Sunday, November 27, 2011

Reading Across the Curriculum and Against the Grain

The other day when I was tutoring a sixth grader, I found out that she had never heard of the theory of evolution or of Darwin. She was asking a lot of very good questions about how language evolved, who invented it, etc, and I mentioned the fact that nobody knows, for example, if Neanderthals had language, and that some primates seem able to learn sign language. She had never heard of Neanderthals. I said that they were a species of hominid that lived in Europe till around 50,000 years ago and then went extinct. I thought her eyes would pop out of her head when I said that! She seemed amazed that there were other kinds of "people" besides Homo sapiens. I mentioned that all hominids were primates, and that chimps, gorillas, and humans were probably descended from a common ancestor, the so-called "missing link." She was intrigued and amazed.

So yesterday when I went to her house, I brought a book about human evolution called The Human Odyssey: Four Million Years of Human Evolution.  She snatched it from my hands as if it were a banned book, which in a way it is. In Texas, as in many other American states, teachers shy away from discussing evolution because it can get them in serious trouble.  A school administrator at the state level was fired for being critical of "intelligent design." It is not exactly illegal to teach the theory of evolution in Texas, but since both Governor Perry and former Governor Bush expressed support for "intelligent design," it is risky for teachers to touch the subject at all. I imagine that most of them just skip that chapter in their textbooks.

Textbooks are a very contentious battleground in Texas.  Texas is the second-largest market for school textbooks in the country, and if a textbook is adopted in Texas, it is a success for publishers. But an elderly couple in Texas, Mel and Norma Gabler, has for many years held a stranglehold over the content of Texas textbooks: if they decide a book is "anti-family" or "anti-Christian," it effectively cannot be adopted in Texas.

I have always wondered why students read widely outside of textbooks in English class, but not in history or science classes. Even if they have a textbook in English class, it is usually an anthology of primary sources. Not so in history or science. But history and science textbooks for elementary and high school students are so dumbed down, and so watered down, so as to avoid offending the Gablers and their ilk, that one's eyes glaze over trying to read them.

This is nothing new: history textbooks for children in the South for many years elided the real reasons for the Civil War: slavery. Although Southern politicians, when the war began, stated clearly that the purpose of the war was to preserve slavery, after the war some revisionism set in: it was said that the purpose of the war had been to preserve "states' rights." I remember as a child reading a book about Nathan Bedford Forrest that never mentioned slavery; it said the war began because Lincoln was elected!  Well, sort of...

At some point--maybe about sixth grade, in 1966--I realized that the adults were hiding something from me, and I set about to find the truth. I read every book I could find in my grandparents' house about the Civil War. But alas, they were all military histories, with almost no information about slavery or the political economy of the antebellum South, much less about the Jim Crow South that I still lived in. I heard about Jim Crow in 8th grade--they could hardly hide it from us by 1968--but I still didn't understand what it meant. I didn't understand that segregation had been de jure, and that blacks had a hard time voting. Textbooks back then didn't explain all that, and I could not get the real books I needed to understand the underpinnings and history of my own society. The situation was urgent, as the Civil Rights Movement was active in Nashville, to the point one time that riots were feared and tanks were parked, just in case, not far from our house. I knew something big was afoot, but the grownups--teachers and parents alike--were not talking. There was a Big Secret, clearly.

(There was at least one book that arrived in my parents' house, courtesy of the Book of the Month Club, that could have filled in some of the gaps in my understanding: The Confessions of Nat Turner, by William Styron. But that book was snatched away almost as soon as it arrived, and my mother told me that it was unsuitable for me to read. She was probably right that it shouldn't be on the reading list of seventh graders.)

So, what does all this have to do with a book about human evolution? The new battleground for the hearts and minds of children is not in the field of history any more: kids know all about the genocide of Native Americans, slavery, the Middle Passage, and Jim Crow now. What they DON'T know, in many parts of the country and in a great many schools, is that there is no real argument among scientists about whether or not Darwin's theory of natural selection is largely true. It is true. Yes, it is a "theory," but there is a big difference between a "theory" in science, which can be tested with experiments, and literary theories, for example, which are just somebody's opinion. The theory of evolution is not just an opinion, and there are not really "two sides" to it, as the Intelligent Design proponents would like for your kids to believe.

It's obvious why white teachers and parents in the South tried to hide the reality of racism from white children: they knew it was indefensible, illogical, and inhumane.  Maybe they were even a bit ashamed of it. But why do so many Christian teachers and parents now want to hide a scientific reality from children? Most Christians don't dispute gravity, or that the earth revolves around the sun. Why do they pick on Darwin?

I can't claim to have a definitive answer on this, but I have some guesses. My most charitable answer is that for some people it is genuinely troubling to consider the possibility that God didn't personally create them for a purpose, but instead, evolution rather randomly generated trial balloons, as it were, and then popped some of them through natural selection. The survivors are the ancestors of you and me. Evolution does not have a grand purpose or a grand design for anybody, including you. It just is.  I can live with that; I think it's kind of humorous, actually, perhaps in a dark way. It has a Dada quality to it that I like. But it's not for everybody.

There is some evidence that there are some real hard-core Christian believers who think that the Enlightenment was a big mistake, and that we should return to some sort of theocracy. For these people, science, democracy, secularism, and "materialism" are the enemy and must be discredited and then destroyed. This is very scary, but I don't think Americans will go for it, when push comes to shove.

My best guess is that the majority of politicians and public figures who support the teaching of Intelligent Design as a comparable and competing theory to the theory of evolution are just extremely cynical exploiters of a potent wedge issue. For them, the controversy over the teaching of evolution is just another emotional issue to exploit, like abortion. They know that poorly educated people can easily be whipped up into a paranoid frenzy about the possibility that their kids are being taught by atheist teachers who want to persuade the kids that the Bible is wrong, and who want to abolish Christmas, or the Bible, or both. This exploitation of ignorance for political purposes, coupled with the abetting of more ignorance, is contemptible. It hurts our country by depriving children of a complete science education.

There is also the possibility that some right-wingers believe that by discrediting science generally, they can discredit climate science, which they see as a threat to untrammeled capitalism, and oil revenues more specifically.

Luckily, there are books other than textbooks. I hunted them down during the Civil Rights era, and although I was not particularly successful at finding books then that answered my questions, I did find such books later in life. Faulkner finally clued me in as to what had been going on for a couple of hundred years in my part of the world. So hand out all the non-textbooks you can find to kids, and not just Harry Potter books, but non-fiction books about history and science. They aren't reading them for school.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Women's Book Clubs: Why or Why Not?

I belong to a venerable neighborhood book club: it is at least thirty years old, and some of our members have been in it almost that long! I like the fact that it's a neighborhood book club, and that we arrive on foot at the hostess's house, and we can walk home together. Last night I walked just around the corner to my neighbor's house to go to the meeting. It was nice to see her family photographs and to get to know her a little better.

Almost all of my women friends over the age of about thirty belongs to a book club. But none of my male friends do. It seems to be an accepted fact of life in America that only women join book clubs. It's not that men don't read: some of my male friends read a lot. But they don't seem to feel a need to discuss what they read with other men, and only other men, in the way that women seem to want to discuss their reading with other women.

Or maybe men just don't like to be told by a group what to read. I know at least one woman who doesn't belong to a book club for that very reason: she likes to choose her own reading matter. I like to choose my own reading matter too, but I can squeeze in a group book from time to time. (I don't read all our book club's selections, because I am often out of town for the meetings. Also I don't read the books that I don't think I am going to like.)

It's an interesting difference between men and women: women like to read books together and then discuss them. Men don't. Maybe the reason is just that women like to talk more?

Another reason we don't have co-ed book clubs may be the fact that women's book clubs seem to read mainly books about women! In fact it seems that there is an unlimited market for contemporary fiction that is written quite specifically for women to read in groups. I suspect that The Help was such a book; it was written not only for women to read together in their clubs, but so that the movie rights would be bought (for a huge sum) and then women could go to the movies together! A money-maker all around.

These contemporary "chick books" often revolve around some way in which women are, or have been, oppressed. There are oppressed women in The Help, of course. Another mainstay of women's book clubs is an awful, treacly novel called Snowflower and the Secret Fan.  I will admit now that I read that book even though I hated it. It was about foot-binding in China. I've read other, non-fiction books about foot-binding, and I don't object to reading about it in principle, but this book's title put me off from the beginning, as it sounds like a book written for "young adults," aka seventh graders. Maybe it reminded me of a Nancy Drew book like The Secret of the Old Clock.  But at least that one wasn't called Nancy Drew and the Old Clock.

There are cultural, regional, and ethnic subsets of books about how women have been oppressed: there are books about slavery and Jim Crow, and Holocaust books, and foot-binding books, and probably child-bride books, and certainly books about Muslim girls who can't go to school (Greg Mortenson's books are another mainstay of women's book clubs.) Last night we were brainstorming about new contemporary novels to read, and I was thinking to myself that maybe I should propose a book about Hillbilly-American women (my own regional and ethnic group), but the only book I could think of right away was Winter's Bone, which is about Kentucky people who cook meth. That didn't seem to stack up well next to the Holocaust survivor books, so I didn't suggest it. It might encourage invidious comparisons. Also, there are a lot of men in that book, and a man wrote it. (On the other hand, there is a movie based on it. But it's really violent.)

OK, so men don't belong to book clubs because (1) they don't need to discuss their reading with other guys or women; and (2) they don't like to be told what to read; and (3) so many books these days are about how mean men are to women. What can we do to change this? Do we need to change it?

Maybe not! Maybe book clubs are the new beauty parlors. Women don't spend hours in the beauty parlor any more chatting with other women; we don't have time. We just get our hair cut at Walmart in fifteen minutes and continue on with our duties. And because we are so busy, we barely have time to talk to our friends without some excuse like a book...about other women's lives! This is, of course, different from the seventies, when women in consciousness-raising groups talked about their own lives. Maybe a book club where we talk about pretend women is as close as we can get these days to a real feminist discussion.

And that brings me to another weird thing about book clubs: we sit around talking passionately about people who aren't real!  As an English major I feel as if I'm betraying my tribe by saying that it's weird to talk about fictional characters as if they were real and to judge their behavior by our own moral standards. After all, the novel from its very beginning has been about the moral dilemmas of female characters. Jane Austen practically invented the modern novel single-handedly. And Elizabeth Bennett is as real as any person who's ever lived, to me anyway.

One day I was thinking about whether Elizabeth Bennett is real or not, and if so, in what sense. She lived a long time ago (in the early 1800s); I've heard a lot about her (from one book and a lot of movies); and she's probably a composite based on people who actually lived. In that sense, she's not that different from Mary Mump, or Sadie Hunt, or Uncle Jack, people in my family that I've heard a lot about, but that I never met, because they died before I was born. Some of my ancestors and extended ancestral family are like characters in a book to me: I've heard a lot of stories about them, and they lived a long time ago, and the stories have probably been embellished and exaggerated as the years have gone by. I always think of those people as real. Maybe stories about real people--embellished over the years, handed down--are the roots of modern fiction. So in that sense, Elizabeth Bennett is as real, in a way, as my great-grandmother, Jenny Shannon.

Still. Nowadays, when the real world is falling apart, and real people's problems are so acute and dramatic, fiction often seems superfluous. Sometimes talking about fictional people seems like sort of a waste of time. But maybe the test of good fiction is whether it can seem compelling enough to NOT be a waste of time. I never feel as if I have wasted time on something superfluous and fictional when I read Faulkner, for example. Those characters ARE real, based on stories Faulkner's grandparents told him, and on his research into the history of the South through the ledger books, for example. For some reason, though, we don't read Faulkner in our book club. Or Jane Austen. Or any other old books. Maybe we should.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Language Arts? Pleasure and Song

English teachers in the elementary grades are now called "language arts teachers." But it's hard to feel as if you are teaching anything like "art" when all you do is drill kids on rules about commas, or make them memorize the definitions of vocabulary words like "ubiquitous."

I was thinking about this as I drove out to my tutoring gig in Katy, TX. I tutor a sixth grader who is preparing to take the ISEE test, which is a test that private schools require for admission. The ISEE test is your usual fill-in-the-bubble test: you match words with their closest synonym, or you find the words that "best complete the sentence," or you read a passage and make inferences. None of it has much to do with art. Or pleasure.

It's a long drive, so I burn CDs to play in the car, or I listen to NPR. On my way to Katy on Sunday, I heard a review on NPR of a new album by Miranda Lambert, an up -and-coming young country music star in my home town of Nashville. On her new album, she covers that great song by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, "Look at Miss Ohio."

Oh me, oh my, oh
Would you look at Miss Ohio
She's a-runnin' around with the rag top down
She says I wanna do right but not right now.

I thought that was one of the best hooks I've ever heard. I just kept singing it for days, out loud and in my head.

It turns out that my student is also a country music fan. She loves Taylor Swift.  Taylor Swift was recently described in a New Yorker article as a song-writing prodigy, of which there are not many in Nashville. She started writing songs as a young teenager, and she is a "poet of teen angst," as the New Yorker author says. Why don't we have more of these? Rimbaud wrote his entire oevre before the age of 21.

Maybe because school has drained all the pleasure out of language for young people. Getting back to that wonderful song by Welch and Rawlings: what makes it great is the alliteration, for example in the third line: "runnin' around with the rag top down." But the way they rhyme "oh me oh my oh" with "Miss Ohio" is pretty brilliant too. It's likely that the character in the song is not literally the winner of the Miss Ohio contest. But we can see her: a young woman, probably, running away from a small town in Ohio, headed for Atlanta and some adventures, the song implies, in her convertible with the "rag top down." Then, "I wanna do right, but not right now." The two meanings of "right" that create a wonderful irony: "right" as in morally right, and "right now," as in instantly. In other words, instant gratification is almost always in conflict with what you're supposed to do, and that little line captures that entire idea so economically and wittily. (It also conjures up that joke about "Mr Right" versus "Mr Right Now," and you can imagine the character pursuing the latter rather than the former.)

You don't need a big vocabulary to derive pleasure from this tiny poem. Or for that matter, from this one:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes.

Again, a song with a great hook! By Bill Shakespeare, who would have made it big in Nashville had he been a singer/songwriter.

Again too, it's the delicious alliteration that makes it so pleasurable and memorable. In his memoir, Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt talks about how he rolled those words around just for the pure pleasure of how they literally felt in his mouth, and for the pleasure of the sounds. It's not just the alliteration: it's also the end rhyme and the rhythm of the words. Significantly, this is a song in The Tempest, not dialogue in the play, a song sung by a sort of fairy or sprite named Ariel. (A sprite sort of like Taylor Swift or Bjork.) Song lyrics are often more loaded with pure aural pleasure than poetry that is meant to be merely read or spoken. Nowadays, very little written poetry even rhymes. But songs do.

Young people love pop music and song--country music, rock, rap. Maybe English teachers should pay more attention to that and talk with their students about where the pleasure comes from: talk more about poetic devices like alliteration, end rhymes, internal rhymes, meter, etc. Poetry--even very academic, formal poetry that seems meant only to be read--comes from song. Epic poetry, even, was sung, and the long stories that epic poets told are the ancestors of short stories and novels. All literature, you could say, goes back to popular song. As they say on the classical music station, all music was once new music.

I could just say, put the "art" back in language arts, and then pleasure would follow. But it's not that simple, because pleasure has become suspect in most of the arts, including visual art. In academia, art teachers often chide students for making art that is too pretty. Continental theory has been at work for several decades now, on the project of making people feel guilty or somehow politically incorrect if they get pleasure from visual art. It's a bourgeois pleasure that we're supposed to feel ashamed of.

Well, enough of that. A lot of contemporary visual artists are now ignoring their art school teachers and making stuff that actually looks good. English teachers, take note: pleasure is back. It never went away on the radio, and your students know that. Throw away the lists of Latinate words and get out your good old Anglo-Saxon words. They're fine. They'll do. Write some songs with good hooks. Read novels aloud in class. Act out plays. No more bubbles and number two pencils!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

How to Build Vocabulary

                                                     James Murray, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary

Right now I'm tutoring a girl who is trying to improve her vocabulary. Having a big vocabulary is important on a lot of standardized tests, so it's a common obsession of parents and teachers.

When I was in elementary school, we had a series of books in the Word Wealth series that were supposed to teach us vocabulary. We had to memorize the definitions and use the word in a sentence and so on: the usual drills. But I don't think it worked very well. I remember one word in particular: facetious. Word Wealth said that it meant, "inappropriately witty." I was sort of a class clown, dying to be witty at all times, and I couldn't imagine an inappropriate time to be witty, except maybe at a funeral or something. But apparently that's not the only time you could conceivably be "facetious." I kept asking my English teacher about it, and she really couldn't explain when you might say, appropriately, "I was just being facetious."

Many years later, though, I did understand what "facetious" meant and even started using it. It doesn't really mean "inappropriately witty," although that might be as close as you can get to defining its present usage. But when the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) was written, there was nothing pejorative (another vocabulary word that I struggled to understand) about the word "facetious": it meant "characterized by, or addicted to, pleasantry; jocose, jocular, waggish. Formerly often with laudatory sense: Witty, humorous, amusing..."
Ok, there's a slight hint there in the word "formerly" that facetious is not quite as great as it used to be. Maybe people are just too serious these days? After all, quotes the OED, "the medieval carvers were many of them facetious fellows." A guy named Mickelthwaite said that. Anybody with a name like that must have thought wit was always appropriate.

I've been thinking about all this as I strive to impart to my sixth-grade student the nuances of meaning of such words as "accede" or "abdicate." I told a long story about the abdication of Edward VIII, which he did to marry Mrs. Simpson,  a very interesting story in part because it led to Queen Elizabeth II becoming Queen, and it was the back-story in part to the whole drama about Charles and Diana and Camilla, and even to the marriage of William to a commoner. The royals have evidently learned from their history, although it took them a long time to get the message.

The problem was that for a twelve year old this story was not as rich as it was for me, because she could not remember the death of Diana or the whole drama surrounding it. I am beginning to think that words acquire their patina of meaning over a lifetime. All the times you have heard that word used, something "stuck" to it, and now for you that word has a very personal meaning. It's as if it picked up a scent from all its previous contexts.

Context is key. Learning words out of context is just rote memorization. I keep telling people that they just need to read a lot, to improve their vocabulary painlessly, but nobody really seems to want to do that. I guess it takes too much time, and it seems as if memorizing definitions is a short cut. But it doesn't really work: the word is not yours unless you have handled it, kept it in your pocket, got it out to look at it like a magic rock, thrown it at other people, kept it in a drawer of your desk.

One thing I like about the OED is that it gives you some of that fast, if you're in a hurry. You can look up any word and find out how somebody used it three hundred years ago. I just opened it at random and looked at the word "excavation." In 1751, somebody named Chambers wrote, "The excavation of the foundation of a settled, by Palladio, at a sixth part of the height of the whole building." Palladio! Really? What a useful rule of thumb, for when I build my chicken house! But, is that just in Italy, or everywhere? What about on the Gulf Coast?

If the word "excavation" was new to me, just thinking about all this--how to really use it, and use the information associated with it--would make it MY word. A word doesn't exist in a vacuum. It comes trailing clouds of glory, as it were. There's no short cut to being able to feel that aura: you just have to read a lot, and if you're in a hurry, play with your magnifying glass and the OED.


Thursday, September 22, 2011

Home-made Journals

I fill up a sketchbook with my journal writing about every two to three months. I've been thinking about how to avoid having to buy these journals so often. Maybe I could make some books?

I took a book-making class some years ago at the Glassell School in Houston. But we didn't learn about the kind of book I've been thinking of making: the book made by binding single sheets, rather than by stitching folded folios together. Fortunately, there is a book about binding single sheets: it's called Smith's Sewing Single Sheets, by the great bookmaker and bookmaking book writer, Keith Smith. I have this book, and I'm studying it now.

It might be possible to simply find a great deal of usable paper by saving junk mail letters with at least one empty side. These could be bound together, and the written-on side could be re-primed with gesso for painting or drawing, as in an altered book. But of course, it's also possible to make your own paper, another thing I want to learn. I could get newspaper out of the dumpsters for the pulp, or use fibers from plants around my farm, or both!

Of course, making journals by hand from found materials won't solve the storage problem: I am running out of storage space for my journals. But it won't be too hard to make more bookshelves, I think.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

How to Get to Work

How to Get to Work

Turn right on Martin Luther King Junior Boulevard,
Drive past the huge metal chicken that has a hen’s body and a rooster’s comb on its head,
The product of art students who’ve never seen a real rooster or hen;
Drive past the grass-less park with the old black men and their pit bull pets—
“Don’t let your dog come over here. My dog is not social. Do you understand?”

An old woman hobbles along the path on the edge of the park, a stick in her hand
To ward off the pit bulls.
At the corner turn left on Old Spanish Trail
In front of the abandoned gas station.
(If you need gas, you should have driven to Midtown, where you can safely buy gas.)

Go under the railroad trestle
But not if it just rained, because the puddle is deeper than you think and your car will stall out.
Somebody got swept into a culvert and drowned.

Drive up the little hill past the chemical plant—at least I think that’s what they make  there—
On your left is some tall grass and the concrete-lined, so-called bayou
Where somebody must have died because there’s one of those home-made crosses with teddy bears and plastic flowers.
Did he get shot? Was he in a wreck? Did she drown?

On the right is a grey metal building and a fence with concertina wire,
Around what I think is a junk yard.
Nobody ever walks there, so don’t try it.
Some big loops of spray-painted graffiti arc across the walls of the building. 
Once I saw a man standing there.

Further down on the right is one of those old motels from the fifties—
The Texas Motel.  I think some people live there.
Then the bayou. They fixed the bridge
And it’s pretty nice. Stop at the three-way intersection. Wait for the light.
Trucks come in from your right and you can’t always see them.

Pass the used car lot where “Your Job Is Your Credit,” or used to be—
It went out of business—the cars are gone but the strings of colored plastic flags are still there.
Pass the bus stop where a woman stands with a baby in her arms, and four kids under the age of six,  each one slightly shorter than the next oldest one, wait.
Get onto the ramp for I-45. Speed up.
But stay in the right lane. See the bayou on your right, and a heron pick at a dead fish. 
The anhingas spread their wings to dry, standing on a black log.
A white plastic bag floats downstream.

Go over the bridge. Below on the feeder road,
A woman hurries along the narrow concrete sidewalk, in red plastic shoes, tugging a child’s hand.
“Tomo Mi Mano, No Mi Vida,” pleads a big-eyed child on a billboard.
The reason is, there’s a family planning clinic somewhere around—
Oh, there it is. An angry-looking white person is sitting in a lawn chair in front of it,
Holding a sign with something written in magic marker on it,
But it’s not, “Homeless Please Help Anything Helps God Bless.”
You will see that sign later on your way home.

Pass the big yellow sign with black letters that says “Cambiamos Cheques,”
And the beauty school, where young women wait for the doors to open, 
and the pale bald mannequin heads wait inside,
And the wholesale restaurant supply place,
And a little church that used to be a Mexican restaurant,
And a pawnshop, and an adult video store.

You exit at Woodside Avenue,
But there are no woods at its side.
There are men—a lot of them—waiting in groups at the front of the Home Depot parking lot,
Some crouch, most stand. They smoke and drink coffee from Styrofoam cups.
A lady with a cooler sells them breakfast tacos and tamales. 
They sort of flirt with her, but she’s old, and they are mostly very young.

Stop at the end of the exit ramp. Here you have to turn left,
But be careful: wait for the green arrow and look out for the young woman
With long black hair and a clear plastic backpack who’s trying to cross in front of you
And the old man on a bicycle who’s trying to dodge the broken glass under the overpass
Which you also have to drive under.
On your left is a tangled pile of black plastic-coated wire that has sat on that concrete curb at that intersection for five years.  Who knows why.
Don’t look at it.

Turn left under the freeway and stay in the left lane,
Turn left again, looking to your right first because of big trucks coming off I-45,
And then immediately get in the right lane, when you’re in front of the James Coney Island,
Because you have to make a right into the college parking lot.

Wave to the cop in the parking lot, and then drive around to where it says “Faculty and Staff.”
There’s a chain-link fence there, trapping a tree against the bank of dirt—
the tree’s bark and body is growing around and into the chain links.
A crushed plastic soda bottle is caught there too, and a tampon.
Ignore these things. Park and lock your car.
Go back and check to make sure it’s locked.

Shoulder your backpack; grasp your book bag and lunch bag.
Walk to the front of the door of the Angela Morales building.
Watch out for the girl in the motorized wheelchair who is coming out as you go in—
Her head and trunk are the size of a normal girl’s, but her arms and legs are like a baby’s: short fat stumps. Nevertheless, her fingers work.
Her mother waits for her in a van equipped with a wheelchair lift—
But her mother lifts her tenderly out of the chair and carries her to the passenger seat in front,
And all the wheelchair lift does is it lifts the enormous motorized wheelchair into the van.
(The girl operates the wheelchair by pushing buttons on the right armrest.)

Go inside the building. On the left is the main door to the writing center, where you work.
But it doesn’t open.
Go down the hall on your left. Say hello to the lady who cleans the bathrooms.
Go in the first door on your left. Turn on the lights in the room.
Go to the front door and open it. Prop it open with the trashcan, 
because we can’t figure out how to make it stay unlocked.
Go back in the writing center. Put down your stuff.
Go to the window and look out. Fifty feet away, you see the freeway, and the cars rushing by.
People trying to get to work.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Free fonts!

Hi, this is my new font, curly Q.? Yes, you can download it free at "Outside the Line," a cool site run by a girl named Rae who makes cool fonts and sometimes gives them away.
Here is her site.
I think it would be fun to experiment with making books of poetry or whatever with this font.

Friday, August 5, 2011

"Luxury Goods"

Luxury Goods

Lying around reading The New Yorker
On hot afternoons is a luxury;
You read about ugly architecture,
I read about ancient philosophy.
Apparently Lucretius Carus thought
The world was made of tiny atomi,
And seven hundred fifty dollars bought
Some shoes in New York City recently.
I myself own a lot of blueberries
In quart-size mason jars in the freezer
Also goat cheese, and cherry tomatoes
In the garden to pick at my leisure.
Luxury is in the nature of things;
No shoes, no shirt: millions of blueberries.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Wild Thing

I recently watched the movie, Where the Wild Things Are, on DVD.  I loved the book when my son was a little boy, and he did too:  we read it over and over, and he had some stuffed toys based on the lovable monsters in the book.  I knew that Dave Eggers had been one of the script writers, so I knew it would be good.

And it was!  Visually it was great:  the monsters are like big muppets, but with much more expressive faces than Grover and Big Bird, thanks to animatronics.  And it does justice to a truly great children's book, although it takes a lot of liberties with that original short picture book.  In the original book, a little boy wears a wolf suit, creates some mischief, and gets sent to his room.  The room turns into a forest, and he sails on a boat (while apparently still in his room) to an island where there are big Wild Things even more mischievous than he is.  He is crowned their king, but he wants to go home, so he sails home to his room, where his supper is waiting. We never seen an adult:  just Max, in Sendak's unforgettable illustrations, and the Wild Things.

The movie is a bit darker.  Max seems older--about eight or nine--and he has some real troubles:  his parents are apparently divorced; his older sister has some mean friends and they won't include him in their teen play or outings; his mother is distracted and worried, although loving.  Also, she has a new boyfriend.  All these situations, and an apparent sense of being left out or lonely,  drive Max around the bend one night, and he puts on his wolf suit and goes native: he howls, he tries to order his mother about, and finally he flees civilization, like Huck Finn, and goes out Into the Wild.

But this Wild is not contained by bedroom walls.  He runs out into a suburban landscape, pursued by his frantic mother, but he escapes her.  (A parent watching this film is constantly mentally at home with the mother, sharing her anxiety about a child who has run off into the night!)  As in the picture book, he sails to an island.  The sailing scenes are particularly beautiful, as is the wonderful little wooden boat he sails in.  He arrives at an island and, as in the book, charms and intimidates the little family of monsters, who make him their "king."

But the monsters in the movie, one quickly realizes, are not much different than Max's own fractured, contentious family:  there is a quarreling couple; the monsters can't play nicely together without fighting; they even smash each others' "forts," just as Max's sister's friends smashed his.  Max attempts to "tame" all this wildness by alternately dominating and befriending the monsters, but it doesn't work.  The wildest Wild Thing, Carol, goes berserk and smashes up everything, and Max is powerless to stop him, at which point the other Wild Things realize that Max is no king at all, but "just regular."

This may sound a bit trite, but somehow it is moving.  Max's distress at home, before he runs away, is acute:  his little face looks so sad at times that it almost broke my heart.  And you can see that his rage and temper tantrums, while justifiable in part, are frightening to himself.  He stands at the cusp of that time in childhood when one must "put away childish things," when kids stop playing pretend and dressing up in wolf suits, and start learning to put aside their own narcissism in order to get along with others better.  But it's so hard!

Max's kingship is a kind of metaphor both for his desire to master his own impulses, and his desire to not have to master these impulses:  to remain a little willful tyrant all his life, saying lines like, "Feed me, woman," to his mother while standing on the kitchen counter.  Who wouldn't love to be an infantile, demanding King one's whole life in a way?  The monster Carol, who is always "out of control" but is also the most visionary and creative of the monsters, seems to represent Max's--and everybody's--Inner Child, both passionately creative and capable of destructive infantile narcissistic rage.  Max can't control Carol; he can only admit, belatedly, that he is "just regular."

The key moment in the movie happens when Carol is raging through the forest, breaking trees, and trying to catch Max, threatening to eat him.  The Inner Child has become a real monster, capable of destroying everything!  Max runs to K. W., the rational, calm, maternal female monster (and beloved of Carol), and she hides him by swallowing him!  Max dives into her capacious mouth, and we see him inside her stomach (or is it her womb?), listening while she quarrels with Carol.  Later, she symbolically gives birth to him by drawing him out of her mouth, all wet and a bit traumatized, but safe.  At this point Max says, "You don't need a king.  You need a mom."

Aha!  Freud's neat little trinity of Id (the raging, nonconformist Inner Child), Ego, and Super Ego never included The Mom, now, did it?  One always assumed that the Super Ego parent was a father, as indeed Freud conceived of it.  Max had tried to be the paternalistic, domineering Super Ego--the King--and failed.  It didn't "get rid of the sadness," as the monsters begged him to.  He couldn't stop their fighting or their destructiveness. (Even Freud admitted as much, in Civilization and Its Discontents.)  It seems that K.W., the mom, is the only one capable of that, through her gentle kindness and inclusiveness.

So Max remembers his own mom, almost like Odysseus waking out of his dream on Calypso's island and remembering Ithaca and Penelope.  He rushes down to the sea and sails away in his boat, leaving the grieving monsters behind.  His mother, as we can imagine, is very glad to see him.  It's not clear how long he's been gone in her world:  fifteen minutes? days?  She looks very tired, though, as if she's been crying for days and many nights.  But apparently no police were sent to find Max.  He arrives like Odysseus, unsought-for, but recognized by the one important person.

The "moral" of the story seems to be that connection and love are the only things that can tame the wildness without crushing it out of existence.  Domineering kingship--trying to crush the Inner Child, the Wild Thing within--didn't work; it just made the situation worse.  The mother's calm presence and waiting for the storm to subside are the magic needed to help Max grow out of his narcissistic rage and into a more social being, happily.  This is pretty much what child psychologists say about the narcissism of early childhood:  a heavy hand can just perpetuate the narcissism into adulthood; while no containment at all of the rage--the sleep of reason-- also can create monsters.  Max's mother is "just right."

This movie spoke to me so strongly in part because I've been thinking about place of Wildness--or rather, its absence--in modern urban life.  I miss, literally, the call of the wild when I'm in Houston: that thrilling sound of coyotes howling at night that I hear at my farm in Tennessee.  I'm working on a series of photographs called The Call of the Tame, about domesticated animals.  Humans are a kind of domesticated animal: we've domesticated ourselves.  And there's a loss in that.  So the Wild has a mystique, the mystery of a kind of lost paradise of the ancient past, or even one's own childhood.

I'm also re-reading Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, which trades in some of the same familiar tropes that Sendak used brilliantly in his original picture book:  the lone male child going on a kind of vision quest on a boat, to a place where you can be wilder and crazier, where none of those irksome laws exist, and then finding that you miss the rules. I guess Where the Wild Things Are is kind of like Heart of Darkness for little kids, in the same way that Lord of the Flies is Where the Wild Things Are for middle schoolers.  At any age, we need our myth of the Noble Savage, but when we actually meet, or become, him, we sort of balk and have second thoughts.  It's a conflict that can't really be resolved.  Mistah Kurtz, he may be dead, but the desire to "light out for the territory" never dies.