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Archive for October, 2012

It seemed like a legitimate question:  “Did the punishment fit the crime?”

My A.P. Literature class had just finished reading Oedipus the King, and I wanted to know if my students thought it was fair that poor Oedipus, after he has just blinded himself, is not only kicked out of his kingdom but is condemned forevermore as the guy who inadvertently killed his father and married his mother.  (Cue Daniel Powter: “So you had a bad day…”)

That was my intention, at least; as is often the case, though, my students took the discussion into areas I hadn’t expected.

The issue, it seemed, involved these pesky terms “punishment” and “crime.”  I had thought the punishment for Oedipus was his one-two punch of exiled-then-reviled.  And his crime? Believing he could somehow defy the gods by outrunning his fate.  (The Greeks called it hubris—overweening pride—and it’s the ruin of several Greek characters.  And by “several,” I mean all of them!)

The students, though, had different ways of interpreting my “punishment fitting the crime” question.  Some thought Oedipus’s “crime” was the fact that he killed his father and married his mother.  But then others wondered if those actions could really be classified as “criminal” considering he didn’t have a choice; he was fated to do those unspeakable things.  He couldn’t do anything to avoid these acts—and, in fact, his very attempts to avoid his fate only caused him to fulfill it.

So maybe, these students reasoned, the whole “father-killing/ mother-marrying” thing was not the crime but the punishment.  But if so, still others asked, what was Oedipus being punished for?  After all, he was fated to commit those acts before he was even born.  What did he do to deserve such a punishment?

And who says being an English teacher isn’t cool?

Anyway… as part of this discussion, I shared with some other examples of “crimes” and “punishments” in Greek mythology, listed below.  Since these can be pretty scary stories—complete with spiders and wild dogs and folks getting flayed alive—they seemed appropriate for a Halloween post.  So read on, and then decide whether these criminals got what they deserved:

Characters Who Are Punished for Their Pride:

ARACHNEpublic domain image

  • Vital Stats: Young lady who is quite the talented weaver
  • Crime:  Hey, Arachne, did you just announce you’re a better weaver than even Athena herself?  Oh, no, you didn’t! Because now Athena is going to challenge you to a “weave-off”!  The thing is, Arachne could have won the contest, because she creates a beautiful tapestry; unfortunately, on this tapestry, she depicts all sorts of rotten things that gods and goddesses have done to mortals.   See, some people just can’t weave well enough alone. (Uh, I mean “leave.”)
  • Punishment:  Athena hits Arachne on the head repeatedly and then turns her into a spider.
  • Aftermath: Arachne lends her name to arachnophobia, the fear of spiders— as well as a pretty swell horror flick from 1990 (starring Jeff Daniels and John Goodman).

MARSYAS

  • Vital Stats: Satyr (half-man/ half-goat)
  • Crime:  One day, Marsyas happens upon a double-headed flute (known as an aulos) and starts playing it.  He creates such beautiful music that he eventually attracts the attention of the god of music himself, Apollo—whom he then challenges to a contest.  (Apparently, he didn’t get the memo about Arachne…)  Apollo agrees and gets his friends the Muses to act as judges; the Muses declare Apollo the winner. (Gee, didn’t see that coming!)
  • Punishment:  Apollo flays Marsyas alive and nails his sliced-off skin to a tree.  (Ewwwww…)
  • Aftermath: The blood that flowed from his skinless body formed the waterway that bears his name, the Marsyas River.

sunPHAETHON

  • Vital Stats:  Teenage son of Helios, the sun-god—although he never knew this while he was growing up. When his mother Clymene finally reveals his father’s identity to him, Phaethon seeks an audience with Helios, who confirms the story; moreover, Helios promises to give his son anything he asks for, as proof that he is indeed his father.  And that leads us to the…
  • Crime:  Phaethon asks to drive the chariot of the sun for a day.  Helios tries to talk him out of it, saying not even Zeus could control the fire-breathing horses, but Phaethon insists. Ultimately, Phaethon takes the reigns of the chariot, but can’t control it.  (Cut him some slack: this is the SUN, after all. It’s not like he asked if he could take out dad’s Honda Accord…)
  • Punishment:  As he watches the sun dip and soar wildly across the skies, Zeus shoots Phaethon down with a thunderbolt, killing him.
  • Aftermath:   According to the myth, the deserts of Africa resulted from Phaethon flying too close to the ground, thus scorching the earth.

Characters Who Are Punished for Someone Else’s Pride:

CHILDREN OF NIOBE

  • Vital Stats: fourteen children (seven boys, seven girls) of a really, REALLY proud mom
  • Crime:  The kingdom of Thebes has a ceremony to honor a woman named Leto.  A miffed Niobe says she didn’t understand the purpose of the ceremony and brags she’s superior to this Leto person; after all, Niobe reasons, she has fourteen children, and Leto only has two.   Niobe, however, seemingly forgets one small detail: that Leto’s two children are the god Apollo and and his twin sister Artemis.
  • Punishment: Artemis, armed with her trusty arrows, kills all of Niobe’s daughters; Apollo likewise kills all of her sons.  To top it all off, her grief-stricken husband Amphion then kills himself.  (“So you had a bad day…”)
  • Aftermath:  A devastated Niobe flees from Thebes to Mt. Sipylus.  She can’t stop crying, so Zeus turns her into a stone.  But even then, she won’t stop shedding tears—a convenient explanation for a rock formation in Turkey known as the “Weeping Rock,” due to the fact that rainwater seems to pour out of it.  (Man, those Greeks have a story for everything, don’t they?)

PIERIDES

  • Vital Stats: the nine daughters of King Pierus of Macedonia
  • Crime: King Pierus—who apparently was absent the day they taught Greek mythology in middle school—sees nothing wrong with boasting that his nine daughters are equal in beauty and talent to the nine Muses.   Naturally, dear ol’ dad challenges the Muses to a contest which would allow his daughters to show off their artistic abilities.
  • Punishment: Same old story: daughters lose and get turned into magpies.

Character Who Is Punished Because He Happens Upon a Goddess Taking a Bath in the Middle of the Woods:

ACTAEON

  • Vital Stats:  Mild-mannered hunter
  • Crime: One day, while out hunting with his dogs, Actaeon stumbles upon the goddess Artemis, bathing in a pool.  He pauses for a moment, but a moment too long.
  • Punishment:  Realizing this mortal saw her naked, Artemis turns Actaeon into a stag.  At once, Actaeon’s own hunting dogs, seeing this animal before them, attack.  The hounds tear their former master apart.

Looking at this motley assortment, I’d have to say Actaeon had it the worst.  Hands down.  First of all, his punishment is just vicious… and what did he really do wrong?  He was just moseying through the woods, and he just so happened to find a naked lady.  He wasn’t up in a tree with a pair of binoculars, spying on her; it was an accident.  Hey, Artemis, here’s a thought:  if you don’t want men to see you nude, don’t go bathing in public places!

Plus, poor Actaeon doesn’t even get a consolation prize.  You’d half-expect the story to end with something like, “But Hera, feeling pity on Actaeon, turned him into a patch low-growing moss.”  I mean, the guy got ripped to shreds by his own hounds; at least make him into a constellation or something.

How about the rest of you?  What are your favorite “crime and punishment” stories from mythology or other stories?  Post your comments below…

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A close friend called last week with the news: his wife had a baby.  Except it was someone else’s baby.

How’s that for a hook?  Relax.  His wife was a surrogate, for her close friend.  Can you imagine?  Surrendering your body to someone else for nine months?  An extraordinary act of selflessness… and, at the same time, a rather ordinary act of best-friend-ness.  After all, best friends do tend to do those extraordinary things for one another, don’t they?

We love to read and write about the sustaining and transformative power of friendships, so we thought we’d use this week’s space to outline some of our favorite BFFs (i.e. Best Friends Forever) in fiction.  Here’s but a sampling:

Han Solo and Chewbacca, the Star Wars Saga:  The sweetest duo in the entire franchise (even nudging out Jabba the Hutt and Bib Fortuna) and one that, for my money, is best encapsulated in a small scene from The Han Solo and Chewbacca
Empire Strikes Back
:  night has fallen on Hoth, and the Rebels have to close the shield doors to their base, leaving Han and Luke outside in the sub-zero temperatures.  And as the doors slam shut, Chewie lets out a wail—of pain, of fear that he’s never going to see his best friend again.  Ultimately, Han and the Wookiee’s friendship reinforces a simple truth: you can go from one side of this galaxy to the other, but just don’t do it solo.

George and Lennie, Of Mice and Men:  In the span of a brief novella, Steinbeck created what may be the most tender portrait of friendship between two males in all of American literature—and since their story ends with one friend shooting the other in the back of the head, that’s saying something. (But George loved Lennie!  It was a mercy killing, to save him from an even more gruesome fate.  I swear!)

Anne and Diana, Anne of Green Gables: Orphaned Anne Shirley longs for “a bosom friend–an intimate friend, you know–a really kindred spirit to whom I can confide my inmost soul.” And she finds that in neighbor Diana Barry.  Their instant connection beautifully depicts how deep and strong female friendships can be. Anne’s spirited imagination and penchant for trouble is tempered by Diana’s gentleness and loyalty.  Anyone who’s ever had a girlhood best friend knows how much this young duo resonates.

samwise gamgee frodo bagginsFrodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee, Lord of the Rings movie trilogy (2001-2003): When Frodo declares, “I’m going to Mordor alone,” Sam immediately answers, “Of course you are, and I’m going with you!”  Perhaps the only thing more inspiring than Frodo’s quest to save the world is Sam’s refusal to leave his side while he does it: “I made a promise, Mr. Frodo. A promise. ‘Don’t you leave him, Samwise Gamgee.’ And I don’t mean to. I don’t mean to.” In perhaps the best moment from Return of the King, Frodo collapses at the foot of Mount Doom, while Sam cradles his friend in his arms, unable to hold back his tears.  Determined to end his friend’s suffering and be rid of the ring forever, Sam’s voice rises with conviction: “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you!”

Leslie Knope and Ann Perkins, Parks and Recreation: We dare you to find a better portrayal of female friendship on TV.  Unlike so many gal pals that are characterized by competition over men and subtle attempts to tear each other down… it’s easy to see how much Leslie and Ann love and admire each other.  Their friendship is real.  They are loyal and supportive, they fight, they make up.  They care about the quality of their friendship. In Leslie’s own words: “Ho’s before bros. Uteruses before duderuses. Ovaries before brovaries.”

Forrest Gump and Bubba Blue, Forrest Gump:  Sure, Forrest had Lt. Dan and Jenny. (Heck, he and Jenny were “like peas and carrots.”)  But Bubba was Forrest’s “best good friend”—the one he risked his life to try to save in Vietnam and the one whose dreams he kept alive by buying his own shrimping boat.  And as with all important friendships, by helping Bubba, Forrest helps himself:  his dedication to Bubba’s memory is what put him on his path to become a millionaire, as the founder of that “house-hold name” brand, Bubba-Gump Shrimp Company.  Naturally, Forrest put Bubba’s name first.

John Wheelwright and Owen Meany, A Prayer for Owen Meany:  As the book’s climax suggests, these two were literally destined to be friends.   And Owen will do anything to protect John, including cutting off John’s forefinger—to keep him from getting drafted into the Vietnam War.  (Before he lowers the saw blade, Owen tells John, in his uniquely wrecked voice, “I LOVE YOU.  NOTHING BAD IS GOING TO HAPPEN TO YOU—I PROMISE.”)  Not even the fact that Owen hits the foul ball that kills John’s mom can ruin this friendship; in many ways, it cements it.

Mike and Trent, Swingers:  The Romeo and Mercutio of 90’s cinema, with Jon Favreau’s Mikey as the lovelorn sad-sack and Vince Vaughn’s Trent as the fun-loving, “personality-plus” party-guy.   The best thing about this relationship is Trent’s total devotion to his friend: in virtually every scene, his only goal is to make sure Mikey has a good time.  Sure, he’s a bit of a swaggering misogynist, but when it comes to friendship, Trent Walker is money.

 

OK… now that you’ve read our thoughts on the best friendships in fiction, let’s hear from you.  Which BFF’s are your favorites?  Whom did we leave out?  Use the comment section to give us your suggestions.  Popular pairings will be featured in an upcoming blog post!

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“The goal of matching is twofold: to provide the healthiest possible future citizens for our Society and to provide the best chances for interested citizens to experience successful family life.  It is of the utmost importance to the Society that the matches be as optimal as possible.”
(Matched by Ally Condie)

 My summer reading included a book that combined a bunch of my favorite things:  young adult fiction, dystopian societies, science fiction, romance, and really great writing.  In Matched, Allie Condie imagines a world in which the Society makes all choices for its citizens in order to guarantee a happy and healthy life.  Luck is replaced by probability, everything works according to statistics and predictions, and the ultimate goal is to provide “optimal results” for its citizens.  This is no more evident than in the Matching process.

Protagonist Cassia Reyes is thrilled to be matched with her childhood friend until she sees another face flash for a split second on her Matching screen.  And this face is also someone she knows.  As Cassia struggles to figure out what this means, she slowly discovers the one thing that’s missing from her perfect society… choice.

Things I loved about Matched:

Strong female lead.  Cassia Reyes is a smart, strong girl to be admired and emulated.  In Matched, you don’t see much action from her… no flying arrows or vampire battles.  Her strength comes from a much deeper place.  I enjoyed seeing her blossoming desire to embrace independent thought and become the author of her own life.  Even as she deals with her romantic feelings for two different boys, she does not lose herself.  Reflecting on her journey, Cassia says, “Then, the question I asked myself was: Do I look pretty? Now the question I ask is: Do I look strong?  As I look at my eyes and the set of my jaw, it seems to me that the answer is yes.”  I would have no hesitations holding Cassia up as an example to my teenage nieces.

Romance.  For such a stark, dystopian tale, the building love story between Cassia and Ky was sweet and swoon-worthy.  In fact, the pragmatic goals of the Society’s matching process provide a great contrast to the exhilarating yet confusing maelstrom of young love.  Now, I must confess that I absolutely hate love triangles, and I worried that this would be another Team X vs. Team Y novel designed to incite young readers into an almost violent defense of their chosen couple.  A quick Internet search revealed that there are definitely Team Xander and Team Ky factions out there, but as for me, I was pleasantly surprised at how this triangle played out.  Xander is a terrific character in his own right, and at no time are the characters pitted against each other for fabricated drama.  In fact, the two boys represent two very important aspects of Cassia’s character, “the desire to be safe, and the desire to know.”  Well done, Ms. Condie!

Theme of creation.   As Ky shares his drawings with Cassia and teaches her the lost art of handwriting, she observes, “This is the difference between us.  I live to sort; he knows how to create.”  One thing I loved about this book is how Condie makes the case for the importance of the arts, using “forbidden” poems by Dylan Thomas and Alfred Lord Tennyson as a major driver of the plot.  In a society where no one is allowed to be an individual, poetry and art represent the act of creation… of choice… of authorship.  More than just the desire to choose her own husband, this fundamental right to choose and create is what Cassia is fighting for.

Beautiful language.  As Jason Mraz says it best: “See I’m all about them words.”  As the wife of an English teacher, it was obvious to me that this story was written by another English teacher.  In the best possible way.  Condie’s love of words for their pure beauty and power is apparent throughout the story.  As Cassia says about the scraps of Ky’s story that he shares with her: “I did not expect to love his words.  I did not expect to find myself in them.”  Ah yes… great writing can do that!  The language Condie uses is beautiful but simple.  At times, it almost reads like poetry:  “When I open it up, there are words inside.  Gorgeous words.  Cursive words.  They were beautiful up on the green hill with the sound of the wind in trees and they are beautiful here in my gray-and-blue kitchen with the grumbling of the incinerator in the background. Dark, curling, swirling words curve across the brown paper.”

Requisite nod to Greek mythology.  I love Greek myths and Condie included a cool retelling of the Sisyphus myth in Matched, so she earns bonus points from me!

Great cliffhanger.  When I turned the final page of Matched, I ran right out to the bookstore to buy the sequel, Crossed.  I am now anxiously awaiting the trilogy’s conclusion, Reached.  Ally Condie’s fans are participating in a re-read of the first two books of the trilogy to prepare for the release of Reached in November.

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Here’s a little secret about high school English teachers: we don’t read.

That’s not at all true, actually.  We read all the time.  We read student essays and the books we’re teaching.  But pleasure reading?  Hard to fit it in. Maybe I shouldn’t speak for all English teachers. I know I, personally, have a hard time setting aside blocks of time during the week for pleasure reading.  I try to read before I go to bed, but as soon as my head hits the pillow, I’m usually good for maybe three paragraphs, tops, before I drift off. Then the next night, I have to re-read those same paragraphs, just to remind myself what was happening.  (I’ve been on pages 7 and 8 of One Hundred Years of Solitude for about ten nights now.  Not kidding.)

But I try to make up for it during the summer, and this particular summer, I went on a tear.  I read three books (four if you count Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which I finished on Father’s Day).  Here are the books, in order of completion, and my thoughts about them:

* Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins: I’ve been on the Hunger Games bandwagon from the beginning.  OK, that’s not true: maybe I just sort of snuck onto the bandwagon mid-trip while it was pulled over for a bathroom break.  But I really was teaching it in school in late 2009-early 2010, so I feel I knew about the original Hunger Games before a lot of people.  Still, I was a little lax in reading the next two books in the series, so I designated this summer as “Catching Fire Catch-Up.”  Did I enjoy second book as much as the original Hunger Games?  Probably not.   But I liked how Collins added new characters (Finnick is a great addition) and increased the stakes.  And since it’s the Part 2 in the trilogy, I appreciated how she ended the action on an Empire Strikes Back-esque down note.

* The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls:  I’m sort of cheating here, since reading this memoir was technically work; I’m teaching this to my ninth-graders this year.  But I’m still calling this “pleasure reading” because… well, because it pleased me. I’m not saying I found the content of the book particularly pleasurable; truly, this book is as far from lollipops and rainbows as you can get.  Instead, Glass Castle details the tumultuous childhood of author Jeannette Walls, whose parents, while not exactly abusive, were not Carol and Mike Brady, either.  The dad, Rex, was this brilliant guy with big dreams; unfortunately, he never worked toward those dreams… or toward anything, really.  As a result, the family never had any money, which meant they were always moving (Rex called it “doing the skedaddle”) from one ramshackle house to the next.  He was also a raging alcoholic who had quite the hefty chip on his shoulder when it came to people in authority. And yet, Rex looks like a Model of Responsible Parenting next to the mom, who may just be one of the most selfish characters you’re going to find in any book, real or fictional. She fancied herself an artist, but the only art she ever really mastered was the ability to ignore the needs of her children.

Somehow, Jeannette Walls is still able to write about her parents lovingly—or, at least, without too much judgment.  In fact, the author even acknowledges how her unorthodox upbringing taught her valuable life lessons.  For example, early on in the book, Walls recounts how, as a child, she wanted to nurse a dilapidated Joshua tree back to life, but the mom didn’t let her.  “You’d be destroying what makes it special,” she said. “It’s the Joshua tree’s struggle that gives it its beauty.” Bottom line: I absolutely adored this book.

* The Schwa Was Here, Neal Schusterman:  I picked this book out to read aloud to my twin sons, who are now in seventh grade.  (They had to read three books this summer, so my wife came up with this arrangement: they would each read two books on their own, and then we would read one together.)

I didn’t know what this book was when I took it out of the library, but I knew what it wasn’t—i.e. not one of the “post-apocalyptic teenagers forced to compete to save their community” books, the kind that  now crowd bookshelves in the wake of the Hunger Games.  No, The Schwa Was Here struck me a quirky, entertaining yarn with equal parts laughs and heart.   And that’s exactly what it was.

The titular “Schwa” is an eight-grader named Calvin Schwa, whom no one ever seems to notice; even his best friend Antsy has to remind himself that he actually exists.   That sounds glum, I know, and I guess at his core, the “functionally invisible” Schwa is a tragic character.  But author Schusterman crams his tale with enough witty turns-of-phrase and general wackiness (for example, a character owns fourteen dogs named after the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit) that it gets seems too heavy.

An unusual assortment of books for a 42-year-old man, eh?  Then again, my mom always said, while defending my younger brother’s love of comic books, that it doesn’t matter what you read, as long as you’re reading.  And I guess the same is true for English teachers.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get to page nine of One Hundred Years of Solitude

Leave us a comment letting us know what YOU read this summer.

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My First Time…

In June Mark and I attended the Summer Reading Kick-Off at our local library.  A friend came rushing over to us to say, “My wife and I just discovered this great new show we’ve been watching on Netflix… It’s called Lost.”  My response was one of disbelief.  “Are you kidding me? Lost has been off the air for two years!  Where were you when the rest of the world was watching it?”  He shrugged his shoulders, his enthusiasm undimmed.  “Well… it’s new to me.”

It got me thinking about that night in September 2004, when I joined 18.6 million viewers in watching the series premiere of Lost.  My memories were still so vivid.  The close-up shot of Jack Shepherd’s eye opening in the jungle.  The camera panning across a pristine beach to reveal the burning wreckage of the fuselage.  The sounds of screaming castaways combined with the haunting beauty of the musical score.  I remember meeting all the characters, wondering what their significance would be as it was hinted that everyone had something to hide.  The two-part pilot hurtled along breathlessly to its conclusion, in which a small group of castaways discovered a distress call that had been playing in an endless loop for sixteen years.  The camera zoomed in on each character’s horrified reaction as Charlie uttered the final words of dialogue, “Guys, where are we?”

My reaction: This. Is. Awesome.

I teased my friend for being so hopelessly behind the times, but I also felt just a little bit envious.  He was experiencing all this for the first time.  The mystery.  The drama.  The suspense.  All the magic that earned Lost the #10 spot in Entertainment Weekly’s “25 Best Cult TV Shows from the Past 25 Years.”  Of course, my friend would soon realize what it meant to be a fan of Lost.  Barely explained hatches, smoke monsters, time portals, and mythical twins would have him riding the rollercoaster of adoration, frustration, and self-loathing that had me calling out “I wish I could quit you!” like Jack Twist in Brokeback Mountain.  But for now, he was in the first flush of discovery.  That hard-to-explain feeling you get when you read or watch a story and you realize: nothing could be better than this.

Can you remember some of your “first time” experiences?  How did you feel the first time you read Catcher in the Rye or The Hunger Games?  Do you remember the excitement of watching the New Directions sing “Don’t Stop Believin’” in the pilot episode of Glee?  How about the first time you heard Ned Stark warn, “Winter is coming” in Game of Thrones?  I’ve read over a thousand books in my lifetime and a vast number of them are long forgotten.  (Some books you forget almost as soon as you finish the last page!)  Looking back on my childhood, I will never forget the first time I read Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game.  The sense of breathless excitement as the pieces of the puzzle began to fit together, and I realized how brilliantly the story was crafted.  I’ll never forget reading The Witch of Blackbird Pond, and the fluttering feeling that invaded my stomach when Nat showed up at the courthouse to rescue Kit from being branded a witch.  Sigh.  Who could imagine a courthouse in 1680’s colonial New England could produce the greatest love story my 12-year-old mind had ever experienced?  Thirty years later, I am still forever seeking that thrill of romance in every story I read or watch.

I’ve read both of these books dozens of times since then, but I’ll never be able to recreate the experience of the first time.  When your heart is pounding and you’re devouring every word on the page, dying to know what happens next.  It’s why I continue reading, watching TV, and going out to the movies.  You never know when it will hit you.  When the story ends and you are left with one overwhelming feeling: This. Is. Awesome.

Leave a comment and share with us some of your “first time” experiences!

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