Friday, September 28, 2007

teach your children well

I recently told my best friend that I've introduced my children to several clean Flying Circus sketches, like "Buying a Mattress."

He groaned, and then admitted that he often feels inferior as a father when he thinks of the close bonds I enjoy with my girls, the time he knows I share with them, and the activities we do together ... and then he feels much better when I tell him things like "Evangeline knows all the words to 'Spanish Inquisition.'"

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


If this fellow gets to keep his amputated leg, then why couldn't I have kept my thyroid?

(Of course, I wouldn't be leaving it in a barbecue smoker in a storage facility.)

Sunday, September 23, 2007

deconstructing jack and the beanstalk

Jack and the Beanstalk is an interesting sort of fairy tale.

Like other stories, fairy tales have a function besides mere entertainment value. "Red Riding Hood" serves to warn children not to talk to strangers, who pose the danger of death and sexual assault. "The Frog Prince" is a lesson in honesty and keeping one's word, while "Hansel and Gretel" speaks of the value of courage, teamwork and quick-wittedness. Even the stories of Chaunticleer at least have a sort of gallows humor going for them, the way death can come from any direction, as it too often did during the Middle Ages.

But "Jack and the Beanstalk" is about a boy who breaks some of the oldest laws of civilization, by betraying his hostess and killing her husband after stealing one treasure after another. It's an adventure story, to be sure, but it's not much of a morality tale.

In fact, as fairytale heroes go, Jack is neither particularly smart nor brave, He's just lucky. A stranger tells him that beans are magical, and Jack is gullible enough to trade away his cow for these beans rather than getting enough money from the sale of the cow to buy a calf or a couple goats. To his good fortune, it turns out that the beans actually are magical, and his life changes.

When I was a child, I always assumed that the man who gave Jack the beans was some sort of con artist, taking advantage of Jacks's naivete to get a cow for the cost of beans. But this doesn't make much sense; the man who gave him the beans told him that the beans were magical and they were.

It's far more likely that the man knew they were magical and sold them to Jack to effect change in Jack's life. This deliberate of benevolence sets in motion the events of the fairy tale. In a fit of anger over Jack's apparent foolishness, his mother throws the beans through the window and they grow overnight into an enormous beanstalk that reaches into the very heavens,

At this point Jack goes from the childish faith in believing in magic beans to a more adult outlook that fills him with curiosity and boosts his courage enough for him to seize the opportunity before him and climb the beanstalk.

At the top of the beanstalk, Jack also finds wealth and the story becomes more complicated. In many versions of the story, the items that Jack takes -- gold coins, a hen that lays golden eggs and finally a magic harp that  plays tiself -- belong to the giant, making Jack a simple thief. The Brothers Grimm throw an interesting wrinkle in when they reveal, via Jack's mother, that these things all had belonged to Jack's father until they were stolen years before.

I'd suggest that this doesn't make as big a difference as we might thing. The fairy tales that Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm collected were stories that were told by peasants and lower-class workers all over what we now call Germany. The heroes of the stories invariably were simple people like they were, people who made progress by old-fashioned work or by simple cleverness that in the imaginary fairytale world won them the gratitude of kings and the hands of beautiful princesses.

Fairytale heroes like Jack, in other words, were people who lived under a feudal system where the fruits of their labors were taken from them by kirke and by king, by clergy and by rulers who were distant and removed from day-to-day life. They were unmoveable and unreachable, and lived a life of comfort so far off that they might as well have lived atop a beanstalk in a kingdom in the sky.

In this sense the giant represents the king or lord of the manor. With this reading, "Jack and the Beanstalk" becomes a mildly subversive tale about taking back from the rulers what they themselves have unjustly taken from the people who produced it.

Now let's revisit the man who gave Jack the magic beans. We've already established that he wasn't a simple con artist out for Jack's cow. He knew what the beans would do, and he gave them to Jack so that they would grow the beanstalk. He knew that if Jack climbed the beanstalk it would take him to the giant's castle, and he knew that once Jack was there, he would find the treasure. Presumably he also intended that Jack should take the treasure.

This is no con artist. In the framework of the story, the man with the beans is an agent of justice. He is a Christ figure in the literary sense, giving the oppressed Jack the opportunity to regain what was taken from him and to punish the perpetrator at the same time. If the giant does in fact represent the lord of the manor, "Jack and the Beanstalk" isn't just an interesting fairy tale.

It's positively revolutionary.

Copyright © 2007 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

deconstructing red riding hood

The wall is black.

Where is Christ in "Red Riding Hood?" Is he the grandma, who is killed by the wolf, and who satisifies the wolf's hunger so that he spares Red Riding Hood? Is he Red Riding Hood herself -- no, I think perhaps what is striking about "Red Riding Hood" is itslack of chrisocentric imagery. It is a world of lawlessness, where the mighty and the powerful prey upon the weak and defenseless with remorse. It is a land given over to savagery, and the innocent cannot survive.

One could contend that it is Red's failure to obey the rules of her world that gave the wolf the means to destroy her. That is certainly the traditional reading, which we despise for its cruel savagery -- that if little girls do not listen to their parents, they will be raped and killed in the worst ways imagineable.

That's the chief reason we've added the huntsman and the impossible salvation that he brings. We would much rather celebrate the myth that says that the innocent will be avenged and the wicked punished, and more importantly we want to believe that no mistake is so bad that we cannot be rescued from it and its consequences ameliorated.

So perhaps that is the better story: The wolf kills Grandma, and he kills Red Riding Hood, but the woodsman kills him and ends the wolf's reign of terror in the woods/forest community. One can see wolf and hunter locked in a battle of wills, the hunter giving or losing all he has, to fight until at last he lays the wolf low.

Another story I can draw from this is one of lawlessness and nihilism. There is no God, no Christ, and each does as he wants. The wolf kills Red Riding Hood because he can. She feasts on her dead grandmother's flesh because she is hungry, and the woodsman kills the wolf out of spite, the way a child might kill an ant simply because it amuses her to do so.

A story like that is simply horrifying, and though I can imagine it, I rather doubt I would have the stomach to write it. It is too raw, too violent, too decidedly animlistic and lacking any virtue that separates us from the animal world. I imagine that nearly all of us would pull away from such a tale rather than immerse ourselves in it. In such a world, which lacks all sense of God or any law of morality, even the fruitless injunctions of Red Riding Hood's parents to stay on the path and talk to no one lacks any talismanic power to protect, or any authority to compel Red Riding Hood to obey.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

do all the good you can

Do all the good you can
By all the means you can
In all the ways you can
In all the places you can
At all the times you can
To all the people you can
As long as ever you can.
--John Wesley

days of darkness

Light is sweet, and it pleases the eyes to see the sun.

However many years a man may live,
let him enjoy them all.
But let him remember the days of darkness,
for they will be many.
Everything to come is meaningless.

Be happy, young man, while you are young,
and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.
Follow the ways of your heart
and whatever your eyes see,
but know that for all these things
God will bring you to judgment.

So then, banish anxiety from your heart
and cast off the troubles of your body,
for youth and vigor are meaningless.
-- Ecclesiastes 11:7-10

Sunday, September 16, 2007

half a thought

I had a thought while writing this morning, of the ways we pass judgment on others in our misery, that there is something stuck-up about the way we feel sorry for ourselves, in the isolation we feel from others.

It's gone, or nearly so, and yet it was almost perfect. I was beginning to understand something, to see it in a new light.

Why do I prefer Sunday mornings to be alone with my brooding thoughts?

learning to hate

Let me start by saying that I've learned to hate church.

I'll cut right through the crap and admit that it's not because I think we're doing it wrong for this generation. I don't think it's because the worship is too loud, too soft, too contemporary, or too traditional. It'ws not because the preaching is too topical, too exegitical, too political, too personal, too abstract, or too boring. And it's not even because there are no ministries for me.

All of those things may have played a role in getting me to stop pretending everything is all right and that I love spending my Sunday mornings under pressure to get the family to church on time, but none of those things is why I look forwrd to Sundays with all the enthusiasm I can muster for a root canal.

What I mislike about church -- what I am learninbg to actively loathe -- is the utter pointlessness of it all.
-- the loneliness of it all.
-- the exclusion of it all.
-- the emptiness of it all.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

hebrew and arabic cds

Well, we're back on the homeschooling wagon for at least another year. Rachel missed the cutoff date in our district by two weeks, so we have elected to put her through kindergarten at home rather than miss the opportunity.

One of the things we're trying to do is to expose her to languages other than English. Spanish is easy -- on our recent trip to Mexico I commented that it was virtually like being in Iowa because there were so many people around us speaking Spanish -- but I'd like to include some non-European languages as well, if not to learn then at least to build some familiarity with the sounds and the ebb and flow.

And of course, one of the best ways to experience another language is through music, especially if it's a tune we already know. Music makes it easier to remember and even memorize a song, and if they're songs we already know, it becomes easier to get the meaning.

Amazingly, none of the Judaica shops that I have visited in nearby Hoover Point -- which has a significant Jewish population -- appear to carry CDs with Hebrew or Israeli folk music, or other music in Hebrew. I can continue to rely on YouTube for the experience, but that's kind of a pain in the tuchis. Does anyone have a suggestion where I could find some decent music in Hebrew without exorbitant shipping rates? This could be folk music, such as recorded by Ofra Haza, but it could also be the ever-popular Children's Songs from Hell, or even soundtracks of Disney movies and Broadway shows.

I'm also looking for CDs of Arabic songs of that nature, since it's the lingua franca of the Middle East. The Arabic I'm most familiar with personally -- I can say "Marhaba" and "Shou ismac" -- is Lebanese. It seems kind of odd that the language would be that varied from nation to nation, especially since the Quran must act in some capacity to tether the dialects together, but then I imagine Arabic is an older language than modern English, and had more time to develop regional variations before mass communication set in.

Anyway, I am told that Egyptian is the most universally understood dialect, owing to the popularity of Egyptian television. Maybe that would be a good place to start.

And as I've been thinking about this further, I suppose the best songs to start with really would be songs they're already familiar with, whether popular children's songs, or soundtracks from movies and plays.

driving a wreck

"But if you are a poor creature -- poisoned by a wretched upbringing in some house full of vulgar jealousies and senseless quarrels -- saddled, by no choice of your own, with some loathsome sexual perversion -- nagged day in and day out by an inferiority complex that makes you snap at your best friends -- do not despair. He knows all about it. You are one of the poor whom He blessed. He knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive. Keep on. Do what you can. One day (perhaps in another world, but perhaps far sooner than that) he will fling it on the scrap heap and give you a new one. And then you may astonish us all -- not least yourself: for you have learned your driving in a hard school."
-- C.S. Lewis, "Mere Christianity"

Sunday, September 09, 2007

aunt fran

The bad news is that I no longer expect to be in Georgia next week, which means that I won't be trying to strongarm my friends down there into an impromptu get-together in the Atlanta area.

The good news is that my Aunt Fran is going to live, and is headed toward some sort of recovery, though it probably won't be a total one. I just got this e-mail from my cousin Susan:

Scott just called to say that Aunt Fran sorted her mail (left handed) - saw the mail on the table and dragged it over to herself and opened everything - and is giving "The Look" that only a Mom can give when she's mad. She also smacked Scott's hand when he told her to not get up without a nurse present. He's going to give her a pen and paper to see if she can write.

Given that she's still feeling this headstrong and giving her son The Look, it seems like she has every bit the will to live that her older sister, my Aunt Julie, lacked most of her adult life. (Aunt Julie passed away in February.)

We got the news Thursday that Aunt Fran had suffered a major stroke sometime Tuesday night, fallen as a result and broken her leg, and had spent the entire next day on the floor of the bathroom. When she didn't show up for work the second day -- she's 70 years old and works at The Limited for something to do -- they called the sheriff's office, which contacted somebody else, and finally they got into her house and found her on the floor, alive but unresponsive.

Several tests later they determined that she had had a blood clot in her brain and apparently has lost control over the entire right side of her body. We were wondering if there would be a second, fatal stroke as sometimes happens in these cases, but apparently she's doing fairly well for the circumstances. She's always been a headstrong and independent woman, traits that I'm sure are going to help her make progress with her current situation.

So while I wouldn't mind meeting our Georgia operatives in person, I'm more than willing to bite back the disappointment and accept this arrangement instead.

sacred prostitution

The church is a whore.

The church is a whore but she is my mother.

The church is a whore, but she is my mother, and I love her.

The church is a whore. I have seen her, spreading her legs before many suitors who promised her power in exchange for the influence she uses to hide her infidelities. She prostitutes herself before political power brokers, before the wealthy -- oh, she loves them more than any others -- and at times before the intelligent, the well-groomed, and the merely clever.

The church is a whore, and her behavior disgusts me. She is my mother.

I have borne her constant deprecations that waver and change with each lover she takes. She has beaten me


I came across this on YouTube, and I had to share it. I've been a tremendous fan of "The Phantom of the Opera" since I read Gaston Leroux's novel in late 1992; seeing the Lloyd Webber musical at Pantages Theatre in Ontario two years later didn't hurt my enthusiasm either.

And here it is, in Chinese:

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

comic art appreciation

Here is where we see how a lifetime of reading comic books can pay off in appreciating art.

A friend of mine named Walks in the Rain has a compelling four-page prologue to a comic she has been working on for a while. At the moment, the prologue lacks any words, an absence that makes the work even more compelling and intense. My reaction comes more as a writer than as an artist (which is to be expected, all things conisdered), but I love the pacing of this sequence. The first page is dominated by a half-page panel of the woman lying on bed, her eyes drawn to something unseen, her spirit clearly restless.

Next we see her rise from the bed, but she is drawn not to her desk or other work, but to the window, where she stares out into the night. It's possible just in these three panels to hear the spirit of the night calling to her to leave the confines of her room, her house, and to be free. That mood is only enhanced by the second page, where the woman moves around the room, like a caged animal.

Evidently she's trying to fight this primal urge, since her next move is to her mirror, where it appears she is trying to gather her strength for what must come next. And on Page 3, we see what she is about to do: She sheds her clothes, frees her hair from the braid, and stands bared before the silent full moon before, on Page 4, she climbs out onto the roof, only a leap away from the life that has been keeping her caged in.

And then, in the last panel, we see her running away, liberated, a wolf.

The art tells the story beautitfully without relying on any words, and I have to say that I'm hooked and eager to see the next part of the story, even though I won't be sharing this with Evangeline any time soon. (Perhaps it's prudish, but I'm reluctant to show nudes in art to an 8-year-old, however well-drawn or sculpted they are, even when the nudes are done as tastefully as this.)

Only one point really troubles me: Though it's easy enough to guess what happened, given the full moon, the jump between the last two panels on Page 4 is rather sudden. Perhaps that's to show the sudden burst toward freedom, away from the confines of the house and all it represents? I'm still wondering if an intervening panel, showing her leaping from the porch roof might be in order.

Walks in the Rain recently graduated from art school, and I think it's evident from the work on this page that she has a lot of talent. I can't wait to see buy first graphic novel when it comes out.


Cerveza is one of several words I added to my Spanish vocabulary, owing to a just-completed trip to Isla Hobox, a small island in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico, to celebrate the wedding of my brother-in-law and his new wife. (Hoping this marriage works out better than their first ones.)

While I was there, I sampled Mexican cuisine of all sorts, including what Friar Tuck once called "a holier way" to consume grain. The big brands on the island, and probably throughout Mexico, are Sol and Dos Equis.

Gringo that I am, I was very unimpressed with each of them. Give me a pint of Sam Adams in all its bitterness any day, or give me a can of Iron City when it's time for la cerveza. But no more Sol or Dos Equis, por favor. No me gustan.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

isla holbox and haiti

Still a little sunburned on my nose, but most of it seems to have faded, taking along with it much of the psoriasis on my legs, some on my arms, and even a little on my back.

That's a welcome change, considering how widespread the psoriasis has been the past year or more. It'd be nice for it all to disappear completely by the end of our stay here, but I am sure that is not going to happen.

In many ways this part of Mexico reminds me of Haiti. The buildings are similar, from the small homes -- though these have thatched roofs and relatively few of corrugated tin -- to the bigger buildings that house restaurants and businesses. Many of them are made of concrete and rebar posts, have the same sort of painted murals or signs, and so on.

The chief differences I can see are that everyone has electricity and it's on constantly, unlike in Haiti, where it was spotty at best; all the kids are fully dressed, and none of them runs around naked or without pants; and there are no beggars. The area is not wealthy, by American standards, but it's clear that the people aren't impoverished either.

The blans/gringos continue to own some of the most expensive businesses in town, of course, such as the Three Island and whale shark tours, and the jewelry store across from the restaurant where we ate last night. (That jewelry store, incidentally, is owned by a woman who grew up in Tuscon, we discovered.)

The spurs on my heels are really jagged right now. I'd love to get them smoothed away. (Aren't you thrilled to know?)

Saturday, September 01, 2007

isla holbox

Isla Holbox has been an interesting place to be so far. The island is made of sade washed up from the ocean because of a lagoon, and anchored in place over the years by a variety of plants and their root systems. It is accessible only by boat. (Addendum: There is also a small jetport, but that's ridiculously expensive.)

We arrived here Thursday after a flight from Newark to Cancun, a two-hour drive through the outlying regions of Quintana Roo state, and then a relatively quick -- 15 minutes, I think -- ride on a speed boat, followed by a three- or four-minute jaunt on a golf cart to Amigos House, where we are staying.

We've established the general lay of the land while we've been here, finding our way to the hotel where almost everyone else is staying, and to the center of town, where the restaurants and other businesses that cater to the turistas are located.

We ate lunch Friday at a place called Chonchy's. The service was slow, and some meals came before others -- a definite departure from restaurants in the United States -- but the food was excellent. Evangeline and Rachel ordered quesadillas, I can't remember what Natasha got, and I ate some fajitas.

Actually, I was especially pleased with myself. I don't speak Spanish -- not really -- but I know enough that I was able to order my food, and the girls', correctly, and to compliment the cook when she came out to see if we liked it, or if there was anything else she could get us.

At the Cancun Radisson where we ate lunch on Thursday, Evangeline ordered a salad, and was confounded when the waiter brought out a plate of sliced tomatoes and mozzerella cheese. She quite clearly had been expecting lettuce, but that wasn't a part of the deal here. It may be that since it's a cold-weather crop it's not available here. Yo no se. But I have noticed that she's trying to stick to more familiar or "safe" foods, like quesadillas.

Natasha's brother Kevin has impressed all of us with his apparent facility with Spanish. He has trouble understanding what people say to him, but having grown up in the Southwest and making trips to Mexico regularly as a student at Flowing Wells High School, he knows abit and can make a guess at a lot more.

I've been doing all right. Twice I've been able to explain that Mi ija necessita ir al baño; ¿donde ésta? among other things, but my Kreyol keeps wanting to come out this way, as I've seen or heard happen many times when multilingual people speak. Thus yesterday I said about lunch, "Me gusta anpil," and last night nearly confused the waiter by asking, "Garçon, mas tostadas, sille vous plait." ¡Hay caramba! as absolutely no one in Haiti would say.

Last night we had pizza, and once again I found myself missing my homemade sourdough crust. The crust here was thin and flaky, and in some ways made me thing of a very large tortilla chip. Ma said it probably had pork lard in it too. The cheese was of one variety, and the sauce was fairly bland. The toppings made it interesting, though -- jamon, vegetable, and lobster. I've never had that on pizza before.

Amigo House is a two-story residential building with three other buildings on site, including a laundry room, a kitchen/living room, and the quarters the owners use when they are here. The main building is a frame of palm tree trunks nailed and spiked together, with walls of plaster. It comes complete with TV sets in each room, plus air conditioning and a fully functional kitchen.

And now it's time to wake the kids.


It's now afternoon. The girls and I just got back from a much smaller lunch than yesterday's, at a luncheria where we spent 54 pesos -- about $5 -- on a pair of quesadillas for the girls and something which name I can't remember, for myself.

We spent most of the morning with Ma and Tracy, who rented a golf cart to drive around the island and see what it looked like.