Exploring where life and story meet!

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Strange bedfellows

Upon our recent vacation, I had the chance to read five books given me by a certain literary sister, and after perusing them, I thought it would be great fun to review them.  Four of the books were written by Georgette Heyer and were my first introduction to that lady's work.  The other was called, 'Shh, We Have a Plan' by Chris Haughton.  What do four regency romance novels have to do with a child's board book?  Absolutely nothing!  Which is what makes this review so much fun.

I am a huge Jane Austen fan; I enjoy all her books, but Pride and Prejudice is by far my favorite.  I have read various sequels and adaptations over the years, but nothing has come close, a most are downright pathetic.  Georgette Heyer is assumed by many to be Austen's heir and has written over 40 books, many taking place during the Regency period of England in which Austen's books are set.  This was my first exposure to her work; I've seen her books around, indeed they are ubiquitous, but I never bothered to pick one up.  My sister loaned me four of her favorites and I actually had a little time on our trip, so why not?

Heyer is a gifted writer, there are some very amusing scenes, intriguing characters, interesting plots, and the dialogue is upbeat, at least in the first book.  The problem is, all of her books are the same!  I won't bother listing the titles as it really doesn't matter.  She has basically boiled Pride and Prejudice down to its constituent parts then fleshes out the bare bones with slightly varying details, but it quickly grows old and none of her books are of the same caliber as Austen's classic.  They are an amusing, fluffy read on vacation, but nothing I am going to put on my shelf to read over again.

Heyer in a nutshell: a rich, fashionable man, bored and cynical of women in particular and life in general (he must dress perfectly, wear very shiny hessian boots, have an immaculate neckcloth, and drive a team to precision) meets a comely lady, who is the only female on the planet not out to win his hand.  He is intrigued by said damsel, or perhaps by the novelty of a woman not immediately in love with him, and they fall into some sort of scrape or adventure together and he eventually proposes. She must inevitably refuse his offer of marriage at least once because she cannot imagine he actually loves her.  After about 10 more pages, the misunderstanding is corrected and she accepts him and the book ends.  The heroine of course must be virtuous, intrepid, and have an arch sense of humor, but she is not grasping nor does she think very highly of herself, yet she must be confident and just in her dealings with all others.

Strange as it may sound, some of my favorite books are actually composed of fewer than 10 pages and 100 words.  I had a few favorite books from my childhood but was in no way a connoisseur of children's literature, but now having kids means I get a second chance to peruse this oft overlooked genre.  I was delighted by Sandra Boynton and enjoy many of the 'Little Critter' books immensely, though I am having second thoughts about Dr. Seuss in my waning years.  Many children's books are either dull or focused too much on educational matters or are dumbed down to the point of insult; a good children's story is none of these.  This little book was absolutely delightful!

The long and the short of it: we'll be reading 'Shh, We Have a Plan,' for years to come.  If you've read one Heyer regency romance, you've read them all.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

On inconveniences and adventures

~An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.
 An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.~  
~G.K. Chesterton~

I was supposed to be learning about highly important, scientific type things, instead I took home something far more profound, or at least sort of interesting.  It was one of those conferences where you don't dare address anyone as 'doctor' or else you'll have fifty people suddenly looking expectantly in your direction; where you cram 87 hours of learning into three days and wonder why your brain hurts so much you don't even bemoan the fact that even though you are in Florida or Guam, you don't have time to enjoy the tourist attractions because you have to go home tomorrow and spent the entire trip in a dark, freezing room staring at a screen whereon a can of alphabet soup exploded.  Most of my continuing education requirements must be of a scientific or medical nature, but they let you slip in a few 'general' hours now and again, I think merely to spare our sanity.  This particular lecture happened to deal with the nature of happiness and it was rather fascinating.  What struck me were the things on the list that did or did not correlate with happiness, most especially children.  Apparently, in general, married people are happier but people with kids aren't.  That struck me as rather odd.  But then there is that scary blog written by despairing mothers everywhere, maybe I'm a statistical anomaly or maybe we moderns just have this whole kid thing backwards, much like G.K's quote above.

I'm not saying kids are easy, but life is sure more 'full' once they come into your life; they somehow round out or complete your family in a way that can't be put into words.  Maybe it is because suddenly, there is someone in the world who is (or should be) more important than you, and it is in doing things that are meaningful that we find happiness, or so the speaker assured us.  Maybe our problem is, similar to our warped expectations of marriage, that we wrongly expect kids to somehow automatically fulfill or complete us: they are a possession or a status symbol, no different than a pet or a car, and we resent them when they interfere with our idea of a 'good life.'  They will spill spaghetti on your plush, white carpet.  They will 'urp' all over your favorite blouse.  And you can't sell them or take them to the humane society when they become inconvenient.  But as G.K. so magnificently points out: inconveniences are merely overlooked adventures.  Are they annoying, loud, disrespectful, and stubborn, of course!  But then, so are you, and every other human on the planet. We also forget that they are fun, hilarious, sweet, and adventurous, and with a little luck, some of that might just rub off on their parents.

As I said goodbye to my son this morning, he said something that both thrilled and broke my heart, it was simply, 'come back.'  To most people that might not be a big deal, but growing up in a home where I was neither loved nor wanted, it was the most wonderful thing in the world.  I was needed, I was wanted, I was loved, I had a home at last!  I think G.K. was right, and the world would be a whole lot happier if we took his advice.  Who knows, kids might just be the biggest adventure of all!   

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

There and back again

That which we most desire is that from which we are most fervently fleeing; we spend our whole lives looking for the one thing we thought to leave behind when we went out to see what life holds for us.  What is this mysterious, most desired of objects?  This terrifying yet wonderful thing?  Every human heart, above all else yearns for Home.  Not a certain house or condominium, not a specific country or city, but rather that place, be it cave or mansion, wherein we are accepted and loved for who we are (not what we have done or will do) and can be ourselves without fear.  But it is the one thing modern society most abhors, for therein we cannot bow any longer before the sacred shrine of Me, but must rather consort and fraternize with others, sometimes sacrificing our immediate wants and desires for the good and benefit of others, as they in turn do on occasion for us.  But fear not, modern convenience has done away with all such necessity.  Just turn on your 'device' and enter a world away from the dull and demanding plebs that make up your immediate household; join your virtual family and ignore those of flesh and blood.

Your virtual friends understand, they like you for who you are, they speak your language, they never ask you to clean your room or turn down your music, that's what a family should be!  Except, when you need them most, when that moment of crisis or grief or tragedy comes unexpectedly upon you, where are they?  It is a tale older than the internet, older even than the printing press, old as man himself.  We think we know better, we think the world holds something better for us, and we do need to leave home one day and establish our own life, but it won't look anything like the one I had growing up, no sir!  It will be different, it will be better: exciting, interesting, I'll do whatever I want when I want!  And after all our wanderings and failed experiments and dead ends, eventually we come to the strange realization that what we thought we wanted we don't really want after all and what we truly desire most we already had but left it scornfully behind us.  Such is the tale of lost Eden and the Prodigal Son; it is the whole history of Israel and of man himself.

There is a pattern for human happiness and thriving, eventually the wanderer does come stumbling home in the dead of night after much misery, disappointment, and sorrow, and knows he would have been wiser to have stayed there in the first place.  But our hearts yearn after something and we go forth seeking it, only to find it is nothing this world can provide and that it must come to us, and may well do so with never so reckless a faring forth, if only we are wise enough to hear its whispered call.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Of gourds and men...

I love the scene in the Return of the King movie after the hobbits have returned home from their grand adventures and they are sitting around a table in the local pub waiting for Frodo to bring their drinks, but he nearly collides with an aged, grumpy hobbit bearing an enormous pumpkin.  After being appropriately berated for his clumsiness, he returns successfully to his friends while everyone else in the overcrowded tavern oohs and aahs over the squash, ignoring our heroes, who truly have had adventures over which the plebs might appropriately gush and fawn, rather than wasting their efforts on an obese gourd.  Sometimes I feel that scene is a perfect metaphor for all of modern life, especially as exemplified by social media.  But ironically, we suddenly have the whole world at our fingertips yet we are as clueless and naive as any hobbit that's never been further from home than a day's walk.

People go on and on about their cat or their new love interest (the third one this month) or their kid's stubbed toe or the upcoming preschool graduation and what adorable outfit Maggie Sue is going to wear.  I might perhaps be a heartless cad, but really, don't you have anything more interesting or important to obsess over?  But of course!  Did you hear the latest news out of Hollywood?  Never mind, what was that you were saying about your cat?

I feel like those hobbits sometimes: strangers in their own hometown.  They ventured forth into a larger world; their eyes were opened to greater things.  And here they sit, surrounded by squash enthusiasts.  I have nothing against cats or obsessive parents or the excitement of a new relationship, but contrary to popular belief, the world does not revolve around you (or your cat or whatever), and I'd like to talk about something else for a bit.  Books?  No, I haven't read Fifty Shades of Gray and would much rather open the phonebook at random and begin memorizing; let's get back to your cat.  The internet and social media were supposed to expand our horizons and make us more aware of and sensitive towards others, instead it has allowed each of us to erect our own little parthenon in which to enshrine ourselves as little gods.  There's an old saying about 'too many cooks spoil the broth,' I wonder what too many 'gods' will do to the culture?

So there our hobbits sit, knowing they are small fish in a big pond while all their neighbors think themselves big fish in a rather small pond.  Personally, I'd rather have room to swim!

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Abba, Father

God is mean.  If He really loved me, He'd let me do whatever I want!  I know what's best for me, I know what I need, I know who I am.  If He was really a loving God, He'd let me do what I know is best for me.

I seem to have heard such an argument before, but rather it involves a being called 'mommy' and the offended party just reached the sagacious age of three.  When I hear the same arguments out of the mouths of grown adults, I no longer wonder at Paul writing some of his letters to 'spiritual infants.'  I think part of our problem, as a culture, understanding God is because we no longer understand what it is to have or be parents.  Reading just about anything on parenting on social media, various blogs, or websites is enough to make me want to become Amish!  We want our kids to like us, to be our friends, to succeed no matter what, to never hurt or deal with the negative aspects of life, to basically be happy all the time or they are a burden, a nuisance, an obstruction to 'my' self-fulfillment.  Both views are utterly selfish and harmful to our children.  No wonder we misunderstand our Heavenly Father.

True love demands what is best for the beloved, not for the lover or that the beloved necessarily be 'happy' at that precise moment.  Kids need discipline, boundaries, and to take responsibility for their actions; they also need love, security, and a chance to take risks and to be allowed to fail.  You do not help your toddler by giving in to his tantrums for more sweets, but rather by teaching him that there is a time and a place for treats and that he will not die for want of them.  Perhaps when God says 'no' or 'wait' when we demand a certain blessing, He has a very good reason for it, one that we cannot yet comprehend or see.  He's not mean, He's just a good parent.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Ivory Tower of Babel

I've always known academians were either a little desperate or crazy or whacked or something, but I finally have solid proof.  I spent eight years working my way up the collegiate ladder and along the way met many a Ph.D. or students anxious to be in possession of one.  The problem is, to get such a degree, you must write a VERY long paper on something that has never been written upon before, which in the hard sciences (biology, chemistry…) is not so awful as there are always new and interesting details to research in depth, but in the soft sciences (literature, art…) it is much more difficult as most of the interesting/useful topics have been taken.  So they usually end up researching something like Dr. Suess' favorite color and how it influenced his relationship with his uncle or something ridiculous like that.  The problem with this approach is that we have a lot of time, money, and effort going into things that either make no sense or have no practical purpose in real life.  This explains why many Ph.D's can't hold a real conversation: they've spent so long on their specific topic that they can talk and think of nothing else and sadly, no one else on the planet cares.  I've had professors lecture for hours on an obscure encephalitis of horses in Switzerland (their thesis topic) and completely gloss over diseases I see and treat every day; I have treated far too much parvovirus but have never yet seen a case of Borna Virus, but guess what we learned about in school?

My ultimate proof of the futility of many doctoral degrees was the result of an investigation I did regarding a children's book, yes, it was that important.  We read 'Goodnight Moon' every so often, as many a parent with small children has before us, and in one of the drawings, there is a painting in the background with a fly fishing bunny catching another bunny and I thought it looked very familiar, so I did the only sensible thing and googled it.  The picture appears in another book by the same author called 'Runaway Bunny' which apparently I had once read or looked at some years ago.  Mystery solved, or so I thought.  I started reading further on the Wikipedia site and found a reference to some work ascribing an Oedipus Complex to 'Goodnight Moon' and its companion books.  Am I the only person that thinks this is getting kind of weird?  It is a kid's book, I don't think it was written with all these subliminal messages about the human psyche!  Just read the book, tuck the kids in bed, and get a life!

I remember something of Oedipus from my mythology class in high school but had to go back and look him up to figure out what this article was going on about.  He's the guy that killed his father and married his mother (unknowingly, as he was supposed to be dead and was raised by people who were not his biological parents).  So basically an Oedipus Complex is when you have 'a thing' for your mom.  And where exactly do you find that in 'Goodnight Moon?'  Is there an official complex for people that read way too much into a children's story?  This is what happens when literature doesn't mean anything anymore, I think they call it deconstructionism.  The story doesn't mean what the author thinks it means, rather it means whatever the reader thinks it means.  Huh?  As a writer, I definitely take offense at that.  I don't write gibberish, I try very hard to express exactly what I want to express, but apparently I am either not educated enough or sophisticated enough to realize that I cannot possibly mean what I think I mean, rather I mean whatever a particular reader thinks I mean?  Doesn't this kind of kill communication?  How on earth do these people have a conversation or maintain any sort of relationship: he said X which probably means X but I take it to mean Y because I think he should have meant Y.  We might as well speak two separate languages!

I think I'll just enjoy the book at face value and let the academians argue amongst themselves about its deeper meaning.  "Goodnight noises everywhere!"

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Of wanderers and vagrants

Stranger, pilgrim, sojourner, wanderer, gypsy, and vagrant, all perfect words to describe how I'm starting to feel in this modern world.  Tolkien famously penned, 'not all who wander are lost,' and while I've always been enchanted by the phrase, I begin to understand and appreciate it more and more.  It is from his 'Lord of the Rings' books and refers to Aragorn, or Strider as he is ignominiously known, the uncrowned King who has spent his entire life living as an exile and gypsy in his own Kingdom.  I just don't 'get' modern culture, I never have.  I'll happily lose myself in an old book, but get strangely bored with anything written much after 1935.  Television and movies rarely hold my interest, and I travel in very tight circles on the inter web.  Is it me that's boring or has the whole world become dull?

I suppose boring is not the correct phrase, mundane would be far more appropriate and as it stems from the latin for 'world' it neatly answers my question as well.  The preferred pleasures of the modern world really hold little interest for me and I find myself an alien in my own country, whose people cannot discuss anything deeper than pop culture, a language I do not speak.  The virtues have become passive rather than active: the modern good is not to cheat on a math test versus once it meant helping an old lady with her grocery bags.  Or worse, character has come to mean 'are the opinions I hold socially acceptable,' i.e.: do you recycle, eat organic, or practice/agree with whatever the current conscientious fad is.  The highest 'good' is my own pleasure rather than the welfare of others.  We are all of us becoming conformists to a strange and ever changing list of high social ideals, at which the merest hint of dissent is greeted with cries of outrage and vitriol.  We are not allowed to think or reason or discuss, but must merely conform.  And it is incredibly dull.

So we obsess over the lives of fictional characters because our own have no 'flair.'  A hang nail becomes a crisis of international proportions when appropriately worded on social media.  Life's a party we are told but everyone is a stranger and no one is quite sure what we're celebrating, or why.  We now have so many 'celebratory moments' that none of them are really special.  How many times does a modern kid 'graduate' from preschool, kindergarten…before they actually graduate from high school?  Do we really need another party to find out if your baby is a boy or a girl, odds are pretty good it is one or the other.  Does anybody else feel like they woke up one morning in one of those weird parallel life movies: it is your life but it isn't?  It feels sort of like Disneyland: smile, even if you don't feel like it or you're fired.  Yeah, those fake smiles really boost the spirits, don't they?  We're all 'happy' on the outside but miserable on the inside, but if we keep busy enough no one will notice.

Everyone is looking for authenticity, the 'real thing,' all natural, back to basics, you get the idea, but when every box of inedible prepackaged frosting-injected spongecake and all those parts of the chicken that they won't even put into dog food but will happily convert into dinosaur shaped breaded patties for juvenile human consumption bear the label, 'all natural,' you really start to wonder what exactly that means.  Every city I visit is exactly the same, it doesn't matter what state or climate we're in, they all have the exact same mishmash of stores, restaurants, and entertainment venues.  Every house is beige and every car is a too small, eco-friendly whatever.

I tend to visit a certain mommy blog on occasion, just to see what the 'cultural norm' is for parenting nowadays, and had I not already had kids, I don't think I'd have any.  Apparently there are only 2 kinds of parents in the world: those who live vicariously through their kids and 'it is the end of the world if Jeffie writes his C's backwards at 2, how is he ever going to get into Harvard!' parents or the 'it was sort of an accident or I thought they'd be cute or something' parents who can do nothing but complain about how much kids mess up their lives: 'I can't even go to the bar when I want to!'  Both of these examples are just an extension of our larger cultural problem: we are looking for fulfillment and purpose and meaning in all the wrong places.  And sadly, we are blind to it.  We just try something else: kids didn't work, how about a dog or an affair or a trip to Paris or a new car or…  Like a hamster on an exercise wheel, we just keep running and running but never truly get anywhere but tell ourselves we are making excellent time.

That was me, until the wheel broke down.  I had the degree, the professional career, true we were living in a shoe box, driving a used car trying to pay off school debt, but we had 'the life,' or so society assured us.  And I was miserable, only I didn't know it.  Then life fell apart, the job went away, 'the life' vanished like the dream it was, and I couldn't be happier for it.  My family still thinks I'm nuts, but I know their lives are as pointless and tedious as they assume mine to be.  Sure, I don't have a fancy title anymore, I get called 'mommy' or 'sweetie' instead of 'doctor,' but I like it that way.  The paycheck was nice, but it sure didn't make life any better once the bills were paid.  I just read a short article on the cost of kids, which basically made it sound like a lose-lose deal financially and career wise whether you stay at home or work, so you might as well not have them.  From the materialist's perspective that makes a whole lot of sense, but there is so much more to life than money or prestige or power, which is why those who put their hope in such things are never happy or content.

What then is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything?  It isn't 42.  It's love.  I'm not talking the trashy romance novel or steamy paranormal teen romance or even the modern chick flick sort of infatuation we mistake for love.  I'm talking the 'willing to give up everything for the benefit of the beloved' type of love, I believe the greeks called it agape.  It isn't what you have but Whose you are.  Nothing in this world can compare to that which lurks beyond it, that Love that snuck into our own reality and gave up everything so we could share in that 'peace that passes understanding,' in that Joy beyond the world's comprehension.  This world isn't enough, but then it was never meant to be.