Nov. 1, 2009

Driving Nails

by Gary L. Lark

I learned to walk stud walls
setting rafters when I was six.
I straightened nails for my father
to re-drive, piecing a home together
after work or on weekends.

We were called Okies by some
when we moved to the valley,
putting up our tar-papered shack.
Two years later a house was rising
to face them across the pasture.

The only plans were sketched
on a six inch pad, but all the corners
were true. The septic tank hole
was dug with pick and shovel.
Lumber carted home from the mill.

The only time help came
was when we poured the foundation.
Guys from the mill rode springing planks
to deliver tons of wet concrete by wheelbarrow,
tamped down with shovel handles.

My father beveled the molding,
drilled and set each piece of hardwood flooring,
not a nail would show. I crawled insulation
into tight places above the ceiling
and helped with rolled roofing.

Nobody mentioned our low rank
when my mother joined the garden club.
And she never mentioned the hurt
they had caused - just came home
and parked the Buick in the shack.

"Driving Nails" by Gary Lark, from Getting By. © Logan House, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the co-founder of postcolonial literary theory and the man described as Palestinians' "most powerful political voice," Edward Said, (books by this author) born in Jerusalem (1935), the son of Protestant Palestinians, one of whom was American.

When he was 12, his family fled to Cairo as refugees after the Arab League declared war on the newly created state of Israel. He spent his teenage years attending elite British schools in Egypt, where he was classmates with the future King Hussein of Jordan. Said later called himself a "Christian wrapped in a Muslim culture" and said, "With an unexceptionally Arab family name like Said connected to an improbably British first name (my mother much admired the Prince of Wales in 1935, the year of my birth), I was an uncomfortably anomalous student all through my early years: a Palestinian going to school in Egypt, with an English first name, an American passport and no certain identity at all."

He moved to the United States, got degrees at Princeton and Harvard, and became an English and Comparative Literature professor at Columbia, a job he would hold for several decades. He was fluent in French and Arabic, wrote a music column for The Nation, contributed regularly to The London Review of Books, The Guardian, the monthly French publication Le Monde Diplomatique,and Al-Aram, Egypt's most widely read daily newspaper.

But his most important work is a book called Orientalism (1978), which helped to launch postcolonialism. In the book, written more than 30 years ago, Said argued that Western (namely American, British, and French) scholarship about Islam and Arabs was actually creating and heightening a divide between West and East. Western academics perpetrated, he said, a "subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture." Even Western scholars who were well-meaning and sympathetic romanticized false images and ideas, helping Western powers to justify their continuing colonization of the Middle East.

Said argued that Western academic knowledge from the late 1800s about Middle Eastern cultures couldn't be taken at face value because it was being written by people who could not escape that they were writing as colonizing cultures, and could not escape viewing their scholarly subjects from behind a colonizer's lens, which distorted their perception and narrowed their focus to things of interest to colonial powers. In 1980 — three decades ago — he wrote:
"So far as the United States seems to be concerned, it is only a slight overstatement to say Moslems and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Moslem life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world. What we have instead is a series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression."

He wrote a memoir, Out of Place (1999), which begins: "All families invent their parents and children, give each of them a story, character, fate, and even a language. There was always something wrong with how I was invented and meant to fit in the world with my parents and four sisters."

It's the birthday of Stephen Crane, (books by this author) born in Newark, New Jersey (1871). He's famous for The Red Badge of Courage, about the American Civil War, a book on school reading lists across the nation. But he first became known for a book about an impoverished New York girl who finds her way into prostitution — a book that caused great scandal in his day. It's Maggie: Girl of the Streets, which he initially published under the pseudonym Johnston Smith.

He died at the age of 28 after being diagnosed with yellow fever, malaria, and finally lung hemorrhaging. Hemingway called The Red Badge of Courage "one of the finest books of [American] literature." And John Berryman, Harold Bloom, Joseph Conrad, and H.G. Wells are among the many authors who have written biographies of Stephen Crane.

Today is All Saints' Day, and Pope Julius II chose this day in 1512 to display Michelangelo's paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for the first time. It was not a job that Michelangelo wanted. He was primarily a sculptor at the time. But Pope Julius II wouldn't take no for an answer. The work required Michelangelo to apply wet plaster to the ceiling and then paint over it before it dried, and he had to do this on more than 10,000 square feet, more than 60 feet above the ground.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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