Thursday, May 15, 2014

Book Review: "Changers"

T. Cooper and Allison Glock-Cooper. Changers. Book One: Drew. Akashic Books 2014.

One of my favorite experiences as a Latin major in college was reading the Metamorphoses, Ovid’s epic poem about changes. In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas/corpora... With the first words of the poem, Ovid announces his intention to tell stories of “outward appearances changed into new bodies.” Outward appearances (formas) are changed, but essentials remain unchanged: Niobe remains a grieving mother even when she’s changed into a rock formation; Arachne as a spider still spins and weaves; Narcissus as a flower still bends his head to see his reflection in the water.

Some of Ovid’s most intriguing stories are about a change of gender. Tiresias lives as both a man and as a woman, and gains significant insight from the experience of crossing between genders. Hemaphroditus bathes in the pool of the nymph Salmacis and their bodies are merged—hermaphroditic, both male and female. And then there is the story of Iphis and Ianthe.  To escape being exposed and left to die (a common fate of female infants in antiquity), Iphis is raised by her mother as a boy, and finds herself betrothed to Ianthe, the beautiful girl next door. On the eve of the wedding, Iphis’s mother prays to the goddess Isis to resolve this dilemma. Isis answers the mother's prayer by changing Iphis into a young man.

Ovid is fascinated with the ambiguities and fluidity of both identities and gender. He says of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus after their bodies are merged: neutrumque et utrumque videntur, “they seem neither and both.” And before her metamorphosis, Iphis sees herself as a monstrum—a monster—which in Latin also implies something hybrid and in between, something neither and both.

I immediately thought of these Ovidian stories as I started reading the first book in the new YA series Changers, by the husband-wife team of T. Cooper and Allison Glock-Cooper. Changers offers Ovid with a modern twist. It suggests that perhaps the experience of being “neither and both,” of becoming the Other, of being in between, of shuffling through different identities makes us not more monstrous, but more human.

Ethan’s family has recently moved from New York City to Tennessee, where he begins his story on the night before his first day of high school. He knows that big changes are ahead: a new school, new friends, new challenges, and new possibilities. But he goes to bed not realizing just how big those changes are going to be. Because when he wakes up in the morning, on the first day of high school, he’s no longer Ethan. He’s a girl.

Her name is Drew, and she soon discovers that she’s one of “an ancient race of humans” known as Changers who live each year of high school as a different person. After graduation, each Changer has to choose a stable identity, a Mono, from the four identities he or she has inhabited over the previous four years.

It’s not clear how an ancient race of humans could organize its existence around high school, an institution that, at least in the United States, dates back to the early nineteenth century. But no matter—it’s a contrivance that works remarkably well, allowing the authors to explore the real and meaningful issues of identity and gender. In the course of her freshman year, Drew has her first period, joins the cheerleading squad, and finds herself attracted to both a boy and a girl. She discovers that being a hot cheerleader doesn’t guarantee popularity, let alone happiness. She experiences objectification, the threat of sexual violence, and complicated feelings she’s never had to deal with before. In other words, she’s introduced to “all new levels of suck.” But as she learns what it’s like to be a girl, and as someone else’s experience becomes her own, she develops a powerful empathy that makes her truly special. Gradually she stops thinking of herself as “a freaking mutant”—a monstrum, neutrumque et utrumque—and starts thinking of herself as herself.

In one particularly lovely moment, Drew reflects on her Nana’s arthritic hands, which Ethan used to find fascinating for their cool horror movie special effect deformity. “Now I think about her hands differently,” she says. “I wonder if they cause her much pain, how she buttons a blouse, what happens when she needs to pick up something tiny, like a toothpick.” Is this because girls see things differently, or because we can all see things differently if we make the effort to place ourselves imaginatively into the lives of others?

One of the things that hooked me into Changers was the obvious debt to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. On the night before the first day of high school, Ethan goes to bed wearing a Slayer t-shirt—as in, the thrash metal band Slayer. When he gets up the next morning, he walks past the mirror in his room and sees this hot blonde girl wearing a Slayer t-shirt. Suddenly, everything shifts. He discovers he’s been “chosen.” He has a Watcher—that is, a Touchstone, a Changer who has gone through her four changes and has chosen her Mono. Drew’s Touchstone, Tracy, has a lot in common with the early Wesley Wyndham-Pryce. Tracy is a representative of the Council, an underground group of New Age authoritarians who regulate the lives of the Changers and protect them from the Abiders, the fascist thugs who insist that everyone should have the one stable identity they were born with. Like vampires, Abiders form “nests” where abducted Changers are tortured. 

This is a lot of derivative infrastructure to build a story upon, and I have to admit that I found the Changers Council just as irritating and irrelevant as the Watchers Council. But in some ways that’s the point. The Changers Council wants to protect the Changers, but in doing so it enforces a kind of conformity that hampers its own stated mission of changing the world. Changers have to “pass.” The Council instructs them to lie about their true nature even to their closest friends.  The closeted suits on the Council seem to have reduced whatever their changes have taught them about empathy into the mantra “In the many, we are one”—a fine motto, but one that becomes meaningless if it isn’t lived out in the open and with real conviction. How can they change the world if they’re afraid to come out and demand their own acceptance?

There’s a lot going on here, but it rarely distracts from the main attraction, which is Drew herself and her gradual process of becoming comfortable in her own skin—whatever skin that might happen to be. Drew feels like a real person. She tells her own story with candor, humor, and compassion. She’s someone I would have wanted as a friend. She’s someone I would have wanted to be. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Spring Wildflowers at Big Woods State Park

Blooming on Sunday, May 11, 2014
Wood anemone
Rue Anemone
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria). Past peak.
Hepatica. Past peak.
Trout Lily (Erythronium)
Marsh Marigold (Ranunculus)
Bellwort (Uvularia)
Spring Beauty (Claytonia)
Dutchman's Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)
Toothwort (Dentaria)
Wild Ginger

Blue cohosh

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Walking News: Creativity and Connectivity

The New York Times reports on a study conducted by researchers at Stanford University that links walking with a boost in creativity. 

Mike Simons, a photojournalist for the Tulsa World, is slowly making his way on foot down the 16-mile length of Peoria Avenue, which runs "from one end of Tulsa, Oklahoma, to the other, traversing the city’s richest and poorest neighborhoods along the way, the most rural to the densest." He's walking a mile at a time, each side of the street, chronicling the life of the community he passes through. 

Some of what he finds can also be found in Northfield: sidewalks that abruptly end, and residents from a poor neighborhood forced to walk along a narrow highway bridge with no sidewalk. 

Residents of the poorer neighborhoods of North Tulsa often have to walk because they don't have reliable access to other modes of transportation, but the city currently has a poor pedestrian infrastructure. Fortunately, in the case of the highway bridge without sidewalks, the state DOT has stepped in with a $1.7 million plan to install sidewalks on both sides of the bridge. (See the story from the Tulsa World here.) Meanwhile, here in Northfield, we continue to bicker over the TIGER Trail, which is intended to address just such a situation. 

Sometimes we have to get out of our cars and hit the sidewalks to be able to see the injustice built into the structure of our cities. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

My Visit to the Shooting Range

The Morristown Gun Club is a ten-minute drive along Highway 60 west of Faribault, Minnesota, in the southwestern corner of Rice County. The scenic highway passes Cannon Lake just west of Faribault, and continues on across numerous wetlands past Sakatah Lake and into LeSueur County. The Sakatah-Singing Hills State Trail, a 41-mile paved bicycle trail along the former route of the Chicago Great Western Railroad, runs parallel to the highway until Madison Lake, 20 miles to the west.

Herons fly languidly over the highway as I drive out to Morristown on a Sunday afternoon in early May. With numerous wetlands and lakes, large and small, this must be a paradise for waterfowl—and for waterfowl hunters. 

At the edge of Morristown (population 984), a bright yellow billboard (“5,000 GUNS”) points the way to the gun club, another two miles or so across the rolling fields. At the end of a gravel road, a large cannon marks the entrance to Ahlman’s gun shop and the gun club. A yellow sign on the base of the cannon quotes selectively from the Second Amendment, leaving out the clause about a “well-regulated militia.”

At its May 12 meeting, the Northfield School Board will vote on a proposal from the Activities Committee to adopt clay target shooting as a varsity sport. The sport will be open to middle school and high school students, and to both boys and girls, and will meet and compete on Sunday afternoons at the Morristown Gun Club.

When the proposal was first presented to the Board on April 28, there was naturally serious concern about the school district sanctioning an activity that involves firearms. This concern was intensified by the school shooting at Newtown in 2012, and brought even closer to home last week when authorities in Waseca, Minnesota, discovered a seventeen-year old high school student stockpiling firearms and explosives in a plot to massacre his classmates. Waseca is only about 15 miles south of the Morristown Gun Club, and the threat of gun violence was very much on my mind as I drove past the massive cannon at the entrance to the club.

As Danny Franklin pointed out in a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post, since the tragedy at Sandy Hook, 20 states have passed less restrictive gun laws. Most recently, the governor of Georgia passed a law that allows guns to be carried virtually everywhere in the state, including schools, churches, bars, and airports. Clearly the constitutional right expressed on the base of the gun club’s cannon—that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”—is regarded by many people as an absolute right that admits of no exceptions, even to prevent unimaginable tragedies such as Sandy Hook. Meanwhile, in the sixteen months since Sandy Hook, there have been over seventy shootings at schools and colleges in the United States. Waseca had the potential to be the deadliest.

As I stopped the car, silencing the radio in the middle of a Mozart symphony, I could hear the sound of shotguns being fired. I got out of the car and walked toward the sound. At the shooting range, I was greeted by a coach who fitted me out with earplugs and eye protection and took me to watch the team in action.

There are stations for three squads on the range, with five shooters on each squad. The shooters take turns loading and firing, so that on each squad only one gun is loaded at a time. At all other times, the guns are unloaded, and carried with the muzzles up. In the photograph below you can see how the squad is arranged, and in the brief video you can see—and hear—a squad in action, as each shooter in turn calls out “pull,” the clay pigeon is released, and the shooter fires.

The teams in the clay target league are co-educational, and several girls participate on Northfield’s team (which is currently a community education and recreation program, not a varsity sport). It was interesting to watch a large, broad-shouldered football player shooting next to a slim, pony-tailed girl in a Science Olympiad letter jacket. The girl happened to be having a rough day, but there is nothing inherent in the sport that gives boys a competitive edge over girls. Boys and girls compete by exactly the same rules. There are currently 16 participants in the sport statewide who have hit 50 consecutive clay pigeons in competition. Two of those athletes are girls, which only reflects the fact that fewer girls choose to participate in the sport. All of the team members I spoke to valued the fact that clay target shooting demands discipline and concentration rather than size, strength, agility and speed.

I have to admit that I arrived at the gun club feeling a little nervous about being around so many teenagers with firearms, but what I found on the target range immediately put me at ease. I found a carefully controlled and well-supervised environment in which safety was the highest priority. I found competent and attentive coaches who wanted to bring out the best in each member of the team. I found young people who were learning safety, discipline, and responsibility, and enjoying themselves in the process.

As one eighth-grade girl on the team told me: “Trapshooting is not a violent sport and doesn’t encourage violence in any form. Quite the opposite: it teaches safety and responsibility.”

Of course, my visit to the target range didn’t ease my deep-seated concerns about gun violence. Guns are inherently dangerous, and amplify the dangerous and unpredictable tendencies of human beings. I still left thinking about the seventeen-year old in Waseca whose plot to commit murder surprised so many of his classmates who considered him a friend.

But if guns are going to be in the hands of young people for legitimate sporting purposes, participating on the clay target team is the kind of experience I would want them to have. I would want them to be part of a supportive community that emphasizes safety, responsibility, and personal growth.


New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .