Living

Freezing Childhood (with pictures–not Snow Queen-Style)

I was chatting with my friend recently, and she admitted she had over 10,000 pictures of her children.  That is phenomenal, but I suspect not too uncommon today.  I was also chatting on social media about a song by Darius Rucker, “It Won’t Be Like This For Long,” which always makes me sad and a little annoyed that it comments on the phases of childhood like tough times to get through, rather than stages of development and moments we’ll never have again. But in an age where every moment is documented, the passing of these phases seems gentler.
My parents grew up in different circumstances.  My dad was a city kid, the only child of a professional—a bookkeeper (we’d call him an accountant today, I suppose.)  My mom was raised in a series of small towns in Indiana and Ohio, one of seven children.
There are a good number of pictures of my dad, many professionally taken, as a baby, as a young boy, fewer as an adolescent, but then lots when he went off to college and had his own camera. Of my mom, there are fewer–very few formal ones. Lots of kids and few professional photographers make for scarce opportunities. This would have been the 1940s.
A generation before, there are even fewer photos, of course. A generation before that, nothing.  My generation was the one with film.  My dad took lots of pictures of us growing up, and we had slide shows like people watch movies now, as a family, laughing at the funny ones.
Today, though, kids’ lives are hyper-documented.  At last count, I believe we had a bazillion and four pictures of our two kids.  We got a digital camera in 2000, when our first child was a baby.  That changed everything.  My dad tried hard to take good shots because you had to pay to develop every single one. Today, we just shoot and shoot and shoot and shoot.  I actually took 75 pictures of my son in his first Halloween costume.  My husband took some more.  (He was a pea pod, and every one of them was justified.)
But what is the effect of this proliferation of images?  I think we look at childhood differently. It’s true, “it won’t be like this for long,” but we’ll remember it better than ever before.  What must it have been like not to have any photographic evidence of the adorableness of your baby?  On the one hand, it might make one want to slow it down and enjoy it.  On the other hand, it might collapse early childhood in your head to that time when they were cute but not useful, versus the time when they were still young but could start helping out.
We know that the experience of childhood has changed over the centuries—maybe more in the 20th century than ever before. Childhood has been essentially invented in this period—protected with child labor laws, and imagined and cherished in children’s literature, until we have a pretty crystalline idea of a time that should be special and savored. I just wonder if having photographic evidence of those moments isn’t the biggest catalyst for this change.
Teaching

The Once and Future Course

When I started my job, there was only one medieval course on the books: Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. I was to be the only medievalist, and in fact, even more than that. My job description was technically “Medieval and Renaissance Non-Dramatic Literature,” which meant that we had two Shakespeareans, but I could have Spenser. So in my first few years, I designed courses that fit my interests and Cal Poly’s needs. The Epic. Myth as Literature. Arthurian Romance.
Now that we’re shifting from quarters (which has the advantage of more, if shorter, classes), I find myself facing down my last King Arthur class. Poor Arthur didn’t make the cut to conversion. That’s a hazard at a school with only one medievalist—there are a number of courses that no one teaches but me, and if I’m teaching fewer courses, well….
This makes me pretty sad, but I’ve had a good run.  King Arthur is a subject, a whole field, really, that doesn’t get old. It’s an incredibly productive mythos in Western literature.  From 9th century histories to this summer’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, it’s still alive and well in our imaginations, and for good reason.

It starts with magic—with Merlin helping the impassioned King Uther in to another man’s bed, in a move that curries favor and power, but banks it.  Merlin is patient and can wait for Arthur to grow up. In the middle, there’s the rise of Arthur and the Round Table, from his pulling the sword from the stone, to the establishment of his court of champions, all the iconic episodes of which have been told and retold. Perhaps the peak is the unifying (but ruinous for Camelot) Quest for the Holy Grail. And finally, the fall of Camelot, set in motion by the love affair of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere.
You can see why it’s productive.  It’s bloody brilliant, really. First, the life of Arthur is mythically heroic. I mean he fits the model of so many heroes in world literature, with his supernatural birth, his noble roots but obscure upbringing, and so many other mythic traits.  He is an epic hero in the truest sense.
And then he establishes a court. Several of his knights have their own iconic adventures—Gawain with the Green Knight, Percival and the Grail, Tristan and his tragic love for Iseut.  From a marketing standpoint alone, that’s gold.  Arthur has 150 knights.  Their tales could go on forever.
And the Grail thing.  Just think how productive that has been. We use it as a generic magical object now; it’s the Kleenex of questing objects. It was also a quest that united all the court—everyone went. But not everyone came back, and only a few got close to achieving it. A quest like that is like the Expendables franchise—a greatest hits roster, made for fans who will go nuts to see them all together.
And the love story of Lancelot and Guinevere. We don’t even need Arthur anymore. He’s just the center of the circle, holding the tales together. His knights and now even his wife have moved on, but they’d have been nothing without him.

As I teach this course one last time, I’ll focus on that center of gravity that Arthur represents.  And who knows, maybe one day in the future, I’ll work him back in to the curriculum.

Living

What I Did Over Summer Vacation

Not a lot, honestly.

That’s not true—just not what I had in mind to do. I had great plans for a sabbatical project and some travel and a last hurrah of a summer before my institution converts from a quarter system to a semester system next year, and we go back to school in mid-August, rather than late September.

I did do some writing. I did do some reading. But everything else went haywire.
My mother passed away in April. It was a long time coming, and I expected it, I think, every day for the last six years or so, except the day it happened. I have been dreading phone calls for years, especially from anything looking medical, but for some reason, this time when I picked up the phone, it was the farthest thing from my mind. I actually was thinking, “Oh, it must be time for a quarterly review.”
“Hello, Ms. Baker. This is ______.  I’m calling to inform you of your mother’s death.”
First of all, who says that? Shouldn’t she ask me to sit down, or say she has some bad news? Eesh. I did sit down. Abruptly. The breath I let out was a sigh and a moan and a balloon fluttering around in my chest.
No. Not now. Not like this. When my father passed away, I was a thousand miles away, and I got the call that if I wanted to say goodbye, I should come right down. I couldn’t, of course, but they tried. Where was that call this time, when I was twenty minutes away?
This time it was over in a moment. Years of anguish, as she battled Paranoid Schizophrenia, winning some days–losing ground, most days. After years in her convalescent hospital, after more than a year on hospice, and after being completely blind and not particularly noticing, she had only clothes and a few stuffed animals in her possession. I donated them to the convalescent hospital. They didn’t even need me to come down.
All there was left to do was wait for the death certificates and the cremains, both of which would be mailed. “Thank you. Have a nice day. Very sorry for your loss.”

I have been responsible for my parents for the last ten years. Dad had dementia and passed away a year and a half before Mom. Because I had been mourning them for so long, I thought it wouldn’t hit me so hard. It didn’t hit. It sucked.
It sucked the life out of me–all my energy, all my emotion. I couldn’t think or feel or cry or yell. I watched more tv this summer than I have in the last ten years. And those things I said I’d do—I forgot what they were. All my plans involved thinking, and I just didn’t have thinking in me.
I read novels. I watched Netflix. I filled my head with other stories, until I was ready to tell my own. I’m ready now. And being ready to tell my story means I’m ready to work again. I’m ready for the fall quarter. I’m a chapter away from that book being done. I’m taking a fiction writing workshop and looking for an agent.
There are stories to be told about my mom now, and I’ve started spinning some out for my kids. That will continue, now that it makes my heart swell, rather than deflates me, to talk about her, now that she is an exhalation, a soul free in the ether. Deep breaths, deep breaths. Life flows on.
Living

Self-Portrait as Self-Knowledge

My family and I recently saw an exhibition of Edvard Munch’s work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.  You know Munch, even if you’re not an art lover.  He painted The Scream, which you’ve seen parodied so many ways you might not even recognize the original.  In case it doesn’t leap immediately to your mind’s eye, I present something like the original on a tee shirt, and two parodies to jog your memory.

So that guy.  I always thought he was so dark and creepy, I didn’t really like him. I am quite a sunshiny optimist, really. But an exhibition is a funny thing—it presents a scope of a person’s life like a biography or a long night of storytelling—and by the time I left, I was a hardcore Munch fan.

The first thing I saw was a room full of self-portraits, which was brilliant on the curator’s part, because there’s nothing so personal and public at the same time as a self-portrait. Several of them at once create a flow of time, of stages in a life, in a way that makes one feel like you’ve known this guy forever. You have a sense of who this guy was. He was young; he was middle-aged; he grew old.

Once you’ve seen the artist through his own eyes, you’re ready to see the rest. What the portraits taught me was how he became the creator of The Scream. There were paintings of sick beds (he lost his sister and mother to tuberculosis when he was young) and paintings of houses with lurid skies. You could feel them almost as much as you could see them. The blurbs telling us of his traumatic loss and battles with mental and physical illnesses were almost superfluous.

I came away from this experience thinking my assessment of Munch as dark and creepy had been woefully hasty and superficial. Instead, I was struck by the fact that he was just a man, struggling to live his life like anyone else. I felt his humanity. In the fishbowl of an exhibition, surrounded by images of Munch’s difficult life, I was deeply moved by his fervor to document it—to strip it down to its raw, real elements, and convey them to others. And I got it, man. I felt. Sometimes it was horrible; sometimes it was heartbreaking, but he kept painting. There is heroism in that.
And in the struggle to tell his story, there was intense beauty we can all experience and identify with. In his pile of self-portraits, there was an urgency to figure himself out. We all struggle with knowing who we are and who we want to become (witness all the thousands of internet quizzes that promise to tell us which Muppet or Middle-Earth race we most closesly resemble); Munch was just really persistent in trying.


That seems a worthwhile goal, though—figuring ourselves out. Whether we paint or write or psychoanalyze ourselves, knowing is better than not knowing ourselves. It’s worth it to take stock of where we are and where we’ve been, so we can determine where we want to go next. And after this closer look at Munch’s work, part of me will wonder at every stage, how would I paint this in to my self-portrait? 

(In addition to my panoply of Screams, I collect here Self-Portrait with Cigarette 1895, Self-Portrait After the Spanish Flu 1909, Self-Portrait with Bottles 1938, and Self-Portrait Between the Clock and the Bed 1938.)