Archive for September, 2009

Who Put the “adult” in Young Adult?

September 23, 2009

Babies are born knowing how to cry, but they have to learn how to laugh.  Every mother knows this: by two months her baby can smile in response to attention, and by three or four months she begins making imitative noises.  But real, honest-to-goodness belly laughs don’t occur until five or six months.  Crying comes right out of the gut; laughter requires context. 

What makes a baby laugh is the essence of all humor; a sense of unexpectedness.  Her life is typically cushioned by adults who carry, feed, dress, and change her.  Grownups sometimes behave curiously, poking their faces in hers and making peculiar noises, but life is a serious business of getting one’s needs met, and grownups are the ones who meet it. 

Then one day a truly antic figure pops around the corner of consciousness, well past toddlerhood yet far short of adolescence.  He hangs upside-down, makes faces, grunts like a chimpanzee–and it’s hilarious.  Mother may say, “Stop acting silly, Johnny.”  But Baby is shaking with uncontrollable mirth.  It’s a sign that she understands congruity enough to recognize incongruity.  From such unsophisticated beginnings her sense of humor is on a speedy track to potty and underwear jokes.

Adolescence is a bit like going through a second babyhood, with zits.  From a relatively safe, womblike neighborhood, the world opens up dramatically, and it can bite.  Once again, life is serious business, which might be why teen readers often turn to grit-lit: death, despair and dystopia.  Periodically throughout the year, an especially controversial book is challenged on the grounds that it’s too much for kids to cope with.  The defense is always the same: kids today are having to deal with some pretty serious stuff.  They need literature to help them relate. 

I’m not sure about that . . .  Tender Morsels, a re-told fairy tale by Margo Lanagan, features father-daughter incest, an abortion, and a gang rape in the first fifty pages.  Is this the kind of stuff that young people normally face?  The story actually makes a good point amid the mayhem, but it might be a little difficult for an immature mind to track down that point.

Defense #2: kids shouldn’t be talked down to.  They’re a lot more intelligent than we give them credit for.  Okay, but I’m not talking about intelligence or street smarts, I’m talking about perspective.  Perspective is being able to take the long view, to face a bad spell and believe it’s going to get better, or at least that life is still worth living.  This only comes with time, and teens by definition haven’t had much time.  Teen years are difficult enough (even without incest, abortion, and gang-rape!), and most of the kids get through them okay, thank God.  They can add those years to their perspective-pool.  But a few can’t see their way past it, and they don’t need the desperation dump that some YA novels turn out to be.

So I’m just saying, writers for young adults have certain obligations.  The young applies, but not yet the adult.

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The Race Card/Canard

September 19, 2009

I grew up in Dallas, in the fifties and sixties.  Things were different then.  I recall black signs on city buses reading, “Please move to the rear.”  It didn’t take me long to realize that those signs were not for me.  I recall the N word used casually by neighborhood kids and classmates even though we understood, like Attitcus Finch, that the word was “common.”  I recall the evening news regularly leading with civil rights marches, water cannons, Bull Connor with his dogs.  And I don’t see those things now.

I know that racism still exists.  I know, and have known, some actual racists.  But I’m not one.  I realize there are some people who won’t buy this; they seem to know what’s in my heart by the color of my skin. So I won’t protest.  But there’s one thing I can do.

This is a picture of my family:

My Family 

It was taken last winter, on the occasion of my mother’s funeral.  Besides me, there’s my two children, my two sisters, one nephew, four neices, several great-neices and nephews, three in-laws, and one granddaughter (the little igrl at the lower left).  None of the young people are adopted; all are blood relatives.  I’m proud of this picture, and grateful for my family.  I’m not particularly virtuous or revolutionary–In fact, I’m pretty conservative.

And oh yes, I’m opposed to the health care plan President Obama is advocating.  I’d rather not question his motives or his intelligence or his background; I’m looking at the plan.  Illegal immigrants and “dealth panels” aside, I don’t see how layering another bureaucracy on top of an already-tottering bureaucratic structure will make health care more efficient and affordable.   Government does not tend to be efficient and affordable; that’s not the nature of the beast.  And the unimaginable burden of debt will crush all of our children, no matter their color. 

I share the President’s desire for affordable health care for all Americans.  But I believe there are better ways to meet that goal.

So I oppose the President’s policies, not his color.  I realize such protestations won’t satisfy Jimmy Carter, or Maureen Dowd, or Al Sharpton.  So I’ll just smile, and –oh yes: would you like to see a picture of my family?

The Science of Light, and the Light of Science

September 10, 2009

Some years ago it occurred to me that the first three verses of Genesis were very strange.  “And God said, ‘Let there be light!’ and there was light.”  What other creation account begins this way?  Most them begin with struggle, a molten mass of matter that somehow produces gods who destroy themselves while producing other gods.  Or else there’s some kind of malleable dough already in existence for the gods to work on.

But in Genesis, creation begins with light.  Light, even before sun.  The writers surely understood light to come from the sun, so why would they say light comes first, and record the creation of the sun four whole creation-days later? 

I like physics, in a very unscientific, artsy way–meaning that I don’t really understand it, but I get off on the poetic and spiritual implications.  Years ago, while struggling to learn something about relativity theory, I learned that the history of physics is largely about identifying forces.  Over time these forces reveal their relationship to each other, and come together as one.  (When I first started reading about this, science had identified four major forces.  Now there are only three, and the gold ring of physics is to find a way to unify them all in a single, “elegant” theory.)  Back in the mid-nineteenth century, Michael Faraday proved the relationship between electricity and magnetism by showing that a changing magnetic field produces electricity.  Then James Clerk Maxwell suspected that a changing electric field might also produce magnetism–leading to the discovery of electromagnetic waves.  Maxwell calculated the speed of these waves (don’t ask me how!) and the result turned out to be the known speed of light.

So what’s light?  Electromagnetic energy.  And if E=mc2, then matter and energy are interchangeable.  Therefore, couldn’t “Let there be light!” be, in its way, a scientifically accurate account for the beginning of the universe?

Or is that just me stumbling around in near-total ignorance?  Maybe not.  I just heard about a new book, available in October, that sounds like a must-read: The Genesis Enigma: Why the Bible Is Scientifically Accurate.  With a title like that, the author must be a fulminating fundie!  But no–Andrew Parker is (according to Amazon.com) “a Royal Society University Research Fellow at Oxford University, and one of the eight ‘Scientists for a New Century’ selected by the Royal Institution (London).”  His thesis is that the order of creation as recorded in Genesis 1 has striking parallels with the most recent scientific discoveries.  “But,” (reads the book description) “the Genesis account has no right to be correct. The author or authors could not have known these things happened in this order, and with the highlights science has come to recognize.”

The basic questions were supposed to have been answered by now.  But as time goes on, the structure of the universe gets more mysterious, not less.  Personally, I like it that way. It gives new (or rather the old) meaning to the expression, “Awesome!”

On Becoming a Reader

September 4, 2009

It took me a long time to convince myself I was a writer, but I’ve been a reader from the age of nine. I can remember the precise moment when I became one.

To be honest, I may have been ten years old (moments don’t have to be pinned down to the calendar). I was sitting on the front porch of our house in Dallas surrounded by holly bushes, probably in the spring or fall since the weather was neither too hot nor too cold. I was reading a book. I liked to read, but wasn’t necessarily a reader. C. S. Lewis (An Experiment in Criticism) says that while most people can read, true readers are rare. Those who will pick up a book for entertainment might just as easily find their entertainment at the cinema or music hall (he was writing in the 1940s), and in his experience, they were the majority. At that age I, too, saw reading as one of my entertainment options. I picked up the book, not vice-versa.

My parents had bought me a membership in the Weekly Reader Children’s Book Club, and the book in my hands was that month’s selection. I had liked almost all my book club books, so I started this one with pleasant expectations, even though it was a bit hard to get into. “This is the story of a Polish family, and of what happened to them during the Second World War and immediately afterwards. Their home was in a suburb of Warsaw, where the father, Joseph Balicki, was headmaster of a primary school. He and his Swiss wife Margrit had three children. In early 1940, the year when the Nazis took Joseph away to prison, Ruth the eldest was nearly thirteen, Edek was eleven, and their fair-haired Bronia three.”

Right there, in the first paragraph, I was eons away from a front porch in Texas. The wording is straightforward, but mined with terms like suburb, headmaster, eldest, fair-haired–nobody in my family talked that way, and the Scottish author had more surprises in store. What’s a “queue”? Or a “lorry”? The first four chapters broke a cardinal rule of children’s literature: you’re supposed to begin with the protagonist, who has to be a kid. Instead, I learned how Joseph Balicki escapes from his prison camp after two years and made his way back to Warsaw, which by now has been bombed into a pile of rubble. Where’s his wife and children? A neighbor tells him that some time after his arrest Margrit was also taken by the Nazis, who blew up his house that same night. Ruth, Edek, and Bronia are probably dead. His best option is to go to his wife’s home in Switzerland, where they had planned to meet if they were ever separated. But Joseph can’t stop hoping that his children are still alive.

Finally, in Chapter Five, a kid! A half-wild street boy hugging a cat, who identifies himself only as Jan. Joseph, who’s finally ready to leave for Switzerland, gives the boy a token that he found in the wreck of his house. It’s a silver letter-opener, shaped like a sword. If Jan should ever meet his children, he’s to show them the sword and tell them to join their father (mother too, we hope) in Switzerland. Then he hops a train, and the very next chapter takes us back to the night the Balicki house was blown up, and the children forced to take care of themselves.

The story is based on true events, and the very first page hints that the family will be reunited, so where’s the suspense? Chiefly in how they’re reunited, and how their character develops along the way. For it’s ultimately a story about how faith perseveres.

The author’s prose is spare and direct and perfect for the narrative, which has to move quickly. Yet not too quickly to experience a full range of emotion from dull defeat to absolute ecstasy. Before long, I was hooked: Edek is captured and taken to Germany as slave-labor. After some time Ruth takes in Jan, discovers the sword, makes a plan. Poland is freed from Germany, Warsaw occupied by the Russians, Edek is tracked to a refugee camp in Posen where Ruth determines they must go before heading to Switzerland. But in Posen they learn that Edek has run away. And here’s the moment I became a reader:

Bitterly disappointed, Ruth takes Jan and Bronia to an outdoor soup kitchen crowded with refugees. A cheerful cook is ladling out soup to a line of starving children. Soon after Jan gets his, he trips over a rock and the food spills on the ground. At the sight of it, order breaks down–from all directions, children dive for a few scraps of meat and potato. Ruth dives in too, frantic that little Bronia will be trampled: “She had reached blindly for the food and caught only a hand. For some reason or other she clung on to the hand, and when everyone about her had got up and her hair was free she had not let go. Then she looked to see whose hand it was, and it was Edek’s.”

If I had encountered the book as an adult I would probably have seen this coming. But I was only nine or ten, not yet aware of how stories are structured, and I was pierced through. The “ah!” that takes us through a painting or phrase of music struck me then, and it was due not just to the story but to the words, the deliberate shaping of language and narrative that had picked me up and carried me this far. If I had seen it as a movie, or heard it told, it wouldn’t have had the same effect.

We’re all vulnerable to something, whether music or art or dance or sailing or building or even NASCAR racing–something takes us through the surface of the day and pins us to eternity, just for a moment. Some books have done that to me, and that’s how I know I’m a reader.

Oh yes, the book.  Still in print the last I heard, under a new title: Escape From Warsaw, by Ian Serraillier.  Originally published as The Silver Sword.  It’s on my shelf.