Thursday, September 29, 2011


My legs ached and shook quite miserably after latin workshops with Tal and Vlada today. I've decided once and for all that while I can enjoy parts of latin, my favorite part is when samba is over. But I digress from my story. Pat, a friendly acquaintance from salsa nights and who is in adv 1, walked out to his bike the same time I went to get mine. As we rode off in the same direction, we soon discovered (about the point of Atherton Hall) that we live within a street of each other.

And then it began to rain.

At first it was a light rain and didn't bother our cycling at all or our conversation. Within a few brief moments, the skies opened as they are wont to do in State College, and we were soaked. He yelled, "Let's go!" and we took off as fast as we could up the  campus sidewalk along College. But it was no use. We weren't going to make it before everything was drenched, bags, clothes, shoes, and all. He was in dress clothes and dress shoes. My chacos have lost their tread and also served little use in trying to peddle.

And then everything just seemed as comic and joyful as it could be. I was laughing, refreshed from the cool air and rain, blinking hard so I could see, yelling at pedestrians that I was coming behind them. I was utterly happy in that unwanted, unlooked for rainstorm. It was the feeling of play; like being small again and finding the most banal things delightful to repeat again and again.

Playing in the rain with a friend was a marvelous gift.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Bilbo's (and Frodo's) Birthday Celebration

We threw a grand party in honor of Bilbo and Frodo last night.

Homemade carrot cake (my aunt's recipe) with homemade cream cheese icing. Very fall. Very hobbity.

Party Planner and architect extraordinaire stringing lights over the fence and party tree. Nicolle Mauer did the writing for the incredibly lovely birthday sign.

Candles lit on the front porch. Lord of the Rings on hand for a reading.

Group singing of "Happy Birthday". All the candles we had were lit on the carrot cake (36).

Formatting Resolved

I've been irritated to the point of abandonment with the formatting on this blog. For some reason, today I navigated the new blogger structure, I found all the right buttons to restore this blog to unified appearance and structure. Abandonment of Blogger to Wordpress is now postponed indefinitely.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Science, Culture, Knowledge, & Action

The Highly Esteemed Anjali has sparked the desire to post yet again. Please read her two passionate, well articulated posts on recent vaccination debates here and here.

As you can tell from these posts, Anjali and I definitely espouse different worldviews and paradigms that underpin many of our view points. I am especially grateful, then, for the clarity she brings at the end of her second post: the views of one part of a community (in this case, Christian) do not necessarily express the views of a greater whole.

I agree 100% with her conclusion that refusing an HPV vaccine because it would encourage promiscuity is not well informed or accurate belief. To prevent illness and disease based on such fear is not right.

However, I do wish to disagree with an underlying assumption that drives her conclusions: that science and religion have nothing to do with each other. Let them stay separate. To allow one to influence the other is to defile them both. In one light, this is very true. All attempts to make all science pre-determined doctrinal opinions ends you up Galileo--who unfortunately lost his life based on Greek thought parading as pure theology.

This, however, is not the kind of separation or "independent discovery" that I wish to call into question.

I would like to suggest that science and religion (just as easily replaced with culture) have a great deal more to do with each other than either would like to admit.

I cannot perceive of science as Science (with a capital "S"). That is, science as a purely objective and thoroughly truthful pursuit. Several (cultural) influences on my life prevent that. Yes, one aspect are my religious and moral convictions. But the other has as much to do with  my higher education in liberal arts--especially disability studies. From this paradigm, what science observes and concludes can as often be a cultural barometer as much as observation of "facts". "Facts" will always have implications as will later (or prior) interpretations influence the next observation or action.

What do I think this means for vaccinations?

I would say that the instinct of the "religious right" (which it does seem to be) to question science as sole authority is a good one but mishandled and used in this situation. Bioethics is a legitimate field and worth investing time, money, research, and personal energy into. The conclusion that vaccines should be used because they "prevent disease and tumors" is a faulty one if that can be extrapolated that science has a universal right to exterminate any and all conditions that are deemed "abnormal".

Let me state again, that I think it good that this vaccine was developed and its uses excellent.

On behalf of the religious right, I say that their questioning of its cultural implications is right and wise. But let those who question science do so with conscious gratitude of what it has provided and the world it has revealed to us. Let science discover and invent and let the researches and makers and users of its creativity be wise in what we utilize and what we reject. And may its acceptance or rejection never be out of fear or rumor or misinformation, the kind so often trumpeted loudly and uncritically from the unreliable source.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Hemingway's Wishes and the Discussed Existence of a Human Soul

This past summer and into this semester, I have been an intern with the Hemingway Letters Project. For nearly a decade now, they have been collecting, transcribing, and preparing documents for publication. Many of these have never been released or seen before. I have handled letters that only myself and perhaps four other individuals have ever seen: the head editor, the scholar, an archival librarian, and the person to whom it was written.

Today while drinking chai with a friend at the Co-op, he asked what I was still doing in State College. I mentioned this project as well as my role as a campus ministry intern.

He asked more about the project. "But did Hemingway say that was okay?"
I paused. "Well, he actually said he didn't want his work published."
"Then why are you doing it?" Andy asked.
"It's for scholarship."
"So people can perform psychoanalysis on his writing?"
"Does that seem fair to you?"
"Well, he is dead. Do you think he cares?" I argued, defending my right to work an excel sheet and be paid for it more than anything else.

My answer did not satisfy him. I think about this conversation now and find it ironic. Andy is an atheist and does not believe in an afterlife. When dies, the personal ceases to exist. I, on the other hand, believe in  a soul, in a life that does not end upon death but continues.

Is it inconsistent then that I argue for Hemingway's wishes being inconsequential fifty years after his death as if he would not care? Is it inconsistent that Andy argue for an adherence to Hemingway's wishes if the man has no soul?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

"The Tree of Life"

I went to the lovely State Theatre last night to see "The Tree of Life". You've very likely heard of it. The trailer alone sparked conversations of greatness and (perhaps also including) various academy awards.

When asked, "What is about?" the only appropriate answer is: "Everything."

Therefore, I will  be addressing this post as a guide to help you either see it for the first time or to help in thinking through it.

I have no idea if I am "correct" in any of this. If that kind of art frustrates you, then I wouldn't recommend it. If you are excited about a piece of beauty that will take multiple viewings and lots of arguing to do it justice, then this is a must see.

Things that helped me see:

C.S. Lewis's Idea of Joy/Senshut
There are moments of divine sight given early in life that are so piercing and joyful that they remain for the remainder. All we find beautiful is a harkening back to those early moments. Perhaps they were not so wonderful if we look at them years later; but they were leaping off points. The repeated, quick, overemphasized images--window, tree, floating white curtains, a young girl walking, brotherly play, water/swimming, grass, clouds/sky, Brahms, red hair, flashlights, ocean/sand-- are what act as the signals to the young protagonist. "How did I know you before I knew your name?" he asks. One gets the sense that he never articulates those words to himself but are rather words to express a spiritual, unknown question. And these moments of beauty are the painful, longing triggers to try and find what the feelings are from.

Lewis calls these experience "joy" or "senschut". For him, it was physical joy and pain from things like a small rock garden his brother made, records of opera, a fantasy novel by George MacDonald. I think many of the repeated images are acting as this.

There is a repeated voice over of "Follow me." Follow those things. Follow joy. We all know what Lewis found as its source.

Confessions of St. Augustine
Jack's statement: "Mother and Father, you wrestle inside me" is just one place where I sense the story of Augustine coming through. Perhaps this is just because his narrative of dissolute youth, a faith filled mother, and journey to belief is one that has been retold in many forms. Conversion does not always vary in its structure so much as in the details. The moment when Jack steals the night gown from the neighbor also reminded me of when Augustine stole pears, though the guilt for Jack comes in much sooner. He says to his mother, "Don't look at me" and later accuses her of letting the father "walk all over you." It is a trying relationship for them both. Perhaps I'm reading to much into this association... but the chance for Augustine to be an influence is there.

Exposure to "Time" as a concept and limited view / ie Eternity
Time is disregarded for significant portions of this film. Time is not the organizational idea but eternity. This means that all time is not in a line but in a plane stretching eternally in everydirection. Time is a lens placed on humanity at the beginning of the world. Outside of time, however, all moments are interacting with eachother. We get to see the invisible interaction/visions through one man's eyes. Be patient. It will not make "sense" like you want it to. It will make your mind stretch to see the world outside of the lens you were born with. There are small moments that seem like eternity in this film and there are passing things that are shown for what they are.

The Magician's Nephew/Genesis
Music is key. I want to discuss with a musician and hear what they "saw" in the movie. But even I, ignorant as I am in music history, could tell. The music is both an influencer of events and a dominant force, greater even than the images. This is particularly tied to the sound of water ("and the Spirit of God hovered over the waters" Genesis 1) and to the pslam where the "morning stars sing".  Lewis also used this idea in his Narnia books: the world was sung by Aslan into existence and it seems that the world in "The Tree of Life" is a well.

Poetic Rather Than Linear Structure
Poetry has historically used linear structure to tell narrative (ex Odyssey and Illiad, etc). There is also poetry that exists to communicate is in the barest form possible moments, and uses these to explore/discover ideas and beauty. These do not typically use a beginning/middle/end structure.

"The Tree of Life" is more about the moment by moment images and less about the beginning/middle/end structure. It is about image after image and sound and music and light. It is not a code but there is meaning. If you are more intuitive, that will aid you in this.

However, like most good pieces of anything, there is a definitive creation/fall/redemption/restoriation structure going on. It just doesn't look like you're used to seeing.

The Bible (esp. Psalms and Job)
You can't escape the Bible in this film, especially the Old Testament poetry. The first moments of the film are the texts from the final chapters of Job, the ones where God asks Job, "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?" This film is, in a sense, telling the story of a Job: the one with great faith who must grieve that what God has taken away. The repeated phrase "Where are you?" begins as one of faith, hope and expectation; it moves into grief and doubt; then is restored to hope in the final sequence of the film.

Creational Understanding of the World
There is not a sense of the world making itself in this movie. Perhaps there is and I'm reading into it. I would argue however that nature is used as a conduit/manifestation of divinity and not a manifestation of itself. The image of the stars exploding out into the universe combined with the music at that moment stands out in my mind. We are dealing with spirit as well as the seen world.

Intense Love of Trees
If you think trees are awesome, then you will appreciate the recurring metaphor of trees.

The final sequence in this film, though questionable in its theology, does strongly imply a belief in the restoration of all things. Peace and wholeness is what each character is looking for; how does one find it in death? In a family that comes apart on the inside? I look for places of restoration in many narratives but there are few who make such a blunt leap to it as this one does. The command, "Follow me", finds its answer in a place of waiting for some final moment. We get to see healing and then the final blow that ends time and the world. What happens then we are left to imagine.

Ultimate Associative Leap
"The Tree of Life" and "Till We Have Faces". Especially the second part of that book.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Re-Posting: A Bear Story

Over a year ago, me and a group of friends were chased by a bear. This is one of my favorite stories and wanted to share it with readers of this blog.

As you know, this story will include a bear. This bear, as the title of the story, will play a central role. Sorry for spoiling it but you must know that this is one of the most magnificently absurd things I have experienced.

I received a text from Mooney saying that there were folks going camping. I was immediately in on the plan and went back to my apartment after filling out work paper work to throw a sweatshirt, socks, and my glasses in a backpack. Mooney and Robbie appeared outside of #12 Grimmauld (code name for where I'm living this summer) and we visited Walmart to purchase the obligatory smore foods. While there, Mooney and I again discussed how we would handle being attacked by a bear. We had gone on a short trek up the side of a ridge just the week before and had heard strange animal noises down the ridge the other direction and this had sparked a long and humorous imagining of what it would mean for Dana to drive stick shift to get Mooney (who had valiantly defended her from attacking bear) to the hospital for severe mauling. Robbie laughed at said at least we should try not to mock anyone like Elisha and get bears called out on us. Mooney didn't know this story and it was shared with gleeful violence attached.

After many delays, we made it to the Firetower in Rothrock State Park at 9:45 or so. We sat in the dark for a long while until some other came. Started the fire, took a short walk in the woods to an overlook (which was, as I'm sure you can imagine, rather dark and gloomy with very little to see), and enjoyed not saying much of anything and eating. Our company was this: Jason Hunter, Eric Mooney, Robbie Parks, Carren Stika, and myself. Jason cooked some excellent chicken in tin foil in the fire. Carren had brought hotdogs and we ate them off of sticks since there wasn't any bread. Lots of chocolate was consummed. And then, heavy with food and warmed by the fire in the heavy, storm promising winds, we decided it was time to bed down.

The chose spot was in front of a small cabin near the base of the fire tower. It was locked but we thought that if it really did rain we could get on the porch pretty easily. One place that was considered was under a pine tree away from either of these locations and toward the start of a trail, but it was rejected when we realized that most of us didn't have ground mats. Here is the location: Jason and Robbie were by the cars. Mooney and Carren were moving her hammock over to the cabin. I was ahead of the lot with all my things in my hands moving towards the cabin. And just as I got to the edge of the trees, the cell phone tower blinked in just the write way to illuminate a moving shadow. My heart caught but I was certain I was seeing things (having just scared myself silly by thinking about the book "No Country For Old Men"). I turned on Jason's head lamp and there indeed was a black bear caught in walking right across the grass where we would have been sleeping in five minutes. I backed up and got back to the cars yelling "Guys! There is a bear!"

Jason and Robbie dropped what they were doing and tried to shine the light on the bear. Mooney and Carren didn't seem to hear though and kept walking towards the cabin. We all started yelling and they stopped. My heart was racing and I had no idea what we were going to do next. So we just stopped and watched it for a few moments. Mooney and Carren finally moved over towards us and we had the cars between us and the bear. But the bear wasn't going away! It just stayed there even while we put lights on it and talked and yelled and had no idea what to do. The food had just been put away and we could only imagine it had smelled things cooking and had come to find us.

We were all moving and confused and weren't sure what to do. When the bear wouldn't leave, Mooney finally said, "Get in the car." I didn't move and at that moment the bear started coming towards us. "Dana! Get in the car!" I ran to Jason's car and the doors were locked. "Jason!" I yelled but Mooney's door was open first and I lept in and kept my eyes on the bear. I heard Jason yell, "Dana, you have to get in or no one else can!" I realized that I had stayed in the driver's seat and moved over. I don't know how Robbie got in so fast behind me and climbed to the back. Carren was in a moment later on my lap and we were laughing and clinging hands. I had not been too frightened until I saw Mooney and Jason get nervous. but we were all in cars.

That was when Mooney realized that Jason had his keys and so we were stuck for the time being with two packs outside of the car and the door wouldn't shut.


Jason called someone's phone and we were trying to come up with a plan. There were way too many plans going around when we realized that we no longer knew where the bear was. Jason thought he saw it by the fire. Then Carren and I screamed because it walked on our side of the car within four feet. Jason turned his car and and began to flash his lights. The bear backed up and began nodding its head and looked like it wanted to run at us. Jason revved his engine. The bear moved forwards and then back and then we all started the car horns at once. It ran off into the woods. We grabbed the packs as soon as we could. Mooney was quite brave in getting out the car at all in order to put out the last of the fire and get the backpacks. We were going back to State College.

We were about twenty feet down the road when this bear appeared again. It ran along side us and then out in front of Jason's car. It was big and lumbering. Mooney (a hunter) guessed 350lbs. It kept up at 20 miles an hour before disappearing again. We were flying now.

Jason took his time coming down the mountain after us. We stopped on 322 without a sound of cars in any direction. It was strange to see the busiest stretch of road in State College so empty. I got out of the car and laid in the middle of the road laughing. It seemed safer than anything else from the past hour had been and I was so relieved that everyone was safe and laughing at the ridiculousness of how we had all behaved in our fear. Jason caught up and called Mooney. "What is Dana doing?!" "Umm... I think she is letting out some jitters."

Seidle was still up when we got back to the Duplex. Mooney lept into his arms and started telling him how we had all almost died. Then he backed up and attempted to tell the story in a way that emphasized his manliness and defense of the helpless. Jason made it a comedy where he attacked the bear with a hatchet and Carren knocked it out with her maglight. Robbie just thought people were funny and wasn't scared at all. I was alternately the hero for seeing the bear in the first place or the brunt of much teasing because of how fast I got in that car. It took us til 2:30 to fall asleep in the backyard of the State College neighborhood. We were still laughing until suddenly we weren't and everyone was asleep

Monday, September 05, 2011

How To Become A Better Writer

I was asked to write this post by a dear and lovely housemate. She asked me this question over breakfast a few days ago and then asked me to write a post.

I feel completely inadequate to write down these thoughts even though one of the chiefest delights in my life is becoming a better writer and assisting others to do so.

Please also observe: all good advice was learned from somewhere else. Tips are things I've tried and found useful. Everything in bold is advise; anything else is a tip (unless I'm hating on "Twilight").

Read everything. Read magazines. Read newspapers. Read blogs. Read tweets. Read billboards. Read books (yes, whole ones). Read assigned textbooks. Read for fun. Read for school. Read stuff above your head and stuff you loved when you were in second grade. Read the book everyone is talking about. Read the book no one has ever heard of but your librarian (or some other swiftly forgotten marvelously knowledgable person) recommends. Read in genres you like and genres you don't like.

Writing without reading is like cooking without eating. And yes, it makes about that much sense.

Read Good Writing
Read Good Writing. Read it by recommendation. Read it carefully and thoroughly. While tastes vary, many authors will be recommended repeatedly. Look for people who read more than you do--especially in types of writing you enjoy or wish to emulate--and get their advise. If they advise "Twilight", dream bigger.

Read Like A Writer
Read for technique. Read for good sentences. Read for the sound. Read for the structure. Read for the logic. Read for the rhetoric. Read for the imagery. Read for the description. Read for cohesiveness. Read for the subtle details. Read to know the piece of writing from the inside out.

Tip: Use "Reading Like A Writer" by Francine Prose as a delightful guide. Used at various stages of college, both in and out of the classroom.

All. The. Time.

Don't wait until you receive Divine Inspiration. If you wait for inspiration to run that 5k or dance a smooth foxtrot: you won't. Ever. Your body will fail you and so will your pen.

Write this large in your heard and mind: "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly." -G. K. Chesterton.

Find Readers
I had a mentor my first year tell me that there are three kinds of writers and each person on earth needs one of each at any given moment. They can also be people who assume various roles (though the 1st typically stays consistent).
  1. The Fan. This person will love anything you write because you wrote it.
  2. Peer critic. Someone on a similar level who will challenge you as a peer reader
  3. Mentor critic. Someone more advanced who will challenge you as a seasoned writer/reader.
You will not and cannot get better unless you submit your work to other people to read. I would never have been the writer I was in college if my mother had not spent all of high school marking my papers with, "I don't understand what you're saying here." Someone needed to say it and she did.

A Necessary Clarification:
Allow me to conclue with a necessary caveat: not all writing is the same. Each genre has its own intended purposes and will use different techniques to achieve that goal. Good prose writing is not the same in journalism-in novels- in memoir- in how to -in [insert genre]. Writing well for the NYT is not the same as writing for the New Yorker or for the local newspaper or for your personal blog. However, the methods for getting there can be seen as the same.

Some Favorite Resources:
"Reading Like A Writer" by Francine Prose
"Bird by Bird" by Anne Lamott
"Shouts and Whispers" anthology
"Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies" by McEntyre
"Writers on Writing" NYT series
"Paris Review" interviews