Paper Oxford

PaperTownsIt looks like a brilliant blue morning here in Oxford, yet my body is telling me that it’s the middle of the night. And that’s saying something, since I normally get up around 3:30 anyway. Routine is kind of a religious thing. In fact, it seems to be the root of ritualistic behavior. The passing of time is a matter that affects us all in some way. Jet lag is one of those ways. I’ve got an important meeting to attend in an hour—that’s why I’ve come all this way—and yet my mind will be telling me I should be elsewhere. Perhaps back over the north Atlantic, looking down at icebergs from the air, wondering if climate change is really that far advanced. Are there any polar caps left at all? Didn’t the Titanic hit an iceberg at this time of year, and wasn’t it a great surprise? At least on a ship you don’t get jet lag. There’s nothing like travel to shake you out of the ordinary.

I suppose that’s part of the draw to John Green’s Paper Towns, which I read on the flight over. Although it’s young adult literature, Green has a way of capturing what it was like to be a teen on the cusp of adulthood, and the need to become who we are meant to be. It is a story of leaving home, and of living on the edge. Once a friend said to me that he couldn’t understand someone wanting to leave the place they grew up. I, on the other hand, was only too eager to leave a verbally abusive situation in an industrial town that was slowly dying with no prospects for the young. Needless to say, Paper Towns resonated with me. I can’t remember the last time I read a novel in a single sitting. Although I’ve been an adult for decades, I can still remember the feeling of being young, of falling in love, and wondering what this was all about. High above the north Atlantic, I was sure I still hadn’t figured it out.

There’s nothing religious about Paper Towns. The characters in it assume God to exist, as most Americans do. We make a lot of assumptions. My body is assuming it’s only two in the morning. My clock is telling me that it’s seven. Time is relative, but only one of those placeholders will determine if I am late to work in this place I find myself waking up. I remember being young, and although Oxford has its usual charm, I also know what it feels like to have to leave. The clock tells me that I have to go. The novel in my head tells me the same thing. I’m not sure what time it is. For the moment my paper town is Oxford, and it seems very real indeed.

Real Reading Rainbow

Libraries rule. According to recent studies libraries rate higher than religious institutions, according to public surveys, in their usefulness to society. From the lost library of Alexandria of yore to the local Carnegie, libraries have been the repositories of information almost from the beginning of civilization itself. Last week the American Library Association, according to an article forwarded to me by my wife, and the Banned Books Week planning committee, announced a theme for this year’s recognition of the books various groups (many of them religious) tell us we shouldn’t read. Banned Book Week, of course, falls in September. It might seem strange that planning has to go into this, but the banning of books has never ceased and the list grows year by year. I recently mentioned John Green, one of the authors who frequently appears on banned lists for children. In an age when encouragement to read should be running high, we hide behind platitudes to keep our eyes toward a predetermined prize. Among the reasons frequently given for banning a book: its religious outlook. I.e., the “wrong” one.

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I often wonder why we think sheltering children who are old enough to read from the collective knowledge of the human race does them any favors. Our culture so successfully removes us from nature that we don’t experience the “facts of life” that our ancestors no doubt noticed early and often. Violence, sex, drugs, and death, however, haven’t become any less common. They are only hidden until their knowledge hits with often catastrophic force, leading to neuroses about how unsafe our world really is. A function of story, if neurologists are to be believed, is to help us navigate the many trials we’ll encounter by seeing how others have done it before. I don’t doubt that there is age-appropriate material for children, but they understand a lot more than adults like to think they do. In my teaching days I was always amazed at how much undergraduates knew that I was only beginning to discover as a professor. Books seem a good way to introduce knowledge appropriately.

The internet, of course, gives access to unvetted knowledge to anyone with access to a computer or phone. Published books, it used to be, had the added value of passing through editorial hands on their way to public presentation. A funny thing happened on the way to the library. We’ve democratized the writing of books through self-publishing, but we’ve not yet ceased to ban them. Perhaps the real way to protect our children is to listen to them. We seem to think telling is better than hearing, although the flow of knowledge can go both ways. Instead of banning books for our young we might all benefit from opening of our own minds.

The Fault in Whose Stars?

The_Fault_in_Our_StarsTheodicy. I’m no theologian, but the problem of suffering erects a wall ever higher between wanting to believe and actual experience. Many great thinkers have laid down their faith because of this insuperable hurdle. The movie version of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars opened last night, but I didn’t see it. It was difficult enough to make it through the book. I have to admit feeling a bit wimpy about finding a young adult novel emotionally challenging, but it just is. As I mentioned a few days ago, Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy has been topping charts lately, but so has John Green’s novel of childhood cancer. Theodicy is deeply inscribed in this sad tale of loss and love. From a purely biological perspective, the death of the young is explicable, but that seems to be the easy way out.

I’ve been toying with The Fault in Our Stars since January. Picking it up long enough to read a few pages, then growing frightened and putting it aside for a few weeks. The story begins in “the literal heart of Jesus” in a church for a cancer support group where Hazel meets Gus, and, as young people do, falls in love. Green is clear on one point from the beginning: no novel where the protagonists are victims of cancer can ever have a happy ending. We just have to watch and wait for the inevitable. The children return time and again to the “literal heart of Jesus” but no healing comes. They face loss and every page you turn brings more imponderable questions. Yes, this is fiction, but we live in a world where childhood cancer exists. And childhood starvation. And childhood victims of abuse and violence. And still we try to find a way to fit it into a broken-down theology and wonder why we don’t smile more often.

I don’t shy away from provocative fiction. I read scary stories with all sorts of monsters. Finding ourselves, however, in a world where neither rationalism nor theology really makes all the sense they should, sometimes the scariest stories are the truest to life. John Green’s fiction, it comes as no surprise, is frequently banned. Reading it as an adult one finds parts predictable and parts handled too gently, but with enough realism thrown in to want to see it through to the end. Banning books, however, is merely an attempt to shield children from that which they need to see. We do no favors, hiding the truth from those best equipped by nature to accept it. The real question is whether theodicy itself can survive. Perhaps, like the characters in the novel, it will come to its own quiet termination with no real answers to offer.

Shut Down? Shut Up?

So, what does it mean really?  Can you tell the difference?  Although it is undoubtedly a pain for many government workers, and a huge, colossal waste of tax-payers’ money, I guess the Tea Party showed us!  Over something as simple and humane as healthcare, the neo-cons have shut down the US government.  To be honest, I can barely recall the last time this happened.  Why do I suddenly feel the need to sit on a rocking chair on the front porch and kvetch? Perhaps we don’t pay them enough to care?  Maybe the poor just aren’t worth saving?  What can possibly be going through the minds of elected officials who are willing to punish the entire nation just because they can’t pack up their marbles and go home?  Of course, I am presuming that they have marbles to pack up.  As a tax-payer of over thirty years (pushing on forty), I think I have earned the right to say, “Children behave!”  The Tea Party shenanigans have been childish from the start, trying to co-opt the spirit of rebellion against tyranny in a country that plainly has too much.  Too much time on its hands, among other things.

I often ponder how a nation with the resources of the United States can proudly tote one of the most inhumane healthcare systems in the developed world (and I’m not talking about Obamacare!).  We live in a country, if best-selling author John Green is to be believed (and I’m a believer), we pay more for healthcare than countries with socialized medicine and get less out of it.  Why do we put up with it?  Tea, anyone?  Who has the actual gumption to climb aboard a ship and throw the cargo overboard?  Today we call it piracy—hey! Stop that download!  And we throw people into jail for it.  But shut down the government?  That’s okay.  The bus still runs and I’m still expected at work.  Oh, and I work for a UK company.  The irony of it all. When I lived in the United Kingdom, people complained about the healthcare, but I will say there was no child left behind, if you get my meaning.

Our military, I see, remains open for business.  We won’t cut off the life-support of the Tea Party’s favorite department.  We have our priorities.  Somebody has to defend the millions that can’t afford health insurance.  There was a time when Christianity was all about healing and taking care of people.  Of course, in those days it wasn’t yet called Christianity, or even the Tea Party. It was just a guy and his healing touch.  Today, some of the most abstract tenets of a fully corporate religious infrastructure determine who it is that deserves health care and who does not.  Call it morals or call it marbles, we have a right to decide who can be afforded and who cannot.  And anybody who tries to start legislating fair treatment better not try to stand in the way of our comfortable worldview where those who can afford to withhold compassion can do so under the rule of law, and the unborn smile until they become born when they will soon have to fend for themselves with a government that demands monetary exchange for bodily health.  Gee, my blood-pressure seems to be up.  Good thing the doctor’s office is open.  At least I hope it is.

Outside the United Nations

Outside the United Nations