Trees and Cities

Some years ago I decided I’d read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  I had no idea what it was about, but I’d heard cultural references to it over the years.  So I decided to read it.  Then I saw how thick it was.  I confess I shouldn’t do this, but when I sign up for reading challenges, I want to make sure I can finish them.  Books tipping the scales at over 400 pages make me nervous.  Although I work with books, I’m a slow reader, and I panicked when I saw the size of Betty Smith’s ouvre.  All of which is to say that I’ve finally done it.  I’m glad I did, although, as someone who grew up in quite humble circumstances, with an alcoholic father, some of the story hit pretty close to home.

What really stood out, however, was how women and girls were treated in the early part of the last century.  They couldn’t vote.  Full-time work was often difficult for them to find, and when they did it didn’t pay well.  Francie Nolan, however, overcomes this because she’s smart, driven, and literate.  Her reading ultimately rescues her family after her father dies prematurely.  I’m certain there are other messages in this novel.  Other lessons to be learned.  Reading is nevertheless a great takeaway from any book.  As a symbol of its time, Francie learns to read from the Bible and Shakespeare.  These days that combination can get you into trouble.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the book, for someone who writes instinctively, is that Francie gives up her writing in a deal with God.  When her mother goes into labor and Francie fears she’ll die, she makes a bargain that, strangely, she doesn’t seem to regret too much at the end of the story.  Some of us find writing as natural as breathing or eating.  I can forget to do both when I’m thoroughly into the zone.  I can’t image having that taken from me.  Smith notes that as she reflects on her unholy deal with the Holy One, that she now better understands God.  Indeed, in a kind of Kierkegaardian moment about halfway through she declares she no longer believes in God at all.  Her teacher doesn’t understand her writing.  Ah, but that’s a familiar dilemma to those of us who dare to attempt this craft.  For its size, the book was a fairly smooth read.  It took several weeks, but I learned about myself as a writer, and that makes it worth it.

Truth Is Marching On

A funny thing happens to human minds when they’re in a crowd.  They begin thinking collectively.  We’ve all heard of “mob mentality” and dismiss it as so common that we don’t stop to think how remarkable it is.  Maybe we’re afraid to.  Yesterday I attended my third Women’s March, this time in New York City again.  Being an introvert, I find the prospect of putting myself into a large crowd daunting, and with a winter storm warning posted, worries  about getting home provided a convenient excuse.  My wife knows me well enough, however, to sense when my enochlophobia kicks in and tries to kick out that part of me that’s passionate about social justice.  You see, women are still not counted equal citizens in this “land of equality.”  The Equal Rights Amendment has never passed.  Pay is still based on gender rather than qualification.  And we have an unrepentant misogynist in the White House.

Once I’m in a likeminded crowd, supporting social justice, it’s clear that my thinking is influenced by the activity of all those brains around me.  Scientists know this happens in nature.  Ant colonies, for example, “know” more than a single individual does.  Recent studies have even suggested this “hive consciousness” can exist beyond a lifespan, creating an archive of learning that exceeds the lives of an entire generation.  If only we could teach Republicans to do that.  In any case, being in the crowd of bright, intelligent, hard-working women found me in a good head-space.  The men in DC are certainly doing nothing to make the male gender proud.

Although crowd estimation isn’t an exact science, the media has consistently underestimated the sheer numbers of these marches.  The National Park Service, on duty in Washington in 2017, estimated 1.3 million had shown up for the march.  It’s still not unusual to see the number cited as 500,000.  Regardless, with the sister marches it was the largest single-day protest event in U.S. history.  We have to keep marching as long as men continue to elect the most ignorant of their gender to high office.  There’s nothing controlled about the chaos in the White House.  Fake news, alternative facts, a revolving door of staff, and Fox News’ nose so brown you could grown corn on it is not the way to run a democracy.  I may have been part of a hive mind for a few hours yesterday, and it was a far better mind than those that abound in the federal government seeking only their own glory.  Let’s hope the collective mind outlives this generation.

Carrie On

Stephen King was still a fairly new writer when I first read “Lawnmower Man” for an English class in high school.  Carrie had been published by then, but I didn’t read any more Stephen King until after my academic job ended.  (There is, for those who are curious, a correlation between that traumatic change and my interest in horror.)  Like many, I suspect, I saw some of the movies before reading the King books behind them.  With a writer as prolific as King there’s always the issue of where to start, and I’m often subject to the selections independent bookstore owners make.  I seldom buy fiction through Amazon—I have to see the book for it to grab me (a kind of King thing to happen).

A used copy of Carrie recently came my way.  Now, I’ve seen the movie (both versions) many times; it is discussed at some length in Holy Horror.  I’d not read the novel until now.  Obviously there are differences between book and movie, but as this was Stephen King’s debut novel it struck me just how central religion was to the fearful scenario he paints.  That’s pretty clear in the film, I know, but it’s even more so in the novel.  Carrie is made into a monster by religion.  One could argue that she was born that way—telekinesis as a genetic marker is also a theme in the book, although absent from the films.  Still, it is Carrie’s rejection by others, largely because of her religion, that leads her to use her powers to destroy Chamberlain, Maine.

In a strange way, Carrie is a coming-of-age story from a girl’s perspective.  Strange because King is a man and some literary magazines won’t even accept stories written from the point-of-view of someone of the opposite gender.  Men can’t know what women go through.  Indeed, most of the male characters in the story are less than admirable, while some are downright wicked.  The real question is whether religion saves from wickedness or causes it.  There’s not much ambiguity here on the part of Mr. King.  Holy Horror, although it deals with movies and not novels,  makes the point that films based King don’t infrequently use religion as a source of horror.  Long-time readers of this blog know that I frequently make the point that this genre, more so than most, relies on religion as an engine to drive it.  And religion also has a role in repressing women.  Coincidence?  Ask Carrie.

Paying Troll

There was a time, should the media of my youth be believed, when a man insulted another man’s wife at his peril.  A barroom fight, or perhaps a sober brawl, would ensue.  Such chivalrous days are likely over and the internet makes nasty comments so easy to disseminate (how terribly masculine!) for all the world to see.  Hiding behind assumed names, avatars, or delusional fictions, you can feel like a big man by saying unkind things to a person you’ll never meet.  Such is the world of Trump’s America.  Although he may think himself divine, Trump didn’t invent Twitter or the internet.  Neither did Al Gore.  Still, the distasteful political rancor leading up to the midterm elections led to a man (I presume) trolling my wife behind a mask of Facebook anonymity.

It’s hard to tell how to react.  Feminism doesn’t always want a man to step in and defend, but we’re all raised with tales of princesses and those who honor them.  Having been raised by a woman with an absentee husband, I have nothing but admiration for strong women.  Although categorized as a “white man,” I can’t see my own brand as better than any other.  We are all human beings, and with some rare exceptions, we deserve respect.  Like all evolved creatures, however, I sometimes reach deeply back into my primate roots and the tropes of my childhood begin to simmer.  Who trolls another man’s wife over politics?  Who doesn’t stop to consider that every woman is a daughter and many are mothers and sisters?  If you want to pick on someone, well, you know how the saying goes.

The midterm elections brought some much-needed balance to a government way off kilter.  There are still trolls under the bridges, however.  The storybooks tell how knights vanquish trolls and even the liberated male can’t help but imagine himself on that proud steed.  What kind of man takes a keyboarded cheap-shot at another man’s wife?  The quality of his discourse speaks volumes.  Those on the left believe in equality and can’t respond in kind.  It is, ironically, a far more biblical response than trolling on the right.

I’ve lost readers of this blog due to politics.  Some of my former readers have even told me so.  I appreciate their candor.  We can’t all agree, I know.  What we can do, however, is be civil.  Those who put themselves in elected office know that they are opening themselves to criticism.  It is very hard to slander a United States president, in the words of the Good Book, “how the mighty are fallen.”  Those with thin skin should think twice (or even once) before running for the most criticized office in the world.  Most, until now, knew that what they said would set the tone for the nation.  We’re all entitled to an opinion, and, for the time being, are free to express it.  Still, I’d think twice before insulting another man’s wife.  But then, I’ve always been a hopeless idealist.

For Mothers’ Sake

We try to be practical for Mother’s Day. I take my wife out to eat every year, but since we both work and Monday always comes earlier than we expect, we usually go on Saturday. It’s kind of a moveable feast for us. The patriarchalist nightmare of the past two years in this country makes it all the more important to celebrate our mothers. Our nation needs to be reminded that without women none of us would be here. When my wife chose an Afghan restaurant I didn’t shirk, although I had to admit I wouldn’t have considered cuisine from Afghanistan if the choice were mine. It would never have crossed my mind. The restaurant was nicely appointed, and busy. One the walls were posters with photos of the mountainous country and its people, stamped with the words “Free Afghanistan.” I realized Mother’s Day is about liberation.

New Jersey, apart from being the most densely populated state, is also the most diverse. Ethnic food here takes on a depth that leaves our days in Champaign-Urbana in the dust. I’d never even heard of an Ethiopian restaurant, let alone eaten in one, before moving here. And each of these diverse countries represented by their food has a story, often involving oppression. Mother’s children everywhere want to be free. The only reason they aren’t is that bullies exist in every language. You can’t go into the swamp any more without being overwhelmed by them. Such men—and they tend to be male—want to assert their control over others. They forget, it seems, that they have mothers.

I struggled to find a way to classify the food I was eating. Years of Euro-centric training led me to place it between the “Middle East” and “Far East,” which, skewed as it is, reflects that Afghanistan falls along the silk road from China to Turkey. Elements of West Asia blend with those of East Asia on my plate. There’s no war here—simply a harmony of tastes that should remind us that we’re all human. We all have the same need for sustenance and we all have mothers. If we thought of the fact that when we harm another we harm that person’s mother, we’d be appropriately ashamed of oppressing anyone. We would come to realize that the secret to being civilized human beings lies in honoring all our mothers.

Good Book Gone Bad

The Bible is a book of horror. This isn’t the main point in Holy Horror, but the fact is terror is never far from the surface in the Good Book. My days as a young scholar of the Bible were defined by the works of feminist scholars. One of the influential books of that generation was Texts of Terror by Phyllis Trible. Not hiding behind a masculine orthodoxy, she looked at how various biblical stories appeared from the eyes of female readers. There is indeed terror everywhere. The evils of slavery condemn that hideous loss of agency when one human being becomes considered the property of another. Women, before the feminist movement began, were taught that the Good Book demands this perverted social structure. They are indeed, in the eyes of its patriarchal world, property.

Important as this realization is, the terrors of Scripture go deeper. Even overlooking the genocides—the numbers make it difficult to take in the horrors of the individuals classed as faceless victims—there are multiple accounts of gruesome murders and violence in the Bible. Wars were an annual expectation. Diplomacy was often considered religious compromise. “Us verses them” mentality led to constant conflict. When it came to executing one another, the denizens of the Good Book could be quite inventive. No doubt women and foreigners were poorly treated on a daily basis, but when left to their own devices with divine voices in their heads, the men of Holy Writ knew how to terrorize one another quite effectively.

Even after the message of Jesus of Nazareth, which included love and care and compassion, the Bible goes on to close with the violent visions of Revelation. Perhaps it’s not appreciated so much in the present day, but the Apocalypse had a difficult time making it into the Good Book. Unfortunately the reasons weren’t that it was a book of horror, but the very fact that its status was debated should give us pause when hiding behind the rhetoric of a canon with its door slammed shut. The Bible contains some high, soaring words of noble thoughts and divine consolation. God can be an empathetic lover. With its status, in toto, as a book of divine revelation we have to pay serious attention to the fact of its participation in the genre of horror. Much of this is in the backstory of the films I discuss in Holy Horror. Others may have already explored this dynamic of Scripture, but it’s often a Good Book gone bad.

March On

The day after the government shutdown, Women’s Marches were held across the country. Unlike the shutdown, these marches had been planned and anticipated in advance. They marked the anniversary of the Women’s March on Washington that spurred millions of people across the world into action just last year. I count it as a privilege to have been able to march with my sisters in DC last year, and yesterday again, in New York City. Religion gets a lot of bad press these days, but one of its truest aspects is that it invites you to participate in something greater than yourself. These marches are like that. They are all about social justice of the most basic kind. Not what divides us, but what brings us together. There may be historical reasons that women were kept from positions of leadership, but if we learn nothing from history’s mistakes we can call nothing we do progress.

It takes a lot to get me back to New York City when it’s not a work day. Nevertheless, the anticipation built along the way. Waiting for the train in Newark, we started to see pink hats at 8 a.m. on a Saturday. At Penn Station in New York they were everywhere. Strangers on the subway started conversations about the march, whether they were going or not. As usual, the program ran a little long and those who were near the stage grew impatient as they’d been on their feet for a couple of hours. Still, the messages were important to hear. Whoopi Goldberg was the star of the show this time, some might say, but all who stood up outside Central Park and gave voice to equality were stars.

The march itself lasted only a few blocks down Sixth Avenue, but the crowds were enormous. Although I held no clever sign, I knew that simply by being a body to march was significant. You see, the Women’s Movement isn’t about excluding anybody. It’s all about redressing institutionalized wrongs that insist “somebody else” is of less value than a white man who’s been able to exploit his way to the top. This system is corrupt and dehumanizing to all. Women see that. Woman say something about it. Women march. Yesterday thousands across the country marched for equal rights. Our government, controlled by one party—the white men’s party—couldn’t even figure out how to keep itself open. The differences between these two views of the world couldn’t be more obvious. I’m humbled and honored to be included on the women’s side.