Friday, January 21, 2005

The Female of the Species, and children's books

Simon thinks that a "female" is a kind of bird. I was trying to explain that a "peahen" is a girl peacock, but what he took from that was that there was another kind of bird called a "female." When I tried to explain that Mommy was a female human, he told me that he was an owl-boy. So we've decided to let it go. I'll just hope he works this one out by high school or so.

My mother finally remember to send me a clipping she'd cut out a while back. My dissertation advisor wrote an article for the Boston Globe praising Phillip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" series, and incidentally dismissing JK Rowlings and the Harry Potter series. Check it out here:

I'm generally inclined to argue with Billy just for the fun of it (and probably for some bizarre Freudian reasons caused by generally feeling inadequate around someone that smart), but I admit, since I got it on Monday, I've been mulling over, not so much his praise of Pullman, who is a good writer, although I'm not passionate about it, but the need to critique the Harry Potter books, which seems like a general compulsion for people who talk about children's books. I think that part of this analysis is wrong, and it bears looking at. Particularly when you compare the visions of childhood and the transition towards adulthood that are presented by Pullman and Rowling. In the end, I think Rowling offers up the more radical possibilities, and perhaps a more powerful way for young readers to think about the transformation they are experiencing.

Let me say upfront that I liked both series, but also believe there is plenty to criticize in both. (On no level do I think that Pullman is the "most electrifying piece of literature in 20 years, although I do admire him.) How could I fail to adore a vindication of Milton, Blake, Gnosticism and the fortunate fall? Pullman does a truly astonishing and wonderful job of introducing a new theology, and an old new way of reading Bible to people who are unlikely to pick up Blake at random (if only because voluntarily reading something you were assigned in high school is so painful.)

On the other hand, Pullman is clearly more interested in plot than characters, and it shows. The fall is ultimately played out through the awakening and maturity of his two main child characters, Will and Lyra. But neither character really changes very much in the course of the book - or rather, Will, who begins tediously and ends that way, remains much the same. Lyra, however, changes in disturbing ways. Adolescence and the beginning of sexual awakening transform her into a clingy, whiny, passive figure, who allows Will to rescue her (finally, in a soap-operaesque moment, from a drug induced coma caused by her badly torn mother who resonates wildly and creatively from bad Mommy to good, and is much more fun than Lyra) whenever times become hard. In the first book, child Lyra is a powerful and creative actor in her own world. By the end, Will is the actor and Lyra merely clings admiringly to his shoulder a lot. I admit, as much as I'd like to be pleased that Pullman placed a girl at the center of his novels, I can't be, particularly since his vision of sexual awakening is so damned boring.

Pullman's books are often ponderous and sometimes pretentious - my cousin told me that she gave up on the third book half way through the extremely lengthy "does she or doesn't she fall" section, and I admit, I put the book down then too. And he does an extremely poor job of showing why characters care for one another - they simply do, there are no explanations. We are told that the polar-bear mercenary and other adults love Lyra, but never shown how the love developed between them. Another adult character is more than willing to die for her, and then serve her needs in hell, but the evolution of his feeling for her is hasty, awkward and often left out. If love matters, as Pullman claims it does, if passion matters, it would be nice to see some genuine love, and it creation and complexity as an actual human thing, rather than a convenient plot device.

But the reason I really like Rowling better than Pullman (besides the fact that Rowling is funny and Pullman is painfully never so), is that ultimately, Rowling believes in growing up as a fundamentally positive (although painful) process, whereas Pullman's vision is another tedious version of Wordsworth, where no one ever really gets over the loss of becoming an adult. Rowling is a radical in the field of children's literature in that she presents the process of becoming an adult as a potentially exciting adventure, fraught with terrible experiences, but ultimately a liberation from the powerlessness of childhood. It is true that her children have special powers, but their powers aren't ultimately what saves them - it is their maturity, in the best sense.

I will admit, the last book (#6) was not one of her better ones, particularly after the Fifth book, which was remarkable both for its story and for its terrific portrayal of adolescent misery. The funniest moment in _The Order of the Pheonix_ (to me, at least) involves the portrait of a former Hogwarts Headmaster berating Harry for acting like an adolescent, and for believing he is the center of the universe (which is precisely the case). The headmaster announces that this is exactly why he hates teenagers, a sentiment I can identify with both in retrospect and from the perspective of a teacher. And Harry doesn't particularly like being a miserable, enraged, bitter, grief stricken teenager. Perhaps because Will and Lyra have so many other things to do, they never actually are children or adolescents, while Rowling's characters get to experience late childhood and puberty with all its myriad joys.

Rowling's best characters are grownups, but they are grownups haunted by their own (mostly unhappy) childhoods, trying as best they can to be adults, even as watching the teenagers around them makes it a struggle. But the remarkable thing about all of the major "good" characters is that they *are* adults when it counts. Severus Snape, the malicious, troubled, troubling (and really cool) potions master who hates Harry with all his might based on an old grudge against his father, is also Harry's savior, teacher and ally on and off. I won't mention what happens at the end of Book 6, but it really is the only good thing about the most recent book - that Snape, again, has not been sanitized in his ambiguity. Compare Snape, or Sirius Black (Harry's troubled, angst riddent, tortured guardian) with Lyra's mother or father, both of whom are amusing, but who really have no reason, other than loathing for each other, for acting like such twits all the time. Lyra's parents eventually sacrifice themselves for her, on the theory that "good parenting involves doing this" but that makes no more sense than their original acts of evil. Voldemort at least fears death, something that makes a disturbing amount of sense to me, at least, and something that is fundamentally an adult, fear. Harry and his friends are learning to fear and accept it too.

The Harry Potter books present two generations of teenagers (one now grown and mentoring the next), both badly damaged by war, attempting to transform their world. They do it with full, visual knowledge of the consequences of their actions. They know they can die, they know they probably will, they are afraid, they are angry and resentful of the necessity, they do not dream of innocence, but rather of peace. Personally, I find that resonates far better in the present world than an account in which innocents save the world and lose only their true love for each other and their virginity. The former is a vision of the world in which honor and maturity are virtues to be claimed, rather than losses to be mourned, and I strongly prefer it.


Friday, January 14, 2005

What's new here.

What am I reading: Ferenc Mate's _A Reasonable Life_: Love it, love it, love it!!! How have I not read this before? Its a rant against...well...modernity, and it is totally brilliant. I don't always like other people's rants (infringes on my territory, I guess ;-), but I love this one. Run out and get a copy. Be a better person than me and buy it new, if you can.

What am I listening to: "Best of Solomon Burke" - really good bass voices just make me want to weep with joy, or throw myself onto the person who has them. Seriously, ex-spouse Matt's attraction was in large part his amazing bass voice. So Solomon Burke makes me seriously happy.

What are we eating, and where did it come from?: Oh, you don't want to know. All the rain we've had flooded even the pop-up greenhouses that are supposed to mean winter greens. Forget it. It mostly came from the supermarket, its probably doused in poison.
Oh, we're still eating our own pickles, kimchi, jams and squash, but that' about it.

What's new?: Grandma comes back from 5 weeks in CA Sunday, I start seeds next week, we're starting to debate new critter acquisitions for the year - another dog? Goats? How many more chickens? More geese? Turkeys? Barn cats? Honeybees? Definitely no more ducks. Sheep? We're still waiting for Isaiah to walk - he's been on the verge forever. We think he's waiting for Grandma.

The big thing that's new, however, is that Eric and I are (vaguely, generally, sometime in the future) considering moving. Now that shouldn't shock anyone who knows me - I'm into change, the more radical the better. But anyone who has met Eric should be stunned into unconsciousness by the idea that *my husband* would contemplate moving. And I admit, I've been very happy here. This is entirely in the "maybe one of these days stage" - first of all, I doubt Grandma will go for it. Second, Eric would need to get a job at a small rural college in this area - or I would. Finally, the right house and land would have to be available, at the right price. It requires a confluence of factors that seems extremely unlikely - the job, the house, Grandma's consent.

So why are we even talking about it? Because the one thing we both despise about rural living is *CAR OWNERSHIP* and we're fantasizing about getting out of the car game. The other thing we both hate is debt and high taxes, and we've got a little of both (small mortgage on the property, and growing taxes). We'd like to live off grid, and on the cheap if possible. Right now, that's not really feasible.

But if Eric could get a job at one of the small SUNYs (or I could) or Community colleges in a small community with walkable/bikeable/horseandbuggiable resources available within four or five miles of farmland, we could give up the car entirely. We'd probably keep something old and semi-functional with no reg or insurance for racing children to the hospital in the most major of emergencies, but otherwise, no car. Oh, we'd probably rent once in a while to visit family, maybe even barter produce for carpools in nasty weather, but oh, what joy. Even walking to work in sleet and snow would be a considerable improvement over the fucking car. Less convenient? Sure. Happier, healthier, cheaper, less smelly, less dependent, better? Absolutely.

We'd love to be completely mortgage free, and frankly, I think after Grandma is gone I want a smaller house. The new addition gives us lots of space, but I'd rather live in a smaller house and be more crowded, and have less to keep clean. And I want a good barn, land that isn't as wet, and maybe more of it around me.

These things are just fantasy. I write them down because sometimes, if you are very lucky or you make things happen right, fantasies come true. We love our home, we love our life, I have a hard time thinking about walking away from this beautiful place and our wonderful neighbors, from the quiet and the trees beneath which are buried some of our beloved animals. I'd be grieved to lose it. But the dream, the one where we are never more dependent upon gas prices, never again in any kind of debt, and free to live on less, and thus earn little and live more, draws me in.


Childhood and "The Farm"

My children have the usual component of children's books and toys, and I cannot but notice how central to their world as these things present it is "The Farm." One of the first things my son, Eli, knew for sure was that a cow said, "moo," and Isaiah's first word was "quack." All of which simply suggests the centrality of this imagined farm in the world of small people. It is always the same farm, a kind of diversified small farm that barely exists any longer, one with a house cow, a small flock of sheep, a few pigs in a sty, a barnyard full of chickens and ducks, and a cat with kittens. In stories, in imaginative play, through their toys, even regularly on the otherwise urbanized Sesame Street, my children visited "The Farm" more often than anywhere else, and I do not think that they are in any way alone. Every child I know grows up with these images, and on some level, "The Farm" is the dream of our collective childhood. Whether or not you actually had a farm to visit or live on, at some gut level we know that this is how children are supposed to live, milking cows, collecting eggs, growing food, running through open pastures, playing with animals, being part of a productive life, doing the ordinary work of sustenence. We represent to our children the possibility of this kind of life, take them on field trips to farms to pet the animals and give them the experience of picking fruit because the nurturing of other lives and the production of food is the most basic and essential of human activities, and as far removed as our adult selves can be from this work, we recognize its necessity in childhood.
The farms in my sons' stories have not kept pace with modern agribusiness. None of our library's portrayals of chickens shows debeaked, manure soaked chickens crammed into tiny wire cages that mechanically collect eggs. Nor do they include in their farm word lists, "hog manure lagoon," "Round-up ready soybeans" or "soil erosion." One of my son's books claims to be about tractors, but even it cannot resist adding, "On the way to the field he passes a wooly sheep, a brown cow, a hungry pig and her piglets and a noisy goose." The gigantic tractor with enclosed cab that the book shows probably works on monocropped fields raising a few thousand acres of corn, but there is so little to write about the tractor itself that the book must return to the (almost certainly absent in real life) pleasures of animal noises and barnyard diversity to have something to say. The actual living farms that resembled those portrayed in my son's childhood are in a very real danger of disappearing altogether, and becoming an imaginary places, like Fairyland. It is frightening to realize that Dorothy's Kansas where she walked the boards of the pig's fence and helped her aunt with the farm labor, for all its black-and-while dustbowl sorrow, is now a place as imaginary and lamented as Oz itself.
I am just old enough to remember an older-style farm. My great-aunt and uncle were truck farmers in (then) rural Connecticut, and I remember picking and loading produce in summers, and chasing my cousin Amy in and out of the cool, dark chicken house, collecting eggs, petting hens and wreaking havoc as we dared each other to crawl into the more spidery recesses of the barn. My father took us to pick apples at a family farm in New Hampshire, where we visited pigs kept not for agri-tourism but for meat, and where I chased farm kittens in the hay loft and climbed old standard apple trees to find the nicest unpicked specimens. No pick-your-own orchard I know of now permits children to climb into haylofts or trees, if only for insurance reasons. Both those farms and their owners are gone, as are most diversified small farms in the United States. The ones that remain are far from land that might be seen as desirable, or even reachable by cities and suburbs, so the majority of American children will never see them. If they visit a farm at all, it will be a farm designed for tourism, with a petting zoo and animals who are pets rather than livestock. We have one such farm near us, which showcases 2 baby goats, a single pig, a pair of turkeys (both male) and half a dozen other single animals who are there because they draw families to the farm's stand and apple trees. The animals disappear (without any explicit acknowledgement of their final destination) each autumn, keeping children firmly apart from the realities of farm-animals-as-meat.
I do not deny the virtue of a place that connects children, however tenuously, to the real feel and smell and taste and value of livestock and a farm, but if we truly believe (and I suspect we do) that contact with our rural past and future is necessary for children (and adults!), and that children should live in both the actual and imaginary life of the farm, then we need to make certain that such farms are real and available to them, and that we as a community are fully connected to them. That is, we need to patronize those farms, support them, make them possible, encourage laws that support those farms and discourage industrial agriculture, which has nothing at all to do with farms. And those of us so inclined need to live on farms, or small homesteads that resemble them. Even those in the suburbs can make a little life with a few hens, rabbits and a garden.
Eric and I have taken it upon ourselves to remake the farm, not out of nostalgia, but simply because the farm makes sense. There is a logic to diversification that no industrial agriculture can match - sheep and cows and geese can share the same pasture, each eating a different part of the grass. Chickens root worms and fly eggs out of manure of larger animals. The garden provides waste and extra to supplement the feed of an animal, the animal provides manure for the garden. And the child enjoys the tomato never touched by a chemical, the brush of silky feathers against his cheek when the hen nestles in his arms, the dog to play with, the apple trees to climb, the cornfield to hide it, the kittens to pet, the goat's milk that feeds her young and him, and the lamb to love and nurture. The diversified small farm is the world of childhood. That does not mean it is wholly innocent, or wholly pure, but at times, it is as close to those things as anything we can conceive or create.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Some plants and seeds I like

I started this list on the running on empty list on yahoo groups, but will continue it here, since I ran out of time for posting there. If you want to read the rest, you'll have to subscribe. It will likely be good for you ;-). Obviously, this is pegged to my climate (upstate NY) and my garden (clayey and rocky, with lots of chickens in it) so YMMV.

Sweet potatoes - mostly, I don't have to buy slips any more, since my original Georgia Jets and Porto Ricos usually last long enough to make more, but if I do, those are the two to get. Store sweet potatoes don't taste nearly as good as mine, and if I can grow them, pretty much anyone south of Montreal can. They store all year for me, and are an essential staple.

Peppers - I posted about peppers on the other list, but I wanted to ask here also - anyone know a good OP korean hot pepper? I can't live without my spicy korean noodles and kimchi, which require peppers. The only one I've found is a hybrid from Evergreen.
Also, anyone have a favorite habanero for the north? I like 'em fiery.

Eggplant - I love eggplant, and for some incomprehensible reason they grow really well in my cold, wet garden. Don't ask me. Ichiban has been most reliable for me, but is a hybrid. Pingtung long does ok - I had one strain that did much better, but I can't remember where I get it. Rosa Bianca didn't do well last year, but did the year before. And the Turkish Orange ones always go bananas, and no one but me likes them (kind of bitter). I find eggplant keeps best dried.

Huckleberries are amazing, and I don't know why everyone doesn't grow them. They grow just like tomatoes, are incredibly prolific, and you can have berries in one season. What's not to love? I get mine from Baker Creek, but I might try seed saver's wonderberry later.

Celeries and the like: The only celeriac I've ever tried is large Prague. Love it. The leaves make a good celery in soup. I mostly don't grow celery any more - too much work, too heavy a feeder, takes up a lot of space all season long, and what do you get? Celery. I do grow zwolsche krul cutting celery and lovage, both of which dried give that flavor to soups without all the bother.

Daylilies - Cold climate permaculturist's dreams. The petals are the best tasting flowers I've ever eaten - sweet and crisp. Mine bloom for a month or more. The buds are great dried in soup. The root is tasty, and the shoots are great in the early spring when not much is growing. And they are so pretty. Plant a lot.

Strawberries - for years I've been looking for "Fairfax" strawberries, and can't find them. Laura Simon, The Nearings, Ruth Stout, Gene Logsdon - every one of them say they are the best tasting strawberry out there, but they seem to be gone. Anyone know where to find them? I grow "Sparkle" their step-child, but it isn't as tasty or, I gather, as disease resistant. People are insane - they have a perfect strawberry, and they throw it away for something new and sparkly. May whoever is responsible have to eat supermarket strawberries for a long, hot, eternity, while the real things send their perfume from just out of reach. (Ok, maybe that's a little excessive. But I want that strawberry.)

Arugula - I'm excited to try seed savers astro, which supposedly has bigger leaves - I could eat arugula by the vat every day, and I can usually manage to keep it going from april to november, so I do ok that way. Ordinarily, I grow whatever, plus the sylvetta, which is a little pointier and, I think, a little spicier.

Chard - Customers like the five color silverbeet stuff - Seed savers has a great strain. But I admit, my two favorites are "Argentata" and "Fordhook" Chard is a wonderful plant and no one sings its praises enough. It will grow all through the hot of the summer and the cold of most of the winter. It is delicious, simple, nutritious and pretty. You can eat the ribs like celery, or put them in soup and dye it pink. As a baby green it makes one heck of a salad. And the more you pick it, the more there is.

Broccoli. I'm still working on a favorite OP broccoli - except that I really like "Romanesco", and Eric likes it because it is a fractal (and tastes good). Rosalind (Territorial) has done well for me, as has Purple Sprouting (I can't remember - maybe Baker Creek?). But I've been using hybrids for early crops, and they are more reliable. I've got to work on that. It isn't really a storage crop, despite its nutritional value, so it isn't a huge priority.

Squash - I love squash. I can't live without hubbards. I know they make small ones, but it seems so sad to grow a 5 lb squash when you can grow a 30lb one, and the chickens and ducks so love baked squash that if we actually leave some, they will. Plus you can put it in soup, bread, pasta... Butternuts are a main crop, and plain old Waltham is a proven winner. I love Futsu, which really does taste nutty - kind of of like beech nuts, and has a cool smell. Oh, and I love zucchini - all zucchini. That makes me weird, I know.

Borage - the blossoms really do taste like cucumber, are amazingly pretty, and fun. Plus, it will show up forever. Add salad burnet, and if your cuke crop fails (as mine mostly has two years in a row) you are set for that cuke taste. Tough to make pickles of, though ;-P.

Cucumbers and I have a hostile relationship - I've had dreadful crops the last few years. We are down to 1 jar of pickles - sigh. I love poona kheera, delicatesse, and national pickling, but they don't love my garden.

I'm sure I should post more, but I'm tired and lazy. My husband has promised me thai beef salad if I'll wind the skein of yarn for his next project, and I am a whore for anything in lime juice and fish sauce dressing. Sorry.




Education and belief are often held to be incompatible. But for me, my education makes it possible for me to believe - the faith I was given as a child felt wrong, didn't accord with what I saw in the world. Only study, and knowledge, and conversion made it possible to accord my essential sense of immanence with the structure and discipline of a belief (not faith). I'm not sure that any of my college Professors would be especially proud to know that helped turn me into someone who believes profoundly in G-d, but I'm glad they did.

Unfortunately, a sense of immanence does damned little to make recent events comprehensible. Yes, I know that Jewish party line, but if you believe that G-d used to act in the world to make sure one couple got to have a baby, its hard to believe that G-d couldn't act to prevent the hideous deaths of hundreds of thousands. Ok, I can almost buy that G-d looks by sadly and can't stop the evil in the hearts of men all over the world, but no man orchestrated this (although a few did nothing to prevent it).

Believing in G-d doesn't really help that much, unless belief comes with some conviction of what in the name of Moses's left nipple G-d intends for the world. And in my case, that little bit was left blank. So I'm left with an earnest conviction that someone is running things, but He's either got an ineffable plan that involves drowning people for fun, wasn't paying much attention, or doesn't much care. Fortunately, Judaism steps in to reassure us that G-d does care, he just...oh yeah, no it really doesn't.

As I said before, the Jew's role in the world is to fix the mess that man and G-d combine to create. We do it with work, and we do it with prayer. My current prayer is "Hello? Anyone home?" My current best work - a little money and some blood donation. It doesn't feel like enough. And it isn't.

I am grateful that Eric's college buddy Prasath was on the other coast of Sri Lanka, and he and his family are fine. I'm grateful that my college friend who was supposed to be doing her peace corps work in coastal Thailand is actually in *central* thailand. And I guess I'm grateful that it wasn't an asteroid destroying all life on earth. But gratitude is a tough commodity today.