books, ReLit

ReLit: Lord of the Flies

This will not end well.

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We had some friends over for dinner the other night, and at one point the four adults were upstairs in the kitchen and the four kids, ages two through four, were downstairs in the basement. There was screaming, pounding, and possibly the sound of a power saw being turned on. The adults looked at one another, swirling our glasses of wine and posing in the manner of debonair sophisticates, and said, “Sounds like Lord of the Flies down there,” before returning to a spirited conversation about Freud’s theory of the uncanny. (This last part is not true: Someone did say, “Sounds like Lord of the Flies down there,” then we hurried downstairs, praying we would not see a child tied to a spit and rotating above a makeshift fire with Legos as kindling.)

Such is the hold of William Golding’s 1954 novel upon our collective imagination. (Full disclaimer: Three of the four adults were/are English teachers, but we contend that a remark such as the one above could’ve just as easily been made in an entirely English teacher-free group of adults.) What’s startling about Lord of the Flies when you read it as a parent is that you begin to wonder how your children would fare on that island. Would our boys be a Ralph (oh please oh please)? A Simon? (Gulp.) Anything but a Jack. Or Roger, that cruel blunt instrument of a human being. (Roger, not Jack, is the one who pushes the boulder over the hill that kills Piggy and — symbolism alert! — shatters the conch.) Or that poor nameless littlun with the mulberry scar who we meet early in the novel but who mysteriously wanders off and never appears again.

So why reread a book about kids killing kids … especially if you have kids now yourself? Let’s consider this closely.

What You Probably Remember About Lord of the Flies From High School: When we read Golding’s novel in the early 90s, Battle Royale and The Hunger Games were not on the scene yet, and there was still something a bit shocking about children dying at one another’s hands. (Though we’re fans of The Hunger Games — or at least were up until the dismal conclusion — there’s something far more sinister about kids killing one another in the complete absence of adult supervision. Katniss and her ilk killed because they were driven to it by adults; the boys on the island kill for no reason other than power and cruelty, the breakdown of civilization.)

If you remember any of the kids in particular, our guess is that you remember not the leader of the island — “the boy with fair hair” (Ralph), as the first words of the novel tell us — but rather the boy pictured above: Piggy. (The still is taken from Peter Brook’s 1963 adaptation, a subtle and disturbing little film.) You might remember that Piggy isn’t even his real name — we never find that out. (He is “the fat boy” in the novel’s first pages.) Piggy was what the boys at school used to call him, in his life before the crash; when Ralph accidentally repeats it at an assembly, the nickname sticks.

The truth is, when you think back on high school, we remember the Piggys of the world long after the Ralphs have faded from our memories. There’s something sad, pitiful, but also noble about young Piggy, who is twelve-going-on-forty. He is whiny, yes — but also logical, intelligent, honest and — we know this from the minute we meet him — doomed. A fat kid with glasses and an asthma problem? (“Sucks to your ass-mar!” the other boys taunt him about his condition; the way they speak to one another rings true of pre-adolescent boys, and no doubt Golding’s experience as a teacher helped fine tune his ear.) Nuh-uh, not going to make it.

You may also recall that the boys learn to hunt, and kill a pig (more on this in a second); that there’s one other boy they kill along the way, the Christ-like Simon; that a dead parachutist lands on the island, and the boys mistake him for a “beast”; and that the boys are rescued by a naval officer, who sees them dressed like savages, done up in war paint, running around with a stick sharpened on both ends, and assumes they’ve been engaged in harmless child’s play … despite the fact the island is going up in flames. “Jolly good show. Like the Coral Island,” he says, at which point Ralph breaks down in front of him and the officer realizes something unimaginable has taken place. The novel ends with him looking away, a bit embarrassed, “to give [the boys] time to pull themselves together.”

You might also remember your teacher droning on about how Ralph and Jack embody competing ideas of civilization — democracy vs. totalitarianism, or order vs. chaos, or good vs. evil — and maybe you recall writing an essay at one in the morning about the symbolism of the conch and thinking it was pretty brilliant, until your vindictive, spiteful teacher gave it back to you with her petty red pen marks like death scribbles on your very soul. If so, our deepest sympathies. We are that soulless teacher now, and we say to you: nothing gives us greater pleasure than marking the world in red pen. Nothing.

What We Got From Lord of the Flies The Second Time Around: This is not the same book when you read it in parenthood. The boys are no longer just characters on the page; they have faces and names and personalities, and you cannot help but see your own kids in them, or imagine your child hovering on the fringes of the island assemblies where the firelight is just faint enough to capture his face. Chances are you also have a greater understanding now than you did as a teenager of your own capacity for cruelty, and of human capacity for evil. It’s on the local news every night at eleven.

We also got a fuller understanding of the darkness of Golding’s vision. When that naval officer alludes to “Coral Island,” he’s referencing an 1858 book by R.M. Ballantyne, a Robinson Crusoe-esque adventure about three boys — whose names, Ralph, Jack, and Peterkin, will strike a bell — on a Pacific island. Golding read The Coral Island as a child — indeed, many Brits did, as it was a juvenile classic and appeared on required reading lists. Whereas Ballantyne’s vision was benign, though, Golding’s turns the other way. Golding is not interested in evil from without; in the wake of World War II (Golding fought in the Royal Navy), he explores the evil within. Two examples will suffice:

  1. When Jack and the boys kill the pig, they don’t simply cut its throat or spear it in the belly. They sodomize it (“Right up her ass!”), a point your English teacher was probably happy not to emphasize in class discussions. The violence on the island is more than just physical; it is sexual, mental, spiritual; it is, in other words, total. We’ll refrain from quoting the specific scene here, but read it again and it’s obvious what Golding is doing: he’s writing a rape scene. The boys aren’t just killing this pig for its meat; they’re killing it because of bloodlust, because they want to assert their power.
  2. The pig was a sow. She was a nursing female. So the boys, orphans on this island, have now orphaned native creatures on the island. Lord of the Flies suggests that it’s not just that evil happens to us (a war is taking place in the world beyond the island, and that’s surely why the boy’s plane crashed); it is also that evil happens because of us.

The other white meat.

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Then there’s Simon, our Christ-like figure. Any time you’ve got a character wandering off into an Edenic jungle spot to be alone, spouting off about the true nature of the beast (“maybe it’s only us”), and then — this is the key part — getting himself killed as a sacrifice, your Christ Parallel Radar should be going nuts. That’s not too hard to figure out. But what’s most intriguing are the ways Simon is not like Christ. His discovery that “the beast” is actually a dead parachutist — a discovery which has the potential to enlighten the boys and dispel their irrational fears — is his alone; he is killed before he can relay this to the others. Furthermore, his death brings about no atonement or sacrifice. Lord of the Flies offers no easy redemption; Simon is not the way, the truth and the life … he is simply a dead boy, washed out to sea.

Why We Think You Should Give Lord of the Flies A Reread: Because it’s better than its dystopian imitators (we’re thinking The Hunger Games, specifically, but that has its own inferior imitators). Because Stephen King called it “the first book with hands – strong ones that reached out of the pages and seized me by the throat. It said to me, ‘This is not just entertainment; it’s life-or-death.’” Because you miss “Lost” but don’t want to go back and watch all 121 episodes again. Because Lord of the Flies is actually a brisk, straightforward read — written sharply, filled with imagery and symbolism that’s not too complicated nor too simplistic. And so that you can continue making witty references to other parents during playdates, but realize, thankfully, that your basement is actually quite unlike Lord of the Flies.

family

Tribute To A Father Who Has Forgotten

dad

The man in the photograph above is sixty-seven years old. The boy has just turned three. They are in Bar Harbor, Maine, at the rock beach next to the pier off Agamont Park. It is low tide. One of the things the boy loves about the man is that he can throw rocks — big ones — into the Atlantic Ocean, and he asks him to do this. Repeatedly. Whenever the boy sees a rock of significant size — the bigger the better, be it a boulder or slab of decorative stone on one of the carriage paths in Acadia National Park — he will ask, hypothetically, if the man is capable of throwing it into the ocean, even if the ocean or another body of water is nowhere in sight. The boy mimics the man, throwing rocks of all shapes and sizes into the water. They may have been at this for ten minutes when the picture was taken. They may have been at it for an hour. It is August, 2013, not quite two years ago. It was one of the last moments the man will recognize that he is the boy’s grandfather.

The man is my (Ben’s) father. He is sixty-nine now. Eight years ago, he was in a car accident on his way to work. As a pediatrician, he often drove to work at the wee hours, especially if he was on call. In his early years beginning a new practice, when he was one of just two doctors, he was frequently on call — every other weekend — and sleep for him was a luxury. But on the morning of his accident, he was not on call, nor was he unusually tired. He just blacked out at the wheel. He did not hit anyone else; he simply ran into a telephone pole going about twenty miles an hour. My father, for whom any public attention or recognition was a discomforting thing, was largely embarrassed by this incident. He insisted he was fine. After the accident was the first time he saw a neurologist, and the first identification of gaps in his memory, though they were then short-term, just blips on the radar.

I go back and reread the previous paragraph and see how I refer to my father in the past tense: “My father, for whom any public attention or recognition was a discomforting thing.” That “was” should be an “is,” because that statement is still true. But it’s also not true, in the sense that I can’t say with any certainty if my father is aware anymore when he’s receiving public attention — or even if there’s ever a time when my dad isn’t uncomfortable nowadays, trying to find his way through a landscape where no one’s face (even his wife’s now) is always recognizable, where no place (even his home of thirty-six years) feels comfortable, familiar. In other words, like home.

This is why I catch myself sometimes, when I think or talk about my father as though he is no longer living. In some very practical sense, he is not. When I call to wish him a happy Father’s Day later today, he will not immediately know that I am his son, or why I am calling. My mother, God bless her, will prompt him, and he will figure out how to play along, echoing what she says: an act that used to bother me but which I now understand and accept. She will hold the phone up so he can see my face, but he will not look directly at me — will not understand, even, what the phone is, how I am able to see him and he me on it, and this will make him uncomfortable and cause him to look away, usually down at the ground, speaking to someone he thinks is in the room with him.

At some point during the last few years, I said goodbye to the father who knew me as his son, who had a shared past that included hiking, wiffle ball, watching “The Simpsons” together, bicycling the Beartooth Highway, going to Pirates games and attending my graduation. All those things still happened. I remember them. But he does not.

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In the years following his accident, my father began to forget things. He began repeating himself. Though it seemed impossible to me and my brother, who were used to his meticulously planned vacation itineraries which included rising as a family at six a.m. to ascend some peak or bike some trail, he began slowing down. I remember discussing with my mother at some point — this would have been 2009 or 2010 — whether it was safe for him to continue practicing medicine. She worked with him, as a pediatric nurse, and could keep close tabs on him throughout the day. He’s still very sharp, she said. Though he gets tired quicker, she added. Again, this seemed impossible to me … that my father, who biked across the country when I was in ninth grade, dipping his rear tire in the Pacific and, two months later, his front tire in the Atlantic — who was forever a couple steps or paces ahead of me, so that I always seemed to be staring at his back — could run out of steam.

He was still sharp, yes, but nonetheless, he moved retirement up a year. Then things deteriorated quickly. There was another car accident — this one more serious, involving another driver, with my father at fault — and he stopped driving. He got lost, wandering away from our home until he turned up hours later a couple miles down the road, or in the passenger seat of a police car which had picked him up. He stopped bicycling, the thing I was certain he would never stop doing. He became sedentary. He could no longer finish books. Whenever he cannot recall a name, he sticks his tongue out and touches it to the side of his mouth — a tic he can no longer control. He put dish soap in the refrigerator and forgot to wear a shirt underneath his jacket one day to church. When my mother began to help him take his jacket off, she saw his bare chest and said, “Steve, where’s your shirt?” He shrugged. They laughed. (“If you can’t laugh about it, you’ll cry,” she says.) It was Easter.

My father has never been officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. There are many subtle variations of dementia (a catch-all term for a wide variety of symptoms including memory loss and behavioral changes) and it’s hard to pin down what, exactly, my father has. I latch on to Alzheimer’s, if only because it gives me something to call it by; naming it gives me some power over it, when really I know that I have no power over something which has wiped my father’s mind clean, and which may be lurking somewhere in my own genetic make-up, waiting for its time. This is my greatest fear. That one day I will be throwing rocks into the ocean beside a boy who is my grandson, and that may be the last moment I am fully aware of that fact. That Sam or Leo will be watching that scene from afar, wondering what happened to their dad, asking how it came to be that he got erased.

——————–

Stephen King was once asked by Terry Gross what scared him. He responded “the supernatural stuff doesn’t get to me anymore,” then described a movie scene which haunted him:

KING: The movie opens with a woman in late middle-age, sitting at a table and writing a story. And the story goes something like, then the branches creaked in the – and she stops, and she says to her husband: What are those things? I can’t think of them. They’re in the backyard, and they’re very tall, and birds land on the branches. And he says, why, Iris, those are trees. And she says, yes, how silly of me. And she writes the word, and the movie starts. That’s Iris Murdoch, and she’s suffering the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

GROSS: Yeah.

KING: That’s the boogeyman in the closet now.

GROSS: Why is that the thing you’re most afraid of?

KING: I’m afraid of losing my mind.

GROSS: Losing your memory?

KING: Mm-hmm. Well, you don’t just lose your memory. You lose your mind, basically.

GROSS: Yeah.

KING: You lose your identity, your sense of who you are, where you are. If you’re a block away from the house, you may forget how to get home. I think I could put up with a lot of things and a lot of pain. I have put up with a lot of pain. I got hit by a car in 1999 and got most of the bones on the right side of my body broken, and I bore up under that and I got better. But you can’t get better if your mind is stolen away from you.

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I am learning to talk to my dad all over again. It used to be that I needed him to understand what I was saying to him. When he stopped understanding, I felt uncomfortable in his presence — a guilty witness to his disease. Over time, I’m learning how to be around him, which is to say I’m learning to be less self-conscious. I am learning that just because he may not understand me doesn’t mean I should stop saying the things a son should say to his father. So moments like this can still happen:

My father and I are playing with Sam and Leo in the driveway. This was the last time my parents came to visit. He becomes flustered by too much busyness and activity; sometimes being around his grandchildren is taxing. But being outside helps everyone. I am struck by how much his illness has made him childlike. Helping him navigate the world is not that different than helping a toddler. A little fussy and agitated? Let’s go outside!

Sam zips around on his bike. He learned on a Strider balance bike. Once he mastered that, it took less than an hour to adjust to a bike with pedals. Although my dad cannot appreciate how Sam’s newfound skill is a sign that he is his grandfather’s son, I appreciate for him. I see three generations of Vores standing together, and I know that while my dad isn’t fully present, he is still physically here.

“Sam loves to bike,” I say. “Just like his Papaw.”

“Oh, is that right? We were just talking about what was going on over there.” He has a number of stock phrases he goes to which bear only a tangential relationship to what’s going on in the moment. He often talks about the weather, traffic, his brother Eric.

“You were a great biker. You bicycled across the country when I was in high school, remember?”

“Oh, sure. Uh-huh. Now that you mention it…”

“I biked with you for two days in Ohio. Had a hard time keeping up, but I did. I still remember that.”

Sam zips by again. He takes one hand off the handlebars at a time, testing his limits.

“I loved biking with you, dad. I was really proud of you.”

“Well, we all did what we could and, you know, I’m not really sure where we’ll be going from here…” He’s talking about going back home to Pennsylvania, although sometimes what he says carries a double meaning. I’m not really sure where we’ll be going from here either, Dad.

Sam passes again, this time with his legs kicked out, feet off the pedals. He’s grinning. I’m grateful, for the moment, that we’re all here together. I am lucky. I still have a dad I can talk to.

books, ReLit

ReLit: Jane Eyre

Nine out of ten teenage girls find this meme witty and amusing.

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As English teachers, we do something really evil about every month or so during the school year: We assign a book for our students to read. The moment we hand it out, we have effectively destroyed their desire to have anything whatsoever to do with the book. This is especially so when, as with today’s novel, it might have a cover like this:

It is as if the folks at Tor (a fantasy/sci-fi imprint, which should not be allowed within light years of Charlotte Bronte) told their art department, “Get us a cover which will be so unappealing and aesthetically repulsive that students’ eyes will bleed the moment they gaze upon it.” So not only are we requiring students to read these books; and not only are we handing them Jane Eyre during March of their senior year (since Ms. Bronte fits firmly in the Brit Lit canon); we’re also asking them to read a five hundred page novel with THIS as the cover. We are evil. We know this. We collect the tears of our disconsolate students in tiny vials from which we vampirically sip, like champagne, each night, in order to give us the vitality to go forth and engage in black market organ trafficking or assign five page essays and such.

Nonetheless, our job today is to convince you that Jane Eyre is something you might actually enjoy reading now that high school has long faded in your rearview mirror. Let’s begin with the first feature of our “ReLit” review.

What You Probably Remember About Jane Eyre From High School: Besides a terrible cover, that is. The first thing you probably recall about Jane Eyre is that it’s long. And not just Grapes of Wrath-long. Like looooooooooooong. Anthony Davis-wingspan long. You’ll probably recall that Jane is an orphan; that she begins the novel as an outcast in the home of her dreadful aunt, Mrs. Reed, whose dreadful son, John, a real bugger, likes to torment young Jane. (His comeuppance will be suicide later.) Oh, also that they lock her in the Red-Room … which also happens to be where Jane’s uncle died. So the Reeds are those kind of foster parents.

Note: If you read Jane Eyre before, say, 1998, you probably weren’t struck by the similarities with a certain British orphaned child who was mistreated by his cruel foster parents and, before being shipped away to a boarding school for special cases like his own, was also locked in a small room (this one under the stairs).

You might recall that Jane herself is plain; in her own words, she is “poor, obscure, plain and little.” This seems to have given movie studios difficulty whenever they adapt Jane Eyre to the big screen. Mia Wasikowska, an unconventionally attractive (and thus plausibly “plain”) actress, was aptly cast in the 2011 version. Ruth Wilson (of “Luther” and “The Affair”) played Jane in the 2006 mini-series; she better captured the fierceness of Jane’s interior life, something that leaps off every page of the novel.

You might also recall, besides a love story which both does and does not follow the expected relationship trajectory (does: man and woman meet, they fall in love, something tragic happens, it all goes to pot, she runs away, she comes back, marriage!; does not: she’s eighteen, he could be her dad; oh, yes, he’s already married and locked his wife in the attic, and the first Mrs. Rochester tries to set him on fire), the singular character of Bertha Mason. Bertha is Edward Rochester’s wife, and for our money, she’s the most fascinating character (and suggestive symbol) in the book. More on her in a second.

That pretty much covers it. Maybe you remember writing an essay at one in the morning about bird imagery in Jane Eyre and thinking it was pretty brilliant before reading it the next day and wondering, “Did an alpaca of questionable intelligence hijack my computer last night and type this for me?” If so, good for you. But we’re moving on.

What We Got From Jane Eyre The Second Time Around: Let’s be honest: Jane Eyre is not a teenage boy’s book. Just being seen with the edition pictured above is probably social suicide, especially amongst your friends who are not in honors English. Ben didn’t read Jane Eyre until just a few years ago, but had he read it in high school, he probably wouldn’t have cared for it much then. Teaching it this past year, he had to figure out, among other things, how to get guys to even consider cracking this book open. So, in considering the “essential questions” that Jane Eyre poses, he tried this one out: “How do we overcome The Man?”

First, a brief dissertation on The Man, courtesy of School of Rock:

The Man, according to Urban Dictionary, is “the head of ‘the establishment’ put in place to ‘bring us down.'” An alternative definition is apropos of Richard Linklater and Jack Black’s cinematic masterpiece, if not Ms. Bronte’s:

He is everywhere, but you can stick it to him by playing a lil somethin called rock n roll.

“The Man” is something teenagers can relate to — if not the corporate embodiment which adult readers will be well-acquainted with, then at least those figures of authority — parents, teachers, coaches, bosses — whose sole job is to crush the hopes and aspirations of young dreamers such as themselves.

Jane’s story is, in many ways, about how one of the most improbable and winning underdogs in literature overcomes “the Man,” something she does at the four major locales of the novel: Gateshead (Mrs. Reed), Lowood (Brocklehurst), Thornfield (Rochester), and Marsh End (St. John). In three of those four cases “The Man” is a man; Jane Eyre is read by many as a feminist bildungsroman (that fancy German term for a coming of age story), and it’s not difficult to see how a plain, provincial governess of the lower classes would be subject to the demands and prejudices of older, wealthier men — one, in particular, who is both the most oppressive and yet the most, er, romantic (if dressing up like a gypsy turns you on).

But it is Mrs. Reed, a woman, who provides Jane with her first and perhaps harshest lesson that the world is not kind, and Jane’s imprisonment in the Red-Room is a clue for the rest of the novel: Jane may be imprisoned by class, gender, family, marital expectations and religion, but she continually finds a way to escape — partly through sheer will, partly through her ability to read and understand the world around her — and play a lil somethin called rock n roll. Jane is not a lone wolf, though; her education is also in learning who she can trust, be it Bessie, Miss Temple, or Rochester (or not Rochester).

Bertha Mason is the most troubling character in the novel. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar borrow her for the title of their volume of feminist criticism, The Madwoman in the Attic. It is hard, on a first read, to feel much sympathy for this violently deranged woman who ultimately burns Thornfield to the ground. But Jean Rhys read her quite sympathetically in her Jane Eyre-prequel Wide Sargasso Sea, which tells the romance of Edward Rochester and Bertha Mason (an arranged marriage doomed from the start) from Bertha’s perspective. That novel — set in Jamaica, not Britain — implicates Rochester in making Bertha the “madwoman” she is. (Rhys’ novel also suggests that Bertha’s displacement from her home and family factor largely into her madness. Oh, yeah, also the fact Rochester sleeps around.)

Gilbert and Gubar read Bertha as “Jane’s truest and darkest double.” Bertha, they argue, is a projection of Jane’s “ferocious secret self” which bursts forth early in the novel against Mrs. Reed. (Jane leaves third degree burns on her aunt with the line, “I am not deceitful; if I were, I should say I loved you.”) Bertha could also a symbol of Jane’s subconscious fears of being imprisoned in a Victorian marriage: Jane herself will become the madwoman in the attic. And there is ample evidence that, while Jane clearly loves Rochester, she will be his pet, not his equal, should they marry. This reading humanizes Bertha and explains, if not justifies, her actions: the night before Jane is to marry Rochester, Bertha appears in her room and (we’ll capitalize this to emphasize its symbolic significance) Tears Her Wedding Veil In Two.

Reading Jane Eyre the second time around is still long. But it’s also funny. For example, Rochester befuddles Jane with the remark that he is “paving hell with energy.” Jane asks what he means, to which he replies, “I am laying down good intentions.” He also likes to say things like, “What the deuce is to do now?”, which is especially funny in a high school classroom because teenage boys hear “deuce” and think “poop.” So that’s a good time.

Why We Think You Should Give Jane Eyre A Reread: Let’s start with Rochester. He’s not a bad poster child for the Byronic Hero — we’ll spare you a definition (“anti-hero” isn’t a perfect one, but it’s close) and simply give you modern examples: Batman, Sherlock, Dr. Gregory House, Severus Snape, Han Solo and Captain Jack Sparrow. Also some not-very-modern examples: Mr. Darcy (if Byronic heroes in Victorian literature were the 1990s Chicago Bulls, Darcy is your Jordan and Rochester your Pippen), Captain Ahab, and the Phantom from Phantom of the Opera. Who doesn’t like these guys? That’s how we feel about Rochester too … right up to the point where he starts to get weird on Jane and squelch her individuality as he rushes her to the altar.

One of our students went into detailed analysis of how Fifty Shades of Grey is basically an updated and sexually deviant Jane Eyre. We’ll take a brief pause to enjoy this bit of comedic gold:

One marvels at the fact that a human being, rather than a rhesus monkey, composed the sentence, “And from a very tiny, underused part of my brain — probably located at the base of my medulla oblongata near where my subconscious dwells — comes the thought: He’s here to see you.” Charlotte Bronte would have murdered E.L. James with a shiv had their paths ever crossed. (One of our finest contemporary authors, Kazuo Ishiguro, would have met with her approval, we think; he certainly appreciates her, saying, “I owe my career, and a lot else besides, to Jane Eyre and Villette.)

Back to Jane Eyre, with one brief aside: If you, like us, don’t believe that there are any new stories left to tell (or, by extension, that every story is simply part of one great story that we’ve telling for many, many centuries now), then much of popular romantic literature today is tired, flat hackery. We could blame Jane Eyre (and Pride & Prejudice, and Romeo & Juliet, etc., etc.) for this, or we could simply go back and reread Jane Eyre. She’s a surprisingly modern woman, and her way of speaking directly to us — as with the first line of the final chapter, “Reader, I married him” — feels intimate and confessional, right at home in a social media age. Whether, ultimately, you like Jane Eyre, it’s impossible not to find yourself liking Jane Eyre.

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Our “ReLits” are only a reintroduction; there is a great deal more waiting inside this novel than we have laid out here. For more teasers, the Crash Course video on Jane Eyre is witty and wide-ranging ; Thug Notes gives you a gangster-spin on Ms. Bronte; and, on a completely uneducational note, “Saturday Night Live” did a Jane Eyre parody with Rachel Dratch and Jude Law.

books, ReLit

Introducing ReLit

One of the perks of being an English teacher is that you get to reread books. Those of you who are not English teachers and/or avid readers look at that sentence and diagnose us with, at best, lunacy, and at worst, deeply masochistic tendencies.

Hear us out. How many times have you watched your favorite movie? Surely several, if not dozens. Why? You might say it’s for the inherent pleasure that the film provides. Maybe it was to tease out a secret plot you completely missed the first time around (think The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects; for us the most recent film to do this was Moon). Maybe it’s simply to live in that world for two more hours, be it an imaginary one in a galaxy far, far away, or one closer to home if a bit unusual (we will gladly spend two hours in Wes Anderson’s world; every time we rewatch The Royal Tenenbaums, a different character resonates with us as the spiritual center of the movie). Or maybe it’s because, in a way, that film tells you something new about yourself every time you watch it. It serves as a kind of cinematic height chart, if you will — or maybe the better analogy is to a Rorschach test.

This is what rereading books is like to an English teacher. Not all of what we reread is pleasurable. The Scarlet Letter is pretty much as dreadful as you remember it; besides, your students will just want to watch Easy A instead. But Nathaniel Hawthorne is an outlier. What we’ve been struck by, as we return to the classics we last touched twenty odd years ago, is how much we missed when we read, say, Lord of the Flies as a teenager. (The boys killed the mother pig how?) The Great Gatsby is probably the best (and most chronicled) example: Who among us, as a sixteen-year-old, could see past the glitz and pageantry of Gatsby’s parties, or perceive that there was more going on that just a doomed love triangle? To be fair, you may recall discussions about that beckoning green light and the American Dream; about the different social classes embedded in the novel’s geography, from East and West Egg to the forsaken Valley of Ashes; maybe about all that symbolism, whether the mysterious eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg or the vivid color imagery of white dresses, yellow cocktail music and vast blue lawns. Even if you grasp all of those things on an intellectual level, though, there’s only so much a teenager can grasp about regret, or the loss of innocence, or the end of the American Dream, or the meaning behind a passage like the one on the last page when Fitzgerald describes New York — “a fresh, green breast of the new world” — as it first appeared to a Dutch sailor’s eyes, putting him “face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” Reread Gatsby now, and you’ll likely find a whole new story waiting for you — and not because Fitzgerald’s text has changed, but because you have.

What we’ll do, throughout the summer, is pick one classic a week and reintroduce you to it. We’re calling this little endeavor “ReLit.” You’ve read the books once (or, perhaps, “read” them once … you know what we’re talking about), but now is when you’re actually ready to read and appreciate them. The other thing we’ve learned, as we’ve reread and attempted to do these books justice in our own classrooms, is how different reading a book and teaching a book can be. So Gatsby is about the American Dream. So what? What does the American Dream mean to a teenager in 2015? What is the 21st century equivalent to the scaffold where Hester Prynne is judged and scorned by her Puritan neighbors? (According to our students, the answer is “the Internet.”) What do we make of Mark Twain dropping the n word 219 times in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when that word has evolved and taken on so many different connotations since 1885? Or publishers replacing that word with “slave,” on the grounds that it’s not censorship but rather a way to make Twain more accessible and less controversial in an era of classroom trigger warnings? By no means do we have all the answers. But maybe, like us, you’ll find unexpected pleasure in wrestling with some of the questions.

Tomorrow: Jane Eyre!

faith, MS

The Book of PsalMS

The Friday before Thanksgiving last year, I (Erin) headed home after school to shower so I could be decidedly less sweaty and a bit more put-together before driving up to Columbus for my friend Kelly’s rehearsal dinner. I had the honor of being a reader in her wedding. There will be great irony in the fact that I was a reader later. Wait for it.

Anyway, I was showering and doing the things one does when one bathes (on occasion, from time to time — can I get an AMEN!) when all of a sudden I felt an intense pain in my left eye. I didn’t think too much of it — sometimes I move my eyes too quickly and I feel like I’ve strained them too much. The pain goes away. Life moves on.

But this time the eye pain didn’t go away. In fact, it stayed the whole weekend. At the rehearsal dinner I had a splitting headache. Like a migraine on a bender, the Beast of All Headaches. I didn’t sleep much that night.

The next morning, the eye pain and headache were still there. Big bummer. On top of that, my left eye was blurry and my sight a bit dimmed. Colors were less bright, more sepia. Major bummer. I took some ibuprofen which didn’t help. I asked the wedding coordinator (my beloved friend Emily) to make sure the page with scripture printed on it was extra-large, as I was unsure how well I’d be able to read. The weekend went on, my eyesight, headache, and pain got worse. Two best friends became husband and wife in a beautiful ceremony of which I’m grateful to have played a small part.

On our way back to Cincinnati, I called my eye doctor, the wonderful and gracious Dr. Tom Ritter, and left a message: “I’m not sure if this constitutes an emergency or not, but I’m having a really hard time seeing out of my left eye and it hurts a lot. Sorry to bug you on a Sunday.”

Dr. Ritter called me back within ten minutes and told me to meet him at the office ON A SUNDAY. He suspected optic neuritis, an inflammation of the optic nerve, but recommended I see an eye specialist the next day to confirm and explore my eye a little more. He said the words “multiple sclerosis” — this was the first time I heard them spoken aloud. Dr. Ritter said not to freak out, but that there was a relationship (what a quaint word, right?) between optic neuritis and multiple sclerosis.

Dr. Golnik, my eye specialist, confirmed Dr. Ritter’s suspicions, again mentioned the relationship between MS and optic neuritis, and ordered an MRI. I started three days of intravenous steroids to reduce the eye inflammation and hasten my visual recovery. IV steroids mean business. Upside: My eyesight recovered! (Mainly — it was still a tad blurry and “underexposed.”) Downside: Steroids cause insomnia! For a while I was getting one to two hours of sleep a night.

Three MRIs later, I received an official diagnosis of multiple sclerosis on December 18, 2014. Ben and I had about a month between my spontaneous loss of vision in November and the diagnosis, but it still took us by surprise. It’s devastating in the sense that everything changes in the blink of an eye (terrible pun intended) — our plans for a third baby changed, fear crept into our heads, the future seemed on shaky ground. But we believe in a good God who is good all the time, even when life hands you a sucky sandwich, or rotten lemonade, or whatever terrible food metaphor you want to use.

I started treatment (officially called a disease modifying therapy — there is no cure and my treatment won’t stop the disease, only postpone its quickening) in early February. Three times a week, I give myself a shot. These shots won’t be effective until August — they take six months to work, so in the meantime, I’m still unprotected. I had another attack over spring break when I started to experience double-vision again. I gave it some time to work itself out, but started another round of IV steroids four weeks later. Same story: the steroids corrected the double-vision, but my sight was still blurry, still underexposed. More insomnia.

Since November (and even before), I’ve had occasional tingling and numbness, two other hallmark symptoms of MS. When my body temperature rises, the vision in my left eye decreases and my extremities sometimes get tingly and numb. Each day, my left eye is a big question mark. I try to remain grateful for the many blessings in my life regardless of how I feel or what my body is doing that day. And there have been loads of blessings: my family (immediate, nuclear, near and far); my two sweet boys and Ben; my incredible friends; the hundreds, perhaps thousands of prayers spoken and thought on my behalf; my team of doctors, nurses, and assistants; the blessing of restored vision in going from darkness to light; a perfectly timed word from a friend; watching Sam eat the first ripe strawberries from our garden. I could go on.

And of course, some days are terrifying, like when I let my mind consider the worst case scenario “what ifs.” Or the day my whole body felt numb and tingly, like it had soaked in an ice bath for too long. Then the next day comes and it’s back to normal.

Multiple sclerosis is an immune-mediated disease (some docs say auto-immune, they debate about how to label it) that attacks my nerves, specifically the myelin, the stuff that covers nerves. Sclerosis in Latin means “scar,” so multiple sclerosis literally means multiple scars, which show up on the MRIs of my brain (though thankfully NOT my spine).

So, come August, I’ll be doing something I’ve never done before: bike fifty miles to raise funds and awareness for MS. Ben will be joining me. My team name is psalMS, a name I thought appropriate since the Psalms have been comforting to me as I navigate this “new normal.” For extra nerd-factor, I thought capitalizing the “MS” added punch and incorporated some nerdy wordplay as well.

The Book of Psalms itself is astonishing for its raw honesty. When he was a pastor, Eugene Peterson would often hear from his congregants that, after reading the Psalms, they told him they didn’t “expect this kind of thing in the Bible.” To which he would respond, “Did you think these would be the prayers of nice people? Did you think the psalmists’ language would be polished and polite?” Being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis has stripped away any pretensions of my having a polished and polite faith. As I wrestle with my literal sight, I’m reminded that, by definition, faith is “the substance of things hoped for, the assurance of things not seen.”

books, faith

The Dark Path, David Schickler

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Sitting at Easter Mass at the age of ten, David Schickler recalls listening to his “sweet wife cry while I watch the priest.” His wife’s name is Caitlin Brenner, though Schickler notes that she “hasn’t agreed to marry me yet.” “We rarely talk,” he writes, “but soon she’ll realize that we have each four syllables total in our names and both our last names end with -er. David Schickler. Caitlin Brenner. This means that we shall wed and have four children.”

Caitlin is crying because her cockier spaniel, Gus, died the week before. Schickler is caught between watching her (silently “bombarding her with woo”) and paying attention to the service. Leading Mass is Father Jonas — “young, with jet-black hair and a tan.” Schickler is enraptured with Father Jonas, who is “powerful because he’s a priest, but he’s also just cool.” As Father Jonas raises the wafer for the Eucharist, and Caitlin continues sniffling, young David’s ten-year-old mind tries to hold the two seemingly irreconcilable things in balance. He feels a pull toward the priesthood; he also loves women. “I’m caught between them,” he says simply.

Of all the books we’ve read and not blogged about over the past three years, Schickler’s The Dark Path is our favorite. (Fourth of July Creek is right up there though.) We were already predisposed to like it based on a short story of Schickler’s called “The Smoker.” It appeared in the June 19, 2000 edition of The New Yorker; it chronicled the surprising romantic relationship between a high school English teacher and his star pupil. Yes, this sounds tawdry and scandalous. (And, as two high school English teachers, we can never recommend it to our students. Ever.) The story is anything but. It is surprising, moving, and hilarious. (Read it. Right now. We’ll wait.)

Within a week of the story’s publication, Schickler had a six-figure, two-book contract. The story later appeared in a collection entitled Kissing in Manhattan, an uneven but promising group of tales about characters who lived in or passed through a storied apartment building in Manhattan called The Preemption. Schickler then published a novel, Sweet & Vicious, which featured one of the funniest first page-and-a-halves we’ve ever read before taking familiar thematic elements (crime and a cross-country chase; star-crossed lovers) and putting an offbeat spin on them (Grace McClone, the heroine, is “trying for heaven”; she’s an authentic Christian character who appears to have wandered into the wrong book, until you realize it’s a Schickler novel and just go with it).

The Dark Path is a memoir, and it takes the themes swirling around in Kissing in Manhattan and Sweet & Vicious (love, faith, family, sexual desire, hints of violence) and casts them in a personal light. The Schicklers are a devout Christian family (David has three sisters, and there are hints in his childhood — as when his father catches him dancing in the basement to “Summer Nights” from the Grease soundtrack — that his parents are deeply concerned he might be gay), and although Schickler becomes an altar boy, he feels closest to God on “the dark path” — a spot in the woods, full of shadows, close to his house. “My problem is, I like abiding in darkness,” Schickler writes:

I like the dark path, the low, forever shadows among the trees. For me, God is in that darkness. He’s not a devil, or a tree, or a wood sprite. He’s the Lord, He just happens to be in darkness.

Why do we like Schickler (and in particular, The Dark Path) so much? Because we feel like we’ve been on the dark path with him. Our road to faith is not, like the vocabulary of Father Anselm in The Dark Path (who uses words like “nifty” and “dilly”) “scrubbed too clean.” Schickler deploys profanity well; his memoir crackles with curse words, which counterbalance the spiritual themes and make them more approachable, less preachy. Schickler says, “As a writer, I’ll never be a Sunday-morning kind of guy. For whatever reasons, I am good at writing only about Saturday night things, about guns and screwing and liquor and murder and laughter and desperate kissing.” We like Saturday night stories that still locate Sunday morning themes. So Schickler is our guy on that front.

Likewise, Schickler’s ability to write humorously and honestly about matters of faith is what makes The Dark Path so winning. When a choir member wears “an alarmingly yellow dress,” Schickler writes that “she is so yellow, I can’t pray.” The usher, Mr. Bonticello, wears a robin’s-egg-blue suit which disturbs Schickler “because the color is too weak and too lame to have anything to do with God.” When Schickler wins a Religion Award in eighth grade, one of his friends signs his yearbook, Nice Going, Jesus Tard!

On his journey to live a godly life as well as love women, Schickler inevitably stumbles and sins and has his heart broken. (He also does some breaking of his own.) His is the story of a sinner who is unafraid to lay it all out on the table, even to laugh at some of the most excruciating moments. There’s a dance contest toward the end of the memoir which could be straight out of Silver Linings Playbook, and like that film, it manages uplift and sentimentality without being cheesy or cloying. Also like the film, The Dark Path nails a happy ending that feels hard-won — unexpected, but deserved.

parenthood

Conversations That Did And Did Not Happen During My Son’s First Major League Baseball Game

The Pittsburgh Pirates games that I (Ben) attended with my dad back in the 1980s have taken on mythical status in my memory. Every summer, starting when I was around seven, we drove to Pittsburgh on the first weekend of August and caught the Saturday night and Sunday matinee games at Three Rivers Stadium. The Pirates of the mid-to-late 80s (think Tony Pena, Johnny Ray, Bill Madlock and Jose DeLeon, who had a 2-19 record in 1985) were abysmal, a far cry from the “We Are Family” champs of 1979 (and this indelible picture of Dave Parker from 1980) and years away from the Killer B’s (Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla, though Jay Bell and Sid Bream were honorary members) and the great 1990-1992 teams. But that didn’t matter. I was going to baseball games with my dad. They remain some of my best memories with him.

On Sunday, I took Sam (a few months shy of five) to his first major league game at Great American Ballpark, where the Reds hosted the Giants. The following are conversations that did and did not happen during our father-son outing. See if you can guess which is which!

—–

BEN: “Son, you may not realize this now, but in thirty years time you may very well look back on this afternoon and think to yourself, ‘That was maybe the best day of my life.'”

SAM: “Father, I have no doubt as to your wisdom or the veracity of that statement. [looks up admiringly] You’re the best dad. Ever.”

—–

BEN: “No, we are not paying six dollars for a hot dog when you didn’t eat the lunch I made you before we left.”

SAM: “But I really want a hot dog!”

BEN: “Oh, ok. One hot dog, please.”

SAM: “And a popcorn!”

BEN [sighs]: “And a popcorn. Also a bottled water please.”

ATTENDANT: “That will be eighty-six dollars.”

—–

BEN: “Son, look at these seats! What a great view! And take a deep breath. Do you smell that? The fresh cut grass. Summer just around the corner. That distinct whiff of ozone right before a thunderstorm that will entail a thirty minute rain delay which sends us running under the bleachers and during which you will not comment repeatedly on how boring this is.”

SAM: “Yes, I can smell that too. You are wise, father.”

—–

BEN: “You see the players in the red uniforms? We’re rooting for them. They’re the Cincinnati Reds.”

SAM: “Who are the other players?”

BEN: “Those are the Giants.”

SAM: “They’re not very big.”

BEN: “No they’re not.”

—–

BEN: “Now, son, in this situation I don’t think Heston will give Billy Hamilton much to hit because first base is open and the pitcher is due up next.”

SAM: “True, father, except that DeSclafani is definitely coming out after this inning since his slider hasn’t been working for him and the Giants have already lit him up for six runs. So I’m sure Bryan Price is going to pinch hit for him.”

BEN: “An astute point, son. I have raised you well.”

—–

BEN: “See those smokestacks out there in center field? When a Reds player hits a home run, they shoot fireworks out of them!”

SAM: “But you said someone just hit a home run. Why weren’t there any fireworks?”

BEN: “Because that was Hunter Pence. He plays for the Giants.”

SAM: “Oh. Why does that man over there keep yelling?”

BEN: “Well, he really wants the Reds to win.”

SAM: “But why does he keep yelling?”

BEN: “I guess he’s just an angry person.”

SAM: “Who’s he yelling at?”

BEN: “Bryan Price. Isn’t this fun? What a great day for a baseball game!”

SAM: “Can I have more popcorn?”

—–

BEN: “Son, rooting for the hometown baseball team is part of what it means to be a Vore man. Your mother may not understand this — she prefers those effete European sports like soccer — and she will probably never take you to a baseball stadium, as she would rather, given the choice, be tormented by an eagle tearing at her liver each and every night whilst she is tied to a rock by adamanite chains than sit through nine innings of a baseball game. Now whether you become a Reds fan or follow in the footsteps of your father and cheer on the Pirates, I leave that up to you. Do you understand what I am saying, son? This is a rite of passage, and you are in that liminal state between youth and adulthood — between being a boy and becoming a man. What is transpiring now, as the Reds come to bat in the bottom of the fourth inning down six runs to five and Yusmeiro Petit faces the top of the Reds lineup, is something that transcends the temporal and reaches for the eternal. Do you grasp this son?”

SAM: “Yes, father. Does this also mean I’m old enough to drink a Miller Lite from that passing vendor?”

BEN: “Not when it’s eight-fifty a pop, absolutely not.”

—–

BEN: “Well, this is fun. Who’s having fun?”

SAM: “I need to go to the bathroom.”

BEN: “You’ve gone twice in the last twenty minutes!”

SAM: “But I need to GO.”

BEN: “Can you hold it until the end of the inning?”

SAM: “Is that when the game’s over?”

BEN: “No, that’s when the fourth inning is over.”

SAM: “I’m ready to go home.”

BEN: “If we hang around you might get to see some fireworks!”

SAM: “Home.”

BEN: “You don’t want to stay a little longer?”

SAM: “Can I have another hot dog?”

BEN: “All right, we’re leaving.”

reds