John’ Irving’s Owen Meany: A Review

(Original post date: Friday, February 15, 2008)

Heeding the advice of an esteemed colleague and an esteemed sister-in-law, I forced myself to keep reading John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. It was tough going. Irving just doesn’t resonate with me… it was the same way with The Cider House Rules. In the end it was an interesting story, but it wasn’t a story that compelled me to keep reading… it was something I pushed through. It was this way with Owen Meany, too, with one huge difference… while I finished reading Cider House as I had begun, indifferent, I bawled at the end of Owen Meany.

It isn’t that I like the character of Owen Meany. He is, through most of the book, too sure, too unafraid. The cover of the paperback says that Owen Meany thinks he’s an instrument of God and that this assumption is correct, as if this explains Owen’s uncanny certainty. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, however, even instruments of God struggle with doubt. In the Old Testament, Moses struggles with doubt when God calls upon him to help free the Jews from slavery in ancient Egypt even though God puts His money where His mouth is with all manner of disgusting and fearsome plagues. In the New Testament, Jesus is plagued with doubt even though he knows he is the son of God and is in full awareness that his sacrifice will offer salvation to mankind. But Owen Meany, for the majority of the novel, does not appear to struggle with doubt. How can this be? Can this pint-sized, oddly-voiced character be more sure of himself than Moses? Than Jesus? Is he human? More? Certainly Irving expects his reader to empathize and even sympathize with Owen when he is ignored by his parents, manipulated by his peers, and bullied by adults who obviously have problems of their own. And yet he draws direct comparisons between Jesus, who has doubts, and Owen, who does not, and who observes that Jesus was “used,” just as he will be used. It’s a bit much for me.

For this reason, it is difficult for me to feel any attachment to this character. It is only when Owen is finally seized by self-doubt that I am able to really care what happens to him. Only then am I able to relinquish my doubt that Owen is as human as the rest of us… and that, of course, is when Irving yanks the rug out beneath the reader’s feet by yanking Owen away from his best friend, away from the woman who loves him, away from the world who never understands him, and away from the reader. It’s a sucker punch that delivers the message, “and THAT is what you get for doubting in the first place.” Ouch. It’s not that I like Owen Meany, but I do come to believe in Owen Meany, which is obviously what Irving intended… misguided messiah-complex or no.

The novel reminds me strongly of M. Night Shyamalan’s film Signs, and not just because of their shared themes of faith and predestination, though these similarities are strong. They also share emotionally loaded baseball imagery and language, specifically the phrase “swing away” as advice that carries life-changing ramifications for those who utter it and those who take it. They share the unforseen death of someone young, beautiful, and loved, and the scar this person’s death leaves on everyone she leaves behind. They share clergy struggling with crises of faith and potentially career-changing doubt. And perhaps most importantly, they both address the question of predestination versus free-will by having main characters overcome a life-challenging threat using an aforementioned but seemingly unrelated skill… a technique that leaves their audiences little room for doubt that “things happen for a reason.”

Usually, if I finish a book in tears, it’s a sign that I liked the book. I wish I could say that about Owen Meany. I’ve come to believe in Owen Meany, but as with Signs, I am walking away from the experience feeling a bit manipulated. I like to come to my own conclusions about things, and neither of these stories leaves much room for that. In the end, I’m glad I stuck with it… thank you to both Marcella and Apryll for urging me to finish it… but I think I’m going to need some time to process this one.

Any thoughts from those of you who’ve read it?

Lies I’ve Been Told Lately

(Original post date: Thursday, February 14, 2008)

I wrote the essay but my dog ate my jump drive.

We’ll be there between 9 and 12.

I already cleaned my room.

You said I could.

Our classes are heterogeneously grouped.

It was smoky when I came in.

My teacher didn’t give us any homework.

You promised.

I looked in the library – it’s not there.

He started it.

I told you about that.

There are no hidden fees.

That’s not my job.

Everyone else has one.

It’s not burned, it’s crunchy.

You look exactly the same!

I’ve got the flu blues.

(Original post date: Friday, February 08, 2008)

It started with my daughter earlier this week, then my husband started running a fever yesterday, then the middle school called ’cause my son was running a fever, and I walked around all day trying to convince myself that the sore throat, painful cough, chills and wooziness were allergies. I admit it – I’m a goober. But it’s research season and there’s stuff to do. Now, however, I feel like total crap. I need REAL chicken soup… with matzo balls and little noodles – but I don’t have the energy to make it. Out of desperation I bought a can of chicken soup with matzo balls – I swear I must’ve been delirious! Canned matzo balls? What kind of sicko would think that up? And what desperate moron would BUY it? Oh, yeah, me. Just one more piece of evidence that I’m not playing with a full deck.

Here’s what I want right now: I want my mommy! I want her to make me her chicken soup, drive it out here, heat it up, and then tidy my house. She used to tidy up my room when I was sick. Cool, fresh sheets, no clutter… it always made me feel better. I’d do it myself but I’m all worn out from having the flu, taking care of a husband and son with the flu, and making sure my recently-over-the-flu daughter is eating actual meals occasionally and not watching rated-R movies or something while I’m in bed, curled up in a ball. I have no doubt that if I called my mom and shared these wishes with her, she’d be on her way out here with enough chicken soup to cure an army before lunch time tomorrow. But that would be selfish and childish considering I’m a grown-up and she lives 2 hours away with, you know, a life of her own. So, instead, I’m just going to sit here and sulk.

FYI, until I’m well enough to remain standing long enough to make my own soup, we’re sticking to Campbell’s. It ain’t homemade chicken soup with matzo balls, but it’s easy and it tastes like soup… not like sewage like the aforementioned abomination.

Enough with the pity party. I’m going to pass out now.

Couches

We have a ridiculous amount of mismatched furniture. The problem is, no matter how we arrange it, it still looks like mismatched furniture. Occasionally, I’ll find myself sitting on the stairs or standing in a doorway trying to envision a room that is calming rather than chaotic.    
    
Much our furniture is pre-owned, which is to say they’re hand-me-downs. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, we had kids before we had any money, so over the years, whenever anyone said, “We’re getting a new couch,” and asked us if we wanted the old one, we said yes. Second, my parents are perpetually saying, “We’re getting a new couch.”  
On New Year’s Eve, we ended up hosting an impromptu party. Instead of grabbing food and sitting on the sectional by the television on the other side of our family room, people clustered near the food on the mostly unfurnished side, squeezing into a love seat and a chair and sitting on the floor. I’m an intensely casual hostess, but it seemed wrong that people didn’t even have comfortable seating. I realized that we had a full-sized couch in the adjacent, unheated sun room, so I ran out there and started shoving the couch into the family room. 
My husband called, “Hon? What are you doing out there?” (which is code for, “Why is that fucking door open? It’s cold!”). I yelled that I was moving a couch so people didn’t have to sit on the floor (which is code for, “I’m moving a couch so people don’t have to sit on the floor, so don’t give me grief about the fucking door!”). Peer pressure being what it is, all the men simultaneously hopped up, shooed me away, and moved the couch into the family room. It looked stupid jutting out in the middle of the room, but people no longer had to sit on the floor, so my mission was accomplished. 
After everyone left, my husband and I tidied up, but it was late and we were tired, so we left the couch where it was. Two days later, it began to bug me, but instead of just returning the couch to the sun room, I decided that there had to be a better configuration.
I am not good at visualizing things, so I no longer waste time trying to figure it out on paper. I just start shoving things around. This is no easy task. When you’re 5’2” you really have to put your whole body weight into moving couches and other large pieces of furniture.
I don’t measure conventionally, either. I use the “put one foot directly in front of the other and count how many ‘feet’ something is” method. Usually this works. Sometimes it doesn’t. I do a lot of shoving.
My first combination was terrible. I tried switching the couch with the love seat, but the proportions were wrong. I thought that the bookcase, which is 2′ high, 9 “feet” long, and enormously heavy, should go on a different wall, but my first shove resulted in a cracking sound. Since I was too lazy to remove and then replace all the books, it stayed right where it was. 
My second and third combinations didn’t work either, so I involved the television end of the family room in the swap, too. 
In the middle of all this, my daughter came downstairs to listen to her iPod and dance around and was delighted to find that not a single piece of furniture (except the bookcase, of course) was where it had begun. Her overjoyed, “Whoa! What’re you doing?” attracted the attention of my husband who, although not overjoyed, was at least interested in participating in the shuffle. 
First we had to discuss the arrangements I’d already tried.
“What about…?”
“Nope. Looked terrible.”
“Oh. Well, what about…?”
“That, too.
Then, we had to kick out my daughter and her originally entertaining but eventually annoying combination of questions and narration:
“Why is the couch over there? That looks weird. Mom, doesn’t that look weird? Daddy, Mommy thinks that looks weird. Can we do my room next? Uh oh, that didn’t fit. Don’t hurt yourself, Mom. Ooooh. That looked like it hurt. Hey, the chair is by the fireplace again. It looked better before. Is dinner going to be ready soon? Did you even start cooking, yet? What? No! No! I’ll stop talking! Really! No, really! Pleeeeeease? You guys are so unfair!” 
We finally settled on an arrangement that was embarrassingly close to the original. The television and big chair traded places on one side.  On the other side, the love seat was demoted to the sun room in favor of the long couch. That’s it. We moved furniture and delayed dinner for over an hour to switch two minor things.

It was a fitting end for a saga that began on New Year’s Eve, a time when people examine their lives, try to make sense of the chaos, and then make plans to change themselves. Gyms and closet organizing companies make a fortune during the first week of the year, when people shell out big bucks for memberships and organizational systems that they believe will help them rearrange their lives. In the end, though, when the next New Year’s Eve rolls around, most people’s lives are still embarrassingly close to what they had been before. We are who we are, and no amount of pushing and shoving, whether we’re talking weights, the contents of our closets, or even couches, can fundamentally change that.

Holiday Things I Wish Gentiles Understood

(Original post date: Wednesday, December 19, 2007)

1. Most Jews don’t feel bad because we don’t celebrate Christmas, and we don’t decorate our houses for Christmas because we don’t care to, not because we’re somehow punishing ourselves.

If one more person asks if I decorate for Christmas and then, when I explain that I don’t because it’s not my holiday, reply, “You know, you could put up Christmas lights… it’s not really religious,” I’m going to puke. I KNOW I could put up Christmas lights. It’s not that I’ve been sitting around my whole adult life thinking, “Gosh, it’s too bad Jews aren’t allowed to hang lights on their houses, because it’s really pretty.” And I KNOW that it’s not religious. I’m not a moron. I just don’t get the urge to hang them up at my house because it’s not my holiday. I take it back. I ‘m not going to puke. I’m going to say, “No way! Are you serious?” and then burst into tears, wailing, “All those wasted years!”

2. The majority of American Jews are neither offended by Jingle Bells nor thrilled that the chorus has made sure to sing one Hanukkah song.

Most of us hate the dreidel song once we’re out of preschool, and we’d like people to stop singing it, then pointing out that they’ve sung it, and then waiting for us to be all appreciative. Please understand this… no matter how many times it’s sung, it’s still about a spinning top (one that’s used to gamble, BTW). The song doesn’t hold any special meaning. In fact, if not for the fact that non-Jews keep adding it to their “Holiday” concerts, it’d probably be something you had to learn in Hebrew school, possibly sing to your grandparents once a year until your bar/bat mitzvah, and then forget about until your own kids were in Hebrew school. Now it’s become this symbol of misguided inclusion. Oy.

3. Most of us are NOT offended if someone wishes us a Merry Christmas.

We are well aware that MOST people in the US celebrate Christmas, and generally people are only trying to be polite or share their own excitement about their upcoming holiday. I’m at the point that when someone I hardly know (or don’t know at all) asks, “Are you ready for Christmas?” I just say, “Yes, and you?” Most often, people are just being polite and would MUCH rather talk about their own Christmas-preparation meshugas, anyway. It only becomes an issue when people you know well insist you MUS T celebrate it somehow, or send religious Christmas cards every year, and it’s not an inside joke.

For instance, I had a friend who, in jr. high, sent me a Christmas card. When she realized I was Jewish she was embarrassed and apologized. I let her know that it was no problem, and that I’d thought the card was pretty. The next year she sent me another Christmas card w/a note that read, “To my Jewish friend who likes Christmas cards! Happy Hannukah!” It became a yearly ritual, one that made me smile every year.

In another instance, however, I had an adult friend who sent us a very religious Christmas card one year, and who then called to ask if I’d gotten it, if I’d liked it, and what I was doing for Christmas…. with NO trace of humor. I said, yes, it was beautiful, but did she know that I was Jewish? She said yes, but she thought it captured the true spirit of Christmas. Did I really just IGNORE the whole holiday? I explained the whole idea of being “not Christian,” and she seemed to get it. The next year I got another, even more religious (of the “Hark! Our savior is born” variety) card from her. The following September, I sent her a High Holiday card and then called to see if she liked it. When she said it was beautiful but then confessed that she was confused because it really wasn’t her holiday, I said I knew, wished her a good yuntif and shana tova and hung up. Guess what? I got a generic “holiday” card that year.

4. We don’t care if your neice or brother-in-law or college roommate was Jewish.

Like I said earlier, I generally just answer a Christmas question with another one. Sometimes, however, it’s more appropriate to be more forthcoming. Surprisingly often, people are all embarrassed and feel they’ve said something insulting. In response, they blurt out that they know, or knew, another Jew. “OH!,” they exclaim, “My college roomate’s boyfriend’s half-uncle was Jewish!” I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with that information. Say, “Oh, good, you’re not a biggot?” The next time someone says, “Oh, my neighbor is Jewish,” I’m going to look all sad and say, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” Let’s see what they do with that. Or even better: “Really? My neighbor is an schmuck.”

——————————————————————————–
I guess that’s all for now. But I’m reserving the right to complain some more. It’s my blog and I’ll bitch if I want to.

Adios!

Wiki Update and More

(Original post date: Friday, November 30, 2007)

Okay, so the wiki assignments I set up for my students didn’t go exactly as I’d envisioned. I don’t know why I thought that anything would run smoothly when I added 100+ kids to the equation. In any case, the first “post the cool websites you find about this topic” assignment was a MESS for the first group of kids. Their subjects are things like, “Katelyn’s Sites!” All of this would be well and good except that they weren’t allowed to duplicate other kids’ sites, and keeping track of every posted site was impossible. Susequent classes posted their sites in the subject of their posts, which created a somewhat easier to handle list of sites, but it still left me searching for their responses to classmates’ sites. OY.

Part of the problem is that wikispaces is free and full of cool features, but it doesn’t give me the control I need… for instance, I need to be able to type in a kid’s username and see everything he/she has posted/edited. BlackBoard, I believe, has this function, but since my school doesn’t use it, that’s not an option for me.

In any case, my plan is to go MUCH simpler for the next wiki assignment… like: respond to this question and to one other student’s response. Again, this is me coming up with the assignments w/o actual teenagers mucking it all up. So, we’ll see.

Meanwhile, I’m still coveting all things technological. I don’t care how many people tell me the iPhone is overrated… it’s SO COOL and I want one. I don’t want to pay for it or for the necessary accompanying service, of course. And therein lies the problem. So it’s a no go for the iPhone. Likewise with the Macbook, which I may also have mentioned before. Oh, and now, thanks to my pal E., I am coveting PhotoShop. I want to put my head on Paris Hilton’s body. LOL

I wonder if E. is on MySpace…. I’m going to go check now.

Ciao

Change to "I’d Like to Meet" List

(Original post date: Sunday, November 25, 2007)

Well, I’m excited to say that I’ve had to take Frank McCourt out of my “I’d like to meet” list… got to meet him and hear him talk at the NCTE conference in NYC a couple of weeks ago. I was afraid that it’d be a let down… sometimes people who write well are total duds in person. This was SO not the case.

The man talks about teaching English in a way that I’ve never heard anyone talk about it… even people who’ve been teaching it for years. If you’ve read his Teacher Man you’ll know what I mean. Or maybe not. But here’s the thing that gets me… he honestly addresses the way kids try to get you off task by getting you to tell them stories about your life. He’s the first person I’ve ever met who admits that it’s sometimes more fun than the curriculum AND that it’s not the worst thing in the world. I love when I can tell kids stories about the crazy things that happen to (or around) me; I think it’s a great way to get kids interested in a point I’m trying to make… if it’s tied to what I’m teaching. My greatest “trick” is letting my kids think they’ve dragged me off track, when I’d planned to tell the story all along because it illustrates something I am trying to teach them. Nobody ever addressed this when I took my ed classes. Not only did Frank McCourt discuss it, but he credited it with helping him write Angela’s Ashes. He said that he’d told most of those stories to his classes over and over again through the years, so when he sat down to write a book, they were largely written and revised in his head. I just love that! It gives busy English teacher’s and “would be” writers hope.

Also, he’s terrifically funny. At the end of his talk, I turned to a colleague and asked, “Is it me, or would you buy this guy drinks all night if he’d just keep talking?” She said she would, and I believe many people in the room felt similarly. Even on our teachers’ salaries. Oh, everyone except the moron who had her laptop open and checked her e-mail throughout the talk. People are such clods, I swear. Ohhh… we’re very impressed at how busy you are and at how well you multi-task. Perhaps you should work in an etiquette course at some point, though, because you’re acting like a self-important boob. But I digress (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing – see above).

So… Frank McCourt’s advice for would-be writers: “Grab a bottle of wine, relax, and just scribble.” Well, I thought that was AWESOME, so I got in line again after the talk (I’d already gotten him to sign a copy of Angela’s Ashes – one of my favorite books ever, and definitely my pick for “most adeptly ended books, ever,” a thought I did share with him, BTW) and asked him to write “Just Scribble” on a notebook I had with me… I’m going to try to write again, and I thought it’d be neat to have his own advice in his own hand to inspire me when I felt like it was pointless. Yes, it’s corny on a level even I’d never experienced before, but I don’t care. Anyway, he was agreeable to it and did so, and since my two colleagues thought it was an awesome idea, too, they followed suit… and Frank McCourt turned around and said to his assistant (or whomever was standing “guard” behind him) and said, “Just Scribble… that’s a good name for a book.”

I’ll excitedly await its publication.

No more coffee apologies

I’m done being embarrassed by how sweet I like my coffee. Go ahead and stare disapprovingly as I dump in five packets of Splenda. As Pee-wee Herman, that venerable font of wisdom, once said, “Take a picture – it’ll last longer.” Knock yourself out. But please stop feeling the need to explain that I’m somehow screwing up good coffee or that I don’t “really” like coffee if I have to disguise the flavor by making it sweet. It’s not that I don’t know what I’m doing. I like it this way. And guess what? I’m not alone. Haagen-Dasz doesn’t make their coffee ice cream for me alone (though it’d be very thoughtful if they did).

Here’s an idea, coffee purists. Instead of saving your coffee snobbery for me, go to the nearest Starbucks and heckle anyone who orders a caramel mocchiato or orange cream frappuccino or mocha anything. Better yet, order a plain espresso made from the most obscure beans you can find, and then sit in the corner glaring haughtily at all the ignorant plebs who think they like coffee but who are wrong about their own tastes and not half as sophisticated as you.

Sweet coffee isn’t new. Well before you were around to bug random people in convenience stores, my eastern European ancestors sipped black coffee through sugar cubes held in their teeth (I’d do this if I had one iota of coordination… or if Splenda made non-sugar cubes).

I’m done apologizing for liking it that way and done trying to drink it differently because other people are giving me the evil eye while I’m fixing it the way I like it. Sweet coffee isn’t an adulteration of some pure and holy substance. It’s a fucking beverage. A yummy one. With caffeine. Now leave me alone.

Flip-flop Conundrum

Many companies and schools have a no flip-flop rule. That’s no big deal. After all, we’re professionals, right? But has anyone checked out summer footwear, lately? What’s a flip-flop and what’s not?

Opinions vary:

“Nothing can go between your toes.”

“It’s got to have a back or a strap around the back of your foot.”

“They can’t make that ‘flip-flop’ sound when you walk.”

“It has to cover most of your foot.”

“Stick with sandals, slides, and wedges.”

The problem with all of these answers is that none is definitive. I have shoes that I consider sandals, but they do go between my toes. Can I wear them? And I have a pair of slides that are WAY more casual than the above mentioned sandals. They do, however, make a “thwack thwack” sound when I walk, which brings us to the rule about the ‘flip-flop’ sound. Does “thwack thwack” count as a ‘flip-flop’? I think the person who volunteered that advice is in league with the “something around the back of your foot” person. And what’s “most of your foot”? I need details. Is there a percentage written into our contract? Maybe that’s the part right after how many sick days we can use for family leave.

Today I wore my “between my toes” sandals, and I asked at least half a dozen people what they’d call them. Most said “sandals.” One said “thongs.”

But the best answer? “Thongs, honey, but who cares? They’ve got bigger problems… like the tramp stamps sashaying up and down the halls. My goodness, boys are so distracted they’re walking into lockers. Someone’s gonna get hurt.”

So the “what’s a flip-flop” mystery remains unsolved. Looks like more field research is necessary. I think I’ll wear my snow boots with a springy dress on Monday and see how that goes over.

Impossible things I’d like:

(Original post date: Friday, May 11, 2007)

* every room in my house to be clean at the same time, for more than 30 seconds

* laundry and dishes that clean themselves and put themselves away

* healthy, delicious meals that cook themselves and that all members of my family like

* children who clean their rooms (not the shove everything in the closet or under the bed variety, either) without being reminded and sans whining, complaining, muttering or eye-rolling

* people to actually stop at the stop sign near my house

* a personal landscaper/gardener who works for free

* papers that grade themselves

* an extra hour or two a day that no one else knows about

* to be graceful (at least occasionally)

On my mind right now…

(Original post date: Saturday, April 21, 2007 )

Cutting down 30 year old, perfectly healthy oak trees because you “don’t want them to come crashing through the roof” is insane, and will not endear you to your brand new neighbors.

Pest companies to whom you pay a monthly fee should send someone right out to your house if you have huge black ants all over your kitchen.

In life, as with math, there is an order of operations: first you find out if the fence is yours, then you talk with the neighbor with whom you share the fence, THEN you take down the fence.

Refrigerated cookie dough is one of the best inventions ever.

If you ask 5 different people where your property line is, you will surely get more than one answer. Choosing the one that suits your purpose and ripping down everything you’ve decided is yours doesn’t make it legal and, again, doesn’t endear you to your brand new neighbors.

Shoving bills into various drawers and shoe boxes is an inefficient way to “organize” things. The time you save by not bothering to actually file things is completely negated by the hours it takes you to sort through everything when you finally get a desk and hanging file folders. It should not take 36 years to learn this.

Bullies at any age suck — they bring out my Jersey. Confrontation does not scare me.

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