Saturday, January 30, 2016

This was a mad scramble. At a debate tournament all day. Eyes rolling into the back of my head. Time was ticking toward midnight FAST. This isn't what I envisioned at first, but rather than bail because I was too tired, had to rush, and it wasn't going to be the way I wanted it-- I just powered through and Got. It. Done.


“Ken, I can’t feel my nose anymore, honey. Can’t we head back to the hotel?”
Marni Wexler stared at the top of her husband’s dark curly head, surprised that in their one year of marriage she had only just now noticed a shiny bald spot, the skin glowing unnaturally gold from the lantern inside the fishing hut. They could still hear the “hissy whistlers” of the Aurora Borealis, like a jungle of other worldly fauna.
     “A couple more minutes, Marni. I really want to catch something this time.” Ken continued to stare down the black hole six inches thick with ice, slowly bobbing his pole up and down.  “Maybe if you go back out and walk around you’ll feel better.  You can take more pictures of the lights.”
     “Yeah. Sure.” When Ken first brought her to Norway for their honeymoon last year, she was ecstatic to see the Northern Lights. She took nearly a thousand photographs of the luminescent sky, fascinated with the constant pulsing of colors, the ribbons of light stretching across the horizon. The soft swish and hiss of the sky, adding a dreamlike quality to the whole experience. Little did she know that every vacation she and Ken took would be heading to another Northern latitude to see this phenomena.  The summer following their March honeymoon, Ken brought Marni to Battle Harbour, New Foundland. Marni found the trip pleasant because the ocean was thawed and they watched the Aurora from a fishing boat all the while escorted for much of the journey by beautiful orca whales. Thanksgiving, Ken introduced Marni to ice fishing in Northern Scotland. Again at Christmas they took reindeer sleigh rides in Iceland. Every location Ken wanted to fish. And every location, he caught nothing.

     Ken lured Marni to Finland for this first anniversary with a promise of glass-domed igloos where they could view the aurora borealis from the comfort of a cozy bed, which was all Marni could think of right now.  In fact, it had been a perfect night. After steaming in their private sauna they snuggled into bed underneath the green and purple glow of the Northern Lights. Marni felt as if she had only just dozed off when Ken said, “Fishing Time.”  Marni contemplated rolling over and pretending to still be asleep but Ken was already handing her the down parka with the thick white fur around the hood.
“I think you’ve already established that pre-dawn fishing is unsuccessful.” Ken was already strapping his skis on outside their quaint glass igloo.  The fishing lake was a short trip along the pine trail. “Good thing,” Marni thought as she glided along the white path, “that I love this man.”
     Marni hopped around on one foot, then the other. She slapped her hands in front of her like a sea lion. Rubbing her fur mittens repeatedly across her nose, she tied her hood strings tighter, all the while the whistling magnetic waves of the glowing clouds made her stare involuntarily into the sky.
     “Hey, Ken, I’m heading back. You ok by yourself?”
Pulsing green, blue, purple, back to green, then, yellow? Red? That was strange. Marni fumbled around her neck for her camera, clumsily trying to take the lens cap off without taking the overstuffed mittens off.
“Whoah, Ken, you were right, the Aurora is very different here.” Ribbons of red continued to crackle in the low horizon when a burst of gold came out for the southeast across the sky. “Ken?” Marni clicked at her Sony DSLR. The ethereal whistling began to have an equally unnatural warbling hum. The sky glowed more goldish red with each vibrato of the hum.  “Ken?” Marni looked into the horizon and saw the silhouette of a large hovercraft coming low across the lake.  “Ken!” Marni scrambled into the tent butt first still looking out the flap. “Ken?”
“I finally caught it.”
“Is there a military base around here?”
“Marni, help me pull this out.” Ken tried to widen the hole with his ice drill.
“The sky is red and there’s some kind of helicopter thing out there.” As Marni turned around she found Ken pulling an enormous incandescent gelatinous sphere up the shaft. “What in the hell?”
Ken stared in fascination at the refrigerator-sized golden glowing egg trying fruitlessly to get his fishing hook out of the thick leathery shell.
“Ken, what is that thing?”
Suddenly a limb sliced through the shell from the interior, a thin lissome tentacle undulated in the icy night. Marni’s fish gape was rivaled only by Ken’s saucer-eyed stare. Five more flowing arms in quick succession ripped through the golden leather egg. “Ken?” Marni could only gasp a whisper. Ken seemed to be in a trance.
As quietly, but as emphatically as she could Marni rasped, “Ken! Ken!”
Ken continued to stare.
“Ken. Let’s go, quick, before that creature of the deep hatches all the way.” It
was too late, the egg creature’s squid-like beak was chewing ravenously at the outer shell. “Oh my god, Ken, Ken it’s crawling up my leg. Get it off!” Marni shook her leg
in vain. Ken stared. The creature held its arms around Marni’s chest like a monkey infant. At first, Marni wanted to scream trying to pluck the dripping limbs off her in fear of it squeezing her to death. Yet, Marni felt an odd comfort to the creature’s touch, an intimate closeness she had actually never known, not even with Ken. She stroked the golden squidling’s head.
     The hum from outside began to increase in volume. Ken continued to stare. Gingerly trying to move with the creature on her chest so as not to startle it, Marni slowly opened the fishing hut’s small door. The sky was blood red. She turned back to Ken before stepping out. “KEN!!” Marni let out a shrill but demanding scream. “Are you kidding me? You’re just -- you’re just going to sit there? You coward!” And like an Amazonian warrior with a golden breastplate, Marni stepped out of the hut feeling the vibrations of the hovercraft in her cheekbones.
     The creature shivered in a kind of excitement.
“Is this your—your ship?” Marni felt silly talking to the octopus around her neck, but it seemed to concur and started to loosen its grip, slipping down onto the glowing golden ice. She couldn’t help but notice that one of the tentacles lingered on her lips for a moment before scrambling across the lake toward the hovercraft.

The squid-creature turned toward Marni for a moment, its single iridescent eye locked with hers. She ran into the hut to find Ken still staring, a blankness behind his eyes. She slapped his face and a slow hiss came from deep within him, an ether-like blue glow slowly drifted out of his mouth,  out the door into the auroral arc. But first the misty blue swirled around the golden squid and Marni knew he was gone.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Before the Christmas Season is over . . . .

Teachers of all subjects are familiar with the sometimes weekly student incantation, “Why do we have to do this?” This is certainly disheartening because the question implies that there actually is no point to a project or assignment, thereby further implying that the teacher is some kind of illogical and cruel master of doom who derives pleasure just from making the serfs do a jig. And yet, if simply the pure love of learning something new is not reason enough, students do have the right to be gently guided to the relevant connections they seek. This becomes a special bugaboo for Literature teachers, particularly when teaching 18th century English Literature to a 21st Century American audience. When I recently challenged my students, at least the ones who bothered with actually reading Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, to write a defense for retaining the iconic work on the booklist for AP English Language and Composition, an astute and saucy young scholar decided I should have a winter break assignment about Dickens as well. I was tasked with reading Dickens’ slim novella A Christmas Carol and defending the story’s relevance today:

Almost a century and three-quarters have passed since Charles Dickens, at a feverish pace of six weeks from blank page to final product, wrote his novella A Christmas Carol. From that point on, the way most of the Western world celebrates this Christian Winter Holiday has been more guided by this new Victorian “gospel” than by the biblical birth of the eponymous, Jesus Christ. As long as Christmas continues its paradoxical hybridization as both unabashed consumerism and unadulterated generosity, there will long be a place in our society for Ebenezer Scrooge and the three spirits who give him an attitude adjustment.

First of all, the story has some of the most memorable characterization known to English Literature. A testament to the vitality of Dickens’ characters is the fact that even only after one year of publication there were some eight different stage productions of A Christmas Carol already running both in England and America. New media forms each century have not daunted the story’s influence as there have also been over 27 different film interpretations of the story starting as early as 1904. From the ethereal but harrowing Jacob Marley and his clanging chains of ““cashboxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel” (62) to the Dionysian “jolly Giant” (151) Ghost of Christmas Present sitting on his throne of ““turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters” (153), Dickens has wrought a masterful cast of characters who are multifaceted, resonant and wholly tangible. Few people can see a small child with a crutch in hand without thinking of Tiny Tim, or see a protruding bony finger from a dark cloak without imagining it pointing to an overgrown tombstone. The images Dickens created, the characters he painted with his words have become part of the Western cultural DNA, perhaps even to the point that those who read the book for the first time, have an eerie sense that they’ve seen or heard this story some time and place before.
Along with the universal character and image reverberations,  another great resonant quality
of A Christmas Carol is its appeal to a higher social order. Dickens was quite deliberate in his crafting of stingy Scrooge, a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” (25) as a way to have England’s tightfisted bourgoisie merchant class to recognize their lack of human kindness. By juxtaposing Scrooge to his battered and freezing clerk, Bob Cratchit, whose “fire was so very much smaller [than Scrooge’s] that it looked like one coal” (29), one of the messages that resonates loud and clear is injustice inherent in the employer/employee relationship. However, as the Ghost of Christmas Past guides Scrooge to look at one of his own past bosses, the jovial Mr. Fezziwig, who threw enormous Christmas Eve parties for his employees, Dickens provides an example of an employer with a heart. When the spirit refutes that Fezziwig’s generosity is a “small matter”, Dickens uses Scrooge as his mouthpiece to advise the ruling class on how to treat their employees:

He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count 'em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune (127).

While this treatise on human relations may seem heavy-handed, the significance of all of Scrooge’s “epiphanies” during his journeys to past, present and future are direct messages of morality using Christmas as the backdrop for a time to readjust one’s generosity meter and see the joy in giving to those less fortunate. Valuing generosity over greed, God help us, will continue to be a universal and timeless message that needs a boost once a year. And for that reason A Christmas Carol will remain relevant.
One of the most significant reasons that A Christmas Carol will continue to have a strong literary following well into the twenty-first century boils down to the most basic human fear: Death. Dickens sets up a situation in which Scrooge must face his imminent, lonely, and miserable death. He is forced to look at his own dead body, his bed stripped bear by common pawnshop thieves, leaving the corpse twice cold and the room desolate and lonely.  While, yes, Scrooge is affected by the premonition of Tiny Tim’s death, it is not until he sees his own gravestone that he has his ultimate catharsis calling into the misty night “ ‘Spirit! . . . hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope’ “ (268). He, of course, is not past all hope. He has the opportunity to rectify all ills and avoid Jacob Marley’s fate. He can shock the Cratchit family with a turkey the size of Tiny Tim, and can play Blind
Man’s Buff with his young life-affirming self in the persona of his nephew. Scrooge is allowed to “sponge away the writing” (270) on his gravestone, to live not only “another” day but a “better” day.
Avoiding an unrepentant death, having a kind of resurrection moment, then, becomes the most resonant and relevant of the themes that will guide A Christmas Carol into probably not only the twenty-first, but perhaps the thirty-first century.  Man will continue to be flawed, greedy and selfish. Man quite likely does not deserve the kind of second chances he often is afforded. But man is also capable of great change, and this kind of hope and optimism for humankind has survived the sneers of cynics and the excoriations of critics for millennia. Just as the story from which the Christmas holiday was originally prompted, we will continue to gravitate to stories in which we clearly see the redemption of our “Bah! Humbug!” demons into our “God Bless Us, Everyone” better spirits. And we will, unfortunately, always need the reminders “to open [our] shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below [us] as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys” (34). At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, the human race needs A Christmas Carol and that alone will make it continue to be wholly relevant.

Charles Dickens. “A Christmas Carol / The original manuscript.” iBooks.