Tagged with " literature"
Aug 22, 2013 - Fine Arts    1 Comment

His Father’s Son: A Short Story

“Knock, knock.”

Victor bit his tongue as he eased the door open a crack. He shouldn’t have said that. Trevor hated it when he said, “Knock, knock,” instead of actually tapping his knuckles against the doorframe. It didn’t really matter, though. Even when he knocked correctly, Trevor never answered.

But Victor knew he was in there. It was impossible to miss the wobbly smack of the screen door, the clatter up the stairs, the sturdier slam of the bedroom door. The Jacob’s Ladder in the corner was quietly zapping.

It never meant anything good when he turned on the Jacob’s Ladder.

Victor craned his head through the opening, and peered into the gloom. He could see the glossy black mop of Trevor’s hair cresting over the slouchy armchair that faced the window. God, he hated that sullen dye job–it looked like a pile of squid-ink pasta perched on his son’s head.

“Can we talk for a minute?” Victor asked, stepping over the jacket and backpack dumped on the floor.

“I s’pose,” mumbled the chair.

“I’m guessing you know what I want to talk about.”

“Prolly.”

“So? Can you explain what happened at school today? I mean, what were you thinking?”

“I dunno. Just made me mad, I guess.”

Victor gasped a slightly hysteric little laugh, and scrubbed his face with both palms. “He made you mad? That’s it? Son, lots of things are going to make you mad in life. You can’t go around breaking all their noses with cafeteria trays.”

Trevor gave a laugh in reply, lower and more fatalistic than his father’s. “I dunno,” he repeated. “Sure solved this one pretty well.”

“Well, that one kid might leave you alone from now on, but solving that one problem the way you did just brought down a whole host of other problems on all our heads. They’re talking suspension.”

“So?” Trevor asked insolently.

“So?” Victor echoed. “So there’s no way your mother and I are going to let you sit on your suspended butt at home alone all day while we’re at work! If we can’t trust you to behave at school, we sure as hell can’t trust you alone here, where there’s stuff you could really get in trouble with.”

That got a reaction. Trevor turned in the armchair, one eye appearing around the wing back, amid a straggle of black locks. “You mean your lab, don’t you.” He snorted. “Like I care about any of that.”

“You don’t have to care about it to make a mistake even I might not be able to fix,” Victor retorted quickly.

“No, I mean I don’t even care enough to go in there. And it’s not like you’ve done anything important in there for…what, now, like…sixteen years?”

Victor gritted his teeth. The kid always knew where to stick the knife. So he hadn’t started anything new in a while. Work, parenting, life–they all sapped his creative energy. He couldn’t even remember the last time he’d had enough left at the end of a day to even climb the attic stairs.

“That’s not the point,” he said, trying to regroup. “The point is, you’re not getting suspended.” He sighed, ran a hand through his already mussed hair. “You’re so different lately. You just…you don’t have the old spark anymore.”

“You should talk,” Trevor taunted softly.

“This isn’t about me! I mean, really, kid, what happened? When did life get so hopeless?”

The eye disappeared back around the side of the chair. Victor heard the shuffle of those ugly clodhoppers Trevor had taken to wearing. The thick black boots only made it more obvious that they couldn’t seem to get the boy pants that stayed long enough for more than a week. And those awful throwback suit jackets, with the shoulder pads and frayed cuffs. Who the hell decided these things were fashionable again? Victor grizzled to himself. They didn’t look good the first time around, and on a gawky teenager, they were downright monstrous.

Victor scrubbed his face with his hands again, and attempted a more sympathetic tone. “Was it that whole thing with Elizabeth this summer?”

“Like that was ever going to work,” Trevor spat bitterly. “I bet you and Shelley thought you’d created the perfect little couple.”

“Don’t call her Shelley,” Victor replied with more heat. “She’s the only mother you’ve ever known, and you’ll treat her with respect.”

An oppressive silence fell. Victor picked at the quilt covering Trevor’s bed, where he sat. The heavy boots thumped irregularly, from floor to chair to windowsill to floor again.

Then, just as suddenly as conversation had been extinguished, Trevor thrust himself out of the chair and into an uneven elliptical track of agitated pacing. “How could I even compete with him?” he demanded belligerently.

Victor’s head reeled as he tried to absorb the sudden shift. “Compete with who?” he asked, a bit desperately.

“With Henry, that’s who!”

“Is Henry the kid whose nose you broke today?”

No reply.

“Is he the one Elizabeth’s going out with now?”

Fuming silence, more clomping steps. Then, suddenly: “I mean, GOD, Dad, I’ve still got stitches! Nobody has stitches anymore!”

Victor felt the waters closing over his head. “What do they have, then?”

“Staples, Dad!” Trevor groaned with the despair of every teenager who ever wondered why their parents were hopelessly uncool. “Or at least clear poly thread! Man, the only other kid with black stitches is that exchange student from East Bee-Eff-istan.”

Victor held his tongue at Trevor’s swerve toward profanity, and took a few deep breaths. “So Elizabeth would like you better if you had staples?”

Trevor began worrying a hangnail with his teeth. “I dunno. At least I wouldn’t look like such a loser.” He sighed, stopped pacing. “And they keep bringing up that thing.”

“What thing?”

“The thing at Homecoming.”

“Oh. That thing.”

Trevor flopped down onto the bed, throwing an arm over his eyes in misery. “I’m never going to live that down.”

Victor scoffed gently, “That’s what everybody thinks in high school.”

“Dad. I screamed. Like a girl.”

“Everyone does, sometimes.”

“At a torch.”

“Well, it was really close to you. If I had as much junk in my hair as you do, I’d be afraid too.”

Trevor just moaned and rolled over, not even bothering to rise to the dig.

Victor moved to rub a hand down his son’s back, but hesitated. Instead, he gave the boy’s shoulder an awkward pat. “Look, Trev, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s this: Life isn’t over, even when everyone else says it is.”

“It’s not the same as it was when you were young. There’s video, Dad. On YouTube. Something like 5,000 hits.”

“Yikes. That’s unfortunate.”

“Yeah, that’s one way of putting it,” Trevor sneered. “Here’s another one: I’m going to be the freak who screamed at fire until the day I die.”

Victor sighed. “If anyone knows what it’s like to carry around a reputation, it’s me, kid. I’ve been called a nerd. A freak. Out of my mind. And not even when I was in high school, where you can leave it behind someday.” He paused. “At least, not only in high school.” With a quick shake of the head, he refocused. “The point is, I know how it feels. It feels pretty lousy. But the truth is, everyone’s so worried about the kind of freak they are, they don’t have the brain power to worry about the kind of freak you are for long.”

“Great, thanks, Dad. You think I’m a freak too.”

“No, that’s what I’m trying to say! We’re all freaks!”

Trevor cried, outraged, “And you’re okay with that? You’re telling me I’m a horror show and I should just embrace it? What the hell kind of parenting is that?!”

“It’s the only kind I’ve got!” Victor shouted back. “It’s not a science, you know!”

“Maybe if it were science, you’d actually be good at it!”

Victor opened his mouth to yell a retort, then closed it abruptly. He rubbed the frown lines on his forehead. “Uh, thank you?” Trevor seemed equally startled by the compliment, if it was such a thing when given so impulsively and unconsciously. He fretted a loose thread on his sleeve as he searched for a reply.

The phone next to the bed jangled–not very loudly, but enough to startle them both. Trevor lifted the chunky old black handset. “Hullo?”

Victor watched as something like a conversation rolled out. If you could really call a series of false starts, nervous laughs, and mumbled sounds a conversation, he thought. I feel like I should be recording this for the anthropological record.

Trevor gave one last huffing laugh, then something that passed for a sign-off, and slowly returned the phone to its cradle. He looked a bit shellshocked, but slowly, a flush of color rose in his sallow complexion and a crooked sort of smile unfurled on his mouth.

Victor leaned in a little, nodding encouragingly. “So, was it her?”

“Yeah. Elizabeth.”

“And?”

Trevor swallowed hard enough to ripple the stitches on his throat. “And she wants to go out tomorrow. Someplace nice, she said. I guess Henry was pretty low-brow.”

“She dumped him? Even though you smacked him with the tray?”

“I guess it got back to her what he’d said about her before I hit him.”

Victor rolled his eyes. “You didn’t mention that part of the story, kid.”

Trevor shrugged. “Nobody at school asked why.”

“So where are you going to take her?” Victor prodded. “No candlelight dinners, I assume?” he teased.

Trevor gave a little laugh–small but real. “No, probably not. ‘S okay. She says she likes to look at the lake. I was thinking maybe a picnic.”

“Nice. Romantic. She’ll like that.” To himself, he muttered, “Good lord. Teenage dating. This’ll raise your mother’s hair.”

Trevor nodded absently, a far-away look in his eyes already. Victor reached out, shook his shoulder. “Come with me,” he blurted impulsively.

“Come with you where?”

“Upstairs. Just for a second.”

“Why?”

“Just come,” Victor urged, grabbing Trevor’s hand and tugging him off the bed. Together, they clattered down the hallway to the heavy metal door to the attic. Victor fumbled his keys until the lock turned with a disused wheeze. They squinted in the sudden darkness as they climbed the steep old-fashioned staircase, emerging into the cluttered space of Victor’s lab.

Trevor stood awkwardly, then poked at a dangling length of tubing. “What are we doing here, Dad?” he asked as his dad rushed around, flipping switches and tugging at rust-frozen latches. At last, Victor came to a stop beside a large metal crank extending from the wall, and all his frenetic energy transferred to forcing the bar along its circular track. “Come help with this! You’re young and strong!” Victor shouted.

Figuring that, if he was in for a penny, he might as well be in for a pound, Trevor clomped over to the crank, and settled his hands between his father’s. They’re the same size as mine, Victor noticed. A man’s hands, on my boy’s body.

They both flinched and blinked as sunlight suddenly speared through the widening crack in the roof. Victor coughed; Trevor sneezed. They broke the embrace they’d formed around the crank, but Victor hung onto Trevor’s hand and drew him over toward the raised wooden platform. “Here, pull this chain,” Victor urged him, rattling the clanking links impatiently.

As Trevor pulled, hand over hand, the platform rose toward the late afternoon sky. Only when they were level with the rooftree did it shudder to a stop. Victor planted his fists on his hips, his chest expanding with the rush of fresh air and freedom. He smiled, perhaps a bit manically, up at Trevor, who somehow looked even taller to him.

“Well?” Trevor asked. “Now what?”

“Now,” Victor said, “we do this.” He raised his arms over his head, provoking a squawk of alarm from a raven in the nearby tree, and yelled over the newer, shorter houses around their old Victorian mansion. “I’M ALIVE!” he bellowed, startling the rest of the ravens from the tree. “I’M ALIVE!”

Trevor gave a nervous laugh. “I’m not doing that.”

Victor plucked at his wrists again, urging Trevor’s arms upward. “No, really, there’s nothing quite like it. Just once, once for your old man. After all, I gave you life–that’s got to count for something.”

 

Jun 3, 2012 - Literature    3 Comments

A Little Bit of This, A Little Bit of That: Reverb Broads Summer #1

I took part in an offshoot of the Reverb blogging projects, called Reverb Broads, last December. I really enjoyed the almost-spiritual discipline of writing something every day, and the community of other women I hooked into has lead to some incredibly fulfilling new friendships and a whole bunch of excellent reading. So I’m doing the summer iteration throughout June. If you’re enjoying the prompts and the posts they inspire, consider joining in the fun!¬†

Summer Broads 2012, Prompt 1: With what fictional character (book, movie, TV, etc.) do you most identify? Why? (by Kristen of Kristendom)

This one has two parts, and neither of them include Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables) like everyone else’s responses apparently do. ūüôā

First, there are the characters I’d like to be like. They tend to be wildly intelligent, super useful, ultra competent women who stay calm in the most unimaginable situations. There’s Claire Fraser from Diana Gabaldon‘s Outlander novels. She starts out as a war nurse in World War II, then goes back in time to 1848 Scottish Rebellion (Bonnie Prince Charlie and all that). Once they think she’s not a whore who went out into the woods in her slip, she quickly ingratiates herself to the rebels with her useful medical skills. She picks up a hot redhead for her troubles (that much, at least I can live out), and generally rolls through major events of history with grace and aplomb.

Then there’s Mary Russell from Laurie R. King‘s series of the same name. Mary’s a precocious, bookish teenager when she meets Sherlock Holmes, and first becomes his apprentice in the art of detecting, and later, his wife. She’s easily as intelligent as he is, and though their life is anything but restful, their relationship could be described that way. She’s brilliant, a fast learner, and wicked cool in a crisis.

And, while I do have some reputation for functioning well in the face of disaster (hence the nickname Emergency Lass), I don’t have any illusions that I’m as cool as they are. Nor am I as consistently one personality as most characters. That’s not surprisingly–characters need to conform to predictable archetypes, and only evolve a modicum of complexity after a series is well under way. So, while this question left me at a sincere loss for days, the closest formula I can come up with is what follows.

A big part of me is Hermione Granger. I’m a bossy know-it-all witch, always eager to share what I’ve learned with other people. That’s why I’m happiest when I’m teaching–all that reading and study is zero fun if I’m not sharing it with someone else.¬†I’d rather spend my vacation in the restricted section of the library, and I’m a bit befuddled by how little attention most people seem to be paying to, well, everything. I’m pretty sure there’s no problem in the world that can’t be solved with more reading. I’m also fiercely loyal to those I love, and willing to go to the mat (or the troll, or the Shrieking Shack, or the Ministry of Magic) for them.

But Hermione doesn’t cover my weird, unpredictable, impulsive side. For that, I turn to Delirium. She’s one of the Endless, a group of mythic archetypes that function as quasi-divinities/forces of nature in the classic graphic novel series The Sandman. Delirium hasn’t been quite right in the head since her brother Destruction, the big bluff protector of the bunch, split town. She wanders between her own reality and everyone else’s, and is fond of bizarre pronouncements and non sequiturs. At heart, though, she’s a little confused, a lot optimistic, and genuinely loves her family, imperfect though they are.

And her hair changes color with her moods, a power I sincerely covet. If only so I don’t have to touch up my roots.

May 11, 2012 - Literature    No Comments

Fun with Guest Posting!

So, one of my best friends in the whole wide world has an awesome new blog called Reads4Tweens. Amanda Valentine started R4T to give parents of precocious pre-teens a resource for honest, spoiler-filled reviews of kids’ and YA literature. While these kids can read far beyond their grade level, a lot of those books contain themes and events that they might not be prepared to confront, at least not without the help of a parent.

One of those themes is death. In fact, death comes up in kids’ lit a whole lot more than anyone would expect. Some of those deaths are so pointless, or such obvious mechanics for propping up saggy plot details, that Amanda ran a Gratuitous Deaths Week at R4T. But, by way of countering the truly egregious examples, I offered up a guest post about a shocking, but well-done and important, death in one of the all-time great YA lit series, Anne of Green Gables.

You can read my post here, and while you’re there, be sure to take a look around–the whole site is full of great stuff! Also, if you’ve ever got a subject you’d like my particular take on, feel free to propose it as a topic for a guest post. I’ll link your blog from mine, and all that so-called “optimization” will take place!

May 11, 2012 - Social Studies    No Comments

You might be a geek… : Friday Night Lists

I’m a fool for stand-up comedy, and lots of one-liners and references have made their way into the Banks household lexicon. As with my books, music, and movies, I’ve got prodigal tastes that include things that might surprise even those who know me best.

So let me here admit: I love the Blue Collar Comedy Tour films. Don’t judge me–that’s some funny stuff right there. We laugh at Jeff Foxworthy’s redneck jokes, but if we’re honest, we know that more of them apply to more of us than is comfortable. And as a joke format, it’s just about perfect.

So, for today’s Friday Night Lists post, here’s my spin on Foxworthy’s list. If you don’t recognize them all, fire up that Google machine! I’m sure I’m leaving out a billion things, so if you’ve got one that should be included, be sure to leave it in comments! Hopefully, this conveys my general view that geekdom is universal, and everyone’s a geek about something.

You Might Be A Geek If…

… you know that MUDs, MOOs, and MUSHes aren’t limited to a barnyard.

… you know that 1964 1/2 is a real model year for the Ford Mustang.

… you know that K1P1YO and 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 actually spell something.

… you know the difference between declension and conjugation.

… you know what “frabjous” and “brillig” mean.

… you know Ted Williams’ lifetime batting average.

… you know why 2 pistons and 1 pin are the basis of a copyrighted sound.

… you’ve ever reamed a pearl.

… you know that you’ve probably seen the movie “Blue Harvest.”

… you have a favorite Federalist Paper.

… you’ve ever had to explain the joke on your t-shirt to someone.

… you’ve ever made a costume for a convention, but you take shirts to the dry cleaner for mending.

… you care deeply about the Oxford Comma.

… you have a favorite Doctor.

… you’ve ever paid for shareware.

… you’ve ever written shareware.

… you’ve ever risked serious bodily harm for the perfect photograph.

… you carry a Sharpie so you can correct punctuation on signs.

… you’ve ever bought a new die because “the old one doesn’t work.”

… you’ve ever bought wooden knitting or crochet needles so nobody hears if you drop them in church.

… you can tell the difference between Chinese, Indonesian, and Vietnamese cinnamon by smell.

… you use a thermometer and a timer to make tea.

… your child must cite history and/or literature when introducing themselves by name.

… your body bears a tattoo featuring a mythical beast and/or language.

… you wish they made trading cards for astrophysicists.

… you took the day off work to celebrate the solution of Fermat’s Theorem.

… a museum or library security guard has ever let you “take your time” because they know you so well.

… you’ve ever walked out of a movie because the inaccuracies were ruining the whole experience.

… you’ve ever been kicked out of the room during “Jeopardy!” or “Trivial Pursuit.”

… you have to remind yourself that Malcolm X wasn’t a medieval Scottish king.

… you own your own libretto for any work.

… you know who Weapon X is, and what the X stands for.

… you can name more than four Beatles or Kryptonians.

… your boxen have ever frotzed.

… you can sing Tom Lehrer’s “The Elements.”

… you know there’s a male Pink and a female Pink.

… you’ve ever heard of the Butlerian Jihad.

… you’ve ever traded bottlecaps for a stimpak in Megaton.

… you’ve ever bought a lottery ticket with the numbers 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42.

… you’ve bowed your head for a moment of silence in the direction of Reach or Hera.

… you’ve ever played a video game so much, you dreamed about it after you went to sleep.

… you’ve ever complained about a sign’s kerning.

… you’ve ever blamed your kid’s misbehavior on Mercury.

… you can recognize the sounds of a glockenspiel, a celeste, or Franklin’s armonica.

 

Apr 13, 2012 - AV Club    1 Comment

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Part III

So, Friday Night Lists is a good intention, and even after this last installment of my Dinner Guests series, I’ll be keeping it up (so suggest topics for lists you’d like to see!), but here’s the thing about Friday night: If I’ve been singlemomming since oh-dark-early Thursday morning, my Friday night “WOO HOO” excitement is sneaking an ice cream bar over the kitchen sink before crashing into bed at 8.30. (More on this subject in another post.)

This list was perhaps the hardest of all three to write, because some of my favorite characters from film or fiction just wouldn’t make good dinner guests or conversationalists. I mean, need I cite passages of Katniss’ table conversation, or post the video of Denethor eating? (Not that I like Denethor, just to be clear.) But that’s why you won’t find Gamera on my list, much as I love him. Other favorite characters are not included because I would prefer to host them in more intimate settings (I’m looking at you, Frank N. Furter).

I’ve included pictures of those characters for which there are photos/clips or official pictures from things like dust jackets. In a couple of cases, though, with book characters, I’ve chosen not to post a picture. I’m a really visual reader, and I prefer to keep my pictures in my head uncontaminated by other people’s faces as long as possible.

As always with my Friday Night Lists, please add your own in comments!

MY FICTIONAL GUESTS

  • Barbara Gordon: daughter of Police Commissioner James Gordon; Batgirl; Oracle. Her evolution just takes her from one powerful female rolemodel to another. (Batman)
  • Death: one of The Endless. Her gentle manner is an aspect of the most inescapable of all fates that both frightens and comforts. (The Sandman)
  • Dr. Sheldon Cooper: theoretical physicist; super-genius. Some may find him abrasive, insulting, and annoying. I just find him familiar. Plus, I want to see my next guest make his eye twitch. (The Big Bang Theory)¬†
  • Harry Dresden: wizard-for-hire. One of my best friends, Jim Butcher, invented this wry, embattled, deeply human character, and plopped him in a high-wire act of a life. I just want to feed the man one good, homecooked meal without someone shooting at him. (The Dresden Files)
  • Iorek Byrnison:¬†king of the Panserbjorne. I’m sure he’s a lovely conversationalist, especially with the voice of Sir Ian McKellan, but I mostly just want to cuddle with him. (His Dark Materials¬†by Philip Pullman)
  • Jamie & Claire Fraser: Scottish rebel, American colonist; WWII nurse, time-traveller, healer, surgeon. One of my two favorite couples in all literature. It’s hard to explain, but I hunger for news of them like they’re family. (Outlander¬†by Diana Gabaldon)
  • Jed Bartlet: president of the United States. He’s the president every liberal dreams of; it helps that he gets his lines from Aaron Sorkin and his gravitas from Martin Sheen. (The West Wing)
  • Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes: detectives. My other favorite couple in literature. A man of boggling intellect, the more recent incarnation with a strong, smart wife and partner only makes him more interesting. While my first Holmesian love will always be Doyle’s erratic, exuberant, brilliant misanthrope, I I think I may like Laurie King’s older, steadier, but just as adventurous and insightful version. (Mary Russell¬†novels by Laurie R. King)
  • Phineas & Ferb: brilliant inventor kids. Just because I want to see what they’d come up with for dessert, and how it would disappear before their mom arrived. (Phineas & Ferb)
  • Diana Bishop: historian; witch. She embodies the dichotomy of science and magic, power and restraint, reason and passion. I want to read manuscripts and cast spells with her. (A Discovery of Witches¬†by Deborah Harkness)
  • The 10th Doctor: Time Lord; explorer. My favorite Doctor for so many reasons. I’d have him to dinner just to give the man a rest from all the running. (Doctor Who)
Mar 31, 2012 - Social Studies    No Comments

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Part II

Last week, I started a new feature on the blog called Friday Night Lists, with the first of three lists of people I’d love to sit down with, around a dinner table, and talk the night away. Last week, I gave my picks from the pool of living participants. This week, I’d like to introduce you to my guest list drawn from all of history. Like last week, I’ll give a brief blurb about why I’ve picked each person, and I’ll provide a link, in case you’d like to learn more about the ones I’m introducing you to/reminding you of.

As with all my lists, I’ll inevitably forget someone–much footstomping and cursing will follow. So please share your picks, to help remind me in case my sons ever do manage to build a TARDIS out of a refrigerator box.

MY HISTORICAL GUESTS

  • Christine de Pizan: medieval author; philosopher. Her clever allegory City of Women¬†books make the case for a feminist perspective on Christianity, without proposing that women’s only place in the world was as an empty vessel for children or the Holy Spirit.
  • Constance de Markievicz: politician; rebel; founder of the Fianna Eireann.¬†She dressed like a man, sat at the table with the intellectuals who planned the 1916 Easter Rebellion, and trained the generation of boys and girls who would see through the dream of an Irish Free State.
  • Edward R. Murrow: journalist. Through the new medium of radio, Murrow brought the early days of World War II into American homes, fearlessly reporting from London throughout the Blitz, and from many other hazardous locations. As if that weren’t brave enough, he stood up to the McCarthy witch hunts in the name of free speech and accurate reporting.
  • Franklin Delano & Eleanor Roosevelt: four-term¬†president of the United States; First Lady & activist. He engineered the New Deal and the American social safety net, then gave the nation a moral compass to get through World War II. She was a smart, welcoming First Lady, and an inspiring advocate for peace when she founded the United Nations.¬†They weren’t perfect, but my admiration is boundless.
  • Hatshepsut: king of Ancient Egypt.¬†She stands out as a fearless female leader in the midst of millenia of patriarchal influence. She wasn’t satisfied with the qualified, subordinate title of “queen;” she dressed and ruled like the great kings of the Nile.
  • Jim Henson: puppeteer; director; artist. Who could possibly envision everything from Sesame Street to the Skeksis, and a million sights in between? His respect for children, smart and wacky sense of humor, and gift for finding the humanity in every sock and stick was half of what defined my idea of imagination as a child.
  • John Lennon: singer/songwriter; artist; activist.¬†Half of the greatest songwriting team of all time, he lived a second act that spread the word of love and peace, before ending far too soon.
  • Katharine Hepburn: actress; author. She was brainy, cool, elegant, funny, and smart-mouthed. I watched everything of hers I could find as a kid, much of it on the big screen, from “Kitty Foyle” to “The Philadelphia Story” to “The African Queen.” She brought immeasurable class and fearless grit to every aspect of her life. I even wear my long hair in a bun, in hopes that someday, it’ll just stay like that, just like hers.
  • Margaret Sanger: nurse; midwife; sex educator; founder of Planned Parenthood. She knew that a woman’s power over her reproduction was even more important for her ultimate health, wealth, and upward mobility than suffrage. As you wonder how birth control is even a topic for debate in 2012, spare a moment for dear Margaret and the sheer will and courage it took to fight that fight in public 100 years ago.
  • Oscar Wilde: author. He skips from whimsy to horror to cutting satire so fast, it gives a reader or theatergoer whiplash. He was persecuted as a political pawn for whom he loved, and he bore the humiliation and suffering with honesty and dignity, when his opponents had none.
  • Richard Holbrooke: diplomat. It pains me that he’s not on the list of Living Guests. His knowledge of such difficult regions of the world is sorely needed, as is his skillful, sensitive hand at negotiations which ended the Bosnian conflict in peace.
  • Samuel Clemens: author. Witty, insightful, playful, and profound, Mark Twain remains my favorite author of all time, bar none. Every time I read his work, there’s a new revelation.
  • Theodor Seuss Geisel: author/illustrator. Dr. Seuss’ books shaped my childhood as much as did Jim Henson, with their psychedelic, whimsical characters and cleverly wrought language. We hardly noticed the messages of basic human rights, environmentalism, and peace, but they left their mark.
  • Thomas Jefferson: author, inventor, architect, third president of the United States.¬†He had a completely unique view of the world, and it gave us a future we’re still unfolding.¬†I want to compliment him on his beautiful home and garden, then grill him on his notions of “inalienable rights.”
Mar 14, 2012 - Literature, World Religions    2 Comments

Some Facts About Fantasy

Connor, Cam, and I snuck off to see John Carter this weekend. Griffin, refusing to fall in with the family-wide cinephilia, couldn’t care less about the whole theater experience; he downright hates 3D movies–they give him horrible headaches. So we unceremoniously dumped him at a friend’s house, and the three of us reveled in two hours of pulpy fantasy goodness.

Reviewers have widely panned the movie as a “big-budget fiasco” and “the year’s first mega-disaster.” A few, like RopeOfSilicon.com’s Brad Brevet, not only took the movie at its popcorny fun face value, but also put the movie’s influences in the correct order–when the Guardian claimed that director Andrew Stanton must have pitched Disney with “Star Wars meets Avatar,” that reviewer made the same error as someone claiming that The Beatles were just rip-offs of Oasis. Brevet explains, “Throughout the history of cinema several sci-fi films have been inspired by the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Burroughs created the character of John Carter in 1912 and his stories have influenced a generation of filmmakers including George Lucas, James Cameron and Steven Spielberg. So if you see bits of¬†Star Wars,¬†Avatar¬†and¬†Indiana Jones¬†inside¬†John Carter¬†don’t be surprised.” And, as a parent, this film adaptation passes the most important test–it had Connor scouring the shelves of our local Half Price Books so he could read the Barsoom series for himself.

This certainly isn’t the first time in recent years that a book or movie seems to have gotten the short end of the critical stick, just for being science fiction or fantasy. When George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire¬†was adapted as an HBO miniseries last year, NYT critic Ginia Bellafante turned her nose up at “the universe of dwarfs, armor, wenches, braids, loincloth,” and suggested that “normal” women would never choose to read or watch such a series, thus triggering righteous floods of nerdrage.

Bellafante (mostly) got away with these statements because fantasy has been increasingly marginalized in Western culture since the Enlightenment, relegated primarily to juvenile literature. No, obviously I’m not saying that only children read fantasy–duh, I read fantasy, folks.¬†But part of why adults who read fantasy find themselves as the butt of abuse or jokes is because fantasy is something society expects us to outgrow. Think about one of the most common insulting stereotypes levied at sci-fi/fantasy fans: that they never leave home, never grow up, never get out of their parents’ basement.

[WARNING: I’m about to go all pedagogical on you here. I’ll provide links where I can, but it’s not meant to be a research paper.]

The secret about fantasy that most folks don’t know is that it was the most popular form of literature for centuries before the Enlightenment. “How could that be?” you may ask. “Wasn’t the pre-modern period dominated by the Catholic Church?” Yes, but here’s the twist–the Church was the primary purveyor of fantasy literature throughout the Middle Ages. They delivered it in the form of hagiography, or the genre of writing known as Saints’ Lives. Sure, these stories of good and righteous models of Christian values were important teaching tools for Church history and theological principals to a largely illiterate population, but if it had been all morals and no miracles, medieval listeners would’ve zoned out like the rest of us do during lectures.

This mosaic depicts the martyrdom of St Edmund: (top L) surviving total perforation; (top R) Danes searching for the missing head; (bottom L) wolf guarding Ed's head; (bottom R) followers discover a restored and uncorrupted body upon translation of relics

Instead, Church writers folded in fantasy elements that modern readers would easily recognize: superhuman strength and endurance, monstrous beasts, mysterious lands, cosmic convergences, even the walking dead. For instance, Saints Anthony of Padua and Francis Xavier, among many others, were said to have bilocated, or appeared in two places at the same time, and¬†Saint Collette foretold the future. When Saint Edmund was beheaded by the Danes, some versions of his Saint’s Life say that the head rolled away into the underbrush of a nearby forest, and was only found when his devoted subjects followed the howls of a wolf and found the animal calmly guarding the head from other predators. In other versions, it’s Edmund’s own decapitated body that plucks the missing head from its hiding place.

Even in this Christian icon, notice that the bowl of fire is the most prominent of Saint Brigid's symbols.

Woodcut depicting St Brendan and his companions celebrating Easter Mass on the whale's back. Yes, we now know that whales don't look like that.

Irish monks in particular, with their country’s millenia-old tradition of fantastical tales of heroes and holy men, had a knack for writing the most wildly imaginative and popular Saints’ Lives. Saint Brigit’s Life carries over many elements from the stories of the pre-Christian fire goddess of the same name, such as an unextinguishable flame at her abbey in Kildare. In tales of her auspicious youth, it’s said that Brigit’s mother had left her in a cradle at home, while she went out to gather sheep. From a distance, she saw a pillar of fire pluming through the roof of the house; panicked, she ran back, only to find the column of flame originating in baby Brigit’s crib, where the child lay happy and unharmed. Saint Brendan’s Voyages (Navigatio Sancti Brendani) included aspects of all great classical voyage literature, such as the Odyssey¬†and the Aenaid.¬†On his way, he encounters a sea monster, various devils, and magical animals. At one point, far out at sea, he wishes aloud that he and his companions could celebrate Easter Mass on solid land. A whale surfaced near their boat, and allowed Brendan and company to hold their services on its back.

Don’t fall for the old trope about the “Dark Ages” and how ignorant and gullible medieval people were, to believe stories like these. There were active debates about the nature of the allegory playing out in these stories, even as they were recopied and retold all across Europe. Medieval listeners could read the subtext in Saints’ Lives as easily as modern fantasy reader can pick up the underlying references and messages in Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Hagiographers (writers of Saints’ Lives) included fantastic miracles, not just for entertainment value, but also to demonstrate an important Christian belief–that, through God, anything is possible.

As science developed and evidence-based explanations replaced the old myths and stories by which we interpreted how the world around us worked, miracles and magic gradually retreated from the realm of plausibility (though, to be completely fair, for the vast majority of the population, science was just as impenetrable a mystery as magic). Keith Thomas’ Religion and the Decline of Magic¬†is a detailed, dense, and deeply researched guide to that transition; I can’t recommend it highly enough.¬†Those who accepted tales of the unnatural in defiance of apparent laws of the universe were thought of as gullible, and it was assumed that only people who had no experience of the world–the uneducated lower classes and children–could appreciate or believe fantasy stories.

The need for escapism, though, never went away, and many of the greatest works of modern fantasy were written in (or in response to) periods of social tension, war, and economic hardship. We don’t believe in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom any more than Tolkien believed in orcs, or medieval readers believed in Brendan’s sea monster. But a good story can make a bad situation better, even if only for the hours you spend in a darkened theater or sunk in a book. It’s no surprise that, following 9/11 and the economic crash, we’re suddenly awash in brilliant, compelling fantasy that both pays homage to and breaks down motifs that spring directly from pre-Christian mythology and medieval hagiography. And if it’s good for nothing more than a popcorn-munching, visually appealing (helloooo, Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins) brain break…well, we’re just following in our ancestors’ fantastic footsteps.

 

The Censorship Quandary

The main job of parenting is to introduce your kids to the world outside your home in a way that best helps them make sense of it and learn to survive in it. You take them places, and show them things, then stand aside and anxiously watch them discover the joys and pitfalls for themselves. You clap and cheer, and dry tears and kiss scrapes. And it’s worth noting that this job isn’t only done by parents–any adult who deals with children experiences these things, and bears the honor and responsibility for those children’s formation.

The point of divergence among parents is when to expand the fence we build around our kids, to include new information and experiences. Obviously, this is a hot-button issue, laced with words like “censorship” and “age-appropriate” and “psychological trauma” that fuel an entire industry of researchers and trade paperback sales. Morals and memories of our own formative years have a powerful impact on our choices, as do our unique tastes. Sometimes, this veers in the absolute opposite direction from how we were raised. We resolve to raise our children with or without those influences: religion, politics, bad food, naughty words, even our extended family.

And sometimes, we lean into the curve of our own years, and urge our children into the shape of the things we’ve grown to love. The phrase “Where has this been all my life?!” is a strong predictor of parental behavior; the favorite shouted phrase of teenagers throughout time and space, “When I’m a parent, I’m never going to make my kid go there/eat that/do this!!” rarely factors in parenting decisions later in life. My husband and I are geeks who are making our living from an industry based on social experiences of play–it was a foregone conclusion that we would mold our little creations to share some of our offbeat enthusiasms. I showed Connor Star Wars when he was two, the same age at which I’d seen it (when it was first released in 1977), and Griffin was about the same age when I introduced him to Godzilla and all the other Japanese atomic monsters. And sure enough, they’re evolving nicely on the quick-witted, culturally referent, and wide-ranging track we set them.

But, inevitably, there are hitches in the unrolling of the tapestry of the world we lay at our children’s feet. Some, we never see coming. When Connor was born in the long, hot summer of 2002, we started watching “The Sopranos” on DVD to while away the humid evenings. He would actually stop nursing and look at the TV in recognition when the theme song came on. In large quantities, this show can have a deleterious effect on one’s language; I suddenly found myself saying, in the voice of Paulie Walnuts, “This f—ing guy!” whenever Connor would poop in a brand-new diaper. At the same time as we were awash in a stew of New Jerseyan profanity, I discovered that I no longer felt comfortable leaving live news on TV around my newborn son, a feeling that intensified as he grew to toddlerhood. I must admit, I am a news junkie; have been since high school. I mean, slap a vein and stick in a global 24-hour mainline–I want it all. So this discomfort came as a distinct shock to me as a new mother, a radical and instantaneous re-prioritization that told me I was no longer the same person I had always been, the first of many.

Other problems, we see coming and face with deep ambivalence. For instance: I swear. A lot. Not as badly as I did when I lived in France, but I’m somewhere between dockhand and a Naval officer on his ninth month at sea. I’ve tried to rein it in, but I just can’t force it entirely from my vocabulary, which will doubtless earn me the scorn of parents with more willpower. I’ve always believed in the concept that there are no bad words, only the wrong situations for them; calling them bad gives them more power, as most ably demonstrated by the Harry Potter novels. So I’m raising my kids to know that swear words are not appropriate for children, and are a reflection of strong emotions, and so far they get it. Connor, in particular, is still pained by my profanity, and regularly implores me to “be appropriate” around him, but I’m convinced he does this for the sheer joy of turning the tables on me. I’m also grappling with my awareness of the deeply bizarre American relationship with sex and violence. I’m determined not to be casual about violent themes and images, and to be less neurotic about anything to do with sex and gender, but the whole thing is fraught with conflict and difficulty. For now, I take it as a victory that my sons are some of the only young boys I know who don’t freak out at kissing or when I streak from bathroom to bedroom on the days I forget my robe.

We had a big turning point within the last week or so, with both boys. Griffin got himself suspended for a day by mooning his female classmates. When asked what on earth could’ve possessed him to do such a boneheaded thing, a thought occurred to me. Connor’s a huge fan of The Simpsons, and this was straight out of Bart’s playbook. I asked him, “Did you do it because you saw it on TV?” He nodded tearily, and mourned, “I did it so they would laugh.” So I’m having to re-evaluate the influences of tween tastes on the kindergarten set. Meanwhile, Cam has started playing Skyrim, and Connor is riveted by, of all things, the crafting. (I’m told WoW and FarmVille players will totally get the appeal.) He’s pleaded with us for permission to play on his own, so he can make leather and explore, but Cam firmly asserted that there was just too much violence and sexual content for a kid his age. I was more ambivalent, and argued that he wouldn’t necessarily even do some of the things we would be uncomfortable with, but I’m bowing to Cam’s vastly greater knowledge of video games.

It’s a comfort, though it seems wrong to put it like that, to say that some of the things that scared me the most as a child could never have been predicted, so sheltering my kids from everything isn’t going to inoculate them from every nightmare. The movie Gremlins scared the living crap out of me, and that was marketed directly at children, with tie-in toys and everything. And I was much more scared of nuclear war, as a Reaganbaby, than I was of anything I ever read–The Day After shook me so hard that it was incredibly hard to watch again as a grad student.

Similarly, one of Connor’s triggers couldn’t have been foreseen, or even insulated against. It took us a few years, until he could sufficiently articulate it, but extreme closeups of faces, especially not-completely-human faces, really freak him out. He went to see Spiderman 3–which is a horror in other ways, but I won’t get into that–at the movie theater, and none of the action or “adventure peril” bothered him at all. Instead, it was this one shot of Venom’s open mouth as he lunges at the camera that gave him fits. Likewise, there’s a scene in Fantastic 4 when Ben Grimm reveals his rocky deformation by turning his face out of shadow and lifting the brim of his hat. He leaves the room when that part of the movie is coming up, and that’s fine with me.

I console myself with the fact that we do so much with our children, and that guiding our kids through new experiences makes them less likely to be seeds of neurosis later in life. Sure, I’ve read Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark to them at Halloween–I even showed them the spooky-fantastic pictures by Stephen Gammell, which are apparently too scary to include in the latest republication. But I didn’t just give them the book and tell them to read it to themselves before bed. I was right there beside them, shivering at the gory parts and validating their fears by sharing my own. I think this prepares them for life much better than pure censorship can, and gives me the opportunity to shape their responses to their own feelings and impressions, by building a sense of empathy and honesty that I hope will serve us later when their lives get immeasurably more complex.

And if it doesn’t work, hey, I’m doing my part to support the psychoanalysts of the future.

Dec 7, 2011 - AV Club    4 Comments

I Can Haz Funny: Reverb Broads 2011 #7

Reverb Broads 2011, December 7: Who or what makes you laugh so hard that milk shoots out of your nose and why? Slapstick, dry witty comedy, your kids, Monty Python? (courtesy of Kassie of http://bravelyobey.blogspot.com)

Me laughing. It ain't pretty, but it's really common.

It might actually be easier to write a list of things that don’t make me laugh. But I’ll give it a stab, if only so I can share some of my favorite funny things. In general, I’ll just say that I’m a complex person, so don’t judge me. ūüôā

I am surrounded by hilarious people every day, even on the days when I don’t fully appreciate the humor of the situations they instigate. I’m married to one of the funniest people in the world, and I know many people agree with me. Part of this is because he’s so smart and creative — that kind of people are always the funniest. I often say that he’s got a direct line into the Primal Well of Story, which is what makes him a phenomenal storyteller, game designer, and GM. But he also has access to the same Random Closet of Weird as Eddie Izzard, and frequently delivers bizarre misinformation with the same deadpan style as John Hodgman. We have so many inside jokes, running gags, and one-liners that no one else understands. I’m sure it’s completely obnoxious, and some of them would prefer blatant displays of affection to our stupid giggly shorthand.

My three hilarious boys

I wish I could say it's only the crazy hair. But that's just Griffin.

And I know every parent thinks their kids are hysterically funny, but anyone who’s met them would probably be inclined to agree that mine are like cartoon characters; I swear they’re drawn by Tex Avery. They’ve got it all: killer comic timing, the Seinfeldesque capacity to observe the weirdness of their surroundings, a natural affinity for performance, and super-quick wits to come up with mad, clever responses. I’d like to think that they inherited their skills from us both, and that our efforts to raise them with lots of humor and quality entertainment are taking root, but let’s just face it — they’ve got it in spades, and they’re a mystery to me.

I’m an intellectual, and a geek, so I can have a pretty high-falutin’ taste in humor. Of course, I adore the Brits, new and old: Monty Python, The Goons, Douglas Adams, Little Britain, French & Saunders, and so many others. I like web comics like xkcd and Penny Arcade — the nerdier, the better. I love sight gags and cultural references and grammar jokes. Even math humor makes me laugh, because I know more about math than actual math. Musical humor, like P.D.Q. Bach and Flight of the Conchords, absolutely slays me. I listen religiously to NPR stuff like This American Life, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me…, and A Prairie Home Companion (especially the joke show). I love parodies, the more cutting or absurd, the better — I’ve been reading The Onion since it was just a local Madison paper, I used to assign a reading to my World Religions students from the LOLCatz Bible, and Drop Dead Gorgeous is one of my favorite movies. And I’m completely wild about political comedy (probably because I’m wild about politics), so Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert are must-sees. My eldest even had a Jon Stewart 3rd birthday party (all his idea; he used to put on a clip-on tie and do his impression of Jon Stewart in the bathroom mirror. When he was two.)

All this being said, lots of completely low-brow stuff makes me giggle and snort uncontrollably. Ever see that SpikeTV show back in the ’00s called MXC? It was a Japanese game show called Takeshi’s Castle, overdubbed in America by two ESPN-like “announcers” and a cast of others who ascribed the most bizarre dialogue and commentary to an already-bizarre spectacle. I used to regularly laugh until I cried, and I still miss it. Luckily, America’s Funniest Home Videos still does the job for me on a regular basis. And you can’t live in a house of boys without being a connoisseur of scatological humor.

I could go on and on with this one, but I need to wrap up, so I’ll just share two other gifts that were apparently bestowed upon me by the Comedy Fairy at birth. The first is that I see hilarious things that no one else around me sees. This isn’t like a Sixth Sense thing. It’s just that, if I’m standing in a crowd of people, and someone across the street falls down, it’s pretty much guaranteed that I’m the only one who’ll see it. Which always means I’m the idiot who busts out laughing for no apparent reason. Yeah, I’m that person.

The second is that, for no good reason that I can intuit, people feel the need to tell me their acid trip stories. I’m not sure what it is in my aura that compels this. I don’t do and never have done illegal drugs of any kind. I didn’t even have my first drink of alcohol until my wedding night, ten months past my 21st birthday, which I celebrated in Europe for gods’ sakes. But I’m a non-judgmental listener, and I’ve got quite a collection of other people’s weird LSD-induced memories. One in particular has served as genesis for a stable of characters who regularly appear in our household brand of humor. A college friend told me how he once drove a tripping friend around town while the friend had an intense three-way conversation with Seth (his left hand) and The Magic Vacuum (his right hand). I’ve got a long-standing comedy love affair with puppets, so it was natural that they’d just become part of my lexicon. And once you know about them? You see them EVERYWHERE.

Seth (left), Cam (middle), and The Magic Vacuum (right)