Friday, May 22, 2015

The Strange Case of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

As far as novels are concerned, I am sometimes alarmed by how little I remember about those that I have read.

A friend of mine just recently posted that she was excited about the release of a BBC program based on the book Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. She said it is one of her favorite books. I read that book, too -- I think, even, that it had been at her suggestion, quite a few years ago. I remember having enjoyed it very much at the time. Yet -- I couldn't tell you anything about it today. I'd actually completely forgotten about the book. It would seem to make no sense. I remember even recommending it to others, back then, having liked it as much as I did... Still, almost no recollection about the story.

I remember something about a girl and a white garment... That's about all. (Anyone know what that was? -- or am I nuts?)

So, how is it that I could have enjoyed that book and have, today, almost no memory of it?

An illustration fro the novel. 
Is it just passage of time? No -- I read Peter S. Beagle's The Folk of the Air some fifteen years before that, and I remember it very well, for some reason. I read The Old Man and the Sea when I was ten and I read Jules Verne's The Mysterious Island at twelve and I've always remembered them vividly. So, it's not just a lapsing memory on my part...

One of the other books that has stryed with me since my first readong is Pride and Prejudice, so it is also not a question of "guy books" vs. "girl books" -- at least not for me. (Though I always have and probably always will despise Middlemarch. Blech. )

Is it that ....Strange and...Norell... is just not a good book; that it's a page-turner without enough depth to latch on to my haughty literary expectations? I am completely sure that's not the case. My friend is no dummy. She would not enjoy a book without substance; we studied literature in grad school together and she was one of the sharpest knives in the rack. There's no way we're talking about empty pop lit. here.

I suppose that puts us on old ground: art is subjective. Corny, but delightfully true. (Frustratingly true to the quantifiers and researchers and catagory-makers [may their databases burst into spontaneous flames].)

Literary quality does not necessarily equal literary enjoyment. Literary enjoyment does not necessarily preclude quality, nor does it prove quality. It's literary impression that matters.

For some reason, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell made an impression on my friend that it did not make on me, even though we both liked it. I'm sure there are other books we have mutually read that work in the opposite.

Thankfully, the complex maze of factors that comprise the sort of impression a book makes on a reader is well beyond my understanding. I don't want an answer; I just want the joy of that experience of a book "touching my heart" or of its really "getting into my head."

You never know when the lightning will strike. That's cool.

At any rate, having liked the book, I will certainly watch the BBC series of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell when it starts up.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Heavy Duty Impotence

Cute, is it not? 
Most of the car-ride in was the usual: a drive on a state road that is full of lights and side streets and shopping centers that is often like a video game in which the object is to avoid being T-boned by some schmo who is incapable of judging velocity and distance; who simply must pull out four seconds after you have deemed it impossible for him to be stupid enough to actually "try it."

With this in mind, I set my speed at around 55 MPH. It is a 50 MPH road.

About ten minutes from school, a bald guy, with dark glasses, in a shiny, absurdly clean, massive, black heavy-duty pickup truck with tinted windows and double tires in the back started riding my bumper.

(I won't get into my anatomical theories about guys who buy heavy duty trucks and don't use them for heavy duty; this is a family-friendly blog.)

He stayed there. I kept my speed. We were in the right lane. He could have passed, but I guess that would not have been as much fun.

We both turned onto the same rural road (speed limit of 50, dropping in increments to 45, 35 and then 25 as we neared the schools). He stayed on my bumper as I adjusted speed to about five over the posted limits, as I always do.

As we approached an intersection, he, disgusted with my mere existence, set his lips, shook his head and gave his heavy-duty pickup the heaviest duty it would see that day by whipping to his right, down a side road.

I hope he never finds out how little that head-shake meant to me. Oh, it would have angered me in the past, before I became actually able to feel what we all know to be true: that we shouldn't care about the opinions of random strangers. Twenty years ago, I would have gotten that stomach burn; that pre-fist-balling fight-or-flight impulse. Not anymore. That stuff makes me chuckle now.

I'd hate for his carefully (and monetarily) cultivated sense of superiority and masculinity to wind up being as impotent as his...nice, clean, useless heavy-duty truck.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Compass and Storm

A week-or-so ago (and I write this with full permission), I found myself angrier at my wife than I have been in years. It was in the top three of all the times I have ever been angry in my life, for sure.

I'm not going to tell the details, because that is not what this is about. This is not about what happened outside of me, but what happened inside. It's not about whether I was right or wrong, but about the weather inside of me (and in all of us) when the storm of emotion becomes a hurricane. 

Let it suffice to say, the thing happened and we exchanged words and I was livid. We sat, for a very long time, in silence. We were on a long trip, sitting next to each other. Neither of us was driving. 

Cliche or not, my teeth were grinding and I believe my nostrils were actually flaring. I felt Karen next to me, but was so angry I didn't even want to brush an elbow against her. It's not as if thinking stopped and emotion kicked in, but thinking happened in firework trajectories, all bursts and blasts and lightning flashes -- every line of reasoning electrified with currents of emotional persecution. I would glance over at her face, completely aware of how much I loved it, but love had become temporarily irrelevant. Not gone, by any stretch: just irrelevant.

Minutes passed and then twenty minutes and then an hour and the feeling remained, gripping like the soul's version of a kidney stone. Then I heard my own recurring theme, somewhere behind the wind and hail and the gut-squeezing anger: think. Everything can be handled with logic. Get out of yourself for a minute -- what is she thinking? What will fix this?

You might think she's wrong, but she probably thinks you are "giving her the silent treatment." Are you? No -- it's deeper than that. "The silent treatment" is not a valid way to solve a problem; you're too smart for that nonsense. You're not talking because you can't. Speaking is impossible right now. This is not a conscious choice. But if you think she is wrong, you have made that clear. What's on the inside is invisible to her. Now you are just torturing her -- being quiet. Giving her the worst thing in a relationship: nothing. You have to find a logical compass out of this storm because however angry you are, she does not deserve this. She knows you well, but she doesn't know how deep the strings she plucked are; she's innocent to that...

But there was no sign of a compass anywhere in the wind and deluge. I was aware of the struggle; of the difficulty in finding my way out of this. I could not open my mouth without being cruel. I knew it. 

We stopped to rest; we ordered food almost in silence; we sat and ate at an outdoor table, in thick heat, in silence. Then, she asked if we were going to spend the rest of the trip without talking. Now I spoke; now I said, more calmly, what I wanted to say. But it was like chewing on sand. It wasn't a moment of mending; it wasn't an "A-ha: all you have to do is talk about it and all is better." It was very difficult...

...but it was possible, in a way it had not been an hour before. It was, at least, within my capability. It was no longer dangerous to speak, even if speaking felt very much like growling.  

Nothing's simple. There's no "answer" in a situation like that. There's no clever sunset-picture meme or magic spell or self-help concept to get us through such anger. There's just control and a basic will to think one's self through and not make things worse than they need to be. 

She'd said she was sorry. Twice. The first time, it really hadn't mattered to me at all. The second time, I wanted to say it was okay (and I think I might even have grumbled that it was) but it was not -- not in the storm going on in my chest. Nothing was okay, then. She could have shared the most joyous news, ever, and it would have meant nothing. My heart, for a short while, was Teflon. 

Back on the road, the sun went deep and low. Our hands -- at some point -- found each other and it was done. Maybe that was the only real compass to find. But by that time, the storm was over. 

Friday, May 15, 2015

Very Strange Bedtime Stories: Letters to Mumia Abu-Jamal

When I was a kid, President Reagan ordered a bombing in Libya in response to an attack on a dance club in Berlin.

That Sunday, I was in church and the priest -- and young and enthusiastic priest who played a mean game of half-court basketball -- started his homily by saying, "How 'bout that President Reagan!?" Clapping ensued. The priest then proceeded to make us all feel horrible. He reminded us of a small rule about what thou shouldst not do...

It was sobering. Intellectually, it made an impact, but the human heart has a hard time overlooking the urge for revenge -- or any strong feelings toward those who have done wrong. I got it, but I didn't feel it. (Of course, the point is supposed to be that it doesn't matter what I feel: what God says, goes. "Turn the other cheek" and all that...)

The guts and brains conflict can be tough.

Now, there is a teacher in New Jersey who has been fired for having her third-grade class write "get-well" letters to Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is convicted of having killed a cop in 1981. (He is very sick with diabetes right now.)

What do you think?

Why him? They could, as one interviewee pointed out, have written to people in an old folks' home. The teacher says the kids asked to do this after she told them Abu-Jamal was very ill. The bottom line is, third graders only hear that a man is sick and their natural goodness prompts them to want to do the nice things they are conditioned to do.

So, we can be confident that she brought it up. Probably. But, again, why? Her own agenda of support for Abu-Jamal? Or was it an overheard conversation or some kind? In the former circumstance, she is out of bounds; in the latter, she is careless and unprofessional. Did she explain to the kids that he was in jail for being convicted of killing a policeman? Did she tell them she thought Abu-Jamal is innocent? Guilty? Either way, bad ideas for a teacher of children. And it is way out of the range of third-grade lesson planning.

Regardless of any of this, she found herself in this position: The kids wanted to write a letter to a sick man -- a man whose actions, either they were made to believe in or of whose actions they were unaware.

What could she have done?

For one thing, she could have easily side-stepped the whole thing: "I don't know if we have time, but maybe... Now open your spelling books." (These are third-graders; they would have forgotten by bedtime if not by lunch.) Or, she could have suggested the students ask their parents and write the letter at home and provide the postage, if they approved. That, of course, is if she had wanted to avoid it.

What she did do was give them time in the classroom to do this. Wrong call, professionally. Her job is not to encourage the kids to align with her beliefs on controversial issues -- especially such young kids who are at her intellectual mercy; who could have no understanding of the issue but what she gave them -- unless they had parents who read them very strange bedtime stories.

Her transgression is not what the click-bait headlines want you to get fired up about; it's not necessarily that the kids wrote to a convicted cop-killer. Her transgression is that she is abusing her considerable power as a teacher.

As with the bombing, my heart wants to be sick that kids are writing to a convicted killer. But, our priest made a powerful point that day. What would Jesus (religious or not, you have to admit the guy was brilliant) think of this letter-writing? I think He would smile on the children who wanted to be kind and I know His brow would furrow, regarding a teacher who feels she should mold kids not to think well, but to think what she does. But He sure would not have a problem with writing a letter to a sick man, however criminal his past might be.

Her best choice would have been to have avoided it, altogether. But I get the feeling she didn't want to avoid it. A good teacher leads her students to multiple doors from which to choose; she doesn't open one and push them through. She also delivers age-appropriate curriculum.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Fish and Seal

Fish swim as if they are at work.

Seals swim as if they are at play.

The Sage knows that each glides as he must and within the currents that he feels. 

The Sage knows that survival and doom loom at the end of each swim.