Monday, May 26, 2008

Life in 10 seconds

I'm now reading Wicked by Gregory Maguire and, while volunteering on set crew for the little theater in my hometown, relearning how to use a drill without stripping the screws.

Welcome to NAA

Hello, and welcome to the first online NAA meeting - Nostalgia Addicts Anonymous.

I, like many other college graduates, am experiencing the first pangs of that deadly disease, nostalgia, which transforms memories of moderate enjoyment into paeans of pure joy.

Nostalgia is a little bit like quicksand - it sucks you in almost before you realize you are sinking.

It's a dangerous disease. I find myself spending increasing amounts of time on Facebook, gazing at pictures of friends, trips, and campus life. I am snared by the recollection of deep conversations at 3 a.m. that left me groggy and unfocused the next day. I am transfixed by thoughts of class discussions for classes I whined daily about having to attend. It's a dangerous and deadly disease.

Thank goodness for my memories of the campus dining experience: "keepin' it real; keepin' it regular."

I'm starting to settle into the routine of my summer job: 8 hours a day sitting in front of a computer or a book. Until I get a better schedule of regular exercise, my sleeping habits currently consist of going to bed about midnight and eventually falling asleep around 5 a.m. Not the best scenario.

My dreams too are full of memories. I wonder if my inability to sleep is partially due to the sense that I am missing out on something that I cannot find - the friends, the constant activity and energy I have left behind.

So I am taking a deliberate if reluctant stand along with other graduates against nostalgia.

As my sister told me recently, being a graduate is a little bit like being a freshman again. Getting involved is inevitably awkward. Trying to define yourself is next to impossible. But it is not neverending. The line between is blurred, but one day you wake up and realize you have a new niche: somewhere you belong, somewhere that is home.

In the meantime, the summer is hurrying by as slowly as it can. Fall means graduate school applications and visits, as well as (more) standardized test taking. It also means time to find a new occupation for the year. Right now, the need for income, insurance, and independence is leading me to enter the job market.

Onward and upward. The best cure for nostalgia is opening the doors to increased opportunity for rejection, right?

Right. Surely it can only get better from here.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Book Review: Lady Macbeth (2008)

Ever since I performed in a campus production of "Macbeth," and even before, I have been fascinated by Lady Macbeth. Of all Shakespearean villains, she ranks alongside the likes of Iago and Richard III. Among female villains, she is probably one of the most infamous.

Many of Shakespeare's characters plot and commit murders in pursuit of power, but few do it with the sheer evil style of Lady Macbeth. In the course of five acts, the lady calls on witches, vows to dash out the brains of her children if she breaks her word, asks that her milk be made poison, and drives her husband to overcome his natural loyalty to make a violent and bloody bid for the throne of Scotland.

Although it may seem unusual, Lady Macbeth's ultimate descent into madness sparks for me a kind of pity. Is she really as evil as she first appears? she just misrepresented?

This is the claim of Susan Fraser King in her 2008 novel, Lady Macbeth. King goes back to the historic annals of Scotland in a quest to uncover the plausible truth about Macbeth, his lady, and the dark legacy surrounding his reign.

The novel is told from the perspective of Gruadh inghean Bodhe mac Cineadh mhic Dubh--daughter of Bodhe son of Kenneth son of Duff. Gruadh is descended from both of the royal lines of Scotland and, from her birth, she has a viable claim to the throne.

So does any man connected to her by marriage. As a result, Gruadh's childhood is overshadowed by repeated kidnappings and forced marriage attempts, from which she is won back at the expense of lives: her brother, her guard, and others in her father's retinue.

Gruadh shares the fire and passion of Shakespeare's Lady. She decides early on to protect herself by training as a warrior, and she follows her mother's example in learning the arts of foresight and the brewing of magic potions.

After a short-lived first marriage, Gruadh is widowed when Mac bethad, a powerful warrior, kills her husband to revenge the death of his own father. Macbeth then takes Gruadh as his wife. Gruadh's fierce nature upholds her throughout, but it cripples her ability to conceive and bear children.

As the whims of the current king, Duncan, threaten the livelihood of Scots, Macbeth and Gruadh work to unite the kingdom of Scotland against the encroaching Saxons to the south and Norsemen to the north.

But even after Macbeth defeats Duncan and claims the crown, the king's son Malcolm returns to Scotland bearing Macbeth's doom and eventually driving Gruadh to a lonely exile, leaving him free to pervert her memory and the legacy of her husband.

Authenticity pervades King's work, from the traditional Gaelic rules of succession to the weighty and unfamiliar names. King's characters are particularly real. They are not without flaws, and many have a blood-lust unpalatable to modern readers, but they are sympathetic as they strive to make the best of their unique gifts and position in life.

Along the way, King tantalizes readers with the cameo appearances of familiar Shakespearean characters. In many cases, expectations are diverted, and roles are switched.

Instead of being the virile, uncompromising warrior, Macduff is an obsequious usurper of his cousin Gruadh's rightful title. Malcolm is not full of the many virtues he rattles off in Act IV; he is a treacherous and relentless foe. And Macbeth, the internally-conflicted tyrant, is a strong, proud, and honorable man who maintains the popular support of Scotland throughout his reign.

The greatest swap is, of course, Gruadh, the Lady Macbeth. There are traces of Shakespeare's legendary queen in the barren, hard-edged warrior princess. However, despite her flaws, King's Lady shows mercy and compassion while maintaining the strength necessary to protect her own. She feels deep remorse over those who die on her behalf, and she shares moments of true tenderness with Macbeth, her husband.

According to King, this is the real story of Mac bethad and his lady Gruadh, rex et regina Scotorum, as it might have been.

Although this novel may not replace popular conceptions of the cruel and ruthless Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, for someone who has always felt that there was more than the "brief candle" seen in Shakespeare, King's novel is an intriguing and captivating glimpse into the world of one of Scotland's most notorious queens.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Rejection and a million-dollar lesson

I wonder who created the form letter for rejection slips. Whoever did it was a master at saying very little and also very much.

In the last two days, I have received two such rejection letters: one for a piece of fiction, and another for an academic paper. Both letters were supremely diplomatic, along the lines of: "We regret that your submission does not meet our needs at this time."

They may be saying, "This is a piece of crap; why did you waste our time?" or the submission may actually not fit a theme they are preparing: the writer has no way to know.

Time constraints make it impossible for editors to respond personally to each submission. But it would be nice to know the reason behind the rejection.

I'm starting to realize that a lot of things in life are like that. It would be great to know why I didn't get into grad school, why the internships I applied for a few years ago didn't pan out, and why everything bad or frustrating in the world continues to happen.

Last night, I watched the cable premier of Million Dollar Baby, an incredibly depressing film that implicitly asks the same question. *SPOILER WARNING*

The film's protagonist, a thirty-year-old female boxer rises out of poverty and a life as a career waitress and fights to become a champion. At the height of her career, as she approaches victory in the championship match, a cruel trick by her opponent leaves her paralyzed from the neck down.

As she gradually loses hope, the audience asks, along with her and her old trainer, why? Our expectations are shattered. Movies like Remember the Titans, Cinderella Man, Seabiscuit, and every other copycat sports movie since has prepared us to expect the unlikely victor--the comeback kid--the cheer-despite-yourself ending.

Million Dollar Baby plays up that expectation, and then at the climax, hits the viewers with a surprise left hook and leaves us wondering, why? Why did it have to end that way? Did it have to end that way?

Although it is frustrating to some, I appreciate the fact that Million Dollar Baby does not provide easy answers or consolation. I like a happy ending as much as anyone, but 'happily ever after' has more meaning if not every story ends that way.

In my personal life, I'm also discovering just how much I can learn from each inexplicable disappointment. I'm a stubborn person. If someone tells me: "This is what you're doing wrong," my first inclination is to argue. If someone just says "no," as the rejection letter does, I have to figure it out for myself.

It's like reading back over a paper that was given a poor grade without comment and trying to find what you did wrong. Half of the time, I can find more areas to improve than the professor may have seen in the first place.

Being disappointed without reasons is one of the most unpleasant feelings in the world. But after the pain dulls, and you take a step back to reevaluate, it can be a valuable learning experience.

AFTER the pain dims. And heaven help anyone who tries to tell me that as an answer instead of letting me discover it for myself.

Friday, May 16, 2008

"Making" memories

Is it possible to suffocate in computer files? I am starting to wonder...I am currently being overrun by pictures of my own graduation. I'm not even sure how many pictures I currently have. They keep pouring in, more quickly than I can count.

I think it would be safe to call graduation a photo frenzy. When you have a class picture and mothers are bobbing up and down trying to take a picture over the mothers in front of them, swarming around the legs of the professional photographer's ladder, jockeying for the best position, and waving frantically so that their child, at least, will be smiling into the camera, I think that qualifies as a frenzy.

It's not just mothers, of course. In between walking across a stage and grabbing a piece of paper with their name on it, graduates are busing snatching friends out of the crowd and asking random strangers, "Will you take a picture of us?"

Looking back over the dozen identical friend-shots in my pictures, I find myself wondering why.

The same thing is true to a lesser degree at any memorable event--a birthday, a wedding, a trip, a "first" or a "last." Especially a "last."

We have a sense of urgency, as if without the picture, the friendship isn't real. As if all the memories we've shared will vanish unless they are captured on film.

A photo is essentially a little square of laminated cardboard with a blur of colors on it. The heart of a friendship cannot be squashed between the glass and backing of a frame. When we look back at a photo, it isn't the same as the real thing. A photo may capture a rare smile--pure and free of posing, or the unconscious tilting of two heads toward each other. But even that is just a glimpse of what the friendship means.

At graduation, it is as if we fear the friendships, the memories, never really existed except in our memory. We take precautions just in case we don't go on to make new memories. We realize, just for a moment, how temporal and ethereal our lives and interactions really are.

And this photo frenzy says something about our desire to validate our lives. It is a desire to say "I mattered." Or "I was important to the people around me." In many ways, I think it shows our own insecurity about who we are and what others think of us. We don't trust reality to reinforce our identity; we need the little pieces of thin cardboard that we can hold up and say, "See!"

I took as many photos as anyone else. I share the insecurity, the desire for validation, the sense of temporality. And I don't think it is entirely a bad thing. For one, it makes me think about the effort that goes into maintaining friendship. It also makes me value the friendships I am lucky enough to have. And it reminds me that worth, value, is so fleeting when it is based on the things of this world.

I have been reading the book "Searching for God Knows What" by Donald Miller, the author of "Blue Like Jazz." One of his central ideas is what he calls the "Lifeboat Theory." He says:

"If people are in a lifeboat, the reason they feel passionately about being a good person and all is because if they aren't, they are going to be thrown overboard...These wants we have, like wanting to be right, wanting to be good, wanting to be perceived as humble, wanting to be important to people and wanting to be loved, feel perilous, as though by not getting them something terrible is going to happen..."

Even though taking photographs at a graduation ceremony is simple, harmless, and can be very meaningful to look back on, it also reflects just a hint of that same needy feeling: a sort of grappling for validation. Miller says it well a few pages later:

"What if when we are with God, we feel that we have glory, we feel His love for us and know, in a way infinitely more satisfying than a parent's love or a lover's love, that we matter?...So many times...I feel like I am in a lifeboat trying to get other people to say I am important and valued, and even when they do, it feels as though their opinion isn't strong enough to give me the feeling I need, the feeling that quit at the Fall."

I love looking through my graduation pictures and seeing the subtle emotions they capture. But even more than that, I love looking at them and thinking about the next time I will see my friends face to face.

Because while this fractured validation has meaning, it is nothing compared to face-to-face validation, just as earthly validation is nothing compared to that found in relationship with the Creator of meaning and value.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Life in 10 seconds

I'm now reading The Brothers Karamazov, by Dostoevsky, and rejoicing over finding a place to go contra dancing every week.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Moving out and moving on

When many students move to college, they experience something we call "homesickness." Maybe they have never been away from home before; maybe they miss having someone take care of them. Perhaps they miss friends and family; perhaps they miss being at the top of the totem pole instead of at the bottom.

Being homesick the first few weeks at college is accepted, even expected. But what happens when you graduate from college?

All of your belongings are piled into a vehicle. Reams of paper are waiting in the recycling bin. Mounds of dirty laundry rest on top of desk lamps, computer cords, and a small rectancular piece of paper that says your college years have not been wasted.

It's time to drive away. For me, that time came last night about 9 o'clock. I was packed; I had checked out of my room; I had said farewell to friends and fellow graduates. As I pulled onto the interstate, a wave of something much like homesickness swept over me.

All I could think about were the empty windows of my college housing, the expanses of grass where we had snowball fights and lolled about in the spring sunshine, the labs where I worked until 5 a.m. finishing that last paper, the stage where I discovered a new passion, and the many faculty members and students who touched my life.

I am "homesick" for college in a very real way. I think it's natural to feel this way. I've spent four years of my life with these people, in this place. They are family to me, and it is home.

So now I have to ask myself the questions college freshman often ask: How do I move on from here? How do I keep the memories alive without dwelling in the past and missing out on the present? These are difficult questions that not even the many miles of dark, winding interstate are sufficient to answer.

Friday, May 9, 2008

To fill in the Gap

In the essay "Why I Write," George Orwell said,

"I do not think one can assess a writer's motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in --at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own-- but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape. It is his job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage, in some perverse mood; but if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write."

In two days, I will graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in English and writing. 2008-2009 will be a gap year for me before I return to academia to pursue my Ph.D.

This blog is a exploration and a promise.

While I am absent from official academia, I intend to stay active mentally and engaged intellectually. The impulse to write has been a key aspect of my personal development. In many ways, I write to ask and answer the big questions in my life.

But for me, writing is more than self-expression. It can trigger emotions, inspire new perspectives, and reinforce or challenge existing social conditions and norms. My aspiration, albeit a wild one, is to do most of these things. This blog is a vehicle for its beginning. Orwell also said,

"So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information."

His impulse and mine are very similar. Scraps of description, poetry, prose, book reviews, reflections on life, and much more are the paraphenalia of my brain that I toss out as the moment dictates. If you care to read along, I welcome your company.