Poplar Fruit

My friend Chris at Stuff as Dreams are Made On wrote a post for me the other day answering a question I had for him - so here I am repaying th favor. He asked me if I would write a poem based on a Billie Holliday song, how can anyone resist a prompt like that? If I were a great poet, I would write a whole book of items on Billie songs! Well, I chose an obvious one, I didn't want to pick something obscure, and I remember on NPR hearing an interview with Norah Jones, where she was talking about in high school, one of hr teachers asked her to do a Billie song for a talent show of some sort. She figured shed end up singing something light hearts, I think her example was "What a Little Moonlight Can Do." Instead, er teacher picked Strange Fruit, one of the headiest, darkest songs on Billies repertoire, a song about racism - in particular Lynchings. I remember thinking how hard that would be, singing a song so bitter and angry and personal, about something ones own ancestors might have participated in. So, this week, i wrote "Poplar Fruit." Hope you weren't hoping for a HAPPY poem, Mr. Chris...

My thighs are plump and sturdy,
My face is butter fat,
My belly filled with poplar fruit
My grandfathers planted.

My children are both quick and pure,
Rich with education,
Their fingers stained by poplar fruit
My grandfathers planted.

My heart is sick and heavyset
My heart, she's over fed
With strange fruit hung from poplar trees
My grandfathers planted

I wear a dress of samite silk
Dyed black and white and red,
From flesh burned ash, from bone, from blood
From poplar fruit grown rich and sweet,
From growing on the poplar trees
My grandfathers planted

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Happy Anniversary

So, as of this morning (or more accurately, I suppose, as of this afternoon) Amanda and I have been married for 13 years. Thirteen years... that's quite a number of years. The strange thing about anniversaries is that marriage is not a piece of one's identity - in so many ways it becomes the essence of one's identity. It is not something one bolts on, the way one might celebrate, for example, one's work anniversary. It something one transforms into. Its more like a birthday, in its way, and this is one of the reasons I am glad I changed my name when I was married - this is the day I ceased to be Jason Roper, a boy I now hardly remember, and became Jason Gignac, the husband of Amanda.

Like a birthday, though, an anniversary reminds one that the reality of one's existence is an objective fact, that this 'Jason Gignac' character is a person, who exists, who once did not exist who one day will cease to exist again. One steps outside one's self, and looks objectively at one's own story.

It is a peculiar one, Amanda and I. If I were the divine casting director, it is not the roles I would have cast. I'm horribly designed to be the great key to Amanda's happiness, which is always what I've wished to be in a marriage - it's a task that I am awed at the glorious responsibility of trying to fulfill, but that to be perfectly frank, I'm a great bungler at the execution of. But there you have it. When they say love is blind, perhaps this is what it means - there is a mind-boggling aspect to being the man Amanda loves. One continuously wonders, like the Catholic saints of the old days, why one was chosen, when one clearly doesn't deserve it.

And to be frank, this honestly has made me spend many anniversaries just a little bit ashamed, a little bit apologetic. Love has its sharp edges, even on the handle thereof, but it is such a beautiful thing, you feel you have to grab tight to it anyways. It is a hard thing to know that Amanda has made so much of the good for me, when honestly, I'm not even sure I have kept a positive balance in that bank in return. I'd wager not, and if I have, its been more a function of time, since I've made several awfully big negative withdrawals, and still withdraw all of the time. There is a legacy to this one cannot simply release, one cannot (and I think should not) simply say 'well, that's the past'. Responsibility is what it is.

But, then, as I get older, I've learned, perhaps, that on my anniversary, it hardly matters, that in the end, that isn't what one is to look at in an anniversary - there is something about an anniversary, I've come to think, where it is almost selfish to think of it outside of one's self. And those true aspects of what an anniversary is about, I can say wholeheartedly: how much, how dearly, how intently I love Amanda, how deeply, and profoundly grateful I am to have her as the sun I orbit 'round.

How lovely that is, after all - there is something terrific and marvelous about being married to Amanda, to being married to someone you can love and love and love, and never quite find the far borders of. Love is a mystery, right? One cannot understand it - maybe that's the challenge of it, it is the thing which teaches us to be happy whether or not we understand all the ramifications of happiness, to allow happiness to be great for its own sake, not to think of all those adult ideas of 'deserving' and 'balances' and whatnot, but simply to say 'This, all of this, this darling woman, she makes me happy, and she hasn't asked to go, after all, and I love her so desperately, and isn't happiness wonderful?'

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Once on Monday

Once on Monday
Twice on Tue,
Thrice for Thursday,
Friday - once.
On Saturday, tis deeper done
So Sunday's rosy rivers run.
Then Monday comes,
And once again,
The kiss against,
The clammy skin.
The children's laughs
Are beet-juice red
And echo 'round
The riverbeds.

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Why the Internet is awesome...

So, this is what happens when you search Flicker's Creative commons for 'Nursery Rhymes':

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The Voice Behind the Voice

I suppose it might be a vice, but I think its intoxicating to listen to recordings of poets and writers I already love. This is odd, because I don't like it in reverse - for instance, reading song lyrics that I heard first makes them feel somehow less - maybe I've just never had the right experience, but removing a spoken word to the page feels like translation and reduction. Taking a poem on the other hand, and having the poet read it, feels like a different, entirely separate work of art, particularly if I already know the written work well enough.

I was reminded of this, this week, when I listened to Madeleine L'Engle read an audiobook of "A Wrinkle in Time" (by the way, whichever of my friends knew this existed, and failed to notify me, I'm very disappointed in you (j/k)). When I first read this book as a kid, I believed Ms L'Engle was British, actually - I imagine it was simply that where I lived, people did not have lovely, romantic names that must be spelled with apostrophes, and that are difficult to alphabetize properly. And though I did learn better, this manufactured voice is what I heard the book read in, pretty much my whole life. Listening to Ms L'Engle changed this entirely, for me, made m understand the book in a slightly lisping, cranny-filled Northeast accent in a way that made the book even more beautiful than it had been.

It also reminded me of two New Yorkers I've heard the voice of: Jack Kerouac and Walt Whitman. Walt Whitman, who was recorded so early we're lucky to have him at all, positively shocked me the first time I heard it - his poetry is all fire and boldness, and I pictured it being read like a sermon, the way that Dylan Thomas (hilariously, to me) reads his poetry (no, seriously, listen to him read, its like the 'Death Comes Unexpectedly' scene from Pollyanna, and was WITHOUT A DOUBT imitated (poorly) by me in the golden days of Death and Baby Death if you've wondered). Mr. Whitman, though, first of all has an accent that we tend to resere now for movie characters (the closest analog in terms of dialect in my mind is the masterfully researched performance of Daniel Day Lewis as Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York (warning for content on that one - I'm just saying it was well researched, I've never been able to stomach the film well enough to tell if I like it). Only, instead of the accent being in a continuous snarl, You hear this strain of almost fragile love through everything - all that poetry about the wide, expansive united states, poetry we often asscoiate with empty fields and rural imagery (also his voice, and a strange, strange commercial on top of it all) suddenly compressed into a little garret anda drinking hall in Greenwich.

In other poets one hears something else - Plath and Woolf and Sexton are all recorded reading their work, and each one, in my mind has this edge of something almost like hatred in thier tone, almost like they are daring you to listen, the cycnic trying to hope. Sylvia Plath recordings keep me awake at night.  Or in a James Joyce recording, one hears how fully he inhabits what he's writing, how much his writing really was simply a voice in his many-voiced head. Or with Yeats, you hear his fragility, his tottering air of almost continuous shock at the world he's in.

Anyway, it's December, and I thought about these all this morning, and I thought I would collect links to listen, in case you've never heard them. If you know any other revealingly recorded poets and writers, I'd love to hear about them.

Madeleine L'Engle reads from "A Wrinkle in Time"

Sylvia Plath reads "Lady Lazarus" or "Daddy"

Virginia Woolf reads an essay entitled "Craftsmanship"

Anne Sexton reads "The Truth the Dead Know"

Dylan Thomas reads "And Death Shall Have No Dominion"

Jack Kerouac reads "Charlie Parker"

WB Yeats reads "The Lake of Inisfree"

James Joyce reads from "Finnegan's Wake"

Walt Whitman reads "America"

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My enemy, each morning in the chill
  Of shining white and biting light,
My enemy, so close at break of day,
  Our lips too close to kiss,
  Our eyes too close for sight,
My teeth are bared,
  Your flesh too close to bite.
        Your smile is strange, this morning, oh my love,
           Did you forget the chessboard that we set?
        You slid your bishop, can you then resent,
          The queen I prod against your parapets?
          The knight your king's engaging in a tete-a-tete?
        The same way that we spoke
          When first we met!
My enemy, I thought that black and white,
  Sufficient stirred, by deed and word,
Could blend into a self-sufficient grey.
  My enemy, a thought occurred:
  That I was like a broken-winged bird,
And broken winged birds must learn to love the rats.
  In retrospect, it seems absurd --
        Hush now, my best beloved! You are mine.
          Bound closer than a wedding band,
          Upon your shriveled hand.
        Hush now, my best beloved: You are mine,
          Bound like the tide is bound unto the land.
          You be the lady, darling, I will be the man.
        Our body is a little girl's tea party, now,
          Where we two sit, and play at pat-a-pan.

Mine enemy, I beg of you, one day,
A single day, let it be today.

        Hush now, my best beloved! Go to sleep!
          You wished to be the one who lives within the mirror-glass,
        We signed our banns, and you agreed,
          You said that all you wanted, now, was rest.
          Your labors, then my darling one, are past.

(Image: Madame Jeantaud by Degas)

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Ten Thousand Forgotten Things

When I was young, I saw ten thousand things
Of which my older eyes have now grown blind.
The shadows of them haunt me, but the sight
Is now forbidden. Secrets they might tell
Have poured into the belly of my ear
But they are past recall - the child's mind
Is painted white,
A house where nothing dwells.

And it was queer,

To try to think of things when I was young,
To try to tell the secrets I had heard.
Until I learned the way of elder men,
And learned to keep them safe within
the keep of memory:
The virtuous sin,
Of turning flying thoughts into caged birds
So as to know the songs that they had sung.

And then the birds without the cages flee,
And leave the keep to memory and me.
The mind builds moats around its  storyland:
To keep what's in within, what's out is banned.

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The Three Gifts That One Remembers

So the other day, for Ms Amy's collection of ideas for meaningful gifts, I gave practical ideas. Today, I shlal be esoteric and useless. I wouldn't want you all getting used to that other extreme, and start expecting to get value from my suggestions - I don't know that I could live up to that.

I have been thinking about gifts for the last little while a great deal (it is that time of year, after all), and about what makes a memorable gift. I've gotten many over the years, from many people, of many sorts, and so I've been picking them apart in my mind to see why I remember them. In the grand tradition of classical rhetoric, I seem to think in the Rule of Three when I categorize, and so I believe I can seperate them into three basic categories.

Now, let it be said that I am leaving a few simple categories of memorable gift out, simply because of the constraints of Ms Amy's original prompt. The gift one truly needs, for example - say, an anonymous box of food when one is in a period of hard times. Or, the gift one couldn't afford on one's own. Both of these are wonderful gifts, but the first is very specialized, and the second the terrain of those with greater resources than me, in general. So, these I will not spend much time on. But, if you're rich, and want to pay off my mortgage for a Christmas gift, believe me, my friend, when I say that it will without doubt be a highly memorable gift...

In addition to this, I think its important to approach a category that I have skipped on purpose, perhaps with some debate to be made: the gift one wants. This may sound a bit stupid when I say it, but the gifts one asks for, I think, are the ones one remembers most seldom. This is particularly true when the giver is on a limited budget. If you have 5 or 10 dollars to spend, then its simply a fact of life that the gift ITSELF is going to be small and incidental. I'm not deriding the listed gift. I think that the gift one wants is a wonderful thing - but it is not filled with meaning. The act of GIVING the gift might be filled with meaning, as giving almost always is, and so I do not mean to say that giving a requested gift is meaningless. Just, the gift ITSELF is seldom memorable or meaningful, if that makes sense. It says 'I listen to you', and that's good. But, the gifts I have gotten for people that they explicitly requested have been used and useful sometimes, but I do not connect them with myself.

Which brings up another point that might engender disagreement: when I talk about a gift being meaningful, I believe there are two sides to this: the meaningful gift must mean something to the recipient, but it must also mean something to the giver. I don't mea that gift giving is a selfish act, that one must give simply in order to puff one's self up, not by any means. But in my mind, the best gifts I've received have been conversational transactions rather than declaratory. A rule of thumb - a meaningful gift, in retrospect, should be associated with a memory, instead of a fact. It should be more than simply 'In 1994, I got my mom a bowl." That's a declaration, not a conversation. Hopefully that becomes clearer as I go through the examples of types.

So, then, something tangible - or less intangible, anyway. The first type of gift, and I think the simplest to attempt when one is trying to give something meaningful - the gift one did not know existed. The unique gift, is how this is often advertised. Art is a prime example. A friend of mine who knows I love fairy tales, for example, once got me a beautiful postcard of Little Red Riding Hood that I still have hung above my desk. It does not HAVE to be art, per se, however. In fact, one of the wonderful things about this category is that it shows not only that one listens, but that one understands - just as the first friend understood my love of fairy tales, and given the artwork, clearly my aesthetic sensibilities as well.

Here's the trick with the unique gift - you have to have taste. ITs horrible, that. But in getting someone something they did not know existed, one is, presumably getting something that one knows that the other will ebt hrilled to LEARN that it exists. And that's tricky. I've mucked this one up MORE than once with Amanda, and one always knows, EVEN if the recipient is ever so polite. There is a particular energy in opening a gift one is delighted with that one can see when it is lacking. Taste is a very, very tricky thing. Some people are very good at it. I applaud and wonder at these people.

The second type of gift is subtler, and requires a different skill-set: the gift one would not buy for one's self. I will warn you ahead of time, I have NEVER mastered this one. But the basic idea of it is simple - there are some desires we each have that we feel we cannot fulfill for ourselves. There are many reasons for this - the gift that is too expensive to buy for one's self is a simple example, after all. But it can be different. Sometimes it is a logistical difference. For example, I cannot buy Shreddies or Mackintosh Toffee even though they they are both delicious, memorable parts of my childhood, because I live in the United STates (And Old Dutch Ketchup or Dill Pickle Chips... Mmm....). Other times, we each have out own reasons. Sometimes one cannot accept something because it seems so frivolous - real silk stockings, when one really ought to buy regular hose, perhaps. Or it is something one is  too old for - Adults are horrible about this one, many of us refusing to buy toys for ourselves. Particularly, this is wonderful if one can understand the nostalgia of a desired recipient. There is a power in that, because it connects you with your friends, not only in their present, but in their past. IT is a way of saying that you are friends with their whole life, not just with the moment you are exposed to. Then, there are gifts one simply feels one cannot buy, for personal or social reasons, things which are forbidden to one, but which, if they're a GIFT after all, one can accept.

Of course, wrapped up in all this is two difficulties - one is to know what one's friends yearn for but cannot ask for. This is tricky business, and requires a cautious ear, and a close relationship. And then, there is the fact that just because one wants somethign doesn't mean one woudl be glad to receive it. OFten, the things we forbid ourselves, we forbid on a very complex and deep level, and receiving them can cause complex reactions inside our minds. What this requires, tehn, is a very deep and powerful sense of empathy and emotional closeness. You have to understand, basically, what it is tat you're doing by giving a given gift, not simply discover what the gift is. And, perhaps, to understand how and when a gift should be given.

The final type of gift, and one that I think has been lost to an extent in our day, is the gift that is about the giver. Again, as when I talked about who gifts shoudl be meaningful to, this sounds perhaps odd, but if you look into the past, you see many examples of this. The medieval lady who woudl give a ribbon or garter to a knight is a good example - the knight wants, as a gift, a piece of the one he loves. Another example, one I came across entirely by accident long ago is from the Victorian period, when women would sometimes cut off long locks of their hair and braid them into watch-chains for people they loved. Handmade gifts often fit into this category - whether one has NEED of the things one's children bring home from school, whether one even LIKES them really, one is always happy to get them - and those after all usually are barely personal, being a template a teacher had each student follow. At this very moment I'm wearing one of my favorite gifts, a scarf that a friend of mine wove by hand, and its dearness, in part, is that it bears the imprint in it of the hands that made it, that I was given, as much as a piece of fabric, a story to have.

The great impediment here is that one must be confident that the other person wants a piece of you. This sounds petty, but in practice, its very difficult (at least for me) to imagine someone receiving something the message of which is basically, "I know you love me, so I wanted you to have something to remember me." There is almost an arrogance in that thought that its very frightening to face up to (hence my handmade gifts usually being a combination of this and, for example, the first type of gift). And there is the very real risk that a gift given in this way WILL come across as a bit self-indulgent, like receiving a signed copy of Gadding With Ghouls from Gilderoy Lockhart (Harry Potter reference, ftw!).  I don't know the solution for this.

Which is really, in some sense, the trick with any meaningful gift - they are fraught with risk. The commonality with any of these gifts is that one is invested, personally, in them - that, to put it crudely, the success of the gift is a reflection of one's personal character, at some level, of one's empathy, perception, skill, or wisdom. This makes meaningful gift-giving a terrifying concept. I won't deny this. I spend about a month and half after finishing Christmas gifts cowering under the weight of my own expectations. In a sense, though, I think that subconsciously, this is why we value these gifts so much, because aside from anything else they say, I love you enough to want to do something difficult for you, and I trust you enough to do something dangerous with you. There is an intimacy to this that is some ways much closer than holding hands or a kiss on the cheek - there are people I would hug that I would never make a doll for, because I do not know them well enough. So that's really the LAST warning I'd give - meaningful gift giving is a selective activity. IT is something that one must do only with those one feels one can do it with - if you try to do it with your whole Christmas list, then you'll hurt yourself.

Anyway, I sound very authoritative about all this but I'm not - really (and my gift giving history reflect this) I've no idea what I'm doing when it comes to gift giving. Its a clumsy, difficult practice. I'd love to hear remarks, rebuttals, contradictions in the comments.

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Time Gifts

Ms Amy at My Friend Amy put up a wonderful little meme yesterday where she is looking for people's ideas for meaningful christmas gifts. This has been a little struggle at our house over the years, that we've worked around, so I wanted to put in my ideas, and hopefully read better ideas from other people.

So let me tell you where I come from on this. Here we have the very definition of a first world problem:

"My kids get so much stuff every year at Christmas that they don't know where to put it."

Its true. I don't understand this - the whole idea of it is mysterious. I don't remember this problem as a kid. We had nice Christmases, I always got a number of presents. But never THAT many. Perhaps the difference is that we never lived close to our relatives.

I'm a horrible person to deal with this in the first place, because I actually really don't like traditional presents (not that anyone who has a spare iPad laying around isn't welcome to send it along wtih a bow on top, or anything...).But what this all added up to was, a few years ago, Amanda coming with the best ever idea for gifts: The Time Gift.

The basic idea of the time gift is simple anyway, and I don't think we're particularly original in coming up with it: basically instead of getting a thing, the recipient gets the promise of an experience. For example, my youngest son one year got, for one of his gifts, to cook a whole dinner of his choosing with me. 

The nice things about this is that it allows for flexibility. There are those who think, on the one hand, that they should be spending money on a gift. They can give movie tickets, or ice skating, or what-not. There are those who don't have any money to give things. They can give relatively less expensive things: cooking or making something together, going out to split a banana split, etc. The boys can anticipate and get excited about these gifts too - actually because of previously mentioned too-many-christmas-gifts, the boys have a MUCH easier time coming up with their time gifts lists each year than they do with their physical gifts. One of my boys this year in fact asked if he could JUST get time gifts.

On the other hand, there's a few things to be careful of with the time gift, we've learned over the last few years:

1) Some people don't like to give them. Sometimes this is because they want to give something the other person can hold in their hand, I think, and sometimes for that reason, time gifts are sometimes paired with small physical gifts (one year one of my sons got a camping trip, so he received a flashlight as a physical gift with it,for example). Othertimes, though, its simply that they don't want to devote the time to it - it is a lot of work giving a time gift. Which brings us to the second pitfall:
2) It is a lot of work giving a time gift. In a sense, I actually like this about time gifts. I like that you have to put in a great deal of effort and sacrifice a big chunk of a Saturday afternoon to give it. But it does mean that you don't want to give 20 of them out. I have three boys, and if between Christmas and birthdays I gave them each, lets say, four gifts, then out of the 52 weeks in a year, I'd be taking a kid out on 12 of them. That can add up as a time commitment very quickly, especially if you have lots of people you're giving to. So, don't make all 12 of them overnight weekend affairs, or you'll drive yourself crazy.
3) Its easy to forget to do them. Way too easy. We actually have learned to keep a list of all the gifts anyone gave to our kids of this sort - because they will come back and ask what it was that they promised to do with the boys. And this year I actually ended up taking Laurence out for one of his gifts a few weeks after his birthday - and the gift had been for the birthday before. Yeah.

But the WONDERFUL thing about a time gift is that it means that the recipient gets a person, instead of just an item - they get to spend time with someone they love, and you get to spend time with them. Even if its someone you know very well, even with my own kids, taking them out somewhere unfamiliar, you learn a great deal about them. 

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Sonnet on Friday Nights

On friday nights, I feel as if the world
  Is so intense and fragile it avoids
  My clumsy hands. I listen to the noise,
Alone, my ear pressed tight against the door.
To hear the snap, the rustle, the dull thud
  Of heavy buttons dropping to the floor.
  My own heart, so unsteady and unsure,
Sends rattles through my frame. I know I should
Lie down across the room, and go to sleep,
  But I've held sin against my naked skin,
  And felt the beating heart of it therein -
What point in seeking virtue? So I keep
My ear upon the panel, and what's more,
My hand, upon the knob of the unlocked door.

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Down With "Male Role Models"

(Dear, Ms Amy - you did ask me to write essays, so I am doing my best for you!)

As a preface, I have to apologize to all my friends who write such lovely well organized essays, as well as to my children for my marked hypocrisy. I tried, I truly did, to outline this post before I began, to give it some semblance of organization. Alas, I failed. You get what you get.

At the prodding of a recent link from @booksmugglers on twitter, I recently read this at the LA Review of Books, the latest in a long string of essays about how little boys are being destroyed by 'girl books'. I will leave that where it is. I sound snarky about it, but that is unfair, because the whole subject really IS personally troubling to me - not because I think there are a dearth of books where stuff blows up and boys don't have to think about feelings. In a culture where major outlets of high culture are celebrating the release of James Bond films, to be perfectly frank, this concern seems just a WEE bit overstated to me. But that isn't much of a response. Luckily, there are so many other intelligent people on the internet who formulate the rsponses that I might feel, but can't really think out into words.

One response I've always found intriguing (aside from the marvelous numerical suggestion that there is NOT a shortage of boy authors and books, etc, etc, etc in our culutre, and the decline of male performance education is not due to an evil cabal of lady fic writers trying to bore boys to tears by forcing them to read the Hunger Games... or something), is the counter argument that perhaps, we as a culture need to accept that if a boy wants a role model of how to be strong and brave and what not, well, he could make Katniss as his role model just as easily as his sister, just like many a girl in my childhood fought to be able to Robin Hood when we played on the playground despite his conspicuous lack of breasts. 

But I did say intriguing, not compelling, and I couldn't figure just exactly WHY I could never COMPLETELY buy into this theory. I mean, this is me. I spent my childhood wishing I could be Princess Ozma, for goodness sake (and by the way, if you liked the Wizard of Oz and you're not reading this webcomic, go try it - plus the artist is a terrifically nice lady (the one I've met online (triple parentheses for the win - I'm a programmer, I'm allowed))). I ought to be the first one to say 'YES! ROLE MODELS FOR THE WIN! WHO CARES IF THEY GOTS BITS!' And, let me emphasize, I don't DISAGREE with this statement entirely either. 

In the words of Luther Heggs, let me clarify this.

So, turn for a moment to the aforementioned essay in the LARB. Read this quote:
But as we debate ad nauseam whether, for example, Bella Swan is a dangerous role model for young women, we’ve neglected to ask the corresponding question: what does it tell young men when Edward Cullen and Jacob Black are the role models available to them? Are these barely-contained monsters really the best we can imagine?
Now, let me say, I took some playful jabs at the idea of gender essentialism, but I do not mean them as any sort of attack on the author of the article. Her essay was written in general with much more care and erudition than I imagine I'm putting into mine, honestly. But this line carries the thread that, for me, when you pull it the entire sweater falls apart. Because ask yourself this - do you think Ms Meyer is actually hoping that more little boys will end up like Edward and Jacob? To reference elsewhere in the article, do you think SE Hinton wants more boys to act like the characters from the Outsiders? Do you think, say, the point of Salinger's Catcher in the Rye was to give boys a model to live their lives by?

This is the problem with the comparison to the good old days of Uncle Tom's Cabin elsewhere in the essay: to compare Eddie Cullen to, say, the boy from Uncle Tom's Cabin is to make a mistake, because undoubtedly, Ms Stowe WANTS boys to read Uncle Tom's Cabin and think 'yes, yes, that is the kind of boy I should be like.' To say that boy characters are troubled and negative, then, is very different from saying that boy ROLE MODELS are different.

After all, though, the problem is that this whole problem could very easily be turned upside down - do you really want your girls to read Bella Swan and think, "yes, this is who I want to be like"? For that matter, in many ways, I'm not sure that even that popular counterpoint to Bella, Katniss, is really intended to be a role model. If the purpose were to encourage girls to be strong and stand up for what they believe in, why give the book such a bleak ending? And then on the other side, do you want to encourage boys to be like, say, the main character of the Lightning Thief? Spngebob Squarepants? Captain Underpants? Where the Wild Things Are?

There is a marked difference between portraying what it is to grow up as a boy (The Outsiders, for example) and portraying how one should try to be as a boy (Uncle Tom's Cabin). And frankly, when it comes down to it, noone is really writing Uncle Tom's Cabin anymore. Even the language of POSITIVE characters has changed - when I hear friends of mine who write say why, for example, they might put in a positive female character, they say they want to portray that girls can be strong, for example. They don't say they want to teach young girls how to be strong. That is a different matter. And that is how books are written now - and I think that is how things should be, perhaps, this is the fine point I take up with the Katniss-as-role-model argument: I don't think children are SEEKING role modeling. They're seeking understanding.

Now comes the part where you might ask if this is a problem. Perhaps. Perhaps one of the reasons for our cultural upheaval is that we, as a people, have not agreed on what a positive male role model is, and we are not, thus, teaching our children the way to grow up to be a man. This is perhaps even worse in a culture where many children do not RECEIVE the normal socially mandated training in manhood, because they are raised without a man in their life. Perhaps. I don't think so.

I think rather, that the problem with this argument is in the underlying assumption that being a man is a role. And that's where I just can't agree with the reviewer in the original article. Being a man is not a 'role'. Its a condition. Its like being tall. Its like being black. Its like being a redhead. Its ismply something that one is. It isn't a thing that one does. A role is defined by actions, not by genitalia. I am a parent because I raise children. I am a programmer because I write programs. I am a citizen because I fight for what I think is right, and I vote, etc. I am a male because... I stand when I pee? Because I have to fake giving a damn about sports in order to have necessary social grease at work? This is a condition of my life, not a measure of my soul.

This isn't to say it doesn't AFFECT my life. Not at all. But it isn't WHO I AM, because who I am is what I do, not what I received in the genetic lottery.

And there IS ways literature helps us to understand our genetic lotteries - this is done not by modeling behaviors but by empathizing and normalizing reactions to conditions. As someone who found the process of transitioning into the expectation of societal manhood as an external factor in my attempts to forge my actual identity and role in the world, a book like Catcher in the Rye was meaningful to me, because INSTEAD of telling me how to be a man, it simply acknowledged that, yes, having a penis in our messed up society is intensely confusing and filled with immense pressures and expectations that may or may not be fair. And that requires explicitly NOT creating model behaviours. IT requires human behaviours. You sympathize with and admire, perhaps, Christ, but you EMPATHIZE and RELATE to Thomas, or Peter or Mary Magdalene.

This is why a book like, say, the Hunger Games DOES present value to a boy - I'm only 32, I'm little more than one, after all. Because as a boy myself, I could look at, say, Gale, and understand that, yes, other people feel angry sometimes, too, and that I must be careful beause society has a way of tying anger onto ships that pull us along behind them and dump is in the sea. I can look at Peeta and understand that some boys, some boys even that other people love and admire, are as fragile,  sensitive and emotional as I feel sometimes. And yes, I can look at Katniss and say that yes, it is a hard fact, that sometimes I will do what I think is good, and in the end, I won't be any happier for it, but that if I could only see myself from just outside, I would still be proud of the hero who could act thusly. But NONE of these are people I want to be - they simply are a voice whispering, "You are a little bit of this, and that's okay."

Frankly, perhaps the fact that we cannot think of how to teach our boys how to be men is a sign that we shouuldn't teach them to be men at all - we should instead teach them how to choose their actions. We teach them that whoever they are, they should be kind, and thoughtful, virtuous, brave, quick to defend those who are in the right, and to struggle against the wrong. Then watch, adn see what they become. They will become strong and brave kindergarten teachers. Or pensive, sensitive paratroopers. Or parents. Or dancers. Or friends. Or revolutionaries. Or nurses. Or mothers. Or mediocre essayists. These are roles, they are actions of which one day we will look at your boys and be proud of them - just like our girls. Whether they are strong and square chinned while they fill these roles? Immaterial. The best of heroes are those who would be the precise same human whether they wear a dress or dungarees - because the things they do would be the same.

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Love in November

What is love? A pillow for you head,
When you're falling from a thirteen story ledge.
What is love? A smile before your eyes,
While sinking to the sea-floor.

                                              I imply,
Perhaps, that love is futile: not at all -
The falling soul wants comfort in its fall,
It is her place to learn the pillow's place:
to cushion? No -- it's something to embrace.

The sinking soul must take a crooked mouth
As evidence the business she's about
If not to get afloat, at least might be
To rage against the power of the sea.

(Image Credit: Dan Barak)

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"My Funny Valentine"

If you listen to any swing music, its quite likely you've heard "My Funny Valentine", a song written by Rodgers and Hart for the Broadway show "Babes in Arms". I'd certainly heard it many times - to give you a sense of perspective, its appeared on literally more than 1300 jazz, swing and pop albums. The Ella version here is a favorite of mine, but for a little variety, try Angela McCluskey, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, or even Bjork. Honestly, pretty much whatever kind of music you like, there's probably SOMEONE who's covered My Funny Valentine. Heavy Metal... well, I don't know, but I wouldn't be surprised.

The first time I heard this song, myself, it was because we were playing it for jazz band in high school, and I was in LOVE with it. The tune on its own, the chord progression is utterly heartbreaking, filled this terrible longing - if it hadn't been so cheesed so many times by so many people, I think it would still appeal to many people's teenage hearts (to say nothing of adult).

But, we played an instrumental. So, being already a big fan of The Ella, I HAD to go find the song sung by... well, someone. So I did, and I was SO dissapointed.

It isn't that Ella performs it badly (although I have to confess that I have a version of this song in my head, that I've never heard anyone perform). She does it beautifully. So does, say, Barbara Streisand. But... the lyrics?

My funny valentine
Sweet comic valentine
You make me smile with my heart
Your looks are laughable
Yet you're my favourite work of art

Is your figure less than greek
Is your mouth a little weak
When you open it to speak
Are you smart? 

But don't change a hair for me
Not if you care for me
Stay little valentine stay
Each day is valentines day

They're lovely lyrics, quirky, silly, clever, funny. Not heartbreaking. They felt like they should be a fun little jaunty tune. Something you'd sing with a wink. Something like, say, 'A Fine Romance', or 'Ain't Nobody's Business'.

So, here's the story as to why.

Lorenz Hart, the lyricist of My Funny Valentine, is one of the great show tune writers of the first half of the century, right up there with Cole Porter, say, or Oscar Hammerstein. He wrote a whole row of my favorites - if I had to recommend one, it would probably be Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.

Actually I'm cheating a bit - Bewitched is definitely one of my favorites, but it also helps tell a little story. The beginning of the lyrics has a little trick in it that reminded me, when I first heard it, of Valentine: "Love is not a new sensation/I've done pretty well I think,/But this halfpint imitation/Put me on the brink." Two songs, now, where the lovesick singer croons over the physical shortcomings of the lover? Sure, Gershwin wrote lyrics like "Though he may not be the man some girls think of as handsome, to my heart he carries the key," but that sounds, if anything, a bit defensive, not bemusedly indulgent.

Hart was, is it turns out, an unattractive man - I don't say this to denigrate him, but to paraphrase him. Hart was frequently voluble about his own unattractiveness. Between his ugliness, I'd suggest his lack of self-confidence, and the fact that he was a homosexual in the 40's and 50's, Hart was alone his entire life, and his popular image was of a runty, ugly-faced man continuously wreathed in cigar smoke and the scent of alcohol.

If he had been a cynic about all of this, he would have been the sort of amusing sexless character you see in old movies of the 40's - take, for example, the rival bar owner who buys Rick's at the end of Casablanca. But, the man wrote love songs for a living, and by most accounts, believed every word of them. He was a hopeless romantic, a born lover with no one to love - or at least noone to love him back. Hart was a tremendously lonely man, and suffered from frequent bouts of crippling depression - this same was likely the source of that continual stink of alcohol.

The story of My Funny Valentine comes in here. One night, heart-broken, lonely, and miserable, Hart went into his bathroom, and stared in the mirror. He looked long and hard at the face he felt like a foreigner inside of, and tried desperately to imagine, to conceive of the possiblity, of someone looking him straight in the face, and being in love with him. Then, he wrote what someone who loved him might say to him, what a love song would sound like, if it was sung to him.

The result was My Funny Valentine. Rodgers wrote the music for it, knowing full well where the song had come from. And the song appeared on Broadway, and became an instant hit, a song full of longing, yes, but not hte longing of the singer: the longing of the listener.

Six years later, heartbroken by the death of his mother, Hart got pneumonia, his body broken by heavy binge drinking. He was found alone in a hotel room, when he didn't show up for several days to the musical he was helping to write. He died a few days later in a hospital, and was buried in Queens.

And that's the story.

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It is my way to make the cruel blade laugh,
to entertain the heavy knuckled fist.
I tried too long to tuck myself away,
to be the one that nobody would miss.

And? No fist thrown towards me ever did.
But silence only deepens for so long,
it is a sea that has a fathomed depth.
So I raised a storm of stories and of song

and threw down bolts of just-a-tale among
the fists and blades, and wrap about their necks
a drunken arm. A jolly joking lip
drools bonhomie along their poisoned backs.

And no one misses me -- just like before.
Nobody misses what they've never known.
They glad to see the shriveled limerick,
the hollow-echo-laughter of my bones.

Reduce yourself into a silent stone:
An angry hand will hurl you at its hate.
But silent stones! It still is not too late!
Reduce yourself into a plot device!

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I've stitched myself inside you now, my love,
  So cosy-close I'm drowning in your hair
    And worming rosy fingertips,
      Into the weak spots of our seams.

I'm tucked into your corners now,
  To keep your brooms from sweeping me.
    I'm growing sticky-brown and grey
     From capturing the dust of you.

I've put my hands inside your lips,
  Endorsed your gums with snivelled need,
    Shut down your sight, and feel my hands:
      Don't look, love, at my eyes.

Don't look love, at my eyes,
  I'll hide them just behind your own,
  I'll twist and screw them shut with bone,
  I'll tie the bindings closed,
  I'll needlepoint the entry wound I've left:
I've stitched myself inside you now, my love.

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Boy's Homework: B-17 Bombers, Week 1: The Memphis Belle

My youngest son, Laurene is a big history fan, so last year during school, he decided to borrow a US History textbook from school and start working through it. Right at the end of this school year, he finished it! So, we decided to take a break this summer and do something easier - so he decided he wanted to study World War II. This summer I will be posting some of the things we do together to learn about the War. If people don't find this COMPLETELY boring, I might even put up some notes about what its like trying to plan a WWII curriculum for a 3rd grader (hint: its an interestingly difficult process).

Well, the first topic he wanted to learn about was bomber planes - which was perfect, because I remembered a movie about bombers from when I was a kid: Memphis Belle. If you've never seen Memphis Belle, its a pic VERY loosely based on the real Memphis Belle, a B-17 bomber that was one of the first to complete a full tour of duty in the Daylight Bombing runs over Europe. It returned to the US and flew around the country, so the crew could stump for War Bonds, and generally buck up people's courage. The movie itself, though, while not a great introduction to this specific historical event, does help to lay out some of the bare bonnes of how a B-17 worked: what the jobs were in the crew, what the rhythm of a bombing run looked like, what the various difficulties involved were, etc.

So, for our first week, Laurence and watched the movie, first, and I talked it over with him to make sure he understood it. Then I gave him two activities to complete.

The first was to design his own B-17. I gave him a lesson on Nose Art (again, difficult with a third grader, as one attempts to avoid Nose Art featuring naked women), and we went over what the different positions on the bomber were, again. Then he designed his own nose art, and assigned people he knew to the different crew positions on his plane - interestingly he decided to use other kids from his class at school, and additionally interesting (although indicative of Laurence in some ways), he did not assign the pilot's seat to himself. He was also frustrated that he felt like he had to assign all the positions to boys, since, in World War II, only men were allowed to serve in the combat arm of the military (this is not a constraint I put on him, he just thought it would be unrealistic to do anything else). It was interesting to see how frustrating it was to him to not be able to put ALL his friends with him. If you're the interested, he named his plane "The Texas Tartar", and the nose art featured a horseman with a sword (yes, my son is a geek).

For his other assignment, I told him to write an essay about the dangers of flying a B-17 bomber. Here's what he learned this week, then, in his own words:

In Memphis Belle, there's a story where the pilot and co-pilot were sitting in the cockpit. Suddenly, flak (bits of metal exploding like grenades) hit some tomato soup on the counter. It splatted on the captain and co-captain and they kept yelling at each other because they thought that each other were bleeding. This is funny, but it also expresses how dangerous it was to be on a B17 Bomber in World War II. On a B17 bomber in World War II, there were a lot of dangers.

In the way, your bomber could get shot down by fighter planes, because they will shoot bullets at you until one of the planes dies or explodes. It could also get shot down with flak. Flak is an explosive covered in metal. When it's shot out of an anti-aircraft gun, it explodes in the air. When it explodes, it would have pieces of metal fly everywhere.

In a B17 bomober, it can get down to 30 degrees below zero. Thats because the planes fly above the clouds. If you weren't careful, your fingers could freeze onto the gun (if you had one). Your saliva could come out of your mouth and freeze in your headset. Then you wouldn't be able to hear what the other people were saying.

In a B17 bomber, there's a lot of different ways to blow up while trying to land safely. You could try to belly land and have your plane go too fast and have the friction explode your plane. Belly landing is when you land your plane without taking your wheels out. You would belly land because your wheels wouldn't come out. You could also put your wheels out and have only one wheel come out and make your plane go out of control and explode.

In a B17 bomber there's a lot of ways to run out of gas. Your plane will fall if it runs out of gas. It could have some of its engines blown off by bad fires or flak. It could have to go around the bomb run twice because they didn't see the target they were supposed to drop their bombs on.

Imagine how scared you would be if you were on a B17 bomber. I would be terrified! There were a lot of dangers one a B17 bomber in World War II.
This week, he is watching 'Twelve O'Clock High' and thinking about what officers had to do to be good leaders of their men, AND designing his own board game. Next week, notably will be on Stalingrad, so if anyone knows any good, appropriate sources on that, I'm THRILLED to hear suggestions. Or on the amphibious battles of the Pacific, which he wants to do next, after that.

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Things Unsaid

My eyes were telling you,
Why can't my eyes be enough?
My hands were broken winged birds, and
My tongue lay on my lip like a stiff-boned fish,
And love could not revivify its clouded eye,
Its slime-suckered gill.
Why can't my eyes be enough?

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Race and Gender in The Hunger Games

Well, everyone else has written about it. I was beginning to feel left out.

Let me begin by saying that I am not the most authoritative speaker on the Hunger Games in the blogging world. I imagine tha twoud be a highly contested title. And I can guarantee I'd lose it. Lawks, I'm not the most authoritative speaker on the Hunger Games IN MY HOUSE. I haven't even read the second and third books.

Yes, there will be spoilers

I mostly only wrote because I finally picked up on something very interesting to me - in District 11, the home district of the much mourned Rue, the citizens are publicly whipped if they are caught stealing bread. And, they're black (to clarify - they usually have very dark skin, and they are geographically located in what is now the deep South - I am interpolating the rest myself, though this seems to be the most common interpretation, and that of the movie).

I don't know why I didn't put this together when I read it, but the I-almost-have-it feeling I got when originally reading the book, with Rue and Thresh, finally clicked, and I realized where I recognized Rue from - "Birmingham Sunday" (I highly recommend the Joan Baez version, if you don't know the song - the song itself begins about 1:00 in). The story behind Birmingham Sunday is a simple one - it retells a real incident, where the black church headed by Martin Luther King was bombed by white extremists. Four people were killed: four young black girls, all around 12 years old.

Now let me tell you what I almost wrote next - "Four young girls, innocent of any of the trouble of their times. So young, so beautiful, and all ended." I stand by that - and I stand by my affection for the emotional power of Baez's performance in the song memorializing them. But the description is troubling in a number of ways - why do I remember this song more than, say, the equally poignant 'Emmet Till'? "Young girls," "Innocent," "Beautiful."

The same words of course could be applied to Rue (or to Katniss's sister, Prim, notably), and her death strikes the same string (I admit it, I cried, in the book and the movie). The formula is a very effective one. Take a little girl, it helps if they're slender and beautiful, tell them to offer up innocent eyes. You'll notice that you never have to watch Rue kill anyone. The closest she comes is to suggest to Katniss how SHE can kill the people who are waiting to murder her (Katniss, too, only kills when forced to, a different, interesting thing to consider. If she had fought for her life by killing, say, Foxface on purpose, even when Foxface made no attempt on her life, how would that change our perception of her?). The story could just have easily have involved Rue cutting down a hornets nest in her OWN tree to save Katniss. But it doesn't.

Because, we want Rue to be pure, when she dies, we want her to be innocent. It is interesting, now, to trace this backwards in the history of American race relations. Rue, yes, in the Hunger Games. Or the girl who is raped and murdered in Grisham's 'A Time to Kill'. Birmingham Sunday. Or go way back - there is Eliza in 'Uncle Tom's Cabin'. To get sympathetic white people riled up and willing to stick their necks out for their disadvantaged black brethren? Kill a fresh faced young black woman. If there is sex involved, all the better. Now, draw this narrative out to its logical conclusion - when a grown black man is beaten or killed, as a society, it affects us, sure, but not quite so viscerally. And for many of us it doesn't relaly affect us at all. When asked we might say its sad, but the underlying feeling when a black man is killed is that he's just a part of a rash of these murders. Think about the stereotypes of these murder victims - drug dealer, gang banger, petty criminal. These black men (or, older black women who carry their own stereotypes. Or unnatractive or non-docile black children - see 'Topsy' in Uncle Tom's Cabin) are not sufficiently innocent for us to really mourn them, in our collective consciousness as a nation. We mourn them differently. When a newscaster tuts over them the 'what a waste' is looking backward - he could have been so much had he not driven himself to here, instead of 'What a waste, he was so much, and cut off so young,' the way we feel about our Rue-characters.

Keep in mind, for a moment, that Rue clearly had a strong will to live. And so did Katniss. And that, eventually, one would have had to kill the other if noone else had. If Rue, to save herself and feed her family, had in some alternate version of the story, ended the book by pushing Katniss out of a tree, would we hate Rue? We hate, say, Glimmer, after all.

The horror of the Hunger Games, after all, should not be that it kills innocent children. ITs that that it takes innocent children and makes them into monsters. That is one of the things I loved about the movie (that, in Collins' defense, the structure of the book would not have allowed) - that after Rue dies, you see all these men, all these, essentially, slaves, rise up and start to push over their master's edifice of slavery, not from any kind of blind race hatred, the way we portray these actions now (take, say, the LA Riots and our national understanding of them), but rather out of love, and desperation. You love them, you ache for them, as they rip over the grain scales, and get in fistfights with the riot police. That was one of the victories of the movie for me - it doesn't glamourize social upheaval, it doesn't say that those men made any real difference - they didn't. But it tells that anger and frustration, even violently so, is a real, human emotion, with real, human causes, and that its presence as part of our culture, today, is not simply somethign to be tutted over - its a sign that we have promises that need keeping, broken hearts that need mending, love that needs to be given, apologies to offer.

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Passing a Man in the Hallway

I looked at him and only saw: his beard,
His tight-trimmed hair, his square-boned, jutting jaw.

Ungenerous instincts of the victim.

I watched him watch me lace up lazy lips,
And pull the cheerful corners of my mouth
Into a casual kindness, one that shouts
And leaves it at that.

Imagination crippled, fear invoked,
By nothing but a shortened chromosome.

Ungenerous instincts of the victim.

(image from mkuhn)

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So many of my favorite people in the book blogging world - Ms Amy, Ms Nymeth, and Ms Debi, for example, and others as well, some more qquietly, some more subtly - have made comments lately that pointed at a feeling as if they are not contributing enough to the world, that they wonder if what they do 'matters', somehow. And then, somewhere else today I saw something that talked about the 'self-help' industry, and I thought about that feeling. Its one I'm pretty familiar with myself.

So, here's the question. The point of self-help is to help us accomplish our goals, right? Self-help is all about helping us lose weight, helping us get ourselves closer to our idea of the divine, helping us make ourselves happier, helping us understand ourselves, to learn to do great things. I don't say this to denigrate these ideas. I am in favor of great things. Great things are great.

But, the people I've loved most in my life have often never done great things, because often enough they were not helping themselves. They were helping others. And helping others is a very difficult thing. While there are plenty of places to do it, there are few that tell you how. And its tremendously dangerous - I've hurt more than one person I've tried to help in my life. And, in its best form, at the end, you yourself have accomplished nothing. But the people who have this skill, to me, are my favorites.

Statistics, achievement, fame, and 'success' do not, ever, effectively measure how much we help other people's greatness, they can only hint at our own achievements. To all my favorite people, I want you to know, that you are greater than you think, greater than anyone can possibly explain to you, greater than you will ever be awarded for, greater than any of the rest of us deserve.  The greatest of the great are measured by the greatness that others around them achieve. So many of my favorite people speak often about how much they love and admire their own friends, how they are often amazed by how much their friends achieve, by the amazing things they do, by the marvels they create. If you know people that you love and admire, and they seem to be better, more beautiful, more loveable, every year, perhaps, friends, you are a bit to blame for that.

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Valentine's Day

I am not powerful in love, my love is flaccid and clammy. It pours out like yesterday's tea, a little thickened, very murky, mixed with the swirls of turned cream. I cannot love grandly, and heroically. Some people can love a thing fuller than the thing's capacity, they can surround something with their love. Their love can make the object bigger than it is.

I cannot love around, though. My love has not the structural integrity for that. My love is not so grand as that. But even so, even so, I have that little human urge, I want to love, to love, to love, to love with all the love I have. How lucky I am then, that I met someone whose heart is deep and richly chambered like a limestone cave. It is cool and humid with an infusion of its own rich love, and I can pour and pour myself into it, and never, ever, ever fill it up. 

Happy Valentine's, Amanda.

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Fairies in Shakespeare

One doesn't have to know me terribly well, to know I have a soft spot for fairies. I could write about why another time, but sufficeth to say, I have one. If you've been reading a long time, and REALLY been paying attention, you may also remember that my book arch nemesis, the book that I've never been able to conquer is Edmund Spenser's 'The Faerie Queene'. Well, all this converged at the beginning of this month when I was thinking of what I could do in terms of reading this year. For the last few years, I've picked an author and read at least a broad swath of their most famous works, to really get to know them, as I did with James Joyce a few years ago. So this year I decided to try something a little different - instead of reading one author's many books, I'm going to work my way up to reading the Faerie Queene, later this year.

So, this coincided nicely with Ms Allie at A Literary Odyssey, who decided this month to have a Shakespeare Reading Month. Spenser and Shakespeare were near contemporaries, and both of them have some rather famous forays into fairyland. More importantly, the writers of Shakespeare and Spenser's time, in many ways, began to invent the idea of fairies that we have today. The Elizabethan fairy is both familiar and foreign to our modern idea of fairy-folk.

This is not to say, of course, that Shakespeare and his contemporaries just cut the idea of the Fairy from whole cloth. It seems, in fact, to be a feature of the human drive to mythologize something that is classifiable as a fairy, and we see incarnations of the 'Wee Folk' throughout the folk traditions of many world cultures. In Shakespeare's day, in fact, this line was far hazier than it is now, when we think of a fairy as a very specific type of being (with wings and sparkles and flower petal clothing - its alright, we can all confess together, its true, that's what we all think of, right?). In Shakespeare's most famous exploration of the fey world, "Midsummer's Night Dream", this is actually fairly apparent, fairly quickly - while we often forget this, now, the setting for MND is Athens, the lord of the city is the Greek mythological hero Theseus, and his lady is Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons. The setting and characters, then, hearken back fairly strongly to a classical tradition. Mab and Oberon, even, are character-wise really not a far leap from the Greek Gods, if one thinks about it, and the role of Puck as the messenger of the King is a fairly close parallel to Hermes/Mercury. At the same time, the action takes place in a wood, the sort of wild place that the Greeks would have populated with Nymphs and Dryads.

This sylvan divine aspect of the fairies is repeated again in the other of Shakespeare's plays that grapples, though very differently, with the faeries: The Merry Wives of Windsor. MWW is set in England, so the strong classical allusions of the MND fairies is lacking, here, but there is still a strong thread of connection  to lost and ancient gods, as the wives trick Falstaff into dressing as a stag and going into the forest, to meet them - then proceed to dress some of the people of the town as fairies to come and torment him. The Horned Man, or the Horned God, is an old remnant of the pre-Christian past of Western Europe (one that lives on today in many varieties, for instance, of neo-pagan faiths). The connection with fairies, here points to their position as fallen Gods of a sort. There's further evidence of this in the name of Queen Mab, in the (in)famous 'Queen Mab' speech that Mercutio offers up in Romeo and Juliet. Mab is probably derived from the Celtic Medb, or as its often transliterated, Maeve, the name of one of the great queens of the Tuatha de Danaan, the 'Gods and Fighting Men' of the Irish/Celtic mythological cycle.

The fairies, then, in England were not terrifically different from Gods - albeit fallen ones, now subservient to the power of Christianity. Many of the fairy stories we have, with a bit tweaking, ore almost indistinguishable from the mythological tales of the Gods of the Celts, the Scandinavians, or the Greeks, with many of the same tropes: descent into the underworld, rewards for virtue and punishment for vice, seduction of mortals by the immortals, rites of appeasement and sacrifice, etc.

But the question, of course, comes up - we DON'T think of the fairies now as being like Gods, really, whatsoever, short of a somewhat shaky connection to immortality, and a certain degree of magical power.  Fairies, in most of our modern ideas, do not live lives bigger than human lives, but rather paradoxically, smaller - literally as well as figuratively. The Elizabethan Age is when you begin to see this shift, from fairies as simply strange, unknowable semi-divines, to fairies as amusing, petty imitation of human life. One of Shakespeare's contemporaries, Michael Drayton, wrote  a narrative poem on this subject, entitled 'Nimphidia' (another interesting parallel to Greek myth), the outlines of which could live quite comfortably in the pages of Peter Pan, The Water Babies, or a Tinkerbell cartoon. In Nimphidia, the fairies are so small that ride in spacious coaches made of snail shells, pulled by gnats or flies:

The seat the soft wool of the bee, 
The cover, gallantly to see, 
The wing of a pied butterflee ; 
      I trow 't was simple trimming. 
The wheels composed of crickets' bones, 
And daintily made for the nonce, 
For fear of rattling on the stones 
      With thistle-down they shod it;

This image is not one of the strange old tales of fairies that can strike terror into the country man's heart - this is pure Disney. Much of the writing I've read on this subject seem to treat this decline of fairies from Gods to be worshipped to doll-like children's characters, feel uncomfortable with the shift - its often depicted as a debasement, where Christianity is the bad guy, and the fey are a noble old religion being shoehorned into irrelevance to make way for the One True God, or begin used as a tool to browbeat people into submission to new social mores. 

The interesting thing to me, though, is that, clearly given the longevity of the itsy-bitsy fairy, the feeling of these new Elizabethan fairies is a powerful and resonant one to the popular imagination. MND is (rightly, I think) frequently listed as one of Shakespeare's greatest works,  and carries inside of its playful whimsy a great deal of emotional maturity, something we perhaps don't necessarily associate with the 'kids stuff' of the adorable little fairy. What were these fairies DOING for the Elizabethan, that made them so attractive?

Well, aside from the need for cute (go ahead, TRY to tell me this isn't a big part of the human psyche - you know you have another browser tab open with adorable LOLCats in it), the Elizabethan Fairy was a remarkably flexible tool for storytelling and dialogue. Take, the fairy story inside of Midsummer's Night Dream for a moment, for example, and pretend it isn't about fairies: Its a story of a court in which the King and Queen are as human, jealous, persnickety and difficult as everyone else, where the Queen ends up making out with a Donkey, and where the King ends up looking perhaps a bit incompetent in his hiring processes. The revelation for me in understanding this was to realize that this story was written in the height of the English Renaissance, at the beginning of the century filled with the birth of the modern mind: Don Quixote, Paradise Lost, The Anatomy of Melancholy - these are books of the 17th century. It was an age in which people began to take a cynical eye to their oldest and most sacred institutions. But its also a century in which people were murdered by the state for being Catholic, Protestant, Puritan, Anglican, Huguenot, etc, in turn. Its a century that would produce the secret police of King Louis XIV or Oliver Cromwell. The production of MND occurred in a time when people began to try to say what they thought, and the powers that be were still structured to silence them. Fairies are, comparatively, safe ways to talk and think about the larger world. Its interesting in fact to think that this same Queen Mab of so much of Shakespeare's work is the Queen Mab that Shelley would use a few hundred years later to lay out his philosophical support for everything from pacifism to atheism to radical democracy (I'll be reading Shelley's Queen Mab later this year). I am led to wonder if its any coincidence that the forces of the fey in Shakespeare's plays are generally arrayed to help those who are generally in the position of less power in the larger world: The marriages in MND are subverting the patriarchy and the state, the person the fairies are initially trying to help is a woman, Puck uses Bottom to humiliate someone in the monarchy, the false fairies in MWW are being used by women to punish a member of the nobility who is trying to seduce them. The Queen Mab in the speech of Mercutio tweaks everyone from the Parson to the Soldier.  

But, the really remarkable thing about the fairies to me is that at they humanize those in power, instead of demonizing them. MND, again, as an example, certainly has some subversive things to say about power, but its certainly not a polemic. Its a play by a man who saw the injustices and idiocies of his society, but also a man who its difficult to believe wanted to overthrow the monarchy. Polemics a-plenty were written before and after the fairies made their entrance, and had their strong effects on history - polemic helped produce the bloody civil wars of England, the revolution of France, etc. But Polemics encourage you to hate those in power. The stories of the fairies encourage you, perhaps, to roll your eyes at them, and to simply think. No one ever threatened a fairy revolution. The majority of people don't WANT a revolution most of the time - revolutions are violent, unpredictable, and frequently more destructive than they are productive. They simply want to be able to talk and think about the things they worry about in the world around them. The fairies gave the Elizabethans a way to do this (Nimphidia bears reading in this light, as well). The fairies as arbiters halfway between heaven and hell, allowed people to live in a world that contained greys. 

This is the real message, to me, of the famous 'If we spirits have offended" speech: the play only wants to tell a story, and it wants to have characters that are human. It doesn't mean to teach or push, or change minds and hearts. It only wants to tell stories - that's why it has the power that it does. Offense could be taken - it quite possibly was taken, by everyone from nobility that didn't like being painted as buffoons, to the pious who didn't want to look at a world as suffused with the erotic as MND is - but its not intended. And if its taken? Let it go.  Fairies aren't gods, they do not need acolytes and worship and dogma - they simply, like all the rest of us, have lives to live, stories to tell, and they'd like to go through life feeling, at the end, that someone was glad to have seen them.

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Ponies in Technology

When I was young, and on the outside of my profession, I thought of IT as a sort of embedded, marvelous utopia, a land of high ideals and ferocious belief. It was - it still is - a sort of firelight to the widest-eyed moths of humanity, drawing in a lot of very intelligent, high-minded people. When I thought of it, it was easy to imagine the way a student would feel in a hundred years, reading about these hungry souls ripping a new era from a mass of copper and silicon. Heroic, in a very real way.

I wanted to believe that a group that was trying to construct a dream as broad and new as the internet would be like devoted revolutionaries - subsumed in the revolution. I work in IT, now, it changes things, to be inside of a thing.

Where I work now, there is this old tradition, nominally intended to increase security, but really as essentially meaningless as all traditions are. If you leave your desk and forgot to lock the screen, others will come and play a trick on you. I had it done to me, once, and returned to find that an enormous, scantily clad photo of David Hasselhoff had been set as my wallpaper. Its more popular, now, to open the person's email, and send a message to the company wide mailing list in the victim's name, saying how much they love ponies. 

The pony email is immediately followed by the sort of kindly ribbing that really is meant as a sort of kindness. And perhaps that is all it is. But humor is a strange thing. And it left me wondering, why it was so funny to us as a culture, why another technical worker saying 'I love ponies! Oh how I wish I had a big pretty pink one!' is such an easy, default laugh. 

Well, the answer is fairly straightforward - because its non-role-appropriate behavior. As a technologist, in my company, there is an OVERWHELMING likelihood that you are male, and the role of maleness in the technologist's life is, in my experience, very important. Technology is a strange field in this way.

Historically, programming began as a largely female endeavor - the operators that wrote punchcards for the early computers were overwhelmingly female. It was viewed as, essentially, skilled clerical work. Only when software development became something we as a culture admired, found magical and creative, did it become a male profession. With this transition, and with the sudden meteoric growth of respect for technical careers, a culture grew up.

While the boundaries are loosening now, even today certain cultural elements are very much binding forces within the programming community - building cachet and understanding with other programmers is half technical acumen, but, in my experience, also has to do with trading the cachet of shared knowledge and experience. And this knowledge is largely not technical. The ability to tell and comprehend jokes on Star Wars, Douglas Adams, or Doctor Who, for example, are a quick way to find rapport in a technical community. These elements are, of themselves, seemingly harmless.

Culture, however, when it is at its strongest, must have not only methods to include new members, but also methods to draw its borders of exclusion - subconsciously or consciously. One shining example of this is a list of the 222 most famous names in software development (you can find information on it here). The list is, of course, like all subjective lists, eminently debatable, but its also, to be frank, fairly well done. It has most of the 'greats' I would have included. And this list contains 6.5 women (Roberta Williams, because the work she is famous for is a collaboration with her husband, gets a half entry, an interesting and somewhat discomfiting statistic that I won't pursue here). These proportions, today, aren't much different from the larger tech industry's gender proportions. And the more 'technical' the job role, the more you see this contrast become starker. 

This is a well-known issue in the community, and of course is partly a problem with our education system, which discourages women from most math, science, and engineering fields at some level. But the problem, I think, is also inthe culture which has... well, I can only describe it as a sort of machismo.

An acquaintance of mine - a far better programmer than I, and a genuinely nice, open-minded person - made a joke the other day that illuminated this. He was talking about a time management technique called Pomodoro which is very popular in the tech community, and how they were doing it in groups, calling it 'Bromodoro', because 'its like Pomodoro with your bro's.' The joke was meant to be tongue in cheek. The word bro, has a sort of 'oh-god' hipster ring to it that marks any use of it as not entirely serious (at least this is my experience - though as with any slang term, these borders of legitimacy can be murky). I wrote back, half-jokingly, to ask what they would call it if they had a woman working with them. He wrote back and said that 'sisses could be bros, too'.  

This isn't blatant sexism, of course, its not said because women aren't desired. I would say, from what I know of the coder in question, that I imagine he would be thrilled to encourage more diversity in technology. The comment, after all, was pretty innocuous - I've known people who work hard in charities specifically devoted to encouraging young girls in math, science and engineering make comments of a similar sort. Heck, I've made far worse comments in my life.

But at some level there is a piece of our culture that says 'we are open minded, liberal people, and would love to have more women (or minorities, or GLBT people, or whatever) join our culture. Just as long as they don't change it.' In other words, diversity is great, as long as we all act the same.

Again, this isn't to suggest that the fellow who made the 'bro' comment was trying to send some 'boys only' vibe out, at all. But, I do think that technologists, as a culture, are comfortable with the vibrancy of our community, with its strong identificatory marks, and we sometimes assume that others will be happy to simply enter the culture as 'bros', as it were. Its the old issue of letting women (or minorities, or whatever) come in and be 'one of the guys' - even if they AREN'T 'one of the guys'. Again, this isn't meant to put a freeze on speech, its simply to point out that when we live in a culture that is very monolithic, it is easy to present a from that is less than welcoming to a polylithic world.

The interesting thing is, however, that our culture HAS diversity that we are, I think sometimes, afraid of. One of the interesting things about the list of 222 developers about is that the list ALSO contains 4 additional women - male-to-female transsexuals. The implications of this are interesting, but they are not hard for me to imagine. Technology work allows one to abstract one's identity in a way that is both seductive and liberating. People who are uncomfortable with their 'real' identity in a LOT of ways can find it a rewarding way of working, in my experience. But this strengthens the psychological need to ensure that the codes of conduct within the community have clear borders, particularly when you combine this with the extremely social aspect of technology work - everything one does is at some level collaborative. And there is the difficulty of the fluid identities of the web - that people are frightened of that power, they need the security of a simple, easily parseable, and contiguous identity int he people they interact with. Its as if, in that shadow world, we see each others loose ends and the possibility of secret selves, and so when we meet face to face, we feel the need to reassure ourselves that - no, we're just normal people, that the irregularities, and frightening depths of individuality need not be grappled with. ITs taking a world that is plump with intimacy and trying to keep things businesslike.

Which returns us to the ponies. Humor often performs the function of allowing us to have a dialogue about the things that we cannot have serious conversations on. My industry's relationship (dare I say, our entire Western culture's relationship) with gender identity is, in my mind, one such area. We need to, in some sense, confirm that 'yes, there are still the comforting barriers we've erected to define us as a group,' and playfully pretending to expel each other from those boundaries is a way of doing it - a way that feels positive, and harmless - you're let back in, as it were, after the game is done, and noone says anything too hurtful in the process. The trouble is not to the person that is playfully expelled, it is to the person who is in the culture, but now knows that their feelings and beliefs warrant expulsion, or to the person outside who sees that the culture is not welcoming to their identity, that they will be allowed, but will always feel separate. Outside the culture. This is the sad secret of any anti-discrimination initiative - you can legislate that someone who applies for a job not be discriminated against (although even this has proven difficult), but you can't legislate that they be made to feel normal in the group. A woman programmer (or a man who likes pink ponies. Or an african-american. Or whatever) must always, in my experience, be continuously aware that they are an abnormality. An exception. Sometimes they are celebrated as an exception. But nonetheless, as they navigate an immensely social enterprise, they must always negotiate a very clumsy identity within the group. Its not that they would necessarily be looked down on or attacked (though I have seen this too). Simply that they will never be allowed to forget that they are not normal. When they offer opinions, they'll be the girl programmer's opinions. When they write code, it will be girl programmer code. Etc.They are tokens, instead of humans. And that is a lot of pressure, pressure that requires skills that are not the core skills one needs to be a great programmer.

Again, this isn't just women, its anyone who doesn't fit this narrow band of identity that the culture defines - I've felt it myself, being someone who loves purple, has odd taste in clothes, and likes fairies. Not that anyone looks down on me for it. Just that they always know it. Most of my work has been in niches, where I work, largely, independent of other technologists - filing the hole, as it were. I imagine these two facts are, at some subconscious level, connected. And in my day to day work, it means I DO put up a certain facade of 'but don't worry, you see, I'm really just like you', that is intensely artificial, but frankly invaluable in getting my work done without feeling powerfully emotionally vulnerable. If I was entirely genuine, I would confuse people, frighten them, perhaps, or at least, simply become 'other'. Its not because technologists are bad. Its simply the result of a confluence of factors. But its real nonetheless.

But then, again, if this is a revolution, this is how revolutions always are - they break the limits of the last regime, and then scramble in terror to build new ones, to make walls that let them understand the new world they've created, that protect them from the anarchy of a new social order. It doesn't mean that the revolution wasn't real, or the revolutionaries insincere. Its simply how humans work. Until the next revolution comes along and topples them.

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White Page

Write me on your lips, my love,
Write me on your hands,
Write me on your fingertips.
Write me on the hollow of your neck,
Write me, love, between your breasts,
Write me on the plain of your belly.
Write me down the bones of your thighs.

Now stop and write me on your wrists.
Turn them upright, hold the steel nib close,
And write me, write me deep, and clear,
So that the letters will not wash away.

Be thou the book of me.
I am nothing, my love, a story orphan,
Only words and lips to say them,
Only pantomimes and hands to act them,
Only love to season my milk,
Only a hunger beneath my navel,
A shiver within my thighs.

But words silence,
Pantomimes fall beneath their curtains,
Milk shrivels,
And hunger wastes away,
The shivers still,
The story is forgot.
Be thou the book of me.

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Sol Invictus

My cold, bare arms, my ragged throat
  Have never summoned you before --
I know, much more, the light no longer
  Holds the tinder that can burn in me.

But for the sake of midnight, sun,


Sol Invictus, epithet of gall!
Fire-eyed Napoleon, unconquerable:


Thy lips of vital fire, strike into me thy revelation:
"Virtue alone is sure!"

But dark is a virtue, oh my beloved,
  For it wants to end.
Sorrow is virtue,
  For it wants to end.
Jealousy and Anger, those two sallow sisters, too,
  Beneath their shifts are naked virtue,
    For they want to end.

Only Hatred,
Hatred and Pride,
  Feed on themselves -- Ouroboros of vice!
    Two circled snakes, a disc of lost eternity.

And now?

'Tis midnight, oh my love, and in the dark
  All pride will waste and wither,
  Hatred, even, needs the light.

Listen close, thou molten resurrection stone:

The morbid hollow of the night,
And cannot cry, but whimpers:

"Oh thou sun, thou long forgot eternity --




(Photo by schaaflicht)

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