1. North Korean Prison Camps

    I’ve heard about the political prisoner camps in North Korea, and I have the novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, on my always expanding reading wishlist. However, today Nick sent me a tweet from the journalist, John Dickerson, that has taken my concern about these camps to a whole new level. In many ways we are all helpless to do much for these people, but we CAN educate ourselves and we CAN demand that our politicians put this on our country’s foreign affairs agenda.

    The following are links to more news and information, and after that, the text from the emails I just sent my Senators and Congressman.

    http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=50136263n

    http://freekorea.us

    http://www.hrnk.org

    "News of North Korea’s third testing of a nuclear weapon this week has brought increased attention to other ways that country is violating international human rights laws through its maintenance of horrific prison camps. Just today I saw drawings from one of the few inmates to have escaped from these camps, and I have been shaken to the core by what I have seen. 

    Seventy years ago when word began to spread of what the Nazis were doing to Jews and other prisoners in their concentration camps, the United States and other European nations were largely silent despite the accumulating evidence that these concentration camps were in actuality death camps. Unfortunately, too many chose to ignore the truth for too long. It was only after the fact, when our own strategic interests were directly implicated, that we took seriously the plight of the Nazi concentration camp prisoners. We continue to bear the guilt of our inaction. If today’s allegations about the human rights situation in North Korea are true, then the crimes being committed there are as horrific as any committed by the Nazis, and require immediate action to end them by any and all who have the means to do so.

    I request that you immediately call upon the United States government to investigate these allegations, and if they are found credible, I ask that you demand for our government to take immediate steps to end these camps including re-listing North Korea a terrorist nation, and more importantly, pressuring the Chinese government to do anything and everything to close the camps and free the prisoners. 

    I understand these matters are complicated. I am not naive about the enormity of this request, however the continued existence of the North Korean prison camps and our unwillingness to yield whatever power we have to free these people is a stain on our collective conscious that soils whatever hopes we have as civilization, and turns our solemn promise to “never again” idly witness the monstrosity of another Auschwitz into nothing but a pretty lie.”

     
  2. Waiting

    The official arrival date for my first child approaches. She’s due March 4, which in reality means she could join us any day now. Until then, it’s a waiting game.

    It’s a strange and wondrous time. There are only a handful of events in the totality of your life when you can pinpoint to the exact moment a before and an after when everything irrevocably changes. I remember nearly every day I spent with my dad and sisters on our road trip to Washington, DC for my college drop-off. I remember the trees and hills of Tennessee passing by, the chain restaurants of the outer suburbs of the city that looked so much like the ones at home except that they were separated by a thousand miles. I remember the snarky comments my youngest sister had for the drivers in DC, she was 10 and a stream of comedy ran from her mouth, filling my life at home with laughter. To say that I was excited about starting college would be an enormous understatement. I longed to get out of my father’s house; though I loved him, I was ready for more independence. I couldn’t wait for my college classes, the ideas, the challenge. I was a nerd and I wanted to be surrounded by new intellectual adventures. I also longed to leave Oklahoma, to enter the world itself and DC seemed the perfect place for my wanderlust. Despite my anticipation for the start of college, that road trip with my family was unexpectedly lovely. I had the future just before me, but I also still had the comforting (if often irritating) intimacy of my family. As I joined the orientation team on the lawn at my new “home,” I was almost breathless with excitement to meet these first new people — would any of them become friends? But I also remember in a way that brings tears to my eyes to this very day the image of my family unceremoniously walking away. I forced myself to look away before becoming undone. I knew that as they receded from view, so too did an entire chapter of my life.

    The next time I experienced a moment like this I was almost twice as old. I was living in Japan, fulfilling a lifelong dream of living for an extended period of time in another country. Although it meant being separated from my boyfriend (who became my fiancé during this period), it was a happy year of exploring, thinking, writing, making new friends, and living entirely according to the dictates of my own whims. Yet as that year came to a close I eagerly looked forward to my fast-approaching wedding. I would arrive back in the United States, to a new city where my fiancé had relocated himself and all our things, and I would be married a month later. From the most independent time of my life I would become someone partnered to another in all the big and small ways. That last week in Japan was a mixture of sadness for all the things I was leaving behind — a city I loved, friends, an eccentric schedule perfectly suited to my own rhythms, the adventure of being immersed in a different culture and language, but I was also filled with sheer joy at the prospect of starting a new life with someone I love and trust in ways that I can’t describe. I felt perfectly balanced on the happiness of the past and the happiness of the future.

    And now here I am waiting for the arrival of a baby girl into my life. In a few days, maybe even hours, I’m going to be someone’s mother. I’ve always wanted children and have no doubts about our decision to start a family of our own, but on the other hand it’s overwhelming to think about the vast undertaking of parenthood and know that all the things I can’t even begin to anticipate outweigh my expectations exponentially. Everyone keeps asking whether she’s here yet, aren’t I excited, can I hardly wait? And honestly, I feel okay about waiting this thing out. It’s certain to happen, so in the meantime I can appreciate these last few days when my own needs and desires occupy the majority of my attention. This time around I feel perfectly balanced between terror and excitement. I look forward to expanding my capacity for love, for learning new things about myself, my husband, the world itself, but I know this comes with a lot of responsibility and a lot of worry.

    So at this moment I don’t feel the need for rushing. I’m moving slow, taking it easy, and enjoying life as it is. But with that said: don’t make me wait too long, little girl.

     
  3. Reading Club Post #1

    My friend, Grey, and I are starting the new year with a small book club. And when I say small, I mean small: it’s a book club of two. Of course, perhaps it will become more than that through this blog, but I like the idea that Grey and I are responsible to each other as we dig into our readings a little bit.

    Our first reading was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Good Squad. The book has received a lot of critical attention. In 2010 it won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction and in 2011 it won the Pulitzer. Apparently it’s currently being adapted as a mini-series for HBO. Goon Squad has also made the professional book club rounds: it was read by both Slate’s Audio Book Club and The New Yorker’s Book Club Blog. Here it is written up in The New York Times and here is Egan discussing the book after winning the Pulitzer on PBS Newshour. Finally, if you’re interested, I would recommend reading this review by a British academic that appeared in The Guardian, which to my mind offers the best commentary on the novel.

    Most of these reviews focus on the question of time, and particularly how the short stories weave back and forth chronologically to reveal that time doesn’t have good things in store for its unsuspecting victims / heroes. These critical reviews of the novel correspond to one of the character’s reference to time as a “goon squad.” According to this interpretation, time squashes the dreams of our youth and gets us all in the end. Or something like that.

    I’m not sure I agree with this take on the novel. In fact, I’m not sold on the title at all.

    One the strength’s of A Visit from the Goon Squad's is the way it moves back and forth in time, neither forward or backward, just kind of skipping along and between various characters who may or may not know one another at some other point in the novel's trajectory. For example, perhaps we've already seen a character in middle-age before being introduced to him / her earlier in our reading through another twist of the narrative kaleidoscope as a youth. Each of the chapters feels like a discreet moment in time, but also one that is connected to all these other moments, if only by a single thread. It's rather ingenious really. From my reading of the novel, the characters aren't necessarily filled with youthful innocence, in fact many of them are troubled adolescents, already world-weary before they've hardly begun. This rings true in a way that the wide-eyed wonder of fictionalized youth does not. As we bounce around in time some of these characters fall into the very traps they saw coming, some of them avoid the traps they were focused on but fall into others, and then some fall and land in a place they could have never expected that we could call contentment or happiness.

    For me, the most iconic figure of the novel is not the goon squad, but rather the sculptural art made out of trash and left-over scraps that one of the central characters ends up building in her less rocky and more contented second stage of adulthood. Her daughter writes about this art in a chapter designed as a series of powerpoint slides: “Her sculptures fall apart, which is ‘part of the process’” (242). Falling apart is most definitely part of the process for these characters, a process mirrored in the novel’s very structure. Seen this way it appears to me that the novel itself has been reconstructed out of pieces of another novel whose sections came loose from their original binding and were then put back together in the order they fell. We can imagine there are entire sections that never made it back into the whole, much as many of these characters don’t find peace within the frame of the book’s pages. To sum up the book as one where time is a goon, coming to get you and everyone else, seems to miss the point. The lives that make up the story, like the art that emerges from the remainders and scraps, are not foolish for their impermanence. Rather, they are pieces of riddles made significant only in the act of looking at them again in their state of disrepair, from which the invisible thread of their connection to the whole can be seen again in a different light. Indeed, perhaps it’s not even the sculptural heaps of trash that hold the essential nexus of meaning, but only the act itself of reconstructing that matters at all.  

     
  4. New Year’s Wish

    I know there are New Year’s resolutions, and this year I’ve noticed that it’s been popular to name them “intentions.” But what about wishes? Am I getting this confused with birthdays?

    In any case, I have one to share. 

    I’ve been thinking about this past year, particularly how different things are right this moment at the start of 2012 than the beginning of 2011. One year ago I was readjusting expectations and working through the grieving process after a 12th week miscarriage that occurred on Dec 30, 2010. Just as it had started to seem real that we would be welcoming a baby into our home and hearts in July, that expectation was painfully altered. Then, only a week or so later I got the news that one of my best friends from law school — Justin Jay — had died very suddenly from bacterial meningitis. Needless to say loss was very much on my mind.

    Now at the start of 2012 every glance into the mirror reminds me of the life budding inside me. Not only does my bulging belly give away the tell-tale presence of our baby-to-be (who will arrive in eight or so weeks), as she fills what little space is left I feel her kicking and moving about. Every so often she punches out and kicks at the same time, and her life hits my body like a seismic event. Soon Nick and I will be holding the baby we dreamed of in our arms.

    Of course, nothing can make the loss of Justin disappear. However, in the aftermath of his sudden, shocking death I’ve reconnected with several of our mutual friends. I’ve even had the opportunity to see a couple of them more than once, and I feel his presence in the abiding intimacy of these friendships. I’ve reached out to other old friends, too, and it felt long overdue and right.

    As life hit hard at the start of 2011, then moved along, it seems to me there was one powerful life lesson: in order to endure we need the patience to wait out the really bad moments and the wisdom to savor every single moment of joy — no matter how small or large — as fully as we possibly can.

    You can call it a resolution, an intention, or a wish, but in 2012 I hope to hold this lesson close.

     
  5. Siri, you complete me.

    After a long hiatus from the blog, I’m back. Please don’t think that I’ve not had any errant musings to share. Well, there was that dark time during my first trimester when I pretty much had no other thought except that I really really loved my bed. Now I find myself so backed up with trivial ramblings that I have no idea where to start. 

    In honor of my husband, who I have actually referred to as Data before, I’ll re-inaugurate the blog with an ode to technology. I have an iPhone. Generally, I love it. But there is one thing I cannot stand and that is typing on it. I’ve never considered my fingers particularly chubby, but apparently the iPhone disagrees with me. Since I am an aspiring college professor I can’t simply leave the nonsense that gets typed initially and move on, thus I spend an inordinate amount of time spellchecking, retyping, and swearing.

    Enter the iPhone 4S and a little program called Siri. Essentially the voice-activated program acts as your personal assistant and will do all kinds of things for you like a pocket-sized Hal. Well, let’s hope she’s not all that much like Hal. With Siri I may never have to type on my iPhone again, or at least I’ll only have to do so very minimally. When I need to ask my husband when he’s coming home, I’ll just tell Siri to text him. When I need to look up the year “Midnight Cowboy” was released and who that actor was that played the guy who wanted to be a gigolo, and then fall into the Wikipedia rat hole by following the clicks through to his famous daughter and end up somehow at the United Nations via a history of anorexia, I’ll save a lot of typing time by getting Siri to do it for me. I figure I can increase my extraneous information download by at least 15%.

    But Siri’s “Reminders” feature is the real reason why she’s won my heart. I’ve acknowledged for a long time now that I need a keeper. What I mean is that I need someone to remind me to return that book I borrowed when I go to dinner at a friend’s house, or that I need to call my grandmother, or to remind me when I’m at the grocery store to look for a shade of eyeliner that will make my eyes look more green and less hazel. With a baby on the way I’m going to need a lot more help in the reminders department, like “remind me that the baby is in the back-seat.” 

    Unfortunately, my husband is the one who’s next in line for the upgrade. I’m keeping my resentment in check with dreams of the iPhone 5. What new and wondrous things will Siri be able to do then? And unlike personal assistants, butlers, and slaves of the past, all Siri needs is a little 30 minute power re-charge now and again. Until then I’ll bide my time with the new iPod Nano, which can ingeniously track my steps while camouflaged as a Kermit the Frog watch. Technology, how far you’ve taken us.

     
  6. Will the Ocean Live Only in Our Memory?

    Last week a report on the state of the oceans was released based on inter-disciplinary assessment of marine scientists from around the world. The news isn’t good. We’re facing mass extinctions of marine life at a rate unprecedented in human history. From overfishing, to oil spills, to radiation dumping, we’ve treated our oceans like a giant human toilet with the expectation that we’ll still be able to eat fish abundantly and enjoy our beach time. In our lifetime we may see the devastating results of our errors.

    Some people are letting the doomsday hysterics of the global austerity movement cause them to panic, but the thing that keeps me awake at night is a haunting vision from the novel, The Road: a cold and lifeless black sea.

    I’m from Oklahoma, and because I never saw the ocean before the age of nine, I have a hard time taking it for granted. I remember that moment when I first saw the ocean as clearly as I remember any other event in my life. I was visiting relatives in Japan with my grandmother, driving to their home from an outing to another part of Japan. My grandmother told her sister that I had never seen the ocean—perhaps something unimaginable to an island dweller—and so they took the long oceanside drive back. I was mesmerized. The ocean spread out beside our car like an enormous sparkling gem. We stopped and I leapt out, running towards the water. I stopped at the ocean’s sandy edge, taken not as much by the color now as by the movement and the sound. “Go ahead, you can take your shoes off and walk in,” my grandmother told me.

    I’ve looked back at the photos of me from that day, and besides the ones taken of me from my wedding, I don’t think I’ve ever looked that happy. I felt like my very being had expanded beyond my little body, reaching out towards the ocean and the vast distance opened before me. I had no idea the world could be like this, it was as if someone had shown me a secret alien world that lived right alongside my own. Decades later I ventured into the Pacific again, this time from the opposite shores in San Diego. We were drunk and we were skinny dipping. It was the first and only time I’ve felt the ocean water moving against every inch of my skin, which is a feeling I can’t really explain. Perhaps I should have been afraid, but under the light of the moon, in the frigid spring ocean I felt gloriously alive.

    Ever since the report last week I find myself pausing to think about all the beings that live in the ocean for whom that feeling of aliveness is more than existential poetry, but rather the basic, inescapable fact of life itself. I don’t know how we’re going to fix this, but I have to believe we will because I don’t want to be here when the ocean becomes a dead thing.

     
  7. Life, love, and dissertations

    It’s been a month since my last post. Much of that time has been spent working on the dissertation (though much of that time also cannot be accounted for). I thought I was finished with the last chapter a couple of weeks ago, but I have since been in a crash course of feminist theory. It’s been fun. I mean that.

    One of my favorite experiences in life is stumbling upon a good book like a key that opens my mind and my heart. I went to grad school to pursue this passion and I have been fortunate enough to encounter a few texts that made me feel an aliveness and quickening that only the most profound ideas can bring to life. Keiji Nishitani’s Religion and Nothingness and Jean Luc Nancy’s The Creation of the World or Globalization come immediately to mind. Of course there are many novels and poems and films I could include here, but that is too overwhelming a task for today. Yesterday I was gmail chatting with a friend and was reminded that a good deal of the inspiration for grad school came from Anne Michael’s novel Fugitive Pieces and Terrence Malick’s film The Thin Red Line. I went to school in search of ways to think more deeply about those texts. If that ultimately is the measure of my grad school experience, then there can be no regrets.

    In finishing this last chapter I finally sat down to read a book that’s been on my shelf; it’s a fitting last textual encounter in my grad school journey. Lisa Guenther’s the gift of the other brings together ideas from a number of great thinkers (Beauvoir, Arendt, Cixous, Derrida, Levinas) and like Nancy’s The Creation of the World the aim is to describe in ethico-philosophical terms the way in which the act of being is always being with others. It’s a seemingly simple assertion, but our civilization was built on the Cartesian assertion of “I think therefore I am” — in many ways big and small the meaning of our world is structured around this isolated ego desperately trying to prove its own existence to itself.

    In fact, it takes much more abstraction to posit ourselves as self-created autonomous individuals since every day teaches us over and over the untruth of that claim. Even in death, we’re not wholly alone as this blog post (shared by my husband) so clearly expresses. The dying man’s last words call out, like so many of our’s will, “I loved you deeply, I loved you, I loved you, I loved you.”

     
  8. Love in the Modern World

    Two preliminary notes:

    1) I figured out how to let people send questions, replies (though Tumblr limits this to people who have followed me for 2 weeks or who I follow), and even post their own responses. Feel free to participate in the blog!

    2) I prepared an essay on this topic for a friend’s wedding. If you’re interested in reading my thoughts on this in slightly longer form, send me a request through the Ask Me Anything link on the left-hand side of the blog

    *****

    I really planned on writing something entirely different today, but I just read this essay on modern love, published by the New York Times way back in 2008, and it struck a chord with me. In this essay, written by a college student living off-and-on in New York City, we see the ways that sexual liberation has complicated matters of the heart. On the one hand it’s exciting and freeing to think of all the love encounters we can have when we no longer define love as “the one,” but rather “the one you’re with” right now. I’ve similarly had “feminist” boyfriends who attempted to save me from my bourgeois desires. For, as it was explained to me, wanting security from love goes hand in hand with a desire for possession. Embrace the impermanence of things! That’s real love and requires real courage! It has the added benefit in that moving on is a lot easier, and let’s face it: there are so many places to go, so many experiences to have, so many people to love. Plus, it’s way more fun this way.

    I wasn’t exactly having fun, but I bought into these arguments for so long because there’s a strong kernel of truth here. Loving someone requires a delicate balancing act of holding on securely and loosely. People change, you included, and without allowing spaces of movement love can become a vice-grip from which it’s hard to evolve. But I learned something from heart break: love is not only the merry-go-round thrill of discovery and projection onto a love object, it’s also trust. And let’s face it, real trust requires security. To trust without feeling safe isn’t courage, it’s foolhardy and immature. Running around forming attachments without really caring about the impact you make on those around you also isn’t courage, or love for that matter—it’s called being selfish.

     
  9. 18:39 5th Apr 2011

    Notes: 1

    Running Into An Ex

    I’ve just returned from the annual conference for my field — comparative literature. Conferences like this are a chance to work on ideas for publication, and to see what buzz words are in circulation (right now it’s “world literature” and “transnationalism”). It’s also a time when you catch up with people who you’ve known either from your home training program, or who you’ve met at other conferences. Which means, of course, there’s a fairly good chance you’ll run into an ex.

    A quick glance at the program alerted me to possible run-in with two ex-boyfriends—which amounts pretty much to all of the boyfriends I’ve had in the past 10 years before I started dating Nick. In both cases I was the “dumped” and in both cases we haven’t had many post-break up interactions. The fact that my husband would be traveling with me added another element of interest to the scenario.

    I geared up for the awkwardness, but in the end it was rather anti-climatic. As I entered the hotel lobby on my way to the panel I was chairing and presenting in, I overheard the distinctive voice of the most recent ex. He’s something like 6’9” tall, so he’s not too hard to spot in a crowd. It was a very pleasant, short conversation. If anything, it was a little weird to think how totally different my life is from the last time I saw him two years ago. Two weeks after we parted I met Nick. From that time onward it feels as though there’s this thick wall of separation of “before and after.”

    I never did see the other ex. We dated for 2 and a half years. One day he woke up and told me he was breaking up with me. Since we had never had any real conflict I was taken by surprised. It was painful, like getting sideswiped by a semi-truck when all you’re driving is a Prius. Unfortunately, it was a long road to letting that one go. Sometimes I wish I could just go back and tell myself that this break-up would be one of the best things to happen in my adult life. It would inspire me to go back to counseling and deal with unresolved childhood issues, it would make me realize the depth of loyalty I’m capable of, and it would make me stop pretending like a life-long commitment wasn’t that big of a deal. And of course, it would free me up for the love of my life.

    I’m reminded of a scene from a movie I watched many years ago. In Nine Lives Robin Penn Wright plays a pregnant married woman who runs into an ex-boyfriend she has not seen in 10 years. I could only find a few clips of the movie online, but there seems to be much more unresolved and at stake between these two than is the case for me and any of my exes. I’d like to see this movie again; it’s basically a series of short films about the lives of women played by a remarkable cast of actresses. From what I remember the section of the movie featuring Robin Penn Wright is brilliant, although at the time I thought it was perhaps a bit melodramatic. I wondered how you could have loved someone so intensely and not kept up with them. I naively thought two mature adults should be able to eventually resolve their broken relationships into friendships.

    No matter how happy I am now, it will always be a little sad to run into someone whose emotional life and history I know so much about, but who in all reality has become not much more than a stranger. If only all loving relationships could transform into something you could keep in your life, but sadly it isn’t true.

     
  10. Stages of New Yorker Obsession

    1) Total ignorance: You have no knowledge whatsoever of The New Yorker's existence.

    2) The glimmer: You’ve heard about something called The New Yorker and you know where New York is. You think this must be something like a guide for New Yorkers.

    3) Reign of the Literati: You think The New Yorker  must be a literary journal: “something to do with literature something.”

    4) Class warfare: You understand that The New Yorker is more than a literary journal, but you think that it’s definitely just for New York obsessed pretentious d-bags that live in the 212 area code.

    5) Discovery: Up to this point you have never opened a New Yorker. Maybe you’ve seen a copy of it on someone’s aunt’s coffee table while visiting a big city on the east coast but you never opened the copy because it’s intimidating, which translates into the less anxiety-provoking category of uninteresting. But now someone sends you a link to an article and you read it without noticing where the article comes from. You think, “that’s a pretty interesting essay,” THEN you realize it’s from The New Yorker. “That’s interesting” quickly becomes “that’s weird.”

    6) Confirmation: You realize this first article was not an exception, you find many of The New Yorker articles relevant and well-conceived. Next time you’re at your friend’s aunt’s place, you page through the whole issue.

    7) Nothing but time: You buy an issue at the airport, it gets you though the delay, the flight, and the after-taxi wait, and you still haven’t made your way through it.

    8) Join the club: You get an online subscription and begin reading regularly. You purchase a copy every once in a while, especially when at the airport. You start emailing articles to everyone you know.

    9) I’m a believer: You eventually decide that you need a hard copy subscription, you feel compelled to see the cover, feel the weight of it in your hand. You have to admit that it’s become something of an aesthetic object.

    10) Total subsumption: You finally understand the cartoons and politely chuckle.

    **********

    I’d like to note that this was brilliantly conceived by my husband, Nick Edwards.

    **********

    I’d also like to add a note to last week’s post. I finally made my way through The New Yorker issue of Feb 28, 2011 with Anthony Lane’s write-up for Of Gods And Men. I may have been in disagreement with Ebert, but Mr. Lane is right there with me. Here are a couple of choice quotes from Lane’s review:

    "The number of good films about the workings of faith is pitifully small; the number that manage to dramatize interfaith harmony without sliding into a mush of unknowingness is smaller still. Like the monks’ home, this film stands almost alone."

    "…the Tchaikovsky means more, and rings out more resoundingly, in this one excerpt than it does in the whole of Black Swan. There it accompanied the dancer in her final fragmenting of self, engrossed in her own mirror image. Here it shows men of older plumage, preparing calmly, even joyfully, to take flight and leave their selves behind.”