Thursday, November 30, 2006

Filler Material

I do have a few posts I've been working on, but what with the travel and the not wanting to blog, I haven't gotten to finish them. Look forward to a post on the concept of maturity, one on gender reversal (which of course assumes the existence of a gender binary, something I can't even consider having seen The Neo-Futurists' Drag) and authorship, one on sex in dystopian literature, and a sociocultural analysis of shoplifting.

Thanks for your patience. I love all sixteen of you.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Friday Poetry: Robert Hass

Robert Hass
Privilege of Being

Many are making love. Up above, the angels
in the unshaken ether and crystal of human longing
are braiding one another's hair, which is strawberry blond
and the texture of cold rivers. They glance
down from time to time at the awkward ecstasy—
it must look to them like featherless birds
splashing in the spring puddle of a bed—
and then one woman, she is about to come,
peels back the man's shut eyelids and says,
look at me, and he does. Or is it the man
tugging the curtain rope in that dark theater?
Anyway, they do, they look at each other;
two beings with evolved eyes, rapacious,
startled, connected at the belly in an unbelievably sweet
lubricious glue, stare at each other,
and the angels are desolate. They hate it. They shutter pathetically
like lithographs of Victorian beggars
with perfect features and alabaster skin hawking rags
in the lewd alleys of the novel.
All of creation is offended by this distress.
It is like the keening sound the moon makes sometimes,
rising. The lovers especially cannot bear it,
it fills them with unspeakable sadness, so that
they close their eyes again and hold each other, each
feeling the mortal singularity of the body
they have enchanted out of death for an hour so,
and one day, running at sunset, the woman says to the man,
I woke up feeling so sad this morning because i realized
that you could not, as much as i love you,
dear heart, cure my loneliness,
wherewith she touched his cheek to reassure him
that she did not mean to hurt him with this truth.
And the man is not hurt exactly,
he understands that life has limits, that people
die young, fail at love,
fail of their ambitions. He runs beside her, he thinks
of the sadness they have gasped and crooned their way out of
coming, clutching each other with old invented
forms of grace and clumsy gratitude, ready
to be alone again, or dissatisfied, or merely
companionable like the couples on the summer beach
reading magazine articles about intimacy between the sexes
to themselves, and to each other,
and to the immense, illiterate, consoling angels.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Friday Poetry: T.S. Eliot

Conventional, perhaps, but I'm in the mood.

T.S. Eliot
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

S'io credesse che mia ripsota fosse
a persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma per ciò che giammai di questo fondo
non tornò vivo alcun, s'i' odo il vero,
senza tema di'infamia ti rispondo.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question . . .
Oh, do not ask, 'What is it?'
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michaelangelo.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and itme for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michaelangelo.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, 'Do I dare?' and, 'Do I dare?'
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
(They will say: 'How his hair is growing thin!')
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to my chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
(They will say: 'But how his arms and legs are thin!')
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all—
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?

And I have known the arms already, known them all—
Arms that are braceleted adn white and bare
(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl,
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?

. . . . .

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? . . .

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

. . . . . .

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep . . . tired . . . or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet—and here's no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the procelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it towards some overhwleming question,
To say: 'I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all'—
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: 'That is not what I meant, at all,
That is not it, at all.'

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
'That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.'

. . . . . .

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be,
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

I grow old . . . I grow old . . .
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Balls to Congress

This weekend, Annie and I are having a party to kick off Balls to Congress, a silly activist idea along the Dan Savage lines born of an electric lunchtime conversation.

We're starting with the new Democrats in the House and Senate and Speaker Pelosi, along with the Democrats we favor less who voted for Patriot Act II and the Military Commissions Act. The former group will receive a package containing tennis, golf, ping-pong, basket- or footballs, along with a beautiful hand-lettered card reading, "Dear Senator [or Representative]: Welcome to Congress. Have Some Balls. Sincerely, [citizen—all packages sent anonymously]." The latter group will receive the same package, but the card will specify the offending legislation. As in, "Dear Senator: The Military Commissions Act. Next time, Have Some Balls. Sincerely, [citizen]."

The hope is to get this off the ground as a wider service. Our website is in development, but in the meantime, Email me if you know me, because you're welcome to come by this weekend, and if you don't, Email We will happily send a box to your chosen Congressperson with a customized message that is short and includes the phrase "Have Some Balls" (you're also free to use our default messages) and we'll keep you updated on future developments in our service.

Yeah, so that's the new thing.

Friday Poetry: Stevie Smith

Stevie Smith
Sunt Leones

The lions who ate the Christians on the sands of the arena
By indulging native appetites played what has now been seen a
Not entirely negligible part
In consolidating at the very start
The position of the Early Christian Church.
Initiatory rites are always bloody
And the lions, it appears
From contemporary art, made a study
Of dyeing Coliseum sands a ruddy
Liturgically sacrificial hue
And if the Christians felt a little blue—
Well people being eaten often do.
Theirs was the death, and theirs the crown undying,
A state of things which must be satisfying.
My point which up to this has been obscured
is that it was the lions who procured
By chewing up blood gristle flesh and bone
The martyrdoms on which the Church has grown.
I only write this poem because I thought it rather looked
As if the part the lions played was being overlooked.
By lions’ jaws great benefits and blessings were begotten
And so our debt to Lionhood must never be forgotten.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Pointless Milestone the Second

By another system of measurement—two days after Election Day—today is the second anniversary of this blog.

Happy alternative birthday, Third Rail Themes!

Happy the thought that at this time in two years, George W. Bush will be a lamer duck than he already is!

That is all.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Well, My Goodness: An Election Montage

The day before my eighteenth birthday, Mr. Everdell, who had taught me Modern European History the year before (and who I know will not object to the presence of his last name on this blog) took me to register to vote. A course in Modern European History with high school students obviously included extensive discussions of voting rights, including M's question, "Mr. Everdell, how can we get young people to vote?" and the long pause before Mr. Everdell's immediately post-Columbine reply "... Shoot at 'em?"; it was for this reason that I asked him to come with me. And while it's corny as all hell and I admit that openly, I will never forget the shared sense of pride as I, with poise I'd just found that year, walked up to the desk and said I wanted to register to vote: he had taught me, I had learned, and this was what I had taken from it.

Again, it's corny, but I feel that same sensation whenever I'm walking to vote. For the most part the voting is itself anticlimactic, but the feeling that I'm going to participate in a fabulous complex system with such fascinating historical precedents persists. I tend to dress up for it, with mixed results (unaware that it constituted electioneering, I wore my "lick bush in '04" T-shirt to the last presidential election; no one noticed until after my ballot had been processed, at which time I was admonished with a sharp "Button your jacket!). Walking to my polling place makes me proud. Voting is one of the only things, these days, that still makes me feel patriotic.

Democrats have the House, and may soon enough have the Senate, depending on how Virginians have taken to George Allen, erstwhile creator of this here now ad. What that means we soon will see.

When I was five, David Dinkins was elected mayor of New York City, the first black man to have such a position; it was the first election I followed, and I recall in particular the Democrats' scare ads against Dinkins's opponent, Rudy Giuliani (who would run again and win four years later) which ended with a deep, calm male voice intoning as the words appeared on the screen, "Why are people afraid of Rudy Giuliani? Because they should be." My family had supported Dinkins, and supported my somewhat hazy idea of politics: my kindergarten class was studying marine life, and the first letter I wrote to an elected official was a letter asking David Dinkins to oppose the killing of humpback whales. I then created a sign that read "Please don't kill any humpback whale" and hung it on lampposts in my own neighborhood and my grandmother's. This with the aid of my father, who was fortunately a sport about the whole thing.

Several states, including Wisconsin, voted gay marriage bans into their Constitutions. That's less good, but we'll see what it means, as well. As Tom pointed out, Alabama still has a school segregation amendment written into its Constitution, but I can't quite take that as lightly as he can, since that amendment, while overruled by Brown v. Board, still de facto works. His point that those who supported segregation held on just as vociferously when the tide was clearly turning is well-taken, but I'd add to that an examination of race in public schools today, and say that the symbolic victory, while certainly important and (I believe) inevitable, will not be all it takes.

A delightful message from T-bone last night, printed here in its entirety:
"Rick Santorum lo-ost! Rick Santorum lo-ost! Rick Santorum lo-ost! EEEEEEE! Well, that makes me wanna go have gay sex."

The first national election I followed was George H.W. Bush v. Michael Dukakis, in 1988. My family supported Dukakis, but I've no recollection of the commercials, not even the infamous Willie Horton ad. My parents had just divorced, and as my father had Tuesdays according to the custodial agreement, I went with him, as I would for all the subsequent years until I registered myself, pulling the levers on New York City's fabulously old-fashioned voting machines according to his instruction. Our polling place was a public school two blocks away, as mine is now. As we left my house, we passed my friend M's family, who was just returning from voting. I asked her whom they had voted for, and my father admonished me, "You can't ask that! That's a very personal question!" I found myself saying the same to my third-graders yesterday (one of my co-teachers was absent because she'd signed up to do pollwatching, and when we explained the reason for her absence, I proudly displayed my ballot receipt. The children asked who I voted for, pronouncing the easier name, Judy Baar Topinka, with pride [come on, none of the non-Poles among you could have said "Blagojevich" in third grade either], and I said it was a personal question that I didn't really want to answer. Strange). Once again, the outcome of the election, while in this case disappointing, led to political letter-writing: my first-grade class, studying elephants, wrote letters asking Bush to ban the trade of ivory (I have very distinct memories of learning that phrase, breaking down the meanings of each word). When he did, we all felt that same fantastic sense of contributing that I have, however misguided, when I vote.

And Britney Spears is divorcing Kevin Federline. I saw Talladega Nights last week, where NASCAR-paced marriages and divorces were parodied. It's almost not a parody anymore.

I want to make a confession here, publically—it's going to sound a little ridiculous, but I've honestly never told anyone this. I voted in neither the 2001 nor the 2002 elections, too lazy to do the paperwork of getting an absentee ballot and not nearly aware enough of local politics to change my registration from New York to Illinois. Where college made some more passionately political, I, actively political through middle and high school, became more apathetic. I confess this in light of the fact that I was a jerk to several friends before this election in pressuring them to vote, and I regret being a jerk, though I do not regret the pressure. I've the feeling I made a difference in a couple of cases, and the content was therefore right-on. But the form could've been much, much better. And those friends were therefore courageous in telling me they were even thinking of not voting, something I four years ago had nowhere near the guts to do.

There are, as of last night/this morning, now 49 Republican governors and 51 Democratic governors in the United States, which is interesting. From my childhood and adolesence as a New Yorker, I'm a particular fan of new governor Eliot Spitzer (I remember my father waking me up to inform me that George Pataki had won the gubernatorial election the first time he did, the only political depression I can remember even vaguely comparing to Bush the Second's win in '04), while Blagojevich's reelection, here in IL, gives me mixed feelings. I am impressed and pleased with the 11% win for Green candidate Rich Whitney, and am hoping the national laws about third-party funding apply in Illinois, as well. But Blagojevich *is* solid on the health care—I actually believe, based on his previous actions, that he can deliver socialized medicine for the state—and his lieutenant governor, Pat Quinn, is solid on environmental issues. Living in Chicago, one can only have a limited amount of scruples regarding the sleaziness of politicians. They built this city. I'm disappointed that Tammy Duckworth seems to have narrowly lost her Congressional campaign, and impressed that she got it as far as she did.

I can imagine not having the right to vote. The scary thing is it would be something of a relief on one hand, in that I wouldn't have to feel such responsibility for my connection to my leaders. I mean, I didn't elect Bush, but My Fellow Voters did. It would certainly be a frightening way to live, in that I wouldn't know where to start when I thought of changing things, because it would be a much more terrifying prospect. I don't even know if, assuming I lived under a somewhat benevolent dictatorship, I would feel the need to. Voting is, after all, pretty easy, all things considered. Even in Ohio.

Lincoln Chafee lost in Rhode Island, which leads to another interesting question: will the newly Democratized Congress be able to get rid of the Military Commissions Act? Will anyone try?

I have some hope. Not a lot, but enough. The Democrats haven't proven themselves strong recently; I imagine a substantive number of the votes cast were cast for Not Republicans. Let's see if they take up the challenge to create self-definition.

Monday, November 06, 2006


I've gotten involved in serial writing lately. I suppose one could consider it a resurgence. Among my first chapter books, beloved for years, were the Bunnicula books by James Howe. I read the Baby-Sitters Club books voraciously from approximately ages eight to twelve, with other tween serials (Sweet Valley Twins, Friends 4-Ever, Sleepover Friends, Animal Inn) taking a secondary role in my library habits. As I worked my way into young adult books, I read some novels and their sequels, in particular Caroline B. Cooney's The Face on the Milk Carton and Whatever Happened to Janie? Then at age thirteen I moved on to adult novels, rejecting childlike reading habits as vociferously as I could in public, and my favorite books have been for years books that don't allow sequels. But I've once more grown attached. Some of the serials I've read have been adult books, but I've also started to read young adult serials again, including Cooney's two follow-ups to the aformentioned novels. Spoilers today are those books, Cynthia Voigt's Tillerman cycle, Frank McCourt's three personal narratives (Angela's Ashes, 'Tis, and Teacher Man), J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series and the Xenogenesis and Parable serials by Octavia E. Butler.

In film, the sequel is more often than not a marketing tool. If an idea sold well enough the first time around, and there's more money for it, go forth. There are exceptions—the original Star Wars trilogy leaps to mind as an example, and I know Connor's going to push Pirates of the Caribbean, though I'm not sure I agree—but In particular sets of children's books, as well, smaller-scale empires have been built on unnecessary sequels (what, exactly, is the difference between giving a moose a muffin, giving a pig a pancake, and giving a mouse a cookie?); a series of books tends more towards demonstrating that a life is not made of a single journey, but being invested enough in a character or set of characters to chronicle several journeys through time.

Why do we need that? To examine the concept, I should look first at the most popular serial around, Harry Potter. Certainly, the books have flaws in abundance: stupid jokes, a completely male power structure (McGonagall and Hermione aren't the same: the plot movers and shakers, those who wield genuine power in the books and embody extremes of good and evil, are male), unwavering acceptance of the capitalist system in the magical world, an excess of adverbs (I know I'm guilty of this sin as well, but Rowling takes the cake), the convenient ability of climactic events to occur consistently at the end of the school year. And there's the fact that the arc of the series overall, as we await the seventh book with bated breath, is focused on a singular climactic event, everything else in some way just waiting or preparing for it. I mean, we know Harry will cause Voldemort's demise, if with some sort of twist that, Rowling being who she is, I'm not prepared to anticipate. But nevertheless, this event, however climactic and obvious, requires Harry's maturity, and requires the reader's investment in Harry's maturity over time. While some of Harry's character traits seem to be constants—honor, courage and the like—he's a kid and a teenager who makes stupid kid/teenager mistakes that change his life, and that he's able to take into his life. Each book requires the previous book, not simply for exposition but for the cumulative experience of its characters. We see the changes even in minor characters over time, see how peripheral events can become more central and important as the characters age. The Harry Potter books work because a changed Harry changes the way that events transpire; thus, even though they all conveniently occur at the end of the school year, every battle is not the same.

That last is ultimately the failing of Cooney's extended serial. Cooney's first two books, for example, accomplish this skillfully; whatever we think of her often-overblown voice, she creates two distinct journeys—first Janie's discovery of her past and decision about how to confront it, then her loss of her old family and forced acceptance of the new, and how she reacts to that—and we see a character grow up and change through both of them. She unfortunately loses this skill in her two follow-ups, The Voice on the Radio and What Janie Found; while certainly some minor characters are a bit more developed, the latter two books ask the same fundamental question as Whatever Happened to Janie? and offer the exact same answer. We're examining the same characters too much in too short a period of time, and they seem stuck on repeat. It's true, Janie cannot find Hannah, who kidnapped her and delivered her to Hannah's own unknowing parents, who raised the child they thought was Hannah's as their own; it's true that no one can ever be completely happy with the results of this peculiar situation; it's true they'll have to make peace with the confusion. Seriously, we got it after Whatever Happened to Janie?

Frank McCourt's 'Tis has almost the opposite problem—spanning too much time without enough specificity. In spite of its overblown introductory paragraphs and occasional preciousness, Angela's Ashes has been for years and will remain one of my favorite books ever, in the universe, ever. Even having travelled to Ireland and having seen conflicts in the country's literati (far less exclusive than here, as I understand it) around the book, the belief that McCourt attempted to render his misery cutesy and marketable, to pastoralize poverty, I'm still the ninth-grader assigned to read it as part of her school production of O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars, and suddenly felt herself transported and overwhelmed by the beauty and wisdom. I wanted to be Irish for at least a year based on that experience. That romanticization, of course, might be exactly what the Irish literati object to, but then again I was prone to romanticizing suffering on my own then. Anyway, it's strange for me to consider what Angela's Ashes has that 'Tis hasn't, because both of them span equal amounts of time—the former McCourt's childhood until the age of nineteen, when he left Ireland for America, the latter McCourt's adulthood, from his arrival until his burgeoning teaching career. I believe what Angela's Ashes has is the use of memory, the use of form. It doesn't attempt to create a coherent, storylike arc, it's a collection of memories and remembered times, each of which, or strings of which, contain traditional story arcs. 'Tis attempts to make adulthood into a journey towards one thing, and what that thing is I'm not even sure of. But then again, McCourt's first book can rely upon the standard formula of coming-of-age, which is itself an established journey. We're much less experienced, in our culture, at writing and reading journeys through adulthood, particularly when the journey does not stop at marriage and leave the assumption of happily ever after. Teacher Man, McCourt's third book, while another autobiographical work focuses on one very specific journey: the journey to being happy with the job of teaching. McCourt's personal life, so combed over in 'Tis, takes a backseat to his stories of teaching and its impact on him in the world. You require Angela's Ashes to understand or care about 'Tis; there's no such requirement for Teacher Man. If you read it first, you might wonder what it would be like to hear more about this miserable childhood he tells his students about; you could then find Angela's Ashes and say "Oh! Wow!" 'Tis, however, is not a particularly interesting story unless you know it's the story of the boy in Angela's Ashes.

That, then, presents an interesting contradiction: that books in a serial must both exist on their own, as independent works of art, and be useful to one another. Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis and Parable serials, I think, reach this balance. I say this in part because I read Parable of the Talents long before I read the first book, Parable of the Sower, but overall Xenogenesis (published now as Lilith's Brood) stands as the better example. Each of the three books takes a different central character: Dawn is the story of Lilith, the first human chosen to made with the ever-evolving alien Oankali; Adulthood Rites follows Akin, one of Lilith's first children, in his desire to help some humans, even on the postapocalyptic Earth, remain untouched by interbreeding with the Oankali; Imago is the story of Jodahs, the first "construct" (part-human, part-Oankali) to become ooloi, the Oankali's third sex. Each of these characters is developed, each story substantiated. Certainly there's some uniformity to Butler's characters, some traits she's incapable of telling a story without—stubbornness, imprudent curiosity, conviction—but the stories stand on their own. Lilith's story informs Akin's, but it's his own; the exposition is both thorough and subtle enough to make each book its own world, but the events of a later book, as with Harry Potter would not be able to happen without the events of the earlier.

There is a distinction to be made between serials that all work from the point of view of one character and those that work from a group, people surrounding a person, family, or event. The Xenogenesis is the latter, the McCourt and Rowling books the former. Cynthia Voigt's Tillerman Cycle lies somewhere between the two. The first type has one natural advantage: a writer by nature invested in character development can depend on the information from previous books coming through as the character changes. And yet McCourt doesn't succeed here, and Butler, who takes the latter on admirably in the Xenogenesis books, doesn't quite pull off the former in the Parable novels. While it's true that the character of Asha has many uses other than exposition—she's the first, and really the only, credible character to call Lauren Olamina into question in either book—Butler exploits her to that end, not trusting that the information about Earthseed can really spring from Olamina herself. Most of the kid and teen serials tend to fall into the latter category—as I recall, all of the early Sleepover Friends books were narrated by Lauren, but Susan Saunders eventually saw the error of her ways and turned the first-person narration in some books over to Kate, Stephanie and Patti. The advantage of the second type of serial is evident there: you're not repeating information when each character has a different take on said information. All the kid serials sound uniform after they've reached a certain critical mass, the individual voices fading—who could distinguish one character's Chapter 2 or 3 in a Baby-Sitters Club book from another's?—but a serial with multiple perspectives allows more generous, and more useful, repetition of the same event.

Voigt's series, then, strikes an interesting balance. The first two books of the seven, Homecoming and Dicey's Song, are written in the third-person limited (the serial never uses first person) voice of Dicey Tillerman, who at thirteen (in Homecoming) leads herself and her three younger siblings on a journey to find their new home when their mentally ill mother abandons them, and once they have found that home (in Dicey's Song) has to figure herself and her ability to love out in a new world. While the Tillermans and their friends age through the novels, the next four books take on characters connected to Dicey in some way—her boyfriend Jeff in A Solitary Blue, examining the life that led him to his unshakable love for Dicey and how he becomes himself before and after this love; her uncle Bullet, who died in Vietnam shortly after Dicey was born, in The Runner, showing what his life and that of his mother (Dicey's Gram) under his father's harsh discipline and lifestyle; Mina Smiths, Dicey's best friend, in Come a Stranger, learning to accept the reality of racial prejudice directed against her as an African American and learning to harness and use the power of her love and intelligence; and Dicey's brothers, James and Sammy, searching for their elusive father and learning to see each other in Sons from Afar—but it is not until we have met and learned to understand the perspectives of all these characters that we return to the enigmatic Dicey in the last book, Seventeen Against the Dealer. Each novel stands on its own, though Seventeen Against the Dealer has the most difficult time doing so. While it does tell a story, of the quick failure of Dicey's boatbuilding business, its real point is that even Dicey's endlessly demonstrated competence and confidence, even the love and support of the wonderful, complex people we have met in the other novels, cannot make living and aging and learning at all avoidable. It may make it easier, but it will still come at you. Without having known the younger Dicey—or, for that matter, the younger Jeff, who also figures prominently in the last book—this conclusion doesn't mean nearly as much.

So again we hit a weird balance. The story of each book must itself matter and be able to stand on its own as a work of art, or it's just not very good work in the first place. But at the same time, the books need their connection to one another, or they wouldn't be a serial. A & E's Biography series (a TV series is a whole other matter in some ways, not so in others) claims that "Every life has a story." What a good serial demonstrates is that, as we traditionally define "story," a journey with a beginning, middle, and an end, every life has thousands. While the stories of my family life will always reflect on me as an individual, I can meet and have a relationship with you without having you know my entire familial narrative. Still that narrative, within me, will play a role in dictating how I behave. It's that contradiction that exists in a serial and, really, as a reader and a human, a pretty nifty thing to know, embrace, and try to understand.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Pointless Milestone

By one system of measurement, the one that looks at actual dates, this blog is two years old today.

Happy Birthday, Third Rail Themes!

That is all.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Food for Thought

And by "thought," I mean "fear."

Yes, it's paranoid, and sensationalistic. But it's also genuinely scary and worth thinking about.

Grants self permission to grant more power to self, indeed. But there is a whole machine behind all this, or several.

What happens in the next two years? Or, you know, six or eight or all of them?

Friday Poetry: Sharon Olds

Sharon Olds
I Go Back to May 1937

I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,
I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks with the
wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips black in the May air,
they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,
they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are
innocent, they would never hurt anybody.
I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don't do it—she's the wrong woman,
he's the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you never heard of,
you are going to want to die. I want to go
up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it,
her hungry pretty blank face turning to me,
her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
his arrogant handsome blind face turning to me,
his pitiful beautiful untouched body,
but I don't do it. I want to live. I
take them up like the male and female
paper dolls and bang them together
at the hips like chips of flint as if to
strike sparks from them, I say
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


I haven't been down with the blogging so much lately, due to a combination of too much theater and just not feeling like it. I'll be back, since I still have a whole lotta pieces unfinished. But I wanted to take a brief peek at thoughts on midterm elections. Connor and Milligan have been doing an excellent job with organizing midterm thoughts, and Tom is printing some fascinating letters and thoughts about the proposed constitutional anti-gay marriage amendment (it took me a long time to figure out in what order those words should go) in Wisconsin.

As for myself, I still need to check out Vote for Judges to figure out the more minor-league, less publicized, in many salient ways more important issues. Jahred and I might go around knocking on doors on the afternoon of Election Day, assuming I vote before I go teach (vote on the North Side, teach on the South, the latter being where Jahred lives). I've never done that, and it sounds like it could be fun; I had my head too far up my ass and was too ambivalent about our Mr. Kerry to do it in '04. The whole Kerry joke debacle, by the by, is rather hilarious in some ways and poignantly sad in others. If he has this in him, maybe he could actually have been a good president. If he'd showed some of this side in, say, 2003, I might have genuinely wanted to support him, rather than voting ABB. I like the vicious, I like the direct, and I like the articulate. There's actually some spirit behind the words, some real thought and no dodging. But it's just—I mean, not all of it, but the lack of dodging part of it—because it's trendy, because one can now attack Bush without the press backlash there would have been in '03. The prepackaged response of John McCain, lapsed iconoclast, is also amusing to me. I kind of long for the days when I could respect McCain, believing he really voted his views, allowing me to maintain more ambivalence about party lines. These days, while it's the rare Democrat I'm wild about, I can muster up no respect for any Republican except Lincoln Chafee, R-RI, about whom I know nothing except that he was the sole Republican to vote against the Military Commissions Act.

Overall, I want the Democrats to take back Congress in a lesser-of-two-evils fashion. There's an episode of The Simpsons where Maggie, Bart and Lisa pursue a pink elephant balloon through the Democratic and Republican National Conventions: among the signs in the former are "We Can't Govern" and among the signs in the latter "We're Just Plain Evil." But I do have a concern, namely, that the next president is absolutely, inevitably fucked. He/she will have no choice but to spend his/her entire term attempting to undo what the Bush Administration has done, making him/her inevitably a one-term president. (I've an urge to use the transgender pronouns, ze and hir, here, since it would be way easier, but it would be misleading. We've a ways to go before a transperson, at least an out transperson, takes office. But please, let's all take a moment to imagine what would happen if a respected senator's or president's transsexuality was revealed after ze was elected. Fascinating as a case study, rough in every way on the politician.) In all likelihood, the party tied to that president in Congress is equally fucked. Therefore, I'd just as soon the fucked party be the one that's just plain evil (but makes for better television). However, if the Democrats take the majority, they might not automatically lead to a Democratic president.

I also really, really do not want Barack Obama to run in '08. For several reasons. One is the obvious: he's not ready, his lack of public political record would make the holes in his campaign glaringly obvious, and the Democrats will have played their best hand too soon. Second is that we'll need him more when he can actually do something in office besides clean up the Bush administration's messes. Third is that, because the next president is so inevitably one-term and so inevitably fucked, I want to discourage symbolic victories. I know that sounds awful, but I think it's worth it to avoid long-term harm. The next president will not have a decent legacy, because Americans have no perspective (the irony is that had W. been a one-term president, he probably would have gone down in history as a good leader, with Kerry blamed for the mess he left behind). And it's an unfortunate truth that we're so controlled by white male normativity that in the public eye one famous white woman is Women (not even White Women, so entrenched is said normativity), one black man Black Men. If Barack Obama, in 2008, as the first black president, has a miserable single term, it will take a long time for it to stop reflecting on Black Men who run in the future. The same goes for Hillary Clinton, methinks.

Our normativity amazes me. I was in Ireland when the water-bottle terrorist threat went down, and therefore watched its aftermath on the BBC. And on the BBC, several Muslim MPs were interviewed for perspective on the threat and the Raed-Jarrar-esque incidents that people were confident would ensue. All I could think was, "Muslim MP? Muslim MPs, plural?" Britain, a nation whose history is at least as racially fraught as that of the United States, maintains a diversity in its representitve government that the United States, in its "representative" government, can barely hope to reach. While I recognize that racial and gender diversity does not necessarily constitute diversity of thought, and that my knowledge of contemporary British politics is limited at best, the fact is that diversity of background does matter, and symbol does matter to a distanced national audience, all the more so in a nation as large and sprawling as the United States. The government represents Us; that any number of communities and populations in the United States cannot see themselves represented in that Us, or that normative (normativized?) populations don't see their neighbors represented as part of Us would reasonably lead to a more segregated nation. And it is this segregated, normative nation that would see one failed female or black president as a failure for the race or gender, if not entirely consciously.

Can we fight that, and should we fight that upfront? Yes, and yes. Would/will Barack Obama's presidency itself, whatever the quality or reception of his term(s) in office, make a difference for black Americans, for Americans of color in general? I don't know. I hope so. But there is a lot to fight, thousands of routes we need to pursue, and Barack Obama is capable of remaining a superstar whether he runs in 2008 or not; to put it off for four years will not do harm to his political career, at least not the inevitable harm that a presidential run and even a presidential win would, in my view, do. I want him in office in 2012 (or 2016 at the latest), and think he's capable of making it happen. But he's good enough that we as liberals, we as a nation, bloody well ought to milk him for all he's worth.

I'm worried that the way I'm thinking is caving, and that I as an entitled white woman have no place deciding whether someone's run is worth it or not. But Hillary Clinton's an entitled white woman too, and I'm equally worried about her possible campaign for the same reasons as I am about Obama's, I just think Obama's overall a better candidate in that he'd make a better president. Is it okay for me to speak about one and not the other? Well, that conversation is a separate post. Taking as a given, for the time, that my line of thought is racially acceptable, is it caving? A revolutionary would think so, but I long ago accepted that I am not a revolutionary. My goal as a political thinker is to merge radicalism with pragmatism, acknowledging that the two are contradictory (shout-out to Tyromaven). I want a president who could radicalize the office, and of the candidates mentioned above Barack Obama is far and away the most likely to have that ability. But I don't think anyone could overcome the obstacles left for the president arriving in '08, hence the pragmatism. Deploying bombs at random, however many people they kill, is not revolutionary in itself. Strategy matters. (And what do we have here, ladies and gentlemen? FORM AND CONTENT!) Electing the right president at the wrong time is not itself a good political move, because it would make him/her inevitably the wrong president.

And the characters in Urinetown sing back and forth: "But what of tomorrow?" "But what of today?"

The caveat, of course, is that my thinking here would as likely as not saddle us with four years of John McCain. And yes-man that he has become, our dear Mr. McCain might well continue down some of Bush's darker alleys. I've been saying the Republicans, for themselves, would be wisest to run a straw man in '08, but saying that operates on the assumption that they don't want to continue the policies of the Bush administration. And in all likelihood they do; they just wouldn't want them approached in quite the same way. McCain could handle that. And for that reason I would want a Democrat in '08. But Hillary as a one-termer would do a lot of harm to female politicians, particularly presidential hopefuls, and no one else has the star power to combat McCain. Except perhaps Barack Obama.

Well, damn.

Vote on November 7. That is all.