November 9, 2011
Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy tastes of habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. Reality is the strip malls of Burbank, the smokestacks of Cleveland, a parking garage in Newark. Fantasy is the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they finally come true?
We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.
-George R. R. Martin, author
I feel much the same way as GRRM about fantasy—that it connects us to a deep internal knowledge and history of our own psyches, and recalls something huge and eternal in us. Epic fantasy, when I was in middle and high school, assured me that there was so much more worth living for than my schools and community were trying to tell me.
But I’m not sure about his dim view of reality…as opposed to the disposable and shallow nature of much of what is sold to us as “reality,” and told we have to accept as the scope of our adult lives.
May I suggest, that if strip malls, plastic and plywood define your reality, and you don’t like it…you’re doing reality wrong.
Because reality is all that stuff, George, but reality is also—
The whistle and rumbling murmur of an early-morning train.
Reality is the first pale green shoots of peppermint pushing up through the dirt in March.
Reality is the guy who plays Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa” on Peruvian pan pipes in the Times Square subway station.
Reality is the stunning silence of a great blue heron taking flight.
Reality is the old Hispanic men in my neighborhood who sit outside in the summertime, playing an eternal sidewalk game of dominos with their boomboxes turned up loud.
Reality is sunset over the Hudson River.
Reality is moonlight, starlight, candle light, lantern light.
Reality is creaky old bookstores, and the thrill of reading a forbidden book hidden between the shelves.
Reality is the feel of sand as soft as cake flour under your feet.
Reality is the smell of wood smoke on the first cold night of fall.
Reality is stained glass, dark coffee, red wine, rosewood incense. The brush of a fat cat around your ankles, the way evening light moves over the Brooklyn Bridge and tops of the sycamore trees, rooftop Fourth of July parties with the sky on fire around you, waking up on a foggy morning in the Catskill mountains, the sound of the concertmaster tuning an orchestra, tiny cemeteries behind old churches, hidden waterfalls, thunder in a snowstorm, the way deer’s eyes shine in the dark in a flashlight beam.
Nurture magic, wonder, and beauty wherever they occur in your life. They are real—far more real than strip malls, suburban office parks, and Disneyland—whatever anyone tells you.
May 6, 2011
The New York Times Economix blog reports this week (Dimming Optimism for Today’s Youth) that, for the first time in a long time, a majority of Americans are not optimistic that today’s youth will have a better life than their parents, as they answered the question:
In America, each generation has tried to have a better life than their parents, with a better living standard, better homes, a better education, and so on. How likely do you think it is that today’s youth will have a better life than their parents–very likely, somewhat likely, somewhat unlikely, or very unlikely?
This isn’t exactly the post that I thought it was going to be. I was going to argue against the implicit assumption of the way the question is phrased–the conflation of greater and greater achievement of material wealth with being qualitatively “better”–as being economically unsustainable, and in the manner of a Red Queen’s Race, actually a recipe for ever-diminishing quality of life. But I wondered then if I was trying to read more into the question than was actually intended for the sake of having an argument, and a blog post.
What if we start instead by questioning what a “good” life is, before we try to quantify likelihood of whatever a “better” one is? What would I include as requisites for a good life?
To love, and be loved in return.
To leave the world a better place than you found it–kinder, safer, more beautiful.
To be able to do work you know is meaningful.
To have a rich internal life, in addition to external relationships to keep you strong.
To serve something higher than yourself.
To be fed, and to be sheltered.
To be known.
To know joy, loyalty, and faith.
To live through grief.
To be content with who you are on some basic level.
To know what it is to be alone, and what it is not to be.
To know your own history, your own narrative.
To be needed.
I can’t fathom a complete life without reading, writing, and music.
And I don’t know that happiness or comfort have much to do with it, so much as satisfaction in their pursuit.
As I look at my list, of course I hope the next generation, and my children if I ever have them, will have a better life, in terms of having more of all of these things. But I couldn’t care less about whether they’ll have more stuff or a bigger house or another advanced degree.
Am I optimistic for them? I’m not sure yet. If they’re able to start exercising some common sense when it comes to environmental protection, if they’ll abandon the suburbs and exurbs for liveable communities again, if they’re more creative, resourceful, skeptical, literate, compassionate, committed to justice and equality, less interested in war and domination, more able to teach themselves, less able, willing or entitled to take any level of material wealth or comfort for granted.
I’m not sure yet.
April 1, 2011
Time for another edition. Happy April Fool’s Day, everyone!
“Computer calculates most boring day ever.” –Time, 11/28/10
“German customs officials seize fake canned unicorn meat.” –Time, 12/2/10
“Palin denies Tea Party’s involvement in Dancing with the Stars.” –Jezebel.com, 12/7/10
“Dubai jails ‘wizard’ who promised rain of cash.” –New York Times, 1/12/11
“AOL buys another crack at a future.” –New York Times, 2/7/11
“Scientists discover how to make squids go completely berserk.” –Christian Science Monitor, 2/18/11
“Aussies warned to flee killer birds.” –newser, 2/18/11
“[John] Edwards lies low, but that won’t last.” –New York Times, 2/28/11
“Avril Lavigne not quite a grown-up.” –New York Magazine, 3/8/11
“Study undercuts view of college as a place of same-sex experimentation.” –New York Times, 3/17/11
“Fight waged with forks is rejoined in Congress.” –New York Times, 3/17/11
“Young people with old souls prefer records to CD’s.” –New York Times, 3/21/11
“Gay bar mourns Elizabeth Taylor.” –New York Times, 3/24/11
March 13, 2011
I’ve had my first blog award, and now I’ve been tagged in a meme, by Rachel at Journeys with Autism.
I think at some point this meme was to post the books that were in actuality physically by your bedside, but for me, that would be all of them…since my bedroom is very small, so the bookshelves which occupy two walls of it are, necessarily, very close to my bed. Luckily for all, it’s now a more general “what are you reading” meme. And these are the rules:
1. Take a picture of the books you are reading currently and add them to your post.
2. Describe the books and if you are enjoying them
3. For every book you are reading, you have to tag one person.
4. Leave the person a comment letting them know you tagged them.
I used to have a personal rule that I couldn’t be reading more than one book at a time. At some point, I had two books (and I don’t even remember what they were) that I wanted to read with equal desperation, and my usual respect for delayed gratification was so overwhelmed I didn’t know what to do. Then I realized that that wasn’t a real rule, it was one I made up, and I could be reading as many books at a time as I wanted. Without further ado, here’s what I’ve been reading:
1. Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David Von Drehle. An exhaustive but very readable history of the causes and aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, this book contains much of the background and source material for the production I’m currently working on, a dramatic choral music piece called From the Fire in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the event this year. The fire was New York City’s worst workplace disaster before 9/11/01, in which 146 garment workers, mostly young immigrant girls, died because, for an evil confluence of reasons large and small, they were locked inside a dangerous factory. I loved reading this, both because I enjoy having a fuller understanding of the background and origin of the shows I work with, and because the Triangle tragedy was one of those things that I vaguely remembered being mentioned in passing in 8th grade history class, but we were never really taught its importance as a turning point in American history, for women’s rights and workers’ rights among other things.
2. A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin. This is the first installment of a fantasy series which came highly recommended by a friend, and my intrigue was sharpened by the visually gorgeous previews for the forthcoming HBO series. I was totally hooked by the end of the prologue. It’s the story of a land on the brink of war where nothing and no one is quite what they seem at first, and Martin plays around very unsettlingly with big ideas about power, love and trust, morality, and what we think we understand about the natural world.
3. Rachel’s own book, The Uncharted Path. Rachel, I’m going to cherish this as part of my growing “survival manual.” Before I read this, I thought that I had actually hit some limit on my ability to be stunned by recognition of my own experience, or having to keep saying “good god, I thought it was just me.” Nope. Knocked speechless.
4. Saint George and the Dragon, by Margaret Hodges, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. One of my favorite picture books as a child, it’s an adaptation of the most famous episode from Edmund Spenser’s Middle English epic poem The Faerie Queene. It had been on my mind a lot lately and I considered asking my mother to mail me the copy she still has, but then figured I might as well have my own since I could get it for $3 on Amazon. Its completely enchanting watercolor illustrations have not lost their power to entrance me in the 25 years since this book was first read to me.
5. 1776, by David McCullough. I actually haven’t started this one yet–it’s next up. My dad and I tend to like the same kind of history books, so he passed this one on to me after he finished it. He says it’s an intensely human, personal account of the first year of the American Revolution; it sounds almost impossible that I won’t like it.
6. The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver. I’ve made a habit of re-reading things I’ve loved to wind down before bed. This is the one I’ve gone to for much of this past year, and is a book that will amply reward re-reading. I love this book on so many levels, and it’s kept blossoming and unfolding to me the more time I’ve spent with it. Typically I say that it’s impossible for me to name one “favorite book,” because so many have meant so much to me but in very different ways or times or circumstances. But this one’s in serious danger of being my favorite book for a very long time.
And now, for my six victims! You! I want to know what you’re reading! Because I either like your writing or think you’re interesting, and not because I, like, need more stuff on my list of things to read or anything….
1. Amish, at The Trivedi Chronicles.
2. Amy, at experiment in a new life.
3. Jess, at This has become a weakness.
4. Leigh, at An American Girl in Cambodia.
5. Susan, at Three Cats on a Sofa.
6. Bruce, at Born 2b me.
Does anyone else find themselves quietly hoping that hyperlexic people are more likely to get reincarnated, because we need more time to read?
December 4, 2010
There’s a list of books going around Facebook. Purportedly compiled by the BBC, which has supposedly found that most people have read, on average, six of them. Only according to a friend who went looking, the BBC compiled no such list; the meme seems to be some kind of conflation of the BBC’s “Big Read” list which is the result of a poll of Brits’ favorite books, and some apocryphal statistic about how little the average adult actually reads.
So relax everyone, it’s just fun; it’s not actually a judgment of how well-read you are. Nevertheless, my Facebook friends had some interesting and useful banter about what made the list and important books and authors that didn’t make the list.
Here’s my own list of 100 important books that didn’t make the Facebook/BBC list, in no particular order of preference. It’s a highly idiosyncratic and in no way judgmental list, incredibly biased towards stuff I’ve read and stuff I like, or found particularly formative. I haven’t read all of these; a few are things I think I should have read and haven’t.
If you like, give it the Facebook treatment and see how you do. (Copy and paste into a comment, star what you’ve read.) Tell me your own–what are your most important books that haven’t made anyone’s list?
1. The Hunchback of Notre Dame–Victor Hugo
2. The Poisonwood Bible–Barbara Kingsolver
3. Caucasia–Danzy Senna
4. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl–Linda Brent
5. American Gods–Neil Gaiman
6. Like Water for Chocolate–Laura Esquivel
7. Middlesex–Jeffrey Eugenides
8. White Oleander–Janet Fitch
9. The Alchemist–Paulo Coelho
10. 2001: A Space Odyssey–Arthur C. Clarke
11. Fahrenheit 451–Ray Bradbury
12. Pillars of the Earth–Ken Follett
13. Girl, Interrupted–Susanna Kaysen
14. Interpreter of Maladies–Jhumpa Lahiri
15. The Lacuna–Barbara Kingsolver
16. The Millennium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc.)–Stieg Larsson
17. The Woman Warrior–Maxine Hong Kingston
18. Native Speaker–Chang-rae Lee
19. Wicked–Gregory Maguire
20. Beloved–Toni Morrison
21. A Canticle for Leibowitz–Walter M. Miller
22. No-No Boy–John Okada
23. Fight Club–Chuck Palahniuk
24. The Stolen Child–Keith Donohue
25. The Red Tent–Anita Diamant
26. God’s Mountain–Erri De Luca
27. House of Leaves–Mark Z. Danielewski
28. The Prince of Tides–Pat Conroy
29. The Mists of Avalon–Marion Zimmer Bradley
30. The Once and Future King–T.H. White
31. Atlas Shrugged–Ayn Rand
32. The Joy Luck Club–Amy Tan
33. Frankenstein–Mary Shelley
34. A Soldier of the Great War–Mark Helprin
35. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil–John Berendt
36. Slaughterhouse 5–Kurt Vonnegut
37. The Demon-Haunted World–Carl Sagan
38. On the Origin of Species–Charles Darwin (If I had to pick ONE book that should be required reading in school, at the very least for anyone who ever takes a science class, this would be it. Not only is it the basis of the practice of modern biology, it’s not that hard to read, fun, clever, and doesn’t remotely say what over half of Americans think it does.)
39. Till We Have Faces–C.S. Lewis
40. The Neverending Story–Michael Ende
41. Into the Wild–John Krakauer
42. The Last Temptation of Christ–Nikos Kazantzakis
43. A Little Princess–Frances Hodgson Burnett
44. The Giver–Lois Lowry
45. Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister–Gregory Maguire
46. Possum Living–Dolly Freed
47. Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal–Christopher Moore
48. Breakfast at Tiffany’s–Truman Capote
49. The Time Quartet (A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters)–Madeleine L’Engle
50. Maus–Art Spiegelman
51. Reviving Ophelia–Mary Pipher
52. Cat’s Cradle–Kurt Vonnegut
53. Pudd’nhead Wilson–Mark Twain
54. A Gesture Life–Chang-rae Lee
55. Ishmael–Daniel Quinn
56. Something Wicked This Way Comes–Ray Bradbury
57. A Tale of Two Cities–Charles Dickens
58. Last of the Mohicans–James Fenimore Cooper
59. Walden–Henry David Thoreau
60. The Passage–Justin Cronin
61. The Canterbury Tales–Chaucer
62. Mystic River–Dennis LeHane
63. The Earthsea Cycle (A Wizard of Earthsea, etc.)–Ursula K. LeGuin
64. Jacob Have I Loved–Katherine Paterson
65. The Silmarillion–JRR Tolkien
66. The Screwtape Letters–C.S. Lewis
67. Shoeless Joe–W.P. Kinsella
68. The Feminine Mystique–Betty Friedan
69. The Scarlet Letter–Nathaniel Hawthorne
70. Wonderboys–Michael Chabon
71. The Iliad/The Odyssey–Homer (This is how we were taught The Odyssey in high school: our 9th grade language arts class was divided up into groups of 3 or 4, and each group was assigned one section of the tale–one of the adventures of Odysseus and his crew–and had to read it and present it in book report form to the rest of the class. So we “learned” The Odyssey, but no one actually had to read the whole thing. It was the stupidest thing ever. And I still haven’t gotten around to correcting the situation and just reading it.)
72. My Sister’s Keeper–Jodi Picoult
73. The Diary of Anne Frank–Anne Frank
74. The Tipping Point–Malcolm Gladwell
75. The Magicians–Lev Grossman
76. Awakenings–Oliver Sacks
77. The Faerie Queene–Edmund Spenser
78. Anthem–Ayn Rand
79. A Farewell to Arms–Ernest Hemingway
80. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest–Ken Kesey
81. Johnny Tremain–Esther Forbes
82. Matilda–Roald Dahl
83. The Outsiders–S.E. Hinton
84. Flowers for Algernon–Daniel Keyes
85. Bridge to Terebithia–Katherine Paterson
86. Neverwhere–Neil Gaiman
87. The Chocolate War–Robert Cormier
88. Only Revolutions–Mark Z. Danielewski
89. The Winter’s Tale–Mark Helprin
90. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry–Mildred Taylor
91. Angels of Destruction–Keith Donohue
92. The Laramie Project–Moises Kaufman (Yes, technically a play; give yourself credit if you’ve seen it)
93. His Master’s Voice–Stanislaw Lem
94. Franny and Zooey–JD Salinger
95. The Satanic Verses–Salman Rushdie
96. Angels in America (Also a play, well, technically two plays)–Tony Kushner
97. Griffin and Sabine–Nick Bantock
98. The Koran
99. Little House in the Big Woods–Laura Ingalls Wilder
100. Beowulf–author unknown
October 7, 2010
A couple of posts ago I mentioned that my apartment is without a television. We actually wind up mentioning this fact fairly often, whenever we’re once again looking for a subleaser to live in our third bedroom. After one round of Craigslist roommate hunting a few years ago, we realized that most people still took the presence of a TV for granted, while we had long taken its absence for granted, and then blessedly realized that explicitly mentioning our lack of a TV, and lack of any desire to acquire one, in a roommate ad, vastly decreased the number of responses from people who were unlikely to be suitable roommates anyway.
We do still watch some TV; Emily #2 has a Netflix subscription, and most of what little I want is online for free. We just don’t have a TV. I think it certainly cuts down on the total amount of TV watching that we do, as well nearly eliminating passive, stupid TV watching. Everything we watch has to be a conscious decision; we can’t just leave the TV on in the background and thus wind up sitting in front of it all night. Even watching stupid TV has to be a conscious decision (Hoarders. I’m guilty).
People know that stuff is all online these days. People increasingly do not watch shows one episode at a time in their original television runs, but in marathons from Netflix. Still, the typical response, when it comes up that we don’t have a TV, is almost without variation:
But what do you do?!
It never fails to horrify me, that incredulous question. Or amaze me how short the collective memory of humanity is.
What do we do without television? Things that people did before there was television, I guess. Here are some of them:
1. We talk to each other. Most of the nights that I’ve inadvertently stayed up way past a reasonable bedtime were because Emily #2 and I got into a conversation and couldn’t get out.
2. We drink, and talk to each other.
3. We cook. Usually when people say they don’t have time to cook, I wonder how much TV they watch.
4. We read. The internet, the newspaper, books. (“When I was your age, television was called books!” ~ The Princess Bride)
5. We listen to the radio. Yes, I know This American Life is available as a podcast. There’s still something ephemerally great about sitting around the kitchen on Saturday afternoon and just listening to it. During both the 2004 and 2008 election seasons, we listened to most of the presidential candidate debates rather than watching them, and it was really fascinating what a difference in perception we’d have from people who watched them on the quality of argumentation, the importance of certain answers over others, even who won.
6. We write. Emily #2 is a playwright. And I’m a letter-writer, and a journal-writer, and now I guess, a blogger.
7. We work. Both of us are in theater/entertainment; we work long hours and we work at night. And the saying “truth is stranger than fiction” is true; it’s stranger and it’s way more entertaining. Very little of what gets made up to put on television can beat the reality of what we go through every night in live theater for suspense or entertainment value.
We don’t miss it–the ceaseless noise or mindless chatter. We like our neighborhood because it’s quiet. We had a roommate once who said she’d be okay without it, and then really, really wasn’t and kept trying to pressure us into getting one. Literally, there isn’t even room in a single room of our apartment to put one, and we told her that we’re not paying the rent to live in New York City in order to sit in front of the TV. I seriously don’t think I envision ever owning a TV again.