R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Find Out What It Means To Me…

At the school where I teach, which is non-sectarian, our character education mission is guided by four core values: honesty, responsibility, kindness, and respect. While we try to teach and model all four of these all the time, each year the school chooses one core value to highlight with special emphasis. It’s a four-year rotation, and this year the focus is on respect.

Last year, I was awarded what is essentially Teacher of the Year. (It was a glorious shock, let me tell you!) But part of that means that this year, I was invited to speak to the entire community about our core value of focus. Since that’s a big audience — approximately 1700 people — the largest I’ve ever addressed, and my stagefright was intense, I fell back on a skill that comes naturally to me: storytelling.

And since it went well, I’d like to share my remarks with you.

***

Good morning. Thank you for inviting me here to speak about our core value of respect. This morning I’d like to tell you all a story.

When I was seven years old, my mother and my grandmother began teaching me how to cook. My grandmother, whom I called Tita because that’s the Arabic word for Grandma, would come over to our house every Saturday, and she and my mother would spend the day making Lebanese food. When I was seven, they decided it was time I start learning how to do it, too. Now, learning to make Lebanese food is not a quick or simple process. There are no written recipes involved, and it takes most of the day; for example, making a batch of pita bread takes about five hours.

And while we made the food, Tita and my mother told me stories. I learned about how our family’s recipes had evolved over the generations, brought from Tripoli and Zouth-n-Kayek, from Bekfiya and Beirut, then to San Antonio and finally to Houston. I learned about the many people in my family who’d made this food before me and what their lives were like. I learned Tita had not had to measure a single ingredient since the age of twelve because she’d made cooking for her large family a big part of her life’s work.

And while I mixed ground lamb and onions and pine nuts to make kibbe, or stuffed grapeleaves and yellow squash with lamb and rice, I learned I was part of a rich and beautiful tradition. In learning to make this food, I came to understand my place in my family, in my culture, and – I thought – in the world.

One Monday morning, I decided to take some of the delicious Lebanese food I’d made to school with me for lunch. At that time, schools didn’t worry about food allergies, so my second-grade classmates and I all traded food in the lunchroom every day. As soon as everyone sat down at a table, the negotiations would begin:

“I’ll trade you a ham-and-cheese for your cupcake.”

“If I give you my Cheetos, can I have half your peanut butter and jelly sandwich?”

Things like that.

Well, I’d packed my Wonder Woman lunchbox that morning with some of my favorite foods, foods I was proud of, that I had made myself while participating in my family’s heritage. I started with the cookies. I asked, “Would anyone like a ma’amoul? No? I also have graybeh.” They looked at me like I was speaking Martian, not Arabic. So I switched to the English names: “How about a date finger?”

There was similar disinterest for my entrée, spinach pies. These are warm hand-held pies made of soft bread and filled with spinach and onions and lemon, and they were my favorite lunch. I’d brought two because I was sure someone else would want one.

Most of the reactions to my lunch ranged from unkindness – my classmates calling my food weird and gross – to polite distaste. They declined to sample any of it, much less trade me their Oreos for it, even though none of them had ever tried these foods before. And I felt torn: on the one hand, it looked like I was going to get to enjoy it all myself without having to share it; on the other hand, my seven-year-old sense of identity had become wrapped up in this food, in the communal process of creating it, and in what it meant to be Lebanese and to be part of my family. This food represented my culture, my accomplishments, and who I was as a person. So when my friends said my lunch was weird and gross, it felt like they were saying I was weird and gross.

Now, I mentioned that some of them were polite. They didn’t insult my lunch, but they didn’t want to try it, either. Politeness looks like respect, but it is not the same as respect. If you look up respect in the dictionary, you’ll see it means “to consider something in high regard.” To respect someone or something means that you think that person or thing is important and has value. If you look up politeness in the dictionary, you’ll find it means “marked by an appearance of deference or courtesy.” Some of my classmates politely declined to share my food, but it felt like they didn’t want to share in my experience, in who I was.

I did have one brave friend who, after she saw me eating my lunch, decided she would try it. She asked me if she could have a graybeh, which is a thick butter-and-sugar cookie with half a walnut embedded in the top, and I gave her one, and she liked it. Then I broke a ma’amoul – which is a sweet crumbly pastry filled with spiced dates and rolled in sugar – and gave her half. She liked that as well. She even had part of a spinach pie and declared it to be “actually pretty good.” She shared her chocolate bar with me, too. That one friend showed me respect by appreciating what I had to offer.

I want to paraphrase something my wise friend Christa Forster once told me, which is that all the things which make up who we are – our memories, our traditions, what we like or value – these things which make us unique and special are all golden. And when we share what matters to us with each other, we share that gold. And when we accept other people with an open mind and an open heart, when we celebrate what makes each other unique and special, we become richer. Just like my friend in second grade who discovered a whole new cuisine she liked eating, when we respect other people by accepting them, we gain a richer understanding and appreciation of them and what they have to offer, and also of the world.

Thank you so much for your attention today. Have a wonderful school year.

Monday Earworm: Thomas Dolby

English musician Thomas Dolby is probably best known here for his hit “She Blinded Me With Science” — and, as a result, probably best known by people in my age demographic. However, as excellent as that song is, his work definitely deserves a closer look.

His album Retrospectacle, a greatest hits compilation, was one of my favorites during my college years, and even now, it holds up beautifully. His work afterward seemed to be largely in the sphere of soundtracks, particularly for video games.

Here’s just a taste of his brilliance. “Budapest By Blimp” is a mellow song and can be enjoyed even if you aren’t paying attention to its lyrics, but the story in the song really opens it up. If you read the first comment after the video, you’ll see the text of a blog post wherein a teacher wrote to Dolby requesting more information about the song’s genesis and Dolby’s incredibly thoughtful response. It’s well worth reading.

Poem-A-Day: Ani diFranco (again)

Here’s another poem-set-to-music by Ani diFranco. This one is from a live performance, possibly the same version as on her live double album Living In Clip (which is one of those take-with-me-if-I’m-stranded-on-a-deserted-island albums, by the way, so definitely check it out if you’re interested in hearing more of her music).

In “Not So Soft,” Ani takes on inequity.

Poem-A-Day: Ani diFranco

So, the connection and crossover between poetry and song is storied and long. I think it was Paul Otremba, in a poetry workshop I was taking, who once suggested (and I’m paraphrasing) that if the song lyrics could stand on their own, if they didn’t need the experience of the music behind them to be meaningful or have an impact, they were probably also poetry. This seems like as wonderful an explanation as any I’ve ever heard about where these two forms overlap.

One of my favorite artists, without question, is the incomparable Ani diFranco. I love her work. Sometimes her albums (and her concerts) offer us a bit of spoken-word poetry, and because I’m keen to demonstrate that poetry comes to us in sometimes unexpected places and unexpected ways, tonight I’m sharing this song/poem of hers.

“Tamburitza Lingua” appears on the Reveling/Reckoning double album. It captures, adeptly, the existential angst of life in America at the apprehensive end of the last century and precarious dawning of this one, intertwined with the existential angst also of being a human of a particular mindset, age, and consciousness. I think you’ll understand this as you listen to the words, which are backed up deftly with a minimalist score that increases the feelings in the poem in an unexpectedly catchy, but never kitschy, way. (As a side note, a “tamburitza” is a mandolin-like instrument played in Slavic regions, and “lingua” means resembling or a part of a tongue.)

There are other videos of this song which are perhaps more interesting to watch, but I’m not really focused on that. This is a beautiful image, the lyrics show up like a moving poem over it, and the audio is good. Please to enjoy.

http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=tamburitza+lingua&qpvt=tamburitza+lingua&view=detail&mid=608041E006FCCCF07D49608041E006FCCCF07D49&FORM=VRDGAR

This Ish Just Isn’t Fun Anymore

“You’ll find more cheer in a graveyard.” – Gimli, The Two Towers

***

The thing about porn is that at some point––unless you’re an addict––you have to stop and say, okay, I’m done with this nonsense.

Last night I reached that point with what has become for many people a Sunday night ritual of torture porn, The Walking Dead.

It took me about five seasons to become a regular viewer of this show, and now that habit, I think, is purged. I’ve never been a fan of zombies; unlike vampires or werewolves, they’re just not my monsters. My husband has been with it from the beginning, and though I didn’t like it because inevitably there’d be zombie nightmares involving our children each night I’d watch it, I used to enjoy his humorous recaps of each episode’s highlights. When I first asked him what the show was about, back in the first season, he told me it was a zombie show, yes, but it was also, like most good stories, about the Human Condition.

“It’s about these survivors’ attempts to maintain their humanity in the face of the end of it all around them. It’s a story about whether they will stay human or become zombies, yes, but also about whether they will retain their goodness in the face of other survivors’ becoming monsters.”

Hey, an exploration of humanity in the face of an inhuman threat––sounds like some good science fiction, doesn’t it? It didn’t take long to realize that the true threat of the zombie apocalypse isn’t zombies, who can be stabbed or shot in the head by a kid with enough practice. (And the implications of that detail, in and of themselves, are horrifying to contemplate.) The true threat, of course, is the people who turn on each other. The ones who care about nothing other than power in whatever corner of the world they have left. The ones who aren’t really any better than the bad actors we have in real life, and who aren’t even any worse, they just have more clout in their respective spheres of influence.

This could have been a show about rebuilding society in a way that improved over the calamity of the past. But then I guess it wouldn’t have been horror.

I think one of the problems I have with certain movies and television shows is the lack of creative problem-solving. I’m not learning much if anything from a lot of these stories. I liked The Matrix and even the sequel, but the third movie made the whole trilogy worse. I just felt hollow after watching the end of that cycle, as if the people who had conceived of this fantastic science fiction plot and these engaging characters who could literally bend reality couldn’t come up with anything better than resolving their dilemmas with guns. I liked Daredevil really well until the characters couldn’t get along and everything was just ultra-violence: the first season was compelling; the second one, at times confusing and insensible. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was great for a while, but now it takes longer and longer for a season to get good while half the characters––the ones who get the most plot time––stagnate in a soup of poor choices. The Jason Bourne movies––which have devolved into a cast with only a couple of women (both of whom are caricatures), long masturbatory car chases, and a brooding spy who never answers the question of will he or won’t he––haven’t been good for a while now.

And the violence––good grief, the violence. Probably by now you’ve read a bunch of the commentary on why people are leaving The Walking Dead in droves after last night’s last straw. There was no real character development; no one did anything that wasn’t predictable. And Negan? Seriously? What the fuck is that guy? He delivered on the promise of the last season’s finale, but worse. I suppose, in retrospect, we couldn’t have expected that he wasn’t going to be this way. The episode last night was just a confirmation of our worst, stomach-turning dread, executed in the most unnecessarily assaultive ways. I’m not sure things could have been worse if Lucille had gone after Maggie in her stomach and then her face. I’m really tired of the cheap shock, of the tug on my heartstrings that doesn’t have any heart in it. If a story wants to upset me, it doesn’t have to attempt to be the most brutal, most bloody, most creatively grotesque gore we’ve seen yet. Believe me, I don’t find that stuff creative. Tedious? Yes, sometimes. Insulting? All too often. It’s like they don’t even care that human beings, people with thoughts and feelings and relationships, are in the audience watching.

Dictionary.com defines porn as “television shows, articles, photographs, etc., thought to cater to an irresistible desire for or interest in something.” Yes, we all know it first means this in a sexual context. But we now have food porn, disaster porn, and torture porn (among others, no doubt). I love food but don’t really care about seeing everyone’s dinner on Facebook. I used to love my superheroes and their big-budget action films, but I’m tired of the stakes always being world-calamity-high. I don’t feel connected to those stories anymore, because they no longer feel like they’re about people, not really.

When I think about The Walking Dead––and I’ve thought about this for a while now––I don’t know how much longer the series can go on. At this point the zombies are hardly even a character anymore. The cycle of find a place, meet another group who are assholes, fight that group, find another place, meet another group who are bigger assholes, fight them in an uglier way, lather, rinse, repeat––I just can’t. I no longer care whether that world survives; I’m no longer sure it should. And the thing is, I don’t know what disturbs me more: the content of last night’s episode or the show’s enduring popularity.

Have you been paying attention to what’s going on in our culture right now? If so, then you are probably aware that real life is pretty badly screwed up in a lot of ways. It’s –isms as far as the eye can see. I’m not looking to escape into worse violence when I turn on the television. It doesn’t make me feel better about my own situation; it makes me feel worse about the human race. What’s happening on some of these shows we’ve been watching turns my stomach, but what bothers me more is that I’m not having the zombie nightmares anymore. Even after last night’s episode, which literally nauseated me––and by the way, blood does not make me squeamish––I didn’t have those dreams. This tells me I’m becoming desensitized to it, even if only a little. And that tells me it’s time to pull out while I can.

Game of Thrones, you’re officially on notice. You’ve still got Peter Dinklage and amazing costume design going for you, and I’m genuinely curious to see how a world full of matriarchies plays out, especially since only two of the leaders of the various regions or clans appear to be psychotic––a significant improvement over the life art purports to imitate.

But pull any more sensationally cruel and insulting stunts like the Red Wedding, Sansa’s wedding night with Theon and Bolton’s bastard, and Princess Shireen, and you and your lack of taste and storytelling prowess will probably lose me, too.

***

For another really interesting post about giving up on The Walking Dead, check this out.

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.

Women Writers Wednesday 6/24/15

Instead of a review this week, I want to take a minute to talk more about this series and the reason it was started.

There’s been a lot of press in the last year or so about gender bias in the publishing industry. Many people have observed that it’s hard to get traditionally published if you’re a woman, especially if you’re also writing about women. With the exception of the romance genre, literature is still, somehow, “a man’s world.” And all this despite the oft-repeated statistic that most book buyers (and book clubbers) are women. I’d heard and read all these things over and over again, but for some reason, it wasn’t entirely resonating with me.

Why? I go to conferences, and more than half the agents at every conference I go to are women. In the writing industry seminars and classes I take––whether in town or at a conference––at least half (sometimes far more) of the writers around me are women. I read books by women (though not exclusively). I read books about women (though not exclusively). There’s no shortage of women on my bookshelf and in my recommended reads on Amazon.

But wrapped up in my own experiences, I wasn’t seeing the bigger picture.

The more I investigated this topic, in talking to other authors I know, in reading articles about it online, in seeking out multiple perspectives on this issue on social media, the more I began to see that there really is a problem. It’s not just about the writing industry, of course: it’s about our society more broadly. I’ll try not to be too much of a SJW here, but things like gender bias, discrimination, rape culture, and hating on women are some of the most insidious cancers in our culture. They’re particularly damaging not just because they are bad in and of themselves, but because in our culture, we have a belief that everything we do is infused with inalienable rights, with freedoms to be and say and do whatever we want. Sometimes, though, this crosses a line, as anyone who has ever paid attention to free speech debates surely knows.

***

Paul Downs Colaizzo said of his play Really Really that its genesis was in part the current youth’s hook-up culture and in part the 2006 Duke lacrosse team rape scandal. He cited some interesting points about American culture in a talkback after a Black Lab Theatre performance of it, directed by Jordan Jaffe, here in Houston last spring. When asked the question, “What do you want most for your children?” the WWII generation wanted their children to grow up to be good citizens. Those children, when grown, when asked the same, wanted their children to be happy. Those happy children? They grew up to tell their own kids they could be whatever they wanted to be.

Does any of this sound familiar? It’s a charming progression. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like there’s anything wrong with it. But then when a generation of people are raised thinking they can be or do whatever they want…

We get––among other things, some of which are good––our current state of rape culture and Internet trolldom.

***

What is my point here? It may seem like things are hunky-dory on the surface because we have a lot of personal freedoms (especially if we’re white men). But that’s not the whole picture. Unless you’ve been living in a cave the last couple of months you know that a bunch of the evil -isms of the Human Condition are alive and unfortunately well in our great nation. “Something rotten in the state of Denmark” doesn’t even begin to cover the mess we’re in. I’ll digress too much if I try to list it all here.

Gender bias is just one part of this.

We have to pay attention to it.

The Women Writers Wednesday series on this blog was begun in an attempt to help rectify just one part of this tangled problem.

In this series, female authors share their views on books by other female authors. The idea was to highlight women’s contributions, now and before, to literature. The books are chosen by the reviewers/responders; I don’t curate the titles in general. Want to know something interesting? Out of nearly two dozen reviews/responses we’ve had in this series since November, all but four have been about books written about women––and those four were about both women and men.

So the books are out there. And they’re good. They’re inspiring people. So what’s the problem?

These books aren’t being recognized. And I don’t mean just the books in the WWW series. I mean books by women about women, in general. Check out these chilling pie charts by author Nicola Griffith:

 

This chart shows the winners of the Pulitzer Prize since 2000.
This chart shows the winners of the Pulitzer Prize since 2000.

 

and

 

This chart shows the National Book Award winners since 2000.
This chart shows the National Book Award winners since 2000.

 

(You can see Ms. Griffith’s full blog post with several more pie charts and a discussion on this subject by clicking here.)

I don’t know where the problem begins, but I don’t think it’s a lack of women writing, or even of women writing well. I also don’t know what the solution is, but I am very sure nothing will get solved if people aren’t talking about it. And preferably in constructive ways. (You know, the kind that don’t involve simply dismissing the issue or attacking women verbally in the public sphere.)

Ms. Griffith has also posted a call to action: to help acquire more data. More information, after all, will help everyone to see the problem and its potential solutions more clearly.

Take a look. Get involved if you can. Start with literature, branch out to interpersonal relations. Make the world better.