Tuesday, September 30, 2008

As I See It

Last week, when Phillip Martin spoke at Harding about the role of a film critic, he made an interesting statement. He said that you never see the same movie twice, and nobody sitting in the theater at the same time sees the same movie. When you see a film, whether for the first or fifth time, you bring to it what you are at that very moment.

It’s the same with reading. More than once back in high school I read an assigned book and thought, “What’s the big deal?” Yet, years later, when re-reading the same book I ended by marveling at its wisdom and beauty. The book had not changed. I had.

Literary theorists have a term for this phenomenon; it’s called Reader Response Theory. Basically, this theory focuses on the reader and his or her reaction to the work. It sees the reader as an active participant in constructing the meaning of a text. Staunch proponents of this theory argue that there is no inherent meaning in a text; there is only the meaning that is created in the full cycle of author—text—reader.

I would not go so far. I believe that the text itself does have meaning, that the author makes all kinds of decisions—in plot, in diction, in structure, in allusion, etc.—in order to convey a particular idea or theme to his audience. But that does not negate the role of reader. I cannot help but approach every text from the viewpoint of who I am. My age, my gender, my religion, my family background, all the myriad experiences of my life go into shaping who I am as I approach a text, and therefore how I see it.

I think this is why I don’t feel as if the reading cycle is complete until I discuss what I’ve read with other people. My response alone is valid, but the combined responses of a group flesh out the possibilities of a text in a way impossible for me as a single reader.

Monday, September 29, 2008

A Busy Week

Well, I’ve got a really busy week ahead of me. Of course, I still have Oral Comps preparation, which currently provides the underlying theme and daily structure of my life. In other words, that’s pretty much all I do. But not this week! No, sir! That is not enough of a challenge for me. Give me more to do! Pile it on!

No, all jokes aside, I’m participating in a couple of events this week that I’m really excited about. Tomorrow, I’ll be speaking in the Women’s Program at the Harding University Lectureship. My topic? “Is Jesus a Feminist?” Now, I didn’t choose the topic or the title, but when I was asked to speak on the subject, I was really excited about it. If asked, I might have chosen a more toned-down title, but you’ve got to admit, it does what titles are supposed to do--get attention. The subject, I think, is an important one that needs to be addressed seriously. Since I am a woman, and a Christian, and one of my concentration areas in my doctoral studies is Women’s Literature and Feminist Theory, “the woman question” is a subject I’ve thought a lot about and looked at from various of angles. Here’s a link to the schedule, if you’re interested:

Harding Women's Lectureship

Then, later in the week I’ll be going to the 2008 Conference on Christianity and Literature, hosted this year by Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, Oklahoma. There, I’m presenting a paper on a related subject—I’m analyzing a text written by a French woman in 1405 in which she challenges misogyny and constructs an argument that anticipates the different modes of future feminist discourse, an argument which focuses on reason and education as a pathway to greater feminine virtue and morality, all the while operating within the prevailing religious framework.

One of the things that I’m really looking forward to at this conference is to be able to participate in a discussion of literature with people who see the arts through the framework of a Christian worldview. There will be sessions on Literature and: The Environment, Colonialism, Gender, Race, Consumerism, Culture, and much more. These are all big topics in literary studies, and I’ve spent the last several years in doctoral classes taking part in discussions about them, but I’ve been mostly surrounded by people with a post-modern worldview, people who think that the Christian worldview is, at best, ignorant and out-of-touch. This weekend conference will be a refreshing, and faith-affirming, change of pace. There are also sessions on Christianity and the Media, Christianity and the Occult, and Materialism: The Sacred versus the Secular, all topics that are engrossing, current, and important both to literary studies and to people trying to be Christians in twenty-first century America.

I know I won’t get as much done on my comps prep as usual this week, but sometimes you need to take part in activities that bring back the joy and make you remember why you took on the challenge in the first place.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Gleanings from My Readings

"Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken."
---Jane Austen, in Emma


“I would suggest that it is perfectly possible for a Christian to be so infiltrated by twentieth-century thinking that he lives most of his life as though the supernatural were not there. Indeed, I would suggest that all of us do this to some extent. . . . Doctrine is important, but it is not an end in itself. There is to be an experiential reality, moment by moment. And the glory of the experiential reality of the Christian, as opposed to the bare existential experience, or the religious experiences of the East, is that we can do it with the intellectual doors and windows open.”
---Francis Schaeffer, in True Spirituality


“It was a likely story. But then, all of his stories were likely.”
---Margaret Atwood, from The Penelopiad


“I remember lying in our hay-loft reading The Secret Garden with a cowbell beside me. I’d read for an hour and then ring the bell for a glass of lemonade to be brought to me. Mrs. Hutchins, the cook, finally grew weary of this arrangement and told my mother, and that was the end of my cowbell, but not my reading in the hay.” (108)
---Mary Ann Schaffer & Annie Barrows in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society


From Paul Zimmer’s poem “A Romance for the Wild Turkey”:

“Walking around in underbrush
Like a cantilevered question mark.” (12-13)


From Lynne McMahon’s poem “Barbie’s Ferrari”:

“Nancy Drew in her yellow roadster, a convertible,
I always imagined, the means to an end
Almost criminal in its freedom, its motherlessness.” (11-13)


From Galway Kinnell’s poem “St. Francis and the Sow”:

“for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,” (4-6)


Happy Reading!

Friday, September 26, 2008

Let Them Eat Cake!

For the last several weeks, I've received at least one e-mail per day from the Ole Miss list-serv about debate-related issues. One, headlined "Bad news," informed students that several of the main streets on campus would be closed for days before and maybe after the debate for security purposes, and that 2000, yes 2000, student parking spots would be reserved for media and debate-related visitors. A friend who's still on campus said it felt a little surreal when she looked up the other day and saw men with guns pacing the roof of the Library. No driving, no parking, a clogged-up campus, men in black with guns, and most students won't even be able to set foot anywhere near the debate.

But not too worry. They can attend Rock the Debate, an event in the Grove, free and open to the public. The festival includes a mix of music, speakers, video presentations, display areas, games, and will showcase Southern food. After the festival, students and the general public are invited to gather at the Grove stage to watch the historic debate live on 14-by-18-foot HD television screens on either side of the stage.

Hey, they don't call Ole Miss a party school for nothing.

A No-Brainer

The other day, the morning crew of a radio station I regularly listen to posed a question for listeners: If you could have, fully paid for by someone else, five years of any type of personal service, what would it be?

One man called in and said he’d take year-round lawn service. An elderly widow said she’d really like to have a handyman, to move furniture and change out light bulbs and all the other things “she never gave much thought to when she had a man around the house.” One college student wanted a professional note-taker to go to class for her so she could sleep in and have fun with friends but still get her credit hours. A young professional wanted a personal assistant to meet his every need, one just like those who trail behind major CEO’s in the movies. One woman longed for a personal shopper, another for a Life Coach. One young mother thought it would be great to have a chauffeur to take her kids to all their activities so she didn’t have to spend so much time behind the wheel. Quite a few people wanted personal trainers, and lots of women would gladly let a chef into their kitchens if someone else were footing the bill.

But for me, it was a no-brainer. Of course I’d have a housekeeper. Not that those other things wouldn’t be nice to have, but come on. You don’t have to mow in the winter. You don’t move furniture or change light bulbs every day. Going to class is one of the FUN things in life (okay, I know I’m weird here). It would irritate me to be followed around all the time, and I don’t shop that much anyway. I know some pretty wise people that I could go to for counsel if I needed it, and all my kids are grown. For exercise advice, there are books, and magazines, and DVD’s, or you could even pay for one or two sessions with a trainer yourself. And food? I know you eat regularly, but you can always open a can of soup or fix a sandwich. You can nuke a Lean Cuisine, or go out to eat.

But a house is a never-ending chore. I mean, you dust and it comes right back. You mop and someone tracks up the floor. Clothes hampers are breeding grounds for more dirty clothes, and beds get unmade every night. Dishes have a regular circuit from cabinet to sink, and somehow stuff always seems to pile up on flat surfaces. It’s not that I don’t love a clean house; I do. It’s just that I wish I were not the one who had to keep it that way. There are way more fulfilling things to do in life besides clean toilets and wipe down baseboards. Like read. Or write. Or visit with friends. Or admire the leaves on a beautiful fall day.

Oh, well. I’ve gotten pretty carried away for a hypothetical question. But if any of you are suddenly the recipient of an unexpected windfall and feel charitable, you don’t have to guess what I’d want.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

For A Limited Engagement . . .

Phillip Martin, columnist and film critic for the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, will be speaking at Harding University tonight. The event begins at 7:00 in Cone Chapel, American Heritage Center. It's free and open to the public.

And, since I've quoted him a couple of times on my blog regarding freedom in the arts, I thought I'd reprint those quotes here:

“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.” (from my 8/23/08 post)

“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.” (from my 8/30/08 post)

100 Most Frequently Challenged Books, 1990-2000

  1. Scary Stories (Series) by Alvin Schwartz
  2. Daddy's Roommate by Michael Willhoite
  3. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  4. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
  5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  6. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
  7. Harry Potter (Series) by J.K. Rowling
  8. Forever by Judy Blume
  9. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
  10. Alice (Series) by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
  11. Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman
  12. My Brother Sam is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier
  13. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  14. The Giver by Lois Lowry
  15. It's Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris
  16. Goosebumps (Series) by R.L. Stine
  17. A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck
  18. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  19. Sex by Madonna
  20. Earth's Children (Series) by Jean M. Auel
  21. The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson
  22. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
  23. Go Ask Alice by Anonymous
  24. Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers
  25. In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak
  26. The Stupids (Series) by Harry Allard
  27. The Witches by Roald Dahl
  28. The New Joy of Gay Sex by Charles Silverstein
  29. Anastasia Krupnik (Series) by Lois Lowry
  30. The Goats by Brock Cole
  31. Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane
  32. Blubber by Judy Blume
  33. Killing Mr. Griffin by Lois Duncan
  34. Halloween ABC by Eve Merriam
  35. We All Fall Down by Robert Cormier
  36. Final Exit by Derek Humphry
  37. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
  38. Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George
  39. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
  40. What's Happening to my Body? Book for Girls: A Growing-Up Guide for Parents & Daughters by Lynda Madaras
  41. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  42. Beloved by Toni Morrison
  43. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
  44. The Pigman by Paul Zindel
  45. Bumps in the Night by Harry Allard
  46. Deenie by Judy Blume
  47. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  48. Annie on my Mind by Nancy Garden
  49. The Boy Who Lost His Face by Louis Sachar
  50. Cross Your Fingers, Spit in Your Hat by Alvin Schwartz
  51. A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein
  52. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  53. Sleeping Beauty Trilogy by A.N. Roquelaure (Anne Rice)
  54. Asking About Sex and Growing Up by Joanna Cole
  55. Cujo by Stephen King
  56. James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
  57. The Anarchist Cookbook by William Powell
  58. Boys and Sex by Wardell Pomeroy
  59. Ordinary People by Judith Guest
  60. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
  61. What's Happening to my Body? Book for Boys: A Growing-Up Guide for Parents & Sons by Lynda Madaras
  62. Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
  63. Crazy Lady by Jane Conly
  64. Athletic Shorts by Chris Crutcher
  65. Fade by Robert Cormier
  66. Guess What? by Mem Fox
  67. The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende
  68. The Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline Cooney
  69. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  70. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  71. Native Son by Richard Wright
  72. Women on Top: How Real Life Has Changed Women's Fantasies by Nancy Friday
  73. Curses, Hexes and Spells by Daniel Cohen
  74. Jack by A.M. Homes
  75. Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo A. Anaya
  76. Where Did I Come From? by Peter Mayle
  77. Carrie by Stephen King
  78. Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume
  79. On My Honor by Marion Dane Bauer
  80. Arizona Kid by Ron Koertge
  81. Family Secrets by Norma Klein
  82. Mommy Laid An Egg by Babette Cole
  83. The Dead Zone by Stephen King
  84. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
  85. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
  86. Always Running by Luis Rodriguez
  87. Private Parts by Howard Stern
  88. Where's Waldo? by Martin Hanford
  89. Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene
  90. Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman
  91. Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
  92. Running Loose by Chris Crutcher
  93. Sex Education by Jenny Davis
  94. The Drowning of Stephen Jones by Bette Greene
  95. Girls and Sex by Wardell Pomeroy
  96. How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell
  97. View from the Cherry Tree by Willo Davis Roberts
  98. The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Keatley Snyder
  99. The Terrorist by Caroline Cooney
  100. Jump Ship to Freedom by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier

If you are a reader, you'll probably be surprised by some of these. I was. Obviously, I haven't read them all. But I have read quite a few of them. I've taught some of these novels to Junior High and High School students; I've taught some at the university level. I've even read some of them to my own children--and I would consider myself a discerning reader, especially when reading to my own children.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Appeasement: Been There, Done That

"Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen." (“Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.”)
—Heinrich Heine, from his play Almansor (1821)

Have you heard about the book that Random House Publishing Group pulled because “credible and unrelated sources” warned that the historical novel “could incite acts of violence by a small radical segment” of the Islamic community? The Jewel of Medina, Sherry Jones’ first novel, is about the Prophet Muhammad and his six-year-old child bride Aisha, a relationship that was consummated when she reached the age of nine.

Now, I’m not an expert on Islam and don’t pretend to be, but it’s obvious that there’s a problem here. Salman Rushdie, whose 1989 work The Satanic Verses led to a death threat from the Ayatollah Khomeini, complained that the publisher had bowed to intimidation: “I am very disappointed to hear that my publishers, Random House, have canceled another author’s novel, apparently because of their concerns about possible Islamic reprisals. . . . This is censorship by fear, and it sets a very bad precedent indeed.”

He’s right. Now, it’s nothing new that people write and publish books that offend certain groups. Some Christians didn’t like Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale; other Christians have wanted to ban Harry Potter. Readers of both The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird have been offended by their “racist slurs.” Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice has been classified by some as anti-Semitic. I won’t argue for or against any of these works here (although some of them rate pretty high on my all-time-favorites list), but the point is that they were published. Whether you read them or not is up to you.

In his article “Lights Out on Liberty,” reprinted in the 9/7/08 edition of The Arkansas Democrat Gazette, author Mark Steyn informs us that author Oriana Fallaci of Italy was, at her death, in the process of being sued all over Europe by groups who claimed that her writings on “the contradiction between Islam and the Western tradition of liberty” were “not merely offensive, but criminal.” Michel Houellebecq of France “was sued by Muslim and other ‘anti-racist groups’ who believed the opinions of a fictional character in one of his novels was likewise criminal” (my emphasis). Steyn himself is being sued by the Canadian Islamic Congress because of his “flagrant Islamaphobia.” This charge stems from the simple act of citing plot twists in his review of a novel by another author, Robert Ferrigno. “These days,” he laments, these people “apparently . . . believe that describing the plot of a novel should be illegal.” Steyn takes these literary challenges very seriously: “I would argue,” he says, “that these incremental concessions to Islam are ultimately a bigger threat than terrorism.”

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, in her memoir Infidel, argues that blind multiculturalism does not work. People, and governments, try "to be tolerant for the sake of consensus, but the consensus [is] empty," she explains. In fact, she concludes that, in the name of "tolerance," certain groups are allowed to oppress others and deprive them of basic human rights. She, too, received death threats for expressing her observations.

There’s an often repeated saying that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Appeasement didn’t work with Hitler; why do we think it will work today? And what do we risk by trying it?

“It's not just the books under fire now that worry me. It is the books that will never be written. The books that will never be read. And all due to the fear of censorship. As always, young readers will be the real losers.” —Judy Blume

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Brother, Can You Spare $895?

I just found out, courtesy of an ad in Harper’s magazine, that for a mere $895.00, I can get my very own 20-volume copy of The Oxford English Dictionary. It’s on sale! Original list price: $3000! The lowest price ever offered!

I’m not quite sure where I’d put all twenty volumes, but I don’t know an English major alive who wouldn’t secretly love to have his or her own copy of the OED. It’s really a lot more than a dictionary; it’s an encyclopedia of the English language. It was originally commissioned by the members of the Philological Society of London in 1857. They proposed a ten-year project, but the first edition actually took seventy years to complete. It contains definitions, pronunciations, etymologies, cross references, and quotations. The 1933 Preface states:

The aim of this Dictionary is to present in alphabetical series the words that have formed the English vocabulary from the time of the earliest records [ca. AD740] down to the present day, with all the relevant facts concerning their form, sense-history, pronunciation, and etymology. It embraces not only the standard language of literature and conversation, whether current at the moment, or obsolete, or archaic, but also the main technical vocabulary, and a large measure of dialectal usage and slang.

The second edition is the one on sale now, and there’s a third edition in the works.

The OED is an amazingly ambitious project, but I think Samuel Johnson beat them hands down. The OED has always been produced by a committee (and remember, the 1st edition took seventy years to complete); the 3rd edition now in progress is the work of more than 300 scholars, readers, researchers, and consultants. Compare that to Johnson’s feat. As the editors of the Longman Anthology of British Literature explain, Johnson’s Dictionary, published in 1755, was “a nearly superhuman accomplishment.” In seven years, a single author defined 40,000 words “with unprecedented exactitude, and illustrated [them] with more than 114,000 passages drawn from English prose and poetry of the previous 250 years.”

“To explain a language by itself is very difficult,” Johnson writes in his Preface. I’ll say! Have you ever tried to define a word and found it difficult to do without using the word itself? Unless it’s a definition I’ve memorized, my definitions sound something like this: “Uh, it’s when you . . .uh . . .” or “Umm, it’s kinda like . . . no, more like . . .” I know what the word means, but explaining it is a different story. Imagine defining 40,000 words and then combing through the literary canon trying to find the best examples of all the different ways you can use those words. By yourself. Without a computer. No search engines; no databases. I can't imagine taking on such a task.

Johnson was a little hard on himself, I think. He continued, “That part of my work on which I expect malignity most frequently to fasten is the explanation; in which I cannot hope to satisfy those who are perhaps not inclined to be pleased, since I have not always been able to satisfy myself.”

Well, rather than “malign,” I stand in awe.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Maybe It's Baa-aack

The other morning I was putting on my running shoes, getting ready to go out and pound the pavement (or, more appropriately for our road, gallivant through the gravel). After securely tying both shoes in double knots and walking to the door, I realized that they were full of little pieces of sand and gravel. So, I took them off, shook them out over the garbage can, and put them on again.

I made it only a few feet from my back door before I had to stop. I felt something sort of pinching the top of my foot. I reached down and tugged at my sock, thinking that would fix it. I took a few more steps. I tried to ignore it. I did NOT want to take off my shoes again. A few more steps. Now something was definitely stabbing into the top of my foot.

Exasperated, I propped my foot on the fence rail, untied my shoe AGAIN, and reached in a finger to assess the situation. I kid you not, inside my sock, on top of my foot, was a wooden toothpick.

(Note to readers: Imagine Twilight Zone theme song playing here.)

I can come up with plausible scenarios for a toothpick stuck to the bottom of my foot, although how I could actually walk around, put on socks, then put on shoes without feeling it, I don’t know. But the top? Any ideas on this one?

P.S. There are no children in the house. (Theme song plays louder here.)

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sunday Funnies

The manager of a large city zoo was drafting a letter to order a pair of animals. He sat at his computer and typed the following sentence: "I would like to place an order for two mongooses, to be delivered at your earliest convenience."

He stared at the screen, focusing on that odd word mongooses. Then he deleted the word and added another, so that the sentence now read: "I would like to place an order for two mongeese, to be delivered at your earliest convenience."

Again he stared at the screen, this time focusing on the new word, which seemed just as odd as the original one. Finally, he deleted the whole sentence and started all over. "Everyone knows no full-stocked zoo should be without a mongoose," he typed. "Please send us two of them."


A rabbi, a priest and a minister walk into a bar.

The bartender looks up and says, "What is this, a joke?"
(Sorry, I just couldn't help myself.)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Gleanings from My Readings

"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid."
---Jane Austen, in Pride and Prejudice

BOOK RECOMMENDATION: Just this week, I began reading Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrow’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I’m only about a third of the way through, but I can’t wait to recommend it. It’s an epistolary novel set in Britain and the Guernsey Island in the aftermath of World War II. It’s beautifully written, full of literary allusion, wonderful characterization, and best of all, it makes me laugh out loud. If you’re looking for your next read, I don’t think you could do better. Here are a couple of quotes from the novel:

“That’s what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you onto another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It’s geometrically progressive—all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.” (11-12).

“I gave a talk on the Brontë girls once when it was my turn to speak. I’m sorry I can’t send you my notes on Charlotte and Emily—I used them to kindle a fire in my cookstove, there being no other paper in the house. I’d already burnt up my tide tables, the Book of Revelation, and the story about Job.” (52)

I have a feeling I’ll be quoting some more from this one.


“What some students experience when they are made to confront a poem might be summed up in a frustrating syllogism:
I understand English.
This poem is in English.
I have no idea what this poem is saying.”

“Too often the hunt for meaning becomes the only approach; literary devices form a field of barbed wire that students must crawl under to get to ‘what the poem is trying to say,’ a regrettable phrase which implies that every poem is a failed act of communication.”
---Billy Collins, from his Introduction to Poetry 180


From Billy Collins’ poem “Introduction to Poetry”:

“But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.” (12-16)


From Patricia Waters’ poem “Old Country”:

“Afternoons I lie in bed to stay warm,
reading Thomas Hardy, then Henry James,
novel follows novel,
like courses in an ever richer meal.” (8-11)

From her poem “Out of These Things”:

“In her inmost interior of beige
the housewife fingers the page:
from whom must she steal this moment?” (8-10)


And for all you teachers out there,
From Tom Wayman’s poem “Did I Miss Anything?”

“Nothing. When we realized you weren’t here
we sat with our hands folded on our desks
in silence, for the full two hours” (1-3)


Happy Reading!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton on SNL; Fey and Poehler

Problem Solved

I do not consider myself a fast writer. When I’m going to write about a topic, I do my best work if I allow myself an extended period of time before the project is due. The first step of my writing process, always, is just to know that I’m going to write on a particular subject. That’s it. I just let it stew.

Then something really exciting begins to happen. I get ideas. They come at odd times. I cannot plan it. I cannot force it. I’ve been driving down the road and have pulled over to write down an idea on a scrap of paper scrounged from the glove box. I’ve written on napkins in restaurants. I’ve had epiphanies during Sunday sermons and quickly scrawled them on the margin of the church bulletin. I’ve outlined major points on the back of bank deposit tickets while pushing a buggy down the aisle at Walmart. I’ve woken in the middle of the night and gotten up to record my thoughts in my notebook. I’ve even occasionally written in the dark and had a pretty hard time deciphering the next morning.

The key, you see, is giving myself time to think, and then writing down the thoughts when I have them. If I don’t write them down right then, they’re gone. I’ll remember that I had a great idea; I just won’t remember what that idea actually was. Believe me, I’ve learned this the hard way. (Sniff, sniff. Violins in the background.)

Writing down my ideas should be easy enough to do, but I’ve had a small problem. My very best ones seem to come in the middle of my morning run, usually at the point of farthest distance from my house. Terrified I’ll forget before I can grab pencil and paper, I repeat the idea over and over and over in my mind, desperately picking up the pace until I burst through the back door, frantically scrambling for writing material.

But I think I’ve solved my problem. The other night, my husband was watching Monday Night Football, and I happened to notice that the quarterback had a flipchart-like playbook strapped to his arm! Light bulb moment! I just need to design some type of stretchy band equipped with a small memo pad and pencil that I can slip on my arm while running.

Next thing you know, I’ll be taping my glasses back together and wearing a pocket protector in my front blouse pocket.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Don't You Just Hate It When

. . . you get to one side of Wal-Mart and realize you’ve forgotten something all the way over on the other side? Or, even worse, you finally make your way to the front of the checkout line and only then notice an item on your list you overlooked?

. . . your hair looks great on the day you plan to clean the house but has a mind of its own when you have an important meeting scheduled?

. . . you only notice the coffee dribbles on your white shirt after you’ve gotten to work?

. . . two hours after lunch, you look in the mirror and notice something green between your teeth?

. . . you’re running late and then realize you forgot to fill up your car yesterday?

. . . you want a bowl of cereal and find out the milk’s gone sour?

. . . you try to slip on your favorite jeans and have to tug instead? (Surely it couldn’t have anything to do with how many desserts you had last week? And the pizza? The french fries?)

. . . what you really want to wear is still in the dirty clothes hamper?

. . . you’re in a hurry and everybody in front of you isn’t?

. . . in the middle of a dirty job, you realize that you need a particular item immediately, and so you run to the hardware store in your nasty clothes, sans make-up, hair in a sloppy pony tail, only to run into everyone you know?

. . . someone calls to see if you want to go out to eat and you’ve already started cooking?

. . . you can’t get the ketchup out of the bottle, so you pound and pound, and then it comes out and floods your plate?

. . . you choose the fast-moving line and then hear “Price Check!”?

. . . great looking shoes hurt your feet?

. . . the waiter says, “I’m sorry, ma’am, but we seem to have lost your order”?

OK. I'm getting on a roll here. I guess this is another subject we'll return to.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Last Day, I Promise

Watching Les Miserables the other night really got me to thinking about the paradoxes inherent in life. Think about it. Jean Valjean is arrested and spends seventeen years of his life in prison for stealing bread to feed a starving child. He’s beaten and abused. After doing his time, he is finally released, yet even then he is scorned and mistreated by society. He spends his life taking care of a child not his own. He makes sacrifices for her, dedicating his existence to providing her a safe and loving home. He even risks his life to secure her happiness. And all the while, he must remain ever vigilant because he is hunted by a man obsessed with vengeance. Put like that, it doesn’t sound like much of a life, does it?

And yet, when I get to the end, I am completely overwhelmed with the beauty that was his life. Jean Valjean’s story is the perfect allegory of the Christian life. “I have purchased your soul for God,” the Bishop tells him, and Valjean is never the same. The sacrifice was too great, too awesome to comprehend. And so he honors the gift with a life of love and sacrifice.

In a world where we’re encouraged to “go for the gusto” because we’re “worth it,” sacrifice and self-control just don’t seem to work. We go to business school to learn how to fight our way to the top of the ladder. We argue for our rights, we elbow our way in and claim our share, and we sue anyone that gets in our way. We pamper ourselves, and gorge ourselves, and buy all kinds of things to make our lives easier. We expect handouts, and exemptions, and are ever ready with long lists of excuses (It’s our parents’ fault, the teacher’s fault, the government’s fault, my boss hates me, nobody understands . . . ). We tell our spouses to get it themselves, we wish our kids would be quiet and leave us alone, we hope our aging parents don’t inconvenience us. We’re protecting ourselves, and rewarding ourselves, and entertaining ourselves. So why aren’t we happy?

That’s the paradox. What we so avidly pursue eludes us. But a beautiful life is possible. And we’ve been given the answers: If we want to truly live, we have to die to self. If we want to receive, we have to give—love, mercy, help, friendship. If we want to be exalted, we have to humble ourselves. If we want to be strong, we have to admit our weakness and live in a state of trust. If we want to be the greatest, we must become servant of all. The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.

My heart honors the beauty of this truth when I see it in the lives of others, but I feel a lot like Paul here. What I want to do, I don’t. What I don’t want to do, I do. “Oh, wretched woman that I am . . .” Living the beautiful paradox is not easy; it’s a constant upstream battle against the river of selfishness. I can pray with the poet Robert Burns: “Thou knowest that Thou hast formed me / With passions wild and strong; / And list’ning to their witching voice / Has often led me wrong.” But I can also pray with the psalmist, “O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good: for his mercy endureth forever.”

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Original London Cast of Les Miserables - The Reunion!


Les Mis officially opened at The Rep on Friday night, but we bought tickets to the Thursday night preview performance because, for a half-hour to forty-five minutes before the show on preview night, the director talks to the audience and answers questions; in this case, both the overall director and the music director. English nerd that I am, I always buy tickets to this performance if possible. I find it fascinating to hear a director talk about what it takes to translate a work from the theater of the mind into an actual physical presentation.

Just think about it. When you read a play, you see it in your head. You have an unlimited amount of actors to draw from, all of whom represent their characters perfectly—age, height, weight, hair color, right down to the timbre of their voice. Each costume is a perfect fit for each character, a faultless representation of the time period or the socio-economic class. For the scenery and stage props, you’re not limited by money, or space, or availability. You can stage an outdoor scene as easily as one set indoors, a shack as well as a palace, the past as well as the future. And special effects? You’re limited only by your imagination.

But think of the real stage. A director begins with literary analysis. He reads and studies the play, analyzing the plot for thematic elements, searching the dialogue for characters’ motivations, paying attention to diction and nuance that a casual reader never bothers to notice. He has to decide what story he wants to tell and how he hopes to accomplish it. Of course, he works with actors, and music directors, and musicians, and set designers, and costume designers, lighting specialists and sound people, and maybe even choreographers, each of whom has a vision of the play or the role they play in it. The director has to integrate all that talent with his own vision, sometimes overruling, other times acquiescing to the expertise of others.

He’s limited by time, space, money, and individual talent. He’s challenged by scenes that play out easily in the mind or with the magic of a camera but are difficult to reproduce on stage. Yet, somehow, after millions of decisions and months of practice, he produces a work of art that, for two or three hours, enthralls the audience and, as Hamlet said, holds the mirror up to nature.

I find people who can do that pretty interesting.


Monday, September 15, 2008

Kudos to The Rep

A friend and I went to see Les Miserables last Thursday night at The Arkansas Repertory Theater. We had both already seen a production of Les Mis in London back in 2001, but not together. In fact, she said her seats were so close that the actors slung sweat on them. Alas, I cannot say the same. I bought my tickets at the last minute, so I was up among the rafters, but it didn’t really matter. In those old Victorian theaters (or theatres, I should say), the seating is so steep that it’s almost perpendicular, and being at the top actually gives you a panoramic view. With a production like Les Mis, that’s not a bad thing. And besides, those old Victorian theaters are so beautiful, just looking at them is entertainment in itself.

(The Orpheum Theater in Memphis has that look, too, and, I have to admit, I can never visit there without thinking of the two old grouchy men in the Muppet Show who sit on the ornate balcony and heckle.)
Well, back to Les Mis. The first time I saw it, I was overwhelmed by the emotional impact. It’s so rare in this day and age to see a show that illustrates the beauty of religious faith, of sacrifice, of loving someone else more than yourself. One of the most moving scenes in literature has to be the one between Jean Valjean and the Bishop of Digne. And, of course, emotions raised by the story are only heightened by the beautiful music. When the play ended, there was a standing ovation, and afterwards I just sat in my seat for a while and cried.

I had always wanted to see this play again, so when I heard it was going to be at The Rep, I called my friend and we bought tickets. I’ve seen several of their productions, and they have always been really good. But, come on, this is Les Mis. And The Rep is a regional theater. I thought that it would probably be worth my time to see, but I secretly doubted that it could measure up. Most especially, I thought that the singing could never match the star quality of the London performance. I fully expected to leave the theater at least slightly disappointed. (My friend confessed after the show that she’d had the same doubts .)

We could not have been more wrong. Of course, the cast was smaller, but the multiple roles were so well done that it was a non-issue. There were a few staging things that were done differently because of The Rep’s smaller stage, and of course I liked the way London did it better because it was so spectacular, but I was surprised at how well The Rep got across the same idea with so much less. If you had not seen the other production, you would see nothing amiss here.

And the music. Oh my. The Rep hired an orchestra twice the size that they usually use, and the actor’s voices were absolutely amazing, adults and children alike. In fact, the actor who played Valjean had actually played the character on Broadway and on the third national tour.

Often, a story seen twice loses its emotional impact, but this one didn’t. Yes, there was a standing ovation at the end. And yes, I cried.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Gleanings from My Readings

“For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?"
---Jane Austen, in Pride and Prejudice

“We need to have the courage to say obesity is not funny, vulgarity is not amusing, insolent children and submissive parents are not the characters we want to admire and emulate. Flippancy and sarcasm are not the only ways in which conversation can be conducted.

If the emperor is standing in my living room stripped to the buff, nothing should prevent me from saying that since he has no clothes on, he is not ready for public congress.”
---Maya Angelou, in Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now


“The complexity, paradox, and gentleness of thick, lived religion can elude the calculus of politics and journalism.”
---Krista Tippett, in Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters and How to Talk About It


Mr. Hardcastle: I love everything that’s old: old friends, old times, old manners, old books, old wine; and, I believe, Dorothy, (taking her hand) you’ll own I have been pretty fond of an old wife.
---Oliver Goldsmith, in his play She Stoops to Conquer (1771)


From Patricia Waters’ poem “Housework”:

“and I am thinking how my mama had to light
a fire under me for me to do anything around the house,
nose always in a book—exasperation in her voice,
but I heard the pride in it.” (6-9)

From her poem “Charting”:

“Is taboo the thing forbidden
or the act of forbidding?
Is it that I cannot look
or what I cannot look upon?” (10-13)


From Robert Burns’ poem “A Prayer in the Prospect of Death”:

“Thou knowest that Thou hast formed me
With passions wild and strong;
And list’ning to their witching voice
Has often led me wrong.” (9-12)


From Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Crossing the Bar”:

“For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face,
When I have crossed the bar.” (13-16)


Happy Reading!

Friday, September 12, 2008

As Promised

As promised, here are the ten most-difficult-to-translate English words. According to the same source, they are:

1. plenipotentiary
2. gobbledegook
3. serendipity
4. poppycock
5. googly
6. Spam
7. whimsy
8. bumf
9. chuffed
10. kitsch

There are some pretty interesting words here. Some of them are just plain fun to say, but I bet you’ll have to have a dictionary for a few of them. I did.
OK. I have to admit that I can't help but wonder why anybody would even eat Spam, much less speak about it in a situation that has to be translated. Maybe they are warning newcomers to our great country: "Enjoy yourselves. Live it up. But whatever else you do while you're in America, don't eat the Spam!"

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Richness and Complexity

One really good definition of poetry is “condensed language.” A poet chooses words and images that are deep, and wide, and richly textured, and to “translate” the poem into prose would take many, many more words that the poet used to get across the same idea.

Think about the twenty-third Psalm, a pastoral poem. It only has six verses, and you could read it aloud in, what, two minutes? Now think about how many preachers have preached half-hour or forty-five minute sermons on that psalm. Go to a Bible bookstore and see how many books you can find attempting to explain the richness and complexity contained in those six verses. See what I mean?

Well, some words themselves are like that. They are deep and complex. If you look them up in the dictionary, you find a paragraph rather than a simple phrase.

But it gets even more complicated when we try to translate certain words from another language. When foreign words are translated into English, what we often get is the literal, exact meaning of the word, minus all its cultural connotations. Often, no one English word quite manages to convey all the associations the word brings forth in its original language.

One such word is the German heimat. Translated literally into English, we get the word “home,” but this translation is woefully short of a German’s understanding of this complicated word. Heimat includes all these ideas and more: home; origin, birthplace of oneself and one’s ancestors; security, attachment, and joy; an uncontaminated space, a realm of innocence and immediacy; ideas of language and regional identity are encompassed in this term; it implies patriotism without nationalism; it is a somewhat sentimental term, yet it encompasses a history that is not always pleasant to recall.

I ran across another interesting foreign word in the book I’ve been reading by Krista Tippett. She shares the South African word ubuntu, a word that, she explains, “is suggestive of humanity. It means ‘I am through you, and you are through me. To the extent that I am estranged from another person, I am less than human.’” I don’t think that will translate to any one English word that I know, but isn't it a beautiful word?

Well, after being introduced to the word ubuntu, I wondered about other hard-to-translate words. According to Today Translation, who consulted one thousand linguists, these are the ten hardest to translate words:

1. Ilunga: Bantu language of Tshiluba for "a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time." However, there is no independent evidence that the word actually means what the translation company claims. When asked for confirmation by one reporter, representatives of the Congo government recognized the word only as a personal name. Furthermore, the translation company failed to respond to inquiries regarding the survey.

2. Shlimazl (שלימזל): Yiddish for a chronically unlucky person. (Cf. Schlemiel). (NOTE. In colloquial Italian, it is very common to use the word sfigato with exactly the same meaning, in Dutch and German one says pechvogel, also used in colloq. German is the word schlamassel, if you are in an unlucky situation)

3. Radiostukacz: Polish for a person who worked as a telegraphist for the resistance movements on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain. It is not a real word, only a mistake or a hoax.
4. Naa (なぁ or なー): Japanese word only used in the Kansai (関西) area of Japan, especially in Osaka (大阪府), to emphasize statements or agree with someone.

5. Altahmam (التهمام) †: Arabic for a kind of deep sadness.

6. Gezellig †: Dutch for cosy (room, house, chair, etc.), pleasant (evening spent with friends), friendly (atmosphere).Gesellig German for spending time with friends.

7. Saudade †: Portuguese for a certain type of longing.

8. Selathirupavar † (செல்லாதிருப்பவர்): Tamil for a certain type of truancy.

9. Pochemuchka (почемучка): Russian for a person who asks a lot of questions (usually a kid).

10. Klloshar †: Albanian for loser. Could be derived from French clochard.

I don’t recognize any of these words, except for number Six, which has obvious ties to our old friend gezelligheit, and possibly number Two, which sounds like a word in the old Laverne and Shirley chant, “Shlimeel, shlimazl, . . . .”

Tune in tomorrow for their list of the hardest English words to translate.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

And the Winner Is . . .

Well, a few of those 1.4 billion dollars came from me. I saw Gone With the Wind only once in a theater: In new screen splendor . . . The most magnificent picture ever! as the movie poster promised. (I think I have seen it at a couple of times on TV, but commercial interruptions certainly lessen the movie’s effect.) Before my first viewing I had already read the novel several times, and, although the movie was spectacular, when it was over all I could think was, “They left over half of it out!”

[Embarrassing Side Note (Warning: Includes plot spoiler): I first read the book when I was probably about thirteen or fourteen years old, and when Melanie died, I cried as if I’d lost my best friend. Really. Even my Mom got fed up and told me to get over it.]

The novel in hardback ran 1,037 pages, 864 pages in the paperback edition, and to compress than into three hours and forty-two minutes running time is pretty impressive, but . . .

Ah, there’s the rub. Books always include more than movies possibly can. More plot, more scenes, more depth of characterization, more interiority. I could go on, but you get the point. For a long time, this really used to bother me. I always assumed that books were better than movies. I would read the book, then see the movie. I’d compare the two and always judge the movie as lacking.

One exception to this is To Kill a Mockingbird. This outstanding movie is remarkably like the book, yet it is exceptional in its own right. In fact, this is the only book/movie pair I can think of that makes both my favorite books and favorite movies lists.

Well, back when I was an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to attend the Natchez Literary and Movie Celebration in Natchez, Mississippi. This is an event that has been called “Mississippi’s most significant annual conference devoted to literature, history, and culture,” and every year it presents a “theme-based lecture series enhanced by films, field trips, workshops, exhibits, book signings, and discussions.” The year I attended, the focus was on Richard Wright. It was here that I learned of the many and varied reasons that movies differ from the novels they portray.

Length is the obvious one. Most people are only willing to sit still and pay attention for about two hours. It has to be a really great movie for people to stay in their seats for three or four. But there are other reasons as well. A viewing audience is quite different from a reading audience. In general, they expect different things, and that must be considered. The medium is also different—a book communicates through words only, a movie through words, images, and sound. And we have to remember that a movie made from a book is an adaptation. It is usually someone else’s vision of the story, not the original author’s.

I guess the most important thing that I learned in Natchez is that, to truly appreciate movies, they must be judged on their own merit. A comparison may be fun to do, and it may reveal what’s been added or what’s been left out, but it’s not the best way to judge the worth of a movie.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Frankly, my dear . . .

I read in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette last weekend that, all hype about The Dark Knight and Titanic aside, if adjusted for inflation, the largest grossing movie of all time is actually Gone With the Wind. In adjusted dollars, ticket sales for GWTW total $1.4 billion dollars as compared to The Dark Knight’s $504 million and Titanic’s $908 million. Wow.

And even more interesting is author Tom Long’s analysis of population and ticket sales. In 1940, America’s population totaled less than 140 million. Today’s population comes in at more than 300 million. Long explains that average ticket prices in 1939 ranged from twenty-three cents to one dollar each. So, for GWTW to earn that much money, ticket sales must have been phenomenal:

“Movies today bring in a lot less while charging a lot more and play to more than twice as many people. . . . It’s hard now for people to even conceive what a huge cultural tidal wave Gone With the Wind must have been. A lot of people have seen the latest Batman movie. In 1939, virtually everybody went to see Gone With the Wind. And then they went back and saw it again,” Long explains. “And over the years it would be re-released into theaters and people would go see it again.”

The movie that came closest to GWTW and its impact on society is the phenomenon of Star Wars in 1977. “It wasn’t just a movie, it was a way of life, it became part of our language, a constant reference point,” Long asserts. This type of cultural impact is less and less likely as we become a more technological world. Today, movies compete with so many other movies—current release and on DVD, with video games, with TV, with radio, and ipods, and cell phones, and the internet. “Movies,” Long notes, “are no longer as central to American life as they once were. Probably nothing is.”

So, you want to know the top-ten box office hits, adjusted for inflation? Here you go:

1. Gone With the Wind (1939)
2. Star Wars (1977)
3. The Sound of Music (1965)
4. ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
5. The Ten Commandments (1956)
6. Titanic (1997)
7. Jaws (1975)
8. Doctor Zhivago (1965)
9. The Exorcist (1973)
10. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Oh, The Dark Knight comes in at #30.

(For more information, see "Gone With the Wind blows away Dark Night earnings" by Tom Long in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, Sunday, September 7, 2008, 4E)

Monday, September 8, 2008

No, No! Bad Dog!

One of the great pleasures in my life is a good long walk. It’s my natural stress reliever. For a half-hour or more, I leave everything behind—reading, writing, housework, bills. For however long I choose to simply put one foot in front of the other, no outside commitments intrude. Sometimes I simply enjoy the weather, the beauty of the day. Sometimes I pound the pavement to the beat of the songs on my ipod, getting lost in the music. Some days, I just let my mind drift; other days I set myself to pondering something that I’m writing about, and, like solving a math problem in my sleep, I often come up with the perfect thesis, or a better plan of organization, or a clearer way to present an obscure point.

But nothing can ruin a good walk like an aggressive dog. And I speak from experience. Quite a few years ago, I was attacked by a pit bull, so anyone who tries to convince me that they’re not dangerous will find themselves talking to a brick wall. I mean, imagine yourself being chased by this and tell me again how gentle and loving they can be:

Although it happened many years ago, the images remain forever fresh in my mind. The dog attacked me at the end of my own driveway. I’d gone out to get the mail, and luckily, I had not let my daughter, a toddler at the time, accompany me all the way to the roadside mailbox. The dog attacked me repeatedly, slamming into me and biting me. Pit bulls have power unimaginable to those who haven’t seen it or felt it. When the dog would hit me, I’d fly up into the air as if hit by an NFL tackle, and land on my back. I kept getting up because I was afraid it would go after my daughter if I stayed still and she moved and drew his attention.

I was very lucky, because although pit bulls usually rip and tear, I ended up with only about six or eight bites, all puncture wounds, and extensive bruising. I don’t guess I’ll ever really know what stopped him, but suddenly he quit attacking and just stood there watching me. I’ve always secretly pictured an angel, maybe like the one who prevented Adam and Eve from returning to the Garden of Eden, standing in front of him with a flaming sword barring the way, saying, “Enough!” I backed slowly away, grabbed my daughter, and eased toward the house until I felt close enough to break into a full-fledged run.

Other than a few tiny scars, I suffered no lasting damage, except for a great mistrust of dogs. For a while, my reactions were totally illogical. A miniature poodle could run at me and I would almost lose it. I'm a lot better now, but I still can’t see a pit bull without a shiver running down my spine.

Just the other day I heard on the news that a nine-year-old Pulaski County boy was attacked by pit bulls while he was playing outside in his neighborhood. Tell me again how pit bulls are misunderstood animals?

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Sunday Funnies

A linguistics professor was lecturing his class the other day. "In English," he said, "a double negative forms a positive. However, in some languages, such as Russian, a double negative remains a negative. But there isn't a single language, not one, in which a double positive can express a negative."

A voice from the back of the room retorted, "Yeah, right."

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Gleanings from My Readings

"Oh! Do not attack me with your watch. A watch is always too fast or too slow. I cannot be dictated to by a watch.” ---Jane Austen


“ . . . to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
---Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet


“In our time, we analyze global realities and culture wars with new categories, defining and dismissing whole swaths of human life in terms of ‘fundamentalism’ and ‘liberalism’ and ‘terrorism.’ These labels only tell us partial truths. We must use them humbly, guardedly, . . . aware of the limitations of our own vision and our own capacity for misunderstanding and self-deception.”
---Krista Tippett, in Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters and How to Talk About It


You just have to smile:

Mrs. Marwood: “True, ‘tis an unhappy circumstance of life, that love should ever die before us; and that the man so often should outlive the lover. But say what you will, ‘tis better to be left, than never to have been loved. To pass our youth in dull indifference, to refuse the sweets of life because they once must leave us, is as preposterous as to wish to have been born old, because one day we must be old. For my part, my youth may wear and waste, but it shall never rust in my possession.” (2.1.10-19)
---William Congreve, from his play The Way of the World (1700)


From X. J. Kennedy’s poem “The Purpose of Time is to Prevent Everything from Happening at Once”:

“Time takes its time unraveling. But, still,
You’ll wonder when your life ends: Huh? What happened?” (13-14)


From Susan Cataldo’s “Poem for the Family”:

“This poem
is enough gratitude for the day. That leaf
tapping against the window, enough
music for the night.” (5-8)


From Patricia Waters’ “Proverbs”:

“Get out say the curtains,
fly into the hot sun,
fall into the blue sea,
drown in such a bold story.” (9-12)


Happy Reading!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Words Matter

I guess it’s pretty obvious by now that I think words are important. Before I ever even had the desire or ability to analyze why, I realized that beautiful words can move us and give us great pleasure.

They can inspire us to praise . . . GLORY be to God for dappled things—For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow . . . .

They can give us courage . . . Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never-in nothing, great or small, large or petty - never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy. . . .

They inspire us . . . And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

They make us smile . . . Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.

Words are wonderfully powerful. But that power is not always used in ways that ennoble us as human beings. Christa Tippett, creator of MPR’s radio show Speaking of Faith, says in her recent book:

“I’m committed as a journalist to political neutrality. . . . I’m profoundly disturbed by the language of ‘collateral damage’ which has been invoked most recently by a Republican administration. But I hear it as a symptom of a larger tendency, across the liberal-conservative spectrum in this country, to describe our enemies as less than human. Since shortly before the 9/11 attacks, the notion of ‘hunting down’ terrorists has become accepted lingo. In Abu Ghraib, tortured prisoners were posed as animals. Those soldiers and commanders were unconsciously emboldened, I am sure, by language of less-than-humanness that has become routine in our political life and on the pages of liberal as well as conservative papers of record. And yet this mode of attack is doomed to failure, certainly against our current enemies.”

Tippett is right, and she is not alone in her views. Thomas Vincent, in his article, “Dangerous Words," explains, “It is dangerous enough when we use iconic words that have evolved naturally in our language. But when such words are created out of whole cloth by governments the phenomenon takes on truly Kafkaesque dimensions.”

We have examples from history of how control of language can change minds and then behavior: “Many commentators have noted that in order to murder their victims, the Nazis had to murder the German language first, associated as it was with high culture, rationality, and philosophical thought. A new, degraded form of German came into being, first in Germany itself, then in the camps, where it found its most brutal expression. . . . It is an obvious observation that where violence is inflicted on man, it is also inflicted on language.” Thus we have the Final Solution, and “medical experiments,” and Arbeit Macht Frei.

Published in 1949, George Orwell, in his novel 1984, examines the negative power of language. The purpose of Newspeak, his fictional language, is to control the way people think and behave by controlling the words they use, their vocabulary. Lois Lowry’s young adult novel, The Giver, is also about a dystopia that uses language to deliberately cloud meaning, thereby controlling citizen’s behavior and shaping their reality.

As children, we were taught the chant, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” and repeating this phrase might have increased our courage in the face of verbal abuse, but as a maxim for life, it falls woefully short. I think the wise man Solomon more truly understood how much words matter: “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.” (Proverbs 18:21)

Thursday, September 4, 2008

My Vote Goes To . . .

I don’t usually post twice in one day, but I could not help myself. Like many Americans, last night I watched coverage of the RNC, mostly to find out just who Sarah Palin is. As she spoke of tax cuts, and job experience, and her dreams for our country, my heart was stolen . . . by her seven-year-old daughter Piper. Sitting in the VIP box with the rest of the Palin family, little Piper’s confident smile contrasted with the hesitant and self-conscious smiles of her older siblings. Ever alert to protocol, she mouthed “Do we stand up now?” when the Palin family was acknowledged from the stage. During her mother’s speech, several times the camera panned to show her quite competently holding her four-month-old baby brother Trig. But when it captured her licking her hand and smoothing down the baby’s hair, well, it was all over for me. My vote goes to Piper Palin for Best Big Sister.

Birthdays and Dirty Words

Today is my youngest child’s birthday, and since I am the one who suffered excruciating pain and anguish to bring him into the world, I believe that I have been endowed by my Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Right to tell Stories that might prove Embarassing to him.

If you have been a faithful reader of my blog, you’ll know that I am drawn to new and interesting words. Well, my youngest son inherited this trait, but with a twist. He was the child that just had to repeat a new word if he encountered it, especially if it was one that would ultimately bring Shame and Reproach upon his parents.

In an earlier post (8/1/08 Things I Wish I’d Done #2), I related one such incident. Here, for your reading pleasure and to increase my joy on his birthday, is the further adventure of “Trent Learns About New Words”:

Do you remember the little rubber wrestling men? Well, courtesy of a great aunt and uncle, he had two of them, and one day, while his brother and sister were in school, he contentedly engaged them in mortal combat. I was sitting, calmly enjoying my counted cross stitch, when my peace was rudely shattered by his words: “I’ll kill you, you son of a %*@#*!” he shouted, using one little rubber man to slam the other to the ground.

Trying to remain calm and not impress the new vocabulary words indelibly on his brain, I asked, “Son, why did you say that? Where in the world did you hear those words?”

“That detective man said it to the bad guy on TV last night,” he replied.

Now, I knew he wasn’t being “bad.” In fact, he was doing what all of us do—we hear new words, figure out what they mean and how to use them from context, and then implement them in our own Speaking Vocabularies. What he needed, I decided, was a tool to help him learn proper discretion. So, I talked to him about how some words were great to use and others were not so great, and I told him that if he ever heard a new word that he had never heard mommy or daddy use, he had to tell one of us about the word first.

Well, a few days later he was in the farm shop with his older brother. Ever the inquisitive child, he asked, “Travis, what is oil for?”

“It’s used to lubricate things,” Travis replied.

“Lubricate! Travis, have you ever heard mommy or daddy use that word?”

Ah, if he’d only remained as easily guided by my wise maxims, what trouble we might have avoided through the teenage years. . .

Happy Birthday, Trent. I’m proud of you. And you can repeat that

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Running with Cows

I ran into a friend from my old hometown last weekend, and she mentioned how much she missed our walks. We had been faithful walking partners for a long time. After one or the other of us drove our kids to school, we’d walk three or four miles a day, five days a week, hot weather, cold weather, and anything in between. We talked about our kids, our husbands, our diets (usually about how they were not going according to plan), our friends, our families, our farms, how hard it was to get jeans that fit. We even talked sometimes about politics and religion. That’s what kind of friends we were. Oh, and we laughed. A lot.

There were two major things that made us so compatible. We walked fast, and we had plenty to talk about. We’d both had other walking partners, but what they called walking we called strolling, and what we called walking they called running from a fire. Walkers and strollers do not great exercise partners make. And then the conversation . . . One of our neighbors once told us that he knew when we were coming even if he couldn’t see us because we sounded like a gaggle of geese.

Well, now that I’ve moved away, I have new exercise partners. Now, I run with the cows. I live about six-or-so miles from town, and much of our country lane is bordered by pastures. But my new exercise partners are not nearly as motivated or as friendly as my former one. In the early spring, during calving season, many of them are skittish and dart away as soon as they see me. In the summer, when it’s hot, they just stand along the fence and stare at the stupid human running and sweating while they try to be as still as possible. In winter, they’re fickle. Sometimes they won’t even look at me—it all depends on which way the wind is blowing.

I guess the cows and my ipod are okay company. But, I really miss walking with you, too.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Warning: Reading Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

I love to read. I read for work, for information, for fun, for relaxation. I might could (there’s another one of those Southern double modals) live without books, but I’m not quite sure how I would accomplish it or how happy I’d be. Most of my life, I’ve wished for more time to read. Family, work, housework, cooking, buying groceries—you know, all the other things in life—have often crowded out my reading time. But now that I’m on leave from teaching and am reading ALL THE TIME, I’ve discovered something. It can make you sick.

I start my day with an early workout, but after breakfast and a few morning chores I pretty much plant my rear in a chair and read the rest of the day. (Some of you are probably not feeling very sorry for me about now.) I’m preparing for my oral comps, which cover one hundred years of literature and the corresponding history and criticism, and I don’t have the rest of my life to get everything read. So, I sit and read the required material, usually from about eight or eight-thirty to about five every day. At least. (This does not count my devotional reading, poetry, or reading for pleasure. This type of reading occurs before and after my “work day.”)

Well, by the time my “work day” is over, my back hurts, my shoulders hurt, I can hardly see, and I’m a little sick to my stomach. Oh, and my brain is usually mush.

You may say that I should postpone my workout until mid-day, but I have learned that if I don’t work out in the morning, it’s not going to happen at all. It’s a body clock thing. I know it would help if I’d get up regularly during the day and do jumping jacks, or run up and down the stairs, or pull some yoga moves, but I’m driven, you see. Calisthenics and lower back stretches take up time and don’t help me check off anything on my way-too-long reading list.

Well, I haven’t solved this problem yet. I just keep plugging along, enduring the pain and agony, solemnly holding to my purpose even if I am bent and crippled by the time I stand before my inquisitors. At least, as I immerse myself in 18th century British literature, I know the authors of that time could have felt my pain. I just had to smile when I ran across a passage written by Edmund Burke in 1757:

“Labor is not only requisite to preserve the coarser organs in a state fit for their functions, but it is equally necessary to these finer and more delicate organs on which, and by which, the imagination and perhaps the other mental powers act. . . . A long exercise of the mental powers induces a remarkable lassitude of the whole body. . . . Now, as a due exercise is essential to the coarse musculature parts of the constitution, and that without this rousing they would become languid, and diseased, the very same rule holds with regard to those finer parts we have mentioned; to have them in proper order, they must be shaken and worked to a proper degree.”
--- from A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful

I think ol’ Edmund and I are talking about the same thing, but our voices and diction are quite different, don't ya think?

Monday, September 1, 2008

Yada, Yada, Yada

I’ve discovered another great word: pleonasm. It means “the using of more words than are required to give the sense intended . . . often resorted to deliberately for rhetorical effect.”

Barbara Wallraff, the Ms. Grammar of The Atlantic, points out an interesting contradiction: “Oddly, the two main ways to be forceful in English are to be succinct and to be wordy. The latter is out of fashion, and people who don’t like it call it redundancy. Those of us who do sometimes like it call it pleonasm.”

I totally agree. One of the biggest problems that my Comp students have (besides atrocious grammar, but we won’t go there now) is wordiness, which I faithfully mark in the margins beside their run-on sentences and multiplicities of repetition. “Conciseness is a virtue!” I frequently remind them.

But, verbosity can be wonderful in the hands of a language virtuoso. The key is in the definition: “for rhetorical effect.” The author who can get by with wordiness doesn’t just run off at the mouth because he has no control. He has talent, skill, and a plan. It’s like grammar and usage—you have to master the rules before you’re allowed to break them. You have to be able to write succinctly to be able to expound at length in a way readers will appreciate. (Of course, since one of my focus areas in my doctoral studies is 18th century British literature, I have to believe this.)

Just think about it. Abraham Lincoln could have said “87” instead of “four score and seven years ago . . .” The crowd would have understood Martin Luther King, Jr. if he’d said “I have a dream” just one time, but would they have felt his passion? Would Moby Dick or Les Miserables have been quite as beautiful without the long digressions? Henry Fielding and Lawrence Sterne had fun with wordiness, using it to mock the pretentiousness of other authors. I could go on listing examples of skillful garrulousness, but I’ll stop with one word: Faulkner.

Now I’m scared to post this without running Word Count first.