A Graduation Message and The Fundamental Lies of Our Culture

Last night was commencement. This is always a bittersweet night for me. On the one hand, I’m so happy to be getting to the end of the school year and embarking on summer, the time when I can devote myself more fully to writing more than just remarks on students’ papers. On the other, I’m usually sad to see our seniors leave. They are going off to figure out their way in the world, and while quite a few will keep in touch, commencement is, as last night’s student speaker reminded us, the last time all 139 of them will be together. Watching them leave, these children-turned-young-adults whom we as teachers have poured ourselves into through mentoring and tough love, is a pale precursor — at least for me — to what I expect I will feel in seven years, in nine years, when the Fairy Princess Badass and Tiny Beowulf graduate, too. At my school, seniors’ parents who work at the school come up and present their diplomas to them along with the headmaster, the head of the Board of Trustees, and the commencement speaker, and every year as this happens, I imagine myself doing this with my own children.

I’m a writer. My imagination is deep and vivid. This foreshadowing is profound.

But that’s not actually the subject of today’s blog post. Rather, I want to tell you about last night’s commencement address.

I have experienced more than any person’s fair share of commencement speeches. Not only have I had more than a few graduations of my own, being fairly well-educated, but I have taught high school for almost seventeen years. I have also read and heard and watched commencement speeches from other schools’ ceremonies that people have shared with me in one form or another. And so when I say that a particular speech is one of the worst or one of the best I’ve ever heard, I feel like I can make that judgment with at least a modicum of authority.

Among the best speeches I’ve ever encountered is, of course, David Foster Wallace’s 2005 address at Kenyon, “This Is Water.” The entire speech is excellent, but some really smart people excerpted the highlights so we could get the gist is under ten minutes and then made a movie of it. Watch the video here.

Last night our speaker was Joe Ehrmann, who (among other accomplishments) started Coach for America, a division of Building Men and Women for Others, an initiative he began with his wife, Paula Peach Ehrmann. His remarks were intelligent, important, insightful, and just the right length. And something very interesting happened: a few minutes into his speech, I saw a rare and marvelous phenomenon, which was that nearly all the graduates had turned to give him their full attention. They had stopped fidgeting and chatting amongst themselves behind their programs and looking around them. They were focused on what Ehrmann had to tell them.

And while he spoke about character and the origin of the word and what it meant in ancient Greece versus what it means now, while he spoke about moral courage and one’s moral compass and what those things are actually about and for, the most impactful part of his comments, the part where he had everyone’s intent focus, was the part where he explained the great, damaging myths our culture foists upon boys and girls, to everyone’s detriment. I want to share those with you now, as best as I can sum them up from memory, because they are dear to my own moral compass and some of the things I advocate passionately for in my own life.

First, he explained that there are three fundamental lies our culture tells to boys, some of which they learn as young as four or five years old and some of which they encounter in adolescence. The first one is that athletic ability has something to do with what it means to be a man. Young boys learn early on that being a “real” man has to do with physical strength or prowess on the field or court, but he explained that this is absolutely not true. He also said that boys are taught that manhood is full of what not to do: commands that demand boys not show emotion (“Stop that crying!” — “Don’t be a sissy.” — “Never show your emotions.”) are fundamentally wrong and damaging. Another lie boys learn from our culture is that their manhood is formed by sexual conquest. He explained in no uncertain terms that there is a significant difference between being a man and being someone who uses people, and that a culture of conquest falls into the unfortunate latter camp. He explained that boys are taught that manhood is dependent upon socio-economic status and the acquisition of wealth and material possessions. Lies, all lies.

Next, he explained that our culture tells girls three fundamental lies as well. The first one comes by the time girls are four or five years old: the myth of Prince Charming. There is an understanding that girls must be rescued by some man, and that being rescued by a man is a function of their worth as people: is she pretty enough? is she worth being rescued? This, he explained, is wrong. The second fundamental lie girls are taught by our culture is ingrained by the time they’re twelve or thirteen years old, and it is that a woman’s worth and value as a person are determined by her physical beauty and body type. This is another myth, one perpetuated by the media, by culture, and by entertainment of all types. The third fundamental lie girls are taught, by late adolescence and early adulthood, is that to be a woman is to deny or hide your true, authentic self. This is yet more damaging nonsense. As he put it, when you start believing that lie, you begin to lose your moral compass.

All of these things he told us last night about the fundamental lies our culture teaches boys and girls about what it means to be a man or a woman were not just well received. During his speech, members of the audience clapped or voiced enthusiasm for particular points, and at the end of it he received a sustained standing ovation from everyone in attendance.

Believe me when I tell you this doesn’t happen that often.

So what can I say about all of this? I don’t want this post to be just reportage.

Frequently in my AP Gothic Lit. class, when we would discuss social issues as they arose in the context of our course material, I would encourage my seniors to “go out and fix the world.” I said this glibly, and it made them smile, but I know at least some of them took it to heart, because they would say it back to me, in the context of their charge in life. These are good kids. These are good young men and women. If anyone can make this world a genuinely better, more respectful, more peaceful, more intelligent, more sustainable place, I think they can. They are well positioned because of their privilege and their education to fulfill the old unexplained cliché, to “make a difference and give back.” They have the power and the ability to give that trite expression some teeth, to actually effect change on a meaningful scale.

It will be hard, and they will encounter difficulty on a similarly meaningful scale.

But they can do it. I know them, and I believe most of them will try.

Dear seniors — no.

Dear graduates, go out and fix the world. I’m working on it with you, from the corner of my classroom with a new group of young people every year. It’s a tough slog, I have to tell you, but sometimes I look at what you’ve become and I begin to think it’s all worth it. My optimism gets the better of me, and I start to feel really good about what might be ahead.

I look forward to seeing how well you will do. Keep in touch.

And one more thing: now that you have a diploma in your hands, you can call me by my first name. If you want to. (Some of you will do this immediately, some of you never will. And those are both okay.)

Have a good summer.

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Fantasy Vacations

In what for me is something of an experimental form — though it’s common practice for some writers, perhaps — I decided to write a very short story on Twitter in a series of linked tweets. I let people be aware of it over on Facebook, and a compilation of said tweets was requested so it would be easier to follow. So here it is.

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#1: That place in where you can go and play with legit . I suggested this to my husband. His response?

 

#1: He said, “I’m going to say this only once. Wolves are never safe to play with. Never.”

Not sure I’m buying it, though.

 

#2: Someplace relaxing and mild with beautiful flowers and warmish water to swim in, where I can wear caftans and…

 

#2: …pretend I’m living in a Soft Surroundings catalog.

His response: “Apparently their marketing works. No caftans.”

 

#3: So how about this? Let’s go someplace and live in a castle for a week. Drink tea. Have fancy dinners. Pretend I’m…

 

#3: …living at . I like this a lot. Does this make me terrible?

His response: “Um, servants. Who are you?”

 

#4: How about the Scottish Highlands?

His response: “No.”

Iceland? Him: “No.”

France? “The fastest nope that ever noped.”

 

#5: The wolves aren’t sounding so bad anymore, are they?

His response: *facepalm*

He’s so cute. 🙂

 

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If you want to see more flash fiction like this in the future, but in Twitter-realtime (whatever that might mean), go on over there and follow me; my handle is @AngeliqueJamail. I don’t send out a lot of tweets, usually, so your feed won’t get flooded if you pile on.

 

 

 

A Book I Love — guest post by Kasia James

Today’s post is by Kasia James, the mastermind and book-mother of the anthology The Milk of Female Kindness — An Anthology of Honest Motherhood, of which I was thrilled to be a part.

 

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Occasionally I hit someone who says that they don’t read. Not literally, although I am tempted to slap into them some sense of what they are missing. What I can’t really understand is how anyone can do without the escapism of books. To be absorbed into another world, and one created just as you would wish it to appear, is no small pleasure in the relentlessly attention grabbing world we live in.

When Angélique asked me to write about a book which had been influential to me, I spent a while tangled up in choice. There are many different types of beauty in books, just as there are in people, and the matter is just as subjective.

I thought of John Wyndham’s novels, which are written with sneakily simple language, so that the reader doesn’t realise the complexity of ideas that they are being asked to understand. I thought of Sarah Water’s fabulously twisted dives into history, as detailed and sensory as a tapestry. I thought of The Princess Bride, which my lover read out loud to me on a French riverbank.

Instead, I have chosen The Thirteen Clocks and The Wonderful O by James Thurber. Wait, you say. That’s a kid’s story! And two books to boot! Well, yes, but when I was growing up we had them compiled into one volume. It’s a book which I’ve known since childhood, and yet come back and read every so often, just for the sheer joy of it. It’s possible that I had it as a bedtime story, as my bibliophile parents did make some slightly odd choices at times.

Both stories are fairytales, and that can be refreshing in itself. They are largely free of social commentary, existential angst or complicated relationships – except ones which you know will end happily. I’ve found the same sort of complete retreat in some of Neil Gaiman’s work, and he too is a fan of Thurber. The copy I have on my shelves is introduced by Gaiman as, “probably the best book in the world.” However, they are unlike any fairytale you have read, or ever will read.

They are full of playfulness. The Golux, for example, says of himself:

“I am the Golux,” said the Golux, proudly, “the only Golux in the world, and not a mere Device… Half the places I have been to, never were. I make things up. Half the things I say are there cannot be found. When I was young I told a tale of buried gold, and men from leagues around dug in the woods. I dug myself.”

“But why?”

“I thought the tale of treasure might be true.”

“You said you made it up.”

“I know I did, but then I didn’t know I had. I forget things too.”

Primarily though, their playfulness comes about in the way that Thurber uses language. He juggles it, tickles it, messes about with it in a way that gives you the same feeling as watching a really talented magician. In some ways, they remind me of The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.

The whole concept of The Wonderful O is to pick out the fancy beads and see what is left of the necklace. A pirate who hated the letter O, “because his mother had become wedged in a porthole and they couldn’t pull her in, so they had to push her out,” sails to the island of Ooroo, and sets about banishing all words with the letter “O.”

“’Dius gre gling mins gress’ meant ‘Odious ogre ogling ominous ogress,’ but only scholars knew it. Spoken words became a hissing and a mumble, or a murmur and a hum. A man named Otto Ott, when asked his name, could only stutter. Ophelia Oliver repeated hers, and vanished from the haunts of men.’

The Thirteen Clocks also produces conjuring tricks like this astonishing snippet of alliteration and onomatopoeia.

“The brambles and the thorns grew thick and thicker in a ticking thicket of bickering crickets. Father along and stronger, bonged the gongs of a throng of frogs, green and vivid on their lily pads. From the sky came the crying of flies, and the pilgrims leapt over bleating sheep creeping knee deep in a sleepy stream, in which swift and slippery snakes slid and slithered silkily, whispering sinful secrets.”

Tell me the author of that wasn’t having fun.

One of the many things which I love about these books, other than the way he plays with language, is that they remind me that it is really not necessary to write within defined genres, which are of course largely constructed by the publishing industry to be able to flog books to readers. It is hard to sell something you can’t define, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth writing.

I know that Thurber did painfully revise and rewrite parts of these books, and had to be told to stop tinkering, but all that work is concealed from the reader, like the clockwork in an automaton. However, there is nothing laboured or mechanical when you read these stories. They flow and tumble into a different, and above all more lightheaded, world. It’s a world well worth the journey.

 

Happy Mother’s Day to All the Moms Out There, Including An Icon I Love

It’s been a good Mother’s Day here. Very little work got done (by me, that is — the husband and kids cleaned up the gameroom in excellent fashion), but since I spent all of yesterday doing the author-in-public thing at a book festival (which was really, really good, by the way), I will not lament the fact that I spent much of the morning napping instead of editing and much of the afternoon hanging out with the extended family instead of folding laundry or posting pictures on Facebook of the excellent food other people prepared for me.

I did read a fabulous post by sj over at Insatiable Booksluts that I must share with you, though, because it’s about one of my all-time favorite heroines, Morticia Addams.

Enjoy. And if you love Morticia, leave a note here in the comments about why. I’d love to gush over her with you. You can even do this before you click on over to sj’s post.

 

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Morticia Addams is a Goddamn Paragon of Feminist Motherhood

I’m raising my glass to Morticia Addams, the woman who taught me everything I need to know to be the best mom and wife I can be.

(Click here or on the title above to read the rest of this awesome post.)

 

 

If You’re Going To Be In Houston This Saturday…

Here’s more information about this Saturday’s exciting festival!

I’ll be at the Gulf Coast Indie Book Fest, a Houston tradition, showcasing Finis., The Milk of Female Kindness — An Anthology of Honest Motherhood, and my new poetry art cards (which are gorgeous and frameable, by the way).

I’m also going to be sharing a table with YA sci-fi writer Adam Holt. Come see us!

Click this link to find out about the full day’s various activities. There’s something for the whole family, and for a diversity of tastes.