Sunday, December 16, 2012

I bawled like a baby

I write infrequently on here, and I should write more, I think. But these days I am so busy with teaching and working on a novel and other matters that I end up having less time than I wish to log on and post my thoughts. Sometimes, however, circumstances arise that I need  to put into words that only can be addressed in a format like this one. Friday was one of those.

I don't know how it happened, but I got through the entire day without hearing about the horrific events at Newtown, CT. For a joyful and benign additional eight or nine hours of my life, the words "Sandy Hook Elementary School" meant absolutely nothing to me and the name "Adam Lanza" even less. I usually have at least one news aggregate site open during the day, but I was so busy with conferences on Friday that I never had time to do so. And my students and colleagues, who normally could be counted on as sources of information when stories of this magnitude are happening, either were equally ignorant or never said a word in my earshot. So I blissfully and naively proceeded through my day, my only major issues wondering how on earth I was going to complete the units I was in so I could test on them prior to break.

And then I came home.

As usual, my husband Dirk had already arrived and was lying in our bed, doing some work on his laptop, so I snuggled up to him and asked about his day. After telling me, he noted my smiling face and asked why I was in such a good mood.

"No reason," I offered. "Just good to be home for the weekend."

And that's when he said it: "You haven't heard about the shooting."

I sat up. "I have the feeling that you're about to ruin my good mood," I said.

He was expressionless (which, to be fair, is his normal facial condition). "There was a shooting in school in Connecticut. Twenty kids are dead."

And I absolutely lost it.

I do not know what happened. I know I said "Oh God" several times and something about it being "worse than Columbine," but I have no real idea why it affected me the way it did. The tears started falling and the sobs followed, tears and sobs for kids far away and for a world gone completely insane, for an innocence lost long ago that has fallen so far into the gutter that it can never return, for kids whose lives had been ended by a gunman--AGAIN!--so abruptly while they should have been safe...

And then it suddenly occurred to me that Dirk had never said "high school." And a horror rose within me. I could barely make the words come out.

"High school?"

"It was a grade school."

This was not anything I could have conceived of. The notion of little children... I think I might have wailed. I know Dirk opened his arms and enfolded me to him. I know we stayed that way for a very long time, him holding me and me sobbing, in pain, trying to make sense of something that made no sense at all, trying to make sense even of my overwhelming reaction to it all, which also made no sense but I could not stop it.

Little children. The only ones among us who still have any innocence. Little children.

Eventually I sat up, knowing I needed to get to my own computer and read about this, knowing that the only way to deal with it is to try to comprehend it, knowing too that there was no real way I would ever comprehend it.

In the hours and days to follow, I would grow angry (angrier) about the gun culture in America. I would publicly on Facebook declare that, no matter what my gun-owning friends and siblings say, it is time NOW for this to stop. It is time NOW to start passing common sense gun laws in this country, to begin the end of events like these, events so horrible that they can only be known by the names of places: Columbine, Virginia Tech, Phoenix, Aurora, Newtown. I would learn that Westboro Baptist Church plans to protest outside of Sandy Hook Elementary, and I would wonder what kind of a human being I am when the first reaction I had to that news was to wish that Adam Lanza had targeted them. And I would watch the most beautiful and powerful tribute to these lost little souls on--of all places--Saturday Night Live, which so often has its hands on the zeitgeist and in this case seemed to know exactly what we all needed.

But on Friday evening, all I needed was to understand. And the truth is that I never would. None of us ever, ever will.

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Friday, April 20, 2012

Why I am silent today

Today is Friday, April 19, 2013.

As a high school teacher, I am acutely aware that this is the day that GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, Straight Educators' Network) designates annually as the National Day of Silence, an event that honors the fact that hundreds of thousands of LGBT teens across America are voiceless in the face of continued harassment and bullying that they face on a daily basis simply because they are gay or transgender. My school, with a fairly new Alliance group, is bringing this day to the attention of the community for only the fourth time--the third, really, since the first was a minor experiment involving only a very few people.

I am not talking today.

How can I? As a human being, how can I not give my full support to something like this, an event that brings needed attention to a subject that utterly breaks my heart? As a teacher, how can I not lead by example? And as a transgender woman, the single most visible member of the GLBT community in this building, how can I not be a part of this--especially in a school that last year saw our student body suffer three (probably non-GLBT related) suicides? There was never a question.

In the hallways I see many students--not the hundreds I would hope for, but at least a hundred or perhaps a bit more--wearing purple, the color selected to show support for this cause. Pretty much the entire English Department, to which I belong, is doing so. Of course we are: we're the touchy-feely department, after all. I know of dozens of students and several teachers who have opted to show solidarity by, like me, vowing not to speak all day. Almost my entire freshman class opted not to: a real surprise, as they have not been a group to show any real support for causes. I passed a gaggle of non-speakers between periods earlier, an odd meeting in which six students and a teacher crossed paths and not a sound issued from anyone, not even when one student's backpack accidentally bumped me. She turned and flashed an "I'm sorry" look, which I acknowledged. It was all that was needed. I also had an awkward moment entering the mailroom when, walking down some stairs, I slammed my hip against a rail. At any other time, I would have cried out. Not today. And it certainly was interesting working on a play in a drama class in which the teacher and half of the class were not speaking.

I just clicked on the Huffington Post and found an article about a man who set his son on fire when he learned that he was gay and HIV positive. A gay teacher in Ohio was fired after being outed in her mother's obituary. A candidate for president in Pakistan says he would shoot himself in the testicles if his son were gay. A woman jailed for exposing her breasts was referred to as a "thing" and placed with the male population when officers learned she was transgender. This is the world these kids are growing up in. People justify this rampant hatred and stupidity in the name of religion, and in the meanwhile teenagers are bullied in schools, suffer daily, and some--too many, but then one is too many--kill themselves to end the suffering. When is this going to stop? When is the rabid stupidity of hatred going to burn itself out in the world and in this country? When are people going to realize that they are killing children in their insane pursuit of their zealous religious beliefs, which are the result in the first place of words in a book that is an often questionable translation of a document that was written centuries after the time of Christ, parts of which were carefully picked and chosen by a group of cardinals to further their own political agendas?

There is enough "good" in the "good book" to justify its nickname, but there is considerable evil in its pages as well, the result of outdated social mores and outmoded politics. To take its words as--pardon the pun--gospel--is completely nuts. To do so in a way that actually contradicts the main tenets of the religion you claim to believe in is beyond insane, and yet this is exactly what these people do. Again and again the Bible commands us to love, but the things these people follow foment hatred. How can they reasonably justify this even to themselves?

The answer is and has always been simple: fear. People fear what they do not understand. And they do not understand what is "other." I have been teaching here for thirty years. The first fifteen of them, I looked like a man, though I knew I was not. Oh, I was living a male life, but I was hiding my truth inside. When I transitioned, there were many who didn't get it, who stayed clear. I lost friends. But I have taught as myself--as a woman--as long as I did so as a man. It's a milestone. Almost no one remembers that guy anymore. He's ancient history. But I am still very visible. And today I make myself more visible than usual.

I want to reach out and tell all of the GLBT kids here not just that it gets better--I've done that, and of course it will: they will not be trapped in the socially incestuous four year nightmare that is high school forever--but that they shouldn't need it to. I want them to know that they should understand how amazingly special they are, that they have been given a gift none of their classmates have been given. If there is pain along with it, it is the pain of misunderstanding, of not seeing the gift for what it is. For they end up possessing knowledge that most of their peers will achieve minimally, if at all. Who among the GLBT community does not understand the nature of hatred and the importance of love? Who among the GLBT community cannot tell you of their deep understanding of their own nature, the end result of the struggle they faced to discover it? Who among the GLBT community--those who have accepted themselves--cannot talk of the unequaled joy of living a life that is true? Who among us cannot appreciate the real value of a true friend?

Is it hard? Of course it's hard? What worthwhile thing is not hard? But those who don't have to struggle for this kind of knowledge probably never actually come into it. Not in the way we do. There is something uniquely special about GLBT kids, and there is something almost amazing about being one today (as opposed to, say, when I was in high school, back in the Stone Age). I read the articles, watch the videos, and dream about what it might have been like for me as a TG teen if my world in the 70s had been like this one. (I suppose, given that it was the 70s, that I would not be approaching my 30th year in this conservative high school district, but no matter.) My point is that their opportunities are boundless compared with what I faced then. My forty years in the closet were a direct result of believing that transition for me was completely impossible. If I could have seen a way to do it as puberty hit...!

I have many blessings that have come with the life I ended up leading, and I do not regret them. But today's kids can do things I could never imagine. Sadly, there is so much hatred in this world that a lot of those kids can't find the open door standing before them leading into the world of possibility. More sadly, too many of these kids end up never making it past their teen years, cut down before even knowing where the path is that leads to that door.

So today my "voice" is a marker on a smart board or text on a tablet. Like many others, I am honoring this Day of Silence.

It is not enough.

But it is something.

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Monday, March 26, 2012

Hunger Games--response to critics

When I was first offered The Hunger Games to read, shortly after its publication, I looked at the blurb on its cover and was so instantly turned off that I refused. It was only in the wake of the publication of Mockingjay, when I understood that this book had spawned a series that many of my students had read passionately, that I decided that it was a book I ought to read. And I am very glad that I did. I have read many novels about dystopian futures in my life, and several in the YA category, but none (at least in that category) that has been able to accomplish what Collins accomplished in The Hunger Games and its sequels. It would require a post a lot longer than the one I am prepared to author right now to discuss the many levels of her social commentary, but even in its most overt levels--the ubiquity of our television-dominated culture and how easily we can be manipulated through the media, as well as the unparalleled imbalance of wealth and power between the few and the many in our world today--Collins goes so much further than most authors of such books ever manage to. And in creating the character of Katniss, someone for young girls to see as a literary figure whom they can look up to, a worthy successor to Buffy Summers (unlike Bella Swan, whose single goal of being with Edward Cullen drives her to abandon education, family, even life itself) who can show them that females can be winners in the world. 

Not only that, but (as has been pointed out elsewhere) Collins manages to turn gender roles upside down almost everywhere in her novels: Peeta is the sweet half of the couple who is a baker, the commander of the rebels is a woman, the incredible dress-maker is a man, etc. Katniss may not show obvious growth in her character arc in this part of the story, as some have complained about, but this is only the beginning of the trilogy. And it is a beginning in which her entire focus has been on surviving...not to decide between a pair of lovers (as is the case with Bella) but to get back home to her sister, whom her mother cannot provide for. She has not truly had much opportunity for that kind of growth. But within the narrow confines of the opportunities she has had, she has managed to foment the beginnings of a revolution that have become obvious to President Snowe, which is why he has Seneca Crane put to death at the film's end.

I have read the complaint that not enough time is given in the film to the characters of the other tributes. I would argue that it is exactly the point: Katniss (from whose point of view the book--as well as the film--is told) does not know them. She *cannot* know them. She thinks of them only by pseudonyms like "Foxface." They are other teenagers in her plight, but they are her enemies; they stand in the way of that single purpose of survival. Some of them, as is made clear to her in the film, are "careers"; that is, they are tributes from somewhat wealthier districts whose life purpose is to be in these games and to win them. Does Cato seem overly eager, overly happy to be here? He is. His whole life has been spent preparing to bring back this victory for the glory of his district. Developing these characters any more than Collins does would not only be unrealistic--how would Katniss possibly know their stories?--but would make this a story about the games themselves instead of what it actually is: a story about the world that could create such an atrocity. It is not a mistake or a coincidence that the games take up such a relatively small portion of both the book and the film: it isn't about them. And as the trilogy goes on, the games themselves become more a symbol of the Capital's horrific rule than anything that Collins chooses to dwell on in her narrative. Been there, shown that, she seems to be saying. Now let's focus on what's really important.

The (few) negative reviews I have seen of The Hunger Games have basically come in three categories. First, there are those who simply felt that it was not a good movie, that it was dull or uninteresting or not well done. These people are, of course, entitled to their opinion, even if it is utterly wrong. (Please insert winking emoticon of your choice here.) The second variety are those who feel that, though well made, it is not a good adaptation of the film because too much was confusing or unexplained. And the third variety, linked to the second, are the reviews that seek to take a moral high ground: this film glorifies what it seeks to condemn, they scream; in that it fails to a greater degree than if it were simply a bad movie.

I acknowledge that a good film adaptation should not leave a non-reader confused, so if you found yourself uncertain of what was happening or why, it would make sense that you would feel this to be a poor adaptation. But if you react to the film with disgust about its premise, then I suggest that your own horror over what you were seeing was something similar to what I felt when I first read that blurb: it colored your perceptions to the point where you missed some of the film's (admittedly perhaps subtle) explanatory elements. Katniss's desperate need to help Prim was explained in her trackerjacker vision, when we see her father killed and watch as her mother falls to pieces, recalling her words to her mother as she left after the reaping to the effect of "You can't break down again" and her screaming to Gale to watch over Prim because she did not trust her mother to do it. The whole "career tributes" thing was discussed and handled very quickly, and I can see how it might have been easy to miss, but it was definitely there if you were paying attention. Many of the significant philosophical concepts were handled in the quiet garden conversations between Snowe and Crane, as Katniss's actions begin to pull further and further from the standard script of the Games. 

Ultimately, Katniss manages to do something that makes a statement that she knows is going to make the President very unhappy. She forces his hand, and she knows that everyone in the entire country is watching her do it. This, I think, is shown with absolute clarity in the film, and if that is not character growth, I am not sure what anyone could want from her. She is a girl who never wanted to be a leader or a revolutionary, and at the end of the film still does not. But she is capable of anything. And that is a message that any viewer--especially any young female viewer--ought to be able to take away from the film.

This film by itself does not complete the character arc of Katniss Everdeen. It merely begins it. At the end of the Hunger Games, both book and movie, she is returned to her beloved District 12 and her family, significantly more aware of the world of politics around her, but once more feeling fairly safe. She has been through their little circus. She is untouchable. It is when Panem pulls her back into its gory trap in the aptly titled Catching Fire that the spark already lit in this first book begins to erupt into flame. And in Mockingjay, when she is the symbol of a revolution but--here's the rough knock of reality for you--not really trained to be a part of it, she spends much of the book simmering before the fire once again explodes. Katniss may be an accidental hero, but she is a worthy one. And to complain that she does not undergo enough major growth in the first book of her trilogy is akin to asking why Frodo Baggins doesn't in Fellowship of the Ring or why Harry Potter is still a naive kid at the end of Sorcerer's Stone. There is simply more story yet to come.

So, for the record, I thoroughly enjoyed this adaptation of The Hunger Games, but then I knew I would the second that Jennifer Lawrence was named as its star. Having seen her in Winter's Bone, in which she was nominated for an Oscar for playing a tough-as-nails teenager trying to keep her impoverished family together despite having no father and a broken down mother and the need to wade into territory that was dangerous and potentially fatal (sound familiar?), I knew that she was perfect for Katniss. Every second I saw onscreen bore out my expectations. This film perfectly   depicted the world I read in the books, and I am excited that it did it so well that I will be assured to be able to see the rest of the series. This is one YA series that, I think, is truly more for adults than for the kids who make up its target audience. I think that everyone should see this movie and read these novels. And it seems as if the world has made a pretty good start at it. 

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it's your hair that i notice first
streaked with morning
it frames your face
you lying there eyes closed
soft breath not quite there
i follow its path as it bends the sheet
and i can touch you there
touch what i feel is you
in the spark of daylight
you'll rise
pull on the wrinkled shirt from last night
say something you think is beautiful
drink some coffee
from behind my paper
and drive away,
leaving a kiss on my lips
and a hole in my heart
where a fire ought to be

Favorite Films

  • The Wizard Of Oz
  • Amelie
  • The Princess Bride
  • Casablanca
  • Annie Hall
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • All That Jazz
  • Citizen Kane
  • Love Actually
  • Moulin Rouge
  • Big Fish
  • When Harry Met Sally
  • Almost Famous
  • Bull Durham
  • Notting Hill
  • Apocalypse Now (Redux)
  • Magnolia

All-Time Favorite TV Shows

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Gilmore Girls
  • M*A*S*H
  • The West Wing
  • The X-Files
  • The Daily Show
  • Ally McBeal
  • Picket Fences
  • All In The Family
  • Seinfeld
  • The Mary Tyler Moore Show
  • Star Trek
  • Firefly
  • Wonderfalls
  • Northern Exposure
  • Get Smart
  • The Dick Van Dyke Show
  • Twin Peaks
  • The Larry Sanders Show
  • Monk
  • Felicity
  • St. Elsewhere

Current TV Shows I Enjoy (in no particular order)

  • Perception
  • Major Crimes
  • American Horror Story
  • Louie
  • Suits
  • The Newsroom
  • Falling Skies
  • Franklin and Bash
  • Veep
  • Scandal
  • Fairly Legal
  • Girls
  • Don't Trust the B---
  • Justified
  • Portlandia
  • Psych
  • The Middle
  • Person of Interest
  • Happy Endings
  • Hart of Dixie
  • Real Time with Bill Maher
  • Nikita
  • Raising Hope
  • Castle
  • Drop Dead Diva
  • Covert Affairs
  • Elementary
  • Rizzoli and Isles
  • Revolution
  • The Last Resort
  • Alphas
  • SNL
  • Revenge
  • Community
  • Suburgatory
  • New Girl
  • Once Upon a Time
  • Grimm
  • Nashville
  • Downton Abbey
  • Smash
  • Homeland
  • Fringe
  • Glee
  • Haven
  • Community
  • Warehouse 13
  • Modern Family
  • Vampire Diaries
  • The Daily Show
  • How I Met Your Mother
  • The Colbert Report
  • Parks and Recreation
  • Leverage
  • Rachel Maddow Show

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