The Athens of the Midwest

Roman woman writing

It started in the Midwest.

I grew up in Iowa City, a hip university town.  I wish I could live in a university town:  Iowa City, Madison, Bloomington, Ann Arbor,  it hardly matters, since they are all nicknamed “the Athens of the Midwest.”

In some ways, Athens saved me. That is, fifth-century Athens.

The Athens of the Midwest failed me for a year and a half.

I was happy growing up in Iowa City.  Then, in my teens, my idyllic life crumbled when my parents divorced.  My irresponsible father, who was my guardian, left town to  live with his girlfriend.  Now that was a good call.  And so I  became the live-in concubine of a lesbian English teacher (fortunately not my English teacher). It all started innocently, as far as I was concerned.  She invited me out for coffee repeatedly, and lent me her copy of Anne Sexton’s poems.  Then she got  hysterical over the phone about Sexton.  Oh, her notes in the margins would tell me she was a lesbian, she wept, and she didn’t know how I’d feel about it.   I politely said it didn’t matter, and it didn’t, since I had no intention of reading Sexton.

Nonetheless, I ended up living with her.  Having a place to live was a big part of my decision. (I had been staying with some benevolent hippies, in a back room without a door.)  A room with a door had its appeal, and lesbian feminism was not only fashionable but attention-getting.   But it was dull, and I only dared tell a few of my most radical friends, because she was in her thirties and stressed I was a minor and she could go to jail, plus it was still taboo to be gay.

All right, I was extremely bored. We had nothing in common, the sex was terrible, and I wasn’t even gay.   She never read a book, liked to shop at K-Mart (so unhip!), and listened to Melanie (Lay Down Candles in the Rain).

I was unhappy.  I did not see how life could go on like that.  And it didn’t.    I got away a few years later and had lots of books and boyfriends.  And what else does a person need?

But it is no exaggeration to say my discovery of classics in college saved me.   The beauty of ancient languages, the enjoyable memorization of paradigms, the fascinating vocabulary, hours with lexicons and grammars, and the joy of translation gave my life a much-needed structure.

I started with Greek, though everyone said I should start with Latin.  Baffled by Lattimore’s Homer—how could anyone take his prosy epic seriously?—I wanted to read the Iliad in the original.   Soon I was spending hours with Homer, Lysias, Euripides, Sophocles, Aeschylus,  the Greek lyric poets, Plato.  And I also studied Latin, a cognate language of Greek, and was unprepared for the wit and vivacity, because it is a literature that does not translate well into English.  And yet it always felt familiar to me, and I came to love it more than Greek.  It is the literature that influenced the Western canon.

catullus-poems-51fhu8iesgl-_sx325_bo1204203200_Let me share with you a  witty,two-line Latin epigram by the Roman poet Catullus.

My literal translation:

I hate and I love. You may ask why I do so.
I don not know, but I feel it and I am tortured.

Here is Horace Gregory’s four-line translation, which is also fairly literal and much more elegant.

I HATE and love.
And if you ask me why,
I have no answer, but I discern,
can feel, my senses rooted in eternal torture.

Here are  the two lines of Latin”

Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.
Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucio.

Can you tell odi (“odious” is a derivative) means ” I hate” and amo (“amiable,” “amatory”) means love?  Bet you can!

And, by the way, another wild girl from my high school also took Latin.  We agreed to keep mum about our past lives.  “I’m working on getting my virginity back,” she said.

I’m pretty sure both of us managed to do so because of our hours of study!

25 thoughts on “The Athens of the Midwest

  1. Kat, your colourful life history makes mine seem conventional and dull, but there we are. I never even had an un-gay gay experience! But I’m glad you have your life sorted out (as far as any of us have!). By the way, have you ever been to Athens, Georgia? (The Athens of the South)


    • Thank God waif-dom didn’t go on forever! I’d love to go to Athens, Georgia. Much nicer weather this time of year, I’d be willing to bet, and since it is literally Athens no one could compete!


  2. What a perfect (and riveting) little story: the grotesque horrors of youth, juxtaposed with the comforting joys of the classics. Told with economy, precision, and power! Great.


  3. It seems like a very different time, doesn’t it? I’m guessing you and I are close in age. The things I did back then! There are only two things I’d never tell anyone about. I skated very close to the edge sometimes, not because I needed to (I had a loving and stable home), but because I craved the adventure. I wish I’d had more than one year of Latin.


    • There was a lot of kindness, generosity, and optimism, but it was easy to skate close to the edge, as you say. After waifdom, I skated right back! Finding something I loved was key, and I’ll bet it was for you, too.


  4. During my mid-teens reading Austen’s Sense and Sensibility helped save me: the figure of Elinor was a steadying influence. Then in college I had an epiphany experience slowly and realized that literary study (reading, writing) gave me something to live for, through, with. Probably somewhere between the middle 18th century and Romantic movement I found my texts. I’m reading one and about them still this very day.

    I did not have a pseudo-lesbian relationship but I did have a sort of fake marriage (my first). It was cover, I hid myself under its banner, and yes had an income (his) and place to live. I got out by steps; but what mattered was the scholarship to live on to Leeds University, which enabled me to escape family, the parts of New York I grew up in and was still living in (don’t even ask what life in Queens was like for me) and come to England. Reader I married him there (who I met within a month) and would we could have stayed in Yorkshire together.


    • The academic experience legitimizes our love of books, thank God. And I must reread S&S. I have yet to hear of an early marriage that worked out (though I’m sure some have). And I love it that you met Jim in Leeds: scholarship and love, it’s perfect!


      • Oh, and I should add that it wasn’t a “pseudo-lesbian relationship.” She preyed on and seduced teenage girls whose families were absent. Before me, there was another teenage girl (one of her students) whose parents moved away: she too had a “relationship” with the woman and then moved out. I tried to write about it as it seemed to me then, not something to be hysterical about, but simply a horrible time of boredom and isolation before my life started again.


    • Hey, Ellen, I’m in Queens! Thankfully I met the best people here who are still my friends and had an excellent junior and high school education.


  5. Has anyone ever called Athens the Iowa City (or Madison/Bloomington/Ann Arbor) of Greece?
    Still, glad you got out of your adolescent problems all right. Listening to Melanie was probably the worst. What kind of English teacher listens to Melanie?
    Nothing ever seems as bad – or as wonderful – afterwards.


    • I have to laugh: I’m sure Athens wouldn’t care to be called Iowa City. I wonder why these towns were always the ATHENS of the Midwest.

      No one wants to be a teenage concubine, but Melanie WAS the worst. I never heard her songs after I moved. What a relief!


  6. My adolescence was redeemed by books. I am shocked, looking back, at all of the irresponsible adults who were a presence in my life. I managed to stay on the margins as much as possible but the amount of exploitation, molestation, imprisonment—both in reform schools and mental institutions—is shocking to look back upon. And this, also, was in a very “hip” university town, filled with its own Woody Allens and Roman Polanskys.

    I am very sorry that you were let down by so many in your lifetime.


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