Friday, October 30, 2009

Halloween & All Saint's

Three really great things about Halloween:

1. It's a secular holiday (and no, please do not start with, it's really pagan, blah, blah, blah...first, that was over 1000 years ago, and second, almost all the modern Halloween traditions are less than 100 years old) and we need secular holidays because, unlike religious ones, we can't fight over them. Anyone can participate and the only requirement is a sense of fun.

2. It's a community builder. Think of it, you actually get to go out and get to know the people in your own neighborhood. Isn't that quaint? This is one of the reasons I am down on shopping centers sponsoring trick-0r-treating. A shopping center is not your community. Your neighbors are.

3. Fear is part of the community (in spite of what I wrote above.) Robertson Davies wrote an Op-Ed piece in the NY Times years ago to the effect that we need Halloween because we need to acknowledge darkness. One of the supreme chills of Halloween for me was the idea that my seemingly innocent neighbors might be capable of putting razor blades in apples or poison in my Pixie Stix. Alas for good old reality, none of them ever did, although I did have a neighbor who more or less poisoned my brain by giving me a pamphlet telling me I was going to hell because I wasn't born again. (See secular holiday, above.)

The day after Halloween is, of course, All Saint's Day, and I would like to give some love here to my current favorite saint, Saint Martha of Bethany, a.k.a. St. Marta de Betania in Latin America.
That's her above, being led down the street sitting on that strange-looking creature. Martha in the New Testament is the sister of Lazarus and a follower of Jesus in her own right. According to the legend that is told about her, however, she later moved to the South of France (well, who wouldn't?) and lived in a town called Tarascon. The citizens of the town were being plauged by a monster called the Tarrasque, which was kind of a cross between a turtle and a dragon. Unlike St. George, whose attitude towards dragons verged on genocidal, St. Martha went out into the wilderness, tamed the monster, and brought him back to the town. The people of the town, perhaps misinterpreting her actions, then killed it. St. Martha was apparently rather annoyed by this and made a speech which caused the townspeople to weep in shame and promise to name their town after the monster. To this day St. Martha's festival is celebrated every July in Tarascon.
See, this is why (in spite of the aforementioned neighbor) I love Christianity. You start out with a nice Jewish girl who just happens to be lucky enough to have a brother who knows Jesus personally, and you end up with dragons and allegory and, 900 years later, advertisements for Leibig's vitamin extract.
I don't know where or when or how but someday I'm going to write a version of this St. Martha and the dragon story.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Love and ambition

I'm not always delighted when songs I greatly like are used in commercials, and I'm even less so when the songs used are Beatles songs. I spent a particularly intense part of my adolescence as a Beatles fan and the songs are so connected to certain events that they can't ever be anything but bittersweet. (I also can't buy "new" Beatles music. It would be like buying my own head.) There's a commercial that they've been running a lot during the baseball playoffs that uses a remake of "All You Need Is Love," and it intrigues me only because I've always thought that this is one of the most misinterpreted Beatles lyrics.

"There's nothing you can do that can't be done.
Nothing you can sing that can't be sung.
There's nothing you can make that can't be made
No one you can save that can't be saved.
There's nothing you can do, but you can learn how to be you in time."

Think about it. What John Lennon is saying here is not the usual you-can-be-anything-you-can-overcome-any-obstacle that is so dear to our hearts and narratives. Just the opposite. Sure, you can do something, but, guess what, so can lots of people. If you don't do it, some one else will, probably. At the time John Lennon wrote this he was one of the most famous and successful musicians in the world. If anyone had ever "achieved something" in both material terms and in mattering in the lives of millions of people, he had. And yet, here he is looking back and saying, there's nothing particularly talented or special about me and what I did, many others can do. Material success doesn't bring happiness. You can do or not do a million things, but until you learn how to be you, living your life, you won't find peace.
OK, it's a bit of a downer, and very mid-1960s. But I like to keep it in mind as a corrective to ambition. If the most famous musician of his time can shrug his shoulders at success, maybe I can, too...sometimes...

How to See the Elephant - Part III

Out of money,Thetis and Sheba leave the train at Xenia and walk to Cincinnati, a two and a half day journey, working for food and sleeping out in the summer night.

I think I was awakened by heat lightning. The wind was still blowing, but with a stronger intensity. I lay listening to it restlessly pushing the trees and I remembered that even as a child, in bed at night, I had hated that sound, and hated being alone outdoors even in the daytime, and most of all I hated the horrible, gloomy forests in Ohio, the trees that went on for miles and miles, soughing and buzzing, stirring against each other. I could always feel a savageness out in the woods. I remembered a story I had been told, something about an Indian curse on the area about Mansfield, and then there began to flood back into my mind all kind of tales: mysterious lights that followed people home; blood-curdling screams from uninhabited woods; giant men, all black and hairy; strange footprints; horrible goat-like animals. And after I thought about all that it came to my mind that people said Kentucky, in the Indian language, meant “dark and bloody ground.” And with that almost all the heart went out of me. I knew it was true, because I could feel that darkness in the land as I lay there. I thought of the burial mounds, not so far from here, and I wondered how many of the dead of that lost race lay there and if they would ever let the land alone.
I could not hear Sheba breathe anymore, and I could not move. The wind kept blowing through the trees, pushing and hissing, like something alive. Far away, over the hill, I heard a fox or a dog, and nearer, the bustle of chickens, clucking in nervous response.
I knew that the worst thing to do in the middle of the night was go anywhere near a coop full of chickens, but I did not care. I wanted the house to awaken and the wife to scream and the husband to run out with a light and a gun – mostly a light, though – so I could feel I wasn’t alone in the world. I sat up cautiously, and after about five minutes, not having been murdered by a ghost or seen any mysterious lights, I scooted, still wrapped in my shawl, across the damp ground, trying to make out the chicken coop in the darkness. I had hardly gone five feet when I ran right into something. It was something small, a bin or a trough perhaps, but it rolled over, and then something else got tangled up with it and both things tumbled down the hill and must have gone smack into the chicken house because there was a crash and all the hens began a wholly unnecessary call for divine intervention, clucking frantically and shrieking and thumping like dervishes into the sides of the coop.
After about five minutes the hens died down, rather wistfully, as if they hadn’t really expected to be rescued. I felt better. Then came a thud-thud. Boots. Still no light, but a door creaked open. “Who’s there?”
I felt better now, and I had no wish to be shot at. I sat as still as possible, thinking, go back to bed.
More thuds. A woman’s voice. Suddenly a set of shutters was thrown back and light shone into the yard. I realized it was later than I thought – almost dawn. The sun was not up but the sky was graying. Early risers, darn them.
Boots again, and the grass crunching, and a boy in a wide straw hat, holding up a lantern, walked right towards me. I stood up, pulling the shawl around my shoulders.
“It’s me. Don’t shoot.”
The lantern slumped a little, in disbelief, and then came back up.
“Lydia?” he whispered.
“No – my name is Thetis. And my friend – my friend is up there. Don’t shoot her either.”
He was a farm boy, my age perhaps, but taller.
“What are you doing?”
I didn’t see anything to do but answer that directly.
The lantern slumped down again. There was kind of a rueful laugh in the darkness, and then I heard his boots moving back across the grass. He opened the door, leaned into the house and called:
“Ma, there’s two ladies or something sleeping out back!”

Monday, October 19, 2009

Baking vs. Cooking

I bought a pie pumpkin last week and this weekend I made it into a pie. I've been baking since I was a kid, partly, I think, because it was something to do on rainy days. My best friend Amy and my sister and I would page through my mother's loose-leaf Betty Crocker cookbook, which was full of little homey pieces of advice that we thought were hilarious. (The editors evidently thought that housewives would not willingly cook or bake unless the recipes were made more exciting with little rhymes and mantras.) I still use a slightly earlier edition (1950) of Betty Crocker, and the baking recipes, while somewhat lacking in oomph, are good as ever. While I was rolling out the pie crust, I paused to think about why I am a good baker and love to do it, while I don't much like cooking and don't do it too well and I came to the conclusion that the answer lies in the fundamental difference between baking and cooking. Baking is orderly. You do step one (cook pumpkin), step two (puree pumpkin), step three (mix pie crust ingredients), etc. You nearly always have to complete a set task before going onto the next one. Cooking a meal, on the other hand, usually requires doing a bunch of different things all at once, hopefully timed so that they all finish together and can be served that way. I'm just not very good at that. Also, I have a tendency to sit down and read a book in the middle of things, and it turns out that baking is conducive to this, and cooking is not. I think this comparison may extend to writing as well. I like to know what I'm doing, and do it, and complete it. I'm not the type of writer who will have a bunch different plots going and hope they will all come together -- although its nice when they do! And yet there are some writers, I'm sure, who can do this, and very well. But I'll stick to baking.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Annual WTF? Moment

This morning the CNN ticker said "German writer wins Nobel Prize for Literature." I assumed this is shorthand for "German-writer-so-0bscure-we-can't-even-mention-the-name-lest-confusion-reign-over-the-breakfast-tables-0f-America," and I kind of groaned, but I wasn't really surprised. Quick, name last year's winner. Now, name the last winner you'd actually heard of (Doris Lessing, 2007). Now, name the last American. (Toni Morrison, 1993). Now, name the last Canadian. (Oops.) Mexican. (Octavio Paz, 1990.) South American (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1982.) I will say that Herta Muller, this year's winner, may be a great writer and the fact that I don't know much about her may be a sad example of a lack of interest by American publishers in European writing. She also seems to have maintained the integrity of her art under a brutal political system in Romania and I suppose that's what led the Nobel committee to her. But I have to say I don't understand why the Nobel committe seems to think that standing up to a brutal political system in 20th century Europe is the defining test of whether a writer is worthy of the world's top literary prize. This same theme, more or less, is explored by 6 out of the 12 most recent winners, including Dario Fo, Jose Saramago, Gunter Grass, Imre Kertesz, Elfriede Jelinek and even, by extension of the same kind of regime to South Africa, J.M. Coetzee. Suppose you are unfortunate enough to have been born in a democracy, and to want to write books that take on serious themes, including identity, modernity, sexuality, racism, consumerism, and myriad other complications of culture? Well, I guess you can't ever expect to win a Nobel Prize for it. If only John Updike could have gone to prison! If only the Canadian government would get off its ass and start persecuting Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro! That's probably their only hope of ever getting the Nobel Committee to notice them.

Incidentally, Toni Morrison is the only living American Nobelist. The most recent American winner before her (not counting Joseph Brodsky, who as a political exile wrote mainly in Russian and about Russian life) was Isaac Bashevis Singer, who won in 1978. A quick glance at the Nobel roster would lead to the inescapable conclusion that the United States, as a country, has not produced any long-lasting or interesting literature, particularly in the last 25 years, and has minimal influence on the rest of the world. As for the other American nations, well, really, do they even have moveable type south of the Tropic of Cancer? Canada? Canada? What language do they speak there?

Can't wait for next year. Somewhere in middle Europe, an overlooked writer is sharpening his goose-feather quill pen in anticipation of the fact that a poem making fun of Stalin which he hand-printed in 1955 could launch him into the big show in Stockholm.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Bright Star

One of the perils of a professional education in film is that you can almost never get really absorbed in a movie. Maybe the occasional super-dramatic picture can pull you in so you forget everything but it, but most of the time when I go to a movie I'm thinking about camera shots and what the actors were thinking and why the director/writers decided to tell the story the way they did. I wouldn't call this a bad thing: if the movie is boring, it gives me something to think about, and if the movie is good, it actually adds to my enjoyment. Last weekend I went to see a movie called Bright Star, which is about the poet Keats, and I found I was spending a lot of time looking at the costumes worn by the lead actress, who was playing Fanny Brawne. In this case, however, I don't think this was a sign of distraction. The movie was made in such a way that I think the viewer is honestly supposed to notice everything every character wore. Bright Star is a historical picture, and a biopic, but it is small in scale, and focused on the everyday. There's not much of a plot, except that Fanny Brawne can't marry Keats because neither of them have any money. The ups and downs of their relationship and the machinations of one of Keats' friends, who dislikes Fanny, form the episodes of the movie, until the end, when Keats goes off to Italy to try and regain his health. (Spoiler - he doesn't make it back.) You often hear about character-driven plots in writing -- actions that are driven by the motivations of truly realistic characters, not just forced upon them by authors who need "something to happen" in this chapter. It's hard enough to achieve this in fiction, but it's far rarer in film. And that's precisely what Bright Star is. Go see it as a class in creating plot, conflict and character. And enjoy the costumes.