[from my pre-weblog, 15 May 1996]
omewhere in here comes that old black magic, that determination to write something whether or not it makes sense, just in order to keep from drying up and withering on the vine—kind of like masturbation is supposed to be practice for sex, not that I would know anything about that. Right?
As always the notion is that if I put words down on paper, any words, sooner or later I will hit on something I actually want to say. As though determination can take the place of preparation, or resolution substitute for thought.
Well, that little burst of energy wound down fairly quickly, as I got stuck on a word for a concept. I remember that [my fifth grade teacher] Mrs. Allen always used to claim that if you couldn’t define a word, you didn’t really know it, even if you could use it correctly in a sentence and knew how to make it work with other words. What would she say about my problem, I wonder, where the meaning is clear in my head but I can’t find a word that has exactly the required meaning?
Yeah, poor Mrs. Allen. What was wrong with her, I wonder. What made her so neurotic and uptight? Bad toilet-training, unsatisfactory sex life, all the trials and ills on which we conventionally blame our misalignments with life? I don’t know. I will say this for Mrs. Allen: if she set out to make an impression on her students, she certainly succeeded. With me, anyway. Maybe not with others—I don’t know. I haven’t talked to anybody who was actually in her class for years beyond number.
Obviously it must have been her intention to make an impression—to know that her students would be talking of her and remembering her and writing of her in later decades when grade school was only a foul gas in the tank of memory, a by-product of the decay of childhood. Why else the pointless rote-sayings: “Self-discipline is doing what you should do whether you want to do it or not”—and who, exactly, defines what you should do? And how are you supposed to know what you should do and when you should do it? “A noun is a person, place or thing”—in which case can I sit down at my noun, open up my noun and read from it a noun that was written a long time ago by a noun named Edgar Allen Poe? Those are the only two I remember, but as I recall she had a large number of them, and you had to be word-perfect or you were wrong. WRONG!
I remember when my friend Wyn, bless her, answered Mrs. Allen’s “What is a noun?” with “A noun is one of the seven principal parts of speech—” Mrs. Allen blew her top. “That is exactly the sort of answer I don’t want!” she shrieked. “A-noun-is-a-person-place-or-thing! A-noun-is-a-person-place-or-thing! I’ll get you my pretty and your little dog too!”
Yeah, well, poor Mrs. Allen. She can’t have been a happy person. But influential—yeah. Maybe. I suppose she is probably the teacher I was most influenced by, though not, perhaps, in any way she would have liked. If Mrs. Allen was in favor of something, I’m deeply suspicious of it to this day. It’s an emotional bias I can’t entirely dump; I’m sure she was right on some things, but she was wrong on so many that I lose count. She was against evolution, bad posture, drunkenness, drugs, people sitting with their heads propped up on their hands or with their arms folded, daylight saving time (actually I’m with her on that one), atheism (the only people who are not protected by the constitution which permits us to worship God in any way we choose or something like that), agnosticism (atheists who can’t make up their minds to be atheists), gum chewing, social drinking, smoking, daydreaming, and so on and so forth. She believed that Jesus Christ never made a mistake, that alcohol kills brain cells, that people think in words, that there was a time when I wanted to be a cowboy, that the most important thing a person will ever learn in life is how to write a business letter, that people who can define a word actually understand it, that Emerson was the wisest man who ever lived (except of course for Jesus Christ who never made a mistake etc), that a noun is a person place or thing, and that self-discipline is doing what you should do whether you want to do it or not. Rest in peace.