Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Cheapest Rent In Town

     Tudor Square Apartments. "Cheapest Rent in Town," is how it was advertised in the paper, at two hundred and twenty five dollars a month, all utilities included. In a town like Ashland, OR. this is a screaming deal, unless one is living in a dorm room at SOU, and even then the dorms might be more expensive. One would think that in a college town there would be more studio apartments, but this didn't seem to be the case when I lived there. Inevitably, the Tudor Square apartments were tenanted, primarily, by college students.

     It was 1997, I was seventeen, working at a headshop in Medford, OR., and living with my sister, her husband, and her one-year old daughter in their townhouse apartment. At the headshop, I was being paid under the table, or "gross," as it was put to me by my employer. Just in case an I.R.S. informant started snooping (around the shop?) I could tell them that I was a contractor or something (as if being a retail clerk was the service I provided, and as such could negotiate my salary). It was pretty silly answer, but they really didn't feel like paying taxes on me. And I didn't complain: it was seven tax free dollars an hour. My sister was not charging me rent, so I was able to save quite a bit of money.

     The townhouse was very small for two and a quarter people, let alone three and a quarter. I slept on a Futon downstairs while they were upstairs. In the mornings, my niece, who though had just started to walk, was able to crawl up on the Futon and do sommersaults all across me so that I would wake up. Then we would watch cartoons while having breakfast, her eyes glued to Life with Louie. Life wasn't unpleasant by any means, but the cramped quarters would've gotten to me, sooner or later, and I'm sure that my sister and her husband were anxious for their privacy. After a few months it was time to go.

     The only unpleasantry was their Persian cat, who seemed to be more in-touch with its instinctual hunting skills; my sleeping body its prey. At night when the lights were off, It would peer at me from underneath a coffee table, and through the lampost light that shone through the blinds, I could see its little eyes. She would claw at feet, arms, hands, neck, anything exposed. I couldn't stand their cat. And apparently, neither could they. They gave it away some years later, fed up with its behavior.

     My sister knew of a possible place I could rent. It was up the street, called Tudor Square Apartments, and she knew the land lady: a lethargic young mother of god knows how many children, named Ona. I was underage at the time, so I couldn't legally rent a place, but this little fact was covered because of the sister-land lady connection. Ona acknowledged this during our interview; an interview that included her screaming, mewling children running around her office. Her eyes glazed over, and she tried hard to ignore them. After our interview, she gave me a tour of the complex.

     The apartment complex was an old hotel, if I remember correctly. There were one-bedrooms for rent, but the "cheapest rent in town" was for a quad: a very small room connected to a shared kitchen and bathroom, shared with obviously three other people. It was a very large complex, with an equally large parking lot attached to it. And basically in the corner of the parking lot was a kidney bean shaped pool filled with leaves and debris, its waters muddy brown. It was Fall, after all, and who could be bothered?

     The tour concluded with a showing of the room. It was probably the size of a rest-area bathroom, brown shag-carpeted with an air conditioner, a sink and counter, a closet, and a door leading to the kitchen and two bathrooms, one with a shower, one without. The kitchen was a little larger than the bedroom, with cracked floors, dusty, splintered wood cabinets, and a small ochre-yellow fridge. Plastered on the fridge was a nude Playboy centerfold: a brunette wearing nothing but red high heels, legs slightly crossed in an X position, leaning up against a wall with a matching red ribbon slung over her shoulders and through her arms as if it were a shawl. She looked at the camera all pouty-lipped, but also kind of confused-like. As if this mattered, since the main attraction was her shaved pussy. Her horticultural talent. While being given a tour of the kitchen, this picture was a conversation stopper in an awkward way. Ona gave the picture a few glances, and let out a "hmmm..." I nervously laughed.

     And after that, I became a tenant at Tudor Square. Top floor. This little box would be my home for the next year. And what a home it would be.

     The first time I tried to use the stove-top in the kitchen, I set off the highly sensitive smoke alarm. It was conveniently placed about five feet or so from the stove, right in front of my room. The electric coils were thickly coated with oil and there was so much debris and residue underneath that it would burn and smoke. The oven was worse, with a charcoal-like residue framing the sides so thickly that it looked like an un-defrosted freezer. The actual freezer looked about the same. I could only fit a freezer bag of raviolis and a pint of Ben & Jerry's in it. Anything more, and it wouldn't shut properly. This could also be due to the bag of tater tots that had just become part of the frosty lining. The contents of the fridge were eggs, beer, milk, and a few condiments. The cupboards were baren, save a fucked up frying pan, and a pot. There were no paper towels to speak of, no glasses for water. It was clear that the tenants were in no mood to clean, or to share, or to get to know one another for that matter. So, instead of spending my time cleaning that kitchen and making it livable for what was clearly a bunch of slobs, I decided to follow suit and tried to use the kitchen as little as possible.

     I tried my damndest to not have to use the kitchen at all, and quickly fell into the habit, like the rest of my "quad-mates" of bringing in my own supplies for the specific occasion: toilet paper, paper towels kitchen-ware, glasses. I didn't want to share anything either, so I never kept anything in the kitchen cupboards.

     My room started to accumulate things: a microwave, a mini-fridge, a little machine that would boil water in under thirty seconds, etc.. If I was watching television while running the microwave or the hot water heater, it would trip the breaker. I now needed two six strips for all of the appliances in my room, where clearly I shouldn't of been using that much power. I later found out that the wiring was a little strange, or at least I thought so. Instead of the whole floor's power going out, it was my room, the room next to me, and two rooms on the floor directly beneath. Surely I was annoying some people since it took me a little while to figure out why it was happening, and so the breakers were tripping a couple of times a week.

     When I wasn't making Ramuchan cup o' noodles in my room, I was frequenting Taco Bell or Wendy's. Anything so that I wouldn't have to spend time in that fucking kitchen.

     The bathrooms were also disasterous. The toilet bowls had never been scrubbed, and were stained from urine, hard water, and feces. When lifting the toilet seat, the underside  looked like a brown Jackson Pollack design. "Splatter Art," as I've heard it described. Maybe "mother nature is the true artist," might be appropriate here. The shower curtain was of the clear vinyl type, but had started to turn pink, probably due to the minerals in the water. It was also moldy near the bottom part of it. It was the kind of shower that made one want to wear flip-flops or some other protective gear; anything so that you didn't have to stand barefoot in it. It also routinely clogged up and left about two inches of standing water in the tub when taking a shower. I had personally dumped at least three bottles of extra strength Drano down the drain during my year there.

     When my friends would come over they would hate to use either of the bathrooms. In my year at this place, I had barely run into my quad-mates and they barely acknowledged me when I did. And it might've been our age and our shyness, but it felt like an awkward situation, and neither I nor my friends particularly wanted to run into these guys coming or going. "I'm scared. What if one of those guys are out there?," was said to me on a few occasions. So if the light was on in the kitchen, we would stay in my room. Once it went out and we heard a door close, that was the signal to make a run for it. The combination of social anxiety and repulsion made the whole thing so awful. I'd give my friend a roll of toilet paper and wish them luck.

     And speaking of toilet paper, both bathrooms rarely had any. Sometimes, a quad-mate would put a roll on the dispenser, but typically all that was found were cardboard tubes littering the floor that was sticky with aged piss. There was definitely that sharp aroma, but it was also combined with the kitchen aromas of stale body odor, heavy masturbation, baked tater-tots, and old dusty place to create a real welcoming environment.

     One day, I was sitting on the toilet in the bathroom that had the shower. There was a towel that hung on a towel rack positioned right next to the toilet. This means that the towel hung to the left of me, directly next to my face. If dirty-dishwater beige is a color, then that would be the towel's color, and it had hung there since before I moved in (I had been there probably six months already). It never really looked clean, but that day it actually had a conspicuous stain on it. It was brown, shaped almost like a Nike swoosh tilted on its side. I could only think, "no way. It can't be...can it?" I stared at it. It had definitely been some sort of liquid that had partially dried up and crusted; the fibers of the towel had jutted out and looked stiff. The determinable test, of course, required of me to very gently draw my face in closer, focus my eyes and flare my nostrils, and sniff. A very short inhale was enough to wrinkle my face. Yup, someone had actually wiped their shitty ass with the towel and hung it back up to dry. And age as well, since this little problem was not dealt with for weeks, I noticed. Anytime I would sit down on the toilet or take a shower, there it was: a glaring mistake. The person who did it didn't even attempt to cover it up. The smear just sat there, and it couldn't be helped: it was so grotesque that it had to be stared at. Of course, it was years later that I read the David Sedaris story "True Detective," where he explains that someone in the family had one day started wiping their ass on the family's fudge-colored bath towels. When I read it, I couldn't believe that someone else had an even somewhat similar experience as mine. I realize that my quad-mates were probably college dudes, but this was pretty fucking unreal.

     And one day the towel was gone.

     I'd say that was a relief, but some time later one of the toilets had backed up and flooded the kitchen. I first noticed this because a section of the shag carpet near my door to the kitchen was wet. I instantly notified Ona, who then came upstairs and splashed through the standing water, getting her sandals wet. She said, "hmmm....Well, I'll get someone up to deal with this," and left. Naturally, I assumed that someone was going to deal with this problem immediately rather than the next day. I was wrong. And yeah, maybe the water was diluted and wasn't a torrent of shit and piss, but it still was the result of some fecal backup, and it did come from one of those disgusting toilet bowls. It was not something that I wanted dampening my carpet inside my sanctuary, the only safe area I could control. The filth had become invasive at this point.

     After my year, I moved down to Medford, OR., with a friend. I couldn't resist the sound of inexpensive and new. The apartment complex had just been built, and the apartment that we shared had never been lived in. Alone, my new bedroom was larger than the Tudor quad I'd been living in, and merely one hundred dollars more for the privilege.

     And, I had my own bathroom.

For Mae Culbertson


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

I forgot 'bout this one.

I just now remembered that I was gonna include this one on the previous post. It's one of my favorite Kids in the Hall skits. Enjoy:

When the ephemeral is preferred to the permanent.

Since school has ended, I have been in a somewhat reclusive mood. With the exception of going to band practice last night, I have not left the house (barely have left my room) in the last five days. So, what I've been doing is researching graduate schools on the internet, looking at their criteria for admissions, etc... Also, I've been reading the autobiography of Robert Graves, Good-Bye to all That. And waiting...waiting for my grades.

Well, I received them: straight A's. I predicted a B in my Literature class, but I was wrong. However, in retrospect, I'm sure it was my one visit to my instructor's office that did the trick. I wanted her to clarify her instructions for our weekly assignments, and afterward we started talking about Shakespeare, and I inquired about her graduate thesis on Medea. Not exactly an ass-kissing, but I know how to at least make a good impression. This little talk, I swear, made up for my lack of participation points in the class. If I were to be graded on those, I would've failed. It's true, I didn't say much of anything in the class. That's because this class was absolutely the most incoherent and unruly that I've personally been in. My Political Science class, from a year ago, comes a close second, but the instructor in that class moderated and made sure that he kept our attention (this included a lot of yelling and jumping around on his part; he was a rather spiky and contrarian Green-Party loyalist).

It was an interpretation-based literature class based solely on personal experience. This means that there was a willful disregard for historical context. At one point, our instructor advocated that we not read the author's introductions to the plays, as they would inform us of the historical/political/social context, and this would influence our reading of the play. A 'cold-reading'; she wanted pure and unadulterated opinions.

This is an impossible task, and furthermore it is not very interesting. Who wants to hear other students mumble about how unfairly they were treated, or how they've justified their grudges, therefore such-and-such play spoke to them, and was the greatest play ever -- and therefore you MUST agree with them? This was how the discussions inevitably ended up, with just about everyone starting their sentences off with  "Well, I think...," or worse yet, "I see your point, but what I think is..." (which usually means, "I haven't been listening to you, I've just been waiting for my turn to speak") and then it would erupt into a war of anecdotal evidence: "Well, you may think that this character is really awful because he treats his wife and kids like shit and he's totally self-absorbed, but I think that he's a hero, because I have a dad just like him..." This is not verbatim, it's just roughly what was being expressed. Everyone's weapon was their conviction, not their rationale. The discussions were pointless because they never culminated into a further understanding of the play (the whole point, I feel), only an understanding of how our classmates' brains work. Unless, of course, the point was to feel frustration.

The class was incoherent and unruly, because our teacher was a bad moderator. She couldn't facilitate discussions because she asked very general questions about the play, rather than precise ones, and then let the conversation degenerate into chaos. These discussions had limited boundaries, and everyone's opinion was considered a valid contribution. I have always thought that this was silly. Any idea is worth considering if it has some justification and thought put into it, but anyone can blurt out non-sequiturs. And the discussions were overrun with this sort of thing, as well as too much talking-over-others when they were trying to join in. And so, though I sometimes wanted to speak because I was angry, I wasn't sure what I would've said, maybe: "Can we finally talk about why this play was included in an academic Anthology, why it is significant or important, and what it adds to literature's LARGE body of work? Basically, why does it stand out and why should we bother reading it?

During our office-hour conversation, she asked me why I didn't speak up more in class. I told her that there were plenty of people willing and eager to add to the conversation without my help. To this, she said that I should participate in order to combat the "over-contributors" of the class; a real problem for teachers, she told me. However, the way that she emphasized the necessity of my participation, made it seem like the burden was actually on me, rather than on her, to help out the class. That is ridiculous. The instructor has the power as moderator to facilitate a good discussion, which means putting their foot down when they recognize an "over-contributor" (her words) and maybe even bringing them down a rung or two when needed. And yet, I can also see how this can be impossible when you have a class structured the way that she does. If you throw restraint out of the window, how can you expect the class to possess it?

Admittedly, I can be a bit shy and tend to second-guess my opinions before speaking them -- maybe to a fault. But then again, I didn't learn anything about literature and plays from all of the talking that went on during our class. And our instructor paid almost no attention to the history of the theater, of the playwrights, of the different periods and genres. The fucking class is centered around reading plays, why not include some of these details? -- don't worry, it won't spoil it; in fact, it will enhance my knowledge of the subject.

I guess that is what I get for taking a 100 level course in English, though I still have a rotten feeling that this sort of thing continues on the further up you go. The 'American System' of learning is all about peer-discussion groups and the facilitating of critical thinking. And this is especially focused in the low-level courses, where the greatest concentration of neanderthals and backwaters reside. I understand this. Teachers have to try to work on students to not be so god-damned reactionary, and to inform them that the world is a pretty big place. However, it's getting old. The unintentional lessons I learned were from sociological observations. In fact, I started to look at this class as if it were a sociological experiment. The critical thinking in this case, from what I observed, was that a student thought that being a contrarian was going to set him/herself apart from the crowd. This would usually start out with someone disagreeing with the consensus about who the protagonist was. They would claim that the character who was the clear protagonist was really the antogonist, or that the thundercloud was the antagonist, not the arch-nemesis who's beating the shit out of the protagonist. It seemed like everyone thought about being clever, because the interpretations got so bizarre and seemed to be an attempt to one-up the last comment. Unfortunately, at some point this would exhaust the discussion because it rendered it silly and pointless, and almost meaningless. The discussions actually seemed to degrade the plays. They became boring choose-your-own-adventures.

This reductionist approach to literature, to take generous liberties with a play's meaning and to disregard the author's intent, reminds me of a pretty wonderful passage from an essay that Gore Vidal wrote. In French Letters: Theories on the New Novel, he bemoans the lack of effort and technique in the arts, as well as concern over the possibility of a future where "...the ephemeral will be preferred to the permanent...," and "the random will take the place of the calculated." Though he is referring to writing as a discipline, I think this passage is applicable to the sort of 'critical thinking' minds that I've been explaining:

One interesting result of today's passion for the immediate and the casual has been the decline, in all the arts, of the idea of technical virtuosity as being in any way desirable. The culture (kitsch as well as camp) enjoys singers who sing no better than the average listener, actors who do not act yet are, in Andy Warhol's happy phrase, "super-stars," painters whose effects are too easily achieved, writers whose swift flow of words across the page is not submitted to the rigors of grammar or shaped by conscious thought. There is a general Zen-ish sense of why bother? If a natural fall of pebbles can "say" as much as any shaping of paint on canvas or cutting of stone, why go to the trouble of recording what is there for all to see? In any case, if the world should become, as predicted, a village united by an electronic buzzing, our ideas of what is art will seem as curious to those gregarious villagers as the works of what we used to call the Dark Ages appear to us. 

If there isn't even a discipline to this particular art/lit criticism, then what's the point? Has this approach to critical thinking actually made us better critical thinkers? 

I suppose that I knew what I was getting into when I signed up for a literature class, but this was a very extreme version of it. It was strange to see the Post-modernist impulse translating to behavior. Either that, or most of the students in my class were concurrently taking Science courses where they couldn't bullshit their way through them, and found the class to be a welcomed release. The bottom line for me is that I learn and become attentive when someone I respect (and whose brain I respect) lectures and informs, not when a classmate talks.

Well, I could say so much more about this, and if I had the energy I could have made this into an essay with greater uniformity and clarity. But now I'm exhausted thinking about it. Surely, I will always come back to this topic, because not only the approach, but the ethics of Post-modernism piss me off. Anger, it's a good thing.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Snark and Smarm.

This was not the exact phrase that was uttered in class tonight; I believe it was "smarm and snarkiness." Nevertheless, I quickly wrote it down, cause I knew that it would be a good title. And if the guy who uttered it was 'snark,' then the greasy squirrel with ADD that sits next to me is 'smarm.' Normally, he is trying to answer every question; I've heard him raise his hand and actually say something like "I don't really know what I'm saying, but..." When not answering a question, he's busy tapping on the table and fidgeting. However, tonight he was quiet as can be because he was sleeping throughout most of class. This is always a funny sight, regardless of who it is (the head-bobbing business always makes me laugh). I also couldn't help but notice him sleeping because of the way his head and neck were sort of cocked to the side. It looked so unnatural.

And since I have a love for practical jokes, I thought about how funny a well-timed Piccolo Pete firework going off right on top of the desk would make someone jump out of their sleep. Just a dream -- a lovely daydream. Unfortunately, sometimes these funny scenarios pop into my head at really inopportune times during class, and I have to do something, like bite my finger, so that I don't laugh. These thoughts come when, for instance, people are talking about how moving a particular scene in a film was to them. So yeah, it would be especially awful if I let loose a pre-laugh snort at that moment. However, I'm sure it looks very strange to anyone watching me ferociously bite my finger at that moment, too.

And that was film class tonight. My last class of the term. I am now on my winter break. There is always a strange feeling on the last day of a school-term. There is alleviation, but there is also melancholy. It's very strange. I suppose that it feels that way because of how abrupt the end is. During the whole term, homework and future homework constantly burden the brain. There's never any true weightlessness. It feels never-ending for that two and a half months, then one day you're done. In this context, I think it's hard for the brain to quickly transition into rest mode, and so it continually tells you that things need to be done. As of now, I still don't quite feel like I'm done. I've yet to achieve true relaxation. This is how it feels every term. And yet, I still enjoy school.

However, this break is much needed. Money issues, intestinal sickness, and a bad teacher kinda took hold of my thoughts this term. I've been considering writing a post about this teacher. I still might, but I know that i first need to address my problems here, in a lengthy screed about how much she sucks. That will be soon, if not the next post. Maybe I should wait till I get my final fucking grade from her, because she probably trolls the internet looking for the bad shit that people have inevitably written about her. Well, no I probably won't wait. That's all for tonight. Till next time.