Monday, July 25, 2011

How a Middle-Aged Mom Learned to Love the Graphic Novel

I have been a reader and booklover from my daddy's knee, but I had never really embraced the comic book. Sure, I had read them as a kid, but I had never understood their appeal after reaching adulthood. Memories of the graphic novels I had read over the shoulder of my friends in high school lingered, and turned me against the genre for its gore and misogyny.

 But somewhere in the last few years, I picked up a graphic novel again. I think it was our public library's renovation, after which they wisely placed the graphic novel section between audiobooks and classic novels, the places I gravitated most. I started skimming through them. Some of them were the male adolescent fantasies I had remembered, tedious melodrama as pretext for porny women and viscera. But there were others. Some of them were darn good stories.

So I asked a comic-book-loving friend to point me in the right direction, and the first book he suggested was Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. Wow. This was a comic book for grown-ups. The drawings (art? pictures? I am so out-of-the-loop on graphic novels that I don't know the standard terms) were black-and-white and simple, but they added to the story.  They grew the tension in the story, and the last panel knocked me flat.

I think my next novel was Gene Yuen Lang's American-Born Chinese. I had never imagined that a nuanced theology of God and identity could be worked out in a comic book. Now I was hooked.

Since then I have tried different authors. I've found some I loved (Lilli Carre), some I loved to share with the kids (David Petersen's Mouseguard), and others I hated. And since bloggers are always looking for something to blog about, I thought I would explain what graphic novels have to offer that traditional narrative can't.

1) Silence. For many of us, silence is a necessary part of enjoying a book, and we see reading as a quiet activity. But traditional narrative can only convey its story by putting words into your head, however quietly. Even a description of silence cannot move you without using actual words. But a graphic novel, by using pictures instead of words, can use silence in a way that traditional narrative can't. Graphic novels offer a silence that includes mental wordlessness. It can be difficult to "read" this - it takes discipline to slow down the eye enough to feel the impact of the picture. But once you do, it affects you in new ways. You can have wordless reactions to wordless stories; still felt, but difficult to describe. Graphic novels let you experience literature in places beyond the reach of words.

2) Simultaneity. For traditional narrative to describe two things happening simultaneously, it has to stop describing one thing in order to describe another. Graphic novels can convey simultaneity by using two different media at the same time. The words tell you one thing while the picture tells you something else at the same time. Pure simultaneity is still out of reach - your eye has to dance back and forth between word and picture - but graphic novels can come closer than other print literature.

3) Paradox. Related to the above, graphic novels can immediately convey a meaning opposite to the words being said. A character can claim sobriety while the picture portrays his drinking. Unlike silence and simultaneity, this is also possible for traditional narrative. The difference, I think, is that conveying paradox in traditional literature often requires a skillful reader or a rereading. Graphic novels can convey paradox with more immediacy. Maybe this is why the hypocrisy of people in power is such a common theme in graphic novels; the medium assists the message.

Graphic novels pose their own challenges. I have to store my books on a high shelf out of reach of the kids, for instance. While there is no harm done if a non-reading child picks up narrative literature too old for her, graphic novels are a different thing. I would not always want to explain what that picture means. And when I look for new books, I still have to sift out the gore and misogyny I hate. But the genre is a permanent part of my library now, and I look forward to finding new books and new authors.

Now if you'll excuse me, my laptop is resting on a copy of Jim McCann and Janet Lee's Return of the Dapper Men, and I haven't read it yet.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Crabby Morning

This morning I got out of bed at 6:15, hoping for an hour to myself before the girls woke up. I walked to the bathroom to shower, flipped the light switch and my four year old came barrelling out of her room, bleary-eyed, shouting in a distraught voice, "Mom! You didn't let me snuggle you!"

I am an introvert living in a raucous house full of small children who demand my attention constantly. I get through my day much more cheerfully if I get some quiet time to myself in the morning before they get up. The children, however, prefer me to wake up when they flop onto my bed. They want me to groggily open my eyes when they snuggle into my shoulder.

So when I have the chance to get up early, I creep as quietly as I can. I turn on the fan in the bathroom because its white noise sometimes lulls them into sleeping longer. But this summer, nothing has worked. At least one of them will wake up, run to me and wail that I am not in my bed, awaiting their company.

The loss of that morning solitude makes everything harder. It is harder to keep my temper. It is hard to accept with equanimity the other thousand things they prevent me from doing. It is harder to smile when they ask the same damn question for the fourteenth time that hour.

Right now I am sitting on my front porch while the children play in the yard. I can't leave them outside alone to play; they are too young and our neighborhood is too rough. I have to sit here, looking at all the yard work that needs to be done, work that I cannot do because little hands will constantly grab at the pruning shears, or because the two year old will run into the street or into the woods if I turn my back on her. I am hating the demands of parenthood right now, and I know I would find it less onerous if I had been allowed twenty minutes to drink a cup of coffee in silence.

I remember C.S. Lewis remonstrating once that we are tempted to think of time as something we own, so that when someone asks for our attention we see them as thieves of our time. I get his point, but it's also an easy one for a bachelor don to make. When all my time is claimed by the kids, I become a kind of childcare automaton. I cannot share any of myself with my husband or my friends because there is no self left.

So here I am, turning to the blog as in the past, because in the half attention it took to write this (two children are whining to me right now, another is banging on a metal tin, and my oldest, God bless her, promised to leave me alone for twenty minutes and is doing so), I feel slightly more human than I did before I started.

Thank you, dear reader.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

A horse is a horse, of course, of course.

Last Christmas, my mom-in-law gave my girls tiny little toy horses. My girls love horses in any shape or size, so it was a great gift. Though "toy horses" may not be exactly accurate. They were actually collectible miniatures, but nothing is too good for her grand-daughters, so they were presented as a set to be roughly played with as only young children can.

What is the difference, you ask, between toy horses and collectible miniatures?


That's right. These tiny toy horses were anatomically correct. I did not notice this at first. It took a few days of play before the girls started giggling and brought me a tiny stallion saying, "Mama! This horse has poo-poo stuck to his bottom!"

Um. No.

In general, we believe once the kids are old enough to ask a question, they are old enough for some kind of honest answer. So I explained to the girls the differences between male and female.

They did not believe me.

But there the horses were anyway, and clearly there was something odd about that little stallion, so eventually they accepted my story. And they began to repeat it. Not in any embarrassing public way - I know that's where your mind leaped, kids being what they are. But it was hard to keep a straight face when, three days later, my four-year-old explained that the process of making babies involved a strange male apparatus called a "peanut-tentacles." She was pretty sure it only existed on horses.

That was months ago, and I thought we had reached a comfortable place of vague familiarity with the subject. Then one day the girls brought me another one of their toy horses, wanting me to explain whether it was male or female. They still get a little confused. So I turned the toy over.

It was a gelding.

If they are old enough to ask a question, they are old enough to get some kind of answer. So I answered. And their eyes widened in amazement.

I don't know if this will come back to haunt us in public or not. But an hour after my explanation, my four year old came cantering up to me, neighing and whinnying, and announced, "I am a horse! My testicles are cut off!"

Parenthood is always an adventure.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Meals and the Human Instrument

When the girls ask questions, we try to answer. Every time. Sometimes the answer is "I don't know. We'll have to look that up." But we try to answer every question.

Which is how I ended up in the food science section of the public library. The girls love to "help" me cook. I do not love it, but sometimes force myself to involve them. I was explaining to them the other day that you must be careful not to overmix biscuit or pie dough, because overmixing will make the biscuits or crust tough instead of flaky. They wanted to know why.

And then I wanted to know why. In fact, there were a lot of things about cooking that I could not explain. Gluten bonds with water and forms "protein strings," but what exactly is a "protein string"? So I began looking for food science books in our public library. I chose one that looked like an introductory college textbook and brought it home to read during the kids' quiet time.

I have heard the complaint that as fewer people cook, recipes have become more elaborate, and we have reinvented cooking as a spectator sport, a kind of food p*rn. Cooking has been severed from the life of the home and family, and become instead a glossy photo or competitive game. Well, if Top Chef is food p*rn, then food science books are the mechanistic sex education manuals.

This particular paragraph in the opening chapter unnerved me:
Actually one extremely discriminating, painstaking, and unbiased individual would suffice [for testing]. But the human instrument is frequently inconsistent in its ability to discriminate different aspects of food quality, and daily variations in physical condition may cause variations in operating efficiency. A cold, for example, may render a panelist useless for days. Psychological factors such as preoccupation, worry, and other stresses may prevent a judge from operating effectively, as may environmental factors such as distracting noises, extraneous odors, and uncomfortable temperature. Furthermore, it is not always easy for the experimenter to know when a judge is not in optimum adjustment for the job of food-difference testing.
The authors complain primarily about the way subjective factors affect our judgment in favor of the negative, but they could as easily have complained of how we love that bread because it reminds us of the anniversary we spent at that bed & breakfast, or how we fail to object to the slightly tinny flavor of that soup because it awakens memories of our mother spoon-feeding us after the flu. Our enjoyment of food is not only about the food; it is about the complex of relationships and sentiments around the meals we share.

The book is written for people entering the food manufacturing industry, so maybe I'm being unfair to the authors.  I like to cook most of my own food, and I can't do that if I can't get safe flour and rice. I am aware of the necessity of food scientists in a large, urbanized society. But the depersonalized view of humans and their palates left me more determined than ever to cook most of our own food myself.

Food is the muscle of the home. Our family sits together at the table for dinner every night. Some days it is the only time that Az and I give our exclusive attention to each other, without half an eye on computer screens or books. We do not answer the phone during meals. Meals are not about calibrating texture and taste, but about making and sharing and enjoying, mostly in unquantifiable ways. Even when it is hard work, I notice that I am more peaceful afterwards. Our meals are the sign and promise that we are committed to this family we have built. Just like we were yesterday; just like we will be tomorrow.