Saturday, February 13, 2016

"The road is wedged into the forest like a needle stuck into a ball of yarn."

Sometimes a sentence will jump right out at me. make me stop and think.  This is from a story about coming upon a car that had just hit a moose on a darkening mountain road in Maine in The Sun.  Actually, there are two stories.  The driver and the passenger, both writers coming back from giving readings at a nearby college, both give their own separate accounts of the encounter.  This is from the second one by Sarah Braunstein.

My mother used to knit and I used to hold the yarn on my hands as she would roll it into a ball.  Or I'd roll it.  I can feel the ball of yarn in my hand and see the needle stuck through the winding yarn.  But as I thought about the image more, I wasn't so sure it worked.  The yarn makes a good tight tangle of forest, but a road in such a place wouldn't be straight like the needle, rather it would wind this way and that.  But maybe Maine roads are straighter.

The interview in that edition also caught my attention.  It's with an anthropologist, David Lancy, about child rearing in the West compared the the rest of the world.  I found my self alternately agreeing and disagreeing with Lancy's statements.

His basic argument is that in most cultures in the world, the elders get the attention and are catered to.  In the West it's the kids.  And he doesn't seem to think this is good for how the kids develop.  I remember long ago working in Thailand  being amazed at how much young kids could do - probably best characterized by an image in my head of a five or six year old with a younger sibling hitched to the hip.  And I remember how much freedom I had as a child to wander the neighborhood with other kids.  I walked to school on my own from the first grade through the 12th.  So part of me agrees with Lancy that this loss of freedom and independence is regrettable.

There's much in the interview that will outrage folks as he talks about the subordination of women and female genital mutilation in the context of the whole culture.  He gives some caveats and says he doesn't approve, but not demonstrably enough.  I chalk this up to possibly the limited time he spoke to the interviewer or how the interview was edited.  He just couldn't give all the context.  I also attribute it to an anthropological approach, where he's being descriptive of how things work in a different culture and also evaluating things in terms of that culture.  But it's going to rile people.

Lancy also talks about anthropologists using 'cultural relativism' as a lens, so that they evaluate a culture, not in comparison to other cultures, but in the context of each culture itself.  The opposite of cultural relativism, he says, is ethnocentrism, which most non-anthropologists use.  Ethnocentrists judge other cultures in comparison to their own, which, more often than not, is the best.

And yet, in the end, he's judging Western child rearing as wanting compared to how other cultures rear their kids.

I think perhaps he should have stepped back a bit further and talked more about the context of child rearing in Western societies.  In that context, the child rearing he describes, might actually be appropriate for getting one's kid on a track that will get her into a good university and eventually to a good job.  It's the modernist, rational world that these kids are growing up in that leads to a capitalist society in which money is the most important indicator of status and importance that's the problem.  And where fewer and fewer people are getting richer and richer and more and more are slipping into a barely making category.

It's a provocative piece.  Well worth reading and discussing.

And finally, I just started William Gay's the long home.  In the first two pages I was already struck by three words that I realized I would never write.  Not because I've never heard of them, but because they're in my passive vocabulary, not my active vocabulary.

  • sepulcher  ". . . or some great internal storm, flaring the hollows of the world, lightning quaking unseen in sepulchers dark and sleek and damp .  .  ."
  • tintinnabulation "He threw his arms about his head and leapt up wildly while rocks were falling on the roof in a rising tintinnabulation . . ."
  • languorous "The bespoke him with languorous foreboding . . ."
And Gay offers us wonderful images such as:
". . . aged by the ceaseless traffic of the years . . ."

Again, I had to stop and savor the words, roll them over in my mouth, tasting them, as I consider this idea of 'the ceaseless traffic of the years.'  I saw freeway traffic, years like cars constantly driving past, but it could also refer to the trafficking of goods.

Getting these delicious images within a few hours of each other reminded me how so much writing today is like fast food, easy, but unsubstantial.   And how I need to be more thoughtful in crafting my own prose.

1 comment:

  1. It's funny how these kind of comparisons work. One can easily skew the narrative so as to make one's own culture or the alternative look better, depending on what values one wishes to nudge the reader towards.


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