Friday, June 24, 2011

Children, Nature, Selves

The return from Atlanta has been a deep nesting experience (the exact opposite of Mac's days in India which have been unfurling in more and more extraordinary ways).  The fifteen (!) boxes of glorious books from my beloved Donna have emerged, categorized in perhaps new ways, finding new alphabetical companions as they meet books already on my bookshelves.  There are many memories of her fantastic classes in these books, a kind of long look at the love and thinking that go into teaching and research - the spines of these books are worn with consultation, and I think of myself as a 17 year old on the other end of that book-professor relationship, taking notes, thinking on art history all the time, now making my own consultations.  There is a seamlessness in Donna meeting the kids that is wonderfully untrue, considering all of the radical changes that have occurred over the past 20 years - yet, there we were: one art historian passing her books on to another art historian, Donna's lovely daughter meeting my eager kids.  They knew that they were in the midst of something special, the kids, they savored the seamlessness - to them it had to be inevitable that things turned out this way. In the way that photos of loved ones allow us to over-interpret them, the three outlines of Oliver, Iris and Eleanor at the mind-blowing Georgia Aquarium say it all: Oliver, relaxed, with his hands in his pockets, sighting enormous beluga whales; Iris reaching up to touch the glass to verify or count something, to keep track and annotate as she goes; and Eleanor, little pixie, twirling about, engaged in some imaginary dance with the belugas, which she adores.

No need to over-interpret this one: Eleanor is registering everyone's reaction beneath this phenomenal tunnel where whale sharks (which are huge!) and enormous manta rays and dozens of other sea life swim above our heads.  It took our breath away: the gentle beauty, the ease, the enormity, the flow, the quiet purpose, yes, the seamlessness of it all. Which brings me to a realization: that aquaria are starting to be our image of the ocean - that we see more of them than of the actual ocean; that while these gorgeous environments entreat us to do all we can to preserve the ocean, they also allow us to forget its actual demise a little. Reading Bennett and LaTour has made me increasingly excruciatingly aware of the categories and boundaries that have been set up and (more importantly) of the work that these do to perpetuate our primacy (which is not (always) a good thing - wait, is it ever a good thing?).  We categorize nature As Such and make it a place apart, while in lived reality, we are utterly enmeshed in it. To quote Graham Harman on Tim Morton's blog: "Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized."  At the same time, there is an aesthetic (oh no, not that word again!) to Nature As A Place Apart, that of natural history (there's a great term) museums, and museums in general (perhaps Art "in general" is the entire idea of "a place apart) that I wouldn't want to give up. I don't think that any of the people I'm reading for the ecocriticism class are calling for the end of aquaria or museums, but they have become increasingly strange places to me, symptomatic of our will to make nature an aesthetic rather than, say, a politics, or even at times, a reality.  The challenge is to understand all of this within living my life; the other is to make this gripping for students. In the absence of subjectivity, they have a really hard time staying interested. And I know that one of the aims of ecocriticism is to provide nature with a subjectivity (that is not anthropomorphic) that we can all more interactively engage in - but it's still a challenge.

All of this is somehow related in my mind to the latest development here at home. Two days ago, Iris announced that she wanted to be a boy. She came downstairs, having raided Oliver's closet, wearing a shirt and tie, dress pants, and "boy shoes."  When that is too formal, she has taken to wearing the clip-on tie with a t-shirt. She has asked that we now call her "Edgar." I dug a little, and it turns out that these biographies that she's been reading have had a powerful effect on her. Iris has discovered three things this summer: the parenthesis, the phrase "physically impossible," and biographies.  She absolutely adores this genre - gripping narrative, but all facts (she resisted my attempts to get her hooked on historical fiction because she couldn't tell "where the facts end and the fiction begins" - !!!).  BUT, the genre of biography, I now realize, is all about people who break the mold, who change things, who rethink categories.  So in reading a lot of women's biographies (Helen Keller, Rosa Parks, Amelia Earhart), she has been reading a lot about the historical expectations of women (to stay home, squelch intellectual ambition, and (and I can't believe that this is the phrase seared in my little girl's mind), "worry about their complexion.") And she is balking.  My entreaties that today, women have more agency in defining what it means to be a woman aren't convincing her, although she concedes the point that there are women engineers and women doctors.  Oliver and Eleanor have offered the greatest resistance to Iris's project - they miss her as a girl, they've said, and want her back (remember, it's only been two days). Nothing doing.  Eleanor was the first one to give in, and I took this picture of she and "Edgar" getting married. Yes, it gets weird. And it also makes me wonder if this isn't about Iris missing her dad.  One could over-interpret.  I'll confess to missing Iris as a girl as well. She has been clear, though, that this is a project - she knows that she will have to use the girls' bathroom come the fall (interesting sex-gender realization there), and she has said that her attempt to play with cars "proved embarrassing" (I'm quoting her precisely because these comments have been so vivid to me).  She will try again today.  What is she playing with, my darling girl? My dear child.  I could say that she is testing the boundaries of her gender, but in some ways, with the tie and all, it seems as though she is reifying them. Perhaps it happens simultaneously, or in some kind of continuum of testing and reification, as she makes sense of her self, her "nature."  Or maybe this is about her thinking ahead: yesterday in the car, as Oliver and Eleanor were begging her to go back to being a girl (and their trust in the absolute nature of her decision is dear to me, too) and using the "girls only having babies was a long time ago" argument, Iris said "Well, just in case things go back to the way they were, I'll be ready if I'm a boy."  Progressives, take note: keep the wheels of social progress turning!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Mr. Saint

Seeking treasure in my purse upon Saint Patrick's Day this spring, Iris found this Kewpie Doll, which I had been keeping as a talisman of wonderful medieval possibilities.  She immediately named it Mr. Saint, in honor of the propitious day on which he was found, and the doll became the children's collective imaginary, not-so-imaginary friend.  He gets in total trouble. He wreaks havoc. He dies in unbelievable ways (his daily bath in dishwashing liquid in especially treacherous).  And he travels with us everywhere we go.  That this tiny Kewpie Doll has not been lost in a house where I can't find my giant batch of keys most mornings is a testament to how they love him, and amazing.  It made his sudden appearance (compliments of Oliver) in the first picture that I was taking of the Parthenon in Nashville a delight.  Which was only fitting because the Parthenon in Nashville is AWESOME!

Just look at it!  It's to scale and everything!!!  This will make Mac, who has a thing for scale, really happy (Mac, whose e-mail are telling tales of an entirely different scale).  Built for the 1897 Exposition hosted by Nashville for the purpose of housing the Fine Arts pavilion, it's the only monument they kept from the Exposition.  At the time, it was bedecked with light bulbs, which were the hot new things, and it shone brightly in the night in competition with the lit pyramid next to it.  The pediments are there, as are the metopes, but I'd love to know the decisions to not do the frieze - too many naked Athenians? Too dang difficult?

The 40'+ statue of Athena holding Nike, on the other hand, was a go!!!  Eleanor's the tiny little thing in a too-short dress from last summer (I now realize looking at the picture), while Athena towers above her.  Where the ancient Athenians used plates of ivory and gold on a wooden structure, modern Nashvillians used plaster and paint.  The effect is still tremendous and the steady stream of people coming up the stairs exclaiming their wonder was great to behold.  First, because there was a steady stream of people (this is not an abandoned building), and second, because it reminded me of the effect of the Sainte Chapelle and could prompt some musings about the universal affect of awe, and scale and size, and wonder in general.

But our beloved Donna awaits for a great day together, so I will just end with a delighted Iris having found a plaster cast of her namesake, Iris the goddess of the rainbow, from the west pediment. She was truly awed, my already plucky little girl, by the size and power of this goddess on the go.  In some ways, there is no less likely place for a first feminist moment (if that's what this rush to gladness in self-determination was), in others, what a great place to start!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Nostalgia for Aliens

We are safely ensconced in a posh hotel room in downtown Nashville, TN, awaiting the Parthenon (!!!) and my dearest Donna tomorrow. God but I love a road trip - we left in the mid-afternoon and headed straight south.  I don't know this landscape at all (these are not the mountains which we take to head east to North Carolina), but the ride was heavily imprinted by my viewing of the movie Super 8 last night. A movie about loving movies and turning the most banal landscape (pretty banal landscape coming down here) into a vibrant fantasy.. by loving movies.  Preteens make a zombie movie using their Super 8 camera, and the director makes an alien movie using whatever they're using today (lots of great explosions).  The marketing for this film was way too savvy to pass up.

I shot this with a (free) iPhone app called (yes) "Super 8" - it makes all of the Super 8 film noises and inserts the clicks and whirs and skips of the Super 8.  And it look like I shot it in 1978.  What is it about the aesthetic of nostalgia that made me nostalgic for all childhoods watching this movie?  Was Super 8 that shared of a technology that its look inspires such a generalized nostalgia?  And what of kids who didn't know Super 8? I asked Oliver what he thought of it, and he said "Something tells me it looks old."  What exactly is that something? Beyond the clicks and whirs. Or is this like the brushstrokes showing themselves somehow?

The alien was nostalgic, too: an ode to the best and scariest of the 1960s monsters.  A physically brutal monster with unfathomably sophisticated intelligence - a monster who does honor to Jeffrey Cohen's Monster Theory - a Grendel for our time (although Grendel was more cunning than smart, I think, which may be an interesting distinction). The Confrontation Scene between our hero and the alien humanized the alien, and they did this beautiful thing with his eyes, which went from slits of fury to limpid orbs of compassion - really quite remarkable. And heralding the moment of the monster's humanity.  Inevitably, I have to wonder if there was nostalgia for aliens in the Middle Ages - if there was ever a hankering for monsters of yore, the "really good ones" that knew a good scare.  Like the primitive, nostalgia is often discussed as a product and a possibility unique to modernity.  But LaTour has me wondering otherwise - not transcendentally (heaven forbid), but otherwise.

Bruno LaTour's We Have Never Been Modern (which I Should Have Read Long Ago) does indeed weigh heavily here.  He takes us in between the elaborate worlds of Nature and Society, but also between Past and Present (or Modern or Future - it multiplies out).  We received our first detailed message from MAC today and reveled in the details: the Qawwali performance, the rickshaw ride through Chandi Chawk market, his striking out on his own tomorrow (with reluctant permission from the faculty-in-charge) to go to a museum (see what a bother art historians are?).  The sculpture galleries are closed, he learned, thereby proving that the art historian's curse (of galleries being closed) is a universal transcendental.  I'm starting to feel the awe I thought I might in realizing that Mac is really in India, really in its midst.  The wonderful student I am working with this summer is from  Calcutta (which, unfortunately Mac won't be visiting), so we are busy surmising all sorts of things about Nature and Society, Past and Modern in the streets of Delhi.  The mishmash of it all is great.  For now, everything defies categorizations, one of my favorite side effects of travels, whether to the South or to India.  Another day has already begun for Mac on this most assuredly swiftly tilting planet.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


This will be just a short pause to revel in contrasts. I don't expect to hear from Mac as his itinerary is absolutely full (art historians are utterly brutal and heartless travel companions and want to see absolutely every stash of visual culture and mass of architecture so, really, there's no use thinking he'll ever be sitting still) (seriously, think twice before traveling with an art historian), so this blog becomes as much a place for him to check in on the different planet that is Indiana from India as much as anything else.  What a difference a "-na" makes.  After we dropped off Mac at the airport, we went to the Costco in what is clearly a hoarding response I had to being apart from him for three weeks. Iris insisted we get a 10kg bag of basmati rice, as the letters "Product of India" were prominently emblazoned upon the burlap and "I'll be using it in a play that needs three weeks of rehearsals."  Promising.  We then left the city again to plunge back into our countryside, this time to go to the farm for to pick up our meat of lamb.  There should be more trepidation and hand-wringing about this whole endeavor, and I feel ideological taking the children to meet their meat, but not only is this another post (how to teach ecocritical medieval art without being preachy about environmentalism - although what's wrong with that, it has to be done, although does this work? etc. etc. you see where the hand-wringing could go), but it was also such a gorgeous outing and there were pigs to pet, and cattle of a Swiss breed, and a loving dog, and radishes freshly dug from the earth, that it was much preferable to just enjoy ourselves and quietly censor my newly gained academic knowledge of uses of animal carcasses in medieval London (Yeomans, 2007).  Eleanor did give me great pause when she turned her little summery face up to mine and, squeezing on my hand just a little but betraying no emotion in her face, asked "Are we here to kill it, Mommy?"  Oliver and Iris recoiled, already old enough to know that that's an impossibility in our meat-consumer world, that though you may see the place of origin of the meat you don't actually see it being killed. But Eleanor was young enough to be honestly curious.  No, the lambs are killed elsewhere and processed there.  We were just at the farm where they are raised and live, as we saw, happy free range social lives. Which, yes, is the knowledge with which I prefer that my family eat their meat. There is much soul-searching to be done here, I know, between the sensual pleasure of preparing a dinner featuring lamb for my family, and the difficulty of writing about the pastoral disconnect between farm visit and slaughter-house.  I don't quite know where to start. All I have to honor the animal with is my deep pleasure in eating it. Is that any kind of ethics?  And why is aesthetic pleasure so often understood in opposition to good ethical behavior? I suspect a prim Protestantism at play there, but don't know how to undo it.  Does my family's pleasure at eating lamb warrant its slaughter? Aesthetics (the appreciation of the beauty of the experience) says yes, ethics (in which one would never cause another creature harm for one's pleasure) says no.  And so what do I do with the honesty that aesthetics wins out hands down for me on this one?  Maybe Mac will have answers upon his return from India's generally (but dwindling, I hear) vegetarian culture.  Meanwhile, I will keep on hesitating to conclude anything about pleasure and slaughter (although don't you want to invite Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to the table and talk about the slaughter-pleasure principles of the hunts and the kisses?).

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Romance of Alexander
Today the landscape shifts again, with Mac leaving for India, to return in a little over three weeks time.  It's good to think of his fine mind, his beautiful compassionate thinking, and a curiosity that so often leads him to that most telling detail.  We can't even begin to imagine the experiences he will come home with, or how he will share them: stories? objects? images?  The salient model for travels to India in medieval culture was Alexander, borne on ships buoyed by colonial fantasies of a land with two harvests, gems bubbling up from a willing earth, and animals glad to cure you of any ills.  There will be frequent references to Gautier de Châtillon's Alexandreis and The Travels of sir John  Mandeville in the following weeks, as the kids and I impose our own fantasies of Mac's travels on the northern parts of India where he'll be.  That, and references to cricket which, thanks to the Hindustan Times app I've just downloaded for my iPhone (free!) - let the sticky wickets swing wild! 

Monday, June 13, 2011


Arma Christ. Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris
In the 10 minutes before I need to start gathering the kids from their play dates, I think that I can put into words why writing has eluded me of late. I've wanted to everyday, but the balance of navel gazing and horizon scanning has been thrown askew, and I can no longer oscillate happily between the two.  My beautiful friend started the first of four weeks of chemotherapy today, and the cancer is rare (thus the incredibly arduous regimen of chemo) and we don't know and yes we have a GoogleDoc all set up to go get groceries and help out but we all feel helpless, but she's amazing and so we're just going to have to try.  My mom's depression is very severe these days-  it's been building up over the entire spring but it's quite sad and bad now and I don't know how to write about it and yet it's there each and every day.  Everything else (not that I'm compartmentalizing - or maybe that's the problem?) is great but all over the place: the kids here and there and everywhere (and one realizes just how much social energy is absorbed by simply going to school; actually, I realize that for myself as well); the summer fellowship research on ecocriticism and nature and medieval art (think of Eden and the Apocalypse as the ultimate in climate change!) is moving forward and we are reading and talking about Jane Bennett and Bruno LaTour, and animals and cosmologies and all of that is coming together slowly (as it should, plus the course isn't until 2012-13 in any case); fiction has made a reappearance (The Chosen by Chaim Potok, and Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell, and now On Beauty by Zadie Smith); and while I have not established a writing momentum for either the Chaucer or the Orientalism paper, I am researching and starting to think about a timeline for both.  I keep reading about collapsing categories and paradoxes, but life right now looks more like a series of suspended wholes, like those Arma Christi (the weapons used against Christ) in the Book of Hours page above. I could write about each and every one of those weapons, and on different days different entities of my life would be that large Wound of Christ at the bottom of the page - but I can't seem to get started.  When I want to write about things medieval (even the smallest cool discovery), the thrill pales in comparison to the enormity of my friend's struggle, to the indecipherability of my mom's depression, to the general fragmentation of things large and small.  I actually don't want to collapse any boundaries: my friend's cancer has nothing to do with my mom's depression and there's something insulting about conjoining them at all (so I'll stop).  So, how to live with suspended fragments, becomes the question.  I spoke with a friend yesterday about writing, and we agreed to talk about writing (smile) and to try to take seriously for an hour the fact that we miss it so very much, and that it does do something, even when there's nothing to be done.  The image above is an ode to suspended animation - I don't want to live the summer that way, but I need to keep thinking about this new landscape of suspended fragments, the love and worry that conjoins them, and the realities that keep them separate.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Happy Birthday, Oliver

These ten days between Eleanor's birthday and Oliver's are always the craziest: turning grades in, saying good-bye to students, graduation, cleaning out the office, oh and there's a wedding anniversary in there somewhere.  This summer, we're flying solo without the help of childcare (mostly splitting days, but there'll be a sitter when Mac is in India), and the long stretches at home remind me of that waiting time before Oliver was born.  There had been a miscarriage the year before, a sad summer, but this was a truly happy one: Mac had just gotten the job at DePauw, everything was lush, and we lived in this ranch house that was cool and orderly.  And then he was there: tiny, blond, wide-eyed. He hardly cried when he was born, just looked and looked all around him as we passed him back and forth, rolled up in his tiny seraphim swaddling.  I felt as though I knew Oliver immediately. He is glad and open and eternally optimistic. His buoyancy is fettered but undeterred by structure and I've come to count on his joy.  We brought him home, he slept, we marveled.  He paved the way for his sisters, duping us into thinking it was all really easy.  And even now, being with Oliver is a sense of home, a very sure comfort: of origins of a mother self, of first summers of play, of new knowledges. He reads, and imagines, and talks, and daydreams and daydreams and daydreams, and considers, and loves a good ethical dilemma.  When he talks to a friend, he is completely theirs, ready with that smile and that eagerness.  He still rushes to me when I pick him up from school, and I am so glad.  I love you, my bear.