Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Reading Between the Tines

I've been thinking a lot today about perspective and distance, and also about whether small, random acts of kindness really matter. "Of course they do," we would almost all say hastily, and the whole "pay it forward" ideology/theology has been the subject of several movies (one of the same name) and at least one commercial. Honestly, I thought the movie was stupid and the whole idea frankly seems a little self-serving (i.e. we're always thinking about how our "deposits" will be returned). At the same time, like anyone else, I spend a lot of time trying to assess whether or not I am a good person and how I would know that. But the patterns just don't "make" up any quilt-like sense to me. Sometimes I feel sort of exhausted at trying to follow these lines to understand my own life (which I don't, let's be clear).

This morning I was reading through a journal called The American Scholar, mainly because I am supposed to be writing a book review about a novel whose main characters are a swimmer and a wrestler, and there is a GREAT article about swimming literature in it. But I digress. As I was reading through the magazine, I found an interesting poem called "It Cannot Be Said For Certain" by Kay Ryan.

It cannot be
said for certain
that imagining
a pattern is
Our acts could
matter. At some
unfathomed distance
the random
could condense
to something -- say
a fork -- against
the velvet dark.
The silver shiver
that we get from
time to time
somewhere adding
up to silver. The
vacancies we suffer
the necessary black
between the tines.

I really like this poem because:
1. I would like to believe that even the random dark is a part of necessary design.
2. Sound is essential to the poem's way of making meaning (try reading it out loud!)
3. I spend a lot of time trying to "understand" life, and sometimes I need to be reminded that I can't necessarily have the perspective I would like.
4. It's short.
5. I think even a fork can be being meaningful (or not meaningful). This made me think of a particular random moment in Paris when I picked up a pen for a guy and he said something to me that I couldn't understand.


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

August 1987

This is a picture of my brother (blue Hawaiian get-up), sister (front row), and me (take a wild guess) with some friends of ours from St. Louis. I put it on here for no other reason than it makes me laugh. Cross-dressing, anyone?!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Hope Was Here, And Left When Things Got Stale

Shelly's Self-Indulgent Book Review #1 (in which I make no attempt to really convey the plot or meaning of the novel, but instead write a poorly written and shamelessly meandering rant about the state of young adult novels in general. Also, I don't use but a few quotes to back up my argument, which would then give me a barely passing grade, if one were to think those things important).

I just read Hope Was Here, a Newbery Honor Book written by Joan Bauer and published in 2000. I bought it at The Conference on Christianity and Literature in Grand Rapids, MI, off a long table full of books, some with "Christian" themes and perspectives, some without. This, unfortunately, finds itself somewhere luke-warmy in the middle. I'm not glad I spent 7.99 on it, but I do like the front cover (go look it up yourself). It's a story about Hope, a spunky 14-year-old who moves with her aunt Addie to Mulhoney, Wisconsin, to work in the Welcome Staircase diner (which, of course, has two staircases leading up and down from the front door. Cue the symbolism). Her aunt is a goddess at the griddle, and Hope is the kind of waitress I fantasized about being when I was a teenager: able to think on her feet, chit-chat with customers and carry four plates of pancakes on one arm. Instead, I was more suited for lazing in the lifeguard's chair and occasionally dumping ice from my Sonic super-sized drink on the pool rats who irritated me. But I digress. In this book, the word hope (Hope, like I said, being the main character) is so over-used -- it's literal AND symbolic, get it?! -- I almost forgot what the plot centered around... oh right, the diner where Addie and Hope work is run by a man named G.T., who has terminal cancer and has just made the decision to run for mayor against the corrupt incumbent, Eli Millstone. Millstone has ties to the big, bad dairy plant that has been milking the town for centuries.

More importantly, hope is also blossoming in the form of romantic relationships between Addie and G.T., not to mention Hope and the line cook named Braverman, who apparently is very sweaty and dark-haired. But Braverman knows how to shake hands and solicit votes, so he's a real catch. Now, Hope has not always been hopeful, as one might guess. She was basically abandoned by her mother, Deena, who is also a waitress of the genius variety, and who sends her bits of insight (the best part of the novel, let's be honest) about waitressy things like keeping lemon wedges under the counter, a bottle of Tylenol in your pocket, and mentioning new salad dressings so customers will try new things. Now, some of you might know that I have a slight obsession with waitresses, especially those of a particular species, so these reminders were very helpful for my dream job, if I ever decide to leave the ivory tower (note to self: research the phrase "ivory tower").

In closing, the rest of the book is similar to a Hallmark Special. The Hope-isms and insight this 14-year-old delivers are overwrought with double-entendre and hokey observations like: "The rest of the morning went down like cold rolls with a hot meal" or this little gem of a conversation:
[I gave him the short-order truth (Hope to G.T.). "You look like a plate of cold fried eggs. No offense."
"Lost my appeal, huh?"
"It's best the customers don't see the food in that condition."
"You don't mince words."
"Just garlic," I reminded him and led him to the truck.]
Now, I am a fan of the well-placed metaphor, as well as creativity in description. But why the Newbury Honor committee decided to serve up the award for this cup of overbrewed coffee is beyond me. It's as if Bauer just let it sit too long, thinking, "I know I could come up with something better than this... hey, I could compare it to chicken fried steak." If there's one thing young adults cannot stand, it's forced sentimentality or preciousness disguised as "spunk." I will leave you with this quote from Hope's negligent mother to summarize the most important truth that comes early on:
"No matter what happens in the world, from war breaking out to computers taking over our minds and bodies, there's always going to be a need for a good waitress who can keep the coffee coming and add up the check in her head" (p. 29). Well, maybe that's a bit of wisdom I can say Amen to, as long as the coffee you're serving is fresh.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Bruce Almighty

Here's something new with me: In addition to Top Chef, Stephen Colbert, swing dancing, my traveling pants and the talkative little boy named Alan who lives next door, I'm in love with Bruce Springsteen's music. I'm not an expert by any means; please don't ask me to list random facts about his concerts, covers or album marginalia. I only started to listen to his music about a year ago (thanks to all my friends who have sent me songs and encouraged this investigation), but I feel like I am having an awakening to what music can really DO and MEAN in people's lives. I guess I was waiting for the right kind of music to come along.
In my freshman English class, we ended the semester by talking about argument and story-telling in music, and I had them bring in their own music, and we read the lyrics and talked about boring Englishy things. My choice was to listen to this song ("Thunder Road" from VH1 Storytellers). I have to tell you that I cannot even watch the first couple of chords without my eyes filling with tears. The first stanza kills me every time. Have any of you ever felt that you didn't want to listen to someone's music because you would never hear that next song for the first time again?

My students' feedback: "That's creepy. Why would you want to get in the car with that guy?"
My reply: "Um, because it's Bruce. You'll understand when you're thirty."

Here's another really great recording from 1978, "Prove It All Night" (thanks Nathan's friend Jeff C.). And a list of some semi-cliched but still relevant lessons about life and writing I've learned from Bruce Almighty:
1. Do everything with passion.
2. Don't worry if your stories are simple. They're yours.
3. It's all about the details.
4. Be real.
5. Wearing bracelets can be cool for men and women.

Saturday, April 12, 2008


Writing Boston

At first there is no reason
to describe
a vacation in Boston,
no reason to recite lists of dishes
served at dusk
and carefully recorded in your notebook:
strip steak
artichoke hearts
tangerine flan.

No reason to relate a meal devoured
across from your brother
in a strange but familiar town
you lived in for just two years
(he says it like that, just…)

You try to forge stories from meals and memories,
and you drag him to that theater
with your name carved in the seat
and the magician’s dirty yellow robe
under plexiglass in the lobby.

But no amount of sitting
on the public garden bench
by the white gazebo
can transport you back
to those two years,
place the subway card in the reader,
conjure the smell of beer and newspaper
for the cuff of your sweater.

On the plane ride home, though,
storyless as a shopping list,
you think about tangerine flan
and waking up
on your brother’s busted air mattress
to children in blue hoodies
suspended on jungle gym bars.

Then suddenly you reach up
to push the tiny round button
with the light bulb in the center,
flounder for a pen
because you’ve remembered
the little blonde girl
with a crooked smile
who stood at the fence with a stick,
peeling back the layers
of leaf and stem
like so many words.

Friday, April 4, 2008

#5 in a series on Young Adult literature

"Then I must have slipped into a sort of sleep for a few minutes before I was standing on a starting-block, then swimming around in the sea and between me and the shore was this gigantic surf, not the rolling kind which you could, with luck, ride to safety, but the evil dumping kind, which makes a point of hurling its victims head-first into the sand, breaking every bone before washing your body ashore, and now I have to choose between the surf and a school of sharks, I am Tinman again, crumpled silver tossed ashore, but look what else the surf throws up on to the moonlit sand, Miss Macrae in full costume as a witch from Macbeth, with blacked-out teeth, more skull than face, Andy in school uniform, but covered with blood and his handsome face set in a smiling death mask, terrifying in its smoothness and perfection, and a female body, broken and twisted by the force of the sea, which I recognize as myself..."

-- from Tessa Duder's In Lane Three, Alex Archer, pg. 235-236

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

#4 in a series on Young Adult literature

"Right," Brother Leon answered, making the check against the name. Looking up, he called, "Renault."
The pause. The damn pause.
The Goober felt as if his eyes were the lens for a television camera in one of those documentaries. He swung around in Jerry's direction and saw his friend's face, white, mouth half-open, his arms dangling at his sides. And then he swiveled to look at Brother Leon and saw the shock on the teacher's face, his mouth forming an oval of astonishment. It seemed almost as if Jerry and the teacher were reflections in a mirror.
Finally Brother Leon looked down.
"Renault," he said again, his voice like a whip.
"No. I'm not going to sell the chocolates."
Cities fell. Earth opened. Planets tilted. Stars plummeted. And the awful silence.

-- from Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War (1974), pg. 89