preservation vs. function

This week I have had the opportunity to view several of the pieces in the Berger-Cloonan Collection of Decorated Papers at the Cushing Memorial Library and Archives at Texas A&M University, and to hear the collectors speak of their journey and about decorated papers. It’s been fascinating.

decorated paper 1

Yes, this is a two-dimensional piece of paper.

What are decorated papers? In the very basic sense, it is paper that has been decorated in some way, and in the case of the Berger-Cloonan Collection, papers that have been decorated by hand. Berger and Cloonan have travelled the world to find papers to add to the collection, often directly from the artists themselves. The Blue Batik Zig Zags paper I used to cover my gaming binder is an example of commercial decorated paper.

decorated paper 3One thing Sid Berger said during the talk has been turning in my mind: he wants complete sheets of paper and abhors the thought of cutting any of the papers into smaller pieces.

But what are decorated papers for? In book production, these types of papers are often used for the nice end papers inside the cover of hardcopy books and special editions. To be used for this purpose, the papers must be cut to size.

As an archivist-in-training, with a touch of a hoarding impulse, I recognize the desire to keep beautiful pieces intact. But also as an archivist-in-training and historian, with a dose of pragmatism, I see the importance of letting these papers fulfill their functions: to be used, to be appreciated in the way they bring beauty to an object that brings together a variety of specialized trades. A book that has decorated paper inside, or even outside, the cover lets us know that not only was this book considered special enough to warrant beautiful paper in its binding, but also that such artisanship was valued by its makers and audience. And that is just the beginning of the insights we could learn from such an object.

decorated paper 4

An example of a piece that has been ‘marbled’ twice using a mask.

In some ways it comes down to the intention or purpose behind the object. Some of these pieces truly are works of art. Some of the artists made these papers specifically to be included in the Berger-Cloonan collection. Some of these pieces were not made to be used as end papers in books, but are intended to be kept whole. These pieces can be framed and appreciated as the works of art they clearly are.

Therein lies the distinction. The truly singular pieces, made with the intent to be viewed as a whole, intact piece, should be kept so; but the inclusion of an entire ream (hundreds of pages) of a similar, repetitive design that was made commercially perhaps would serve its purpose better by being used. Of course, I was not privy to the appraisal process and may be unaware of the reasons why reams of material were included in the collection. Nor am I an art historian nor a decorated paper aficionado. I am, however, someone who appreciates craftsmanship and the practical and the mundane made beautiful.

We have the tendency to hide away our beautiful and finely crafted things, wrapped carefully and kept safe, hidden from view. How often do we actually use that special china, or knit something from that beautiful and hand-dyed yarn, or drink that unique tea? But how well can we enjoy those things if we do not see them or use them? Yes, using them poses some risk — we might break the china, the project for the yarn might not work out, the tea will be consumed — but this risk is part of living life. Let us use the beautiful things meant to be used and enjoyed in their use.

What do you think? How do you decide what is ‘too special’ to use and what isn’t?


All images in this post are of papers included in the Berger-Cloonan Collection of Decorated Papers in the Cushing Memorial Library and Archives at Texas A&M University. This post will be updated with the names of the individual artists once I have that information.

Time travel in fiction

I recently finished another novel that, unexpectedly, used a form of time travel to change an event in the past with the intent of ‘fixing’ the future. I won’t say which novel — to avoid spoilers, as it’s the last in a series — but its use of the plot device of altering the past neatly serves as a counterpoint to how Eleanor does so (see my review), and yet I was still left unsatisfied.

Cambridge_time_2012

This novel did address the consequences of the changed event: when the perspective character returns to her body, her entire world was different. The people she knew and loved in her old life are strangers to her, if they indeed exist in the new world. Interestingly, the character maintained her previous life’s memories alongside the memories of her new life. Normally I would have been skeptical about anyone remembering a life that no longer existed, but the means by which she changed the past provided an explanation for how this would be the case. She had known that there would be a ‘cost’ to her meddling with time, and here we actually see it. By retaining her memories, she bears the weight of knowing what has been lost for the sake of this new world.*

Part of me remains skeptical that she would still exist in this new timeline: the circumstances that had brought her parents together had not happened. Indeed, the change was so drastic, and so long ago (three centuries!), that rather than present an ‘alternate universe’ in which many of the same characters exist in a different setting, no one from the previous timeline would exist in the new one, not after the first generation or two anyway. From there the timelines would diverge too much. Even if the genealogies remained mostly similar, the vastly different culture alone would have resulted in different personalities.

Rather, a more satisfying ending would have had the magic she had used to change the past to allow her to see the unfolding of the new timeline, without also trying to shoehorn her into it; the magic had allowed her to exist outside of time to speak to her ancestors, and so she could have stayed there. Or, as a compromise, the magic she used and that is in her bloodline could have accounted for her continued existence, but not that of anyone else she knew. The poignancy of her grief at having lost her friends could have been intensified by having no one in the new world be familiar to her, even if only by outward appearance or disposition. That would pose a fascinating moral question: by having ‘saved’ thousands of lives by preventing wholesale war and slaughter, she also prevented thousands of lives that had existed from even existing.

But part of me would still be dissatisfied with even that. The other issue I have with this plot device is how it cheats the reader in a way. In this case, the reader has invested an entire series’ worth of emotional energy and time into these characters and the world that they are in. Then, a deus ex machina ending erases everything the reader has invested in. How do you justify to the reader that everything they just read and cared about never happened? There is an element of futility here that, as a reader, I don’t like to experience.

Therein lies part of the problem with the ‘alternate universe’ style ending that the novel has: because the readers, and the author, have invested in these characters, we want a happy ending for them. We don’t want them to cease existing; we want them to benefit from the new, better world (assuming it is a better world). A plausible ending wipes them from existence; but an ending that keeps the cast of characters and places them happy and content in their new lives fails to account for the sheer thorny complexity that comes from changing the course of history so completely.

Yes, part of me is relieved that the devastation that came from centuries of corruption and war was prevented, but it feels hollow. One of the things that interests me as a reader is how characters respond to and live with tragedies, even unspeakable ones. There was a minor character in this series who experienced terrible things as a child, and yet she was growing into a confident and strong young adult. She was just starting to learn that she did not have to be defined by her past — and then she is erased entirely. This question of how an individual lives with the brokenness of the world can be applied also to how communities, even nations, do the same. It is those stories of rising from the ashes of tragedy that I find most compelling.

That isn’t to say that I don’t like time travel books as a whole. I find time travel fascinating, but I also want it to be plausible. The time travel dilemma explored in these novels is the ‘Grandfather paradox’, also called the ‘Hitler paradox’. But we can contrast these novels with Connie Willis’s Oxford historian time travel books, which instead rely on the Novikov self-consistency principle in time travel. The way Willis treats the various paradoxes of time travel is equal parts artful, poignant, and hilarious.

Ultimately, however tempting, the ‘what if?’ game is a dangerous one to play and impossible to predict the outcomes of. Changing one event does not affect that immediate event only, but all other events following it. As such, this plot device is very difficult to use well; and the extent of the moral dilemmas posed only increase the further back in time one goes to change events.

What do you think about time travel in fiction? Do you have a favorite time travel book?

Photo: Clock Tower in the Great Court of Trinity College, Cambridge, UK.


* I see and understand that this is the case for the main character, and wish that the author had explored how the character lives with this price further. But, I also acknowledge that to have done so more than she already had would have diverged from the tone of the book and wouldn’t fit. A short story, perhaps? How does the character reconcile herself to this new world? (Because she is bookish, and works in a library, part of me suspects that she would eventually write novels about her other life. She has no one to talk to about it and has to process what has happened somehow.**)

** Now I see the appeal fanfic has for some readers.

on commercial healthcare

Yesterday I went to the ER (A&E for my British readers). I had been doing some DIY work on the patio/catio and the step-ladder I was standing on inexplicably folded out from underneath me. I immediately retrieved frozen vegetable bags from the freezer to put on my bruised and blindingly painful left foot, peeled off the sock, and saw that it was bleeding. I swallowed some painkillers and hobbled my way to the bathroom to wash my foot. The cut, once I could see it, was far deeper than I knew I could manage alone. Hastily, I bound it with tissues and medical tape, maintained pressure on the wound, and phoned a friend to ask about going to the ER.

surgical shoe 14-03-17

It looks more dramatic than it really is.

I had only been to the ER twice before, and only once in the U.S., more than a decade ago and only because I needed to see a doctor on the weekend. Since then, the number of independent urgent care centers have proliferated, in part encouraged by competition. Was there some trick to know which one to go to? Were some covered by my insurance and others not? My friend assured me that I could go to any of them, so we located one closest to me and I drove myself there. I was the only patient and was seen to immediately.

The commercial quality of healthcare in America was apparent by the sign announcing, ‘Highest rated on Yelp!’ on the entry door, and was highlighted again when I was checking out: not only was I asked to fill out a customer satisfaction survey, but I was also given a gift bag, the contents of which were all branded with that urgent care center’s logo. Today the center phoned to check in on how I was doing and to ask again for a customer survey.

The entire commercialization of healthcare part of the experience leaves me baffled and repulsed. That healthcare is to be so commercialized and run for profit is antithetical to my belief that access to basic healthcare is a human right, especially in a country that claims to be so far advanced and civilized as this one, and to my general distaste for excessive accumulation of wealth, particularly at the expense of others. In terms of customer satisfaction, what does it matter beyond competent and correct care and that everyone involved behaves professionally? I don’t need a gift bag or be pampered by the staff. I don’t understand the mindset that equates patient with customer.

(The cut was deep enough to need stitches, but its placement and clean edges meant that they could use a ‘super-glue’ for skin instead. It hardly hurts at all; in fact, my bruises and the tension headache that followed hurt worse once the foot was bound up. I’m lucky that it wasn’t worse, considering that I landed on concrete with various bricks and wooden planters around me with sharp edges.)

#WhiteConfessions

I have been challenged by my sisters in faith to speak out about my own experiences of racism. You might wonder, what experiences could I have? I am a white woman, after all. Blue-eyed, golden brown hair, very pale. But I have been challenged by recent events to articulate my part in this overwhelming system of white privilege.

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So I admit that didn’t know brown people’s hair was different until high school, when a friend mentioned having to get her hair “relaxed,” and I was confused because up until that point, I thought hair was hair was hair. I admit that since then I have been curious to feel how the texture is different from mine – though I have never asked, and would never touch another person’s head without their permission.

I admit that I have wondered whether people of color need to wear sunblock – “Of course they do,” I tell myself, “UV rays affect them too, even if they don’t turn red as a lobster as you do in the sun.” The anthropologist in me notes how different cultures hid their (aristocratic) women away indoors to be pale, for being darkened by the sun indicated that you were a laborer.

I admit that I feel awkward or unwanted when I hear people lamenting the lack of diversity in my profession. I admit that affirmative action sometimes makes me feel uneasy, because I wish we lived in a world in which we could each be judged by merit and potential. I remind myself that meritocracy would only work if everyone had access to the same opportunities and resources and that the world we live in is drastically unequal.

I admit that my ancestors in South Carolina owned slaves. From what I’ve been told, it was a small farm and they ate meals with the family, but they were still slaves and I wish that was not part of my heritage.

I admit that I didn’t know watermelons were a racist symbol against brown people until the Boston Herald cartoon depicting Obama using watermelon-flavored toothpaste in 2014. I worry at how many other images or symbols are racist that I simply don’t know about.

I admit that I get confused about vocabulary. Should I say black, brown, people of color, African-American, Latino/a, Chicano/a, Xicano/a, Hispanic, Asian…? Especially since Asia encompasses Russia, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, East and South Asia, and parts of Oceania!

I admit that because I grew up in San Antonio, I am more comfortable around Latinos than other peoples of color – except for the fact that I never properly practiced my Spanish and always feel ashamed when I hear people speaking the language I’m supposed to be mostly fluent in.

I also admit that I love the fact that the majority of my students are people of color. That sometimes I wish I weren’t white so that they could have a teacher of color, too. It isn’t right that nearly all of the teachers at my summer job are white, when the vast majority of the students are not.

I admit that I am sometimes envious of my students’ hair, how they can do so many things with it, whereas mine is flat and frizzy and boring and straight and only stays in braids when it’s wet.

I admit that I’ve always thought it weird when people would mention the color of a person’s skin when telling a story, but only if the color were some shade of brown: because, “The woman in the store,” is presumed to be white unless the speaker says otherwise.

I admit that I think it’s strange and wrong to have clothing or cosmetics or crayons labeled “skin colored” or “nude” when the only skin it sort-of looks like is mine and other white people’s.

And I admit that I have felt and do still feel awkward talking about race with people of color because I don’t know what to say, how to say it, and am afraid of unintentionally causing offense.

*

I don’t remember when I first became aware of racial difference. I have a vague memory of my older sister dating a black guy when she was in high school, and that was considered to be “unusual,” but I didn’t understand why. (I must have been five years’ old.) Our neighbors in San Antonio were Latino and I grew up playing with their children because we were the same age. Many of my classmates were also Latino, though my elementary and middle schools were largely white. My mom taught at a school in downtown San Antonio, and because our schools followed different calendars, I sometimes went to school with her when I didn’t have school for myself. At her school, I was the only white girl with long yellow blond hair. Everyone knew I was Mrs. C’s daughter. It was a strange mixture of feeling out of place twinned with being somewhat of an oddity and celebrity. I remember people wanting to touch and play with my hair.

Even so, my best friends in middle school included Priscilla (a Canadian whose parents were from Ghana) and Nupur (whose parents were from India), who were my first friends of color who weren’t Latino/a. I remember feeling awkward talking about race and American history with Priscilla, because I didn’t know how to talk about it with her. She wasn’t African-American since she was from Canada. Her ancestors weren’t enslaved in America, because her parents were from Ghana. I didn’t know how she fit in the narrative, and I, too awkward, never knew how to ask. Because I still keep up with her, she might read this blog post. I’m sorry Priscilla, for being so awkward.

I went to a different high school than I was districted to. The one I would have gone to was mostly white; instead, I went to a magnet program at a “minority majority school.” I was often one of two or three white girls in my classes. Most of my classmates were black, Latino, or Asian, as were my school friends. I distinctly remember going with a small group of students to a conference or presentation at another school in the district. As we walked across the cafeteria for to find a table for lunch, I was taken aback by the sea of white faces. Someone shouted at us, “Welcome to America!” I was so surprised that I turned and faced the direction the shout came from and shouted back, “Thanks! I’ve only been here my entire life!” or something like that. I remember feeling uncomfortable, guilty by association with the white person who shouted at us, while also feeling out of place in a room almost entirely white except for the group from my school. I continued to feel that way in college and grad school, both places that were predominantly white. I remember feeling a sigh of relief whenever I stepped off the train in London: I would realize how a part of me was coiled tight in mostly-white St Andrews, which relaxed upon seeing all the different shades and hue of human skin and different styles of dress.

A few years ago I read Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin, and I remember reading about one character’s fear  when walking down the street at night and catching the unwanted attention of white men standing outside of a bar or shop. As a woman, I sympathized with that anxiety – I too have hoped to avoid unwanted attention – but I also knew that whatever I felt was only a fraction of what that character experienced on a daily basis in the early-twentieth century in the South. Even magnifying my apprehension in my imagination could not come close to the reality.

Despite all this, I’m ashamed to look at my Facebook friends and see so few people of color listed as my friends. I haven’t kept up with many of my high school friends. Out of about 170 Facebook friends, only about 10 are people of color. That’s ridiculous. Part of me responds by pointing out that roughly a third of that number are people overseas, from various countries, that my friends are at least internationally diverse. But that isn’t the point here, and I’m not here to make excuses to make myself feel better.

At the same time, I don’t want to commit “tokenism.” I wouldn’t dare befriend a person of color just because I wanted more friends of color. I find tokenism horrifying, unacceptable. No, I won’t just add a book to my curriculum solely because the writer is a woman of color. At the same time, I am conscious that most of my students are people of color and I want to reflect that in my curriculum choices. Sometimes that’s near impossible to do (e.g., a course on early British literature), but it’s something I have tried to keep in mind. More than half way through designing a course for this fall, I realized that most of the authors I chose happened to be women of color anyway, chosen by the merit of the text, not for the skin color of the author. I did notice that I have very few Native American and Asian women writers, though, so if you can recommend any short stories or poetry, please do so in the comments section.

But that last sentence in the previous paragraph leans towards tokenism, or at least, feels like it does. At the same time, though, want to broaden my awareness of writers of color and read and support their work.

As I write this, I think of the conversations I’ve had with other white people about white privilege. Last summer, this summer, every time I hear of another brown person shot or stopped or blamed for their own misfortune, part of me rails against the injustice of it all. We are ALL made in the image of God! Each and every one of us, every human being, is made in God’s likeness, and for that alone deserve to be treated with dignity, let alone basic human decency. That part of me reels when I look at the news, when I see the ways white people respond, or their lack of response. Another part of me weeps at the evidence of a fallen and sinful world. I swing between feelings of helplessness, being at a loss for words, stunned by the absurdity of hate, and feelings of action and righteous anger, albeit hobbled by awkwardness and some level of ignorance, though this latter I am trying to remedy.

To my friends, colleagues, and students of color: I want to stand with you against this systemic oppression and injustice. I hope that you know that I see you as an individual first and foremost. I hope you know that I am trying to sound the depths of my ignorance and am willing to share what I learn with others who are also ignorant. I hope you know that I am on your side. I am sorry if something I have done or said, or something I have left undone or unsaid, has caused you pain or harm. As a fellow human in this crazy spinning world, please correct me that I may learn and that I may help others learn. And know, too, that I see you as a person wonderfully and fearfully made in God’s likeness, deserving of dignity and respect.

And so I end my #WhiteConfessions, though I suspect I will think of more to add to it later. Now I challenge you, my readers: What confessions can you make about your own racism?

Photo: Me and a few of my school friends after the high school graduation banquet for our program.

The Great Gatsby

Opening line: ‘In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.’

This is not a book review, but this is a blog post about The Great Gatsby, both the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Baz Luhrman’s recent film adaptation. I reread the novel earlier this year, read about it in detail in Reading Lolita in Tehran, and saw the film last Friday for my birthday.

Seeing the trailer was like getting an invitation to one of Gatsby’s parties: pure excitement. It will be grand. It will be breathtaking. It’s Gatsby. I told F. I wanted to dress up to go to the cinema; F. obliged and wore a suit, and I did up my hair 20s’ style. Although the frame story was new, it made sense with Nick’s character and the story; and the movie left out a line I thought was really symbolic (though I could have missed it). The soundtrack threw me off at first, but it really helps show today’s audiences just how hip Gatsby’s parties were. Overall, I think the film was really well done, an excellent adaptation.

But I left the cinema feeling like I had watched a train wreck. F. felt similar. Having never read the book, never had to study it in school, he asked me, “What’s so great about Gatsby?”

I told him that that’s the first question high school teachers always ask about the book. As I was answering — a mixture of the classic response that The Great Gatsby is a critique of the American Dream, that Gatsby is the hero because of his striving, a rags to riches story, that it’s tragic because the green light he reaches for cannot live up to reality — I was reminded of The Atlantic’s article, The Sublime Cluelessness of Throwing Lavish Great Gatsby Parties. Seward claims that people who throw Gatsby-themed parties miss the point of the novel. They also miss the irony of throwing such a party: the novel condemns such decadence, after all. But what draws us to Gatsby? Why do we dress up in 20s clothing and reach back to that riotous jazz age?

The answer I think is two-fold, and is how we the readers are like Gatsby’s guests. Firstly, people like to feel special. We like to rub shoulders with people we think are important, as if some of that importance rubs off onto us and makes us special and important, too. Why do you think so many people went to Gatsby’s parties? Hundreds of people went, everybody went, including the mayor and senators, movie stars and models, bankers and bootleggers. And yet most of the people there were normal people out for a good time, drawn by the promise of booze, music, and seeing or even talking to or dancing with celebrities. Even more appealing is Gatsby’s mystique itself: no one knows him, few have met him. The aura of mystery around the host makes us feel even more special. Like Gatsby’s guests, we yearn for this association with greatness. This may be one reason we throw Gatsby-themed parties, when we’re so excited about the glitz and glamour of a film about the great American novel.

And we are like Gatsby’s guests in another way. How many Americans really know about The Great Gatsby? Yes, it is included in most, if not all, schools’ English curriculum. I myself have had to read it twice for school: first when I was 17 years’ old, and again when I was 19. The first time I read it I really didn’t like it. I didn’t get it or appreciate it. The second time around was better, probably because it was in the context of Western Civ. But it was reading it this year and watching the film on my 28th birthday that I really got it. Nick Carraway is 29 and 30 during the course of the novel; Gatsby is 32. As teenagers, we just don’t think of 30-year-olds and older as going to parties, dancing, getting drunk, falling in love. 30 is old. Not only that, but jazz and the foxtrot, those are “old-timey” things. How can you expect a teenager to really “get” the world of The Great Gatsby? And so this makes us, the readers and consumers of the novel, even more like Gatsby’s guests. We all know about him, but none of us really know him. The real story gets lost in essay questions about green lights and allegory, but I doubt few teenagers really resonate with the story of a thirty-year old who, in his words, still has a life ahead of him to become a great man, and who throws these lavish parties in order to attract the attention of the woman he loves. As a result, we are complicit in spreading rumours about Gatsby, throwing and attending The Great Gatsby parties with the same excitement guests poured into Gatsby’s mansion.

What’s so great about Gatsby? Why do we love it, even if we don’t understand it? Because his mystique makes his parties more fun to go to; like his guests, we want to feel special and included in a secret. Brooks Brothers and Tiffany & Co. can use The Great Gatsby-themed adverts because not only do we yearn for the glamour of the jazz age, but also because they’re tapping into the fact that most of us are ignorant of Gatsby’s true character, as his guests are, even as they party in his home.

For further reading:

Daydreaming

It’s still cold here. As in, the hills are covered with snow in April. A ‘wintry spring’ indeed. While dreaming about living somewhere warm, I started thinking about other things that I want in life. Such as:

  • a cat (or two);
  • an electric mixer;
  • a sewing machine (and someone to teach me how to use it);
  • a garden;
  • a homemade quilt;
  • a job;
  • to live somewhere I don’t have to worry about healthcare;
  • to write novels again;
  • to eat toast buttered with butter from the farmer’s market and heather honey.

This is just a sampling of course. Mostly I want a simple life that is rich in things you can’t count or quantify: peace, love, friendship, joy, faith.

From a different shore

If you haven’t already, you should read this article from The Atlantic: To Make America Great Again, We Need to Leave the Country

An excerpt:

Young Americans who see this country from different shores can’t help but conclude that something is awry in a political culture that denies what they plainly see elsewhere: health care systems that provide better outcomes at lower cost and for everyone; better airports, faster trains, more extensive urban public transportation–and even, amazingly, better highways; more upward mobility (yes, the American dream is now more real in many other countries than it is here); more sustainable energy policies; elections that work more quickly and inexpensively, with more rational discourse and greater citizen participation. The list is long.

These young Americans usually return with an openness about the world that many of their parents lack. No less patriotic than when they left, they see how curiosity about other ways to do things can only make us a stronger country. They were taught, as we were all taught, that the U.S. was built to greatness on ideas borrowed by the rest of the world and improved here.

This article pretty much sums up one of the main reasons why I chose to move overseas, chose to be an ex-pat. It is, in a way, my form of protest against a governmental system that isn’t working, against an insular or isolationist mindset that plagues not only our politicians’ speeches but also the average person’s worldview. Or so I perceived four years ago, and I admit, it is one of the reasons why I am reluctant to move back to the United States. Various things, conversations, keep reminding me of the end date of my visa and I hate to think about it. (Please. Please people, stop asking me what I’m going to do after I finish my PhD. Let me write the darn thesis first, will you?)

And yet, I cannot help but be slightly convicted by his argument that young Americans who travel and live abroad should return to the U.S., bringing with them their experiences and knowledge gleaned from other shores. ‘True voyage is return, says Odo in The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin. But when one has made one’s home in another country, to where does one return?