30 August, 2008

of whales, grammar, and eavesdropping

Sitting down with a good book and the task of a three-page explication is a deeply enjoyable practice to me. Today I need to operate on the whiteness chapter in Moby Dick and I can't think of an assignment I'd rather have, reclining here in my bed at home, listening to M. Ward and Joanna Newsom (yes, really). Moby Dick has far surpassed my initial expectations. I read it for the first time when I was 16, which I now realize was too young to appreciate anything from this occasionally exhausting whaling epic. I hated it then, but now I've become something of a quiet fan. Melville is full of poetic surprises; you just have to wade through the minutiae to find them. It's worth it in the end, I believe.

One exemplary passage, stuck in the middle of a narrative from Ishmael about being tied to Queequeg while stabbing at a half-dead whale:

"I saw that this situation of mine was the precise situation of every mortal that breathes; only, in most cases, one way or other, has this Siamese connexion with a plurality of other mortals. If your bankers breaks, you snap; if your apothecary by mistake sends you poison in your pills, you die."

I like this observation and it strikes me as very Woolfian; that we are all tied to one another and thus we will all go down together. It also brings to mind what Alex Kirk was talking about at IV last Thursday, how all of humanity is hard-wired for community. Every facet of the human design is dependent upon relationships: biological, emotional, spiritual. And so the gospel has no function if it is divorced from the context of community.

Taking the News Editing class has revived my inner Grammar and Punctuation Stickler and I must admit I rather like having her back. It's like living with spicy, keen-eyed demons, being perpetually on the hunt for various stylistic peccadillos. The demons make you unpleasant to most everyone, and they are only satiated when they strike upon some poor fool's misplacement of an apostrophe or something of the same kind. I try to keep the vocal unpleasantness down to a low murmur, but I do so adore precision in language.

(Things Overheard Last Week)

The Funniest Question Ever Asked in an English Class
"That's ironic, right?" -- some kid who sits near me in American Novel

Decline of Faith in Modern Medicine
"I'm going to take them, but I know they're not going to do any good. Doctors are stupid, Mom, remember?" -- boy in flannel shirt in Lenoir

Evidently, he hasn't adventured in the Midwest
"Yeah, this was filmed in Illinois." -- Guion, remarking on the mountainous scenery of "Donnie Darko." The film was shot in the San Gabriel Mountains of California.

Really? We go to the same school?
"And then, I was like... Ohmygod, Amy! I lost my cell phone! ... Wait. I'm talking on it right now." -- girl, on her cell phone, walking through Winston.

18 August, 2008

for peace comes dropping slow

Coming back to school every year is a little bit like beginning a new life--or at least picking up that life you left behind for a summer. It feels good to fall into the old rhythms and simultaneously create new ones.

Things I have done today that I have missed doing:

Read The Daily Tarheel and wrestled with the crossword
Walked through the Pit and saw familiar faces
Helped a freshman figure out the printing system at Davis
Looked at syllabi for my classes
Made fun and slightly awkward bathroom conversation with new girls on the hall
Sitting in the Connor Quad and watching people walk
Leafed through my textbooks
Called numerous people and said, "Yes, let's meet up sometime soon"
Actually making plans to meet up sometime soon

While navigating the mad mobs of Fall Fest last night with Guion (it was rather like following a powerful magnet; people just attach themselves to him and I think he introduced me to easily sixty people in the span of half an hour) I noticed that I forget how incredibly beautiful and ALIVE my friends are until I see them again. It's not that I don't think of them during the summer; but I am so impressed by their sheer reality when I see them again--a hug, a hand on your shoulder, all of the little physical movements that say, Yes, I remember you; I value your presence. I have missed this. I want to fill up this year with that.

A happy heart.

14 August, 2008

meditations on a gift shop

While working at Mom's store, anchored behind the counter, I have plenty of time to think, plenty of time to memorize every item on the freshly painted shelves in front of me. (The summers are especially slow at the store.) I was thinking yesterday about the different kinds of women in this city, the ones who choose to visit The Beehive. There are glamorous women, tired women, focused women, silly women. They interest me. I wound my cold legs around each other and put on my best and whitest smile, trying to look less like a waxed piece of furniture and more like a useful human, and thought about how women shop, how women interact with another.

There is a particular science to greeting our customers. You have to time it just right--cue a bright "Hi, how are you doing," or "Hi, let us know if we can help you with anything," as soon as she steps in front of the fireplace, taking those slow steps that indicate she's just browsing and looking for nothing in particular. If she is walking quickly and her head is up, you know she's looking for something specific and so you hold off on the greeting until she comes back to the counter with her prey. Once a woman comes up to the counter, I always make it a point to look her in the eye and smile. It's really amazing how much this can change a person. Most women come in with hard, set faces and crossed arms. But once you look them straight in the eye and smile, their faces unfold like flowers and the glimmer of the human surfaces. I love this.

It's most amusing when men come in. Our clientele is easily 95 percent female, and so the rare man who walks in is always accorded special attention. Mainly because as soon as a man walks in, his countenance suddenly switches from Decisive Businessman to Nervous Youth. He knows, instinctively, that he's just crossed over into Woman Territory and there are no masculine comforts for him here. Men usually look lost in The Beehive; women, on the other hand, are clear-eyed and determined. Because of this, my mom and aunt have always said, "You can sell a man basically anything in here. He has no idea what he's looking for. And so you just suggest something and he'll get it." This tends to be generally true. Something about this intrigues me--that there can be a uniquely feminine space, that it can exist or even be created. And that it makes men uneasy. (I wonder if there is an equivalent for women, a purely male sphere that makes women fidget.)

Am studying Leviticus for the next few weeks. A question that was raised in my mind by this morning's chapter: Does corporate sin/corporate culpability for wrongdoing still exist under the New Covenant? I ought to know this, or at least recall some justification either way in the New Testament, but I haven't invested the time in researching the answer yet. It just struck me as curious. Consequences of our sin affect the entire Body (if one part fails, the rest are hindered), but to what extent is this true since we are no longer under the law but under grace? Oh, Leviticus. Who knew you could be so troublesome?

Finished Babbitt and it was fantastic. I am amazed at how little Americans have changed in 80 years; we are still struggling with the same Vision and Ideals, the same conflicting ideas of Democracy, the same family issues, the same fake churches and posturing leaders that Babbitt was. Lewis is right on the money with his portrayal of the deep irony of American Life, which is at once mundane and complex. Excellent book. Moving on next to Dostoevsky's The Possessed and the fall semester of my junior year. Glory! It's hard to believe.

11 August, 2008

faith is an island in the setting sun

Okay, so I underestimated the Midwest. It was far prettier than I remembered, and I had a genuinely lovely few days there, thanks in large part to my family and my Dad's family. We had a relaxing and full time in Ohio and Indiana, filled with lots of laughter, Roachdale, resuscitated memories, corn detassling, and the Olympics. The chances to love and be loved. And then half of us made it back for Paul and Alex's gorgeous and quasi-Jewish wedding last night. They both looked amazing, full of an eagerness that is wholly deserved, since they've been waiting to get married for twelve years. And it was great to see all of the old high school friends, too, to note how we've changed and how we've stayed the same. The convergence of memories and remainders of old lives and all that sort of thing that happens when you meet people you were once intimate with.

Watching the Olympics makes me acquire all sorts of weird emotions. On one side, I love seeing these men and women who are incredibly good at what they do, but on the other, I think most of them are so doped up that it's hard to know who deserves the credit. And then I am humbled by their skill and devotion, and on the other side I'm critiquing them as if I were qualified to. But the best thing I've seen so far, because it was so inspiring and genuine, was the men's 400M freestyle relay. Go watch the clip of it somewhere online (NBC, maybe?) if you haven't already.

Oh, and Kels and I got a car. It's just the most darling, ugly-as-sin little thing you've ever seen. You have to kick it to get it to start in the morning. But I won't complain. It'll be nice to have a form of transportation, however cheap, around Chapel Hill.

What is the What was powerful, as I expected it to be, but not in a cheesy or predictable manner. Eggers skillfully avoids what I think would be a common pitfall of writing about a Sudanese refugee: turning him into a continual hero or model of Faith and Perseverance Against All Odds. Even though that is Valentino Achak Deng's story, Eggers never lets one forget that Deng is, above all else, not much different from anyone else. He's human. We're human. And humans do terrible things to each other, both on that continent and this. Very well-written, highly recommended to those of you who like to read things.

And I really like Gillian Welch. I admit it without shame.

(5 points to the person who can name where the title of this post comes from without Googling it.)

06 August, 2008

the doldrums of the nation

On the verge of heading out--the Family Excursion to the Midwest will soon be underway. I've always really liked appropriating the word "midwest" as an adjective for "mundane; average." Such as, "This book is the midwest of realist fiction," or, "Oh, her style is so very midwestern." This tendency to use this word perhaps suggests my lack of enthusiasm about this last summer hurrah, but I am looking forward to riding in the car with our family (always this ridiculous blend of outrageous humor and deep silence) and reading (bringing What is the What, Babbitt, and Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ). And, of course, seeing family on the paternal side, who are always brilliant, beautiful, and complex.

Went to Charleston for a night with Kels, Grace, Maria, and Sarah. I felt old and ugly around all of them, but they tolerated me and called me Dad. How sweet. We had a great time together, got burnt, sang in the car, and collected a fair number of embarrassing/incriminating stories. As to be expected of any girls' trip.

Thought while riding the bus back from work: Sleeping in public is a grotesquely vulnerable thing. Watching people sleep in public, that is. It doesn't disgust me (contrary to my use of the word "grotesque," which I debated about, but I think it works); rather, I am fascinated to see this complete loss of self and personal composure that happens when people fall asleep in public places. On the bus, on the train, on a bench... it takes great self-confidence and individual abandon to accomplish, I think.

"I want to have a love affair with negative space."--spoken by Grace, while she was practicing sumi-e the other night.

I break into gleaming smiles when I think about seeing everyone again at school; most everyone fresh from abroad, their mouths full of stories and laughter, back in their customary places on campus, the same and yet very much changed. I love being on the verge of joyful reunions.