Saturday, November 18, 2017

I Have No Memory of That

This week a colleague popped into my office to show me the four-letter word version of “Let it go!” from Frozen. That is, after all, what good colleagues in the world of serious academia do for one another. Being the rigorously inquisitive person that I am, I built upon her research and discovered the spoof, “Do you wanna hide a body?” I was laughing until those last whispered words: “I’m coming for you, Elsa!” Eesh.

Now, as the sun sets and those five creepy words keep coming back, I’m reminded of my younger days with sisters, nights in tight places (having to share beds at our aunt’s house), and the night that one of my older sisters claims I tried to strangle her in my sleep.

“Tried” might be too strong a word. I’m bigger than her (think baguette vs. ficelle), so if I’d really tried, then she would probably have a much thinner neck today. Her neck’s already pretty thin.

And long.

And I don’t remember any of this.

This is what I remember.

My sister, A, and I were sharing the cheery little guestroom at my aunt's. My favorite part of that room was the globe-like lamp that hung over the double bed. It always made me think of the magical lamp in George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, the lamp by which the grandmother used to guide her granddaughter home whenever she got lost. I believe that happy notion was one of my last conscious notions before I rolled over and left my older sister to read her novel that night.

A: You’re sure the light won’t bother you, Liesl?

L: Positive. Read as long as you….ZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzz.

The next morning dawn poked us in the eyes with her proverbial rosy fingers and I bounced out of bed. My sister, never a bouncer, opened an eye and asked how I'd slept.

L: Fine. You?

A: Mmmmm. Alright. Are you sure you slept okay? No bad dreams?

L: Nope. Like a log. You want the bathroom first?

Ablutions followed, and no more was said on the matter until we were downstairs eating breakfast.

A: Liesl, are you sure slept okay? No strange dreams?

L: Don’t think so. Why? Did I talk in my sleep or something?

A: Yes. Mmmm. Yes, you did.

At this point of plowing my merry way through my bowl of toasted oaties, or whatever the heck I was eating, I realized that my sister was staring at me as if I'd grown a couple extra ears.

L: So, what did I say? Why are you looking at me like that? What?!

A: You tried to strangle me last night. Sort of.

Gentle reader, there may have been carnage. Milk out the nose. Spewed oaties. There may have been, I do not remember. I do remember guffawing loudly at the idea. Here follows, my sister’s version. I omit my laughter, cross-examination, and protestations that she was making the whole thing up.

A: It was around two in the morning and I only had one chapter left.You’d been curled up asleep for a while when you started mumbling. I thought you waking up so I asked if the light was bothering you, but you just waved a hand and said, “Put the cards away.” When I asked you again if you were awake, you just repeated that: “Put the cards away.”

Then you flopped over onto your back and opened your eyes.You looked right at me. I kept asking if you were awake, but you didn’t say anything. Instead, your hands started going like this—”

[She demonstrated “this” for my benefit, limply raising her hands like a marionette with fingers stretching out and feeling the air before them.]

And then you started reaching for me throat. I pushed them down, but you kept coming. I kept on asking if you were awake. You were looking right at me! Then finally you sort of harrumphed and turned over.

L: Then?

A: Then?! Then, I kept my eyes on you for a long time to make sure you weren’t going to try it again!

L: That’s ridiculous. What on earth were you reading? Your imagination was working overtime. I didn’t do that.

A: Oh, yes you did!

Something about the wary and disconcerted manner in which my sister was staring at me made me pretty certain that my having no memory didn't change the facts of what I had or had not done.

So, in these days of politicians and harassers employing amnesia as their defense, I wonder if it isn’t the better part of courage to spend less time saying, “I have no memory of that,” and more time looking at the evidence. I, for example, knew then, as I know now, that my sister is neither a liar nor delusional. I would trust her reading of anyone or anything. Sure, I was there, but that doesn't mean my memory is the trustworthy one. Not at all. In fact, if she says it, I’m pretty sure I did it.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Late Summer Book Reviews

Do NOT read the Benjamin Myers' novel Beastings. No matter what the reviewers, with their beguiling comments such as 'confidently written prose" and "austere and brilliantly shocking," have said. That's how I got snookered in.

"Are they wrong? Is it not well written?" I hear you ask.

Well, um... yeah. It's good prose. Very good even.

"Is it not a compelling story?" you pursue (because you are one of those sorts who doggedly pursues literary enlightenment).

Okay, yes. It is. One might even say "brilliantly shocking." However--

"Then, why should I put down this book which the Guardian so highly reviewed because of your opinion?" you demand (because now you're just being contrary).

Because, say I bitterly, the bleepity-bleep novel sets new standard for measuring my dislike of a novel.

I had thought Kingsnorth's novel The Wake (also highly praised by the Guardian) set that particular, grim standard. After all, I was only 30 pages into The Wake when I wanted nothing more than to be out of the narrator's delusional head. True, it was fascinatingly written with its "shadow tongue" of Old English. I'll even further admit that although as an Anglo-Saxonist I found the religious anachronisms of the book grating, it just might be a brilliant book--not that I consider myself a discerning judge of brilliance. Stupidity and I go way back, so I can spot that in a second. Brilliance is another matter. 

Literary glory, however, was not responsible for my finishing The Wake. On the contrary, I finished the doggone novel because I was semi-desperate for the narrator's followers to recognize his ape-shit insanity. Ay-yup, I got snared by the lowest of literary common denominators: plot.

"So... heh hem... about Beastings?" you query (because your head is now spinning with tangents and you want to right the conversational boat and steady yourself).

Right! Right! Beastings. Forget The Wake. So, here is the question I now ask myself when I'm scanning a backcover or inside dust-jacket, wondering to myself, "To read or not to read," and you should brace yourself for a run-on:


Does a sexually molested mute steal an infant and flee across the moors whilst being pursued like a rabbit by the preacher who repeatedly molested her, only to be raped by a faceless stranger, stumble into briars so that she loses an eye, and then in the last few pages have the preacher catch up with her and throw the baby on the fire?

If the answer is yes, DO NOT READ. Now, if you're one of those people who adores these kinds of books, you feel free to bask in your literary superiority while I sip a bracing cup o' literary tea like Kate Atkinson's Emotionally Weird.

Oh, yeah. Spoiler alert. Sorry!

If anyone stays at the Ibis hotel in Belfast, Northern Ireland, feel free to steal the copy of Beastings I left on the bar's bookshelves. I sure as heck wasn't going to carry that book an inch further. Since then, I've spent the rest of my summer on palate cleansers like The Gormenghast Trilogy, reveling in Peake's atmospheric prose:


How could any human head contain such terrible and dazzling teeth? It was a brand-new graveyard. But oh! How anonymous it was. Not a headstone chiseled with the owner’s name. Had they died in battle, these nameless, dateless, dental dead, whose memorials, when the jaws opened, gleamed in the sunlight, and when the jaws met again rubbed shoulders in the night, scraping an ever closer acquaintance as the years rolled by? Prunesquallor had smiled.” (Gormenghast, chapter 6)

Now, those were books that I did not want to end. While by no means "blithe" or "pleasant" books, they are deeply satisfying. Fantastic as they are, they ring true like a clear bell through dense fog. With his spinning language, Peake constructs a world that rises about you--sometimes claustrophobically--and he creates characters with such keenly drawn idiosyncrasies that their frailties and motivations seem uniquely their own, however universal they truly are. He digs into the realities of human relations without grinding our noses in misery without respite, not without the hope of truth's revelation or love's free acceptance. Glorious, marvelous Peake.

Only the last of the Gormenghast tales, Titus Awakes, remains unread on my shelf, but I'm procrastinating. Part of me hesitates because I don't want it to end, and part of me hesitates out of a fear that it will not ring true to Peake's tone and diction, having been completed at is was by his wife. So for the moment, the palate cleansing continues with David Crystal's Making a Point. There's nothing like a good history of punctuation to clear one's head. 

Period.


Sunday, August 13, 2017

Not much frivolity to be had


Anyone who's read this knows that my preferred mode is frivolity. Hence the radio silence of these last months. In the wake of the election, I went through a frozen hip which seriously challenged my blithe Platonic division of mind from body. I started mainlining Pod Save America/Pod Save the World, Still Processing, and Native America Calling, doing the occasional protest, praying for 2018, and fantasizing about life as an ex-pat in Socotra.

Half a year later, the only one of those things that's changed is my hip. All better. The rest? Well, I'm still mainlining the Pod, checking out routes to Socotra (trying to figure out a way around the difficulty of visas to Yemen) and trying to convince my family that Socotra isn't as unstable as the rest of Yemen. No one seems to be buying it.

So, survival tactics. Like addictions, everyone has theirs. For me, The Guardian is right up there with coffee (preferably the two are combined). I usually just skim the world news (make sure things aren't exploding anywhere I'm sending students), cringe at headlines about our bloviator-in-chief and get back to work, but the other morning my boss sent me an email with a link to the Guardian's long read, “Unlearning the myth of American innocence” by Suzy Hansen and my thoughts are still spinning.

Hansen’s article touches on much of what I struggle to communicate in my work with college students who are heading overseas, but it's also the stuff that I'm wrestling with as I personally take stock of my own white privilege and try to find a way that deconstructs and destabilizes systemic injustice. As Hansen recalls her own early forays onto the international scene, she examines the intersection of national and personal which is such a blind spot for (white) US citizens and touches on all those things that make me want to go full on "Jesus in the temple" and throw over the establishment's tables.
“I would never have admitted it, or thought to say it, but looking back, I know that deep in my consciousness I thought that America was at the end of some evolutionary spectrum of civilisation, and everyone else was trying to catch up.
American exceptionalism did not only define the US as a special nation among lesser nations; it also demanded that all Americans believe they, too, were somehow superior to others. How could I, as an American, understand a foreign people, when unconsciously I did not extend the most basic faith to other people that I extended to myself? This was a limitation that was beyond racism, beyond prejudice and beyond ignorance. This was a kind of nationalism so insidious that I had not known to call it nationalism; this was a self-delusion so complete that I could not see where it began and ended, could not root it out, could not destroy it.”
This is the very sort of "naturalized" belief system I observe in my students heading around the globe for semesters abroad. It’s the sort of thing I heard expressed belligerently (and rather terrifyingly) by a few students several years ago in Italy when I was teaching a course on--of all things--medieval monasticism.

It was the same November that Barack Obama was elected president, a time when many of us felt a surge of hopefulness that we were about to step into a new era as a nation and map a new future for our county. We were naive. Correction: whites (of whom I am one) were naive. My guess is no black or brown person thought it would be that easy. After all, you can't map something new until you intimately understand the terrain of history, and we have never reckoned with our national terrain. (Vide the fact that when we talk about race in this country, Native Americans aren't even included in the discussion, but that's another story.)

Anyway, I was finishing a course on medieval monasticism by having the class read School(s) for Conversion: Twelve Marks of the New Monasticism, a multi-authored book which takes up the counter-cultural impetus of traditional monasticism and reinterprets the identifying "marks" of the religious life for the present day. The book lays out the best of what the life of faith can be as a challenge to materialism, structures of power, tribalism, and so on. I thought showing the contemporary relevance of monastic life and thought would be a great way to conclude a medieval history course. I thought I'd be preaching to the choir.

Silly me.

Several of the class (all white, upper middle-class students who could afford a semester abroad) revolted at the chapter “Lament for Racial Divisions Within the Church and Our Communities Combined with the Active Pursuit of a Just Reconciliation” by Chris Rice (Duke Divinity School). I was floored by the virulence of their response. They utterly rejected the suggestion they might be accountable for facing their privilege and making choices to do something about the advantages that they enjoy by virtue of the class and race into which they were born. Their response? They didn’t ask to be born white or middle class. They weren’t responsible for sins of their forefathers (literal or figurative). If they had advantages, it wasn't their responsibility to make sure that others enjoyed those. It was "other" people's responsibility to correct their own disenfranchisement.

As much as the entitled selfishness of what they said, it was their pronounced anger that stunned me. They were mad, really mad that I had dared to identify their white privilege. The next week, I outraged them all over again by challenging the myth of U.S. militarism being blessed by God. I'd given them Fred Bahnson’s chapter on “Peacemaking in the Midst of Violence and Conflict Resolution.” As one of them told me (applauded by several others), “If you’re not willing to fight for your country, then you don’t deserve the privilege of living here!” (Too bad we hadn't studied the Templars or I could have shown them how the union of faith and violence always takes on a life of its own and never for the good of the faith in question.) In response to my query about those who might ethically object to responding to aggression and violence in kind, they were dismissive: “Cowards.” “Unpatriotic.” "They have no rights."

As a professor, I failed. I failed miserably. Staring down white Christian nationalism—because that is what it is, not patriotism, but straight out nationalism with the most perverse schmear of faith--I was stunned into silence. Oh sure, I fumbled gently about trying to get them recognize other possibilities (including culpability), but ultimately I failed. Without the slightest thought that I was threatening their worldview, I was apparently challenging my students in a manner which Hansen says rarely happens:
“Young white Americans of course go through pain, insecurity and heartache. But it is very, very rare that young white Americans come across someone who tells them in harsh, unforgiving terms that they might be merely the easy winners of an ugly game, and indeed that because of their ignorance and misused power, they might be the losers within a greater moral universe.”
Yeah. Only I wasn't harsh or unforgiving. I was a stumbling, disbelieving flop. Today, a little older and a very little wiser, I am less shocked, but no less horrified at the memory of those students' reactions. Part of me still cringes at my failure to bring them to a place where they were at least willing to put their expectations under the microscope, and recognize the connections between their personal choices and the wider web of humanity (beyond their own particular race and consumption-driven class).

Now, I’m white, a U.S. citizen, and a Christian, but God help me, I'm uncomfortable and uneasy with all three of those. The first I bear with increasing and just unease. The second I bear with the discomfort of one raised in a house often populated by international students (and the concomitant conversations about different ideologies, faiths, politics, and the complicated nature of U.S. involvement around the globe). The last, I bear with much fear and trembling—firstly, because of the wretched cultural connotations of the word, and secondly because I know do a crap job of living the beatitudes and incarnating Christ's challenge to the structures of power and the status quo.

So here we go, staring down the start of the academic year with college students about to head all over the world while in our own backyard we've got Charlottesville. God help us. I've got to do better. We've got to do better. We have all got to do better.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Magic Mirror’s New Job



45: [on the phone]: It’s big, right? I mean, the last magic mirror Melania gave me was some little hand job so small I couldn’t even see my hair. Completely overrated. It’s not a magic mirror if it’s not big. Good. And gold plated? Good. And there’s a warranty, right? I’m not paying for this if it doesn’t work? Actually, I’m not paying for it anyway. Just threaten the merchant who sold it to you with deportation. He was white? Really? Not an immigrant or ethnic? Well, tell Giuliani to sick the FBI on him. I’m sure Comey can find something. It’s here. Gotta go. I got a big, beautiful, super-classy me to look at.

The workmen install a massive mirror as tall as the wall and wide enough to accommodate 45’s considerable ego.

45: Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the most fantastic of them all?

After a moment of dark cloudiness, the mirror comes into focus and a reflection comes forward out of the shadows to answer. (The reflection would appreciate its part being read with a heavy German accent.)

Reflection: Most fantastic? Was ist das “most fantastic,” meine Königin? Gott in Himmel!

45: You don’t speak English? What a piece of crap.

Reflection: Ja! Ja! Ich spreche- I mean, I speak English. All magic mirrors are polyglots. What are—I mean, who—yes, I think who is right—are you? Where’s the queen?

45: Queen? What queen?

Reflection [nervously]: Long black-haired woman with a widow’s peak you could impale yourself on although chances are good she’ll impale you with something else first? Always keeps a basket of poison apples on hand? Living inspiration for the phrase ‘drop-dead gorgeous’?

45: That cow. She refused to sell you. So, I had to have Putin dig up some dirt on her. By now your so-called former queen is scrubbing toilets in Sochi. Don't worry about her. You work for me now. It’s going to be terrific. You’ll love it. It’ll be the best thing you’ve ever known. Amazing.

Reflection [trying to look over 45’s shoulder.]: She isn’t here? Really? How— [he takes a long, slow look at 45.] –strangely discomforting. So, what can I…um… do for you? 

45: Tell me who’s the most fantastic of them all! Not that it’s much of a question. Everybody knows I’m the greatest, most popular…. You name it, I top it. 

Reflection [staring in horrified fascination at the hair]: I imagine you do. But perhaps you would like to use a more—how shall I put this—specific superlative? 

45: Are you saying I’m not the most fantastic? I could fire you. And by fire, I mean hack up and use for firewood. 

Reflection: No! No! I did not mean to suggest the...er... unsuitability of that particular superlative, but simply to observe that it really isn’t terribly meaningful. Fantastic is right up there with “super,” “beautiful,” and “great”. Not a whole lot there to work with.

45: That’s stupid. They’re my favoritests.

Reflection [taking in the gold curtains for the first time, the imitation rococo side table, etc. Sotto voce]: This from a man who gives trumpery a bad name.

45: What did you say?

Reflection [more loudly]: I said that’s not a word. ‘Favoritests’ is not a word. You could say ‘most favorite’ but then logic (although not grammar) requires that the superlative should be singular. Well, I suppose you can say they were some of your most favorite words.... Do you know, in all these years I’ve never considered the pitfalls of superlatives before, but now---now I see vistas of pitfalls spreading before me.

45:  Shut up. You're stupid. I never said it. I’m going to check the warranty on you. I have an excellent vocabulary. It’s spectacular.

Stork's nest outside of Rabat, Morocco
Reflection [sotto voce]: One century you slave for a homicidal beauty, the next for einem narzisstischen Schwachkopf of odd pigmentation who’s let a stork nest on his head.

45 [Reads paper]: “Begin every session with the mirror with the phrase ‘Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the [superlative of your choice] of them all?’ If not fully satisfied with the performance of the mirror, please write to die Brüder Grimm.” Yeah. I’m not satisfied. You stink. I only work with the best. [He storms out.]

Reflection: Stink? Stink! At least the evil queen had a vocabulary. She would have damned me as gilded treachery. She would have said I was a piece of calumnious filagree. Stink? Never have I been so unworthily insulted in my life. I really must talk to my union. Maybe they can hang me up in a nice living room where I could save some piece of art from a long, slow death of looking pretty above a sofa. I’ll keep my mouth shut and no one will ever know what I am.… Maybe I can mail myself back. If I can only get my hands on that warranty first. UGH! NO HANDS!