Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Not Not Rambling

New favorite concept – double negatives.

                  How do you think that meeting went? Well, it was not not a train wreck.

                  What do you think of Romney getting the GOP nod? Well, he’s not not
                  bumbling, out of touch conservative who doesn’t even deserve to share the
                  debate stage with our president.

Sadly, in many cases I’ve misjudged others’ grasp of what I wrongly assumed was obvious sarcasm (not even sarcasm, really. Just grammatically incorrect honesty).  Responses usually go something like this: Wow, I didn’t know you were a Republican! That’s followed by my awkward attempt to back out of the hole I’ve dug for myself (as if I need any help making a situation awkward). So, as it turns out, double negatives are not an extremely useful comedic weapon. Nevertheless, it warms my heart to be thanked by someone after I tell him he’s not not stupid.  

Reading The Color Purple by Alice Walker (very well-known in the Afro-American canon and Pulitzer Prize winner in 1982). Needed to deviate from English literature (so I can welcome it back with open arms in 2 months time). Amazing that a reader can love a book without having any desire to enter into the world of the book. We all want to live at Hogwarts, so Harry Potter has an obvious draw, but what about novels set in some repulsive society where very little good ever happens? What does it say about us that we escape our own worlds to peek into other, less desirable ones? Shows compassion, open-mindedness and a genuine interest in humanity at the very least. And perhaps – in some small way – a sense of dissatisfaction, or probably just some sense of insecurity, with our own lives.  I know your shaking your head, but hear me out. I’m not saying that anyone in his or her right mind would trade places with Celie (I won’t horrify you with the gritty details, but take my word for it - she has been dealt one of the worst hands of anyone in American literature. No one envies her).  But maybe sometimes we need a reminder of our own good fortunes, even if a consciously grateful thought doesn’t cross our minds while we’re reading. 

I don’t close my book each night and think “thank God” – er, not literally of course, but let's go with it just for the sake of this point – “thank God my sister is safe and sound in our home right now, unlike the female characters in this book.”  But it registers somewhere in my subconscious that by pure luck I wound up in an entirely different and better situation than Celie. Somewhere in the depths of my brain I’m thinking… wow, how truly awful that this happened to someone (even a fictional someone). But equally, how amazing that not only have I never encountered this, but I am so far removed from it that I can only begin to understand it by reading about it in a book. It's a kind of "aha" moment for the subconscious, right? This may be a stretch, but I'm going to venture to assert that these subconscious "aha" moments inform our daily lives. Kindness for the homeless man on the street, trying to "walk a mile" in your boyfriend's / parent's / manager's shoes instead of becoming frustrated with them, etc. If we're not reading, when do we otherwise have the opportunity to meet and understand such an array of people from all walks of life? Living in the East Village, I've probably got a better chance than most people, but even I have never met the likes of Celie or Heathcliff or Fagin. And if we can fully accept them into our lives and hearts, then who can we not find common ground with?   

Thursday, May 10, 2012

I Look About Me, and Make A Discovery

This summer, London will make history. The city will be witness to an historic event centuries in the making; a momentous time that will be forever remembered as one of celebration, triumph and nostalgia. That event, as we all know, is Charles Dickens's 200th birthday.

Long after Sketches by Boz, Dickens still haunts the streets of London, or perhaps just London as I see it. Dickensian London in its most literal sense didn't ever exist. It's over-crowded, gritty, fast-paced and often overwhelming. The streets are mean, pungent and disease-ridden. Smoke pervades every public and private space and some underlying sense of gloom hangs in the air. The fictional city is a caricature of what London might have actually been in the 19th century.

[Quick side note: Dickens himself was quite dramatic. He nearly died from conducting dramatic readings of his works long after his health had failed him. He was also paid to write as many words as possible, so although he may have really believed that he needed five pages to convince us that  Thomas Traddles's hair stuck straight up into the air (I've no doubt that it did), he did have another incentive to be verbose].

London is a key component of any Dickens novel - as worthy and important as a main character. But the city serves as a backdrop to a more profound commentary on the strength of the human will. London (as a character) is a foil to the likes of David Copperfield, Oliver Twist and Pip. The desperation and hopelessness of the city highlights the goodness and determination of not only Dickens's leading characters, but of any underdog, of any seemingly hopeless case, of anyone at all whom the world has written off. His novels champion those who value kindness and compassion. The modest, loyal, honest protagonist with a moral compass inevitably prevails, due partly to his own actions, but partly to Dickens's faith in mankind - do good by others and you will be rewarded. And not because of a belief in any religion or higher power but due to an ultimate faith in humanity and society, despite their failings.

Dickens's works were published in weekly or monthly installments in magazines to allow anyone to purchase the reading with the little money he had leftover after paying bills and buying food for the family. The pages were meant to be read aloud to family members by candlelight or near the fireplace - perhaps on a Sunday evening. He wrote for the sailors, teachers, farmers, tailors, watch makers and street sweepers of England; for the hard-working (regardless of class); for the mothers and fathers and orphans and friends; for anyone who makes the world beautiful by demonstrating kindness, strength and faith. This is why a Dickens novel is timeless and reads as though it were written yesterday. And this is why I choose to see London, and the rest of the world, as Dickens did.

To my kind friend who encouraged me to write - I've given it my best effort, despite how unworthy and ill-suited I am to the task.