Friday, February 19, 2010

The Saddest Funny Book I've Ever Read

A couple of months ago I decided that the 4th-6th grade book club I lead would pick their own book for the month of February. Terming it "funny February" I solicited suggestions for a humourous book for the month. One of the kids, a 5th grader, suggested the book "I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President", by Josh Lieb. Declaring it the "funniest book he'd ever read" he is already re-reading it in anticipation of book club.

So, today. Today, I picked up the book and started reading it--and rather than finding it to be funny I am finding it to be a book that reflects, most accurately, some painful realities: the cruelty young people can have for each other; the pain that those who do not fit the norm experience; and the fantasies of a hurting young boy made manifest on the page. Granted, I am only on chapter 8, but as I read I remember the pain of late elementary and middle school where I felt a degree of alienation that left me in tears on a regular basis. I went through my day feeling out of sync with my peers and filled with the vague sense that I was being laughed at--yet didn't know why.

Back to the book...

Oliver Watson is a self described "evil genius" whose machinations are cleverly hidden behind the mask of stupidity he has intentionally chosen to don. A chubby kid who is literally the laughing stock of his peers--so seemingly dim witted that even the teachers at school scorn and pity him--he has created a world of his own in which he reigns supreme with every wish granted, and every bully punished. The tone is snarky and dark--and Oliver's alienation more than tragic. The humor comes from the revenge he extracts and the contempt with which he holds all those around him.

Rich fodder for young people who dream of revenge...and are longing for the kind of unconditional love that only Oliver's mother and dog offer.

It reminds me most deeply of my experience in mid-elementary school. Usually alone on the playground at recess I smarted from being excluded and different. The relentless teasing of my class mates didn't end when I went home--to siblings who were all to eager to point out the hint of a lisp I still carried and to call my solid build "fat". I desperately wanted to get back at them for their cruelty but actual action was beyond me. One day at recess I decided to imagine a world in which I had a supersonic scream--a scream so piercing and awful that anyone who was mean to me within range would fall down dead (I think I remember imagining blood pouring from their ears). So, there I was, spinning around in circles. Screaming at the top of my lungs with my eyes closed. Imagining the bodies falling around me. Soon thereafter, the bell rang and I headed back to class.

So, rather than funny, I find this book sad. And, I am saddened for the young people who's screams are not heard and who long for revenge in the midst of their own powerlessness.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Childbirth, Lent and Purity Codes

Epiphany jetted past at a suspiciously swift tempo (hello time/space continuum, slow down please!). And I feel like I've fallen directly into Lent--the most un-Lenten Lent I've ever experienced. At the same time, I know the dance between life and death continues and I am well aware of the risks of love.

Statistically, historically (and no, I'm not going to hunt down the book this came from at 6am), the average marriage only lasted 7 years. Not because of some "seven year itch" or medieval divorce rates--but, because of death in childbirth. While this is clearly no longer the case (in this country at any rate) it is an awareness that is hard to shake. While this is not a fear that keeps me up at night...nor one that torments me in the is a knowledge I carry. A knowledge ground into my pores like the ashes from last night (however, unlike the ashes, this knowledge won't make me break out).

A strange sensation, this carrying of life and death. Yet, at the same time, it is something we all carry. It's interesting how the purity legislation surrounding childbirth in most cultures is incredibly restrictive--and if we are to believe Bell's work on the matter--this has to do most intimately with how close the childbearing woman has come to the margins of death of life. (The same concept underlies purity codes around menstruation) Blood, water, life, death--great pain and great joy.

Welcome to a Holy Lent indeed. Interesting, given all of this, that Lent has traditionally been a time of preparation for baptism. Perhaps this is where I will find my sense of the sacred in Lent--not so much in reflecting on the passion (altho' it is my natural inclination to do so) but in preparing for birth. Lent is a liminal season. It is neither fish nor fowl--and I am currently not one nor two. My anticipation of Easter seems bound to my anticipation of a major ontological transformation (in other words, birth/parenting will transform both me and my beloved). Hmmm, perhaps there is something to be said for a liminal third trimester juxtaposed with a liminal Lent?

My apologies for all of the anthropological/theo "speak". But this language is the place I begin--and where I find a false sense of control over what there can be no control over. That said, it's time to slip into a modified child's pose to help this kidlet realize that they are facing the wrong way!