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21 May 2012

ART SAVES LIVES


Scrolling through TV Guide, I noticed Bill Moyers’ new show yesterday featured activist/guitarist Tom Morello of The Nightwatchman. I called down to Gary to watch it and he already had found it on his own. (Morello was and is part of the band, Rage Against the Machine.) It was encouraging to see Morello speaking and singing about social justice. It was wonderful to hear someone talk about lost potential and speak up for working people. You can find him HERE singing Woody’s song “This Land Is Your Land,” and HERE, singing one of his own, "Black Spartacus Heart Attack Machine." The man has something to say.

He’s not alone. Lately a lot of people have had something to say about the way our country seems to be drifting off course. 

Ironically, a better funded and more insistent voice is also speaking. I’ve heard loud claims from the wealthy minority claiming that they are the victims of "class warfare." The wealthiest people in America pay a much smaller percentage of their income in taxes, they benefit from our free market and often from our wars. Their sons and daughters do not go to war, and their homes are locked and barricaded and policed and cleaned by others. They send their children to private schools and they attack others for wanting schools as fine. They want to deduct the expense of sending their children to these elite schools, but they are quick to point out that “throwing money at it doesn’t solve a problem.”

Money seems to have solved their problems with safety, comfort, opportunity, and education. It seems to have kept them safe from war, while the poorer parents of America see their sons and daughters bleed.

Is anyone still unaware that while they are more productive than at any time in history the middle class is strangling; that the gap between rich and poor is as wide as the Pacific Ocean; that we are not inferior to any nation on the planet, but 24% of our children—our children—live in poverty? We are a wealthy nation with an embarrassing record compared to other industrialized nations when it comes to healthcare. It isn’t the poor who have benefited from this injustice.

But the wealthiest citizens in the most secure and proud nation standing for liberty and justice for all, these wealthy individuals complain of class warfare? As people demand justice and fairness, the right to jobs and decent wages and opportunity for their children—the wealthy whine about being abused?

Isn’t this a little like the fox complaining when the hens lock the gate on their pen?

ABOVE: That's the great Woody Guthrie with his guitar labeled "This machine kills fascists." Just below is Tom Morello in the color photo. My old car used to have a bumper sticker: "Art Saves Lives." 

14 May 2012

ALISON BECHDEL


Agnès Muller  in an analysis, “Image as Paratext in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home” (2007), struggles to come to terms with her subject: “In the case of Fun Home, where a number of images such as pages from books and letters include more written text than the accompanying commentary, the blurring of the difference between written words and visual art might even make it seem debatable to discuss them as separate entities” (15). She concludes that Bechdel's use of text and word is a response to her own father’s visual art in a manner he would not find threatening. 

I would argue that Bechdel’s strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, combining words and drawings since 1983, shows her struggling to locate herself through picture and word. Certainly, that is what we find in her books. Bechdel’s second memoir, Are You My Mother?, is deeply engaged with classic analysis, which may explain why I found the link to this essay on her website. She seems to find the analysis amusing. 

Why pictures and text together? Bechdel's use of image and text speak back to one another on the page. Like a conversation between two people, they are not separate entities but parts of a whole. It would be possible to follow the discussion with access to only one or the other, but together they complete the richer story than either is capable of telling alone. 

On Saturday, we went in to Portland to see family and then in the afternoon to the Bagdad Theater. Cartoonist Alison Bechdel read from her new memoir, Are You My Mother? Its graphic-novel structure explores her relationship with her mother, but more significantly explores Bechdel herself, relating to her mother, relating to herself and her work and to the rest of the world. Fascinating stuff.

She had the audience immediately: “I’m so glad to be in Portland… as a cartoonist and a big dyke, I feel this is my planet.” The last time she was here and wondered out loud about moving to Portland, she was told no more people! But the audience at the Bagdad smiled, cheered, and made our welcome clear.

Bechdel hesitated, said she had been on tour to twelve cities so far, and might sound muddled, then she gathered herself, images showed up on the screen behind her and she settled in to tell us about her art.

She reviewed her visual process—the photos that she imports to Adobe Illustrator when developing preliminary drawings, the completed blue line pencil sketch, the inking scanned into Photoshop, addition of color with watered ink colors also scanned—she always begins with drawings on paper and makes final corrections in Photoshop—a quick review of the mechanics of constructing her pages. All the while enormous images of her work showed on the screen behind her.

And then she began telling the process of the story, which is autobiographical, intensely personal, and still not entirely clear to her. (I found this marvelous and comforting, since I often don't know what a piece is about until it's nearly done.) “This book is about subjectivity. It is about my mother, but it’s also about… many strands of myself.”

A series of parallels between her mother’s and her own experiences, including paired drawings, drew laughter: “Here’s my mom in her menial job in the 50s… and here’s me in my menial job in the 80s.” There was the story of her mother's reaction to the stories. And there were the stories they did not know about one another.


She read from three parts of the book, reviewing psychiatric theory and personal history, conversations between herself and her mother, dreams and the diary of Virginia Woolf. And ended by answering questions from the audience. We loved her.

Funny, smart, candid, and original, Bechdel is also the author of Fun Home (2006) which made Best of the Year lists for a lot of reviewers including Time and  The New York Times. Some of her audience clearly had been following her since well before that because one question that Bechdel clearly found delightful referred to the inspiration for her drawings of landscape in an early DTWOF page. 

In another question she enjoyed, a member of the audience talked about “reading” the drawings as well as the words—“Oh, yes!” Bechdel responded with a grin, read the drawings, oh yes, oh yes! They are meant to be "read." She is co-teaching a class on comics and autobiography, which she says has always seemed a natural combination. You can find an interview with Bechdel The Rumpus.



No one mentioned Art Spiegelman's Maus, which won the 1992 Pulitzer for his graphic account of his father's experiences during the Holocaust, but the parallel seems obvious. Bechdel's work is more naturalistic, but like Spiegelman, her memoirs explore both the history and the process of unearthing and processing that history.

My husband and I talked about her on our long, beautiful drive over the coast range and home. I squinted at a few pages of the book we received as we entered the theater because we were early. In the Bagdad's half-light this wasn't easy for my old eyes. And we listened eagerly to what she read. I'm ready for the rest—subtle and strong, strange and sensitive. Subjective? Not in the sense we usually use that term to mean limited. Bechdel is smart woman, a smart person—maybe a person who worries too much, who digs too deeply into her own past confusion and pain, but who am I to find fault with that?

10 May 2012

NOBLESSE OBLIGE

I recently presented at a conference. It was a good weekend and I enjoyed the sunshine, seeing people, and attending the presentations. But there were moments when I wondered what I was doing there.

The keynote speaker is fascinating and knowledgeable about indigenous peoples, wildlife, and the environment, and is also a very fine story teller. I was eager to hear his stories, but among the stories he shared with a room full of English teachers, were stories about education. He flattered his audience and then told us how to do our jobs, as everyone seems to believe they are qualified to do these days.

Bill Gates thinks because he’s made billions of dollars selling computers that he knows how to educate children, and textbook manufacturers and governors think they understand our jobs better than we do. Now a man who attended private schools and went on a European tour after graduation and then to a private university, a man who failed to earn his teaching license, thinks he knows how we should teach in the public schools.

He’s worried about the future and insists that we, as educators, have the power to help the world survive by identifying those who will become the future “elders.” I listened as he advised us to teach to the elite, and to let the rest of the students go. No society ever educated all its children, he assured us, and none every would. He told a room full of English teachers that we should “not be afraid of locating those students you think are bankable and doing all you can for them." [Bankable. There's an unfortunate word choice for an environmentalist talking about the chosen children.] I thought at first I was miss-hearing him, but no. Not all kids are educable—he said this. We can't be expected to help them all even though as teachers we care about all of them. We have to find the ones who matter and work on them. We are supposed to pick out the stars in our rooms and let the rest of our children fall by the wayside. He actually recommended we do that. 

I looked around the auditorium for outrage and I was shocked to find it only in myself. He wants us to pick who deserves to be taught.

If only it were that easy. I’ve been a teacher since 1976, and teaching for even longer, I suppose. I’m not a bad judge of people, but I have been continuously surprised by students—the bright young thing I'm sure will make the world a better place and all she's doing is making a lot of money. The seemingly selfish high school student who now works for a nonprofit relieving children in war torn third world nations. The silent football player who earned Cs in class and tells me he copied the daily quotes I wrote on the board onto sheets of paper and put them up on his walls. The girl who was blind for most of her childhood (her first reading was Braille) and is earning As in class and has passed both her reading and writing assessments on the first try. She's not "bankable" but she deserves to be given a chance just like anyone. She deserves her chance at a good life, and to be respected and to receive the best I can do for her. I was thinking that America is supposed to educate everyone. I was wondering if this man really wanted teachers to be the ones making choices about who does or does not deserve to have a future?

I don’t think I have the right to make those choices, even if I could make them accurately. Every year I work my hardest for all my students. Sometimes I work very hard for students who seem to me to have a grasping, money-focused, elitist future before them. I help kids with left-wing and right-wing views and the ones who work to legalize pot and the ones who want to cut taxes on the rich. Some of them I love more than others, some of them seem mean or naïve or selfish or talented. Some of them are angry or injured or using or struggling. I don’t get to pick out the “best” and teach only to them. I don’t get to tell the kid whose politics I don’t like, “Sorry, you’re not going to be one of the future elders and save the world so you only get second best.” No, I try to work with them all. That’s my job. I write them all letters of recommendation. I give them all the best start I can because that is my job. Some students may annoy me and I might have favorites—I am only human—but don’t tell me it’s right for me to deliberately choose.

So I stopped the speaker as he was being led away and told him, politely, that he was assuming it was possible to recognize the "bankable" kids—and that they weren't always recognizable. That, frankly, it was arrogant to think we could do that or should do that. He assured me he would remember what I said. He said it several times. He looked me in the eye and listened and I felt myself becoming a new part of his story.

09 May 2012

DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE

When I was in college, an English grad student teaching a lit class managed to ruin D.H. Lawrence for me by remarking that the author believed men were roosters and women were hens and the troubles of the world resulted from men failing to behave like roosters and woman attempting to be more than hens. He seemed to find this an appropriate view. I was still a teenager at the time, but I had some sense so I went directly from the man's classroom to change my status from graded to Satisfactory-Unsatisfactory so that I would feel free to argue with the jerk.

      My future husband and I saw Diary of a Mad Housewife in a theater at about that time and loved it. Funny and smart, it reflects on, among other things, how we compromise ourselves and our identities in life. Carrie Snodgress was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance as the "mad" housewife, her first significant role. The film itself was a hit, but it's pretty much vanished.
     After hunting for the DVD version of Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) and not finding a legal copy, I discovered the novel on which the film was based. There's a literary prize named for author Sue Kaffman, and I've competed for that prize. I ordered the book as second best. It's not.
      (My husband graduated high school in 1967; I did in 1970 when we saw and loved the film, which is terrific.)
      Betinna Balser, called "teen" by her disappointed-liberal turned frantic-capitalist husband, begins a secret diary as a means of hanging on to the shreds of her sanity in this domestic comedy.
     I regret it's taken me this long to read this wonderful novel, which is, of course, even better than the film. As best I can recall, much of the film's dialogue is straight out of Kauffman's book. Bettina slowly comes unhinged as she tries to accept her role as obedient and supportive wife to her domineering husband without losing herself in the process. It might be a bit dated—I'd like to think women don't do this sort of self-effacement anymore—but the story still reads as fresh. The film's ending is probably more realistic, but the novel is satisfying and both are wickedly funny.

02 May 2012

MEMOIR WITH ELK


[This essay was originally published with a different photo in VoiceCatcher, October 2012.]

"...what you end up remembering isn't always the same as what you have witnessed."—Julian Barnes in his Booker winning novel, The Sense of an Ending (2011)
     There is a story famous in the northwest corner of Oregon about a man who was driving to work when he was run over by an entire herd of elk. True story. 

     Elk are handsome and huge and heavy mammals. A bull Roosevelt elk can weigh up to 1100 pounds. They are famous around here for walking onto roads with perfect arrogance, and most locals have stories about being hit by or avoiding being hit by elk—not hitting elk, though that happens too, but being hit by elk. A loaded log truck weighing close to forty tons will kill an elk, but a car has about an even chance of survival. Once elk decide to make a move onto a roadway, it’s best to slow down and wait them out. I don’t mind seeing them at a distance, but often, as I drive the fifteen miles to work on highway 101, I see one or four or seven or a dozen standing on the shoulder of the highway deciding whether to leap into the road and kill me.
     But I was saying about the man in the car hit by the herd: The details of this story depend on who’s telling it. The version I was told most recently said the man slowed down because he saw the big herd then living on the south slope of Onion Peak. He thought they would cross in front of him, but instead they turned and ran right into his car. The driver was slightly injured, the car was totaled, and there were elk all over the road, bloody and dying from the wreck. The carnage was terrible.
     It’s an impressive and believable story, but since my husband—my husband—was the man in that car hit by elk and because I saw the car and paid the insurance deductible and because I trust his version of events, I could assure the teller with some authority that it didn’t happen that way.
     Gary was driving to work before dawn when he saw a pickup truck pulled over on the other side of the highway flashing his high beams. Gary, assuming this had something to do with elk—locals do flash their lights to warn oncoming drivers about elk—slammed on the brakes and stopping right in the southbound lane—it was a Wednesday, September 1989 and he was listening to "Swing Out Sister" on the radio. He saw an elk right there in front of him. A couple dozen more elk were standing in a field on the north side of the highway between Manzanita and Nehalem, but he didn't even see them. They might have turned back or crossed in front of him, but when the driver of the pickup high-beaned the herd they abruptly ran straight into my husband's little Honda station wagon. One elk elbow crushed the windshield to within inches of his face and then it was over in an instant. He was unhurt and got out of the car. The other driver shouted: "They're okay. They made it!" and drove off. Gary's Honda was nearly totaled, and he drove on to work with his head hanging out the window since the windshield was crazed. In the end our insurance paid to have the car repaired, though it was never quite the same and tended to seep water through the window seals after that.
     For weeks, even after it was repaired, we found tufts of fur in the joints and crevices of the vehicle, but the elk, all of them, ran off into the trees that night, perhaps bruised, but otherwise unhurt. When we tell the story we try to be accurate about those details.
     In fiction, we understand as readers that the narrator of the story may be unreliable. I explain the concept of the "unreliable narrator" to my students—it’s not a lie because we are reading fiction and beginning with Huckleberry Finn’s announcement on the first page that everybody lies, we accept that first person delivers a story through an imperfect lens. The narrator may be comprehensive, wise, and precise, or, in the case of Huck, may leave things out, misunderstand events, or simply lie to the reader. We know this going in and we should have no problem with such “inaccuracies” so long as they are believable—believable that the character would, in fact be unreliable. We must trust the story, even if that means we trust Huck to make mistakes about his observations, to leave details out, and probably to flat out lie to us as he’s warned he will from the beginning.
     In real life, when we read a “true” story, we expect accuracy. We want all the details, and in the case of memoir, we want truth and eloquence and wisdom too. Or at least I want all those things. I am impatient with memoirists who seem not to have learned much from their experience, or who make mistakes without noticing them or acknowledging that possibility.
     We learn from written stories in the same ways we learn from personal experience. Recent research suggests, in fact, that our brains really cannot tell the difference. Fiction, nonfiction? It's all the same to our brains. It's the reality of story, not the reality of fact that impresses our memories. Our attitudes are colored by what happens to us and also by what we read, even the fictional stories we read. For example, watching a child being harassed on the bus and not acting to stop the abuse might result in our vow to never tolerate the bullying of a child in public again. Reading a story about a child being harassed on the bus might lead us to the same conclusion. In each case, our attitudes are altered by what an experience teaches—what happens to us and also what we read happens. A higher truth prevails. 
     Another example: In Mary McCarthy’s memoir, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, she includes a long preface to one story where she admits that a main character in the story that follows was dead at the time she remembers it happening. Nevertheless, she tells the story the way she remembers it. Another: On the first page of her memoir, Liars' Club, Mary Karr writes that her family members have read the following story and though their version of events might be a little different, they are okay with hers.  
     True stories, like fiction, are not entirely reliable, but often we fail to bring our critical gaze to bear on memoir. It seems that when we’re told something is a "true" story, we accept the accuracy, completeness, and fact of the story. And that’s not smart.
     Zora Neale Hurston’s memoir, Dust Tracks in the Road (1942), contains a number of deliberate fabrications, most famously that Hurston shaved ten years off her age. Richard Rodriguez’s wonderful 1982 memoir Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez details his struggle to find identity in America. He insists that ethnic and racial minorities must choose where to land, detailing his struggles with language, culture, politics and privilege as he enter mainstream American culture. What the memoir does not mention is that Rodriguez is a gay man, and that must also have been a part of his struggle he chose to conceal until his 1992 memoir, Days of Obligation: An Argument With My Mexican Father. Is he an unreliable narrator? Is holding back such information as sexual orientation dishonest, or merely understandable given the world of that day?
     I've been thinking about that a lot lately as I read memoir. I don’t begrudge a writer holding back details too precious to reveal. I especially don’t mind being told that the story exists in different versions depending on who tells it. I want to trust the memoirist and I can best trust the writer who admits to fallibility. I want to learn something about my world by understanding the experiences of others—isn’t this one vital reason we read any narrative? We benefit from stories in many ways, but one of those ways is that other peoples’ stories expand our own experience.
     In 2002 my mother, who then lived six miles from us, began a long, slow slide into death. She refused live-in help, refused to move in with us, refused to follow the recommendations of doctors, physical therapists, or occupational therapists. She didn't want anyone hired to see to her needs. For much of the next five years she lived at home—where she fell many times, breaking her nose, each hip, and her arm—and for longer and longer periods in nursing and assisted living facilities. She had frequent, severe constipation which required medical intervention too. Until the last time she moved into assisted living, my husband and I were her primary caregivers and each of us visited several times each day to take care of her ordinary needs. Often she called us to get her to the hospital and these calls most often came in the early evening.
     One night on the curvy section of highway 101, at 4:30 in the morning, driving home from having taken my mother to and from the emergency room (again), a bull elk leapt over the hood of the car. Suddenly it was there, its legs illuminated by the headlights and then it we had moved under and past it. I think we probably both gasped, but then Gary and I laughed hysterically the rest of the way home. It makes a difference, I think, to know that my husband had been run over by elk before. There was really nothing funny about the experience, but we’d been taking my mother to the hospital a lot in those days and not quite getting hit by a bull elk was probably the best thing that had happened to us in months. Sometimes I think I wouldn't believe my own life if it hadn't happened to me.
     In the end, my husband says: "Truth is what happens to us, or what we believe happens. Fiction is what happens to everyone else." It might be hard to tell the difference, but truth or fiction, we learn from a good story.
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