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)

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Vale E.L. Konigsburg

As if this week hasn't had enough bad news in it, word comes today that E.L. Konigsburg has died.

Konigsburg is one of the rare greats of children's literature who I actually read as a child (I don't know what I was reading then, but it was mostly nothing I read now). From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is probably THE iconic Konigsburg text, and of course it's a great one, but my personal favorite has always been - and still is - Up From Jericho Tel. I taught it once, in a children's lit class (maybe a summer course?), and I was so gratified that the students liked it. It was one of those books they responded to with "Why didn't I know about this book when I was a kid? I wish I had read this sooner."

Journey to an 800 Number is another one of her books I read when I was young, and it really stuck with me. The odd loneliness of the 800-number operator, the way people so easily become faceless and nameless - and the ways they (or people around them) create identities and spaces for themselves, the constant travel of the characters of the book - there's a streak of melancholy to that book that resonated and resonates still with me.

Konigsburg's books draw our attention to the unnoticed: to the people and things, large and small, that we ignore or never see in the first place. She's interested in the real, everyday things that are also completely magical: think of Claudia and the Angel statue, think of Amadeo in The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World. That title, in fact, seems to be precisely what each of Konigsburg's books is about - seeking, or stumbling upon, that mysterious edge of the heroic, magical, meaningful world.

The View From Saturday is perhaps Konigsburg's masterpiece, if we need to identify any one of her books as such. The multiple narrators, interspersed with the third-person narrated sections focalized by Mrs. Olinski, is an organizational and narrational thing of beauty. The way the stories of the four kids interlock and overlap, and the ways in which those convergences are revealed, is absolutely astonishingly brilliant and wonderfully skillful. It never feels gimmicky, and it never gets old, or becomes obvious. Each new revelation is revelatory, and each segment of the book adds up to an extraordinary whole story, a work of beauty and grace.

Konigsburg's protagonists are a big part of the greatness of her books, and it wasn't until I taught Up From Jericho Tel that I even realized that her characters all share one major thing in common: they are all very smart, slightly (or more-than-slightly) eccentric kids. Realizing this so long after first reading her books, it made me think that in all likelihood, one of the reasons my child-self liked her books so much was because her protagonists were like me: smart, and kind of weird. In children's literature, we get a lot of clever protagonists, and we get a lot of narrators or protagonists who have what seems like more wisdom/understanding than any kid that age should have, but it often goes unremarked in the text. Konigsburg - who herself must have been a smart, odd kid - so wonderfully captures both the challenges and delights of being an outsider because of your intelligence, because of your quirky interests. If the people around you don't recognize that you're a star - as Jeanmarie's classmates don't - you just keep wearing your appliqued Texas vest until you find someone who does recognize a Star when she sees one. The scene on the bus with Jeanmarie's vest is one I remember vividly identifying with as a younger reader: the feeling of being criticized or made fun of for something that you like a lot, or care about intensely, and really do not want to change, the uncertainty that engenders, the contempt for the bullies who don't understand, the desire to be like them even while loathing them - it's all so familiar.

Konigsburg's books make smart kids the main actors, the ones who can see and do and understand things around them in ways not everyone else can. Her kids aren't caricatured nerds, or strange performing monkeys - they are real, complex, intriguing people who live in a world where they are not the norm, and where not being the norm can make you invisible. The trajectory of the narratives are of making the invisible  visible, whether it's your own self or someone else, or some idea, some sense of understanding, some wider way of perceiving the world. The way invisibility works on a metaphoric level in Konigsburg's books makes me rethink the invisibility scenes from Jericho Tel - in some ways, her books function the way those episodes of invisibility work for Jeanmarie and Malcom. Her books let you see that which cannot be seen, uncover that which was previously hidden, understand yourself and the world in ways that make sense.

E.L. Konigsburg worked the best kind of magic with her books: the magic that lets you see the invisible in the world; the magic that lets you see the greatness of yourself, and helps you share that greatness with the world. So thank you, Elaine Konigsburg, for knowing how to see the invisible, and for knowing how to make us see it as well. Requiescat in Pace.

Monday, April 15, 2013

the helpers in Boston

Once again, terrible news of people being injured and killed for no apparent reason. As was the case just a few short months ago, when all those people were killed in Connecticut, I repeat what Mister Rogers has to tell us:
Look for the helpers.
This clip is from an (excellent) long interview done with Fred Rogers by the Archive for American Television. The quote about looking for the helpers has been doing the rounds online, but it doesn't include, usually, the final line in this excerpt, which is a line worth noting and repeating:
If you look for the helpers, you'll know that there's hope.
 I was thinking about this quote, because I think about this quote almost daily, and realized how multi-faceted it is, how helpful in so many ways. Looking for the helpers takes our gaze away from the blood and broken glass, away from the scary, anxious, confusing, nightmare we see on our screens (and our screens are everywhere, focused right on the blood and broken glass and crying people) - it directs us away from the horror onto the good. It shows in ways no statistics can that the good people who want to help us outnumber - by a LOT - the bad people who want to hurt us.
This photo (by John Tlumacki of the Boston Globe), which contains a bit of blood and broken glass, seems to me to be a perfect illustration of Looking for the Helpers as a way to see Hope.

 A lot of the photos from Boston today have featured brave, hardworking men and women in bright green vests: EMTs, doctors, nurses, police, other professional first responders. They are helpers, and they are so important.
But this photo - this one - shows two people helping a third. No one has a vest. No one is a professional helper - at least not that we can see. Neither of these people is on the clock. Possibly neither has any first-response training, or experience, or preparation.
What both people have is empathy and care and compassion and bravery. They're helping a third injured person. Maybe he's a friend, or parent, or family member. Maybe he's a total stranger. Who knows? It doesn't matter. What matter is these helpers, half an hour before this photo was taken, were just two random faces in a crowd.
The helpers are everywhere, all around us, ready to get to work and help at any moment. Anyone can be a helper. Everyone can be a helper. Lots of us already are, in big and small ways.
And there are so many more helpers than hurters. There always are; there always have been. Always. Even when it doesn't feel like there are, they are there. As Mister Rogers says, they might be just off-screen, or just at the edges. They aren't always the center of our attention - certainly not our newsmedia's attention - but they should be. There are thousands, probably millions of helpers in and around Boston today - and just one or two or a few bad guys.

Look to the helpers. Look for them. They are heroes, for sure. They are also us, you and me and everyone in the vast vast vast overwhelming majority of people who aren't bad guys. The people who got hurt? They're probably helpers too - maybe not today, but earlier, or maybe in years to come. Maybe even today.

*   *   *   *   *   *

The Fred Rogers Company - which is composed of some absolutely outstanding, compassionate, and smart people, many of whom worked with Mister Rogers on his program - has some advice for parents or other adults who work with kids on how to help children during tragedies. It's good advice. As I wrote before
Mister Rogers isn't going to lead you astray. He simply isn't. I have read hundreds of letters written to him, and dozens of responses from him and his staff of wonderful people who are very like him. The faith and trust people placed in him was not unfounded. The faith and trust and reassurance he gave them made a difference, in some cases a huge difference, to parents, grandparents, and children.

The link again to Fred Rogers Company's advice on speaking with kids about tragedy is here.

Mister Rogers is amazing, we know this, but his mother was also a very wise woman, and we should mention her, too, in our list of helpers. She helped little Fred Rogers become the great person he was; she is helping thousands, maybe millions, of people right now with her compassionate words of wisdom: Look for the helpers.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

my dreadful mixed feelings over reasons my son is crying tumblr

 So there's this tumblr called 'reasons my son is crying.' It somehow exploded everywhere, apparently in the last 48 hours, because suddenly it's all over the place. Of course I went and read it, and was delighted and amused and followed it on my tumblr page. And then this morning:

We mic’ed him up for Good Morning America.
And BAM just like that I suddenly feel less pleased with this tumblr. I felt/feel a little weird when people use their young children in such a public way - this kid is too young, really, to consent with full knowledge of what he’s consenting to, but at least on the internet there’s a (very thin) layer between the Kid and the Audience. The Kid’s “performance” (i.e., crying) happens ‘offstage,’ so to speak - there’s no microphone, no other people intervening or influencing, it’s just the not-so-much-privacy of his own family and their own camera. but when you add in things like a live studio audience, a crew, interviewers, a set - then you’ve created an artificial and highly manipulated and manipulative arena, and the Kid is On Stage and being used by multiple adults. It turns a mostly-private emotional reaction into a public performance, and performances aren't about the performer so much as they are about the audience, especially, I think, when the performer is a kid (cf. Shirley Temple, every child on 'Toddlers & Tiaras,' etc).

The premise of ‘reasons my son is crying’ is kind of interesting in addition to being funny - I don’t find it “cute” at all, but I do like the way it records the incredible frustrations of being small and quasi-helpless and inexperienced/untutored in the world. To us, maybe it’s funny that a kid would cry because he can’t run naked into Times Square, but the Kid presumably doesn’t know why he’s dreaming the impossible dream there.

I often tell my students that being a little kid is hard - the world isn’t sized for you, you have very little actual freedom and autonomy, you can’t pour your own juice or milk, there are monsters under the bed. You don’t know yet that your hand will get burned if you touch the stove when it’s on. You learn everything the hard way, or experience a world of what appear to be irrational restrictions. It’s this sense of difficulty that ‘reasons my son is crying’ captures that I like.
But I don’t like converting that into a sideshow - it’s already perilously close to being reproachably exploitative. I mean, would YOU want someone taking a photo every time you cried or felt frustrated, and posting it on tumblr for all the world to see? What if you couldn’t say no? what if you couldn’t say yes, either?
I am always, constantly suspicious of performing/trick children, and more suspicious of them in the age of “reality” media, where a kid might not even know or realize he’s being turned into a performer. And so this tumblr - and its transformation into a viral! media! sensation! meme! - makes me uncomfortable now.
[And that doesn’t even begin to address the fact that i suspect you’d see a VERRRRY different public reaction if the evidently continually crying child wasn’t white.]

I should say that I don't think this Kid's parent(s) are being neglectful or abusive or even truly exploitative. I think the original idea is actually quite clever, and I like that you (or I) can read the "reasons" in multiple registers. I'm not especially concerned that this Kid evidently cries constantly. I do think we as a culture are way too quick to embrace emotion-as-spectacle/entertainment, and I think we absolutely make a hash out of the way we treat child performers. I also think we use children, in our culture, in all kinds of ways that aren't really about the kid, or aren't in the kid's best interest. Even more than that, I think it's really easy to turn your kid into a vehicle for money and/or fame - again, the story of virtually every child star demonstrates this - and in this modern world, I can't think of a better example than the Gosselins, who originally appeared in a one-off TLC show about quintuplets and sextuplets. Easy to see how you could agree to doing this, a kind of documentary, and get paid a bit - with eight kids, who wouldn't need the extra cash? And then the reality show - you think, 'great, we can set up college funds for each of the kids,' and/or 'we'll give it a try,' and/or 'this could be fun.' And then you're on tabloids and having a very ugly very public divorce and running through money like water and oh hey, turns out reality-tv 'star' children aren't protected by the kinds of laws (like Jackie's law) whereby some portion of their earnings have to be banked in trust for them, untouched by their parents.

I'm not saying the Kid who is crying is going down that path. Probably he isn't. Probably he's just a kid, with average-affluent parent(s) who are kind of amused by the whole thing. Probably he'll grow up and be kind of mortified at these crying-kid photos, and not much more.

But in the meantime, the tumblr - and now the national tv appearances - raise some interesting and, I think, important questions/issues about how we view and use children in a variety of kinds of media. There's no Jackie's law for social media, there are no protections (and I am thinking primarily of economic/ financial protections) in place for child "stars" of tumblr or instagram or their parents' blogs or youtube.

There are also - and I do think this is very important - lots of reasons to cry when you're a very small child, and those reasons should be taken seriously by the wider culture when we think about children and childhood, even though in the moment, those reasons might be exasperating or just plain hilarious.