Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Best Institution Ever Invented, or Thank You Benjamin Franklin

I take my son to the library to get his first card.  As we pull a bunch of books, movies, and cds from the shelves, he becomes increasingly concerned and finally says, “Daddy, we can’t afford all of these.”  I explain, “They’ll let us take them.  For free.”  His expression turns to amazement as if he can’t believe this is true.  When I explain, “But we have to take care of them, and we have to bring them back,” he nods and says, “That’s fair.”

I know how my son feels.  Forty years after getting my own first card (at the Shawnee Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana), I still feel a sense of amazement at having access to so many materials.  It is almost, as Vizzini says in Princess Bride, “inconceivable.”  Wait, you’re going to let me take home anything in here?  For free?  What’s the catch?

Lending libraries are beautiful in their basic ideals.  In enabling people to educate themselves, they are the most empowering and humanistic of institutions.

In a very real way, libraries have shaped who I am, so perhaps it’s not surprising that when I gave my wife a tour of places where I grew up, it turned out to be, in part, a tour of libraries.  Some of these were run down.  Some no longer existed.  None of them were architectural wonders.  Yet I loved each one because when I walked in I felt a sense of possibility.

I still feel it.

This is a part of a fuller post for The Library As Incubator project.  The entire piece can be seen here.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Kilgore Trout, Rudolph, and the Grinch

            This time of year I sometimes find myself thinking about "The Gospel from Outer Space" by Kilgore Trout, a character who appears in a number of works by Kurt Vonnegut.  In Slaughterhouse-Five, a fan of Trout's, Eliot Rosewater, describes the story which is about an alien who comes to earth and studies why Christians can be so cruel. He concludes:   

... at least part of the trouble was slipshod storytelling in the New Testament. He supposed that the intent of the Gospels was to teach people, among other things, to be merciful, even to the lowest of the low. But the Gospels actually taught this:
  Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn’t well connected. 
      So it goes. 
      The flaw in the Christ stories, said the visitor from outer space, was that Christ, who didn’t look like much, was actually the Son of the Most Powerful Being of the Universe. Readers understood that, so, when they came to the crucifixion, they naturally thought, and Rosewater read out loud again:  
Oh, boy — they sure picked the wrong guy to lynch that time!
 And then that thought had a brother: “There are right people to lynch." Who? People not well connected.
      So it goes.
      The visitor from outer space made a gift to Earth of a new Gospel. In it, Jesus really was a nobody, and a pain in the neck to a lot of people with better connections than he had. He still got to say all the lovely and puzzling things he said in the other Gospels.
 So the people amused themselves one day by nailing him to a cross and planting the cross in the ground. There couldn’t possibly be any repercussions, the lynchers thought. The reader would have to think that, too, since the new Gospel hammered home again and again what a nobody Jesus was. 
And then, just before the nobody died, the heavens opened up, and there was thunder and lightning. The voice of God came crashing down. He told the people that he was adopting the bum as his son, giving him the full powers and privileges of The Son of the Creator of the Universe throughout all eternity. God said this: From this moment on, He will punish horribly anybody who torments a bum who has no connections!

             Slipshod story-telling and unintended lessons. 
             That’s what there is in a lot of our classic holiday films as well.  Consider two.
             In the claymation Rudolph the Rednose Reindeer, the story is a mess.  First, Santa, the supposed representative of human generosity and kindness, is a jerk.  He has no patience with the elves.  He can't be bothered to even pretend to listen to the new elf song.  
            Second, although the film's intentions are good -- Celebrate diversity.  We should be free to be you and me even if we're wage slaves trapped at the North Pole – it’s odd that one of the poster boys for non-conformity and difference is a blue-eyed, blond, wannabe dentist.  .
             Third, and most importantly, Rudolph is scorned until it turns out that he’s useful. He’s not accepted simply for who he is, but because who he is can be put to work at a key moment.  (This is a common dynamic in kid’s movies.  Mumbles in Happy Feet is an outcast until he saves the community.  Stuart Little keeps being given tasks to do for the family.)  To be fair, the wonderful line "Let's be independent together!" mocks the very ideal it's espousing, so perhaps the film knows what it's doing.  Perhaps the whole thing is a satire.

            Then there’s The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.  

            As with so many works of literature, it deals with the seductiveness of evil.  The villain is the reason for the story and the only appealing part.  The Grinch has ingenuity, verve, style, and a plan.  He also has a terrific theme song and a likable sidekick, Max, (whose presence probably suggests from the beginning he’s not really bad.  After all, if Max likes him…).  As often happens, when the Grinch changes, and his heart grows three sizes too big, he becomes boring.  No villain, no story.
            The Grinch wants to be about embracing the messy loudness of life.  The Whoville’s celebration of Christmas is portrayed as a chaotic cacophony of play.  When the Grinch talks about what he hates, he concentrates on the sounds.  What gets to him is the noise.  The noise, Noise, NOISE, NOISE!   He takes the Whos' toys, presents, food, trappings and trimmings, because he wants them to shut-up.  What does he do on Christmas morning?  He listens, and when he hears the Whos sing, he is shocked.  One way to read the story is that it’s about becoming a parent, or at least an uncle, and embracing the community of loud messy children.  No matter what you do, you won’t be able to get them to be quiet.  So, join them.  The Grinch goes from silently slinking around to literally blowing a horn and making a joyful noise himself.  But, frankly, I don't buy it.  Ernest Hemingway once said about Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that it was a great book, but you had to ignore the ending which was cheating.  I feel the same way about The Grinch.
            But, to me, the fundamental issue is that the chaotic joy is tied too tightly to possessions.  The Grinch wants to say that Christmas isn't about the stuff, but everyone still gets to have the stuff.  While his motives may have been wrong, the Grinch was on the right track.  Take all the crap away.  I don't care who you are; why do you need a three story high sled full of toys?  What are you going to do with all that stuff?  Similar to the “The Gospel from Outer Space,” it would have been more moving to see the Grinch pitch all the Whosville presents off the mountain, then have them sing and and then still welcome him.  Just as he was.  Unchanged.  Gnarled heart and useless. 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

A Dozen Things Not to Say to a Poet

1) You write poetry?  Oh, that's nice.  Good for you.
2)  I used to write poetry…when I was young.
3)  You should make a poem out of this.
4)  Do you do any other writing?  Any real writing?
5)  How much money do you make from poetry?
6)  There was a poem I read in school once that I liked, but most of it…oh, man…wtf.
7)  I just wrote this.  Could you read it real quick and tell me what you think?
8)  Could you give me your email or address?  I want to send you some work and then you can tell me where I can get it published.
9)  I really want to buy your book but I’m not going to right now because:  I already bought a book/I left my wallet in the car/I’m hoping to find it at Ed McKay’s/unless you buy mine…
10) Do you think song lyrics are poetry?  I mean what about:   Dylan/Jim Morrison/rap...
11) You should write poems for weddings.  People listen to them.
12)  But you look so normal.

And a bonus

12)  Do you know Billy Collins?  Now, he’s good. You should send him your stuff.

Saturday, December 7, 2013