20 December 2006

Oel?

More from Great-Grandma Esther: Oel? Olan? Orlen? "I'm always wanting to add an N or R," she says. "You've got to correct me, now." I'm just shocked that she has yet to call him Noie ("Like Noie in the Bible," she once told me about her Uncle Noah, and emphatically, as though she couldn't figure out how I missed the allusion) or Junior (which is what she always called him in-utero).

07 December 2006

Thanks to Papa Strange

for stating some classroom rules so clearly. Why don't students just presume these things?

Of course, he's forgotten one of the most important rules: don't tick off Mama Strange or else she'll go home and complain to Papa Strange about it. He has been known to offer kind commiseration when deserved, so watch out.

One of these days, I'll actually take him up on his offer to appear as a guest lecturer on exactly this subject.

06 December 2006

Full circle with the Bean

Timeline:

I learned that Oxford American accepted my poem "Three Days After Easter, 1994" during the same week that I learned I was pregnant.

Now the issue featuring that poem is appearing on newsstands during the week when I will likely deliver.

How's that?

Yes, I can think about something other than labor

As you await the arrival of Baby Strange, please read "Kramer's Sins—and Ours" from Christianity Today. I started reading it with a little skepticism, presuming it might merely be an opportunistic commentary on the recent Michael Richards incident. Turns out that the writer, Edward Gilbreath, instead takes that opportunity to write rather insightfully about the problem of how we manage political correctness regarding race in the media and other professions and, finally, the Church. So, enjoy . . . and please respond.

The Rumors Rumble On

Dr. Palmer just called me to ask, a bit tongue-in-cheek, if it was a boy or a girl. That's what her sister had just called to ask her. Apparently, she had heard from their mother yesterday that I was 4 cm and going to the hospital, when what April claims she clearly told her mother was simply that I was 3 cm and might probably maybe likely could have the baby in the next 2-3 days. Translation by 11 am the next morning: Baby Strange has surely entered the world.

Who knows where the message went wrong. Of course, it matters very little, as April has reminded me that I am only allowed to have this baby today, tomorrow, or Saturday and following, because she's taking her boards on Friday. If we care at all about Aunt April, we will organize the labor schedule accordingly. Yes, indeed.

05 December 2006

Your Mother Should Know (Your Mo-ther Should)

Lest the previous post suggest any complaining bitterness (as, indeed, my dear mother suggested), I'd like to clarify that I really only meant it as a gentle jab toward the rumor-makers. After all, again as my dear mother noted, few folks start rumors unless they care about the rumor subjects. (NB this isn't always the case, for some simply like to control information, but that's a different issue.) The bean's parents are beyond grateful for those who care about the bean and us. Especially those who perpetuated rumors 2 and 3 :) Be it known.

04 December 2006

Six Days and Counting

Yesterday my belly received its first unsolicited touch, and what a touch it was. More like a fingernail tickle. Good night, Irene. Just because I'm 9 months pregnant doesn't mean my body has become public property.

But what do I have to complain about? After all, I'm 9 months pregnant and that was the first unsolicited touch. Rumors have, however, circulated back my direction over the past few days. I'd like to celebrate by sleuthing out some untrue rumors I have heard about myself over the past few weeks:

1) "What are you doing at work? Weren't you on bedrest?" Thanks for informing me. Apparently a co-worker started this rumor when the doctor was doing tests to confirm whether or not I had pre-eclampsia, which I have not had. In the conversation that required my informing this co-worker that my doctor had this concern, I specifically noted that even if I had pre-eclampsia, she would not prescribe bedrest but would simply let labor bring the baby early.

2) "Your contractions were so significant Thursday night that you almost went to the hospital." Really? Indeed, contractions have been getting sharper, but they're nowhere near regular. This could go on for weeks. We never had thoughts of actually going to the hospital last Thursday night.

3) "If the baby doesn't come by your due date, she'll induce Monday the 11th." Right, um, no. We did ask how long she'd let me go, and her answer was that she'd like for me to not wait much past the due date, but that does not mean induction is a real possibility, and we certainly have not scheduled anything, nor would we expect to do so that early.

So, beware if you hear rumors about me and/or Baby Strange. If, on the other hand, you hear rumors about Papa Strange having sympathy fatigue and pains, believe those all you want because they're probably true.

15 November 2006

36 Weeks of Chub

Today's ultrasound showed, among other things, one fat fist. The doctor was so impressed by the chubbiness that she had to print it out (she does an ultrasound every time we go, but she doesn't normally print the shots).

And this may be the fist we touched.

The other day, Micah was checking out the baby's movements and told me he thought he'd found a hand. When I put my two fingers in the same spot, I agreed and marveled. Then that invisible hand within the womb seemed to grasp at my poking fingers. Entirely cool and entirely creepy at the same time. I'll be thrilled to do that when the baby is part of the bright world, but for now I'll just wait.

01 November 2006

Making Much of the Bean

Saturday night, we attended a delightfully tame costume party. Myles went as a surprisingly scary ghost (who knew a white sheet with two holes could actually blend into the scenery so well?) and Cherish as a Ghostbuster. Katie and Caleb were Alice and the Mad Hatter. Amber and Ben were a hunter and deer (her t-shirt featured a target). Cristy, Paul, Hailey, and Cade were the Flinstone four. Then Lauren and Rafe showed up as Brangelina, toting dolls borrowed from the church nursery in their Baby Bjorn and sling; Lauren appropriately skirted her eyes for every photo taken of her. Phenomenal.

Micah and I had several ideas about how to exploit the bean. Lauren and Cherish had suggested pregnant Britney and KFed. My sister suggested the milkman and a (desperate) housewife. We wondered if we could somehow plaster a bun to my belly and call me an oven; Micah could be the baker.

But then we remembered we're nerds. And nerds like to make allusions that they think are funny even if other people might not get the joke. So Micah went to Wolf and Diller, a local costume shop that happens to be going out of business, and bought pilgrim outfits so that we could be Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale:

21 October 2006

While We Were Out

One week ago today, I woke up with a surge of nesting adrenaline, but there was little nesting for me to do that day. Instead, my job was simply to get out of the way while my mom, my aunt, my sister, and their crew transformed our second bedroom into a nursery.

By 9 am, they had all arrived, so we exited for a leisurely breakfast, a trip to the "Faces of Katrina" exhibit at artspace (fantastic, if emotionally draining), and my prenatal massage (oh my! fabulous). Then I spent the afternoon grading English 101 exams and watching the Detroit Tigers win their berth to the World Series while Micah changed out switches or some geek thing like that at work. By 7 pm, they were done and ready for us to see the new room.

It's hard to say how much we love the space. The colors, the canvas painting, the book wall, the giraffes, the new chest of drawers, the books, the quilt! Mom sewed her fingers off, Emily was Martha as usual, Vicki researched books and painted beautifully, Dan brought bright rugs and updated the blinds etc, Randy did whatever they told him (I'm guessing), and even Craig showed up at some point to help everything finish. So the room makes me happy because it's lovely but also because it represents such loving work from the fam.

They took inspiration from Grandma Bachman's claim that books are our friends. Primarily meant to warn us against setting open books upside down in such a way as breaks their bindings, this phrase now seems largely and simply symbolic of her. A lover of words and books of all sorts, Grandma went to work for BDalton when Pa was finally stationed stateside in San Antonio, when her last daughter was leaving home and most women would probably consider themselves free to just hang out. She retired several years later as manager of the largest BDalton in San Diego.

She often sent us boxes of books, and we were surely not faithful to read them as we should. No doubt we did not always treat them as our friends. But Grandma taught us something of her own lifestyle in the sending and the saying. I have always regarded books as mystical repositories of great things, objects of art that decorate my space. And I often think of those thoughts and decorating notions as Grandma's doing.

So it seems right that this particular influence would continue to the bean. May our child love words and ideas more than we do and somehow know even from the earliest breathing moments that books are indeed your friends.

20 October 2006

Mutton Busting

If it weren't Tigger's daughter, I would call this child exploitation and not laugh so hard, but "ME Denison, Champion Mutton Buster" just seems too classic of a headline. Please read her own blessed mother's telling of the story and watch the video on their blog.

Because of the videotape and the involvement of sheep, not to mention those other poor kids who (let's face it) never had a chance, this story does beat in laughter the one Micah tells about the time he hooked that dog chain to ME's backpack. She, of course, ran as hard as she could away from him and was yanked to the ground (when unleashed, she proved only mildly shaken and immediately started playing with something else).

Of course, this story does not beat the one involving Tigger's laptop getting run over by my car, since I saw that with my own eyes.

07 October 2006

I'm Worried About This

I'm too much of a traditionalist for this. I can still remember my first symphony concert: my dad was sick, but my parents already had tickets and mom still wanted to go, so I got picked to accompany her. After all, I was the older one at maybe 7 or 8, though that still seemed rather young to attend the symphony.

She suggested I wear the white dress with red ribbons, the fanciest I had (it matched one in my sister's wardrobe, maybe they were Easter dresses). And she instructed me in appropriate concert behavior: how to sit still and silent, like church, and maybe when to clap. She asked me several times if I was sure I wanted to go, if I thought I could act the needful way.

It was too much an exercise in the imagination not to go: the floofiest dress, the adult event. I had played violin since before I could remember, and now the teachers would perform for me.

Since then, I have been a behavior nazi. Well, that's partly because my dad never abided fidgeting or other distracting or inappropriate actions in public places. But especially not during concerts: no talking, definitely no candy wrappers, no head-bobbing or toe-tapping, certainly no getting up before intermission, no clapping at the wrong time. I'm nervous about even moving my legs to change which one crosses which. I have unwittingly taught myself to place the program on the crossed knee so that I can consult it for the current movement name at only a glance, no drop of the chin. It's ridiculously staid, but at least no one gets distracted . . . least of all myself.

Now, maybe I have remembered the details of that first concert incorrectly; my mother will have to offer a correction if that's the case. But surely she will agree with me that there is something in my nature and my years of practice that really ought to bristle at the idea of bringing a cell phone to a symphony concert, and especially at the idea of using it there.

The idea is tremendously creative and apt, hopefully more of a subtle cultural critique than an actual celebration of the ubiquitous mobile phone, but I'd rather I and everyone else attending the symphony learn to leave their cells in their cars. Better still, at home. Go to listen, not to wish you were somewhere else with someone else who might have something unnecessary to tell you while you're stuck in a concert.

05 October 2006

Bring Out Yer Dead! Bring Out Yer Dead!

A story in The New York Times entitled "Dead Bachelors in Remote China Still Find Wives" points out several ironies that are the modern China.

The overall problem here: false worship drives you to do stupid things. After all, such stuff makes the Chinese poor believe they should pay good money for dead women. Their hearts have taken advantage of the obvious procreative problem men will have when their ancestors preferred baby boys over baby girls.

The people profiled in this story are poor, but they will pay big money for brides, even dead ones for dead relatives. The cost of a female corpse to simply bury your male corpse near so that he might not remain a virgin in the afterlife is phenomenally high. I wish it were because the woman's remaining relatives prized her that much, but it is too likely that she lived with much shame, if not terrible abuse, because she did not earn that dowry while she lived and then could bear progeny for the good of the village, the family name, and the future economic health of everyone involved. Of course, she would probably have endured much abuse regardless; the status of wives in rural China seems only slightly above that of abandoned female infants.

But if you believe that the afterlife is as materialistic and base as this life, and if you believe a corpse is better than nothing, and if your village has believed that female infants should be left in fields to die, you will pay a lot of money to get any woman in the age to come. Even if it all you get is a dead Leah, you will pay your own personal Laban for the dowry he failed to collect while his daughter yet lived. Seven years? A wad of cash? But at least you can bury yourself with a smile on your face. No telling how much more it costs your soul.

29 September 2006

The Name Game

My grandmother has a unique way of talking, and it has gotten more unique the older she gets. Some of it isn't so special: she rarely asks legitimate questions, instead immediately answering whatever question she asks as though she had been asked it. And she doesn't listen but just monologues until she arbitrarily decides it's your turn and then sits in silence until you come up with something. She has only lately taken up the stereotypical elderly conversation topic of illness and ubiquitous symptoms.

So what's especially unique about her way of speaking? She often says peculiar words, replacing legitimate ones with wrong ones (she rarely calls my husband "Micah" but instead "Mike," "Michael," "Mack," or our personal but infrequently used favorite, "Malcolm"). She often uses rather prejudiced language about her African-American neighbors and friends, calling them "her blacks" and saying things like "She sure is nice, if she is black." She has that unmistakable dialect, in rhythm and word choice and philosophy, of her homeland—Comanche, Texas.

She refers to unhealthy 50- or 60-year-olds as "old" (she just turned 91). When you ask her what she's been doing, she says "First one thing and another." She can articulate a treatise on how one should stop loads of laundry before the third rinse cycle to save the water. She often answers the phone with a mouthful of toothpaste because she can't bear to not answer the phone when it rings. She worries about everything all of the time, but she especially likes to discuss her worry about the phone company jilting her by putting her on a party line rather than a private line like she pays for. She also likes to iterate her concern about neighborhood kids stealing her mail or breaking into her garage.

Last night, our conversation eventually circled around to the subject of naming our baby—her first great-grandchild, whether she likes it or not. Here's the rough transcript:

Grandma: I think I'll have some that stew I made yesterday for dinner. Warm up some cornbread later. I'm not hungry now, though—haven't been hungry since yesterday. So, you thought up names for that baby? [It takes me a while to answer this question because she has so quickly shifted topics and because I'm waiting to make sure this she is legitimately asking a question.]

Me: We're coming up with lists. It's hard to decide. [This is the only time throughout the 49-minute conversation that I will say two sentences in a row.]

Grandma: If I had it to do over again, I wouldn't name your daddy.

Me: I don't think they let you leave without a name. [Of course, I don't know if this is true, but how else do you respond to such a comment?]

Grandma: Some of those names have been around a long time, you know. Names are old.

Me: Yeah. [I don't really know what she's talking about. This is just a filler.]

Grandma: Some names coming back now, they've been around. Like mine. [Her name is Esther.] At least I know who I's named after. My mother named me after my Aunt Ethel. [Again, her name is Esther. My goodness.] You hear that noise?

Me: What? No.

She asked me constantly throughout our conversation if I had heard "that noise," which I rarely did. She claimed her air conditioner was acting up, would probably break soon, just like her plumbing—which, notably, did not break but was quickly fixed by a kind repairman and the subsequent MacGyver-work of a neighbor. She claimed she needed to call the phone company because she pays for a private line, not a party line. She claimed that I was washing pots and pans. The only part that seemed true or relevant was that her air conditioner might have come on.

We never returned to the topic of names.

21 September 2006

Man Powers


My lovely husband gave me a Lampe Berger for my birthday. Instead of wrapping it, he took it out of the box and placed it in the living room, like hide-and-go-seek. I found it disappointingly (for him) fast amid the three stylized figurines of dancing Japanese women on the mantle. Because the lamp too is made of a matte black ceramic, it goes with the women, but it makes them look like witches about a cauldron, so I'll eventually have to move it.

The instructions say you fill the lamp halfway with oil, but how do you know when it is, in fact, half full? Micah suggested we use a toothpick as a sort of measuring stick. Reasonable. And here begins our story. . . .

He retrieves the toothpicks, which are stored just behind a couple of spices in the cabinet. (This morning, I found the toothpick box on the rolling island across the kitchen from that cabinet, and the spices stood stoically on the counter just beneath the cabinet where they belong. Of course.)

I watch the man at work: he inserts a toothpick into the Lampe Berger and realizes it is not long enough for our purposes but not before he drops it into the lamp itself. Then he upturns the lamp and shakes it, but of course the toothpick will only hit the hole horizontally and will never come out using this method. Reminds me of how, when I was little, we would get foreign objects stuck in our violins: the only way to get such stuff out is through the F-holes, but earth physics don't help you do that.

When I mock the futility of his efforts, Micah puts the Lampe Berger back on the coffeetable and goes back to the kitchen. He returns with more toothpicks and blue packing tape, which he proceeds to combine into two chopstick-like implements composed of two toothpicks each, taped around the middle. And he weilds those two double-long sticks inside the lamp, trying to grab the lost toothpick.

While I am overcome on the couch, watching this spectacle, suggesting he should just leave the thing in there, Micah claims this is part of his Man Powers. That he cannot simply ignore the errant toothpick. That his blue-tape craftiness is a special element of his manhood. That he must do this, even if it makes me laugh and doesn't work.

Then, when it becomes obvious that even if he could pick up the toothpick this way, he could not actually extract it with these tools, he looks up at me brightly: "I need some gum."

Now, I don't care whose daughter I am. It doesn't matter that I have a nurtured repulsion toward throwing gum out of car windows. It doesn't matter that one of the first things I remember learning from my dad is that lighter fluid, though a dangerous explosive, is a fantastic tool at getting gum off of shoes.

Of course, I refuse to let him put chewing gum inside of my brand new Lampe Berger, instead suggesting again that we just leave it there. After much unscientific speculation as to whether or not that is safe, we do indeed leave it, Micah puts oil in the lamp, and a few minutes later our house smells like New Orleans. Really, like fruity cinnamon; the flavor name is "New Orleans," which suggests something more like drunkenness and bacteria to me, but whatever.

Moral of the story: I guess it's safe to leave toothpicks in aromatic oil lamps. Oh, and man powers are more funny than effective.

11 September 2006

Slugs in Love

One morning last week, Micah claimed he was leaving for work but immediately returned, begging me to come outside. Since as I was still in my pajamas, eating yogurt and cereal in front of "The Cosby Show," I was less than in inclined, but he insisted, saying I had to see this.

And that, to the left, is what I sawhanging from our city-provided trash can. Well, our slugs were more beautifully entwined, more tightly and therefore in a more aesthetically pleasing geometry.

This morning, I finally learned about it: indeed, as we had guessed, we had the rare privilege of spotting leopard slugs who had chosen our trash can for their odd aerial mating ritual. Even as we stood watching them, we could see the blue transluscent business moving.

If you want a readable scientific explanation for what's happening, see this page and prepare to be glad, with me, that we didn't see apophallation. If you want a more picture-book approach, check out this page, from which the photo above came. Too bad the rechargeable batteries in our camera needed recharging; otherwise, I'd be able to post my own photo here.

09 September 2006

One More

Now it's Poetry Southeast making the fourth accepted poem since the bean took up residence in my belly. Let's hope that the poems currently out there return accepted too . . . just to gather nine acceptances in nine months of bean gestation.

Specifics: the online magazine's editor (a fellow UF MFA who was only a year ahead of me in the program) has accepted "Attendant Alterations," a poem about buying and then altering my bridesmaid's dress for April Palmer's wedding. I've always liked that one.

In other news, nesting continues: today it focused on my desk and all the various notes and books that have collected around it. So, there's more paper being thrown away than I care to count, much to the planet's chagrin. I think the intensity of the nesting may be directly disproportionate to the weirdness of my dreams: one night I'm able to float in mid-air by doing a water-wading motion, and the next day I'm eager to get out of the house and watch a movie, but the next night I sleep soundly for an amazing 10 hours with no dreams and then fill the next day with all kinds of cleaning.

22 August 2006

The good news about poetry and octopi

The mail continues to bring nice letters. Today, Christianity and Literature sent word that they have accepted "Down the Sea's Throat, Singing." Wow. That's the third poem accepted this year. The third poem accepted ever. The third poem accepted since I became with child. I think there's a connection here.

In other news, I have today learned about the mating practices of the giant octopus. Why? you ask. Long story. The point is, it's fascinating. The upshot: relatively small male octopus approaches relatively large female octopus, uses his fake arm (his reproductive organ is a third right leg) to insert a 1-meter-long rope of sperm into the female who later hangs strings of up to 100,000 eggs in underwater caves, then fasts as she tends them obsessively, clearing the strings of any possible sea debris for about seven months, at which point she dies (the father has died a few months after mating) and maybe 100 of the young survive.

I'm glad human reproduction doesn't require such sacrifice. Then again, maybe it does. Nine months tending the womb, not quite so obsessively, and most males and females involved in the process do survive the experience, but it's a daily death to serve the little bugger rightly. Maybe if I were mothering 100,000 simultaneously, even if only .01% survived, it would be a different story.

But maybe that survival rate has something to do with it. The mother octopus has given herself for a worldful of children, and she is designed to sacrifice herself entirely even if only for a very few who make it into real octopus-ness. The odds of becoming real humans aren't so much greater for our species. And we need true sacrifice from another perfect love in order to become so.

17 August 2006

Unity in Diversity

The New York Times posted an exciting article this morning: "Overcoming Adoption's Racial Barriers" invites us to consider the many orphaned children in America and the pressing need for American families to truly embrace diversity. Adopting children of a different skin color does not come without difficulties (and the article addresses some of those), but embracing those difficulties and, more importantly, those children seems a special opportunity for the Church to model in its member families what the real Family of God actually looks like.

Judy Stigger, a counselor at The Cradle, a Chicago agency that specializes in interracial adoptions, unintentionally points exactly to the kind of unity-in-diversity that I have in mind: "It's about getting people to realize that they should not be thinking about being, as one 8-year-old put it to me, 'a white family with a weird child,' but a multiracial family." Just like the real family God has been making for centuries.

09 August 2006

The Ballad of Ricky Bobby: The Great American Satire

Let's all see Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and laugh at ourselves. Well, more likely, laugh at everyone else; you've got to wonder watching this thing if everyone else in the theatre is laughing because they think the film is funny or because they know they're being mocked. Probably not the former, which made me and Micah laugh harder.

This film, according to Roger Ebert, "inhabits the biopic formula all the way through--even down to the slightly draggy stretch in the second act," and all to the glorious satirical end of mocking Americans for everything American. The theological discussion amid grace at the Bobby dinner table, which offers a panoply of fast food, is probably not far from the actual notions most church-goers seriously entertain. The final victory shot that superimposes Ricky Bobby against an American flag is ridiculously patriotic, suggestion that winning a NASCAR race is one of the most American things one could do.

Product placement, homophobia, beer drinking, lover-trading between dumpy men and hot women, fast cars, pot smoking, perfunctory religion, hellaciously independent children: it's an Amerian dream.

04 August 2006

What, What

And now I love The New Pantagruel more than before. This morning's email brought news of another accepted poem: that online mag "Ruth" will publish sometime in the near future. Woot!

03 August 2006

Fun with Style and Idols

I am having a love-hate relationship with Michael Harvey's brief style book called The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing (Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett, 2003). Why I love it: weighs in at barely over 100 pages, retails for $6.95, and mostly does not commit the errors it identifies. Why I don't love it: claims that two excerpts in the Introduction are "nearly majestic writing," and I beg to differ. But every page since that problem has gotten better. Way better.

For example, Chapter 2 has observed that we often fail to write clearly because we do not want to admit who actually committed certain actions; thus, we choose passive voice or use grammatical expletives to avoid the question of agency. Of course, sometimes we do this because some teacher told us not to use first-person pronouns, so we discover the all-purpose "one" and everything goes downhill from there. Anyway, here's the excerpt (from page 20) that made me laugh out loud:

Some people instinctively turn to the pompous style when things get rough. Consider an example from the Bible, when Moses returns to the Israelites after he has spent forty days on the mountaintop. He's bringing the Ten Commandments, but while he's been gone all hell has broken loose. The Israelites, feeling abandoned in the wilderness, have begun worshipping a new idol that Moses' brother, Aaron, made: a golden calf. Furious, smashes the Ten Commandments and turns to Aaron, who was supposed to have been in charge during his absence. What happened? he wants to know. Where did the golden calf come from? Aaron doesn't flat-out lie, but he tries to weasel out of his role in the debacle:

"And I said unto them, Whosoever hath any gold, let them break it off. So they gave it me: then I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf" (Ex 32.24).

"There came out this calf." I've always wondered what look Moses gave Aaron when he heard this. (The Bible doesn't say.)"

It's worth noting that the original incorrectly cites the passage as Exodus 32.23, but the observation remains grammatically perfect. The children of Israel are running around naked, Moses is furious, so Aaron blameshifts. "I just threw the gold in the fire and out came this calf." Our classic excuse when we're caught red-handed.

31 July 2006

Peace in the Middle East

A great sermon just arrived in my inbox: John Piper preached "Israel, Palestine, and the Middle East" over two years ago but it lands rather aptly on my ears today. Here, Piper establishes a biblical argument for how to view the nation Israel--the political entity at war today as well as the spiritual entity whose story God has been telling for centuries--and he carefully warns against oversimplifying the issues involved into soundbytes. I hope you enjoy the read as much as I did.

Dive-In Movie

Thanks to the witty stylings of Rafe Semmes, a group of church buddies gathered poolside last night to watch Jaws outdoors. Someone jumped into the pool at most key moments; I just swatted away mosquitoes from my upper-deck chair. I had never seen the film before, so the whole thing scared me quite sufficiently--much to the delight of Myles, who sat nearby and giggled every time Lindsay and I screamed and jumped. Terrific.

A comparison with Moby-Dick would seem grandly appropriate: the sea, the big fish, the boat captain. But how wonderfully the town's mayor wears his seersucker jacket replete with embroidered anchors to the beach, insisting that shark attacks do more damage to the local economy than to real human beings; he has one costume change, into another seersucker jacket, but this time with multi-colored stripes as he urges tentative July 4th-ers to actually get in the water.

Our hero, the sheriff, cows to the mayor's political pressure at first but soon starts running the show, if only from behind. The sea inspires him to right fear, but he will not back down from real terror. He will have this place repaired if it means the destruction of his own fears, and even the potential destruction of his self.

Meanwhile, the shark almost seems more frightening when we do not see him than when we do. Spielberg masterfully alludes to the shark--using underwater shots from its perspective and showing various floating items it drags about--more often than images of the shark itself. I'm surprised I didn't have nightmares. Well, about big fish anyway. Brilliantly crafted.

28 July 2006

Culture at the Counter

Yesterday I had lunch at Counter Culture, home of the Humphrey Yogart. My mom took us there regularly for snacks on Tuesdays when I had group violin lessons; I had a medium plain with strawberries and chocolate chips so frequently that years later when the owner happened upon my mom somewhere else, he remembered.

But yesterday was just a turkey sandwich and small plain yogurt, with hormonal teenagers on the side. I'm talking with my lunchmate over the last crumbs of our lunches and the couple arrives. He is tall and blonde, wearing a Captain Shreve High School t-shirt. She is a petite and dark-skinned summer beauty. They look like Kelso and Jackie. They are clearly cool.

They barely let a sliver of light between them as they walk in the door. He walks to the far side of the counter, she keeps sidling up next to him and gives him several reaching pecks while they await their yogurt order. Then they select a table and sit on the same side together.

She licks a spoonful of the yogurt, feeds the boy a spoonful, kisses him. They repeat this pattern until I leave. The whole time, he looks out in the distance, paying no attention to the girl but not overtly annoyed by the public affection either. She seems to think this is the height of romantic activities; he looks like he only enjoys the display as a means to some other end.

27 July 2006

More on Lebanon, This Time From Britain

Sir Stephen Wall has written a scathing request for action from No. 10 Downing Street in New Statesman. In Monday's "Unhitch us from the Bush chariot" he calls heads of states and their citizens to simply watch TV and get riled up enough to act.

Indeed, why have the world's leaders failed to call Israel to task? Their claim to fight against a terrorist network that rudely captured two of their soldiers does not justify their unmerciful and relentless bombing of their neighbors, little regard for the innocent civilians who might be nearby Hezbollah centers. Didn't most of us learn this lesson on the playground? Just because your sister slugged you doesn't mean you have a right to pummel her in return.

And why does the American media favor Israel in its coverage of the goings on? Yesterday's New York Times plastered large yesterday's high of 14 total Israelis dead (all military), and today the lead photos cycling through the main page are of Israel bringing their wounded soldiers to hospitals. What of the 400+ killed in Lebanon, mostly civilians? That doesn't count all the bodies still trapped under rubble in towns yet bombarded. Those countless dead just get buried in articles that are really about Israel's mourning.

Sir Stephen Wall says it well when he notes how "sympathy for Israel and her suffering, the detestation of terrorist organisations such as Hezbollah and the desire to see a durable cessation of hostilities do not justify silence, or adequately explain the reasons for it." Peace is complex, but that doesn't mean we cannot cry out for it. Who will be "the restorer of streets to dwell in"?

25 July 2006

A Postscript to The Abolition of Man?

A new piece in Christianity Today has captured my affections this morning: "The Silent Human Conscience" comes from a Christian in Lebanon who wonders why the world's political leaders are not even symbolically decrying the many recent civilian deaths in his country. In the end, he returns to the question of how one responds to a young child who hears the destruction over and over:

What should I say to my daughter? "My daughter let us keep praying not just for peace, but for the awakening of the human conscience." Would you please join me in such a prayer?


Let's.

10 July 2006

The Unfortunately Fulfilled Prophecy, Part III: The Abolition of Man and Louisiana College

Well, the time has come for a good critical hack at Louisiana College, that fine Southern Baptist institution in Pineville, Louisiana. Where the smell is always the paper mill. Where a fun evening is driving the Alexandria traffic circle until you get sick. Where the administration has lost all its marbles.

I want to define here just a little bit of what I understand as the intellectual suicide happening at LC. I will not summarize the convoluted and complex history here, for you can find lots of reliable information about it (even proudly on their own website) online. Know for now that it is a veritable mockery of academic freedom and religious education, Truth and the liberal arts, faculty responsibilities and administrative power. And know that I am worried about it. Here's why.

In The Abolition of Man, CS Lewis critiques the authors of a certain composition book; with admirable academic restraint, he calls the text only The Green Book and the authors only Gaius and Titius. I have discussed that book's main philosophical problem earlier but want to focus on a particular aspect of Lewis' argument here as it may apply to recent policies at LC.

Early in his first lecture, Lewis claims that good literature is of utmost importance when teaching good writing and general discernment, but Gaius and Titus just show you the bad and complain about it, never showing the good. In fact, if they researched more carefully, they would find excellent literature (ie well-styled prose) committing the same "sins" (ie pathetic fallacies) their supposed bad prose does. They're missing the point they should make, instead hugely leaping to claim that all value judgments are unreasonable and contemptible (6-9).

Gaius and Titius may have done all this rather accidentally (Lewis gives them the benefit of the doubt and supposes they have), but they have nevertheless slipped into the teaching of philosophy when they aimed only to teach composition and literature. Lewis supposes they have done so for the following reasons: 1) literary criticism is hard, so they have done an easier thing unwittingly, 2) they have misdiagnosed the real educational need, which is not actually to temper the overemotional but to awaken the lazy and apathetic, and 3) they are in a peculiar educational moment that is moving outside the Tao (12-21).

No matter why they have done it, though, you cannot actually do what Gaius and Titius think they want to do: that is, you cannot say "quit making value judgments," then pump information into a student and expect him to respond well. That is brainwashing, not education. We need trained emotions (not vacuumed ones) in order to make good intellectual decisions, for we cannot convince others by reasonable arguments alone to be "good" (23-24). If we gain much knowledge and do not have trained emotions, we all turn into Weston and Devine in Out of the Silent Planet: "It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out" (Abolition 25).

And so we see that Gaius and Titius seem to have taken over Louisiana College.

Let us consider an example of LC's own prose: "The Integration of Faith and Learning at Louisiana College" as presented by Dr. Charles Quarles, LC's Vice President for Integration of Faith and Learning, at a chapel service last November. In this archly conservative attempt at pedagogical philosophizing, Dr. Quarles suggests that one cannot teach any subject without making an argument for its absolute truth or falsehood. He also suggests that every classroom experience is an exercise in belief. But he has gone too far, for comparing instruction about simple addition to instruction about world religions is simply ridiculous.

Now, I would agree (indeed in the Van Tillian tradition) that until by grace we resolve our right and humble position within the redemptive narrative that God is telling as our global history—particularly, until our fallen brains are redeemed into right logic—we do not think appropriately. Everything we do and think is tainted by sin. The unredeemed might as well think 2 + 2 = 5 because our thought processes are naturally and essentially that much off base.

And I, perhaps with Dr. Quarles, am concerned about the accidental and overt deconstruction that remains popular in many contemporary college classrooms—that is, the diligent attempt by some professors to make their students think that any belief system, especially any Christian one, they brought to campus is na├»ve and unintellectual.

However, I also remain committed to the liberal arts, believing that a liberal arts education is actually the best sort for a Christian, for in such broad interdisciplinary learning, we see and love the interconnectedness of God's world, the need for creative problem-solving in every corner of every heart and every jungle, and our obligation to be good temporary citizens of this globe.

Thus, I bristle at Dr. Quarles' claims. Fine if he wants to ensure a pristine Christian education for those precious LC students, but I would argue that educated and compassionate global Christians need to know about world religions as much as they need to know math. But presenting facts about other religions does not have to be followed by an apology for why they are or are not correct. No one ever apologizes for addition: most folks just take it as a fact that 2 + 2 indeed equals 4, just as we ought to take it as fact that there are Buddhists in the world and they believe and practice certain things. The value question, about whether or not one ought to be a Buddhist, is a quite separate question indeed. After all, just because I believe 2 + 2 = 4 does not make me a mathematician, and no one ever tried to make me one; so too, believing that Buddhists exist and do certain things does not make me a Buddhist or even the target of Buddhist conversion experts.

Part of the problem with Dr. Quarles' argument is that he does not recognize that the issues between math and religion are different; therefore, you cannot compare pedagogy about them in a value argument. If the Gospel is so powerfully correct (as Romans 1.16 claims), then we need not be so defensive about all this as Dr. Quarles would like.

Now, Dr. Quarles goes on to make other disturbing arguments—one about how Christian colleges should only teach texts that explicitly promote the supremacy of Christ (an affront to the critical study of religion but also an exclusion of any other discipline), another about the sufficiency of Jesus to teach us all truth (which may be correct regarding spiritual things but not, say, regarding poetic meter). But throughout, he compares apples and oranges, and all to the philosophical detriment of education at-large because he fails to understand that one can know something and not agree with it. In fact, I would argue that any educated person needs such knowledge. I have read plenty of books espousing positions I despise—from the unsubstantiated articulation of poor theology to the fictional celebration of licentiousness—and find such reading overall profitable. But the argument Dr. Quarles makes would drop most books from my bookshelves: no more Hemingway (some of his characters curse and run with bulls), no more Shakespeare (murder, drunkenness, wife-swapping, lying), and probably every contemporary novelist and poet would be out, plus who knows how many philosophers.

Furthermore, if you follow this argument, you must decide that education as a whole is really a bad idea, because the only thing we need is heart-felt evangelism. Thus, his philosophy is revealed as that same value-debunking and literature-despising mess we heard from Gaius and Titius. Remember that those authors of The Green Book erred because they accidentally taught philosophy instead of just composition, and they did so because what they should have done was really harder than what they did, which followed from misdiagnosing the real need in the first place. So too, Dr. Quarles has done the easier thing (label an enemy and tell people what to think about it) rather than the hard thing (compose a Christian educational philosophy that actually helps people learn and invite scholarly dialogue about it). And he has misdiagnosed the real need, which is to educate individuals to think in God-honoring ways, not withholding books out of fear that students might believe them but actually teaching books out of confidence that students might think and act better because of them.

Surely Dr. Quarles fears that he must temper overemotional students who might just blindly follow Scott Peck down some random road, when what he really needs to do is awaken the lazy and apathetic with invigorating truth and stimulating dialogue and active service. Just telling students "Buddhism is not true" and making sure they can regurgitate that on an exam will not make them good college graduates. And it will not make them lovers of Jesus either.

So, I think Dr. Quarles needs to read The Abolition of Man. But maybe he does not want to. In it, Lewis does not make a clear evangelical proposition but argues simply for an objective value-driven worldview, so that's one strike against it. Lewis obviously interprets the Tao through a Christian lens, but the book does not articulate the precise connection. And watch out for those other books where Lewis suggests that some planets do not need Jesus (because their creatures are not bent like we humans are), that heaven is a hard place, and that real friendship is about smoking cigars and drinking warm beer while talking mythology. Oh, and heaven forbid that LC should read that later Lewis book A Grief Observed, for there he acknowledges (from what I would argue is a position of faith, tough faith) that suffering is a terrible reality for which most of us are honestly tempted to blame God. Take away his wife and you get hard language from Jack. But don't tell LC. That alone would probably get the crusty Anglican banned from their bookstore.

07 July 2006

The Unfortunately Fulfilled Prophecy, Part II: The Abolition of Man and Contemporary Global Politics

After Lewis reveals the pedagogical scheme that aims to remove the Tao from our common conversation, he wants to investigate how such philosophy actually becomes popular. This is the subject of his second lecture, "The Way." He understands that we humans want to operate by Reason only, but he believes that will not work because neither social utility nor instinct will make us do anything. That is, we must also believe we ought to do whatever it is. His conclusion: though we keep kicking against the Tao, it clearly remains what we need.

So, Lewis makes a keen observation. We are not likely to submit to the real Tao, but we will probably create a bad substitute instead—because, after all, stuff must get done. Will this work, though? That is, do we really need the Tao, or can some individualized philosophical system do the job? Can a subjective set of values replace the Tao? Lewis decides to test it by setting this experiment: would anyone ever die for a good cause in such a world? He hypothesizes that two options exist: a man outside the Tao would only die for a good cause if he were convinced by social utility or persuaded by instinct.

Now, the social-utility argument fails, for even if someone agrees a death is best for society, no one will ever volunteer himself over someone else for that death. Remember the Monty Python sketch in Ypres, 1914, when a group of five soldiers discovers they only have rations for four. According to the social utility argument suggested here, the armless clergyman played by John Cleese is obviously the best volunteer. He cannot help in the fighting and must be cared for by the others. However, the others will not allow him to elect himself. So, they draw straws, and the ranking officer continually draws the shortest straw but refuses to relent. Not even random selection will convince a man to sacrifice himself for his fellows.

So too, the instinct argument fails, for no one ever determines he ought to be sacrificed rather than someone else for the preservation of the species. Instead, the smart one will determine that he ought to control who gets sacrificed and who does not, just as Weston in Out of the Silent Planet determines he is the only human capable of making such decisions for the rest of the species. Meanwhile, Ransom remains compelled by obligation to something outside of himself—it makes him go offer to help the old woman, and it makes him keep walking to that awful house, and it makes him wonder if he ought to evangelize the Malacandrians. He is a man attached to the Tao.

Lewis always returns to the same problem: neither a strong sense of social utility nor a compelling instinct (especially in the face of another oppositely competing instinct) will always drive an individual to act (29-38). So, he lands again on the Tao, the only is that admits any reasonable ought (40). "It is the sole source of all value judgements. If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained" (43). And it cannot be recreated or renewed (44).

The upshot is this: in science or in politics or in the classroom, when we abandon the Tao, we steal men's chests and eventually abolish man altogether. We may live on, but we will cease to be real human beings, for we will have long before abandoned true humanity. My adept summer students suggested some contemporary practical applications: for instance, the mindset of suicide bombers, America's aggressive plan to democratize the entire globe, and (as a counter to that) the more just manner in which America conducts war. In one student's words, we could have ended this war a long time ago if we were willing to kill innocent children and other civilians, like "they" are, but we at least claim to adhere to the Tao and cannot permit such unjust warfare.

Interesting applications. Maybe we need to ship copies of The Abolition of Man to all heads of state across the globe, making sure a bookmark at the end of the second lecture points them to a footnote reading "Think global politics here."

06 July 2006

The Bean at 17 weeks

Kind of looks like Rodin's "The Thinker," except rolled sideways, eh?

The Unfortunately Fulfilled Prophecy, Part I: The Abolition of Man and Contemporary Higher Education

CS Lewis does not write The Abolition of Man as a crusty old man wishing for bygone days, nor as a hardened academic who cannot allow for shifts in pedagogical theory. Furthermore, he does not address these thoughts (originally lectures, which my students claim they would rather have heard than read) to those especially interested in literary criticism or orthodox theology. Rather, this book contains a general ontological critique: how we are in society and how we read society. Therefore, his claims should not merely concern those of us who claim to have walked uphill both ways through the snow to school, or those of us who teach; they ought to concern us all.

After all, Lewis proves himself a prophet of the postmodern age in his first lecture, entitled "Men Without Chests." When he describes men without the
Tao, the practical principles known to all by Reason (32), it is as though he somehow read today's newspapers 60 years early. Tao-less men have no moral innards, but they like to act moral; their hearts stripped out, society nevertheless expects them to pump blood.

Lewis
claims that we get such men when we deconstruct value judgments, suggesting (however subtly) that statements like "I think that landscape is lovely" are quite illegitimate, or at least useless, for what we really need to know is fact. Thus, we often teach "truths" while refusing to suggest how students might respond or think critically about or value such truths. In the world of composition pedagogy, this means we ask students to write "argumentative essays" but exclude any topics addressing religious or political values. Now, to be sure, most first-year college students are (in my experience) rather incapable of making good religious or political arguments, which is why I too avoid assignments about such topics. The incapability presents itself in two ways: they either resort to radical positions too abstract and complex to even start tackling in fewer than 100 pages (which means the students depend on generalizations and incomplete presentation of facts), or they resort to blind and blanket statements of belief that have no appeal except for "I think so, therefore it is." The postmodern mantra.

So is the contemporary educational problem how I choose essay assignments for first-year rhetoric? or is the real problem the educational milieu that bred those brains in the first place? Indeed, I believe Lewis has foreseen a philosophical problem that has pervaded our postmodern society: first-year college students are men (and women) without chests. And they don't even know it.

I
spend a lot of time in English 101 every fall convincing my students that using first-person pronouns in argumentative essays is okay, because in the ninth grade, Mrs. Henderson told them they never could write "I" anything, especially "I think" any position. Of course, this led to a whole lot of onerous "one believes this" kinds of phrases because Mrs. Henderson never taught them (perhaps Mrs. Henderson did not know this) that the reason ninth-graders should shy from claiming "I think something" is because human beings brought up on "Sesame Street" tend to assume that when they think something, they do not need evidence to back up their beliefs. That is, when they claim "I think that landscape is lovely," they should have some reasons for such a value statement: for example, "The trees are dropping all manner of bright-colored leaves, and I (along with a whole host of other people throughout history) think that the display of autumnal transformation has some objective aesthetic value, not to mention the fact that it just makes me feel more alive to see it."

H
owever, Mrs. Henderson does not really care whether or not her students have reasonable evidence for their beliefs. She does not even have some nuanced concern that the inability to articulate such evidence invalidates the value statement. Rather, when Mrs. Henderson tells her ninth-grade students they cannot use "I" in an essay, she is operating on the belief that the value statement itself does not matter. Now, just because some ninth-grade student "thinks" something does not make the statement automatically relevant to the real world, but when we act like it is not ever relevant and never will be, we create a world of grade-grubbing non-thinkers who nevertheless make policies that run our world.

That
is, we craft a society of voters and consumers who do not ask themselves "What belief has led him or her to assume that is true" when a politician or CEO says "This shall be." Rather, they just agree or disagree without any semblance of critical thinking about how someone might make such a claim. Here is the postmodern dilemma: high schoolers are not allowed to write value statements, so they never learn how to make good arguments about belief or policy that actually have evidence to back up those statements. Thus, they (and all the rest of us) talk like the individual has all power and authority from coffee shops to Congress.

M
ore on The Abolition of Man soon. . . .

26 June 2006

Eros et Orca

Thanks (I think) to Kathryn for alerting me to Amy Sutherland's "What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage," published in yesterday's edition of The New York Times. Now, maybe I'm particularly sensitive because I have just just finished reading The Four Loves for the third time (not including the time Lindsay Terrel and I listened to CS Lewis' recording of the book en route home from Tulsa). After all, when I sit on my couch and muse on the nexus of affection, friendship, and eros in my marriage, I just smile.

Should I should chill out? Maybe Sutherland is writing with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Doubt it. Some knotty excerpts:

I also began to analyze my husband the way a trainer considers an exotic animal. Yes, this will do wonders for the marriage union, as though your mate is just some appendage to domestic life that needs to be let out at lunchtime. Even those wives who regard their husbands as "another child" do not yet regard their husbands as pets.

Later, Sutherland delights in applying the "least reinforcing syndrome" or LRS: animal trainers do this when they refuse to respond to animals that do something wrong. In human communication, we call that "ignoring the man you love" and "manipulating through silent treatment." IML. MST. Sutherland has a vocabulary problem here: LRS might work with husbands as well as it works with dolphins, but husbands are not dolphins and deserve better respect.

Problem is, Sutherland testifies that it works. Ah, the postmodern gospel of pragmatism: if it works, it must be right. And then she concludes:

After two years of exotic animal training, my marriage is far smoother, my husband much easier to love. I used to take his faults personally; his dirty clothes on the floor were an affront, a symbol of how he didn't care enough about me. But thinking of my husband as an exotic species gave me the distance I needed to consider our differences more objectively.

I adopted the trainers' motto: "It's never the animal's fault." When my training attempts failed, I didn't blame Scott. Rather, I brainstormed new strategies, thought up more incompatible behaviors and used smaller approximations. I dissected my own behavior, considered how my actions might inadvertently fuel his. I also accepted that some behaviors were too entrenched, too instinctive to train away. You can't stop a badger from digging, and you can't stop my husband from losing his wallet and keys.

Instead of "thinking of my husband as an exotic species," what about "thinking of my husband of another human being while thinking of myself as a human with faults too. A little humility gave me the distance I needed to consider our differences more objectively."

Instead of "the trainers' motto" how about this motto for wives: "I share some at least blame here because I am not yet perfect."

And instead of taking the "this didn't work" data as motivation to change the procedure, how about taking it as motivation to change the hypothesis to something more like "Maybe treating my husband like an exotic animal wasn't where I should have started. Maybe the problem is more in my own heart and my inability to love him sacrificially, practicing longsuffering when faced with his idiosyncrasies."

This is the scientific method gone bad wrong. Evidence suggests that my husband is perhaps better than average: he contributes to the household economy (perhaps more than I do) and is characterized by real meekness. Still, wherever he can, he leaves piles of unexplained papers and clothes and old things that clearly should be thrown away while he fritters away down time playing Gamecube football. Does this mean I should try to train him like a killer whale? Heaven forbid. Let us live together in love, not manipulation.

13 June 2006

Morning Reading

The recent issue of Christianity Today features two articles that particularly caught my attention, one for good reasons and the other for bad ones.

Tim Keller wrote the good-reason article, called "A New Kind of Urban Christian" and there exhorts readers to just live real Christianity in the real world. Not exactly the pious mentality we often see where folks remove themselves from the big, bad world in order to become more holy all by their lonesomes; no, we actually become truly holy when we become truly practical about faith and truly loving of other people, and Keller suggests that we might best learn that in cities. Brilliant notion.

The bad-reason article is a magazine editorial entitled "Sex Isn't a Spectator Sport." Proceed with caution, preparing to mourn over how bent the world has become, setting up prostitution huts like portable potties so that soccer fanatics can get some without going far.

05 June 2006

Fun with Jacks

If ever there is a summer class more fun to be teaching than The Fiction and Nonfiction of C. S. Lewis, I would like to know. We have only had one day of it, but I am already convinced that every morning should start by telling stories about Jack Lewis (everyone should get the infinitely readable biography by A. N. Wilson right now) and then hearing letters from Screwtape aloud to elicit mild (okay, this part could be better) conversation about reason vs emotion. Thanks to Myles Roberts for playing along with me and the undergrads.

17 April 2006

Easter Triduum

We'll need a few brief words on the Stranges' long weekend here:

  1. On Maundy Thursday, we decided to buy a CR-V instead a Rav4 because Toyota and I don't have the same supply-and-demand curve.
  2. On Good Friday, we actually bought said CR-V. Randy's early-morning offer almost let us cave into Toyota's demands--thanks, again--but we were resolved. After 6 weeks (seriously) of begging various Toyota dealers to have mercy on us and struggling (not very successfully) against frustration, we easily negotiated a below-invoice sale on a moonroof, "Sahara Sand Metallic" car attached. Also on Good Friday, we had fun hibachi with my entire family and the true Bachmans spoke a little gracious Japanese to our chef. Happy birthday, Aunt Vicki, with belated greetings again to Mom and Emily.
  3. On Resurrection Sunday, we decided we'd really gotten a grand vehicle. We showed the CR-V to the last member of my family who hadn't yet seen it: Dr. Phifer (Grandma Esther had already spun it to Wal-Mart the day before). After a veritable Easter feast (scrumptious roasted chickens, primo citrus cream pasta, crunchy green-bean salad, bread, and chocolate cake) with the family, Micah and I hardly knew what to do with ourselves. Go look at cars, we wondered? Nah. Just sat around and read instead.
And what does one read on Easter? As if you had to ask. The only thing that's right for the season:

The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood--
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

Why, TS Eliot's "East Coker" from Four Quartets, of course (that being its fourth movement's final stanza). After all, the Easter season is not for car buying but for worship. This Lord's Day reminds us we will one day rise from the dead with Jesus and everyone else who belongs to Him. "That will be fun," as Myles Roberts said (litotes, ha, litotes). Yes, I think it will.

31 March 2006

Oxford American, how I love thee.

Most of my blog-readers already know this (I reckon 2 out of 3 counts as "most"), but let it be known that though I love Oxford American for lots of reasons, I now have another: this glossy mag with admirable Southern quirkiness has taken one of my poems!

The poetry editor returned two of three recently submitted poems in Monday's mail, indicating that he had sent the third about to all the staff, so I was hopeful but unsure. But yesterday, the managing editor emailed me to say that they'll publish "Three Days After Easter, 1994" in their upcoming "Best of the South" issue (on newsstands mid-May), and they're even paying me. Little do they know they don't need to: I'm so thrilled I'm about to come out of my skin.

So yesterday was a red-letter day for my inbox. And my year. And my life.

08 March 2006

Hurricane Relief: post mortem

On Sunday evening, back from the trip, I was glad to bathe in my own tub, crawl into my own comfy bed, and sleep next to my husband, but I felt a great emptiness waking the next morning to the familiar and heading to a sterile office rather than going to gut houses. I woke with my heart in the 9th Ward, and it has followed me around ever since.

This is partly circumstantial—I was there for three days and feel changed because of the brief trip, so it's natural to still be thinking about it. But there's also an emotional reality that steps beyond the circumstantial—that is, I didn't just wake Monday thinking about the Ninth Ward because I was there but because it's right and necessary to do so. When I woke at 4:30 Monday morning with a Katrina cough seeking ibuprofen, it felt weird walking in the dark through my familiar home, confident that everything was where it was supposed to be. It felt weird to have a confident familiarity. It felt weird to have a home.

But we must press on in action, not despair. One of our number said she never thought of the situation as potentially hopeless until she saw the Ninth Ward itself. Indeed we may never see this thing fixed in our lifetimes or even in this age, but we must hope in the God who will fix it one day, at least for the glorious age to come.

The very beginning of Genesis 1 can teach us something amazing here: when the creation was a dark and formless void that to our eyes would have looked like utter chaos, the spirit of God was yet hovering, doing something that eventually finished wise, right, and good. We may not see the activity, may not understand it at all, but I believe we can be confident in the Lord of the universe to not forsake His creation. One day and for all eternity, He will make it right. When we look at this kind of destruction, it seems all the more amazing that He will do it. And such assurance energizes me to work in the meantime. As long as He tarries, let us partner with Him in the care of His creation.

The whole of Habakkuk speaks to this same paradox: the prophet is frustrated over God's apparent lack of action as oppressors threaten Israel, and he asks some rather indignant questions of God in the face of it. He asks questions like "Isn't this pretty much reversing the promises You made to us? Isn't this diminishing Your glory? Don't you care about this injustice?" and then just sits there awaiting answer. God's gracious responses point Habakkuk to His glory and governance—He rules all things perfectly, though it may honestly not always look like it at the moment. I'm not sure Habakkuk himself really gets it by the end, but he starts moving that way, singing a fantastic song that we might apply to Katrina's destruction well: even if this place never grows back, God is still good and deserves worship because He is the only joy of my heart and the only security for my feet.

So let us proceed with hope, knowing He will finish it one day for His own glory and our good. We will be more glad on that day for our temporal obedience. How gracious He is to join us in His work! In contemplating a higher and higher view of God and in doing such God-honoring work is our hope and joy.

Hurricane Relief: Day 3

We spent Saturday morning touring the New Orleans area since we had finished our Boys and Girls Club work faster than they expected. Jerry Hilbun, Pastor at FUMC Slidell, prepped us: the levee break decimated the Ninth Ward but the west wall of the hurricane (which is the least of the wind, of course—the worst hit Bay St. Louis and beyond) plus the 17' storm surge covered Chalmette. So we went there first—it's a ghost town but for the Home Depot (newly opened) as abandoned cars line the road (some say "Do Not Remove" in spray paint on the windshields) and many buildings are burned black.

Across the bridge, the NASA plant was unscathed—they sandbagged before the hurricane and went back to work the next day.

The Lower Ninth Ward is rather middle class—cars everywhere, so some ask why they didn't leave. Reason: they had no warning. As we drove toward the 17th Street Canal, the Industrial Levee, we could see the damage increasing. Homes more and more flattened, or leaning, or moved further over—on top of a truck, into the next lot. Or, as we crossed the train tracks (an additional barrier for the Upper Ninth Ward) into the Lower Ninth Ward, completely gone. Where are the houses? There is only debris. 1100 people died in the Lower Ninth Ward alone. The first several blocks from the levee are completely flat—just staircases leading to emptiness, piecemeal washers and dryers, empty photo albums, china strewn about.

I walked to the top of one staircase which had across its top the base of a great tree. Looked down the tree and realized it had fallen diagonal across the house, no other traces of which remain.

I walked up the driveway to another house and entered what would have been the front door. Walking through that ghosted monument to a family, I saw a party dress stuck to tree limbs, as though hung awkwardly out to dry. Tiny Tots kids clothes, dry clean only, the tag still read. Brown crepe and black velvet, crinoline skirt. Wrapped around its same makeshift laundry line, a long piece of white aluminum siding, which clapped loudly in the wind, making an awkward waltz with the two-beat flap of the dress: clap-flap-flap, clap-flap-flap. Then the log packer at the levee joined in for a terrible crash at the beginning of every other measure: pow clap-flap-flap, clap-flap-flap, pow clap-flap-flap, clap-flap-flap.

We all felt a bit sick to be there, Ashlie especially: she had been excited that we were coming but now felt like an invader into the property of the dead and forgotten, a tourist in a graveyard.

Click here for all my photos of the Ninth Ward and the rest of the trip.

Hurricane Relief: Day 1


On Ash Wednesday, I drove to the New Orleans area with a group of about 25 Centenary students and staff. Over the next four days, we gutted as much of a house as we could, emptied the Boys and Girls Club of Slidell, toured the Ninth Ward, and drove home wanting to go back. Here are my notes from the work on Day 1:

Finally over Lake Pontchartrain we saw our first inundations of hurricane damage. Though Katrina hit August 29 (now 6 months ago) blue tarps still rest on so many roofs, tent villages rest off the interstate, trailers enjoy stairs and landscaping in the front yards of pier-and-beam homes, smashed windows appear as design elements down skyscraper sides. Water lines remain like mold tattoos on houses street after street.

Hardly any stores open, we drive past boarded-up Rite-Aids while several tell stories of driving through New Orleans not long after the storm to see $6000 signing bonuses on McDonald's marquees. Omnipresent vans and trucks bring help while other cars just bring normal people back to an attempt at normal lives in the city.

We finally arrive at our job in east New Orleans: the pink house has a lovely front porch, red double French doors for the entry and a set of French doors on either side into other rooms. Betsy went through the house to get instruction about what work to do: the walls marked X were to be torn down. Those who had been on the fall trip went immediately to work—no further instruction necessary. The banging was cacophonous and piercing. The rest of us, however, required some guidance: for real, I'm just supposed to hit this wall? for real, I'm supposed to rip all this out? Sure enough, yes was almost always the answer.

How peculiar. I began in the kitchen and immediately began imagining what it would be like to have this done to my kitchen, my living room, my bedroom, my dining room. Nothing in the house looked hers any longer—just wallpaper and paint, no personal belongings (which had all been moved to the back house or to storage). Suddenly her space is full of strangers. Helpful strangers, but the help is demolition.

What would it be to have 20 strangers enter my home and start ripping down mildewed walls? Our wedding china would likely have been shattered, our clothes black with mold, our books warped beyond readability, and on and on. But the owner must have spent enough fright and anxiety and sadness over it already because she simply came alongside and worked with us.

We ripped down the wooden planks behind plaster behind drywall in almost every room, down to the bare frame. Then scooped up the chunks in shovels and created a mound 4' high by 15' long as new hedgery between her house and street. The second floor demolition created a huge disposal problem: how to move that trash to the street? Through the window? but it dispersed too far (if flung down by shovel) or came down in too heavy of chunks (like trash bags).

The best method seemed down the stairs, which created a steady slide of plaster, wood, and general debris. The women sequestered upstairs shoveled their trash to the top of the stairs, someone else pulled it to the mid-floor landing, and a pair of others pushed it down to the ground level where two other people bagged it. Each person had his or her own technique: Eric (strong and a thinker) pulled with the rake and pushed with his feet (riding it down like a snow drift), Helen kicked it backwards as though she were on a treadmill, I pushed and pulled with my feet using my quads and leaned over to fill shovels with my hands. Then we scooped shovelful after shovelful into trash bags and trash bins, all to land on the curb.

02 February 2006

State of the?

So the State of the Union address was Tuesday, and I'm slow posting a response. Given the fact that I haven't posted anything since November 2005, I reckon that will only seem reasonable. Look for more posts soon on less political topics. . . .

This semester, I'm teaching Advanced Rhetoric, Grammar, and Composition to a bunch of students who have so far tolerated beautifully my rants and raves and random observations about the rhetoric we encounter daily. This week there has been a lot more ranting and raving than usual, though. This week alone, we had the verbal and visual rhetoric of both the State of the Union address and, today on campus, regalia day (woot).

Tuesday afternoon in class, I asked my students to watch the speech and plan to consider the rhetorical implication of Bush's annual repetition that the "state of the union is strong" as well as all that standing and sitting business that happens sometimes on both sides of the aisle and sometimes on only one, sometimes happens by special guests surrounding the First Lady and sometimes happens by demonstrators invited to attend and then invited to leave. Then that evening I sat down to watch and hear some more interesting rhetoric.

Bush likes the rhetorical power of connecting the current war in Iraq to WWII, and such a connection is conveniently (for him) romantic. If only to shove out the other connection the American public might make (to the Vietnam War), Bush made the claim as often as possible. Such a claim also strengthens the "us vs. them" mentality that allows Bush to make transitional threats to Iran and Palestine, as though they are children who have done their daddy wrong (and who can forget that that daddy has a military he likes to wave around) rather than governments who have done the human race wrong. Similarly, and on an interesting grammatical note, he kept referring to "the terrorists" as though all such folks belong in a specific identifiable group.

Bush likes to harp on the idea that the reality of global terrorism justifies America's democratic imperialism. Though I gladly welcome the annihilation of terrorism across the globe, I do wonder why the administration thinks it has become America's job to convert others to democracy, and so insistently. But clearly, an administration with that kind of global authority also has enough local authority to keep up its lately named "Terrorist Surveillance Program." Bush claimed previous presidents did the same and had court support, and a not-so-careful listener would have presumed he also had court support too, but he skipped that "sorry for breaking the law" part.

But on to the fashion report. Louisiana governor Blanco looked so old and nanny-like, maybe because Bush spent so little time commenting on hurricane relief and she worried herself into old age right there in the chamber. And then Virginia governor Tim Kaine almost delievered the Democrats' response. . . . Oh wild eyebrow! Oh liftable left! What a caterpillar.