Sunday, December 30, 2012

Riffday: not with a bang but a blog post

1.  We are in Florida on our biennial family trip.  As always, the weather is not all that great, but we are having a good time anyway. 

2. Dean and my older sister Val are both medical professionals.  Val and her husband are very conservative.  The first morning, the four of us got into a very interesting discussion about the state of medical care in our country.  The best thing about it, in my opinion, was the number of things we agreed on.  I was surprised and happy.  It made me realize (again) how divisive and counter-productive all this political posturing is.  If the four of us, who are diametrically opposed on many issues, can find things to agree on regarding such a controversial topic, there is hope.

3.  But I've also been surprised at how obsessed the two of them are with politics.  Normally on these trips we don't discuss politics, because none of us is all that interested.  Or at least, we didn't used to be.  Usually, we tell stories about our adorable children and we gossip about our relatives and family friends, and we talk about movies and books and TV shows, and whatever else we can think of.  But this year it keeps coming back to politics.  Ick.

4.  I already know what my new year's resolution is going to be:  I'm not going to buy any books in 2013.  And if you know me, you'll know that is impossible.  It's not gonna happen.  But I'm saying it anyway, so maybe I will at least make it several months.  This is inspired by a) me trying to put away my books from last semester and not even coming close to finding enough shelf space, and b) while doing that, remembering how many books we own that I haven't read and that I want to read.  There are dozens.  I definitely do not need to buy any more books. Oddly, this resolution feels scarier to me than any resolution I've made in recent memory.  And I'm thinking of three books that I "need" to run out and buy tomorrow before it gets to be 2013.  Ha.

5.  I'm kind of bummed that I haven't heard back about my thesis revisions yet.  I wanted to be able to enjoy the holidays with the knowledge that I am done.  But apparently my thesis committee didn't share the same vision, because I haven't heard back from any of them yet.  The deadline for getting it all done is January 18th, so there's still time.  I have no idea how much more work they'll want me to do:  a little? a lot? or--fingers crossed--none at all.

6.We went to see The Hobbit.  This was not a small thing.  All four of us adored the Lord of the Rings movies, and we've seen them at least half a dozen times, maybe even a dozen.  Dean and Nell are huge fans of the books (my personal opinion, and I may not admit to actually typing this if pressed, is that these are the only book adaptation movies I've ever seen that I thought were better than the books.)(OK, so shoot me.)  Anyway.  The Hobbit.  We were a bit disappointed.  It had some good stuff in it.  But there wasn't nearly enough story to support that long a movie, so it ended up seeming like a typical holiday blockbuster action movie instead of something unique.  As a holiday blockbuster, it's not a bad movie.  As a prequel to FOTR, it was kind of lame.  Bright spot:  Martin Freeman, who plays Bilbo, is terrific.

7.  Les Mis:  what's your opinion?  I haven't seen it yet, because I stayed home with my three youngest nieces while everyone else went.  Although I make exceptions for certain movies (like The Hobbit), I'm not that big a film fanatic-- I'm usually content to watch them at home.  Do I need to see this one on the big screen?  I do love the music.

Monday, December 24, 2012

It Came upon a Midnight Clear

Six years ago, I wrote a post about Christmas and why it is important to me, and since I pretty much said what I wanted to say back then, I've never done another one.  But I re-read it last week and realized that, slightly updated, it is worth repeating.  So here it is.  Happy Christmas/Festivus/Solstice/Hannukkah/Kwanzaa or whatever you choose to celebrate.

Christmas always reminds me why I love Christianity, even though I'm not a very orthodox Christian anymore. If you can get a fresh perspective on it every once in awhile, there's still so much Christianity has to say about our world-- and Christmas is the best example, in my opinion. The story of God, the big guy with the infinite cosmic power, deciding to make his grand appearance on earth in the form of a baby (a BABY!!) is such a wonderfully bizarre concept that you just can't help but appreciate it. I'm not even talking about taking the story literally, it's the concept I love, even if you just read it as a Judeo-Christian cultural myth.

In an age where we are being told on a daily basis that the answer to the world's problems is more guns, more guns, and more guns, here is (according to Christian theology) God's answer to the world's problems: a tiny, helpless, baby, born to an unwed mother from a poor, politically oppressed people. He had no political power, no armies, no guns.  He never held office, he never won an election, he never showed much interest at all in politics.  He changed the world anyway.  We've heard the story so many times that it's hard to remember how strange it is, how utterly confounding.

...the world in solemn stillness lay / to hear the angels sing....

Saturday, December 22, 2012

YALit: the rest of the semester

So I reviewed the first half of the semester of Young Adult Literature in this post and this one.  Here are the rest of them.  I almost scheduled this to post next week after Christmas, then thought I might as well go ahead and post it now.  We survived the end of the world, after all.

Monster by Walter Dean Myers.  Steve Harmon gets involved in a convenience store robbery that ends up in a shooting (not by him).  When the story opens, Steve has been denied bail and is in jail waiting for his trial.  He's seventeen, but he's in an adult prison.  Our class was divided about whether or not he knew what was happening when the robbery began--it's not exactly clear.  So it's hard to know if he's just a completely innocent bystander getting the classic raw deal, or if he made a stupid mistake and will be a wiser man after the experience (I thought the latter).  It's very absorbing, but I have to tell you, I hated it.  I hate reading about kids in prison.  Must be the Mom thing. It makes me sick to my stomach. The thing that makes Monster so fascinating and gets it a partial reprieve is that it is written as a screenplay.  Steven is a budding film director, and he writes the events of his life as if they are a film.  It's fascinating what he is able to do with point-of-view and juxtaposing different events.  Recommended if you're not a mom.

Gifts by Ursula LeGuin.  LeGuin and I go way back.  I read the Earthsea Trilogy when I was in sixth or seventh grade, and then in high school I read the Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed.  All of which were excellent, and highly recommended.  This one, not so much.  For one thing, it takes a very long time to get started.  If I hadn't been required to read it for class, I would have given up after about 15-20 pages--it didn't get really interesting until somewhere around p. 75.  

Orrec and Gry are childhood friends who live in the typical pre-industrial psuedo-medieval world of all fantasy novels.  Their families have hereditary gifts that are sometimes passed to their children, sometimes not.  Orrec is supposed to get the gift of destruction, but it is so long in coming that by the time he thinks he receives it, he is old enough to know he doesn't want it.  Gry has the gift of being able to influence animals, which her mother uses to great effect by helping the local clans to hunt-- in their subsistence culture, an important role.  But Gry is so sensitive that she refuses to help anyone hunt down an animal.  Both of them face interesting challenges as they try to figure out their gifts and how to use them, and the relationship between Orrec and his father is fascinating.  But LeGuin really disappointed me by not seeming to recognize an obvious use for the contrary-side of Orrec's gift, which I can't say anything more about without major spoilers.  If you like fantasy and you like YA lit, this is definitely worth reading, but otherwise, probably not.

ShipBreaker by Paolo Bacigalupi - Another fascinating one.  This one is set in a post-global-warming-meltdown world.  Nailer, the main character, lives with his alcoholic, abusive father on a beach where the local economy is run by gangs who make their living by stripping resources from the foundered oil tankers resting off-shore.  After a huge storm, Nailer and a friend come across a fully-loaded yacht that has nearly infinite possibilities for salvage-- one room has enough stuff in it to keep them fed for years.

The only problem is that there is a young woman, barely alive, in one of the staterooms.  Do they let her live?  (spoiler: yes, they do.) and then what do they do with her?  This is a fascinating study of what happens to human beings when the normal societal pressures to act ethically have fallen apart.  Nailer is a really interesting protagonist--Bacigalupi doesn't take the easy answers.  So in spite of my antipathy toward another post-apocalyptic novel, I have to say this one is worth reading.  There is a sequel, but from the reviews I've read of it, it doesn't sound nearly as good.

Cycler by Lauren McLaughlin.  This is one weird book.  I mean that in the nicest possible way.  It's about a young woman who spends four (five?) days out of every month as a boy.  I enjoyed the thought-experiment aspect of it, but I didn't think it was particularly thoughtfully done.  McLaughlin went for the easy ending (and the ending that could be stretched out into a series, which sure enough, has happened) rather than the thoughtful ending.  How much truly mind-bending stuff about gender could you do with a plot like this?

But she seems content to let the opportunity go by and just go for humor and a love triangle (quadrangle? do you count the four days per month as a separate person?).  I thought of a better ending, and one of my classmates thought up a much better ending.  If we can do it, why couldn't she?  Interesting and entertaining, but I'm not sure I'd recommend it.  And by the way, you could never get away with teaching this book in the classroom in our conservative town.  Even if it weren't for all the gender stuff, there is an actual sex scene toward the end (not particularly detailed, but still).  Not happening.

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang.  American Born Chinese is a graphic novel.  I've read a couple of others (Bone, Persepolis, Contract with God), and I enjoy them.  But I'm not a particularly visual person, so much of the drawing is lost on me.  I'm too busy reading the words to look at the pictures.  Some of my classmates were more attuned to the visual aspects of this book, and they were able to point out some great stuff that you don't get if you're not looking.

Anyway.  It's three inter-twining stories:  the Monkey King of Chinese legend, who is kicked out of heaven because he's not wearing shoes and wants some revenge; Jin Wang, a young Chinese boy who deals with what unfortunately is probably typical treatment at a school where he is the only Asian American; and Danny, a Caucasian kid who has a crazy Chinese cousin who comes to visit just often enough to drive him crazy.  The stories seem completely unrelated until about two-thirds of the way through, when suddenly the collide in a way that is surprising and satisfying.  Really enjoyed this one, although I suspect it would be treated with suspicion by someone who is native Chinese; it's a pretty thoroughly westernized story.

Into the Wild- by Jon Krakauer.  This one will get its own post in a week or two.  It's a non-fiction story about Chris McCandless, who decides to put his ideals in action by spending a summer living off the land in Alaska and dies in the process.  It's not quite the story I was expecting.  I read the original article Krakauer wrote for Outside magazine way back when (he died in 1992), and I was fascinated then.  This version, which is both more complete and fixes a misconception written into the earlier article, is even more interesting.  One of the things that interested me the most was the discussion in our classroom.  There were three or four students who had ideals similar to McCandless, several more complete cynics, and then the professor and me-- who considered ourselves to be older and wiser, but maybe we're just older and more cynical.  Highly recommended, and like I said, another post is coming, although it will be more about idealism and compromise than about the book.

There you have it.  It was a great class, one of my favorites out of my two and a half years of graduate school.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

a long, meandering post about video games and poetry. At least it's not about Christmas.

Just by chance--because believe me, this was the last thing on our minds when we were planning our family--we have a kid on either side of the video game divide.  When Nell was young, there were plenty of people that had Playstations or Nintendos, but there were also plenty more people who didn't.  It was unremarkable that we didn't have a game station at our house and didn't want one.  But by the time MadMax came along (he is seven years younger than Nell), the world had changed.  (cue:  I feel it in the water.  I feel it in the earth.  Much that once was is lost.)(If you got that, you are totally my friend.)(not that you aren't anyway, if you're here reading this nonsense.)

Anyway.  We finally gave in and bought a PS2 six or seven years ago when none of MadMax's friends would come to our house anymore because there was "nothing to do."  I still remember the exact moment I gave in.  It was after two of his friends sat on our couch for nearly an hour muttering under their breath how boring it was at our house. Finally they came up to me--over an hour before their parents were due to pick them up--and politely said that they were ready to go home and could I take them, please?

Now, I am not opposed to video games in general.  In fact, I lost about six months of my life in the mid-80s to a game that I think was called MineDigger, although when I googled it just now, the current version is so far removed from that old 2-color maze game that it makes me wonder if I'm remembering the right name.  And Tetris.  Oh my word, did I play Tetris by the hour.  It made my little OCD heart happy.  Even today I'm sure if I downloaded Tetris to my iPhone I'd play it by the hour. 

So I get it-- the entertainment value of something that is both relaxing and mentally stimulating at the same time. I'm not going to preach here.  In fact, now that they can play each other online, talking away over their headsets, you can't even really accuse them of being the old sterotypical anti-social loner gamers who lose touch with other human beings.  MadMax talks to his friends way more now over that headset than he did when he would have had to pick up the phone and call.

I'm just struck by how different the world is going to be by the time these kids get to be the ones who are running things-- maybe forty or fifty years from now.  They are so used to the intense mental/visual stimulation that the online world provides.  I can see how it would be hard to unplug.  If you've been in a world of color, light, noise, action, and intense scenarios, of course reading a book is going to seem unbearably boring.  I think more and more of our world is going to take place online.  It might even be kind of fun-- imagine online banking where your avatar walks into a bank and speaks with a virtual teller.  Matrix, here we come. 

I'm not sure it's a bad thing.  Did you know that two hundred years ago, novels were seen as the downfall of civilization?  No one had the patience for poetry anymore, no one valued the slow, careful reading that poetry required.  Novels were going to be the demise of all that is good in the world.

And they were one sign of the demise of a particular kind of civilization, but there have been some pretty dang fine, sophisticated novels written since then.  Then the movies came along, and that was going to be the end of civilization, and then television, and now video games.  And yet who hasn't marveled at the artistry of a really good film, or the intelligence in a snappy, smart, funny round of dialogue in a well-written TV show?

Sure, it's not the same thing as sitting down with Hemingway or Tolstoy, but is it the demise of civilization?  Or is it just new?  I haven't played any of the current crop of video games, but I suspect that there is some true creative, artistic merit in what is being done in some of them--and I suspect that more is to come. 

Which makes me wonder about the value of having spent the last year+ of my life working on a thesis about Ulysses.  It's 600-ish pages (depending on which edition you buy) of densely written, complex prose that is brilliantly, intensely mind-blowing.  But first of all you have to read it, which is no simple task.  And I can tell you from experience that you don't really start to get it until you've read it two or three times.  I finished my third reading last summer, and I've barely begun to comprehend it.  I'd really like to read it again, but who has the time?

I made time because it was the perfect thesis project for me-- allowing me to combine my techie-side and my literary side.  But is anyone going to read Ulysses a hundred years from now?  Hardly anyone reads it now.  It's far too heavy for any but the most determined of readers.  I think that kind of complex novel writing is going the way of the dodo bird, the same way long, epic poems did.  There's Infinite Jest, I suppose, but I wonder how many people actually read the whole thing.  Probably not as many as say they did.  I confess I didn't finish it.  It just didn't hold my interest.  (although I've always thought that someday I would go back and try again.) 

Whoa.  off-track.  Anyway.  Has anyone outside of a classroom read the entirety of Milton's Paradise Lost in the past hundred years?  or Keats' Endymion?  Or even in a classroom?  I only had to read excerpts of either of them.  Is that such a bad thing?  I listened to a clip that a friend of mine posted on Facebook yesterday (the youtube link is here) about the way education has changed in the past hundred years.  It's long (11 minutes*), but interesting if you have the time.  He (Sir Kenneth Robinson) makes the point that traditionally, a large component of being an educated person was familiarity with certain literary and artistic works, the Canon of Western Civilization. 

But that no longer seems necessary or useful nowadays.  With the explosion of resources available in the twenty-first century, it's just impossible to be familiar with everything, and any attempt to create a list of what everyone "should" know will by definition be slanted toward someone's prejudice about what is worth knowing.  Works by dead white males?  Women? transgender? racial/ethnic perspectives?  The only way to be all-inclusive is to create a list that's too long to be of any use.

In a way it makes me sad.  I remember a couple of years ago, Nell and I walked into a gallery at the Seattle Art Museum.  On the wall in front of us was a contemporary painting that I had never seen before, but I immediately knew that it was Europa and the Bull, one of the more standard tropes of Greek mythology.  Which was confirmed when we walked up to it and the name of it was, sure enough, "Europa and the Bull."  Nell had no idea.  I felt a small moment of loss, because I loved mythology, and I'd like for her to have the same experience.  But did she need to know to appreciate the painting?  I think not, because clearly it was a woman with a bull, and the implications are there whether or not you know about the myth.

This is getting way too long.  Not sure that I even really have a point to make.  Just thinking.

*And even that is a sign of the times-- eleven minutes would have been considered short not too many years ago. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Riffday: I don't know if there'll be snow but have a cup of cheer

1. Remember I told you that I knew the puppy chewing stage would get worse?  It did.  It is.  Oh my lord we cannot find enough stuff for her to chew on.  If you have ideas, let me know.  Unfortunately, she doesn't like rawhide bones.  Padded envelopes are a favorite, which is convenient since due to online Christmas ordering, it seems that several come per week.  I've taken to giving her kindling off the woodpile just so she won't drive me crazy. 

2. I consider myself a Christian, albeit a thoroughly unorthodox one, and Christmas is easily my favorite of the church holidays.  But can I just say for the record that no, I do not mind if someone says Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas?  I have friends who are Jewish, Wiccan, atheist, and who-knows-what-else and I'm actually really glad there is a neutral way to wish them the joy of the season.  Celebrate it however you want-- light a candle on a menorah, believe in Santa, burn a yule log, head up to the ski slopes, go to church, fast and pray, sit with a Jameson next to the fire.  I hope everybody has the kind of holiday season they enjoy.  Happy Holidays.

3. I admit I listen to some strange stuff for a 51-year-old.  I actually like hip-hop. Well, some of it, anyway. I like to have something with a beat when I'm on the treadmill or doing my workout.  But you know how you always hear lyrics wrong?  Like back in junior high when we all thought the guy was from Georgia when he sang "my eyes adored ya"? (yeah, I know, showing my age there.)  The whole problem with hip hop lyrics is that when you think you're hearing the lyrics wrong, you're really not.  After weeks of thinking, that can't be what he's saying, I finally googled it today, and yup, he is saying that. I don't even want to think about what it means.  (Originally this included the lyrics I was trying to figure out, but I deleted them because this is a family-friendly blog. usually. sort of.) 

4. I have successfully conditioned the chickens to go out in the snow. *pats self on back* It took three days of hand-carrying them out to the usual spot where they get their scratch.  This morning when I went down to the coop, even though it was about 25 degrees, they were all out in their yard, waiting for me to let them out so they could roam, standing right out there on the snow.  :-) 

5. The only problem with this is that they want to roam someplace where it is warm, so if the garage door is up, they like to hang out in there, cheerfully sharing their chicken by-products with us.  The garage is also where Sadie goes when she is in trouble.  You can probably see this coming.  This afternoon I found her terrorizing a poor chicken who was huddled in a corner behind Dean's exercise bike, shivering.  Fortunately no harm was done.  I did check before I shut her in there, but apparently not carefully enough.

6. Thesis revisions are coming along.  It's taking longer than I anticipated, because I am so dang tired of working on it.  It's hard to force myself to do it.  But I'm pleased with what I've done, and I'm anticipating that it will be finished tonight and e-mailed back to my advisor tomorrow after a final read-through.  I checked in with the grad school and the deadline actually isn't until January 18th, so I have plenty of time.  I just don't want to be working on it in January.

7. Peace and healing to the families and the community in Newtown.  I'm just speechless with horror every time I think about it.  I originally had something longer here, but I think I'll just leave it at that.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Defense = Done

I cannot tell you how stressed I was for that damn defense.  It was Monday at 3, and I was wound up so tight that I could barely sit still.  The proof:  I've spent the two days since barely able to get up off the couch with a migraine that hasn't responded to any of the many pharmaceuticals I've thrown at it.  But.  It went pretty well.  Not perfectly-- apparently I got pretty far off topic-- but they didn't ask me anything I couldn't answer, and that was what I was worried about.  I suppose it is true of any subject, but especially with an enormous, complex work like Ulysses, they could easily have come up with two hours of questions that I would have had to answer:  I don't know.  I don't know.  I don't know. 

But they didn't.   They stayed pretty well within the bounds of my thesis, asked me to go into more detail on several points, and had a number of recommendations for revisions (the only major one is something I knew about before I went in).  So I've got several days of work left to do, but the defense is over, and went well enough that it won't need to be repeated.  And I'm still un-winding.  I suspect it may be several weeks before I truly relax-- we're headed to Florida the week after Christmas for our bi-annual family reunion with my sisters and their families, so maybe that will do the trick. 

Aside:  since we are almost all word freaks around here, I'll tell you I just googled bi-annual to make sure it meant "every other year" and apparently it can mean both "every other year" and "twice a year."  Unfortunately, we do not have family reunions twice a year, just every other year.  Weird, yes?  You would think there would be a term that meant every other year.

And that's it for me for today.  More soon.