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October 14, 2010 / Melissa Leeanne

Salinger and the Tragedies of the Entitled

A worn paperback version of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye sat on a shelf in the third floor communal kitchen of Waldhäuser Ost.  The abandoned book with dogeared pages and a cover curling at the corners reeked of destiny.  He had informed me that I must read this life altering masterwork.  I examined the book, left by some departing student on the same day that I was to embark on a 4 hour train journey to a new city, where I would arrive too late to check into my flat, where I would check into a hostel and devour the whole book before 24 hours would pass.  Perfect.

Yesterday I finished reading Franny and Zooey and as I was nearing the end I realized that, while there are discernibly universal themes, this book, as with The Catcher in the Rye was about the perceived trials and tribulations of entitled, upper or upper middle class, white Americans.

I found both novels to be engaging, I pored over Salinger’s language, and as so many others have, I could relate to the characters and their dilemmas.  Oh, what dilemmas.  I think it is even more the case in Franny and Zooey but these are the dilemmas of the young and affluent, those who are afforded fine educations and the time and resources to have breakdowns and personal crises, rendered immobile by internal existential debates and confusion over their perception of self or their role in society.

Coming from a solid middle class background, having received a fine k-12 education and an above average college education from a private institution, I can, of course, relate to these tragedies of the entitled.  Those of us who are not truly worried about affording food or housing can afford to spend copious amounts of time ruminating on the authenticity of our peers, the sincerity of ideas, the value of the opinions of this or that intellectual, theology and philosophy and the goddamn stars in the sky.  I don’t mean to imply that those lacking this financial comfort don’t have these roving thoughts of great depth, they just don’t have the luxury of doing so in such a casual manner.

Franny or Holden could have breakdowns and drop out of or get kicked out of school, they could go on long train journeys home or to the city and they could spend days on end exploring their personal crises and the depths of their minds and they could sob for countless hours or drink and hire prostitutes – whatever they wanted.  They could check out of reality for days or weeks and when their minds are finally at ease, when they are again at peace with their internal demons, they could start where they left off.  Franny could easily go back to school and resume acting.  Holden could begin school again and could eventually become a financially stable and upstanding citizen.

Someone lower class?  Lower middle class?  They couldn’t afford to be so frivolous about things.  The less money a person has, the more every dollar is worth to that person.  To throw away a semester of school is a huge loss!  To spend days on end without working or dealing with one’s responsibilities could mean a huge loss of income, it could mean having trouble keeping a roof over one’s head or food on one’s table.  I won’t even try to imply that people of all socio-economic classes might have breakdowns, but while some young, white, rich kid can have a breakdown in the comfort of their or their parents’ home, someone with less money available might very well end up shivering on the streets.

Holden Caulfield is a hero to many, not in the same way as he was a hero to himself in the novel, but I know a number of people who see Holden to be some literary kindred spirit.  The same might be said of Franny, I could imagine fellow college alumni commiserating with Franny and her crisis.  At the same time that I can relate, I rather hate myself for it, for being so comfortable, for having it so easy that I recognize myself in fictional, moneyed, tragic youth when I want to, like Franny, be able to empathize with the poor, simple pilgrim.  Now go ahead and imagine that I am a character in one of Salinger’s fabled unpublished works as you read my verbose and damning commentary about protagonists whose lives and thought processes parallel my own and imagine me sitting at my desk, biting my lip as I realize the loop I’ve found myself in.

In any case, my favorite line from Franny and Zooey is this:

“You’d better get busy, though, buddy. The goddam sands run out on you every time you turn around.  I know what I’m talking about.  You’re lucky if you get time to sneeze in this goddam phenomenal world.”

That’s from Zooey’s lecture of Franny, which is, frankly, most of the Zooey portion of the book.  It’s near the very end, when he finally breaks through, when he provides her with advice or imparts some wisdom that she has been seeking or needing all along, it seems.

Who is your literary hero or to which literary figure do you most relate?

October 13, 2010 / Melissa Leeanne

Community

Today, the death of a man in my community was headline news, he was in his late 40’s and his death was unexpected and tragic.  I had met him before, possibly a few times, but I didn’t know him by any stretch of the imagination.  What I do know is that he shared with me similar ideals and mutual friends and a dedication to the community and the environment.  Though I did not know this man, I know of him and his contributions, and many others still will know of his legacy, I suppose one could say.

I have a connection to this man, though indirect, and when I read of his death I felt a sense of loss.  What I feel is but a fraction of what his wife must feel and that breaks my heart a little bit.  I’ve never experienced great loss.

A local artist composed the following haiku, which really moved me.  I want to think of this when I someday experience loss of this magnitude:

What I Want to Believe About Grief

Some days our hearts are

rocks too big to skip.  But tides

will tumble them right.

TSUNAMEE 10-13-10

You can commission a personalized haiku from this artist at her etsy shop.

This man’s death got me contemplating a number of things about life and death and empathy and now community.

The largest city I lived in was maybe 150 thousand residents.  When I was young and lived in Hayward California it was probably home to 25 thousand fewer residents than it is today.  And Heidelberg, Germany, a city I called home more recently, has a population of not quite 150 thousand.  The University of Heidelberg, where I was an international student, has roughly the amount of students that my adopted hometown of Redmond, Oregon has residents – roughly 25 thousand (If you were wondering, the university boasts the higher number).  I guess Salem, Oregon has a population of about 150 thousand as well, though I lived on campus and rarely interacted with “townies.”  Currently, I reside in a city with a population of approximately 30 thousand residents and feel now, more than ever, that I am integrated in a community.

Perhaps it is the size of the city (relatively small); or the efforts I have made to be involved (boards and organizations and clubs, oh my); or that I am voting, tax paying, apartment renting, utilities bill paying, contributing member of society instead of an oblivious child or an angst ridden teen or a transient student.  For going on four years I have lived in the same general neighborhood, worked in the same general neighborhood, walked the same routes, eaten at the same restaurants, sipped coffee at the same cafes, bought clothes at the same boutiques, volunteered with and worked with the same people, attended meetings and events and fundraisers with the same people, and talked with, waved to, and shared ideas with the same people.  I can barely walk to work without running into a friendly face.

For some it could be stifling, but for me it is comforting.  It is wonderful to run into my state representative at brunch (that happened today).  It is comforting to know that I don’t necessarily need to arrange for someone to pick me up at the airport when I return from a trip because I’ll likely know someone on the plane who can give me a ride.  It is pleasantly surprising to discover that the new person I meet is a parent or cousin or child or friend of someone I already know.  It is inspiring to know my US Senator, my state Representative and Senator, my mayor, amazing artists, theatre actors, published authors and rising star poets, promising musicians and my neighbors.

Most of all, I find it comforting that, when I die, some near stranger might read of my death and feel something.  That the effort I put into improving my community might be tangible.  That a person who walked the same morning and evening route might notice I am no longer sharing their path.  That the people I interact with everyday might notice and care that I am not around.  That the people whose lives I touched indirectly might find themselves experiencing this same thought process that I have today.

Is this desire narcissistic or is it a basic human desire to feel worth?

Is the community one knows in a big city comparable to the community one knows in a small town?

September 26, 2010 / Melissa Leeanne

The Corporate Myth Debunked and Taxation of Small Businesses

When I was in college I despised my econ classes.  I had great professors but was far more interested in softer social sciences and drink specials at the nearby pub.  I took micro, international econ, and I even accidentally took an econ class in German while I was studying in Heidelberg.  My eyes would glaze over and my brain would slow to hibernation level activity.  I once wrote a paper and then changed my thesis entirely and rewrote the paper all in one day.  It seemed dense and dull and it was by no means anywhere near my favorite subject.

So, you can imagine my surprise when I found myself reading about how stock markets work and engaging in intelligent discourse about taxes and actually enjoying the exchange.  Something happened and I’m kind of giddy about it.

Economics is as important to understanding politics as history or political theory courses are.  I am really thankful that I chose International Studies as a focus versus straight politics.  Even if I hated my econ classes, I did pass them and I did absorb some information that has stuck with me.  If you want to know a secret, I have a macro text book that I fully intend to pore over on my own.

I work on a political campaign and, as with many things, understanding of tax policy and ownership structure for businesses is cursory to one’s ability to discuss, with any confidence, a lot of the issues.  A friend of mine posted a link to an article today about small businesses and how they would be affected by proposed tax hikes (which aren’t tax hikes, really, but the expiration of a temporary tax cut) and we briefly discussed what defines a small business.  I also got to have a chat with a constituent today about what defines a small business and what makes a corporation a corporation.

There are three ownership structures common in the business world that I know of: sole proprietorship, partnership, and incorporation.  The article my friend posted deals in sole proprietorships and partnerships and the discussion I had with a constituent today was about corporations.  If you had asked me six months ago how I would define a corporation, it would likely have elicited some rant about giant, evil corporations with only the interests of their shareholders in mind.  I would have ranted about wall street gambling and deregulation and I would have berated the supreme court for their ruling that corporations are entities with the same rights as citizens.

Now, I still may rant about wall street and deregulation and corporations as people but I won’t leave off the “giant, evil” prefix because I know what a corporation is.  I know because, well, I’m a board member of a corporation.  A small, not for profit organization.

A corporation is a business or organization with ownership distributed among a group of people, which elects a board to make decisions for the corporation.  So far, not too evil.  The group might be the participants in a sports league or may be shareholders.  Board members might be paid or unpaid.  The corporation can be for profit or not for profit and can fall under a vast array of different categories regarding tax status and fiscal restrictions.  Still not evil, right?  There are a number of reasons a business or organization might have for incorporating but one of the most important reasons might be that the financial liability is on the corporation and not on those who own the corporation.  In other words, if you are a small business owner and someone chooses to sue your business, they can seize all the assets of the business, but your personal assets are off limits.  This is really great news for a small business owner with a family and a mortgage, someone who could lose everything over a hot cup of coffee scalding a customer.

Where things get evil is that large, for profit corporations can operate with shareholders’ or board members’ best interests in mind and things can get a little lax on the ethics.  And when a giant, evil corporation goes under, the board, who make the decisions, don’t suffer as even the shareholders do, unless they are found to be participating in illegal activities and get shipped off to white collar prison.  Giant, evil corporations also have considerable resources with which to influence elected officials to legislate laws that benefit giant, evil corporations and their interests.

The lesson: not all corporations are giant and evil.  Some are.

Now about the taxation and small businesses:  Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has claimed that not reinstating the Bush tax cuts will detrimentally affect small businesses.  Also, many candidates for elected office will claim they will cut taxes for small businesses, a move greatly appealing to those on the Right.

I will say without shame that those who have more, have more to give.  I believe that our poor and our middle class should pay less in taxes than the most wealthy of our society.  I believe that giant, evil corporations should pay giant, evil taxes and that millionaires ought to fund some social programs with what they have left over after buying mansions and luxury cars.  I am happy to see the Bush tax cuts expire.  But I am not particularly offended by “tax reform” that gives the little guys a break.  I don’t mind when the poor and middle class get tax breaks or when small businesses get tax breaks.

So, what is a small business?  I’m afraid I have not got a real answer for that, but I may have some guidelines for how to read your average political message.

Small is not specific enough.  My candidate, referring to small businesses, used income as the measure of a small business in his proposal.  A person can argue all they want that that number “isn’t that small” but the number is there.  Where are the criteria McConnell uses to define “small business?”  It is important for everyone to dissect the rhetoric and search for the meaning behind the messaging.  Vague descriptors and inflammatory statements seem to work all too well for the Right, so it seems it is the responsibility of the voter to find the actual facts, if they exist, in these statements.

That must be the elitist empiricist in me, wanting measurable variables instead of vague quantitative descriptors.  Econ, with all its numbers, made me cringe before.  Now I demand those numbers.  It is important to understand that the jargon and branding of modern American politics is dangerously misleading.  We’ve chosen the path of meaningless catch phrases and kitschy political gimmicks when the way we can make the best decisions for everyone is by looking at facts and comparing and contrasting data.  There is also room for testimony from real people and looking our citizens as individuals, but seriously, people: facts and hard data ought to be the main criteria for decision making.

September 18, 2010 / Melissa Leeanne

Walkability and Downtown Living

Walkscore.com rates my location as having a walk score of 86, while the highest 10% for my city is 89% and the average is 35%.  I could probably rent a less expensive apartment if I lived further from the heart of downtown, but then I’d have to buy a car and insurance and gas – or take the bus.  But you don’t want to have to rely on the bus in this town.  I have horror stories and it runs somewhat infrequently.

I am unsure of the algorithm used to calculate the walk score, but I might rate my location higher than 86% by my own criteria for walkability and my expert knowledge of my neighborhood.

For example, while I may agree that The Sandpiper is the nearest restaurant and that the Heritage on 2nd is the nearest (best) coffee shop, the Silverbow is slightly closer and also serves coffee drinks.  I’ve never been to the J & J but I know it as the place where the high school kids get sandwiches at lunch, not as a real grocery.  I believe Capital Embroidery moved but was replaced by a better shopping option: a consignment shop.  Walkscore.com also lists no parks in my walk radius, but there is a park less than a tenth of a mile from my apartment.

I could go through the whole thing, but it would bore you.  What I mean to point out by posting this is that I am really happy with the walkability of my location and the lifestyle if affords me.  I do not own a car and, surprisingly, I do not own a bicycle.  I walk most everywhere I go and use the bus, on average, a dozen times a year at most.  I sometimes carpool with friends or borrow cars if there is a standing offer, but these trips involve visits to Costco or a pilgrimage to the Thai restaurant.  These are the things I appreciate, but what the greater public might appreciate about my lifestyle, beyond my minimal carbon footprint, is my great legs.

The real purpose of this post, though, is to share this tool.  If you had not previously been aware of this site and if you are planning to move somewhere and your preferred mode of transportation is your two feet, I recommend using this site as a tool to determine the walkability of your potential future home.

June 23, 2010 / Melissa Leeanne

Kids say the… most inappropriate things.

The posts have been a bit kid heavy.  This ought to change when I am done teaching.  For now, I would like to share some of my findings pertaining to inappropriate comments and comics from children:

I am teaching three classes of “Creating Comics” to children ranging from seven to eleven years of age.  Most of my students really like me.  Their reasoning is that I’m immature like them.  GREAT.

I have a class of rising 5th and 6th grade students who one day started with the innuendo.  A student made a comic that had some inappropriate implicit meaning and he knew it.  I confiscated the comic and threw it away.  Just kidding, I kept it to show my friends that 10 and 11 year old boys are pervy.  It didn’t stop there, soon other students had joined in with innuendo about licking pretzel sticks and other nonsense.  I had to stop it.  Kids aren’t supposed to think or talk like this (in front of responsible adults)!!!

I’ve had to curb a lot of inappropriate discussion in this class.  I’ve actually thanked a student for not saying “sex” or “penis” in class.  It’s a lot to keep track of.  Sometimes I don’t even get what these kids are saying but know by the tone of voice that it is meant to be implicit of something sexual.

Then there are my younger classes.  These kids are young and mostly sweet.  One little girl had no clue how implicitly sexually taboo a panel in her comic could be.  I couldn’t confiscate this, then I would have to explain to this young girl what R Kelly does to young girls.

She had delightful, imaginative characters sharing a silly conversation which makes one laugh aloud, if one has spent enough time with kids to again appreciate bathroom humor.  The last few panels go something like this:

“Do you want some water?”  asks round spirally guy.

“No.  I have to pee!” responds little fluffy guy.

“Now do you want water?” repeats round spirally guy.

“No, but I could use a shower!” suggests little fluffy guy.

Little fluffy is seen under a stream of liquid from a showerhead.

“Hey, that’s not water!  That’s more pee!” exclaims little fluffy guy.

And that is how a 7 year old girl makes a reference to “golden showers” in her comic.  And this is when I declare that art should not be censored and hope her parents know nothing of pop or fringe culture.

June 14, 2010 / Melissa Leeanne

Don’t blame the rats…

Don’t blame the rats.  Blame the children.  Wait, don’t blame the children; blame their PARENTS.

I’m teaching art classes currently and in one of my classes there was a kid with snot noticeably dripping from his nose the whole first week of class.  I should have just given him a pencil and eraser and one of those surgical face masks and quarantined him to another part of the classroom.  Or sprayed him with lysol?  I doubt that is legal.  In any case, every single student in all three of my classes has potentially touched something he has touched and I certainly have.

I didn’t feel well on Sunday evening and when I woke up Monday morning I had a full on cold with aches and a sore throat.  I muttered to myself about the kids carrying diseases like rats, then I realized that the real problem was not the kid.  This poor kid’s mom or dad was in charge of whether he attended Fine Arts Camp or not; they had paid money for the program and I guess I can sort of see why they sent him.  That doesn’t mean I like it, though.

And here I am, sucking it up and going to teach with a cold because, well, I need the money and there isn’t exactly a substitute available to teach Creating Comics.

And so disease spreads.  I hope I give these children more in life than a cold and that they one day grow up to be famous comics artists.  They would do better to choose a career that assures more money and/or actual fame, though, I suppose.

I hope I don’t have a fever, though feverish delirium might explain why I wrote this awful post.

June 14, 2010 / Melissa Leeanne

The World Cup

I did not give a damn about soccer until June of 2006 and after the world cup concluded that year, I returned to my natural state of not caring about soccer.  If you know anything at all about professional soccer, you might understand how my interest in the sport developed:  I was living in Germany when they hosted the 2006 Weltmeisterschaft.

It was impossible to not care.  Every television set in Heidelberg, where I was living, was tuned to a station showing the World Cup games.  I watched games in pubs, outdoors at the university square, in passing while waiting for trains, and on my roommate’s television.  I was hooked and I can only conclude that enthusiasm is highly contagious.

Once the cup came to an end, I tucked my interest away in a box in the attic and thought nothing more of it.  Until now.  Four years later I am organizing viewing events for games and singing along to Sportfreunde Stiller’s hopeful pop song about another big win for Germany.

It’s not the same.  The games are at odd hours with South Africa hosting and Americans hardly care about soccer.  I won’t be painting my face, the streets will not be crowded with ecstatic crowds after a win, and I will not be talking about the most recent game with every person I meet.  I won’t be arguing that Michael Ballack is far more attractive than Cristiano Ronaldo, I will not be discussing the number of yellow cards thrown in a particularly messy match, and I will not be gasping at the audacity of Zinedine Zidane head butting an opposing player.

It will never be the same.  I had lived in Germany for almost a full year when the World Cup took place.  Germany loves soccer in a way that America never will, they were hosting that year, and they had a fantastic team.  I had the opportunity to share in a fervor that I may never have otherwise experienced and which I will most likely never experience again.  Watching the World Cup this year, I feel nostalgic for that year, for those few weeks.

I am rooting for Germany.  It’s terribly unpatriotic of me to hope that a foreign country will reign supreme over my homeland, but I have never fit the current American standard for patriotism.  I wish that my country felt most proud when hosting an international event, playing well as a team as Germany did in 2006.  Instead, patriotic Americans are proud to be Americans.  A fat lot of talent that takes…

* I almost called it football but I didn’t want to be quite that pretentious.

* It takes a considerable amount of effort to become a naturalized American citizen as an immigrant.

June 13, 2010 / Melissa Leeanne

Rhetorical Question

I recently posted a lot of questions about our methods of warfare and why we haven’t developed a strategy to target the terrorist organizations rather than occupying an entire country.

It was more a rhetorical question.  I certainly don’t believe we don’t have the ability to apply different strategies – we do.  I didn’t have to wait long to figure out why we don’t apply different strategies.

Afghanistan is full of natural resources that we want!  With the BP oil spill mess (do I need to even cite a source? It’s EVERYWHERE) there is definitely going to be even more of a push for clean, renewable energy, including developing and using technology powered by lithium ion batteries and what better place to get lithium carbonate than this poor country we are occupying?

We can get our oil from Iraq (or on the shores along the gulf coast?) and our lithium carbonate from Afghanistan and when we need something else valuable and expensive, we can just find another country to occupy!

June 13, 2010 / Melissa Leeanne

Translation

No hablo español.  Therefore, I would like to thank Edith Grossman for translating Love in the Time of Cholera from Spanish to English.  Were it not for award winning translator, Edith Grossman, I would not be enjoying this work by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

This is not the first time I have thought about translation, having studied Spanish briefly and German for somewhat longer; I have been tasked with translating blocks of text myself.  I have the utmost respect for those who can translate literature and poetry, faithfully reproducing the meaning as well as maintaining the intended aesthetic.

Now that I’ve expressed my respect for Grossman’s translation, I have to say, I may not stay faithful.  I may check out another translation: a queen’s English translation.

It is almost embarrassing to admit the reason for my infidelity: eggplant.

“The harmony they had longed for reached its culmination when they least expected it, at a gala dinner at which a delicious food was served that Fermina Daza could not identify.  She began with a good portion, but she liked it so much that she took another of the same size, and she was lamenting the fact that urbane etiquette did not permit her to help herself to a third, when she learned what she had just eaten, with unsuspected pleasure, two heaping plates of pureed eggplant.  She accepted defeat with good grace, and from that time on, eggplant in all its forms was served at the villa in La Manga with almost as much frequency as at the Palace of Cassalduero, and it was enjoyed so much by everyone that Dr. Juvenal Urbino would lighten the idle hours of his old age by insisting that he wanted to have another daughter so that he could give her the best-loved word in the house as a name: Eggplant Urbino.”

I don’t know what the original text read and I also don’t know the common word for eggplant in Spanish, though in my brief study of the language I did learn many food words.  I do know that in British English, eggplant is called Aubergine.  The idea of naming a child after a food is meant to be absurd, but I feel the absurdity of naming a child Eggplant seems almost out of place in a book that seemed to so subtly and gracefully glide between reality and magic.  Aubergine, however, is a delightful name for a daughter and did it not belong to a food, I would consider it.

It is not Ms. Grossman’s fault that I am left wanting.  I believe her translation to American English is beautiful, I just wish the word ‘eggplant’ were similarly as beautiful.  If we could only switch to calling it ‘aubergine’ instead, I would be a happier person.

June 13, 2010 / Melissa Leeanne

Only More Questions

Suspected Taliban militants have executed a 7-year-old boy, accusing him of spying for the government, officials in southern Afghanistan said Thursday.

The Taliban is blatantly disregarding basic human rights by executing a child, but how do we (the rest of the world) deal with it?

In my daily life, I frequently give no thought to the fact that we are at war with Afghanistan.  The war in Afghanistan is being called the longest war in US history. If we are already at war with Afghanistan in an attempt to eradicate the Taliban, what more can we do?

Perhaps the question to ask is not “what more can we do?” but “what can we do differently?”  Consider briefly the history of warfare, even if you lack expertise on the matter, you may recall that we once fought our battles upon open fields.  Oh, how warfare has evolved.  Now we can fight our enemies in much the same way that we play video games and we have weapons of mass destruction that could cause limitless devastation.

Our enemies today are terrorist groups, yet we find ourselves instead fighting wars against the countries harboring these groups.  Our moms always reminded us that we might be judged by the company we keep, but I doubt they imagined it to be a life threatening situation.

Why has our method of warfare not evolved in such a way that we can concentrate our focus on fighting the group without occupying a country?

How can the world’s largest and most advanced military fight a war for ten years against a small terrorist organization?

What is the real purpose of this (and our other) war?

When will we admit that we are wasting trillions of dollars and sacrificing lives over lies and pull out?

These are not new questions and I provide no answers, but I thought about it, which is more than many Americans can say on any given day.