Planning my chapters

Last week, I met with my thesis advisor in her office in Bryan Hall. I sat in the same chair I had occupied during my second year, when I offered some vague and jumbled interests that eventually evolved into my current thesis project. This time, I was prepared with a list of proposed chapters and topics scrawled in my Moleskin notebook. It was vaguely surreal, as if everything else that had happened in the interim to refine my thoughts was edited away, leaving the two office visits baldly next to each other with all of the intervening work sheared away.

I started writing one of the smaller sections of my thesis last week, and although I’m in theory focused on contextualizing Gish Jen’s The Love Wife in a whirlwind of what I hope will be delicately chosen high and low culture representations of families, in actuality I’m thinking about chapters these days. Not my thesis chapters, but the idea of chapters broadly.

We apply this word as a way of reading our own lives, usually in reverse but sometimes as a way of marking a transition. Graduations; moving houses; changing jobs; these all represent the closing of old chapters and the page-turn into something new. The poignant, tense moment happens at the summit of that turning page, when the next batch of episodes are just ahead but can’t yet be glimpsed. None of this is revelatory; it’s just a cliche we lean on out of convenience.

One of my classes this semester is exploring exactly this – our tendency to frame our lives in the vocabulary of literature. But as much as I deeply love literature, every once in a while, I can’t help but wonder what the hours I spend dissecting stories in class are really worth. (If I never hear the phrases “interiority” and “the human condition” again, it will be too soon.) I’m starting to think that my English major isn’t really about literature at all – at least, not at its core. Instead, I think we crave fictional narratives because we’re uncertain of how to tell ourselves the stories of our own lives. We’re searching for frames, for modes, for moments when an author really nails just how awkward it can be when someone doesn’t understand what you’re trying to say or how you inexplicably distraught you were when you ran into a childhood friend and everything felt weird. If we already knew how to do this, why would we read? And in our search, why would we read the memoirs of people who have already cracked this code when we could read the fictional works of authors who are testing ideas and, like us, in the process of working these things out?

With the semester underway, I’ve traded my summer internship, with its long days and free weekends, in for the elaborate juggling of too many thoughts. These systems are in constant gestation; whether it’s my thesis, social media strategy for Literally, Darling, job hunting, my classes, or my creative writing, there are always thoughts evolving, being abandoned, and occasionally being scribbled down to fight against forgetfulness. I’m finding it difficult to shuffle between these different piles of information and for the first time in my life, I’m getting serious about taking notes, just to keep my various cycles of ideas from being totally derailed or mixed up with each other as I leave things on the back burner.

Thinking of this time as a chapter doesn’t offer me any useful way of framing my experience. Although I might be living out my “college chapter” in a  general sense, no one’s life offers the neat thematic consistencies that robust writing can present. (If you accept that “college” is a relatively weak theme.) The subsections of my life – interdisciplinary classes, mundane tasks, creative work – are chaotic in combination and often irrelevant to each other. Different periods of life certainly offer thematic patterns, emotional resonances, and evolving plots, but before life can truly be thought of in readable chapters, so many experiences are filtered out and scrapped, lost to forgetfulness completely, with other experiences singled out as doing the useful work of explaining. The chronology of how our emotions work is at best erratic.

Now that I’m actually planning and starting to research chapters of a synthesis of literary critique and historical narrative, I’m thinking about nonfiction writing more deeply. Under closer examination, neat labels have a habit of breaking down rather quickly. The real work of writing is to work your way down through that devolution, stop, and build something back up again by sorting through the pieces you have cast around you.

The real irony here, and the thought behind this post’s title, is that I am simultaneously planning literal chapters that I will spend this year executing while preparing to close what many people would call a chapter of my life. As thematically complicated and research-driven as my literal chapters will be, they are so tiny and insignificant compared to what lies ahead. My plans for post-grad life are simultaneously specific and vague, a mess of contradictions and short term goals that will hopefully leave me open minded when considering jobs and cities but focused enough to actually obtain something. People have a tendency to build thesis projects up into grand encounters with unprecedented stress, but it’s small potatoes compared to what’s going on in some of the other thoughts that are silently baking in my unconscious while I scan Jen’s pages for pop culture references.

Only later, after time and forgetfulness have done some of the work for me, can I look back on this time with the ending in mind, deconstruct it, stop, and build it back up again, one word at a time.

Dawson’s Creek reveals attitudes toward adoption

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My guilty pleasure show this summer is officially, irreversibly, unapologetically Dawson’s Creek. Somehow I missed the endless syndicated reruns of this show and only discovered it at the end of last semester, and since that time I’ve already burned through three seasons.

It’s light and summery, but some of the 90s-throwback fun in Dawson’s Creek is tempered by the show’s dated treatment of issues including mental illness, race, and the LGBT community. And, surprisingly, adoption.

As someone who is studying adoption stories in literature, and as an adopted person myself, I immediately latched on to the adoption plotline that occurs in Season 3. Here are the basics, in case you don’t watch the show:

  • The background you need to know is that Dawson Leery is 16 years old and unapologetically virginal. He’s idealistic, has previously rejected a girlfriend due to her sexual history, and he has firmly rejected the notion of having sex without being in love.
  • En route back to his hometown of Capeside, Massachusetts, after a summer in Philadelphia, Dawson meets a sexy fellow traveler named Eve. He repeatedly runs into her at his high school, a local strip club, and other similarly unlikely places. All the while, she attempts to seduce him in the style of a film noir femme fatale. (Not for the first time, the show takes its relationship to classic films too far.)
  • Eve commits a series of misdeeds that include but are not limited to giving Dawson and his friends a copy of the PSAT answer book; causing Dawson to wreck his father’s boat; and amping up the drama between Dawson and his on again, off again relationship with his childhood friend, Joey Potter.
  • A photograph reveals that Eve is Dawson’s friend Jen’s sister. (Not coincidentally, Jen is the girlfriend whose sexual history disqualified her from receiving Dawson’s affections.) Later, Dawson reveals this news to Jen’s mother, who admits to mothering an illegitimate child. Jen learns of her half sister during an emotional exchange with her frigid mother, but the following episode completely drops the plot line.

Throughout, Eve dares Dawson to lie, cheat, cave to his impulses, and explore his own sexuality. Her name, a painfully obvious nod to original sin, links Eve to the first female moral failure, attaches a Puritan sense of stigma to her illegitimate origins. Instead of the tempted, Eve is transformed into the temptress, a twist that doubly damns her.

The show’s explanation for Eve’s bizarre, impossible behavior is that beneath it all, she’s a vulnerable little girl who is just trying to find her mom by traveling up and down the East Coast with a single photograph in hand. Eve is an extreme characterization of an identity thrown into chaos. Her fluid identity may accurately capture the emotional journey of locating a birth parent, but her character is so inconsistent that the writers failed to ground her in any semblance of realism.

To provide some context for the difficulty of Eve’s search, closed adoptions were by far the norm until very recently. Though laws vary by state and country, Adoption.org offers this broad definition:

In closed adoptions, the future birth mother and prospective adoptive parents will not be given the first or last name of the other party nor will they ever meet. Birth parents have absolutely no say in who the adoptive parents will be and any negotiations will be mediated by a case worker or attorney.

By comparison, an open adoption allows for some degree of contact between the adopted child and his or her biological parents. From what I’ve read, families are now encouraged to opt for open adoptions in the hopes that more information will aid the adopted child’s identity formation.

Without entering the debate over original birth certificates, it’s important to note that in a closed adoption, chances are that the adopted person’s birth certificate will show only their adoptive parents. (Though this is a foreign concept to many, I can personally confirm it, as my own birth certificate lists my adoptive parents.) If a birth certificate is altered to reflect adoption, public records also refrain from listing biological parents, which can make search and reunion efforts incredibly difficult (though social media is quickly changing this). As a young socialite, Jen’s mother was protected from the shame of mothering an illegitimate child by opting for a closed adoption. However, by refraining from delving more deeply into the ramifications of this decision, the show fails to probe the effects and ethics of this choice.

Dawson’s Creek is fascinating for the sheer range of family dysfunction it explores. From Mitch and Gail’s divorce to Jen’s estrangement from her parents to Andie and Jack’s painful trauma, the show presents a wide range of family structures that support my suspicion that the functional nuclear family is thoroughly mythical.

Regardless, using adoption as a token plot twist is insensitive. Unless writers are willing to accurately portray an underrepresented demographic, they shouldn’t touch it at all, because sensational stories do more harm than good by further institutionalizing inaccurate portrayals. But, to be completely fair, I haven’t finished the series yet, so the show has three more seasons to redeem itself.

The thesis crawls on by way of Amazon packages, blue pens, and bookmarks. Tonight I watched The Royal Tenenbaums, which is a movie that’s dying to be put into conversation with an article about Genetic Sexual Attraction that’s sitting on my desktop in the form of a long PDF, so look out for that post soon. In the meantime, I’m splitting my reading between Anna Karenina and a neat book of essays called China in Ten Words.

Steinbeck’s Symbolic Women

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Steinbeck’s men are wonderfully nuanced and richly detailed. From jailbird good guy Tom Joad to the intriguing ex-reverend Casy, men in The Grapes of Wrath squat in the shade, patch old tires, and are the inheritors of ancient agricultural knowledge. They squint and spit and ponder the future. They take action. They drive.

In the first pages of the novel, Steinbeck establishes that men are the backbone of the family unit:

Men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn, drying fast now, only a little green showing through the film of dust. The men were silent and they did not move often. And the women came out of the houses to stand beside their men — to feel whether this time the men would break.

Like most rules, this simplistic model becomes complicated with exceptions and special circumstances throughout the novel. The repetitious narrative of Dust Bowl migration challenges the Joads’ individuality as Steinbeck critiques the 1930s’ agricultural and economic status quo.

Still, Steinbeck’s women exist in the shadow of his men, comparatively shallow elements of the family unit.

We are first introduced to Ma Joad, whose physical appearance is a puzzle of contradictions. Both “strong” and “delicate,” “wispy” and “plump,” “great” and “humble,” Ma is “as remote and faultless in judgment as a goddess.” She is the lynchpin of the family – understandable, considering her ability to encompass every possible positive quality.

Unfortunately, we are never told her first name; she is referred to as “Mrs. Joad” or “Ma,” confining her identity to her role as a wife and mother even as the family relies on her judgment, which is indeed faultless, time and time again. Mr. and Mrs. Joad’s interactions are [very] darkly humorous as Mr. Joad wonders aloud whether he should beat her, and how, in his bafflement that his wife is seizing control over the family’s destiny.

If Ma Joad is the character who single handedly rallies the family together, her own daughter provides a cautionary example of a nuclear family gone awry. Pregnant and abandoned by her husband, Rose of Sharon (or “Rosasharn,” according to characters’ pronunciation) becomes depressed and unmotivated to continue. Her constant whining is treated as simple weakness of character and a source of frustration for Ma Joad, and her desire to care for her unborn child is expressed as petulant greed. Tom mocks her changing body, comparing her to a cow repeatedly. (Yes, you read that correctly – Rose of Sharon is compared to livestock.) Rose of Sharon’s stillborn child comes as no surprise; by the novel’s denouement, Steinbeck has made it clear that she is a failure.

For me, one of the most shocking scenes in the novel was Al’s sexual encounter with one of the women in the Weedpatch camp:

“You think I got to go out with you. Well, I don’t! I got lots a chances.”

“Now wait a minute.”

“No, sir – you git away.”

Al lunged suddenly, caught her by the ankle, and tripped her. He grabbed her when she fell and held her and put his hand over her angry mouth. She tried to bite his palm, but he cupped it out over her mouth, and he held her down with his other arm. And in a moment she lay still, and in another moment they were giggling in the dry grass.

How quickly and easily Al’s aggressive physicality are resolved! “The blond girl” (she, too, is never named) makes her resistance known before simply giving up. This illustration of female sexuality as submissive and consent as a one-sided decision cemented a male-dominant status quo in the novel.

The Grapes of Wrath is certainly a product of its time, but like books that portray colonized peoples as simplistic and ahistorical, it must be scrutinized with a modern eye. I loved many things about The Grapes of Wrath, from Steinbeck’s ability to evoke the simultaneous multiplicity of Dust Bowl experiences to the novel’s Biblical flood. But as I read the final words, I couldn’t help but wonder why Rose of Sharon’s breast milk was only validated by the fact that it enabled a man’s survival. Think of how different the novel would be if it had ended with a meeting of women in the barn during that apocalyptic monsoon! The image of Ma Joad, Rose of Sharon, and a woman being saved by Rose of Sharon’s breast milk could have formed a new holy trinity, but instead the breastfeeding was overtly sexual and even vaguely incestuous.

I had planned to continue my research this week with Anna Karenina, but my advisor recently sent me a PBS documentary on a Korean adoption gone awry. I cannot for the life of me get this video to load, but I’m reading so much for work these days that I’m going to keep trying. Adoption has also popped up in a variety of movies and TV shows I’ve watched recently, from Dawson’s Creek to There Will Be Blood, so it might be time for a diversion into contemporary pop culture. The research continues slowly but steadily, and I’m glad that my topic of focus saturates so much of the media we consume.

Kid A(ntarctica): Radiohead and our melting polar ice caps

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I heard a story on NPR while I was in the car last week that featured exactly the kind of interview I find bittersweet and funny – when interviewed regarding his research on methods of modeling the melting Antarctic glacier, the scientist they were talking to essentially said, “Duh, we’ve known this would happen for years.” By the time Radiohead released Kid A in October 2000, scientists had spent decades predicting the eventual dwindling of Earth’s glaciers.

Browsing in a used record shop a few years ago, I stumbled across a special edition of Kid A featuring 12 thick cardboard pages of additional artwork chronicling the melting of polar ice caps. The book isn’t worth much cash (it goes for about $5 on eBay), but it’s a cool little collectible if you’re a fan of the band or of unusual books in general (I happen to be a fan of both). Here are the pages in chronological order. I chose not to present these in a slideshow because the art is so layered and the text is so cryptic, in keeping with Radiohead’s style.

Text: Kid A, Book and Compact Disc. Compact Disc by Radiohead. Book by Stanley and Tchock.

Text: Kid A, Book and Compact Disc. Compact Disc by Radiohead. Book by Stanley and Tchock.

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(L) Nobody likes nothing. I certainly wish with all my heart that it did not exist. (R) But wishing is not enough. We live in the real world where nothing does exist. We cannot just disinvent it.

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(L) Nothing is not comprehensible. Neither you nor I have any hope of understanding just what it is and what it does. (R) It is hard to know if nothing is actually nothing and thus difficult to know if a policy of doing nothing is successful.

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(L) Nothing, however effective it may have proved up to the present, can hardly continue to do so indefinitely. (R) If I had to choose between the continued possibility of nothing happening and of doing nothing I would unquestionably choose the latter.

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(L) Or the former.

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(Hammer added to prop pages open.)

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We will not hesitate to carry out what has been threatened. This is not over until absolute unconditional surrender and complete meeting of all demands. There will be no further warning whatsoever. Airstrikes are imminent.

Short post today because my full time job as a News Intern at Charlottesville Tomorrow kicked off this past Tuesday, totally knocking my reading schedule off kilter. The eternal struggle between personal creative projects, work-related writing and research, and my thesis research has officially caught up to me after a refreshing few weeks of focus on some personal projects. I’ve sadly abandoned the Joads in a government camp in Weedpatch, California, as I diverge into some craft books on writing that my boss assigned the interns, but I’m hoping to evaluate my schedule this weekend and come up with a new plan.

Recently, I came to the realization that this constant juggle is never going to end – I like diving into big projects and I’m interested in almost everything, so as long as I’m me, I will probably keep taking on too much. Rather than denying my information addiction, I think it’s time to just start managing the cracks in my daily life when they inevitably appear.

Steinbeck’s “big words” and why we should read them

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“Ever know a guy that said big words like that?”

“Preacher,” said Joad.

“Well, it makes you mad to hear a guy use big words. ‘Course with a preacher it’s all right because nobody would fool around with a preacher anyway.”

I have a confession to make: before this week, I had never read The Grapes of Wrath. I normally dig novels that deliver their content in unconventional forms, like Jonathan Safran Foer’s use of illustrations or David Grossman’s surrealism. I’m a news junkie who’s constantly consuming the New York Times and The Atlantic, so I tend to get my dose of realism from those nonfiction sources. But I decided that before I wrote my thesis on mixed race families in modern America, I needed to dig a little deeper, back to earlier roots of the images of the American nuclear family that come to mind today.

Instead of straight realism, I was surprised and pleased to find some pretty unconventional, Modern prose in Steinbeck. I loved the chapters of free-form dialogue that appear in between chapters that more conventionally plot the Joads’ journey from Sallislaw, Oklahoma, to Bakersfield, California. The speakers in these chapters are sometimes later identifiable as the Joads and sometimes a sort of Everyman, stream of multiconsciousness (streams of consciousness?) essence of the shared experience of the Dust Bowl, and Steinbeck often interjects political musings in place of these Joyce-esque rambles.

Throughout the novel, which is formally complex and ideologically robust, I was struck by the juxtaposition of Steinbeck’s neat narrative prose and his use of alternative, vernacular spellings and punctuation in the dialogue. The quote above, about big words, jumped off the page for me as an early signal of an implicit division between Steinbeck’s vivid use of dialect-driven spelling and grammar and his use of standard English. I identify three distinct types of writing within The Grapes of Wrath: first, Steinbeck’s use of standard grammar in his narration of the Joads’ journey; second, Steinbeck’s use of nonstandard grammar in the relatively freeform chapters of quotation-mark-free conversations; and third, Steinbeck’s use of vernacular language, which is contained between quotation marks as the Joads converse with one another and others they meet on the road.

Published fifty years and several artistic movements later, Gish Jen’s postmodernism amps up the juxtaposition of vernacular language with elevated language in a way that is often elaborately humorous, delivering deadpan passages like this one from Mona in the Promised Land:

More and more, [Mona and Sherman, a new student from Japan,] joke. For example, [Sherman] often mixes up thinking with sinking — which they both think is so funny that all either one of them has to do is pretend to be drowning, and the other one cracks up. And he tells her things. for example, that there are electric lights everywhere in Tokyo now.

“You mean you didn’t have them before?”

“Everywhere now!” He’s amazed too. “Since Orympics-u!”

In the hands of another author, Jen’s spelling of “Olympics” would be questionable or even a downright racist parody. But in the context of the book – as Mona patiently and empathetically helps Sherman to practice his English to speed his assimilation into their high school – the spelling is simply true to the phonics a new speaker of English might use.

Similarly, Steinbeck’s larger discussion in Grapes of Wrath concerns class division and structural problems of agriculture in America. His vernacular spellings accurately capture the voice – right down to every last “somepin” and all of the dropped consonants at the ends of words – of the migrants who endured hundreds of miles of rough travel to seek a better life in California. Steinbeck captures voices that otherwise went unheard, communicating the story of a population that was largely illiterate and delivering it to an audience that likely shared neither their challenges nor their speech patterns.

In December of last year, NPR reported a story entitled “Ax vs. Ask” (the story is only 3:38 long, and well worth a listen), which examined the necessity of switching between vernacular speech and standard English. The debate pitted two pronunciations of the word that means “to request an answer or information,” both of which, as it turns out, have deep roots in the English language. NPR reports that although “ax” is often seen as an uneducated pronunciation, the word was actually used by Chaucer and in the first Bible in English translation: “Axe and it shall be given.” Still, those who have been raised in households where “ax” is the most common pronunciation find it necessary to switch to “ask” in professional settings.

When pronunciation and vocabulary signal class, race, or other markers of identity, realism begins to look blurry. Steinbeck’s realism is actually a careful combination of elements, with enough standard English to prevent a reader from feeling alienated and enough nonstandard spelling to give the narrative an authentic vibe. By providing an intimate look at the Joads’ hope, fear, discomfort, grief, and ambition, Steinbeck avoids using nonstandard spelling as a way of making the Joads a spectacle or parody of poverty. Within these complex challenges, Steinbeck faced another obstacle: how to elevate the Everyman into a subject worthy of wealthy, highly educated readers’ attention without weighing his prose down with multisyllabic vocabulary words that the Everyman himself  would need a dictionary to decode. Steinbeck handles this problem by offering crisp prose that is elegant in its simplicity, which is why The Grapes of Wrath is an enduring classic in the American literary canon.

Elsewhere, Joyce also recognized language’s ability to implicitly contain class or racial tensions. In Ulysses, Joyce writes, “I fear those big words, Stephen said, which make us so unhappy.” I’ll end this post with a zine I (amateurishly) made at a workshop earlier this year, based around this quote and the idea that small words can be just as unhappy as those $5 vocabulary words. The text and images are mostly from Rolling Stone, along with a few clipped from catalogues.

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My reading this week will hopefully carry me to the end of The Grapes of Wrath, and Anna Karenina is up next on my reading list.