February 28, 2010
About five years ago I read The Poisonwood Bible, and loved it so much that I figured I would never read another book by Barbara Kingsolver. I was too afraid of being disappointed; I couldn’t believe that she’d ever manage to live up to the accomplishment of that book. So for five years, I didn’t touch another of Kingsolver’s novels. A friend gave me Animal, Vegetable, Miracle for my birthday, which I did adore, but that didn’t count since it was a completely different medium and genre.
Well, my stepmother, who adored Poisonwood Bible on about the same level that I did, gave me The Lacuna for Christmas, in open defiance of my oft-stated fear of reading any more Kingsolver ever. I couldn’t not read a Christmas present…though the shabby reviews I’d heard had me convinced more than ever that this would only be a let-down after Poisonwood Bible.
Ignore the reviews. They didn’t get it. The book isn’t even about what they say it’s about. It’s not even about what the dust jacket says it’s about. Honestly, this book touched me so personally and deeply that at first I thought I wouldn’t even be able to write about it publicly at all.
The first thing to understand is that The Lacuna is a character-driven story. And I have never, never empathized with a character before like I did with Harrison Shepherd. I’ve had favorite characters–Lyra of His Dark Materials, Astrid of White Oleander, Adah in Poisonwood–but never felt the sense of connection with a protagonist’s inner life that I did with Shepherd, whom we follow in the novel from a lonely 12-year-old boy to an accomplished author as an adult, before his life is ruined by the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings of the early 1950’s.
Kingsolver’s remarkable and uncanny sense of character voice is on display again here as it was in Poisonwood. The story is narrated mostly but not entirely by Shepherd himself, through his journals and personal papers, collected and curated by his faithful secretary at the end of his life. Often, I would forget entirely that I was not in fact reading the personal diary of an odd teenage boy, but the novel of a middle-aged woman. He was utterly real to me. He’s a perpetual outsider, always torn between worlds but belonging to none, intensely emotionally immersed in each place he lives but forever without a real home. Raised in both the US and Mexico, dualities and contradictions persist throughout and rule his life: he’s able to love deeply but never feel loved. He has no native language. He’s a writer of wildly popular historical fiction, but who has no understanding of how people actually think. His lawyer has to explain to him that the anti-communism sweeping the country has almost nothing whatsoever to do with actual communism. “They think I’m too lucky?” he asks incredulously of the people who resent him for the comfortable life he eventually attains, without seeing what mere survival has cost him. And ultimately, though he will not speak up for himself, believing that “God speaks for the silent man,” he is betrayed by his own words anyway.
The “lacuna” of the title is literally an underwater cave, and summaries of the book call it symbolic of the difference between private reality and public presentation, but it’s more than that: it’s the inadequacy of language to tell some truths, the void of understanding in any story, the missing piece, which Kingsolver says is always the most important piece, whether of a story or of a person; the most important thing is the one you don’t know.
Other negative reviews have accused that Shepherd is too passive an observer of history to be engaging, too retiring and bashful a representative of the everyman participant in major events that Kingsolver means him to be, but this misses the point. His life is an emblem of how events make each of us the people we are–he was forced to play a great part in history just to survive, and was fatally marked by it, but remained a lacuna himself–the part of the story we don’t see.
This is a gorgeous book; Leon Trotsky and Frida Kahlo are magnetic characters that I came to appreciate as people along with Shepherd, and the ending is magical. But the character of Harrison Shepherd is what made me deeply grateful to Kingsolver for The Lacuna.
February 26, 2010
Now this is a respectable snowpocalypse.
It was almost perfectly silent on my street when I walked out my front door this morning, which was incredibly eerie and strange. Silent is not normal in my neighborhood.
The snow looks about 2 feet deep in parts of Central Park. No one out but me, a couple other amateur photographers, and a couple of parents with little kids and sleds.
The hills are in pristine sledding condition, in case you were wondering. Lacking a sled, I just ran full tilt down a hill with flawless dry, powdery snow up to my knees. It was delicious.
Now off to dance rehearsal…..
February 24, 2010
is my new favorite winter midnight/bedtime snack.
Half a cup to a cup leftover brown rice
Milk, just enough to make it soupy
Handful of raisins
Dash of cinnamon
Dash of cardamom
Pinch of raw sugar
Combine in small saucepan and heat and stir JUST until it bubbles. Do not boil. Eat. Go to sleep feeling warm and content. Especially on February nights when the weather outside was invented by Satan himself.
February 23, 2010
The New York Times reports today:
“Because economic progress and educational achievement go hand in hand, educating every American student to graduate prepared for college and success in a new work force is a national imperative,” the White House said in a statement. “Meeting this challenge requires that state standards reflect a level of teaching and learning needed for students to graduate ready for success in college and careers.”
While superficially uncontroversial, the above statement has so many things wrong with it that I almost didn’t know where to start. So why not at the beginning?
“Because economic progress and educational achievement go hand in hand…” Okay, sure, average yearly and lifetime income increases with increasing level of degree attained. People with doctorates make more (on average) than people with masters’ degrees, who make more than people with bachelors’, who make more than people with high school diplomas, who make more than people who didn’t finish high school. On average.
On an individual level, though, isn’t this just a restatement of the false assurance that doing your homework and doing well in school leads to economic security? Nevermind the possibility that you could graduate from college and be able to find no job at all, or be saddled with tens of thousands of dollars of student debts and no foreseeable hope of paying them off? And that some of our most successful artists, scientists, and innovators of all sorts were screw-ups and drop-outs? (Bill Gates and Jamie Oliver come immediately to mind.) Is it college that gives you the skills to earn more money, or are employers demanding college degrees for positions with skill sets that really shouldn’t require them?
Also, implicit in the statement is the assumption that school achievement and educational attainment are the same thing. Or that the latter follows naturally from the former. Not remotely true.
“…educating every American student to graduate prepared for college and success in a new work force is a national imperative.” To mandate that every student must meet any given level or standard is to guarantee that some children will fall short and be labeled failures. Because, simply, people are all different. People all have different aptitudes, different talents, different learning styles. Not inferior, but different. I would hazard to say that most children don’t learn material well the way that school teaches it. Otherwise, why would our educational world be in the mess that it’s in? Kids aren’t learning the material, and not because they’re that dim, because the material isn’t that hard.
Conversely, to make the standards such that everyone achieves them is to make them meaningless on the federal level rather than the state level.
And we need to stop pretending that every student needs to or should go to college. This is the mentality that has made a college degree almost as meaningless and devalued as the high school diploma in terms of what it says about an individual’s knowledge and job readiness. If everyone achieves it, if everyone’s required to achieve that standard for almost any job, what does it mean? Nothing.
“Meeting this challenge requires that state standards reflect a level of teaching and learning needed for students to graduate ready for success in college and careers.” States can say anything about what their standards are. High schools can say anything about what they’re teaching. But you can’t just demand a high level of teaching and assume that what the schools are teaching is in fact what is needed for success in college and work. And in my experience, the quality of what is being taught in K-12 is not remotely what is needed for success in college and beyond. It doesn’t matter how much content you memorize or how well you can take a standardized test, no matter how high the level of reading or math that it’s testing, if you can’t use those skills in an integrated way with personal drive, self-discipline, reasoning, discussion, creative problem solving, and project organization, which are the skills that college success depends on, along with open-mindedness and receptiveness to constructive criticism. Unless middle and high school have changed a lot since I was there, students aren’t being judged on these criteria, but on their ability to follow directions. But you can’t write state educational standards based on those things because you can’t standardized-test them. You can only see them in actual accomplishment.
And you can’t demand any level of learning, at all. That only comes from individual motivation, ambition and desire. You can frighten or coerce kids into performing at a certain level, for a limited amount of time, but you can’t make them learn, at any level. Your state standards can reflect whatever you want; it doesn’t mean it’s happening.
While I sure think this statement of purpose would be an improvement over the current No Child Left Behind, according to which, apparently, states get to decide for themselves what constitutes “challenging” reading and math standards, making state standards ultimately meaningless, I still think it’s well-intentioned but ultimately misses the point of what education should be and will propagate the same problems on the national level.
“In better aligning the law to support college- and career-ready standards,” the White House statement said, its proposed rewrite of the No Child Left Behind law would “require all states to adopt and certify that they have college- and career-ready standards which may include common standards developed by a state-led consortium, as a condition of qualifying for Title I funding.”
Is this what they meant by that?
February 22, 2010
Has anyone else noticed this tendency? The Times could be doing some really valuable on-the-ground reporting of the effects of the recession on everyday individual Americans who, despite working hard and doing everything right have found their lives, careers, health, and security unraveled by economic forces far beyond their control. But their reporters keep choosing to highlight really bad poster children. (I’m sure many people remember these two.)
I’m about to walk a really, really fine line of victim-blaming and mentally distinguishing the “deserving” from “undeserving” poor here. I know that.
Sunday’s article, “The New Poor: Millions of Unemployed Face Years Without Jobs,” about the mal-adaptability of our social safety net to long-term, intractable unemployment, profiles Jean Eisen, out of work for two years now. Her unemployment insurance extension just ran out for the second time. She’s doing without medication, getting groceries from the food pantry, and willing to do just about any job she’s able to do, no matter how menial. The 6-month unemployment rate of women in her age group has doubled since the early 1980’s, according to the article.
My heart was with her, until this line: “She and her husband now settle their bills with only his $1,595 monthly disability check. The rent on their apartment is $1,380.”
Okay. I don’t know what cost of living is like in southern California, but there are 1-bedroom apartments cheaper than that in NYC. And $1,595 is more than I usually make per month working. And up until recently, when the latest extension expired, she was also getting $702 biweekly from unemployment. I understand it takes money to move, plus deposit and first month’s rent, but seriously? It sounds like these people showed no forethought whatsoever much, much earlier in their unemployment, when they would’ve still had the cash to move to a cheaper apartment so as not to strain their savings with $1,400 rent.
After a trip to the food bank, she says “I’ve got 10 bags of pinto beans. And I have no clue how to cook a pinto bean.”
All of which helps explain why Ms. Eisen — who has never before struggled to find work — feels a familiar pain each time she scans job listings on her computer: There are positions in health care, most requiring experience she lacks. Office jobs demand familiarity with software she has never used.
She has no idea how to cook a pinto bean? Okay, knowing how to cook beans isn’t probably going to get her off unemployment, but…she doesn’t have the skills, or the mental initiative, to get out a cookbook and look it up? She’s been out of work for two years and hasn’t tried to learn some of the computer or accounting skills that office jobs ask for?
I’m not overlooking or denying the import of the facts here that there are 6 applicants for every single job available in this country, that manufacturing jobs that used to pay enough to raise a family on have disappeared overseas, that high school and even college degrees used to mean a whole lot more than they do now, that medical costs are crushing, that age discrimination is a big problem for older women especially, that something is very, very wrong when Ms. Eisen could earn $13.25 per hour, plus bonus and benefits, with a high school diploma in the 1980’s, and in 2010, I can earn the about the same ($14.50), LESS after inflation actually, on a good day, without any benefits, with two college degrees and a prestigious internship under my belt. I’m not saying there aren’t deep and nefarious economic forces at work here beyond any of our individual influence, or that people aren’t suffering and legitimately afraid of homelessness who worked hard their whole lives, saved, lived within their means, didn’t buy homes they couldn’t afford, and have done everything rational to cut back on expenses and still find themselves driven to the brink. I’m confused at the Times’ seeming selective inability to find them. (Because they did, several weeks ago, for an article on the 6 million Americans now living on no income other than food stamps.)
But doesn’t it say something about why this woman can’t find a job that she’s not mentally self-reliant or literate enough to look up the instructions for cooking beans, or try to pick up some computer skills in two years of unemployment?
And even at that, I don’t really blame her.
Our entire educational system encourages passivity and obedience for the majority of students, and blatantly discourages or even punishes inventiveness, independence of thought, critical thinking, high literacy, passion for any subject, skill, or craft that doesn’t fall under the school system’s purview, excellence at anything for its own sake, and an attention span of more than 50 minutes. The overriding lesson is that the way to success, security, and financial comfort is to “work hard,” get good grades, and follow the rules. And it’s a big fat lie. Ms. Eisen probably has gone through life more or less doing what she was told. Doing what she thought she was supposed to. And it’s left her so helpless that she can’t figure out by herself how to cook a pound of beans, let alone pull through a major economic downturn intact.
This is something we are going to have to change about the way we educate kids if we are ever to fix our economy in a sustainable way. And I never, ever hear it talked about in any speeches or pleas for education reform.
And secondly, we’ve got to stop worshipping and fetishizing “middle class” status. What is it, what’s magical about it? As far as I can see, it consists of the ability to live in the suburbs and maintain a lot of stuff that people don’t actually need to live well. As far as I can tell, the Eisens are in the trouble they are now largely because they maintained their middle class life long after they couldn’t really afford it. People don’t think about what they need; they just consume. We as a society need to stop shaming the non-middle class, and stop being afraid to live with less. Or rather, I think it’s time we demand more social benefits—affordable college, healthcare, public transit and healthy environment—and learn how to live well without more superfluous material ones.
And the Times is, quite unintentionally I’m sure, trivializing the real severity of the economic situation for a lot of people right now by choosing as its emblematic economic victims people who couldn’t find their way out of a paper bag in any kind of hardship.