Category Archives: Haruki Murakami

The Eternal Darkness of the Empty Mind

My childhood and adolescence were a paradox.

I was born in Woodruff, South Carolina, and spent some of my childhood in nearby Enoree. Both were very small (Enoree was essentially a cross roads, not far from even smaller Cross Anchor); both were mill towns that had not quite begun to crumble in the 1960s and 1970s.

Woodruff seems like parody now, an ugly parody since the town had literal racial divisions with the Black neighborhood, Pine Ridge, on the other side of the railroad tracks dividing the town.

Racism and a bitter fundamentalism were the norm among white people, although most of these cancers remained unspoken and carefully navigated.

What I heard and witnessed in white-only spaces, including my home, contrasted disturbingly with what I heard and witnessed in mixed-race spaces—notably the vibrant high school sports arenas that much of my hometown worshipped. Yes, my hometown was a high school Friday night football sort of world that, again, almost seems like parody now.

Tradition and authority governed schooling and parenting. Conservative ideology was so pervasive there was little to no evidence any other way of thinking was possible.

There was a bitterness and fatalism among white people, among my family members, that I am deeply aware of now. I see it in the far-right Trump movement, reminding me of my parents railing against Muhammad Ali and blaming Dan Rather for the fall of Richard Nixon.

A darkness of empty minds. Irrational and certain.

By some inexplicable twist of fate, the paradox, I found myself in a series of events that allowed me to rise above that emptiness, allowed me the freedom of the human mind that quite literally saved my life.

I wasn’t quite bookish as a child, but I grew up surrounded by books and reading; my mother was a very bright woman with sparse formal education, a natural teacher with a tendency toward nurturing and mothering (she spent a good bit of her life running an in-home daycare and raised my sister’s three sons).

The secular miracle of my life was that for some odd reason my parents never censored my world, especially my intellectual life. By the time I was a teenager, I had graduated from relentlessly watching science fiction B-movies with my mother to reading covertly hundreds of comic books and novels by Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven and Jerry Purnell, and other science fiction not assigned in school (and there were several assigned novels in school I simply did not read, like Charles Dickens, even though I fell in love with Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again, which I read in a literal fever while home sick).

In tenth grade, the miracle of miracles, I entered Lynn Harrill’s English class. Lynn was a fairly new teacher, a kind and passionate educator who eventually became a mentor and the primary impetus for my life as a teacher, scholar, and writer.

Lynn was perceptive, and bold. I spent many days hanging out in Lynn’s room when I wasn’t in class (a kindness I learned and mimicked when I became a teacher, the first years in the exact room where Lynn taught me).

His perception was recognizing my proclivities and how traditional schooling wasn’t serving me fully. His boldness was whispering to me one day when I was taking up his valuable time that I should read D.H. Lawrence (he added that since he knew my parents the recommendation would be fine but Lawrence was a controversial writer).

Lynn was right about the recommendation and my parents.

By high school, in fact, my mother patiently wrote checks each month for my subscription to a few comic books and Playboy, delivered to my home as if this sort of thing was completely normal in 1970s SC.

Of course, as a teen, Playboy and Lawrence spoke to my sexual curiosity of adolescence, but that was a very small fraction of my intellectual life that they both spurred. I recall to this day several interviews I read in Playboy by thoughtful people dramatically unlike the adults of my hometown.

Lawrence became my first literary crush (Clark as well as Niven and Purnell was my first nerd-reading crush). Over the next few years, I read everything by Lawrence. In college as I drifted toward education and English, I gathered as much literary analysis of Lawrence as I could.

Hovering beneath all this, of course, was my comic book collecting. For almost 50 years, I have been a collector of some kind. When I discover a writer, I plow through all their work, proudly buying and displaying all their books.

From that first affair with Lawrence to the more recent obsessions with Haruki Murakami, there have been too many love affairs with authors’ works to list them all—Kurt Vonnegut, Milan Kundera, Margaret Atwood, James Baldwin, and on and on.

And as I noted many times, one of the pivotal moments of my life was finding a used copy of the non-economic writing of Karl Marx, including the foundational pieces that turned me on to being an educator.

Yes, Karl Marx inspired me to a life of service and a commitment as a teacher to foster in students a vibrant mind of possibilities and ideas—and a robust, unyielding repulsion for indoctrination, and even authority.

Many years later, I discovered Paulo Freire and bell hooks. Freire gave me an important framing—the choice of being authoritative (earning the respect of students and readers because I demonstrate authority over content) instead of authoritarian (demanding compliance because of my status).

It is 2022 and I am terrified.

That terror isn’t grounded in the never-ending threat of Covid (although that is certainly terrifying), but in the spreading threat from Republicans determined to censor and control curriculum and what books anyone has access too.

The current Republican playbook isn’t new. Consider this from 1961 in an Oklahoma newspaper:

Jack Hamm, Oklahoma City Star, 6/2/1961 (H/T Randall Stephens)

Notice the second tentacle from the left: “Millions spent for Godless literature.”

I was born about 6 months before this editorial cartoon, and today read the following from Judd Legum:

In Indiana, State Senator Scott Baldwin (R) has introduced sweeping legislation that Baldwin says is designed to ban Critical Race Theory (CRT) and related concepts in K-12 education. During a committee hearing on the bill earlier this month, Baldwin told a high school English teacher that he should be “impartial” when discussing Nazism. It is a case study about how the frantic efforts to ban CRT can quickly lead to absurd outcomes. 

Author of anti-CRT bill tells teacher he should stay “impartial” on Nazism

Republicans all across the U.S. are introducing and passing legislation censoring curriculum (targeting anti-racism content) and banning books from classrooms, school libraries, and public libraries (focusing on LGBTQ+ authors and works); some school board members have even called for book burnings.

My home state of SC is following the lead of other Republican-led states (notably Texas) by proposing guidelines that allow anyone to censor books for others.

It is incredibly important to emphasize that Republicans are actively removing books from school and public libraries—using government to decide what books and ideas people have access to.

These actions are tyranny. The antithesis of being free people.

There is no individual freedom without intellectual freedom.

No one should be held hostage to a life of an empty mind. Everyone deserves the accidental great fortune of my youth, including the kindness and boldness of my teacher, Lynn Harrill.

But none of this should be done in whispers, or with fear.

Republicans are calling for the eternal darkness of the empty mind, and we must resist because censorship erodes both American freedom and human dignity.

Also in 1961, Lou LaBrant recognized the failure of education as conformity:

Throughout our country today we have great pressure to improve our schools. By far too much of that pressure tends toward a uniformity, a conformity, a lock-step which precludes the very excellence we claim to desire….Only a teacher who thinks about his work can think in class; only a thinking teacher can stimulate as they should be stimulated the minds with which he works. Freedom of any sort is a precious thing; but freedom to be our best, in the sense of our highest, is not only our right but our moral responsibility. “They”—the public, the administrators, the critics—have no right to take freedom from us, the teachers; but freedom is not something one wins and then possesses; freedom is something we rewin every day, as much a quality of ourselves as it is a concession from others. Speaking and writing and exploring the books of the world are prime fields for freedom. (pp. 390-391)

LaBrant, L. (1961). The rights and responsibilities of the teacher of EnglishEnglish Journal, 50(6), 379–383, 391. Stable URL:

We must rewin our freedom.


Normality in Sayaka Murata

What is normal? Are you normal? Am I normal?

“Normality was contagious, and exposure to the infection was necessary to keep up with it,” explains Natsuki in Sayaka Murata’s Earthlings.

Earthlings: A Novel: Murata, Sayaka, Takemori, Ginny Tapley: 9780802157003: Books

If we accept that “normal” describes what is typical, and thus, what we may expect in any circumstance, then the novels of Murata are themselves not normal.

And the central characters in both Earthlings and Convenience Store Woman are certainly not normal either. Convenience Store Woman: A Novel (9780802128256): Murata,  Sayaka, Tapley Takemori, Ginny: Books

Having focused for the last couple of years on fiction in translation (see links below)—prompted in part by my scholarly and personal interest in Haruki Murakami—I think part of the appeal of fiction from other cultures, crafter originally in languages other than my native English, is that the works confront and challenge my perceptions of normal, even though my critical ideology always calls on me to question, to step back, and to reconsider the assumptions of being human.

However, Murata’s work has shaken me to the core, although in a different way than my recent journey through three novels by Ryu Murakami (below); both authors leave me confused about my responses to their graphic violence and matter-of-fact explorations of the decidedly taboo (child sexual assault, incest, and cannibalism, for example, in Murata).

But while Ryu Murakami crafts tension around both horrific violence by serial murderers and the ever-present threat of violence (readers can likely never again ignore the possibility of severed feet), Murata’s tensions are existential, and while far more dramatic than day-to-day human anxiety, any reader who lives with the existential dread of simply being alive must interrogate their empathy for Keiko (Convenience Store Woman) and Natsuki.

I read Earthlings first, mesmerized by the first third of the novel focusing on Natsuki at 11 years old and in the early stages of puberty. However, this opening is no coming-of-age narrative seeking to reach some sort of universal appeal.

Yes, some of the first two chapters is somewhat quirky explorations of what almost everyone understands about being an adolescent—especially Natsuki’s feeling alienated from her family, particularly her antagonistic mother—but Natsuki being the victim of sexual assault (far too common for young women throughout the world) turns even more disturbing because her confession of the abuse is callously dismissed by her mother and ultimately because Natsuki at 11 enacts a surrealistic revenge that leaves the reader, again, conflicted.

The rest of the novel is Natsuki as an adult, in her 30s, and here we see many of the same powerful motifs found in Convenience Store Woman, where Keiko is also a woman in her 30s.

Murata offers readers characters explicitly aware that they are not normal, but who are along a spectrum of navigating their world-views against either the urge to become normal or finding a way to exist in the so-called normal world as an alien (with sufficient ambiguity about whether that is literal, delusional, or metaphorical).

From casual interest in incest and gleeful cannibalism to choosing a single life as a career part-time convenience store worker, the plot elements of Murata’s novels shatter expectations about tone as well as anyone’s confidence in their own sense of normality.

It isn’t enough to say that Murata seems to show that there really is no such thing as “normal”—except for the power of normalization to seem real.

Murata pushes even further, toward the implication of normal as entirely arbitrary; “normal,” if we dare to be critical, becomes most harmful in human experiences when it becomes “right.”

Normal people marry and have children. Normal people seek out careers and center the focus of their lives on those careers.

And since these are the right things to do, this is how anyone can be fully human.

The harm, of course, is that those who choose not to marry, have children, and center their lives on their careers are choosing the wrong path—and are in effect not fully human.

This brings me to the ultimate overwhelming weight of Murata’s novels—the burden of normal on children and women as well as the role of normal in the sexual and physical violence pervading the lives of children and women.

Yes, there are cartoonishly surreal moments in Murata that prod a smile, but everything in her worlds is tinted by the inevitability of the disease of normality and the futility of a single human’s desire simply to be herself, her true and full self.

See Also

Found in Translation

The Diving Pool: Three Novellas, Ogawa, Yoko

The Housekeeper and the Professor, Yoko Ogawa

Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales, Ogawa, Yoko

Hotel Iris: A Novel, Yoko Ogawa

The Memory Police: A Novel, Ogawa, Yoko

Breasts and Eggs, Kawakami, Mieko

Piercing, Murakami, Ryu

Audition, Murakami, Ryu

In the Miso Soup, Murakami, Ryu

Convenience Store Woman, Sayaka Murata

Earthlings, Sayaka Murata

A Man, Hirano, Keiichiro

The Naked Eye, Tawada, Yoko

The Unforgettable Yoko Ogawa

My experience with Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police was filled with moments of disorientation that matched at a much smaller level the events of the novel, set on an unnamed island where the inhabitants suffer through a series of disappearances under the surveillance of the Memory Police.

First, I was drawn to the stunning cover and a description promising a stark work of science fiction.

Since I received a hardback copy and the inside flap claims the novel is a “stunning new work,” I began reading the work as exactly that—a newly published novel by a young writer.

Yet, as I read, the genre wasn’t so neatly clearcut, and I soon learned the novel is from 1994, the English translation being new, but Ogawa, now in her late 50s, has a celebrated career in Japan.

“I sometimes wonder,” the narrator begins, “what was disappeared first—among all the things that have vanished from the island” (p. 3). And from there, the novel proceeds ominously but softly, or subtly, in a voice and a story that do prove to be stark but defy a simple label of science fiction; at turns it reads as fantasy, and then as fable or allegory.

For a book centered on the provocative act of disappearing, I was drawn as well to how much is not there to begin with. Character names and place names are missing or sparse. But I also felt off balance, disoriented, by the mismatch between the patient and soft narration against the foreboding doom of the disappearances, some of which seem minor although the loss and the ever-present threat of the Memory Police render all of the disappearances life-altering.

Reading Ogawa for the first time reminded me of Haruki Murakami, Albert Camus’s The Stranger, and Philip K. Dick—although I quickly warmed to seeing the novel as purely a work by Ogawa. In some ways there is a sense of detachment and very slow development I find often Murakami, and may be shared qualities of Japanese narrative.

Broadly, Ogawa’s fable is a powerful reflection of Camus’s existential message from The Stranger: “after a while you could get used to anything” (p. 77). However, in Ogawa’s allegorical nightmare, that concept is both proven and stretched almost beyond comprehension by the end of the novel.

It is the similarity with Philip K. Dick that sits strongest with me, though. Like Dick, Ogawa creates a pervasive sense of foreboding and fatalism in the lives of the characters. The totalitarian reality of The Memory Police is similar to many of Dick’s works as well as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments, but Ogawa keeps the reader detached from and uninformed about the facts of that oppressive society.

Also similar to Dick, Ogawa investigates human nature, including what makes anyone human—or in this case, what can a human lose and still remain human (similar to a motif in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go).

Another sparse aspect of the novel is plot, but as a reader, I was fully engaged with the characters; Ogawa’s careful and delicate portrayal of friendship and intimacy suggests that at least one key component of being fully human is our community with others.

The Memory Police begins calmly and persistently, but it never really reaches a boil or fever pitch, ultimately fading to the end more so than disappearing suddenly as is the case within the narrative. The novel, in fact. ends with the word “disappear,” and I was left filled and emptied simultaneously.

While reading this novel, I ordered four more of Ogawa’s works, and immediately began The Housekeeper and the Professor, where I found a rhythm that feels distinctly Ogawa’s.

Image result for the housekeeper and the professor"

While this slim novel reads as literacy fiction with a touch of allegory, absent many of the conventions of genre fiction, Ogawa once again deals with memory. In The Memory Police, characters not only have material disappearances, but over time, most of the characters no longer remember what has been lost—except for the rare few who become targets of the Memory Police.

Recall becomes dangerous, and suggests those with their memories intact have power that the omnipresent Memory Police are charged with erasing.

The premise of The Housekeeper and the Professor is not fantastical, but it is exceptional; the Professor of the title is an aging mathematical genius who, after an accident, has only 80 minutes at a time of memory along with his memory of his life prior to 1975.

Since his short-term memory constantly resets, his sister-in-law, alone as his caretaker, is challenged to keep a housekeeper employed to manage his life.

Ogawa builds on this unusual circumstance a really sweet and beautiful narrative about the housekeeper, her young son (dubbed Root by the Professor), and the Professor. The characters are often gentle and kind souls, often delicate, in spite of the odd nature of the Professor’s life and their tenuous relationships.

The story is often quirky, and Ogawa manages several moments of real tension on much smaller levels than in The Memory Police, but palpable tension none the less.

Although not essential knowledge for the reader, this novel’s use of mathematical principles is the motif that holds the story together, more weighty than the low profile of the plot and the slow development of the themes and characterizations. For the Professor and eventually the housekeeper and her son, math is beautiful and fascinating.

In Ogawa’s work, memory as that blends with all human relationships seems to be an essential element of being fully human, but in The Housekeeper and the Professor, readers also witness something about our basic humanity, for example in how the Professor interacts with and teaches Root:

Among the many things that made the Professor an excellent teachers was the fact that he wasn’t afraid to say “we don’t know.” For the Professor, there was no shame in admitting you didn’t have the answer, it was a necessary step toward the truth. It was as important to teach us about the unknown or the unknowable as it was to teach us what had already been safely proven. (p. 63)

That last sentence, I think, is a wonderful description of my experience reading Ogawa, which now continues with her collected three novellas, The Diving Pool.

Recommended Works in English Translation

Haruki Murakami

After the Winter, Guadalupe Nettel

The Plotters, Un-su Kim

The Transmigration of Bodies, Yuri Herrera

Signs Preceding the End of the World, Yuri Herrera

Kingdom Cons, Yuri Herrera

The Vegetarian, Han Kang

The White Book, Han Kang

The Polyglot Lovers, Lina Wolff

2019 NCTE Annual Convention, Baltimore, MD, November 21-24, 2019

Access all presentation materials at this LINK.

first spring (Baltimore is burning)

(A.02) Teaching Beyond Fear: Inquiry Around Gun Violence in the English Language Classroom

Date: Thursday, November 21, 2019
Time: 9:30 a.m. – 10:45 a.m.
Location: Ballroom II

Beginning with a keynote from YA author Tom Leveen, this roundtable utilizes experiences and expertise from English educators, young adult literature authors, classroom teachers, and mental health professionals in order to consider how secondary English Language Arts can address school gun violence. More specifically, presenters will discuss using young adult literature and writing strategies to guide students as they explore difficult issues, such as violence in schools. 

Roundtable Leader: Paul Thomas: History of Violence: Guns, U.S. Education, and American Exceptionalism

See Also

Let’s Not Fail School Safety as We Have School Reform

School Safety and Security: Research and Evidence

(B.06) Misreading the Science of Reading

Date: Thursday, November 21, 2019
Time: 11:00 a.m. – 12:15 p.m.
Location: 306

In pursuit of helping all children to become readers, this session by the Elementary Steering Committee will address the misleading narratives that assert that all children acquire reading in the same way, featuring several reading scholars who will discuss the multiple ways the “Science of Reading” is misread and misleading.

Co-presenter: Paul Thomas

See Also

Dear Media, Stop Misrepresenting Reading Instruction, Please

The Big Lie about the “Science of Reading” (Updated)

Checklist: Media Coverage of the “Science of Reading”

(D.03) Ethical Dimensions of Teaching Digital Literacy

Date: Thursday, November 21, 2019
Time: 2:30 p.m. – 3:45 p.m.
Location: Ballroom IV

How do we teach students to be responsible, ethical citizens in a digital world? From reading and writing online to social interactions, teachers have responsibilities in teaching the ethical dimensions of digital literacy. This session will provide practical applications across grade levels.

Roundtable Leader: Paul Thomas: The Ethical Dilemma of Satire in an Era of Fake News and the Brave New World of Social


See Also

The Ethics of Digital Literacy: Developing Knowledge and Skills Across Grade Levels

(E.09) Expanding the Canon: New Voices, New Inquiry, New Ideas

Date: Friday, November 22, 2019
Time: 9:30 a.m. – 10:45 a.m.
Location: 307

At NCTE 2018, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie confessed that she still reads “dead white men” even as she advocated for expanding the canon. In other words, expanding the canon does not mean erasing authors, but rather incorporating new perspectives, asking new questions, sharing new ideas. This roundtable session explores what it means to expand the canon by making contemporary connections. Participants will select among 13 tables, each offering units grounded in canonical text(s) and exploring critical and contemporary ways to investigate those texts. After brief opening comments, participants will have the opportunity to circulate among 3 of the 13 roundtables.

Roundtable Leader: Paul Thomas: Haruki Murakami and The Great Gatsby

See Also

Re-reading Faulkner in Trumplandia: “[H]is ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions”

The “Vast Carelessness” of White America

Cormac McCarthy’s Mostly White, Male Mythology: Rethinking the Canon

(F.02) Critical Media Literacy in English Education

Date: Friday, November 22, 2019
Time: 11:00 a.m. – 12:15 p.m.
Location: Ballroom IV

The roundtable session on critical media literacy in English education focuses on the ways in which English educators advocate with others for critical media literacy. Linking to the conference theme, several roundtable presenters inquire into our conception and practices of critical media literacies, including the ways of consuming, producing and distributing critical media literacies in an age of post-truth politics.

Opening Comments: Paul Thomas: What Is Teaching English?

See Also

On Pedagogy and Expertise: Enduring False Dichotomies in Education

The Right Remains Wrong about Teaching, Learning, and Critical Thinking

Teacher Preparation and the Kafkan Nightmare of Accreditation

(G.02) L. Ramon Veal Research Seminar

Date: Friday, November 22, 2019
Time: 12:30 p.m. – 1:45 p.m.
Location: Ballroom IV

The L. Ramon Veal Research Seminar is an ELATE-sponsored session that supports graduate students and teacher researchers engaged in educational research through directed discussion with senior scholars in ELA teacher education.

Respondent: Paul Thomas

(H.01) The Intersection of Literacy, Sport, Culture, and Society

Date: Friday, November 22, 2019
Time: 2:00 p.m. – 3:15 p.m.
Location: Ballroom II

This roundtable session invites attendees to explore contemporary literacies and diverse teaching practices by using sports content and an examination of sports culture to create learning environments that empower students to think critically about issues impacting the world around them.

Roundtable Leader: Paul Thomas: Race, Athleticism, and Intelligence in Media Narratives of Athletes

See Also

Racism not Below the Surface in U.S., Still

Richard Sherman’s GPA and “Thug” Label: The Codes that Blind

The Politics of Wealth and Power

The NFL and the Politics of Lies

Kaeptain America?: On Respectability Politics

(M.43) Nurturing an Inquisitive Spirit and Fostering Our Public Selves Through Social Media

Date: Saturday, November 23, 2019
Time: 2:45 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.
Location: 346

Teaching necessitates attending to the learning and growth of other people, but how, as teachers, can we nurture our own creative and intellectual development? In this interactive session, attendees will dialogue with educators who, through bogging, podcasting, and tweeting, are using social media to foster their public selves.

Co-presenter: Sean Connors
Co-presenter: Paul Thomas
Co-presenter: John Warner

See Also

Re-reading Faulkner in Trumplandia: “[H]is ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions”

Season 2 of Mindhunter focuses on the Atlanta child murders; in one scene investigators interrogate a local KKK member.

June Carryl, Crystal Lee Brown, and Siovhan Christensen in Mindhunter (2017)
June CarrylCrystal Lee Brown, and Siovhan Christensen in Mindhunter (2017)

As a lifelong white Southern male, I found the characterization of that man—what many would call a Georgia cracker—to be unsettling. He is arrogant, self-assured, and able, as he declares, to wrangle his way out of any trouble.

What is off, I think, is that in real life this type of poor Southern white man is an odd but distinct combination of embarrassed arrogance. They are stubbornly self-assured—and completely un-self-aware. But they are also painfully laconic, and if you look carefully, they often become flushed, the blood rising in their necks and faces as they swell with both anger and embarrassment.

In the audio of the wiretap that leads to this KKK member being interrogated, there are hints that Mindhunter is softening the characterizations (that dialogue, and the verb usage, is far too formal) so the scene that bothers me seems to be a reasonable cinematic decision—although it fits into a current narrative about white men now who seem to be afraid of losing status that they never deserved in the first place.

Within a couple days of watching that scene, I happened to finally view Burning, a celebrated Korean film based on Haruki Murakami’s “Barn Burning,” which is the Japanese author’s take on William Faulkner’s story of the same name.

After seeing the film, I decided to re-read both Faulkner’s and Murakami’s stories.

My experiences with Faulkner began flatly in high school, “The Bear,” and then more seriously in a Southern literature course where I found myself deeply embarrassed and suddenly aware of how much I did not know as a junior English education major. Immediately after I graduated college at the end of the first semester of my fifth year, I set out to read everything by Faulkner as I spent several month substitute teaching and doing a long-term sub—all while applying for what I hoped would be my first teaching job that coming fall.

Faulkner then provided for me, still deeply uncritical, an influential combination of modernism filtered through a deeply familiar Southern voice; there was much there that was technically and verbally dazzling (or so it seemed to me as a twenty-something want-to-be writer and teacher).

In 2019 Trumplandia, however, as I rapidly approach 60, I found a much different Faulkner in my re-reading of “Barn Burning”—one now informed by, for example, James Baldwin’s confrontation of Faulkner and the uncomfortable reality that even my well-educated friends now lament that times are really hard for white men in this #MeToo era.

If you are not from the South and you want to understand my opening concerns about the absence of the embarrassed arrogance in the KKK member being interrogated, or if you can’t quite grasp yet who Trump voters are, I suggest you wade into Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” to witness Abner Snopes. A few pages in, readers have the central character of Snopes detailed:

There was something about his wolf-like independence and even courage when the advantage was at least neutral which impressed strangers, as if they got from his latent ravening ferocity not so much a sense of dependability as a feeling that his ferocious conviction in the rightness of his own actions would be of advantage to all whose interest lay with his.

And later in the story, once the family has been once again relocated because of the father’s serial criminality, Abner Snopes chastises is young son Sarty (the eyes of the story) for nearly betraying his father in court:

“You’re getting to be a man. You got to learn. You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you. Do you think either of them, any man there this morning, would? Don’t you know all they wanted was a chance to get at me because they knew I had them beat?”

You will witness Snopes go before the Justice of the Peace twice, quite guilty both time and quite determined that he should not be punished because his actions, to him, are entirely justified—both the burning of a barn and tracking horse manure across the rug when he arrives at Major de Spain’s farm. Snopes is all rugged individual (“wolf-like independence”) and white nationalism/tribalism (“‘your own blood'”) bundled into Southern embarrassed arrogance.

Few things anger many poor white males in the South more than questioning or challenging their honor code, a code wrapped in white nationalism; Snopes rations out his justice and expects everyone else to step aside, recognize its authority.

Re-reading the story also revealed to me how Faulkner incorporates a distinct element of materialism to the theme of individual versus communal justice. Snopes destroys the property of those wealthier than him to assert his dominance in the same way Snopes uses racial slurs about and at black characters in the story.

Snopes is just as domineering with his family, the women and children subject to his verbal and physical wrath, his expected but unpredictable lashing out. Snopes desperately clings to the mythical fiefdom he has manufactured thoughtlessly in his mind.

Faulkner’s story ends with the boy’s sense of “‘truth, justice'” finally coming to a deadly climax with his father’s barn burning, but even as the boy feels compelled to betray his father, his blood, Sarty cannot rise above the engrained but distorted myth of his father:

Father. My father, he thought. “He was brave!” he cried suddenly, aloud but not loud, no more than a whisper: “He was! He was in the war! He was in Colonel Sartoris’ cav’ry!” not knowing that his father had gone to that war a private in the fine old European sense, wearing no uniform, admitting authority of and giving fidelity to no man or army or flag, going to war as Malbrouck himself did: for booty—it meant nothing and less than nothing to him if it were enemy booty or his own.

As Faulkner is apt to do often, the story reveals itself as one of the self-defeating South, where pride in tradition fails any reasonable effort to ground that pride in an ethical unpacking of the past.

Today the laconic embarrassed arrogance has shifted to rants on social media defending the Confederate Flag and arguing that the South fought the Civil War for state’s rights or wildly claiming many blacks fought in Confederate uniforms in that sacred war.

Especially in 2019, both Murakami’s story and the film adaptation help put Faulkner’s story and today’s angry white men in a sharp relief.

Murakami tends to traffic in disassociated men, what can be misinterpreted as sympathetic narratives about the male condition. His “Barn Burning” is steeped in the naive narrator (the film directly mentions The Great Gatsby, but those familiar with Murakami’s work can feel a sort of Nick narrator in this story, fascinated with the mysterious and wealthy boyfriend who appears with the younger woman at the center of the story).

Barn burning is the surprising confession by that mysterious new boyfriend, who decides to confide in the narrator and give the story both an air of mystery and a much more ambiguous (although still detached) moral center than Faulkner’s stark display of Southern honor:

“I’m not judging anything. They’re waiting to be burned. I’m simply obliging. You get it? I’m just taking on what’s there. Just like the rain….Well, all right, does this make me immoral? In my own way, I’d like to believe I’ve got my own morals. And that’s an extremely important force in human existence. A person can’t exist without morals.”

This self-identified barn burner, then, is a more expressive Abner Snopes, and Murakami’s version is far more ambiguous about the barn burnings and how the reader is supposed to judge, or not, the three main characters—the married narrator, the twenty-year-old woman involved with both men (and who falls asleep easily), and the new boyfriend who flatly states he burns barns.

Another twist added by Murakami is when the narrator confronts the barn burner about not being able to find the most recently burned barn: “‘All I can say is, you must have missed it. Does happen you know. Things so close up, they don’t even register.'”

A brief exchange but, I think, a valuable commentary on anyone’s lack of self-awareness—the inability see the things so close up but that still drive who we are, what we do, and how we navigate the world as if our morals are the right ones.

Murakami leaves the reader with more unanswered, however, capturing some of the indirect and ambiguous also lingering at the end of Faulkner’s story.

[Spoiler alert for the film Burning.]

And this brings me to the film adaptation that moves beyond Faulkner’s modernist and Murakami’s post-modernist tendencies.

Ah-in Yoo, Steven Yeun, and Jong-seo Jun in Beoning (2018)
Ah-in YooSteven Yeun, and Jong-seo Jun in Beoning (2018)

In the film, the barn burning mystery (transposed to burning greenhouses) becomes a frame for the new boyfriend being a serial murderer and the central character being pushed himself into asserting violently his own moral code.

The movie adaptation steers the viewer into a psychological mystery. As we watch along with the central character, Lee Jong-su, a disturbing picture develop. Ben declares to his new girlfriend, after Shin Hae-mi has disappeared, that burning greenhouses is merely a metaphor (that the viewers and Jong-su recognize as a metaphor for his being a serial murderer of young women).

To work through Faulkner to Murakami to Burning is more than a journey through literary/film theory and genre/medium. This an exercise is coming to recognize the very real and violent consequences of the anger that rises in men of a certain type (maybe, as the film suggests, all men) who cling to their individualistic moral codes to the exclusion of everyone else.

These are not just the men of a short story or movie; these are the agents of mass shootings and the daily terrors of domestic violence and sexual aggression and assault.

As a white man from the South, I struggle with the sharp awareness that the tension in Sarty between some larger communal ethics and the myth of this father remains a reality for young men in 2019. I also fear that the new narrative that the world is becoming too hard for men is very fertile ground for the sort of unbridled arrogance and violence that pervades the U.S.

Faulkner’s story ends in allusion. The barn burning blazes behind Sarty, who understands what the gun fire he hears confirms. Yet, he walks away, and “[h]e did not look back.”

If Faulkner is being hopeful here, I cannot muster that same optimism today.

See Also

Cormac McCarthy’s Mostly White, Male Mythology: Rethinking the Canon

NCTE 2018 – Houston, TX

Find all the PowerPoints for the presentations below HERE.

Please consider attending the following sessions if you are attending NCTE 2018 in Houston TX this November:

(C.28) The Intersection of Literacy, Sport, Culture, and Society

Date: Friday, November 16, 2018
Time: 9:30 a.m.-10:45 a.m.
Location: 340 AB

Running and Non-Fiction: Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk about When I Talk about Running

P.L. Thomas, Furman University (Greenville, SC)

Strecher, M.C., & Thomas, P.L. (Eds.) (2016). Haruki Murakami: Challenging authors. Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

(E.24) Navigating the Similarities and Differences of Writing at the Secondary and College Levels

Date: Friday, November 16, 2018
Time: 12:30 p.m.-1:45 p.m.
Location: 351 D

Bridging the Writing Gap: Centering Student Voices in High School and College Writing

P.L. Thomas, Furman University (Greenville, SC)

Kristen Marakoff, Travelers Rest High School (Travelers Rest, SC)

Writing and Teaching Writing: By Topics

(F.32) Raising Voices through Critical Media Literacy in a Fake News, Post Truth America

Date: Friday, November 16, 2018
Time: 2:00 p.m.-3:15 p.m.
Location: 340 AB

An Educator’s Primer: Fake News, Post-Truth, and a Critical Free Press

P.L. Thomas, Furman University (Greenville, SC)

Goering, C., & Thomas, P.L., eds. (2018). Critical media literacy and fake news in post-truth America. Boston, MA: Brill.

(H.11) Teaching the Canon in 21st Century Classrooms

Date: Saturday, November 17, 2018
Time: 8:00 a.m.-9:15 a.m.
Location: Grand Ballroom B

Teaching the Canon in 21st Century Classrooms 

“[A]ll this fiddle”: On Genre Wars in a Time of Craft Beer

Poetry MM

“Poetry,” Marianne Moore

Several years ago I was initiated into the craft beer world—having been a serious drinker of beer since high school but being a somewhat resolute low-brow consumer in many ways eschewing the snobbery I witnessed among wine connoisseurs.

Along with my cycling friends Rob and Brian, I made a couple trips to Colorado for bicycling and beer; while on those trips, I was gradually indoctrinated into a more refined understanding of craft beer, mostly guided by Brian.

Today, I frequent local and regional breweries almost exclusively for my beer drinking—along with my one remain low-brow habit of grande Dos Equis ambers a couple times a week at Mexican restaurants.

I remain far too naturally unsophisticated to ever grasp wine nuances, although I have friends who can easily convince me to enjoy wine with them, but my beer palate is moderately well educated, and I do enjoy a wide range of craft beers that I am certain baffles the mostly Bud Light crowd of my hometown and state.

Having come to beer snobbery late in life, I find the distinctions about “good” or “bad” beer quite similar to the genre wars that I have been living since I was a teen since my introduction to so-called literary fiction was significantly primed by my initial love for science fiction (mere “genre” fiction) and comic books (not any sort of literature at all!).

In Literary fiction or genre? When Megan Abbott and Naomi Novik are writing, who cares, Michale Robbins opens by confronting: “If there’s a distinction between ‘genre fiction’ and ‘literary fiction,’ it’s certainly not that the former isn’t literary and the latter isn’t generic. It’s mostly that the generic conventions of the latter are those that critics and professors are trained to value most.”

A former student, who was a top-notch English major and now teaches English, recently finished reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and drew the same conclusion—if we remain in a formalist paradigm of what counts as “literary,” then Tartt’s novel may well be pronounced so much popular fiddle.

Yet, as my former student noted, the novel could just as easily be praised if we change our metrics, set aside our snobbery.

John Warner’s Is ‘The Great Gatsby’ really required reading? Disrupt Texts challenges teachers to reconsider the classics also ventures into the debate about such snobberies grounded in the canon:

Much of the discussion among educators focuses on how using these texts can be enhanced by injecting marginalized perspectives. This is the “disrupt” part of Disrupt Texts. Rather than taking a single perspective as representative for all, the discussion challenges the notion of a single, fixed history. This is the root of critical thinking and a pre-requisite to lasting learning.

Education isn’t merely transmitting information; students must be taught to make meaning for themselves.

Warner’s last point can be extended, I think, to giving students not the right or only lens for evaluating texts (using the often unnamed New Criticism approach to dissecting text often written with New Criticism’s emphasis on craft and meaning in mind) but many and varied opportunities to examine texts in order to draw their own ways to navigate texts (a variety of lens, some more formal such as feminist or Marxist) and their own guidelines for what makes texts compelling, satisfying, and even “good.”

My former student and I continued to discuss her experience with The Goldfinch, the challenges, I noted, of making a really long novel satisfying. Tartt’s work, she said, was enjoyable to read, but she felt it failed in some important ways—ways I categorize as achieving or not that “satisfying.”

This discussion prompted me to think about Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, a very long and complex work.

When I first read 1Q84, I was initially drawn to the rotating main characters, but when a third focal character is introduced, I began to feel uncomfortable, a sense that the novels’ cohesion was being compromised.

Also I was uneasy with Murakami’s novel being labeled “science fiction”; I could not see anything about the work as I read it that would make me classify it as that genre (maybe something like fantasy or magical realism?).

I find all of Murakami compelling so I read quite eagerly even as I was uncomfortable with the possibility that the long work would not remain cohesive (I am sure my English training in New Criticism and literary snobbery were in play here as well). However, the work came together, fell into place—although how that happens is at least fantastical (one would argue a convention of genre not literary fiction).

All of this is to say that as an experienced and autonomous reader I have developed capacities for interrogating texts, mostly to determine if I enjoyed the work and the writer.

Some of my formal background as a student and English education major/English teacher actually inhibits my joy as a reader—a reality all too common for students.

The genre wars, then, often create barriers to reading and reading for pleasure.

In Moore’s “Poetry,” her second stanza evokes “high-sounding interpretation,” “unintelligible,” and “we/ do not admire what/ we cannot understand.”

Writers, like Moore and others, it seems, do themselves play into the genre wars and all that snobbery, especially about what constitutes the “good” writers as distinct from the hacks. But in the end, writers are mostly about having readers, readers eager to read, readers satisfied by a compelling and cohesive text—wishing for a next story, or book, or essay, or poem.

I cannot shake from my own mind as a reader the importance of texts being satisfying, cohesive. But I also think about my joy as a reader.

Two of the most wonderful texts I have ever read are Roxane Gay’s “There is No ‘E’ in Zombi Which Means There Can Be No You Or We”  and Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch”—beautiful, compelling works of fiction that depend heavily on so-called genre conventions but rise well above the bar of satisfying (even if we cannot resist the allure of evaluation, whether they are “literature”).

As a reader I am seeking writing that demonstrates purpose, a fidelity, I think, to the sort of writing the writer intends, the sort of text I am choosing to read.

Everything else is just fiddle, like calling Miller High Life “The Champagne of Beers.”

Flawed Men Artists and Their Crumbling Art

Have you ever told a lover insecure about their attractiveness, “You are beautiful,” or “You are sexy”? And then have them reply, “Yes, but you love me.”

I guess we are left with something like beauty is in the eye of the beholder—or at least we are aware that our love and our crushes can allow us to see all the wonderful while conveniently ignoring the troubling.

I have massive literary and artistic crushes, and as a result, I often have to come to terms with my rose-colored glasses. I was warned by a college professor (a wonderful, kind, and smart woman who introduced me to a feminist perspective) that I would someday think less of Ernest Hemingway, and of course, Hemingway gives me fits.

Actress famous for her teen roles, Molly Ringwald shares a really compelling and personal experience with confronting in the same way John Hughes:

I made three movies with John Hughes; when they were released, they made enough of a cultural impact to land me on the cover of Time magazine and to get Hughes hailed as a genius. His critical reputation has only grown since he died, in 2009, at the age of fifty-nine. Hughes’s films play constantly on television and are even taught in schools. There is still so much that I love in them, but lately I have felt the need to examine the role that these movies have played in our cultural life: where they came from, and what they might mean now.

As a high school English teacher, in fact, I was one of those who taught annually Hughes’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; it struck me as unusually smart about high school as well as a powerful example of craft (and I can say the same about the Coen brothers’ Raising Arizona, which I also showed every year).

Ringwald eventually concludes:

If I sound overly critical, it’s only with hindsight. Back then, I was only vaguely aware of how inappropriate much of John’s writing was, given my limited experience and what was considered normal at the time. I was well into my thirties before I stopped considering verbally abusive men more interesting than the nice ones. I’m a little embarrassed to say that it took even longer for me to fully comprehend the scene late in “Sixteen Candles”…

It’s hard for me to understand how John was able to write with so much sensitivity, and also have such a glaring blind spot. Looking for insight into that darkness, I decided to read some of his early writing for National Lampoon. I bought an old issue of the magazine on eBay, and found the other stories, all from the late seventies and early eighties, online. They contain many of the same themes he explored in his films, but with none of the humanity. Yes, it was a different time, as people say. Still, I was taken aback by the scope of the ugliness.

I just completed a scholarly chapter on Marvel superhero Daredevil, including several sections on the influence of writer/artist Frank Miller. This is an excellent example of the essential problem confronted by Ringwald: How do we navigate the flawed artist and (often) his crumbling art?

Miller is a highly celebrated comic book creator who revolutionized Batman and Daredevil directly and thus superhero comics more broadly. Yet, Miller’s ideology and tendencies are quite disturbing at times.

As Sam Riedel unpacks in a review of the reissue of Hard Boiled, “Miller is working within the same misogynist trope that’s plagued genre fiction for decades: that women are all deceivers who use sex to manipulate men into doing what they want.”

Miller, like Hughes, benefits for the powerful shield of being white and male, which allows them to revel in the role of artist; its all about craft and not about substance (a deformed modernist argument).

Haruki Murakami: A Case Study in the Artist/Art Dilemma

A former student and early-career teacher is rereading Kafka on the Shore as a possible new text in her works in translation unit for International Baccalaureate (IB).

Murakami represents one of my more recent literary crushes, and I nudged her to his work while I was co-editing a volume on the world-famous Japanese writer.

We share a strong affection for Kafka on the Shore, among a couple others as the best of Murakami, but her rereading has both reinforced that affection and given her pause about, especially, Murakami’s flurries of sexism, a problem I touch on in a brief review of his short story collection, Men Without Women.

As I considered her concerns, I then had a near out-of-body experience as I listened to myself wrestle with a reply.

Murakami, I explained, is of a generation and a culture that could help explain (but not excuse) that his works often portray women and attitudes toward women that are accurate for that time and place. I then noted Murakami presents a layered problem since his literary background seems to rest on problematic men writers, many of whom personify a macho literary tradition: J.D. Salinger, Raymond Carver, John Irving, F. Scott Fitzgerald (Murakami often identifies).


After the Second World War, novels like “The Old Man and the Sea,” “The Call of the Wild,” and “Moby-Dick” entranced Japanese readers yearning for a future of heroism, naturalism, and reason in the wake of the chaotic militarism and destruction they’d endured. Instruction was still a part of the appeal, but heroism and identity moved to the forefront. The transformation to a more purely literary engagement with American fiction, with readers appreciating and actually enjoying American prose over what it could teach them, occurred in 1975. That’s when Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan were translated into Japanese and introduced a sense of humor, absurdity, and social criticism voiced in vernacular prose.

Murakami, the case can be made, embodies a sort of literary tradition found in Albert Camus’s The Stranger, a work written intentionally to mimic Hemingway’s style but also includes some of the same gender and sexism problems found in Hemingway’s work.

Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World seems to nod pretty hard toward these stylistic (hard-boiled) influences, but that sort of excuse wears thin, I think.

Several degrees further away, I have also been wrestling, like Ringwald, with Blade Runner and the many decades later sequel Blade Runner 2049; just as I tried to explain about Murakami, these films may be describing elements of sexism and misogyny without endorsing them.

But how do we know, and what do we do?

I imagine there is a line, maybe not black and white but fairly wide and gray. Some artists and their art are rightfully at last beyond excuse; those we dismiss, maybe with due fanfare.

Some are allowed a new life, one that is about tempering the praise, balancing it against the flaws.

But always, I think, we must keep this powerful observation from Lindsay Lynch on Salinger: “It turns out sad women don’t get to be asshole geniuses.”

Flawed men artists and their crumbling art remind us that we have excused and still do excuse men (often mediocre) almost anything while simultaneously discounting women and people of color for any transgression.

Maybe there is an unintended lesson to these flawed men and their flawed works that can lead us to a better way that allows them some limited space as we make room for those too long ignored and even silenced.

Haruki Murakami’s 7 Stories: “It’s quite easy to become Men Without Women”

Could we possibly need yet another fictional investigation of men in 2017? Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women suggests we do with seven short stories that blend a narrative focus on men who seem equally inept at connecting with women and ultimately incomplete when women seem destined to leave, to be absent.

“Drive My Car” opens Murakami’s slim collection by immediately challenging reader’s with “most female drivers fell into one of two categories,” leading into a story uncritically awash in sexism. Kafuku, an aging actor, hires a woman, Misaki Watari, to be his driver—a sparse plot common in Murakami, whose work is often driven by characters and narration instead of traditional action.

The shallowness of men, the weaknesses of men who embody and perpetuate sexism and misogyny—these would seem to be the sorts of fictional investigations needed in the twenty-first century. Murakami, however, investigates loneliness through the lens of men such as Kafuku:

Kafuku adored his wife. He had fallen deeply in love with her when they first met (he was twenty-nine), and this feeling had remained unchanged until the day she died (he had been forty-nine then). He hadn’t slept with another woman in all the years of marriage. The urge had never arisen, although he had received his fair share of opportunities.

His wife, however, slept with other men on occasion. As far as he knew, there had been four such affairs.

Throughout the collection, Murakami paints these men sympathetically despite their many flaws. Kafuku begins a friendship with one of his wife’s lovers after her death, in fact:

They shook hands once again on parting. A fine rain was falling outside. After Takatsuki had walked off into the drizzle in his beige raincoat, Kafuku, as was his habit, looked down at his right palm. It was that hand that had caressed my wife’s naked body, he thought.

The lonely, abandoned man is a staple of Murakami—and the stories include many signature elements of his fiction, such as The Beatles, quirky narration and the centering of storytelling, bar tending and jazz, and the ever-present hint of the supernatural, the unexplainable.

For readers already drawn to Murakami, this collection reaches out to them while often remaining subtle and nearly stationary. Someone new to Murakami may find the men too flawed to deserve the compassion Murakami seems eager to solicit.

As a Murakami fan and literary scholar of his work, I think the collection shines most powerfully with “Scheherazade” and “Samsa in Love”—both of which center loneliness in ways that rise above the more problematic portrayals of men and women.

“Whatever the case,” we learn in “Scheherazade,” “Scheherazade had a gift for telling stories that touched the heart.” This story’s man is a shut-in, although why is never revealed, and the woman offers him awkwardly satisfying sex and, as noted above, stories.

Habara, the man, dubs the woman “Scheherazade,” although it is not her name and he never shares this with her. The stories about dreams involving lampreys and her own pseudo-sexual teen obsessions driving her to break in a house constitute a second-level set of Murakami’s quirkiness.

The story blends the power of sex/intimacy with storytelling/intimacy as Habara becomes more and more linked to, dependent on Scheherazade:

She got out of bed and put on her clothes—panties, stockings, camisole, and, finally, her skirt and blouse. Habara casually watched the sequence of her movements from the bed. It struck him that the way women put on their clothes could be even more interesting than the way they took them off.

As the reader is guided along with Scheherazade’s adventures, the interior of Habara is more fully revealed, despite the remaining lack of details about his situation. That interior becomes a place where he fears loss:

He could be deprived of his freedom entirely, in which case not only Scheherazade but all women might be taken away from him….Never again would he be able to enter the war moistness of their bodies. Never again would he feel them quiver in response.

This fear of physical loss is immediately qualified:

Perhaps an even more distressing prospect for Habara than the cessation of sexual activity, however, was the loss of the moments of shared intimacy. To lose all contact with women was, in the end, to lose that connection. What his time spent with women offered was the opportunity to be embraced by reality, on the one hand, while neglecting it entirely on the other.

“Scheherazade,” like many of the stories, walks the edge of objectifying women and reducing any individual woman as simply a stand-in for “woman,” to fulfill the need of any man. But Habara’s sadness is linked to the “gift,” “inexhaustible,” that is Scheherazade.

A companion to “Scheherazade” is the gem of the collection, “Samsa in Love.” Here Murakami brilliantly re-imagines Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, a class of surreal existential literature often under-appreciated for its dark humor and ultimate focus on Gregor Samsa’s family.

The story’s first sentence echoes Kafka’s tale and appears to suggest the insect metamorphosis has reversed (insect becoming again human) with the remnants of the Kafkan nightmare throughout the house.

Samsa is uncomfortable in his human form and suffering an existential crisis of what he knows and how he knows it:

Samsa had no idea where he was, or what he should do. All he knew was that he was now a human whose name was Gregor Samsa. And how did he know that? Perhaps someone had whispered it in his ear while he lay sleeping? But who had he been before he became Gregor Samsa? What had he been?

Deftly, Murakami crafts a layered homage to Kafka as parody of Kafka—the original itself often driven by satire and parody.

Samsa struggles moving about the house—the stairs are a death trap— and feels compelled to cover her nakedness. But what most drives him is hunger, a powerful Kafkan motif in his novella and other works:

What mattered was filling that empty cavern inside him. He ate with total concentration, as if racing against time. He was so fixated on eating that once, as he was licking his fingers, he sank his teeth into them by mistake. Scraps of food flew everywhere, and when a platter fell to the floor and smashed he paid no attention whatsoever.

In his journey through the house, Samsa discovers he is alone, but there seems to have been others who fled quickly—his family. The central conflict of the story, however, is that a woman comes to the door to repair a broken lock.

This visitor appears first to be “little,” but soon Samsa “realized that the issue was not her size. It was her back, which was bent forward in a perpetual stoop.”

The hunchback woman arrives to repair a door lock, and the rest of story reveals an interaction between the only two characters—at times typical Murakami awkward man/woman interaction and then often bawdy slapstick:

“What the hell is that?” she said stonily. “What’s that bulge doing there?”

Samsa looked down at the front of his gown. His organ was really very swollen. He could surmise from her tone that its condition was somehow inappropriate.

Samsa pleads that his arousal is “‘some kind of heart problem'”—not sexual, but the reader soon realizes, his affection is emotional, not merely some carnal attraction.

Against the surreal plot and the social upheaval the woman mentions several times, she offers Samsa words of solace:

“Maybe working on the little things as dutifully and honestly as we can is how we stay sane when the world is falling apart.”…

“If you think of someone enough, you’re sure to meet them again,” she said in parting. This time there was real warmth in her voice.

The story ends with Samsa resolving to work on the little things, and he is hopeful.

None the less, the volume ends with the title story, and the foreboding returns: “Suddenly one day you become Men Without Women.”

Often, Murakami’s men challenge us to feel compassion for their longing, their loss, and their loneliness. But, ultimately, his storytelling suggests to me that, yes, there is something compelling about yet another literary investigation of men in 2017.

“How can anybody know/How they got to be this way?”

How can anybody know
How they got to be this way?

“Daughters of the Soho Riots,” The National

It’s 7 January 2017, Zore Neale Hurston‘s birth day; Hurston passed away 28 January 1960, a couple days short of one year before my birth 26 January 1961.

So my 56th birth day looms fewer than 3 weeks away.

Today, the world looks unusual for us in South Carolina:

Skylar contemplates the necessity of pants for her snow adventure at the new home.

The view from my back door for Flurrypocalypse 2017. Throughout the area, grocery stores have no bread or milk.

New years are arbitrary measures of time, and we humans seek any ways possible to understand and control the human condition. The calendar and holidays are some ways we have manufactured to name, organize, and maintain our grip.

As I have detailed lately, today also marks two weeks since I and several other cyclists were struck by a motorist. Writing this now, I notice in just a few minutes, the time will be about exactly when that happened on the morning of Christmas Eve 2016.

I have also confessed that my life has changed. Over the past week, I must admit that it has changed even more than I thought.

Without cycling, I have way too much time, but I also have found it difficult to commit to things the same way I have before. Pain is a problem—distracting and the most potent fertilizer possible for my chronic anxiety and occasional depression.

Yesterday, I finally had a visit with the orthopedist who viewed my x-rays at the emergency room, and almost immediately, I felt better just knowing more from someone with the sort of expertise I do not have.

My medication ran out a few days before this appointment, and along with the increased pain, my fretting was nearly debilitating.

It is embarrassing, but when the anxiety increases, my life is significantly reduced. I worry, and worrying is a very deep well I have trouble climbing out, a very deep well from which I fear I can never climb out.

I have confronted that my life as a road cyclist is likely over; a decision made for me, and a consequence of the accident about which I may be the most viscerally angry.

Anxiety for me is also fed by not knowing—the lowest pit of hell. And I am now swamped by not knowing how the insurance will work out (except to know this is going to be problematic), and not really knowing how soon I will be physically 100% again (I mean as 100% as a 56-year-old man can be).

Just normal aging has always terrified me in terms of the specter of knowing that human behaviors of many kinds will end, and likely without warning. Many things I love to do will no longer be possible just because that is one fact of the human condition.

I have a plan—a way to be hopeful: climbing on the dreaded cycling trainer by week 3 or 4 of the recovery, and as my orthopedist offered without me having to ask, being back on the MTB in 6 weeks or less.

Being mostly immobile and mostly inside has not helped any of this. A huge part of my cycling addiction is connected to constant and extended movement while being outside in the sunshine.

Most bicycle rides are 1.5 hours to 3-4 hours—even once a year, 11-12 hours of riding over 220 miles.

In 2016, I did 246 rides in 365 days, basically riding 2 of every 3 days. There simply is no physical activity possible to replace that.

For two weeks now, I have ridden only the couch.

radical eyes for equity: “Reality bites”

This has been a long build up to explaining why I renamed and chose a different template for this blog.

Blogging, I have discovered, is a powerful way for a writer to gain some of that understanding and control at the center of the human urge.

I started blogging at established but open sites many years ago, and then committed to this WordPress blog four years ago—completely unsure if or why anyone would read my work.

At the beginning, I already had come to terms with rejecting the liberal (versus conservative) tag too strongly anchored in partisan politics, and fully embraced Howard Zinn’s reclaiming the term “radical.” [1]

Naming my blog “the becoming radical” sought to acknowledge being a writer and being a critical educator were always a journey, not a destination, not static—again speaking to Zinn’s “moving train” metaphor.

Especially after working on a volume about James Baldwin in 2014, my focus, my refrain has shifted strongly toward Baldwin:

rigid refusal

As I noted in the prolonged opening, naming and organizing are efforts to understand and control; therefore, as I have changed—and as some of that has been against my will, not of my design—this new year and the horror of Trump before us (just when you think things cannot be worse) have converged with my personal development and my evolution as a writer/thinker/educator.

First, the new template.

I have always wanted a blog that doesn’t look like the stereotype of a blog as something not serious or possibly scholarly (since many people, especially in the academy, don’t value blogging), and I have distinct color and font proclivities.

Immobile and in pain (a dear friend quipped, “You have too much time on your hands”), I searched the free WordPress templates and found what you see now. The green, lower-case lettering of the header, font choices, and ability to control a sidebar all clicked with me. This seems relatively clean and accessible.

I hope my blog readers agree.

But all of that is cosmetic. The main shift has been the new title—radical eyes for equity—which incorporates word play (“radical eyes” = “radicalize”), an allusion to Baldwin’s “rigid refusal to look at ourselves,” and a more clear statement about my grounding in the pursuit of equity—race, class, gender, and sexuality equity.

I cannot explain how I got here, or even fully who I am or what “here” is, but I am here, and this is now, and this is all I can do.

I sit here ending this blog and the sun is shining while it continues to snow in South Carolina, where the temperature is still below freezing.

“What the hell” seems to have become my standard response to this world, but there is work to be done, living to be lived.

I hope you reading and even more will be willing, even eager, to join me here as I try my best to understand and control this thing called the human condition with radical eyes for equity.

And if you join this adventure, I think this from Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart deserves our attention, and it weighs particularly heavy on me now:


[1] From You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Howard Zinn (1994):

When I became a teacher I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences. . . .Does not the very fact of that concealment teach something terrible—that you can separate the study of literature, history, philosophy, politics, the arts, from your own life, your deepest convictions about right and wrong?. . .In my teaching I never concealed my political views. . . .I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth. . . .From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country—not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian. (pp. 7, 173)