Archive for the ‘Popular Culture’ Category

19 March, 2013

Basketball Dreaming

I don’t know too much about basketball. I don’t know too much about baseball either. But I can get madly excited about both. There is something about feeling one with a large group of people cheering for a team, putting our souls into their hands, that gets the blood flowing. And, like in most other things that I take on – with the exception of love – I never expect or anticipate or fear loss. It comes, sometimes, but I am never there until the last long-shot from one end of the court is made, until the final strike out is called. I hope until the very end.

These days it is basketball that has my attention. Specifically, the Lower Merion High School team, the one that has always boasted an exceptional group of starters, but has not won States since Kobe Bryant lead them to victory in 1996. March 1st, 1996 to be precise. Like this:

So the Aces had another shot at beating arch-rival Chester this year, 17 years on, on the same day. They held their own through the third quarter and finally lost. Oh well.

But there’s something else about this team that has won my heart: their fans. Their fans who show up and stack up like sardines, end to end of a section of the stands they refer to as ‘The Dawg Pound.’

In the fall of 1999, Coach Gregg Downer met with the team and a group of student fan leaders to officially launch “The Pound.” More than just a “student section,” the Pound would lead chants, promote games, organize tailgates and road trips and design official t-shirts like a college-style student fan club. Fueled by their energized student fan base, the 1999-00 Aces rode the spirit and enthusiasm of “Dawg Pound I” to 15 consecutive wins, a Central League title, and a state playoff bid.

Year in and year out, the Dawg Pound helps give the Aces a distinct home court advantage. Each year brings a new style and design to the official Dawg Pound shirt. Each year leaders emerge at the forefront of the Dawg Pound, donning crazy costumes (Captain America, Superman, Batman, etc.) and sharing their unrelenting vocal chords and witty cheers.

During the Cinderella playoff run of 2004-05, the Dawg Pound caught the state’s attention for travelling en masse to far-flung gyms. Playing in the Western bracket, the Aces were forced to journey hundreds of miles for their games. No distance proved too great as busload after busload of fans showed up — including 12 student buses (nearly 700 total students) for a Tuesday night game against Erie Prep at State College.

I go to the games as much to shout myself hoarse, invoke Jesus Christ far too many times for a Buddhist, dance on the inside (so as not to embarass the Queen of my household), in general make a perfect fool of myself, and……to watch the Dawg Pound. I love those kids. I love that a group of teenagers between 14 – 18 of every gender and stripe can pour out of their cafetaria and form an honor guard for a team leaving to play a game. I love that they all volunteer to wear a certain color for a game – blue now, marroon the next, black on a third day, that they cram themselves in tight and often stand through the whole game. Yes, the whole game. I love that they do an axe-chop over their heads when the calls go against LM (unfairly, but of course!), that they are creative with their cheers, united in their hope. Here’s a look-see from December, 2012.

More than anything else, though, the moment I love best is when the entire Dawg Pound joins in for the last bars of the national anthem, drowning out whatever angelic voice is giving the song their best shot. There is something thrilling about their young voices rising, so proud and glorious, and overpowering, over the thousands of fans in the stadium. It always seems to stun the opposing team whose fans look on, slightly bewildered. Wait, they seem to be saying, aren’t we playing basketball?

They are. But life is played so often in the mind and what you carry in there is what carries you through everything else. For the Aces, it isn’t just a game with five players, two hoops, an orange ball. It is a way of life, a matter of tradition, the abandonment of individual reservations, the embracing of a school. It is school spirit at its best. Who can beat that? Not even the winners go away with that kind of love surrounding their players, their school.

The Aces pulled off a pretty stunning victory in the final minutes of the fourth quarter against Harrisburg. And tonight they head to Williamsport to take on the undefeated New Castle at the state semi-finals. Whatever happens on the court, there’s nothing but sportsmanship, gratitude, and real affection for them from their fellow-students – those who will ride the fan buses nearly three hours each way, and those who will be watching from home. Top that, New Castle.

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20 January, 2013

Nudity in the Homeland

Cable came to our house only on the heels of a Phillies season that had to be watched. I still don’t know how to use it or what to watch. There was a time when the small resident thought that TV meant the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour. She and by then her sisters were quite possibly a handful of mites who watched nightly as a list scrolled on the screen at the end of the program, the names of those killed in the invasion of Iraq. I confess now that I, seeking relief from writing during lunch, often click it on and watch whatever happens to be available – usually re-runs of Old Christine and, presumably new episodes of What Not To Wear, while waiting for the ads to cease on CNBC or CNN.

Even before cable, though, a world of things I didn’t know existed had begun to occupy my headspace, though much of it has come belatedly. We watched ‘The Wire’ on Netflix, and I have come out as a zealot with regard to that show, in person and in a post here. Feel free to ridicule the statements made about Cable therein. More recently – thanks to a Roku Box – we’ve watched ‘Breaking Bad,’ and ‘Downton Abbey’ using the same device. So it seemed only natural that we should also take a look at another one of the shows that “people” rave about, ‘Homeland.’

Granted, with a title like that in the wake of the devastation caused to so many people both overseas and here by the administration that sent the country to war, and began to set up and fight strawmen here (see Amitava Kumar’s excellent article on the controversy of the Ground Zero community center for an example), under the guise of protecting the homeland, complete with the Dept. of Homeland Security, I knew some of what to expect. Still, I was disappointed and, worse, disgusted after watching the first three episodes last night.

Arab speakers and practicing Muslims as potential terrorists or just plain suspicious? Check. Long spells of full frontal female nudity that has nothing to do with anything? Check. Asinine rehashed plot? Check

It is hard to give any show that deals specifically with post-9/11 gung-ho terrorists-are-everywhere! scenarios a star rating after seeing Bigelow’s ‘Zero Dark Thirty.’ Whether you are blown away by it and defend her depiction of torture like Manohla Dargis does for the NYT, or whether you are blown away and condemn her refusal to depict the full truth of it (that torture discloses next to nothing) as Matt Taibbi does for Rolling Stones, that movie has substance. It makes a person – particularly an American person – pause just a little, ponder the average yeah-man-let’s-kick-butt understanding of foreign policy.

As far as ‘Homeland’ the TV show is concerned, there is nothing to make me keep watching. Idiotic portrayals of people who look like they might be Arab-speakers? I see it all the time in the streets and public spaces of America, particularly airports. Rehashed plot? I’ve already seen ‘The Manchurian Candidate.’ Twice. Once with Frank Sinatra and once with Denzel Washington in lead roles. At roughly an hour and a half running time that’s a lot smarter way to spend my time. And breasts. I’ve got those covered in every sense of the word.

Pretty little is as loathsome to me as the exploitation of the naked female body to no greater purpose than to tittilate a population starved of imagination. Well, there’s the abuse of children, the glorification of drugs and Rush Limbaugh, but not by a great divide. McNulty had some good sex in ‘The Wire’ (with his wife, Elena, with his mistress, Ronnie Pearlman), but those scenes, few and far-between, were directly connected to his character as a skirt-chaser. Walt, in ‘Breaking Bad,’ has one sex scene with his wife, Jesse two with his now dead girlfriend. In three episodes of ‘Homeland’ there have been so many long pans of Morena Baccarin’s breasts that I wonder if the perkiness of her chest was the reason she was cast in this role, and it seems imperative that Melissa Benoist is displayed front and rear to full effect – let us not forget the girl-on-girl crotch swipe in this same scene – to no apparent purpose.

It made me think fondly of ‘Downton Abbey,’ where events that are anticipated and the subject of numerous episodes – the wedding between Mary and Matthew for instance – are not overdone. We know there’s a wedding, we see her heading out, and that’s it. No excruciating drag-out of the inevitable in dis-service to the viewing public. We’ve seen weddings, we know what happens, and unless there is something unusual happening at one – Edith jilted at the altar in ‘Downton Abbey,’ – there is no need to bash us over the head with it.

Perhaps it is because I write fiction and love to read books, and I’m acutely aware of over-telling and being over-told-to. There is such a thing as too much information and ‘Homeland’ – with regard to naked women, but also with regard to its prejudices – makes it quite clear that the writers underestimate the viewer. Who wants to be taken for someone whose intellectual capacity is that of the lowest common denominator, the insular, ignorant, porn-fed, American male? Not me.

11 April, 2011

Cricket and Sri Lankan Author Shehan Karunatilaka

I’m over at the Huffington Post today, writing about debut novlist, Shehan Karunatilaka, a Sri Lankan writer with talent to burn. You can read the interview over there. Here’s an excerpt.

On April secnd, Sri Lanka takes on India in the final for the ICC World Cup. What better day on which to think about Shehan Karunatilaka’s debut novel, Chinaman, which has been described as being “ambitious, playful and strikingly original, [a novel] about cricket and… the story of modern day Sri Lanka through its most cherished sport.” Indeed, cricket-mad Indian reviewers have flocked to sing his praises, calling it “improbably potent and toothsome.”

The novel was released by Random House, India in February, 2011, but before it did, it had already won the top award for literature in English in Sri Lanka, the Gratiaen Prize, endowed by none other than Sri Lanka’s most famous literary native son, Michael Ondaatje, in 1992. The annual award, named after Ondaatje’s mother, Doris Gratiaen, is given to the best work of literary writing in English by a resident Sri Lankan.

1 February, 2011

The Miseducation of the American Child

I’ve been immersed in childhood recently. The unfettering of it, the recollection of it and, most of all, understanding it; I’m a parent of this milieu, I have to understand all things. Straddling these three points, however, has me in a bit of a knot. Picture the children’s game, twister, and you have your image.

As I said recently to a swim coach from Lower Merion High School whom I’ve come to know and like, I am all about saving the entire world on any given day. Education, primary and secondary education to be precise, is a cornerstone of that intention. Watching the movie ‘Waiting for Superman’ twice, with friends, was a large part of that cornerstone and one I reflected on after. Watching ‘Race to Nowhere,’ came next.

Therein, the knots. Both movies are about education, but their points of intersection are few. While ‘Waiting for Superman’ bemoans a system that cannot reward excellence in teaching and tracks students from Kindergarten through High School – thereby trapping a child in years of low/high expectations – and advocates intensifying time spend in school, ‘Race to Nowhere’ demands the opposite. Less time spent in school and on school work. Perhaps that is not altogether unexpected: the first movie concentrates on the teeming masses of the under privileged, for the most part, whereas the latter focusses on the far smaller group, the severely driven children of the upper echelons who go through life with the whirring of helicopter blades above their heads. The only common thread is this: neither high pressure nor low is working.

So what is or will work, and who is responsible? I belong fairly in the group that is addressed by ‘Race to Nowhere.’ I live in a suburb where the public and private schools are only distinguishable from each other by the lack of uniforms in one and the presence of them in the latter. Their facilities do not differ, their students graduate and enter prestigious four year colleges in equal rates. Lower Merion High School has been ranked by the Wall Street Journal as one of the top 60 high schools in the nation, public or private. But through personal experience and anecdote I have come to understand that the drive for not only the perfect college but the perfect college application, has turned many Lower Merion’s students into young people who are riddled with self-doubt and low self-esteem (always guaranteed outcomes when one plays the comparison game as these students do, and incessantly). They – like those students profiled in the movie – are less interested in a particular subject as they are in the “right” combination of subjects – and activities – that will “sell” them to a college.

And then what? That is a question that has, it seems, never been posed to these students. They have, it seems, managed to go through over fifteen years of academic instruction (give or take a few depending on pre-K non/enrollment), without ever having understood that there is no externally imposed formula for happiness or success. Life, they seem not have been told, is not lived behind desks or inside glossy portfolios. It unfurls in the trenches. There is no “right” combination. There is no “right” college. And if they have been made to believe that getting into the “right” college is the be all and end all of their existence, I fear for the impoverishment of spirit and mind that is sure to follow in the wake of graduation four years hence. There is only one “right” and that is the student herself. She, made more interesting through her lacks and nuance, her gifts and struggles, her awkwardness and misfitting, her good or bad grades, her prancing on a stage or her awe as the audience, her gift of language or lack thereof, her poor singing voice and the amazing arrow of her body diving into a pool or flying along a track, she is perfect. And it is that flawed perfection – not the list of awards and mindless regurgitation of fact and figure – that creates the perfect school or college or other environment, and, eventually, the perfect family, community and nation.

We know this, as adults. How then has that disappeared from view when, last time I checked, we were the people in charge? I saw this movie at the William Penn Charter School, the nation’s oldest Quaker School. Screening this movie was certainly in keeping with the school’s commitment to intellectual curiosity and support of a larger community. But I was hard pressed, as I sat there, to reconcile the splendor of the newly dedicated Kurtz Center for the Performing Arts (which rivals the Kimmel Center here in Philadelphia), with the school’s mission statement that also embraces honesty, compassion and simplicity. The splendor of the auditorium in which I sat grated on the images that rose in my mind of the many different Friends Meeting Houses in which I had contemplated “that of God in everyone,” all of them simple, all of them devoid of ostentation, all of them remarkably well suited to the pursuit of simplicity. How does a school’s administration convince a student seated in such grandeur – an administration that saw fit to pursue the acquisition of such grandeur – that their lives should reflect the worth of scholarship acquired through diligence and innate interest and that their spirits should be nurtured through quiet reflection in places that foster such reflection? How does one speak the word, simplicity, on such a stage? Admittedly, I am biased toward the arts and a part of me does feel that if spending must occur, let it be in the direction of the arts, but still.

To their credit, the administrators who facilitated the discussion after the movie spoke candidly about the fact that theirs was a college-preparatory school, though they alluded to the fact that somehow it was parents paying $28,000 a year who were driving this focus, not themselves. So are parents the ones at fault? According to an article titled ‘All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting,’ in New York Magazine (July 10th, 2010), Jennifer Senior writes:

Martin Seligman, the positive-psychology pioneer who is, famously, not a natural optimist, has always taken the view that happiness is best defined in the ancient Greek sense: leading a productive, purposeful life. And the way we take stock of that life, in the end, isn’t by how much fun we had, but what we did with it. (Seligman has seven children.)

So, are parents to blame? Stay tuned, because you know I’ve got some feelings about that.

20 August, 2010

The Hamptons: What’s Hot, What’s Not

I’ve just recently returned from visiting The Enlightened Land, i.e. Canada, specifically, Quebec City, and perhaps that has colored my American view; a view long-accustomed to isolating a few injustices to rant about rather than looking at the vast canvas of injustice against which we fling our careless paint. In Canada, unlike in the United States, it seems that the default setting is an interest in the welfare of an entire community. It is an interest that leads to strong and continuous investment in the public good, including well-maintained parks, recreational walk-ways that take in – rather than block – the view, beautification of public buildings and a sweet pride in a collective history that gives equal place to those Native people that were disenfranchised. While the city is predominantly white – as are most of her tourists – there is very little attempt made to white wash the past.

Sure, not everybody is able to pay $416 and up to stay at the Chateau Frontenac, but the rentable flat img_4156around the corner from the Frontenac affords an equally splendid view. And the music that floats from the mouths of street musicians assaults or delights every ear in equal measure no matter the thread count on the sheets upon which he or she may lay at night. The Cirque du Soleil performs free of charge for people of every stripe and the acts, spread as they are around the outdoor viewing area, ensures that the view remains the same for everybody.

Which brings me to America and, specifically, to The Hamptons where I was on holiday with good friends. The Hamptons was a place I had heard referred to in architecture magazines lying around the waiting rooms of doctors and dentists. I knew that it was a place that the New York City rich “fled” to during the summer months. But being a foreigner who still calls Maine home simply because Box 523 Bates College, Lewiston, ME 04901 was listed as my permanent mailing address for over a decade, and whose Maine experiences as an adult involve long stretches of coast line undamaged by human vanity, The Hamptons in the flesh served to displease. Apparently, there is a way to “do the Hamptons right” and it involves being a publishing heiress, a three-home owning Polo star (Argentina, Palm Beach and the Hamptons), a cook with her own TV show etc. etc. Those grains of sand, those drops of water, those blades of grass? They don’t feel quite the same to the rest of us.

As a way of assuaging a little of the outrage I feel, and taking a leaf from what appears to be a Hamptons tradition, I have come up with a list of what’s hot and what’s not here in the Hamptons.

Hot: Homes that can be maintained by the home-owner.
Not Hot: Homes manicured by armies of underpaid migrant workers who bend their heads and step off into the hedges when people walk by.

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Hot: Not caring what Hamptonians think is hot when mixing and matching swimwear for the beach
Not Hot: Following anybody else’s idea of fashion other than your own (and, just for the record, I think all these supposedly “hot” bachelors look like asinine clones!)

Hot: Greeting everybody when using running paths and biking trails.
Not Hot: Glaring at customers and assessing their net worth before deciding not to serve them.

Hot: Eschewing identical and towering hedges and tree hydrengeas in favor of gardening with original flair that happens to include vegetables.
Not Hot: Sprinkler systems that have no rain-sensors

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Hot: Disguising pool fences with greenery.
Not Hot: Two tennis courts per mansion for every mansion in a ten-mansion block.

Hot: Letting a vacation house accumulate its furnishings through generations of occupancy.
Not Hot: Designing multi-million dollar four season homes which remain empty seven months of the year.

Hot: Lying on the beach when exhausted by being pummeled by the surf.
Not Hot: Lying on the beach to acquire a tan while reading trashy paperbacks.

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Hot: Teenaged guards in white polo shirts who look away and do not ask for “beach access ID tags.” Also, deer who don’t give a doe’s behind for signs put up by human beings.
Not Hot: Narrow access-ways to the beach blocked by Private/No Trespassing/Keep Out signs.
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Hot: Journal editors who, finding themselves in enclaves of exclusivity, treat it as an anthropological exercise with the potential for comic relief.
Not Hot: Magazines that celebrate exclusivity as though it were a serious virtue.

Okay, so that’s the heart of it, really, that exclusivity. It grates. And I believe the reason for its existence is a staggering lack of shame on the part of many Americans. To live comfortably in a country ruled by laws that champion the individual at the cost of the community must, surely, necessitate an absence of conscience. It is what makes it possible for a town in the Hamptons to put up an access-way, post sentries at cost, and charge those who do not own a home here, $7 per person to frolic in the waves. The waves themselves remain unowned, and the beach below the high water mark is ostensibly public. But if you prevent people from reaching that no-man’s land, then what is in effect is a violation of the right of access to public land.

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As I sat on the beach – the only brown person for miles around – a little boy drew a line in the sand around me and muttered something to the effect that I could stay there and that’s it. I am here in the Hamptons with parents whose kids would never consider quarantining strangers in their own pre-marked zone of exclusion. They would find that both puzzling and shame-worthy. I wonder when the balance is going to shift toward that second model of parenting. I doubt the movement is going to start here in the Hamptons.

17 September, 2009

Ticket To Anywhere

gail21Guest Post #3 is from Gail, whose blog-home Ticket to Anywhere I am visiting today. Here is a peek we rarely get – as writers – into what motivates the bloggers who review us. She decided to share twenty questions she had answered for Book Blogger Appreciation Week and I am posting a few of them here.

How’d you come up with the name for your blog?

I’ve always loved travelling (I caught my Nana’s bug at an early age) but it isn’t always easy to hop on a plane and go somewhere. So I started to visit those places I’ve always wanted to see through books. I’ve let the characters I’ve met show me what it is like to walk the Great Wall or even to travel through time and experience some of history’s greatest moments. Books are my way to travel…its corny but they are my Ticket to Anywhere.

How did you get into book blogging? How long have you been doing it?

I was just started to read some book blogs myself – having stumbled upon one through a search. I really like the idea of recording my thoughts on a book. Up until I started my blog I’d just been recording my rating and a brief description in Excel. So in June 2007 I took the plung and started my blog. Initially it was just a way for me to record my thoughts and I really didn’t start getting involved in the blogging community until about a year ago.

What has been the most challenging thing about blogging for you? What has been the most exciting?

The most challenging thing has been keeping up on my book reviews! I am so far behind its not funny….but the books and real life events have distracted me. For example, a good portion of this weekend was spent with Cassie Clare’s Mortal Instruments series books 2 and 3 – they are like crack I couldn’t put them down let alone try to focus on writing reviews!

The most exciting thing has been getting to know other bloggers. One of the best things I did last year was go to Book Expo America where I got to meet Alea (from Pop Culture Junkie) and my friend Tiffany S (from Letters, Words, Thoughts, Ideas, Stories…) Along with so many other great bloggers and author…did I even mention all the authors I stalked there?!? Total drool worthy event!

Where do you get most of your books?

I get most of my books from Barnes & Noble, Borders, and the Strand. My friend Beth (who blogs over at My Hobbies) and I are also constantly swapping books back and forth. Sometimes I am amazed that we can even remember what books belong to who. I also do get sent books from various publishers, publicists and authors…just one of the unexpected things that has been a result of blogging about books.

Are there any books have you been a book bully for? (ie one you’ve liked so much that you practically beat people over the head just to get them to read it)

So many! Of late I’ve been the bully for Hate List (OMG so amazing everyone must read it!!), The Book Thief, Jeanine Frost’s Night Huntress Series, Hunger Games, Catching Fire. I am now also berrating people to read Cassie Clare’s Mortal Instruments series. There really should be a support group for book bullies like me…I just don’t know when to stop.

Book you most want to read again for the first time?

Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery. Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings and Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen.

If you could visit with any characters….who would you chose?

I would love to go to school with Anne Shirley or walk the streets of Chicago with Harry Dresden. Go or to balls with Alex Stafford from The Season…etc etc etc…This is another one that I can go on and on and on about.

If you could give up the real world and move into a book, which one would it be and why?

All of them!! I just fall in love with all the words that I come across in books. I want to be like Thursday Next and be able to walk through the stories…so maybe that is the world….the one created by Jasper Fforde in his Eyre Affair, et al. The exception being Twilight because vampires shouldn’t sparkle!

What books have evoked strong feelings in you? Ones that really touched your heart, made you laugh out loud or made you cry?

God-Shaped Hole by Tiffanie DeBartolo, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, Hart List by Jennifer Brown – they have all made me cry. Janet Evanovich and Stephanie Plum books always make me laugh out loud. As did Jaye Well’s Red-Headed Stepchild and Jeaniene Frost’s Night Huntress series. Twilight made me want to slit my wrists…but that isn’t exactly a good reaction from a book. lol

Can you be found anywhere else on the net? (LibraryThing, Goodreads, Twitter, etc?)

Yes to all 3 and more. My usual interwebs idenity is Irisheyz77….its not one that I’ve ever had trouble getting as a log in so 98% of the time if you see it anywhere its me. =)

What are 5 books that are on your wish list right now?

The Unladylike Adventures of Kat Stephenson, Book One: A Most Improper Magick by Stephanie Burgis
The Line by Terri Hall
Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins
The Snowball Effect by Holly Nicole Hoxter and
The Orion Tattoo by Caragh O’Brien

And many many more!

Finally, what are some of your favorite blogs to visit?

I’ll give 3 because that’s my favorite number and they are:
From My Bookshelf
Bibliolatry (This is one of the very first blogs I started to read that made me think, hey I can do this)
The Narrative Causality

8 September, 2009

The Lush Life of Bread Loaf

img_0932It is a little shameful that I have not written a word here since that last brief bleep from the mountain in the wee hours of the morning of the 14th of August. But only just a little.

Last year, the summer before Bread Loaf, I suffered a head injury as I charged around a house-to-be-sold in Maine trying to vacuum in the dark. I cursed and shrieked and woke up my sleeping neighbors and ended up in the ER demanding stitches. Odd how a year changes things. I suffered two physical injuries while I was at Bread Loaf this year. First, another bang on my forehead which resulted in a similar quantity of blood trickling melodramatically down my face. Forget the ER. I stuffed ice under a hat tilted rakishly over one eye and went about my business. Next I scorched myself by leaning – with relief, no less! – on a stove. This was managed by securing a pack of ice to my arm with the shawl that I happened to have draped around my neck that day. I sat thus through my entire workshop with the inimitable and wickedly funny Ann Hood, and thus avoided an unsightly blister and, indeed, ended up with a dark slash that looked more like a particularly edgy tattoo than a burn.

I recount these incidents because, besides being humorous anecdotes (and leaving the scars which I wear with some pride in retrospect), they had no impact on my frame of mind. Minor burns and head wounds are now within the realm of the controllable in my life. Indeed, during my time at Bread Loaf – to which I had fled literally from the radiation room – img_0780I had only one moment when the searing pain of those self-repairing nerve endings made me stop what I was doing and remember that I was not entirely whole or mended. And despite the fact that fatigue had dogged my footsteps every night on which I couldn’t get a sufficient amount of sleep all through treatment, while at the conference I could keep going on only two or three hours of sleep a night, night after blessed night.

There is something about Bread Loaf. I’m sure everybody who hasn’t been there is pretty tired of hearing that by now, but it is true, there is. Nothing that troubles me “on earth” – in my personal life, in my family history, in the world of wars, elections won or lost, not one of the things that move me to opine or rant – touches me while I am there. It isn’t conscious, it isn’t by design, it is just how the days unfold.

So it was a strange adjustment for me this time, knowing that the the first thing I had to do when I came back was see not one but three physicians. The first act, to take the first of the doses of Tamoxifen that I will be ingesting every day, twice a day for the next five years of my life, and have the surgeons and oncologists and pathologists look at me and declare me in one state of repair or another. 3,650 pills in all. A few days back, as I stepped up on to the scale to be weighed, a nurse exclaimed “You aren’t going to take off your shoes? And you’re wearing heels? Wow that’s brave!” And I smiled.

img_08221I realize that there are only two ways to talk about Bread Loaf. In silence, or with words that verge on the lushness that Charles Baxter nudged us to consider during one of his lectures; the kind of language that we have learned to shun because it is routinely ridiculed by critics. I am taking up Charlie’s challenge. Down the line, you will be able to access this years Bread Loaf lectures via iTunes and listen to what he says and agree that sometimes lushness is called for. Here are a few people I hold close, and what they had to say about being at the conference. Here is Alexander Chee whose post is titled, “Consider Writing an 86 Proof Sentence” (a quote from Charlie), and Eugene Cross, whose post for the Hayden’s Ferry Review Blog is titled, “What I learned from Charlie.” Hmm. Curious. Here is Christian Anton Gerard, poet and fellow staffer:

img_0155It’s occurred to me this week that perhaps one of the reasons we do what we do is because of the lack of time we feel in the world. We run to the top of a mountain to make time…We will tell our friends and family about that time in an effort to show how wonderful and perfect the world of writing can sometimes be, but like (a friend) said, “the beauty in our moments on the mountain is in the fact that we never know if we’ll be here again… Which makes every moment here a completely tangible, but slippery thing we will cling to for the rest of our lives, but never be able to fully explain to anyone else.”

It is indeed a gift for all of us to have been there, and perhaps even more so for us to have been there together, but the fact that we can always be there together because we’re all clinging to the same slippery time-rocks, which we share only among each other is a gift and something newly spectacular in and of itself, I think. If you need me. Any of you. I will be across a hayed field in the middle of a beautiful creek at the bottom of a wooded hill. I will be picking up rocks and loving them even as they slip away. I will be running after them, sitting atop them. I will be sated when you wade in with me.

img_03751So, did I care how much weight was added to the scales with my high heels? Is there a way to measure the weightlessness of finding ones soul-sisters and brothers, of knowing how to love and be loved in return by beautiful, brilliant strangers who become friends over the turn of a single phrase? What is the weight of the light that fills up my body and my heart when I am where I am always among friends, always among people who share the same dream, who are gifted not only in the art of creating worlds with words, but in committing everything they have to holding each other up? img_03882We’re all familiar with the way people look and behave when they have experienced grave danger, some disaster, or even some period of time which has been consumed by worry about their own fate or that of someone they care deeply about. They tip, tearful with relief into the arms of their beloveds. What happens at Bread Loaf is not unlike that. You get there and you realize that you have left worlds and lives bereft, most of the time, of people who know what it is like to nurse a craving for words, a sort of eternal itch that tangles the fingers and brain so that not to write and read and talk freely about reading and writing and muses and wordly habits is an acutely felt torture. You get there and you tip, delirious with relief, into the arms

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and minds

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and words

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and silences

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of your tribe.

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And you hold on

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until you have to let go.

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It is, indeed, a precious thing to recognize exactly what it is – what person or collection of people, what peculiar combination of forces or energies, what place, exactly – brings one the keen joy that renders a human being both full of oxygen and just as breathless. The body can endure all manner of slights from the universe so long as the heart can sing, and at Bread Loaf I always find that song, the voice with which to sing it and a heavenly orchestra to provide the music.

Here, in the one recording I have of the staff reading, are some of those musicians: Nina McConigley, Gerald Maa, Greg Wrenn, Zachary Watterson, Avery Slater, Ted Thomspon, Christian Anton Gerard and, at the very end, myself.

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As I think about the year to come, and all the success it will bring to the people who were beside me this year, I am moved to close this post with the fabulous Eugene Cross, in living color, reading a section from his short story, ‘Hunters.’ The full story can be read here at Hobart.

5 August, 2009

The End

butterfly2The words, “The End” apparently only exist for the purposes of lulling very small and, presumably, unimaginative children, into believing that stories should only be entertained so long as an author has control over the words. There is no other place that I have found which can lay claim to those words.

We may die, but, as pointed out so eloquently by James Ellroy in an article that appears in this week’s issue of Newsweek about the death of a girl, Lily Burk, he barely knew, we live in our words, our work, and the thoughts and memories and commitments and photographs and circumstances of the people who have known us. There is, in death, often more life than the dead could have dreamed possible.

We may come to the end of a story and know, as writers, that the unknown sometimes leads us to pause at that particular moment, allowing the characters to carry on and leave us voyeurs behind. Readers reach the last page and look away, taking fragments and associations with them, using them as advice or warning, handing bits and pieces away in reference, praise or blame.

I have been preoccupied with endings afresh, or the lack of them, as I came to the end of my treatment. I realized that this new “free” time was defined, for me, not by the ceasing of treatments, but rather the loss of a series of rituals I had come to enjoy:

My morning bike rides where I have to decide whether to take the low or the high road, the way I braced for – and twice misjudged – the approaching pavement, the preparation for the last stretches of uphill paved roads in both directions as well a the anticipation of the downhill runs, the way I had to think up some new way to announce my arrival to people who shared the sidewalk with me (to whistle? to talk over their iPods? to yell? to creep along near their ankles? to hope for psychic awareness on their part?), the exhilaration of making it each day and the inward thank god when I come across the bar blocking the escape of cars in the parking garage which was perpetually untended in those early morning hours.

img_9657The way I glanced at the clock by the empty reception desk to see how I had done in terms of speed and the daily contemplation and religious avoidance of the stack of new cookies in the waiting room (yes, they are out by 6.15 am!) and the way I experienced network news on TV, something I have never done at home.

Most of all, my curiosity about the nurse who looked after me as well as tended to the application of treatments. She works two jobs, coming in to this one early, by 6 am, and leaving by 3 to sometimes do a shift at the second. She has a home she just bought, a family of parents and siblings that gather together on occasion, a father to help her with installing a window in her garage, a dog who can no longer see her working in the garden over the raised fence she had installed, a couple of weeks back, to keep him in. She has flown in a plane just once, to go to a beach with friends after school. She doesn’t quite like NYC, but she likes the Jersey Shore. She is good at what she does, but she is terrified of my physician, Dr. Weiss, and of not having me set up to her perfect specifications before she comes in to check on me. She clips up her blond hair in a sort of casual up-do, and walks with a slight side to side step, like a skater might do out of habit, which makes her seem tentative and child-like. She bought a bike for $20 at a garage sale and they told her she only had to get the tires some air, but she hasn’t done it yet though she hopes to. She “has someone” but she never said more than that.

I wonder what her relationships are like, what she does when she goes home, whether she feels the same antipathy I did toward the resident who came in to help during the last ten days of my treatment. She seemed genuinely sorry to see me go when she said she would miss seeing me early morning. She always had a question for me, and she never sounded like it was just standard OP. She moved my hair away like it belonged to a person she knew, she averted her eyes when I drew back the covers, she smiled and in ways I cannot quite describe, made it something we were experiencing together. I miss her.

Which is how and why, I suppose, the end is not quite here. A specific time period during which I had to undergo a certain form of death, of a part of me if not my whole, came and went. And yet I remain, she remains, and we go on in each others’ lives. That period came and went and because of it I am a little less quick to own the road as it were. A little quicker to remember what blessings still exist. And even more than before, interested in ordinary stories, the ones that tell of people going about ordinary days, where nationality and culture and personal history simply illuminate interactions and imbue them with a truth that points to the ultimate insignificance of those broad-brushed colors in the scheme of human life and death whose own hues are both feather light and brilliant.

30 June, 2009

Who defines America?

underbellyIt’s been a couple of weeks since I got back from Chicago, but the conversation which I wanted to write about then is still on my mind and will be for a while. There was a bottle of wine and a group of writers discussing the matter of America, what could be better or less controversial? So I was a little bemused when one of our group uttered that infamous holler of ignorance, love it or leave it. Who, the writer demanded to know, has the right to come here and expect that “we” (Americans, albeit foreign born or recent descendants of the foreign born), know all about them? Be sensitive to them? What gives them the right to tell “us” what “our” country should look like, be and do? They should be grateful, the writer continued – it was a little difficult to thunder given the volume of other Friday evening conversations at an open air venue – and not come here and just “expect things.”

Which made me muse aloud – okay, I admit, it was a sharper than musing – about the right people feel to dictate who among us gets to define America. Earlier in the day I had listened to Deepak Unnikrishnan (there’s a bio here and a review of his book, Coffee Stains in a Camel’s Teacuphere) speak persuasively deepakabout the obligation he feels to his classified-as-Indian parents, to write and speak of their work and the work of multitudes of non-nationals to build and sustain Abu Dhabi. Two years ago, NYU created NYU Abu Dhabi amidst a clamor of support and dissent, the latter for all the wrong reasons. There was nothing new about yet another part of Abu Dhabi society (in this case education) being fortified by foreigners, that was, after all, the way the society is set up. What is wrong is what has always been wrong: the way in which Abu Dhabians perceive, and therefore devalue, those foreign nationals no matter their status. Whether one lectures on Aristotle or swills the toilets, a foreigner is simply a hired hand with no say in the ephemeral yet intensely meaningful civic life of the city they call home.

Thirty five years into their tenure, Deepak’s parents are not considered natives, nor will their life’s work give them the right to stay should they lose their jobs. Appalling, isn’t it? And yet, how different is an America where its citizens express those same biases? Is it no more than an Abu Dhabi, then, on a grander scale, with greater freedom? Or isn’t it the case that every immigrant here, no matter their legal status or newness, their degrees or lack thereof, their 401(k) plans or their intimacy with the soil in which they grow the strawberries for our tables while they are sprayed with pesticides from above, whose labor and starry eyes and acquisitions and tastes create the texture of this country, has an equal right to define it?

Recently I came across this clip of the spoken-word artist, YaliniDream, who performed at my friend, Charles Rice Gonzalez’ space, the Bronx Academy for Art & Dance (BAAD). This is Marian Yalini Thambynayagam, who is a second-generation Sri Lankan American. “I am not entertained by your confusion” she says in this particular piece, responding to the people who, like my young friend mentioned at the beginning of this post, don’t know where she is from, don’t care and don’t think they should.

Momma’s Hip Hop Kitchen Vol. II: YaliniDream from Jennifer Hobdy on Vimeo.

Listening to her was certainly difficult for me, a natural-born Sri Lankan with a strong sense of my country of birth, and a different perspective and sensitivity to the work she is performing. While there is deep yearning articulated by her speaking of the one tear that a Sri Lankan immigrant tries to catch in his or her hand just so she or he can taste the salt-soaked oceans of their past, knowing the terrifying complexities that abound for those still on that small island and being familiar with the self-indulgent fantasies of those of us within the diaspora, place a barrier between us that I find it difficult to cross. But there is great rage and anguish in her performance and she is a very gifted. Moreover, the entire piece articulates what might actually run through the mind of your average immigrant/from-somewhere-else/multiply-affiliated/tourist in response to a poorly placed question. manishaAnd aren’t those hidden thunderbolts precisely what drive us newcomers to say this is my country too? I will write my story, sing my song, speak my language, vote my politics, articulate my rage until I am no longer foreign to you?

I pick up books for no good reason; reason follows inevitably from the reading. And so, while re-reading the book, Half & Half: Writers on Growing up Biracial+Bicultural, I came across the following observation by Bharati Mukherjee:

In cities like San Francisco, where immigrants from Central America and South America jostle elbows with refugees from Cambodia and Vietnam, I’ve eavesdropped on thickly accented, enthusiastically conducted conversation “drive-through diagnostics” and “bun management” between people wearing fast-food-company logos on their shirt pockets. I want to think that in our multicultural United States, immigrants like them will play the stabilizing role that pride and history deny the major players.

The point is not to adopt the mainstream American’s easy ironies nor the expatriate’s self-protective contempt for the “vulgarity” of immigration. The point is to stay resilient and compassionate in the face of change.

Ah, at last, a happy balance where there is neither disgust at the people who “don’t understand” nor anger at those who long to be understood. Perhaps among the new, younger, truly multinational, Americans – like the President himself – there will be a recognition that patriotism is as patriotism does, and the same goes for citizenship. The country, any country, belongs to those who live in it, work within its borders, and help keep its many wheels turning.

24 June, 2009

Waking Early

wakingearlyOkay, so this was supposed to be about conversations in Chicago about politics, but there’s time for that. I wanted to share this link that a friend posted on FB about the ‘Ten Benefits of Rising Early & How To Do It.’ which is written by author, Leo Babauto. Here’s #1:

Greet the day. I love being able to get up, and greet a wonderful new day. I suggest creating a morning ritual that includes saying thanks for your blessings. I’m inspired by the Dalai Lama, who said, ” Everyday, think as you wake up, ‘today I am fortunate to have woken up, I am alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others, to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings, I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry or think badly about others, I am going to benefit others as much as I can.’

Okay, so just for the record I’m not turning into (horrors!) a wishy-washing, touchy-feely, new-agey…..anything else?…..bore. Which is not to say that Leo is one. Leo has accomplished incredible things by simplifying life. I am far from that place yet, though I think some changes are afoot inside my head. But this post spoke to me because I wake up sometime after 5.30 now in order to get to therapy by 6.45 am. I wake up early because I decided to bike it there instead of driving. I chose the time of day and mode of transport because (a) I didn’t want to “wait for radiation” all day long as if it were the most important appointment of my day, and (b) because I wanted to do something healthy and right for myself and the world to counter the fact that I was going in to treat something that was “wrong” with me.

I am a night owl who now loves waking early. It is peaceful and lovely all along my drive which is only two or so blocks from Philly most of the way. I am moving slow enough to hear the birds, feel the air, admire the flowers planted around the many-roomed homes along the way – instead of cursing at their stop signs like I used to do. I make eye contact with other early risers, joggers, cyclists, dog-walkers. I sing as I go because those down hills make the songs burst forth. I’m not listening to recorded music in the car, it is just whatever comes to mind. At first I would sit back down on the bike when I saw other people, thinking they’d be concerned by a full grown woman standing up on the pedals, but now I don’t care what they think, I feel the world is big enough for their inhibitions, if such there be, and my lack of them.

There are moments when I wonder if this is “right” for me as I huff and puff my bottom up hills and/or am drenched by insensitive motorists on the main road, or worse, seek refuge like a child on pavements barely wide enough for cats let alone a bike and me atop). But what could have been a ritual that reminded me only of the impossible fragility of life and the way its end walks a heartbeat away from the conduct of our days, I am happy for the morning that has broken, and for the ability to bear witness to its coming.

Leaving a warm bed for that? Sure, it’s worth it.

The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.


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