Sins of the Flash

The quiet rebellion of women who take pictures anyway

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Photo: Joel Valve on Unsplash

When you visit the island of Torcello in the Venetian lagoon, you observe a sign inside the basilica that forbids photography. Ugh, you think. But it’s so beautiful. Inside, the apse—a half-dome of sorts—is encrusted in gold mosaic. The Virgin Mary resides in its center, alone, regal, royal. It’s graphically arresting and elegant in its simplicity; it contrasts with the opposite wall, a riot of colors, shapes, lines… Biblical scenes of the Last Judgment.

The cathedral is exquisite. One simply must have pictures to remember. So you plan to purchase them in the form of postcards from the adjacent gift shop when you leave. Problem solved.

Why then, the click? Why then is that woman over there snapping away? Lost in thought, she roams the chapel, gazing at the art, studying the expressive scenes, recording her visit on her sleek 35mm Canon.

Your immediate thought: she must have special permission. She must be a researcher working on a project. You explain as much to your husband. No, he says, she’s just ignoring the sign. His nonchalance startles you. As if this is just what people do, and in this case, a woman.

Oh, you reply, secretly envying this woman’s quiet rebellion that allows her a certain freedom that you will never claim. Disobey a sign that clearly states no photos? You shake your head. It’s right there in 96-point Times New Roman even. You roll your eyes at her audacity. This disregard for convention and rules astounds you.

You wonder how much inevitable damage each click does to the Byzantine masterpieces. Over the decades, who knows? She could be causing irreparable harm, you think. This should go down on her permanent record, wherever those are.

You ask your husband about the inevitable damage. Probably doesn’t hurt the art at all, he explains, adding something he read reported most cameras have filters that limit or remove UV waves.  Doesn’t damage a thing, he says.

Here I’ve been, you think, following all the rules all this time.

You continue to stare at this renegade designing her destiny, staking her claim with a few flashes that you still cannot bear to sneak on your measly iPhone. It’s true, you think, this woman has shown you to be the fool that you are.

She clicks another shot and checks the tiny screen. It must have been good, you think.

Her crimes finally and fully committed, the woman strides purposefully across the nave, stuffing her camera into a turquoise canvas tote bag. On the side of the bag is a design: two kitschy, feathery angel wings protruding from behind a shield. The design is cliché and you abhor that about things.


Thanks for reading! This is another story generated by a week-long trip to Italy I took in 2017. There are more stories on the way. Feel free to leave a comment and click follow for more.

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Punishing Laura Ingalls Wilder

Write inclusively… or else.

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Photo: Carl Newton on Unsplash

Little House on the Prairie, Ch. 11—Indians in the House

By Laura Ingalls Wilder

“Laura was frightened. Jack had never growled at her before. Then she looked over her shoulder, where Jack was looking, and she saw two naked, wild men coming, one behind the other, on the Indian trail.

‘Mary! Look!’ she cried. Mary looked and saw them, too.

They were tall, thin, fierce-looking men. Their skin was brownish-red. Their heads seemed to go up to a peak, and the peak was a tuft of hair that stood straight up and ended in feathers. Their eyes were black and still and glittering, like snake’s eyes.”

I remember reading this excerpt as a young girl when prairie mania reigned in one small slice of American pop culture. The craze for all things “prairie” owed its popularity to a series of nine volumes collectively called the Little House books. Written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the series’ popularity was aided by the launch of a TV drama, Little House on the Prairie, starring Michael Landon. I owned the entire Little House set and a pricey collectible wall calendar. I even visited Mansfield, Mo. with my family to tour Wilder’s final home where she wrote her books.

Spellbound through that breathless chapter where the Indians later entered the Ingalls cabin for tobacco and cornbread prepared by the girls’ mother, I considered how vulnerable the Ingalls were as they settled into the frontier of the Osage Indians who lived nearby. Based on my own background and Wilder’s perspective as told through the eyes of Laura, I never considered the vulnerability of the Osage and their culture. I just wanted to keep reading and turning the pages, so I could finish the book and dash off to the bookstore to buy the next.

The sage was enthralling and heart-breaking: white settlers making a home on the American frontier, occasional clashes with the Native Americans, Laura’s coming-of-age, tenuous friendships with the Olson family, Mary’s blindness.

Diverse? Not at all. Inclusive? Nope. It was 1975. As such, Wilder’s Little House series was considered a darn good story and was deemed worthy of recognition.

Until last week.

That’s when the American Library Association (ALA) and its branch, the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), decided to change the name of its prestigious Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. Inaugurated in 1954 and awarded to Wilder herself for her book series, “This award honors an author or illustrator whose books, published in the United States, have made, over a period of years, a significant and lasting contribution to children’s literature,” according to this ALA newsletter.

Sounds reasonable. Few would disagree that Wilder’s books indeed made “a significant and lasting contribution to children’s literature” over the years, albeit not universally among readers.

Here’s how ALSC President Nina Lindsay explained the name change in a letter to her board of directors: “Laura Ingalls Wilder has long held a complex legacy, as her books reflect racist and anti-Native sentiments and are not universally embraced…”

She continued, “Today, this award elevates a legacy that is not consistent with values of diversity and inclusion—something we did not fully understand as a profession when we created the award. While many of Wilder’s books received Newbery honors, (and one may easily find other books within our award canon that don’t live up completely to our current values), we recognize that the name of an award itself holds significant power… The ALSC Executive Committee noted that the name of the award is a currently potentially significant barrier to achieving our goals, and is within our power to change.”

It’s a change many authors, publishers, librarians, and teachers advocate. Debbie Reese, founder of the comprehensive website American Indians in Children’s Literature (AICL) and a Nambe Pueblo Indian woman, believes the images contained in Wilder’s books of “Native people, cultures, and history work to misinform young readers.” One example of misinformation is the dehumanization that appears in Chapter 11. Here’s one instance:  Wilder writes the Osage Indians’ eyes were “glittering like snake’s eyes.”

To counter these messages that misinform young children, the AICL website recommends works “by Native authors who write books that provide children with accurate information about American Indians.”

After all, Wilder’s books do contain racist depictions and stereotypes (in Chapter 11 of Little House on the Prairie and in other books in the series) of Native Americans and Africans. In addition, Reese cites Wilder’s recurring descriptions of the land as “empty” and her arguable notions that Indians were primitive beings without civilized, autonomous societies.

Therefore, to celebrate contemporary authors with an award named for an author whose perspective is found objectionable, seemed incongruous for some members of ALSC, which exists to engage “communities to build healthy, successful futures for all children.”

And let’s not forget this: the ALSC is not censoring Wilder’s work. Anyone can still purchase her books or find them at their local library. The ALSC merely removed Wilder’s name from its prestigious award.

It should also be noted that the decision does not appear to have been made hastily and members did not unanimously favor the change. An ALSC task force conducted a survey of members and ALA ethnic affiliates. The results: 305 favored the name change; 156 did not. Still, according to the ALSC task force’s recommendation, “We believe that this decision serves the best interest of our Association, its members, and all of those they serve, not only now, in 2018, but in the long term.

But what about history? Is it wise to attempt to remove evidence of the prejudicial attitudes from our past by denigrating the authors who recorded them? Wilder’s works were clearly set in the past and while they contain objectionable content for some, they remain a historical account. According to a statement from the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum in Mansfield, Mo., “Mrs. Wilder believed her books to be historically accurate and reflect American life during the Western Movement. However difficult it may be to agree with social mores within these years, the fact remains that was a different time and what was accepted then would not be today.”

Even so, the quest for diversity and inclusion in historical literature takes precedence. With its action, the ALSC is indirectly controlling authors by condoning the events, characters and the actions of the characters those authors write about, historical or otherwise.

Regardless, the end result of all this is that now Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name comes with a warning label attached. And so does the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. This is what that label says:

  • Your characters will speak and behave with respect for all.
  • Your plot’s conflict must offend no one now nor in the future, and include the diverse views of all parties.
  • Your character’s thoughts and impressions must not be their own, or the author’s, but of those with the ability to make institutional change within the prevailing culture.

In short, write inclusively or you will be punished.


Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts? Click like and leave a comment so more people may see this and be able to weigh in. 

Knowing Where A Spark Could Lead

 

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Photo by Yaoqi LAI on Unsplash

 

Tad liked to play with matches and fire.  He enjoyed other boyish pursuits, such as baseball and fishing, but he definitely had a peculiar attraction for fire. I always assumed that fires and the red-tipped sticks that started them attracted Tad chiefly because his parents had forbidden him to use them inside their modest ranch home. On the other hand, maybe his parents banned these items precisely because they knew Tad was so enamored with them in the first place. Then again, maybe they knew something I didn’t about their son.

Eventually, Tad found a way around his parents’ rule: he played with matches outside the house when they weren’t around. Whenever his parents pulled their burgundy Chevelle onto the main road to leave, he would wave to them from the driveway and they would wave back. As soon as he could see the dust rising from the gravel road through the tree row, he would gather his supplies. I didn’t understand why Tad hid this activity from his parents. After all, he wasn’t breaking the “no matches in the house” rule. Maybe he waited for them to go because he didn’t want them to worry. Maybe he waited because his father was six-and-a-half feet tall. Or maybe he knew, deep down beneath his worn flannel shirt, that he was courting danger.

When he played with fire outside, he would use the stray lid of a 55-gallon rusted steel barrel, the type of barrel that people who live beyond the city limits use to burn trash. He would light little fires on the lid, watching the sparks, feeding them tinder, twigs, and a few handfuls of hay he had gathered from the barn.

Gently and with great care, he would watch in wonder as his newborn fire developed into a child. With precisely timed puffs of breath and prodding, Tad would coach, “There you go, you can do it!”  As his creation rolled over and then sat up, he would use his hands to shield the flames from the breeze and whisper, “You got it! You got it! Go!” Finally, his baby fire would stand to the height of a toddler.

At that point, Tad had won and he would stand, hands on hips to block the wind, and stare at the flames, just stare, mesmerized by the miracle on the rusty barrel top. His eyes would fixate then, and enlarge to show his mind wandering off. I never knew where his thoughts drifted, but I suspected they went to Jennifer and the trip to Wyoming he had taken with her family a year before. He had told me several times on the way home from school about that trip.

“I wish we could go back, and that I could stand with her again on the boardwalk over those geysers,” he said. “I wish we could do that again.” Their relationship had ended after that trip, and even though I was friends with both Jennifer and Tad, I never was able to discover what exactly had gone wrong. As he stood next to the fire, staring, he would lilt to one side and the toddler fire would keep growing to the size of a kindergartner until I snapped him back to earth. All I had to say was, “Tad.”

Building a fire in the open on a barrel lid was often hard to do for one reason: the Kansas wind. Time and again, when Tad had just nursed a flame into existence, the wind, which never really stopped blowing, would gust suddenly and snuff out the growing flame. If one wasn’t prepared for this, and hadn’t readied sufficient tinder off to the side of the barrel lid, any fledgling flame would have a slim chance. If you could just get out of the wind, things would change, and that fire might prosper. On a Kansas farm, the best place to get out of the wind — but still be considered, technically,  outside the house — was the barn.

So one steamy July day at Tad’s place, the afternoon soap operas came on, and his cousin Mike, who was visiting from Nebraska, suggested we make a fire in the gravel driveway.  Apparently, the two of them had already made some fires during Mike’s week-long stay. Perhaps Mike, however, did not understand Tad’s fascination with fire.

Tad felt it was safe since his parents were gone. They had driven to town to pay the assorted bills that accumulate over the course of a month. It would be a while before they returned.

In the driveway sheltered by towering catalpa trees,  Tad hovered over his supplies as Mike and I sat off to the side, drinking root beer from sweaty bottles of Mr. Frostie. Tad sparked and lit miniature flames on the barrel lid, fighting with the wind to start his fire, coaxing the flames into small blazes barely stable enough to roast a marshmallow. He directed the flame paths with his hands, then used the side of an old cardboard box to fan some more. His eyes lit up as a meager blaze leapt into the air. The wind came up again and extinguished it. He then knelt, leaned forward, and blew again on the pile of sticks and straw at just the right moment, only to see the ensuing flame wither and die in another unexpected breeze. After thirty minutes of this, Tad gave up on the driveway setting. “Let’s do this in the barn . . . get outta the wind,” he suggested.

“That’s a bad idea, Tad,” I said. “It could catch fire.”

“It’ll be all right. I’ll watch it like I always do,” he countered.

“Let’s do it,” Mike said and that was all that Tad needed. He knelt and lifted the barrel lid from the driveway with both hands, and then, like a waiter in a fine restaurant, elevated the loaded tray above his right shoulder and walked hurriedly to the barn, leaving Mike and I to finish our root beers.

“I’m goin’ home,” I said, knowing where this could lead. Tad nodded his head, but never slowed down. Mike followed after him.

An hour later, from my bedroom, I heard the sirens. I bolted upright, tied my shoes and ran from our house, through the yard, across the county road. I stopped at the mailbox at the end of Tad’s driveway. I watched the black clouds of smoke billow against the royal blue sky, then headed toward what had been the barn.  Tad, Mike, and now a small crowd of neighbors stood, open-mouthed, wiping their brows, shaking their heads.

Mike told me that by the time the fire department had arrived, there had been nothing much to put out. “I wish I had thought to set up the hose or at least get a bucket of water ready,” he mumbled. Standing in the hot sun, we watched the huge heap of charred timber smolder and smoke. Piles of ash diminished with each gust of hot wind.

Mr. Ivy, whiskered and old, from the next section over walked up to Tad.  “What were you thinkin’, Tad?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I didn’t think it would burn like that.”

“They always say, ‘Don’t play with fire.’ You ever heard that one before, Tad?” Mr. Ivy pressed.

“Yeah, Mr. Ivy, I’ve heard that one before,” Tad said, smearing his forehead with his sweaty, dirty hand. He stood, angry and embarrassed, studying the sputtering coals. He didn’t have that far-off look in his eyes this time. Instead, he appeared to  hold fast to this one horrifying moment and the worse one to come when he would face his father returning from town.

When his parents did show up a little later, I backed away from the crowd. His father parked the Chevelle by the house and ran to the crowd and the smoky remnants of the blaze. His mother stayed at the car, put her face in her hands, turned, and walked steadily back to the house.

His father approached him, looked in shock at the fire’s remains, then turned to Tad. “What happened?”

“It got out of hand, Dad,” Tad replied.

His father looked for a long while at Tad. He said nothing, but stared deep into his son’s eyes, down to to his cheeks, chin, and back to his eyes, inspecting the product he had created. Then, with both of his long arms, he shoved all his weight against his son’s shoulders, and the boy crashed to the dusty ground. The neighbors and remaining firemen hushed their quiet conversations.

Tad, lying in the dirt, looked up at his dad, and wiped ashen tears from his eyes. His father shook his head and walked away, thrusting his hands the size of snapping turtle shells into the back pockets of his Levis. Twenty feet further, he stopped and studied the ground for a short while, and then turned and strode back to Tad.

Gazing down at him, he sighed and then said quietly, “Well, it could have been worse.” He pulled his hands from his pockets, hitched up his jeans, and knelt down, looking squarely into his son’s eyes. “Do you get it now, Tad? Does it make sense? Why you can’t just drift off to her?” Tad nodded.

His dad held out one hand. Tad took hold, and with a heave, his father pulled him up and into his chest. Most of the neighbors had quietly slinked away, allowing a family in turmoil to right itself without their oversight. Tad and his father embraced and I realized that perhaps Tad’s father remembered what it was like to be young. To be figuring out how to keep your feet on the ground, even though your heart is a million miles away. Many naturally learn this lesson without notice; it comes easily. Others absorb it reluctantly, as the carefree days of youth give way to adult deliberation and practicality.

In the end, Tad and Mike each had to work off $8,000 to pay for the loss of the barn, the burned hay, and the hay the cattle would need for the upcoming fall and winter. At five dollars an hour, Tad kept busy for the next year and a half learning his lesson the hard way. There weren’t many opportunities to think about Jennifer during that time.

Cats Were Another Story

FullSizeRender (1)Mildred Sneigel liked dogs. She had always owned at least one dog, even before her husband had died. Her dogs tended to be lapdogs, smaller, terrier-sized breeds that she could easily care for, groom, and converse with. Cats were another story and the two little girls who lived across the alley knew it.

One morning, on the kind of lazy summer morning that allowed them to stay in their pajamas longer than they should have, the younger of the little girls was playing with her older sister in their backyard when they heard the old woman across the alley talking. They dropped their spoons into the mud and crawled on the damp grass each to the base of a skinny poplar tree. They listened. The old woman said “Good doggy,” and “Be a good little doggy.” She carried a shovel and took small steps around her own backyard in her gray rubber rain boots and long, floral raincoat. Her head bobbed among the wisteria and rose bushes and was enveloped in a clear plastic headscarf, the kind that folds up into the size of a business card and then has a little snap to keep it all together.

The girls, who were not naturally inclined to torment others, nevertheless chose to torment Mildred Sneigel on this particular morning. If only they had known her better. Their plan: crouch beneath their respective poplar trees, send meows into Mildred’s backyard, wait for her response.

At first, the sounds they made were the tiniest, tenderest of mews, the sort you might hear from a three-day-old kitten. Mildred scraped at the topsoil to the right of the iris patch with a rusty, claw-shaped hand rake. No fun. Then, their mews became bolder, less tender, akin to the sounds one might hear from a gangly, mildly dissatisfied teenage cat. Mildred paused and looked into the branches of the elm tree above her. That was better. The girls’ eyes met and they stifled their mouths into shrugged shoulders.

Then, the older sister took the lead and lobbed the final grenade. What began as a tiny kitty mew lengthened into a quite realistic, prepubescent meow, which evolved into the gruff, gravelly howl of a geriatric feral tomcat. The duration of the meow was impressive. Its tone rose and dipped and curlicued around the older sister’s tongue, into her chest and then out through her mouth, which guzzled with silent laughter as she collapsed into a ball on the dewy grass.

By that time, her younger sister was also engulfed in secretive, red-faced laughter. Her cheeks streamed with tears. Dirt plastered the two sisters’ knobby knees and legs, grass clippings mingled in their bangs, and tears and dew dampened their pajamas. That final lob did the trick. Mildred’s eyes tore over her shoulder, she raised her claw, and she stomped in her rubber boots to the back edge of her yard, headed directly for the girls’ poplar tree seclusion.  She scanned the length of the lot, and stooped to peer into the darkened rows of shrubbery, weeds, and decrepit lawn ornaments frosted with molds and lichens.

“Out of my yard, you cats!” she barked. “Out.”

Seeing no feline trouble-makers, she stood back up, transferring the hand rake to her other hand. “Leave,” she spoke quietly into the shade. She returned to the iris bushes and settled to her knees. She patted the soil with her hands, and leaned into the earth.  The girls, who had by then righted themselves to their spy positions, watched her pull two wooden paint-stirrers  from a nearby bushel basket. She arranged the slats into a cross and then held it together with one hand, while the other rummaged through the basket and pulled from it a length of wire and a pair of wire cutters. She wound the wire around the center  of the cross several times to secure an “X” and then with a click, snipped the wire in two. She gently submerged the base of the cross near the far end of the little plot of soil. “Good doggy,” she said. “You were such a good little doggy.”

The girls watched in silence, then glanced at each other. Their glee turned to regret, and grief, too, since they had remembered seeing Mildred’s little dog prancing about the yard following its owner. They stood, brushed off their dirty knees, straightened their pajama tops, and went back inside their house to change. They left their spoons in the drying mud.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life was too short to wonder about something she couldn’t feel

 

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Photo: Katherine Yung

She ran her finger down over her knee and felt nothing. What’s going on, she wondered. Why did she have this numb, yet tingly feeling just below her knee? She followed the vague sensation down her shin. It continued. How strange, she thought. Probably nothing, but she Googled it anyway, so she could forget it later. As a result, she discovered that others about her age had experienced this same phenomenon. One website told her what she wanted to know: if the numbness was not accompanied by other symptoms, it should be acknowledged and noted, but not feared. She pondered it for a moment, tracing a circle over the numb spot, turning off her phone. Could turning fifty, which she had done six months earlier, be one of those other symptoms?  Should she worry?

A car blared below, pulling her back to the moment.  She decided to follow her own  advice, doled out so many times over the years to her kids when they suffered mysterious stomach aches, spontaneous rashes: just keep an eye on it.

Turning off her concern like a faucet, she grabbed her phone and took some photographs of the scene outside her downtown Hanoi hotel window: layered apartments painted in royal blues, marigolds, and dusty whites were punctuated with balconies that dripped with trailing plants and vines. Evenly stacked window air conditioners hummed and hovered over an alleyway. A bicycle, three scooters, and a gleaming black car darted below. It was time to go, to venture out into the alleyway, and explore this city. Life was too short to wonder about something she couldn’t feel.