Happy National Friendship Day: A Tribute

In the past two months I have written two short stories about a single woman looking for love.  One, specifically; the other, well, she sort of finds love by accident.  (Well, she meets a couple of dudes, we don’t know that she loves either of them.)  Neither of these stories would accomplish the wretchedly simple job of passing the Bechdel Test, a test I find important, but not as important as representing “real” women, whatever that means (see my post about Thor v The Avengers).  But neither story is about female relationships (although one could analyze the female relationships in the first story).  I tend to write about what I’m currently going through and my mind was heavily on my own hetero-romantic relationships while I was writing them.  Because those are in a constant state of flux.  I didn’t write about my female relationships because my female relationships are solid.

Today is National Friendship Day, or some such nonsense, and it’s got me thinking about my most significant friendships.  Weirdly, or not so weirdly, the older I get the more important my female friendships are to me.  I still love my boys and my life would be sad without them, but it’s my girls, if ‘importance’ were a scale, who are the most important.  There are specific women from various points in my life who have greatly impacted me and continue to be my friends despite my wildly narcissistic and transient lifestyle.  And, the beauty of these women is that they are all different.

My oldest friend is someone who has always been supportive of me.  We met in the third grade in violin class and I have valued her opinion and her esteem and her friendship very highly ever since.  We had a small period of separation in college, but managed to reconnect afterwards and are still very close.  A very confident woman, she is also confidence-inspiring.  I never feel more encouraged, more empowered, than after I speak with her.  She took me clothes shopping for a “professional” outfit when I was temping, she sends me information on writing retreats and contests, she buys me dinner a couple times a year, and a birthday present even when I want to ignore my own birthday.  Always so career driven, she has served as an inspiration in my own professional life, making me believe I can forge ahead with the notion that I am a writer and might actually get paid one day to write.  I was happy to be a part of her wedding party when she asked.  She and her husband are one of the coolest couples I’ve ever met and have never, even inadvertently, made me feel badly about being single.  Their daughter is five months old and I know they are going to be excellent parents because they’ve been practicing on me for years now.  Every time I visit with them they feed me, give me career advice, and counsel me on my most recent romantic disaster.  When their kid is a teenager they’d be wise to remember how they’ve advised me over the years.

In high school I met my Best Friend (technically, all these women are my “best friend”, after all, like Mindy Lahiri says “best friend isn’t a person, it’s a tier”, but this one is my Best Friend).  My Best Friend is a funny woman.  She’s very analytical, enjoys making lists, and loves setting “life goals” — she was the only teenager I knew with a five-year-plan.  We met in a church youth group when we were sixteen and have been friends from the moment she introduced herself to me.  I don’t really know what drew us together initially, but a desire for a certain sort of connection kept us together.  Best Friend is a friend with whom I can discuss Important Topics.  From the time we were juniors in high school, she has been the friend with whom I discuss books, articles, philosophy, current events, the political impact of music, education, careers, travel, and religious matters.  We rarely talk about boys, men, love, or sex.  It was never a subject either of us brought up in high school and we rarely bring it up now.  Only occasionally have those subjects arisen, and mostly when she’d first met her now-husband and wasn’t sure how she felt about him.  Our friendship not only passes, but defines the Bechdel Test.  Which is odd for a Best Friend relationship, one might think, in stories it’s always the best friend who the protagonist goes to for sex or love advice.  It’s an entire category of movie character, usually played by Judy Greer or Jeremy Piven.  But our friendship has never been of that sort.  In high school it was sort of a relief, because there were plenty of other girls who were happy to talk about those topics ad nauseam and nothing else.

College.  So many significant things happened to me in college.  One, I learned that I am smart.  Highly intelligent, even.  Not like Mensa intelligent, not like best-friend-from-college smart, but of above average intelligence.  I also learned how to drink alcohol, kiss boys, and to travel independently.  Sophomore year I met previously mentioned best-friend-from-college at our tiny college, in our even tinier English department.  Originally an equine major, she moved to the dark side after taking a seminar on Tolkien freshman year.  She and I wound up in almost all the same classes Sophomore year, including a Theater History class where, I feel, we really bonded.  Self-centered moron I am, I didn’t realize how close our friendship was until after the opening performance of Fahrenheit 451 when she ran up to me, gave me a huge hug, and told me how well I’d done.  Starting then our friendship deepened significantly.  We were travel buddies during our semester abroad, she was there the first time I got really drunk, the first time I got really hung up on a dude, the first time I went home with a guy.  And I was there for her when she underwent similar foolishness.  We saw each other be incredibly silly about men, and make unbelievably wise decisions about our education and work.  We are each other’s favorite theater-going friend and she is still one of the first people I will talk to about dating woes.  All the things that brought us together in college — literature, theater, writing — are still our favorite topics.  She is lovely, generous, and supportive.  I see her the least of the four women I’m writing about today and, therefore, I miss her the most.  But I am always incredibly proud of her.

The friend I’ve seen the most lately is technically my boss.  We work for a seasonal outdoor education program where staff live all together on site, and recently I’ve shared a house with my direct supervisor.  We started working together in the spring of 2014, before that we knew each other a little, mostly by sight.  That first spring we worked together, however, our knowledge of one another turned from knowing a little about each other, to knowing everything about one another.  Staff relations that season were a little tense and few came to our house (even though that’s where the food is).  The Boss and I found ourselves, many nights and weekends, the only two hanging out.  A fun, friendly, chatty woman she and I quickly opened up to each other about a whole many things.  I used to lament that I didn’t have any Sex and the City friends, no group of women with which to discuss life, dating, and sex over brunch.  Suddenly, amongst other things, I had this: a woman I regard highly to whom I could unburden myself when feeling emotional, or frustrated about anything (not just men or sex).  She is a friend who would drink whisky with me when I broke up with someone and get excited with me when I met someone new.  The twelve months I was 29 turned out to be a particularly trying twelve months.  I was getting down about all the bummed out things that happened, sure nothing good happened that year.  But then I remembered the new friendship I’d developed with my housemate and colleague.  If there has ever been a bright spot, it has been her.  I am certain I would not have struggled through certain things as well as I did if it weren’t for her friendship.  I am happy she is there when I need her and I am more than happy to be there when she needs me.

The Girl Scout Law commands that one tries her best to “be a sister to every Girl Scout”.  Growing up with three older sisters, Girl Scout sisters, and, once I started school, a number of girl friends, I’ve always felt that line applies to all girls, all women, I chance to meet.  Sometimes those relationships don’t last, but others remain strong even when far apart.  That isn’t to say the latter is “better”, or “more real” than the former.  As Cher Horowitz says “all my friends [are] really good in different ways.”  I love all my friends for those things that make them good.  These four women, in particular, are friends whom I am exceptionally lucky to have because my life would be significantly different without them.

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The Buccaneers

The Buccaneers is the unfinished final novel by Edith Wharton that was finished for her after her death by Marion Mainwaring.  I’ve never read it.  Edith Wharton, I have no problem telling you, is not one of my favorite authors.  I struggled with The House of Mirth and had a film adaptation of The Age of Innocence forced upon me by the same college professor who made us read the other one.  There’s just something about Edith Wharton, and her male counterpart Henry James, that makes me heave a sigh and roll my eyes.

I think it’s because no one ever finds happiness in their novels.  Which leaves me to believe the early 1900s in New York society was fucking dreadful.  Everyone was marrying for money, but no one had any, or they didn’t have as much as they were meant to have, and, holy hell, when their spouse finds out it’s all “you lied to me!” when they did no such thing.  And since people are in loveless marriages there’s always a friend or a cousin who comes along and is exciting and worldly and good in the sack.  Marriages fall apart and children are burdened with their parents’ selfishness and foolishness.  The slightest suggestion of impropriety on a woman’s part was enough for her to be ostracized forever.  A man, it seems, might be able to regain some favor with the community after engaging in inappropriate behavior, but only if he behaves himself very well indeed.

The BBC adaptation of The Buccaneers was oddly different from your typical Edith Wharton novel.  Mostly because of the ending.  It had a very E.M. Forster/Jane Austen feel to it.  It was very satisfying.  But surprising and shocking, because it was not Wharton-like.  I looked up the novel once I’d finished the miniseries, that’s when I learned about it being finished by someone else.  All the true and ardent Wharton fans on the Internet were horribly disappointed.  They all seemed to agree that the first three quarters of the novel are delightful, but the last bit is bad.  “Like falling off a cliff”, it was described.  I’m already disinclined to read it since it is a Wharton novel, but those reviews have me questioning many things about it both in favor of reading it and in favor of not reading it.  We shall see.

Things I Really Like:

  • Rainy days, when I don’t have to go anywhere
  • Coffee, always
  • Taylor Swift’s latest album
  • Paintings by Vincent Van Gogh
  • Snuggling
  • Comic book movies, esp Marvel
  • Pirates, Ninjas, Witches, Robots
  • 19th Century European Literature, primarily British
  • Colorful flowers
  • Baking sweets for others
  • Writing
  • Mysteries of most descriptions: books, movies, TV shows
  • Ocean beaches
  • Being silly
  • Kittens
  • Reading really captivating books
  • Loving; Being in love
  • Vodka, Honey Whiskey, Red Wine
  • Arts and Crafts
  • Bringing joy to other people
  • Experimenting
  • Jane Austen

Fifty Shades of What the Fracking Bull?

What with the upcoming release, I’ve been seeing a lot of commercials lately for  Fifty Shades of Grey.  My question is simple: What the fracking bull?

I have not read Fifty Shades of Grey, or Fifty Shades Darker, or Fifty Shades of Pissed Off Writers Everywhere, or whatever the sequels are called.  “Mommy Porn” that originated as fan fiction of an already terrible series does not interest me.  Learning the notoriously naughty BDSM the story boasts is vanilla at best, and, at worst, secondhand, drove my interest even lower.  I have no issue with YA fiction, romance novels, or erotica, but something about E.L. James’s skyrocket into the “literary world” bothers the shit out of me.  How these books were published is beyond my understanding.

Even worse: they’ve made a movie out of it…

What the fish….

And here’s where American Capitalistic Opportunism wins out over Moral and Creative Integrity.  Not only has a publishing house republished a terrible story with a slight twist, now Hollywood has produced a movie they’ve already made.  Because we should, none of us, forget the fact that Fifty Shades of Grey is Twilight fan fiction.

When Hollywood made the Twilight movies they cast actors who actually, sort of, mostly resembled the images of the characters I had in my head while reading the insipid novels.  Cedric Diggory made a great Sparkly Vampire, and Never-Learned-to-Smile made for an exquisitely boring heroine.  A pretty English boy and a symmetrical American girl made us believe in vampires, if only for the one hundred twenty minutes each movie runs.

Now with Fifty Shades, a story that appears to be primarily porn about kinky sex, the casting director, who had her fucking job cut out for her, failed to deliver.  Or, if it wasn’t that person who dropped the ball, it was the makeup/costuming department that failed.

They took a pretty girl:

Dakota Johnson

and made her incredibly homely:

Anastasia Steele

Which, perhaps, is more true to the character (again: I have not read the books).  But if you’re going to put a book reported to be one big sexy, handcuffed romp on the big screen why not make her attractive?  (Especially when you’ve cast an already attractive woman?)

And the dude (because straight men are not this movie’s target audience):

Jamie Dornan

They cast one of Calvin Klein’s interchangeable parts (who looks way sexy with facial hair), shaved him down to his baby-face and made him look like he’s trying on daddy’s suit for the first time:

Christian Grey

Not attractive.  Not alluring.  Mostly creepy.  If a real, live dude looked and dressed and behaved how they portray Christian Grey in the clips and trailers any curious, sane, crazy, intelligent, or insecure woman would, hopefully, have a voice in her head telling her to run… run fast.  Dude is creepily aggressive half the time, and eerily emotionless the rest.  If he were a vampire his behavior might be acceptable.  As it stands, he’s got “sociopath” written all over him.  No one is going to let their friend date a person like this without either saying something, or at least watching them very, very carefully.

But, as far as I know, no one stops Anastasia from letting this jackwad bind her and assume control over her person in the name of Love.  And the audience is supposed to believe he cares for her more than he wants to control her.  We are supposed to buy into this illusion of romance so much that the fact it’s being released on Valentine’s Day (not February 14th, Valentine’s Day) shouldn’t creep out the American public.

It’s fucking twisted.  The trailer features an amazingly creepy clip of him feeling her up under the table at a dinner party with his voice over telling us that he “doesn’t do romance” leading this American, heterosexual woman to believe the Fifty Shades of Grey movie is not intended to be Romantic in any regard despite the movie’s release date.

I believe there are romantic, loving couples who enjoy a healthy, consensual bondage-based sex life.  And that they should celebrate!  To each, his own, I say!  I’m not about to get in your way or pass judgement.  None of my qualms about this work come from my puritanical beliefs about sex and love, but from my standpoint as a woman and a writer.  The story is about an insecure young woman being entirely enveloped by an aggressive alpha male.  She subsequently disappears entirely into his way of life, rather than growing and developing as her own person.  As a woman that makes me sad.  So many real life women are lost to other, stronger willed people as it is; sometimes it’s a partner, sometimes it’s family or friends.  No matter the situation, it’s unfortunate that women so easily disappear into someone else’s idea of who they should be.

As a writer, I’m pissed Twilight fan fiction is being hailed as anything other than what it is: poorly written porn.  These books, and subsequent movie, are a travesty of American literature.

It has, however, inspired some great sarcastic Internet memes*:

This query from Claire Standish:

As well as this brilliant advice from Ellen:

Ellen Ellen1 Ellen2

And a comic of what the actual story should have been:

*I got most of these from typing “Fifty Shades of Bullshit” into a Google Image search.  Which, it turns out, is a pretty funny anti-Fifty Shades Tumblr: FiftyShadesofBullshit.

“Sentimentality” in Literature

What’s Wrong With Sentimentality? | Katy Waldman | Slate Magazine

A very interesting, and solid, article by Katy Waldman about reader/viewer response to “sentimentality” from Slate Magazine on 16 July 2014.

I started to get really in depth into responding to what I read here, when suddenly it felt too overwhelming.  Instead I’m going to share my overall impressions of this article and the subject at hand.

1. It’s a really well developed and written article.

2. “Sentimentality” is a key factor in novels/popular fiction since the time of Jane Austen and earlier.  Hawthorne got real fed up with the women who wrote (and sold) sentimental fiction, but that didn’t stop people like Louisa May Alcott from writing them.

3. Teens and Young Adults like black-and-white stories because their emotions and hormones are such a mess and they don’t know how to handle it.  According to neuroscientists a person’s limbic system doesn’t finish forming until the mid-twenties, meaning people under the age of 25 are more guided by their emotions than by rational thought.  Because their an emotional mess, a simple story is going to be appealing.  It’s easy, it’s straightforward (unlike the world).  Adults, starting in the their late-twenties, are more rational and can see the murkiness, messiness, complexity of real life and, as implied by Waldman, want their literature to be as murky and complex, too.

4. Enjoying YA Fiction is shameful for Adults because of point #3.  Adults shouldn’t be thinking like a teen anymore, is the implication, you should be thinking like an adult.  “When I was a child I thought like a child…”, etc.  She seems to be implying (not necessarily Waldman, but those who condemn sentimentality in literature) that to enjoy YA Fiction shows a lack of maturity.

5. “Why,” she asks, “in this age of irony and antiheroes, do we assume the “truer” choice is always the more ambiguous one?”  Why, indeed?  Adults are obsessed with not offending anyone (some, anyhow).  There are multiple rights and wrongs, goods and bads.   Morality is sometimes immoral, and you should “do what’s right for you”.  Life is ambiguous.  A book, being a representation of life, ought to follow suit.

Maybe it’s my interpretation, but a lot of that sounds like someone being afraid to take a stand, made a declarative statement.  A book can be about something.  It can make a moral judgement.  I’m also not sure I understand this point entirely, because I can’t think of a single book that doesn’t make a declarative statement whether it’s this guy is the murderer, or those cops are corrupt, or love conquers all, or Harry is the Chosen One, or Alice was dreaming.

6. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with “sentimentality” in literature.  Most readers want to connect with the characters in the books they’re reading.  Otherwise, who cares?  If we can’t empathize with the plight of the hostages AND the rebels in Bel Canto by Ann Patchett we’re not going to get anything out of it.  If we don’t put ourselves in the shoes of Neil Gaiman’s protagonist in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, we won’t understand why he visits with Lettie’s grandmother*.  Having an emotional response to literature cannot be a bad thing, can it?  People love the emotional roller coaster of movies and TV shows.  Our heartbeats quicken as the music swells; tears fall from our eyes when the universally beloved character kicks it, or the guy finally gets the girl; we shout out when we see an injustice played out on the screen (ask me sometime about when I saw He’s Just Not That Into You).  If this is the case, why can’t we have sentimentality in our novels?

7. Waldman speaks to many psychologists studying how people respond to sentimentality in books and programs.  Which sorts of people react more viscerally than others and why.  The one thing I think we can draw from all their research and, based on what they told Waldman and what she shared with her readers, is that each readers brings their own, unique life experience to each work.  No one is going to have exactly the same reaction as another reader, but you can probably hypothesize that an individual will have the same reaction to the same type of work, for the most part.

This entire conversation is silly.  It’s silly, because everyone has their own interests and experiences that affect their reading.  I have a sister who will never read Harry Potter (unless her kid reads them one day), but she’ll devour a book on the history of cod.  I have another sister who would find the fish book supremely boring, and has seen Harry and the Potters perform the weekend of an HP book release.  I love Jane Austen; a friend of mine, who has a lot in common with myself, once described Austen novels as “a really long walk”; she has no interest in these novels, because they always seem to be taking long walks and nothing happens.

I like Waldman’s article.  I like her presentation of the material.  I like that she talked to literature and psychology professors from across the country.  I like the subtle snarkiness that leads me to believe she doesn’t disapprove of sentimentality in literature.  I like that she, instead of approaching the conversation with outrage, tried to explain why people enjoy this sort of literature.  It is very informative and interesting.

.

*I chose both the Patchett and the Gaiman novels because I cried when I read them… as an adult.

5 YA Novels Grown People Ought to Read

A writer called Ruth Graham has recently received a lot of flak for voicing an unpopular opinion in her Slate article ‘Against YA’.  In it Graham argues that Adults ought to be embarrassed to read books intended for children.  The Internet Book Community, a community largely comprised of individuals who believe as long as your reading you are awesome, responded with the expected Outrage.

I would be a lying liar-pants if I said I wasn’t peeved when I read Graham’s piece.  Mostly, however, I was shaking my head at Graham’s Susan Pevensie-inability to see the magic anymore; and I was reminded of C.S. Lewis’s letter to his goddaughter in which he wrote that “some day” she’d be “old enough to start reading fairy tales again”.  I was also struck by Graham’s admission that she wasn’t too keen on stories meant for young people when she was a teen.

After sharing this article with my real-life Avid Reader Friends, I was asked by one of them what YA novels I would recommend Adults read.  While I do sometimes read, and enjoy, YA novels, I, like Graham, as a kid sort of jumped over books meant for teens, bypassing them for Agatha Christie, Jane Austen, and other books that were above my understanding.  I’ve never been anti-books-meant-for-teens, however, and I do admit I primarily read them because they are the books my students are reading.

That being said, if you are a Grown Person who, maybe was too old for these books when they were first published, or unaware of them, here are, in no particular order, five books intended for teens that you ought to read:

  1. The Perks of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky.  Written as a series of letters from protagonist Charlie to an unnamed peer, this story follows approximately one year of the teenager’s life as he makes new friends and discovers girls, drugs, and sexuality.  In his letters, Charlie gives an honest report of why being a teenager is terrible.  Many Grown People can probably read this and see some of their own adolescence in Charlie and his friends.  The book offers grown readers an opportunity to look back and see how much they have changed, and to consider what they learned from that time in their lives.
  2. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.  Green is a wildly popular author amongst teens and young adults, and, while I liked An Abundance of Katherines better than TFiOS, I include it instead because, while it also shows why being a teen sucks, it’s also a story of an often unseen demographic: kids with cancer.  A whole lot of people will go their entire lives not knowing a single kid with cancer, but they are out there and dealing with something most of us won’t have to even consider until adulthood.  The story is a little silly at times, but it is also important: Green shows the healthy majority that sick kids are Kids.  They have the same hopes and dreams and anger and excitement and wonder and cynicism and idealism as every other kid out there.
  3. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.  I read AWiT as an adult and I did not understand the physics even a little bit.  What I did understand, and probably what most children understand, is Meg’s sense of alienation and ostracism.  Feeling like an outsider is not limited to middle and high school.  It is a feeling that can, and does, crop up well into adulthood.  What Meg Murray learns on her adventure is a lesson we all need to be reminded of throughout our lives.
  4. Coraline by Neil Gaiman.  The Victorians are my heroes.  They had no problem scaring the pants off their children to get them to behave.  Influenced by a Victorian story for “middle readers”, Coraline echoes this tradition.  Evoking the adage ‘the grass is always greener’, Gaiman shows a world that seems wonderful, but once Coraline looks past the surface, she discovers something sinister.  In my experience children are straightforward; it’s adults that are often not what they seem, and this story reminds us of that.
  5. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.  Like Green’s novel, TATDoaPTI, shows a ‘hidden’ population.  Unless you live near a reservation, or you seek them out, few non-Indians are exposed to the lives of the American Indians.  Alexie gives us their plight growing up on Reservations and what happens when they try better their circumstances.  This concept is not limited to American Indians, but found with any disenfranchised individual who attempts to change.  Results of which vary from what happens to Junior in the novel, to what happened to Malala Yousafzai in real life.  Nor is what happens to Junior, and what happened to Malala limited to children.  Grown People ought to be aware of these issues and Alexie’s novel is a fun and thoughtful way to learn more about them.

I agree with the Online Book Community that no one ought to be embarrassed to read any book that is available in a library or for purchase in a book shop.  If you are a Grown Person reading books intended for Teens and you are annoyed, or feel uncomfortable about it, remember: you are not the target audience.  But that doesn’t mean a Grown Person cannot enjoy or get something out of a novel meant for younger people.

Teen novels, like Grown People novels, are not always good.  Some, in both categories, are downright bad.  (For example, I’d say you can skip the Pretty Little Liars books and Something Borrowed without a second thought.)  But most popular contemporary literature is not going to stand the test of time anyway.  The ones that do will be revered by future generations and the ones that we enjoy because they’re easy beach reads will be replaced by other, equally vacuous-yet-entertaining tales relevant to the times.

I had a literature lecturer in England who declared he wouldn’t read the Harry Potter books because he is, and I quote, “an adult”, and that’s OK.  Some people are not interested in teen novels.  If you are, I recommend the above listed books, as well as many more.  There are plenty of YA novels I have read that I have not alluded to because I read them once and my life is neither better, nor worse, for having read them.  I might never read them again, I may have read them repeatedly, but the overwhelming feeling is mostly ambivalence*.  The five books I’ve listed, I chose because I have read them and I feel they are Worth Reading.

Also: I deliberately excluded older novels from consideration for this list because any novel older than the 1950s that is still popular could be considered a “classic” at this point.  Anything that is considered a “classic” is, by definition, Worth Reading, no matter your age.  

*For example: The Hunger Games Trilogy.  I’ve read them all at least twice.  My favorite was Catching FIre, but your life will continue as it always has whether you do or do not read it.

 

Slate Magazine | “Not Helpful: Making kids read The Help is not the way to teach them about the civil rights struggle” by Jessica Roake

Slate Magazine | Not Helpful: Making kids read The Help is not the way to teach them about the civil rights struggle. by Jessica Roake

Yes, absolutely.  Thinking The Help by Kathryn Stockett is a good “primary text” for exploring the American Civil Rights movement is stupid.  Using it as an introduction, especially for students who don’t live in Mississippi (or the South), sure, I buy it.  It’s not the best book out there, it’s not the most accurate story of southern apartheid, but it is an easy read and covers certain aspects that are relevant to beginning to explore the Civil Rights Movement.

Teachers would be better off assigning I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, or Invisible Man to explore these topics; 100% agree with Ms Roake on this point.  And, while I agree with her point that The Help is a gross oversimplification of what the 1960s were like for black people in Jackson, Mississippi, I’d like to point out that Stockett wasn’t writing a novel about black people in the 1960s: she was writing a novel about the black women who raised white babies.  No, she could not remove the story and the characters from the context of the times, and she certainly strove to create an atmosphere of fear, hatred, injustice, inequality, and danger for her characters.  She included the unnecessary beatings and murders of black people by whites, the high distrust of well-intended white people by blacks, and the ridiculous sense of superiority and entitlement that white people possessed (Skeeter’s mother, for example, fires a hard worker because of a slight from another person, ignoring years of dedication).

But reading the book out of context of the author’s intent is negligent on the part of the reader, and teacher, if we’re assigning it to students.  Stockett was, herself, raised by a black maid in the 1970s, as an adult she took a good look at that relationship and wondered about it.  In her, yes oversimplified, novel she is discussing a piece of American history, a piece of American reality, that doesn’t get much attention.  I have lived my entire life in an area where, if we have nanny’s, they’re part time or Brazilian.  Growing up I didn’t know a single person with a dedicated nanny, lots of babysitters, sure, but not one of my friends had someone who came in every day explicitly to clean their home and make sure they were fed.  If parents couldn’t care for their child, it was because they were working and their kids were in day care, or spent their afternoons at the Boy’s Club.  I have no firsthand knowledge.  As an adult, I have met people who were “raised by the help”.  I’ve had students and campers who see their hired help more than their actual family; I know a white, southern woman who phones the black woman who raised her every Mother’s Day before she phones her actual mother.  But, even still, this is a foreign concept for me.  That this still happens was news to me; and that these people are, often, still treated like second (or third) class citizens, is saddening.  And, for people like me, with no firsthand knowledge, Stockett’s novel is actually quite useful.

Stockett, a privileged, white, Southern lady, wasn’t necessarily intending to write a seminal novel on Southern Apartheid or the Civil Rights Movement, as far as I can tell, she was writing about the black women who raise white babies.  She was writing about that relationship, how strong it is, how it affects both the caretaker and the child.  Skeeter, we see, doesn’t turn to her mother for love and affection, she goes to Constantine for motherly support.  And she sees how unjustly her maternal figure is treated by the people who owe her, the people who hired her to care for their child so they wouldn’t have to.  The Help is a story about women whose main difference is the color of their skin – it’s about these women sticking together and sticking up for one another.

Were I (when I am) a literature teacher broaching the topic of Civil Rights, I might use The Help to introduce the topic, but I certainly wouldn’t stop there.  I’d want to impress upon my students the other issues of the novel as well, ones that also still exist.  Hired help are still sometimes treated horribly by their employers, even to the point of enslavement.  Many of the issues discussed in the novel have not been resolved in our country, they merely don’t get any attention.  The only reason The Help is used as a text to discuss the Civil Rights Movement is because of it’s setting.  If it were set in 2000, it would be a different story.  A still relevant story, but a different story, nonetheless.   Let’s not forget what a novel is about, please; let’s not try to make it something it isn’t.

VA mom wants to widen school policy requiring parental permission for “sensitive topics”

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Because her 17 year old AP English student son was disturbed by Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Now, while Beloved is the reading equivalent of running a mile in knee-deep mud, there’s really no reason to ban it from an Advanced Placement English course.  Ok, so it’s mildly disturbing, yes.  I read it as a college student and was pretty annoyed/disgusted/horrified pretty much the entire time.  Until I realized that as much as Beloved is about the dead girl and her mother’s guilt regarding the dead baby – it’s also about Denver, the living daughter, actually living her life — moving past her mother’s guilt and becoming a functioning member of society.

This novel is not easy and anyone who thinks it is has no idea what they are talking about.  This book is about a very tough issue.  But it’s no worse than any other book written in or about the mid to late 1800s America.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as lovely as it is, is the white, sanitized version of slavery.  Harriet Jacobs’ and Frederick Douglas’ slave narratives show a more real, more brutal, more honest side to what was going on.  Beloved shows readers the plight of women under slavery, how bleak a situation it truly was, and some really tough decisions women had to make sometimes.  It’s also a story of healing, of hope, of moving into a future without looking back.  It’s heavy.

Wherever there is prejudice and injustice and hardship there are going to be “sensitive topics” discussed.  The Grapes of Wrath was a book I had to read as a high school junior that left me rather uncomfortable – especially the ending scene; The Painted Bird tells the story of a boy roaming the ignorant and backward Polish countryside during and after World War II, some of the things he witnesses are highly disturbing; Night by Elie Wiesel shows what being in a concentration camp was actually like; In the Time of the Butterflies shows the fear of the Dominican people during President Trujillo’s dictatorship and what some brave few went through in order to gain some justice; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, pulpy, pop fiction, sure, is the story of rotten people perverting what is meant to be a welfare system on one hand, and a warped and twisted sociopath who abuses his own children severely screwing them up for the future, on the other.  What these books, along with Beloved, teach us is to recognize injustice and prejudice and, if we can’t do something to stop the greater problem in play, to have compassion for the people around us.  Do what we can to help the people we love who might be going through a hard time.  They tell us to be supportive of our friends and family.  To try to work toward a brighter future where these things don’t happen.  These books all end the same way: with Hope.

It’s idealist, maybe; some might say naive; but it’s a mature concept that is expected, and often demanded, by society, by authors, by critics.  If a high school student is deemed smart enough and mature enough to take a college level literature course you can bet your buttons that he or she is going to be expected to handle some “sensitive topics”.  The student is going to be asked to be mature enough to handle some adult topics, sometimes harsh and uncomfortable topics.  But being at a college level means acting and thinking like an adult, recognizing that you’re not a kid anymore, and starting to make your own decisions.  Taking a college level English course while in High School might be a “safe” way to introduce a student to college, but it shouldn’t expect anything less from the student than a college literature course would.

This Virginia mom might have a point about including parents in designing the curriculum to an extent, but I think the harsh reality is that her son wasn’t mature enough for Beloved.  There are worse books his teacher could have chosen, but it seems to me that he or she chose an appropriate novel to expect a teenager in a college level English course to be able to handle.  It might be disturbing at times, it might give the kid nightmares, but it hopefully is also opening his mind and getting him to think about the world in a slightly different way.  If high school students are expected to read The JungleNative Son, Johnny Got His Gun, Of Mice and Men, The Lord of the Flies, and The Bell Jar, then a high school student in a college level class should be expected to handle Beloved.

If the student can’t, then maybe he shouldn’t be in that class.

*Click on the picture to go to the NPR website to learn more about Toni Morrison and “This Virginia mom” to read the Washinton Post article about Ms. Murphy’s campaign to change school policies.

Nervous Breakdowns and Clarity and Whatnot

Sometimes, especially after days like today, I think I am slowly going mad.  At the end of a day that does nothing but remind me that I am wasting my time and my only enemy is myself I can understand why certain people were put into sanitariums or institutions, or, if they were wealthy, locked in the “abandoned” north wing.

Except my “north wing” has the Internets which allows me to do foolish things like become overly invested in fictional characters (much like books) in (very interesting) television shows.  And I can’t get enough of these two:

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For serious.  Jo and Zane are my absolute favorites.  Carter and Tess are a close second.  (Blasphemy!  I know.  Obviously Carter and Allison are MFEO, but… get over it.)

Here’s one good thing that is coming out of my recent obsession with SyFy original programming, apart from my weird desire to get either a Suburu or a Prius, I want to try my hand at building things.  Like engineering.

I don’t know how long this curiosity is going to last, but many things have been pushing this into my focus lately: Science is taught stupid in school.  Science is a very hands-on field, but it is taught primarily theoretically.  I’ve been wracking my brain trying to remember the first time I was ever exposed to science with a tactile approach and I think it was high school, after I’d already made up my mind about science (and school, generally).  I was never given Legos with instructions to build a spaceship or a car or a catapult; I was never given tubes and marbles and shown Newton’s Laws of Motion; I’ve never run a clock on a potato or made a volcano erupt — I feel cheated.

Science lessons were always too similar to math lessons – all written and abstract with zero real world application.  Which isn’t true.  Math neither (the first time I ever thought Math could be interesting was when a geometry class build a pyramid out of straws and hung it in the foyer).  Science was never presented thus to me.  It was never interactive.  At the end of the lesson I never had anything to show for my progress but a letter on a piece of paper.  Science wasn’t interesting, it wasn’t fun.

I had an Intro to Physics and Chem teacher who actually did show us that different minerals burn different colors, that was the single most interesting science lesson I had in my public school education.  My most interesting science lab in college was when our Environmental Studies professor actually took us out into the woods and made us collect data.

Science, I’ve learned since teaching at a science and nature based outdoor ed program is a lot like studying literature: You can read criticism and analysis until your blue in the face, but if you haven’t read the primary text you will never understand it.  The same holds true for science.  If we don’t actually get to see the application or the law or theory in action, then how are students expected to understand the subject matter?  If students are never shown the differences or relationships between different organisms, how can they understand why you shouldn’t leave the fox on the side of the river alone with the rabbit?  How are we to ever understand how everything is connected if we’re never made aware?

I have spent the last five and a half years trying to get my students to understand their connection with nature and why it is important to be environmentally conscious because it’s important to me, because my mother showed me that as a child, but also because I never fully understood what I could do about it until I was an adult.  Sure, we always recycled – back before it was cool to recycle – and my mother would never have tolerated us littering, but I never fully understood man’s relationship with our planet.  Just like I never understood how the many fields of science are all interconnected and related until I was an adult.  Hence, feeling cheated.

I have learned so much about physics by working at this program where we teach children with a hands-on approach, and this is why I think my program is valuable (even though I’m getting too old for that shit) and I’ve been able to see that my unease about my own public school education was not unfounded.  Working here and seeing what children know and don’t know and seeing them connect the dots in a way they never realized they could be connected is, well, it’s freaking awesome, but it also confirms my fears about education.

Education is rapidly turning into a numbers game and that makes me sick.  Education isn’t about money, it’s about education.  There was a time when education was a luxury, now that it’s mandatory it’s turned into something Horace Mann would not be all that happy with. Ok, yes, everyone is getting an education, but politics and money are weighing too heavily on the schools.  Learning for the sake of learning is something that doesn’t seem to exist anymore.  Teaching children in the most effective way for them to learn is also missing.  I used to joke that if I could go back and do high school differently I’d go to the Voc School and apply for Auto Shop.  But, honestly, I probably would have been better off there.  Learning about engines and cars is something I am actually interested in and it’s hands-on learning.  Those kids get to actually play with pistons and carburetors.  How cool is that?  The most we ever got to do was cut open dead smelly things (Cool, sure, but not quite as cool as building a car).

I wish at least one of my teachers had thought to have us actually do something in science class.  Actually have us build something.  Individual projects where the students actually create something.  In the third grade we “built” a rainforest in our classroom using desks, a humidifier, and construction paper.  Obviously we couldn’t take a field trip to the Amazon, but our teacher did the next best thing.  Because we had that simulation we were better able to understand the layers of the canopy and ground level and the climate there.  Maybe if there had been more of this in my education I’d be a slightly more curious and well-rounded individual.

And, before anyone starts this discussion, I don’t think my lack of interest in science has anything to do with me being a girl.  Ok, maybe a little bit: If I had more building toys and I used them to build things (instead of making houses out of Legos) I might have been more interested in school, but even at school none of my teachers ever went out of their way to have us construct anything (apart from that rainforest).  Any experiments that were done in class, were mainly done by the teacher.  We watched.  It sucked.  It was fucking boring.  And I hated it.

I’m really upset by this.  So much so that I’m writing a slightly incoherent blog at one thirty in the morning after watching a few hours worth of “Eureka” on Netflix.  See, I’ve always been drawn to scienc-y things, scienc-y shows: Star Trek, Dune, Stargate SG-1, Firefly, Warehouse 13, Eureka… anything science fiction-y has held my attention.  And, in all these futuristic programs, I’ve always loved how all the characters know how to fix the density coupler cooling photon hypertension thingamajiggy.  I would think to myself “How do they know all this stuff?  That’s so cool!  Futuristic technology is awesome!” and, yet, never once did it occur to me that I could learn how to do these things too, the things we have.  Not until recently, not until adulthood.  And I think that’s crap.

I think how science is taught in school is stupid.  I think it’s bullshit to expect children to become mini-experts after reading a chapter in a textbook.  I don’t think textbooks need to be written at a third grade reading level so students will better understand concepts, I think teachers need to teach the concepts better in class so the students will understand.  I know I am a visual/tactile learner (I know based on experience, not testing or anything) and I know that a different approach to teaching may have gotten me interested in something I otherwise wrote off as boring.  My experience shows me that something needs to change.

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My totally awesome post on Tumblr about John Steinbeck and, specifically, his book Cannery Row. You should all go read it and let me know what you think (about my writing, about what I have written, about John Steinbeck and about Cannery Row)! This is meant to be a discussion! And I really want to know that people have read it so I’m whining on all of my social media outlets and trying to get people to go read this damn essay I wrote about an author I fucking hate.