert pour mon anniversaire juedi, et encore dans ce cas. Nous avons balladé quelques rues, exploré quelques ruines d’un château, assis sur un pont, pris du café à la bio-marché/café la plus adorable à Bédarieux. Malgré mon hesitation, nous avons fait l’auto-stop jusqu’à chez-moi en le météo parfait, et c’était simplement la magique en promenant la rue dans le soleil entre les trajets.

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Gordes, France

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For my last little trip in France this year, I stayed in Avignon and went to the provincial towns of Aix-En-Provence and Gordes. While Avignon was closed for Sunday, Aix-En-Provence was closed for Labor Day, and Gordes had pouring rain, Provence absolutely blew me away with how beautiful it was. Gordes, especially, was unlike anything I had ever experienced with every wall in bloom, its view over the countryside, and hidden waterfalls all over the place. I just spent the day going from little archway to little archway for cover from the pouring rain and reading a chapter from my book (which, right now, is a French translation of Hemmingway’s Paris Est Une Fete). It was small, there wasn’t much to it, but my five hours there almost didn’t even feel like enough.

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Pour ma dernière petite voyage en France cette année, je suis restée à Avignon, et je suis allée aux villes provenciales d’Aix-En-Provence et Gordes. Bien que Avignon était fermé pour dimanche, Aix-En-Provence était fermé pour La Fête du Travail, et il pleuvait à Gordes, j’ai trouvé que Provence était incroyablement belle. Gordes, en particulière, n’était pas comme rien que j’aie vu dans ma vie avec tous les murs fleuris, la vue sur la paysage, les cascades partout. J’ai passé la journée sous des arches, protégée de la pluie et lisante mon livre (qui est, à l’instant, une traduction française de Paris Est Une Fête d’Hemmingway). La ville était petite, il n’y avait pas beaucoup de choses, mais les cinq heures que j’ai passé là m’ont donnée l’impression que ceux étaient presque pas assez.

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TAPIF Spring Lesson Plans for Lycée and BTS

Hello TAPIF friends. I already did a list of the lesson plans and general job duties I used last semester for my lycée and tourism BTS classes, but here are the additional ones I’ve used this semester that, I would have to say after a bit of lesson-planning experience, are probably a bit better. While last semester the teachers pretty much asked me “present something on this topic,” this semester I was given a lot of room to do what I wanted with the classes with more general guidelines like “do something related to progress.” This semester, I also had the added odd job of transcribing a lot of audio material and making copies for teachers when they were busy.

Groundhog’s Day

I was mostly joking with myself when I came up with this lesson, but it has 100% been the most successful lesson I’ve had all year, and could be adapted for every level from seconde all the way up to BTS. First, I asked if anybody had heard of Groundhog’s Day, or knew what a groundhog was (giving the hint that some call it a marmot, which is the same as the French word). I then explained that it was an American holiday (make sure to explain that this word does not always refer to “les vacances“) celebrated every February 2nd in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania with Punxsutawney Phil the Groundhog. At this point, I would usually review the vocabulary for the different seasons as well as the vocabulary for “changing of the seasons” and “to predict.” I would then draw the two different scenarios where the groundhog sees his shadow and hides underground for six more weeks of winter or leaves the ground for an early spring. Then, I would make sure the class understood everything by asking them who celebrated Groundhog’s Day, where it took place, and when it was celebrated. I would then review the conditional of if/then phrases (i.e. If Phil sees (present tense) his shadow, then there will be (future) six more weeks of winter). Then I’d have the class get into groups of two or three and invent their own holiday to predict the changing of the seasons using the conditional and answering the same who/where/when questions. If there was any time left, each group presented their holiday and we’d vote on the best one. The answers were incredible! (“If you shave your arm hair and it grows back in two weeks, then spring will come early,” “If Nugget the Chicken poops on a baby, there will be six more weeks of winter,” “If your love kisses you on February 14th, then spring is already there”).

Music Videos

This was a lesson I distinctly remember doing all the time back in my high school French classes. Basically, just make a worksheet based off of a music video including lyrics with missing words, a related grammar lesson, and discussion questions (my favorite way to have discussion, by the way, is to give them a few minutes in small groups to look over the discussion questions, prepare their thoughts and some vocabulary, and then come together as a class for the big discussion). I had a lot of success this semester with the music video for Declan McKenna’s “The Kids Don’t Wanna Come Home”, for which I made this packet.

The Women’s March/Women’s Rights in the USA

After Trump’s inauguration, there were, of course, the Women’s Marches‘s around the world (there was even one in Montpellier!), so I designed a lesson around the current event. First, I asked if they had heard about the Women’s March and explained why it happened. I then brought up a web article that listed the number of participants by each city for students to read and practice their numbers with. I absolutely cannot find the article anywhere online anymore: however, this article would work just as well, and has the plus of practicing dates.  I then brought up these three pictures each representing a different wave of feminism and had the students describe the picture to me and what they might think that wave fought for. I then passed out this timeline cut up/without the years/mixed up to groups of two or three and had them try to put them in order. To finish the class, I gave them the years for each event and asked if any of the dates surprised them and how it compared to France.

The Super Bowl

I started by, of course, explaining what the Super Bowl was. I then took a few statistics about the Super Bowl from here, and listed them scrambled on two different sides of the board so that there was a column of numbers and a column of nouns (i.e. gallons of beer, pounds of popcorn, cost of one ad, number of people watching) and had the students match the two, saying–of course–the full phrases when guessing. I then showed a few Super Bowl ads and had them answer questions like:
What is this ad selling?
Who is it for?
Is it effective?

American Stereotypes of French People

Okay, the plan for this one is super simple but worked so well. I literally just asked about a dozen of my American friends “what is your stereotype of French people?”, compiled their answers (luckily, I have one ridiculous friend who gave answers like “Every French person’s home will include a table laid out with charcuterie, wine and cheese,” “Each French person knows someone who makes French bread professionally,” “They make excellent little spoons,” “French people, who I have come to know intimately, love cigarettes as much as they detest our American superiority,” among others; he was very inspired by the prompt), brought them to class, and had each student read one statement. The conversations that came from this were enough to fill the hour. IF that hadn’t been the case, I was going to have the students write up a scene where one of them was an American by French Stereotypes and the other was a French Person by American Stereotypes, but we always ran out of time before we got to this.
P.S. bonus if the French think it’s disgusting that women would have hairy armpits and you are, consequently, a woman with hairy armpits.

Slam Poetry

As a personal bias, I think slam poetry is the best form of poetry. In terms of teaching English, though, it is a definite asset to teaching poetry because it includes listening comprehension, and a level of non-verbal communication that is always helping in teaching a foreign language. For my slam poetry lesson, I used Sarah Kay’s “The Type”, because she speaks a little more slowly than many slam poets (and also just because it is one of my faves). I followed this worksheet in teaching it.

BTS Tourism Specific

BTS, in my experience at least, has been the most difficult section I’ve had, and inspiring motivation can be difficult at times. However, I did try to make some tourism-specific lesson plans for them:

  1. I showed this documentary about Lake Powell in conjunction with this packet, and a follow up with the more touristy Arizona Highways TV spot on the same topic with this one. Going through both took a little under two hours.
  2. I made a presentation on Mardi Gras in New Orleans and we compared the traditions with those in Pézenas. We then divided the class in two and each group had to try and convince us which one was better.

 

 

35mm

As a Christmas/New Year’s/Getting-In-To-Grad-School gift to myself back in December, I got a Pentax Spotmatic film camera off of Le Bon Coin and I absolutely adore it. Here are a few pictures from around the region, namely Pezenas (my town), Castelnau-Le-Lez, Mèze, and Montpellier. (These are pictures of the pictures taken by my digital camera woops).

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Canned Peaches

A quick poem I wrote this afternoon while trying not to get peach juice on my computer.

My cupboard is stocked with canned fruit
waiting to fall forward
into lids peels back,
fork tongs stuck in
uncondensing sweetness out.

in this battle against
Hunger stalking
the unrequited Love at the heart
of this chore called living.

I have never been hunting
or planted an orchard.
Never warmed my hand beneath
the feathers of a hen nestled
against her eggs to take
what I need, or
sewed myself to water
by the stitch of fishing lure.

No,
these hands have always eaten
the legs propping them up, fingers gnashing
around the curved edges of cans piled high
as me, bringing cheeks to the knife-sharp
corners of metal ripped open,
praying that the edging caresses won’t rip
back, and get iron-rich blood as sticky as juice—
but not quite as sweet—
everywhere.