From the What Can Go Wrong Department

WARNING! This is long – really long! Not only that, I think I’ve said everything in this post before. I am destined to repeat myself, because I talk so much, and also because I come form a long line of people who say the same things over and over. You are probably destined to forget the things I say, because of my aforementioned verbosity, and also because really, how well were you listening the first time? Anyway, I’ll understand if you only read a little, or just click on the clicky stuff. I won’t take offense. I’m just glad that I wrote something -anything!- even if I’ve already written it before!

I overheard one of my 8th graders talking to one of my 6th graders. “Two things: If you don’t understand what’s going on in the story, say ‘nonlinear vignettes that are slices of life reflecting the human condition’ a lot, and she’ll think you do. Also, you never have to study or even read for the last test of any novel Ms. R. assigns. The answer is, the protagonist always dies, and we learn that humanity is doomed.” This proves what an excellent teacher I am; they have learned in two years what it took me until graduate studies to figure out. The students have surpassed the master!

It is true I am fond of a good plunge into the cruel, icy waters (or is it the roiling volcanic lava? Robert Frost and I want to know!) of dystopian decimation, though I will point out that it’s not always the protagonist that meets an untimely death in the books I teach: “Stay gold, Ponyboy!”. In The Crucible, a novel that reads like a play, pretty much everyone dies. I like to see it as more bang for your buck.

In the world of dystopic dorkdom, a great debate arises regarding which is the better of two high school tomes, 1984, by George Orwell and Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley. I am, of course, too mature to enter the passionate fray sophomore literary scholars engage upon being forced to read these classics. The writings of Orwell, voted number two in the 2008 Times list of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945, and those of the psychotropic drug addled mysticist and academic, Huxley, both have their merits, so obviously,  I remain objective. Of course, one can have a personal preference, as indeed I do, but I am steadfast in my professionalism, and ever unbiased, allowing the reader to thrill to the words and concepts that have become part of our vernacular, and that comprise all things ‘Orwellian’, or to enjoy, on a somewhat shallow and hedonistic level, the sex, drugs and rock and roll touted by the man nicknamed ‘Ogie’ as a child. Unless I came straight out and told you, you could never guess which book is my favorite.

Orwell and Huxley themselves were less judgmental than I. Shortly after publishing 1984, Orwell received a letter of congratulations from Huxley. After some polite words, Huxley got to the meat of the matter: he said that while either view of the nightmare that is human existence was possible, his was more plausible. (Horn-tooting Huxley strikes again! Oh, that Ogie is a pompous git!) In Brave New World, along with extensive in-utero (or, more precisely, in-labratorio) genetic manipulation and psychological-behavioral programming, the powers that be appeal to human vanity, need for delusion and external stimulation, and love of hedonistic escape to make their autocratic control possible. In 1984, a more violent, aggressive tactic is used to make the population pliable and obedient. As Orwell puts it, “If you want to imagine a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” Huxley makes a strong point about the sustainability of his vision. But Orwell rules, because I say so.

This is the crux of the  “Fire or Ice” debate: in which way will people inevitably destroy themselves? Will it be through passion, fury and might? Mind numbing denial, apathy or prejudice? Inflamed self-righteousness and an all consuming, voracious lust for power at any cost, or a cold, calculating desire fulfilled by immediate gratification that allows us to wantonly forget the greater good, and pursue courses of action that bring about desired goals, regardless of the tolls on the future, or the horrifying consequences of the loss of our humanity.

Ray Bradbury believes that we willfully fling open the door to doomsday by allowing ourselves to get sucked in to the glittery promise and opportunities that technology holds.While he was a proponent of imagination, invention, innovation and possibility- “We must move into the universe. Mankind must save itself. We must escape the danger of war and politics. We must become astronauts and go out into the universe and discover the God in ourselves” (via CNN) – he worried that we were just not equipped to make the best choices or foresee the negative aspects to our positive innovations and studies – ask pacifist Albert Einstein a thing or two about that particular kettle of fish! “I don’t think the robots are taking over,” Bradbury said. “I think the men who play with toys have taken over. And if we don’t take the toys out of their hands, we’re fools.” (via the Associated Press) Einstein agreed, kinda. “I believe that the abominable deterioration of ethical standards stems primarily from the mechanization and depersonalization of our lives,” he wrote in a letter to his friend, psychiatrist Otto Juliusburger, in 1948, “a disastrous byproduct of science and technology. Nostra culpa!”

Check this out – pretty freaking prescient!

But still, why do I insist on teaching all of this to the sweet, innocent lambkins in my classes? Can’t they just be happy for a few years? Don’t I know any nice books, with happy endings?

NYET! NEIN! Image result for No in Chinese! Nope! We have to teach our children to pay attention to the word around them, because, no matter how much we want it to be as we want it, it will become theirs, and they will have to figure out what to do with it. Today we see kids becoming active and engaged in their future, and it makes me proud – somewhere along the way, the Parkland generation, like the kids of the Civil Rights Era, and many others before them, must have had some good teachers.

Today in the NYT, I found these articles:

I could go on. It’s depressing, and so easy to dismiss as hopeless. The great literature seems to imply that indeed, it is hopeless. George is always going to have to shoot Lennie like Odysseus’ stinky old dog, and he is always going to have to live with the regret and doubt that comes from his actions. We are destined to make the same mistakes, doomed to forget hard-learned lessons, and hard-wired to eschew change. Bummer.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to evolve…there is a place for willful delusion! How can we live in a world that is void of hope? We cannot. And that is why we are doomed. Because we are human. We can’t win, but we mustn’t give up! Even if we fail to overcome that which propels us to jettison ourselves towards disaster, moth-to-flame, we must always resist the sucking negativity that is our birthright! Resist, I say! Resist, and try hard, and do good, and teach the children, and learn many, diverse things. See beauty and seek to love freely and wholly, and to be treated in kind. Please yourself, and hurt no one. Be kind and generous, and take everything offered to you.

Yep. That’s what I think.

Einstein said in a 1955 letter to Bertrand Russel: “There lies before us, if we choose, continued progress in happiness, knowledge, and wisdom. Shall we, instead, choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels? We appeal, as human beings, to human beings: Remember your humanity and forget the rest.” Smart cookie, that one.

Waxahachie Bathroom, Webb Gallery, 2018

P.S. If you’ve made it this far, thanks for indulging me! You’re a peach!

Lost In Translation

Robert Frost said, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” I quite like this quote, as well as the movie that references it, but I can’t figure out if it means that one can never really capture the poetry of a situation, because it always gets lost, or if poetry emerges when something is lost – meaning, perhaps? Clarity? Comfort? Order? – in translation; in other words, when expectation or analytical significance is lost, poetry is gained.

Oh Frost! So simple, yet so complex!

I have recently finished one book, and reread another, both of which stunned me with their poetry and creativity. The new book is Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell, who is the author of Cloud Atlas. Here is a picture of swans.

The black swan in the picture is really just a duck, but you probably knew that. 

Black Swan Green is the story of a year in the life of a boy, Jason Taylor. It is a coming-of-age story, or, as they say in Germany, a bildungsroman. (Yeah, that’s right! I know that word! I said it, and I know what it means! Of course,  I don’t know why anyone who is writing in English would ever use it instead of “coming-of-age-novel”, which is a perfectly good and completely comprehensible term, but I like to be pretentious, and then show that I know that I am pretentious, thereby establishing myself as down-to-earth and adorably self mocking.)

I love the story of the novel, and the way the characters are built. It is funny, poignant, profound, surprising, captivating and universal, though it is set in a very specific place and time. But that’s not what really got me about this book; what makes this book so amazing is the language it is written in, the poetry of it. Mitchell is brilliant (or ‘brill’, as Jason Taylor would say). He is so original, so creative, and so true to his own stylistic devices and perspective that the two books I have read by him are different than anything else I have ever read.

I underlined half the book. Here’s how Jason describes skating by himself in the early morning: Round and around in swoopy anticlockwise loops I looped, a stone on the end of a string. Overhanging trees tried to touch my head with their fingers. Rooks craw…craw…crawed, like old people who’ve forgotten why they’d come upstairs.

Here’s another brief passage: The world won’t leave things be. It’s always injecting endings into beginnings. Leaves tweezer themselves from these weeping willows. Leaves fall into the lake and dissolve into slime. Where’s the sense in that?…The world never stops making what the world never stops making.

That’s nothing. Here are some more random lines:

A cow of an awkward pause mooed.

A shame bomb blew my head off.

[I] held her opal brooch over one eye. I looked through it at the sun for secret colors nobody’s ever named.

New leaves oozed from twigs in the hedges.

Maybe I heard a poem, seeping from [the garden]. So I stood and listened, just for a moment, like a hungry robin listening for worms.

“Probably” is a word with an emergency ejector seat.

Sunlight on waves is drowsy tinsel.

These jewels that glint under the bright light of scrutiny don’t do justice to the music of the book, the song of the words, and the melody of the story. This is a case of not being able to catch the poetry of getting lost in the pages. I can’t give you the poetry, because I lose it in the telling. You’ll just have to read it yourself.

The other book is Dancer, by Colum Mcann. I adore this book. It is absolutely one of my favorites of EVER. It is so unbelievably well-written, so innovative, so glorious. It’s about Rudolf Nureyev, and it combines all kinds of different forms of expression; lists and letters, shifts in subject, time and perspective, history and story, fact and fiction, prose, and poetry and some of the richest, most evocative imagery and diction I have ever had the pleasure of discovering. One chapter, which runs for 32 pages and spans less than 24 hours and is made up of one, single, unbelievable sentence (Suck it, Proust!), makes me almost laugh out loud with the insane, ecstatic purity of it, with its rhythm and swagger, its highs, lows, slow builds and crescendos, with it’s sheer genius – I am left breathless at the end of the chapter, panting. And then I turn back and read it again.

I would give you a taste of this chapter, as it illustrates perfectly the second possibility of my Lost In Translation question – that maybe what it means is less important than how it feels, and how it feels is the poetry of it all – but I have learned my lesson in trying to translate. You’ll just have to read it for yourself.

Plus, like I said, it’s long. I don’t have time to read and think and write for you, now do I?! I got a life to lead, Cha Cha! Now get outta here and leave me alone!

Special thanks to Jonny-Boy, my fahrvergnugan wunderkind, who knows how to use a smartphone like a raketenwissenchaftler and widens my weltenschauung everytime I see him!

Look at these gorgeous black swan dancer (ah, serendipitous synchronicity!!!) posters by La Boca Design

 and to see more waycool posters, check this site out: