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Friday, February 25, 2005

Stories as Old as Eden

Donna Jo Napoli’s Spinners opens with a sex scene; later in the book a girl propositions a man she does not know is her father. Napoli’s book Beast contains repeated assertions that “all religions are true,” and interpolates this universalism with descriptions of human-animal sexual contact. Perhaps these elements would be less offensive if the books in question were not geared for readers between the ages of eleven and fourteen—they are retellings of famous fairy tales intended for “Young Adult” readers.

I suppose I should have been prepared for this. After all, the Princess Diaries books (unlike the sweet movies) have the heroine’s mother sleeping with one of her teachers, and other things of that nature—there is an underlying cord of bitterness throughout the joyless stories, whose world-weary adolescent narrator expresses one cynicism after another. Young adult literature has changed a lot since the days of Johnny Tremain, Gentle Ben and the first Nancy Drew mysteries.

Let us not stand around ringing our hands. It’s all very well to point out problems, but this is only a first step. The real question is: what to do about it? Might I suggest that those who have skills in creative writing begin exercising them? I am sure that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were not the last Christians who were so gifted. And I am also convinced that a handful of Rummy Nation readers have a neat plot or two gestating in their brains. Come on, people! Is Napoli going to be all your daughters have to read?

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

A Silly Submarine

Heaven keep my youngest brother [henceforth to be known as "Bob," given that he is both silent, and (appropriately) joining the silent service] from serving on the USS Jimmy Carter.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Barbeque Cat

The weather had been rainy since noon, and when my parents and I walked up to the Dave's Barbeque restaurant in Augusta, GA, this evening, an adolescent cat greeted us at the front door with a silent meow. Its ragged beige fur was damp, and it gazed at us with small rheumy eyes, and vibrated its tail cordially, staying just out of reach. There was a sore on its right hindmost paw. We didn't want to touch it (not that it was going to let us), but we did feel sorry for it--the restaurant sits next to a heavily-travelled 5-lane road, so it's not a good place for a little creature to be even in fine weather.

"You have a cat outside," my father told the hostess who was ushering us to our seats.

"We know," she said, "We've tried to catch it, but it won't let us. It will let you come within about a foot and then it will move away. We have customers who come by every day just to try to catch it to take it to the vet."

Apparently, the cat will eat the barbeque it's offered outside, but won't be tempted into the restaurant vestibule, where the Dave's employees might be able to grab it and stuff it into a carrier for a much-needed trip to the doctor. Sometimes felines are too clever for their own good.

When we left, the cat was still hovering next to the door. Daddy paused and reached out a tentative hand, and was rewarded with a delicate sniffing from the distance of about 8 inches. But each time he moved toward the cat, it glided back a few inches.

Finally, we walked to our van, and I looked back at the little animal, still hovering by the door, making no attempt to go inside. Another couple had come out with leftovers, and were offering the cat some meat. It danced back from their advances, circling the food with a wary eye. I wonder what will happen to this small desperate creature...

Thursday, February 17, 2005

The Spirit(s) of History

My Atlantic World History class spent the session this week discussing John K. Thornton’s book The Kongolese Saint Anthony: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Antonian Movement, 1684-1706 (Cambridge, 1998), which is an account of an African Catholic woman who became possessed by a spirit who identified himself as St. Anthony. Like Joan of Arc, she ended up being the leader of a popular independence-oriented movement, was opposed by the leaders of the established church, and eventually burnt at the stake as a witch.

It was a interesting discussion, but my classmates kept referring to Dona Beatriz’s “choice” to become a spokesperson for a particular saint, and the political/religious-power reasons that the church decided to oppose her. No one even suggested as a hypothesis that there might actually be a real spiritual dimension to the story. I squirmed slightly in my seat during all these material arguments, particularly when one person casually dismissed “un-civilized” native peoples’ ideas that disgruntled spirits or displeased gods are responsible for individual and corporate ills.

Many of these indigenous understandings of these spiritual matters are off-base, or completely wrong, but that conscientious historians of any stripe should outright ignore the reality (and not just the “perceived reality” to which researchers accord so much importance these days) of a spiritual dimension in human history is bizarre. As a Christian reading Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita’s story, I saw obvious signs that she had been demon-possessed—according to the diaries of observers, before he entered her, the spirit told her that he had “tried to go into several other people,” which the Bible says that only demons do, not angels (Joan of Arc, for the record, was merely inspired by a vision; she did not claim to be the corporeal carrier of an independent spiritual being).

I am not suggesting that Dona Beatriz should have been burnt at the stake for being a victim of possession! But just admitting that other Powers were at play in the events under scrutiny adds a whole new dimension of understanding to the story, which our class totally ignored. I know that I would have been looked at as crazy had I hinted that she had no active choice in the “selection” of the so-called “St. Anthony,” but without our talking about this, I ended up thinking the eloquent erudition of my colleagues was wasted discussing the book.

During our roundtable, my professor also mentioned that she co-teaches a class on the History of Witches and Witchcraft—I suspect that this is a wholly human treatment of this subject. Of course, over the centuries many people have been falsely accused of association with the Devil, often for purely selfish or mean reasons which are easily identifiable from a secular standpoint. But, wouldn’t allowance that a real spiritual (non-human-generated) struggle underlies human interaction permit a fuller awareness of the desires and downfalls of individuals: that evil plays on our fear of the unknown, that Satan takes advantage of beliefs in small gods or a limited God to tempt us to take out our insecurities on others?

The more I learn about the past, the more I learn about God’s provision for me and my believing predecessors from all cultural backgrounds. Too, the more I learn, the more I am angered by legalistic Christian churches’ imposition of their extra-Biblical culture on their converts, their traveling “over land and sea to win a single convert, and … making him [or her] twice as much a son of hell as” they are. In eighteenth and nineteenth-century Kongo, people knew prayers, the rosary, and many portions of the catechism. They considered themselves good Catholics [just as many people elsewhere have and do consider themselves “good Baptists,” “good Orthodox,” etc.—fill in your own denomination], but they didn’t know God—they still had a works-based mentality, not realizing that Christ accepted them not because they were so good at keeping his law, but because of his own sacrifice, and that in outpouring of thankfulness for his completed work on their behalf they ought to seek to please him.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Tenancy Tangle

The saga continues. Our landlord's lawyer sent us the new lease agreement today. A year's lease agreement. Our previous (oral) understanding was for a month-to-month lease. I wasn't planning to stay here for necessarily more than three months, maybe six--my future was entirely fluid, and I had the additional freedom of not being tied to a long-term lease. Now, in addition to agreeing to be responsible for 20+ thousand dollars' worth household rent (cumulative) over a year (payable in monthly installments) he wants us to pony up $450 each for security deposits. This from four tenants who have already shelled out that amount into the hands of the individuals whom we replaced in the house, on the understanding that somewhere, sometime in the past, one of the series had paid him that sum. And two of us have been living here over a year and a half--I've been here since September 2003, and Kevin's been here longer--so one would think that our steady, visible and calculable record of paying him on time and taking good care of his property would count for something. Too, his lawyer wants the signed papers back in his hands by next Tuesday. The rub is, I am supposed to be leaving town Thursday morning, and won't return until Tuesday afternoon--nonrefundable plane tickets say so. Thus, I have almost no time whatsoever to think over my options. I did email him this evening spelling out my concerns about the lease-length, the security deposit, and the required professional carpet-cleaning at end of tenancy (which seems to mean that I would be responsible for paying to remove the mess that Alissa, or some other equally irresponsible person, had made of the place). Or rather, I emailed his wife, who is an Episcopal minister (priest?), with a subject-line asking her to forward the message to her husband. Hope everything comes together fast. Have asked God to show me what to do--I have no clue, really. And I do need grace in the eyes of my landlord, too. I did email my Sunday School class asking for input, and the graduate coordinator in my academic department, who volunteered to "put out the word" re: needed housing when I told her about my situation this afternoon (ironically, almost exactly 24 hours after having a cheerful conversation with her about how my living situation had so much improved!). I don't want to have to move! Would appreciate Wayfollower prayer!

Friday, February 11, 2005

The Test

Silverman won't get his hands on the Russian language exam I took this afternoon until Monday, so I expect I won't know whether I passed or failed (again!) until the latter part of next week at the earliest. I'll keep the public notified. I thank everybody for their prayers, and God for enabling me to do better this time around than I had done on the last two attempts. I'm very slow--taking the test (which consisted of translating as much as I could of sixteen possible pages from the first chapter of a book about Karamzin), reminded me of nothing so much as doing my spelling homework when I was in first and second grade. I was so slow I had to do the work on a tape recorder, sitting by myself at a little desk in the hall. My mother encouraged me that over time I would speed up. Well, I have. In English. Reading Russian is like being six again, slogging painfully through declensions and dependent clauses. But I felt pretty good about the overall accuracy of my work today, although I only got through one of the sixteen pages. Quality, not quantity. I feel pithed.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Whiskey for My Beer, er, My Men...

I had a rough evening at school. A professor to whom I've been vulnerable (sharing my thoughts about the graduate program, and the difficulties I've faced therein) sent me an email saying that I wasn't a good writer. This hurt profoundly. The ability to write well is one of the few talents I have been sure that I possess, and having her reach the opposite conclusion on the basis of reading one sub-par paper was devastating in what has been a demoralizing week. So, I cried for a good half an hour in a corner of the locked, deserted department, before cheering up considerably thanks to a chat with Lenise. Then I went home.

Nate got back a few minutes after I did, and so I told him that "since he was handy" I was going to tell him my sorrows. He kindly listened, making the same rather ribald comments that my own brother Nate (who at 25 is only a year older), would have made. He told me I ought to watch Boondock Saints, which is his favorite movie. I asked him whether it had a happy ending, and he said that all the right people die in the end. I decided this was good enough.

I will admit there were funny moments, but there was more "F-ing" this and "F-" that than I heard on my freshman girls dormitory hall in college, which is saying [it] a lot, since those young women used the word for subject, verb, adjective, adverb and interjection. While Nate consumed 24 ounces of Guiness, another 12 ounces of blond lager, I watched William Dafoe play a somewhat homosexual cop who covers up the vigilante killing spree undertaken by two Irish brothers and the Hannibal Lecter-caged murderer who joins them--the three recite faux Old Testament lyrics prior to finishing off with "In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit" in Latin and a bullet to the head of whatever Russian mafiosi or Italian variant thereof they were executing. It was cheesy, frankly.

I really don't know where to start criticizing a movie like that. Its message was an uncatchy version of the even more atrocious "Whiskey for My Men and Beer for My Horses": that rolicking, popular country song which praises mob 'justice.' When I knocked on Nate's door to return the video (not realizing that it was 1 AM and he was already asleep), he stumbled over and asked me with a groggy grin "Wasn't that great?!" I told him that the guns were nice, but that I didn't exactly go in for vigilante killing, and mentioned that since I was from the South, I always thought of those poor Black guys getting lynched. He acknowledged that was true--"but those guys (in the movie) were killing really bad people, and sometimes you wish you could do that." Not wanting to get into a theological or even philosophical debate with a semi-inebriated man who needs to get up for work in five hours, I let it go.

I want to get through to Nate about the Reality out there, but I don't want to be the pompous little pharisee about his entertainment tastes, nor do I want to be "nice" about them to the discredit of what's Real. I haven't a clue how to approach this, so I'd appreciate prayer for both of us!

Incidentally, when I checked my email after the movie, I found that the professor who had criticized my writing skills had sent me a note of apology, saying that she should not have made such a negative assumption based on a small sample of my work.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

New York unFashion Week

To pay attention to fashion is not a native inclination with me. After all, I am the girl who in junior high and high school considered it a peculiar point of pride to have worn the same Easter dress seven years in a row, who rejoiced that she could sport one pair of faded pink shorts for ten summers running (until the elastic in the waist literally disintegrated). I have improved somewhat since my younger days (I would hope), but to peruse the picture magazines for photos of the glamorous new look is not in my line. Or wasn’t. Now, I find myself surreptitiously thumbing through Vogue and glossy rags of that nature, anxiously looking at colors and trends. Why? Because now I have a handmade jewelry business, and I’m selling to the style-conscious.

It was with this purpose in mind that I perused collections presented at New York Fashion Week, a plethora of shows happening between yesterday and Friday, wherein many of the big names (and wannabe names) of the clothes-designing world trot out their dreams for robing (and maybe robbing) the people of North America. Well, notwithstanding the exaggeration of the runway styles, I was aghast at the outright hideousness of the outfits. It was the worst of the 1970s meets the least flattering of the 1980s blended with the shapelessness of the 1920s, without the addition of glamour from any decade. These clothes made the runway models—who are so emaciated that their often-exposed breasts have entirely withered away, and the outlines of their internal organs can be traced on the tight skin of their bellies—look fat. And frumpy. If a startlingly tall and skinny girl looks like Ma Joad in these clothes, just imagine how we shorter and plumper people would look! I simply could not imagine what sorts of jewelry would serve to complement these hideous get-ups. Looking at them, one actually felt that a recommendation for a homeless shelter was in order, not accessories. What happened to tailored, flattering clothes which modestly emphasized a girl’s beauty? Alas, these seem to have vanished along with the tiara, leaving women unadorned, outside and in.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Feeding the .005 Thousand

I feel like one of the disciples after the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, picking up more in pieces afterwards than was in the original whole loaves before dinner.

Today was my turn to provide snacks for Sunday School. I went by Chesapeake Bagel and bought a baker's dozen in an assortment of flavors, and in the church kitchen--careful not to lacerate myself--cut all but one of the thirteen bagels (the thirteenth was somewhat flat) into quarters and put them out on a large tray with two tubs of cream cheese.

Usually, the appetites of the folks in the class--and there usually are between 40 and fifty folks there--are healthy, and almost all the snacks are devoured. But today, my snack co-supplier (they always double-up on the list so that if one person forgets, there will be a little something) brought three different kinds of sweet things (a crumb-cake, and two chocolate confections), and so my bagels didn't attract their ordinary audience.

At the end of the class, I swept the leftover pieces back into their bag, and took them and the two tubs of cream cheese home. My breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the next three days is taken care of. After this, I will probably not want to see another bagel for a month. Donuts, on the other hand, are a different matter. Especially if they have chocolate glaze on top.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Morality for Beautiful Girls

I am reading (via audiotape, which allows me to do other things meanwhile) the second in Alexander McCall Smith's series about the Number One Ladies Detective Agency, a book which is entitled Morality for Beautiful Girls. It's a delightful, evenly-paced story, set in Botswana (the author was born and grew up in what is now Zimbabwe, so he knows the territory). Listening to it actually makes me want to visit Botswana, which is a considerable feat, considering I have never displayed much interest in Africa vis-a-vis personal travel, though I have friends who have visited (or lived in) several countries on that enormous continent.

One of the things I appreciate about Nate (having complained about his toilet habits in a recent post, I suppose I ought to balance things out) is that he is extremely well-read. He gets all of my literary allusions, and makes an equal number himself. This is a great pleasure. I googled him and found he went to UVA and played on the rugby team there. Oh, and he does calligraphy--he borrowed my laptop yesterday to log on to his physics class homepage, and left me a beautifully-penned thank-you note.

I have borrowed Nate's digital camera so that I can take pictures of my jewelry tonight, and put together a poster for the Prelude to Spring/Valentine's Day sale that I'm doing on behalf of the Georgetown History Honor Society on February 14. I do have a lieutenant on the Society board (I'm the Graduate President) who is supposed to do the poster designs, but thus far he has done two, both of which have been less than satisfactory. So I'm going to have to do it myself if I want it done right.

Oh, for all the girls out there, I read two books which are fun, and fairly well-written, that the romantics among you might enjoy (no, I'm NOT talking "romance" novels!). The first, The Storyteller's Daughter by Cameron Dokey, is a retelling of the Shaherazad (she of 1001 nights fame) legend, and the other, Snow by Tracey Lynn, uses the Snow White tale as an inspiration and interweaves it with cloning and Dickens. The last I very much liked. Every once in a while I need to get away from Великий Новгород во второй половине XVI в. and have a little fun!