Saturday, 30 November 2013

Really?!? College Football Greatness

I have to admit that I had trouble getting to sleep last night.   It was almost 3:00 this morning before I was able to finally drift off.   Part of that is my usual sleep issues and being sick over Thanksgiving, but this time, a little bit of it was due to the MOST AMAZING COLLEGE FOOTBALL GAME I have ever watched.   And in my home growing up, the seasons were marked by sports on television as much as they were by the weather, so that's saying something.

The crowd rushed the field.   Can you blame them?!?

Did you see it?!   Tell me that if you didn't watch it, you spent last night or early this morning reading every possible article about it you could lay your eyes on.   I've lost count of how many times I've heard the Auburn announcer lose his mind as he calls the end of the game.   I was right there with him, in spirit, the lone viewer in my living room, losing my mind over another--ANOTHER--miracle at Auburn in just two weeks.   I watched that one happen too, during the Auburn vs. Georgia game I thought was pretty AMAZING until last night.   I live in a college town where the residents are pretty certain that God's loyalties lie with the Texas Aggies, but after this Auburn season, well...

Auburn Radio Announcer Goes Crazy Calling the Final Play of the Game

This Auburn story is one of the reasons I LOVE college football.   I quit following and watching the NFL long ago, but my love of the game as it is played out every Saturday during the fall, at colleges across the United States, has never wavered.   The school traditions, the rivalries, the coaches who motivate and mentor young men, the young men learning to work together as a team: it's all part of the greatness of college football.

I understand college football enough to watch it, follow it, and love it, but not enough to write about it.   Have you ever picked up a copy of Sports Illustrated and read it, from cover to cover?   There's some remarkable work in there.  I even enjoy stories about sports I don't follow.   I greatly admire good sports writing and I look forward to  pieces about this game in the days to come.   Here's some of the best first responses I've found about last night's Auburn vs. Alabama game:

This first one, from SB Nation, is a must-read for anyone who just loves words and the way some people manage to put them together, to capture a moment in time so perfectly.

The 2013 Iron Bowl: Auburn should be dead, because we watched it die

This is a great summary of what this game means, in the grand scheme of college football, and to the individuals involved in the game (with post-game comments from coaches and players):

Auburn slays kings of college football, opening Tigers' destiny

As if the game couldn't be any better, there was this on the sidelines, people.   Auburn staff member sat at a SEWING MACHINE and repaired a player's jersey.   Then, he HAND-STITCHED the jersey after it was fitted on the player. 

There is a sewing machine at Auburn-Alabama

This may not be writing excellence, but talk about capturing the moment.   All CAPS?   Had to be done.   I'm glad this was published immediately after the play:


This writer believes it is the greatest sports ending EVER.   He makes a compelling case:

Auburn-Alabama is greatest ending in sports history

And this article from September?  It couldn't be more relevant:

11 Reasons Nick Saban Should Leave Alabama for Texas

Thanksgiving 2013

 Joey and I cooked a great feast together.   That evening, all of us but one was struck by a pretty powerful stomach bug.   I have lots of food pictures, along with the kids eating dessert, but those still make me feel a little ill.   There will be no pies for Christmas this year, I'm afraid.   So, the morning after Thanksgiving, here is how our Elf on the Shelf showed up:

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Still, Thankful

It's the day before Thanksgiving and it's quiet here.    I keep thinking I'm forgetting something.   For the past few years, this day has been the culmination of several days of intense pie making.   Careful planning and shopping was followed by a tight time schedule so that by Wednesday morning, beautiful pies sat complete, boxed and ready to be picked up by customers.   This year, I'm taking it easy and the only pies I'm making are our own.

I've had to rest a bit between my own cooking today, so I'm glad I declined all pie orders.   I realize though, what those orders meant, beyond extra spending money for Christmas gifts.   They meant planning and anticipation.   I had people coming to my door throughout the day.   Those pie orders and the customers who placed them helped to keep me occupied so I had less time to think about who would not be coming through my door for Thanksgiving.   Or Christmas.   Or a single of her grandchildren's many birthdays, days which have passed and are still to come.  

I miss Mama.   I miss her fussing over the foods.   I miss helping her decorate for Christmas the day after Thanksgiving.   I just miss her.   Yesterday was Grandparents' Day at the girls' school and I just checked them out early after Clare's school program.   We all went out to eat for lunch, out and away from the loving hugs and pride in older eyes.   It was all so much--so much love and goodness--but goodness, it was all just too much for me.

So, even after nine years, I'm still figuring out how I'll make it without her.   And, I am.   We are.  We will.   I am not alone and I have memories inside my heart.   And for that, I am so very thankful.

This year, instead of pies and customers, I have been blessed with more time with my children and by words, like these incredibly beautiful stories listed below.   They are stories of love, family, food, Thanksgiving, and sometimes, grief.   They are each unique, each moving, each incredibly beautiful.   Take a little time to read them.   They will make you cry and grab your loved ones for a hug or two.  

Let us give thanks for all we have, including those we have loved and those who have loved us, whether they are near or far.

The Lost Voice: A Thanksgiving Story
(and if you haven't subscribed to The Bitter Southerner, please do so)

Cooking Lessons for Life

On Thanksgiving, Caring for Those Who Cared for Us

Making a Place for Grief at the Table on Thanksgiving

Mama painted this when I was only a few years old.   It always went up in our kitchen on November 1.   Now, it hangs on our wall throughout the month of November.  


Friday, 22 November 2013

Go-Get, but Leave Room for Grace

Every family has little stories that are told again and again.   I remember Mama's stories of her siblings as they were growing up on a farm in northeastern Oklahoma and those tales of my father's poor circumstances as a child in the same region.   There were the stories of special teachers and of all the fellow students they knew during college years.   When both of your parents are from the Midwest and one of them rose up from poverty, you learn from an early age about self-reliance and self-determination.   My father's job as a professor of Animal Science put him into contact with 4-H and FFA students, as he judged livestock shows and helped with workshops.   I was the only kid in my club with a 4-H project book written by my father. He always had high praise for those high-achieving students he described as "real go-getters."   They were usually officers in the clubs and they spoke to adults with poise and confidence.   They were clever, quick-witted and always outgoing.   And if they were female, they were given special praise for being able to compete on equal terms with the boys, especially when  they were able to out-do those males.   Other examples were given, like journalist Christiane Amanpour.   Whenever fighting erupted in a region, my father would grin as he watched the news reports.   "You see how dangerous it is there?   Watch, you can bet Christiane will be there in a day or two because she always goes where the action is," he would say, with obvious respect in his voice.

When I had surgery on my spine in December of 1998, one of our stories about my father was on my mind as I entered the hospital.   As my condition worsened, the neurosurgeon ordered an MRI for the first Monday of our Christmas break from school.   I took the films straight over to his office and after he looked at them, he told me he wasn't sure how I was still walking.   Then, he told me he had an opening in surgery the next afternoon.   I think that's the best way to have a major surgery.   There was little time to worry or panic; I barely had time to take care of things before we were due at the hospital.  

The family story of self-determination and the fighting spirit that was on my mind as I was prepped for my spinal surgery was the one about my father's gallbladder surgery in the early 1970s.   It was the only surgery he ever had and that was a point of pride, as if his health were a sheer act of will.   The story was always told that the day after surgery, the doctor on duty came in to check on my father.   "Where's the patient?" he asked my father, who was dressed and doing push ups on the floor.   He was released the same day.   His roommate was still in bed and groaning with pain when the doctor checked him.   That patient had also had his gallbladder removed on the same day.  

I expected to show the same strength and determination.   My pain before the surgery was intense and both of my feet were so numb that I had trouble walking and I had stopped driving.   I was unable to straighten my back which meant I was teaching middle schoolers from a hunched position.   My doctor had promised the surgery would give me relief and that was all I cared about.   When the physical therapists came to my hospital room post-surgery, I pulled back my covers, ready to bounce out of bed and begin exercising.   I was shocked when I couldn't stand up.   I was even more shocked when they told me that was expected and that we would try the next day.   I felt so defeated and so ashamed.    My parents attitude was all concern, though.   My mother hadn't completely recovered from seeing me as I was first wheeled into the recovery room.   During surgery, I was on my stomach and my face had been placed in some sort of form.   So, when my family saw me right after surgery, my face was extremely swollen and Mama thought it was some sort of reaction to anesthesia.   No one else was putting pressure on me, but a lifetime of strong examples was fueling my own guilt.

I've felt a similar guilt and shame over the past few months, especially in September as my pain worsened.   I have had three surgeries: spine, gallbladder, and sinus.   I have had multiple root canals and a tooth pulled while pregnant so I couldn't have the "good drugs."   I delivered my three children naturally, each delivery induced by Pitocin, with doctor and nurses standing and wondering aloud how anyone could have such control and be so calm.   I have never felt pain like that I experienced recently.    The best description I can give is that it felt as if a super-hot metal rod was running from my lower back to my toes, with pins and nails being poked into it all along its length.   I could only stand or sit for 5 minutes or less at a time before I had to retreat to my bed.   There, I would roll around, face down, screaming into my pillow as I stretched my legs until the pain became bearable.   I could not even lie on the couch; it had to be bed.   Driving was torture.   We had a brand-new van that I should have been excited about, but the sight of it made me cringe.   I felt instant pain as soon as I climbed in the seat and I would practice deep-breathing relaxation as I drove, panting my exhaled breaths as best as I could between crying.   It was not a safe situation, so I relented and called upon two neighbors for help.   Those sweet ladies drove my girls to school each morning and brought them home every afternoon.    I said "yes" to another kind friend when she asked to drive me to my pain management appointments.   I began a restricted diet, in an attempt to reduce inflammation in my body and though the diet was extreme, it was easy because I was so nauseated from the pain.   Vicodin took several hours to kick in, so I would time my doses for doctors' visits and physical therapy appointments.   Even when it kicked in, its only real effect was to relax me a bit.

The first time I went to physical therapy, I was so ashamed of myself.   The drive, though only a few miles, was so painful that I cried the whole way there.   After I checked in with reception, I could not sit down or stand any longer and with a sense of failure, I asked if I could lie down.   I dreaded meeting my physical therapist.   What a great first impression.   He was bound to think he was working with some lazy whiner, for sure.   I lay on my side as he approached me and introduced himself.   I introduced myself with an apology for lying down and I think I started babbling about growing up on a farm, being a hard-worker, and having delivered three children naturally.   He just smiled kindly and gently told me, "No, you have no reason to apologize.   This is exactly where you need to be right now."   I wanted to cry, with relief and appreciation this time.   I had seen a glimpse of him working with other patients, as he clapped his hands and gave enthusiastic commands to "Keep it up!"   But he had acknowledged my pain.   I spent that entire first therapy session on the table and the results of his initial exam were not encouraging.   I remember the phrases, "quality of life" and "increasing your mobility."   Over the next weeks, I would see a pain management doctor where I had three x-ray-guided epidural steroid injections administered by an anesthesiologist.   The first one had no effect and I was disappointed and scared.   I was still spending most of my time in bed, with even a walk to the bathroom leaving me in agony.   I daydreamed about whole bottles of whiskey and morphine IVs, but I still rarely took pain pills because it seemed wimpy and dangerous.   I only left the house to go to doctor and PT appointments.  


During that time of bed rest, I read three great spiritual books, which I wrote about in an previous post.   One of the many things I gained from that literary retreat was my first acceptance of suffering.   For the first time in my life, I accepted pain and my limitations.   I realized I could lie in my bed, feeling my pain, and be content, spiritually and emotionally, with my present situation.   I could put my energy into diet choices, physical therapy exercises, and spending quiet time with my children as they curled up next to me as we read and talked.   I didn't have to fight it, as if my recovery depended on a sheer act of will.   I was doing everything I could and it was okay.   I was living and for me, at that particular time, in those circumstances, it was a real life.   It was complete, although it was not ideal.   My body needed rest, to heal and recover.   My body was full of inflammation and I didn't need my soul to be inflamed, also, by feelings of guilt and shame.   I needed the calm and peace of acceptance and God granted me the grace to suffer.   

Instead of the frantic and frenzied attempt to save myself,  I stopped trying to live up to the American ideal of a "go-getter."   Instead, I rested.   I depended upon God's grace, not on myself, and in doing so, found myself more receptive to that grace because my body, mind and soul weren't using all their efforts to engage in some misguided battle.   

Because what does it really mean to live and to "have a life?"    St. Therese, consumed on her deathbed by the violence of tuberculosis: what she less alive in those final moments than she had been when she first entered Carmel?   Blessed John Paul II: did he still "have a life" in those final months of such suffering?   Was he any weaker on his deathbed, where he accepted no extraordinary life-saving efforts, but allowed death to come naturally than he was as a young bishop in Communist Poland?   My suffering was miniscule compared to that of these two great saints, but their great example gave me such comfort.   I also realized that in the moment, pain is pain.   I didn't have to make it seem like less or more, in comparison to previous experiences or the experiences of other people.   I could just accept my pain, in that moment.

One of the many treasures I received when I entered the Catholic Church was the theology of suffering.   Ever since my conversion, I have had moments of grace where I understood a little more about that theology.   My recent experience was one of those fruitful times.  Even as I recover, I value my time more.   I choose activities carefully, saying, "No," more often so I can have energy for the most important things, instead of an attempt to do it all.  There are always times to stand strong, to work through the pain, and push on, yes.   Otherwise, how would anything ever get accomplished in this world?   I am now in a place, physically, where I can push myself a little harder.   But, I also finally have peace as I mature beyond trying to attain, or maintain, the status of "go-getter."    Sometimes, for the really important things--like grace-- it's more about being open to receive, not what I achieve.  


My portable TENS unit.   This is what allowed me to drive without intense pain and to go to the grocery store again!   I can wear it when I'm out-and-about.   It scrambles the pain signal before it reaches my brain.   I LOVE my unit.


Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Knee Socks, Sequins, & Straight Jackets: Finding Myself in the Crowd

I'm a Southerner, but not a Southern Belle.   I was never presented to society at a white-gloves-and-ball-gowns-cotillion.   I was never the princess or queen of a small-town festival.   I only drink unsweetened tea, whether hot or iced.   My parents wanted to see if they could raise me on only unsweetened tea, so I wouldn't like the taste of the sugared variety and it worked.   Mama always made two pitchers of iced tea.   And, though I can appreciate the cast and technical achievements of Gone With the Wind, I'm telling you, if I had any state secrets, I might give them up if forced to watch that film on an auto-loop.   Ashley sure wasn't worth all those ripples of misery and by the end, the only three people I could respect were Big Sam, Mammy and Belle Watling.

But whenever I am once again close to the waters of the Mississippi River, my pulse seems to adjust itself to the undulations of the river's waves.   I have stood beneath the low, grand branches of ancient oaks and positioned myself just-so that I might receive a special benediction in the form of tangled spirals of silvery Spanish moss blown gently upon my cheek.   Towering pecan trees and later, pine trees, stood as a sanctuary for me as an un-churched little girl, seeking God in the stillness of nature.    Like Don Williams sang, "Those Williams boys, they still mean a lot to me, Hank and Tennessee..."   Teenage angst was soothed for me by the whine and twang that came forth from spinning vinyl, punctuated by crying fiddles and the perfection of Leon McAulliffe on a steel guitar.   

And I could twirl a baton.

Though I wanted to, I never took voice, tap, ballet, or piano, but when a lady showed up at Jackson Elementary and told parents she would teach girls to twirl baton, at a reasonable rate and immediately after school--which meant no driving to and from lessons--my mama signed me up.   Oh, that lovely shiny baton, decorated with red electrical tape wrapped around each end, right below the white rubber tips.   The red bands gave it a little extra pizzaz in spins and helped me identify mine amongst all the rest during class.   It was girly and it was my first experience of belonging to something outside of my family or classroom.   Between you and me, it was also a socially acceptable way to be a little "trashy."   I understood Dolly Parton, who has commented in interviews that, as a child, she was always attracted to the flashy appearance of "trashy ladies."   When you have a voice like an angel, you can dress as you like.   For me, as a second grader, it was the appeal of having the blonde hair of Three's Company's Chrissy or Lucy's tight wardrobe on Dallas.   At that time, I was a soul divided, torn between my noble heroines Laura Ingalls Wilder, Caddie Woodlawn, Anne Shirley, and my short-lived desire to one day become a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader.    I devoured books during the daytime.   At night, I pored over the beautiful homes and gardens in Mama's Country Living and Southern Living magazines, while I watched nighttime soap operas. 

I looked forward to the weekly twirling classes with my pretty teacher.   But the most exciting thing about baton classes was the promise that we would learn a routine and perform it at three local parades.   In COSTUMES.   Oh, when my little eyes first beheld the sample in all its gaudy, form-fitting glory.   Cherry red satin, nice and shiny, with patches of pearlescent white sequins.   It was a feast for the lesser nature of my senses.   And my mama agreed to make one for me!   Tacky finery was finally to be mine.   Something like everyone else, instead of my usual smocked and swiss-dotted dresses, which until the end of first grade were accessorized with navy blue corrective shoes.  

As if all of this was not overwhelming enough, though, we girls were shown the Optional Boots.   They were a dream of footwear, bright white, with a tassel at the front of each.   A tassel!   I was so excited.   After years of sensible corrective shoes, I was finally going to get boots.   Then, mama explained to me what "optional" meant.   It meant a frivolous extra amount of money that my thrifty mama, a Midwest farmer's daughter, was not going to spend.   Other girls would get boots, but I got a trip to the shoe store for a pair of serviceable, perfectly reasonable and respectable, white canvas tennis shoes.  I consoled myself, though, and enjoyed that the top half of me, at least, was flashy and shiny.  

The near-by towns of Zachary and Baker held annual Christmas parades that were the usual southern small-town parades which make their way down a straight main street, with on-lookers gathered on either side.   We were granted cool early December days, when holiday weather in Louisiana is usually a craps shoot.   We arrived, bundled up in our coats, with our skinny legs exposed to the wind.   Some of us had tassels which moved a little with each breeze.   My own skinny legs were protected somewhat by sensible knee socks.   The disappointment of footwear completely disappeared in the excitement, though, as we formed neat rows, along with our teachers' students from other schools.   We all wore costumes cut from the same pattern, each made in the colors of our schools.   Everyone had hair up, in either a bun or a pony tail and we stood, ready, with our batons in position at our sides.   We would march, knees raised high with each step.   Every so often, we would stop, perform our routine, and then take up our marching again, swinging our right hands as we held our batons, and holding our left hands on our hips.   A flashy pose indeed.   Knee socks and all, it was magical and though I shivered most of the ride home, I was lit with a satisfied glow from within.

Then came our own town's parade.   You know how people will say they are from a one-traffic-light town?   Well, we didn't even have one.   People from a neighboring town would joke that it was because we couldn't agree on what color we wanted it.   There was a main street, lined with only a few office buildings and businesses, including the Bank of Jackson, Jr. Food Mart, where you went for fried chicken, and Bobby's Drive-In, the establishment which is still my ideal--and benchmark-- for a dive, with its hamburgers that dripped down your arm and thick, icy milk shakes.  Some people lined that street to view the parade, but a large number of people chose to watch the parade along the second half of its route.   Our Christmas parade, like our Homecoming parade, not only marched through the center of town, but also, wound its way through the grounds of our town's unofficial downtown, East Louisiana State Mental Hospital, called "East" by us locals.  

The hospital opened in 1848 as an insane asylum.   Its campus is made up of beautiful Greek revival buildings, one of which boasts an elaborately detailed ballroom.   The hospital was noted at the time for its more humane and respectful treatment of patients, compared to most mental hospitals of the period.   Many of my classmates had relatives who worked at the hospital and at one time, during the height of debate about state governmental waste in the 1980s, it was said that there were three employees to every patient at East.   In Louisiana, the phrase, "going to Jackson" was synonymous with commitment at East.   So, it was not uncommon for locals to describe themselves as being from "north of Baton Rouge" or just from "the Felicianas", in order to avoid any possible confusion.   My devotion to Flannery O' Connor only grew when I learned that her hometown, Milledgeville, Georgia, was also the home of a mental hospital and "going to Milledgeville" held the same meaning as "going to Jackson."   The Jackson hospital is still in operation, along with other state facilities in the town: Dixon Correctional Institute (DCI), Villa Feliciana State Geriatric Hospital and the Louisiana War Veterans Home.   We were always a campaign stump-stop for gubernatorial elections, with speeches tailored to the concerns of state workers.   Until I twirled baton in the Jackson Christmas Parade, my only experience of East was passing its gates every time I entered the town.    I always craned my neck to see the uniformed guards in the guard shack.   DCI was also on our route, so guard shacks and towers were a fixture of the landscape in my childhood drives.

Again, the heavens granted us all a cool, crisp day for a Christmas parade.   We arrived early, with Mama's best friend, and her daughter Janie.   There was the extra treat of hot chocolate that day, which I suppose meant that hot chocolate was sold at a lower price in Jackson than Baker or Zachary.   There was the same excitement of the crowd, the beautiful costumes, the shiny batons as we took our places in our neat rows.   Soon, the parade started and we marched in time to Christmas tunes played by the high school marching band.   My enthusiasm for Christmas, belonging to a group and tacky clothing,  increased with each marching step as the crowd clapped for us and I recognized more familiar faces than I had seen in the previous two parades.  

Then, we entered the grounds of East.   There was still a crowd on either side of the paved street, the band still played its tunes and our feet were still lifting in step, but the festive atmosphere of just a few minutes earlier was gone and replaced by a momentary hush.   I looked at the faces on either side of the street and then I looked at my fellow baton-twirlers.   Wide-eyes met with wide-eyes.   The familiar crowd of typical parade-goers was now dotted with faces unlike any I had seen before.   Hospital gowns hung unevenly under the hems of ill-fitting coats, along with slippers and robes on some people.   I heard wails and shrieks.   I saw a straight jacket for the first time.   Next to each face that was a revelation to me, was the face of someone who was attired in the uniform of a nurse or doctor.   Sometimes, they were supportive, bearing a kindly expression, pointing at the parade and encouraging glee in their special charges.   Other times, I caught expressions that to me were mean and aggravated, faces which seemed much more out of place than the contorted or gaping ones.   My thoughts and emotions were more than a seven-year-old baton twirler could bear, and as I tried to blink away the tears, I lost step with my group.  

I noticed that not everyone was a patient or care-giver.   I spotted the faces of friends and their parents.   The same lawn chairs, brought from home, lined this part of the route and I realized that many locals made up the crowd.   A blend of the seemingly sane, the certifiably insane, and those whose designation was less official.   Years later, I would remember this combination, so weird to my childish senses, when I watched an episode of Designing Women and heard the character, Julia Sugarbaker, explain, "I'm saying this is the South and we're proud of our crazy people.   We don't hide them up in the attic.  We bring 'em right down to the living room and show 'em off.   You see, in the south no one ever asks if you have crazy people in your family.   They just ask what side they're on."

That day, on the grounds of East Louisiana State Mental Hospital, I started to form my ideas of what it meant to really belong.   I learned a little bit about being southern and a bit more about what it meant to be human.   Those first images of the patients, the kindly workers, and those not so kind have always stayed with me.   In the years which followed, I would usually take part in the local parades as an observer.    Later, in high school, I was once again a participant, riding on various floats or cars, as President of Students Against Drunk Driving or Student Government.   I remembered that early Christmas parade and held my breath as the wheels beneath me began to roll through the entrance at East.   Each time, I braced myself for the unique crowd and saw some of the same sights as before.   This time, sitting, rather than keeping step as a marcher, I could really pause and observe.   I tried to remember to throw candy, but I would get lost in the humanity.   Those faces, the postures: joy, untainted and sometimes, a sad confusion.  

In my final parade, I sat on the trunk of a Mustang convertible, with my white-pump-clad feet on the seat below.   Mama drove, so I was chaperoned and therefore, apart from my peers' full experience of Homecoming.   There would be no date to a dance allowed afterward, so I was trying to soak it all in while I could.   But once again, the people on the sides of the car took over my thoughts and I looked around, trying to smile warmly.   I stopped throwing candy, lost in it all, until, toward the end of the route, I heard voices, which I realized were male, and slightly angry, reminding me to throw some candy.   I turned in the direction of the voices and saw the people standing there, clad in their issued orange uniforms.   A high fence stood between them and me.   I had heard talk from classmates whose relatives worked at "Forensic," the special unit on the grounds of East, for those tried criminals deemed insane.   So, I came out of my thoughts and just started throwing fistfuls of candy.    I sat on that convertible, in my pink dress, sensible for school assemblies, but unlike the cocktail dresses of every other girl in the parade.   Yes, these men had committed crimes, but they were certifiably insane.   As hard as I could, from my own perch, I was throwing them candy, attempting to get it through the holes and even over the fence.   Maybe I threw because they were yelling at me to do so.   Maybe I threw because they sounded mad.   Maybe I threw because they were behind that fence, topped with its razor-wire that was so much sharper than the barbed-wire of our farm fences at home.   Sharp as a chaperone's watchful eye.

The packaged south, the poor caricature peddled by so many, is not the south to which I belong.   It is to the land-- with its humidity, red clay, fertile river dirt, incessant insects of wearying variety and fertility, and winding rivers which make for exasperating city maps-- that I belong.   It is to the music, literature, and food of the south to which I belong, but more than that, to God, present and worshipped in the landscape's many steeples of various creeds, He who made the creative bodies and minds who produce that which feeds our bodies and spirits.   That land delights, confuses, angers, soothes, and frees, and sometimes, traps me, as does its people.   It is all a mixed bag.   We humans, we inhabitants of this earth, are all a mixed bag.    It's okay to acknowledge that.   It's okay to feel initial shock or even horror.   But then, we have to bring ourselves out and back into it all.   We recognize bits of ourselves in those faces.   And we stretch, we strain, sometimes, without explanation, to share--to give--something of ourselves to our fellow man.  Our lesser nature, our baser instincts, slowly begin to recede.   Our more noble ones are fed by the action.  

In those moments of recognition, our face in the face of others, slowly, a little girl's knee socks take on less importance.   A teenager realizes being set apart is not complete or inescapable.   A woman finds God, in spite of the example of some of His people and in spite of herself.   A woman prays for the desire to fit in, to belong, not to this land and realm, but to another.   A prayer begins to form around a desire to shine, to attract, not attention to herself, but to the One who is always present, in the faces of the "freaks" and especially, in those of their kindly care-takers.

And I can still twirl a baton.

(that's me, all shiny, on the left)

Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological. That is a large statement, and it is dangerous to make it, for almost anything you say about Southern belief can be denied in the next breath with equal propriety. But approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature. In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature. --Flannery O' Connor


Sunday, 17 November 2013

Common Core?!?: Some Thoughts on Public Education Today

Common Core: What Is It?

There are SO many articles and videos warning people of the dangers of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, or CCSSI.   That's right, that's the official name: it's Standards, not Curriculum.   Standards are a part of a curriculum.   They simply state what each student should be able to demonstrate, with mastery, by the end of a school year.   Standards are important as they guide curriculum and the instruction in classrooms.

There are currently Standards for Mathematics and Language Arts, Kindergarten through Grade 12 and they are all available for inspection on the official CCSSI website:

For example, in Mathematics, there are Standards for Mathematical Practice, which are the general  "varieties of expertise that mathematics educators at all levels should seek to develop in their students..."   These Standards are to be developed across all grade levels, throughout each school year and some of them came from the NCTM, National Council for Teachers of Mathematics Process Standards.   NCTM recommendations have had an influence upon Standards and textbooks across the United States for several decades.   Their website is easily available for study:

The website includes their recommendations for Standards and Focal Points in mathematics instruction: 

In addition, there are the Domain Standards of the Common Core Standards, which are the specific skills students are expected to master.   The Standards are all organized by grade level.   On the official website, you can find all the grade levels listed.   Each has an Introduction section which gives a general overview.   Then, you can examine each of the individual skills a student would be expected to master by the end of the school year.   So, for Kindergarten, you can click on this link for an overview, with each Domain addressed during the year listed at the bottom of the page.   The sidebar gives links to the specific Standards of each Domain.

For English Language Arts, the Standards are also listed by Grade Level and Domain.   There are three Appendices for English Language Arts on the official CCSSI website.  Of these, Appendix B gives Exemplar Texts.   According to the Oxford Dictionaries, exemplar is a person or thing serving as a typical example or excellent model.   The list is not meant to be comprehensive.  Some companies have already produced packs of these books for high school classes.   This is where controversy can develop.   Lists of suggested texts always bring about controversy.   How many parents were aware of suggested reading lists or official reading lists associated with their state's existing curriculums before the CCSS were adopted?   There are one or two high school Exemplars which I do not see a place for,  but keep in mind that though these texts are called Exemplars, they are not required to be used.   The CCSSI has no enforcement arm, requiring teachers to use only/all the texts listed and prosecuting those districts who don't do so.   In the past, under previous standards/objectives, some districts had official lists of texts from which teachers could choose.   They were under no obligation to use all of the books and if they wanted to use a text not on the list, they had to seek approval.  

Parents always have to be vigilant when it comes to the books being read aloud or read by students in classrooms.   No matter the curriculum, any individual teacher could bring a book into the classroom which parents may find unsuitable or inappropriate.   It is a parent's duty and right to examine the books used in a classroom.   Teachers should know at the beginning of the year the books they will use in their classroom, but in the case of books being read aloud, particularly in lower grades, a book may not be planned for weeks in advance.   Ask your children about stories they've heard in class, just as a means of discussion, not interrogation.   If our children were attending a fantasy "perfect" school, we should still ask about stories they are reading and hearing.   If you object, you should first consult the official documents of the school district and state education department or agency.   Look to see if the work is part of a list of suggested or approved texts.   If there is a list of approved books and that book is not on the list, your job has just become easier.   If there is no list, or the book is on the list, you still should voice your concerns with the teacher first.   An alternative text should be an option for your student.  In most cases, teachers are happy to oblige, if only to avoid problems.  

Here is an example of the process teachers/districts should be going through as they try to create and select instructional materials and strategies to help their students achieve mastery of the standards as they are stated in the Common Core Standards:

The process would be the same for any standards and yes, the process really is this involved and time-consuming for a good teacher.   They really do analyze each standard and usually have to search for supplemental materials or make them, using their own time and money.   I have a closet that is full of supplemental materials purchased with my own money.   It makes me ill to think of the total amount, so I tend to not do so.  

Just part of my "hoard": I'd estimate $8 per book, except for publishers' workbooks and others I found at garage sales and swap meets.

How Do the Standards Compare to Existing State Standards/Objectives?

Since I am in the state of Texas, I will link to their Standards, or TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills), as an example of a state's existing Standards for comparison (Texas did not choose to adopt the Common Core Standards):


Language Arts:

There is nothing in our state standards that I wouldn't want my children to meet.   Our state standards are more numerous than those in the CCSSI and I would love every student to meet them at the end of the year, but teachers sometimes feel rushed to "cover" them all before the state test and there is not always enough time left for the through instruction or adequate student practice teachers really feel is necessary.    Many people hold up math instruction in Asian countries such as Singapore, as an example that we should follow.   A key part of their approach to instruction, though, is to teach fewer topics each year and teach them better, with much more breadth and depth.   The result is better understanding, which creates a firmer foundation of knowledge to be built upon each year.   However, if the number of Texas standards were decreased, it would not guarantee that every teacher would expand instruction and experiences.    It is individual teachers and the decisions they make which ultimately determine instruction in the classroom.   I give the Asian mathematics approach as an example in case someone compares the Texas TEKS to the CCSSI and considers the former to be superior based only on quantity.   Fewer standards does not automatically mean "dumbing down" has occurred and I find it humorous that some of the same talking heads who say CCSSI has dumbed down curriculum, just on the basis of the number of concepts will also say that American schools should teach math like it's taught in Asian countries.   There is simply more than just the number of standards to consider when making a judgment.

Also, in the case of Texas, the TEKS are the guidelines, but then each district uses them to develop and write its own curriculum.   At this point, individual states and districts who have adopted CCSSI will have to use the CC Standards to develop their own curriculums.   State lawmakers who wish to have also taken steps to pull out of their adoption of the CCSSI, as is within their legislative capacity.

My first classroom in the school district where I developed a curriculum.

Final Thoughts

This post is not intended to endorse or oppose the Common Core Standards.  I'm no curriculum expert, but I have actually developed my own curriculum for an Exploratory Mathematics course in Louisiana and I helped write elementary math curriculum for my district in Texas.   I can look at any approved Standards, from CCSSI or from individual states, and find flaws.   I can find even more flaws as to how the Standards are attempted to be met in individual classrooms.  I am just aggravated, to an abnormal degree probably, by all the circulated articles and commentary I've seen which oppose the standards, but never list specific examples from the Standards themselves as part of their argument.   I am also puzzled where all the concern has been over the many decades as states have been writing and approving standards as part of their curriculums.  The Standards will be a part of standardized testing for the states who have adopted it, but an emphasis on testing OVER instruction is already firmly entrenched in our schools as part of the existing No Child Left Behind or NCLB.   In terms of high-stakes testing, the Standards will only affect the test questions and I am sure there are alliances in terms of money and contracts for things such as the tests themselves.   There are always political and monetary alliances formed.   Instead of each state having its own test, the CCSSI sets the stage for tests that can be used by all the states involved.  

     Things to keep in mind:

1.  The Common Core Standards, at this point, like other state standards, or objectives, which existed before, do NOT tell teachers how to teach or what materials they must use.   There is no enforcement arm.  The examples of "horrible Common Core Curriculum proof that education is going to hell in a hand basket" worksheets and activities I've seen posted on-line were a matter of teacher or school district choice of materials, not the Standards themselves.   When I have seen my fellow Texans post poorly-written (or downright incorrect) questions from their children's homework on Facebook, the questions usually involve multiple-choice questions that have been written to resemble the type students will see on the standardized tests.   The test keeps changing, in an attempt to get ahead of teachers who might have "figured out" the test.   This results in convoluted questions which ultimately test a student's ability to take the test, rather than determining what he has learned during the year.    Plus, it is hard for districts to find and buy enough workbooks or question generators so teachers have good examples to share with students.  I really wish every person involved with decisions about curriculum and every parent of a school child had to take the tests so they could get a better idea of what is happening in our educational system.   

2.  The Standards are available on-line.   Do your own reading and make your own informed opinions.   Leave the politics and party-line-towing out of the process.   Don't let hatred or distrust of a party or politicians cloud judgment.   Be led by your own thorough research, not the drum-beaters who are stirring up controversy in the name of increased viewers or readers or those who stand to profit from the Standards.   And trust me, in any governmental decision, at any level, someone stands to profit.   Then, use your voice for true problems you have found and verified.

3.  Teachers are overburdened and stressed with pressure to make students perform on a one-day-snapshot-view-test, due to the No Child Left Behind law.  NCLB tries to quantify teaching and learning.   I would like to see a quantification of the number of good teachers who have left the classroom because of the way NCLB has changed education.   Good teachers don't mind assessment; they just want it to be fair and comprehensive.   I've been in the classroom.   Tests are written in such a way that a teacher must teach the students to take the test.   We just try to minimize the amount of time we spend on that.   For those who think teachers should just teach and their students will do well on the test without special test instruction, I submit for their consideration to big business of SAT, ACT, LSAT, etc., etc. test preparation.   Most people have to learn a standardized test and understand how it works to do their best on it.  

Most troubling for me, though, is that a teacher can work hard, but if a student doesn't perform at a certain level, his teaching is viewed as nothing.   If a student begins the year several grade levels behind, but improves by a grade level or two, it is possible he could still not meet the minimum standard on the test and the teacher's work is viewed as failure.   I didn't experience that as a teacher, but I know of schools where teachers are facing tough situations and they are working hard, in the belief that their students can learn.   Their effort should be judged several factors, including student improvement over the course of the year.   NCLB has been going on through two different administrations--one Republican, one Democrat--now.   Where is the same level of concern that we're seeing over Common Core?   NCLB is a law, passed by Congress and signed by President George W. Bush.   Due process does not necessarily a great law make.   

4.   School districts and state education departments are not autonomous agencies and they haven't been for a long time.   Textbook companies control much of what is done in classrooms.   In the past, they have geared production to the largest states, since they were their largest markets.   So, Texas, New York, and California state standards were influencing textbooks around the nation.   It was profitable to make textbooks which were aligned to their state standards.    The decisions of state and federal judges affect school district decisions for everything from districting to discipline.   School districts, like businesses, make many decisions based on avoiding lawsuits.   On the other hand, students with special needs are protected by federal law and are offered more guaranteed services than they were before federal intervention.   As for the claim that states were bribed to adopt the Core Curriculum Standards with the lure of federal funds for implementation, how do citizens think services such as special education and school meals work?   In general, how is the political wheel always greased?   We have to look carefully at individual cases of influence and involvement of an outside or federal entity and not make hasty generalizations.  

5.  There are always flaws in the way standards--from any source--are implemented.   As I stated before, parents must stay vigilant and try to be aware of the materials, methods, and resources being used in their children's classrooms.   Look at the worksheets coming home.    You have every right to ask to see any being filed in the classroom.   Schools and teachers are meant to be partners in education.   Heck, if your child attends a Title I school, parent/community involvement is legally required and must be proved by documentation each year as part of an assessment so funding may continue.    Even if your child's school is not designated Title I, parent contact and involvement is such an important trend in education theory and policy right now that many districts require all teachers to document contacts and involvement opportunities.   Those math and reading nights at your school?   Yep, there's a reason all those pictures are being taken.   Those notes, e-mails and phone calls outside of standard parent conferences you're getting just to let you know Mrs. Smith is happy little Johnny is in her class and that he is making good progress?    They are usually heart-felt and genuine, but they're probably being recorded on a chart or saved as documentation that such contact occurred.   

Parent conferences and progress reports, intervention meetings for any child who appears to have some sort of learning difficulty or medical situation that could affect learning, lunchroom managers who spend their spare time calling homes or delivering notes to help families sign up for free or reduced lunches: schools aren't horrible, hateful places out to devour little children or rip them from our collective parental clutches.   The majority of administrators and teachers are putting in large amounts of hours outside the classroom to best meet the needs of students and their families.   It is the rare case of a "bad" teacher, administrator or poorly- informed school board which always gets the attention.   Most teachers aren't unionized and those who do belong to actual unions  or teacher support organizations, only do so because they live in a union state or district or to be protected by liability insurance offered by the organization.   In today's litigious society, teachers often have a fear of being sued and losing their reputations or jobs.  Yes, problems exist, but not always as they are portrayed in the media.   Talk to teachers and administrators.   Do your research and get involved.   In most cases, you are truly welcome to do so.   In the rare cases that you're not, claim your rights to do so.  

Common Core: love it or hate it?   There is support for both sides in a morally-neutral topic such as this one.   Let's just all back up our opinions with facts and evidence and keep children's best interests as our focus.

Teacher Mama, Administrator Papa, 2 public school, formerly home-schooled students, and 1 future public school student, feeling very welcome at their open-door-policy school

Friday, 8 November 2013

12 Years a Slave and Truth: Beyond Convention

The first time I met with my physical therapist, he told me that, in the future, I would have to weigh my pain against each situation.   Knowing I had three children, he asked me if the pain of childbirth was worth it and then told me I would have to look at each situation and decide if the pain or discomfort was worth it.  Last week, I made that decision three times.   I decided to: walk, slowly, with my children as they trick-or-treated, accompany them to our parish All Saints Day party, and drive to watch 12 Years A Slave in a cinema.   Yes, they were all worth the discomfort, which is significantly less than that which I was experiencing a few weeks ago, thanks be to God.

In this post, I wanted to write about the films of 12 Years a Slave director, Steve McQueen.   I wanted to write about that film, in particular, in detail.   I have pages of notes and lots of thoughts bouncing around in my head, but I can't approach that film--that story--in that manner, at least not right now.  I don't want to spoil the story with details of the plot, so this post speaks to the beauty and genius of the work as part of the canon of Steve McQueen films.   I cannot recommend this film highly enough.   Every adult and mature teenager needs to see 12 Years a Slave.

Part of my longing for this story to be told on film is that I am from the Deep South, the Delta, to be specific.   The only thing that generated more discussion amongst my classmates than "being saved" during revival season was the issue of slavery after a movie set in the antebellum south aired on television.   I'm old enough that when a program like the mini series, North and South, based on the John Jakes novel, aired on ABC, everyone watched it as it aired and talked about it the next day.   I remember a classmate walking up and down the aisles of desks before class began, asking each student, "Are you a Rebel or a Yankee?"   That was 1985.   At that time, the high school in our town still elected a white Homecoming Queen and a black Homecoming Queen.   The school dances, including Homecoming and Prom, were "black" dances and the white parents of the Junior class helped the members of the all-white Junior Club hold whites-only dances off campus.   At the Homecoming football game, black and white young ladies sat as part of the Homecoming court, attired in beautiful wool suits, hats, and leather gloves while black and white football players worked together to score points on the field.   Later that evening, they parted ways, with the black students going to the dance on campus and the white students heading to a location off-campus.  

Race and the history of the south was always present, either on the surface, or at a constant bubble below.   How could it not be?   Slavery is a fact of history.   It was part of international trade and a foundation of our nation's economy before the Civil War.    It should be a large part of schools' history curriculums (standards, objectives, textbooks).   It has to be a part of our national debate because we haven't really faced it as a nation.   Our national sins don't fit in with the image we have of ourselves as a nation.   How can we learn from mistakes and improve if we don't examine our past?   How can we grow closer to the ideals of our nation?  

When I was in fifth grade, I visited a plantation home as part of a school field trip.   The house was gorgeous with its sweeping, column-lined verandas and elegantly decorated rooms.   At one point, we were shown a cut-away section of an interior wall.   It was a bit disappointing and shocking to see how ugly the inside of the wall was.   Lumpy, hand-made bricks, rough hewn timbers, and Spanish moss insulation formed the wall.   Years later in tenth grade, I visited the LSU Rural Life Museum on another field trip.   I recommend this as the first stop for anyone who wants to tour Plantation Country in the south.   The museum is a living history site which shows how everyone other than the owners of the plantations would have lived.   You can tour slave cabins, later sharecropper cabins, and other structures of the past for a better view of life in the past.   As I stood in the cramped slave cabins and listened to the tour guide detail the daily life of slaves, my mind went back to the cross-section of wall I saw years before.   Beneath the genteel beauty of a southern plantation home, there is a hidden, ugly truth which must be revealed to understand the structure of the whole.  Steve Mc Queen's third film exposes part of that ugly truth for our modern eyes.

12 Years a Slave is a movie that forces viewers to confront some of the realities of slavery.   Like McQueen's other major films, Hunger and Shame, it is stark, realistic, unflinching and haunting.   I am not the same as I was when I sat down to watch the film last Saturday.   My friend Megan and I saw it in an upscale shopping center that was created to look like a town square.   We sat in the theatre until the last credit rolled, as a way of paying respect to every person involved in such a masterpiece.   We walked out in silence, but had to make our way through posh shoppers, in that fake mock-up town square, to find a place to eat since we both had barely eaten all day.   "This is just so wrong.   It's just all so surreal after what we've just watched," Megan said as I noticed a Ferrari parked in front of me.   After we sat down in the restaurant, we tried to process some of what we had just seen.   Here's a bit of what we discussed and what has been going through my mind.

The memoir, Twelve Years a Slave is the true account of Soloman Northup who was a free black man living in Sarasota, New York when he was kidnapped and sold into slavery.   He spent twelve years working on cotton and sugar plantations in the south.   I think about that title and its meaning based on your point of view.   For Soloman, he missed twelve whole years suffering, apart from his family.   But what of twelve years in the life span of those born into the cruelty of slavery?   It is a remarkable book about an extraordinary man.   It should be a standard text in every high school in the United States and beyond.   It is special in that we have the perspective of a man who was free and then found himself a part of  that "peculiar institution."   As readers, and viewers, we can identify a bit more with his story because of that element.  I was also struck by the detail of the book, especially those pertaining to the work of Soloman as a slave and the daily life on the plantations.    Most impressive and most lasting for me, though, was the soul and character of Soloman Northup.   I've written before about my favorite fictional character, Jane Eyre, and her strength of character, but Soloman Northup is the real-life, true-story embodiment of all that made the fictional Jane so great.   I was so moved by the lack of bitterness in his memoir.   He made no excuses for sins of others, nor he did not justify actions or the institution of slavery, but he considered each person in his circumstances, including himself.   Role model does not adequately describe what Mr. Northup should be for us all, especially our children.

There were a few changes and additions to the original story, but 12 Years strives for historical accuracy.   The Oscar nominations should be many for this film and I hope costume and set designers are given a nod for this work.   The locations used were real plantations, complete with the ghosts of the past.   Mc Queen and his crew filmed in August and September.   In south Louisiana.   That's real sweat in the film, people.   Many of the cast are from Great Britain and the heat and humidity of the filming location was a real assault.   Actors have spoken to the authenticity it gave to the experience of portraying slavery and life at the time.   The plantations which were used are not the most grand homes, such as Nottoway or Rosedown.   They are still grand homes, but more realistic as being closer to what the majority of "big houses" would have looked like on plantations.   The actual Epps home is still available for viewing.   It is more humble than the home portrayed in the movie, as it was located further from the rich soil and crop yields of the Mississippi River, but I think viewers needed something like the location chosen to relate to their idea of a plantation.   The chosen location is a good balance.   The clothing is remarkable.   You can actually see the texture of the fabrics, including those worn by the plantation families.   These are not the grand silks, exaggerated hoop skirts and finery of films like Gone With the Wind.   We get a more realistic view of how people of the time dressed and lived.  

McQueen came to film-making as a visual artist.   He did short films before making his first major motion picture, Hunger.  The film blew me away and I can still get lost in thoughts about it.   I had never seen anything quite like it.   It was an introduction to McQueen as an artist and I can see his same fingerprints on 12 Years A Slave.   When McQueen was asked why he made Hunger, he tells the story of filming, as an official war artist, in Iraq.   When he returned, he wanted to see what "we" as British citizens, as a country had done closer to home.   I was drained, but in some sort of satisfying way, as the film stayed with me and I continued to think upon it.   After that experience, I began to search for every article and video interview with McQueen I could find.   I had to hear more from the mind who made the film.   I was not disappointed in those interviews.   There was total complementarity between the man in the interviews and the maker of the film.  

Hunger is the story of Bobby Sands, who led the 1981 Irish Republican Maze Prison hunger strike.   The hunger strike was not only controversial because it was part of The Troubles of Northern Ireland, but also because of the moral debate as to whether or not Sands, a Roman Catholic, was committing suicide through his hunger strike.   Before the strike begins, Sands calls in a priest.   The scene portraying the dialogue between these two men is one of the greatest scenes in film.   The writing is flawless, as is the acting, but it also showcases McQueen's use of a still camera shot.   The camera does not move for about eighteen minutes.   No close-ups on either actor.   I watched McQueen say in an interview that he filmed it that way because that was natural and that when he listens to a real life conversation between two people, he's not constantly jerking his head back-and-forth to look at each of them.   Not only is it natural, but it has the effect of holding your eye.   You cannot look away.

The same long shots can be seen in 12 Years.   The camera does not permit you to look away from the savagery of rape or whippings.    The camera stays still during dialogues, also.   You are a witness to the exchanges between characters.   McQueen has stated that he doesn't want to insult his audience or their intelligence.   He lets you experience the story and he leaves you to think it out.   There is always a sparse musical score in his films.   Every scene, even the most dramatic, does not need musical accompaniment to stir the audience.   I remember being stunned by another long scene in Hunger, where a janitor is seen cleaning a prison hallway for what seems five minutes.   That's it, but on film, within that particular film, it is purposeful and powerful.   In 12 Years, freed from constant music, your senses are opened to the humanity of the characters, the silence and the natural sounds of their surroundings.   The landscape of Louisiana is left on its own to throb and pulse with the heat, the humidity, the hum of cicadas and crickets.   The land becomes, as it must in any story set in the deep south, another character in the film, affecting all the other characters.   McQueen is not encumbered by the conventions of filmmaking and we are the benefactors.  

Another trademark of Steve McQueen is his clarity of purpose when making a film.   He doesn't have an agenda.   When you finish watching Hunger, you really aren't sure with whose side his sympathies lie.   In this interview, he describes his goal in making Hunger, which he considered more a reflection than a film:

 I wanted to look at the Left and the Right of it all and have Left and Right in one room having that kind of dialogue. It's almost two stones and what do you want them to do in that situation? Make fire, with that film, obviously, within that sort-of contained situation, in that room, and to hold it for a moment, and hope it was bright for a moment in order to contemplate, think and reflect. 

With 12 Years, McQueen said he wanted to make a movie about slavery because there hadn't really been one before and because he wanted to be able to see slavery.   He wanted to portray slavery so he could see it, to better understand it.  He also said there was only one way to tell Soloman Northup's story: truthfully.   And the truth is not always pretty.   So, in 12 Years, we see slaves stripped nude, examined and judged as livestock, for purchase.   As harsh and startling as that is, though, as tough as it is to watch beatings and hangings, probably the most horrific part of those scenes is that everyone in the scene, with the exception of Soloman as an outsider, and a few other characters,  is carrying on as if it is all normal.   Because, at the time, it was the norm.  

I've seen writers bandy about the term "raw" to describe things like blog posts that are truthful, revealing or honest, but this film, along with McQueen's others, is truly raw.   Brutality, savagery, jealousy, and lust are all portrayed in their fullness.   His intention is never sensationalism or controversy, but instead just his attempt to truthfully tell a story.   His second film, Shame, garnered much press and a NC-17 rating for its limited release.   It is the fictional, though based on research, story of Brandon, who is a sex addict.   In the film, the addiction also includes pornography.   From the outside, he seems to be a handsome, successful New Yorker, who is well-liked, respected, and attractive to women.   Mc Queen takes viewers beyond the exterior, though, to see how Brandon's addiction controls every part of his day.   He is unable to get through his time at work without viewing pornography on his computer or making multiple trips to the bathroom.    He has no normal relationships and real intimacy in any form is unattainable.   When his sister shows up unannounced, things fall apart further as Brandon no longer has privacy in his own apartment.   As is the case with a sibling, he can't rely on a false front; Sissy knows too much about him.   Viewers are given clues to a shared past trauma between the siblings and hints that something horrible was a part of their childhoods.   At one point, Sissy tells Brandon, "We're not bad people.   We just come from a bad place."   Raw?   This is raw, as Sissy's presence finally leads to downward spiral of total depravity that is akin to what we would expect from a bender for an alcoholic or drug addict, but in the form of sexual encounters that become more and more impersonal than those we already saw from Brandon, who is so crippled by his addiction that he can relate in no other way to others.   McQueen, his co-writer, and the actors met with real recovering sex addicts.   They wanted to tell their stories, in truth.  

But in Hunger, Shame, and 12 Years a Slave, we don't just see the sins or virtues of lead characters.    We see the acts of everyone.   We see each character making decisions where he is at that point, in the world in which he lives.   Brandon's addiction is apparent, but we also see the broken nature of his sister's and his boss's sexuality.   They are both attractive and get through their days looking fine to others, but we see damage and an inability to deal with others in any normal way.   They all act according to their needs, with no consideration of the other person.   His boss picks up women at bars and then sits as his office desk the next morning, talking to his children and wife through a camera.   Shame is a movie about sex addiction, but it is the film McQueen describes as political.   When questioned about this at a TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) press conference, he explained that pornography is an issue we must all address, including the state, because its availability, particularly to the young, is unprecedented.   He talked of how it is impairing our young people in their ability to have relationships or healthy views of their fellow man.   We have to face the truth of a situation, even the full extent of its ugliness, before we can deal with it.

When reporters at the 2013 TIFF press conference stated 12 Years a Slave was a film about race or slavery, McQueen corrected them.   "It's a film about love," he said.   We see Soloman, strong and true to himself as best he can as a slave, but we see his motivation to get back to his wife and children.   He wants them to understand he was kidnapped; he did not abandon them.   He just wants to be back in his own home, with his own children again.   And, again, we have slavery framed within the big idea that McQueen always explores: What does it mean to be human?   A home, a family, freedom, life, love: these are all the most basic things to which every human being has a right.   McQueen wants to explore all that we are capable of, from the depths to the heights, as human beings, and how our decisions and actions affect our neighbor and the wider world.

This press conference begins with the trailer for 12 Years a Slave.

I don't know McQueen's personal spiritual beliefs, but I do know that all three of his major films speak to me, as I am a Catholic.   I embrace the cross of Christ.  As theologians have explained, there is the vertical element of the cross--my relationship with God--and the horizontal element which is God's relationship to all of humanity along with my relationship to my fellow man, regardless of his race or creed.   In order to exercise the horizontal, I must nurture the vertical and grow closer to God through prayer and reflection.   McQueen's films Hunger and 12 Years a Slave show characters of faith trying to do just that.  They are looking for that balance and they are considering God's will as guidance, not as justification.   It is debated on-screen, before our eyes,  in Sands' conversation with his priestly confessor in Hunger and in Patsy's plea to Soloman in 12 Years a Slave.   Viewers are left to decide.   This is true thought and debate, real and essential to the characters' lives.

Also, to my Catholic sensibilities, McQueen's work has something of the liturgical about it.   As I have said above, every use of camera shots, face, music, silence has a purpose for the telling of the story, not just as a convention or experiment.   It is as if the external devices of film-making are ordered to the truth he wishes to tell.   There is a proper order where the cast, crew, director--people as a communal-- and props are in service to that goal.    With his background as a visual artist, Mc Queen understands the power of sign and symbol.   They drive his movies, not the narration or dialogue.   His films are not word-driven.   They leave room for the audience to become a participant as the film accurately portrays reality, not a dramatization of the real world.  

All three of his major films portray the Culture of Death, as John Paul II described our current times, where much of our society lives as if human beings are simply physical bodies, without eternal souls.   The Church defines death as that moment when the soul leaves the body, thus the term Culture of Death to describe a time which includes crimes and abuses against humans and their dignity.   Slavery would never exist as an institution if we viewed every person as equal in dignity.  The Troubles in Ireland could not have happened if both sides saw the humanity in their opponent.   And the sexual abuse and brokenness of Shame are a result of human beings being considered only as a body to be used for self-hate or self-pleasure.  

I have read some reviews which hail 12 Years a Slave as McQueen's masterpiece because it is the more polished and less "artsy" of his three films.   Some reviewers consider it the most mainstream, although still maybe not completely accessible because of its graphic portrayal of slavery.   Although the film stands alone as a masterpiece, I think its fullness cannot be fully appreciated unless it is viewed in the context of the McQueen film canon and in conjunction with a reading of the memoir upon which it is based.  

In the 2013 TIFF press conference video above, the majority of the cast of 12 Years a Slave was present to discuss the film.   One exchange between the amazing Alfrie Woodard and a reporter was especially powerful for me.   Woodard cautions against generalizing the white characters in the film as evil and making judgments about her own character's choices.   She says people often boast of what they would have done if they lived during that time, but we have to look at the people as a part of their time.   She went further to say that she is now a woman living under a system of Capitalism.   She can't change that, just as the characters in the film were living under an economic system which hinged on slavery.   She said she has to wake up each day and make the best decisions she can in the circumstances in which she finds herself.

So, when I watch McQueen's film, I also think of myself and consider the decisions I make.   Yes, I'd like to think I would have been an abolitionist in antebellum times, but what of my athletic shoes I wear today that were probably made in sweat shops?   What of the chocolate and coffee in our pantry that was not all made according to fair-trade practices?   The true success of 12 Years a Slave is the true success of all McQueen's films.   It is what makes them marvels or art and which justifies the use of the word "genius" to describe the director.   His work is art that stirs your mind, heart, and soul.   As the final credits roll and the film ends, your own examination of conscience begins.  

Part 2 of 2 posts about searches for truth in the world of film and television.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Open to Truth: Fearless

Every day, I see headlines proclaiming that all is lost, each side claiming the other side is evil and the cause of all ills.   Because of my social media settings, many of these lamentations come from those who are Catholic.    And I've grown weary from it.   I can always find relief in scripture and prayer, but recently, I've found hope for literature, television, and film from some secular sources.    I watch the films of Steve McQueen who explores what it means to be human and how our actions affect others.   I read the reviews of stand-up comedian, writer, and actor,  Brett Goldstein, whose show, Contains Scenes of an Adult Nature, chronicles his addiction to pornography and his journey as he gave it up and continues to heal in the way he deals with women and relationships.   There are people out there searching for answers, for truth.   They are asking us to think.   We Catholics may have access to the source of truth, but are we really living that way?

A few weeks ago, I watched a new series on Netflix, Derek, created and written by Ricky Gervais.   I have since heard, from multiple sources, that he is supposed to be an atheist who has made anti-Catholic remarks.   For some, that makes any of his work off-limits.  I haven't taken the time to investigate those claims because for me, the show itself outweighs what I might find.   *Stop reading this blog today if you need perfection or conformance to an idealized image in the sources of all your reading or viewing.*   Derek is the story of Derek Noakes, a fifty-year-old caregiver in a home for the elderly.   Since the death of his mother, the residents of the home and his fellow staff members have become his only family.   And he considers himself the luckiest man in the world because he is surrounded by his favorite people every day.  

There was no period of warming up to these characters for me.   From the first few minutes of the pilot episode, I was hooked and I loved the characters, especially Derek and Hannah.   Hannah, played beautifully by Kerry Godliman, is the manager of the home.   She loves the residents and Derek.   She has sacrificed a personal life in order to take care of the residents.   While she admits to loneliness, she is not bitter, nor does she regret those sacrifices.   Derek's other close friends are his best friend Dougie, played perfectly by Karl Pilkington and Kevin, well-portrayed by David Earl.   They all wish the world was filled with more people like Derek.  And they all wish they could be more like Derek.

The elderly are some of the most vulnerable members of our society and Gervais portrays them as unique individuals, each with a past and a valuable future, regardless of the days or years they have left.   Pilkington's character, Dougie, whose outward appearance is all grouch, is often the voice of what many people think of the elderly.   In one exchange, he questions the logic of replacing a hearing aid battery for a resident who he thinks may not even notice the difference.   Derek counters by asking Dougie to think if it was himself and would the effort be worth it then?    Then, there are the other characters, Derek, Dougie, Kevin, Hannah, and Tom.   They are all outsiders in their own ways.   Gervais has described them as being on the fringe of society, where they are dismissed and ignored.   He wanted to give them a voice and by the end of the series, you see them more fully.   They are more than the simple person you might decide them to be based merely on appearances.   By the end of the series, your heart even warms to Kevin, and you understand a little more about why he is this way.  

The format is a familiar one for Gervais, who created both the UK and US versions of The Office.   A documentary crew is filming the home and the characters often speak to the camera as part of their interviews.   It is not just re-hashed material and the format adds to the real feel of the characters.   That reality keeps the show from becoming sentimentalized or saccharin.   The show is British, with comments and jokes that may offend delicate sensibilities, those who, I suppose, must also avoid all Shakespeare, for the sort of humour that can be seen there.  I cried at least once during every episode of the series and I have watched every episode at least twice now.   As one of my friends said, "It just makes me happy and gives me faith in the goodness of people."   It also makes me think.

In an interview for the special, The Making of Derek, Gervais explains how he created the look of Derek:

Despite how he looks and he's perceived, he's kind and sweet and sincere.  He's perfect.   He's just perfect.
And that's why I had to make him look odd.   I didn't want anything to confuse you.   I wanted everything to be a juxtaposition to what he was really like, so he's got to be scruffy, he's got to walk funny, he's got to have bad hair.   He can't be that bright.   Because then, kindness comes along and trumps it all.


As I watched his explanation, I thought there was something slightly familiar about it.   It reminded me of something I had recently read.   In The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O' Connor, Jonathan Rogers shares the story of O'Connor's encounter with a group of nuns from Atlanta.   Rogers writes that the Sister Superior of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cancer Home contacted Flannery to see if she would help them publish the story of a little girl who lived in the home.   Mary Ann lived there nine years before she died at the age of twelve.   The sisters felt her effect upon all those she encountered needed to be told in novel-form by a writer such as O'Connor.   But, oh, how O'Connor disliked sweet, pretty little sanitized tales of holy people.   She wanted nothing to do with the project.   However, Sister Evangelist had included a picture of Mary Ann with her request and O'Connor couldn't stop looking at it.   She wrote:
Her small face was straight and bright on one side.   The other side was protuberant, the eye was bandaged, the nose and mouth crowded slightly out of place.   The child looked at her observer with an obvious happiness and composure.   I continued to gaze at the picture long after I had thought to be finished with it.  

Rogers writes, O'Connor made good on her commitment to help the nuns complete the manuscript.   She also wrote an introduction, a meditation on the beauty and deformity that coexisted in the face of that little girl.   It is perhaps O'Connor's best articulation of what the grotesque meant in her fiction and in her whole worldview.  We are familiar enough with the face of evil, O'Connor argued, in part because we so often see it grinning back at us from the mirror.   When we look at evil, we expect to see grotesquerie.   But what of good?   What does the face of good look like?
O'Connor wrote:
Few have stared at [good] long enough to accept the fact that its face too is grotesque, that in us the good is something under construction.   The modes of evil usually receive worthy expression.  The modes of good have to be satisfied with a cliché or smoothing down that will soften their real look.   When we look into the face of good, we are liable to see a face like Mary Ann's, full of promise.
Ricky Gervais was considering the face of good.   So, Gervais is not a practicing Catholic.   From what I understand, he has said some things about Catholicism.  A Brit with anti-Catholic sentiments?!  Well, gee, there's certainly no historical precedent for that.   And yet, Gervais has written one of the most beautiful programs about the dignity and value of every person I have ever viewed.   In Derek and Hannah, we have characters who are contributing to a Culture of Life with their daily actions.   They do so because of a real belief--not theory, but real actions-- in the dignity of every human being, from resident Lizzie, who suffers from Altzheimers, to Kevin, who often assails the senses, but still manages to stir empathy and kindness.   Every person has a right to life, with all its sorrows and pleasures.   No one should be excluded.   No one has to be made-over to make them more bearable as company.  Derek explains this simply as "Kindness is magic."   He sees the ripple effects of kindness in the world.  

Flannery O'Connor was a student of theology throughout her life.   Every violent story, full of freaks, which she wrote was firmly grounded in her unshakable faith as a Catholic.   But what she and Gervais seem to share is an openness to exploring truth and a belief that reality is the best--and only-- means for portraying the truth.   Gervais may not identify God as the source of the truth he has found, but he has beautifully portrayed that truth and huge numbers of viewers are watching it.  What percentage of Catholic writing today is written for audiences who already agree with the author?   How much Catholic writing is still all halos and traditional beauty, lest anyone be offended or question the goodness or orthodoxy of the author?   And what about the publishing houses who prefer the sweet and sanitized?
O'Connor wasn't preaching to the choir, or rather to those who congratulated themselves for being part of the choir.   She was writing for the wider audience, readers who were living in a post-Christian or a "Christ-haunted" world.   She and Catholic writers she respected, like Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, were formed by their faith, but also honed their craft as storytellers.   They didn't pound their beliefs into their readers.   Because they were Catholic and not word-only- Protestants, they used sign and symbol.   They allowed their readers to participate and discover truth within the stories.   We need more of that today.   We find it in modern fiction writers like Alice McDermott, whose work is grounded in Catholicism, but appeals to the mainstream audience.   Writers like Heather King are writing true, honest memoir to which readers can relate and take stock of their own lives.   One doesn't have to compromise faith to write for all people.   Catholic readers and viewers, however, might need to adjust their sensibilities and leave their fears behind.   

In an interview, Derek cast member Brett Goldstein, was asked how he thought Ricky Gervais could combine comedy and tragedy so well.   Goldstein replied, "He's fearless."   As a Catholic, shouldn't the same thing be said of me.   With grace, I'm working on that.   When Jesus walked the earth as a man, he sanctified the earth and when he died upon the cross, He conquered fear, along with sin and death.   When we are grounded firmly in our relationship with Christ, we don't have to fear the world.   We may explore truth without being shocked or frightened at where we find it.   I am grateful to Ricky Gervais for making Derek.   He has given the world a great gift.   And when Catholics start producing television series which portray truths like Derek does for the whole of the viewing audience, I'll happily watch those, too.
From Flannery O' Connor, in her first letter to Betty Hester, one of her readers who became a friend and confidante:
I write the way I do because (not though) I am a Catholic.   This is a fact and nothing covers it like the bald statement.   However, I am a Catholic peculiarly possessed of the modern consciousness, that thing Jung describes as unhistorical, solitary, and guilty.   To possess this within the church is to bear a burden, the necessary burden for the conscious Catholic.   It's to feel the contemporary situation at the ultimate level.   I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed.   It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it, but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time you struggle to endure it.   This may explain the lack of bitterness in the stories.

 A related great read: Heather King's Letter to a Young Blogger

This post is Part One of Two: next post will be about the films of director Steve McQueen

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