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The Lies of Locke Lamora

January 21, 2018

A paperback copy of The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch, was the perfect airplane book for me over the holidays. A complicated crime caper, it was absorbing enough and long enough (719 pages) to keep me involved without the danger that I’d run out of book before the flights were done. I liked it so much I’ve procured a copy of the sequel for my next flight.

We meet the character who calls himself “Locke Lamora” as an orphaned child in a country called Camorr. Locke has proved himself too clever to work for the “Thiefmaker” and is being sold up the chain of very organized crime in this extremely brutal world. His story is told in chapters that alternate between what happened when he first joined the group of thieves with honor who call themselves the “Gentlemen Bastards” and what is happening as they have one of their biggest marks wriggling on the hook.

Locke is both sympathetic and admirable because he makes room for himself and those he loves in a world dominated by the rich and callous. He excels at playing various roles in order to extract money from the rich and unprincipled among the upper classes of Camorr. Readers are told details that the people he mingles with wouldn’t suspect, like that “Locke didn’t find it particularly easy to eat lunch while watching a dozen swimming men being pulled apart by a Jereshti devilfish, but he decided that his master merchant of Emberlain had probably seen worse, in his many imaginary sea voyages, and he kept his true feelings far from his face.”

One of the most delicious moments is when Locke, playing the role of one of an Imperial security branch called the “Midnighters,” breaks into the home of his current mark in order to warn him about…his own theft-in-process. Locke asks the mark to play along, explaining that it’s been impossible to catch the thieves because the other noble people who were robbed have been too embarrassed to admit what happened. He explains:
“Her ladyship the Dona Rosalina de Marre lost ten thousand crowns four years ago, in exchange for titles to upriver orchards that don’t exist….Don and Dona Feluccia lost twice as much two years ago. They thought they were financing a coup in Talisham that would have made the city a family estate….Last year…Don Javarriz paid fifteen thousand full crowns to a soothsayer who claimed to be able to restore the old man’s firstborn to life.”
You’d think the promise of necromancy would be a clue, wouldn’t you? But the mark, a lord called Salvara, is completely taken in.

Some of the seeming digressions, like an explanation of the results of burning “wraithstone,” on living creatures, turn out to be more important than readers suspect, at first. It’s more than just further evidence of the brutality of this society that results in us over-hearing Locke being told that “once, in the time of the Therin Throne, the process was used to punish criminals, but it has been centuries since any civilized Therin city-state allowed the use of Wraithstone on men and women. A society that still hangs children for petty theft and feeds prisoners to sea-creatures finds the results too disquieting to bear.”

Locke faces down other thieves, magicians, and all the assembled nobles of his society, although not without his own losses along the way.

The worldbuilding is detailed and interesting, revealing more than is needed for this particular story. There are tantalizing hints about an earlier society called the Eldren who left behind mysterious buildings filled with mysterious substances like “Elderglass” which is “proof against all human arts.”

And the cleverness of the story extends to humor, like at the end of a tense scene where one of the characters we care about seems to be in danger from a fencing teacher, who then turns around and informs him that
“those prancing little pants-wetters come here to learn the colorful and gentlemanly art of fencing, with its many sporting limitations and its proscriptions against dishonorable engagements.
You, on the other hand…you are going to learn how to kill men with a sword.’”

Readers get to learn all the complicated secrets and intrigues of Locke’s schemes, except for one final secret which Locke whispers to his friend Jean at the end, but no one else gets to hear.

There is a sequel, but this book has an absolutely smashing and satisfying ending all by itself, and my bet is that we don’t get to learn Locke’s final secret in the next one, either.

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The Women’s March

January 19, 2018

I’ve organized an anniversary event for our weekly demonstration, Signs on the Square, on Saturday, January 20. It’s hard to believe it’s been a year. I’m not sure if I can find my pussy hat, but I’ve had some help designing banners that say “Reform Congress” and I will hold a sign asking my (Republican) congressman why he’s gone 345 days without a town hall.Banners for Signs on the Square - Reform Congress

The Women’s March
by Philip Schultz

So many mothers are here, daughters and granddaughters.
Mine’s been dead for nineteen years but somehow
managed to come. I’m seeing her everywhere,
in the pleased-with-itself smile of the little girl
riding her father’s shoulders, holding a sign
announcing girl power and the beginning of the
Women’s Century, in the don’t-mess-with-me look
of the much-pierced young woman in black
who appears to have finally found her cadence,
in the excited green/gray eyes of the old woman
in a wheelchair being pushed along at quite a clip
by, I assume, her grandson, who looks absolutely
mesmerized. And just ahead is the forceful stride
of the black drummer banging away for all she is
and wants to be, using everything she has to make
a point about strength and willfulness and sacrifice
that maybe only women have the right to make,
having made all of us, shared themselves so completely.
A point about going too far and not far enough,
about time, and the pain it brings, and yes, here I am,
older than I ever intended to be, enjoying the ringing
in my ears, remembering being lifted into the air
by my mother, trembling with joy, as she enfolded
me into the hospitable wings of her peasant apron.
Yes, she’s here, marching with all the others, all of whom
understand what’s being asked of them, one more time.

Every Saturday for the past year it’s been one more time.

Here is the start of my letter to the editor of the local newspaper, asking everyone in the area who feels like the past year hasn’t been life as usual to come out for our demonstration this week:
How did you feel last year at this time, on the eve of the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States and the Women’s March on Washington? Apprehensive? Angry? Triumphant? And how do you feel now, after a year of legislation? Has what you were angry or triumphant about come to pass?

How about you—how do you feel now?

 

Winter

January 15, 2018
tags:

Christmas is over and winter is here. We got four inches of snow on Friday and are getting more this afternoon.

On Saturday some friends kindly dropped me off at the front door of the Mohican Lodge, where my group, the Central Ohio Celtic Fiddlers, played while the audience was gathering and preparations were being made for the appearance of the main act, The Empty Bottle String Band. It was really fun, and I was happy to be able to make it in there, as the handicapped parking spaces were all taken up and the walkway from them was covered in snow and ice by the time we arrived.

Tonight is symphony rehearsal, but I doubt I’ll be able to get inside the building. My two choices from the parking lot are a long, snow-covered concrete ramp or a long, refrozen slush-covered sidewalk ending with a series of stone steps at the entrance.

Over the very wintry weekend, I read Ali Smith’s new novel Winter. Evocative of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, it’s ostensibly the story of Sophia, who is unwise, her sister Iris, who is full of ire, and Sophia’s son Arthur, who is bored with real life and also with art as an imitation of life (“Art” being the shortened form of his name, among other things).

Like the previous novel Autumn, however, this novel is about politics. It’s also about how good people should live in the season that “makes things visible.”

At the beginning of the novel, Art’s partner Charlotte tries to make him see that
“the people in this country are in furious rages at each other after the last vote…and the government we’ve got has done nothing to assuage it and instead is using people’s rage for its own political expediency. Which is a grand old fascist trick if ever I saw one, and a very dangerous game to play. And what’s happening in the United States is directly related, and probably financially related.”

Charlotte is angry because she thinks that Art’s blog, called Art in Nature, is an “irrelevant reactionary unpolitical” blog, and he defends that by saying “I’m just not a politico….What I do is by its nature not political. Politics is transitory.” Eventually, however, Art’s aunt Iris, who has been protesting many of the same environmental issues for the past fifty years, shows him that both of these statements are disingenuous.

In the past year, I’ve discovered that politics is not transitory, with our weekly political demonstration. At first we made new signs every week, using copier paper on foamboard so we could change the words when needed. Then we began re-using the signs we’d already made and covering them with plastic wrap from the kitchen when it was raining. Now we have ten double-sided signs that we rotate, depending on what the political situation is that week. Sometimes it’s a little discouraging to go through them and pick out the sign that is relevant again, but if a fight is worth our time, I guess it’s worth our persistence.

Since Charlotte left Art right before Christmas, he has hired a girl he met on the street in London to come with him to his mother’s country house, and her name turns out to be Lux. She questions everything, including Art’s inspiration for his blog, and we find out that he doesn’t really visit the places he writes about, but makes it up as if he had been there:
“I didn’t actually go anywhere. I looked it up on Google Maps and on an RAC route planner….It’s not a personal memory I myself have…but it’s a good general sort of invented sharable memory for the people who’ll read the blog.” You have to wonder why he bothers.

Lux asks Art’s mother, Sophie, who voted for Brexit, about “what will the world do…if we can’t solve the problem of the millions and millions of people with no home to go to or whose homes aren’t good enough, except by saying go away and building fences and walls?”

Sophie listens to Lux even while she ridicules the political activism of her sister Iris. At one point
“We were all going to die, his mother says. But in the end? It seems, after all, we didn’t. Nuclear holocaust.
She makes a scoffy sound.
We’re not out of that quicksand yet, Iris says. Let’s see how low the newest leader of the free world can sink us this time round.”

Art thinks that
“he wants the essentiality of winter, not this half-season grey selfsameness. He wants real winter where woods are sheathed in snow, trees emphatic with its white, their bareness shining and enhanced because of it, the ground underfoot snow-covered as if with frozen feathers or shredded cloud but streaked with gold through the trees from low winter sun, and at the end of the barely discernable track, along the dip in the snow that indicates a muffled path between the trees, the view and the woods opening to a light that’s itself untrodden, never been blemished, wide like an expanse of snow-sea, above it more snow promised, waiting its time in the blank of the sky.
IMG_1077For snow to fill this room and cover everything and everyone in it.
To be a frozen blade that breaks, not a blade of grass that bends.
To freeze, to shatter, to unmelt himself.
This is what he wants.”
As I write this blog post, I’m looking out at a tree “sheathed in snow…emphatic with its white.”

Isn’t Art’s longing the same kind of longing that produced the Brexit vote and elected the 45th president of the United States, the desire for something simple, something black and white? When I looked around the audience at the string band concert this weekend, I saw the faces of the old people relax at the moment when the band said they would play “old-fashioned tunes.” There is a deep longing for the “simple” and the “old-fashioned” in rural Ohio.

And there is a deep longing to be heard. Even Sophie said, when she was young, that “it would be good to be full of holes….Then all the things you can’t express would maybe just flow out.” It’s easy to get caught up in either the personal or the political until you forget why it’s important to make even the simplest gesture.

I identify with Art’s remorse that he didn’t try harder with Charlotte because I can get caught up in thinking about big ideas to the point that I forget to do the simple little things a good marriage requires:
“He will wish he’d been the kind of man who says, if his partner tells him something like that dream, don’t worry love, I can mend this, wait a minute, and then knows to pretend to be a surgeon with an imaginary metaphysical needle and thread and to mime sewing up the zigzag divide. Even just the gesture of stitches.
It would at least have been a paying of attention.”
How can you act politically if you can’t succeed on the personal level? You really can’t. This is something that I see over and over in my day-to-day political work, from the squabbling over who is most “politically correct” in their thinking and terminology to the kind of disagreement that leads a person initially in favor of an action to declare that if it’s not done her way, she’ll have no part in it. And you can’t succeed on the personal level if you’re always thinking about politics–often the simple gesture is actually the right one, for those closest to you.

So this novel, while it offers many paths for considering our personal and political situation, ended up being, for me, about how to negotiate what can be simple and what is necessarily more complicated. As tempting as I believe it is for some of my neighbors to want things too simple, it’s also a mistake to make everything too complicated, as I sometimes do.

In the black and white of the winter world, it’s easier to see that.

Arcanos Unraveled

January 10, 2018

Like most of us, I spent the last few years tending to my own knitting, trusting that the politicians would work it out. When they didn’t, I started getting more involved. Last night I spoke at a City Council meeting, inviting the members to the first anniversary celebration of Signs on the Square, our weekly demonstration aimed at getting the attention of our congressional “representative” who usually votes to curry favor with his cronies rather than to benefit his constituents.

I don’t know how to knit and am not ordinarily very interested in it, aside from using it as a metaphor, but Jonna Gjevre’s new novel Arcanos Unraveled is a delight whether you’re interested in knitting or not. Like all those novels about sisters that are irresistible to women with sisters, I imagine this book will be irresistible to anyone who likes to knit.

Arcanos is a magical castle, the location for a magical college called The Isthmus that coexists with the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Lest you think this is a Hogwarts knockoff, however, you should know that the main character, a magical textiles instructor, is an adjunct who gets fired and has to leave Arcanos before the action really begins.

The magical shields that protect Arcanos from the mundane world are down, and the adjunct textiles instructor, Anya Winter, has been charged with the responsibility of trying to restore them. To do this and retain her magic, she has to travel by flying carpet and fairy circle while avoiding modern technology. This sounds more fanciful than it is—as Anya explains: “Many witches raised by mundane parents lose most of their magic by adulthood. Carelessly exposed to computers and cell phones, they don’t have a chance to develop their powers.” The novel does not devolve into easy allegory, however—the way magic works in this world is affected by RFID, so they ward against it. Anya finds herself working with a mysterious character named Kyril who has magic but also manages to use technology while shielding himself from its effects. His magic turns out to be number magic.

Anya can make a powerful spell called a web portal with what Kyril calls “just a ball of yarn,” although she points out that “my dying mother spun this yarn by hand from angoras she raised herself.” While knitting the portal, Anya uses a Fibonacci sequence. Kyril tells her that at first he “thought those lace spirals were random…but you were adding up the sum of the last two repeats, every single time.” They have to work together to restore the magical shields for the college, as the knitting pattern is provided by a “Hollerith card,” which is also a computer code.

This is the point at which Gjevre makes knitting exciting (which, for me, is as good a trick as Weir doing this with welding in Artemis). The castle’s defenses were formerly provided by machines called the Drini, which Anya can fix after her realization that they are part of a giant magical knitting machine:
“I grasp the giant needle, and the gleaming metal moves easily in my hand. I pull it towards me, then loop it back down. Again, I pull it towards me, then loop it back down.
Kyril stares. ‘What are you doing?’
‘I think I’m casting on.’ Which conveniently requires only one needle.
A luminous thread of power begins to glow, shimmering, golden, and clear. It’s the ley line. Surely, the thread was always there, caught up in the machine, waiting for the technique that would call it forth. A shining thread catches on the giant needle as I swing it around. It forms a translucent chain of gold. The wormlike chain extends and grows, penetrating the granite wall. Then the Drini takes over, moving of its own accord, using the same looping motion I’d begun. The stone floor opens seamlessly, and a second giant needle joins the first. Noiselessly, they bind together an unbroken chain of gold light.”

There’s a political angle to the destruction of the magical wards and Anya has to figure it out before she gets caught in the crossfire. This is what forces her to plunge into a stand of stinging nettles in an attempt to travel by using the magic of a fairy circle:
“The presence of nettles makes me confident that there really is a fairy ring in the orchard up ahead. For centuries, the stalks of woodland nettles have been retted and spun into enchanted fiber, then knitted or woven into magical textiles. It’s said that the only successful resurrection shroud in the history of magic was woven with nettles harvested from a graveyard.”

In addition to the reference to necromancy, I love this story for the heroism of the adjunct, who finally realizes:
“There was never a place for me at the university. I’d thought The Isthmus could be the home I always wanted. But a home consists of people, and there’s a giant moat of power and privilege around these elite scholars—a moat that I could never bridge. I didn’t see the gulf before. I thought it was just their fine clothes or their advanced training that set them apart. But the truth is clear now: their loyalties are only to their own kind.”

I think Americans are becoming more aware of the “moat of power and privilege” surrounding many of our institutions, and while we can’t all be adjunct heroes, we can let fiction help to open our eyes to the viewpoint of those adjacent to the circles of power, those who have enough of a foot in the world of higher education or local government to lead the way towards making a difference.

Going Home: New Orleans

January 4, 2018

26167331_10213524641703498_7691626078586467004_nWe went to New Orleans for a couple of days during our holiday season, for no particular reason except it was the southern destination that all four of us felt most enthusiastic about. I had hoped to introduce my kids to friends who live in the area, but they were too busy. So we had some free time and I thought maybe I shouldn’t schedule it up as I sometimes do, now that the kids are adults and have their own ideas about what would be fun. We’re four adults with different interests, physical capabilities, and strong wills, however, so it turns out that it would have been better for me to schedule more. Well, live and learn.

26165898_10213509549606205_7519713003892503773_nOn the day we arrived, we introduced our kids to the Louisiana custom of getting a drink and then carrying it around with you. We tried a “hand grenade” from a bar across the street from our hotel, which came in a tall, thin green plastic cup, perfect for carrying. Walking down Bourbon Street and exploring some of the little shops and art galleries on the streets nearby, we eventually found our way to Antoine’s, where we had a reservation because I’d always read about it and wanted to go. We had good food and a good time, sitting in a beautifully decorated inner room in front of an enormous Christmas tree.

The next day we went to the jazz brunch at the Court of Two Sisters, where the brunch was extensive but the jazz was too little too late, starting half an hour after we arrived and consisting of a few muted tunes before the musicians took a break and we left to walk around Jackson Square, 26001021_10213514856898884_7910038369079271250_nthrough the market, the St. Louis cathedral, and then through a little museum in a building called the cabildo next to the cathedral. We had po boys and muffaletta in an outdoor café with a jazz band (better than the one at brunch) and then embarked on a tour of bars recommended by a local we know from the Walker Percy Weekend. Alas, her recommendations were so crowded we could hardly get in the door, as football fans were already arriving in town. We found that we didn’t much care for the taste of a sazerac or the crowd at the Sazerac Bar in the Roosevelt Hotel, and after a quick look at the Monteleone’s revolving “carousel bar,” we decided we needed another plan.

We went back to Café du Monde, where the line had been around the block earlier in the day, and found that it was only halfway around the block and shorter for takeout, so we got some takeout beignets and then strolled down Bourbon towards our hotel. I noticed a bar serving a drink called a “Resurrection” and posed for a photo with the bar’s skull-head mascot (the photo above). We heard zydeco music from inside another bar (they were all open-air) and went in to listen. The band consisted of a drummer, bass player, fiddle, and accordionist on a stage called the “Bayou Club” that was part of a bar called Tropical Isle. The other part of the bar had a band blasting the same kind of loud rock music we heard all along the street, but we liked the music at the Bayou Club so much that we came back the next night, when the accordionist was gone but there was another fiddle player, just as good.

We had tickets for a 10 pm show at Tipitina’s, so we all four crammed ourselves into a taxi and admired the Christmas lights in the garden district all the way over to Napoleon Street, where we had a good time listening to the opening band, DJ Soul Sister. After more than 45 minutes of DJ music, at about midnight (central time), we gave up on the advertised band, George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic, and got a Lyft back to the hotel, where we slept for a few hours before Eleanor had to get up for her flight. She had an early New Years’ Eve party to attend in snowy Ohio.

The remaining three of us got ourselves over to Café Beignet early enough to get in a short line for excellent beignets and eggs, and then hopped on a bus for a “swamp tour.” It was a bit cool, but my lined raincoat was warm enough. We saw more herons and egrets than usual, since the alligators were mostly buried under the mud in the (mid-fifties) “cold” weather. The guide told us that one part of the bayou we were looking at was “the bayou where The Princess and the Frog was filmed.” We assume he meant that this is one of the bits of local scenery that inspired the animators.26114276_10213522945261088_609581972964584910_n

After the bus brought us back to New Orleans, we strolled down the river walk to the aquarium and went through it. We like aquariums and have been to a good many (Columbus, OH, Baltimore’s Inner Harbour, Charleston, SC, the Shedd in Chicago); this one stood out for its quantity and variety of seahorses. Then we had an excellent dinner at the Red Fish Grill, which was recommended by local friends. 26112470_10213524548581170_6071457206719113789_nAfter more Cajun music at the Bayou Club, we had a few hour’s sleep before we got to see what our airport shuttle driver called “the zombies” still weaving their way up and down Bourbon Street at 5:30 in the morning.

I loved getting out of Ohio between snows and missing some of the shoulder-tensing below-zero temperatures. It’s always fun to get to go to Louisiana–it’s still exotic to me, but I love it more every time, and Sheryl St. Germain evokes some of that in this poem:

Going Home: New Orleans

Some slow evenings when the light hangs late and stubborn in the sky,
gives itself up to darkness slowly and deliberately, slow cloud after slow cloud,
slowness enters me like something familiar,
and it feels like going home.

It’s all there in the disappearing light:
all the evenings of slow sky and slow loving, slow boats on sluggish bayous;
the thick-middled trees with the slow-sounding names—oak, mimosa, pecan, magnolia;
the slow tree sap that sticks in your hair when you lie with the trees;
and the maple syrup and pancakes and grits, the butter melting
slowly into and down the sides like sweat between breasts of sloe-eyed strippers;
and the slow-throated blues that floats over the city like fog;
and the weeping, the willows, the cut onions, the cayenne, the slow-cooking beans with marrow-thick gravy;
and all the mint juleps drunk so slowly on all the slow southern porches,
the bourbon and sugar and mint going down warm and brown, syrup and slow;
and all the ice cubes melting in all the iced teas,
all the slow-faced people sitting in all the slowly rocking rockers;
and the crabs and the shrimp and crawfish, the hard shells
slowly and deliberately and lovingly removed, the delicate flesh
slowly sucked out of heads and legs and tails;
and the slow lips that eat and drink and love and speak
that slow luxurious language, savoring each word like a long-missed lover;
and the slow-moving nuns, the black habits dragging the swollen ground;
and the slow river that cradles it all, and the chicory coffee
that cuts through it all, slow-boiled and black as dirt;
and the slow dreams and the slow-healing wounds and the slow smoke of it all
slipping out, ballooning into the sky—slow, deliberate, and magnificent.

 

 

 

Choices

December 25, 2017

For the last couple of years, we’ve given ourselves a writing prompt for Christmas Day and read our offerings out loud to each other. This year the prompt is “orient.” Ron wrote a good science fiction story about the effects of human magneto-perception sense when the earth’s magnetic poles suddenly shift, and Eleanor wrote a great story about the last generation of Tarquins returning to Rome after the fall of the western empire. As usual, I wrote an essay, and here it is, with their permission:

Lately I’ve noticed that when people reach my age, they get set in their ways, and have been seeing first-hand how it happens.

I see parents on Facebook certain that they know “the truth” about Santa Claus, and determined to shape their family’s expectations to match their own. This is something I’ve always thought was short-sighted and lacking in imagination. Ron and I started out by asking our children to help pick out a thing or two to put in the stockings for pets or older relatives and have ended up with a household full of adults who delight in finding ways to surprise each other at Christmastime without wanting credit for each gift. We think this is a fine thing, and it grew out of a conviction that we can create some of the kind of world we want to live in.

We see our congressional representative, whose net worth is $2.3 million dollars, acting certain that he knows what is best, helping to push through a new tax law to take from the poor and give to himself, cloaking it in thoughts and rhetoric about “de-regulation” and “financial systems” rather than seeing himself as a modern-day version of Ebenezer Scrooge.

There’s a re-orienting that has to keep happening in order for people to get older and wiser, rather than just older and more convinced that we’re right about everything.

When I see friends my age set on pursuing their own dreams for an adult child who clearly doesn’t want to follow their proposed path for her life, no matter how much the mother rhapsodizes about how good she is at it, or how much the father wants to protect the child from the consequences of her inaction, I get a perspective on continuing to re-orient my own hopes and expectations for my children. Although I still wish Walker would take some of those civil service tests.

When I see the people I work with trying hard to implement their ideas of what is right for our college, I get another perspective on pausing occasionally to make sure that my idea about what is right is still on target. In terms of a weapon analogy, it’s an occasional recalibrating. If I’m aiming at something, I’d better be sure that it’s the right target. I’ve had help with this, the kind of help that liminal people find in odd places—because I’m “half-time,” I’ve had to create positions for and delegate lots of responsibilities to a growing number of student managers, who give me good advice and ideas about how to do things better.

After many years of being a leader, I’m trying to keep learning about humility and how sometimes I have to take a few minutes to follow instead of leading all the time.

For me this has been literal, in terms of walking. Everyone walks faster than I do now, even though I have long legs and for years was at the front of the pack, waiting for those with shorter legs (friends, children) to catch up. Now I’m always behind, singing the line Orpheus sings on the soundtrack of Hadestown we’ve been listening to (“wait for me, I’m coming, wait, I’m coming with you”). In a different family, I might be a grandmother already, or at least an aunt whose nieces and nephews get together at Christmastime. In a family like that, I imagine that it doesn’t matter when an older person can’t keep up if she’s willing to help amuse the little kids. We’ve never had a lot of extended family, though. Since my parents died, my brother and his family are spending Christmases with her parents, and Ron’s family usually have their own plans with friends and the families they married into. It’s hard to re-orient my idea of what the holidays should be, but clearly I need a new perspective, one that doesn’t include so many expectations about families.

It helps to go somewhere new; we’re trying New Orleans for a few days right after Christmas. Why not go south, we figured, after all those years of holiday treks to the north?

And it can help to learn something new. Since I started taking violin lessons again three winters ago, I’ve had the pleasure of being a follower in a string quartet at a wedding and a Christmas party, a violin duet at a retirement home, and even a fiddling group, which is not something I ever pictured myself doing, before. Fiddling sounds quick, and I was never sure my fingers could fly that fast or that I could improvise rather than just reading the notes.

I’ve always been part of a family who like to read and look things up. We like well-timed quotations and quick retorts in our conversations. Now my adult children are often quicker with a quip than I am, and faster at finding relevant and correct information on any topic. I have to accept the humility of letting someone else lead when we have a conversation or explore a new place. One of the things my immediate family has always needed me for is the job of tour guide, but now that they have each traveled on their own, everyone knows better ways of getting around, so when, for instance, I reserve an airport shuttle they say “we could have just called an Uber.” Now, if we could just agree about whether I’m making a plan or we’re improvising.

Even at home, in my own small town, I’m having to re-orient myself, after living here for more than 20 years. The other day I typed in the address of a fairly new business where I was supposed to show up for a rehearsal (“you don’t need to know where it is, mom, just type it into your GPS”) and I was informed that I had arrived when I was in front of the Woodward Opera House. I kept driving up and down Main Street until I found a storefront with the correct sign. Then I dragged my stand and violin case through that doorway and up a step, only to be informed that the place where I was expected is two doors down, where I’d seen a sign for an art shop. So maybe the best way to keep re-orienting is to keep exploring. Our weekly political demonstrations on the town square on Saturdays have certainly offered me a wider perspective on this place where I’ve been living, waving at strangers who sometimes wave tentatively back, probably thinking they must know me.

Even if there are days I can’t get out, like on icy roads when re-orienting could be disastrous, it’s important to keep my expectations from petrifying, like in this poem by Tess Gallagher:

Choices

I go to the mountain side
of the house to cut saplings,
and clear a view to snow
on the mountain. But when I look up,
saw in hand, I see a nest clutched in
the uppermost branches.
I don’t cut that one.
I don’t cut the others either.
Suddenly, in every tree,
an unseen nest
where a mountain
would be.

If you get fixated on your desire for that distant view of a mountain, you’re going to miss generations of people and animals coming and going right in front of your face. I think congress has been doing this–getting fixated on the distant view–and I hope we can eventually show them that they need to re-orient. It’s the experiences of re-orienting that eventually accumulate and become wisdom, not staying in one position until all your thoughts and ideas get calcified and rigid.

Well, that’s my essay.
And here is Walker’s poem, a kind of meditation on The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, by T.S. Eliot, reproduced here with Walker’s permission:

Navigation Song For Me and Saanvi, by Walker Griggs

Let us go then you and I
To Agra, stopping in Shanghai
Who’s there? And how, and what, and why?
Is it evening? Is there sky?

I leave from Tulsa, heading East
A brain of tunes, a trunk of beer
I wave to every passing beast
On highway – skunk. In forest – deer.

What fool goes down the road in want
Of home or plan or favorite haunt

I fail to mine these Eastern trees
I fail to tap the waterfall
The hardest part is not of seas
It is to mine or tap at all

A girl named Saanvi dares to tap
On tempered glass of door or phone
Does she dare to check a map?
She dares, and finds herself alone

What fool would question maps with “Whither?”
For dread the map would answer simply “Hither”

She leaves and comes and goes and waits
Through citadels and rogue states
She sings and shrieks at airport gates
Escaping peace, outrunning fates

In Shanghai Saanvi nearly finds
A map that leads her past the crowds
of vacant hands and sweaty minds
Into the garden in the clouds

What fool would trust in maps to guide
Where East and West and faith collide

I pick up Prufrock in Shanghai
though his appearance gives me pause
He’s turned into his scuttling lie
Of silent seas and ragged claws

With him in tow I go and go
He pumps the gas when I refuel
He plays the parts, puts on a show
At last the Prince, with me the Fool

We meet at last in Agra far
Removed from who we were, or are
And Prufrock sings, to my guitar
His Love Song once, now his memoir

And Saanvi stares as in a trance
And then at once begins to dance
We’ve found in India a France
Of fire and rose and blithe romance

I pop the trunk, I crack some beers
as Saanvi plops upon the curb
She turns to Prufrock, saying “cheers,
this universe you’d dare disturb?”

They hit it off and leave, I stay
And watch the ghost lights flicker past
In Agra there is more than day
There’s evening, and the sky is vast

What fool expects a different sky
What sage seeks only gentler sea
That fool is I
The sage Saanvi.

Landscape with Invisible Hand

December 19, 2017

We were big fans of M. T. Anderson’s YA novel Feed when it came out, so when I found out that he’d written a new YA novel entitled Landscape with Invisible Hand and read some reviews calling it satiric, I had to read it posthaste. And I was glad I did, as in a holiday season full of disturbing news, it provided almost as much comfort and joy as the post entitled “Yes, I know I’m angry. I wish you were.”

In Landscape with Invisible Hand, aliens called the vuvv have invaded Earth. They offer humans “their tech and invited us to be part of their Interspecies Co-Prosperity Alliance. They announced that they could end all work forever and cure all disease, so of course, the leaders of the world all rushed to sign up.” What the humans didn’t realize, our narrator Adam says, is that “all that tech would be owned by someone and would be behind a paywall” and that “no human currency could stand up against the vuvv’s ch’ch” so that “the human economy collapsed” and “only the wealthiest of humans could compete, once they had a contract for vuvv tech, once they could invest in vuvv firms.”

Adam and his parents spend their days looking for work while, as he says, “our leaders were making speeches about how American’s middle class had to stop dreaming and start learning how to really work.” Even subsistence farming doesn’t work because “the vuvv could grow food cheaper,” so finally “the only way to make money was to work with the vuvv personally.”

In desperation, Adam finds a job courting the teenage girl whose homeless family has had to move into his house. They make “hundreds of dollars a month” wearing recording equipment so the vuvv can observe their dates. The viewers and the money disappear, however, when Adam and the girl start to grow apart and after an unfortunate episode that reveals the unpleasantness of the disease that Adam has caught from drinking tap water, because “as part of the vuvv’s austerity measures, municipal water is no longer purified.” It’s hard not to see a current political parallel when Adam reveals the fact that he’s “tried to get some kind of medicine to help with it—the vuvv can apparently solve this kind of thing in five minutes—but we have minimum insurance coverage. All the medicine in the world won’t help if you don’t own it. I was saving up for a single visit with a vuvv doc. I hoped I’d have enough cash by the time my small intestine shriveled like an earthworm on hot pavement.”

It’s even harder not to see parallels as the story goes on, with Adam’s formerly indomitable mother cowed by the impossibility of ever finding work and Adam’s job gone.
“So we watch the news, and there has been a race riot in Central Fals. Security cameras show a bunch of white guys rampaging through a bodega, lifting up the Coke fridge and tipping it through the window, attacking the owner and his family with a baseball bat, screaming shit like go back to Mexico and leave us our jobs. They’re stomping on the chips in the snack food aisle and showing their teeth like an animal pack. Some white woman standing outside on the street in a terry-cloth hoodie tells a reporter that if it weren’t for those goddamn people, the censored censored illegals, everybody wouldn’t be eating the grass in our yards on all fours.
On another channel, the pundits talk about how lazy humans are, and how if they’d just go out there and get jobs, they’d be much happier. Somewhere in the Midwest, there has been a terrorist strike against a vuvv agricultural transport—human farmers, ruined, desperate, getting revenge by detonating a fertilizer bomb in the back of a ship unloading romaine lettuces from space. ‘Only goddamn thing left for me to do with my fertilizer,’ says an industrial ag farmhand as he is led away.
And the pundits talk about how if we spent less time complaining about the vuvv and more time following their example, investing smartly in vuvv tech—if we’d just get up off our duffs, stand up from our Barcaloungers, and go out and actually work—then maybe we wouldn’t all be starving and demanding food we haven’t actually worked for.”

The plot involves Adam, with encouragement from his art teacher, entering a vuvv art competition with his landscapes of Earth, a long-shot entry because the vuvv believe all Earth art should consist of still lifes. His teacher, Adam says, “has devoted his life to listening to us and giving us a space to make our statements. That, I guess, is why he is one of the few actual adults I know, as opposed to people who are just old.” And that, for me, confirms the quality of the satire in this novel. In the past year I have seen many people in rural Ohio who are not acting like adults, but who are just old and wishing for things to go back to the way they were at some point in the past.

An alien invasion story is an excellent way to hold up a mirror to Americans and show them what it looks like when the future is now and there’s no escape from the new reality in dreams of the good old days. I like Anderson’s faith in his Young Adult audience and his attempt, in this satiric novel, to show them the effects of getting so stuck in a ruined world that you can’t find a new way to see, an avenue of escape.

 

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