Home again, Home again

I love teaching literature because I always seem to garner some new inspiration after every reading. No matter how many times I read some of these great stories they always seem to have something new to teach me. This time around it was the great Odysseus that has provided me with some new things to think about — the grand idea of “going home”.

Epic heroes go on great journeys – they go far away to learn a lesson, to overcome personal failings, to change but they ALL come home and they all desperately want to. I’ve often stated that “the Wizard of Oz” is a modern day epic poem and it struck me more so than ever this time that it is. Odysseus wants to go home – he yearns to go home and yet the gods conspire against him. Dorothy wants to go home – her entire journey is based on the motivation that she wants to go home and yet she too must overcome meddling supernatural beings. Two great journeys — two great heroes.

Dorothy’s obstacles are the personification of her own fears and insecurities – she’s afraid she isn’t smart enough, courageous enough or loving enough to face the troubles in her own life. She literally runs away, refusing to face them. And yet, her journey through strange lands forces her to face those very fears and insecurities that she fled. However, like Odysseus she is singular in her desire to “go home”, exclaiming at the end “there is no place like home”.

Odysseus faces the same journey. He too has weaknesses – he is prideful, arrogant and selfish. He is forced to look inward to humble himself before the gods in order to return home. He doesn’t want to leave his home to begin this journey and as soon as the war is over he is eager to return.

These stories endure because of their great heroes. We, as readers, can identify with their weaknesses and we can identify with their longing to return. Home is eternal for all of us. Whether we grew up in a good home or a bad home there is a foundational quality about home. Home is a reflection of who we are at our core, it is a place of love, of acceptance, of security of comfort. To be dragged from this cocoon and harshly challenged to face our demons is frightening. As a reader we feel the vulnerability that Odysseus and Dorothy must be experiencing. The spiritual nakedness that they endure while on their journey makes us cringe. And when they return home – we are emotionally exhausted with them.

When we look at modern story-telling today – films, TV, books, music, etc So much of it is heavily influenced by this epic poetry format. In particular the theme of “going home” – this animal instinct to want to return to “the den” – to our emotional protection. And yet, we all seek to leave – we want to return better, we want to return improved, we want to return having experienced something we haven’t before.

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Diversity, America and My Christmas Vacation

I just returned from spending Christmas with my family. Spending the holidays with my family is an exercise in tolerance and diversity. I am the daughter of a Jewish mother and a Methodist father. I was raised celebrating both sets of holidays and believing in one God – the Judeo-Christian God. My sister married a wonderful black man who through hard work and discipline escaped his inner-city youth. They have two wonderful boys who are crazy smart, athletically gifted and gosh darn cute. My cousin is married to a sweet gentle woman who is from China and immigrated to the United States as an adult and is also a Buddhist. My Uncle has been married for over thirty years to a wonderful Hispanic woman and they have three boys ( my cousins).

I had a wonderful holiday vacation. I say “holiday” because to say “Christmas” in my house would be excluding some people. I have sweet pictures of my son with his yarmulke lighting the Hanukkah candles and wonderful pictures of my kids tearing open Christmas presents. We ate prime rib and potato latkes for Christmas dinner.

Most people are amazed when I tell them about my own personal “rainbow coalition” but I often wonder is that not really the American dream. Aren’t we a “melting pot”? Isn’t the purpose of America to come together, to celebrate our diversity, to “melt” into one another? Shouldn’t more American families look like mine? What good comes from us only being with other people that are like ourselves? What are we so afraid of?

Is it easy to squeeze all those different types of cultures and beliefs in one family? No. We have our conflicts but I think we all feel we are more understanding, more tolerant, more supportive and overall better people for having this type of diversity in our family. Why, after all these years aren’t there more families like ours? and is this going to be the norm in the future? I sure hope so.

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Christmas 2007 — Gift Guide

I wanted to pass along some of my favorite online locations for gift shopping this year.

1.) American Spoon Foods
www.spoon.com

There are a couple of things that remind me of my childhood home in Michigan and American Spoon Foods is one of them. American Spoon foods is based in Traverse City Michigan and they make some of the best jams, jellies, fruit butter, etc. Just the thought of their Pumpkin butter makes me want to drool. They have great gift boxes as well as a wide selection of individual items. They come in these quaint little gift boxes with their own unique label. You won’t be disappointed.

2.) Dale & Thomas Popcorn
www.daleandthomas.com

I must admit that Oprah listed this as one of her “favorite things” first, so at this point I’m just a copy-cat, BUT I have to admit this is the most amazing popcorn. These people do things with popcorn that I didn’t think was possible. Any of their chocolate flavors, cinnamon and they make a creme brulee flavor that is out of this world. Again, the packaging is wonderful and makes a great long-distance gift.

3.) Etsy
www.etsy.com

Etsy is really a marketplace for individual artisans to sell their custom made goods. I purchased some adorable earrings for my 10 yr. old niece from this website and have found several beautiful hand-crafted ornaments for our tree. I will warn you though, this is a bit like ebay, once you start looking it’s hard to stop.

4.) Busted Tees
www.bustedtees.com

I have two teenage boy nephews and every year they are the most challenging people to buy for. I guess I’ve finally reached the age where I no longer know what is cool. However, these t-shirts seem to always be a hit. They are usually pretty funny and unique. The boys like them because it isn’t anything you can find at the local mall, but their captions are still quirky and hip. Beware though, some of the slogans are a little on the trashy side.

Happy Holidays to my readers — see you in January

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Thanksgiving Day & The Tragic Cheesecake

This Thanksgiving season started like most do, with a flurry of emails amongst women dividing up the cooking responsibilities. This year I got away pretty easy. I only had two tasks; pick up a Honeybaked Ham and bring my Praline Caramel Cheesecake. I felt guilty and yet gleeful knowing that I had not been saddled with cooking a turkey, or bringing the sweet potato casserole.

The Tuesday prior to Thanksgiving I called my local Honeybaked Ham store and asked if I needed to pre-order the ham or if I could just “run-by” the store and pick one up. The store clerk sounded casual and relaxed as he said; “Oh, you can just come by the store we have plenty of hams here”. Well, that just sounded too perfect. I put Lucy and Max (my two toddler children) in the back of my mini-van and off we went to go pick-up a ham. It never once occurred to me that other people might also like to eat ham on Thanksgiving and that most likely many of them were also planning on going to the store to purchase one. As we pulled into the parking lot I realized that there were a lot of cars – an unusual amount of traffic – and then I saw it. The line. A line that stretched from the meager Honeybaked Ham storefront all the way around the entire strip mall and towards the back. Hundreds of people all waiting for a tasty morsel of Honeybaked ham. Instantly, without hesitating, I made the decision that we would NOT be having ham for Thanksgiving.

Although my Thanksgiving day preparations suffered an initial set back I wasn’t concerned. I had made my Praline Caramel Cheesecake several times and it always looked and tasted beautifully. Besides the family was still planning on turkey and the ham was just an “extra”. The cheesecake – my beautiful cheesecake – would be my stunning contribution to the meal.

I returned home and carefully prepared my cheesecake. When I finished it, it was a thing of beauty. Recipes rarely, if ever, turn out like they appear in cookbooks but this cheesecake did. It could have been featured in Martha Stewart Living magazine. I was so proud of my crowning culinary achievement that I took a picture.

My heart filled with pride. Look at this glorious thing I’ve created. I carefully and meticulously placed it in the refrigerator. The next morning I rushed to the refrigerator to check on my prized cheesecake. What I discovered would be the beginning of this most tragic tale. I did not realize the night before that when I put the cake in the refrigerator it was not level and when I checked on the cake in the morning some of the caramel had spilled over a small section of the edge. It was no longer perfect. My creation had a flaw. I was disappointed. However, it still looked beautiful it just had more of a “homemade” look to it now and that was okay. I carefully packed the cake for travel and we put it in the car.

Three hours later we arrived at the family lake house in Winnsboro Texas. I was eager to bring my cake into the house to show off my stunning accomplishment. After bragging that my cheesecake was a sight to behold I unveiled the glorious item. I’m not sure words alone can describe the horror that was before me. All of the caramel and the pecans had completely slid off the cake and had pooled inside of the cake carrier. I was stunned, shocked, speechless. My aunts, recognizing that I had gone into a culinary shock quickly stepped in to rescue my creation. They reassured me repeatedly that “nobody would know”, that we could “repair the damage”, it was still “lovely”. We scooped all the caramel and the pecans into a bowl, reheated it and reapplied the topping to the cheesecake. It now no longer resembled the glorious item that had first come out of the oven – it didn’t look anything like the picture in the cookbook. It was a normal, homemade cheesecake. God had fully humbled me. There was nothing left to be proud of – I had made a cheesecake.

Had the story ended there it would be sad, but far from being tragic. It would be just another funny story of a culinary mishap. But the story doesn’t end there.

My cheesecake had yet to make it’s final journey from the lake house to the farmhouse, which was only 2 miles away. I picked up my son and my husband grabbed the cheesecake. We took two steps out of the lake house front door when I heard behind me a crash and my husband exclaim; “OH!”. I spun around and there it was — on the ground. My cheesecake had suffered the final blow, it was upside down on the sidewalk. I felt warm tears pool behind my eyes as my husband deftly and gently picked up the cheesecake put it back on the plate and said; “Oh sweetheart, I am SO SORRY. You know, I don’t think you can tell. It looks okay – let’s serve it. We’ll tell everybody the truth after they eat it.” He paused, looking into my eyes to see how I was handling this painful attack on my ego. And from deep within I started to laugh. It was, after all funny – he had dropped my cheesecake. My cheesecake that within a matter of 36 hours had gone from glorious culinary perfection to being upside down on the sidewalk.

We took the cheesecake to Thanksgiving day dinner. We served the cheesecake. It tasted great. Everybody loved it. And as we all sat back from the table with full bellies and warm hearts I confessed my sin.

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Second Assignment: Beowulf

One of the things that makes The Odyssey so important to read is the epic poetry format. This format is at the root of every good story ever told. Good writers, filmmakers, and storytellers know this format and use elements of it again and again. This brings us to our second assignment — Beowulf.

I’ve selected Beowulf for a variety of reasons. First of all a new film was released based on this story and although this is a lovely story I am skeptical in how it will translate to film. Secondly, it is widely considered one of the best epic poems ever written. You will recognize the same elements in Beowulf that you saw in the Odyssey.

While the Odyssey is set in Greece and deals with the ancient greeks and their traditions Beowulf is set in Denmark and is a story of the Anglo-Saxons. Beowulf is a legendary hero – like Odysseus – and fights three great enemies; Grendel, Grendel’s mother and a dragon. Like other fantastic heroes Beowulf is not of great physical strength – but he is smart and wisely uses the physical abilities he possesses.

You can buy a copy of Beowulf at any used bookstore and I would recommend buying a companion book -either Spark notes or Cliff notes. Why do I suggest this? Frankly, this is a difficult story to follow – much more difficult than the Odyssey. (The complexity of this story is the very reason why I DON’T think it will translate well to film). Once again, we are dealing with a story based in oral traditions – it was not physically written down until much later. As a result you are going to find a lot of repetition, many references to places and people that the orator assumes you know. A great example of this is in the bible – you know all of those “begets” well, it’s the same kind of pattern. So, be aware that as you read there may be large sections that seem repetitious, and that is because they are.

For those who are familiar with Beowulf but would like to read another great Medieval epic I would suggest “Song of Roland”. Honestly, I prefer Song of Roland to Beowulf. It is a bit easier to follow and is a great battle between the French Christians, led by Charlemagne and the Spanish Muslims (referred to as pagans in the story). It is the story about a wonderfully fallible hero who thinks he can do it all – his pride is the source of his downfall.

Both of these stories have either subtle or blatant references to Christianity – references that seem forced in a way. That is because many times they were. Since most of these stories were written down after the spread of Christianity, and since the only people who really knew how to read or write were Catholic priests they very kindly added Christian references.

The historical background of Beowulf is patchy at best. More than likely there was a person like Beowulf that existed but whether the battles unfolded like they did is questionable. This is very typical of medieval stories. Most of them have a kernel of truth but have been highly embellished as they have gone through the process of being retold orally again, and again.

This is a VERY high-level introduction but there it is. Enjoy your holiday and read Beowulf. I think next we may take on some of my favorite interpretations of hell.

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First Assignment – The Odyssey

editor’s note: If you are a student writing a paper for school I am NOT a valid resource. Do not try to cite me. I am just another teacher with some VERY general ideas about “The Odyssey”. I would recommend you try the library. Do NOT try Wikipedia since it is truly more unreliable and inaccurate than me.
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The first book we will be reading is “The Odyssey” by Homer. I would recommend reading a prose edition of this book instead of the original lyrical version. This will make it easier to understand. If you don’t already own a copy you can purchase a cheap paperback edition at almost any bookstore (used or new).

Homer didn’t actually write “the Odyssey” it was a story told in oral tradition but it is widely attributed to Homer. “The Odyssey” is the sequel to Homer’s “Iliad”. The story tells an adventurous tale of our hero Odysseus and his 15 year journey back home to Ithaca after winning the Trojan War.

Homer is considered the inventor of the Epic Poetry format. This format of writing has had an enduring influence on almost every narrative that has ever been written since the 8th century BC. There have been many modern day “epics” that have been written including “The Matrix”, “the Wizard of Oz”, “Lord of the Rings” and others. You will see that once you familiarize yourself with the elements of an epic poem you will see it in a variety of films and books.

The epic poetry format consists of the following elements:

  • Invocation: the poem usually begins with an invocation for the assistance of the muses and by asking an epic question which begins the story
  • In Media Res: the story starts in the middle of the action with preceding events being narrated later in the story
  • The hero: There is usually an extraordinary man with amazing qualities. Frequently he was born of common parents but rises to greatness
  • Hell: the hero will accomplish many notable deeds and will almost always make a trip to the underworld
  • Deux ex Machina: the God Machine. There is always some form of divine intervention
  • Epithet: a final statement or speech that summarizes the meaning of the story.

As you begin your reading journey I’m going to give you some things to think about.

  • What kind of leader was Odysseus? How would his leadership style compare to leaders of today?
  • The Greek/Roman gods were not known for their morality – this is a Judeo-Chrisitian concept. What role do the gods play in this story and how do we see divine intervention played out in modern epics?
  • Keep in mind the larger personal journey that Odyssesus is making – how does he change as the story progresses? What are his biggest weaknesses? How do these weaknesses prevent him from finding home?

Well, that should give you a good start. The in-person book club meets on July 28th but until that time please use this venue to begin sharing your ideas and questions with other participants. Feel free to invite others to contribute or to begin your own book club.

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Welcome to the Classics

Welcome.

If you are here it is because you have been invited to participate in an online discussion regarding classic literature. I teach Western Literature at a local community college. However, I frequently have friends and/or family make the comment that they wish they could take my class because they would like to read the “Classics” but are intimidated at the idea of wading through the text without a navigator.

As a result I have started a book club with actual physical meetings. However, I had requests from people who said that they would like to participate in the book club “virtually”. So, I’ve started this blog.

This is how it will work. I will post a new reading assignment with some discussion questions/themes/concepts to get us started. I will monitor the comments and answer questions or suggestions as the discussion takes place. I will discuss what makes these works significant to the Western Canon of literature.

Enjoy! Make some new friends and please don’t be shy. Ask questions – there is nothing more inspiring than reading a good book and sharing it with other people.

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Paganism And Other Modern Trends

I’ve been meaning to respond to a discussion my father recently posted on his blog “The Puntocracy”. My dad’s post was regarding a decision by some politicians to ban the Easter bunny, Easter eggs and other symbols of Easter. My father goes on to point out that their is nothing even remotely Christian about the Easter bunny or Easter eggs except that they are somehow randomly associated with the Christian celebration of Christ’s crucifixion and ascension. My father is right (of course), but he also touches on a subject that is very dear to my heart – paganism in modern society. Even though most pagans stopped practicing about two thousand years ago their influence is still heavily felt today.

First, some very high-level and brief history….

Paganism and Judaism coexisted. While Paganism was popular and polytheistic in nature, Judaism had a small following and was monotheistic. Part of what was working against Judaism was that it was based on a moral God who had all the right answers – rather intimidating. The Pagan gods were anything but moral, rarely right and were generally a meddling group of gods that could be easily blamed for everything that went wrong in anybody or any country’s existence. Thus, it didn’t take a great deal of discipline or sacrifice on the part of the individual to be a pagan while Jews demanded more. You can see why it took time for Judaism to catch-on. Judaism had some powerful leaders – inspirational people that helped build their following including: Moses, Abraham, Joseph, et al. Judaism began to become a bit of a force within the vast Roman empire and this began to worry the Roman leaders. They were trying to strike a delicate balance between religious tolerance and civic peace.

Enter Jesus Christ.

Now, Judaism coexisted with Paganism for a long time and so Jewish rituals, ceremonies and holidays were all created and established long before Christ was born. Christianity as a religion is a relatively young religion and was created, spread and established in the backyard of paganism. As a result the combining and assimilation of pagan traditions into the Christian faith was inevitable. You add to that the idea that every learned or educated person since the written word has studied ancient Greece and ancient Greek philosophers and you have an entire Judeo-Christian society full of pagan symbols and traditions.

I don’t have the space here to touch upon all the references to paganism in our life and I am sure there are books written on this very topic. However, I will quickly discuss Christmas since the season is upon us.

Jesus was not born in December. It is widely believed that Jesus was born in the spring. So, why do we celebrate Jesus’ birthday in December? Well, that is one of the great stories of our shared religious history. During the first 300 years after Christ’s death we see Christianity quickly spread across Europe. Conversions were often done at the tip of a sword (see Charlemagne) but were often encouraged by the church abdicating pagan holidays. From the very first Pope Leo we see the church taking pagan holidays and turning them into Christian celebrations which is how we end up with crazy holidays like St. Valentine’s day and St. Patrick’s day.

The Roman calendar was based on 30 day months and so as a result there were 5 extra days at the end of the solar calendar. The Pagans took these five days and turned them into one of their famous festivals filled with debauchery and drink. The church struggled in getting pagans to give up these holidays in the name of Christianity, so around 400 A.D. Pope Liberius officially makes December 25th Christ’s birthday and insists that the celebration on that day be in the name of Christ. Thus, pagan and Christian traditions merge with the result being Santa Claus, Christmas trees, elves and the drinking of warm mead.

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