Breakfast with Pandora caters to everyone interested in ancient Greek and comparative mythology, good stories, the craft of writing, food, theology, education, and other humane things. Ask a question at teenage underscore heroes at yahoo dot com.
Question: why sit inside a lecture hall during a perfectly
lovely day off and listen to people read from and talk about
their writing instead of going outside and playing softball?
a perfectly lovely day in Greece.
you've got a chance for a wonderful reunion with some old and
dear writing friends (hi Bob,Lyn, and Frankie!).
Bob provided companionship, commentary and feedback as we listened to writers hold forth on
their craft and celebrate their successes. A highlight was Ron
who are engaging and extremely talented. Rash's
Serenais a firecracker, and
Smith's new set of short
like a winner.
Elizabeth Stroutprovided me the most
food for thought in her keynote address last night. She is the
latest thing, a favorite of Oprah, and had an adoring crowd
eating out of her hand as she read fromOlive
Kittredge, a set of linked short
stories that had heretofore flown under my radar.
out on stage looking like an aging starlet who'd spent the last
month at the beach. Darkly tan, she'd twisted her blonde hair,
shining like new straw, into something resembling a do. She had
on a ruffled white blouse and oversized black slacks, and
everything about her was fashionably rough, wrinkled, and
disheveled. Her only concession to writerly appearance was her
thick-framed black glasses, which were absolutely the height of
chic. Kate Hepburn comes to Chapel Hill after a stay onBald Head
writers who are basking in the glow, she seemed happy and
perfectly at ease in front of the packed house, and fielded
questions such as whether her characters took on a life of their
own and told her things. "I'm pretty sure I'm making my
characters say things," Strout said, eyebrow raised.
event for me was Strout's take on the importance of fiction--
that is, well-written stories on a page, electronic or not. You'd
think that this would be obvious, but it isn't anymore, what with
everyone crazy for reality shows, video games, and anything other
than a book.
She began by
pointing out how whenever people come out of the subway or their
plane has landed, they immediately call someone on their cell
phones. "I'm here, I exist," is what people want to tell someone.
Everyone is craving connection, a sense that they matter, that
they are not alone.
Strout says, helps people to locate themselves in the world.
Whenever a reader identifies with a character in a story, it
creates a connection, community, and a sense that the reader
matters, regardless of who and where they are.
I have been
attempting throughout my career on writing about mythology to
point this out, especially in myonline
courseon Greek mythology. Good
stories make people connect and cohere.
Now, I have
focused mainly on the tribal aspects of good stories. I define
mythology as a set of good stories that are good for a particular
culture. Each culture tells its own stories as a way of setting
itself apart from others, of creating and maintaining its
character, its ethos. A culture's myths do not necessarily
translate to other parts of the world. In other words, I do not
subscribe to the idea of the archetype-- the notion that
characters and stories are basically the same the world
there no universal stories?" Bob asked me as we walked back to
the parking lot in the late summer sun.
that wouldn't be myth," I said. "That would be..."
What would it be?
be fiction," I finally decided.
realized that like Elizabeth Strout, I did feel that the role of
the author, the novelist, the short story writer, was very
important to the world.
author attempts to connect us as human beings, rather than as
members of a tribe, that, to me, is an act of love. It is so easy
for us to sort ourselves into groups, into us versus them. I
think it's perfectly natural.
difficult is to reach out to other groups and acknowledge what
makes us the same.
other benefits, too, that Strout did not mention. Maybe the most
important is depth and thoughtfulness. In myth, you are looking
to have people say yes to your world view as quickly as possible
and over and over again. With fiction, an author is trying to say
that things are complicated, messy, and take time to resolve-- if
they can be resolved.
aspect of fiction is probably a significant reason why, in our
nanosecond culture, no one wants to read books anymore.
Maybe all of
this is just a snobby and underhanded way of saying that High
Literature ("fiction") is better than Popular and Pulp Junk
If it is,
that's okay with me. I do like both myth and fiction, as I've
defined them here (or myth and author, as I suggest
elsewhere). But I salute those
who are writing that definition of fiction. It's a losing battle
for us to try to find our humanity rather than our tribalness.
Still, it's worth it.
I was speaking today to a friend about the core of my career ambitions, which I have been recently sifting and re-evaluating. My friend said I had gifts in teaching, and I replied that I didn't consider myself primarily a teacher-- never have. This poem is a way of communicating that.
In fact, I have thought of myself for a long time as a mythologist, though not in conventional terms.
mythologist in the traditional sense is an academic who studies myths--
tales told over and over again in a particular culture.
My version of a mythologist's skill set is a little different from that. It includes:
Writing and editing: nonfiction.
Telling one's own story
in memoir, or others' stories, models one's conviction that stories are
worthy to be told. Helping others tell their story is another worthy
occupation of the mythologist.
Writing: fiction. I began
my life as a pure fiction writer, reveling in the power of creating my
own world and an unfolding of events that I alone was responsible for. As life
went on my interests broadened. But the allure of telling my own story
is still very strong in me.
Marketing and public relations.
This is the most recent conscious addition to my skill set, though I've
been doing it in de facto form for most of my writing career. A PR
person is someone who tells stories, yes, but always in the most
positive light for the subject of the story. And someone who markets is
a person who creates a world that a consumer wants to be a part of--
and who will pay money to be a part of. I have always said that I
learned much about marketing through my teaching of Latin, because Latin
doesn't sell itself. I have never been able simply to sit at my desk
while teaching and say, "Do this, or I'll give you an F." I always felt
as if the introduction to my syllabi were press releases for the
importance of Latin, while nearly every day in class I was selling the
Training in academic mythology. It's invaluable to me to be able to know both the content and the terminology relating to traditional stories, along with some of the history of how myths have been studied, and their relation to religion.
Teaching. I appreciate being able to communicate the importance of stories to human beings worldwide. There is an ethical component to mythology-- it's a mythologist's belief that the more we understand what stories are and do, the better choices we will make towards each other.
Speaking. Disseminating one's ideas in lecture, presentation and seminar expands the reach of one's audience.
Often I think of being a mythologist as simply being a student of human nature, someone who attempts to understand human beings' motivations and actions through how they create and recreate themselves and others in words. But because mythology does relate to religion in a fundamental way, my curiosity isn't only academic but ethical as well. I'd like to be able to say that through my work I have contributed (in a small but tangible way) to the betterment of the world.
Today, March 26, marks the three-year anniversary of Breakfast with Pandora.
My first post has a photo of me sitting in a trattoria in Pisa, Italy, late at night, after our school group opted to see the Leaning Tower by moonlight. The restaurant was about to close, as evidenced by the chairs on top of the tables in the background. I ordered a slice of apple pie and was very glad of it. Pastry in Europe tastes different.
Apple pie might be a good metaphor for what's going on with this blog. It is not earth-shattering, viral, a money-maker, or even double digits on Technorati. But if you happen to find it late at night after searching for something else, it will be a tasty diversion.
At the same time I recognize that 2008 is quite a serious time. It is not business as usual: the war in Iraq continues on, and we must stay in, according to the President, until we can say that the dead did not die in vain. This is as good a goal as any, in the absence of an original goal that had any integrity at all.
Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden goes his merry way. What happened to that goal?
The economy is teetering, because of usury. I think about the Old Testament prohibition on collecting interest and wonder if it wouldn't be a good idea to go back to the Jubilee, the cancelling of debts. I wonder what would happen.
The globe is warming. People are using up resources at a record rate. I have never felt more like I am competing with every other person on the planet for my share of gasoline and wheat. Whole wheat flour was on sale at my supermarket last week. All gone when I got there. When was the last time flour sold out at a supermarket?
My state, according to our local media, will be in a drought eternally because too many people are moving in and they all want water. Adrenaline is mixed in with that shower water I collect in a bucket with which to flush the toilet.
Meanwhile, the candidates for President are busy sucking each other's blood. I feel like the whole world is saying that George Clooney line from O Brother Where Art Thou, "We're in a bad spot," and no one's addressing the bad spot.
Instead, Barack Obama has to do major damage control because his pastor-- not Obama himself, but his pastor-- has said challenging things.
Will BwP become more political in 2008? I guess it depends on how much the insanity and sense of panicked crisis deepens. For now I'll just say, we're in a bad spot.
And continue to offer pie, at least until flour gets too expensive.
Now that we are through with groundhogs and on our way to bunnies, my post from 2006 on the origins of the Easter Bunny is starting to get a fair number of hits a day.
I've decided to make that post more visible by creating a type list for popular posts. If you have a nominee for a popular post, let me know. My all-time most popular post is that which contains the string "Odysseus Rescuer," which happens to be an occasional NYT Crossword clue. The answer is I-N-O.
And speaking of animals, this morning when I went outside to put the garbage and recycling on the curb, I was greeted by a curious little opossum, perched in the bare branches of a tree just off my back deck.
It was grayish-white, with those inkspot eyes and thin line of a mouth. Its tail hung halfway down to the next branch, and as I retraced my steps to the back door, its eyes followed my progress, but betrayed no fear whatsoever.
"I know," I told it, "Life is hard for a marsupial."
The possum seemed to be so knowing, and calm, that my superstitious side was inspired, and I looked up on the web what it might mean to encounter an opossum familiar.
You and your friend are being asked to use strategy in some present situation. Rely upon your instincts for the best way out of a tight corner. If you have to pretend to be apathetic or afraid, do it! Oftentimes if you refuse to struggle or show that hurtful words bother you, your taunter will see no further fun in the game. Opossum may be relaying to you that you are to expect the unexpected and be clever in achieving your victory. Opossum is beckoning you to use your brain, your sense of drama, and surprise - to leap over some barrier to your progress. Just be aware of your surroundings and stay on your toes.
Seems strangely appropriate just about now. And I thank my brother opossum for the message.
Click here to read a beautiful post from someone who also talks to animals.
An email from a reader about my recent Columbus post put me in mind of this question, which got reinforced by a statement from the White House concerning State of Denial, the latest book by Washington Post editor Bob Woodward.
Here is the reader's comment:
Unfortunately I feel in attempts to make history entertaining to our youth they [educators and/or textbooks]... mythologize basic facts until they are no longer facts just a blur of the truth in some romantic fallacy...
And here is the title of a recent press release from the White House about Woodward's book:
Myth/Fact: Five Key Myths in Bob Woodward's Book
Both the reader and the press release use "myth" to mean a lie, but there the similarity ends.
The press release uses "myth" as a hard opposite of "fact": a myth, in this definition, has no truth at all. It is a flat lie, with overtones of absurdity, from a cynical source with money to gain from the myth's promulgation. This definition goes back to Plato and was picked up by St. Paul.
The reader uses "myth" to mean a twisting of facts used for ideological or educational purposes. In the case of Columbus the purpose is "romantic," to create a positive, entertaining, feel-good picture about the discovery of our country. This definition also goes back to Plato; Plato, idealist that he was, mythologized in this way as well.
I tend not to use "myth" in either of these fashions, because you can use other, better words besides myth to describe what's going on: in the first case, just saying "lie" would make more sense; in the second, I'd use the word "propaganda."
Myth, to me, is that complex of stories a culture has accepted and uses over and over again to come to terms with its reality. The stories are beneficial because they help a culture make sense of and cope with situations out of their control. Box offices bust when mythmakers hit stories on the mythological sweet spot.
Some basic American myths or mythological themes are contained in Robert Reich's Tales of a New America.
Whether the stories are true or not scientifically makes no difference in this definition; they contain heart-truths for those who embrace them, and that is enough.
As to propaganda and myth: sometimes, I agree, the two are indistinguishable. But I like to believe that there is a difference between telling a story and intending to deceive, and that's where I would draw the line, fuzzy as it may be.
Thanks to my reader for a thoughtful email, and happy myth-observing, everyone.
Last week it was Columbus in my daughter's classroom, this week it's--
"We learned what beheading means," she blurted out in the car on the way home from school.
What are they teaching at schools nowadays? I thought.
Turns out the teacher was doling out a little British history, and along with the reign of Queen Elizabeth I the teacher also mentioned Mary, Queen of Scots. The beheading definition was not in the original lesson plan, but an impromptu question from an interested student. (Why am I not surprised?)
Elementary school teachers: we can talk about beheadings here at BwP, but prefer descriptions of olive-wood poles going into the single eyes of Cyclopes.
Anyone, however, can write in to teenage underscore heroes at symbol yahoo dot com and ask a question about mythology or a related subject. I'd be glad to give you my best shot at an answer.
This one is not about the ancient Fall of Troy, but about an archeologist in the nineteenth century who attempts to find ancient Troy back in the day when modern archeology was just in its first moments of gestation.
A reader commented today that most of my questions seem not to come from my comment box, but from "someone somewhere at some time." She wonders whether the comment box is appropriate for questions.
Questions are always welcome here at BwP. You can use the comment box, or you can email me at teenage underscore heroes at yahoo dot com (comment if you need that to be translated for you). I will try my best to answer.
Photo: A sunset from the top of the hill behind my house, taken yesterday. Do you like sunrises or sunsets? Both. I like both cats and dogs. The ancient Greeks thought the west was the place of death-- and rebirth. A sunset, to them, was not a final thing, but the reminder of a cycle.
Hundreds of websites give basic information about Greek Mythology. The Myth Man is one of the most enthusiastic. His alter ego is a beefy cartoon Hercules-type with shades and a big "M" on his robe. The Myth Man offers homework help to all kids who have a myth-related assignment. He has plenty of information and pictures, and has an impressive number of testimonials from students whom he's helped. His strength lies in digesting mythology reference books and providing that information online in an accessible way.
Breakfast with Pandora takes a different approach. Once you've hit all the info sites, and are overwhelmed with data that seems to have no context or big picture to it, come to BwP. Whenever you have a "why" or a "what does it all mean," BwP is here for you.
Even content questions can require skilled explanation. Greek Mythology isn't like geography or arithmetic, where there is nearly always one right answer. And reference books don't always get it right.
People are complicated, and so are stories. BwP honors us complex human beings by telling and interpreting good stories with as much accuracy and honesty as possible.
Photos: replicas of rolled scrolls, courtesy vroma.org; breakfast here
Who were the ten eponymous Athenian heroes and what are the stories behind them?
Why is Eros holding a parasol on the East Frieze of the Parthenon?
What is the peplos of Athena, and why did it have a scene of the Gigantomachy woven into it?
(What is the Gigantomachy?)
This summer the museum educators at the Acropolis Museum gave us Fulbrighters a CD with a full cyber-tour of the Parthenon, the beautiful temple of Athena still standing on the holy hill of Athens. As I read through the descriptions and reviewed the beautiful marble figures on the Frieze, the long series of blocks underneath the eaves of the temple, I thought about all the questions that the CD could not answer.
Think of me as your virtual guide to the myths of cyberspace. Now that school is open again, there will be projects and curiosity. I'm ready to steer students in the right direction, or just give interested folk a couple of needed answers.
A reader writes, "I don't know how many times I've heard it said, that's a myth-- the reality is... How did that expression get started? And how do you define a myth?"
Just this week I learned the Top Ten Myths about an aspect of my school-- that is, the Top Ten Popular Misconceptions. The word myth refers most often today to misconceptions, fallacies, and outright lies. If you believe a myth, you're living in a fantasy world.
The Greeks had a word-- mythos-- that originally meant a story or an account. In the early centuries of Greek civilization (say 800-400 BC), mythos had no negative connotation, and according to mythologist Bruce Lincoln, often meant a story with authority and power.
Then Socrates and Plato came along and invented logic, and it was all downhill for mythos. They, along with later philosophers, elevated the word logos, which originally meant an account, a mathematical telling, or a plan, to the level of a true story, as opposed to mythos, a false story. Plato strongly disapproved of old stories, especially those about bogey-men that ancient day-care workers told little kids to scare them into being good. Philosophy, the logos, the true word, would cure all that, and no one would be ruled by fear anymore.
The Gospel of John appropriated logos, capitalized it, and made it into another name for Jesus ("In the beginning was the Word...", John 1:1). Logos now became Christian property, and mythos was relegated to the status of the lies that pagans told.
Christianity, following Plato's lead, has given us the Top Ten Myths.
Mythologists love to make up definitions of myth, and I am no exception. I try to keep it as simple as possible-- "a myth is a story told over and over again that helps a culture come to terms with its reality" is my latest. My definition has the advantage of being applicable to any kind of story, whether it has gods, heroes, monsters, or anything else we associate with Greek mythology. To me, myth is everywhere, not just in the ancient world. That's why I have a category for essays about American myth.
Our myths tend to come in patterns rather than individual stories, and you will see politicians exploiting these story patterns in order to sway public opinion. Robert Reich, Labor Secretary under President Clinton, and an accomplished writer, speaker, and professor, laid out in his Tales of a New America four kinds of historical stories that dovetail with American values and help us come to terms with our reality:
1. The mob at the gates: America has to stick together, or The Enemy is going to get us. Currently, we have two Mobs threatening the American Way, a spiritual and military enemy (Muslim extremists), and an economic enemy (China). Past Mobs have included Nazis, Indians, Mexicans, Communists, even extraterrestrials. How many movies can you think of which include these groups as the bad guys?
2. The triumphant individual: This is "the parable of the self-made man," according to Reich, "the little guy who works hard, takes risks, believes in himself, and eventually wins wealth, fame and honor." Every election, every candidate always talks about America as the land of opportunity, where anyone can achieve anything if he or she is willing to put in the sweat.
3. The benevolent community: At times of crisis in America, we all pitch in, help each other out, and restore each other's faith in human nature. Reich uses the movie It's A Wonderful Life as an example of a benevolent-community story, but more often you hear this tale in the newspaper after some community tragedy or natural disaster. Like clockwork, the media will come out with tales of extraordinary generosity in the midst of some crisis.
4. The rot at the top: This is one of the most favored movie subjects of all time. A corporation, government, or secret society is always trying to control events from behind the scenes, and it's up to the little guy to expose it and put things right. The Firm, a novel by John Grisham and a movie with Tom Cruise, deals with rot at the top of an influential Southern law firm. Maybe you also remember that in Who Killed Roger Rabbit? the central conflict is based on a (supposedly real-life) conspiracy by auto- and tiremakers to destroy public transportation in Los Angeles.
Do you know of any stories where a triumphant individual uses the resources of his community to stop the rot at the top which is allowing the mob at the gates to take over our country? If you could write that screenplay, you might become rich.