31 March 2007

198 words: quick, now

Earlier, I announced my knowledge of a certain CS Lewis conference. This evening, while watching the Gators trounce the Bruins (as predicted in my bracket and the warm cockles of my little heart), I emailed a paper proposal for that conference. Hopefully, they accept.

It was harder than I expected to do this. Lots of reasons why, but they're mostly compositional. That is, I have never composed an actual title for something unwritten, and I have certainly never composed a confident thesis before actually writing the body of its essay. But the CFP required both, so I struggled for them and have relative peace with what emerged. Here they are: first the proposed title, then a 198-word abstract for an unwritten but proposed paper. All comments welcome.

Will the Green Lady Become a Self? The Dangers of Self-Consciousness in CS Lewis' Perelandra

In the book of Genesis, no one asks "Who am I?" before the Fall, but all sons and daughters after ask this because the initial temptation struck directly at the question of identity: will humans define themselves as creatures in relationship with their Creator or as autonomous beings? In CS Lewis' Perelandra, the Un-man tempts the Green Lady with Eden's rhetoric, arguing that she can and should take upon herself the independent risk of disobedience: he tells stories about great women and teaches her about beauty, and then he makes those arguments practical by showing the Green Lady her other self in a mirror. As she begins to believe that experience trumps all theory, her interceder, Ransom, fears he may have finally lost her. After all, Ransom knows that this rhetorical triptych—the high call to maternal martyrdom, the definition of beauty as costume, and the assertion of an autonomous self—could steal the Green Lady's affections from Maleldil and the king to herself. Though many have argued that self-awareness distinguishes humans from all other creatures, the Perelandrian temptation demonstrates its dangers: such consciousness leads to independence, which leads to ego-centrism, which destroys relationships and compromises real beauty.

28 March 2007

Birds and other books

Even if you don't like birds or books (oh, heavens, don't not like books!) please read Cindy Crosby's "Chuckleheads and Timberdoodles?" in the most recent Books and Culture. This review of The Birdwatcher's Companion to North American Birdlife is a treat, and most reviews aren't treats. So brew a cup of tea, grab your binoculars, and learn a few new vocabulary words from Crosby's lovely paragraphs.

27 March 2007

This is for Malcolm

Just to confirm that I do take an interest in my husband's extracurricular activities, I would like to post these highlights from a very recent Books and Culture interview with William Langewiesche:

Q: Are you a pilot who writes or a writer who flies?

I'm a writer. Even when I was a pilot I was a writer.


Q: Should we honestly believe that if we're in a plane going down that our seat cushions can be used as flotation devices?

There are plenty of cases of airplanes going into the water and people surviving. What to do in that case is not difficult to remember. Get the hell of out the plane and don't wear your high heels down the inflatable exit ramp.

All righty, then.

This reminds me of that night outside Portland, Oregon, when we accidentally passed the Spruce Goose. We had been to a wedding in Medford, though we had stayed in Ashland at the beautiful Ashland Springs Hotel. We spent the post-wedding afternoon in the redwood forest ogling gigantic trees and then took a leisurely drive up the Oregon coast the next day because we were flying back home from Portland the day after that.

So we stopped at various points to watch creatures and eat local desserts and such, but as darkness achieved its westward creep from the east, we set our faces toward Portland. Until we saw this:

Imagine that the sky is a beautiful black and you haven't passed anything worth discussing in a while. Imagine that you're just driving down the highway and happen to glance left as you're approaching a huge hangar full of a huge airplane some ways off the road. Imagine that you say to your pilot husband, "Look, look" and the car drifts in the direction you are gesturing almost instinctually.

We can hardly close our jaws as we turn off the road and drive toward it, for the plane keeps getting bigger and bigger. I scramble for some kind of guide book that might tell us what we see, but signage finally makes it clear: that's the Spruce Goose.

Of course, the museum is closed because it's past dinnertime, but we park and walk around the hangar. The all-glass front wall lets you see the thing fairly well; what you can't see in the photo above is that other small planes (like the ones Micah flies on a regular basis) are lined up for display under the Spruce Goose's wings. The photo below might help you get a sense of scale: note the helicopter flying above the plane.

Now, the history of the Spruce Goose is a fascinating one, and so is the biography of the one who envisioned and built it. But the awe I felt driving toward it and standing next to it (albeit outside its hangar, which seemed all the more awful) was oddly not like the fear I feel for big things (like gigantic artifacts displayed at museums, like whales and all other massive creatures that abide in the ocean, and like the ocean itself) but more like a great intrigue for a meal I have never before eaten but suddenly find before me.

That is, it was deeply satisfying to see such a huge, crafted thing, such a bold creativity put so carefully together. And it was delicious to stand and reverence the thing, because that seemed the only right thing to do. Just like a primo bowl of macaroni and cheese at the Steakhouse. . . .

21 March 2007

Today's Mail

I didn't think I'd been away from the office that long. Went by the department to check mail at least two months ago. Apparently I should have gone earlier, because today I found on my desk a big USPS bin, which our friendly campus mail persons must have lugged over to keep the stuff from overflowing onto the floor.

So I lugged the bin downstairs to the car and just sifted through it all at home. What was inside?

  1. Eight free textbooks I did not request but am cool with receiving. One publishing company sent books they've sent me before (that time upon request).
  2. Lots and lots of marketing material from various publishing companies that want me to buy books. I'll request at least one as a possible teaching text and put several others on my wish list.
  3. Several interoffice memos: one from the music secretary who's filling in for me as ODK faculty secretary while I'm on leave and doing a much more brilliant and generous job than I think I'd have ever done, another from the public relations office sending copies of invoices related to marketing we did for Lauren Winner's visit last November, another from the FYE program chair inviting me to read the philosophy and goals for a similar program at St. Lawrence University, another with the minutes from a previous faculty meeting, and yet another from the registrar's office informing me that one of my advisees is failing two courses.
  4. One wedding invitation, announcing the to-be wedded bliss of a former student and notifying me as to his two registries.
  5. A few brochures for summer writing programs at other universities.
  6. Two bits from Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion received via inter-library loan: an essay by poet Scott Cairns entitled "The End of Suffering" and an interview with Alice McDermott. More on those later, no doubt.
  7. An envelope from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary announcing their "CS Lewis: The Man and His Work – a 21st Century Legacy" conference this October. The poster they sent is beautiful, and so is the conference. Arthur, we must go! CFP has a March 31 deadline. Can we make it? Let's go anyway.
  8. And then, at the bottom of the bin, a Noel gift from one of my favorite writers. Two board books and a simple card. Very, very cool. It's the positive yin of the negative yang that came to light yesterday when a visitor responded to Noel's active legs by saying it will be okay if, when Noel starts moving on his own, he annihilates some of the books on my lower bookshelves, because they're replaceable, and I nodded nervously because I guess she's right, but I can quickly form lots of arguments for how no book is really replaceable, especially the author-signed ones that sit on those lower shelves. And I'll be derned if the kid rips those pages up or marks out my marginalia with some Crayola. Shifty better be ready for a new box in our moving oeuvre: not just "Ma to Mc" but "signed by author so don't leave these in the sun, cuh." Anyway, receiving in today's mail two Happy Noel books from that giver is the inverse of happy Noel one day taking a crayon to one of my books. That's the point.
So we read the two new books to Noel as he emerged from the bath tonight, hoping to again instill in him the truth that books are our friends. Then I pasted Boudreaux's on his you-know-where, put a doubler in his diaper, and handed him off to Micah for rocking to sleep. Now he's slumbering, and we're blogging. What an evening.

14 March 2007

Plagiarism at home

Well, this story is ridiculous. If sad and pathetic equals ridiculous. And ridiculously close to home, seeing that the plagiarized Dr. Sikes' office is almost directly under mine at Centenary.

The quotations provided by the accused plagiarists (what a father-daughter pair) remind me more of undergraduates blubbering in my own office when caught red-handed rather than established academics. Unbelievable. If the claims are correct (indeed, if the narrative borrows 90% from another document, they surely are) this woman's PhD should definitely be revoked. How can we require honorable scholarship from students if teachers don't even require it of themselves?

13 March 2007

How Christians Spend Money

Maybe it's because I spent the morning reading about missionary work in Kenya and thinking about other work going on in Uganda. Maybe it's because Sunday night I finally watched The Departed and felt inimitably sad afterwards because of this world's brokenness and how we brought Noel (albeit broken too) into it, such that I am more eager than before for our righteous God to make this world right. And fast, no more dilly-dallying.

But whatever the reason, when a coworker sent an email flyer about a Christian comedian coming to town, I was slightly more than frowny. After all, who but Americans would think "Christian comedian" is a legitimate career choice?

Maybe there's nothing inherently wrong with it. I can imagine a gazillion reasons why it seems ridiculous, but those hinge more on the teleological worthlessness of amusement in general, and I'm just not willing to make the argument that we should only pray and feed the poor but never read novels or watch films or even enjoy silly comedic business from time to time ("am I right?" she asks in that Monty Python way).

But the reality of Christian comedians speaks to our affluence in ways that unsettle me. The emailed flyer essentially declares that American Christians are so rich in time and money but so stressed in energy and affection that they need stand-up comedians to make them happy. And we rich American Christians have so many ways to spend our money that the church needs to organize entertainment for us so that we can feel like we're doing Christian things when we're really just laughing at clean jokes instead of dirty ones. We love to disengage our minds and spend money, and we're practiced at both. We must do them, must.

So it may not be wrong (I certainly don't mean to pick a fight with the coworker about it), but it bugs me. Then again, maybe I'm just a bitter codger who needs to laugh a little.

09 March 2007

How Pretty lost his beauty

My grandmother and I just had a conversation about nicknames. It began when she asked what "Nolan" was doing and how she thinks she might take to calling him "Baby" because she can't ever get his name right, always wanting to add a "g" or "r" (note that "Nolan" has neither a "g" or an "r" in it). But she figured she couldn't call him that forever because "Baby" is hardly a good nickname for anyone past baby-hood.

Of course, this reminded her of their neighbors back in the day whose son she always called Baby, because that's what his mother called him. One day, his father heard her say this and asked her not to call him Baby, so she asked what she should call him and he suggested "Son" since that's what he called the boy. Grandma has no idea what his real name was. (Apparently his father didn't either.)

This made her remember how her brother C. H. (by all accounts, those aren't initials but his given name . . . or letters) was always called "Abe" by their other brothers. She believes this began because he often asked his father why their neighbor Abe did thus and such with his cattle. I guess preoccupation with a neighbor named Abe justifies taking said neighbor's name for your own nickname.

The story goes that "Abe" stuck, though it's worth noting that I've never heard anyone refer to C. H. as "Abe" in my life. But she didn't think her other brothers ever had nicknames.

"Well, there is Pretty," she mused. Her brother Dennis was known as "Pretty" for a while at school when the other kids made fun of the primping required to care for the ringworm he had on his nose. The teacher didn't like the name, and neither did their parents, but somehow the other brothers heard of it and called him "Pretty" for a while.

"But when the ringworm went away he lost his beauty," Grandma concluded. And that was the end of the conversation about nicknames.

02 March 2007

Stumpy! Stumpy! (Imagine Brando screaming that.)

Let's all take a thankful moment for the stumpy.

This Australian skink sacrificially loves her babies, carrying them until they weigh "on average, 35 percent of the mother's body weight," which is like a human birthing a seven-year-old. Obviously, the mother has trouble breathing, eating, and moving toward the end of gestation, making predator evasion difficult and general living uncomfortable.

And I thought I was swollen at 9 months. Give me stretch marks any day just so Noel comes out at 7 pounds, 13 ounces, rather than the weight and size of Anna Kate. Bigger, really, but I can't think of an actual seven-year-old at the moment.

The creation can teach us much about perseverance and longsuffering, but there is something particularly peculiar about the way God makes new creatures that generally seems rather instructive to me. At the very least, much gratitude wells up in this heart for the stumpy and for the radically different process that is human birth. I'm glad stumpy females go to so much trouble to make new stumpies, unwittingly but nevertheless consistently risking themselves for reproduction. But I'm also glad that it's less trouble for human females to make new humans.