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Disturbing the Universe

The musings of author Christina Knowles

Month

June 2014

The Accessibility of Art by Christina Knowles

IMG_1599Recently I received the 2014-15 Theatre Season and 2014-15 Concert Season brochures in the mail. I get these every year, and every year I am stirred with excitement for the upcoming performances–right before I look at the prices and realize I will be lucky to perhaps see one or two of them. Still, I drool over them and imagine how uplifting their presentations will be, and I try to narrow it down to the one or two shows that I cannot possibly miss.

You see, I have a passion for high culture art on a middle class budget. By the way, high culture is not my term. I find the term very uppity, only because it connotes that it is the culture of the upper classes, but really it is simply elevated art because of its quality. Anyway, I adore the ballet, and I’m not talking about The Nutcracker. I want to see the New York City Ballet perform Balanchine, Twyla Tharp, and Christopher Wheeldon. I want to attend the symphony and the Philharmonic. The cello, violin, viola, and double bass all take me to a place that transcends the mundanity of my ordinary life. However, listening to Itzhak Perlman or Yo Yo Ma in person is little more than a fantasy. Then, of course, there is drama. I love it all–Shakespeare in the Theatre-in-the-Round, a Sondheim musical, or perhaps Gershwin or Bernstein, Post-Modern Drama, or even Interactive Drama. How about the opera? I’ve never been to a live performance, but I think I would love it because I am entranced by the voices of Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. IMG_1600

Unfortunately, living in Colorado Springs offers little opportunity to experience high culture; however, living on a teacher’s income offers even less. It made me wonder how many of my students would ever get a chance to be exposed to this culture. How would they ever even know if they liked it or not? Most cities adequately present opportunities to visit art museums at a reasonable, and at times, no expense. Children are taken by bus to see famous art exhibits and are, hopefully, taught its significance and how to appreciate it (Many students need no such lesson; for them the art speaks for itself). In Colorado Springs, the symphony also makes this effort, periodically offering free concerts to the public. But by and large,  the lower to middle classes do not have affordable access to premiere orchestra and symphonies, quality theatre and ballet, or the opera.

Of course, it is a matter of necessity that it is costly. Performers deserve to be paid. Often they must be flown in and put up in a hotel. Lighting and stage crews, sets, and a host of other expenses must be met in addition to the venue. Foundations have been helpful in bringing the arts to the general public, but opportunities are still very limited.

However, without previous exposure to this culture, these opportunities are often ignored. Because of the contrast of high art to pop culture, the comfort level and appreciation is not there among those who do not patronize the symphony, the opera, the ballet. Sometimes it can be an acquired taste. The average person is conditioned to enjoy the simple and reject the complicated. I believe exposing children to high art early is the key to its appreciation. Because high art is complicated, it is good for the mind. You’ve probably heard that listening to classical music makes one smarter.

In college I was taught that all children should be exposed to art, classical music, theatre, and ballet. My professors quoted studies that show children who are exposed to high culture get higher grades, have more social skills, and aspire to go to college more than students who never experience this culture. I was just talking to a friend, recently, who was trying to get a grant to take her students to an opera. What an amazing chance for them! Yet, I wonder how many of them will have to be dragged, kicking and screaming.

IMG_1601Even without research data, it seems obvious to me that children who are exposed to fine art, the symphony, the opera, and the ballet would be more comfortable as adults in the social situations they might encounter. They would be more culturally knowledgeable, which would give them more social currency. Social currency is helpful in business networking, interviewing, and in successful career movement. Beyond that though, it seems to me that the arts provide so much more than social value and mobility. The arts, specifically that known as high culture, provide humanity with beauty in a world often devoid of it. As the old saying goes, “Science is the how of life, but art is the why.”

Professor John McKean agrees that the time to expose people to high culture is when they are children, and these children have a right to the arts, which he calls “civilisation.” Referring to Liz Forgan, former managing director of the BBC, McKean states, “Amid the unending and unedifying turge of recent days, how wonderful to see Liz Forgan’s spirited attack on the dumbing down of musical culture among young children . . .Throwing them alive into a boiling vat of great painting, architecture and sculpture would be an added bonus. . .Forgan’s ‘Above all, don’t apologise’ is the key to the unwritten children’s right: the right of access to civilisation. (The BBC’s Culture Show is one among many examples that in our culture today, adults seem beyond conversion.) If Forgan had been forced to start with clapping games, she says, she might have turned to crime . . . Young children are never scared by great culture – it is only inaccessible to adults” (Professor John McKean, Brighton). According to McKean, children are ready for high culture, but by the time they are adults, they are intimidated by it. I believe they are uncomfortable with it merely because they have had no experience with it, and the common man has begun to see high culture as “high class” or even worse, as “upper class.”IMG_1602IMG_1603

Public broadcasting networks like the BBC, PBS, and NPR are the frontrunners in the accessibility of high culture to the general public. Indeed, without them I would not have discovered a love for ballet, opera, and the arts in general. It was on PBS (one of the few channels my family could receive with our rabbit ears) that I discovered Mikhail Baryshnikov, Balanchine, Pavarotti, and so many others on Great Performances. Where else would I have gotten this education in the 1970s, growing up in a lower income home? My public school offered no such opportunity. My parents never showed an interest in the arts, and even if they had, we would not have been able to afford to attend a performance. My older sister exposed me to classical music. She very nearly pursued a career in the symphony before she decided on a career as a chemist. I’m not sure where she discovered classical music. This is one reason why I believe in supporting public broadcasting. I would like to see more programs to bring high culture arts to children, but not only to children. The average citizen has a “right” to civilization as well, and not all adults are scared by it. I’m not. Maybe someday there will be a program to garner interest in high culture among middle class adults. I’ll be the first to sign up. Until then I will attend as many free concerts and art shows as I can, scrounge together enough money for a premiere performance or two, and tune my television to PBS.–Christina KnowlesIMG_1604

 

Sources: McKean, John. The Guardian. Available online: http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2009/may/16/letters-high-culture-young-children Accessed: June 26, 2014

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Book Review: White Walls by HMC

51bx1tkoTmL._SS300_White Walls, a suspense-thriller, by HMC drew me in instantly with an assortment of interesting characters. As the book opens, we get a peek at the possibly paranoid delusions of a very disturbed man, George Barter, an artist who won’t leave his home even to purchase art supplies. I knew I liked this book immediately when I could easily picture George arguing with the store clerk on the phone and then, in an angry tirade, tearing up his own art with a pair of scissors. Each character has a definitive voice that comes through in HMC’s artful and realistic dialogue.

HMC alternates the third person viewpoint skillfully to give readers a glimpse into the minds of several characters quickly. We meet Samantha Phillips, a young woman and daughter of a notable psychiatrist with a personality disorder, Dr. Jade Thatcher, the main character with issues from her own past, Anne, a light-hearted and friendly nurse, Freddie, a patient who has childlike tendencies, Dr. Clancy Green, a crotchety stickler for the rules, and Morty, a kind easy-going nurse, just to name a few, who will all have one thing in common, the mysterious Rowan’s Home Psychiatric Institution.

Without giving too much away, I will say that Jade Thatcher finds herself in a great deal of trouble, which she did not anticipate when she came home to Fairholmes, Australia to make a fresh start after her divorce. With the best intentions, she is soon immersed in Rowan’s shadowy past, unsure of whom to trust, and struggling to survive long enough to uncover the secrets that will allow her to finally help her patients to heal.

The more I read, the more intriguing the plot became. This book made me speculate about what was really going on and to challenge myself to figure it out before the end of the book. This book was great fun to read, and I didn’t want to put it down. HMC has a degree in psychology, which adds to the realism of the novel, but is also the source of my only complaint. I wish she would have given more details regarding the psychological aspects in the resolution of the book. Nevertheless, a great read, and I highly recommend it. 4 out of 5 stars. –Christina Knowles

Twenty Spectacular Films According to Christina Knowles

I’ve wanted to write a favorites list for a while now, but I haven’t until now for two reasons: 1) I am no authority on movies. I just love them, and 2) I didn’t know how I would be able to narrow it down to a reasonable number in which to write about. But everybody likes to read about good movies, and chances are some of my favorites will be yours too, and even if they aren’t, maybe it will make you think of the movies you love and why, and that’s good too. I decided I could narrow it down to my top twenty favorite movies, and then just list some honorable mentions with no detail. I am not trying to judge these movies on any criteria other than that I loved them. There may be better movies, but either I haven’t seen them, or these just had a bigger emotional impact on me. Here they are:

minority_report#20: The Minority Report: (2002) Directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Tom Cruise, adapted from the short story of the same name by Phillip K. Dick.This is a film exploring the theme of free will versus determinism as well as the social/political theme of the power of the state. In the future, “precogs,” who see the future, report crime and citizens are arrested before they break the law in order to prevent crime. The main character, a pre-crime cop, is the next reported for a murder he has not yet committed. This movie is intense and thought-provoking with edge-of-your-seat action.

cru11#19: The Crucible: (1996)Directed by Nicholas Hytner, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder. The film was written by Arthur Miller and based on his play of the same name. This is the story compiled from actual historical research and the diaries found in Salem, Massachusetts regarding the witch trial hysteria of the time. Daniel Day-Lewis portrays the dynamic character of John Proctor powerfully, revealing a very human, flawed, but good man who wishes to be better than he is. He stands strong in the end, revealing a deep character growth. I love this version of Arthur Miller’s play because it is accurate to the original, except for the final scene, which has an even bigger impact than the play.

#18: In the Valley of Elah, (2007) Written and directed by Paul Haggis, starring Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, and Susan Sarandon. “The film’s title refers to the Biblical valley where the battle between David and Goliath is said to have taken place. It portrays a military father’s search for his son and, after finding his body, subsequent hunt for his son’s killers. The film explores themes including the Iraq war, abuse of prisoners, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following active combat” (Wikipedia).

In-the-Valley-of-Elah2I love this movie because it realistically shows the consequences of modern warfare and the trauma dishonorable behavior during war and the dehumanization of the enemy causes to ordinary people. This movie had a huge emotional impact on me. Watch this movie if you don’t believe in glorifying war or the military, but want to see the reality of wars’ effect on the human psyche.

_59724584_91890b22-2cef-4e82-8d3d-a3904f1972e2#17: Titanic: (1997) Directed by Richard Cameron, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. This movie is an epic disaster film and a fictionalized account of the sinking of the ship, Titanic. Some may find this movie cheesy, but no can deny its cinematic beauty, intense suspense, and dramatic love story. I love this movie because of how this incredible tragedy is depicted in excruciating detail. One of my favorite things about this movie is when the orchestra continues playing as the ship sinks with people dying all around them. I also appreciate its depiction of how the wealthy were treated versus the third class travelers. This movie makes me cry every time I see it, and I love a good cry.

#16: The Matrix: (1999) Directed by The Wachowski Brothers, starring Keanu Reeves. This film is set in a future where people, who are actually acting as a power source for the fake world around them, think they are living in the real world. What they see is actually a computer construct of a world similar to ours. The actual world is a desolate and barren place destroyed by wars and pollution.The_Matrix_Neo_and_Morpheus_Construct

This movie is often seen as an allegory for the “real” world and the spiritual world, implying that the spiritual world is more real than the world we live in. The Matrix works on so many levels though. It is also a comment on how we are willing participants in our own deception. We need to wake up and see things how they really are. This movie is a masterpiece of filming and special effects, but what I love most about it is the philosophical wisdom dispensed throughout the film, mostly by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and its references to famous philosophical and religious works. The Matrix is more than an action film. It is a deeply thoughtful movie, which will open your eyes to the realities of our culture’s systems of mind control.

crash#15: Crash (2004) Directed by Paul Haggis. This movie is a drama with a huge ensemble cast, wherein, seemingly unrelated people and incidents all seamlessly coincide or “crash” into each other in an intricately woven story about racial prejudice in Los Angeles, California. This movie is an intense, at times hard to watch, movie that explores the origins of hate, mistrust, and ignorance, and poignantly shows that we are all flawed, and the same person capable of extreme cruelty one moment, can, in the next, be capable of heroism and selfless compassion.

Ringstrilogyposter#14: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Directed by Peter Jackson, ensemble cast. I couldn’t separate these movies in my mind, so I lumped them into one selection. Based on the novels by JRR Tolkien, these three movies are better than the books, in my opinion. While Tolkien is a genius of story-telling, he tends to go on and on with details of setting, which are necessary to the creation of this world. However, obviously in a film, we can instantly see this detail and get straight to the action and story, which is amazing. I love this series because it explores good versus evil through the archetypal hero’s journey or quest for a higher cause, ideals of friendship, loyalty, selflessness, overcoming evil, and finishing strong. This series will inspire you to face evil and adversity.

forrest-gump-220857#13: Forrest Gump (1994) Directed by Robert Zemeckis, starring Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Sally Field, and Gary Senise, and based on the novel by Winston Groom. This epic movie about a developmentally challenged man, who is accidentally present at numerous important historical events, often inadvertently influencing them, is a touching story of the beauty of life and overcoming obstacles. This movie is funny and poignant. I can’t remember how many times I’ve seen this movie, and still, whenever I am flipping channels and run across it, I have to stop and watch.

lib1#12: Life is Beautiful. (1997) Directed by Roberto Benigni. This is an Italian movie with English subtitles about a Jewish man during the Nazi occupation, who protects his son from the horrors of a concentration camp with humor and make-believe scenarios. I love this movie because it shows the power of attitude and love. If this man can make the best of a situation like a Nazi concentration camp just to make things better for his son, then who are we to complain about anything? This movie will make you laugh and cry and celebrates this beautiful life.

#11: Les Miserables (1998 and 2012) I still can’t decide which version I love more–the 1998 version starring Liam Neeson or the 2012 musical starring Hugh Jackman. Both of these wonderful movies, based on the amazing book of the same name by Victor Hugo, are absolutely beautifully acted and have a life-altering quality about them. These movies are about a man imprisoned for stealing bread, Jean ValJean, and an investigator obsessed with justice, Javert. It is a story of change, compassion, justice, the desperation of poverty, mercy, and forgiveness. Many people see this story as an allegory for Christianity. Jean ValJean receives mercy that changes his life, and he in turn, shows that mercy and forgiveness to others. Javert, on the other hand, is unable to accept mercy and doesn’t believe in forgiveness, but believes only in justice. In the end, he cannot even accept mercy for himself. Both of these movies are superbly acted, and make the viewer look at the juxtaposition of justice and mercy in a new way. Life-changing with a huge emotional impact.

Les-Miserables-Jean-Valjean-4

540#10: A Walk in the Clouds (1995) Directed by Alfonso Arau, starring Keanu Reeves, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, and Anthony Quinn. In this movie, a young man returning from the service in WWII meets a pregnant woman on a bus, who is afraid of returning home to her father’s vineyard unmarried. The man agrees to pose as her husband with a plan to stage an argument and leave her, so that her Old World parents from Mexico will not expel her from their home. Of course, they fall in love for real, but the beautiful thing about this movie is the depiction of the depth of love for family, tradition, and the need for a home. The man not only falls in love with the woman, he falls in love with her family, her home, their traditions, and their lives. The acting is superb, especially that of the father, Don Pedro Aragon, played by Anthony Quinn. This movie is beautiful and poignant.

0#9: Sommersby (1993) Directed by Jon Amiel, starring Jodi Foster and Richard Gere. “Set in the south of the United States just after the Civil War, Laurel Sommersby is just managing to work the farm without her husband Jack, believed killed in the Civil War. By all accounts, Jack Sommersby was not a pleasant man, thus when he returns, Laurel has mixed emotions. It appears that Jack has changed a great deal, leading some people to believe that this is not actually Jack but an impostor. Laurel herself is unsure, but willing to take the man into her home, and perhaps later into her heart…” (Murray Chapman, IMDB). This is a romantic drama with a mysterious twist. I love this movie because what it is really about is choosing to become the kind of person you want to be, even if it costs you everything. Grab several boxes of tissue to watch this film.

#8: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) Directed by Frank Capra, starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. This movie needs no synopsis. If you haven’t seen this movie, you live under a rock or are very young. A Christmas classic, I love this movie because it makes you realize how perception is everything. Its-a-wonderful-lifeLessons from this movie: Appreciate what you have, know you have value, and know that if you have people who love you, you are the luckiest you could ever hope to be. Oh, and stand up for the common man, help your neighbor, and money is not all that important. I could watch this movie a million times.

#7: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) Directed by Jeremiah Chechik, starring Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo. A bumbling father insists on going to extreme measures to have a wonderful Griswold family Christmas even though everything is conspiring to ruin it. Another Christmas classic. I watch this one every year, and although it may seem a little out of place on this list, it made it into my top ten because this movie makes me happy. Everyone needs a good belly laugh from time to time, and this one makes me laugh out loud to the point of snorting, no matter how many times I see it. Slap-stick at times, extremely quotable, and even a little heart-warming, this movie is a Christmas staple.430849_orig

file_200263_0_Psycho_Norman_Bates#6: Psycho (1960) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, and Vera Miles. Norman Bates goes “a little crazy sometimes” in this classic horror film with heart. Norman Bates is probably the most likable psychotic serial killer in film history. I love this film because Norman is a sympathetic character in this story that explores the psychology of multiple personality disorder and the trauma of childhood abuse and mother fixation. Very Freudian, but wonderfully intense.

#5: Big Fish (2003) Directed by Tim Burton, starring Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney. This beautiful and surreal story told through a series of tall-tales by a dying father to his son, not only teach the son about his father, but about life itself. Full of symbolism, this movie explores forgiveness, understanding, dreams unfulfilled, and a host of other important themes. It is deeply meaningful, funny, fantastical, and imaginative. Love it!

Big_Fish_The_Movie_by_AnnieMusse

936full-dead-poets-society-screenshot#4: Dead Poets Society (1989) Directed by Peter Weir, starring Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, and Ethan Hawke. A quirky prep-school English teacher inspires his troubled students with literature, and breaking all the rules, he teaches them to “seize the day” and live lives worthy of being remembered. As an English teacher, I think it is a requirement that I adore this movie, but anyone who loves insightful and poetic words, philosophy, and high ideals will appreciate the inspiration of the literary greats quoted in this film. And, of course, everyone loves an inspiring teacher who cares more for his students than for staying out of trouble. In addition to exploring the Transcendental themes of “sucking the marrow” out of life, this movie does justice to showing the realities of realizing these ideals in the midst of expectations and responsibilities. Deeply moving and inspiring.

#3: Magnolia (1999) Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, starring Tom Cruise and Julianne Moore as well as a huge and  famous ensemble cast. This masterpiece of filmmaking, like Crash, threads the separate lives of many different characters together, connecting them in surprising ways. However, this movie explores fate, coincidence, regret, compassion, loneliness, forgiveness, love, death, acceptance, abuse, and grief in strange and symbolic ways. I won’t even try to give a synopsis because there are too many different stories going on in this film, but I will say that the characters are realistic, flawed, beautiful, and complex. I loved almost all of them, and even the one I didn’t, I felt something for. I love everything about this movie and am left sitting stunned and in awe every time I see it. The acting is superb, especially by Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Tom Cruise. In my opinion, this is absolutely Tom Cruise’s best acting. He convincingly goes from a despicable, disgusting pig to a hurt little boy that we want to hold and comfort in the course of 189 minutes of perfection in filmmaking.TOM-CRUISE-MAGNOLIA

braveheart_27_robert#2: Braveheart (1995) Directed by Mel Gibson, starring Mel Gibson and Angus MacFadyen. “When his secret bride is executed for assaulting an English soldier who tried to rape her, a commoner begins a revolt and leads Scottish warriors against the cruel English tyrant who rules Scotland with an iron fist” (IMDB). The story of William Wallace is one of courage, loyalty, and freedom, but the character that had the most impact on me was that of Robert, the Bruce. My favorite scene in the movie is when after the Bruce has been convinced to betray Wallace and it has led to tragedy, the Bruce confronts his evil father and states, “I don’t want to lose heart. I want to believe as he does … I will never be on the wrong side again.” To me the most important themes are tied up in this character and in these lines. This movie asks you what you believe in, what you are willing to do to stand up for that belief, and challenges you to decide, once and for all, if you will have the courage to stand on the right side, regardless of the cost. This movie makes me want to be a better person. The acting is superb, especially by Angus MacFadyen, who plays the Bruce. This movie is highly quoted because it is filled with high ideals and pearls of wisdom. I love, love, love this movie. “FREEDOM!”

MV5BODU4MjU4NjIwNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDU2MjEyMDE@._V1_SX640_SY720_#1: The Shawshank Redemption (1994) Directed by Frank Darabont of The Walking Dead fame, starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, adapted from the short story by Stephen King, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.” My all-time favorite movie ever, this film is the only film that has actually done justice to King’s work. I loved the story when it was first published and couldn’t have been more pleased when it was made it into this fabulous film, starring two of my favorite actors.  Shawshank_Redemption_

The Shawshank Redemption, set in a harsh 1940s prison, is about hope, perseverance, friendship, redemption, and the indomitable human spirit. Two prisoners, Andy and Red, one innocent and one guilty, who become true friends behind bars, share hopes, dreams, and the cares of daily life in the system. Andy brings hope, culture, and humanity to the prison inmates, and teaches Red that there is always hope, that the spirit can’t be crushed if you won’t let it, and that life isn’t fair, but there is always beauty to be found. This movie is profound, moving, funny, and leaves you with the feeling that no matter what, everything is going to be okay. Strength comes from within, and no one can take away what is inside of you. This movie deserves a million stars. I never get tired of watching and feeling uplifted by it. It gives me hope, and that is why it is my favorite movie.

Now, for some honorable mentions, although I am sure I will leave some important ones out:

Other Great Movies or Movies I Just Love Watching (in no particular order):

The Book of Eli, Terms of Endearment, Gattaca, Coma, Marnie, They Live, Cloud Atlas, The Stepford Wives, The Best Grand Budapest Hotel, The Silence of the Lambs, Prince of Tides, Fargo, Argo, Platoon, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, U-571, The Fugitive, Vertigo, Awakenings, Rebecca, The Shining (1997 mini-series), A Time to Kill, The Devil’s Advocate, Pulp Fiction, The Notebook, Message in a Bottle, A Christmas Story, Homeward Bound, My Dog Skip, The Breakfast Club, Gun Shy, K-Pax, Bladerunner, Star Wars Trilogy (original), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Godfather, This Boy’s Life, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Signs, The Sixth Sense, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, A Streetcar Named Desire, Rebel Without a Cause, Creator, Casablanca, To Kill a Mockingbird, Shutter Island, Young Guns, The Goonies, Ladyhawke, Deep Impact, Fatal Attraction, Legend, The Princess Bride, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Time Traveler’s Wife, 12 Monkeys, The Terminator, The Book Thief, Clue, Life of Pi, and The Grey. And hundreds more I don’t have room to mention.

I apologize for the length of this blog. If you read to the end, thank you, and please leave me some suggestions if I left your favorite movies out. Happy movie viewing!–Christina Knowles

 

Balance? Yeah, Right by Christina Knowles

Snagged from  Jacinta-Yoga
Snagged from Jacinta-Yoga

 

I’ve always believed people should live balanced lives: you know, mind, body, spirit. I learned this was important through life-long yoga practice, reading philosophy, and talking to wise ones who successfully practiced this path to peace and contentment. However, I’ve NEVER been able to achieve it–not even for one whole week. I live a life of never-ending to-do lists, schedules, alarms, and obligations. I even make to-do lists and schedules to make sure I schedule time to relax, but no matter how hard I try, something important is always neglected.

I am naturally motivated to improve my mind. For this I need no prompting. I don’t have to try very hard to make time to learn something new, read, or write. I once spent an entire summer studying philosophy and theology. Because I am a teacher and a writer, it is easy to justify time spent on these activities. But I recognize that there is more to life than my intellectual pursuits. The first thing that drops off my list is usually physical exercise.

I wasn’t always a sedentary person. When I was younger, I was an enthusiastic runner, I took Karate, yoga, and figure skating lessons. I used to dance. I admit that I never liked team sports or traditional working out at the gym. Actually, I loathe it. But running and skating cleared my mind, yoga relaxed me, Karate–well, that kind of sucked, but I liked the idea of being able to defend myself. However, after four knee surgeries, my doctor told me that I was not allowed to run, skate, or do karate. Ever. To avoid major knee reconstruction (which would involve breaking my legs and sitting in a wheel chair for almost a year), I was told to take up cycling. The doctor told me that even swimming would be too hard on my knees, and walking should be kept to a normal strolling pace. So I bought an exercise bike and have been pretty good about riding it on a regular basis. The only thing that motivates me to do this is that I literally cannot walk if I stop for any length of time. I also still practice yoga, but not with any consistency. Needless to say, my daily 20-30 minutes on my exercise bike is not really meeting my aerobic needs.

As for the “spirit,” I tried meditating and yoga, which does relax my mind and body. I also nurture my inner self by spending time with people I care about and by pursuing my artistic interests. I think I need to spend time outside in nature as well, maybe even be a little adventurous. I need to spend quality time with my husband, family, and friends. I need to just do nothing sometimes. I long to do nothing, but I am really NOT good at it.

So, as usual, summer vacation from teaching was the time when I planned to regroup and get my life back in balance, as if it ever were. I immediately made preposterously unrealistic goals, to-do lists, and schedules to accomplish everything to attain this balance. Of course, I thought, it would be balanced because I made sure to include something from every area on which I wanted to work. It turned out to be the opposite of balance. Before I knew it, I signed up for three courses to help me with a new class I’ll be teaching in the fall, I started writing a new book, and I’m helping some students create an e-book short story anthology. I have about 15 books on my must-read list. I’m riding my bike (a real one) daily, spending time outside walking my dog and gardening, fitting in time with friends and family, staying up really late with my husband, trying to fit in a few hours of writing every day, re-organizing and cleaning my house, and basically going crazy trying to keep up. And there is never time to do nothing. This is worse than working full-time. Well, almost.

My husband tells me that I need to prioritize, that I can’t do it all. But isn’t that the point of balance? Doing it all–at least some of everything? Making sure that I meet the needs of all the different aspects of my being? When I try to prioritize, everything seems like a priority.  I don’t get this balance thing. I think I am incapable of it. Or perhaps I just need a better schedule. I’d better get right on that.–Christina Knowles

 

 

Book Review: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

11870085Superb! I absolutely love this book, but before extolling its literary excellence, a brief synopsis: Three teenagers with cancer, Hazel Grace, Augustus, and Isaac, meet in a cancer support group. Hazel Grace is terminal, Augustus is in remission (but had one leg amputated), and Isaac must have his second eye removed due to his cancer returning, leaving him blind. It sounds depressing, but it is filled with humor, beautiful dialogue, numerous allusions to my favorite authors, and more importantly, profound truths.

Hazel and Augustus share the same sense of humor, ask the same questions of the universe, love the same book, and rival each other’s incredible vocabulary and IQ level. Isaac becomes a sort of lovable third wheel when his girlfriend leaves him because he is now blind after promising him “always.”

Hazel fears being a “grenade” in the lives of her friends and family. She knows it is inevitable that her parents will be inconsolable when she dies, but she hesitates to get involved with Augustus because she is afraid of breaking his heart, which she sees as avoidable. Augustus fears dying and fading into oblivion. He just wants to be remembered, and he wants his death to have a purpose. He longs to be a hero, but of course, dying of cancer is pretty purposeless.

Augustus spends his cancer-perk-wish on Hazel’s dream of meeting her favorite author, Van Houten, and finding out the unwritten ending to her favorite book, An Imperial Affliction, about a girl dying of cancer, which stops abruptly without any resolution. Hazel and Augustus have a romantic Dutch holiday even though Van Houten is a jerk. That’s all I can really say without giving away spoilers.

Although most people I know love this book, I’ve run across a few who have various complaints, and some who downright hate the book, so I’d like to address these criticisms and get them out of the way.

The Fault in Our Stars is beautifully written, some say too beautifully. Yes, it may seem corny to certain readers that Augustus speaks in long romantic monologues, and waxes philosophical, and that Hazel and Augustus are far too mature, and it is incredibly unlikely that too super-geniuses with terminal cancer would meet and fall in love, but so what? All these things actually make the book more interesting, in my opinion. Who wants to read a book with boring, ordinary, emotionally immature, and illiterate cancer patients? It is unlikely that people in Shakespeare’s day spoke in rhyming iambic pentameter, but we appreciate the art and beauty of it, and the truths that matter are there, as they are in The Fault in Our Stars. These truths are even more abundant because they are so eloquently delivered via metaphor, symbolism, and allusion. However, I will admit that I do agree with some readers that Augustus and Hazel are too similar, almost the same character. Hazel is more serious and more selfless, but it is strangely narcissistic that they fall in love.

Another grievance among the disparagers of this novel is that it is not comforting to cancer patients or their families. Well, it is my belief that this book is not primarily written for either cancer patients, or those they leave behind. I believe it is written mainly for the obliviously healthy, those living their lives appreciating little, caring for less, and noticing naught around them, to see life through the eyes of a terminal cancer patient and wake up. Reading TFiOS is contemplating the universe vicariously through the eyes of those that have the luxury of knowing this is all the time they have, the here and now, and it is short, way too short. I don’t mean to be disrespectful by calling it luxury–cancer is horrible, senseless, cruel, but in some ways Green is saying that it is a gift, a gift to know how much time you have left and how valuable that time is. The book’s existential message is that we give life whatever meaning we want to give it, and it is beautiful and worth living to the fullest, every minute of it. Hazel and Augustus are lucky in that they know they don’t have much time left. They realize the tragedy of their impending death; therefore; they live abundantly, “sucking the marrow out of life” as Thoreau put it. We don’t do that because we don’t know we are dying; we don’t know tomorrow could be our last day.

However, the most amazing thing about this novel is all the allusion to wonderful pieces of literature. The title comes from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, he quotes Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” names the hamster in Van Houten’s novel, Sisyphus, refers to Walt Whitman’s philosophical ideas, and he quotes my all-time, absolute personal favorite, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot, among many others. Being a book nerd, these allusions transported me to literary heaven. But Green does not quote and namedrop for no reason.

The title of the novel comes from Julius Caesar, wherein Cassius tells Brutus that it is not fate that is responsible for our misery, but our own failings are responsible for the tragedy in our lives. But when Van Houten writes in his letter to Augustus, “Never was Shakespeare more wrong than when he had Cassius note, ‘the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/but in ourselves.’ Easy enough to say when you are a Roman nobleman (or Shakespeare!), but there is no shortage of fault to be found amid our stars” (Green, p. 111-112). By titling the book, The Fault in Our Stars, Green emphasizes his point that cancer is a purposeless disease that chooses its victims with no rhyme or reason. I LOVE the title.

I also love the allusion to Frost’s poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” for a similar reason:

Nature’s first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.

Her early leaf’s a flower;

But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf,

So Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day

Nothing gold can stay. –Robert Frost

 

Again Green highlights the fact that everything is temporary, especially what is most beautiful, but that only makes us appreciate it more. Because this line is also associated with S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, which would be familiar to most teens, I think Green means to bring in the totality of meaning that S.E. Hinton intended in her novel. Hazel Grace and Augustus, like Pony Boy in The Outsiders, need to “Stay gold” even though they are losing their innocence while facing a cruel world.

The hamster in Hazel Grace and Augustus’s favorite novel, An Imperial Affliction (the meaning of this title is self-explanatory), is named Sisyphus. Sisyphus is an obvious allusion to the mythological Sisyphus who was required to roll a boulder up a hill over and over, just to watch it roll down again. Albert Camus’s essay, Myth of Sisyphus, uses Sisyphus as an example to put forth his philosophy of the Absurd. Camus tells of Sisyphus’s meaningless task to show how humans search for meaning where there is none. According to Camus, Sisyphus was happy because, to him, this meaningless activity had meaning. In other words, humans create our own meaning (Existentialism) and this quest to find meaning in meaningless things gives people meaning. Hazel Grace and Augustus realize this; they see the absurdity of the world. They don’t try to explain their illnesses or find meaning in it. It just sucks. They are not comforted by platitudes, even though Augustus commonly creates his own in his lengthy monologues; however, they do grudgingly accept the value in them to those who will be left behind.

Finally, I think it was pure brilliance to include the allusions to Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. This most beautifully rhythmic and meaningful poem is a Modernist work, which by definition is cynical, self-reflective, and anti-traditional. Augustus is afraid to become Prufrock. Prufrock is fading into oblivion, not from disease, but from age. Nevertheless there are many similarities between Augustus and Prufrock. Prufrock has desires, but sees himself and his life as unremarkable, too unremarkable to reach out for the love for which he longs and has let slip away throughout his life. He is too careful, too reserved, a minor character–“no Prince Hamlet.” He asks the big questions, but is afraid to find the answer to his “overwhelming question.” At one point he asks, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” (This blog is named for this poem, in case you didn’t know.) Augustus wants to disturb the universe, needs to disturb the universe before he goes. His biggest fear is being like Prufrock, letting love slip away, life slip away, unnoticed, unremarkable, and for no heroic reason. One of the first lines Hazel quotes shows the bleak reality of life and the emptiness of searching for significance where there is none: “Let us go through certain half-deserted streets,/ The muttering retreats/ Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels/ And sawdust restaurants with oyster shells:/ Streets that follow like a tedious argument/ Of insidious intent/ To lead you to an overwhelming question . . ./ Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’/ Let us go and make our visit” (Eliot, quoted from Green, p. 153). It is relevant that Augustus’s response to her delivering this quote is: “I’m in love with you” (p. 153). Augustus sees in Hazel a soul-mate, who recognizes the futility of asking that question. This book made it in to my top ten favorite books right then and there.

I love this book because it is the kind of book that makes me reconsider, makes me contemplate the big questions, and then encourages me to put all that aside and just live fully. It encourages me, but like Prufrock, I am constantly led to ask that question. Nevertheless, this is the kind of book that stays with me, but if it fades, I will read it again and again. It occurred to me that this book is saying the opposite of the providential message of The Goldfinch, which I also found extremely profound. Truthfully, I’ll never stop looking for answers, but it is important to be reminded to live in the spaces between questions.

So, I really don’t care if it isn’t probable that two brilliant cancer patients like Hazel Grace and Augustus would have their stars cross in real life because there are truths more important than how large the vocabulary of the average teenager is likely to be. Truths like cancer sucks, bad things happen for no reason, and life is a gift to be lived and cherished every minute without fear because no one is promised tomorrow, and we don’t have to figure it all out; we just get to live it. 5 out of 5 stars.–Christina Knowles

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