Archive for August, 2011

Here’s an Eye-Opener

A friend of mine posted this story to an e-mail list I participate in, and while the story itself is fictional, it’s moral is a powerful one.

There was a blind girl who hated herself because she was blind. She hated
everyone, except her loving boyfriend. He was always there for her. She told
her boyfriend, ‘If I could only see the world, I would marry you.’ One day,
someone donated a pair of eyes to her. When the bandages came off, she was
able to see everything, including her boyfriend. He asked her,’Now that you
can see the world, will you marry me?’ The girl looked at her boyfriend and
saw that he was blind. The sight of his closed eyelids shocked her. She
hadn’t expected that. The thought of looking at them the rest of her life
led her to refuse to marry him. Her boyfriend left in tears and days later
wrote a note to her saying: ‘Take good care of your eyes, my dear, for
before they were yours, they were mine.’

Even reading this at 6:30 AM, as I did, bleary-eyed and undercaffeinated, I sat drumming my fingers against my desk, thinking about why it was that the
story gave me pause. I felt, somehow, that God was tapping me on the shoulder, asking me to take a moment–just one–to take a good look inside myself.
I might credit myself with being nothing like the blind girl in this fictional story, but as someone who’s lived with that particular “disability” since
birth, I’ve been on what I sometimes feel is more than my share of the receiving end of help. For one thing, I never want to inconvenience anyone; for
another, the independent streak in me flairs up in resentment at being hindered. I don’t know what–or who–I resent most; myself for having to be beholden
to someone else? The helpful person–be she friend or stranger–for standing in my way? God for burdening me with this cross? Rationally, I know it isn’t
any or all of these, though in moments of frustration I find myself thinking along such lines.

There have been, the truth forces me to admit, times when I’ve accepted help reluctantly, even ungraciously, from those who’ve offered it. At other times
I’ve taken, even embraced the hand that reaches out. Yet whether I accept or refuse the help, I don’t think I’ve ever really taken the time to consider
what it costs the person who’s come to my aid. I talk about not wanting to inconvenience others, but there’s quite a difference between inconvenience and
sacrifice. It’s an inconvenience when someone drives ten miles out of his way to offer me transportation; it’s a sacrifice when he does so even though
he doesn’t have enough money to put gas in his car. (I feel compelled to say, perhaps defensively, that I almost always do offer to reimburse people for
the cost of gas, but that is neither here nor there). The point is, I think, that all too often, we accept help from others without truly feeling the gratitude
due them for their service, however seemingly small and insignificant. A truly kind person would never call someone’s attention to how greatly he’s being
inconvenienced, or what he’s sacrificing, to offer help, and it’s for this very reason that we ought to be more conscious of what others might be sacrificing
to help us.

For those of us who face the challenge of living with a so-called disability, the balancing act between independence and accepting assistance
is all too familiar, and unfortunitley it doesn’t get any easier with time. There are moments when it’s best to accept help, and others when we would profit
more by finding our own way. Still, whether we accept or refuse help, we should pause to consider how far out of the way someone has gone to offer it.
I know the next time someone offers to help me, I’ll think of the boy in this story, and whether I choose to take the offered helping hand, or merely press
it in polite decline, be sure that I don’t let that hand be withdrawn feeling more empty for having given something to me.

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Tis the Season: Starting a New Semester

There’s nothing quite like spending the final weekend of summer making last-minute revisions to my syllabus and course website–revisions which, given my
meticulous planning during the last few months, I hadn’t intended to make. When I innocently anticipated having everything in readiness for my fall course
at least three days, preferably a full week before the start of classes, I foolishly overlooked any possible last-minute glitches: newly-specified general
education guidelines, revised wordings of mandatory syllabus boiler plates, and, of course, an unexpected error in the course management system requiring
all instructors who created their pages before August 19 to remove and reload their class rosters. Why hello, Murphys law: we meet again. Not to mention,
in the midst of the last-minute scramble, I’m casually (or not-so-casually) tracking the progress of two tropical storms that may or may not be making
landfall in Florida, potentially making part or all of the first week of classes a total washout. This last of course is just one of those things you grow accustom to if you’ve spent almost your entire life in this state; I find
myself checking the weather reports mostly out of force of habit–like glancing sideways into the rear-view mirror because it’s just good defensive driving–not
because you expect to spot anything out-of-the-ordinary coming at you. Alas, I digress.

I can think of a host of things I’d liked to have been doing on this last weekend of (relative) freedom; all of them involve some variation of a palm tree
and a pitcher of margaritas. (Throw in no cellphone reception or internet and a guest appearance by Colin Firth, and you’ve just described my ideal holiday).
I say a lot of things about syllabus construction–that it’s the bane of my existence; that I’d consider drilling my own teeth less excruciating, etc.
Admittedly I have a love-hate relationship with the mechanics of syllabus construction; the painstaking precision of placing every item just so gives me
a headache. Even so, beneath the drudgery of calculating the weight of assignments and checking the very precise wording of every department boilerplate
down to the last comma, I always experience a shiver of excitement at the prospect of beginning a new semester.

After months of planning–ever since I learned I’d be teaching a section of our Writing through Media course–I think I’ve finally designed a class that
manages to capitalize on current pop culture trends while (hopefully) teaching students something valuable about writing:
I’m slightly nervous about how
my students will respond to having a media/film adaptation course being taught by a blind instructor; incidentally, I’m still having difficulty getting
over the suggestion of a fellow faculty member that I begin my course with a screening of “Nosferatu” (My course theme focuses on adaptations of vampire
and werewolf stories). Excuse me while I move off into the corner and contemplate the vastness of the universe while you all try to wrap your brains around
the reasons why it might be problematic to ask a blind instructor to teach an entirely silent film. Admittedly I’m never one to say “I can’t,” but if I’m
ambitious, I’m also pragmatic, and it seemed impractical for me to attempt to tackle that particular film; I might as well teach Driver’s Ed. As for my
students, they’ve generally responded well to me after the initial awkwardness subsides, mostly because the lumbering elephant in the room is disguised
as a lovable yellow lab. Students are generally less concerned with my teaching ability and more excited by the prospect of having a dog in the classroom.

Sometimes it seems like I’ve been at this job for more than a mere four years; at other times, I’m amazed to find myself standing at the front of a packed
room full of people who are paying to watch me perform, because teaching, as a professor of mine wisely said once, is a performing art. I hardly expect
a standing ovation at the conclusion of a lecture about the French Revolution’s influence on British Romanticism, but I always feel obligated to put on
a good show. So: here’s to the start of another semester: let the learning begin!

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Black and Blue, and a Bit White Too: Heidi W. Durow’s The Girl Who Fell from the Sky

I hesitated to read this book at first because it sounded rather intense for me at the time. It certainly was intense, but it intrigued me, and I was glad to have read
it.

Set in 1980’s Portland, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky tells the story of Rachel–the Daughter of a Danish mother and Black father, and the soel surviver of a tragic family accident. When Rachel, along with her mother, brother, and sister, fall nine stories from a Chicago apartment building, Rachel miraculously survives. With her military father away on a “mission,” Rachel is taken in by her old-fashion, formidable Black grandmother in a primarily Black community in Portland, Oregon. There, she begins to piece together an identity for herself with the shattered remnents of her past. With her brown skin, “nappy” hair, and enchanting blue eyes–a white girl’s eyes in a colored girl’s face–Rachel confronts the challenge of being biracial in a black-and-white world.

I find it nearly impossible to talk about this book in detail without revealing too much; it’s one of those novels that you just have to read for yourself, but I will say that Heidi Durow masterfully pieces together a story that offers a culturally diverse perspective on America’s constructions of race and ethnicity. Alternating between the points of view of Rachel, her parents, her mother’s former employer, and James, AKA “Brick” (the only witness to the tragity of the family who fell from the sky), Durow challenges us to withhold judgement on the characters’ actions and, in so doing, confront our own prejudices.

The ending disappointed me a bit–it didn’t feel much like an ending–but I think with a story like Rachel’s, that’s the point. She’s a survivor, and
if the story is about her future, it should be that way, open, limitless, like the sky into which she was supposed to have disappeared.

I thought it had some interesting similarities to Tony Morison’s /The Bluest Eye/, except that while Picola knows what she wants–white skin and blue eyes–Rachel
lives in a world where white and color blur and swirl until neither she nor anyone else is entirely sure where they belong. Rachel is caught in the gray
area between black and white–she is that gray area, and not knowing where she belongs conveys a simple, but powerful message: that skin color does matter,
and at the same time, it doesn’t; it matters if you choose to make it a defining characteristic; it doesn’t if you see it for what it is–just a covering,
something that can be pealed off as easily as a mask.

IF you’re looking for a novel that offers a thought-provoking interrogation of the ways in which race and skin-color are cultural connstructs as much as
physiological traits, I highly recommend this one!

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Just Another Love Story: Susan Mallery’s The Best of Friends

Warm, comforting, and sweet–a mug of hot chocolate on a blustery fall afternoon. That was what I expected when I picked up Susan Mallery’s novel /The Best of Friends/; that was what I
got. IF you enjoy light, easy-on-the-brain romance fiction, you won’t be disappointed.

Synopsis: Jane Scott has been a surrogate member of her friend Rebecca Worden’s family since she was seventeen, when she lost her mother to breast-cancer.
The product of a single parent home, Jane is treated as part daughter, part unpaid servant by the rich Wordens, who own a very successful jewelry store
in Beverly Hills. After walking out on her family ten years ago, Rebecca Worden is back, principly to make trouble for her haughty, overbearing mother
Elizabeth. When her older brother David returns home as well to take his place at the head of the family business and, as Elizabeth insists, to settle
down with a wife, the Wordens are forced to confront their past–a past that threatens to destroy them–and Jane is caught in the midst of it, not to mention
being entangled in David’s arms (and his bedsheets). Throw in a mysterious blue diamond, an opportunistic mother intent on selecting her son’s bride from
Beverly Hills’s best (a shortlist that does not of course include Jane), and the uncovering of some very explosive family secrets, and you’ve got one hell
of a bombshow.

Susan Mallery’s plot is predictable; we know precisely where and
with whom the characters will wind up, but like the Jane Austen novels from which Mallery draws upon so heavily, the magic of this romantic story is not
the thrill of finding out what happens in the end, but how the characters get there.
I liked the way that Mallery laid emphasis on David as the prize plumb; we’re all aware–at least if we’ve read /Pride and Prejudice/–that “it is a truth
universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” but all to often we forget that these young men,
semeingly on the hunt for rich heiresses, are frequently the pawns in the match-making games of many an ambitious mother. Mallery drives this idea home
(like an icepick to the brain) through Elizabeth’s character. an interesting combination of Mrs. Bennet’s irritating, nosy interference and Lady Catherine
DeBurgh’s haughty, overinflated opinion of self-worth, Elizabeth Worden might not be charming, but she’s fully alive to the fact that, whether 19th century
England or 21st Century Beverly Hills, the mother pulls the strings from which her son must dangle precariously on the marriage market.

If we’re going to read this as a contemporary retelling of Pride and Prejudice, that’s probably Mallery’s strongest selling point; aside from that, between
the frequent mentions of Austen, the teasing jab at (to quote Rebecca) the “long version of Pride and Prejudice…the Colin Firth version,” and the Lifetime movie comparisons,
I felt like I was being beaten over the head with cliches, though admittedly, I should have expected nothing less and only have myself to blame for not
wearing my chicklit armor. I don’t know whether Mallery was intending to convince her readers that her novel isn’t just another retelling of Jane Austen
or if she was trying to carve a creative niche for herself within that sub-genre; if the former, methinks the lady doth protest too much. IF the latter,
the novel doesn’t strike me as any better or worse than similar stories. Fans of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones novels might appreciate the sexual tension
(not to mention the wink and nudge in the direction of the “long version” of Pride and Prejudice that inspired the creation of Mark Darcy, but they’ll
miss the tongue-in-cheek
British humor and colorful pros that make
Fielding’s novels the perfect blend of hilarious and heartwarming.

About the characters: I found them to be simply-rendered, but convincing. We have no problem cheering for Jane as she transforms from a shy, unassuming
girl into a strong, self-assertive woman; we fall, with very little pushing, into David’s open arms; we’re alternately irritated with and sorry for Rebecca–I’ve-got-everything
glamor girl on the outside, insecure child on the inside; we feel a savage pleasure as we witness Elizabeth’s downfall.

Altogether not one of my personal favorites, but like that cup of hot chocolate, it hits the spot if you’re in the mood for something warm and fluffy.

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Something to Ponder: Joyce Carol Oates and Domesticated Cinema

I’ve just finished reading an Essay by Joyce Carol Oates about Todd Browning’s 1931 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s dracula that I’m planning to assign to my
students this fall. While reading, one of Oates’s points caught hold of me, and I’ve spent the past few hours pondering what she means by it–and what
it might mean to me. Discussing the thrill of Dracula and the story’s enduring presence in our collective imagination, she argues that the cinematic experience
is “domesticated and diluted” at home as opposed to in the theater–a point with which any avid moviegoer would agree, hands down.

I certainly agree, but the objective portion of my brain–the one forced to play devil’s advocate with my students and find new and torturous ways of challenging
their interpretations of what they read–began thinking about what Oates means and wondering whether or not her idea is one exclusive to the experience
of watching horror films. I certainly think it’s far easier to get caught up in the thrills and chills of the horror film in the close, semi-darkness of
the theater in a way that might be difficult to replicate in the warm, well-lit safety of our living-rooms. Even if you do enjoy watching films at home
with the lights turned off, you’re still arguably in a place wherein you feel protected from the ghools and goblins intended to frighten you. We might
be surrounded by friends in the theater as well as by strangers, but even when the movie is over–when the lights have come on again and the ilusion has
slunk back into the shadows from whense it came, we’ve still got to leave the theater and walk across the eerily-lit parking lot to our cars, and what
might be lurking out there? For all we know, the guy seated in the row across from us might be the Craigslist killer. Even if this is highly unlikely,
our recent cinematic experience has tightened our nerves and heightened our senses just enough to make us believe, temporarily, that we have cause to be
afraid–very afraid. It seems far more difficult to be taken in by the ilusion in the comfort of home–the place that exudes light, warmth, hope, laughter–those
talismans against terror. (On the other hand, if you live alone, and especially if you’re female, though I hesitate to succumb to the stereotype, it might
be a bit easier).

I wondered too if this idea only translates to the experience of the horror film. No matter what the genre, none of us can deny that there’s something
magical about watching our favorite actor or actress stride across the big screen that definitely tops watching them at home, unless you have a pretty
impressive home entertainment system at your disposal. Then too, nothing can cap the experience of sitting in a darkened theater with your date of choice,
hands bumping and slipping against one another in an extra buttery tub of popcorn, though more than likely your thoughts are occupied with other matters
than the action playing out on the screen. Even so, perhaps there something about the thrill of the theater that heightens the horror-viewing experience.

I definitely think it’s worth creating a journal prompt for my students based on this idea, and I’ll certainly be interested to see what the Netflix and
Torrent generation makes of it.

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The Fanged and the Furry

As several of you know, I’m slated to teach a course entitled Writing through Media this fall, and after considerable planning, I’ve created a course framed
within the theme of literary adaptation–to be more specific, adaptation of tales concerning vampires and werewolves. Aside from the fact that I have a
particular fondness for the subject–parts of my masters thesis and dissertation focus on vampires–it’s one that has quite a bit of cultural currency.

As recent scholarship surrounding the popularly dubbed “Twilight Phenomenon” has shown, the history of these creatures—from the foul-smelling, coffin-dwelling
Dracula to the sexy and sparkly Edward Cullen—is a richly interwoven pattern of literature, oral tradition, folklore and superstition, and the technological
advancements of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have enabled them to creep deeper into our cultural consciousness through film and television,
popular song and dance, and internet-based fan-fiction. . Characters like Dracula and the Wolfman have undergone numerous transformations and adaptations,
while those such as J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla seem to have gone underground, though contemporary adaptations still bear the traces of their bloody
tales.
This begs the question, then: Why do some stories persist, while others resist adaptation? How do adaptations draw upon, respond to, or challenge their
originals? How might adaptations be examined as art forms within their own right? Using the vampire and werewolf tale as our model, we will trace the transformation
of narrative over time as it passes through various hands, genres, and media, interrogating what changes, what remains the same, and how this speaks to
storytelling, audiences, and shifts in technologies and ideologies. The course will challenge students to think critically about adaptation as both an
art form and an academic discipline and to become savvy consumers of popular media.

As reluctant as I was in the beginning to take on this course, I’ve come to realize during the last few months of planning that it’s versatility might
make it both challenging and fun to teach. While it’s technically not an English course–though it’s offered within the English department–I wanted to
find a way to approach it from a lit background, since that’s my area of expertese. I considered broadening the course theme slightly–working with adaptations
of the gothic, or of horror in general, but as it is, I think that this way, we’ll actually be able to trace the transformation of a single story over
time if we have one model to work with.

Partially because I’ve found sharing resources immensely helpful (I can’t count the number of times I’ve found teaching resources just by searching blogs–and
partially because I think I can offer a unique perspective on teaching this particular course as a blind instructor, I shall do my best to track the progress
of the semester for my own and others’ edification.

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