Wednesday, May 8, 2013
Honesty is really difficult to take, isn't it?
I lived in Germany for a year, and the part of the culture that took the most adjustment for little American me was not the openness of sexuality, the drinking on the train, or having a genuine rail system in the first place. The most difficult aspect was the honesty.
No niceties from my colleagues about my dramatic haircut. (I blame my translation skills at the hairdresser's.) No mincing of words from my roommate about splitting the phone bill. No holding back about my shortcomings as a foreigner from folks at the Diskothek. Honesty was right in my face; once I got used to it, I quite appreciated it.
Even so, honesty is difficult to implement in my everyday American existence. I don't mean not telling lies; I mean not glossing over the improprieties and not burying criticism in compliments. The situation only gets worse when someone tries to make new friends or, heaven help us, get a date. Honesty means sharing despicable, embarrassing, and improper thoughts! Honesty means feelings could get hurt! Who wants to get coffee with a truly honest person?
Remove the filters, remove the censures, and you get a book like The Average American Male. Yes, honesty is sometimes revolting, sometimes shocking, sometimes hilarious, and sometimes incredibly meaningful. This book is what we'd all hear from someone, sooner or later, if we could be completely honest with one another.
But what about being honest with ourselves? For all the narrator's crass honesty, he doesn't recognize what he really needs from life. A culture of compliment sandwiches encourages softening the truth, and that's especially accurate when we deceive ourselves. True honesty doesn't stem from being blunt with everyone else in the world, but from cultivating self-awareness and self-honesty.
The German experience didn't make me honest. If I can be forthcoming with anyone about my feelings, my opinions, my desires, and my perspectives -- and if I can take such forthrightness -- it's because I am learning to know myself, and to trust myself.
(Since we're on the topic of honesty: I can't suggest this book for minors or relatives. If you are a minor or my relative, and you read this book, you do so independent of ever hearing about it from me. Unless you are my grandparents; in which case, just don't read it, period.)
Tuesday, April 30, 2013
Stories -- powerful, effective stories -- pack your bags and send you traveling to places boggy and foreign, and to places darkly familiar. To lands where the slang puzzles your reckoning, and to realizations that you never would admit to yourself but are as true to you as the wrinkles on your palm.
If those are the criteria for a strong story, then Kevin Barry has some darn muscular ones in Dark Lies the Island.
Stories this insular, with their peculiar dialects and speech rhythms, with their reliance on local geography and entrenched politics, with their undoubtedly Irish sensibilities and remoteness, are as particular to Ireland as the Gaeltacht. Reading them places you as soggily in the rural counties as reading Mark Twain places you rocking upon a river boat. And yet... you'll find a piece of small universality in each of them. These are truths that fit inside our psyches and transcend oceans.
No doubt about it, Barry's writing quirks the usual. (In ways like verbing "quirk." And verbing "verbing.") But sometimes, you learn more by studying the world through funhouse lenses. When the same old isn't the same and it isn't old, it reveals itself. It discovers itself. And once it finds a home in a story, it brings you along for the ride.
Wednesday, April 17, 2013
Think of the pleasures you have wished would never end. A glorious day in summer, a perfectly seasoned dish, a first kiss, a good book. Do you linger to prolong the pleasure? Do you stay outside until the sun is chased by the evening cold, leave aside a final bite until its sauce has firmed and cooled, dive in for one more soft peck, read the penultimate page again to avoid turning it?
I do. I'm a professed lingerer. I always figure that by drawing out the enjoyment, it lasts longer, and in some way the memory will be fuller for it.
One passage in Out of the Silent Planet might have changed how I feel about pleasure. The character Ransom (a human, or Hman) is trying to figure out how the Martian hross lives his life, because it seems not to be in pursuit of repeated pleasures. The hross, Hyoi, elaborates:
"A pleasure is full grown only when it is remembered. You are speaking, Hman, as if the pleasure were one thing and the memory another. What you call remembering is the last part of the pleasure.
"How could we endure to live and let time pass if we were always crying for one day or one year to come back -- if we did not know that every day in a life fills the whole life with expectation and memory and that these are that day?"
Pleasures are transient; pleasures are ephemeral. Yet the memory of pleasure may live as long as the one who experiences it. The memory will naturally grow in its own way, but is that not part of the pleasure?
When next I encounter a stunning view, or go to a revolutionary concert, or taste a delectable beer, I won't rush through it just so I can get to the memory. But neither do I intend to linger, and thereby reduce the memory by reducing the initial pleasure. When the sun sets, the music fades, and the pint glass empties, I'll understand that I still have the memory -- and with it, an extension of the pleasure itself.
Thursday, April 4, 2013
Children are so often relegated. Not to any lower realm or back shelf in particular. Just relegated. Period.
Children's and young adult books are less serious endeavors than grown-up literature. (Don't believe me? Eat lunch at work or school while reading Harry Potter, and then again while reading Finnegans Wake.) Children's opinions, no matter how well-informed, are less valid than adult rantings. (Don't believe me? Check and see the last time your state legislature had a member of the high school speech and debate team in to give a presentation on a controversial topic.) Children's perspectives in history, and the way historical events affect children, don't expend much ink in history texts. (Don't believe me? Go to the library and see what you find that isn't related to Anne Frank.)
Which is what makes One Crazy Summer such a special -- and important -- kind of book. Its narrator, Delphine, and her sisters get caught up in the Black Panther movement in Oakland in 1968. Children are present for, and affected by, all the great political and social movements.Their experiences and responses are genuine and human. So what if their take is different than the canonical history? Doesn't that make our understanding of the past all the richer?
Wearing the harmless cloak of the "children's book" label, novels like Rita Williams-Garcia's can fly under the radar of those who relegate children in the first place. Once they make their escape, however, these books have the power to show us our world through different eyes.
Isn't that what all books, for readers of any age, aspire to?
UPDATE: Same day I wrote this, I came across a great and relevant line from C. S. Lewis: "A book worth reading only in childhood is not worth reading even then." Sometimes, these stuffy old dons really knew where it was at.
Friday, March 29, 2013
I'll be honest: I don't like seeing homeless people standing in medians, holding cardboard signs, and asking for money. Their presence makes me uncomfortable, because I am driving a car and wearing clean clothes and wearing my permanent orthodontic retainer and showing any number of other signs of relative privilege, while they are the epitome of need. I am blessed in many ways that keep me from standing on a roadside asking for help from strangers. Ways, in other words, in which these people are not blessed.
When I really assess my discomfort, I find that it doesn't come from a deep fear of that-could-be-me. It doesn't come from the not-uncommon opinions of go-get-a-job-why-don't-ya or you'll-probably-just-spend-it-on-booze. No, it comes from the feeling of skewed perspectives skewering my own self-evaluation. I might often think that I am broke, but my tough times are a hell of a lot cushier than the guy fortunate enough to find a piece of cardboard and a magic marker.
Yesterday, pulling into the grocery story, Jenny and I passed a man in the median asking for help. His dog laid by him, clearly pleased just to be with her friend. I felt bad for the dog, who hadn't asked to be in this situation -- as if the man had.
We bought the staples to get us through the month -- milk, eggs, bananas -- our tight budget for the month already tapped. We left the store, and the light at the edge of the parking lot turned red. I was first in line to pull up next to the man and dog in need. "I don't want to look at them," I said. "I feel too bad." So I stopped the car where the windshield pillar obstructed my view.
I stared straight ahead, in that way where I was ignoring the man by trying to look like I wasn't ignoring him. I couldn't even look at Jenny, because it would look like I was avoiding looking at him. I think the whole time, she was busy staring at me. "Or you could just help them, if you want to. We have change."
Protest was my reaction. We did have change in the console; not much, but some, and it was for parking meters. Yet I felt that Jenny's spirit was open and giving at that moment. Why wasn't mine more so? Especially because I had Grace Lin's book fresh in mind, where Minli learns to be thankful for what she has, and to improve other folks' fortunes instead of her own. Where everyone finds happiness that way.
I didn't think. I rode the wave of feeling that swelled from my gut to my shoulders. I scooped up the tray of coins, rolled down the window, pulled forward, and handed the man the change. While the notoriously long light sat on red, we chatted. He was not a homeless man, and I was not a driver of a car. We were two guys talking about a sweet dog.
More factors went into that moment than a kid's book about a girl's attempts to change her family's fortune. But Where the Mountain Meets the Moon played its part. Books change the world, because they change their readers. That's the strength of a story.
Monday, March 25, 2013
You want to know what's backwards? As kids, we ask "why" of everything. As adults, we cease to question "why" of everything. We get selective. We accept a whole lot of "what" exists and "what" works, but we pry a whole lot less into "why" it exists and "how" it works.
From where I stand, that's a shame. That's a whole bunch of shame. The world doesn't become any less fascinating and new when we age. Or at least, it doesn't have to.
Charles Duhigg would respond -- and he wouldn't be wrong -- that an accepting brain is a habitual brain, and a habitual brain is an efficient brain. If we got bogged down in the "why" and "how" of every question, we would never accomplish anything in our daily lives. And to a point, I agree. If I questioned how I put toothpaste on my toothbrush every morning, brushing my teeth would require both more time and more energy.
But when I encounter something new, I want to know all about it. I'm not satisfied with learning that habits exist, that they can be changed, that corporations use my habits to manipulate my purchasing behavior. I'm not satisfied with shallow answers to "why" and "how," like "habits exist because your brain internalizes a routine following a certain cue, in order to obtain a certain reward." I want to know why the brain does that in the first place, and how the heck this lumpy gray matter can organize itself in such a complex arrangement.
Some books go into those nitty gritties. I appreciate those books. As a kid, I sometimes asked "why" ad nauseam -- but beyond the pleasure of annoying the questioned adult, I always wanted to find out where the rock bottom of explanation was. More often than not, I found a "why" or a "how" deep enough to quench my curiosity. Deep enough where I could learn something that I didn't know before, and that I could not extrapolate on my own. Deep enough where I discovered another piece of the universe.
I wish more books took it upon themselves to dig deep. The Power of Habit will help me out at my next cocktail party. It taught me cool facts. It granted me an awareness of my habits and my ability to make decisions. But it didn't grant me any thorough understanding, the kind of knowledge that I could apply to the wider world. And the shame is, it could have. It could have dug deeper.
Why didn't it?
Wednesday, March 20, 2013
Melinda Snodgrass may well have her books burned in the streets. (I hope not. No book deserves to be burned.) But the likelihood stems from this chain: Book-burners tend to be fanatics of one stripe or another; fanatics tend to rely on belief rather than knowledge and emotion rather than rational thought; The Edge of Reason is the first book of a series that pits science against magic in a real-world, Large Hadron Collider-versus-fundamentalist religion sort of way; Snodgrass and her heroes come down on the side of reason; fanatics tend to not like it when folks point out they might be eeeeeevil.
Thus, seemingly inevitable book-burning.
Knowledge has bumped against faith for centuries, so our contemporary struggles are nothing new. That said, the United States appears to be stuck in a roach-trap of denying knowledge in the face of faith. I will never hold a person's religious beliefs against them, but I will fault a person for ignoring verifiable conclusions with no better cause than "well, I just don't think that's true."
As citizens of the world, we each have a responsibility to accept the empirical evidence staring us down. Global climate change isn't something we "believe" in -- it's something that exists whether we believe it or not. Like the sun, or gravity. And for all the questions regarding Beowulf's exact date of composition, the interpretation of its poetry, its clues to the history of a region, its religious influences, and (less questionable, thanks to Tolkien) its literary merit, we can be quite certain that Grendel was not a Tyrannosaurus rex. We cannot ignore the linguistic workings of Old English no matter how much we believe that a word means something it just doesn't.
Belief and faith may alter our brain structures, but even that result is not merely faith-based, in that it is scientifically verifiable.
Faith in a God should not controvert the world that He/She/It is believed to have created. For the faithful, why can science not be a way of receiving messages from above? Why must science be the enemy of religion, when the religious could view science as illuminating God's wonder and beauty?
I genuinely wish I could understand the answers to these questions. I may never be satisfied with the responses, though, because reason and belief operate on two different planes. We don't use the same language, so when one says "We're having brussel sprouts for dinner," the other answers "But I don't like carrots!" Both sides know they're on the same subject, but discourse is impossible when one side refuses to acknowledge the tenets of the other.
Melinda Snodgrass is not exaggerating. A war does exist, and it may well determine the fate of our planet and our very humanity. How much nicer it would be if our species could settle this over a cup of tea.