Archive for April, 2015

Not a Fan. But Still . . .

April 17, 2015

Not a fan.  Nope.  Saw the first one but remembered almost nothing of it because we took our 18-month-old with us, and I was so worried about possible inappropriate behavior the story poured over me like water without making an impression.  We missed Episode V altogether—two kids by then, little disposable income.  When Episode I appeared, I caught it at the dollar house—actually two dollars by then—and decided it was worth about that much.  The pretentious hype that surrounded it was a huge turnoff, too: documentary “retrospectives,” contemplative essays, interviews with Bill Moyers (“If you see a Bill Moyers special on it,” a sarcastic friend told me once, “you’ve plumbed the depths”).  So I skipped II and III, except for bits happened upon while scrolling through the channels in motel rooms.  No, not a fan.

So I’m a little hard-pressed to explain my reaction to this:

That voiceover, that musical score, the final fadeout on Solo’s battered face with that familiar goofy smile, and Chewbacca’s answering growl: We’re home.  Yeah, in a way . . .

I still want to nitpick: shouldn’t Chewie look a little gray, too?  Cool trailer, but so many explosions—is this going to be another mindless FX orgy?  Such obvious emotional string-pulling; makes me feel a little silly, falling for it.  But I can’t explain the little catch in my throat when that particular chord clashes and the trumpets blare out that staggering fanfare and the Millennium Falcon zooms into the frame yet again.

A New Hope slammed into American culture in 1977, near the end of a miserable decade: two major assassinations within ten years, Vietnam, inflation, Watergate, oil embargoes, gas lines, Jimmy Carter’s “malaise.”  And the movies, to the best of my memory, were floundering in a swamp of grainy, noir-ish despair (Midnight Cowboy, Death Wish, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?).  Fortunately, George Lucas wasn’t paying attention. American Graffiti (1973) captured mid-century teenage angst with wit and aplomb and launched a few careers (Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, that bit-player Harrison Ford), kicked off a nostalgia boom (“Happy Days”) and bankrolled Lucas’s next big project.  Not science fiction; space fantasy.  Harking back to Flash Gordon and Saturday matinees at the Bijou, but weighted by his quasi-profound, California-style spirituality.  It was a peculiar vision the suits didn’t get, but they left him alone, and we got Star Wars.

Picture the world in 1977: no cell phones.  No personal computing or internet.  Very few cable channels.  No VCR’s.  What America liked we all liked; the buzz was THE BUZZ.  Star Wars (as we knew it at the time; not A New Hope) seemed to ring all bells: fun and exciting and unexpected and jaw-dropping (special effects would never be the same), with a whiff of profundity if you felt like writing a book about it–Joseph Campbell and his Hero with a Thousand Faces was about to receive an enormous leg-up.  Further episodes were a given: Empire, widely agreed to be one of the best sequels ever.  Then Jedi.

Close readers may have observed that I didn’t mention Jedi in the first paragraph.  That’s the one that got me: one of the few movies we saw as a family in the theater, with a big screen and surround sound.  At the first sight of Vader’s shuttle gliding into the reconstructed Death Star, I was hooked.  The wonders did not cease. It was wonderful—one of my three big movie crushes.  Even though the dialogue made me cringe and the ending was embarrassing, I was in love.  These things have to hit at the right time, when certain variables line up and certain doors in the soul stand open; otherwise it would have been fun but not an obsession.

It was a relatively brief obsession, from which I moved on.  I was interested but not excited about the prequels, which proved to be the graveyard of reputations.  (“No, really,” I have said since, “Hayden Christensen is a good actor.  Have you seen Shattered Glass?”)  No reputation took a bigger beating than George Lucas’s, and the announcement that Episode VII would feature the original stars in their original roles was met with mixed feelings.  None have aged especially well: Hamill is best known for voice acting, Fisher for caustic novels and memoirs, and Ford . . . why didn’t anybody tell him that Indiana Jones IV was a bad idea?

But still.  It’s the longest-running movie franchise ever.  Middle-aged Americans literally (not figuratively) grew up with it.  Like The Wizard of Oz, it’s part of the cultural landscape, dating back to before culture got so fractured.  And in spite of all the years and cynical take-downs, there’s still something gawkily sincere about it.  It wants to stir us, not merely entertain us or milk us for spare change.  George Lucas believes in it—even after I, II, and III–and if we clap our hands hard enough, we’ll believe too.  Chewie, are we home?

No, of course not.  The trailer will not deliver all it promises because the elaborate, multi-billion-dollar scaffolding of Star Wars is too flimsy to support humanity’s hopes, no matter what Bill Moyers used to think.  It’s hard to imagine anyone thinking that anymore–but that involuntary thrill at a musical theme still means something.  The wonder is our capacity for wonder and longing.  We’re all vulnerable to it, whether it comes through music or art or dance or sailing or building or NASCAR racing–something takes each of us through the surface of time and pins us to eternity for fleeting moments. It would be a huge mistake, on the basis of those moments, to join the church of Star Wars.  But those involuntary thrills that feel like a stab of unfulfilled desire point to something bigger and better and beyond us—also much more real than a flickering image on a movie screen.


Bits, Pieces, and Memories–What Stories Are Made of

April 8, 2015

The three questions children’s authors get from kids:

  • What made you want to be a writer?
  • Which of your books do you like best?
  • Where do you get your ideas?

When asked in a school setting, authors attempt to answer either seriously or cleverly, but in conversation with peers they roll their eyes and share some of the clever answers.  When you think about it, though, these are profound questions and the answers are deeply mysterious. When someone asks, What made you want to be a writer? They are really asking

What compelled you to sit for hours at a desk, all alone, struggling with self-doubt and fear and blank page phobia (surely there’s medical designation for that), all for the sake of the occasional blaze of satisfaction when you know you’ve expressed a cogent thought in a totally appropriate way, when there may be no lasting spiritual satisfaction from it, much less financial?

The answer: I have to.

Which of your books do you like best? is actually

Which story that you labored to give birth to–suffering discomfort and random interior kicking and fond fuzzy dreams, and that now, in the glare of day, is subject to unfeeling reviews and mass indifference, if not rejection (and that’s provided it got published in the first place; the questioner doesn’t even know about the miscarriages)—do you prefer?

The answer: What do you mean, ‘my books’?  They haven’t been mine since the public got hold of them.

Where do you get your ideas? might seem like the easiest to answer because it’s looking for specifics, not tortured analysis.  But even then, specifics may be elusive, especially when it comes to the grand overarching idea of a book like (just for instance) The Giver.  The relationship between the elements of fiction—or any work of art—isn’t easy to distinguish.  As Dorothy Sayers speculates in The Mind of the Maker, the Idea (or inspiration) is so embedded in the Energy (the execution, or work itself) which both are so impacted by the Power (responses to the work), that separate strands are impossible to tease out. A story begins with an Idea that somehow muscles its way to the front of the author’s mind, but it comes already trailing bits of plot and character and pieces of aha! response.  I attempt a definition:lowry

A story is an artificial bird made of scraps and strands that acquires a life of its own during its making and, when complete, flies away.

Speaking of The Giver (and finally getting around to what this post is about), last week I attended “An Evening with Lois Lowry,” sponsored by our local library as the kickoff event of this month’s One Read program.  The event organizers booked a large auditorium but not large enough.  Those who were late (i.e., 25 minutes early rather than 35), were turned away like foolish virgins (not an insult; see Matthew 25:1-13).  I managed to be 35 minutes early, no credit to me.

Anyone who’s interested in children’s literature, or anyone who is a child who likes to read, is familiar with The Giver, so I wasn’t surprised at the turnout. But Lois Lowry surprised me in the best way.  Her talk did not appear to have any structure—it was sort of like life, where the years go one way and the memories go another and things you study you don’t learn while the unexpected lessons end up making you what you are.   Family began her story, as it should: father, a career navy medical officer; mother, an avid reader; older sister and first reading teacher; little brother who came along late.  Lowry was born in Honolulu in 1937 and spent her first two years on the beach under the shadow of the US naval fleet.  They moved back to the states before that Day that Shall Live in Infamy.  She remembers her mother being lonely during the long war years when her father was deployed to the Pacific, but when peace returned he was allowed to take the whole family to Japan.  Lois, then 11, expected exotic locations, but the family moved into the brand-new all-planned-out neighborhood for military families, which looked just like Main Street USA.  The real Japan was elsewhere, beyond the straight streets and tall fences of her cozy community.

The years fly: back to the States, more moving, high school, college cut short for marriage, four children.  Her parents lived long, but the years did cruel things to their memories: her mother recalled sorrowful events with all the pain as if they’d just happened.  Her father kept forgetting why his oldest daughter wasn’t around anymore (an early death from cancer).  Lois started thinking about memory.  What if memories could be manipulated, or dismissed, or brought back?giver

She inherited an interest in photography, as well as her first camera, from her dad.  It turned out to be more than an interest; for a while it was a profession.  In fact, the iconic figure on the cover of her most famous book has a name: Carl Gustav Nelsen, a Norwegian neighbor.  Lowry herself took that picture.

Her remembered life, non-linear and self-sorting, took its own wavering shape as she talked to us.  She pulled strands of family, memory, photography, and place and wove them back into her stories.  When she first pictured “the Community” of The Giver, where everyone served a preassigned purpose and abhorred the unexpected, it was the all-American navy base in Japan she had in mind.  Likewise, the “elsewhere” outside the community gates modeled the expansive territory her hero Jonas escaped to.  The Community can control its citizens only because collective memory has been manipulated (i.e., eradicated).  Preserving and passing on mankind’s memory, just in case it’s needed, is the Giver’s function. Thus the bird was furnished, and with character and conflict, it came to life.

Of course, she had to talk about the movie.  Two things she liked: the expansion of the Director’s role (obviously Meryl Streep couldn’t play a bit part!) added depth to that character that even the author had not appreciated.  And Lowry thought the way memories were transmitted in the movie was much better than having Jonas lie on a table while his mentor pressed memories through his bare back (slides of some disturbing covers from foreign translations made that point).  Another thing she liked: the 22,000 books that filled the shelves of the Giver’s quarters were purchased new and later donated to schools in South Africa, where most of the movie was filmed.

Outside in the lobby stacks of books were waiting to be signed, so she didn’t have much time for questions.  The reliable Big Three showed up, even though I think she already answered them.

One more thing: an amazing story I’d never heard.  She lived in Japan from the ages of 11 through 13, those classic transitional years so rich for authors who write middle-grade novels.  She wasn’t confined to “the Community”—shortly after moving to Japan, her parents bought her a green bicycle and allowed her to explore “Elsewhere” to her heart’s content.  Tokyo was rebuilding rapidly after the war and prospects were looking up.  Still, she found the Japanese characteristically reserved, and she was not the most outgoing person herself.  But there was one boy who looked to be about her age, whom she saw so often they became acquaintances of a sort.  They never spoke, but always looked, and sometimes nodded to each other.  For some reason, she never forgot him.

Fast-forward 45 years.  The Giver wins the 1994 Newbery Gold Medal for excellence in children’s fiction. That same year, a book called Grandfather’s Journey wins top honors for illustration.  At the awards event that summer, Lowry meets the illustrator Allen Say and shares some of her life story.  On learning that her father was stationed in Tokyo, he says, “Really?  I grew up in Tokyo.”  Obviously his heritage was Japanese.  That’s what Grandfather’s Journey is about—heritage, family, growth and change.  “What year? Where did you live?”  More and more recollections spill out between them, faster and faster, until he asks, “Were you the girl on the green bicycle?”

And some say there is no God.  Story itself, an unpredictable fusion of spirit and flesh, gives the lie to that one.

Teacher’s Lounge: The Search for Delicious

April 3, 2015

In 1969, Natalie Babbitt published The Search for Delicious, in which a king’s quest to discover what food should be the definition of “delicious” in the royal dictionary almost touches off a war between kingdoms.  (Babbitt is best known for Tuck Everlasting–now 40 years old–but Delicious deserves to be reread to a classroom of, say, fourth-graders.)  The title presented itself to me when I was putting together a series of workbooks on creative writing.  Rather it (the title) slipped in through the back door as I was writing a lesson on adjectives.  How many words do we have to describe food?  They say Inuit languages have umpteen words for ice, because ice is so important to them.  That might just be arctic legend, but I know for sure that Americans can lay tongue to dozens of adjectives that can be applied to food, because we have lots, and eat lots.   Food, in its voluminous variety and abundance, makes an excellent motif for teaching about adjectives.


And I don’t mean qualitative adjectives, like scrumptious, yummy, or toothsome.  We throw these around all day–well, except for toothsome–but they don’t actually describe anything except our feelings.  You might have a great day at the beach while your cousin has a great day at the library.  You would get bored at the library; she would get sunburned at the beach, so you would have conflicting definitions of what makes for a great day.  Same with food: what’s delicious in a potato chip is is not so much in a chocolate chip.

Stretch your students’ descriptive vocabulary by teasing their palates.  Bring in 6-8 foods with varying tastes and textures and serve small amounts of each for snack time.  These could be pretzels, grapes, apple slices, tortilla chips, marshmallows, raisins.  Ask the students to think about what makes each one “delicious” and write two or three descriptive adjectives for each.  Some interesting distinctions to make: what’s the difference between tangy and sour?  Crunchy and crispy?  Gummy and chewy?  Spicy and fiery?  And what about words that mean roughly the same thing, but one is positive while the other is negative–like moist/stale, firm/hard, crunchy/dry, tart/sour?

Make a list of “delicious” adjectives ahead of time and write them on the board.  Your students will be amazed!  And so will you.