Sincerity is everything. Once you can fake that, you've got it made.
Thursday, November 4, 1999
A Critical Approach

First the headline news: I called my uncle the accountant tonight, and he did the tax returns! He'll be passing them on to my father on Sunday, apparently, and I'll be swooping in immediately afterwards to get them. I think; I'll have to work out the exact details of the swooping over the next day or so. (Actually, I'm tempted to swoop into Manhattan tomorrow to pick them up directly, but I don't know how well that would go over. I'll be going to Financial Aid on Monday in any event, so I may as well do it his way.)

Oh, and it turns out that the IRS owes me a bit of money, rather than the reverse. I didn't think to ask how much, but this certainly can't hurt...

Over the past couple of weeks, I've had a revelation with regard to criticizing others' works in my Poetry Workshop class. I now have a technique that is useful, entertaining, even kinda fun... and deeply disturbing.

Simply put, the technique is to assume that the author knows just what he or she is doing, and that everything on the page is intentional. Despite all evidence to the contrary. Oh, and do be sure to keep a straight face.

So, for example, when faced with the line "we would recant our life stories," one could note from the context that there is an obvious typo here, and that the author really meant "recount" (tell) rather than "recant" (retract). And a few weeks ago, that's what I would have done. The Bad Week when I was feeling cranky, I probably would've been a bit acidic about it.

Today, I settled for reading the line with a slightly puzzled intonation, saying that obviously the writer was trying for a bit of wordplay there, but that I wasn't sure how repudiating life stories really fit into the poem.

Perhaps mercifully, the professor pointed out the obvious error in this instance.

The above is too easy an example. What does one do with a poem that's badly written in nearly every way, and, indeed, makes you wonder whether its writer knows the first thing about the language?

If called upon, the Old Me would have simply listed the errors.

The New Me instead pointed out that, given all the errors in grammar, syntax, idioms, and prepositions, the author was clearly striving to show us a narrator who wasn't very familiar with English. And while it was quite skillfully done, I just didn't quite see what it added to the poem.

I have discovered that you can say almost anything, no matter how outrageous, and get away with it, just as long as you keep a straight face and a civil tone of voice, and couch your criticism in the form of misplaced praise coupled with difficulty understanding the author's work of genius.

While I've become strangely fascinated with how far I can push this, I'm also more than a little repulsed. This isn't what I'm like. I value honesty. If anything, the problems people have had with me have tended to spring from the fact that I can be annoyingly straightforward about my convictions. It is wildly out of character for me to claim to believe one thing about the author's intentions while I secretly believe nothing of the sort. And while it seems to be salvaging my standing in this class, I don't like it.

The other problem with this is that I've begun wondering just how often professors use the same technique. The resulting trains of thought have been very unsettling.

Finally, on an unrelated topic... during the break in the middle of class I ran to the campus newspaper office to pick up a copy of this week's issue. (For reasons apparently related to a new policy at the printers, the paper is being published on Thursdays this semester.)

On the way back, I ran into another former staffer, whom I hadn't seen in some time. We talked for about two minutes, during which time she asked what had happened to my eye, leading to the ultra-condensed version of my tale from the summer. There was just enough time after that for her to say that she wants my address, so she can invite me to her wedding, which will be next summer.

While I'm happy to be invited, I've gotta admit I'm not entirely comfortable with this. I've never been to a non-Jewish wedding, and have absolutely no idea of what I'd do there.

(Then again, I did say I wanted to be more sociable, right? Be careful of what you wish for...)