Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Friday, November 2, 2012 5:56 pm

“The Handmaid’s Tale,” our kids, monsters, and writing in blood

Just a little too late (and, boy, there’s both a pattern and a metaphor) for Banned Books Week, a woman named Lisa Reid has arisen here in Greensboro to complain that students at Grimsley High School shouldn’t be allowed to reid Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” She’s afraid high-school-age students will be harmed by the book, and she claimed that the Guilford County Schools have no standards for determining appropriate reading material for children.

Well, I take second place to no one in my hatred for the disorganization and clutter of the GCS website, whose search algorithm seems to have been written by developmentally disabled chipmunks, but, that hatred notwithstanding, I found such standards in less than 30 seconds. If Reid wants to argue that the standards are inadequate, we can have that conversation, as long as she’s willing to discuss what an objectively quantifiable definition of “adequate” might look like. But, sorry, she doesn’t get to lie.

Over at the collection of right-wing nut jobs playing journalist at the Greensboro Guardian, Joe Guarino, who, as a book critic, makes a pretty good physician, claims that the book “has numerous sexual references and graphic passages.  It repeatedly depicts promiscuity and multiple partner sexuality.  It contains cultural messages regarding sexuality and relationships that are potentially harmful to adolescents during their formative years. The book also glorifies drug use and dwells on suicide.  There is considerable profanity found throughout the book– which also contains unfavorable depictions of Christianity.”

Well, no. It doesn’t contain “unfavorable depictions of Christianity.” It contains the things he mentions as hallmarks of the kind of patriarchal, authoritarian crushing of liberty that Jesus Christ himself explicitly condemned. That condemnation  notwithstanding, that’s precisely the kind of religion to which Guarino adheres. He’s free to do so, but he’s not free to try to use the power of government to impose his beliefs on the rest of us, which is what he endorses.

I won’t go over the whole plot of the book here, but the conservative critics’ main problem with Atwood’s book is that although she wrote it as a cautionary tale about a dystopian future,  they want to use it as a freakin’ government instruction manual, as guys like Todd Akin, Joe Walsh and Richard Mourdock, and every single GOP national platform since 1980, already have demonstrated.

And with all due respect to Lisa Reid, if her own children are fine and healthy and unmolested, she’s blessed, but many of their peers, even at a “good” school like Grimsley, aren’t so lucky. As Sherman Alexie, author of the young-adult book  “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” writes:

 I can’t speak for other writers, but I think I wrote my YA [young-adult] novel as a way of speaking to my younger, irredeemable self.

Of course, all during my childhood, would-be saviors tried to rescue my fellow tribal members. They wanted to rescue me. But, even then, I could only laugh at their platitudes. In those days, the cultural conservatives thought that KISS and Black Sabbath were going to impede my moral development. They wanted to protect me from sex when I had already been raped. They wanted to protect me from evil though a future serial killer had already abused me. They wanted me to profess my love for God without considering that I was the child and grandchild of men and women who’d been sexually and physically abused by generations of clergy.

What was my immature, childish response to those would-be saviors?

“Wow, you are way, way too late.”

My daughter, who, by the way, also attends Grimsley, is 14. She doesn’t know it, I don’t think, but for one of her good friends, the Lisa Reids of the world are already “way, way too late” — and, by the way, banning “The Handmaid’s Tale” wouldn’t have saved her. And that’s just the one I know about; statistically speaking, there almost certainly are others. For Reid to be worrying about this at this late date … well, that, in the immortal words of Charlie Pierce, “is a horse that has left the barn, run over the hill, sired twelve A-level stakes-race winners, and is now buried with honors on the backstretch at Keeneland.”

Moreover, one of the many outstanding characteristics of the kind of free country we imagine ourselves to be is that we do not let the most rigid pecksniffs dictate how everyone else gets to live, particularly when those pecksniffs have demonstrated an abiding inability to distinguish between “glorify” and “mention in any way, shape or form, even to caution against.”

We live in a country in which our high-school freshmen may be 18 months  from being sent to fight and die in Afghanistan or Iran or God knows where else. You want to argue that it’s not time to talk with them about life and death, in all their blood and suffering and glory and redemption and passion and reality? Good luck with that. That’s the kind of thinking that’s standing around this week wondering why the New York subway tunnels, dry these last 104 years, are now flooded, and it’s not just stupid, it’s an existential threat to itself and all the rest of us. I’ll give Alexie the last word:

Teenagers read millions of books every year. They read for entertainment and for education. They read because of school assignments and pop culture fads.

And there are millions of teens who read because they are sad and lonely and enraged. They read because they live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe, despite the callow protestations of certain adults, that books-especially the dark and dangerous ones-will save them.

As a child, I read because books–violent and not, blasphemous and not, terrifying and not–were the most loving and trustworthy things in my life. I read widely, and loved plenty of the classics so, yes, I recognized the domestic terrors faced by Louisa May Alcott’s March sisters. But I became the kid chased by werewolves, vampires, and evil clowns in Stephen King’s books. I read books about monsters and monstrous things, often written with monstrous language, because they taught me how to battle the real monsters in my life.

And now I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons -– in the form of words and ideas — that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.


Monday, March 7, 2011 9:32 pm

Literature as real as it gets

Filed under: Y'all go read this — Lex @ 9:32 pm
Tags: ,

From the Chronicle of Higher Education (paywall; temporary, I believe):

In our darkest moments, when our students have taxed us beyond taxing, when an outburst or a threat or a student stunt has rattled us, we who teach in community colleges will joke privately—only as a way to vent and find some perspective: Well, at least I don’t have an ax murderer in my class. In other words, whatever has happened, it could have been worse.

But now a suspected ax murderer was one of my students. What should I do?

The issue wasn’t just that a young man suspected of — but not charged with — patricide was on the rolls. The issue also was that in this course on short stories, everything on the syllabus addressed in some way themes related to crime, parent-child relationships or both. To add to the tension, the case had been and continued to be big news in the community, and the professor could gauge from class comments — or the lack of them — which other students in the class knew that the prime suspect was sitting at second row center.

Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case” found us discussing whether tension between fathers and sons is inevitable, and the lengths to which some people will go to get what they want, if even for the short time of a flower’s “one splendid breath,” as Cather puts it. Through Tobias Wolff’s “Smokers,” we looked at the airs that some private-school students assume and how and why young people strive for a life different from that of their parents. We looked at theft and at lying as measures people routinely use to get to where they want to go. Only one student would risk discussing the inextricably dark nature of Arnold Friend, the presumed killer and rapist in Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” But all appeared electrified by the real-life details of the serial killer Charles Schmid, the “Pied Piper of Tucson,” Oates’s inspiration for the story. No one floated the term “sociopath.” But it took no imagination to connect the dots between the issues examined in the fiction and the reports emerging in the news media that semester.

And so it went, day after day, story after story. Why do people lie? What happens when people act in anger? What lurks beneath brother-to-brother conflict? The stories hit it all. A “bloody hatchet,” for us a sick double entendre, even surfaced in Frank O’Connor’s “Guests of the Nation.”

The nature of students’ comments told me right away which students were aware that an alleged ax murderer was in our midst. Class discussions are generally free-flowing, dynamic, open. That semester we ground forward with the help of a few students who must have been in a blessed news blackout and a few others with exceptional courage and heart. Some struck me as frozen in place—always in class but never wanting to engage with the horror of the outside world that had found a physical and emotional presence in our classroom.

As for me, I did not hold back. I taught as though my life depended on it, and I had to believe that my life did not. My students needed those stories and the subsequent discussion and reflective writing. I needed to help them understand that, through literature, they were experiencing life in all its darkness and all its light, without suffering any of the consequences. Literature was fulfilling its best purpose, as I see it now.

The essay is a little gem, as tense and intense as Hitchcock. If the paywall’s still up when you read this, keep checking back.


Tuesday, February 15, 2011 8:41 pm

Writing assignment

Filed under: Fun,Hooper — Lex @ 8:41 pm
Tags: , , ,

Hooper last night completed his first-ever school assignment to write a piece of short fiction. It follows in its entirety:

One night I was getting ready for bed. I was getting my PJs on and I saw something glowing. I found a green and white egg under my bed. The egg started to move slightly. It started to crack and something came out and here’s what came out.

Out came a yellow and white creature. It started to roar and I knew right away that I would name it Receus. At the moment it sprang a yellow and white beam and left a gigantic hole right through the ceiling. Soon I thought I could do whatever I wanted with it, so we started to plan stuff.

We thought for awhile and came up with a brilliant idea. We would try to take over an underwear factory with underwear that weighed one thousand tons.  We planned it out and thought of traps and made a few. We got a driver’s license and drove to the first underwear factory. We used a giant catapult to sling an underwear and it crushed the whole building.

We started to go to other factories. Soon all the factories were destroyed. Every boy in the world already had a lot of underwear so they still had underwear. But when they wear out, they went to places with just pants. And we all lived happily ever after, even the mothers.

A few random thoughts:

  • “Spring” and its variants should be used as transitive verbs much more often.
  • Notice it doesn’t occur to him that the hole in the ceiling might constitute a problem requiring a solution.
  • Clearly the Dav Pilkey oeuvre (viz.) has been a huge influence on him.
  • He might have a future in economics; his “We got a driver’s license …” seems derived from the fabled economists’ approach to the plummeting-plane conundrum, “Assume a parachute.”
  • His grasp of physics might be limited, although, in fairness, he does not specify the material out of which is made the underwear that destroys the factory. Something dense, like depleted uranium, might just do the trick if the pair is a size XXL and is catapulted with sufficient velocity.

Finally, the desire to live life without underwear is the one aspect of the tale that brings this work close to roman à clef status. He frequently attempts to go to school without first having put on underwear and has since he got out of diapers. “There’s no room in them!” he insists. I leave it to his future bride to ascertain the truth or falsity of this claim … and to those of you with backgrounds in psychology to determine the underlying meanings. If there are any Feudians left among you, I presume that you will have a field day.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010 8:08 pm

“… the glow of shared humanity.”

Filed under: Cool! — Lex @ 8:08 pm
Tags: , , ,

What happened the day Sting came to class.

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: