Monday, March 31, 2008

A Streetcar Named Desire

When I was young, I memorized a speech from the play The Madwoman of Chaillot about how, if everyone believed in them, her pearls would become real. When I got older, I read A Streetcar Named Desire and saw the movie with Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando, rapt at Blanche's speech: "I don't want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don't tell truth, I tell what ought to be truth. And if that is sinful, then let me be damned for it! Don't turn the light on!"

Blanche has always reminded me of my Aunt Jeanne, a fine-looking, hard-drinking southern woman who taught music to elementary school children and played piano at bars. She grew up conforming to all the proper ladylike behaviors, but was disappointed by marriage.

When I was in graduate school, I taught Streetcar in some of my classes, but my students could rarely move past a "Blanche shouldn't have lied" response to the play. Eventually, I gave up teaching it (moving on to Othello, where the main interpretive question is still "why couldn't Othello ask or accuse Desdemona about his suspicions?").

All this leads me to wonder: Are the emotions of A Streetcar Named Desire now dated? Or is it just that anyone under 20 is too young to imagine being in Blanche's situation? (Is this a possible consequence of sheltering our children?)

These days, it seems we want all uncomfortable truths brought out into the light, in the belief that this will resolve their uncomfortableness. What we want is the ending of the Simpsons cartoon "A Streetcar Named Marge," where at the end of their musical version of Streetcar (when Blanche is led off by the doctor from the state mental institution murmuring "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers"), all the Simpsons characters sing "A stranger's just a friend you haven't met!"

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Slow Children at Play

Who hasn't driven by a sign like that and made the obligatory joke about why the slow children are singled out, as if they're the only ones who have to be carefully taught not to run out after a ball into the street?

A sign like that went up near our friend Glynis' house, and she used to be insulted by it.

I once proved that it is possible to "run" on crutches when my extraordinarily brilliant 15-month-old son tossed his ball towards our street.

So my kids and I like this poem by Cecilia Woloch:

Slow Children at Play

All the quick children have gone inside, called
by their mothers to hurry-up-wash-your-hands
honey-dinner's-getting-cold, just-wait-till-your-father-gets-
home--
and only the slow children out on the lawns, marking off
paths between fireflies, making soft little sounds with their
mouths, ohs
that glow and go out and glow. And their slow mothers
flickering,
pale in the desk, watching them turn in the gentle air, watching
them
twirling, their arms spread wide, thinking, These are my
children, thinking,
Where is their dinner? Where has their father gone?

Friday, March 28, 2008

Tiptoeing

I am not, by nature, a tiptoer. Even though my friend Brian, the physical therapist, says that the bouncy gait I remember but can no longer reproduce (I've re-learned how to walk by hitting with my heel first) came from leading with the toes, I mean that I don't usually approach things with a lot of subtlety or secrecy. (In fact, come to think of it, Brian is the one who told me in college "Jeanne, you have no guile." I think I've acquired some since then.)

My daughter is also a physical, if not metaphorical, tiptoer. Ever since she learned to walk (at nine months), she has tiptoed around the house. Now, at 14, she doesn't like wearing shoes or socks, but sometimes likes high heels because they support the way her foot likes to arch itself naturally. When I read this Ted Kooser poem, I thought of her:

Walking on Tiptoe

Long ago we quit lifting our heels
like the others--horse, dog, and tiger--
though we thrill to their speed
as they flee. Even the mouse
bearing the great weight of a nugget
of dog food is enviably graceful.
There is little spring to our walk,
we are so burdened with reponsibility,
all of the disciplinary actions
that have fallen to us, the punishments,
the killings, and all with our feet
bound stiff in the skins of the conquered.
But sometimes, in the early hours,
we can feel what it must have been like
to be one of them, up on our toes,
stealing past doors where others are sleeping,
and suddenly able to see in the dark.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Displaced Person

A restaurant with a very long tradition in our small town is closing, one that we never went to. Friends and acquaintances told us that anyone who did not have the same skin color as the owners got very bad service there. So even though there aren't that many restaurants to choose from locally, we have always patronized the other, newer, places.

Meanwhile, the big city nearest our small town has one of the largest Somalian populations in any U.S. city today. I was thinking about this in light of rereading Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man Is Hard To Find and Other Stories, first published in 1953. The title story, of course, is one of her best, but I also like the last story, The Displaced Person.

The Displaced Person in the story is from WWII-torn Poland, and contemporary readers of the story can shake hands with themselves (a la Bill, the Galactic Hero) over the fact that people don't call each other "niggers" and "white trash" anymore the way they do in this story. But even if the subject of the story seems dated, the truths it tells about human nature are not dated enough. There are still people who can look at an animal and see how beautiful it is, while others dismiss it as "another mouth to feed." There are, more sadly, still people who worry that immigrants "could have carried all those murderous ways over the water with them directly to this place. If they had come from where that kind of thing was done to them, who was to say they were not the kind that would also do it to others?"

It's easy to read this story and feel morally superior to the characters, who are shocked by what they see as miscegenation in a proposed marriage between the Pole's cousin and a black farm worker ("a half-witted thieving black stinking nigger"). It's easy, now, to laugh when the Pole holds the black workers to his own standards and the white workers see him as "all eyes and no understanding." To laugh, though, and dismiss the jokes as dated is to miss the same thing most of the characters in the story miss--that seeing your own culture from the perspective of another demands that you reassess what is good and bad about that culture. That's what makes the melting pot work, that continual process of reassessing and retaining what is good from various cultures. Only if we are able to step outside our own preconceptions can we be a multicultural community in the best sense, because that takes an ability to value traditions that might look or sound different from what we're used to, along with the ability to refuse to condone traditions detrimental to human dignity, like female "circumcision."

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Turning Twelve

Today is Walker's birthday, and I woke up thinking of this poem:

After Making Love We Hear Footsteps by Galway Kinnell

For I can snore like a bullhorn
or play loud music
or sit up talking with any reasonably sober Irishman
and Fergus will only sink deeper
into his dreamless sleep, which goes by all in one flash,
but let there be that heavy breathing
or a stifled come-cry anywhere in the house
and he will wrench himself awake
and make for it on the run--as now, we lie together,
after making love, quiet, touching along the length of our bodies,
familiar touch of the long-married,
and he appears--in his baseball pajamas, it happens,
the neck opening so small
he has to screw them on, which one day may make him wonder
about the mental capacity of baseball players--
and says "Are you loving and snuggling? May I join?"
He flops down between us and hugs us and snuggles himself to sleep,
his face gleaming with satisfaction at being this very child.

In the half darkness we look at each other
and smile
and touch arms across his little, startlingly muscled body--
this one whom habit of memory propels to the ground of his making,
sleeper only the mortal sounds can sing awake,
this blessing love gives again into our arms.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

My favorite flavor of mind candy

Yesterday when we dropped off our kids for soccer practice, my friend Amy handed off the latest J.D. Robb to me. This one is entitled Strangers in Death. Despite chauffeuring duties (lighter this week, because the kids are on spring break) and children and animals needing to be fed, I spent much of the afternoon reading it and had it all read by the time I had to leave for symphony rehearsal.

I have loved this series since Amy passed off the first ones to me, and there are now 26 of them. They're murder mysteries (hence the "death" titles), but they take place in a New York City of the future, described like this in the very first book (Naked in Death): "Street, pedestrian, and sky traffic were miserable, choking the air with bodies and vehicles....Even at this hour there was steam rising from the stationary and portable food stands that offered everything from rice noodles to soydogs for the teeming crowds." When the main character, Eve, sees the murder victim, she also is shown the murder weapon: " 'Thirty-eight caliber,' he told her. 'First one I've seen outside of a museum. This one's a Smith & Wesson, Model Ten, blue steel.' He looked at it with some affection. 'Real classic piece, used to be standard police issue up until the latter part of the twentieth. They stopped making them in about twenty-two, twenty-three, when the gun ban was passed.' "

The series has details about the future and also about Eve's life and the lives of her circle of friends and fellow cops, so it's the kind of series you need to start reading at the beginning (like Elizabeth George's Lynley mysteries or Laura Lippman's Tess Monaghan mysteries). You find out that jobs of the future include "Licensed Companion," (a respectable prostitute, kind of like Inara in Firefly) and "Professional Mother" (one who gets paid by the government for doing a good job!). And you get Eve's cop-thinking about what motivates people: "Marriage is a promise....If you break one part of the promise, it's going to crack other parts." When the crime-fighting characters find out that an abused woman has been part of a murder plot, one of them tries to convince Eve to go easy with her: "There's a difference between weak and evil." Eve's reply is "Yeah, but there's sure a lot of overlap."

Each book has been just as good as the last, despite the growing narrative problem of Eve's life and the lives of all her friends becoming increasingly happy and settled. I like the way Eve can fly off to another planet or a tropical beach after she solves each mystery.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Rereading Ellen Gilchrist

When I was at college in Conway Arkansas, Fayetteville writer Ellen Gilchrist published her first book of short stories, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, and my friends and I all read the stories and enjoyed them immensely. They were about glamorous and self-destructive and somehow foreign kinds of people, people the age of my parents who wouldn't turn out so well because they lived hard and were going to die young. But they did things the way my parents and their cousins had done them: "We walked into Nell's and Blum's Department Store and took up the largest dressing room. My grandmother and Miss Onnie Maud were seated on brocade chairs and every saleslady in the store came crowding around trying to get in on the wedding" (Revenge).

When Gilchrist's subsequent books of short stories came out, we bought them and read them, enjoying them with the same kind of childish wonder for a world now gone by (the narrator of Victory over Japan is almost exactly the same age as my mother). They became a part of my mental wallpaper. Ron and I often say we should have named our cat Sammy, who will meow insistently over and over when you talk to him, Traceleen, after the character in the story entitled "Miss Crystal's Maid Name Traceleen, She's Talking, She's Telling Everything She Knows."

By the time later books of short stories by Gilchrist came out, I was getting tired of reading about women who diet and drink too much and sleep with men they don't know well. So I quit reading Gilchrist, as I think most people did, especially when she started trying to write novels.

Recently, though, I started rereading some of her early short stories. A lot of them haven't aged well. My favorite, however, is still a wonderful story: The Famous Poll at Jody's Bar. This is a story about Nora Jane Whittington, who is "nineteen years old, a self-taught anarchist and a quick-change artist." She falls in love with a worthless teenage boy who leaves her for the west coast, and she then decides to rob a bar so she can join him: "Once she settled on a plan of action she was certain all she needed was a little luck and she was as good as wading in the Pacific Ocean. One evening's work and her hands were back in Sandy's hair."

On the planned day of Nora Jane's robbery, the bar, called Jody's, is asking every man who goes by to vote in a poll: "Just mark it yes or no. Whatever advice you would give your closest friend if he came to you and told you he was thinking of getting married."

Since the poll is being conducted under a hand-lettered sign that says "This poll is being conducted without regard to sex or previous condition of servitude," just one "yes" vote will decide the matrimonial future of a character named Prescott, who "didn't really care whether he married Emily Anne Hughes or not. He and Emily Anne had been getting along fine for years without getting married, and he didn't see what difference his moving into Emily Anne's house at this late date was going to make in the history of the world."

At the end of the story, Nora Jane robs the bar and gets the money to follow Sandy out to the west coast. As she leaves, "she stopped, marked a ballot, folded it neatly, and dropped it into the Mason jar."

I like this story now as much as I liked it when I first read it. Back then, I identified a little bit with Nora Jane. Now, with less of my own, I admire her optimism.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Big Fat Manifesto

I've always enjoyed hearing people try to explain the paradox in the term "good Friday." I have never enjoyed hearing about what someone gave up for lent. Perhaps the people who give up something that they really need to give up--giving free rein to their temper, for example--don't talk about it. I know I don't ever want to hear about someone giving up chocolate. In modern America, giving up chocolate is not penance; it's using religion to help you with your diet plan.

Recently I read a new YA novel entitled Big Fat Manifesto, by Susan Vaught. It does the best job of any book I've ever read about of describing what it's like for a fat person to live in modern America, especially shopping for clothes and going to the doctor. Here's her description of going into a normal-size store with two normal-sized friends in order to show them what it's like:

Of the two available salesclerks in Hotchix, neither of them comes toward me. They study me, though, and I catch each expression on camera. Surprise, annoyance, then eye-rolling. Mild disgust, followed by a head-to-toe check of my body, and more obvious disgust. They stop looking at me and start talking to each other.
I catch bits and pieces of what they say.
...Not sure why she's here.
Can't be to shop...
Bet her boyfriend can't wait to get some of that...
Maybe buying a gift. You go.
No friggin' way. You.
This I'm ready for. I've heard it more than once. Lots, in fact. Which is why I shop at Diana's, where the clothes make me look like a grape.
The women at the register give me a few more snide expressions, then ignore me. Seems like the bigger I get, the more invisible I become. Another fifty pounds, and I'll be an outright ghost.

Of course, being ignored is better than attracting notice. More than a decade ago, I was putting gas in my car and some guys speeding by on the highway felt they had to lean out of their car and shout "try Jenny Craig!" in my direction. When the girl in the novel is at the doctor's office for a check-up, she thinks "Maybe if I could sprout fangs and claws I could teach people how it feels to sit trapped and helpless while somebody pokes holes in your skin and your feelings."

The most amazing part of the novel is the description of the girl's boyfriend getting weight loss surgery. His surgery is successful--he doesn't die from it, and he loses weight afterwards. But the price he pays is clearly spelled out for those who haven't considered everything that such surgery entails. Can you even imagine voluntarily mutilating your body so you can lose weight? This book will clue you in to the pressures that make some people willing to do it.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Silliness

It's the first day of spring! Time for silliness!

History of Ideas, by J.V. Cunningham

God is love. Then by inversion
Love is God, and sex conversion.

I've been compiling a list of diversions from the internet to put in my kids' Easter eggs (available as a Word document on request). Some of my favorites include:

TheOnion.com: videos--Army holds annual 'bring your daughter to war' day
YouTube: Dramatic chipmunk
Funnyordie.com: The Landlord
Metacafe.com: spiderman parody
Youtube: Darth Vader: The Musical
Potterpuppetpals.com
bekindmovie.com: trailer, Lord of the Rings Sweded
Youtube: The Shining--A Romantic Comedy
Albinoblacksheep.com: How To Kill a Mockingbird

I haven't set these up so you go right to the diversion specified, but the links will at least get you to the site.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Favorite Books

When I go to a party and someone asks what I "do" and I tell them some variation on "I have a PhD in English and try not to waste it entirely," there are two categories of response. One is "oh, I'll have to watch my grammar." I laugh politely at that one. The other is "oh, I never have time to read." I like that one a little better because it gives me a way to say that we make time for what we can't do without.

My favorite response to the what do you "do" answer came when I was still in graduate school. The man who eventually married our friend Miriam said to me "what are you studying in grad school?" I said "English." There was a pause. "Haven't you learned it yet?" he said.

So what do you do when someone asks what your "favorite" book is??? I have various strategies for answering such a question, including picking six off the top of my head, as I did for my blogger profile: Animal Dreams, Love In the Ruins, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, The Lord of the Rings, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, The Princess Bride.

A strategy that makes more sense is to pick two or three favorites from a specific genre--favorite science fiction books: Stranger in a Strange Land, The Door Into Ocean, Ender's Game.

My favorite way to answer this question now is a strategy I borrowed from my friend Lemming's Christmas letter. She and her husband used to recommend their favorite book of the year. This narrows down the selections to a manageable level, plus you can buy the favorite book of the year for everyone on your list. My favorite book of this past year is Boomsday.

Of course, this strategy necessarily privileges contemporary literature. How can we include favorites from the past? Usually I don't try. There's no need to repeat what thousands of high school English teachers have said before me: To Kill a Mockingbird is a great book. One of the purposes of telling other people what your favorite books are is to get them to read those books.

With that purpose in mind, tell me what your favorite books are. I'm the person you know who is most likely to read them.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Morning has broken

We're in the second week of our adjustment to daylight savings time, so you think I'd be getting used to waking up and going out in the dark again (just when it was starting to get light about the time I wake up). But it's raining this morning, so it's even more dark than usual.

As I was driving home in the dark from driving my kids to school, I found myself thinking about Jonathan Swift's poem "Description of the Morning" and Philip Larkin's "Aubade," with their sneering references to the traditional feeling of waking up in the morning to a new, fresh start (like Oliver in the musical, at the window of his luxurious bedroom in the morning after he has been rescued from Fagin). Any reluctance to face the day in traditional aubades is a reluctance to leave the warm bed with your lover still in it, like in Romeo and Juliet's "lark or nightingale" scene or John Donne's poem "The Sun Rising." But in "Description of the Morning," the servant-girl "Betty from her master's bed had flown,/ And softly stole to discompose her own," and Larkin's speaker is rising to regret "the love not given."

This kind of feeling seems to me to be appropriate on the day that the Disney movie Enchanted comes out on DVD. Instead of Cinderella singing to the mice and the birds, the princess in Enchanted has to sing to the animals available to her--rats, pigeons, and cockroaches.

Well, today you have to get up and put on whatever clothes you can stand to wear again (unless you can whip up something made from curtains), because already

telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Monday, March 17, 2008

My favorite Irish writer

When Miriam and Ron and I shared a townhouse in Laurel, Maryland we called it Earnest Manor, in honor of our favorite play, Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. So in honor of St. Patrick's Day, I give you my very favorite lines from the play:

If I am occasionally a little over-dressed, I make up for it by being always immensely over-educated. (Algernon)
---I can't help taking this personally, as someone who likes to dress up in a casual age and who has a PhD that is of little practical value.

One must be serious about something, if one wants to have any amusement in life. (Algernon)
---Certainly I'm very serious about the study of irony.

When I am in trouble, eating is the only thing that consoles me. Indeed, when I am in really great trouble, as any one who knows me intimately will tell you, I refuse everything except food and drink. (Algernon)
---Really, I never can sympathize with those heroes and heroines who can't eat in times of great tension.

When one is in town one amuses oneself. When one is in the country one amuses other people. (Jack)
---This may have been more true in past centuries, but it's still applicable if you live in a small, rural community and spend some time on the weekends in the nearest big city.

Never speak disrespectfully of Society, Algernon. Only people who can’t get into it do that. (Lady Bracknell)
---Isn't that still true? I'm watching the "geeks are cool" trend with interest to see if human nature will ever change.

The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means. (Miss Prism)
---Ooh, I love it when someone tells me what fiction means and I don't have to figure it out for myself!!!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Firebirds

Once when I was in high school, a group of guys who had been talking about cars for a while turned to me and politely attempted to include me in the conversation. "What kind of car would you get, Jeanne?" they asked. "A Firebird," I replied, with little hesitation. There was a stir in the group, surprise that I had a ready answer, and such a good one. A little later, they found out that I knew of a symphony called the Firebird and liked the image (this was well before Fawkes popularized his species). But I will always treasure my memory of the momentary admiration in their eyes.

A few years ago, my daughter brought home a collection of Fantasy and Science Fiction stories in a collection entitled Firebirds. I was predisposed to like it, of course, but it's a truly wonderful collection, especially for the novice reader. It's heavy on Fantasy and very light on Science Fiction. There are a couple of fairy stories, Cotillion and Byndley. There's a very unusual story entitled Mariposa, by Nancy Springer. We like Beauty by Sherwood Smith, Hope Chest by Garth Nix, Little Dot by Diana Wynne Jones, Remember Me by Nancy Farmer, and Flotsam by Nina Kiriki Hoffman.

The standout story, however is by Megan Whalen Turner and entitled The Baby in the Night Deposit Box. In it, a small town bank that had just put up a billboard advertising "your treasure will be safe with us" gets a baby in their night deposit box with a rattle, a teething ring, and a note that says "Our treasure, please keep her safe." They take care of the baby, who turns out to be a girl, and keep her safe from the world outside the bank, including a woman from Child Protective Services who keeps attempting to take her away. At one of her court hearings, the girl (now called Penny, short for Precious Treasure) tells the Judge that the night watchman's wife helps her when she feels afraid of shadows in the night:

"She said they were just shadows and that shadows all by themselves couldn't hurt anyone. I didn't have to be afraid. I just had to pretend that they were the shadows of bunnies. That any shadow, if you look at it right, could be the shadow of a bunny. She said I should take my rattle, because I always have my rattle with me, and my ring." She held up her arm to show the teething ring that now sat like a bracelet around her wrist. "She said I should point my rattle at the shadows and say 'You're a bunny,' and then I won't be afraid anymore."

When Penny is eighteen, she leaves the bank to rescue her royal (of course) parents from a wicked usurper with lots of minions that cast scary shadows. Naturally, she does what she has been taught:

"No--" shrieked the enchantress. "No--"
"You," Penny said firmly, "are a bunny."

Like my answer to the car question, the ending of the story is not what the reader might have expected.

Friday, March 14, 2008

"I hate those guys."

Nazis. The early 21st-century symbol of unarguable evil. (I mean really, who can argue with Indiana Jones?)

After I talked about The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World, I started thinking about Stephanie Kallos' Broken for You, because both involve Nazi-stolen art. Is it just our moment in history, or do we currently have some kind of fascination with how to come to terms with the sins of the fathers?

In Broken for You, people are broken, and china is broken. Most of the china turns out to have been stolen from Jews by Nazis, and one of the main characters uses the china shards to make mosaics. The novel is beautifully written. Early on, one of the main characters thinks:

"No one likes to see something break--even if that thing has no relationship to them whatsoever. Even if they're completely unattached to it. Why is that? I wonder. It is, after all, the inevitable fate of a plate, isn't it? If it's not shut away, that is. If it's put to its intended purpose--as a vessel, something useful, something human hands are meant to handle and interact with. The natural fate of a plate--and therefore the appropriate one--is that it be chipped or cracked or broken. Why should that decrease its value?"

But in addition to that kind of dreamy language, the observations are occasionally sharp:

"It is often said, in consolatory tones, that 'time heals all wounds.' But radiologists, who study and interpret physical proofs of the body's ability to store memory, know that this is a crock of shit."

Also there is what I think of as a commonsense tone of voice, running underneath most of the metaphorical cracking and piecing back together:

"We speak of 'senseless tragedies,' but really: Is there any other kind?"

None of the tragedies of the characters in Broken for You make sense individually, but there is a picture that only the reader can see, in the mosaic that the novel painstakingly reveals, piece by piece. It is as comfortable and old-fashioned as hating Nazis to close the book and believe that God has a plan which requires us to suffer at some point, but that we don't have the perspective to see His whole plan.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Egghead Children's Books

Ever since I first read From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Franksweiler and then the marvelously named Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and me, Elizabeth, I've been a fan of books by E.L. Konigsberg.

I just checked her latest book out of the library, The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World, and I liked it. In recent years, I was mildly irritated by the didacticism of books like The View from Saturday. It seemed to me to embody the worst aspects of the kind of egghead admiration society that Madeleine L'Engle liked to create in books like The Arm of the Starfish (please, the Tallis Canon?). But Konigsberg is capable of a pretty wide range, as she demonstrates by jumping from the contemporary Floridian setting of T-backs, T-shirts, Coat and Suit to the 12th-century setting of A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver, about Eleanor of Acquitaine. I didn't mind the didacticism of The Outcasts of Schuyler Place so much, because it does a fairly delicate job (for a children's book) of suggesting how important it is to think for yourself.

The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World is cut out of the same cloth as The Outcasts of Schuyler Place, even including some of the same characters. Despite a few wrong notes, like trying to use ungrammatical speech to show that one boy doesn't have the advantages of the other (in this increasingly homogenized world, a boy as intelligent as her character would not speak in such an ignorant way), the mystery has some interesting and subtle turns. They were a bit too subtle for the taste of my 11-year-old son, but I liked them. I think he may have been reacting to the imitative aspect of trying to write a book about children learning about art in the wake of the popular books Chasing Vermeer and The Wright Three.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Boomsday

Last spring I went into a bookstore and a book on the shelf caught my eye (the cover looks like an explosion). When I stopped to read the cover blurb, which describes it as a book about "generational warfare between profligate Baby Boomers and younger Americans who don't want to be stuck paying the bill," I remember thinking to myself, standing there in the aisle, this is the book I've been waiting for all my life.

I'm a member of what Jonathan Pontell calls Generation Jones. Isn't that a good name? It's anonymous, like Smith, because for so long we were just lumped in with the end of the baby boom. It's also about having a craving for drugs, which in our case was a craving for all sorts of unfulfilled expectations raised by the boomers but enjoyed only by them. I can't even tell you how much I identify with Boomsday's main character, Cassandra, when she says "Here it comes. Where were you when JFK was shot? If I hear one more Baby Boomer tell me, in mind-numbing detail, I think I'll throw up." Also when she says "So we've gone from 'Don't trust anyone over thirty' to 'Don't drink any Scotch under thirty? Is this what's become of your revolution?"

The way Cassandra foments revolution among younger folk is by typing on her blog, Concerned Americans for Social Security Amendment Now, Debt Reduction and Accountability. The acronym is, of course, symbolic as she says: "She warned that the city would fall to the Greeks. They ignored her."

What she types on her blog is a proposal (and yes, she mentions the word "modest") that Boomers who "transition" (voluntarily suicide) at age 65 or 70 in order to save social security will get "a package of incentives. Free medical. Drugs--all the drugs you want. Boomers love that kind of pork. The big one is no estate tax....if only twenty percent of seventy-seven million Baby Boomers go for it, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid will be solvent."

The Boomer lobby, ABBA, eventually supports transitioning when it becomes a bill with enough pork attached to make it ineffective (their motto is "From cradle to grave, special in every way"). Cass gets the attention of Gen X by asking them "what would you say if I told you that one-third to one-half of everything you earn over your lifetime will go to paying off debt incurred before you were born?" The novel taps into my resentment of Boomers very nicely. You know, they never did work out satisfactory day care or lasting knee replacements for themselves so I could come along later and reap the benefits.

I ordered this book for my classes in the fall of 2007, and my students, part of the echo boom generation, were surprised to see how little the facts have to be exaggerated to make satiric points. Since I'm blogging about the book, I have to say that the power of blogging and texting, as opposed to calling people on the telephone and knocking on doors, seems to me to be little exaggerated--and that's a good thing. My daughter and I agree that tv shows should be available when you're ready to watch them. Same for news and political advertising. Just as it's important to have a free press, it's important to have a free world wide web (as recent attempts to censor--or in China, to uncensor--the web have shown us). In Boomsday "the FBI, invoking some obscure antiterrorism statues, had shut down CASSANDRA, but Cass's followers kept starting new ones, called CASSANDRA.2, etc. The latest CASSANDRA was .54."

As Cass says, "in cyberspace, everyone can hear you scream." And isn't that a heck of a good thing, as long as you can tune in selectively?

Monday, March 10, 2008

Guilty Pleasures

Since I read everything and am not big on guilt, I have few guilty pleasures as far as books go. The things I check out of the library and read just for fun (recently: Paretsky's Bleeding Kansas, Keillor's Pontoon, the Davidson catering mystery I already mentioned, and mysteries by Laura Lippman, Margaret Maron, and David Baldacci) aren't really guilty pleasures; they're just mind candy. I learned to enjoy mystery novels in the last few years, so there are still more of them I've not read.

My car books are guilty pleasures, though. I know this because one time a male person who teaches Sociology at OSU came by my car while I was waiting for a kid to come out of school, and I was a little embarrassed to respond to his genial "what are you reading?" Car books are paperbook romance novels that my friend Amy's mother passes along. I keep one or two under the seat of my car at all time so I always have something to read in an emergency, like a longer-than-anticipated wait or forgetting to take a book with me. Car books are the kind of books that you can read for a while happily enough but don't have to take in the house to finish. More than just embarrassing, though, car books can actually be bad for you. If you read enough stories about women getting romanced by rich and powerful men, your own life suffers by comparison, no matter how good it is. Also, the farther back in history the romance is set, the more passive the female character has to be. Amy and I can tell when her mother is more depressed than usual, because we start getting more 16th-century Scottish highlands romances with pictures of Fabio bare-chested on the covers. When her mother cheers up, we get Jennifer Crusie, set in the present day, and J.D. Robb, set in the future. (Note: these last two are good enough to take in the house and finish. I went out to the car to see what my current books under the seat are, and they're Belva Plain's Secrecy and Katherine Kingsley's The Sound of Snow.)

Besides romance novels, there are other books that are guilty pleasures because they're bad for you. Some fantasy novels are like that. I'm talking about the ones marketed to the "young adult" audience, like the Sword of Shannara, itself the best of a bad genre--and it has lots of lesser imitators. Bad fantasy has two dimensional characters, no rules (and often no limitations) for the magic, and it promotes the idea that violence solves all problems by showing that the only way to defeat evil is to be stronger than the evil.

Ron mentions action/adventure books that feature lots of testosterone-fueled explosions and some tactical thinking as guilty pleasures for men. I asked if he meant co-authored books with Tom Clancy, and he said those were the best of the genre, and there are lots of worse examples. I'm guessing that the bad thing about these books is that your own life suffers by comparison--it's less exciting, and you're less powerful in it.

So I'd like to know--what other kinds of guilty pleasures are available? Do you have a favorite that I haven't mentioned here? And why should you feel guilty about reading it?

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Northernity

I am living in a town that has a statue of a Union soldier in the town square. This town is the place that made Daniel Decatur Emmet miss the south so much that he wrote "Dixie." Today there is snow all the way up to the benches on our deck, and it's still coming down. I've been lounging around reading the latest Diane Mott Davidson caterer mystery, Sweet Revenge (the recipes are now all at the back; I liked them better in between chapters), and I got to this:

I thought of that old story about the difference between a Southerner and a Yankee. You ask a Yankee how much a dime is worth. She gives you a frosty look and says "Ten cents." You ask a Southerner, and she says, "Well, I s'pose it's not worth what it used to be, I mean, I could buy a whole pocket full of Red Hots and Charleston Chews and Sugar Daddys when I was just a little girl, and my momma would see me coming with all that sweet stuff, and she'd say--"

This does sum up one of the differences nicely. It also reminds me of the scene in the Steve Martin movie LA Story where a woman announces to a table full of people that she's been taking a course in conversation. The man next to her says, encouragingly, "so, you're studying conversation" and she looks at him disparagingly and says "yes," turning away.

Friday, March 7, 2008

The Appalling Snow

This morning I went to physical therapy and, during a discussion of the impending snowstorm, suddenly realized that my knee hadn't responded to the drop in barometric pressure by aching like a bad tooth all night. It is another one in the growing list of blessings I am counting since I had my knee replaced. Until you have lived with pain for so long that those who love you think that irritability is part of your personality, you have no idea what a relief it is to run errands and not pay with pain the rest of the day, or to attend an evening event and realize that part of your attention has not been distracted by the fact that you hurt so much at that hour. It makes me think of an Auden poem that I have felt too intensely the past few years, an early poem known by its first line: "As I walked out one evening." It came into my head today because of the line about "the appalling snow"--any snow in March is pretty darn appalling, if you ask me. These lines, in particular, used to resonate with me:

O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.

In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.

In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or today.

Into many a green valley
Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
And the diver's brilliant bow.

O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you've missed.

I thought of these lines, and I realized that they don't resonate with me the same way they used to. Putting your hands in the dishwater, often more than once a day at our house, isn't the same kind of repetitive, despondent action when you haven't been able to do it for a while. The old sense that time is passing but my life isn't changing is gone. Once some of the headaches go, some of the worries go with them. Of course, there's my brother's immortal line about worry: "You can worry, Jeannie. But it won't change anything."

I'm doing less worrying, including less about slipping on slick roads and sidewalks, because I have more control--literally, I can control what my legs do a lot better than I used to be able to. The "surgery leg," as they call it at physical therapy, is not yet as strong as the other leg, but it's getting there. Life isn't leaking away for me anymore. I have faith that spring will come, despite today's snow.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The reunion scene from The Princess Bride

My first copy of The Princess Bride, published in 1973, is subtitled "A Hot Fairy Tale." In 1988, when I assigned the book for my "Fantasy Literature" class at the University of Maryland, College Park, I sent away for the reunion scene, just to make sure we weren't missing anything.

This was before the movie came out, so no one had seen Goldman change Buttercup and Westley's exchange from
Westley: Were you sorry? Did you feel pain? Admit that you felt nothing--"
Buttercup: Do not mock my grief! I died that day.
to the movie version:
Buttercup: Do not mock my pain!
Westley: Life is pain, highness. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.

The movie did a nice job of framing the story to emphasize that this is "the good parts version." What you miss if you haven't read the book, though, are the pervasive references to Morgenstern and how Goldman is editing the original text. The missing reunion scene, when Buttercup has been engaged to Prince Humperdick and Westley has been the Dread Pirate Roberts, is missing in both versions, only Goldman claims to have written one and gives an address so you can send in for it. This is a small sample of what you get if you write to that address:

Dear Reader,
Thank you for sending in, and no, this is not the reunion scene, because of a certain roadblock named Kermit Shog.
As soon as bound books were ready I got a call from my lawyer Charley---(you may not remember, but Charley's the one I called from California to go down in the blizzard and buy The Princess Bride from the used-book dealer). Anyway, he usually begins with Talmudic humor, wisdom jokes, only this time he just says, "Bill, I think you better get down here," and before I'm even allowed a 'why?' he adds, "Right away if you can."
Panicked, I zoom down, wondering who could have died, did I flunk my tax audit, what? His secretary lets me into his office and Charley says, "This is Mr. Shog, Bill."
And there he is, sitting in the corner, hands on his briefcase, looking exactly like an oily version of Peter Lorre. I really expected him to say, "Give me the Falcon, you must, or I'll be forced to keeel you."
"Mr. Shog is a lawyer," Charley goes on. And this next was said underlined: "He represents the Morgenstern estate."

The letter goes on for four pages, saying nothing in the most entertaining way possible, and ends with a May, 1987 P.P.S. that says "But at least the movie got made."

If you like the movie and you haven't read the book, you should know that you're really missing something. And it's not the unabridged Morgenstern version, complete with long descriptions of the scenery in Florin. I was 13 in 1973, and when I first read The Princess Bride, I remember being a little puzzled about why William Goldman keeps pretending that he is editing a longer book when clearly he's just making it up. I was also a little puzzled about the song "You're so vain" about that time. I remember thinking "but the song IS about you." Clearly, I was already destined to study irony, being slow to catch on.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Books about Food

Over the past year I read Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and then Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food. As a mother and a commuter, I am squarely in the middle of their target audience. The Kingsolver book is easier to read and has more compelling arguments, at least for me. The Pollan books remind me of an older book with the same advice, Richard Watson's The Philosopher's Diet (and to a lesser extent, Martha Beck's The Joy Diet). My favorite part of The Omnivore's Dilemma is the second section, especially the chapter on "Big Organic" and the one entitled "Slaughter: In a Glass Abattoir." Here is a section from "Big Organic:

What better way to test the outer limits of the word "organic" than by dining on a springtime delicacy that had been grown according to organic rules on a farm six thousand miles (and two seasons) away, picked, packed, and chilled on Monday, flown by jet to Los Angeles Tuesday, trucked north to a Whole Foods regional distribution center, then put on sale in Berkeley by Thursday, to be steamed, by me, Sunday night?

The newer book, In Defense of Food, argues that we need to think more about foods and less about nutrients. It includes a list of rules like "don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food" (which actually convinced my almost-12-year-old to give up gogurt) and "avoid food products containing ingredients that are unfamiliar, unpronounceable, more than five in number, or that include high-fructose corn syrup" (which has made my 14-year-old unduly proud of her consumption of cheddar bunnies). There's also another rule that I particularly enjoyed, as a commuter: "don't get your fuel from the same place your car does."

The Kingsolver book, though, is absolutely fanatical. It's like an argument where you exaggerate to see if the most absurd example will still hold true...and it does. There's no way I'm going to be able to even plant my own garden, much less raise chickens and turkeys, and even though I'm lactose intolerant, like Kingsolver and her oldest daughter, I'm not going to be embarking upon cheese-making anytime soon (she describes a process for making cheese without lactose, which must be what Kraft does too--check out their labels). But I am entirely convinced by her argument, which is that if we all ate more local food in season, the world would be a better place.

For me, this is just going back to doing what my mother taught me. She remembers choosing a watermelon from the field, cracking it open, and then picking another one if it wasn't ripe enough. She has always shopped at farmer's markets and been very careful about where she buys her meat.

Since, like Kingsolver, I have more free time for preparing food in the summer, I subscribed to a CSA last summer, and my family got to taste food they'd never tried before (boy was it good timing with the movie Ratatouille--we kept making versions of the dish and attempting to make it layer so it looked pretty). Since darn few of us are writers or tenured college teachers, we can't do the kind of picking and cooking in August that Kingsolver describes as necessary for year-round local eating. But her pre-prepared January meals sound lovely:

The blanched, frozen vegetables needed only a brief steaming to be table-ready, and the dried vegetables were easy to throw into the Crock-Pot with the chicken stock we made and froze after every roasted bird. For several full-steam-ahead weeks last summer in countless different ways, we'd made dinner ahead.

My favorite chapter of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is the one entitled "You Can't Run Away on Harvest Day." It is a thoughtful argument for raising livestock, especially heirloom varieties:

Animal harvest is at least not gratuitous, as part of a plan involving labor and recompense. We raise these creatures for a reason. Such premeditation may be presumed unkind, but without it our gentle domestic beasts in their picturesque shapes, colors, and finely tuned purposes would never have had the distinction of existing. To envision a vegan version of civilization, start by erasing from all time the Three Little Pigs, the boy who cried wolf, Charlotte's Web, the golden calf, Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Next, erase civilization, brought to you by the people who learned to domesticate animals. Finally, rewrite our evolutionary history, since Homo sapiens became the species we are by means of regular binges of carnivory.

See what I mean about how she always pushes the argument further, towards absurdity? She had me at Charlotte's Web!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Voting

Finally! After today there should be an end to the robo-calls, at least for a while. Why anyone thinks they would do anything except make me less likely to vote for their candidate, I don't know. But I still haven't made up my mind about who to vote for. As far as I can tell, both of the presidential candidates I am considering mostly support the issues I use as a touchstone: abortion and gay and lesbian rights. I can't vote for anyone who doesn't agree with me and George Carlin ("pro-life is anti-woman") and Anne Lamott, who captures my particular sense of outrage about the abortion rights issue in her essay "The Born" in her book Grace (Eventually):

I wanted to express calmly and eloquently, that people who are pro-choice understand that there are two lives involved in an abortion--one born (the pregnant woman) and one not (the fetus)--and that the born person must be allowed to decide what is right: whether or not to bring a pregnancy to term and launch another life into circulation....the most important message I can carry and fight for is the sacredness of each human life, and reproductive rights for all women are a crucial part of that."

I also can't vote for anyone who could possibly increase the small, daily insults to human dignity suffered by a person like David Sedaris. Here is one quandary he describes in his essay "Chicken in the Henhouse" in the collection Dress Your Family In Corduroy and Denim:

The man in the elevator had not thought twice about asking Michael personal questions or about laying a hand on the back of his head. Because he was neither a priest nor a homosexual, he hadn't felt the need to watch himself worrying that every word or gesture might be misinterpreted. He could unthinkingly wander the halls with a strange boy, while for me it amounted to a political act--an insistence that I was as good as the next guy. Yes, I am a homosexual; yes, I am soaking wet; yes, I sometimes feel an urge to touch people's heads, but still I can safely see a ten-year-old back to his room. It bothered me that I needed to prove something this elementary. And prove it to people whom I could never hope to convince.

There are lots of bigger issues at stake in the coming election, but I'll stand by my conviction that my touchstone issues tell me something about how a candidate thinks. It's simply not clear to me that any of my old strategies for deciding are going to work as well this time around. It's not clear that's a sign of progress, though. If Mr. "I don't believe in evolution" Mike Huckabee gets any votes, that's truly frightening.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Step in the Right Direction

Lately I've noticed an increasing number of popular books about what it's like to see the world differently. Here are some of the best ones:
Eye Contact, Cammie McGovern
Rules, Cynthia Lord
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon
A Mango-Shaped Space, Wendy Mass
The Martian Child, David Gerrold
Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
The first three involve young people with some degree of autism, and the reader learns to see things more from their point of view and even to appreciate the view. The next two are about people who can see colors associated with things like numbers, letters, and sounds, and how others react to that seemingly innocuous gift (synesthesia). The Martian child sees everything so differently that he decides he must be from another planet (this is the oldest of these books). The protagonist of the last book is born a hermaphrodite, and spends years trying to fit in as a girl until, at puberty, he finds out that he is genetically male, despite a doctor who tries to keep this from him.

The good thing about these books is that most of the revelations they provide are for parents. Kids are growing up without as many ideas about fitting in and what "normal" is. It's still a much bigger fight than it should be to let a child who doesn't fit in with other children his age do something like skip a grade. But it's getting better, and some of that must have to do with the increased popularity of books like these.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Variable Star

I just reread Spider Robinson's book Variable Star, created from Robert Heinlein's outline. It's a curious way to write a book, to be sure, and the first time I read it, I was surprised at how much I liked it. Most of the book is Spider. There's the occasional homage pun (her eyes were Hazel, stones, rolling), and he pays lip service to Heinlein's stock in trade, like briefly mentioning that one of the main character's girlfriends has decided to enter into a group marriage. The plot, though, does seem to me to be one that Heinlein could have written. Details about the planet that the characters are headed towards are incredible and detailed, and the starship drives are mysterious in their workings, which is (oddly) appropriate to this particular book. Some of my favorite parts are when the characters talk about history:

"Webb was an idiot. His analysis presumed that if other life did exist, it could not be more intelligent than him. It was the characteristic flaw of the entire PreCollapse millennium: the assumption of vastly more knowledge than they actually possessed." He closed his eyes and rubbed them. "Over and over like a recurring flu they developed the imbecile idea that they understood nearly everything, in all but the finest details. They had no slightest idea what lightning was, how it worked. They had absolutely no clue how moisture got farther than about ten meters up a tree--the highest that capillary action can push it Fifty years after the splitting of the atom, they accidentally noticed for the first time that hurricanes emit gamma rays. There were quite a few large, significant phenomena they could 'explain,' often elegantly...over and over again...and had to, because the explanations began falling apart at the first hard data-push. Things like he Tunguska Event, gamma ray bursts, why an airplane wing generated lift, what ninety percent of our DNA was doing there...yet they were solemnly convinced they basically understood the universe, except for some details out in the tenth decimal place.
"They somehow managed to persuade themselves that computer models constitute data. That very complicated guesses become facts. They made themselves believe they had the power to accurately model, not merely something as inconceivably complex as, say, a single zygote...but a national economy, a weather system, a planetary ecosphere, a multiplanet society--even a universe. They made solemn pronouncements about conditions a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, on the basis of computer models which they had produced with computers not even bright enough to talk, let alone understand speech. They were unlike all the generations before theirs in several ways, but chiefly in that they had no faintest clue how ignorant they were. Previous ages had usually had a pretty good handle on that."
"Things got worse in that direction soon."
"Sure. Scientists were claiming godlike knowledge, and couldn't deliver. It go to where even the average citizen could sense they were bluffing. They could go on for literally days on what happened in the first five minutes of creation, without ever saying a single thing that meant anything, did anybody any good. They wouldn't even discuss what happened when you died, let alone how random chance produced life. No wonder the citizens decided to go back to a different kind of omniscience, that came with omnipotence and omnibenevolence thrown in at no extra charge. Twentieth-century science handed the world over to Nehemia Scudder, on a plate. No wonder some people preferred 'intelligent design' to evolution. At least it put intelligence somewhere in the mix."

A very Spider-like rant, isn't it? But I find it strangely compelling, especially in company with a later explanation of what caused the "Terror Wars," a smug Canadian-type analysis of the actions of the US after 9/11, but ending with this description of Americans:

"They were some of the most intelligent and humane people in the history of the planet: what could they have been thinking?"
"Of course they were not. They were feeling."

I like science fiction that not only shows us a possible way to go, but provides a bit of road map for how people could get there. Variable Star does that, in the best Heinlein tradition.