Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Spring growth

On a walk home from school a few years ago, E and I salvaged some prickly pear pads from a large plant that had been hit by a car. We planted them in the yard and tried to avoid hitting them with soccer balls or lawn mowers, but otherwise ignored them. This long, cool spring, they went into major production mode. We've counted twelve new pads, all a brilliant light green, with pudgy tender milk spines. (I don't know what botanists call them. A biologist friend says the pudgy spines wannabes will fall out to make room for spiky spines.)

In other yard activity, the hot pink lilies are in bloom, looking pretty intent on luring pollinators.

On the screened-in front porch, nondescript lumps of infinite potential are blossoming into thin-walled round things. You'd think this wouldn't surprise me anymore, but when I finished making the pot below, I marveled that homo sapiens likes to reorganize finely weathered silicate-bearing rock into globular forms.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Scarlet Letter: B

I'm giving The Scarlet Letter a B--an embroidered B, gules, on a sable field.1 I was sedulous2 keeping to my commitment to re-read the book, though I wotted3 not whether I would find my adolescent animadversions4 justified. To my great joy, once I had slogged past the ponderous Introductory, I discovered the language to be readable and oftentimes even pleasant. Nonetheless, nugatory5 I now believe it is, to expect high schoolers to enjoy immersing themselves in Hawthorne's lucubrations6--though enjoyment be not necessarily the point. Of this book, perhaps in a U.S. History class, one wherein are studious youth needing to contemplate the strange and distant Puritanism of Old Boston, where arrived a crop of England's first Americans (their women less beautiful than would become subsequent generations of New Englanders, for not yet tempered were their visages by deprivation and rugged Atlantic weather,7 nor yet purged of joy through community shunning and self-denial)--or youth desiring, or merely instructed by pedagogical authority, to contemplate the sarcastic literary wanderings of the bored and apparently bitter descendants of those early settlers--yes, of this book in such a class (and not in freshman or sophomore English) perhaps more enjoyment and instructive use would be found.8

My recommendations: skip the Introductory (propose reading it as part of a possible book report project) and cut straight to the main story. Judge the Puritans harshly, forgive them if you will, and remind high schoolers to use protection when they engage in sexual intercourse if they want to avoid making babies.

1"[A simple slab of slate] bore a device, a herald's wording of which may serve for a motto and brief description of our now concluded legend; so sombre is it, and relieved only by one ever-glowing point of light gloomier than the shadow:— 'ON A FIELD, SABLE, THE LETTER A, GULES'"
2" She wondered what sort of herbs they were which the old man was so sedulous to gather."
3"Without taking overmuch upon myself my good word will go far towards gaining any strange gentleman a fair reception from yonder potentate you wot of."
4"[It] excited neither surprise nor animadversion when so reputable a citizen as old Roger Chillingworth, the physician, was seen to enter the market-place in close and familiar talk with the commander of the questionable vessel."
5"According to these highly-respectable witnesses, the minister, conscious that he was dying—conscious, also, that the reverence of the multitude placed him already among saints and angels—had desired, by yielding up his breath in the arms of that fallen woman, to express to the world how utterly nugatory is the choicest of man's own righteousness."
6"With his own ghostly voice he had exhorted me, on the sacred consideration of my filial duty and reverence towards him—who might reasonably regard himself as my official ancestor—to bring his mouldy and moth-eaten lucubrations before the public."
7"Morally, as well as materially, there was a coarser fibre in those wives and maidens of old English birth and breeding than in their fair descendants, separated from them by a series of six or seven generations; for, throughout that chain of ancestry, every successive mother had transmitted to her child a fainter bloom, a more delicate and briefer beauty, and a slighter physical frame, if not character of less force and solidity than her own. The women who were now standing about the prison-door stood within less than half a century of the period when the man-like Elizabeth had been the not altogether unsuitable representative of the sex. They were her countrywomen: and the beef and ale of their native land, with a moral diet not a whit more refined, entered largely into their composition. The bright morning sun, therefore, shone on broad shoulders and well-developed busts, and on round and ruddy cheeks, that had ripened in the far-off island, and had hardly yet grown paler or thinner in the atmosphere of New England. There was, moreover, a boldness and rotundity of speech among these matrons, as most of them seemed to be, that would startle us at the present day, whether in respect to its purport or its volume of tone."
8This sentence is only 118 words long. I don't know that I could get it up to 139, but I think I did a decent job of delaying the verb until the very end.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Downward-Pointing Thumb: Introductory to "The Custom-House: Introductory to 'The Scarlet Letter'"

Present-day me thinks 13-year-old me was onto something when she disliked The Scarlet Letter. I haven't made it to the main story yet, because it has taken me two weeks to slog through the 31-page opening, "The Custom-House: Introductory to 'The Scarlet Letter.'" (On the bright side, needing a break, I read the first two chapters of George Herbert Palmer's 1921 translation of The Odyssey out loud to E, and we both thought it was pretty engaging.)

About halfway through "The Custom-House," I googled "scarlet letter narrator patronizing jerk" but didn't get any useful hits. One enthusiastic video claims that contrary to initial appearances, the Introductory isn't actually boring--Really! It echoes the book, in miniature! Isn't that cool? Such forced enthusiasm suggests the Introductory is, in fact, boring to its present-day primary audience of distressed middle- and high-school readers. (One wonders how Hawthorne's depressed narrator would feel about that; he'd probably just nod his head, knowingly.)

I took notes in the margins while I read and have culled the following five themes, which I offer here to any student desperate for an essay topic:

1. You can't trust the Federal government. That vixenly American eagle looks protectively tender, but she'll claw your eyes out in a heartbeat. Customs officers rely too much on Uncle Sam.

2. Salem is drab and decaying, and the narrator would prefer to be pretty much anywhere else. He has lived in other places, but repeatedly returns to Salem, thanks in large part to the pull of the bones of his imposing Puritan ancestors, who were cruel bigwigs in Salem's early days, and compared to whom the narrator feels like an unremarkable loser. Eventually, the narrator will make a break for it, either in actuality, or through his literary imagination, or by dying. He pretends to be dead near the end of the Introductory so that he can feel like less of a jerk for having written it: "...the sketch which I am now bringing to a close [i.e. "The Custom-House"], if too autobiographical for a modest person to publish in his lifetime, will readily be excused in a gentleman who writes from beyond the grave. Peace be with all the world! My blessing on my friends! My forgiveness to my enemies! For I am in the realm of quiet!"

3. The men who work at the Custom House like to tip their chairs back against the wall, sometimes while they sleep on the job. The narrator offers this detail several times in the Introductory; perhaps he thought it was particularly funny, or so subtle that it bore repeating. To the forlorn high school student with an essay due tomorrow, I offer the following quotes and page numbers:
- p. 4, "[You would discern]...a row of venerable figures, sitting in old-fashioned chairs, which were tipped on their hind legs back against the wall. Oftentimes they were asleep."
- p. 9, "They spent a good deal of time, also, asleep in their accustomed corners, with their chairs tilted back against the wall..."
- p. 10, " was pleasant to hear them chatting in the back entry, a row of them all tipped against the wall, as usual..."
- p. 27, "[Might I not, like some of my loser colleagues, decide to make] the dinner-hour the nucleus of the day, and to spend the rest of it, as an old dog spends it, asleep in the sunshine or the shade?" The astute reader should conclude that in Salem, old dogs slept in chairs tipped against the wall.

4. Happy people should be mocked (or, the narrator is a patronizing jerk):
- p. 10, "Externally, the jollity of aged men has much in common with the mirth of children...In one case, however, it is real sunshine; in the other, it more resembles the phosphorescent glow of decaying wood."
- p. 12, "[The 80-year-old Head Inspector, despite outliving everyone else in his family, remained happy]....He was, in truth, a rare phenomenon: so perfect in one point of view; so shallow, so delusive, so impalpable, such a nonentity, in every other. My conclusion was that he had no soul, no heart, no mind...."
- p. 12, in which the happy Head Inspector is compared to a dog: "One point, in which he had vastly the advantage over his four-footed brethren, was his ability to recollect the good dinners which it had made no small portion of the happiness of his life to eat."
- p. 14, regarding the Collector, "Nevertheless, looking at the old warrior with affection,--for, slight as was the communication between us, my feeling towards him, like that of all bipeds and quadrupeds who knew him, might not improperly be termed so,--I could discern the main points of his portrait." Note, incidentally, the use of litotes here!
- p. 15, suggesting the General is a wuss by comparing him to females: "A trait if native elegance, seldom seen in the masculine character after childhood or early youth, was shown in the General's fondness for the sight and fragrance of flowers. An old soldier might be supposed to prize only the bloody laurel on his brow; but here was one, who seemed to have a young girl's appreciation of the floral tribe."
- p. 16, in which the narrator observes he's improving his own character by spending time with people he has criticized for being too happy, vapid, feminine, or sleepy: "It contributes greatly towards a man's moral and intellectual health to be brought into habits of companionship with individuals unlike himself, who care little for his pursuits, and whose sphere and abilities he must go out of himself to appreciate."

5. The narrator is fascinated by how a wig that was buried for 80 years has managed to hold up.
- p. 20, on how the remains of Surveyor Jonathan Pue were "recently" dug up and moved: "Nothing, if I rightly call to mind, was left of my respected predecessor, save an imperfect skeleton, and some fragments of apparel, and a wig of majestic frizzle, which, unlike the head that it once adorned, was in very satisfactory preservation."
- p. 22: "It impressed me as if the ancient Surveyor,...wearing his immortal wig—which was buried with him, but did not perish in the grave—had met me in the deserted chamber of the Custom-House."
- p. 23: "'Do this,' said the ghost of Mr. Surveyor Pue, emphatically nodding the head that looked so imposing within its memorable wig..."

One friend shared with me that she had also felt ambivalent about The Scarlet Letter in high school, but that when she re-read it a few years ago, Hawthorne struck her as a sort of punk rock feminist. I hope he will eventually strike me that way too, as I move into the main body of the book. In any case, given that the Introductory is supposed to encapsulate the story's central themes, I look forward to observing how the five themes described above unfold.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Treachery of Fish: Ceci n'est pas un Bowfin

When I was an 11-yr-old 7th*-grader, I dutifully followed teacher instructions. When the science teacher said, "in case of a fire drill, blow out your Bunsen burners and go outside," I thought, "why blow them out instead of turning them off?," but I figured the teacher knew more than I did so I didn't say anything. When the fire drill rolled around, I blew out my Bunsen burner and went outside, where I was so disturbed by the thought of gas piping into the science room that I talked to a classmate about it. She told the teacher, and he went inside and shut off the gas, and we all survived and neither the science room nor the school blew up. 

I write this because a generation later, my own beloved 11-yr-old has apparently inherited my need to unquestioningly obey authority figures. This  came up last night when he had to answer a question about what kind of scales a bowfin has. He looked up the technical term online, and I asked him if that matched what he had seen on the fish his group had dissected last week in Science class.

"Well, no; I mean, I don't know, because we dissected a perch."

--"A perch? I thought you were writing about a bowfin."

"I am. The bowfin didn't come in on time, so Mr. G. put me in the perch group. But he said they're basically the same fish, so I should still do the bowfin."

--"But you didn't dissect a bowfin, you dissected a perch."

"I know!" He rolled his eyes at my cluelessness. "But Mr. G. said I should do the bowfin anyway."

Ceci n'est pas un perch
We went back and forth like this for a while. Eventually I appealed to the power of the grading rubric: "Look, how are you supposed to write a Conclusion Section about what you learned dissecting a bowfin if all of your data is about a perch?" Thus was born a compromise: answer the bowfin questions, but ask them about the perch.

Ceci n'est pas non plus un perch
On the bright side, this boy of mine, when he saw my collection of Dover books, picked up The Odyssey and asked, "ooh, is this for me? Did you know The Odyssey is the second oldest known story in western civilization, after The Iliad?"

Ceci n'est pas un bowfin. Ceci sont deux perches.
 *7th and 8th grades were combined in my high school; we were called "subfreshmen."