Monday, March 31, 2008

Reading Rooms in Jeopardy

An old friend who writes in a rather urgent, heated style, emailed me last week with news and a request for action. I skimmed the email, saw that she and her family seemed to be in good health, and, moved on.

My hesitation comes partly out of the exigencies of my own life but also the dilemma her email posed: the European Reading Room at the Library of Congress is slated to close to make way for an Abraham Lincoln Exhibit. Would I speak out about this outrage?

Well, I wasn’t sure it was an outrage.

Besides, it’s not just any exhibit. It’s a Lincoln exhibit.

Nonetheless, I was haunted by her plea.

Looking into it further, it does seem that my friend and her friends’ suspicions are justified: the Library of Congress seems indeed to be planning to close a beloved Reading Room temporarily, likely as a ruse to transform it into exhibition space in the longer term. I’m not generally a conspiracy theorist, yet fear that the Lincoln exhibition is a convenient ruse for few Americans will speak out against a large celebration of this great American, a secular saint.

Nonetheless, these public spaces where scholars can work, research, and, occasionally talk with each other about discoveries and challenges are essential to intellectual progress.

Young scholars, urban scholars, isolated scholars all benefit from such spaces. We do not all have adequate rooms of our own: my apartment has no separate study; my office has no window; the grand reading room of the New York Public Library is my great intellectual refuge and inspiration.

It would be a terrible shame if the Library of Congress closed this room, beloved of scholars of Europe and European scholars. And it would be a sad footnote to this parochial administration if we closed one welcoming spot for those working on international issues under the guise of honoring Lincoln.

You can learn more about the reading room here and you can learn how to register your pleas to save it here.

N.B. I've opened up a "diary" over at the DailyKos because I was tiring myself out with all my political talk here. This, both literary and political, is cross posted but if you want more Obama-talk, you can look for the Fernham diary over at the DailyKos.

White Mane and The Red Balloon

On Thursday, my husband picked up a flier at school for two classic French films to be screened at the Journal Square Loews. He offered to stay home during the toddler’s nap so that the big girl and I could go.

As the kids say, OMG! I have never been to a theater like that before: decrepit it may be, but it was never wrecked and it is huge, ornate, and just crying out for its restoration to continue. The oval-shaped lobby has marble floors and columns and a balcony. The theater itself is amazingly high-ceilinged with a balcony. The pipe organ is fully restored, ivory with gilt and red accents.

And then an organist played, starting the show off with a sing-along to “Take me out to the ballgame,” “Bob the Builder” and other preschool favorites. The retirees in the audience joined in with gusto, though I would have preferred a hipper mix of tunes. Still, it was festive and very homey.

I had never seen “White Mane” (1953) before. Like “The Red Balloon,” it has very little dialogue and all is translated by the English narrator, Peter Strauss. It’s a black and white film about a gorgeous wild horse in the South of France, where the Rhone meets the sea. The horse, the head of his pack, is the target of wranglers (French cowboys! in flat-topped hats, ascots, and velvet jackets!) and beloved by a young boy.

My daughter was disappointed that the movie was “gray” and didn’t have any talking, but once her plaints were voiced, she was riveted. The story is amazingly poignant: the horse who cannot remain wild, but chooses to be tamed by the kind boy rather than the greedy wranglers and the ending is riveting, disturbing, and moving. As the boy and the horse ride out to sea, gradually sinking beneath the waves, the narrator announced that they were going off to a land in which horses and boys could be friends together forever…

As I already knew (and knew that “The Red Balloon” would confirm), it’s tough to be a child in post-war France. Best just to float away--on the waves or in a gorgeous hammock of balloons.

Oh, “The Red Balloon.” It does not disappoint.

“The Red Balloon,” a movie I’ve seen many, many times and love (my elementary school must have owned a print: I feel like it was an annual event) was the favorite with my girl and her best friend. They claimed not to understand what was happening even though they talked their way through figuring it all out (thank goodness for patient neighbors): "What is happening? Is it a magic balloon? Is it following him to school? Are those big boys trying to take his balloon? " although I overheard this in the film’s opening moments:

My daughter: “I don’t like these movies without much talking.”
Her friend: “Yeah, and no princesses.”

Friday, March 28, 2008

A Conversation

The toddler was back behind the rocking chair, where there’s a stack of games and books.
The toddler: Help me, Mama.
Me: What, sweetheart?
Toddler: Want do that.
Me: What, honey?
Toddler, pointing at her Dora Candyland game: DORA!

It’s not much, but it was a real back-and-forth. As was true with her older sister, Dora is a great motivator.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Pink Cake and Kidneys

”Please, sir, I want some more?”--Oliver Twist

Earlier this winter, I taught Katherine Mansfield’s devastating short story, “Miss Brill.” In it, Miss Brill, a middle-aged, unmarried woman, thinks about her Sunday treat of a concert in the park followed by a slice of cake purchased at the bakery to eat at home. On special Sundays, she allows herself a slice of the one with almonds.

This notion of special Sundays is devastating; it prepares us for the story’s cruel end: for, what makes a Sunday special to a person living totally on her own except her own say-so, and the notion that she is so measured in her pleasures, doling them out slowly and carefully, makes her taunting from the young lovers really hurt. She is defenseless.

This cake made me think of other cakes in modernist literature: there is the pink cake that Miss Kilman covets in Mrs. Dalloway, the cake that the protagonists wins by guessing its weight in Greene’s Ministry of Fear, the crème puffs that the young girl delivers from her garden party to the family who’ve just lost their son (father?) in Mansfield’s “The Garden Party.” Not unrelated is the bloody lobe of a kidney that Bloom hopes the girl at the butcher’s won’t buy in the Calypso episode of Ulysses.

All this scarcity reminds us of the difference between that world--the world of England and Ireland a century ago--and ours. When was the last time you went to a shop and found that the person in line before you took the last of anything you wanted to buy? Our abundance is so great that we have forgotten the feeling of scarcity.

There’s an essay in here somewhere. Would that I had the time to write it.

Are there other cakes or pastries that you have noticed? I’m collecting them for that rainy day when the essay can be written.

Monday, March 24, 2008

"Transcending" Race: Op-eds, 2

This is my response to the Obama speech: it's not really a blog entry, more of a crack at an Op-ed, so it's more polished, for better and worse, than what you're used to reading around these parts...

You used the word ‘transcend.’ Do you have any idea what that word means to us?”

I looked up from my papers at three beautiful and angry young black women. I had just given a talk on how Virginia Woolf influenced Alice Walker. I was a twenty-six year old graduate student, nervous and excited to have had the privilege to speak on a featured panel at an academic conference. I was not prepared for a confrontation from three self-assured undergraduates from Spelman. I sputtered something, asked them to explain their objections, and left feeling confused, sorry, and disoriented. It was a deeply disappointing moment of failed communication across a racial divide.

That was back in 1993. The memory still distresses me and I have thought of this moment often when commentators on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign mention how he transcends race.

In retrospect, I think the Spelman students’ objections are clear: the notion of transcendence, with its celebration of a freedom so complete as to be almost bodiless, slides far too easily into a failure to recognize race and racism. When the women from Spelman asked me if I knew what transcend means to us, they were pleading with me to acknowledge the weight of race in American life. To them, this was a weight that was not only impossible to transcend but also undesirable to transcend. When white liberals applaud Obama’s ability to transcend race, I hear the anger, frustration, and fear of those women from Spelman. Are those who invoke transcendence celebrating Obama’s abilities or just relieved not to have to think about race?

T. S. Eliot famously defined poetry as an “escape from personality,” a statement that has contributed to a sense of him as a poet of clever words but not emotions. This criticism of Eliot’s poetry resonates with a common criticism of Obama’s speeches. Few remember the next sentence in Eliot’s 1919 essay: “But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.” Eliot asks poets to know their emotions and personality, to inhabit them, but then to transcend them when creating art, to escape from the personal into something greater, something that communicates beyond the self. Can we not ask the same of our politicians? Not that they forget their own stories, but that they see their stories within the larger American story.

Obama’s desire to run a campaign that is not only about his race is different from the desire of fatigued whites not to think about race anymore. As a black man in America, Obama’s life is marked by race: he cannot avoid it nor has he shown any signs of wanting to. However, in appearing to want to transcend race, Obama had, until yesterday, given his critics the chance to see his rhetoric as untethered to reality.

Obama’s speech last week in Philadelphia changed that. For in that speech, Obama showed us all how richly and deeply he understands the bitterness, justified or not, on all sides of the racial divides. More than that, he reminded us why the notion of hope is so powerful. For hope, when tethered to a deeply nuanced understanding of the challenges we face, will be the key to emerging into a better future.

Virginia Woolf used metaphors of tethered flight, of granite and rainbow, to describe the artist’s task: an artist must dream, but she must remain linked to the world. The politician’s task is even more fettered than the artist’s, but too many politicians remain stuck in the granite, forgetting to look up to the skies. Obama has had the opposite problem.

In his speech yesterday, Obama showed us the granite, the anchor of his vision for our future, and that is precisely what he needed to do to make the future soar. If we are to transcend race, we need to acknowledge it; Senator Obama has begun a new chapter in our ongoing national conversation on race. It is up to us to continue it.

“Transcending” Race: op-eds

Last year, I read an article in the New York Times about Katie Orenstein’s class on writing op-eds. She trains women to write editorials as a strategy to redress the gross gender imbalance on newspaper op-ed pages (it’s about 85-15). I was intrigued and excited. I blogged about it.

Katie wrote me and put me on her list for the next time the course was taught. That was February 23rd and I took the day-long seminar in the Spartan offices of the Woodhull Institute in Lower Manhattan. I was one of 16 women, ranging in age from 25 to 65 or so, mostly working in the nonprofit sector (Code Pink, the peace activist group; Girls Inc., the girls empowerment group that got in trouble with the right-wing home-schooling crowd for their affiliation with American Girl dolls, etc.) [Lots of mommies, left and right, like the American Girl dolls as an alternative to Barbie: American Girl dolls are expensive but they teach history, come in many hues, and are built like little girls: no breasts or hips. Girls Inc.’s website includes links for older girls who might want to learn about sexuality--it’s about ten clicks in and it’s vital information for girls but some folks don’t want their daughters to have any access to anything about wondering about lesbianism…)

I took the class. It was amazing and fascinating. I recommend it to anyone who’d like to polish her voice and present herself in public with confidence and command.

She began with an astonishingly simple and challenging exercise. We went around the table: “My name is ___ and I am in expert in ___ because ____ .” It took fully two hours for this roomful of accomplished women, most of whom work for social in the nonprofit sector, to fill in those blanks.

Her point was made: if we cannot own our own expertise, why should anyone listen to us? If we do own it, then we can say what we know so others will hear it.

It was strange, too, from my perspective as a writing teacher to hear her teaching us to write what are basically 5-paragraph essays (intro, 3 points, conclusion), the very form I’m working to train my freshmen to move beyond. But she’s absolutely right, of course: the problem with the 5-paragraph form is not the form itself but its formulaic application. Editorials should begin with intros, they should make a couple points (and three is a kind of magic number for proving a point), and they should conclude.

Now I’m on fire with the desire to get an op-ed published. My ambitions are less noble than those of some of my classmates: I’m less on fire with a single issue than with several (education, the election, ethics, work-family balance, feminism, the role of literature in all of this) and, above all, I’m on fire with the ambition to join the cultural conversation in an even bigger way than this blog lets me do.

So, last week when we got back from Vermont, I listened to Obama’s speech on race and took a crack at an editorial on that. I knew I had no chance, realistically, of publication, but I wanted to try.

It didn’t reach the New York Times, surprise, surprise, so I’ll give it to you in my next post…

Friday, March 21, 2008

Plus ca change

We took a quick trip up to Stowe, Vermont last weekend for some cross-country skiing and to attend our nephew’s christening up in Burlington. If you haven’t been in New England lately, I can assure you, it’s reassuringly the same. And it’s nice to watch the lines of politics and music shift on the drive back south to Jersey.

To wit:
  • the older girl’s Obama button, a fixture on her parka, got kudos in the Trapp Family Lodge even as I got ribbed for imposing my beliefs on my child.
  • In heavy rotation in Stowe, every morning there’s a halo hanging on the corner of my girlfriend’s four-post bed: nothing like a little sweet, white-guy sentimentality...years ago, in Maine, it was the Spin Doctors
  • Meanwhile, rural Vermont was rocking out to “We’re an American Band” (we’re coming to your town/to help you party down….)
  • The pro-Tibet protesters were out in force in Northampton (good for them, of course, but it'd be hard to preach to a more receptive choir...)
  • Rap begins in New Haven, but it’s Naughty by Nature’s O.P.P, which was playing in New Haven when I left--in 1994
  • Spanish radio begins in Bridgeport,
  • but you have to wait till the traffic jam on the GW Bridge to get info on how many albums 50 Cent sold last week…
I love and miss New England and being back there--in LOTS of snow--was a lovely tonic.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Best Lede Ever

"The last time I saw Eliot Spitzer, he encouraged me to write about his work involving prostitution. So here goes..."

Nick Kristof is great!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere.

Jurgen Habermas’ 1962 book made a compelling argument about how people get involved in public life. In the 1700s, bourgeois men in England started drinking coffee. (It worked a little differently in France and Germany, as Habermas details, but let’s stick to one example for the moment.) Drinking coffee led to hanging out in coffee shops, reading the shipping news. The shipping news came to include other news of the day, including politics. Those coffee-drinking men started talking to each other about the news. Talking about the news led them to criticize the aristocratic decision-makers. The criticism, emerging out of a consensus formed in this way, gave these bourgeois men the courage to act on their convictions.



So, now, it’s 2008. I’ve published a book on literature. In that book, I wrote a chapter about how Habermas blithely leaves women out and how that omission replicates an omission by Virginia Woolf’s father. (Leslie Stephen was a chief source for Habermas’ account of 18th century England.) Thus, the feminist critiques of Habermas for ignoring women unconsciously repeat Woolf’s frustration at what her father didn’t see either.

I was really interested in a small moment in Woolf’s small novel Night and Day in which two women watch from the sidelines after a lecture. The lecture was on metaphor but the men in the room are suddenly talking about politics. “I suppose if we had the vote, we would, too,” one young woman says to the other.


Well, we've had the vote for some time now. And I've had this little blog about literature for some time now, too. It’s not a coffee shop, but it is my little shipping news. And I’m in the habit of writing a couple dispatches a week about literature. And, after a few years of doing this, I feel like I know how I want to sound in this forum, so I have more confidence than I did.


All I want to talk about now is politics.

It’s not exactly revolution, and I don’t intend to abandon literature, but it’s fascinating and eery to me to find that my own experience of writing for an immediate audience on this blog replicates almost exactly the sequence that Habermas described forty years ago in reference to London in the early 18th century…

Monday, March 10, 2008

George Fox

When a former prosecutor and attorney general, known for his toughness on crime and his holier-than-thou attitude to criminals, brings himself down so thoroughly, so boldly, by foolishly, arrogantly, misogynistically, and self-destructively paying for sex, it's big news.

When he takes, as his nom de plume (nom de guerre? nom d'amour?) the name of George Fox (1624-1691), the founder of the Quakers, a man famous for his pacifism, his unconventional sense of an individual's access to God, and his commitment to social justice, well, we have the beginnings of a very, very odd and sorry tale indeed.

Poor Silda! Poor Spitzer girls.

And, just for once, can we be spared the spectacle of the wronged wife standing by her man at the news conference? Poor, poor woman. I liked Spitzer and feel inclined to pity him but then I try to wrap my head around what it means for a man who's busted prostitution rings, been married 21 years, and raised three daughters to call up "Kristen" and ask if she can do some "odd things," and I feel pretty nauseated. Blech.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

False Memories

A propos James Frey (with a habit of enhanced memories) and hoaxster Margaret Jones, I give you this anecdote:

Walking home last night, we passed our old apartment. I asked my 5-year-old if she remembered it. She said she remembered that, when we moved (she was 3 ½), she used to wave at the apartment every time we passed. She remembers that she used to miss it more than she does now.

Do you remember what it looked like?

No, but I remember falling down the stairs.

Ah…yes. I remember that, too. A long tumble down the full flight of wooden steps from our unit down into the lobby. She asked if I’d take her into the vestibule and lift her up so she could see those infamous stairs again. I obliged.

“That’s not how I remember them. I remember them wider. They were a lot wider.”

Delighted and fascinated to see that already, at five, things from the past are strangely small upon revisitation, I mumbled something about how that was only to be expected….

“I remember them wider. And MY memories are TRUE.”