Monday, May 31, 2010

On Trespassing, A Conversation Between My Five-Year Old Nephew and Me

I like to run around with my two nephews and niece, don't get me wrong, but there's nothing as inherently delightful to me as sitting down with one, two, or all three of them to read a few books. (My niece has developed a taste for The Berenstain Bears.) Anyhow, there's something important for you to know before I tell you the rest of this story: my five-year-old nephew is a smart little cookie. And I don't say that just because I'm a doting aunt. He knows the age of the universe (10 billion years), was quick to figure out the chronology of his mom and her siblings when he looked through old photos with my mom, and already knows how to use words much larger than his age (and I'm not just talking dinosaur names, either).

Anyway, his sister and I requested that I read them Beauty and the Beast (the Disney-fied storybook version). When we reached the part of the story where the Beast throws Maurice into the dungeon, my nephew looked up at me and asked why.

"Why what?"

"Why did he have to go to the dungeon?"

Pause. How do you explain the idea of trespassing to a five-year-old, albeit an intelligent one?

" you know the word trespass?"

Nephew and niece both shake their heads no.

"Trespass is when you go into someone else's house without knocking. So the Beast got mad because Belle's dad didn't knock on his door and ask to come in first. Instead, he just came into the house without knocking or anything. He just invited himself in. And that's why the Beast put him in the dungeon."

Sudden look of enlightenment on nephew's face. "So Snow White was okay because she knocked first and said 'May I come in?' before she went into the house because nobody was home. Right?" Emphatic nod from my niece.

Me: "Um, sort of."

(How else would you explain the dungeon-throwing-in? Sadly, he's past the age where "because the Beast was mean" is a viable explanation...)

A Late Svithe: Good vs. Perfect

I grew up around simple, sincere people. And when I say "simple," I don't mean by any stretch of the imagination those I grew up with were simple-minded. I mean instead that those I grew up around were not terribly concerned with material or with complicated things. They were people concerned instead with raising good, well-adjusted children. With providing for their families without needing to be the most apparently rich on the block. And I often forget--until I come home for a weekend such as this one--that they were, most importantly, second families. Other houses where I could wander in barefoot. Other mothers, fathers, siblings. Other people who cared then and still care now about what I choose to do with my life.

They have always been people who acted in accordance with what they believed, without slapping others upside the head with their beliefs (metaphorically speaking, of course). And if, as the scriptures say, "by their fruits ye shall know them," I find it impossible to disbelieve Church doctrines and teachings. Because the people I grew up with were not perfect, but they were and still are good. These people have flaws, mind you, and they know it. Some of them are impatient; some of them get testy; some of them gossip a little more than perhaps they should. But that doesn't make them any less lovable, and that doesn't mean they aren't trying.

Lately I've been struggling with some of my beliefs, perhaps because I have been thinking that it's all too hard. But I realized yesterday that I've been struggling because I've been thinking that it's too hard to be perfect and it's too hard to have perfect faith. So this Memorial Day weekend, I'm grateful for reminders that the aim is not to be perfect. The aim is to work (and it is work, but it's not as hard as I thought) to be good.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

I Cordially Invite You

To trundle on over to the book blog my sister started for my review of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I have not dearly, dearly loved a book like this in a great, long while.

Not since Mistborn most likely, and well, that was a different type of love. Maybe you'll see what I mean after you read the review. Maybe you won't. But I know this much: I now desperately want Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows as friends.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Art and Narcissism

A couple of months ago, I read The Picture of Dorian Gray for one of my classes. It wasn't the first time I had read the novel, and I'm sure that it probably will not be the last. But anyway, I found myself thinking about the book in a very different way than I had previously. When I read it as an undergraduate student, it had seemed an entirely moralistic tale: if you invest yourself too much in bad things, you'll become corrupt and eventually die. But this time around, I found it more difficult to read it as quite that moralistic.

That particular professor enjoyed summing up books in a sentence or so--a sentence that could essentially act as a thesis for an argument paper, if necessary. Her sentence was "Art: it's not about you." That sentence alone provoked an interesting discussion, because a fellow student stated it reminded her of a pop culture conference she had attended with her mother. According to the fellow student, she had been appalled at the sheer number of panel discussions centering around the topic: "What is the Twilight series doing to teenage girls?" She highly disliked that so much of the conference seemed not to be exploring anything interesting . . . or even aesthetic. (Incidentally, my answer to the question would be this: the series itself may be planting ideas, but the books are not actually doing anything to those girls. Reading the books does not automatically turn any given girl into an agency-less, susceptible fembot.)

Don't get me wrong. I think it's entirely possible for art to create an effect in its viewers. My enjoyment of reading does not come from the repetitive actions of page turning and eye scanning involved. And art, in some sense, is entirely reliant on its viewers. (It seems to me that with most art, it's sort of necessary for someone outside the artist to declare it art. Just like it's necessary for someone that's not myself or one of my parents to verify I've written something good.)

But I don't think that art can make its viewers do anything. In that sense, I felt my professor's blanket statement to be correct. But at the same time, there's a paradox at work for the reason I briefly mentioned above: whether or not art has an individual impact is entirely based on you. Your tastes. Your reactions. Your assessments. These are not necessary for definition, i.e. for the art to be called art, but they are wholly necessary for the art to be anything except words on paper or paint on canvas or a chemical process applied to paper to show an image.

In short, I personally think the sentence should be modified to: "Art: it's not entirely about you." Because enjoying art--feeling art--is an inherently narcissistic enterprise. Simply seeing it? Well, that's a different story.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

And Before I Forget

In case you would further like to dillydally about the Web, I recommend that you check out a book blog for which I will be a semi-regular contributor. (I've already written one entry, and more will soon follow. I hope.)

Also, if you would like to read some interesting thoughts from another recent ex-student, consider visiting my friend. He has a blog, you know. Just in case the URL didn't tell you.

Please feel free to return to your regularly scheduled programs without visiting either link. I promise that we'll still be friends, either which way.

Questions, Thoughts

As of May 7, 2010, I have finished my master's degree. I read many books, wrote many papers, lost much sleep. I met people that I otherwise never would have met, I learned things that I otherwise never would have learned. And I found it all to be a worthwhile experience.

But I've realized something vital: I need a plan. Or a semblance of a plan. Or something that I can pretend to be a plan. Because somehow, during all of that studying and scribbling, I neglected to realize that life would again continue once the master's degree had ended.

I have the ability to throw myself wholeheartedly into things, but I tend not to think what will happen after those things end. My master's degree was infinitely rewarding; I want to continue on to the next rewarding thing that will take me.

But sometimes I wonder how much I inevitably hold myself back. I wonder how much caution, precaution, and safety nets are factored into decisions that I make. Sure, I think I could do any number of interesting things. But would I? Really? I've come to realize that it's difficult to be daring.