Saturday, November 29, 2008

Slumming in Fiction

At one point, I got a little tired of Jonathan Kellerman's Alex Delaware novels and traded all my paperback copies to Amy (my car book source) for all her Faye Kellerman paperbacks. I won't say I regret the trade now, but I have continued to read the Alex Delaware series (when I find one at the library), and it's gotten better, after the doldrums that set in when Alex and Robin split up for a while. I still get tired of hearing all about the French bulldog, but at least the carp of many colors have receded into the background of the crime story. The newest one is entitled Bones, and it lives up to the creepiness of the image.

Nobody does it better, in terms of creating a chillingly creepy plot. Bones ends up with a killer whose humanity has been, somehow or other (and Jonathan--a former clinical psychologist--usually gives the details) largely erased. His latest killer
"cuts herself. Supposedly."
"She cuts and starves herself, grew up with an impaired mother, had aspirations she couldn't achieve. That could lead to a seriously distorted body image and emotional numbness. Sometimes people like that need extreme stimulation."
"Feel no pain, feel no mercy, either?"

Since Alex and Milo always catch the killer and order is restored, the reader's descent into madness is short-lived and safe, like going slumming for an evening, but getting home intact.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Who's Cooking?

I know I'm not the only one who has already made two trips for groceries so I can make cranberries and pies and dressing today ("stuffing" for you northerners who probably don't even get to have cornbread for supper the night before Thanksgiving). My mother would have started in on pies and molded or frozen salads already, but I don't like cooking as much as she does, and I don't plan ahead as far. I have exams to grade in between my cooking (which is better than taking breaks to read in between, which usually results in burned food at my house). My family's tradition is to have Thanksgiving dinner as a late lunch, around 1 pm. So for most of my childhood, the first thing my mother would do on Thanksgiving morning was to get out of bed and wrestle a turkey into the oven. That's my plan for tomorrow. Nothing like handling raw meat before having a cup of tea and taking the blanket off the rabbit hutch.

We won't be seeing any extended family this Thanksgiving, even though the schools here have finally decided that not everyone lives within an hour of their childhood home, and they've given the kids today and Monday off. Someone neglected to update the band director, who insists that all the band members must march in the mis-named "Christmas" parade on Saturday, making travel impossible for those of us who live a day's drive away from our childhood homes.

So I'm trying hard to be grateful that both my children will be here tomorrow. It's not that many years until that won't always be true. And I'm thinking of this poem, Resurrection, by Vladimir Holan and translated by George Theiner:

Is it true that after this life of ours we shall one day be awakened
by a terrifying clamor of trumpets?
Forgive me, God, but I console myself
that the beginning and resurrection of all of us dead
will simply be announced by the crowing of the cock.
After that we'll remain lying down a while...
The first to get up
will be Mother...We'll hear her
quietly laying the fire,
quietly putting the kettle on the stove
and cosily taking the teapot out of the cupboard.
We'll be home once more.

Good luck to all you mothers, whether you're the first to get up, or the last, because it took so long to get that teapot dry and into the cupboard the night before!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

List of Horrors

When I checked out poetry daily this morning, I found this poem:

User's Guide to Physical Debilitation

Should the painful condition of irreversible paralysis
last longer than forever or at least until
your death by bowling ball or illegal lawn dart
or the culture of death, which really has it out
for whoever has seen better days
but still enjoys bruising marathons of bird watching,
you, or your beleaguered caregiver
stirring dark witch's brews of resentment
inside what had been her happy life,
should turn to page seven where you can learn,
assuming higher cognitive functions
were not pureed by your selfish misfortune,
how to leave the house for the first time in two years.
An important first step,
with apologies for the thoughtlessly thoughtless metaphor.
When not an outright impossibility
or form of neurological science fiction,
sexual congress will either be with
tourists in the kingdom of your tragedy,
performing an act of sadistic charity;
with the curious, for whom you will be beguilingly blank canvas;
or with someone blindly feeling their way
through an extended power outage
caused by summer storms you once thought romantic.
Page twelve instructs you how best
to be inspiring to Magnus next door
as he throws old Volkswagens into orbit
above Alberta. And to Betty
in her dark charm confiding a misery,
whatever it is, that to her seems equivalent to yours.
The curl of her hair that her finger knows
better and beyond what you will,
even in the hypothesis of heaven
when you sleep. This guide is intended
to prepare you for falling down
and declaring d├ętente with gravity,
else you reach the inevitable end
of scaring small children by your presence alone.
Someone once said of crushing
helplessness: it is a good idea to avoid that.
We agree with that wisdom
but gleaming motorcycles are hard
to turn down or safely stop
at speeds which melt aluminum. Of special note
are sections regarding faith
healing, self-loathing, abstract hobbies
like theoretical spelunking and extreme atrophy,
and what to say to loved ones
who won't stop shrieking
at Christmas dinner. New to this edition
is an index of important terms
such as catheter, pain, blackout,
pathological deltoid obsession, escort service,
magnetic resonance imaging,
loss of friends due to superstitious fear,
and, of course, amputation
above the knee due to pernicious gangrene.
It is our hope that this guide
will be a valuable resource
during this long stretch of boredom and dread
and that it may be of some help,
however small, to cope with your new life
and the gradual, bittersweet loss
of every God damned thing you ever loved.

Paul Guest, My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge

I had to read it in a circle a few times, as I tell my students to do (read it all the way through and then go back and continue to read it until you get to something you understand). But then I was absolutely seized by it. There aren't more good poems about what it's like to be helpless in the hospital because most people are so fogged by drugs that they can't even express what it was like later, when some of the mind functions come back. Somehow Paul Guest has captured the kinds of thoughts that can go through a person's mind, but which usually stay some parts of the body seem to have been captured.

It almost makes me want to reread the largish binder I received last year before my knee was replaced. The poem gets some of the matter-of-fact listing-of-horrors quality just right.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Ordinary

It felt like the middle of the night when my radio clicked on at 6:20 am, and it's a gray November morning. I'm hoping for something out of the ordinary today, but can't think what that could be. Then I remembered this poem, about admiring the ordinary. That might have to do, today.

God Went to Beauty School, by Cynthia Rylant

He went there to learn how
to give a good perm
and ended up just crazy
about nails
so He opened up His own shop.
"Nails by Jim" He called it.
He was afraid to call it
Nails by God.
He was sure people would
think He was being
disrespectful and using
His own name in vain
and nobody would tip.
He got into nails, of course,
because He'd always loved
hands were some of the best things
He'd ever done
and this way He could just
hold one in His
and admire those delicate
bones just above the knuckles,
delicate as birds' wings,
and after He'd done that
He could paint all the nails
any color He wanted,
then say,
and mean it.

Last week I finished the audiobook of Bull's Island, by Dorothea Benton Frank. She writes romance novels about women from the Charleston, SC area, and I always read (or hear) them, and I'm always amazed at how much time her characters spend in beauty salons, not because I think it's a waste of time, particularly, but because her characters judge other women who are not devoted to salon rituals so harshly. There's nothing that makes a beauty salon seem more inviting than the scene in Legally Blonde where she gets her nails done so she can talk about what's bothering her with a sympathetic woman, and there's nothing that makes a salon seem less inviting than reading about the scornful attitude of the manicured crowd. The picture of God painting fingernails and holding hands restores the rosy color of the image, for me.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Twilight the Movie: Better Than the Book

The Love That Dare Not Bare Its Fangs

Why is the movie better than the book, in this case? Because there are so many bad puns and references in the reviews! This one doesn't quite make sense (the original phrase is a 19th-century euphemism for homosexuality, used at the trial of Oscar Wilde).

I loved the made-up dialogue between the two lead actors at the premiere here (courtesy of Bookshelves of Doom).

"Nothing to sink your teeth into," says my local newspaper. "The chaste romance might be appropriate, but it is also, well, bloodless."

Aurgh! "Appropriate" to what? Its PG13 rating? The IQ of its fan base? The gloom of my holiday season with no Harry Potter movie?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Luxury of Having No Time

I'm underemployed again. Probably I'm not the only teacher who feels despondent on the last day of class. But for an adjunct, who almost always teaches first-year students, it's especially hard. This is the last day I'll ever see these people, apart from a casual wave or the occasional request for a recommendation letter.

And now I'm facing the great abyss of stuff I was too busy to do all semester. You know, the kind of stuff that has to be done eventually, but gets put off because it's even less fun than grading papers.

I would like to persist in the luxury of having no time. I'd like to be too busy to do things that I know I should, but don't want to. I'd like to be able to hire someone else to clean my house, because I'm so busy working at an important and fulfilling career. I'd like to have an excuse for not coming up with any ideas for dinner, or not having the dishes done by the time everyone else comes home. I'd like to travel to conferences and run right up against the deadlines for preparing my talks, for the adrenalin rush.

But instead, I'm underemployed. I'm the person in my family who has to do all the tasks no one else has time for, and I should do them cheerfully, because, after all, I'm not too busy.

When you are too busy, you don't think of it as a luxury. But try going to any gathering and having someone ask you what you "do" and not having an easy reply. Try working as hard as you can to finish up a complicated and interesting task, and then walking out to the parking lot under a gray November sky, thinking that you may never be asked to do anything like that again.

When you try it, it's like the moment in this poem, Marie Howe's Part of Eve's Discussion:

It was like the moment when a bird decides not to eat
from your hand
and flies, just before it flies, the moment the rivers seem
to still
and stop because a storm is coming, but there is no
storm, as when
a hundred starlings lift and bank together before they
wheel and drop,
very much like the moment, driving on bad ice, when it
occurs to you
your car could spin, just before it slowly begins to spin,
the moment just before you forgot what it was you were
about to say,
it was like that, and after that, it was still like that, only
all the time.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Stuff

One of my favorite movie lines ever comes from The Jerk, when Steve Martin's character has just lost his fortune and his wife, played by Bernadette Peters, whines "it's not the money I mind losing; it's the stuuff," as she surveys a pile that includes things like velvet-shaded lamps and umbrellas for drinks.

And one of my favorite short stories is Alice Walker's Everyday Use, in which a college-educated daughter comes back to her childhood home and tries to carry off anything she thinks would be nice to decorate her modern home, including the top of the butter churn her sister and mother are still using, and the quilts her grandmother made. She wants to display these things to anyone who comes in her house, while her sister and mother use them to remember the people who made them. There's even a passage that reminds me of what one of my relatives said about me, when she learned that my great-aunt had left me some Portuguese china that she wanted for herself: "but she won't appreciate them!" (You can be sure that whenever I get out that china and use it, I always declare that I don't appreciate it.) Here's what the college-educated daughter says about the quilts:
"Maggie can't appreciate these quilts!" she said. "She'd probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use."
"I reckon she would," I said. "God knows I been saving 'em for long enough with nobody using 'em. I hope she will!" I didn't want to bring up how I had offered Dee (Wangero) a quilt when she went away to college. Then she had told me they were old-fashioned, out of style.
"But they're priceless!" she was saying now, furiously; for she has a temper. "Maggie would put them on the bed and in five years they'd be in rags. Less than that!"

The thing that these two stories have in common, of course, is the attitude towards the sentimental value of the things we buy and keep. If it were just the money that was important, few of us would have things like under-the-bed boxes and even rental storage units. I could buy a new chair to replace the one where I nursed both my babies, as my father has repeatedly said I should, fingering the cat-clawed holes in the upholstery. Maybe my brother could have bought his seven-year-old beginning pianist an instrument in the city where he lives, rather than having my parents ship their grand piano hundreds of miles across the country.

In the last few years, my parents have begun to give away some of their things (like the piano) and several of my friends have gone through the wrenching death of a parent and then the disturbing experience of trying to clean out and sell the house. Watching them deal with the overwhelming accumulation of stuff and the usually well-intentioned missteps of siblings has been my usual behind-the-baby-boomer-generation experience: the boomers do it first, and then I try to do it differently, because I've seen how NOT to do it!

So when I got an offer of a free book in exchange for a review on this blog, I accepted a copy of The Boomer Burden: Dealing With Your Parents' Lifetime Accumulation of Stuff, by Julie Hall, the Estate Lady. It's written for people who are trying to deal with parents who are becoming increasingly incapacitated while living in houses full of, not only their lifetime accumulation of stuff, but also the stuff they inherited from their parents and even their grandparents. As Hall points out, sorting out all this stuff can be an exercise in frustration, when it could be an opportunity for siblings to comfort each other.

The book has some practical suggestions for how to do this, like excluding in-laws from discussions about inheritance and making "wish lists" of things from the parents' house in order to see if there's any overlap. The most non-obvious and therefore helpful part of the book, for me at least, are the ideas for ways to ask parents questions like whether they've made a will and if they have a health care power of attorney.

The last chapters go into detail about what can happen to an unoccupied house full of things that have both sentimental and real value, and how to go about emptying it and preparing it for sale. There are a few details most of us wouldn't have thought of, like using bug spray in the attic before the day you go to clean it out, but the rest is pretty much common sense. It reads like something a person might need in the middle of an enormous emotional upheaval, which is, of course, one of the ways this book will probably be read.

For most of the people I know, a book like The Boomer Burden (with its nicely ironic echo of Kipling) will have three or four ideas we hadn't already thought of. But it could have a different three or four ideas for my parents, and maybe even a few more different ideas for my brother, so I think I'll pass it around my family this holiday season. If your family is like mine and comes too close for comfort to the extremely taciturn family in Catherine Murdock's Dairy Queen, then this book could help you find ways to discuss difficult emotional issues before the discussions become all about the stuff.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Traveling Through the Dark

This is my last full week of commuting, and so my chances of hitting a deer will go down. Last week I passed one that was "not dead yet," to use the phrase from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (and Spamalot), but a police cruiser was parked on the shoulder, so I drove on by, unlike the speaker in the William Stafford poem who has to get the carcass off the road by himself. I've never yet hit one myself, but twice daily I see them crossing the road in front of my car, and at least twice daily I pass deer carcasses on the side of the road, because Ohio law says that you can't take the body home if you hit a deer. So all that meat lies there, rotting. One carcass near my house that I pass every morning was beheaded early on, and the empty neck faces the roadway.

So when I came across Robert Wrigley's poem The Other World, it crawled into my brain beside the ineradicable image of the beheaded deer carcass:

So here is the old buck
who all winter long
had traveled with the does
and yearlings, with the fawns
just past their spots,
and who had hung back,
walking where the others had walked,
eating what they had left,
and who had struck now and then
a pose against the wind,
against a twig-snap or the way
the light came slinking
among the trees.

Here is the mangled ear
and the twisted, hindering leg.
Here, already bearing him away
among the last drifts of snow
and the nightly hard freezes,
is a line of tiny ants,
making its way from the cave
of the right eye, over the steep
occipital ridge, across the moonscape, shed-horn
medallion and through the valley
of the ear's cloven shadow
to the ground,
where among the staves
of shed needles and the red earthy wine
they carry him
bit by gnawn bit
into another world.

Deer are so common here that I can't grow tulips or lilies or even tomatoes. They're such a common sight that we hardly turn in wonder anymore, even for the little spotted fawns. And yet, until last week, I'd never been offered venison, or seen it on a menu. As Mrs. Lovett would say, it "seems an awful waste."

Friday, November 14, 2008

An Increasingly Banal Life

I've been a fan of David Lodge ever since I read Nice Work as a newly minted PhD, a fictional account of a new PhD's job search via adjunct teaching positions. She finds out that a life in academia is nice work if you can get it (a la the song, which plays in my head whenever I see the title on my shelf). So when I saw his newest, Deaf Sentence, I was particularly interested. My father suffers from increasing deafness, and I have always had some trouble with auditory discrimination (picking out a conversation from background noise).

And the first half of the book was delightful. The narrator, Desmond, is, of course, intelligent and acutely self-aware, and he articulates in detail the daily struggles involved with a diminished capacity to hear. One of my favorite parts, that actually made me laugh out loud, was this, from a party conversation:

"The pastime of the dance went to pot," Sylvia Cooper seemed to say, "so we spent most of the time in our shit, the cows' in-laws finding they stuttered."
"What?" I said.
"I said, the last time we went to France it was so hot we spent most of the time in our gite, cowering behind the shutters."
"Oh, hot, was it?" I said. "That must have been the summer of 2003."
"Yes, we seared our arses on bits of plate, but soiled my cubism, I'm afraid."
"I'm sorry?"
"We were near Carcasonne. A pretty place, but spoiled by tourism, I'm afraid."
"Ah, yes, it's the same everywhere these days," I said sagely.
"But I do mend sherry. Crap and sargasso pained there, you know. there's a lovely little mum of modern tart."
"Sherry?" I said hesitantly.
"Ceret, it's a little town in the foothills of the Pyranees," said Mrs. Cooper with a certain impatience. "Braque and Picasso painted there. I recommend it."
"Oh yes, I've been there," I said hastily. "It has a rather nice art gallery."
"The mum of modern tart."
"Quite so," I said. I looked at my glass. "I seem to need a refill. Can I get you one?"

Soon after that passage, however, the plot declines into the travails of Desmond's even-more-deaf and aging father and Desmond's own sexual longings, which turned me off the book completely. There are few things I hate worse in a book than having to be in the head of an old man thinking about sex. I hated it in Updike's Rabbit Run when I was 16. I recently hated it in Gerald Duff's story Charm City, from Fire Ants and Other Stories. And I really, really hated it in Deaf Sentence.

So despite the abundant charms of the first half, which include musings on why blindness is tragic while deafness is merely comic, and despite the fact that I plowed on through the book to the end, because I rarely give up on a book in the middle (if I do, various endings play in my head for weeks afterwards, so if I don't like a book, it's better to just read the ending the author wrote and get it all over with), I didn't end up liking Deaf Sentence. The puns of the first half eventually give way to Desmond's banal life in the second, and if I want banal life in November, I can just put the book down, now can't I?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Moment in Teaching

Yesterday I had one of those days in teaching that make it all seem worthwhile...even though that's an illusion in my dead-end adjunct line of work.

At the beginning of the term, I always give my first-year college students this poem by Billy Collins, entitled Introduction to Poetry:

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to water-ski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Then we spend the rest of the term arguing about how you can find the "true meaning" of a poem without beating it with the bits of hose acquired in high school. I show them, urge them, provide risk-free ways for them to try something different, grade them down for doing the same old things they're used to, and sometimes, at this point, I fall into despair. But yesterday a lot of them got it. I saw the look of surprise on their faces, and some of the formerly silent students spoke up in class. They've learned how to read something and interpret it for themselves. They're actually paying more attention to the poem than to guessing "what the author meant" or "what the teacher wants." It's such a good moment I want to prolong it. I know it won't last.

Once they've seen it, though, they'll want another glimpse. Just a quick, tentative peek. So yesterday's moment makes me feel that what I've been wearing myself out for has been worth all the trouble.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Lolling About

During our weekend lull in activity level, I lolled about (to use the Sweet Potato Queen term) and read a couple of books, and they were about right for lolling. Neither one was absolutely great or horrifyingly terrible; they were just okay. I'd read about Alive in Necropolis on Devourer of Books and had to read it to see if it would be good to send to my friend Miriam, who came to visit us once when she was living in LA and exclaimed, on the way to our house from the airport, "what vast necropoli!" as we passed graveyard after graveyard in the rural countryside.

Alive in Necropolis, by Doug Dorst, is a kind of ghost story, but probably unlike any you've ever read. My favorite part was the occasional look at a convenience store clerk who never became part of the main action:
The overnight clerk at the Zes-T-Mart prepares to go home. He is a heavily tattooed young man whose pierced ear and nose are connected by a length of steel chain, and he wears the afternoon-shift girl's name tag because he liikes to head-fuck naive customers into wondering if his name really might be Mindy. He notices that, once again, several cartons of Chesterfields have vanished on his watch. He blames their disappearance on ghosts. He will never inform his manager of his suspicions, and he will never ask to see the surveillance tape to test his theory. This coming afternoon, though, he will crawl out of bed and join his four roommates around the house bong (a complicated maze of Habitrail tubes that once housed a gerbil named Happy), and while watching smoke plumes rise from the mouthpiece, he will dreamily remark, "Dudes. When we die, we'll all smoke Chesterfields." And although his friends will burst out laughing, thinking it's just stony talk, he'll find himself happy to believe in ghosts who jones for nicotine and remain brand-loyal. It's the one belief he has that is unique and private, and thus absolutely unassailable.

Aside from passages like this, however, the story bogs down in the mundane and slightly boring story of a new policeman named Mike Mercer, whose life becomes entwined with the plight of the ghosts on his beat, ghosts who are being terrorized and "killed" by outlaw ghosts. Despite the potentially fascinating premise, the pace is so slow that it kills all but the minimum of interest. Even a cat lover like me will bog down after enough pages of Mike's former girlfriend mourning for her dead cat (who manifests no ghostly tendencies).

The other book I found good for lolling about with was Chris Crutcher's new book Deadline. The premise of this one is that the protagonist, a senior in high school named Ben, only has a year to live, and wants to live it to the fullest. He goes out for football, wins the girl he wants, and takes other chances. There's no surprise ending, and not a lot of depth to his metaphysical thinking, considering his situation. When asked to make a list of things he wants to do before he dies, Ben says he wants to know whether it's true that "in 1960 a young author named Lee Harper wrote a national best seller about a man who imitates and taunts birds of prey, called To Mock a Killing Bird."

My favorite part of Deadline was the bit about book burning. Ben has an unrealistically understanding and wise English teacher/ football coach who, when faced with a student who thinks The Autobiography of Malcolm X should be burned, takes a copy out of the library and burns it in front of the class. The student says:
"A lot of good that did. There are three more copies in the library and you paid for that one. They can just buy another one."
"You want to burn them all?" Coach says in mock surprise. "Oh, that's different. I don't think I can get behind that. I mean, when somebody burns a flag, they just burn one or maybe a couple. They don't try to burn them all."
"You can say what you want, Mr. Banks, but what's in some books is poison. There have to be books that you think are trash, too. I mean you might not say that to us, but you know it's true.
"You're wrong," Coach says. "I would say it to you. There are a lot of books I wouldn't recommend to anyone. I mean, there's a book in the Old Testament--which if memory serves from the last state senate campaign is a big book in your house--that says we're supposed to kill active homosexuals. My younger sister is a homosexual. Active, I think." He waves his hand over our little band of book burners. "And if statistics bear out, so are one and a half of you guys. It just doesn't seem right to kill you."
"This is so stupid," Sylvia says, but Coach ignores her.
"But I don't want the Old Testament banned," he says, "for two reasons. I don't want a bunch of parents coming after me in the middle of the night with torches, and more important, I'm pretty sure you can read that book and not go out and kill homosexuals, because you have other information that tells you that's not okay and because you have a brain."

The irony, of course, is that Chris Crutcher's books regularly appear on lists of "challenged" books, including here in my small town, where I found Deadline on the shelf of new YA titles at the public library. Alive in Necropolis was on the shelf of new fiction, and both of these were worth reading, if not worth buying. They were worth the free time I had this weekend. So if you have time to loll, you could check one of them out.

Friday, November 7, 2008


This weekend we are having a lull in our overscheduled lives. Eleanor's high school musical, HMS Pinafore (she plays cousin Hebe), had intensive rehearsals this week and will rehearse even longer next week before the show opens on Friday, but they have the weekend off. Walker's soccer season is over, and he hasn't signed up for a winter sport yet. My symphony concert was last weekend, and we play a children's concert with most of the same music in a couple of weeks, so I don't even need to feel guilty about not practicing. The trustees have come and gone at the local college, so Ron doesn't have to go into work on the weekend for the first time in several weeks.

I don't even have any pressing deadlines today; my mind feels kind of empty. It feels like this poem, Empty Similes, by Bob Hicok:

Like standing in front of a woman who says thank you
when you tell her you love her, that stuck

sound of a crow, pulling the one nail from its voice
outside your window and you

going down to the sea too late, where it was
three million years ago, waving your little towel
at the shadow of waves, like dropping

your stomach when you drop the phone,
a voice spinning at the end of the chord, your mother,
father, everyone

dead, even the person telling you
gone, and you
waving your metronome arm, and time

inside the trees making clocks we check
by cutting them down.

Maybe part of the emptiness is post-election letdown as the days get shorter. I've put away my campaign signs and tacked plastic sheeting over the end of the rabbit hutch for the winter. It's a little past time to take in our garden hose and the clay pots with blackened begonia and basil.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Next Barrier

I finished reading Lauren McLaughlin's new YA novel Cycler this week. In the wake of the presidential election, where I think that we proved that, as a country, we've finally moved past our oldest form of racism, I think it's time to move on towards eradicating some of our other forms of national lunacy, like homophobia. (Votes to ban gay marriage are not a step in the right direction, though.)

Cycler is not about being homosexual. The main character, Jill, is physically changed into a boy for a few days each month. But Jill's parents, who are understandably upset and bewildered by this change, which began with puberty, refuse to see the boy, who calls himself Jack, as their son. They lock him in Jill's room and help her use self-hypnosis to forget what happens during the days he exists. But Jack knows what is going on in Jill's life, and as he emerges more frequently and with needs of his own, the plot comes to its crisis with Jill and her mother trying to contain the harm they think he will do, and with Jack showing them that it's not possible to wall off part of your existence forever.

Jill panics when she learns that, as she puts it, "the man of my dreams, the love of my life, is not even heterosexual" when the boy she's had a crush on tells her that he's attracted to her, but that he's bisexual.
"I'm sorry," he says. "I don't know why I thought you'd be cool with it....Better to know now rather than later," he says. "I've learned that lesson."

Jack, on the other hand, finds that the girl of his dreams, Jill's best friend Ramie, has some idea of what's going on, despite how unbelievable it seems. He is willing to open up to her because, he says, "Ramie, 'worshipper of chaos' that she is, can usually be relied on to choose the more reckless of any two options."

And yet, why is it "reckless" to love someone who doesn't fit neatly into one of two gender categories? This month's Atlantic has an article about transgendered children, and their parents' struggles to accept them and help them be accepted in their communities. One parent, the mother of a transgendered boy's best girl friend, refused to let her daughter see her friend anymore, saying "God doesn't make mistakes."

Mistakes? Infinite variety is a mistake? I don't see that. I particularly don't see why doctors (a psychologist named Kenneth Zucker is featured in the article) should try to "re-educate" such children. I don't see why doctors in the 1960's felt entitled to physically alter babies who had been born with both male and female characteristics, sometimes without the consent or knowledge of the parents (shades of The Memory Keeper's Daughter, by Kim Edwards and Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides).

I do see that it's a difficult decision for some parents, who have to authorize their child's use of hormone blockers as early as age 10, before the onset of puberty. And yet, since the hormone blockers are reversible, what kind of parent would deny them to a child who has identified with the "opposite" sex since she/he was first able to talk and draw pictures (the article features a kindergarten-age boy's self-portrait of himself as a girl)? Yes, there are cases much less clear-cut than that one. But why is it so important to us to make a clear distinction?

Are we making all of this harder than it has to be? I think so. What do you think?

Monday, November 3, 2008

Why We Should Read More Science Fiction

Because it's full of ideas about what people can do. In some ways, I'd call it the last bastion of humanism. Even when it's about robots. Even when, as in Charles Stross's Saturn's Children, the protagonist is a former sexbot, four centuries after all the humans have died out. As I told a friend who came by my car in a parking lot (waiting for a kid, natch) and saw me reading a book with the sexbot's picture on the front cover, complete with lurid purple hair, I read Stross more because he has interesting ideas than because he can sustain a good plot. The Atrocity Archives was that way for me, too.

Stross alludes to Isaac Asimov's rules for robots (they revolve around the rule that robots can never harm a human) and goes beyond. His narrator, Freya, admits, 124 pages into her narrative:
I'm a robot. Yes, I used the R-word; I know it's an obscenity. Use it to an aristo's face, and it's a mortal insult, grounds for a challenge on the field of honor between equals. Its connotations of subservience and helpless obedience are abhorrent, much as the word "nigger" once was between humans. But there's nobody left but us robots today. That's the dirty little hypocritical lie that's at the root of our society; they, our dead Creators, made us to serve them, and they forgot to manumit us before they died. And in their absence, that makes us what?
There's a word for it, but it isn't "free."

The beings that inhabit Freya's universe both fear and long for the technology to re-create their human creators, who, it is revealed on page 204, were like the humans in countless fictional degenerate societies, Wall-E's being one of the latest:
The late twenty-first and early twenty-second centuries were not good times for them: Economic deflation, ecosystem failure, wars, resource depletion, and the end of the western Enlightenment program of the natural sciences coincided poisonously with the availability of cheap slaves to serve their every need, and the near perfection of entertainment media to distract them from the wreckage of their once-beautiful world.

"The end of the western Enlightenment program of the natural sciences" doesn't seem like exaggeration to someone living in a town where the hearings over whether to fire the middle school science teacher who was refusing to teach evolution are still going on. On Friday, my middle-schooler came back from trick-or-treating in our traditionally Republican town, and told me that the people who have Obama signs in their yards either recognized him as Napoleon or asked who he was dressed up as. But the people with McCain signs didn't ask, he told me.

I think there are clear signs and portents on this election eve. Although I used to have respect for McCain, it has become clear to me that he is willing to pander to the lowest common human denominator, and that's not a good thing for the country. I'm with the "hockey mama for Obama" that I saw on YouTube (after I voted, incidentally). I'm convinced that anyone who would vote for a ticket with Palin on it has either been deluded or is deluding herself.

For some nonpartisan discussion, check out Blog the Vote , and then read Whatever for the most cogent endorsement I've read so far this year. But whatever you do, don't be like the people in Wall-E, who never looked up from their screens. As my election day t-shirt says, "Think. It's not illegal yet."