What to Do When You’re Not on the List

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This is the standard race and ethnicity checklist that everyone has probably had to fill out, on one official document or another:

 

Race /Ethnicity (circle one):

American Indian or Alaska Native

Asian

Black or African American

Hispanic or Latino

Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander

 

 

Not a lot of people pay it much mind, but I do. Frankly, filling it out has always felt like a set-up.  I have no choice but to tell a half-truth—for the sake of someone else’s demographics chart. If I stare at the list for too long, it gets even more confusing:

 

Why do they set up race and ethnicity to be interchangeable? What’s the difference, anyway?

 

What if there was an ‘and’ between the ‘Black’ and ‘African American’ categories? Would I feel better about them being in the same category?

 

What even am I ?!  WHY IS THIS SO HARD?!

 

Here’s my dilemma: lists like these are setting up ‘Black’ and ‘African American’ as though they’re one and the same. I understand that this may be an easy way to group people together by skin color, for the sake of a diversity chart, but not every black person in the United States is African-American.

 

In my case, I am a black, American-born citizen, but I am also a first-generation Haitian American. Haiti is one of the many Caribbean countries that exist as a result of the African diasporic migrations. I am a product of a particular migration of African peoples to the West Indies, but technically I’m not of direct African descent. As for my American-ness, I am American by birth but not by culture since I was raised in Haitian customs and traditions. At best, ‘Afro-Carribbean’ would be the most accurate way to describe my ethnicity, moreso than ‘African-American.’

 

Unfortunately, not everyone’s ‘most accurate’ is an option—unless they’re willing to write in the classification they prefer at the bottom of every checklist they come across. Instead, they settle for the next, more tangential option with which they may or may not agree. For most of my life, I was also willing to settle. I believed there was no other choice.

 

Until I read Americanah by Chimanda Ngozi Adichie.

In the novel, Adichie creates a new way to both racially and ethnically classify her black characters: ‘American-Black’ and ‘Non-American Black’ (AB and NAB). I immediately identified with both of these; their sudden intrusion into my life felt like putting names to two familiar, elusive faces. I’ve never been able to define the wishy-washy, in-between space that I occupy so clearly before. Neither term is as vaguely concrete as ‘Black’ or as confusing as ‘African American.’ If anything, they expand the reach of their limited predecessors. An American-born black person who might consider themselves too removed from potential African ancestors can use the term ‘American Black’ instead of African American. Similarly, the use of the term ‘Non-American Black’ could unlock a new cultural identity for Pan-African and Afro-Latino immigrants, as well as for first generation Americans like myself, who had previously considered themselves invisible among other black people.

It is important to remember that AB and NAB are not perfect terms; there are people of direct and indirect African descent who are not black at all. Still, the way in which Adichie creates these new categories and incorporates them into the structure of her novel is an important call to action in the struggle for cultural visibility. If you can’t find yourself on the standard list, you can always create new categories, and in turn, a new list.

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Byron and Bruce Wayne

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When I was a kid, I was obsessed with Batman.

Oh, who am I kidding, saying “when I was a kid?” Heck, I’ve been a fan of the black-clad comic book vigilante my entire life, and I would be lying if I said I don’t still have a box of dusty Batman comics sitting in my dorm room to this day.

Like most kids, I was into other superheroes, too. But my greatest attachment was always to the Dark Knight himself. While other heroes dressed in bright spandex and fought firmly on the side of righteousness, Batman’s dark look, grim personality, and somewhat-questionble ethics were infinitely more intriguing than the cotton-candy-colored world of Superman.

The first superheroes of the 1930s were morally-upright characters who fought cookie-cutter bad guys in the name of truth, justice, and the American way. But Batman represented something different. Superman grew out of a tradition of American exceptionalism and moral authority, but the Dark Knight came from a different, darker tradition: English gothic literature. Though Batman eventually got the “camp” treatment on television, the dark world, flawed heroes, and horror elements of gothic literature were crucial the character and world of Batman, creating a unique space in popular culture and one of America’s most enduring characters.

Even without having a literary background, one can get very specific images from the term “gothic.” The “goth” in “gothic” implies the dramatically-eyelinered, pentagram-clad subculture of people who listen to too much Cradle of Filth. While authors of the 19th centuries didn’t usually dye their hair black and wear combat boots, dark themes, romantic anti-heroes, supernatural forces, and dark, isolated locations became the standard tropes of the Gothic literature subgenre. Novels like Jane Eyre, Manfred, and Wuthering Heights traded as much on their atmosphere and darkly moody characters as their romantic plots. Batman borrowed heavily from these atmospheric and character choices.

While Superman does his work in the shiny, modern, utopian city of Metropolis, Batman resides in the dark, grim, grimy city of Gotham. While the city is supposed to be a substitution for New York, the design and architecture of the city has always veered towards dramatic spires, looming towers, and an art style midway between art deco and gothic. Combined with the stories often being set at night and the oft-used location of a creepy insane asylum, the setting of Batman comics, despite being contemporary to the 20th century, could easily be the background to a Bram Stoker’s forgotten masterwork. Though the atmosphere is adapted from gothic novels, the most interesting influence they had on the hero was in characterization.

During the Romantic era, a new type of heroic character came into vogue, termed “the Byronic hero.” Unlike the traditional novel heroes, Byronic characters were flawed outcasts, often rich and educated, “who somehow balance their cynicism and self-destructive tendencies with a mysterious magnetism.” Batman’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne, would not be out of place in a novel like Jane Eyre. He’s a rich playboy who nonetheless lives a solitary life, his only companion being his lifelong butler. Wayne’s self-destructive flaws lead to him fighting crime, and, true to a Byronic hero, he ends up attracting plenty of heroines and villainesses with his brooding magnetism. This character choice is the most singular thing about Batman. From the beginning, his character has been shrouded in mystery, loneliness, and trauma, leading him towards his life of crime fighting. The backstory for Batman’s character would be considered dark, even for a pitch-black gothic novel. In the first year of the comic’s production, the writers explained that Bruce Wayne became a vigilante after watching his parents’ murder as a young child. The idea of a protagonist whose dark past results in an identity that he must hide from his familiars is a device used famously in Jane Eyre. While it is now common for comic book heroes to have a complex character story, Batman was one of the first comics to explore this route, and ended up paving the way for comic books to become literary.

The gothic nature of the Batman comic books was unique and revolutionary when it was created, standing in opposition to the pristine, bright world of other superheroes. But why has this dark character stayed such a crucial part of the public consciousness since then? We empathize with his story and understand his choices, the dark themes appeal to mature readers, and the atmosphere creates a cold excitement. But the dark nature of Batman comics, and gothic literature in general, does something more. Gothic literature, and the increasingly dark stories of Batman, force us to come face-to-face with the grotesque and terrifying parts of human nature, making us evaluate the dark parts of ourselves. Batman, as a hero, most constantly suppress his negative nature when facing these threats, and, in the nature of a true hero, comes out victorious.

Happy almost-Halloween.

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Why F. Scott Fitzgerald Would Have Loved La La Land

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It’s a bold claim, to be sure. But I hold that F. Scott Fitzgerald would have loved La La Land, – and not simply because the movie pays homage to jazz.

Scott Fitzgerald is forever immortalized as one of the greatest American writers since the publication of his most famous work The Great Gatsby. Heralded now as the ‘Great American Novel’, The Great Gatsby is a staple of American education. I remember studying the structure, plot, and symbols of the story in a middle school English class, twice more in two separate high school English classes, and then again in a college seminar.

My opinion remains, perhaps, unpopular. I cannot say I ever particularly connected with, respected, or even liked a single character who filled the pages of my now worn copy of The Great Gatsby. I never understood my Professor’s definition of Gatsby as a hero. Gatsby was a dreamer. He lived a life of utter illusion, and saw the world, not as it was, but as he hoped it to be. To Fitzgerald, who championed this idea of new heroism (and to my Professor) Gatsby’s refusal to accept the truth of the world made him a hero. To me, it made him a coward.

That is until I watched La La Land.

The age gap between The Great Gatsby and La La Land is ten years shy of a century.  Yet despite this, La La Land finally made F. Scott Fitzgerald and his hero ideal click for me.

La La Land depicts the struggles of an ambitious actress named Mia (Emma Stone) and a devoted Jazz musician named Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) as they maneuver the hope-crushing streets of modern-day Los Angeles, fighting for both their dreams and their future together. [SPOILER ALERT] The movie ends as Mia, trailing her husband, turns around and meets eyes with Sebastian one last time over the nostalgic haze of his crowded Jazz club. In the moment, both imagine their life together. Then the music ends, and reality sets in. Both have surpassed their ambition. But it has taken them on diverging paths.

Soon after I watched La La Land for the first time, I read a review that described the underlying message of the movie to be: “in a place of dreams, not every one of them comes true”.  My immediate, almost visceral, response sparked an avalanche of thought that surprisingly enough led straight to Fitzgerald.

The message of La La Land is so much more than “in a place of dreams, not every one of them comes true”, just like The Great Gatsby is about so much more than working hard to achieve wealth and success. La La Land, at heart, depicts the beauty and significance found in having the ability to dream. Mia’s Audition song, played at one of the most climatic parts of the movie, expounds this. The lyrics read out, “Here’s to the ones who dream, foolish as they may seem; Here’s to the hearts that ache, here’s to the mess we make”. Dreaming is not the means to an end – like hope, or ambition. Dreaming is the end.

Mia continues to sing, “A bit of madness is key to give us new colors to see, who knows where it will lead us? And that’s why they need us”. It was in this moment that I finally understood Fitzgerald’s ideal of a hero – a character who lives a life of illusion and endless possibilities. The dreamers, the people with a bit of ‘madness’ are the Gatsby’s of the world. And though they are perhaps a little bit mad, they are necessary to make the world a beautiful place. The ‘they’ in Mia’s song fit into Fitzgerald’s idea of anti-heroes – people who cannot dream and whose world lacks the luster and color and the world of a dreamer would hold.

While watching La La Land I transcended my normal perspective on life and dreams, as the characters did. Although it was hardly realistic, I believed from the movie’s opening number that she, as an admittedly average actress, and him, as a struggling musician, could not only both find success but do so while staying together. I dreamed with them the whole time; I believed in a happy ending.

In this lies why the movie was so effective to me.

I realized as the last number played out that the movie was about to end. Additionally, I realized it was about to end with Mia married to someone else and Sebastian alone. For a moment, the illusion I was under the whole movie came crashing down. But then, right after the montage of what their life together could have looked like, and right after Mia walks out of the club, she turns around. They make eye contact and smile at each other. Is this peaceful, almost feel-good ending possibly realistic? Is it part of the montage still or really happening in the movie? I don’t know for sure. But, as the audience, I am left believing – perhaps dreaming – that it did. My own ability to believe in such endless possibilities and to dream that the world really could be this way is significant to how I walked away from the movie feeling.

I see Mia and Sebastian as tragic, but beautifully so. Their lives are full of passion and color. Just like Jay Gatsby’s. And so, I hold that F. Scott Fitzgerald would have loved not only the heroic characters present in the film, but the power the film carries to transform its audience into dreamers themselves.

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Use of the Grotesque

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I recently spent a Friday evening babysitting two 7-year-old girls. While their parents enjoyed a night out on the town, we settled down on a corner of the plush toy-room carpet to play a bit, before showers and bed. I was granted the distinct honor of handling the girls’ newest doll. Complete with silver-highlights, platform combat boots, metallic lipstick, and a sheer mesh tee, she was a far-cry from the more traditionally styled American Girl dolls I played with in my youth. As opposed to “Molly” or “Josephine”, her name was “Frankie Stein”.

The girls were keen to show off their entire collection of Monster High dolls. I met all of Frankie Stein’s little friends, “Draculaura”, “Clawdeen Wolf”, “Ghoulia Yelps” and “Freak Du Chic”.  They featured skyscraper shoes with casual outfits, monochromatic makeup, and multi-colored hair.

 

Although the Monster High American fashion doll franchise hit shelves in 2010, many of the styles that were characteristic of the dolls even then are suddenly trending today in the world of high fashion. Fashion icons like the Jenner and Hadid sisters have inspired their fan bases by wearing athletic clothes with high-heels, metallic dark lip looks, and, of course, millennial pink hair. As I sat there playing dolls in a world of make-believe horror with the girls, I wondered if these gorgeous, grotesque dolls had somehow predicted cultural patterns before those of us less inclined to do so had tuned in? Did they somehow reflect subtle shifts in thinking that perhaps existed even a full six years ago?

 

Of course, as soon as the house was quiet for the night, my inner nerd seized on the grotesque themes these dolls brought to children’s toys. The use of the grotesque is not new to the world of readers and writers of English literature. The works of Edgar Allan Poe, staples of most middle or high school English programs, are marked by the use of mysterious and macabre themes. Renowned 20th century American short story writer Flannery O’Connor highlighted her own use of the grotesque in short stories that were otherwise placed in safe, convention settings that readers would find familiar. In her piece “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction she described writers as “fundamentally seekers and describers of the real” and so, she used subtle elements of horror in her works to reveal the underlying darkness she saw in the world.

The world we live in today is much different than the world of Edgar Allan Poe and Flannery O’Connor. We don’t need to read about startling figures with ugly motives to know that people can be evil and the world can be scary. The very fact that I remember instinctively putting my keychain (that contained a small can of pepper spray) on the couch next to me as the house grew dark that night speaks to the ugly possibilities we’re taught from a young age to expect behind every familiar scene. Dolls that feature such a grotesque nature may seem problematic to some, but we can hardly deny that they are entirely unrealistic.

I recently read a poem entitled “Weapons Discharge Report” by Dan Albergotti in The Best American Poetry 2017. In it, Albergotti describes Officer Darren Wilson pulling his gun on eighteen-year-old Michael Brown and murmuring “…it looks like a demon…” before opening fire. The piece is, perhaps, political by nature – but more importantly it is grotesque by nature. It details the death of a young man. No matter the politics, how could it not be grotesque?

As I read Ablergotti’s poem, I wondered if there is a place for the grotesque in the literature we read today? How is this piece really any different than a news report? How can it avoid blending in with the new horrors we read about every day? Instead of stirring readers up, might it not serve to desensitize us further?

Robert Frost believed, much like Flannery O’Connor, that the role of writers was to pen works that end in a “clarification of life” – that bring readers a dose of reality. He wrote in “The Figure a Poem Makes” that this end is “not necessarily a great clarification” however, but a “momentary stay against confusion”. In this distinction lies the chief justification for the continual use of the grotesque in literature and culture today. The grotesque elements of modern literature, or children’s toys even, may not need to shatter any illusions that the world is a safe place, but they may serve to make us pause. A poem, no matter how rich its language, will never be as vivid as a video of the same event the television may depict. But, it has value yet. And its value extends much further than just being able to shock people by mere ‘use’ of the grotesque.

I believe that literature is able to create a space that takes real life experiences to a realm that news reports and television cannot touch. A poem can be manipulated in a way that films cannot, in way that contributes to their validity rather than discounts it. The unsettling vivid imagery that a piece contains may reflect the images we live with every day, but the stillness – the momentary pause – suddenly impedes us from thinking of an image as just another one. It is suddenly memorable, stark. We suddenly realize how badly we want to live without it.

If even for a moment.

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Ten Thousand Knocks

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As I was recently browsing through the literary journal Ploughshares, I stumbled across a story called “Ten Thousand Knocks” about a young man named Kei. His first job in the ‘real world’ is to ensure tenants pay their rent on time. As an insurance enforcer, he is at liberty to encourage punctual payment with threats of violence (Ploughshares Vol 43 No. 2, 103). He has threatened a countless number of people, and asks one struggling resident, “Do you have any idea how many doors I’ve knocked on, Miss Tamura? Dozens and Dozens. Hundreds, probably. So many that I’ve lost count. I’ve spent the last two years going to every corner of Ibaraki prefecture. I must have knocked ten thousand times” (Ploughshares Vol 43 No. 2, 106). Kei is suited to the job and finds it lucrative, but as events unfold he faces a moral dilemma. Should he continue to do the job for the profits or should he quit because he is profiting off the pain of others? Finally, one day Kei steals himself to pound down the door of yet another deficient tenant. He “pulses himself into a batting stance…but no matter how hard he tries to, he can’t force his muscles into a swing” (Ploughshares Vol 43 No. 2, 110).

I was struck by how strongly I identified with the character of Kei after finishing the story. As a young man poised to enter the work force, I found his story truly relatable. Kei saw limited opportunities before him and chose the career that was most lucrative, without looking at the moral consequences. He did not enjoy being an enforcer; he did not want to hurt other people. When he finally makes what is portrayed as the moral choice at the end of the tale, he must acknowledge he will most likely be fired and must search for a new profession.

The subject of employment is foremost in my mind and the minds of 450 of my peers as we look forward to graduation later this academic year. We know competition is steep. It is very tough to get a job in the working world. It is even tougher to get a job you want, with the pay you desire, in the field of your choosing. Students have to make many tough decisions about what their first job will be. Should they take a job with the best work/life balance? Should they take a job that leads to the most money despite what it may entail? I think the answer lies within each individual. Some people are willing to sell their souls for a job. Others, need a balance. Some prefer a more altruistic career to feel accomplished from day to day.

“Ten Thousand Knocks” truly showcases the external struggle between Kei and the outside world. The author depicts in detail how strongly Kei fights to embrace his role as an enforcer. Kei progresses from a child-like view of the world to mature outlook. In one vivid scene he stands in a batting cage, missing how he used to play baseball, and wishes that life was still as simple as it used to be.

Should Kei have never taken the job? Was he wrong to choose the most lucrative career available to him? It may seem easy to judge his actions from a distance, but an in-depth understanding of his motivations reveal how similar, perhaps, they may be to our own. Kei mentions in the text how he always thought about other people leading happy lives (Ploughshares Vol 43 No. 2, 104). He knew they had jobs, money, and were able to provide for the people they cared about. Kei knew he had to do something in his life in order to put food on the table. He got desperate and leapt at the first career opportunity presented.

If you ask me, Kei made the right decision in the end to quit his job as an enforcer. However, I still cannot blame him for taking the job to begin with. He was simply doing what he thought necessary to survive in the scary realities of a modern world.

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A Riff on Figs

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The fig is a vibrant ingredient of my private mythology.  Both sets of my grandparents had thriving trees in Griffin, Georgia, and when I moved to Opelika in Alabama my new yard was blessed with a pair that eventually reached thirty five-feet high, but of course the shade they offered was hardly their greatest gift.  Kin to the mulberry, the shrub/trees can grow luscious, delicate fruit, companionable to rocky, free-draining soil, but hard to cultivate here in the Blue Ridge, where they are not only not native, but seem reviled by the weather.  But not always, for our generous neighbor Lori out on Timber Ridge seems to have the touch and industry to help them thrive, and from her bumper crop this year she has brought some bowls to savor.

My earliest or strongest association with figs is not a comforting one.  Under the fig tree by the well house at my Grandmother Thaxton’s house, I once discovered a very dark copperhead coiled, thick as my adult wrist, less coppery than brown and shadowy mud, no mistaking the viper wedge head but with a sheen of the purplish hue on his head akin to the figs ripening above.  How old was I – eight, nine?  It was no great leap from the camouflaging  fig leaves of Genesis, Adam and Eve and their dangerously serpent-haunted apple tree to a fig tree with a venomous snake flicking his split tongue andflexing his loops.  I yelled for granddaddy, but to my amazement, he did not smite or shoot or stone the reptile but lifted him by a garden rake and carried him beyond the trash pit, whispering something about God’s creatures.  His wife was of a different mind and never failed to introduce any visible snake not a good luck black snake to the sharp edge of a gooseneck hoe.?

But I overcame my dread, if not the association, mostly due to the syrupy fig preserves she put up in Ball jars, the dark amber syrup with skins suspended, honey on the tongue, the golden seeds popping between my teeth,  I slathered fresh cat head biscuits with the delicacy and gobbled them down.  No regrets, as the commercial world appears to have judged that fig jelly is an adequate substitute for the sinful treacle, and less messy.

Griffin, Georgia, as I said, right down McIntosh Road from Calvary Baptist, so I was pretty soon getting figs in my religion.  Mostly they came to us from Spain, then the Golden State,  back eastward and south, but with different ethnic migration patterns, they might have come from Palestine, where they are native and necessary, among the seven sacred plants of Canaan.  Jesus seemed to have mixed feelings about them and not a lot of expertise, but he was a carpenter, fishing guide and otherwise occupied with his Father’s business.

 

Still, the Bible has a bit to say about ficus carica  Mysterious enough to invite much primal imagination, they became more than sweet food.  Isaiah wrote that they could, boiled, render a plaster to cure, well, boils.  Jeremiah identified two kind of figs, good and naughty, and if you sent the latter to wicked people, pestilence would visit them.  It’s tempting to imagine that he saw the barren trees as the wicked ones, but it takes two kinds of fig trees to render a harvest – the ones the fig wasp has taken pollen to and those it has taken pollen from.

In Judges 9, Jotham told a story to the men of Shechem, in which the parliament of the trees invited the olive to be their king but were refused, as the olive was quite content to be used by men to honor their god.  So then they turned to the fig, who declined saying he would not abandon his sweetness just to be promoted over the trees. The bramble was another matter, but he had conditions.  I pondered this one and asked hither and yon but received no satisfactory answer.  I was beginning to see figs at the heart of an enigma, and they were personified and inscrutable.  They occupied a text and were resonant, so I knew I had to weasel out the implications for myself.  Not that I ever succeeded.

Jesus asked if you could get figs from thistles, making agricultural wit, but I knew this was not merely farm business.  He also cursed a fig tree he saw from afar and desired fruit from.  Up close, it proved to be the barren sort.  He was in parable mode and declared the empty tree a symbol of Israel’s unbelievers.  He was in a mood anyway, on his way to scourge the money lenders and goose peddlers from the temple.  Maybe the tree was a rehearsal.

For a while, those old puzzles were part of my cloud-gathering repertoire, but they faded from sight and savored the preserves.  In college, however, I read D. H. Lawrence’s poem “Figs,” which explains both “the proper way to eat a fig in society” and the “vulgar way.”  Even the history major I was (that day) could see that the latter was clearly sexual, and Lawrence’s speaker, like Jesus, was talking about two things at once.  Besides, I’d already encountered Prufrock’s reluctance to eat a peach and suspected the perils and attractions of sensuality.  Texts again, but that poem didn’t really sink into me until Ken Russell’s film of Lawrence’s Women in Love with Rupert and Gerald disputing over fig manners.  Then I knew it was about even more than sexuality but about embracing life or trying to rule it.

The fig lends itself to metaphor and indulgence, even in language.  “A fig to you,” “I don’t give a fig.” It once meant “trifle” because they were so common but has also in the Mediterranean come to imply femininity.  During the Punic Wars, Cato wishing to goad his fellow Romans into attacking Carthage, placed a bowl of figs on the map to represent Carthage – feminine, vulnerable.  An aside: Cleopatra ordered her suicide serpent brought to her in a basket of figs.  Her way of presiding over her own fate.

Many cultures believe the fig is a talisman against the evil eye.  The hole in its blossom end is called the eye, though it radiates to become a star.  The seeds inside are golden, the pith pink.  No one has ever found a way to safely ship them ripe, but even the dried versions are tasty in their packaged spirals.  More like fig Newmans.

In Opelika, I found the starlings, grackles and blackbirds, as well as other pillagers of convenience delighted in my figs, but the bounty was sufficient to allow me to net and harvest the lower halves of the trees and leave the rest to the greedy beaks.

Cato identified over thirty varieties of fig in De Argi Cultura, but from all I can determine, the white sap of all the green parts are an irritant to human skin.  Especially mine.  Goggled, watch- capped and poncho-draped on the step ladder with my wicker basket in Opelika (“swampy place” to the Creeks) I would often (August through early October) ascend and descend, itching like a poison ivy picker, collecting the just exactly ripe figs, gently, my mouth already watering and my mind jangled by Lawrence, Jesus, Cato, Cleo and the question of English holiday “figgy pudding” drenched in brandy and served flambé.

Itchy skin and eyes, bird competition, copperheads and occasional vertigo.  Complications aside, I’d still love to have my own fig tree. Go figure.

— RTS (September, 2017)

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Securing the Future of Shenandoah

Shenandoah literary magazine

As discussed in my last post, I’ve been working on getting all the sites I run secured.  An immediate candidate was the Shenandoah literary magazine. In 2010 I worked with Martha Burtis to design the site and have been hosting and maintaining it ever since. I have really enjoyed working with the editor R.T. Smith these last seven years, but he has announced his retirement this coming Spring. Well deserved. He took on the Herculean and unpopular task of moving a well respected physical publication entirely online. He weathered it beautifully, and with over a million views last year and half a million visitors the site has 25x the amount of exposure it did seven years ago. 

Traffic from August 1, 2011 – August 1, 2012

Traffic from August 1, 2016 – August 1, 2017

This is a very solid base to build on for whomever comes next, and I imagine the new editor will have some ideas of how to keep broadening access. What I loved about Rod’s vision is that it was open and accessible to everyone online: no logins, no paywalls, no nothing. Bringing culture to the interwebs is never a bad thing. That said, at the very least the site is due for a more responsive redesign. It will be interesting to see what the future has in store for Shenandoah, and I plan on making the transition to the new editor as seamless as possible. I will probably bow out as the “webmaster” once Rod leaves given my other commitments, but I plan on staying around long enough to make sure all is well. One of the things that has been on my list is securing Shenandoah to make sure the main site, the Snopes blog, and all 11 (soon to be 12) issues load over https.

To that end I issued a free Let’s Encrypt certificate yesterday, and ran the SSL Insecure Content Fixer plugin across the entire network. That worked seamlessly. It is worth noting that Shenandoah is a WordPress Multisite instance in which the blog and all 11 (soon to be 12) issues are their own site within the multisite. It is a subdirectory setup, so all the sites can be secured by one Let’s Encrypt certificate, which is nice. Once I forced SSL the two errors I got were caused by a network activated plugin that was outdated (pictured below) and an insecure image on the front page of several issues (the image was embedded from another site that did not have SSL). 

I deactivated the offending plugin, and I am looking for an alternative presently. I also replaced the embedded image with a local, secure alternative and all is well. The site is now running securely over https, and I will need to make sure there are no broken media links as a result. So if you see something, say something in the comments of this post.

There is a certain amount of satisfaction in having Shenandoah run securely over https. I admittedly waited too long, but better late than never.  It is also provides a long overdue push to start getting some other things shored up as we prepare for the future.

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While Snopes Is Away . . .

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From mid-May until June, the blog will be accessible but not active.  In lieu of brief, frequent posts, readers are invited to read the essay entitled “Where I Come From a Hushpuppy Is Not a Fuzzy Shoe,” which is posted on the Shenandoah homepage.

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O Wicked Walls!

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“And Thou, O wall, O sweet, O lovely wall,
That stand’st between her father’s ground and mine!
Thou wall, O wall, O sweet and lovely wall,
Show me thy chink, to blink through with mine eyne!”
— Bottom/Pyramus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

 

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall . . . .”
— Robert Frost

Elves?

 

 

“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
— Ronald Reagan at the Brandenburg Gate in 1987

In his poem Mending Wall, Robert Frost’s narrator (who sometimes seems to be his spokesman) scoffs at his neighbor’s unquestioned belief that ‘“good fences make good neighbors.”’  His skepticism is due in part to the fact that he doesn’t see the utility in hard borders – one man has apple trees, one pines, no livestock, no traffic to be impeded.  The narrator doesn’t acknowledge the value of shared work, ritual, a covenant handed down from fathers to sons, and he likes seeing himself as both reflective and practical, verbal and philosophical, while the neighbor gets short shrift for he is, evidently, living the unexamined life Socrates berated, toting and raising rocks “like an old-stone savage armed.”

It’s in part a poem about feelings of superiority, the broad picture, social discourse, as opposed to habit and Yankee acerbity.  But the narrator is not altogether fool.  Questioning why such obstructions make good neighbors might lead in various directions and conversations, as some reasons are pretty obvious, others as mysterious as, well, elves.

In what might be the narrator’s best moment, he wants to declare (though he seems to lack the grit to voice it),

“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walking in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.”

What would follow such inquiry is not simple business, though walling out bison, felons, foxes, zombies, might be wise practice, especially if they might be dangerous takers who don’t repay.  However, walling out trading partners, needed workers, fugitives from violence, allies . . . , maybe not so smart.

What to do, what to do?  I suppose Frost’s speaker and others involved in barrier transactions have to observe, absorb, analyze, consult, prioritize, evaluate, keep a clear eye and an open mind and humane heart, scrutinize every facet and their own (perhaps somewhat unacknowledged) motivations, operate with imagination and a willingness to evolve.  They must not create distractions and deceits for themselves and others, and shouldn’t dismiss the complications of maintenance and karma.  Maintain a balanced perspective and humane ambitions.  Crazy, right?  But maybe much madness is divinest sense.  It’s worth a try.

A week ago, shortly after watching a TV report on the notorious Wall-to-be (not Pink Floyd’s) and viewing sections of some kind of border blockades already in place, I turned to the Weather Channel (exciting evening in the entertainment department) and watched a featurette on the current flooding threats to New Orleans.  What to my wondering eyes should appear but a section of levee flood barrier that looked identical to the segment of “Le Mur” I’d just seen touted as part of the Wall our putative president has already been building (though it was standing before what we now tentatively refer to as “the election”).  It’s meant to slow down high, fast water and trap debris.  And drug mules, immigration coyotes and other malefactors who celebrate Cinco de Mayo (which the Chief-in-Chief, bless his heart, did mention last week), according to the slap-dash commentary.  It all left me a trifle bewildered.

Even now I ask myself what this panel of small-barbed words might be walling in or out.  Perhaps that’s one positive result of the wall mania running rampant.  We stop and count to ten (as Twain advised) before we swear.

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O Tell me the Truth About Love: Advice from W. H. Auden

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When I was younger, I used to tip-toe into my father’s study, sit quietly amongst his towering wooden bookshelves, and crane my neck to marvel at the aged, jewel-toned spines of the vintage editions displayed before me. Intricate, golden cursive against the peeling leather spelled out titles from The Essays of Sir Francis Bacon to The History of Epistemology, and while my preschool reading abilities were confined to the likes of The Frog and the Toad, I felt an undeniable sense of reverence and humility in the presence of the wise, yellowing pages and ornate covers housed on those bookshelves. One night, however, I was feeling particularly audacious and decided to climb the tallest shelf, which contained a thick, purple book that had for months been the object of my intrigue. A few minor miscalculations later, I had made enough noise to awaken my entire family and quickly fled the scene, purple book in hand. Thus, I discovered the works of British poet W. H. Auden.

Though my appreciation of poetry leans towards the all-embracing, I often find myself put off by overly-sentimental writing stifled by excessive attempts to convey emotion. I believe that language is most beautiful when permitted to speak for itself, and the words of W. H. Auden do exactly that. Auden evokes grief, loss, and utter desolation without the sentimentalism upon which the Romantic poets relied so heavily, and he defies conventional expectations in his technical virtuosity just as he does in his pragmatic, grounded approach to love.      

Many love poems assume an idealized position in which the eternality of love allows man to transcend life’s inevitabilities, but Auden challenges the validity of this idea, arguing instead for the ephemerality of love and supremacy of time. “Lullaby” is a condemnation of traditional Romanticism that, like many of Auden’s poems, begins with an intentional surrender to convention followed by a swift repudiation. The first line, “Lay your sleeping head, my love/,” expresses tenderness and vulnerability, while the second, “Human on my faithless arm,” almost immediately establishes the practicality and unorthodoxy that characterize the remaining stanzas. In readily admitting his own faithlessness and consequently calling into question the value of monogamy, Auden portrays himself as the antithesis of the traditional Romantic hero and goes on to celebrate the love between two imperfect individuals. Rather than depicting the unflawed and even sublime love typical of Romantics, Auden urges humanity to abandon the pursuit of traditional ideals and to instead seek authenticity, ending the first stanza with an affirmation that his lover, while “mortal” and “guilty,” is nonetheless “entirely beautiful.”

Perhaps Auden’s ease in discerning the superficiality behind such ideals results from his understanding of the supremacy of time; he appreciates love but accepts its transience. Just as “Time and fevers burn away/Individual beauty from/Thoughtful children,” death ultimately “proves the child ephemeral.” Likewise, while considering the anguish of unrequited love in “The More Loving One,” Auden assures readers that “Though this might take [him] a little time,” it is possible “to look at an empty sky/And feel its total dark sublime”—that is, while the speaker contemplates his ability to exist in the absence of his beloved, he also acknowledges that time’s passage will lessen his pain.  The lovers depicted in “As I Walked Out One Evening,” however, represent the alternate side of this scenario: their affection is very much mutual, and each assures the other of the perpetuity of his or her love, proclaiming “I’ll love you/Till China and Africa meet” and “till the ocean/Is folded and hung up to dry.” Auden’s antagonistic stance is voiced through “all the clocks in the city/,” who “Begin to whirr and chime:/O let not Time deceive you,/You cannot conquer Time,” reminding the lovers that their passion and youthfulness will ineluctably wane.

Admittedly, it is neither Auden’s pragmatism nor his conviction in love’s impermanence that has drawn me to his work, but rather his emotional sincerity. His writing brims with the same genuineness and authenticity that he urges readers to seek in their own lives, and the resulting vulnerability elicits empathy without asking for it. Furthermore, he seems to leave certain lines open to varying interpretations, perhaps mirroring the lack of certainty with which these lines have been composed. I often wonder, for instance, whether Auden prefers to be “the more loving one” because he considers it the less painful option or rather because he cannot bear to see his loved one suffer as he does. Like the speaker of “As I Walked Out One Evening,” Auden’s readers undoubtedly find themselves contemplating the “deep river” that continues to “[run] on,” despite love’s coming and going.

-Sierra Terrana

 

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