On the TBX Forum, I was asked a question about the rubric I built a few years ago. I don’t use it anymore because I built it to grade in a style I don’t like or believe in. (Which was dumb on my part.) But I suggested I might make a video showing what I’m planning on using this coming term.
This seemed possible because I was thinking through how to cope with the fact that a lot of the brief in-person feedback I give throughout a term will, this term, necessarily happen online and in writing. What I imagined doing was sitting down to put my new system together and just recording what I did as I worked. When I was done, I expected I’d be able to cut out the lulls and moments of despair and post what was left.
The result I arrived at are the two new videos I’m posting today. Together they record me beginning with a fresh starter file and from there creating a form for offering quick feedback on small assignments that exports as a custom text layout. My total work time was about an hour and a half, but I’ve managed to cut that down to two twenty minute videos.
These will be the last videos for awhile: Day One looms, and the pressure is on.
It’s the time of year where I’m preparing courses for the Fall, and this year, I decided that I would make some videos demonstrating some of how I use Tinderbox to do that work. Two of these are now live. I’m hoping to make and post a few others in the coming days and weeks.
These videos are something I’ve imagined doing in a vague way for awhile and so they have been a long time coming. But in another sense, these videos are very much a product of the pandemic.
Classes are online for the Fall, and this has both increased the complexity of my preparations and forced me to do much more of them before classes begin. There seems to be so much to do and so little time to do it that it feels overwhelming. Making these videos offered me a chance to step back from that work and reflect on how I was getting started.
One important point: these videos are not instructional “how to” clips. Instead, they are a couple of brief looks at a few of the ways I go about my business.
Today’s tomatoes watch in horror as yesterday’s tomatoes become sauce.
- There is too much to do. So do what you see how to do. As you work, you’ll see how to do other things.
- You’re working with roots, not leaves. The leaves are what’s stressful, they’re what you see, but they aren’t the real matter: push them aside and follow the stem, and where it touches the ground, feel around, grab the other stems rising up from the same point and pull, gently, until they come free roots and all.
- There is no wasted effort. If you are getting in the car to go run errands, but see a young weed without deep roots right there in arms reach and you have the few seconds it takes, reach down and pull it out. Things are now better than they were.
- There’s a lot of stuff “to do” but mostly you just need to let things be. Water. Sun. Composted manure. Some basic maintenance to keep the bad actors away. That and time is all the garden needs. So help out and then let it be.
- The Beav likes potatoes. I tried three sorts. But I didn’t hill them in time and they laid down. This doesn’t seem to bother them. I haven’t weeded enough and the grass is thick between the plants. This also doesn’t seem to bother them. Potato bugs have descended and I’ve tried to pull them off, have caught a lot of them in the first wave as they were mating, but I think I’ve lost this battle. They are going to be thick on the plants for the rest of summer whatever I do. (Because I won’t do chemical pesticide.) But this is okay. I’ve now seen how potatoes work and they are working fine this year despite the grass and bugs — they are tall and densely colored. When I plant next year’s potatoes next year, because I’ll plant them again, I’ll know better what to watch out for. So this year has been more than worthwhile.
Two young boys grow up together in Cleveland as best friends. One is dealing with the trauma of family members’ deaths. The other with an awakening gay sexuality. They smoke pot & drop acid (it’s the 70s) and have sweet, young sex.
The boys, now young men, reunite in New York after spending the early years of their adulthood apart. One has gone to school, come out, and become a journalist. He lives with his new best friend. The other has apprenticed as a baker, opened a restaurant that failed, and has come to New York to start over. They live exciting lives until the baker and the roommate began to have sex. The gay man flees.
The gay man’s father dies and the three go to the funeral. Back in New York they decide to form a family and buy a house in the country. They raise their child as three parents. Eventually they take in the gay man’s former lover who is dying of AIDS. The roommate leaves with their child, disappears. The two friends stay at the home together caring for the dying man. The book ends with the three of them standing naked in the freezing water of a lake under the beautiful sky.
I loved this book.
“Heterosexuality sucks, even as a board game.”Gregg Araki, Totally F***ed Up
Reading the Exogenesis series (Dawn, Adulthood Rites, Imago) I made a non-exhaustive list of themes running through Octavia Butler’s novels.
- Empathy, feeling what others feel, suffering through what you do to them in your own body.
- Valorization of sexual pleasure, bisexuality, polygamy.
- Privileging group, social unit over the individual without subsuming individuality or individual freedom; there’s no binary.
- The ongoing threat of slavery, the ongoing threat of racism, especially the dangers presented by white people and white men, dangers that are entrenched enough to appear innate, biological.
- The evolutionary threat (and dead end) posed by patriarchal masculinity, a dead-end that is named explicitly in the narration and played out explicitly in the narrative.
- Inquisitive, intelligent, and empathetic (but always rational) women are the protagonists after the first Seed to Harvest novel.
When I made this list, I’d read (but not necessarily logged) the Exogenesis series, Fledgling, and the Seed to Harvest series.
But now at this point, I’ve read everything Butler’s published except a bit of the short fiction. I’m not sure though what to write about what I’ve read.
Butler’s fiction is alarmingly topical and the clarity of her prose is simply overwhelming: it’s difficult to imagine how someone writes her sentences and then uses them to muster the narrative energy she brings to bear novel after novel. What I see clearly is that she makes structural choices vis-à-vis narration and point-of-view that enable a fluency and a diction that are spare and beautiful.
My take-away is that Butler is an extraordinarily talented and smart novelist.
I’ve realized too late that it would have been cool to keep the Government’s various info sheets as they were released as a reminder of how restrictions changed over time for when the slow stages have congealed into a simpler memory of the “the Troubles.” Alas, I didn’t think of it in time.
In the spirit of “better late than never,” here’s what a late-stage guidelines info sheet looks like.
Rien n’est plus tenace que la déformation professionnelle.Jean Cocteau, Orphée
The troubles move at their own times. There are waves of infection. There are also waves of reaction. They don’t however move together the way I’d expected. The virus continues its steady march but what we feel is mostly about what we’ve been feeling. The facts seem to have little to do with it.
Here things are opening up bit-by-slow-bit and seem to be under control. Yet my own reactions, while rooted here in Quebec, are also tied up in my worries about the situation in Florida and Georgia which (as I feared) is spiraling out of control.
Emotionally, this is a bit like standing with one foot on a dock and the other on a loose boat. It’s not the bit of stable ground that matters.
Few fates are wholly disagreeable. If they were, we might do a better job of evading them.Michael Cunningham, A Home at the End of the World (Alice)
Today’s thought: Ink Master and RuPaul’s Drag Race are, despite surface differences, the same show about the same subject. They should be watched together, side-by-side, one episode of one, then one episode of the other.
We readily acknowledge in others an advantage in courage, in bodily strength, in experience, in agility, in beauty; but an advantage in judgment we yield to no one.Michel de Montaigne, “Of Presumption”
This fantasy novella recounts a gay, interracial, intercultural love story. Two young men — one the son of a low-ranking aristocrat, the other a soldier accompanying an imperial delegation — secretly begin a sexual relationship and fall in love over the course of eleven days. The story is set in a place where gay men are impaled alive and left on display. So when the two are found out by the aristocratic youth’s older brother, he is held captive by his family until the soldier leaves to return home.
The story of this brief relationship is told in alternating sections with the story of the young aristocrat’s later life as the husband of the king’s daughter, a life in which he seems to have chosen to live in hiding by passing as a straight man. However by the book’s end, it is revealed that the technologically advanced geneticists worshipped as “gods” have, as a favor to his wife, erased his memory of the eleven-day love affair. In other words, the man has not passed; he has been trapped in self-ignorance and been made incapable of discovering the reason for the sadness and loss he feels throughout his life.
Combined these two stories are pretty bleak: the beautiful moments seem designed to set off the cruelty and ugliness of the surrounding culture. This is of course a political effect, and point taken. Homophobia sucks, especially for people born in a place dominated by its most overt and violent forms.
However, this clarity is thrown into chaos by the novella’s completely unexpected final pages. There, in a surprise twist of the sort I always dislike, the curtain is pulled back, revealing that nothing except the first ten days of the men’s relationship is true. What actually happened, is that at the end of that day, the two men fled to safety together. In the decades since, they have lived in what amounts to a loving marriage that includes family. The terrible homophobic story we’ve read, is just a vision of an alternate life, a “what if” offered up by a magical/advanced-tech being who is responding to a question posed by the curious and no-longer-young aristocrat.
This feels like a cheat. If the tragedy of the protagonist’s life isn’t real, why wallow in its ugliness rather than showing me the happier world he built with his lover? Erasing the cruelties of a terrible world with the narrative equivalent of “Surprise! Just kidding!” seems dismissive of the very real resonances between this fantasy’s horrors and the real world of some readers.
But perhaps, that’s me being dogmatic. And in the days that followed, I did see how if you’re a geeky queer kid reading the book from inside a situation that looks like the world of the young aristocrat, it might be liberating to discover after a long gaze in the book/mirror that this/your world is just “an alternative.” And perhaps focusing on the bleak world and leaving the geeky kid to imagine what a alternative might look like is empowering. Or at least, I can see how this might have been the case for me if I’d read this book in my early teens when I was dreaming (for reasons I couldn’t quite understand) of someday living in Atlanta or New York.
Whatever the case, the flipping narrative makes this book a complicated piece of writing that I have trouble deciding what to do with. Theoretically that complication is a good thing, but in practice and given this story’s chosen stakes, it doesn’t sit well with me.
UPDATE: or maybe the audience is non-queer fantasy fans, giving them a picture of how crummy the traditional world can look to the queer kids they live with (even if they don’t know they live with them)? In which case, that final twist shows that things can be different, that there are alternatives, and that maybe they could help makes changes?
Philippe Besson’s short novel tells of two young men in a small village on the French border with Spain who begin a sexual relationship in the winter before they graduate from high school. They are frank with each other and beautifully open and generous, yet everything occurs in secrecy. It is 1984, AIDS looms, and this is the countryside. Still, both are, in the private spaces they make for themselves, happy.
Graduation arrives, and Thomas understands that his lover, Philippe, will soon go away to school and begin a life elsewhere. So to avoid heartbreak, he flees to Spain to toil on a family farm without saying goodbye.
In 2007, Philippe, now a writer, sees a man in a cafe, thinks he is Thomas, then realizes he must be Thomas’s son. They speak, and the son tells him of Thomas’s adult life as a married man. Nine years later, Philippe and Thomas’s son meet again, and this time Philippe learns of Thomas’s divorce and his relationship with a new lover, a relationship that fails because, as he had with Philippe, Thomas demands it be kept a secret. He also learns that Thomas has committed suicide and receives a letter, written by Thomas in 1984 but never sent, that he appears to have left where it would be found and delivered to Philippe after his death. The final words of the novel are the words of this letter.
The novel presents itself as an autobiographical fiction: the photograph on the cover of French edition is the photograph Philippe takes of Thomas the last time the boys see each other; the dedication is to “Thomas Andrieu (1966-2016)”; and the novel takes pains to include the exchange in which Philippe asks for and is granted permission to tell his and Thomas’s story. In these and myriad other ways, the novel insists “This is true, it happened.”
The story is not, however, idiosyncratic, and the boys’ story of a first gay love is a familiar one. I’ve lived it and reading through this account of their stumbling successes and bright failures, I heard myself sounding back the tune from my own memories. But reading it, I also heard the external echos of all the many accumulated movies, stories, TV shows and novels that have today recounted that same experience as affirmative, popular fictions. From them, I know how this story should go. And yet I also know that, for the story to go as it should, the boys and the men they eventually become would need more self-assurance and more support than I ever had when I was living through similar events. And they don’t have it. So what I know from my past life and what I know from my past reading butt against each other, the one never quite matching the other. This happened enough as I read to make the popular fictions I love begin to ring false, or as a wish.
By the time the men’s story reaches its tragic finale, the tension between what happened and what I knew I should wish for framed my sadness. I came away from the last pages thinking, “the book should have done this” or “the characters should have done that.” Eventually though, these frustrations fell away and I saw that, yes, these characters — these people — probably should have done things differently. But also and more importantly, they should have been allowed to do things differently. They weren’t, and my frustrations with that fact aren’t about the book or how it’s written. They are about the world.
So I come away from the book seeing that my sadness had become — because the book has made it so — a measure of the gap that still remains between the way things are for young queer people and the way we tell ourselves that they are (or will soon become) in our fictions. The gap is real.
I can easily maintain an opinion but not choose one.Michel de Montaigne, “Of Presumption”
WordPress is the equivalent of the vegan’s morning egg taken from the nest of the chickens roaming freely in the backyard. A small step toward change.