le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

a gift on my birthday

My birthday is at the end of June, and this year happened to coincide with ALA. I was lucky enough to attend one ALA, years ago in Atlanta; I don't have the finances to go again, but maybe someday....
At any rate, on the day of my birthday, Little, Brown tweeted a contest - 25 sets of Why We Broke Up magnets to those who couldn't attend ALA.
Because I love Maira Kalman's art, and I quite enjoyed Why We Broke Up, I emailed as instructed, shamelessly referencing my birthday. To my absolutely delighted surprise, a few days later I got an email from Little, Brown, asking for my mailing address so they could send me the magnets.


They're lovely, of course, and I'm excited to have won something (I don't do a whole lot of winning). I LOVE having book-related things - tie-ins sounds so corporate and capitalistic, so I don't like using that phrase - and I love that the magnets highlight Kalman's art, which is half of why the book is so great. I'd love to see more book projects like that one (and more magnets to accompany them?)

So, many thanks to Little, Brown for publishing Why We Broke Up, for creating such a charming magnet set, and for choosing to send one of those sets to me.
I love them!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

now you've made me angry

Waiting in line at the grocery store, I saw this issue of Newsweek on the stand. I was trying to figure out who the woman playing soccer was, and then I noticed the smaller headline above her.
And I got angry. Really, really angry.


My very first coherent thought, once the bubbles of red rage subsided, was "What an awful thing to say!"

I keep coming back to this as I try to sort out just why I'm so angry and what to do about it - how to translate my anger into something like policy or philosophy or even just a personal opinion. And ultimately, it's that this is an awful thing to say.

How would you like to be told you were "Generation Screwed"? How would you like to be told that when you're 22, just finished college, struggling to find a job? Or when you're 26 and you've been out of school for several years and are working a menial job that barely pays the bills, because there's nothing else? How would you like to be told that your 18-year-old child, who you're about to pack off to school, is screwed?

The meanness of this is breathtaking. It's the exclamation point at the end that really does it, I think - there's something kind of gleeful about the declaration - you're screwed! ha!
Actually, what that assertion should mean is, if you're over 35, you need to take a good long look at what you've done to contribute to the screwing-over of the people coming up behind you. If you've done the kind of damage that leaves over 22% of the population "screwed," then you ought to be Generation Ashamed.

I won't bother finding examples of Bright Young People Making A Difference. Those stories are boring, and they distract us from real problems. You can always find instances of people succeeding when others are struggling, and usually the main keys to their success are luck, luck, luck, and privilege. Nor do I need to point out all the things working against this cohort - those statistics are easy enough to find (un/underemployment, etc etc etc).

What I will say is: telling 22%+ of the population that they're screwed is appallingly mean-spirited and irresponsible. It works to cast that cohort in a position either of despair or fault, neither of which is helpful to anyone. What kind of future can you imagine when you're told your entire generation is screwed? Especially when you've been raised, and lived your whole life, being told that You Can Achieve Anything, if you Just Work Hard Enough. Or if you've been told that Education Is The Key, so you take on student loans, only to be told after graduation that - you're screwed! (oh, that exclamation point is making my blood boil).

That headline ought to say: How we've screwed the 18-35 generation.
Or, even more productively, How to help 18-35 year olds

Mean-spiritedness aside, the you're screwed headline absolves anyone of responsibility - it isn't passive voice but it might as well be. It's wildly unproductive, too - when faced with a problem, pointing out the problem isn't helpful. It's like an onlooker standing on the sidewalk and saying: You're trapped in a burning building! when what he should be doing is calling 911, and looking for other ways to help.

The media's habit of crapping on teenagers has, I've noticed, been creeping upward in age. It's not just teenagers, it's early twentysomethings, it's "millennials," it's ages 18-35.  The rhetoric of reproach and scolding tone hasn't changed, though the fear is less prominent in the talk about post-teenaged young people. Now, the discourse is no longer about how dangerous and irresponsible the young people are, it's about how they're just hopeless and screwed and, maybe, just maybe, deserve it. Borrowing all that student loan money? Irresponsible! Not able to pay your bills? Well, why do you think you should live well? There's a misplaced recrimination here for a perceived sense of entitlement, I think - as if millions of un and underemployed young people are really just whining about not being able to borrow the car on Friday night.

The hell of this all is that the younger end of the 18-35 range don't know they're screwed, and won't believe it when they're told. I saw this with my (fairly privileged) freshmen last fall; they all dismissed the Occupy Wall Street concerns dealing with young people's issues (underemployment, low pay, crushing student debt), and confidently told me that all you had to do was work hard and want a job badly enough, and you'd get it.
They have no idea what's coming.

The real problems to be solved are large and bulky and systemic, just the kind that no one ever wants to deal with. These problems are also ones brought about by the policies and practices of our beloved blessed baby boomers, who appear to be a group of people unable to either accept blame or let someone else sit at the table to work things out.

In a way, though, 18-35 year-olds have always been generation screwed, because - as I have said before, and will continue to say - there is just about no one advocating for them. Once children stop being little, the children's advocacy groups lose interest in them, and then no one cares for a couple of decades, until you become a soccer mom or member of the AARP.
And in the meanwhile, you're screwed, while the very people who screwed you point fingers gleefully.

Friday, July 13, 2012

constructing The Adult

I want to try out an idea. I might be crazy, or this might already have been done - if so, I really, really hope someone will point it out to me. It's something I've been thinking about, in the back of my mind, for well over a year - since teaching Representing Adolescence, and even before then, in tiny embryonic form.
Where it goes is kind of a surprise to me, because I've always been very much of the belief that kids are an oppressed other, that the things we think about children are bad for children, etc. A child-centric view. It's also one that focuses almost entirely on the middle-class, or what passes it for it today; these things do not necessarily apply to those living in or near poverty. But then, our definition of The Child comes from the middle- and upper-classes; the factory worker child or climbing boy isn't the child we think of when we imagine The Child. So there's a huge class problem here, and I'm not trying to avoid it; it's just not part of the current equation of thinking.

So here it is: I think the way we've constructed adulthood against and alongside our construction of childhood is bad for adults. It's bad for children, too, but it's also bad for adults. In the same way that sexism is bad for women and men, so too is our adoration of The Child bad for the child and the grownup.

Disclaimer of sorts: Children, actual children, are still very much an oppressed group in most legal, economic, and political ways. To be a child is to be entirely at the mercy of the adults both local and national (and international, really), without a voice - and that is no good place to be.

But socially, culturally, we've made children into the repository of almost everything good in life. Think about it: when we talk about the way The Child is popularly constructed, we use words like innocent, carefree, playful, natural, free or unrestrained, curious, imaginative. These are all loaded terms, of course, but for the most part they are also positive terms. Who doesn't want to be carefree and unrestrained and imaginative? [okay - there are people who don't want these things. but I'm thinking about our mainstream cultural connotations here].  Even innocence is given positive value, it's seen as a virtue - it doesn't just mean unknowing or virginal, it also means something like trusting, uncynical, believing, unaware of, or protected from, the bad things of this world.

It's easy to see how these are bad things for children, and if you can't figure it out for yourself, there's a ton of writing on the subject for you to read (I recommend, as always, James Kincaid, particularly Erotic Innocence).
It's also been fairly easy to unravel the way that our adoration of youth and youth culture has been bad for women (Kincaid unpacks this very quickly and tidily, in talking about the infantilization of women as sex objects).

But we don't seem to talk much about the blowback these attitudes have for adults. When we're little, we all want to be older. But by college, or so it seems, no one's too eager to fast-forward the clock. Part of the crippling nostalgia we seem to indulge in more and more is provoked, I think, by the fact that we have established childhood as so ideal that adulthood looks like a misery by comparison.

One of the reasons we get freaked out by the toddlers in tiaras is that they are little girls staged as adult women. Yes, sexualized kids is creepy as all get-out; but we also talk about kids who have "grown up too soon," in a very tragic way, as if this is the worst thing that can happen to them.

There are positives to adulthood that adults can identify - you can drink, you can have sex, you can drive a car and set your own bedtime - but they are often counterweighted by some accompanying problem: you can have sex, but babies. diseases. relationships. cheating. You can drive, but fossil fuels and the cost of gas and car repairs and you mostly only drive to work. You can go to bed later, but you're so tired from your day at work and driving and paying bills and grocery shopping that those later hours are just glassy-eyed tv-watching.

Sex and drinking do have negatives, but both are a kind of play, and play is revoked once we pass out of childhood. Right now, Comic Con is going on - thousands of adults convening in san diego to dress up like steampunk gentlemen and anime girls and slave Leia and Batman and Pokemon. And it's become a huge big deal, and grown in popularity. It's a socially-sanctioned playspace for grownups, and not all of the play is about sex, either.
Videogames are another place where we can see play breaking through - gamers aren't just kids and teenagers and slackers in their early 20s. All the multiplayer games and create-your-own-character games and whatnot - those again are all forms of imaginative play. They invite the player to play on several different layers, and millions of adults are happily doing this, and receiving less and less censure from the culture at large.

But we still see adulthood as a fairly rigid, square space. It's all the things childhood isn't - it's restrained, it's not free, it's not innocent (it's knowing, it's experienced, it's jaded), it's artificial. The kind of artistic and playful imagination and curiosity we encourage in young children is not valued once it's being practiced by adults.

I think right now we're seeing some pushback from adults - Comic Con and videogames and the boom in popularity of children's & YA literature, the boom of people doing creative artsy things, even poorly, making their own steampunk hats and goggles and whatnot. There's a huge drive to play that we've repressed for a long time, and I think people are reaching out for that playspace. There's still a lot of resistance to the idea of grownups as play-full, though; play as we conceive of it for children is seen as frivolous. Adults need to be serious. This is a demand of capitalism - play doesn't generate money. Work, the "opposite" of play, does.

There's a lot more to be said here, but this is long enough, and I am really curious about anyone's thoughts on the subject. I may be way off, making things up to stretch a point in the dissertation, or to justify my own issues.

But I do think that, as with most binaries, the one we've constructed of The Child/The Adult needs to be complicated, broken down, made multiple and varied, queered.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Sequels, Crushes and Dalemark

I've been binge-reading Diana Wynne Jones again lately; I think it's because she's my go-to comfort reading, and in this dissertation/conference-heavy summer, I need some comforting. I've also been prompted by the DWJ2012 tumblr to think more about how her books work for me.

I just finished The Crown of Dalemark, the fourth book in the Dalemark quartet. The first time I tried a Dalemark book, I struggled with it, and felt disappointed. The fantasy of it felt wrong; I was expecting fantasy more in the lines of Chrestomanci or Howl. Of course I gave the books another go-round, and by the time I read The Crown of Dalemark for the first time, I was thoroughly smitten.

Diana Wynne Jones (I always think her full name, like Nick does with Maxwell Hyde) is a tricky one with sequels. At first I hated it; now, I'm come to admire and in most cases enjoy her sequel-making habits. The tricksy part is this: our hero/protagonist of the first book is very rarely the main character of the sequel. In fact, it can take chapters and chapters to find a meaningful connection between the first and second books. Chrestomanci is an exception; a perfect example is Deep Secret and The Merlin Conspiracy. Deep Secret ends in our own world, and is almost entirely narrated by Rupert Venables and Maree Mallory. The Merlin Conspiracy opens in another world entirely - Blest, which feels much like high-fantasy - following an entirely new set of characters, and is narrated by Roddy. We have to go in quite a ways before we encounter Nick, Maree's half-brother; he makes brief mention of Maree and Rupert, then we never hear of them again.
I've come to think of the way she structures her sequels as Related Worlds, rather than true sequels.

But Dalemark is a bit different; the first two books are building toward the fourth; the third is seriously deep history of Dalemark. Reading them in sequence, right after each other, can be a little frustrating; Moril is just setting off at the end of Cart & Cwidder, and then Drowned Ammet starts in an entirely new location with a whole new main character - and never even mentions Moril.
You have to work to get to the payoff, but when you get there, it's huge.

The Crown of Dalemark may be the book by Diana Wynne Jones I've found most personally affecting; I get all kinds of teary at the end, even on multiple re-reads. It's just such a gorgeously-written and emotionally honest book - as well as being structurally honest. Maewen's time-traveling doesn't pull punches; like Margaret Mahy's Maddigan's Fantasia, visitors from the future have to go back to their own time. There's no clever way around it. Thinking about it, I realize my reaction to the end of The Crown of Dalemark is very like my reaction to the end of The Amber Spyglass, a book I have had to stop rereading because of the buckets of tears it produces from me.

On the DWJ2012 tumblr, there has been more than one post quoting Diana on the subject of Howl:
And the procession of people, which was enormous already, has increased--doubled and tripled--of all the people who want to marry Howl. Now it seems to me that Howl would be one of the most dreadful husbands one could possibly imagine.
I was amused to read this; I've always had a crush on Howl, and it makes me happy to think of thousands of readers around the world similarly crushing on this fictional wizard from Wales. I've never particularly wanted to marry Howl, though; my fictional crushes are restricted to, well, being fictional. But reading this, and realizing I don't want to marry Howl, made me wonder: If I had to pick a Diana Wynne Jones character to marry, who would it be? 

And of course, the answer is: Mitt. He's an incredibly well-crafted character, and interestingly crafted, as well; he has all kinds of useful skills - fishing and sailing and finding directions by stars and eluding pursuers - but they're all hard-earned skills resulting from work. A childhood of labor makes Mitt the resourceful and handy person he is, not some kind of obnoxious inherent talent for everything. He's complicated; he's both emotional and rational; he's kind, even when he's trying to be nasty. He laughs and jokes, in earnest and to cover his real feelings. He has great ideas - big ideas - without even realizing he has them. And, though it's used against him in Drowned Ammet, he actually is a free spirit; Mitt does what Mitt thinks is right. And yes - Old Ammet and Libby Beer are pushing at him, but we're given the sense that Mitt could also walk away. He's given choices by the Undying (who themselves are limited by The One).

A few moments in the book stand out as particularly wonderful, either because of Diana Wynne Jones's genius for saying so much in a few words, or because of Mitt's awesomeness. For example: "Mitt slid his hand carefully down Maewen's arm and took hold of her hand. It was the most momentous and the most exciting thing he had ever done in his life."  Up until this point, we get small, almost businesslike, glimpses of Mitt's feelings about Maewen; he refers to it as "calf-love," and tries to shrug it off. It's not a major topic of conversation or exposition. But that line - "it was the most momentous and the most exciting thing he had ever done in his life" - tells us everything. And it somehow perfectly captures that feeling - strongest in adolescence, but not restricted to it by any means - of momentousness that comes with the first expression of love.

Maewen's grief after returning to her own time is also a masterpiece of writing: "Grief thundered down on her, hard and continuous as the waterfall at Dropwater. ... Even with both taps full on, the water did not pour as fiercely as grief poured on Maewen. ... She found she remembered things about Mitt she had not even known she had seen until now."

the water and the grief - it's a gorgeous mixing of the two, and feels even more significant because of the importance water plays in all four books. Water and rivers and the sea and the gods and the Undying and the One - all mixed in with Maewen's grief and loss. It's beautiful, and heartbreaking.

And then there's the message, the huge romantic sentiment, that reveals more of Mitt's feelings for her: "He named a whole palace after me, and I'll never be able to say thank you!"

Because of the time disjuncture, and Maewen's sense of grief at this point, Mitt's naming of the palace doesn't come off as corny or hokey or sentimental. We know he can't have built or named the palace for several years after Maewen returns to her own time; we know he's been thinking about her for years. The act of naming registers as important, as something physically tremendous and important to stand for something emotionally tremendous and important.

Everything Mitt does up until this point is, to me anyway, appealing and charming and crush-worthy, but the naming of the palace reveals an even greater depth of character and a new facet of his personality, and it is this, I think, that makes him my choice for most marriageable Diana Wynne Jones character.