|The Macaroni Artist|
(for Drew Burk and Javier Marias)
This, perhaps, is a poor example, but then again there is a reason I ended up here instead of there.
This, again, is the mid-nineties. If only I could remember the particular year, but it escapes me. When you have been in the same job for nearly twenty years, the years behind you begin to pile up. They say that the older you get, the faster time passes, and in my experience this has been true. My own calculation was, for many years, that this must be simply that each year is a smaller percentage of the total time you have lived, and therefore, seen from a certain perspective, indeed a smaller entity, a shorter period of time, seen from a perspective that would measure a period of time not as an entity unto itself but in relation to a whole. Then, in the course of conversation with one of my long-time colleagues, whose name it would be better not to mention, for reasons that it would be better not to mention, it comes up that what she has understood is that when you are doing something that you have done before, just as you have done it before—for instance driving from home to work, or work to home—your brain essentially shuts down, or in any event shuts down to everything that it does not need to process as new or unforeseen. This is why, sometimes, a tin can, for example, flies up off the highway and smacks into the underside of your car and suddenly, as though jolted out of a deep sleep, you realize that you are nearly home but have no recollection of the last twenty miles of driving, and this is why—because the older you get, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, the more times you have done the same things—time seems to pass more quickly as you get older: because for more and more of that time you are doing things you have done so many times before, so for more and more of that time every year your brain is essentially shut down, even if you are functioning, and therefore although time is passing, and time does pass, for example you get older, you are not present to its passing, and so it is almost as though it passes without you, and suddenly it is an hour later, or twenty minutes later, and you missed out on that time altogether. It's not that you were somewhere else; it's that you weren't anywhere at all. But the year this happens is, now that I think about it, 1994. I can't forget it even though it's just a number, or even though I would like to. Mid-way through the semester, we're talking about a book the title and author of which I will not mention for some of the reasons stated above, because this is after the switch from literature to critical thinking through literature, which is to say that it is after we are no longer choosing our texts because of the literary value we attribute to them and are now choosing them, or having them chosen for us, because of the degree to which they may facilitate critical thinking, or the development of critical thinking skills, among a group of students, our students, whose characteristics are overwhelmingly impossible to generalize. That is to say, it would be better not to mention the title or author of the book because to do so may reflect on me, on my own preferences or interests or characteristics, inaccurately, since I may not have chosen to be reading the book at all, or, if I did, it may have been for reasons entirely external to my own interest in or passion for the book. In any event, we are discussing this book the title and author of which I will not here mention, or certain of its characteristics, at some point mid-way through the semester, and, as I recall, the point I am trying to make to the class is that authors create in their readers investment in their characters, or in any event, in their most important characters. Investment, I am explaining to them, can be a question of liking a character, but it is not always a question of liking a character. It is, I am explaining to them, like investment in a stock, a question of feeling that something is at stake for us in the fate of that character. What that something might be, or why we have that feeling even if there is nothing in particular that is at stake for us, is a question, I am explaining, that the reader must answer for herself. Because we live so close to Los Angeles, the capital of the movie industry and the destination of so many aspiring actors and superstars, I give the example of the struggling actress. If you give me a story about a pretty girl from the Midwest who has moved to Los Angeles to make it in show business, I tell them, as an actress, but, although she is working her tail off, although she's spending the money she saved to come out here, or there, on acting lessons and a private acting coach, and spending hours practicing in her studio apartment in Hollywood, and standing in line for every open call audition or whatever you call those things, although she's doing all that, she's not making it, she hasn't had a single call back for any of her auditions, and her money is running low, I'm not going to care. The truth, I tell them, and maybe you'll think that I'm a hard ass or a tough guy or an unsympathetic person, is that in my head what I'm really going to be thinking is that she doesn't deserve to make it, that if she's in Los Angeles trying to make it in show business as an actress and she's not having any success, then it's because she's not a good enough actress, or she's not pretty enough, or maybe both. Maybe you think that makes me an unsympathetic guy, and maybe it does, or maybe you think that I believe that Hollywood is a meritocracy and the best and most deserving always make it, but I don't think that, either. I'm sure there are plenty of beautiful girls, beautiful people, and really good actresses, who don't make it in Hollywood, while at the same time there are people who aren't as beautiful, or actors and actresses who aren't as talented, who do make it, and on some level I know that's not fair, but if you're just telling me that there's this girl, and she's working really hard, going to all her classes and all the auditions, but not making it, I'm just not going to care; in my head what I'm going to be thinking, whether I'm willing to admit it to you or not, is that she must not deserve to make it, and if she doesn't deserve to make it then why do I care whether she makes it or not. What's it to me? Maybe, I tell them, that might be one example. If, on the other hand, I tell them, you're going to give me a story about a girl, I don't care where she's from, living in Los Angeles, Hollywood, California, show business and beautiful people and haircuts and television stars, and what she does is that she's a macaroni artist, then we might be getting into a different kind of situation.
It is at this point, as I recall, that one of my students raises his hand and asks me, "What's a macaroni artist?" He is the kind of student who might be dismissed from class for acting up, although I don't remember if this particular student ever was dismissed from class for acting up.
"Somebody," I tell him, as I recall, "who makes art out of macaroni. Maybe sculptures, if you can picture that. Somebody whose goal in life, or what they do in life, is make life-sized sculptures out of dried macaroni noodles glued together."
"Why would somebody make sculptures out of macaroni?" he wants to know.
But, of course, in a way this is exactly the point. Why would somebody make sculptures out of macaroni? There's no precedent for it. There's no market for it, at least not an established market. There's probably not a single person among us who can remember seeing a macaroni sculpture in a museum anywhere. Therefore, if a person is dedicating her life to making sculptures out of macaroni, we can imagine that there could be only one reason for doing something like this, and that is that mysterious drive or calling, that this person must be doing this because she feels that she must, because there is something inside of her, or something out in the world, that has called on her to do this strange thing, to make this strange art, and the call is strong enough that she cannot resist it. I explain to them that if you give me a story about this same girl, living in Hollywood trying to get by, just trying to make it and having a hard time, but what she does is make macaroni art, then immediately I'm going to care. I'm going to be invested in her. I'm not just going to shrug her off thinking well, if she deserved to make it she would. I'm going to care, I'm going to root for her or in any case I'm going to wonder about what happens to her, about how it turns out, because she's trying to make it as a macaroni artist, and because trying to make it as a macaroni artist doesn't make any sense, nobody else is doing it, there's no market for it, there are no museum spots for macaroni art, and anyway what would it even mean to make it as a macaroni artist? We know what it means to make it as an actress, I am explaining to them. Big houses. Beautiful cars. Lots of money. Fancy parties. But what would it mean to make it as a macaroni artist? If one person buys one of your sculptures, which means that one person other than you cares about macaroni art enough to put some of his own work into it, even if it's only by way of the money that he earned working, then have you made it if you're a macaroni artist? After all, before that one person there was only you, so one person is something, and who knows, maybe twenty years from now somebody comes to his house and sees the macaroni sculpture and realizes that he, too, needs to do macaroni art. The point, I am explaining to them, is that we don't even know what it would mean to make it as a macaroni artist, and maybe that's what would make trying to make it as a macaroni artist, struggling on behalf of one's macaroni art heroic, and after all, that's the other word for the main character in a story, in a piece of literature, isn't it? The hero. That's what we call them in the movies, anyway: our heroes. But maybe what we really mean when we say hero is that we are invested, the same way we are invested in a stock we have bought, for instance; that on some level, what happens to our hero also happens to us and it's important, I explain to them, that we try to understand what it is about the hero in a book that makes her, or him, a hero, that makes what happens to her, or him, also happen to us.
Here, if I were only thinking, I might think, because I am thinking of artists, of Kafka's "Hunger Artist," in which the becoming-hero of our hero, the hunger artist, is affected through our discovery, through the story itself, that the hunger artist is practicing his art not for the money or for the recognition, which is there at the beginning but fades as hunger art in general and the kind of carnivals of which it forms a part become irrelevant in a changing society, but out of a genuine and inexplicable and genuinely irrational passion for the art itself, a passion that disregards any sense of value or usefulness, a passion so powerful that when the world forgets about him, when the carnival visitors stop coming to see his booth, when he is relegated to the forgotten edges of the campus of the carnival, and nobody remembers to rescue him from his own performance, he simply starves himself to death, unwilling, even to save his own life, to stop a hunger performance that is performed for nobody.
But I am not thinking, I am teaching, which I suppose is a different kind of thinking, but one that does not allow you to simply drop off into your own ruminations, but perhaps only to ruminate out loud in a way that is tied to or comes from the ruminations of your students.
"So is it just that something makes you unique," one of my students says, now, as I recall, although I cannot recall anything in particular about the student who said it. He was a male. I remember the section of the class he was sitting in, to my right and toward the front, but that is about all. The rest doesn't matter, perhaps there was nothing memorable about him. I remember the color of his hair, dark but not quite black, and its consistency—wavy on the verge of curly, but probably still in the realm of wavy. "So," he says, now, as I recall, "there's nothing unique about being an actress, because how many actresses are there, especially in a place like L.A. or whatever, so you don't really care about somebody who's an actress, but at the same time there is something unique about being a macaroni artist or whatever, because who's ever heard of a macaroni artist."
"Yes," I explain to him at this point, as I recall, and the technique, as I've developed it, is always to respond first, with the first couple of words, directly to the student who asked the question or prompted the response, looking at him directly, trying to catch his eye, but then, just a moment later, a sentence or so in, generalizing the response to the whole class, lifting the eyes and skimming them, grabbing snippets and tidbits of available eye contact to remind them, all at once but also one by one, I am talking to you. Here, responding first to him but then addressing the class as a whole, the way I remember it is that I am trying to explain that on the one hand it is what makes you unique, but maybe it's not so much about being unique as it is something else. "So for example," I explain to him, "the difference between an actress and a macaroni artist makes the point that I'm trying to make, in a way, about why we might be invested in a character, why our hero might be our hero, why what happens to her might feel, at least as we're reading, like it's happening to us, but at the same time it's possible to imagine a story about a young woman trying to make it in show business, as an actress, in which you were invested in her, and it's also possible to imagine that there could be a story about a macaroni artist, as unique as that is, in which you weren't invested in her, in which you didn't particularly care one way or another what became of her, or in any case in which you didn't really take it personally." I am explaining to them, as I recall, that saying that it's a matter of being unique doesn't quite get at it, even if it gets close. "I'm just giving an example," I explain to them, "but that's because maybe you can't quite explain the essence."
"Then how are we supposed to know what it is?" the student who is the kind of student I can imagine dismissing from class for unruly behavior wants to know. "If you don't even know, how are we supposed to know?"
used to these questions.
"It's not a question of knowing," I tell him. "If it were just a question of knowing the answer, then this would be a math class. But it's not a math class. It's a question of thinking of it as a problem, and not necessarily a problem that can be solved like a math problem, but a problem that can be thought about critically. You take any character in anything you're reading and you say okay, what makes me care about this character? Why am I invested in this character? Why do I feel that what happens to this character also happens to me?"
"But what if I don't feel that way?" he says. "What if I don't care?"
I am used to these questions, as well.
"In that case," I tell him, "perhaps you need to think about reading more carefully."
The student who had asked the first question, with his dark, wavy hair, the front right portion of the class, comes to his rescue.
"But if it's not what makes a character unique," he says, "then what is it?"
"Maybe it's different for every character, and in every different story," I tell him. "Or maybe it depends as much on the reader as it does on the story. Maybe for every reader it's going to be different. I would say that it's not what makes a character unique, but it is what makes a character particular. It's whatever the reason is that a character couldn't be just anyone, but each of us has to figure that out for ourselves. That's where the critical thinking comes in."
"But you can't say what
it is?" he says.
"It's not that you can't say what it is," I say. "You just can't say what it is in general. Maybe you can just say that it is, in general, that if we have a hero, if we are invested in a character, and we should be in everything we're going to read in this class, then we know that there's something that makes that character particular, that makes that character different from just anyone, but each of us needs to do the work of figuring out what it is for us, or how we might put a name to it."
It's at this point that she, the young woman who is the reason I remember this class instead of who knows how many countless other classes like it, raises her hand. I do not remember her name. At the time, I am fairly certain, I know her name, although perhaps I do not. Often, I'll recognize a student's writing better than her face. In any event, whether I know her name at the time or not, it is at this point in the class that she raises her hand, and I do not need to know her name to call on her, I only have to point, and what she says, after I say her name or point to her raised hand, is the reason that this class, that is the same as how many countless other classes in nearly twenty years of doing the same job, teaching the same classes although the names have changed and, around 1990, certain standards were applied to them that did not exist before, is, at least for me, particular.
"It's like me," she says, when I have called on her, or pointed to her. She says it at once hopefully and hesitantly, the way young women of her age, and in this kind of a situation, tend to speak, as though they are hoping for the best out of themselves, but not counting on it. "I'm a twin," she says, as I recall, although I may be misquoting slightly. In any event, this is the gist of it: "I'm a twin," she says, "and my sister and I are identical twins, which means that in theory we look exactly the same. Of course that's never the case. Sometimes people think that if you're identical twins, you're the same down to every freckle and every hair, but that's not the case at all. It would basically be impossible for two people to be the same down to every last freckle. But we're not fraternal twins, which means basically we have the same DNA, so even if we're not the same down to every last freckle, basically we look exactly the same. But the big difference between us is that my sister, she's beautiful. Everyone thinks she's beautiful. Boys are always falling in love with her. She is beautiful. Even I can say it. She's a beautiful girl. Whereas I, even though I look exactly the same as she does, even though she and I are identical twins, nobody would say I'm beautiful. You don't have to be nice about it. I don't think I'm ugly, that's not it at all. I know I'm not ugly. I'm just average looking. I'm nondescript. I could look like anyone else. But my sister— she's beautiful. So what is it that makes her beautiful? If I'm not beautiful, I'm just average, just anybody, and she and I are identical twins, which means not down to every last freckle but as close as two people can be we look exactly the same, that means that you can't just say that she's beautiful because of the way she looks. Because I look the same and I'm not beautiful. So maybe it's that kind of thing. In the end, if you were the one who had to figure it out, you would have to find that one freckle or that one hair or who knows what it is, because maybe every one of us would find something different, that for you makes her beautiful. And maybe it would be different for every one of us if we had to do that, if we all had to do an analysis of my twin sister and figure out what makes her beautiful, maybe we would all come up with a different freckle, find it somewhere else, and that's the part where the critical thinking comes in, but on the other hand we would all agree, even if we would all come up with a different reason why, that she is beautiful, so the specific reason for it is in us but the fact that she is beautiful is in her."
That semester passed like any other. These are required courses at a community college. Students come and go. Or they go, because either you come at the beginning or you don't come at all. But a lot of students go. Classes here are cut at thirty but students who are not enrolled can petition—this is what we call it—for an instructor to let them enroll above the maximum. On the first day of a Comp 100 or Comp 101 class I'll usually let ten students above the maximum enroll—if there are more petitioning me we'll have a lottery or draw straws or scraps of paper with stars and X's—and by the end of the semester the forty will unfailingly be down to twenty or twenty-two, maybe twenty-five as an unlikely ceiling. One does not waste one's time keeping track of the students who disappear. When a student has missed three consecutive classes, I put a line through her name on my roll sheet and file the paperwork to have her officially withdrawn from the class. There are other instructors who won't do that, who will instead fail the students who stopped showing up and failed to withdraw themselves, but I've always felt such rigor is unnecessary. You have to be a realist. People have lives outside of a single required class at a two-year academic institution. There are other things that matter in those lives, sometimes things that matter more. You have to learn not to take these things personally, otherwise you'll go crazy. You focus on the students who remain. This is academics: it's not about the people but about the material, about the reading and the writing, or if it is about the people it's as they exist through their interaction with the class, through the reading and the writing. If a student disappears from a class, you put a line through her name, file the paper work, and you're done with it, and done with her. Where she might be, if she is not, as originally scheduled, in your class between such and such hours on such and such days of the week, is not your problem, and personally I'm glad for that. I think I would go crazy trying to keep up with people in that way. It's not my nature. I have never felt that the lives of my students outside of the context of my class are even my business, to say nothing of a responsibility. I think that I never could have made it as a high school teacher for that reason, although at the same time I imagine that I would have enjoyed what must be a stronger bond, even if it is not always a loving one, between teacher and students. Normally, you never hear again from a student who has disappeared from your class, although occasionally they'll come crawling back out of the woodwork. A month or six weeks later, from time to time, a student will show up with this or that story of woe, begging to be re-admitted into the class, but when that happens I always explain to them that to re-admit them to the class would be to do them a disservice, as there is no way they could possibly catch up on all the work they have missed in anything resembling a satisfactory manner. The three absences per-semester limit, I explain to them, is not simple nitpicking. Rather, it has become clear to me over the years that if a student misses three classes, there is not enough time left in the semester for him to make up that work while at the same time keeping up with the current work of the class, which does not stop. Sometimes, a student who was enjoying the class but had to leave for whatever reason that, I have always felt, is never any of my business, will show up the following semester, in which case I am always careful to explain that whatever work he may have done before withdrawing from the class the previous semester cannot simply be recycled. Sometimes you'll see a student who has disappeared from your class walking around on campus, or in the cafeteria, and unfailingly they'll look away, or, if it's too late for that, sheepishly drop their eyes from contact with yours, and you want to pat them on the back and tell them not to worry about it, that if you took those things personally you would have gone crazy a long time ago but you're still here, this or that many years later, so obviously you don't. But you don't do that, either. You nod and go about your business. I never again saw the young woman who is, one way or another, the subject of this recollection, but I didn't never think of her again, either. Very close to the end of the semester, a woman, my age or a couple of years older, showed up at the office that I was, at the time, sharing with my colleague Karen Leo who has since moved on and lost contact with the department here, but with whom I shared an office for many years. She was the department's first English as a second language instructor, when the influx of foreign and immigrant students first began, but was passed over when the department was finally budgeted for a full-time ESL coordinator in favor of a candidate from outside of the department, and my own suspicion is that, although it was a number of years still before she left, resentment over this decision was part of her reason for leaving. I always envied the relationship she had with the students who came to see her in our office, especially the foreign students for whom an English teacher might be the closest they have during their time abroad to a parent-figure, but I could never see myself teaching the basics of the English language, which I learned before I even knew what it was to learn, which I learned just by watching and absorbing, but which cannot be taught that way. I do not remember, in any case, whether Karen was in the office at the time or not when the woman of whom I am now thinking came to see me toward the end of the semester in question, although my recollection is that she was not, that perhaps she was teaching a class of her own or was gone for the day already. She tended to spend less and less time on campus in the years after she was passed over for the coordinator position, although I never once saw her extend any of this resentment in the direction of the students who came to our office. My recollection, in any case, is that I was alone in the office when a woman who was my age if not older but who I had never seen before, at least did not recall having seen before, knocked on my door. What I noticed right away was that she looked if not professional then to some extent put together. Her hair was pulled back, or perhaps it was piled in a bun on top of her head. She looked to me like a person who was imitating some idea she might have had of what it meant to dress professionally, but who was not in fact a professional. She had makeup, as I recall, but it was not garish. When she told me her daughter's name, and that she was a student in my English 2 class, I did not know exactly who she was talking about, which, that late in the semester, surprised me, although not as much when she explained to me that she would not have been in class for many weeks.
She did not cry when she told me why she had come, but the way she was holding herself, the way there was effort evident in her composure, reminded me of the old Hemingway story about the boy who has the flu and, when he hears the doctor tell his parents his temperature is a hundred and four degrees thinks that he is talking about Celsius degrees, and so, for more than a day, although nobody else in the family knows this, he believes that he is going to die. "Evidently," the line in the story, narrated by his father, goes, "he was holding onto himself very tight." This was how she was in my office that afternoon toward the end of the fall semester of 1994, holding onto herself very tight, but not once did she lose her composure, even when she told me that the reason she had come was that on such and such day of such and such month, somewhere toward the middle of the semester, her daughter, who was a student in my English 2 class, had taken her own life, which was the reason she had not been in class in so many weeks, and she just wanted to make sure that all of her professors knew the situation. I could have told her that I am not a professor, that a professor is somebody who has completed a doctorate whereas I had and still have only completed a masters, and was and am therefore an instructor, but instead, although I am not prone to nosiness, and although I surprised myself in so doing, I found myself asking her why she was doing this.
"I'm sure it's very difficult for you," I said to her. "What are you hoping to accomplish?"
Again—it was not like me to be so nosy, but there was something about my curiosity in this moment that was irrepressible, although I still could not put my finger on which disappeared student her daughter might have been, still could not put a face to the name she had offered me.
"I guess," she told me, "in theory, the reason I'm doing this is that I didn't want her to fail all of her classes. Which, I know, doesn't make any sense on some level. After all, the reason a person worries about grades is that she thinks that her grades are going to have an impact on her future, but she doesn't have a future, so what could it matter what her grades are or whether she fails all of her classes? But at the same time, I'd like to think that on some level it was just the thought of it, just the thought of that being the last record of her as a student, the abiding record of her. That's what I'd like to think, anyway, but the truth is that it's just something else to do, and I'm starting to get desperate for things to do. When something like this happens, there are so many loose ends to tie up, so many things to take care of, I don't even have a husband to help me, and it's almost like at first, as horrible as it is, you don't quite have to face it. You have to deal with the arrangements, I mean the funeral, and then you deal with all of the stuff, the room in the house and everything in it, what are you going to do with all of her things, are you going to read her diary, and if so are you going to read it all at once or just a page a day, and that alone can take quite a few weeks if you draw it out. But then you start to run out of things to do, and that's when you really have to face up to it, as an absence instead of just other things, and that's when it really gets hard. I haven't had the courage to stop yet, and so here I am almost two months later and more than anything I guess I'm just trying to keep having more things to do so, and this is just one of those things on the list. Talk to teachers."
We were quiet.
"As far as the grades go," I said, after a
sure that she's already been withdrawn from all of her classes, as she
has from mine, by the professors themselves." I called them professors,
although they would all surely be, like me, only instructors, but
perhaps this was because in this moment, all at once, the image of her
daughter in class that afternoon talking about beauty and the placement
of every last freckle came to me like a shot out of the darkness. I
remember thinking, at the time of that particular class discussion, or
perhaps later, when I had time to reflect, that we do think of beauty
in terms of the whole package, whether we're talking about a person or
a piece of literature, that we think that if a person is beautiful then
everything about her is exactly right, in just the right place, at the
right angle and with the right coloring just as we might think that if
a piece of writing is beautiful it is because every last word is
perfect, just the right word in just the right place, but that the
truth is that beauty, although it encompasses the entirety of that
which is beautiful, might always depend on the one freckle or the
single comma or repetition that, placed just so, ignites the whole
system of which it forms such a tiny and insignificant part.
So I said, "What about her sister?"
The woman, who I now knew to be her mother,
looked at me strangely. "Her sister?" she said.
"Her twin sister," I
said. "It must be very difficult for her."
The mother shook her head. "You must be thinking of somebody else," she told me. "My daughter was an only child. She was all I had."
I didn't know what to say. I couldn't argue with her, of course, but even now, I know that I was not thinking of somebody else, that it was her daughter, now dead and gone for half as many years as I have been in this job, who offered that afternoon in what was then called English 2 as such a precise and devastating example the beauty of her identical twin sister as opposed to her own blandness, her own nondescriptness. It is an example I still think of when I think of what it is that causes me to be invested in a character, just as I think of her, and how in that moment, at least, because of her intelligence or her selflessness, her willingness to offer up her own suffering and insecurity for the benefit of the rest of the class, she was beautiful to me. Even now, I remember her name, Stephanie, and I even remember her last name, although I'll keep that to myself out of consideration for the family.