Saturday, June 28

Coming of Age

I've read two books that are loosely associated by being about "coming of age": Madapple by Christina Meldrum, and Fun Home; a family tragicomic by Alison Bechdel. In some respects, the two books could hardly be more different. Madapple is poetic tale that comes close to magical realism, Fun Home is a graphic-novel memoir composed of small real moments based on Bechdel's childhood diary. However, both weigh the cost of an absent or unresponsive father, and both contain challenging scientific and literary references.

Fun Home is an award-winning graphic-novel memoir of Alison Bechdel's complex relationship with her father, a distant and obsessive closeted gay man in the 60's and 70's, and her own coming out as a lesbian.

Bechdel immediately pulled me in with tale of her father's obsession with renovating and redecorating their house, and I never lost interest as her story unfolded. Partly because of the graphic format, she builds the story with carefully chosen anectodes, often excerpts from the diary she started in childhood. The truth of these small real episodes accumulate to tell a powerful story.

Bechdel is the creator of the long-running comic strip, "Dykes to Watch Out For."

Madapple is teen fiction where much is hidden. You must suspend disbelief from the start of the novel, but toward the end the universe the author has created collapses under the weight of too many unlikely plot turns.

That being said, it is an evocative, enjoyable novel, and is currently madly popular with the teen set. It has a cold and mysterious mother, an unknown father, newly discovered relatives, unrequited love, teen pregnancy, and and a happy ending, as well as herbal lore galore, and many fascinating asides into early Christianity, which drive one of the plot strands.

The story begins in a courtroom: Aslaug is on trial for double homicide. The events that led to the trial are told in a series of flashbacks. The author does a great job of hiding the real story behind the deaths until the end of the book. Chapters are titled with the name of a plant, and the uses, mythology, and properties of the plant move the action forward in the chapter. Aslaug and her mother have an extensive knowledge of local plants, and use them for food, tea, and medicine. "Madapple" is another name for the poisonous jimsonweed plant.

At this stage of my life, I'm more interested in what happens after "happily ever after," but the book pulled me in. As an older-than-teen reader, I particularly enjoyed the herbal lore and discussion of early Christianity.

People who liked "Madapple" more than I did:

"In debut novelist Christina Meldrum's mesmerizing literary mystery, Madapple (Knopf), the worlds of science and faith collide." —Vanity Fair

Madapple has been nominated for the ALA's Best Book for Young Adults (BBYA) list.
Meldrum provides a bibliography of books she used for research. Included are

The Jesus mysteries : was the "original Jesus" a pagan god? / Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy.

The elegant universe : superstrings, hidden dimensions, and the quest for the ultimate theory / Brian Greene.

An obsession with butterflies : our long love affair with a singular insect / Sharman Apt Russell.

Wednesday, June 25

Discover Loyola!

Last week I traveled to Chicago with Dear Son and Dear Ex for "Discover Loyola," a day and a half of instruction and training in how to be, respectively, a Loyola student and a Loyola parent. The information from the seminars was useful, the presentations often funny, but by far the best was watching all the other parents and children interact.

None of the kids had any interest in their parents. That's as it should be. The other parents had the same rueful reaction we did, and we shared a lot of laughs about our kids and our changing families. The families launching a second or third child into college were nonchalant, so I took my cues from them.

The weather was beautiful, and the campus, right on the shore of Lake Michigan, is lovely. The information commons (ranks of computers) is high tech; the librarians, housed in the library next door to the IC, are smart, kind, and funny.

I think this is going to work out just fine.

Here's a list of some books on The ABC's of Chicago: Architecture, Blues, Cubbies, and Crime --along with some Chicago fiction. (NOTE 7/8/08: somehow the contents of this list were deleted. :-( I will have to recreate it.)
The photo, "Carry it into the world," by babaoflia on Flickr, shows a view of Lake Michigan from Madonna della Strada chapel.

Tuesday, June 17


My younger son graduated last week from South High, home of the Gallant Tigers, in Minneapolis, MN. It was a great ceremony, with music, speakers that delivered on their promises of short speeches, and 480 students who processed across the stage in record time.

(Skip to the end for book recommendations.)

After each and every father, mother, sister, cousin, and aunt was wanded by security before entering the Convention Center, assistant principal Dagny addressed us sternly about the protocol for this "ceremony, not a celebration." It brought me back years, to being dressed down by former Hermantown principal Ray Wero. Even when he addressed the whole student body, and I wasn't culpable, I'd vow to straighten up and fly right.

There's a style, a cadence, and an "I expect to be obeyed" tone of voice that good school administrators have, and Dagny, with her short steel-gray hair, delivered the whole package. Inside sources tell me she has a heart of gold and sang in the Bach Society for a number of years, but in the moment I sat up a little straighter and vowed to do her proud. It was a strangely pleasant little nostalgia trip to be addressed in no uncertain terms by such a fine school administrator. Message received, we will not hoot 'n' holler when our grad crosses the stage. We will conduct ourselves with the dignity and decorum the occasion calls for. Yes, ma'am!

South High is a most wondrously diverse school, and rightfully proud of it. We were treated to an a Cappella choral version of the national anthem, and a solo a Cappella version of the Black national anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing." I would have preferred to join in on both, especially the moving "Lift Every Voice," but I'm old school. The First Nations students drummed and chanted a blessing, which for me was the emotional core of the ceremony. Our beloved "Star Spangled Banner" is stirring, "Lift Every Voice and Sing" even more so, but the drumming and chanting was spine-tingling. After the ceremony, my rock ribbed Republican dad surprised me by saying how very much he liked it.

I've formed a theory about the songs and speeches that form the graduation ceremony. They ground us in history, show respect for the cultures participating, and convey what wisdom the speakers can muster, but after last Monday I'm convinced that their primary function is to keep Moms like me, who were rocked by waves of emotion as 479 fine graduates and the one really important one processed in, from fainting straight away if we were to go directly to the diploma hand-out and actual graduation. They provide a breathing space and a chance to focus on the bigger picture.

I'd brought a delicate white hanky but did not surprise myself when I had to honk into multiple kleenex. Yeah, I'm tough all right. Tough as butter.

The speaker, David A. Walsh, took an anecdote I'd heard before and brought it to a new level. My systems analysis prof taught us that the the way a computer functions, searching in the background while other processing takes place, is analogous to the way the brain functions. On those occasions when you are reaching for a piece of information but just can't quite remember, the brain continues to do a background search until, finding the information in some remote file, gives the conscious mind a "priority interrupt" to convey the news that the name of that last dwarf, the one you couldn't remember, is "Sneezy."

Walsh described this as an example of how the brain is always wrestling with questions, looking for answers. So, he said, when you wake in the morning, don't ask yourself "What fresh hell is this?" (Dorothy Parker) Ask "who is the most interesting person I will meet today?" or "What would I do today if I weren't afraid?" That question will illumine your day. As long as you're processing a question in deep background search, make it a good one.

I believe that may be the most useful thing I ever took from a graduation ceremony. Thanks, David!

Leaders of the student government gave introductions to music performances or speakers, and two students gave brief addresses. All were women; all but one were African American women. You go, girls! It's good to see strong young African American women take their natural place as leaders of the world.

It's fitting, too, in a school that gave us two championship girls' basketball seasons. I was moved both years to see the entire school fill the Target Center, in full black and orange regalia and face paint, to cheer on these young, mostly African American, women. Just as it should be! But a far cry from girls' also-ran status in my youth. (South High's nemesis, the girls' state basketball champion this year and last year, was Central High in St. Paul, another urban team dominated by African American women.)

This is how change happens, before our very eyes, in joy and competition and hard work with other issues put to the side completely. At least in this arena, in this moment. I'm not saying the work of fighting racism and sexism is done, I'm just saying it was a wondrous moment, as was the graduation ceremony.

Then the 479 fine graduates and the one really important one processed across the stage at a rate of one every four seconds, accelerating gradually to one every three seconds and finally one every two seconds; they were pronounced officially graduated, the hats flew in the air, the mommas cried, the dads took pictures, and the graduates sang on the bus on the way to the all night party.

I want to tell you, too, about the delightfully cliche-packed student speeches (wouldn't have it any other way) and the small but important way those speeches have changed; and the story my friend told me about her daughter, who traveled to watch the "Ultimate" Frisbee competition with other Ultimate team mates on prom weekend, and the From, or "Frisbee Prom" they created, but this has gone on long enough; that will have to be another time.

And now at last, some book recommendations:

Chabon, Michael, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh
This coming-of-age novel about a young college graduate stayed with me for years. Only recently did I revisit it and realize that it was Michael Chabon's first book! Like his other books, this is beautifully written, witty, and deep.

David Allen Walsh (click to link to his books in the HCL catalog) is a nationally known writer and speaker on developmental psychology, with a focus on children and media. He founded the National Institute on Media and the Family in 1996 and is also the author of the supremely useful "Why do they act that way? : a survival guide to the adolescent brain for you and your teen.

His children are South High alums, which is one reason he accepted the invitation to speak.

Click here for a sampling of a Cappella music.

Tuesday, June 3

Rule the Web!

I devoured Mark Fraunfelder's new book, Rule the Web; How to do anything and everything on the Internet -- better, faster, easier which he describes as "a guide to getting stuff done on the web."

It's jammed with great ideas on -- yes -- better, faster, and easier ways to use your mobile phone, ipod, internet phone, landline phone, email (he recommends gmail); tips for downloading video and movies, and working with varying formats for video and music.

In chapter one he gives good, concise introductions to creating web sites, blogs, podcasts, and wikis; social networking, photography and video. The mid-section of the book consists of chapters with tips on turbocharging your searching and browsing, shopping and selling; using the web for health, exercise and sports, media and entertainment, travel and sightseeing, work and productivity, and communication. He also covers security concerns and includes some great tips from his favorite bloggers.

I am going to have to work my way through chapter by chapter; there are so many ideas here I want to incorporate. I might even have to buy this book, and I don't buy many books!

Mark Frauenfelder is a freelance journalist, author, and founder of boingboing, "a directory of wonderful things."