Thursday, April 17, 2014

Looking for Wisdom, I Encounter Jimi

I arrived in Chicago yesterday for a conference and have spent the last day and a half going up and down stairs between rooms, consulting a schedule book the size of Great Expectations, figuring out where the free food is, and processing a variety of ideas. This is my first time at this conference, and though I thought I'd been to some large conventions, this one is the biggest by far, at least judging by the staggering number of sessions.

By its nature, it's also more protean than some of the more discipline-focused conferences I've attended before. Popular culture is a natural home for a mythologist, but due to the tremendous variety of subjects included, it's broadly based, making it difficult to get your bearings. This actually supports what I said in my presentation today about the maze of knowledge and competing truths in the modern world. Traveling the halls here is a little like negotiating a maze. In one room, they're talking Tolkien; in the next room, they're discussing the Affordable Health Care Act; down the hall, it's feminist readings of fairy tales, punk rock culture, and fan fiction.

Planning one's strategy in advance may not result in smooth sailing, since cancellations can produce dropped sessions or alterations in panels you were considering. Not only is the gathering a maze, but it's a moving maze, seeming to reform itself as it goes along, like a starfish constantly shedding and growing new arms. Not only that, but I'd argue that there actually is no center to it except the one you impose yourself.

I've been surprised a couple of times, though I shouldn't have been, at reactions I've seen to what seemed to me fairly sensible questions and positions. One understands that people have a lot invested personally and academically in their ideas -- but still. From someone who was rather vehemently opposed to the idea of teaching information literacy across the curriculum to people on a panel who seemed uncomfortable about delving into politics in a discussion of Hollywood and propaganda, I've encountered some attitudes that were the opposite of what I'd expect.

Still, there are small epiphanies. A couple of sessions I've walked into that were second choices turned out to be excellent: one on special collections and one on the goals that shape educational planning in the United States. Sometimes accidents lead you to the right place. I left one session yesterday in a bit of a daze, disoriented by the direction the discussion had taken, and wandered into the exhibit hall, where academic publishers have their best books on display. What do you suppose I saw there, first thing? Nothing but a life of Jimi Hendrix, written by the man himself, bearing a cover photo of its subject wearing a sweet, slightly bemused expression.

I know it was an accident, but it was one that happened at just the right time. Girl, his expression seemed to say, the only thing that's wrong with you is being shut up in those rooms too long with all those smart-acting people. Get yourself outside and breathe a while. And don't pay too much mind to what goes on; take what you can and don't bother about the rest. When it's your turn to talk, get up there and say your piece. Then see if there's a free buffet around.

OK, that was me channeling Jimi, but maybe he would have said something like that. At any rate, a sweetly tricksterish quality somehow communicated itself to me from the cover of that book and activated my own inner rebel. Would you want to let Jimi Hendrix down? Me neither. Jimi, I said in my mind, I think I see your point.

Good, I imagine him saying. And I'm serious about that buffet. Get out there now and find something that'll keep body and soul together.

I'm not sure they have that, Jimi. These are academics, so it's probably more like crudites and cheese. With a side of condescension.

No kidding? Well, whatever they've got, pile it high.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

When Basketball Was Postmodern

Well, March Madness is behind us, the NCAA tournament has come and gone, and spring rolls on. I'm sure you're wondering what postmodernism has to do with basketball and why people with degrees come up with such silly ideas anyway, but in this post I'm going to show you how it's done.

I was reminiscing about springs of years past and my freshman year in college in my last post, and I guess one thing leads to another. I'm now remembering my sophomore year, which was dominated by a long and snowy winter not unlike the one we've just had, only worse. The Eagles were singing "Hotel California," but we weren't having any of that dark desert highway business here. We got walloped by a late January storm and an accompanying deep snow that seemed to last for weeks. I had just gotten contact lenses and could hardly see for the glare; south campus resembled the Antarctic more than the Bluegrass. It was a year when spring could not have come too soon.

It was also the year our school won its fifth NCAA basketball title. I was a big basketball fan back then and still remember how disappointing it had been when Kentucky lost to North Carolina in the East Regional the year before. It's strange how vividly I remember that, but of course, it was a time of new experiences for me. The night we did win, in March of 1978, everyone poured out of the dorms in a spontaneous Dionysian outburst that involved yelling, dancing around, and jumping up and down and seemed to combine basketball frenzy with a sort of spring ecstasy. At one point, a random boy appeared next to us and lifted my roommate (who was not a small girl) off her feet and into the air. I still remember her expression, wavering between smiling and shocked. People were climbing the lamp posts, or trying to.

There was something akin to Botticelli's "Allegory of Spring," with its pagan energy, going on that night, though for sheer pandemonium the scene may have had more in common with Hieronymous Bosch. I didn't see any destructive acts, but there were some gravity-defying ones.

As it happened, I was taking a music appreciation course that semester (I think there may even have been a basketball player in the class). We had listened to things as varied as medieval chant, Henry VIII's "Pastime With Good Company," and Janis Joplin, but the most memorable recording was the one our instructor -- a good-natured sort who didn't seem to mind explaining polyphony to undergraduates -- played for us at the end of the year. We had been studying modern composers, and he played a piece and asked us to try to identify what it was. The dissonance and unsettled energy made me think of Stravinsky, and I was sure that's what it was. Our professor surprised us by explaining that it was a recording he had made of "you people" while standing outside his apartment the night UK won the tournament.

The sounds of celebration had resolved into a cacophony in which human voices and car horns and goodness knows what else were indistinguishable from the strings, horns, and percussion of an orchestra playing something postmodern and daringly experimental, with the spirit of "The Rite of Spring." You'd never have believed it, but it was terribly avant-garde.

I guess this says something about archetypal energy that manifests itself both naturally and in artistic productions; also something about how we are often a part of something without fully recognizing what it looks like from the outside. I'm grateful for that music instructor who had the wit to record what he heard, giving me, all these years later, an explanation as to why March is the perfect time for basketball tournaments. I've come to realize how often there's mythology inside the most ordinary things, something that never would have occurred to me that long-ago night, in my fish out of water days, united with my cohorts for a little while when basketball brought down the house.

Monday, March 31, 2014

April, and Time

I've been focusing on a paper I'm writing on libraries as labyrinths, and it's taking a lot of my attention, so the blog is a little late in coming. I've been immersed in the life of Jorge Luis Borges for the last few days, and engrossing as it is, that hasn't stopped me from indulging in my other current preoccupation: keeping a weather eye out for new signs of spring.

Every time I go walking I see more patches of green on the lawns, more tiny flowers springing up; I saw my first daffodils of the season the other day near a coffeehouse I frequent. The buds are almost ready to burst on some of the trees, especially the redbuds, of which there are many in my neighborhood. I finally experienced that March day I was describing a couple of weeks ago, that prototypical day that's balmy and a little damp; it happened last Friday. It's still chilly at night, and though the temperatures have been variable, we are heading into a week of daytime highs in the 60s. Today was sunny and mild, and tomorrow should be the same.

If you want to see Kentucky at its prettiest, you couldn't do better than to arrive in April, though it's difficult to forecast the best time with precision, because many flowering trees seem to depend on warmth to bloom, and that never occurs predictably. Within a week or two, though, Lexington's streets should present a palette of various pink, violet, and white blossoms that will make the memory of winter grays seem a distant imagining.

I'm casting back in my own memory to figure out when the arrival of spring began to take on such significance. Not surprisingly, spring didn't really register when I was a kid in Florida, except to herald the arrival of Easter (the third best holiday in the pantheon). I don't remember having spring fever that much in junior high or high school, either; the chief thing back then was the beginning of summer. One day seemed much like another when I was in school, except for that electricity in the air that announced the approach of June.

The first time I ever fully appreciated how beautiful spring is in Kentucky was my first year in college. The campus has a variety of blooming trees, and though I must have been too engrossed in finals to notice it at first, I remember crossing Rose Street after my final exam in Western Literature From 1660 to the Present and suddenly becoming aware of a near wonderland of tulips and flowering trees. I was surprised that I had been too preoccupied to notice (though I must have had several term papers due in April and was also preparing to go home for the summer). At some point, while I was writing papers for Philosophy class, studying Spanish verbs, and thinking through my interpretation of Wordsworth's poem "Stepping Westward," the campus had transformed itself into a garden of great and delicate beauty. In succeeding years, I came to realize how fleeting that time of beauty is, and to look out for it.

Years of having to deal with ice and snow first thing in the morning before going to work did a great deal to destroy my enjoyment of winter, though I have to say I took those things in stride when I was in school and walked everywhere. One also falls into the habit of complaining, along with everyone else, about the short days and other pitfalls of the cold months. Beyond that, I have noticed in myself a keener awareness overall of the seasons, the holidays, and the rhythms that attach to different times of the year when time seems to move faster or slower. I don't know if this is something that comes with grower older or if it results simply from paying more attention.

The whole business of time has changed as I've gotten older. When I was young, I seemed to be living in an eternal now, probably because I didn't have much past to look back on. Now I'm more solidly situated as to past, present, and future, and of course the responsibilities of adult life require attention to such things as tax deadlines, the scheduling of appointments, and other duties that are time-dependent. I also live in a climate with distinct seasonal changes that constantly draw attention to the calendar. I'd actually like to go back to that eternal now of simply living in the moment, neither looking ahead, anticipating, or looking back, remembering. I wonder sometimes if living in more of a constant climate than the one I'm in would facilitate that, but I haven't had the opportunity to try it out.

Until I do, I guess I'll stick with looking forward to the redbuds and anticipating the azaleas. I don't know if it's SeƱor Borges or memories of life in Florida that have me thinking so much of sunshine and warm breezes . . . maybe it's both. But if I ever do relocate to a place in the sun, I may have to come back here for a couple of weeks out of the year, just for April. (Actually, summer is pretty nice here, too.)

Friday, March 21, 2014

Birth of Spring, Kentucky Style

Yesterday afternoon I took my camera when I went walking. I was looking for early signs of spring and wanted to document any I found. It was a bright, beautiful day, and I'd already noticed tufts of grass poking up in different places, so I knew there'd be other indications. It does seem to me that, like last year, spring is taking its sweet time about getting here. I can remember at least one instance (I'm not making it up) when spring was in full flower by April, weeping cherries, crabapples, and all. The forecast suggests that probably won't happen this year, but at least we're on the downhill side of March.

It felt so good to be out on a mild, sunny day that at first I was taking pictures of almost everything -- trees, flagpoles, buildings -- out of sheer good spirits. I saw a group of birds in a field and tried to photograph them, but they wouldn't sit still for it, so I had to give that up. On a residential street, I took pictures of clumps of new grass at the foot of a tree and the first flowers I've spotted this season, which turned out to be crocuses. Down the lane, I photographed branches almost ready to burst into bloom under a radiant blue sky. Seriously, I was

having thoughts about hopscotch; it was 
an e.e. cummings, little lame balloonman sort of day. 

This afternoon, I went for the same walk without my camera. It was a little warmer today, if breezier; more grass seems to have sprouted up over night, and I saw more crocuses. Someone was having a party on his back lawn, with croquet, a food table, and the works. A party for early spring! I haven't seen anyone playing outside since sometime last fall. It made me nostalgic for my grandmother's back yard, though that was really more of a June-July-August sort of thing. 

Uh oh, I'm getting ahead of myself! It's not even April yet. We haven't even seen any redbuds, and we don't want to miss that. But a polar vortex will do that to you.

How's it looking in your neck of the woods?

Friday, March 14, 2014

Dryads and Fauns of March

I don't know what March is like where you live, but around here it's very changeable. I remember one year when spring seemed to start at the end of February, so that early March brought warm breezes and blossoms; another year (possibly the very next one) we had a winter storm warning and blizzard conditions in the middle of the month. Sometimes, you're wearing short sleeves on St. Patrick's Day, but that may not prevent you from seeing snow flurries when it's almost April.

Last year, it seemed to take spring a long time to get here. I'd go out for walks, and it would be bright and sunny but rather cold. March seemed to go on forever in a not-quite-winter-not-quite-spring limbo, with a few breaks here and there. It seemed to me that the buds and flowers were later than usual, though I might have imagined that.

In my mind, despite the knowledge that March is predictably unpredictable, there is an archetypal March day. I have actually experienced these, often enough that they have come to sum up the entire month for me, though I think such days are relatively few and even absent altogether sometimes (I don't remember one last year, for example). It's a day that, out of nowhere almost, is suddenly mild and even slightly balmy. Winter seems to have disappeared into nothingness. The air is still and a bit damp, and you can smell the earth. It may be sunny, or it may be cloudy, but the main thing is the returning warmth that you haven't felt for months. You may have heard birds all winter, but suddenly their singing is sweeter and more eloquent and cuts through the stillness like crystal.

So far, I haven't experienced a day quite like that this year. We began the month with a snowstorm that left things looking more like January than March, except that the quality of the sunlight, when I went walking the next day, was too mellow for winter. Earlier this week, we had temperatures in the low 70s on a day that had people driving around town with their car tops down, windows open, and radios turned up. It was undeniably a beautiful spring afternoon but more emphatic than the type of day I'm talking about, which appears without fanfare as more of a subtle awakening.

As a child in Florida, I learned about the four seasons as something that occurred elsewhere, though we pretended they applied to us, too, just to be good sports. We dutifully colored autumn leaves, as first-graders, with our thick Crayolas, imagined winter wonderland at Christmas (though we might be wearing shorts), and celebrated the return of spring with pastels and Easter eggs almost as enthusiastically as if we'd been snowed in. At that time, in the simple shorthand of seasonal images, a March day would have been signified by wind blowing an umbrella sideways.

In that, at least, today was typical. It was quite windy when I went out for my walk in the late afternoon; I took a light jacket. There was a hazy sort of sunshine that was neither here nor there. Although it was a mild day, it had more of an end of winter than beginning of spring feel to it; it lacked the raw earthiness that signals true change, and there was little, if any, greenery in evidence.

If I were to imagine a presiding deity for today, it would be a minor goddess somewhat like the image I saw in the mirror when I got home, with hair completely askew. I hadn't realized it was quite that windy, but my hair said otherwise. It looked like a coiffure a headbanger's stylist would spend hours trying to achieve with mousse and special combs; the lift was unbelievable. Yes, that might be the proper divinity for today, a sort of dryad with long, wild hair and streaming drapery who causes the wind to blow by shaking the branches of her favorite tree.

With any luck, she'll soon be superseded by the divinities of damp earth and still air, who announce their presence gently, with a scattering of tufted grass and daffodils, the loamy smell of dirt, and a lilting quality to the birdsong that turns their notes into something nearly liquid.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Need Libraries? Ask Caesar.

This week I've been reading a book about the history of libraries. Even as a writer and librarian, there are a lot of things I didn't know, such as the difference between parchment and paper, the fact that philosopher David Hume was a librarian in Edinburgh, and the actual amount of destruction that took place in libraries when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1537 (apparently, some books were even sold as waste paper, according to Michael H. Harris, author of History of Libraries in the Western World).

In spite of the mind-numbing frequency with which priceless manuscripts and books have been lost through the ages to invasions, war, disaster, and neglect, the story of libraries is fascinating. Certainly they have been magical places for me, especially the ones I recall from childhood. I clearly remember my first visit to the elementary school library, a place that exuded the mystique of an inner sanctum, largely because of a rule that you had to be in the second grade before you could borrow books. I know some librarians might object to such a policy, but in my case, the effect of the prohibition was to make the library a place of fabulous allure. My first visit took on the character of an initiation: I couldn't have been more thrilled if that quiet second-floor room had contained the Holy Grail (and maybe it did).

Lately, libraries, like many other institutions, have fallen on tough times. I read last week about the difficulties the Los Angeles school district is having in keeping its school libraries open. Funding shortfalls have forced half the district's elementary and middle schools to do without librarians or library aides. Yesterday morning, I read an op-ed piece by the president of the Kentucky Association of School Librarians describing a plan to reduce the number of librarians in the local public high schools from two to one, a plan she believes will hurt students, greatly reducing their opportunities to get help with assignments, college applications, and other needs.

In hard times, granted, belt tightening is necessary, and even so, almost no one believes his/her own department or favorite cause should be subject to cuts. Still, there is something about the idea of reducing students' access to books (and librarians) that seems fundamentally wrong. Don't libraries and education go hand in hand?

I can't imagine my own childhood and youth without the libraries, both school and public, that I haunted like a hungry ghost. No trip to the inner sanctum to pick out my first library book, The Princess and the Woodcutter's Daughter? No one to help me learn how to use the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature? No Nine Coaches Waiting or Pride and Prejudice, discovered for the first time by browsing in the library of my Catholic school? No mind-blowing journey into Of Human Bondage, a reading experience that helped me see there were other points of view besides the one in my catechism class?

I'm not privy to the amount of soul searching and agony required to hammer out a budget in either the Los Angeles or the Fayette County schools. I assume that only a massive amount of both could lead to a decision to cut library services. Frustration with the administrators and decision-makers in these particular cases may be misplaced, since the tale of how we arrived at such a pass is a long and tangled one that begins far from the halls of the schools or the offices of the school boards.

The real and terrible irony is that, here in the Information Age, with more need than ever for people to learn effective ways to find, evaluate, and use information, the processes by which they gain these skills are, in many cases, not supported. Information literacy is at the heart of critical thinking, crucial for effective citizenship as well as scholastic success. One sometimes gets the impression that, as far as some government officials are concerned, the less people know, the better, but I disagree. The basis for an open, democratic society is an informed citizenship. Besides that, future advances in technology, science, arts and letters, and business depend on an educated workforce with problem-solving abilities, a flair for innovative thinking, and a high degree of information savvy.

Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, along with her daughters, the Muses, presides over the work of libraries. The accumulated knowledge of what has gone before, combined with the inspiration that gives birth to new ideas, allows societies to move ahead. In the history of libraries, we read of the loss of much that was worthy and beautiful, and of the ways in which the learning of the classical world was kept alive--though hanging by the barest thread at times--in the libraries of Byzantium, the studies of Arabic scholars, and the monasteries of the Middle Ages. Many civilizations, having attained a high degree of advancement, were undone not only by invaders but also by the loss of their culture.

This seems a dire fate to imagine for our society based on budget restrictions in education, which we all hope are temporary and subject to amelioration. But it's possible many of the great cultures of the past never imagined the fates that befell them, either. I'm optimistic that we, as Americans, can figure out ways to support schools, libraries, and literacy, even during an economic downturn, if we set our minds to it. I'm a little concerned about the political will to support such efforts, but on that point I hope to be proved wrong.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Demeter's in the Kitchen, and She Has a Blender

I seem to be preoccupied, in my recent Facebook postings, with food. I think there are several reasons for this. For one, it's winter, and most of us are in hibernation, especially with the kind of deep freeze we've had this year. You can't always hit the sidewalks for a carefree stroll in the sun (especially when they're covered with ice), but you can always put a casserole in or bake some bread.

In just the last month, I've written posts about baking bread and cinnamon rolls, cooking chicken stew with escarole, making marinara and Bechamel sauce for lasagna, fixing Spanish rice, baking chocolate Valentine's cookies, re-creating a ravioli and broccoli dish I had years ago in Somerville, Mass., and trying to figure out how my grandmother made cornbread. Unlike other things that might eat up your day, a well-prepared meal can rarely be considered a waste of time. My only regret is that my circle of college friends, whom I used to enjoy cooking with, is now too far-flung to make group dinners possible.

OK, so it's winter, but I believe there's more to my food-mindedness than that. In addition to my own birthday, both my mother's and my father's birthdays occur in midwinter, so I've naturally been thinking more about the two of them than usual. Inextricably tied up with memories of childhood are memories of foodways and family meals. How I regret not finding out how my mother made certain things, like pancakes and meatloaf! How I wish I could be in my grandmother's kitchen again, eating her fried chicken. How well I remember the taste of a grilled cheese sandwich and Campbell's Tomato Soup, a common childhood lunch. How much fun it would be to prank my dad on his birthday one more time by putting hot pepper in the Jello!

If I were to self-analyze, I'd say that many of my kitchen adventures represent self-mothering, an attempt to take care of myself through culinary means. Gridlock in Washington? That's OK, here's a blueberry smoothie. Emperor has no clothes? Never mind, have some stew. Yet another inane conversation overheard in Starbucks? Time to make biscuits. Snarky relative? There's a recipe for Chicken Piccata around here somewhere.

I can tell that it really is self-nurturing and not self-indulgence by the judiciousness with which I (usually) weigh what I'd like to have with what seems most nutritious. I grew up in the meat and potatoes era, but I've branched out: I'm always looking for new ways to fix vegetables, including some I'm not used to using. I think I shocked some old friends the other day when I announced I making the potato soup I've been making for 30 years with celery instead of leaving it out as I've always done. "But you hate celery!" I heard, almost immediately. It's true, I always did; but then I vacationed in New Orleans, where the food was so divine and sometimes had celery in it, and there was that yummy tuna dill sandwich they used to have at the library that included celery, and so . . . there I was at the grocery store on Tuesday, eyeing celery on sale for $.77 and wondering why the bunches had to be quite so big. (The soup experiment hasn't gone down yet, but I can't imagine it will use more than a couple of stalks, which could mean ants on logs in my near future.)

You may not believe it, but I also have less of a tendency toward snacking and unrestrained dessert foraging than I used to have. That's not to say I've dropped it altogether, but I'll give you an example. I heard about a new type of Ben & Jerry's ice cream yesterday that apparently includes two different flavors in a single pint along with a core of something delectable like raspberry jam or fudge. My most immediate thought was, "Wow, that's extreme!" instead of "I have to see if Kroger has it!" (I will have to see if Kroger has it, but it wasn't my very first thought. See what I mean?)

So I can't, at the moment, do anything about unemployment, political intransigence, ignorance, incivility, dishonesty, or the rampant failure of so many schools to teach information literacy, but I can at least try to feed myself, which is saying a lot in a world where way too many people still go to bed hungry. We could all use an infusion of Demeter, which is probably why I'm so preoccupied with her. When I think about my parents, I think they'd be pleased that I invested the money a couple of years ago in all the kitchen basics I'd never bothered with before. Fake it till you make it, I can hear them saying. Fake it till you make it. And by the way, your biscuits are better than they used to be.