Tuesday, June 28, 2011

On books

Twilight and Other Bedtime Stories

The first time I read Twilight, it was un-ironically for me. The second time, I read it for Amanda, who was twelve years old and wanted me to take her home with me. She had been restrained by other staff nearly a dozen times that week for violent temper tantrums. These were because her older brother, who had been her best friend and then raped her, was just out of jail and spending Thanksgiving with her family. As for Twilight, she couldn't seem to put it down, and I couldn't seem to explain to her what was wrong with it. It wasn't just Amanda; most of the girls in the group home where I worked practically worshiped the book.

For me, the most interesting thing about books is almost never what they contain, but rather, what they mean to the people who read them. With the exception of Jane Austen, books that appeal to teenage girls receive little respect or mainstream acceptance. The disconcerting popularity of the Twilight books has made them impossible for anyone who seriously wants to understand this culture to ignore. That popularity has also crystallized some of the central questions of my intellectual life. How are stories like this so compelling to such a fragile—and recalcitrant—demographic? And what can anyone do to change that?

The first place I look for an answer to these questions is my own life; what's changed so much for me between my first and second reading? When I compare my life to Amanda's—though they have not been so different, in other ways—hers holds a glaring absence of constructive building blocks. My parents gave me scriptures as a habit and a way to think. The first answer to every problem was to study and ask God. Although my literary scope has expanded since then—and God and I are no longer on speaking terms—today I wander the library seeking answers in much the same way I once browsed the the topical guides and indexes of holy books. Systems to organize information offer a reassuring illusion of completeness; there's something soothing about the stacks. “Here's the information,” they promise. “Put together the right collection of references, read insightfully, and there's bound to be an answer.” And if there isn't, put together the puzzle pieces you can find and treasure them away till the rest of the picture is revealed. Maybe someday you will have another book to contribute to what's there.

Books have been the constant in my life. Even when I first read Twilight, my bookshelf seemed like a wall I might climb to escape the pit I was in. I volunteered at an organization that re-distributed used books for free, and with a reliable supplier I was constantly refining my collection. All those books I had not yet read represented untold possibilities, and promised me the kind of future Amanda never had any reason to dream about. This is not an exaggeration. I wanted to be the next Indiana Jones, but the best future Amanda could conceive of was to be a housewife—a respectable choice, if she had other options—and the statistics for children out of foster care retaining their sanity and becoming functioning members of society are dismal.

As time has passed and I've returned to Twilight, I've developed the theory that this is the fairy tale oppressed female children of all ages tell themselves so they can sleep at night. In Twilight, the rapist is a stranger, your disinterested and ineffectual parents are really good people, and when the guy you haven't started dating yet stalks you it's a good thing. Perhaps more importantly, in the Twilight world, there's a good reason to defer to your boyfriend, even a good reason for him to force you to do things: he's got a century of extra life experience, you're in danger, and he's invincible. In Twilight, if you are self-sacrificing, loyal, and domestic, you will be loved and vigorously protected until the end of time. Twilight is truly fantastical; it creates a world where girls can fulfill the role that's expected of them without violating their common sense.

The goal, then, is to build something better that fills that function. If we see Twilight as a catalog of conflicting needs, this anachronistic millstone turns into a to-do list. In my life, something better has emerged from a thousand other books. For Amanda and millions of others like her, most of that work remains to be done. It is hard because the storytelling most Twilight fans are immersed in is unlikely to criticize such a well constructed fantasy. Perhaps the real answer is in the building blocks. Perhaps when girls are given tools—whether books, or anything else—with which they can create for themselves a real future that gives their own interests a reasonable and honest weight, they will stop having such a need for Twilight. Unless, of course, they are deconstructing it.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

er. .

Ok, so I've decided I feel silly re-posting old posts. Actually, I feel silly posting this too, but less-silly enough to let it slide. Here's the first of my entrance essays. :)

Education and wanting:

Why St. John's

I know how heavy my engine block is—I couldn't give you a number of kilos, but I remember the textures and the heft of it in my hands. I know its color when it's all cleaned up. I know how it smells fresh from the machine shop, what parts it is connected to, and how they move. I may never reference this information again, but I will not likely forget it. Until my brain deteriorates, it will color my respect for the human beings who test your car for emissions standards and change its oil. I think this example demonstrates the virtues of my formal education: experiential richness, intellectual depth, unusual persistence, and unconventional breadth.

That shop experience was valuable to me because I was the kid who asked too many questions, and for whom the answers were not quite good enough. I've been fortunate by way of libraries, and one way or another—by sitting in on classes, asking questions, watching documentaries, picking fights, or reading books—I've found many layers in each subject.

This has not always come easily. My family is very math intensive; my mother once threw my sister's boyfriend out of the house over a disagreement about the limit definition of a derivative. Their enthusiasm hasn't always translated into an ability to teach. It took me several fails, but I eventually learned calculus and rejoined the dinner-table conversations. I am grateful, because calculus is where math starts to get too beautiful to ignore.

The greatest strength of my education is that it has made my life today better than ever before. In auto shop, my first professor flattered me by saying I was a natural emissions tech. To be a good emissions tech, you have to know how everything works, and why—often, it is about fine-tuning. This is how I am built; emissions-style work makes me happy. When I make time to learn ballet and philosophy and auto repair, it is because I aspire to join the emissions techs of the world: I want to fine tune life.

I was under-taught, isolated, and often motivated by all the wrong things. Though I'm proud of what I've accomplished and I'd hate to look at life as having some sort of a set destination, the formal education I've had so far has not taken me everywhere I want to go.

My parents “home-schooled” me for middle school but taught little. I spend most of my time reading, alone. I remember the frustration of my one attempt to learn math in home-school; I was twelve. My mother—a wonderful person in other ways—handed me paper and, without explaining, told me to prove the additive properties of integers between 0 and 100. I was in tears almost immediately, and the lessons didn't continue. My science and math suffered, and (as transcripts show) as an adult I've struggled to recover that. I love science; it seems worth recovering.

Other activities were also limited by my parents' unusual choices. In high school they complained when I did anything “worldly” or “dark,” like participate in drama, and they drove me nowhere but church. This contributed to my already substantial isolation—we moved a lot—but in the long run, both of these experiences have only fueled my desire to experience the richness of life and people.

The greatest weakness of my formal education has been that I have often been motivationally—and thus directionally—distracted. I wasn't great at reading cues or getting attention as a kid, but I could tell that I was supposed to be curious, hardworking, and smart. I exceeded expectations, but the deep acceptance I was chasing never materialized. I tried to study physics because I thought it would please my family; I obsessed over philosophy papers because I wanted the good opinion of my professors.

I've been elated to find that on letting this expectation go, my curiosity remains whole. I want to read deeper and row harder. Now that I find myself acceptable without a report card to convince me of it, I am still driven by a hunger for shared excellence. And for the damage this has done in the past? Perhaps the fragments have failed to cohere, but dogged persistence and interdisciplinary insight have made my education greater than the sum of its parts. Whatever I have studied, I will find a use for it.

(1) I am dying to get under the hood of western thought. It seems like it would be so much fun! Plus, I think I could really do some good down there. I want to go to St. John's because I think I can get a deeper reading there than I can studying the books on my own.

(2) My idea of heaven is like your campus life advertisements, but with more travel, dance studios, and music. I want to find an intellectual community where I can be at home, and a clearer direction for my life. St. John's seems like a good place for it.

(3) I was a chubby, hunched latecomer to dance. Dancer craziness is no secret, but I think it puzzled people to see it in me because no matter how hard I worked, I was already too old, clumsy, and fat for a career. When I started I was trying hard to destroy part of myself, but hacking away at my gracelessness was constructive. You can't learn ballet just by taking away, and it is impossible to become a dancer by believing you can not dance.

Breath is the music that connects what we can choose to what we can't. It is steady, involuntary. Ballet class is also structured and repetitive, and many dancers hate it. I found that in long hours at the barre, there was eventually nothing but to take my fragile, inevitable, broken body and try to merge it into something more whole. And for moments, rarely, I succeeded; all the despair and restraint I was capable of were poured into this fondu ronde-du-jambe en l'aire, and I was only feeling—dynamic alignment of bones, carefully drilled release and contraction of muscles, inescapable rushing breath causing me to collapse and expand, and sadness so intense I would have wept were I not dancing.

Dance is temporary. No one would study it if these moments weren't their own reward, but something spectacularly unsatisfying that happens when your professor, whose dancing you respect, is walking by in one of those moments and says “Yes! Yes, Day, That's it.” And you're so startled that you loose your balance and fall off of demi-pointe, but it's the most wonderful thing in the world because someone has understood what you were doing here, awkward and broken and ugly, every day for years. And someone has witnessed that, which has made everything worth it. The dancing lasted seconds, but the dancer escaped the boundaries of herself. It's a kind of horizontal immortality, addictive and intoxicating.

I want that. I want it all the time, more than I can say. This is why I am applying to St. John's.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

like that

“touch my back,” he said again.

He was holding two large loads of garbage, swinging each from a fully extended arm. The weight was wearing, obviously, as his muscles shook though they held steady in the exertion. I was hesitant, but reached out gingerly and made soft contact with the his trembling back.

“It's like that.”- and he meant the force of holding nothing, of holding the world on one's shoulders, the force of Atlas or Jesus or Hercules.

Instead it reminded me of the little birds I used to pick up out of my yard in Alabama, fragile. Small. They always died. In hopes of saving them from the cats I would hide them in converted shoe-boxes down by the dryer, where it was warm, and feed them crushed worms, but they always died. Always.

I used to carry nothing. It does grow so tiring.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

reprise and thanks

Dearest readers; it seems I've gone round the bend. Well, gone round a bend.

I'm not the sort of bear who says "I'm COMPLETELY DIFFERENT NOW! Now that I've had this great insight/experience/litter of kittens!" I'm pretty sure we can't escape our past selves any more than we can hang onto them.

However--I am different. There was a series of events, which you could trace back a couple of weeks or a couple of years, as you like; stupid mistakes, nightmares, visions, arguments, a realization. And now I'm different. The simplest way I have to explain it is that a year and a half of very painful therapy has very suddenly started to catch up with me and pay itself off. I'm trying to give myself some time to adjust to this, which is difficult even though the changes are good. . . I'm also trying not to assume the change is permanent, but rather, allow it to be as it is.


Although I'll surely need to wallow in some doom from time to time, I'm ready to start something new--and ready to let this place go. Just to get ceremonial about it, I shall re-post a series of old entries I found while searching old writings for college-application essay material. They form a story-arc about my life for the past few years; starting with an unpublished fragment from around the time I started this blog, and ending with my application essays.

Thank you for reading. This blog has put me in contact with some delightful and though-provoking people. I've been honored to have you.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

twilight and other bedtime stories

I read once that kids have their reasons for needing bedtime stories. You know the kind--the same book over and over, every night, for weeks or months. The kind they keep asking for even after memorizing every word. The textbook told me that kids latch onto stories which deal with their unresolved conflicts. I think grown-ups are the same.

Certainly I'm the same. I read about women who beat people up--if not, I get stressed out. I repeat the story of a woman who picks up a bow or a sword or a gun and successfully protects the people she cares about, possibly because I need to remember it is (or might be) possible when I, like my mother and my grandmother before me, have failed so miserably on this score.

You can be bloody fucking certain the men won't take care of it. Patriarchy lies. The deal was, after we made ourselves less--after we curbed our ambitions and competence, after we were submissive and self sacrificing, after we defined ourselves as decorative, procreational, nurturing, emotional, and adjunct to men--they were supposed to make us safe. For most of my life I would have been happy to accept that deal. As far as I can tell, this is what every romance novel is about: they are the ritual retelling of how things might work out, if you are lucky, and if you are good enough at performing the feminine.