Subjective Correlative

"The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an 'objective correlative'; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is evoked." T.S. Eliot, 1919

Location: Academia, NJ/NY, United States

Overeducated educator seeks part-time position as novelist, essayist, pundit, hack, comic, and/or laughingstock.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Geek Gone Wild

If you’re planning to visit Daytona Beach, Florida, be sure to BYOI (Bring Your Own Irony), because they don’t have any. There’s no way to step outside the cliché, nobody to share a sneer with, and not a single tongue-in-cheek T-shirt to bring home to a hipster (my personal favorite was emblazoned with "Well, It's Not Going to Suck Itself"). Daytona is like the Olive Garden: when you’re there, you’re family, whether you like it or not. There are beaches and bikers and the racetrack (oh, my); the view from my 11th-floor hotel room framed the ocean (admittedly lovely), the Pelican Superhighway, and the twin towers of a boardwalk ride called the Yo-Yo, on which, for $25 dollars, you and a friend could sit in what looked like a hamster ball and get sproinged higher than the Hilton by bungee cords, spinning all the while. The screams usually began after lunch and continued until after midnight; after a few days, these expressions of abject terror seemed normal and oddly soothing, like the bleats of seagulls, although there were no seagulls, just pelicans. Unlike the northeast’s inquisitively parasitical waterfowl, pelicans command respect. They seem smart because they’re silent, and when they fly in formation at night they look eerily like the Luftwaffe.

The reason for my visit was prosaically pragmatic: I needed cash, and had agreed to prostitute my otherwise-useless talent for grading piles of inane essays without killing myself or anyone else to the almighty College Board, an empire that I now believe is second in global influence and sinister organizational abilities only to the Illuminati. For a week, I sat with 850 other English and composition teachers in a convention center on the floor of what is usually and still felt like a hockey rink, and read the work of America’s best and brightest. To my surprise, everyone was assigned to score only one question, which meant that, over the course of the next seven days, between the hours of 8:30 am and 4:45 pm, I read my fair share of 860,000 essays comparing two poems from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, both with the same title, “The Chimney Sweeper” (here's the later one). Suffice it to say that they are branded into my brain for all eternity.

It will probably take far longer than an eternity to forget the hash that most students made of those nine stanzas. Should I return to the world as a pelican, I will probably still hear whispers of “weep! weep!” as I ride the ocean wind; hopefully, I will not understand them, and will continue to dive for fish and stand on one foot in high places, unperturbed. I will not bore the uninitiated with the gory details, but I was occasionally jarred from my increasingly mechanical evaluatory stupor by assertions such as, “Everyone knows the old saying, ‘That man’s hair is his pride!’”, and one student’s insightful observation that “we as Americans” no longer employ chimney sweeps because “all those jobs have been sent overseas.” I learned new words like “disgustipated,” encountered well over a hundred spellings of “onomatopoeia,” and discovered that Blake shortened his second version of the poem because he ran out of paper. Several students praised enthusiastically Blake’s skill at rhyming words such as “snow” and “woe,” and one proclaimed his tale of short-lived, tortured orphans “gleeful and engaging,” as if pitching it to Disney (stay tuned for “Chimney Sweeper III: Back in Black”). In all fairness, I was, as I always am, knocked on my already-seated ass by moments of real brilliance, but these were rare. I must have read close to a thousand essays, and I gave the highest point value – a nine – to only three.

Perhaps as a result of Alanis Morisette’s utterly inaccurate examples – “rain on your wedding day,” etc. – the essays, like the town in which I read them, were decidedly lacking in irony, although Blake’s poems were full of it. I was reminded umpteen times of a great line from the NBC sitcom “Just Shoot Me” (RIP), which I’m pretty sure was penned by David Cross, the mastermind behind the shortlived “Mr. Show”: “That’s not irony; that’s what happened.” They didn’t know the difference, and, after a week in Daytona, I didn’t either.

Ultimately, I gave in. I drank frozen Mai-Tais and stuck the flowers behind my ear. I read – and enjoyed – a Reader’s Digest somebody left in the lobby. I sang along to endless acoustic approximations of Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away,” although my last vestige of self-respect drew the line at Jimmy Buffett. I bought a conch shell in a store about ten yards from the beach. I sent postcards of smiling babies in sunglasses. Every once in a while, my critical side surfaced like a shark, mainly in the form of irritation with the media coverage of the missing Alabama teenager, which seemed to indicate that a young woman must be depicted as a naïve virgin in order to arouse the sympathies of America, as if she would otherwise be to blame for a sexual encounter that went horribly, tragically awry.

Safely returned to the epicenter of irony, I’ve been pondering my own snottiness, wondering how to balance the fact that Jeb Bush saved thousands of poor Floridians millions of dollars by telling cagey, recalcitrant insurance companies who withheld payment in the wake of last year’s awful storms to pay up or get out, with how he handed two elections to his brother. (I imagine I’ll get over that one quickly.) I argued halfheartedly with a couple of Nader voters, an activity which simply and sadly no longer gives me the self-righteous little lift it used to. I found what I hope will continue to be great friendships with a motley crew of smart, funny, well-read women (hi, guys). And, after all my complaining, I’m even considering going back next year for more than the money (and the big fried-fish sandwiches), if they ask me, although I get the feeling that giving nines to only .003% of those essays – and two of those in the last hour, out of pure guilt – might come back to haunt me.


Blogger catherine or denise said...

beth, on the internet!

lucky for you, my friend and i just started a blog, too.

- denise (of the blog, "sophisticated flavors")

10:22 PM  
Blogger Marigoldie said...

Who would've thought that an entire generation would mislearn the word "irony" from one pop song? And I too am sad that the only missing women people care about are the attractive middle class white ones.

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