Backbiting

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While perhaps I could be a willing proponent of literal back biting (haha), the whole concept of “backbiting”, as in badmouthing someone who is not present (or, as I define it here, complaining about something rather vague only to have someone with whom I was speaking create a drama about it and turn it into backbiting – even if there was no text or subtext to indicate that), is not my thing. I have suffered the consequences of, but not permanently learned a lesson from, confiding in all the wrong people – or just by being opinionated and unabashed about opening my mouth. The most understanding ear is often attached to the most treacherous snake. The problem comes when you realize it too late. I am not really in a situation like that although I suspect that some of my complaints are making the rounds (but not in a malicious, backbiting, drama-creating way), but I have not yet pinpointed who the “culprit” is, so still freely sharing my opinions and frustrations. (In such scenarios, images of the film Raise the Red Lantern spring immediately to mind.)

I don’t know why this train of thought makes me think of a teacher I had in junior high and high school. Maybe because we ended up making fun of her behind her back all the time? Maybe because, in the course of a fairly short span of time, people can change, and you (and they) want to preserve you exactly as you were when you met them. In this case, the teacher in question taught my pre-algebra class when I was about 12. She was an incredible teacher who made all manner of mathematical complexities seem simple, assigning everything very methodical approaches that were so grounding and solid that they carried me through algebra and various other mathematical pursuits long after that class had ended, and I was exposed to much less gifted math teachers. You know what they say about getting the basics right. She left the junior high to teach at the high school, and I relied completely on the fundamentals she had taught, but little by little, each step I made in math was a downhill step. By the time I hit geometry in 9th grade, I was lost and had no idea what was going on (not to mention that I have no ability to conceptual shapes and angles and could not begin to write a proof about how an angle as big as my fingernail was the same as some angle that was as big as a house).

This teacher had her quirks, of course (ultimately why we made fun of her), from the laminated posters of Neil Diamond plastered all over her classroom to the what I can only refer to as “whorehouse chandelier” earrings, to her love for expressions like, “Yowza!”. She was her own character. Her self-satisfied attitude and even the “I am cool” voice she adopted in her teaching was enough to sicken me. But you can’t really argue with a virtuoso, particularly when she clearly not only knew her stuff but knew how to convey that information in a neat and palatable way. (I still can’t quite erase the memory of her smug expression and tone when she would show you some easy way to solve an equation and say, “All you have to do is plug… (pause for effect) and chug.” My response: Ugh.

But people change. I am sure she was still a math-teaching whiz by the time I got to the high school and landed in algebra II/trigonometry. She just did not apply herself. It was in fact only because of her mastery and teaching skill that I could manage the more algebraic elements of trigonometry. But for me there was WAY too much geometry mixed into trig (just seeing a webpage about trig has me petrified), and I was completely derailed. And by this time, the once careful, methodical, albeit arrogant, teacher, had taken on all kinds of extracurricular duties, like coaching the track team and god knows what else. She created all kinds of barriers between herself and the students, such as insisting that during class, she would only accept two questions on the homework. As a result of all these limitations, I got more and more lost, and by the time I began failing exams, it was too late. She, reflecting on her memory of my identity as a “good math student” from our previous time in the same classroom, called me in for a one-on-one chat and basically asked, “What happened to you?” (She was also not impressed by my brief pseudo-goth appearance, which seemed to make her think I was on drugs.)

Frankly, I wanted to ask the same thing, so far was she from her teaching roots. “What happened to you?”

Ultimately we were, in those three short years, in completely different places in our lives. When she finally saw how much I was flailing about and bothered to ask me if something was wrong and whether she could dedicate any time to help me further – because suddenly she was more than willing to answer as many questions as I had – it was too late. I was so far gone that I did not even know how to ask questions about what I did not understand.

Handlingsfrihet – invented freedom and voice

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and let the pleasure we invent together

be one more sign of freedom

-Julio Cortázar – “A Love Letter

(“y que el placer que juntos inventamos
sea otro signo de la libertad.”)

When he told me I had complete “handlingsfrihet”, I was exhilarated. At least for that brief moment. With him, I knew it was just fantasy and would never come to pass. Total liberty and freedom to do whatever I wanted was possible only in our shared imagination in those very limited moments.

In reality, the only place I have complete control, artistic license, the freedom to choose and speak is in using my voice. I could hear my true voice somewhere inside but never really pushed it into the world with any degree of authenticity. As soon as I consciously decided to write something (other than a letter, a school paper), all kinds of artifice and “trying to make things sound good” clouded the basic premise of the writing and the core idea of what I wanted to express. Still, the voice was there. It was just muffled under layers of my own doubt.

Even when I was young, teachers and influential adults around me told me I would be a writer. Teachers in whose classes I was never a student even referred to me this way. I don’t know where the reputation came from nor how it spread. By the time I was a confused adolescent, I had convinced myself that all these adults were praising my writing only as a means to bolster my self-confidence, not because there was any truth to it. I felt cheated, mistrustful and misled. In my own dorky academic way, I rebelled – I could not live up to the expectations they had created (I thought) and did not want to be told what I was. I took language classes but steered clear of explicitly writing-focused courses (journalism, creative writing, etc.) and never looked back. My life ever since has still been all about writing – academic, corporate or what have you. But the practice of writing a short story every day, as I had done effortlessly when I was 13, was and is long gone.

These days I think a lot about writing and freedom and how, for me, they are intertwined. I can only escape from the unhealthy misery I feel right now if I embrace writing as a rope with which to climb out of the space I am increasingly feeling trapped in.

Handlingsfrihet will be mine, one way or another. (Baking and recipe posts coming soon.)