Saturday, August 30, 2008

Gleanings from My Readings

"Detecting shades of gray in a world dominated by efforts to cast conflicts and questions in black and white requires both common sense and a willingness to engage reality as it is, not as we wish it to be.”
---Jon Meacham, Newsweek editor

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“We have studied our exegesis as exegesis, our theology as theology, our philosophy as philosophy; we study something about art as art, we study music as music, without understanding that these are things of man, and the things of man are not unrelated parallel lines.”

“I am false or confused if I sing about Christ’s lordship and contrive to retain areas of my own life that are autonomous. This is true if it is my sexual life that is autonomous, but it is at least equally true if it is my intellectual life that is autonomous—or even my intellectual life in a highly selective area.”
---Francis Schaeffer, in Escape from Reason

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“If we want a world alive with art and music and possibility, we have to accept that there will be accidents and tragedies and that innocents will suffer.”
---Philip Martin, columnist

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“When a man can barely earn a subsistence . . . the mind is necessarily imprisoned in its own little tenement; and, fully occupied by keeping it in repair, has not time to rove abroad for improvements. The book of knowledge is closely clasped, against those who must fulfil their daily task of severe manual labour or die; and curiosity, rarely excited by thought or information, seldom moves on the stagnate lake of ignorance.”
---Mary Walstonecraft, in Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman

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From David Shumate’s poem “High Water Mark”:

“I know it’s not the kind of thing you ought to say . . .
But I wouldn’t mind seeing another good flood before I die.
It’s been dry for decades. Next time I think I’ll just let go and
drift downstream and see where I end up.” (10-13)

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From Bill Holm’s poem “Wedding Poem For Schele and Phil”:

“History and experience both make clear
That men and women do not hear
The music of the world in the same key,
. . .
But the dark secret of the ones long married,
A pleasure never mentioned to the young . . .” (8-10, 22-23)

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Happy Reading!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Politically Confused


You can’t open a newspaper, look at the cover of a magazine, turn on the TV, or read a blog (except mine) lately without noticing the focus on politics. I’m feeling a little out of the loop, so here goes:

Obama. McCain. Democrat. Republican. McCain. Obama. Christian. Muslim. Obama. McCain. Liberal. Conservative. McCain. Obama. Experienced. Unproven. Bill and Hillary. Gender Issues. Obama. McCain. The Race Card. DNC. RNC. Joe Biden. Obama. McCain. Raise Taxes. Lower Taxes. Universal Health Care. War Hero. McCain. Obama. Personal Integrity. Bipartisanship. McCain. Obama. Obama. Obama. . .

Okay. I don’t mean to make light of politics, and I’m not apolitical. I realize that whoever wins in November will shape our country, not only for the next four years, but on into the future through policy decisions and Supreme Court nominations and how he responds to acts of aggression against the U.S.

I guess what I really am, is politically confused. It’s important to me to be a well-informed person, and although I spend more time reading literature than political pundits, I do try to be in-the-know. The problem is that I don’t know who to believe. Each magazine article I read contradicts the last one. Each news anchor leans a different way. Each analyst comes to a different conclusion. What’s a person who doesn’t have a degree in political science supposed to do?

Well, I don’t have it all figured out, but here are a few things I do know:

1. There are radicals and zealots on both sides of any issue, some willing to resort to violence.
2. People from both parties misrepresent, slant, and sometimes lie.
3. Candidates are human. We will often be disappointed in them.
4. Some people will do anything for power.
5. Some people truly want to serve.
6. There are honest, committed Christians on both sides of the aisles, earnestly trying to following their convictions.
7. We should try to understand each other and treat each other with respect.
8. Even though it may be difficult, it’s important to try to get a handle on the issues, get to know the candidates, and vote my conscience.

Maybe I’ll get it all figured out by November.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Speaking of Haunted Houses . . .

One day, when my children were still small, I walked into the bathroom to find a mountain of (clean) toilet paper piled on the vanity. Horrified by their lack of frugality, I tracked down my children, in turn, for an explanation. Very sincerely, each child informed me that he or she had had nothing to do with this incident. Additionally, they all assured me that they had absolutely no idea how a roll of toilet paper unwound itself and jumped three-or-so feet to rest on the elegant faux-marble surface.

My husband proffered the only feasible explanation. “It must have been The Toilet Paper Phantom,” he explained. Over the ensuing years, The Toilet Paper Phantom visited our home, always unobserved and undetected. His visits were random and unexpected and always accompanied by some type of unexplainable occurrence. Sometimes he hid things, sometimes he broke things. He was always, if anything, unpredictable.

After extensive research, I determined that The Toilet Paper Phantom was most likely a poltergeist. A poltergeist, I discovered, is a mischievous spirit who manifests his/her presence by making noises, moving objects, and sometimes assaulting people or animals. Poltergeists are sometimes accompanied by vile smells, and they seem to have adapted to technology, damaging telephones and other electronic equipment, turning on lights and appliances, such as TVs, and failing to turn them off. One of my most interesting discoveries was that instances of poltergeist activity often occur in the presence of children.


Now, some people might be terrified by this type of unexplained phenomena, yet my husband and I were brave. But if The Toilet Paper Phantom follows us into the empty nest, we’re calling the Ghost Busters.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Emotional Spaces

psy-cho-log-i-cal (adj) 1. a. of or relating to psychology (the science of mind and behavior) b. mental 2. directed toward the will or toward the mind specifically in its conative function

From the above definition, courtesy of Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, one would naturally assume that the word psychological would be used, most likely even exclusively, in some context related to human beings. Right? Maybe animals at a stretch, but inanimate objects? Surely not.

Oh, but you forget we have a wonderfully adaptive language we call American English.

According to real estate lawyer Tim Grooms, the State of Arkansas has a “ghost-buster bill” that prevents sellers and agents from being sued over paranormal activity. This code protects agents who fail to disclose “any fact or circumstance or suspicion of the existence of any fact or circumstance that indicates that the real property is psychologically impacted” (emphasis mine). Arkansas law defines property that is “psychologically impacted” as any property that “was at any time suspected to have been the site of a homicide, suicide, or felony.”

Before selling a property, the seller is required to fill out a disclosure informing the selling agent about any unusual events that might affect a property’s marketability. Although ghosts aren’t necessarily spelled out in any legal clause, a representative of the Arkansas State Realtors Association explains, “If a seller tells his agent there is something floating around in there, the agent is probably obligated to tell their buyer about it.”

I think it’s really interesting that we’re not talking about terrified, psychologically impacted inhabitants, but the actual house itself. This reminds me of the opening of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House. The novel begins, “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.” Oooooh. And it only gets better.

Well, I don’t think my house is terrified or insane, but it just might be a little depressed. I’ve noticed it’s letting itself go a little. I wonder if it needs therapy?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Woody's Angst

On April 8, 1966, the cover of Time magazine shouted a question many readers of that time would have considered rhetorical: “Is God Dead?” After all, enlightened mankind had it all figured out, and his growing rationalism had led gradually to a totally secularized view of life. Man was finally free of God, free from the superstition of religion, from its restraints and demands. Man was free to be the center of his own universe, to make his own choices, to construct his own truth.

The problem with this is that man, apart from some centering force, some universal, has no meaning. He becomes an insignificant cog in the great machine of the universe. Yet something deep inside him demands that there must be more. So he searches for significance through philosophy, through drugs, through materialism, through art.

All this too philosophical for you? Think it’s just exaggeration? Here’s how it sounds in real life:

Jennie Yabroff interviewed actor and director Woody Allen for Newsweek magazine. She reports that, “at 72, he says he still lies awake at night, terrified of the void.” He makes movies, “not because he has any grand statement to offer, but simply to take his mind off the existential horror of being alive. ‘Movies are a great diversion,’ he says, ‘because it’s much more pleasant to be obsessed over how the hero gets out of his predicament than it is over how I get out of mine. . . . I can’t really come up with a good argument to choose life over death, except that I’m too scared . . . I need to be focused on something so I don’t see the big picture.” He sums up his lifeview: “Your perception of time changes as you get older, because you see how brief everything is. You see how meaningless . . . I don’t want to depress you, but it’s a meaningless little flicker.”

Contrast that with Paul’s view of life and its inevitable end: “The time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me . . .”

All of us choose a philosophy for life. I like Paul’s better.

Monday, August 25, 2008

More Books on My Nightstand




Last week, I spent a few days back in Oxford, and I can never be in Oxford without visiting Square Books. And I can never visit Square Books without buying at least one book. This time, I bought two—Krista Tippett’s Speaking of Faith and Larry McMurtry’s Books: A Memoir. Tippett’s book was an unplanned purchase, but you know how it is. You wander into the bookstore, you approach the display table, a title catches your eye, you read the blurb, you check out the table of contents, you are intrigued, you lose all self control, you willingly hand over your cash.

But McMurtry’s book was a planned expenditure. Westerns are not usually my genre of choice, but his Lonesome Dove has a place on my (rather long) list of favorite novels, so when I heard that he had published a memoir centered around his life with books—reading them, writing them, acquiring them, collecting them, selling them— I knew, as a fellow bibliophile, I’d have to add this book to my collection.

My collection, by the way, is nowhere near as extensive as his 28,000 volume library. Because he no longer has time to reread them all, the 72-year-old McMurtry says of his beloved books, “They need to find other readers soon—ideally they will be my son and grandson, but if not them, other book lovers.”

Well, I’m not seventy-two yet, but I understand the sentiment. As they say, “So many books, so little time.”

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Gleanings from My Readings

“The meaning of poetry is to give courage. A poem is not a puzzle that you the dutiful reader is obliged to solve. It is meant to poke you, get you to buck up, pay attention, rise and shine, look alive, get a grip, get the picture, pull up your socks, wake up and die right.”


“Poetry is made of the grandeur that is available to a man with no fortune but with somewhere to walk to and ears to hear and a mind to transport him.” ---Garrison Keillor

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“Often the words that we don’t—that we can’t—say are among the most potent. And to limit the tools an artist can use cheats society of potential truth telling. We might think of art as a special circumstance where the normal rules of decorum need not apply so long as the work produced justifies the outrage it incites. . . . the truth is the world is rough, and we cannot hope to educate everyone to our own standards for civilization. Art . . . has to engage the world honestly to be effective.” ---Philip Martin, columnist

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“Writing is a way of processing reality.” --Jeanne Murray Walker, poet

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“Philosophy and religion do not deal with different questions, though they give different answers and in different terms.”

“It is not that this is the best answer to existence; it is the only answer. That is why we may hold our Christianity with intellectual integrity. The only answer for what exists is that God, the infinite-personal God, really is there.”
---Francis A. Schaeffer, in He Is There And He Is Not Silent

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“To do what is forbidden always has its charms, because we have an indistinct apprehension of something arbitrary and tyrannical in the prohibition.”

“No, I will use no dagger! I will unfold a tale!— . . . With this engine, this little pen, I defeat all his machinations . . .”
---William Godwin, in Caleb Williams

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From Barbara Hamby’s poem “Ode to American English”:

“I was missing English one day, American, really,
with its pill-popping Hungarian goulash of everything
from Anglo-Saxon to Zulu, because British English
is not the same, if the paperback dictionary
I bought in Brentano’s on the Avenue de l’OpĂ©ra
is any indication, too cultured by half.” (1-6)

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Happy reading!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Telling Your Story

Quite possibly, there is no more popular genre of creative writing right now than the memoir. Memoirs are, I believe, difficult to write. To do it well, a writer must be willing to tell the truth about herself, to reveal limitations and failings as well as strengths and accomplishments, to expose thoughts and actions that we are usually reluctant to reveal, to disclose lapses of judgment, questions of faith, discontent in relationships.

Memoirs are difficult, too, because they require us to interpret ourselves. Although we may attempt to be objective, no one can tell her life story without putting a spin on it, slanting it in some way according to her beliefs about herself, others, and the world around her. We even “interpret” our stories by choosing which events and people we will include and which we’ll exclude, or by how we “remember” dialogue.

Additionally, the author of a memoir must be willing to risk angering, alienating, and/or hurting others. Because no one’s an island, writing a memoir necessitates the telling of stories not our own, at least where they interconnect with ours, and the author’s representation or interpretation of these people and events might not align with the self-concepts or ideals of the people who inhabit and intersect the author’s life story. Sometimes a memoir deals with a change in worldview, and those who continue to adhere to the belief systems left behind are often offended by the author’s analysis, disavowal, and conclusions.

Much of the difficulty of memoirs lies in the fact that we usually choose to write about events that have strong emotional resonance with us. Writing a memoir provides a cathartic experience as the author remembers and is forced to analyze the tensions and obstacles of her life, how they affected her, changed her, and how she has overcome or maybe even just survived. Then she must decide how to present all this to her intended audience to the best effect. The author cannot play it safe. Without conflict, there is no story; surviving conflict in its various forms is what makes a memoir interesting and worthy. But the author must also be real. The reader must believe her, identify with her in some way, and care about her. Why else would a reader give up hours of his life to read about hers?

So, if memoir-writing can be so difficult and even painful, why would a serious writer choose to suffer through the process? I believe it is because a true writer realizes that with her gift also comes responsibility, a responsibility to think about life deeply and to share the insights she gleans with others. Some do it in their poetry, some in their fiction, but in these genres the authors can always hide behind a persona or their characters. Some authors produce essays, yet here authors can choose to remain at a professional distance. But those who lay themselves bare in a memoir must feel that the story they have to tell is so necessary for the world to hear that it is worth the personal risk involved. I’m grateful for their courage.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Ungossip

You’ve probably seen the movie Pay It Forward, based on a novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde, in which a young boy develops a plan to change the world. He describes his plan like this: “You see, I do something real good for three people. And then when they ask how they can pay it back, I say they have to Pay It Forward. To three more people. Each. So nine people get helped. Then those people have to do twenty-seven." Trevor’s plan is simple but effective. In a world where people are often indifferent and sometimes even hurtful, he wants to be an expanding force for good.

So do I. And one way I try to spread goodwill rather than hurt is by what I call ungossip. It’s just what it sounds like—the exact opposite of gossip. Instead of maliciously passing on words that wound and tear relationships apart, I share words that heal and build bridges. Here’s how it works. Every time I hear someone say something good about someone else, I pass it on to the person being spoken about, or at least to a family member. So if someone tells me what a nice young man so-and-so is, and I run into his mother in the grocery store, I ungossip. If a man tells me something complimentary about his wife, the next time I see her, I ungossip. If a fellow-student tells me that he absolutely loved Professor XYZ’s class, during my next conference with the professor, I ungossip. Everybody benefits. The people who have been complimented feel the joy of being appreciated, they feel a special connection to the person who has complimented them and usually express it the next time they meet, and I feel pleasure in being the one to promote harmony rather than discord.

It’s not hard to do. It’s not time consuming. It’s nothing obsessive. It is just a simple way to make the world a better place

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Eavesdropping at Walmart


If you want to experience the vast expanse of humanity, there’s no better place to go than Walmart. Businessmen in three-piece suits load their carts with copy paper and legal pads, urban cowboys in boots and pearl-snap shirts ask for cartons of Camel cigarettes, and Larry-the-Cable-Guy wannabes check out the hunting section. Women dressed to kill in their designer clothes and diamonds shop the organic vegetables, tired looking Moms with baby food stains on their t-shirts keep one controlling hand on their toddler as they reach up for the Captain Crunch, and the young career women carefully choose their Lean Cuisines. I’ve seen teenagers making out, kids riding down the aisles on bicycles, and people sitting on the floor reading the magazines. Today I saw the oldest woman I’ve ever seen wearing short shorts. It was sad. I’ve seen men on scavenger hunts, desperately trying to find an item on their wives’ grocery list. I’ve seen groups so large blocking the aisle I need to go down that I’m sure a family must have chosen Walmart as the site of their reunion.

But what can be really interesting are the things that you overhear in Walmart. I heard a girl use her cell phone to break up with her boyfriend while she examined bathing suits in the clothing section. I heard a young woman give a friend (and everybody else in line) all the details of her impending divorce while I waited to pick up a prescription. I’ve heard the old men on the benches at the front of the store discuss the weather, and gardening, and who’s passed away lately. Once, I overheard a little girl ask her mother, “Why do we always have to buy the cheap cereal?” but I didn’t wait for the reply. I’ve got three kids. I already know the answer to that one. In the deli one day, a kind-hearted youngster informed her dad as they waited for sliced turkey and Colby Jack cheese: “It’s not nice to kick people. Especially grandma and little babies.”

Writers often get some of their best lines of dialogue and ideas for characters from personal experience and observation. With the advent of Walmart, now we writers can multitask. But use discretion— it could be harmful to your health to whip out your writing notebook and transcribe the phone conversations as they are happening, especially the really interesting ones.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Educated Mispronunciations

If you’re a reader, you realize that there are lots of words that you read every day but never really hear anyone use in conversation. You recognize these words and understand their meanings, but they are not words that seem to fit into your everyday speech. This is called your Reading Vocabulary. (You actually have four different vocabularies—Reading, Writing, Listening, and Speaking.)

Now, just because you’ve never said these words aloud or heard anyone else pronounce them, doesn’t mean you don’t “say” them inside your head, and you can drift along for years, comfortable in your verbal ignorance. The big shock comes when you finally hear an educated person, your professor, for instance, use the word in a lecture, and you suddenly realize that you have always said the word incorrectly in your head. These mispronunciations usually consist of putting the emphasis on the wrong syllable, but occasionally you may have mangled a word almost beyond recognition. You are mortified and console yourself by thinking, “Thank goodness I never said the word aloud in public!” all the while wondering how many times you have humiliated yourself without being smart enough to even realize it. You discover that ignorance is not bliss.

Now, of course, you want examples. You want me to humiliate myself before you. Okay, okay, I will abandon my pride. The first instance of my pronunciative ignorance (I think I just coined a new word) began in my preteen days. My favorite reading material was a series of mystery novels, the Trixie Belden collection, and I think I had about eighteen of them. In these novels, Trixie’s brother Mart had an old jalopy. Now, in my head I pronounced this word JAlopy, with the emphasis on the first syllable. (As an aside, as I now think back, I am amazed at how many times the author felt the need to use this word throughout the course of these eighteen books. She must have liked how it sounded or enjoyed the appearance of it on the page.) When I finally heard someone say the word on television, I realized it was pronounced jaLOPy, with the emphasis on the second syllable. This discovery did not bother me too much because jalopy is not a word that a teenager just throws around, and even if I had decided to use it, I didn’t figure that any of my friends would have known what the word meant or how to pronounce it anyway.

Not so with this second illustration of my ignorance. I had seen the Latin term ad infinitum, meaning without limit or end, and, basing my pronunciation on the word "infinity," I assumed it was pronounced ad inFINitum. Wrong again. After hearing one of my professors use it in class, I discovered that it’s pronounced ad infinEYEtum. After class, I made straight for a dictionary, and sure enough, the professor was right and I was wrong. Imagine that.

I have never been a stranger to dictionaries. I have always kept one handy, looking up words that I don’t know when I encounter them in reading or conversation. So what bothered me most about this event was not that I had made a mistake, but that I was making them without even knowing it and was likely to continue to do so. Because I could decode the meaning of the word from the text and could apply general rules of pronunciation, I assumed that I knew these words. It had never even occurred to me that I should look up these words.

Well, right after that class I was scheduled to work my shift in the Writing Center, and the professor I was working with that day is a stickler for correct grammar and pronunciation. I told him what had happened and about my worries that I would embarrass myself in the future. I don’t really know what kind of solution I expected from him other than the admonition that maybe I should look up everything, but his reply both surprised me and gave me comfort. He said, “When I hear a person mispronounce or misuse a word that is common to everyday usage, I think he is uneducated. When I hear a person mispronounce an unusual word but use it correctly, I know he is a reader. There is a great difference.”

Whew. Readers, we can relax now.

Monday, August 18, 2008

It's Universal

One of the characteristics of classic literature, a quality that entitles a work to be included in the accepted canon, is universality. In other words, the work applies to humanity across time. If we read a story today that was written centuries ago, and we can know the characters, recognize their motivations, sympathize with their problems and weaknesses, celebrate their triumphs, mourn their losses, we know that it is great literature. But the older a piece of literature is, the more often people shy away from it, worrying that they will not understand it or feeling that it is impossible for an ancient work to have relevance to them today.

But a project coordinated by Bryan Doerries is illustrating the universality of ancient literature in a surprising way. Inspired by Dr. Jonathan Shay’s book Achilles in Vietnam, in which he argues that theater was used by the Greeks to reintegrate combat veterans into society, Doerries has translated and produced Sophocles’ Ajax and Philocletes as part of a Marine Corp sponsored conference addressing post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety experienced after combat.

Reader of the role of Philocletes, actor David Straithairn of Good Night, and Good Luck fame comments, “I know it’s a bit odd to have Greek plays read to a conference of military people. . . . But you read these plays and you understand they are the first investigations into the condition of war in Western civilization.”

Both plays are stories about soldiers and their struggles adjusting after combat—depression, rage, violence, suicidal tendencies, relationship problems, paranoia. These plays also show the pain that the wives of these soldiers experience as they witness their husbands’ mental and emotional anguish.

The performances earned standing ovations and were followed by discussions lasting almost two hours, as soldiers and their wives used literature written 2500 years ago as a starting point to discuss and deal with their own emotional struggles in the twenty-first century. One woman, the wife of a navy SEAL and mother of a Marine, summed up the literary relevance: “I don’t think much has changed at all.”

Reading about this program started me thinking—maybe we should stage a world-wide reading of Lysistrata.


--For more information about this Marine Corp program, see “Greek tragedies offer modern lesson on pain of war” by Chelsea J. Carter, Arkansas Democrat Gazette, Sunday, August 17, 2008, 2A

Bad Writing Pays


It might not get you good grades, but it’ll get you cold hard cash. In San Jose State University's 26th annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, in which writers submit a terrible first sentence for an imaginary novel, Garrison Spik won the grand prize of $250.00.
His winning entry? "Theirs was a New York love, a checkered taxi ride burning rubber, and like the city, their passion was open 24/7, steam rising from their bodies like slick streets exhaling warm, moist, white breath through manhole covers stamped 'Forged by DeLaney Bros., Piscataway, N.J.' "

The contest is named after Victorian novelist Edward George Earl Bulwer-Lytton, whose 1830 novel Paul Clifford begins with the infamous "It was a dark and stormy night."

You’ve got a little less than a year left to work on your entry.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Gleanings from My Readings

“Poetry is a necessity as simple as the need to be touched and similarly a need that is hard to enunciate. The intense vision and high spirits and moral grandeur are simply needed lest we drift through our days consumed by clothing options and hair styling and whether to have the soup or the salad.”

“The last singer recognizable to everyone was Frank Sinatra, the last poet known far and wide was Robert Frost. There are no replacements in sight. Today’s celebrities are people whom most Americans haven’t heard of. Our culture—jazz, especially, and movies—once united us, a point of pride, uniquely American, but school boards are slaughtering arts education on every hand . . . children are cheated out of poetry and French and the cello—meanwhile, interscholastic football, the great passion of unhappy men, grows by leaps and bounds, and children are conditioned for the passive life in which commercial trademarks become their insignia here in the United Corporations of America.” ---Garrison Keillor

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“I wouldn’t stay here, in Germany . . . I would get to England. There I would be able to speak the language and understand the culture, with its meadows and cows, and the Queen, and Mayfair and Whitechapel—I knew it all, I thought, from books and Monopoly Games.”
---Ayaan Hirsi Ali, from her memoir Infidel

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“Every time life brings you to a crossroads, from the tiniest to the most immense, go toward love, not away from fear. Think of every choice in terms of “What would thrill and delight me?” rather than “What will keep my fear—or the events, people, and things I fear—at bay?”
---Martha Beck

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From Howard Nimerov’s poem “To David, About His Education”:

“The world is full mostly of invisible things,
And there is no way but putting the mind’s eye,
Or its nose, in a book, to find them out.” (1-3)

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From Erica Funkhouser’s poem “My Father’s Lunch”:

“We could see it was an old meal
with the patina of dream
going back to the first days
of bread and meat and work.” (38-41)

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Happy reading!

Friday, August 15, 2008

Alarm Clock Anathema

I hate alarm clocks. I mean, I really hate them.

It’s not getting up early that’s the problem. I’m a morning person, and if I don’t get up early, I feel as if the day has gotten away from me and I have to rush to catch up. I like to have an early morning quiet time, and I enjoy exercise most in the early mornings. My energy level is at its highest in the mornings. I can think more clearly, work more efficiently, and accomplish more.

But early mornings are so much more enjoyable when I don’t have to wake up to the awful screaming blare of the alarm clock. Instead of a gentle floating to the surface of awareness, a stretch, and a smile to greet the day, an alarm clock jolts me awake, shoots adrenaline through my system, and causes my stomach to clench. If today is the first day of the rest of my life, I’d sure like it to begin a little more pleasantly. I read once, I think in Prevention magazine, maybe, about an alarm clock that combines a light that gradually gets brighter with a gentle vibration that slowly increases the intensity of its humming, but I haven’t actually run across one.

I actually dread my alarm so much, that I often wake up before it even goes off. What really astounds me is that my youngest son can sleep through an alarm going off repeatedly, only about six inches from his head. Many mornings I’ve woken up early to avoid my alarm, and sit enjoying my coffee in the quiet early-morning hours, only to have to go beat on his door upstairs to make him turn his alarm off.

Alarm clocks are not the only noise that I dislike in the early morning. I don’t like the television to be on either, or the radio, come to think of it. Let there be peace on earth in the mornings, and let it begin with me.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

With Friends Like These

I’m not quite sure how “experts” get appointed, but there’s one who writes a fashion advice column in Oprah magazine who repeatedly ticks me off. Advertised as the man who “tells you what your best friends won’t,” he dispenses “advice” that mostly demeans the magazine’s intended audience (always a bad plan; one of the first rules of writing is “know your audience”). Once, he advised that no one over forty should wear shorts, but after an avalanche of letters replete with photographs proving him wrong, he recanted.

Well, his latest offense is in response to a 48-year-old divorced woman who is thinking of re-entering the dating scene and is at a loss about what is appropriate to wear. Her letter gives very little personal information, but it is well written and timid in tone. I’m picturing a woman who hasn’t gotten out in a while, who doesn’t want to try to look eighteen but is not yet resigned to a wardrobe identical to her mother’s, maybe a woman who has suffered some sadness and humiliation and wants some help rebuilding her self esteem.

His advice? “Don’t wear anything that makes you appear desperate. . . . Avoid anything that looks too easy to remove.” Don’t wear anything “ultrashort, sheer, tight, or plunging.” He warns her that “heavy makeup can be distracting, and killer stilettos and garish colors can scare.”

If humiliation wasn’t his goal, he came close without even trying. Maybe he needs to talk to an “expert” in career counseling.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Relaxing into Easy


Have you ever noticed how easy it is to . . . well, do what’s easy?

It’s easier to surf the net than it is to study or work. It’s easier to watch my latest Netflix movie than it is to clean the house. It’s easier to read what entertains me rather than what will challenge me to think more deeply or to consider ideas outside my comfort zone. It’s easier to be selfish than to meet the needs of others. It’s easier to eat whatever I want than to maintain a healthy diet. I have found that, even though I’ve been a regular exerciser for years, even there it’s easy to slip into easy, to stay at a comfortable pace rather than push myself to go faster, to lift more.

The problem with that is, easy doesn’t get me where I want to go. It’s settling. It’s lost potential. And it’s a denial of all of life’s possibilities. As the poet Mary Oliver said, “For what is life but a reaching for answers? / And what is death but a refusal to grow?”

Monday, August 11, 2008

Southern Modalities

In his article in yesterday’s Arkansas Democrat Gazette, Paul Greenberg responded to the writer of a letter to the editor complaining about a line in an earlier editorial: “the board might could use a little guidance.” The writer was “utterly amazed” that the phrase “might could use” would occur in an ADG editorial. The writer continued, “What English grammar book did that come from? Shame on you. Your Arkie background is showing.”

Well, those editors are not the only transgressors. When I was an undergraduate at Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi, my German professor, the offspring of a German mother and a British father, called me down for saying that I “might could” do something. She haughtily informed me that only in the South had she heard such usage. Two modal verbs! One would never use such a construction in proper English or in German. I might add that none of the other students in the class, all Southern, had had the least trouble understanding me, nor were they shocked at my usage.

Besides German, this professor, who was also fluent in French, taught the Freshman Composition classes for all international students, and a great deal of her time, she said, was spent in helping these students, who had been trained mostly in British English, understand the ways Southerners “mis-used” the English language. One day, she said an international student came to her confused because another student had told him that she was “fixin’ to” go to the Student Center. “I do not understand,” he said. “Fixing is what you do to a broken machine.” This, of course, was another Southernism that didn’t meet with her approval. She said she could always tell when she was south of the Mason-Dixon line because, invariably, as soon as she drove across language disintegrated.

Mr. Greenberg rightly pointed out that for those who want to be precise in their usage, “might could” is a helpful construction. “Could” and “might could” signal a great difference in probability. In Standard English, “could” has both indicative and subjunctive meanings. But in Southern English, “I could come” is indicative, whereas “I might could come” is subjunctive. Quoting a linguist, Greenberg points out that “the use of double modals in Southern American English fills a gap in Standard English grammar, namely the loss of inflectional distinction in English between indicative and subjunctive modals. Dialect or regional forms are often more progressive in gap-filling than is a standard language.” Well, of course. That's why we use it.

Greenberg also gives another example where Southern English has filled in a language gap—the famous pronoun y’all, our second person plural. “The less discerning standard usage,” he continues, “has only you for singular and plural.” So there.

Unfortunately, at that time I was unable to mount as good a defense as Mr. Greenberg did. All I knew was that I was perfectly able to express myself, and, double modality or not, the construction worked for me. It expressed exactly what I wanted to say.

Well, I might could write more, but I think I’m fixin’ to stop here.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Of Words and Lines

Recently I heard a teenager describe elective plastic surgery as an “upgrade.” A few days ago I was logging into my e-mail, and the log-in screen told me that my new e-mail system was more “intuitive.” So, are we becoming more like our technology, or is it becoming more like us? And, isn’t the English language a wonderful thing?

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“Irrationality in the humanities is often termed postmodernism.”
--Frank J. Tipler, in The Physics of Christianity

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“American poetry is the truest journalism we have. . . . Forget everything you ever read about poetry, it doesn’t matter—poetry is the last preserve of honest speech and the outspoken heart.”
--Garrison Keillor, from his introduction to Good Poems for Hard Times

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“In Somalia, the rhymes wail; they are hauntingly sad. After such evenings Ma would visibly soften. She told us stories of when she was little: watching great poets compete beside the fire in the desert, reciting more and more majestically until all concurred that a new, truly great poet had been found.”
--Ayaan Hirsi Ali, in her memoir Infidel

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From Mary Oliver’s poem “The Lamps”

“You light the lamps because
You are alone in your small house

And the wicks sputtering gold
Are like two visitors with good stories.” (11-14)

Gezelligheit IV

31. listening to live music
32. a crisp apple
33. family at Thanksgiving
34. revisiting a scene from your past
35. feeling the first early-morning nip in the air at the end of an Arkansas summer
36. being comfortable alone with yourself
37. a bubble bath
38. reaching a goal
39. recommending a good book
40. the smell of fresh-cut grass

To be continued . . .

Friday, August 8, 2008

A Balanced Diet

We all know that we can’t live on chocolate chip cookies alone. Experts tell us we need a proper balance of protein, carbohydrates, and “good” fats, along with essential vitamins and minerals to be healthy. And of course, they allow us an occasional treat, so we don’t give up on healthy eating altogether.

The same is true, I’ve found, with reading. If I gave into my baser instincts, I could get caught up in a good mystery and never get anything else read. So I developed a plan for a balanced reading diet. Right now, I’m reading in preparation for oral comps, so reading texts from or about 18th century British literature constitutes my “work” reading, which takes up most of my day. But if this is all I read, reading becomes too much like “work,” even though I enjoy 18th century British literature and truly desire to master the subject. So, I decided to add some spice to my life.

Every morning, I read some poetry (See earlier post, The Poetry Plan) for my heart, and something devotional for my soul. Then I get into the work reading, and when I’ve finished what I’ve planned to cover for that day, any remaining time for reading is given to recreational reading. So far it’s working for me. My comps preparation is moving forward at a good and steady pace, and I still have time to feed the other parts of myself.

I still haven’t conquered my sweet tooth, though.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Cheap Degrees

For the last several days, the Dear Abby column has been devoted to the topic of cheating, which, according to the letters she has printed from students and teachers across the nation, has reached epidemic proportion.

I’m not a sociologist, or a psychologist, or an ethicist, or any kind of expert on the topic of cheating, but I, too, have had to deal with this problem over and over again in my classroom, usually in the form of plagiarism. Through these unpleasant encounters with students, I have become aware of some of the things that contribute to student cheating: laziness, procrastination, excessive parental pressure for good grades, fear, lack of moral character, an end-justifies-the-means mentality, poor role models, a sense of entitlement. The list could go on. Some students want the piece of paper more than the knowledge and accomplishment that it signifies. In this, of course, they are actually cheating themselves. But additionally, it is quite likely that students who cheat turn into adults who cheat on their taxes, who fudge on their expense accounts, who take credit for their co-worker’s ideas, who are unfaithful to spouses. This list, too, could go on and on.

But I believe that students who get their degrees by cheating are also cheating somebody else: me, and everyone else who got his or her degree by lots of honest hard work. Besides the actual dollars and cents that a university degree costs (and it’s quite a lot), each degree also cost me family time, and sleep time, time with friends, and personal time. Sometimes it cost me anxiety and tears; it cost me some hard decisions and prioritizing. But in the reading of every book, every hour of research, every project completed, every paper written, I gained, not only the knowledge and experience to perform well in my chosen field, but also a sense of accomplishment in a job well done. But somehow, the thought that their piece of paper reads the same as mine still rankles a little.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Shades of Me-aning

Have you ever given much thought to your identity? I’m not talking about the one that con artists can steal and use to get new credit cards, or even the name change that may occur when a woman gets married or a child is adopted. I’m talking about all the you’s that exist simultaneously.

I have realized that there really are a lot of me’s.

I’m a different person to lots of different people. To my parents, I’m still a child. To my children I’m a parent, and I’m probably even a slightly different Mom to each of my three kids. My professors know me as one of their students, yet I, too, have students to teach. Among my students, you’ll find a few who’d say I’ve touched their hearts and changed their lives and some (only a few, I hope) who are so angry over grades earned and deadlines not extended that they’d probably cross the street to avoid me if we met downtown. Childhood friends know a Stephanie that my current colleagues do not, and my friends from church see me differently than my new friends at Ole Miss do.

My husband, who probably knows me better than any other person, doesn’t even fully know the me I see in the mirror. But that’s not really so surprising. Some days I think I see myself clearly, and other days even I’m not quite sure who I truly am.

It’s intriguing. It’s not that I’m a hypocrite, or that I purposefully present different sides of myself to different people, playing games, keeping or revealing secrets according to some master plan. Is my identity what I present to others or what they draw out of me? Is who I am always internal, or is it all about context? or some combination of the two?

Some parts of me carry over into every me--my worldview, my personal value system, my connections to the people closest to me. Yet other parts of me reveal themselves or exit the scene, depending on the person I’m with.

Maybe this is just one of the many things that make life such a wonderful adventure. All in one lifetime, I get to be multiple me’s.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Talking Back to Books

I think libraries are great. I used to go to Story Hour every summer, walking from my Grandmother’s house on the corner, down the street, through the hedge-lined alleyway, to the library in the west wing of the old Community House to sit in a circle of children. I used to work in the school library, starting in elementary school and continuing through High School. I’d stamp due dates on flyleaves, re-shelve books, and sometimes get to write the Dewey Decimal number on the spine of new books with an electric pen-like device and chalk tape.

But as much as I love libraries, I rarely check out books from them now; I buy my own copy. Why? Because I can’t talk back to library books.

I always read with a pencil in hand. I underline great quotes. I number points in an argument. I may disagree with a big “Who says?” or agree with a double-underlined “Yes!” in the margin. If a passage makes me laugh, a “Ha!” goes there. If I don’t understand something, I write a “?” or even a “Huh?” If I agree with a claim the author is making but he/she fails to explain the point, I respond with a YBH (“Yes, but how?”). I might jot down a cross reference (see also page ___), write the name of another book or character I’m reminded of, or circle a word to look up. I’ll jot major topics or events in the upper corner of a page to make it easier to find passages later (For example: “Mr. Collins proposes” or “Frank Churchill arrives”). I make lists of characters on the inside of the back cover and sometimes even draw a family tree.

Reading, you see, is not just a spectator sport. And libraries don’t look kindly on a person who returns a book they’ve talked back to.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Yesterday's News

While reading the paper yesterday, I discovered that sociologists and family relations experts (whatever they are) have coined a term to describe the housekeeping standards of today’s working women: “clean enough.” As one Kansas City, MO, woman explained it, her house is “clean enough to be healthy, dirty enough to be happy.” This, it seems, is an inevitable compromise for women who spend as much time working outside the home as their husbands do, and who think that quality time with their children and spouse, or even time to read or exercise, is more important than being able to bounce quarters off bed sheets or to see themselves reflected in shiny chrome bathroom fixtures.

But this “clean enough” theory has opposition. The husbands, you think?

You’d be wrong. It’s the mothers and grandmothers of these poor, stretched-to-the-limit women, the ones who scrubbed the toilet every day, had no dust bunnies under their sofas, and raised the level of spring cleaning to religious ritual, who stand in condemnation, who are aghast at the thought of their grandchildren being raised in homes where they can write their names on the tabletops, who cannot understand how their daughters and granddaughters can abandon the feminine mystique and stoop to such dusty depths.

A woman from Indiana overcame the problem by hiring her own mother to clean her house. It gives her mother extra spending money, the woman explained, and she gains a clean house and a little peace.

Well, I’ll never get a spotless house that way. Both my mom and I have been living by the “clean enough” theory for a long time.

We’d like our houses to be cleaner, though. Anybody got a mom who needs a few bucks?

(From “Clean enough: The new standard for housekeeping” by Federica Narancio, Arkansas Democrat Gazette 2A, Sunday, August 03, 2008)

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Of Words and Lines

This sentence has to be on the list of great opening sentences. It’s from Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, published in 1761:

“I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me.”

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I think my favorite poem in the Mary Oliver collection No Voyage and Other Poems is “A Dream of Trees.” It’s a poem about the inevitability of struggle in life. I’d love to reprint the whole thing, but here’s one wonderful line to tempt you to find the poem and read it for yourself.

“Whoever made music of a mild day?” (18)

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And another excerpt from one of my favorite poets, Naomi Shihab Nye. This is from the poem “Muchas Gracias por Todo” in her collection titled Fuel:

“The plane has landed thanks to God and his mercy.
That’s what they say in Jordan when the plane sets down.

What do they say in our country? Don’t stand up til we tell you.
Stay in your seats. Things may have shifted.” (1-4)

Thought provoking, isn’t it?

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"Do not despair, one of the thieves was saved; do not presume, one of the thieves was damned."
--St. Augustine

Gezelligheit III

21. handing in a final exam
22. a banana popsicle
23. an unexpected phone call from an old friend
24. discussing a good book
25. sleeping in on a rainy morning
26. finishing a workout
27. a thick slice of homemade bread
28. crossing something off your to-do list
29. curling up in a big, overstuffed chair
30. looking at old photographs

To be continued . . .

Friday, August 1, 2008

Things I Wish I'd Done #2

I wish I had taken the time to write down all the funny (or sometimes wise-beyond-their-years) things my kids said. I thought I’d remember them forever, but with only a few exceptions, those precious words are all gone.

Here are a few that I do remember:

Our oldest son, Travis, stood in the bathroom, watching while his Dad shaved and then applied cologne. “Dad,” he said, “can I wear some of your smell-good?” (Of course, after this, “smell-good” became our word for cologne. There were other word adaptations, too. A billfold was a “bo-field,” and an elbow was a “bo-wain.”)

One day our daughter had gotten into a little trouble, and her Dad, going in at bedtime to kiss her good night, decided to lecture a little to reinforce the lesson he’d “instilled” earlier. “I’ve already prayed about this,” she solemnly informed him, “so I don’t think we need to talk about it anymore.”

Early one Monday morning I was in the kitchen getting ready to pack school lunches. Opening my youngest son’s lunchbox, I found a sheet of paper with one sentence repeated over and over in a childish scrawl: “I will not say cuss words.”

Of course, I immediately got him out of bed to discuss my early-morning discovery. “What word did you say?” I asked, expecting a “TV word,” but out of his innocent young mouth came a word that caused my knees to buckle. “Where did you hear that word?” I asked, as calmly as I could.

“Nowhere,” he said. “It was written on the bathroom wall, and I just sounded it out.”