29 April 2009

Sappho Quote

I don't know who the translator is, but this quote appears as the epigram to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's experimental novel Dictee:

May I write words more naked than flesh,
stronger than bone, more resilient than
sinew, sensitive than nerve

I remember always really loving (the more daring) translations of Sappho's poetry as a teenager. And I suspect the reason why is being a teenager is a raw experience: teenagers actually feel naked, strong, resilient, and sensitive.

Adults writing teen fiction aught to remember this and perhaps use Sappho's invocation.

24 April 2009

Beutiful Quote via Bookslut via NPR

From Bookslut:

"Luis Alberto Urrea participates in NPR's "This I Believe."

I was in a small house in Cuernavaca with old healer women. We were eating green Jell-O. One of them told me this: "When you write, you light a bonfire in the spirit world. It is dark there. Lost souls wander alone. Your inner flame flares up. And the lost souls gather near your light and heat. And they see the next artist at work and go there. And they follow the fires until they find their ways home." "

18 April 2009

Twilight 2: Desire and Denial

So, as I said in my earlier post, the real questions to be asked about Twilight are about our (the general public's) understanding of and relationship to, the interlocked concepts of Desire and Denial. (Please cut me some slack if you feel like I'm cribbing from Neil Gaiman, but honestly, when isn't the guy right?)

Now again, I haven't read the Twilight books. Vampires aren't really my thing (can your symbolism BE anymore obvious?). In my defense, I did try. I read the first chapter at a Barnes and Noble, then when I didn't care and couldn't stand the writing, I flipped through, imagining the bracing plot must be what interested everyone. Nope. So, I will be talking about other people talking about the books. (Meta enough for you? Good.)

Most of the bloggers and their commenters whose thoughts I encountered (No, I can't remember everybody. No I'm not linking to them. Ok, you want a list? Of blogs I read regularly likely commentators include Bookslut, XX Factor, Broadsheet, io9, bOINGbONG, Feministing, Jezebel and ANYBODY they link to. I'm not quoting people, I'm talking about a general impression one gets.) seemed legitimately bugged by the more creeptastic stalkery moments of the book and film. (These do exist, I read enough of the book to get that.) But there also seems to be another thread of their concern which has to do with the theme of abstinence and what it means.

Now the word abstinence has come to only be associated with sex, and with a really ridiculous anti-sex movement. But the first time I ever heard the word abstain (and I thought I was done with the LDS stuff last post) was in reference to coffee. In fact, the word is regularly used in Mormonism to refer to everything from smoking, to Fast Sundays (trans.: first Sunday of the month, everybody skips two meals and donates the money to Church's hunger charity) to dressing modestly (por ejemplar: I abstain from wearing revealing clothes. Or: Her abstinence of inappropriate dress is admirable.) It is a religiously freighted and formal word, so it's not likely to be used in casual conversation. Also, the encroachment of the single meaning of abstinence from society is impacting its use. So the vampire's "abstinence" of drinking human blood really isn't a comment on teen sex. It's a mistranslation.

But it's also about desire.

Desire doesn't function without denial. If you want something and you get it, that want will never elevate to level of desire. Desire is a slow burn, though for teenagers it often is a slow burn at about 10,000 degrees.

For teenagers, denial is not often a choice. Teenagers fail to have sex generally because they don't have a partner or opportunity. Motive is generally not the issue. The number of films in which the (usually male) protagonist's goal is to have sex is astronomical. The protagonist looks for a partner, protection, or a place to have sex, and these obstacles are the only thing keeping the protagonist "abstinent" (though momentarily.) Even the one film teen female protagonist, I can reliably remember discussing her continued virginity, Claire from Clueless, hadn't had sex due to a lack of suitable partner. (Because films most appeal to the largest number of people possible, I'm using them as a thermometer of "social acceptance" instead of books.)

But let's be honest here. Reliable data shows (at least where kids get decent sex-ed) that teenagers are waiting longer to have sex. Not only are they delaying their sexual debut (psychologist talk for giving it up), they are having fewer partners. Teenagers, as a group, are more prudish than they were even ten years ago.

So what does this have to do with Twilight? Well, kids are waiting to have sex. So some of them are probably glad to have characters who are doing the same for REALLY BIG IMPORTANT REASONS rather than just because they can't find condoms.

But aside from that, there's something really interesting, really exotic, really adult (not to mention both really religious AND really liberal) about denial. Not just sexual denial: all kinds of denial. Think briefly about our consumerist culture, the ideas kids are bombarded with all the time: that they should be prettiest, the most athletic, have the most best newest stuff, have the best clothes, the most friends, lots of great sex, and they should have it now and at any cost. When I was little I remember going to the store with my mom and liking clothes, then saving my allowance to buy them. Now stores regularly rotate their entire stock in two weeks. Whether its a clothes store, implicitly saying get it now or never, or a soda commercial saying you aren't good enough unless you have X, our culture is all about fulfilling our desires now, and probably on credit.

Now imagine somebody saying, yeah but wanting stuff is better than having it. That desire itself is the goal. That's heady stuff. That's insane. Imagine if the book was about one of the Clique or Gossip Girl characters NOT BUYING clothes for four books! And it was a decision they made themselves. That's weird. That's just about as weird as a vampire book where they don't have sex.

Self-imposed denial to teenagers is foreign, but it's basically the definition of adulthood. Adults must pay bills and taxes, and quit watching awesome television shows to make dinner an do dishes. They also may decide not to sleep with anyone who is willing, because they realize its a bad idea, or their long term partner would be pissed (or their long term partner would like to be in on the action). Adults with kids go so far as to deny themselves praise from their children be pretending gifts are from Santa and chocolate eggs are from the Easter Bunny.

One of the compelling things about YA fiction is that it offers a template for adulthood. And I think kids are responding to the general concept of denial, particularly adultlike and important denial, rather than the specifics of denial of sex. Especially since the books still (apparently) offer large doses of something our instant gratification/buy on credit culture is attempting to decimate: desire.

Twilight Intro

So you really can't go anywhere or interact with anything in the YA fiction world without running into Twilight. The commentary alone is huge, diverse and intense. A lot of it has been from feminist bloggers freaked out about 1) what they perceive as a retrograde sexual and gendered message and 2) that this message is apparently based in the author's Mormonism.

So having been raised LDS (trans.: literally Latter Day Saint, colloq.: Mormon), but having NEVER EVER read Twilight, I actually have a lot of thoughts on the issue. Because while I don't intend to read the book, I suspect there's a lot about desire, denial and what people think they deserve that can be uncovered from our perceptions and reactions.

For starters, many of the LDS girls my age would not have been allowed to bring home vampire books. You think I'm kidding? When I was thirteen or so Halloween was basically canceled as a church activity in my stake (trans.: parish). They didn't tell you NOT to get dressed up or go trick-or-treating, but the numbers that year dropped. I knew at least a half-dozen families (and I'm sure there were many more) who only had UNO cards in their houses because "face cards can be used for fortune telling." I was told once, as a quite young child (between eight and eleven?) that Ouija boards were Satanic. Now I can't speak to any of this as being either Church policy or theologically justified, but I suspect none of it is. But that often has not stopped Mormon culture from being much wackier than LDS religion.

So, unlike most feminist bloggers and readers of Twilight I was struck by Meyer's sheer audacity to write a vampire book. Yes it's true Orson Scott Card writes outside of "Mormon Approved" land, and I have yet to hear of anyone berating Aaron Eckhart for his film roles, but neither of them have to go to Relief Society (trans.: mandatory Women's Auxiliary). (It's worth noting here, that in all religions that use social pressure rather than violence to maintain order and adherence, women are often the most quick to punish "transgressions." Don't believe me? Ask your ex-religious friends. I have yet to hear otherwise.)

Anyway, I think it's safe to say that however much Twilight was informed by Meyer's religious upbringing, its very existence throws a wrench in that concept at a level most commentators undoubtedly don't understand. The book itself is transgressive to the author. That's got to mean something, right?

Okay, feeling like I've dispensed with the "Mormon issue", what I really want to get into in the next post is the issue of desire and denial.

(Hey! What the hell religion is Stephen King, and what does his writing tell us about his retrograde religious beliefs? Or please, feel free to insert the name of ANY OTHER AUTHOR there, and see if you give a damn if they're not Mormon or a half dozen other "incorrect" or "exotic" religions. Yep, that's what I thought.)

08 April 2009

Thoughts on Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49

The newest single from The Paranoids greatest hits album... Oedipa Maas!

Oh Oedipa Maas your life was all set
Living quietly up in Kinneret
‘Til the day Pierce Inverarity dies
And you find out the world is built on lies:
See the mail delivered by homeless men
See heat engines run by Maxwell’s Demon
The soldiers’ bodies were thrown in the drink
Their bones for tourists, filters and ink

Oedipa Maas looking for clues
Oedipa Maas getting the blues
Oedipa Maas the play is the thing
Oedipa Maas Trystero’s biding
Their time

You know Metzger makes your knees like jelly
When you both play Strip Botticelli
At home your husband’s taking LSD
It turns out your analyst’s a Nazi
You’ve seen WASTE’s stamps and cancellations
All leads to Yoyodyne Corporation
Is it Pierce’s game from beyond the crypt?
Does the Vatican hold the manuscript?

Is it all a dream?
Child actors and their submarines?
Will Israelis interrupt the auction?
Or is it all your mind’s concoction?

Oedipa Maas looking for clues
Oedipa Maas getting the blues
Oedipa Maas the play is the thing
Oedipa Maas Trystero’s biding
Their time

Oedipa pretend to be Arnold Snarb
Help the amorati avoid love’s barb
Was Driblette really just a suicide?
Or did the Silent Waiting cease to abide?
Thurn and Taxis are naught but history
But is Trystero more than illusory?
Your brain fills up with your delusions
While the book fills up with more allusions

Oedipa Maas looking for clues
Oedipa Maas getting the blues
Oedipa Maas you’re the last one who’s sane
Oh, but Oedipa Maas, ain’t it all in your brain?

03 April 2009

Would the Baby Boomers Please Shut Up!

Begin here. Ok, all caught up? Good, because I am desperate to dissect Mr. Charles unbelievable boomer-centric article.

Now please understand, I am VERY biased against any baby boomer who starts talking about art/literature/music/sex "in their day," having gone through art school in the early aughts. Which meant boomers were now teachers and administrators out to solidify their awesome childhood experiences. Which is lovely, if dangerously nostalgic, except the primary mode of enthroning how much 1963 ROCKED was not saying that 1962 sucked, but that my generation were a bunch of snot nosed twits who didn't understand art or passion or protest, and god what was wrong with us. Four years of this is pretty tough on a young artists psyche.

And that is not an exaggeration, I had teachers criticize my personal reading choices, my classmates' "incomplete" understanding of the Western Cannon, my generation's Ameri-centricism, and the fact that we were in art school at all. Any choice that we made (my class was pretty clean when it came to hard drugs, and we had more than our fair share of vegetarians, which got us knocked by a teacher for our asceticism) could only be viewed in relation to the boomers. Even grad TAs often established the value of what we were about to discuss by beginning with an essay about the 1960s.

So Mr. Charles, you're in for it.

1) The composition of colleges is radically different than it was in the 1960s. Not only are more minorities and more women enrolled in college than ever before, a larger percentage of Americans get college degrees (you want numbers? Call a fact checker at the WaPo). College is no longer the rarefied world of upper upper middle class privilege, or a place to wait for an m.r.s degree. With the collapse of the public education system, it is proof that you can read, write and hold down a job (what a high school diploma was back when Mr. Charles wore short pants).

2) The avant garde sure as hell doesn't stay avant. Yes the beats were all very lovely and that, but they have become part of the curriculum! Part of the system, man! And they are over thirty! Not only is there no way the young, ribald and intellectually dangerous 18 year olds that Mr. Charles and his contemporaries were would thrillingly read the avant garde work of the 1910s (oh hell, in the computer world, that might as well be the 1810s) there's no way the avant garde of today is reading the beats. I read the beats in high school and middle school (not all of, and honestly I wasn't that impressed). People today are writing short stories as tattoos, in spreadsheets, and as ARGs (alternate reality games). Mr. Charles doesn't even KNOW what the avant garde looks like (reminds me of those bastards who are all, where are the anti-war songs of the new millennium? where is there Dylan, but they've never heard of Bright Eyes.)

And I did read Barthelme in college - the boy who passed him on to me got a copy of Guy de Maupassant stories in return. Unfortunately I didn't read one of the other books Mr. Charles mentions in college. I read zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance at 16, immediately on my completion of the Old Testament, but before my first attempt at reading the Koran. (Even then I found several of the books premises deeply flawed, existing only to shore up the author's ego and validate his psychotic break. Not to mention "Quality" is a concept that is deeply euro-centric and based on observations of reactions of a group that is homogeneous in its educational attainment, ethnic/religious backgrounds, and socio-economic status. But parts of the book are really good.)

3) Tastes change. Now this should be obvious to Mr. Charles, SINCE HE BRINGS IT UP IN THE ARTICLE, but nose, face, can't see, etc. Moby Dick wasn't well received at the time of its publishing. Fifty years later it was. We would not consider the American reader of the time to be illiterate idiots because they didn't love Moby Dick. These were people buying Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables, poetry by Longfellow, and the year after MB was published Uncle Tom's Cabin. In fact it seems the people of the time may have had greatly pressing issues, and no desire for disturbing, audacious avant garde books , when other humans were enslaved and the world around them was about to crumble. They may have been looking for simplistic moral clarity, as only a woman of deep religious faith could provide (sound familiar, Chuck old buddy?)

4) Society has wonderfully charmingly fractured since the 1960s. There isn't a book or a TV show or even a movie that you can guarantee an entire campus has seen/read. I know people who refuse to see something if it is popular (many many people, I went to art school remember?). And they don't need to, they can go be friends with people who love their favorite book or political theorist or clothing designer or activity or whatever online. You don't HAVE to read the same stupid (to you) book of essays as your roommate to have a meaningful conversation about what's important to you. And if you are the avant garde kid (see spreadsheet above) you don't need to get your idiot roommate to read your book of awesome essays to discuss it, you just go online.

5) Literature must exist outside the classroom. Alright, I'm going to quote high school teacher Matthew Cheney (who writes over at the truly happy spec fic and education blog The Mumpsimus) "A healthy culture of literacy needs literatures that aren't sanctioned by schools, literatures that are enjoyed simply for enjoyment, that have a mystique to them, an inability to conform to the central culture of the society." (He goes on about the need for literature education, but you can see his point.)

This last may be the biggest reason college kids are presumably reading Twilight. (I couldn't get past the first chapter, the prose is THAT BAD.) All the crap the boomers loved is now taught to college kids, and they don't care that you used to be young and beautiful and full of potential and discovering sex. College kids actually ARE young and beautiful and full of potential and discovering sex. They don't want to be reminded that they too will become old and be nostalgic.

So get over it, Mr. Charles. Or if you can't, start an online discussion group of avant garde works currently being produced. There'll be some college students, but they'll mostly be grad students of literature and art, the same people who forty years ago went to liberal arts colleges as undergrads to expand their minds and study humanities.

Failing that, may I suggest some rousing choruses of "The Old Man's Comforts and How He Gained Them"?

02 April 2009

An Accounting...

Getting diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome .... $25
Ergonomic keyboard .... $68.50
12 sessions of occupational therapy .... $300
2 Wrist braces .... $48
Weights .... $22.98
Discharge / Confirmation of cleared symptoms .... $25

Not having CTS .... Actually it was really expensive.

Thank god for insurance!

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial2.5 License.