Saturday, May 30, 2009

I have several things that I want to write about, but I'm not sure exactly where to start, so I'm going to sidetrack briefly and post something unrelated, that I've been meaning to post for over a year now. It's nothing spectacular, just my two favorite stories. Or parables. Or "illustrations," as we used to call them when we were "helping" my dad with his sermons. which I believe I will relay with no comment.

A Baptist preacher is sitting on the roof of a house during a flood. It's quite a flood, and the water is rising rapidly. The preacher is praying loudly in a voice meant to carry, "Oh, great and loving God, look down on me, a poor sinner, and have mercy! Save me from the terrible waters of this flood!" A man in a canoe comes by, and stops to pick him up. But the preacher waves him off. "Don't worry about me, God will save me!" the preacher shouts. A few hours later, the water has reached the roofline. A woman in a motor boat comes by and stops to pick him up. But he waves her off, crying loudly, "Don't worry about me, God will save me!" The water continues to rise, until finally it is lapping at his feet. About this time the Coast Guard comes by, and stops to pick up him up, but the preacher waves them off. "Don't worry, God will save me!" he calls after them as the boat motors away. And he continues to pray loudly as the water inches up. Finally, he drowns. When he gets to heaven, he stands at the pearly gates with his hands on his hips and says to St. Peter, "What happened? My faith was strong! I prayed! Why didn't God save me?" And St. Peter says, "What were you waiting for? we sent a guy in a canoe! we sent a woman in a motor boat! we sent the Coast Guard!"

The other story is, I believe, Hindu, and probably everyone has heard it. But it's worth repeating.

Three blind men stand before an elephant. They have never been near an elephant before, although they have heard it is a fearsome beast. The first man touches the elephant's tusk. It is smooth and hard and cold. And curved. The man thinks, "Ahh, an elephant must be solid, and long and smooth and as hard as a diamond!" The second man reaches out and touches the elephant's hide. It seems to be tough material, pebbled and rough, and is warm to the touch. "Ahh, an elephant must be made out of armor, hard and leathery! He must be nearly invincible!" The third man reaches out and touches the end of the elephant's tail. "Ahh," he thinks to himself, "The elephant is not big and tough at all! He is soft and feathery! He is like a brush!" Were any of the blind men entirely right? were any of them entirely wrong?

Monday, May 25, 2009

So, to pick up a story that I barely started a few weeks ago and then let lapse..... I was so taken with Michael Chabon's book of essays Maps and Legends that when we returned from our vacation, I decided I would try to read some of his other stuff. I confess I've tried before. Years ago, I read approximately the first chapter each of Summerland and The Final Solution, but neither convinced me to keep going. But (obviously) I never really gave either of them a chance, so I was willing to give him another shot. generous of me, yes? I also wanted to find books by his wife, Ayelet Waldman. Somehow I knew from before that his wife was a lawyer turned mystery-writer, although I can't remember how. I think I might have read an interview with her in some magazine. I had thought the pair of them intriguing at the time, and since she is mentioned several times in Maps and Legends in ways that intrigued me further, I decided to check her books out as well.

So at our local library, they had on the shelf Chabon's first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and a more recent one which is something along the lines of The Yiddish Policeman's Union. So I came home with those, plus The Jungle Book, so I could read that before reading Neil Gaiman's Graveyard Book in context (more about that in another post). They didn't have any of Waldman's mysteries checked in, although they did have her more recent literary fiction novel (the name of which is escaping me, but it's about a mother dealing with the death of her child), which I decided to pass on since it sounded too depressing.

But I was still taking classes, and time was at a premium, so the books just sat there for a couple of weeks. Then, through a series of odd coincidences which are at the same time quite bizarre but utterly uninteresting, I found myself the winner of a Facebook drawing to receive a free copy of Waldman's new book of essays, The Bad Mother. Waldman has created a bit of a stir with her bracing honesty about her experiences as the mother of four children. So my autographed copy of the book arrived on Tuesday of the week when I had a take-home exam due on Wed, another one due on Thurs, and a gazillion other things to do. I left it out on the counter, as my reward for making it through the week. When I woke up disturbingly early on Saturday morning, finally done with school and (of course) unable to sleep, I started reading--about 6:30 a.m.

And by 11:30 I had finished it. Waldman is amazing. First of all there are her refreshingly candid stories about being a mom, wrapped in none of the cotton candy that most maternal stories are, and yet still managing to convey her utter devotion to her children. Even though I haven't had an abortion and I'm not bipolar (yet), her experiences more closely match up with mine than any other mom-lit I've read (possible exception: Anne Lamott). And on top of that, she's a terrific writer. Or at least, the kind of writer of non-fiction essays that I enjoy reading: funny, sympathetic, argumentative in a garrulous sort of way, occasionally snarky, always intelligent. I loved the book. Of course I had to send her an e-mail thanking her for the autographed copy of the book, in which I was entirely too gush-y, and to which she replied quite kindly and graciously. So, I will be finding more of her books as well. Maybe I will even attempt the depressing one.

But none of that prepared me for starting The Mysteries of Pittsburgh last Thursday. It was a revelation. I haven't read many good novels recently, so maybe this isn't saying much, but it is the best contemporary novel I've read in years. How had I never heard of it? I knew about Kavalier and Clay, and the Wonder Boys, and I'd seen the Yiddish one, but until I saw Pittsburgh on the shelf at the library, I didn't even know it existed. It's the story of a summer told from the point of view of a young man who has just graduated from college. Much of the novel is taken up with his sexual coming of age, but that makes it sound more lurid than it reads. You ache for the narrator, a sweet, somewhat naive Jewish boy, who is at the same time a brilliantly verbose storyteller and an oddly laconic keeper of secrets (do laconic and lacunae come from the same root? I tried to fit both in here but couldn't pull it off). Chabon has the most amazing facility with language. On nearly every page, there was some turn of phrase, or some image, or some extended metaphor that had me shaking my head in awe. It's not a perfect novel; it's uneven, for one thing. And it loses momentum toward the end. I immediately started reading it again, and on second reading, already what sounded original and fresh the first time through was sounding a bit over the top and self-conscious. But it's still astonishingly good, especially considering that it was his first novel and he was barely out of college himself. I'll put a few excerpts in a comment, but they don't do it justice. You'll just have to read it. And re-read it. There are certain details that just aren't apparent the first time through (e.g: toward the beginning, he describes a picture of his girlfriend; toward the end, he mentions taking the picture. I didn't catch it the first time through but it's a lovely single moment with a gap--lacunae!--in between).

Sunday, May 10, 2009

geek nirvana

Star Trek and I go way back. I'm not quite SO old that I saw it when it first aired in prime time, but when I was in the 10-12 year old range, we would come home from school and turn on the TV and watch reruns. We'd catch the last ten or fifteen minutes of the Flintstones, then the Brady Bunch, then Gilligan's Island, and then Star Trek. And if Springsteen's "Glory Days" is playing in the back of your head right now, you're in the same age range as me. (although of course that song didn't come out until the 80s).

I loved Star Trek. The tribbles, and Joan Collins dying in soft focus, and the Vulcan wise woman saying in her croaky voice, "Sometimes having is not so good a thing as wanting" while bells chinked in the background (my spouse and I can actually do a pretty good team imitation of that scene)(it cracks us up, even though no one else is laughing). In fact, ten years later when my spouse and I met during our junior year of college, one of the things we bonded over was watching Star Trek reruns at five o'clock every night in the lobby of the row house where we lived. We slogged our way through all the movies (and still joke about things--like Star Trek movies and children-- that are better in even-numbered years than odd), made our peace with the Next Gen after boycotting it during the first two seaons (then watched it just as avidly as the original version), watched some of DS9, and then sort of petered out, although we did see a few of the last series.... which I can't remember the name of at the moment.

So we were pretty excited to go see the new Star Trek movie last night, and for once, it did not disappoint. We had four boys ages 10-12 with us, and they liked it, which is remarkable since with one exception, none of us Trekker parents have ever been able to get our kids hooked on the show. But those boys weren't in Trek nirvana like the four of us forty-something classic Trekkers were. I admit to even getting a little misty eyed when they played the classic theme at the end. It was great. And didn't you just know the guy in the red jumpsuit was gonna die? I'd say it's easily the best Trek movie ever, but that 's not saying much since the movies have never been very good. Sure it had some improbable plot twists, but what Trek tradition is more time-honored than that? I loved it, and I'm hoping that (in another time honored Trek tradition) sequels will abound.

Monday, May 04, 2009

I got over my grad-school-application-induced panic attack after just a couple of days, and now feel like I have interesting things to say again. Well, moderately interesting. But unfortunately my teachers have forgotten to leave me enough time to write interesting blog posts, so I don't think anything will actually get posted until the semester is over next week.

But I thought I sounded a little too pathetic in my last post to just leave it hanging. Apologies for perhaps being a bit too "all-roads-lead-to-Rome" here, but it did occur to me that my fundamentalist background might have something to do with how easy it is too intimidate me into feeling like my opinions aren't worth expressing. more on this later. I think. Right now I have to get back to programming Battleship. Sounds simple, doesn't it? But it's surprisingly complicated.