17 February 2012

Heart & Soul: Another Gem from Adam Gopnik

Having so thoroughly enjoyed The King in the Window, I went searching for other children's books by Adam Gopnik, and happily discovered The Steps Across the Water (2010). Another delight! We're nearing the end of the book at this point, but here's an excellent excerpt from early on (chapter two):

"'Excited for your big day at school today, Partly?' her father asked {Rose} as he walked her to school. He liked calling her 'Partly' because one of her classmates was named 'Stormy.' It had been raining the night her friend was born, and her parents had wanted to remember that fact. 'If we had followed the same principle,' Rose's father liked to say, 'then you might have been called something like "Partly Cloudy with a Chance of Showers." And just "Partly" for short.'

"Of course, Rose knew that her father didn't really know what the weather had been like the night she was born {since she was adopted}, and that he was trying to make her feel more 'normal' by pretending that he did. It was also true that the kids in her class often had odd names. There was Stormy and Summer-Song, even a boy named Angle.

"'Dad . . .' Rose said.

"'What?' her father asked.

"'You know.'

"'No, sweetie. I'm not sure I follow.'

"'I hate school,' Rose said.

"Rose, of course, didn't really hate her school, but sometimes she could only get her parents' attention by exaggerating her emotions.

"'How can you hate school? You do so many wonderful things there. Don't you enjoy doing interpretive dances of Orpheus and Eurydice to the music of John Coltrane?' he asked. That's what they did in school when they weren't going to the Brooklyn Bridge or the Empire State Building and writing poems about them.

"'I just do,' Rose said. 'I hate it. I think all the other kids hate me.'

"'Nobody could hate you. Just as you don't hate them,' her father objected. 'You just don't love them. Sometimes you just have to struggle with people you're supposed to love but don't really like. That's part of life.'

"'Fine. But I hate it.'

"The truth, though, was that Rose didn't really hate her school, and especially not her teacher, Ms. Elizabeth Elder. She thought she was actually quite interesting when she talked about Greek myths, and even nice at times, when she talked about the history of jazz.

"'She's cold,' Rose insisted.

"'Well, maybe Ms. Elder doesn't have warmth, but does she have heart?'

"'What's the difference?'

"'Someone with warmth shows their affection. Someone with heart appreciates life, but doesn't always show it. You know what's more important than heart or warmth?'


"'Soul. Someone with soul. And do you know what's more important than soul?'

"'What, Dad?'

"'Money,' he answered moodily. 'Which we don't got, Rosebud. But which do you really think is most important?'

"Rose sensed that her father was exaggerating his emotions in the same way that she exaggerated hers. They both used the morning walk as an opportunity to vent their feelings in the gloomiest possible way. It was sort of understood between them. So now she made a little joke to let her father know that she knew that he was joking.

"'The ones with the fewest syllables,' she said.

"He laughed. 'Good answer. Look at the mannequin in the window! She's bursting her gussets.'

"Every morning they walked by a clothes store with one very large mannequin in the window.

"'Hey, kiddo,' her father said quickly, and Rose knew that he was thinking about what her mother would say. 'I don't want you to get the impression that it's important for women to be thin. You know — whatever weight . . .'

"'Dad. I know,' Rose said. She could sometimes say her dad's name the way that {her big brother} Oliver said hers. It was funny, she thought — the thing about someone being in the same family was that you knew when they were sort of joking, when they were sort of serious, when they were truly serious, and when they said one thing but were thinking of something else — the way that her father must have been thinking of her mother when he said that thing about women being fat.

"'You know, Dad,' she said, trying to express this as best she could, 'it's actually sort of appropriate that you would call me "Partly," because we each partly understand all of what the other one is thinking.'

"Her father actually stopped walking when she said that, and took her by the hand and said quietly, in that goopy way grown-ups often have, 'Rosie! I'll think about that all day. Or part of it, at least.'"
(The Steps Across the Water, 23-27).

16 February 2012

A Short Little Sample of Stuck-ness

From my recent reading, an excerpt from Stuck (2008), by Anneli S. Rufus. I happened upon this book by accident, on clearance in the bargain bin at Barnes & Noble. It can also be gotten pretty cheap on Amazon, especially if one looks at the used copies in the Amazon marketplace. Well worth it, in my opinion. It's been a humbling read, but thought-provoking and helpful to my own self-examination. I don't agree with the author on everything, but find many of her perspectives to be challenging and refreshing, and worthy of consideration. Anyway, here's a snippet from today's reading (from the chapter dealing with attitudes toward jobs):

"We're stuck in a perpetual state of job dissatisfaction, because we're stuck in a perpetual state of financial anxiety — or actually stuck in perpetual debt. In this materialistic society, money burns holes in our pockets. Trying to escape debt, we're forever scrambling to earn more than we spend. This is the most important add/subtract/divide in our lives, yet we stare at those numbers and scratch our heads as if we missed that lesson in second grade. As soon as our wages increase, so does our discretionary spending. On that fixed treadmill, no job can ever pay 'enough.' Thus, what we actually do all day matters less than how much we earn.

"Interviewing her fellow twentysomethings for her book Generation Debt, Anya Kamenetz noted a pervasive sense of 'real disappointment' among 'millions of young people trapped in low-wage jobs' because 'the nature of youth jobs has changed in the past generation, tilting decisively toward the grinding, the impersonal, and the dead end.'

"Really? At what point in history were youth jobs systematically stimulating, personal, and promising?

"One bitter young interviewee, mired in student-loan and credit-card debt, derided her retail job and called college — where she'd been led to believe that a degree was her ticket to meaningful work — a 'scam.'

"'Following your heart,' Kamenetz concludes, 'can lead to low income, unemployment, and a lifetime of debt.'

"Well, sure — especially if our hearts race off on wild, smiley-face stampedes unmoored to reality. And/or if we expect too much too soon. In fields such as plumbing and drafting and tool-and-die-making, only after a three-to-four-year apprenticeship with a master is one eligible to take a test that, if passed, allows one to obtain a journeyman's license. Further years of experience await before one can certify as a master.

"We've lost our patience along with our attention spans. But most important, we've lost our ability, even our desire, to save. Much of the debt that young Americans accumulate, and which panics them as they enter the working world, occurs via abundant credit-card use in college or even before. A study by the nonprofit research group Demos reveals that credit-card debt among Americans age eighteen to twenty-four rose a whopping 104 percent between 1992 and 2001; in 2001, the average eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-old carried nearly $3,000 in debt and spent some 30 percent of his or her total income on debt payments — double the 1992 average.

"What a huge gamble: spending money you don't actually have, based on how much you want to have or imagine that you will someday have. And spending it on what? American eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds pay for at least half their purchases with credit cards and debit cards. While some of that spending goes toward tuition, housing, and other essentials, much has been shown to be for luxuries that young people — or any people — in previous generations and other cultures would never dream of buying. That sense of entitlement leads directly to job dissatisfaction. Young people don't just dream of rich futures, they're staking their whole well-being on such futures.

"So young, so far in hock, they're stuck before they start.

"Nearly any entry-level wages will seem small to someone with a four-figure debt. Playing perpetual catch-up, you're guaranteed to feel restless and resentful. Whatever even dimly silvery lining a job might have is overwhelmed by incontrovertible numbers.

"This isn't the job's fault. It's the debt's fault. Which is, more or less, the debtor's fault.

"And most Americans are debtors.

"And thus we wish our working lives away" (Stuck, 277-279).

02 February 2012

Everything Has Something to do with the Beatles

"'Charlie, it's not a game. I'm afraid it's desperately serious.'

"'Serious games are the only kind of game I like.'

"So Oliver gave Charlie the same rundown that he had given to Mrs. Pearson, only he tried to make this version shorter and more to the point.

"When he was finished, Charlie looked at him in a friendly — in fact, in a slightly too friendly — manner.

"'Oliver,' he said, 'if that's, like, your reality, cool. Your parents are like, also really supportive about this?'

"'I haven't told them.'

"Charlie looked as if he was repressing a smile.

"'Charlie, this is serious. Anyway, what does "supportive" mean?'

"For a second Charlie looked lost. 'It's — uh — it's an American word that means, sort of, you may be nuts but you have a right to be nuts in your own way. Hey, I like your thinking on this, Ollie. We had to do something like it for credit in symbolic archetype class — that's what they used to call English, but Randi decided to change it. Now we do archetypal symbolic information analysis. I mean, we each had to create our own myth, and draw our own mandala and everything. And then we had to, like, analyze everybody's archetypes. Personally, I'm thinking of becoming a Buddhist. They worship lettuce.'

"'Charlie, you don't understand. This is desperately serious. This is real.'

"'Hey, Ollie,' Charlie said reprovingly, and he held up a finger solemnly. 'Like the Beatles said, nothing is real.'

"'This is real.'

"'On the other hand,' said Charlie Gronek, settling down with a pillow on Oliver's bed, 'they also said although she feels as if she's in a play, she is anyway. Which is different.'

"'Charlie, this has absolutely nothing to do with the Beatles.'

"'Oliver, sooner or later everything has something to do with the Beatles.'

"Charlie reflected for a moment. 'Okay. I can't see any fun for me in not believing you. And if I do believe you — why, it could be fun. So I believe you, Ollie.'

"Oliver was unhappy, and he threw himself back down on his bed.

"'That's not really believing me, Charlie. Believing me for fun is not the same thing as believing me.'

"'Well, maybe that's the way we believe things in America. Anyway, no one else believes you right now, so you might as well take my kind of believing'" (The King in the Window, 136-37).

The Point of Rhetoric

From The King in the Window (2005), by Adam Gopnik:

"'Imagine all the people looking in their windows, searching for their joy through the lens of their longing! The small boy staring at a train in a toy store window. The woman wanting a hat in the window of Christian Dior; a hungry man staring in the window of the pâtissier who desires a mille-feuilles that he denies himself . . .'

"Oliver seemed to see the people as Racine named each one: the little boy looking into a department store on Christmas Eve on a chilly Parisian boulevard, and the middle-aged lady in her gray suit staring at the hat, and the fat man desiring his pastry, all of them filled with longing as they stared into windows. . . .

"Racine's speech might be very rhetorical, Oliver thought — very fancy and full of metaphors — but it was also extremely affecting, and for the first time Oliver could really see the point of rhetoric. It dressed up ordinary things in fancy paper, and then let you unwrap them in your mind, like presents.

"Racine shut his eyes and paused, and then his chant continued. 'Just think about all the people looking out! The lonely bachelor staring out the window of his study at the children playing in the field below . . . the longing lover peering through the window where the beauties flow . . . the museum guard staring out at the busy street . . .'

"And once again Oliver could see with Racine all the lonely people, the sad old man and the unhappy lover and the rest, all looking out of windows at the things they longed for. He reached out to touch them, but his hand passed right through them" (The King in the Window, 75-76).