Category Archives: culture

A Very Short List of Good Books in Which Nothing Really Happens

Most of us who have taken (or, as the case may be, taught) literature classes understand that stories are made up of three components: plot (what happens); setting (when and where it happens); and characters (whom it happens to). And what makes the study of literature so fascinating to us is that these things aren’t present in equal amounts. Picture a series of knobs, like those on a complex sound system. Say you slide the plot knob way high, turn down the setting knob , and leave character knob in the middle region. This configuration might describe a detective novel, in which what happens (plot) is of paramount importance. But if it’s Sherlock Holmes stories that you like, then the setting will be different, because it isn’t their compelling plots that draw you in, but rather the unique character of Holmes himself, or the foggy, turn-of-the-century setting of London, because it’s the hansom cabs, gas lighting, and general ambiance that appeals to you. A book’s literary mix, in other words, can reflect a variety of combinations of plot + setting + character.

Certain writers tend excel at one or the other of these three elements. (Of course, there are more elements of story out there beyond plot, character and setting; for example, I haven’t discussed “voice,” the teller of the story, and there may be some elements I haven’t thought of or read about. But for the purposes of this blog post, we can just focus on the standard three components of story.) To illustrate my point, I’ll just say that Thomas Hardy, who created an entire English county (Wessex) for his novels, is great with setting, that Agatha Christie is ingenious as far as plot goes, and that Jane Austen produced amazing characters. Some writers are wonderful at two of these, but fail with the third. For example, Charlotte Bronte is great with setting and characters but her plots are pretty much bat-shit crazy. (I still love her works, by the way.) A few highly talented writers, like Charles Dickens, manage to work all three elements in equal portions. But for today, I’d like to talk about stories in which nothing much happens, those novels which are virtually plot-less, and why they can be a source of comfort and entertainment to readers today.

I am now going to alienate half of my readers (sorry to both of you!) by saying that I place Jane Austen squarely into this category. But just think about it: not a whole lot happens in Pride and Prejudice. I mean, the only really exciting part of the novel I can remember (and I’ve read it many times) is when Lydia elopes with Wickham. And that scandalous event doesn’t even happen to the main character. That’s not all: to be honest, I cannot even remember the plot of Sense and Sensibility, which suggests that it scarcely has one. But that’s okay–Jane Austen isn’t about plot. If you want excitement and adventure, don’t read Austen. Read Sir Walter Scott instead. But be advised: Walter Scott himself, author of Ivanhoe and Waverley, those early, action-packed adventure novels so beloved by the Victorians, openly admired the newfangled work of Jane Austen, his opposite in so many ways, as he clearly indicated in an unsigned review of her book Emma. As far as nineteenth-century English writers go, Austen is not the only plot-eschewing literary giant, either; if you’ve ever read an Anthony Trollope novel, you’ll know that few dramatic scenes ever occur in his novels. In fact, when something dramatic does happen, it often occurs offstage, leaving the characters to deal with the effects of momentous and emotional events without ever allowing the reader to witness them herself.

Now this type of novel might be dull and frustrating for most readers, but I will admit that I take great pleasure in books in which very little happens, especially nowadays, when I must brace myself anytime I dare to look at news headlines, with crisis after crisis occurring at breakneck speed. Thankfully, in the world of literature, there is a whole category of works in which books with minimal plots highlight either setting or characters, or both components, in order to produce a delightful and soothing reading experience. I will share some of these works below, with the ulterior motive and express intention of hoping to spur my readers to make their own suggestions in the comments section, and thereby help me find more of these little treasures that I can place on my personal reading list.

First, there are the Mapp and Lucia novels of E.F. Benson. I am a late-comer to these books, having just finished the first in the series, Queen Lucia, in which nothing really happens other than village residents in early twentieth-century England try to one-up each other and claim dominance within their social circle. The very pettiness of these maneuvers is highly entertaining, however, and the characters are drawn well. The writing is as precise as a well-built chronometer, with an Austenian feel to it. Earlier this year, I attempted to listen to Mapp and Lucia, which was a mistake, I think; I stopped listening because it was too acerbic. I think that with Queen Lucia under my belt, I will be much more appreciative of the sharp wit with which Benson portrays a character that not even he likes that much. (Sidenote: Agatha Christie wrote a book called Absent in the Spring, under the name Mary Westmacott, in which she also created a very unlikable character. It’s worth reading, but very different from her usual detective novels.)

Another novel quite similar to Benson’s work is D.E. Stevenson’s Vittoria Cottage. Stevenson was a first cousin of Robert Louis Stevenson, author of swashbuckling novels like Kidnapped and Treasure Island, but she specialized in what was termed “light” fiction. Now, I’m not taking anything away from Robert Louis, but I believe it takes real talent to write about the trivial; as Hamlet says, “There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow” (V.ii). D.E. Stevenson possesses this talent, and it is a delight to delve into the world she has created, in which nothing happens, and little seems to change.

The Kindle version of Vittoria Cottage has an introduction by Alexander McCall Smith, which is highly appropriate, since Smith’s works offer an excellent contemporary example of the minimally plotted novel and fit precisely into the category I’ve identified here. Sure, the Sunday Philosophy Club books are detective stories, but they are the subtlest mysteries imaginable. One could say the same thing about the Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency series; we don’t read them for plot, but rather for the delightful characters they introduce, such as Precious Ramotswe and Grace Makutsi, as well as for the simply drawn but well-evoked setting of Botswana. Smith’s 44 Scotland Street books have more plot, but only because they depend on coincidence and absurdity to move their stories forward. I could sum it up by saying it this way: in Smith’s novels, there is scarcely any climax, but instead a gentle descent to the concluding pages. And far from condemning or critiquing such a structure, I will praise it here, in an attempt to celebrate these minimally plotted novels that allow us to focus on, and take delight in, both setting and character instead of plot.

Now, readers, it’s up to you: do you have any suggestions for books of this type? I look forward to more discoveries.

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Filed under culture, Literary theory, Literature, Reading, Uncategorized, Writing

Elegy for Eavan Boland, 1944-2020

The only modern poet I have ever understood is Eavan Boland.

If you recognize that sentence as an echo of Boland’s wonderful poem “The Pomegranate,” you might share my feelings for her work. Boland’s death will probably not get much attention outside of Ireland, but I feel it’s right for me to acknowledge it here, where I talk about the things that are important to me.

In a time of so many losses, perhaps it’s silly to focus on one death, yet I do it out of selfishness, for myself and for what this poet’s work has meant to me. First, a confession: I am not a poet, nor am I really a great reader of poems. As a professor of literature, I have studied poetry, but I feel much more comfortable with the works of Wordsworth, Arnold, Shakespeare, even (dare I say it?) Milton than with contemporary poetry. To be honest, despite my elaborate education, I really don’t understand contemporary poetry–so I must not really “get” it. I’m willing to accept that judgment; after all, there are a lot of things I do get, so it’s a kind of trade-off. I realize I’m not a Michael Jordan of literary studies, which is why I rarely comment on poetry that was written after, say, 1850. But I feel it’s only right to mention here my attraction to, and reverence for, Boland’s poems, one of which (“This Moment“) I used for years to teach poetic language to my freshman and sophomore college students.

I first noticed Boland’s poems in the mid-90s, when I was teaching full time as an adjunct professor, still hoping to make my mark–whatever that was supposed to be–on the world. I had subscribed to the New Yorker, back in the days when it was read for literary, not political, reasons. This was during a period when poets and writers who submitted their work and not gotten it accepted for publication actually protested outside the offices of the magazine, stating that their work was just as bad as what was being published within the pages of the New Yorker and demanding equal time. (I thought about looking this story up on the internet, because, in an age of so much fake news, everything is easily verifiable, but forgive me–I decided not to. If the story about these outraged mediocre writers is not true, I don’t want to know about it. I love it and cling to it, and it does no one any harm, after all.)

I was very much aware of the opacity of much that was published in the New Yorker, and one evening after the children were in bed, having recently heard that story about the protesters, I shared it with my husband. To demonstrate how unreadable the stuff that was being published was, I grabbed a copy off our end table, thumbed through it until I found a poem, and started to read it out loud. After two or three lines, however, I stopped in mid-sentence. My husband said, “What? Why did you stop?” I looked up slowly, reluctant to pull my eyes away from the poem, and said, “It started to make sense to me. Actually, this is really good.”

I am not sure which poem of hers I was reading that evening. Perhaps it’s best that I don’t know, because it drives me to read so many of her poems, always searching for the Ur-poem, that first poem of hers that drove me to appreciate so much more of what she’s written. Boland’s poetry seems to me to explore the intersection of place and person, of history and modernity, in simple, sometimes stark, language. I love it for its depth, not for its breadth (sorry, Elizabeth Barrett Browning). I love the way it sinks its roots deep into the past, all the way back to myths and legends sometimes, yet still manages to retain a hold on the very real present.

Eavan Boland died yesterday, April 27, at the age of 75. You can read about her influence here, in an article by Fintan O’Toole of the Irish Times. Her poems can be found online at poets.org and on poetryfoundation.org.

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Filed under culture, Education, Literature, Reading, Teaching, Uncategorized, Writing

Choosing Optimism

Photo credit: Daniel Shumway

I haven’t been writing much lately, even though Heaven knows I have the time for it these days. I suppose the main reason is because I haven’t had anything positive to say for a couple of weeks. The political outlook, as well as the growing realization that social distancing will become the new norm for the next three to five years, has taken its toll on my usual optimism.

Having said that, I have to add that I must be the most cautious optimist who ever walked the earth. Several years ago, when my mother was facing a fairly dire medical diagnosis, I told my daughter that until there was definitive proof of it, I would continue to hope for the best. Granted, this was a conscious choice on my part; like everyone else, I can always see the worst possibilities, but on this occasion, I had deliberately decided not to panic. “After all,” I added, “I have absolutely nothing to lose by being an optimist.” Immediately after the words came out of my mouth, I started to laugh; I could not think of a more pessimistic way of expressing my optimism. It’s almost as if I was some mashup of Ernie and Bert, of Winnie the Pooh and Eeyore, existing in the same body at the same time.

(Incidentally, I turned out to be right: my mother was misdiagnosed and recovered, but not before a young doctor, visiting her in her hospital room on his rounds, said to her, “You’re doing so much better! And you’re looking very good for a woman who is 70 years old.” My mother smiled and replied, “Thank you! Actually, I’m 80 years old.” He checked her chart and nodded. “Yes, so you are. Well, you’re looking quite good, aren’t you!” It must have cost my mother a bit to have answered him in that way, because she’s self conscious about her age, but I assume the temptation to put the young doc in his place was simply too great for her to resist.)

This is simply a long-winded way of saying that I often don’t write for this blog unless I’m either outraged or optimistic, and I’ve been neither for the past week or so. But now I think I have something good, something positive, to offer my readers–whoever you may be. It’s not entirely good, but it’s a sunny day today, after several days of wintry weather, and for the moment, at least, I’m able to see some bright spots in our landscape.

It comes in a bad news/good news package. So, here’s the bad news: we’ve tanked our economy, globally, because of Covid-19, trashing productivity, jeopardizing livelihoods, causing mass unemployment. And now, here’s the good news: we’ve tanked our economy, globally, because of Covid-19. How is that good? Think of it this way: whatever happens from here on out, we should never forget that we were willing to sacrifice a great deal, perhaps as much as any generation has ever sacrificed in so short a time, not for a war, but to protect segments of our population that we might ordinarily never even consider: the aged, the infirm, the immunocompromised. This is remarkable–so remarkable, in fact, that we might think this kind of altruism has never happened before in the history of humankind.

But if we did think this, we’d be wrong, because it has. Over and over again.

The anthropologist Margaret Mead once said she considered the earliest sign of civilization to be a healed femur, because it demonstrated that compassion and caring existed within a society, since it takes at least six weeks for the thighbone to heal, and during that time the injured person would be totally dependent on others for his or her survival. And, despite our modern tendency to believe, along with Thomas Hobbes, that life in a natural state must be “nasty, brutish, and short,” we are gaining more and more evidence of the existence of compassion in prehistoric human societies. For example, anthropologists have discovered that Neanderthals cared for injured people, nursing them into old age–and this despite other infirmities that would have precluded their useful contributions to the group.

Like many other people, I’ve been taught that nature was a rough business, and that only the fittest survive. Americans especially have been nurtured on that old chestnut, it seems, even before Darwin’s theories were misappropriated and twisted to create Social Darwinism. We’ve been taught to see the world in this way because it fits our view of ourselves as “rugged individuals” who conquer the environment and make their own destiny. But the era in which this view has held sway is about to end, I hope, and we have Covid-19 to thank for its demise.

One thing we have to understand is that, Hollywood blockbusters and dystopian fiction notwithstanding, disasters don’t always bring out the worst in people; in fact, much of the time, they bring out the very best in humans, as many theorists have pointed out. At least in the early stages of disasters, people tend to act rationally and altruistically. In the last two months, many of us have seen heroic and caring actions performed by people in our neighborhoods and communities. It’s these things we need to focus on, I’d argue, hard as it may be when we are supplied with a never-ending supply of fear and anxiety.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m both afraid and anxious. I should, to be honest, add a few more adjectives to the mix: terrified, frustrated, angry, sad, antsy, hysterical. But I am learning to fight against the media, and perhaps my own nature, which has learned to feed on bad news and fear. In fact, this blog post is just my way of sharing my most recent discovery about the way we live now: We have been spoon-fed bad news for so long now that we are addicted to it. Like the teenager who loves to ride the scariest roller coasters or watch the most terrifying horror flicks, we want to scare ourselves with stories of the disasters that lie ahead of us, of tragedies waiting to jump out at us. Fear, it turns out, is just as thrilling in a news report as it is in a terrifying ride which we cannot get off of. I will leave it to another blogger, or to my readers (please comment below!), to explain why fear is so compelling and addictive. My point for now is that many of us cannot do without such fear; it has become, in the last ten years especially, part of the fabric of our lives now.

But it is dangerous to give in to our addiction to fear in the form of news reports and dire projections about the future, for at least two reasons. First, such reports and predictions may be wrong. Media reporting of human behavior in disasters often is wrong, concentrating on the bad rather than the good. Murder and mayhem sells: “if it bleeds, it leads,” according to an old journalistic saw. Second, these dark views, in addition to their potential inaccuracy, feed our desire for the negative, which I’d argue exists in all of us, even the most optimistic of us. If we think of this desire as an addiction, perhaps we can begin to see the danger of it and wean ourselves off of our negative viewpoints. We may not be more productive (and the very nature of productivity will be questioned and redefined in the coming years, I’d guess), but we may be happier, more satisfied, and ready to work hard to create a better world than the one that lies in shambles around us. After all, we have nothing to lose by being optimists about the future.

Of course, the challenges that face us are enormous, perhaps greater than any other generation has faced. And I don’t always feel optimistic about the likelihood that we can change things substantially. But I know that change is possible, although admittedly it sometimes comes at a great cost. And I know as well that in order to create necessary changes, the work must start well before they actually occur, sometimes centuries before. In other words, we must often imagine the possibility for change long before we can expect to effect it. (This kind of imagining, after all, is exactly what Virginia Woolf does so beautifully at the end of A Room of One’s Own in regard to women’s writing.) In other words, incremental change is likely just as valuable as actual change, though it is often invisible, swimming just below the surface of current events. Without it, real change could never occur.

So I will just end by referring you to the last scene of Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece of satire, The Great Dictator (1940, though begun in 1937), in which he makes fun of Adolf Hitler and Nazism. Chaplin reportedly ad-libbed this speech he gave as the Hitler lookalike, which is perhaps why it rings as true now as it did 70 years ago, when the world was facing another catastrophe, one which it survived and continues to learn from to this day. Take a look at it and see if it makes you feel just a little bit better as you face the future that lies ahead.

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Filed under Criticism, culture, Miscellaneous Musings, Politics

On Nostalgia

Today, on my 11th day of quarantine, I’m wondering whether it’s a bad thing to use nostalgia as escapism.

C.S. Lewis’s science fiction novel (yes–he wrote a science fiction trilogy, back in 1938) Out of the Silent Planet has a fascinating take on the uses of nostalgia. The book is clunky and not terribly good, but it has some really interesting elements in it. In fact, I wish Lewis had stuck to this kind of writing rather than move to the kind of popularized theology which later made him so famous; he might have gotten much better at it, and even as it is, he introduced some fascinating concepts. As an example, when the protagonist Ransom (whom Lewis supposedly modeled after his friend J.R.R. Tolkien) arrives on the planet Malacandra, he finds himself among a group of beings called Hrossa and learns from them about a way of life that is in many ways opposed to life on the Silent Planet–earth.

One of these differences involves how a hross views life experiences and the memories they create. As the hross called Hyoi explains to Ransom, “A pleasure is full-grown only when it is remembered. [It is ] not as if the pleasure were one thing and the memory another. It is all one thing…. What you call remembering is the last part of the pleasure, as the crah is the last part of a poem…. You say you have poets in your world. Do they not teach you this?” This point is almost immediately muddied by the conversation that comes after it (Lewis clearly did not develop clarity of exposition until sometime later in his career), so let’s do the unthinkable and simply take it out of context in order to discuss the nature of nostalgia itself.

Nostalgia poses a bit of a difficulty for me. As I’ve grown older, I’ve found myself embarrassed about a growing tendency towards nostalgia. For example, I’d be saying things to my students, or to other young people around me, and suddenly I’d stop and say, in a rueful tone, “Man, I sound just like my grandmother talking about the old days.” That was enough to shut me up. But today, I’m wondering whether that was the wrong response.

The term “nostalgia” is interesting. The “nost” in it is Greek and comes from the word “nostos” — to return home, while the “algos” is apparently Latin and refers to pain (as in “neuralgia” — “pain due to damaged nerves”). So the word, a fine example of macaronic language (meaning a mixture of languages in one word or expression), actually means “pain in returning home,” but we use it in a difference sense, to refer to a sentimental affection for things past. Perhaps pain in the return home isn’t too far from its meaning, in that nostalgia is often bittersweet: we remember with fondness things from long ago, and lament that they are indeed in the past and no longer part of our present or our future lives.

For me, there’s a bit of a shock involved in nostalgia. As my children grew up and left the house, I found myself with more time to pause and reflect on things, and I realized that I had lived well over half my life without being conscious of the passage of time. Then all at once, it hits you like a ton of bricks. I had my “aha” moment concerning this realization on a business trip (remember business trips? there’s some nostalgia for you!) to San Francisco a while ago. My colleagues and I were discussing the city as we ate some delicious sushi.

“I was here a long time ago, but it sure has changed,” I volunteered.

“When were you here?” asked a colleague.

“Hmmm, it was—” I stopped when I realized that it had been well over 25 years since I’d been to San Francisco. The idea that I could have been walking and talking, indeed sentient, 25 years earlier, hit me hard.

And that conversation happened ten years ago now.

I’ve gotten more used to nostalgia recently, and I wonder whether the current pandemic has helped that along. But I wonder how healthy it is to indulge myself in old I Love Lucy episodes, or to watch all of Downton Abbey, or even, if I apply this to my taste in literature, to read centuries-old books. Is my nostalgia–my attraction to the past–an honest attempt to make sense of my life and to enjoy it fully, as Hyoi the Hross describes it in Lewis’s book, or is it merely retreating into a past that has nothing to do with an alarming present and an even more frightening future? Is nostalgia living one’s life to the fullest, or is it avoiding life itself?

It’s a fascinating question, one worthy of many a late-night discussion among friends and colleagues, complete with a few bottles of wine. What a shame that the pandemic that makes the question pertinent also makes getting together to discuss it an impossibility.

However, that’s what “Reply” and “Comment” buttons are for, and I look forward to reading some of yours below.

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Filed under culture, Literature, Miscellaneous Musings, Reading, Stories

A Very Short Story

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Image from Wikipedia: By U3173699 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=81674970

 

I want to refer to a day many years ago, back when the world was normal and my kids were still at home. It was a weekday afternoon, and I was making chili for dinner, chopping up ingredients at the kitchen counter. My daughter, a high school student who was also taking classes at the local community college, breezed through the back door, walked through the kitchen, put her books down on the dining room table, and returned to the doorway to say, “Mom, the kids in my school are so stupid. I mean, they’re just so dumb that I get worked up about it. I actually think I’ve gone through the Stages of Grief about their stupidity.”

“What?” I had been dicing bell peppers, but I put down my knife and looked up at her. She had just come home from her college psychology class.

“Well, we were learning about Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s theory about the stages of grief, and I realized that the kids I know are so annoying and stupid that I’ve gone through all those stages about them.”

I asked her to explain, and she went on. “So, the first stage is Denial. I start out thinking, ‘I cannot believe these people are so stupid. Maybe if I ignore them, I won’t have to deal with them at all. The extent of their stupidity actually scares me, so I’ll stay away.'”

I nodded and said, “Go on.”

“The next stage is Anger. I get angry at their stupidity, because they frustrate me, and they make me anxious. I’m just mad that they’re dumb and they don’t care about changing.”

I waited for her to continue.

“Okay, then comes Depression. I seriously get depressed about how stupid they are. I begin to think that they’ll never be anything but stupid, no matter how much I — or anyone else — tries to help them. It makes me sad that anyone can be alive and so dumb.”

By this point I had nothing to say. It’s always a little overwhelming the first time your child shares a truly interesting thought that you didn’t plant in their brain.

“That’s when I start Bargaining. I say to myself, ‘Oh, they may be stupid in this class. They may be stupid in all their classes, but maybe they’re good athletes. Yeah, they’re probably great at football or basketball or volleyball. They’re in band, so maybe that’s what they’re good at. See, they’re really stupid, but there are ways to compensate for that, aren’t there?”

She paused a moment, then finished by saying, “But I always end up Accepting their stupidity. I just factor it into my plans, sometimes I even use it to get what I want, and then I move on to something else.”

She stood up, grabbed her books, and went upstairs to her room, leaving me staring after her. I had nothing to say in the face of such brilliance, but she didn’t even notice.

Every single thing she’d said made perfect sense, and I promised myself one day I would write about it.

And now, 15 years later, awake at the crack of dawn because I can’t stop thinking and fretting and worrying, I realize that we’re probably all going through the Stages of Grief about the Coronavirus, and I’ve finally made good on my promise.

P.S. If you’re looking for more stuff to read, check out my friend John’s blog: TomatoPlanet! at https://ininva.com/. John’s been doing this blogging stuff since way before it was cool, and he’s got some great stuff there.

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A Change is Gonna Come

sam_cooke

Sam Cooke. Scroll down to link to “A Change is Gonna Come”

Although it sounds strange to say it, I am optimistic today. Of course, being in quarantine, my optimism comes and goes in erratic waves–often I am depressed, and worried, and downright frightened about the future. But this morning, I can see a silver lining, and I want to take a moment right now to share it with you, my readers.

I am more hopeful about the survival of the human race today than I was a week ago. Now this may seem strange when we consider that we are facing a pandemic that threatens a large portion of our population. I am terrified that deaths will start to climb fast in the United States, as they have elsewhere (is anyone else addicted to the worldometers coronavirus site)? It’s a scary time to be alive, there’s no doubt about it. But I need to share with you that this morning, I see some real hope for our future.

In the last week, we’ve seen sweeping change occur in the blink of an eye. We’ve seen schools close, athletic events — both professional and amateur — cancelled, and even restaurants and bars shut down. All of this has happened voluntarily, so to speak. No one’s out protesting in the streets about these closures, because we all know it’s necessary to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Strangely enough, these changes have happened at the behest, not of the federal government, but of state and local governments. I applaud the courageous governors who have made these tough decisions, just as I deride the lack of leadership at the federal level. I am proud of our local community leaders, too, who are stepping up and not only following but also preparing to enforce these new rules, should any enforcement be necessary. In the last week, the federal government has become, a kind of inconsequential afterthought, a  lazy bystander watching all these changes take effect. In fact, it may not be an exaggeration to say that Washington has become irrelevant in the past last week.

And this is why I am optimistic. For eight years now, on and off, I’ve worked for change. I realized long ago that if the human race is to survive the threat of global climate change, we will have to make drastic adjustments in the way we live. During most of that time, I have been pessimistic about the possibility of enacting any change. To put it bluntly, in the eight years I’ve been working for systemic change, I’ve been able to achieve very little: the sum total of my labors at this point is getting myself elected to my tiny community’s city council and, if I am to be honest, this blog. It’s not much; in fact that’s a pitiful list of accomplishments. But this past week I have seen that change is possible, and that’s what gives me hope on this cloudy, cold spring morning, sitting at my desk in the middle of a pandemic.

Look at it this way. We are entering a very frightening period. Things are changing every moment. But the point is, we are capable of change. By the time we get through this coronavirus crisis, each one of us will have changed. More importantly, the country as a whole will change, too. Look at how much we have already changed in the span of a week. In a year’s time, we will be a more collective society, one in which we look out for each other even in the midst of isolation. We will begin to rebuild our federal government, which has been systematically dismantled over the past forty years, because we see now how very much we need it. We will create a global health system that works to prevent pandemics, that stops infectious disease before it can gain a toe-hold. We will change in other ways, too, which no one, especially me, can predict.

This shift will not happen all at once. In fact, it may not happen in my lifetime. But my children, who are young adults, are watching this change, this revolution, occur in real time. And because they are experiencing sweeping changes now, they will know throughout their lives that radical change is a real possibility, one which doesn’t rest on the charisma of one political candidate or another, but on a society of intelligent and educated people who heed scientists, and which is motivated not by profits but by safeguarding the lives of those they love. This generation and the next will  remember these lessons, gaining important knowledge about the flexibility of the society they live in, and that knowledge will guide them into the future.

Change isn’t always good, though, and we should prepare ourselves for the probability, indeed the certainty, that things will get much worse before they get better. As the federal government rebuilds itself, it will make mistakes. Personal liberties have already been curtailed, and that is a serious matter. But sacrifice is often necessary for survival. By the time we emerge from this crisis, everyone–Republicans and Democrats alike–will look a whole lot more like Socialists, and that’s a good thing. We are experiencing a powerful correction, one which is painful now, but which just might allow us to make it into a future that requires nimbleness rather than ideology, that places the value of human lives higher than that of profits.

So that’s why I’m optimistic on this cold, gray morning. Perhaps it’s also because I’ve received proof of the kindness of strangers in the face of this crisis: James, from the Keats-Shelley House in Rome, has read my blog and offered to replace my poor little knitting bag as soon as he is able to get back to the Museum. That’s a wonderful story–and right now, there are millions of stories like that happening all over the world. Focus on these stories, readers, whenever you need a break from the news.

And one more thing–if you find this post helpful at all, feel free to share it on your own social media page. Who knows? It could help someone who needs a dose of old-fashioned optimism.

Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come

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Filed under culture, Environmentalism, Miscellaneous Musings, Politics

How I Lost My Knitting Bag

Just a couple of days ago, on Saturday morning, March 14, my husband and I and our dog Millie left Frankfurt, Germany, to return to the United States. We were relieved–so relieved!–to be on that morning flight, despite the fact that we were returning to the wrong airport and were facing many extra hours of driving to get to our home, where we would then seclude ourselves from all social interaction for the next two weeks.

Let me back up to the beginning. Late last year, my husband asked me to go with him on a trip to Europe to show our dog Millie at Crufts, the biggest dog show in the world, and certainly one of the most prestigious, which is held in Birmingham, England, each year. Although I have, over the past two years, developed a profound distaste for traveling, I said yes. This would be a chance, perhaps my last chance given my bad attitude, I told myself, to visit friends overseas and to indulge myself in two and a half days of museum immersion in London. Most of my career has been spent teaching English literature, and so I could not resist the lure of literary museum-hopping coupled with the chance to see friends we normally see once every three or four years. So on March 1, just two weeks ago, we packed several suitcases, our dog, and her large crate into our truck and headed downstate to the airport.

I knew about the Covid-19 outbreak, and to be honest, I was a little concerned. But it seemed that it was contained in China, and so despite my misgivings, we went anyway. I tend to be a bit hyper-aware, perhaps a little over-dramatic, so I’m sure my nervous jokes about getting stuck in Europe went largely unheeded by friends and family. In fact, I want to go on record here that my daughter, wise beyond her years, warned me we were taking a risk and that we could actually get stuck in Europe for a time. But I had a plan if we did, I said: we would rent a camper and hunker down in empty campgrounds. I brought extra prescription medication, and a good bit of knitting. I made sure I had good books to read on my Kindle app–but all of these things, I told myself, were just insurance against an outlying possibility of the virus ramping up and cutting off travel. I was not seriously preparing for a pandemic. I do remember saying at my last band practice before our departure, however, that I believed the coronavirus would change the way we live our lives in the future. I had no idea the future would be arriving so quickly.

Our trip proceeded well. We had purchased disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer, and I wiped down all surfaces I could–in hotels, airplanes, trains, everywhere I could think of. I washed my hands carefully and well. I used the sanitizer several times a day. I kept my distance from people. The museums I went to, with the exception of the British Museum, were not hugely popular (more on these in a later blog), and I did not attend too many crowded events, apart from one afternoon in a pub and Crufts itself. As the trip proceeded, we began to refrain from handshakes and hugs, nodding to our friends or laughingly bumping elbows with them when we greeted them. But I kept a wary eye on the figures coming out on the virus’s spread, and by the midpoint of my ten-day trip, I just wanted to get back home to my pets, my home, and my routine.

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Millie at Crufts

That’s when weird things started happening with our Lufthansa reservations. We kept getting notifications that our return flights were cancelled. By the time we reached our last destination, Bruges, Belgium, we’d been cancelled three times, and we had to spend a couple of hours on the phone to rebook our flight home. First we rebooked for Friday, March 13–and then that flight got cancelled. We rebooked for Saturday, heaved a sigh of relief, and went to bed. It had been a good, fun, and largely productive trip, but we would both be relieved when we got back to the States.

Some hours later, at three in the morning, I was wakened from sleep by a call from my sister, who often calls me accidentally. I didn’t answer the phone, but when it buzzed again, I picked it up. In a panicked voice, she told me about Trump’s speech and said I had to get home immediately. My daughter texted me next, and then both of my sons. We spent several panicked hours on the phone until I realized, along with the rest of the world, that American citizens would be allowed to return even after the travel ban began. We heaved a sigh of relief and went back to bed.

We spent a lovely last day in Bruges, even though I was somewhat on edge and just wanted to be on a plane home. But we would be leaving to spend the night at the airport hotel the next morning, I told myself, trying to be calm. We began to studiously avoid crowds, and bought groceries instead of going out to a restaurant for dinner. Then, at 6 pm, just as we were entering the sauna of our hotel in an attempt to relax, we received the text saying our Saturday morning flight to Detroit was cancelled. It is not too hyperbolic to say that at that point my head exploded, and I had a first-class meltdown, leaving me a pulsing mass of panic, worry, and angry impotence.

Let me say this: frustrating as it was to try to deal with Lufthansa over the phone, they were patient and helpful in getting us on a flight home when we talked to an agent in person. Because that’s what it took to get us passage home: a drive to the Frankfurt airport without any reservations, taking a number, waiting two hours in the lounge to talk to an agent, and then working through all possibilities. We had left out of Detroit: we would not be able to return there, because only a few cities were accepting European flights after the ban commenced. We gladly accepted a flight for the following day to Chicago–what’s a few hours of driving when you’re trying to get home, after all?–but there was no room for the dog we’d brought with us. We got on a flight for Sunday, which supposedly had room for the dog, but then it appeared that she would not be allowed to fly on that flight after all.

I now understand what marriage is all about. When my husband faced the very real possibility that his dog would not be allowed to come back to the States, he had a first-class meltdown. I calmed him down, and he would later reciprocate when I erupted in a furious, scathing, expletive-filled political diatribe in Chicago, when we were herded like cattle into enormous lines for Covid-19 screening, which seemed expressly designed not only to batter our souls, but to spread the disease easily and efficiently throughout a room filled with close-packed travelers. After more than 39 years of marriage, I have discovered the secret of a successful marriage, so newlyweds, pay heed: a good marriage consists of two people alternately calming the other down, talking him or her off an emotional cliff, and expressing a sometimes false optimism that everything will be okay.

We somehow got seats on the Saturday flight–I’m not sure how that happened, but bless the agent who tried one more time to get them for us and for Millie and found, I’m sure to her surprise, that she could. Cross your fingers and toes, I texted all my family and friends, that we would actually get on that flight and make it home.

The next morning, we got to the airport, and, amazingly, things begin to work out. I realized that we were actually going home. I thought I would feel relief, but instead, as I looked around and saw groups of young Americans, whom I recognized as teenage foreign exchange students returning to their homes in the States, I felt a wave of sadness rush over me. These students were being sent home, their overseas experience rudely truncated–just as their European counterparts in the USA were. The grand experiment of intercultural exchange, begun in the years after WWII, seemed to be over, cut off in the blink of an eye. My son had been a foreign exchange student in Germany, and we hosted an exchange student last year. I had to swallow hard and blink back my tears as I realized how lucky they both were to have the experiences they did.

Staring out the window as the plane took off (in the longest takeoff roll my husband, a former USMC pilot, has ever experienced–the 747 was loaded to the gills with Americans going home), I felt another tidal wave of sadness. Don’t get me wrong–I was ecstatic to be going home, it was all I wanted, and I was willing to put up with any amount of traveling to get there–but I knew I would not be coming back to Europe soon. In fact, there’s a real possibility I will never go back. Like the stock market, world travel is now experiencing a “correction.” It has been too easy and too cheap for too long. We have not been calculating the real costs of transatlantic travel–the economic, the environmental, and the public health costs of gallivanting about the globe–and its future will surely appear profoundly different from its past. Just as we look back to the glory days of commercial aviation, when one dressed up to travel, when seats were comfortable and spacious, when meals on board were tasty and the presentation of them mattered, we will shortly look back to the recent past as a time when international travel was as easy, and nearly as cheap, as trip across the state. Musing on this, I took a few photos from the plane, already nostalgic.

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Leaving Frankfurt

And so we landed in Chicago, only to stand in the long lines to get admitted to our own country, and then more long lines to get screened for coronavirus. We were told not to take pictures; if we did, our phones would be confiscated. (This is not the place for political discussion–this post is already too long–so suffice it to say that much more than the travel industry is being harmed by Trump’s ineffective and damaging reactions to the coronavirus pandemic.) Three hours passed as slowly as possible. My back began to hurt, and my shoulders ached from the straps of my bag. We fretted about our dog, who we knew would be out of drinking water after her long flight in her crate. Twice the crowded room broke into spontaneous song: the first time, “Sweet Caroline,” and the second, “Hallelujah.” It was a nice gesture, but the songs petered out fairly quickly. It’s hard to sing when you’re tired, worried, and sad.

The homeland security officers, WHO workers, and Public Health workers (whom I’ve rarely ever seen in uniform before) were working as hard as they could, but they were understaffed, slammed by a horde of travelers arriving, somewhat panic-stricken, all at the same time. To be honest, it was barely controlled chaos. We were lucky in that we arrived early in the day at O’Hare, and so were not crammed body-to-body, and we only had to wait in line three hours. But I really wouldn’t wish what we experienced on anyone, except perhaps Trump himself.

While I was waiting for my husband to get a rental car to take us, first to a hotel to get a few hours’ sleep and then to Detroit to pick up our car so we could return home (a four-hour drive that would be followed by another four-hour drive home), I experienced a trivial loss, but one which pushed me over the edge into tears. I am a devoted but not terribly accomplished knitter, knitting wherever I go because it helps me soothe my overactive nerves. On Saturday night, after 10 hours of flying and four hours of waiting and collecting baggage, loaded down with a large dog and two heaped luggage carts, I was pacing back and forth outside the terminal as snowflakes drifted down from a sullen night sky, when I suddenly realized that my knitting bag was missing. I tried not to cry, but the tears came–and I’m still choked up about it, to be honest.

It’s not just the bag, or even its contents: the sock I was in the midst of knitting, my cell phone charger, or my Go Navy water bottle (a gift from my daughter). It’s not even my unread copy of Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness. It’s the symbolism of the thing. I’d purchased the bag at the Keats-Shelley House in Rome four years ago, on my first trip to Italy to visit my daughter, who was then stationed there. Then I added buttons from each literary museum I went to: for example, from the Jane Austen museum (“I ♥ Knightley”), and many others, including a new one with a portrait of Charles Dickens that I’d just bought when I went to the Dickens House last week. I’d gotten one button from a former student, as well as a couple from my foreign exchange student. Inside the bag was a skein of yarn from Dresden that she had picked out and sent to me, which I was making into a sock using needles that my husband had bought for me from a knitting shop in England. In essence, my ragged little knitting bag was a hodge-podge of multiculturalism, a soon-to-be relic of a time when the world was small, and familiar, and comfortable. It’s fitting that I’d lose it at the very end of my trip, and I can appreciate the dramatic logic of such a loss, but I’d give anything to have it back again. It’s as if a part of my world, of everyone’s world, is represented by that small, ragged bag, which is now gone forever.

So that’s my story of my escape from Europe. I’m sleep deprived, highly emotional, and under house quarantine for two weeks, and committed to practicing social distancing for much longer than that, if necessary. But I have my cats and dogs, my books, my knitting (no knitter has only one project going at a time, after all), my classic movies, and — importantly– this blog, which I will be updating, I hope, two to three times a week. I can’t promise profound thoughts, but maybe that’s a good thing. In these times, one needn’t be profound. For now, let’s all just try to be present for each other in any way we can.

 

 

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Filed under culture, Miscellaneous Musings, Politics, Travel

Inappropriate Songs from the Past (brought to you by SiriusXM Radio)

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By Film screenshot – Stage Door Canteen film, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1194330

I am a fairly devoted listener of ’40s Junction, a channel on Sirius Radio that plays songs from the 1940s–except when they don’t. (To my lasting fury and frustration, I discovered this year that the station ceases its normal operations on November 1 and, for the next six weeks, plays “holiday music.” Now, I don’t know if the program managers decided that the people who listen to 1940s music are the same ones who enjoy endless Christmas carols, but if anyone from Sirius is reading this, here’s a hint: they aren’t.) One thing I’ve found out by listening to ’40s Junction is that  if one listens long enough, one can discover some real gems. I mean, we all know “Blues in the Night,” “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Don’t Fence Me In,” and “String of Pearls,” but occasionally this station plays some songs I’ve never heard of, despite living in a certifiable time warp for my entire life. And so today I’m taking a break from politics and pessimism to discuss four of these little oddities from the past, complete with YouTube links, so that you can listen to them and judge for yourself. Above all, I’m curious about my readers’ reactions to these songs, so please do leave your comments on some or all of these songs.

I will start out with a song that has a catchy rhythm and some very interesting lyrics: “The Lady from 29 Palms.” It seems to have been recorded in 1946 or so, and there is an interesting reference to the explosive attraction of the lady in question, who is compared to “a load of atom bombs,” which, coming so soon after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is highly insensitive, to say the least. Yet it has a great sax line in the beginning, and with its really clever rhymes, I’d say this is a song that’s worth listening to.

Next on my list is a very odd little song that shocked me when I first heard it. Unlike “The Lady from 29 Palms,” “Who’s Yahoodi” is famous enough to have its own Wikipedia entry, which certainly  bears checking out. Hop over there, and you can read about the song’s origins on the Bob Hope Radio Program, when announcer Jerry Colonna got tickled as he introduced one of Hope’s guests, the young violin prodigy Yehudi Menuhin. Colonna made fun of the name, continued his joke through later programs, and eventually, it became a popular meme, although memes hadn’t been invented yet.  In 1940, songwriters Bill Seckler and Matt Dennis made a song out of it. The U.S. Navy also got some mileage out of the situation, naming one of its research programs “Project Yehudi.” I’ve linked to the Cab Calloway version, but there are several other versions, including an astoundingly antisemitic one (I know–the whole thing’s kind of antisemitic, but this version is really takes the cake). As with “The Lady from 29 Palms,” the song itself is catchy, with the kind of finger-snapping rhythm that makes tunes from this era so appealing. In addition, the song’s many references to secretive, spooky people who are there, but not there remind me of those Dr. Who beings, the Silence, who watch and influence human events, but are never seen by humans. Added to these odd but intriguing lyrics, there’s some enjoyable big-band music, with the necessary saxophone solos and brass rhythms creating a memorable song. How it disappeared is a mystery–unless, of course, the Silence got involved in the whole thing and wiped it from our collective memories.

The next two songs are about body-shaming. In a way, I’m surprised they found their way on the air at all in the present day, given the changing climate and hyper-awareness about body images we’ve seen in recent years. The first, “Lean Baby,” was recorded by Frank Sinatra and was very popular. But the Dinah Washington version is even better, so you should check that one out, too. Clever yet brutal lyrics make the song interesting, and once again the music is quite catchy. On the flip side of this “appreciation” of thinness is “Mr. Five-by-Five,” arguably the most successful of the songs I’ve mentioned here. At least seven singers have recorded versions of it, the most recent one in a 2013 movie (Gangster Squad), according to its Wikipedia entry. Here’s a version by Ella Mae Morse recorded in 1942. Again, there are some devilishly funny lyrics that, inappropriate as they are, make you laugh out loud–if you’re by yourself.

So, readers, what do you think about these four songs? Politically incorrect, a fascinating trip down memory lane, historical footnotes, or just oddities? I’m not sure what to make of them, but I am grateful that they are preserved, inappropriate or not, for us to listen to, consider, and critique them. So, thanks, Sirius Radio, for the memories–even if I have to put up with two months of Christmas music to get them.

 

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Ecohats

Chief Petoskey sporting an Ecohat in Petoskey, Michigan.

 

We are facing an ecological emergency, and too little is being done to address the consequences of climate change. As individuals, our actions may seem inadequate. Yet every action, however small, can lead to something bigger. Change comes only as a result of collective will, and we can demonstrate that will by showing that we desire immediate political, social, and economic action in the face of global climate change.

Ecohats are not a solution, but they are a manifestation of will made public. Based on the pussyhat, a public display of support for women’s rights, Ecohats display support for immediate political action to address the need for systemic change to deal with climate change. They are easy to create; simply knit, crochet, or sew a hat in any shade of green to show your support for the people and organizations that are dedicated to addressing the issue of climate change, then wear it or display it with pride and dedication.

We can’t all be Greta Thunberg, but we can show our support for those people and organizations that are tirelessly working to address climate change, like  Citizens’ Climate Lobby, 350.org, Center for Biological Diversity, and others.

Please consider making, wearing, and displaying an Ecohat to show your support!

 

Ernest Hemingway is also wearing an Ecohat!

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Against Cynicism

scout and the mob

 

Like many other people, I have been very worried about the direction we’re going–not just the United States, but the world in general. Populism–which in its most innocuous form is little more than cheering for the home team but which can be so much more insidious and damaging–is on the rise, and partisanship seems to have infiltrated many western governments, causing us to question the efficacy of democracy itself. Couple this with the imminence of climate change, and the future of human civilization seems dire indeed.

So I understand why many of us might live in a state of worry, of fearful suspense. I know how it feels to wake up each morning, wondering what new terrible thing has happened while I slept, and how it feels to wait impatiently for the slow-moving wheels of democratic rule to right themselves, and to hope for a period in which government works for its citizenry rather than for corporations and billionaires. I, too, have lost hope at times, allowing myself to be convinced that the struggle against injustice and oligarchy is fruitless; like so many other people, I have frequently succumbed to cynicism and inertia, telling myself that any action is doomed to failure.

But that attitude is wrong. I know that now. More importantly, I feel it’s my duty to lead a crusade against this type of cynicism, even if I do so all by myself.

If you’re reading this blog post, excellent. We can work together. On the other hand, if this essay slips unacknowledged into cyberspace, read by no one at all, so be it–that doesn’t matter. The struggle is important, and it must be waged, even if by only one person, and even if I myself am that person. What follows, then, is my small own contribution in the war on cynicism–my manifesto, if you like.

The time for idle anger is over. The time for pessimism is past. We do not have the luxury to sit back and watch knowingly as the world falls apart, nodding as we say, “Of course, we always knew it would be this way. The system is rigged.” Whether it is or is not rigged is beside the point. This is a question that can be debated by future historians, much like the question “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Saints and scholars can debate such a question; they have that luxury. But we no longer have the luxury to debate whether government is or is not effective. We have to act, and we have to act now, if we want to save our way of life.

And actions start with beliefs, primarily the belief that when we act, our actions have effects. I believe–rather, I know, with certainty–that they do have effects. At the local level, our actions, indeed, our mere presence at meetings and councils do have an effect; I have seen this demonstrated in the past year in my role as a city councilmember. Government, at least at the most local level, works–but only if we work hard at it by electing the right people and by holding them accountable. In short, democracy is not compatible with either cynicism or complacency; yet throughout much of the last generation, our citizenry has been guilty of both these things.

Why? Because cynicism is easy. Cynicism is seductive. Cynicism is cool–so cool, in fact, that many voters in 2016 agreed that “draining the swamp” was the best thing going for a candidate who had no other ideas or attractions. So here is my advice: do not give in to the lure of cynicism. It leads nowhere but to the self, to an inflated view of one’s own cleverness and perception, to a self-satisfied egocentrism that congratulates itself on seeing the worst at all times, in all places. 

Close to the climax of To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout Finch prevents a lynching from happening merely by demonstrating her own naive lack of cynicism. As the crowd of angry white men encircles Atticus, who is guarding the innocent Tom Robinson in his cell, Scout does more than anyone else to quell the murderous mob and send it home. Her simple, naive words, her attempt to connect with Mr. Cunningham on a human and neighborly level, represent a belief in innate goodness and the power of community, and  it is just enough to disarm a group of angry men bent on taking the life of an innocent African-American man. (Click here to watch this pivotal scene; my apologies for the commercial at the beginning.)

That Tom Robinson ends up dying at the end of the novel for a crime he didn’t commit is part of To Kill a Mockingbird’s tragic impact. As readers, perhaps we can be cynical about that tragic message; but as actors, as characters in our own human drama and, most of all, as real-life community members, we cannot afford such cynicism. We must be like Scout if we want to survive.

Reader, I implore you: give up your cynicism. Today, I ask you to believe in something grander than your own cleverness in discovering the duplicity of others, and to act in good faith, even though no discernible good may come out of your actions in your lifetime. Be naive, if you have to. But say good-bye to cynicism today, this minute. I am certain the generation that comes after us will thank you for it.

 

 

 

 

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