Wednesday, December 28, 2011

How 'bout some slavery with that gumbo?

Thanks and a shout-out to friend and colleague Rick Martin for his Facebook sharing of an article in by Peter Birkenhead about Why we still can't talk about slavery.

Participants in my Nevermore Book Club will laugh about this. Last summer I read, in sequence, The Help, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Gone with the Wind. Apparently I talked about them. A lot. Now they try, as a bit of a parlor game, to work GWTW at least once into our weekly conversation about books. It's sort of the rubber chicken of the bookclub. Which to my mind is a better fate than it deserves. How the romance in this book overwhelms its, ahem, master narrative of racism is something I just don't understand.

Birkenhead notes GWTW's status as the most popular book in America, next to the Bible. With its publication, he says, the Lost Cause glorification of the antebellum South reached its apogee: "The culture of forgetting had become a national religion."

Then he immediately goes on to say that The Help (in its movie form) takes up where GWTW left off by being a tribute to "the unsung white heroes of black history" and by being "a gauzy rendering of the civil rights era as a triumph of the human spirit over mean people."

Sigh. Poor Kathryn Stockett. To have her noble effort at talking about racism dragged into the wake of a racist tract like GWTW. How does Birkenhead get it so wrong?

His article begins with a visit to an antebellum plantation in Louisiana and a nearby restaurant located in a building that might have housed slaves. The history of the places, as re-enacted by their present-day white denizens--shorn of any reference to slavery--is so upsettingly pristine and bowdlerized that Birkenhead swears off gumbo.

Birkenhead has discovered what he calls our national "black hole of memory." He very effectively recounts his palpable discomfort at the lily-white clientele and whitewashed memory of the restaurant. He asks the manager about whether the room used to house slaves, and gets a smiley-faced brushoff: "It's history, and that's all there is to it," the manager says; "it's not something we dwell on, or push out there for people to see." Well, yeah, I can see why you might not want to call your pulled pork barbecue sandwich the "Twenty Lashes Special."

To Birkenhead, these places with their superficiality and muteness are symptomatic of a moral failing at the heart of our culture, a dishonesty about history, a false history invented by the South that has become "foundational" to the point that "it's a lie so big that no one will forcefully challenge it, a lie that's too big to fail."

The lie is, apparently, that the U.S. never was a slave society. "If America is a family, it's a family that has tacitly agreed to never speak again--not with much honesty, anyway--about the terrible things that went on in its divided house." Even though slavery has been taught and written about, he says, to the point that nothing compares as "an academic ink-guzzler," nonetheless "we don't feel the connection to it in our bones."

Okay, so if I get this straight, slavery has been taught and written about ... but we just weren't paying attention. We don't feel the connection in our bones. For that to happen, we have to take a Louisiana vacation so we can eat gumbo and suddenly realize "Damn, weren't there slaves in this room? Why didn't anybody tell me?"

Anyway, why go to Louisiana in the first place? To get a real sense of the true dimensions of the slavery issue, I'd recommend ... our nation's capital. Or doesn't Birkenhead know that slaves built the White House? And the Capitol? Hmm, don't have much of a travel budget? Stay at home and look at the U.S. Constitution. Ever wonder why Article I, section 2 mentions "three-fifths of all other persons"? What do they teach journalists in school these days?

Birkenhead, a self-avowed Yankee, comes across either as unconscionably ignorant or woefully naive about  "the big lie" in a way that says a lot about our national inability to have an honest conversation about slavery. Everything would be okay, we gather, if only the South had engaged in "a period of reflection" to "process memories." If only Lincoln had lived to see through "an authentic, family-like, postwar reconciliation." Lucky Lincoln--he only had to win a war and went on to a martyr's glory. It's hard to say what kind of reconciliation he would've led--when only a vanishing minority of white Americans wanted to include blacks in their civic family.

What Birkenhead seems unable to acknowledge, for some reason, is that the end of slavery didn't mean equal rights for blacks--because of the larger problem of white racism. He dances around it, but in his haste to blame vapid plantation re-enactors and Lost Cause villains, he can't seem to admit that you can't only blame them.

Might not an "L.A. writer," as tags him, ever have wondered about the persistence of racism in the United States? Surely there have been signs of it, some of them within recent memory, in Los Angeles. Why does he look for the truth about slavery only on a plantation tour? Why not look for it in his own front yard?

Because that's the honest conversation we should be having. It's about more than slavery. It's about racism--South and North. From sea to shining sea.

Slavery is only part of that story--a crucial part, for sure. But another part of the story is the unwillingness of whites all across the U.S. to accept blacks as part of the family fabric that Birkenhead talks about. Whites outside Confederacy dropped the black cause--if they ever really picked it up--soon after the Civil War ended, and slavery with it.

The overwhelming majority of whites didn't fight the war for blacks anyway. To Northerners, "Slavery" was a corrupting, imperialist, aristocratic institution that debased white labor and threatened states' rights, and, with secession, "Slavery" was trying to subvert a legally concluded Presidential election by dissolving the Union. "The Union" was the cause. Northerners would beat the uppity slavers and save the Union. But blacks? Let the Southrons worry about the blacks. The Southrons brought this war on themselves. Once Northerners got rid of the cause of the war--slavery--they were overwhelmingly content to let the former slavers figure out how to deal with the former slaves. They barely made sure that the Constitution recognized everyone as a citizen. But social and economic equality? Forget it--remember the 10th amendment. Besides, there were redskins to massacre.

And then, when the Southrons promulgated the nobility of their Lost Cause, they weren't wanting Yankees to forget about the slaves. They were wanting the Yankees to agree with them that blacks were inferior and deserving only of lynch mob justice. That classic film of KKK hagiography The Birth of a Nation had a favorable audience in the White House. It wasn't silence that the Lost Cause sought. It was victory. It was nothing less than a national understanding that the South had been right to enslave blacks. African-American historians are generally agreed that the low point in race relations in this country came not during slavery, but during Jim Crow. In other words, after slavery. After freedom. The Old South wasn't so gone with the wind, after all. And frankly, my dear, Yankees didn't give a damn.

The "big lie" that Birkenhead has found--the national "black hole of memory"--is bigger than the story of African slavery in the South. It is the story of white racism. Talking about it as a Southern problem, as Birkenhead does, is a distraction that, while being a very satisfying source of rage, ultimately gets us nowhere if it stops at the Mason-Dixon line. It is a national problem.

Moreover, it's a national problem compounded by another national problem: not reading. If Birkenhead wants to talk about it, he ought to read the damn books. So should we all. Academic ink-guzzling indeed.

Had he bothered to climb out of his pop cultural black hole, Birkenhead could have readily discerned the difference between  GWTW and The Help. Margaret Mitchell was content to perpetuate racial prejudice; she seems to have thought it was the way the world should be. Kathryn Stockett seems to want to have an honest conversation that will, at least, start to move things in the other direction. Her book promotes that honest conversation. If Birkenhead wants the rafters in the restaurant room to witness the truth of what they've seen of slavery, Stockett uses her imagination to accomplish it, insofar as the racist attitudes of slavery were perpetuated into the twentieth century and beyond.

And if you object that she is white, I have to agree. She is white. Which isn't a bad thing, since we're talking about changing white attitudes, right? Well, you know about white people. They don't listen to black people other than Chris Rock, Charlie Mingus, Amiri Baraka, Martin Luther King, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Frederick Douglass, Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Jesse Jackson, Harriet Tubman, 50cent, Michael Jackson, W.E.B. DuBois, Herman Cain, Barbara Jordan, Duke Ellington, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, Thomas Sowell, Spike Lee, Clarence Thomas (though he doesn't say a whole lot), the Old Spice Guy, the Rent Is Too Damn High guy, and others too numerous to list, but also including the POTUS. So, of course, white people not listening to black people means there needs to be a Magic Whitey to explain the black experience by translating it into mayonnaise. Stockett is the Magic Whitey du jour.

Which could be a gumbo plate, if anybody had a sense of humor. Birkenhead seems to want to feel the connection to slavery in his bones. He should eat more gumbo, not less.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Last word, lost world: now

What's your pet geometrical rendering of the universe and meaning? Fate? Destiny? I say "geometrical" assuming that there are arcs, tangents, points, and intersections involved, as well as an urge to submit the whole thing to some kind of proof test that we can stamp with a triumphant Q.E.D. when we've achieved it.

Which we don't seem to be able to do. No one gets the last word. To realize this, all it takes is for someone like Christopher Hitchens to die and for various creedalists to get in a last word*, now that he's dead and not in any position to respond (not through the usual media, anyway), as if his death somehow means he wimped out and gave up, just like that, lost the argument; as if his ideas had no meaning and depended on the vessel that expressed them. If that's what you think, your geometrical rendering of the universe and meaning is the intersection of the ocean and a sandcastle built far below the high tide line. No matter what your creed says.

But it wasn't Hitchens's dying that made me think this. That was a complete afterthought, a standing at the apex of the triangle of the present and looking down the line of the dune at the incoming tidal wave of the future.

No, before that, climbing the hypotenuse, it was reading A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, with its impressive foreshadowing, following it with A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, with its impressionistic and expressionistic foreshadowing, and beginning Karen Armstrong's biography of Mohammed, with its expressive unshadowing. It was wandering through my library and ... okay, it's all too complicated, this geometry. If Jennifer Egan can advance her narrative with a chapter in PowerPoint slides, maybe I should take out my bubble gun and spray you with bullet points:

  • It was wandering through my library
  • over to where the new books are
  • happening upon the new books about music
  • where are Keith Richards's autobio and a new bio about George Harrison in the material world
  • and wouldn't you know Egan's Goon Squad was all about the music world
  • and there's something about Pearl Jam, which I pick up
  • because I went to see Pearl Jam once, in Knoxville, with my son, Sam
  • how old was he?
  • the book is called Pearl Jam Twenty
  • it seems to have every concert they ever played
  • when was that that I saw them?
  • Sam was probably 12 or 13, which would've been 1998
  • nothing in PJ20 about Knoxville
  • but here's something about Pearl Jam changing drummers in 1998
  • and yes, Sam and I went with a friend of his who played the drums and also his drum teacher, Alan Gamble, who turned out to be the son of an attorney I'd worked with, Bill Gamble, who was also a sax player who'd gone to the U. of Chattanooga and who'd played gigs with my father; but anyway I remember that Alan was wondering how the new drummer was going to do; I knew nothing about Pearl Jam other than their reputation
  • it was a great concert
  • but I felt bad for Sam and his friend because we had two separate sets of tickets (Thompson-Bowling Arena) and since the boys wanted to sit together, they took one set and Alan and I took the other. The boys wound up in the nose-bleed section, while Alan and I had great seats--a profile view of the stage, 20 rows up, if that many
  • it was a great concert, for me anyway
  • even though I didn't know any of the songs going in
  • but apparently it was a Pearl Jam non-event because it's not in the book
  • so back upstairs I check online and there it is: Sept. 6, 1998
  • PJ20 is a really big book with tons of pictures. It's also a movie, apparently
  • then I remember that Alan Gamble was in a band in Atlanta that my wife, Carolyn, and I saw when I was in library school at Emory
  • this came up randomly back in 1998 when Alan and I were talking on the way to see Pearl Jam
  • I was describing this really good band I'd seen in Atlanta in 1981 or 1982
  • We figured out it was his band!
  • Arms Akimbo (not The Arms Akimbo; they're Brit)
  • Here they are playing at the Atlanta Arts Festival 5/17/83
  • there's not a lot else about them readily available, but you can see that Alan's a damn good drummer
  • strange world, the pop music world
  • the mass music world
  • Jennifer Egan's Goon Squad main characters try to make it work for them
  • pay for them
  • the arc is from early 80's west coast punk to late first decade 2000's regurgitation
  • how the marketing has changed
  • I played at a festival last summer in Illinois behind Lawson Garrett
  • the festival was like a dream because it was set up for tens of thousands but only tens of tens came
  • Garrett is his mother's last name, like Vedder is Eddie Vedder's mother's last name
  • (Eddie Vedder is the lead singer of Pearl Jam)
  • Artie Kornfeld was pushing Lawson
  • is pushing?
  • trying to make it work
  • make it pay
  • Artie made Woodstock work/pay
  • an event that apparently has some meaning, just for its name
  • Jennifer Egan, writing about the final event in her book, a concert, the thing that wraps it all together. The marketer is cringeing, waiting for audience rejection of the artist, but just the opposite happens, and Egan (or the unknown articulate universal geometer) says "it may be that a crowd at a particular moment of history creates the object to justify its gathering, as it did at the first Human Be-In and Monterey Pop and Woodstock"
  • and it may be that Pearl Jam played Knoxville in 1998, even though it's not in their book
  • and it may be that I went to the beach that summer and built a sandcastle far below the high tide line
  • and it may be that it's not a small world, after all
  • but for sure Christopher Hitchens, it just so happens, right now, at this very moment, is dead.
  • Q.E.D.

*I wrote this when the only creedal reports on death after Hitchens were in print, but two days after posting this, I ate a Xmas Eve brunch at an IHOP with very various creedalists and damned if they didn't resurrect the Hitch. Fate? Destiny? And the IHOP refers to the Easter bunny.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What's a Pifa? (A Handel's "Messiah" Mystery)

I just waxed another one-day video project. This is a particular species of folly with somewhat equal admixtures of inspiration, obsession, and impatience; facilitated and hampered by a militant allegiance to cheap consumer electronics (a.k.a. You Don't Get What You Pay For); in pursuit of that elusive creation occupying a niche somewhere between ! and ?

Holiday seasons are particularly sensitive to this kind of home invasion, perhaps because Xmas tree sap and Easter egg yolk push the aesthetic juices to a higher pitch. All of a sudden and for a short while, the cultural imperative to enforce the mundane is replaced by carols and colors, employed for something out of this world. Something somewhere between ! and ?

But in this case waxing hasn't meant waxing, maybe because part of the ? being explored involved a vinyl record. It's still spinning and I'm getting dizzy from it:

  • The video has to do with bagpipes, the traditional instrument of shepherds, who are--let's face it--the only folk like us in the Xmas story. The vinyl record in the video, one I listened to as a kid, included a selection performed on Italian bagpipes. I won't get into it here, but let me just say that they couldn't have been Highland pipes because compared to almost everybody else in Europe my ancestor Scots were Xmas slouches.
  • The title of the video, Xmas Pastoral, is a reference to shepherds. The everyday sense of "pastoral"--connoting either "rural" or "peaceful"--has lost the shepherd connection. I wonder how many people in the religious South of the US who have a "pastor" at their church know that the same word in Latin (from whence it came) means "shepherd"?
  • As I was making it, I kept thinking of the fact that movement 13 of Handel's Messiah is commonly known as the "Pastoral Symphony." As an oboist, I've always thought that Handel missed a wonderful opportunity to throw some musical meat to oboes, the sole woodwinds (other than bassoons in the continuo) in the Messiah orchestra and the logical exponents of anything to do with bagpipes--and it is known that Handel's music is meant to convey the sound of the Italian bagpipes as he himself heard it during the novena days before Christmas.
  • I also kept thinking that Handel's name for the movement was "Pifa." An odd word. What does it mean?
That's where matters lay as I finished the video: with much more in the way of ? than !  I was glad to get the story of the crumbag out to the world (which has heard only the beginning), not to mention the story of how the whole idea was kind of a "eureka!" coming from a French pun in a dream. But for some reason the word "pifa" just wouldn't leave me alone.

Is it somehow related to pifferaio, the Italian "piper" playing a folk oboe sometimes played in duet with the supersized Italian bagpipe known as the zampogna? That's what I'd always heard--or rather read in such places as symphony program notes such as these from a recent Seattle Symphony performance: "It derives from an Italian custom of having a shepherd play an oboe-like pifa during Christmas services." The only problem is that the usual word for the pifferaio's oboe-like instrument is ciaramella.

I looked online and pursued the clues even to the old tried and true Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, but could find "pifa" nowhere.

When the breakthrough in this droning rumination on bagpipes finally came, it wasn't a "eureka" as much as a "duh": the title of the song on the record is "Piva piva." I've known this forever without ever once thinking of its meaning. It looks suspiciously like something a German like Handel would pronounce "pifa" in much the same way as he'd say "vinter vonderland." Following this hunch, I soon found out that piva turns out to be a standard Italian word for bagpipe. It seems to be more of a northern Italian variety, while the zampogna is from the south.

Inuit has several words for "snow." Greek, as any New Testament student knows, has several words for "love." Italian, it turns out, has at least two words for "bagpipe." A richness of embarrassment!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Occupy Blockhead Nation

Eventually, I will get to the point. But first:

I love quotations: Bartlett's Familiar Quotations,17th Edition, is one of only two books laying claim to permanent desk space where I work (the other is a dictionary). Among those whose wit animates a fair share of pages in any book of quotes is Samuel Johnson.

While Johnson is certainly no slouch at dispensing insight and wisdom, e.g.,
  • A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.
  • People in general do not willingly read, if they can have anything else to amuse them.
  • A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good.
at other times it seems that his only purpose is to start an argument with me, e.g.,
  • I am willing to love all mankind, except an American.
  • Of all noises, I think music is the least disagreeable.
  • No man but a blockhead ever wrote but for money.
That last e.g. really eggs me on. I've been a certified blockhead for much of my life. I did make a pittance for a few years writing program notes for the orchestra I played in--and I do mean pittance (still, it's easier to justify buying beer when you have little extra coming in). But everything else--press releases, professional journalism, novels, lyrics, poems, essays, short stories, blogs--well, I might as well quote Johnson again: "Sir, we are a nest of singing birds." (And remember, this guy detested music.)

While I may be a blockhead because I enjoy stringing words together, I'm no solipsist. What about all those other people who wrote without any expectation of gain? People like ... well, practically any ancient author you can think of; writers seeking new frontiers of style (Joyce, Beckett); legions of academics and scientists with minuscule audiences. Were they blockheads too?

For once I wasn't content to accept the quote as it is. Like any Southerner disposed to goad street preachers into placing scripture in context, I decided to go to the source: Boswell's Life of Johnson. Here's the entire passage, from the events of April 5, 1776:

When I expressed an earnest wish for his remarks on Italy, he said, 'I do not see that I could make a book upon Italy; yet I should be glad to get two hundred pounds, or five hundred pounds, by such a work.' This shewed both that a journal of his Tour upon the Continent was not wholly out of his contemplation, and that he uniformly adhered to that strange opinion, which his indolent disposition made him utter: 'No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.' Numerous instances to refute this will occur to all who are versed in the history of literature.

Here's Boswell pointing out that the "blockhead" quote is a "strange opinion" that he blames on Johnson's "indolent disposition." (???? Maybe Johnson didn't write letters, either--not much in the way of income there.) And the last sentence--"numerous instances to refute this": thank you for taking my side, Mr. Boswell.

Now that that's settled, I can get to the point, which takes off from the fact that the "blockhead" quote turned up as the lead sentence of a book review in the NYT by Jeffrey Rosen (the book under review is Free Ride: How Digital Parasites Are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back, by Robert Levine).

According to Rosen, "self-interested Silicon Valley technology companies and their well-financed advocates" agree with Boswell and me. In the other corner, taking Johnson's position, are author Levine and "the media companies that fund much of the entertainment we read, see, and hear."

(The hyphenates "self-interested" and "well-financed" don't apply to the media companies?)

Levine contends that the open Internet model of free video and cheap music (thanks, iTunes!) is winning the match for the blockheads by starving the media companies of financing. Digital Parasites! Destroying the Culture Business! Writes Rosen, "if it continues, Levine argues, the Internet will increasingly become an artistic wasteland dominated by amateurs--a world where music, TV and journalism are virtually free, and where all of us get what we pay for," i.e. says Rosen, Charlie Bit My Finger instead of Mad Men.

Imagine. A world without Mad Men. A real irony here is that Mad Men is about ad execs. If only the  media companies could figure out a way to tap into the advertising revenue that tech companies like Google are raking in. That's what this whole story boils down to. And you didn't even need to read the book. Neither did I.

Also, did I read that right? "Wasteland"? Where have I seen that word before? Oh, but it's different this time. It's the Internet, not TV, and it's an "artistic" wasteland, as opposed to a vast one. Very unlike, say, reality television.

Another thing: an argument that equates Charlie Bit My Finger with bulk copyright piracy needs to ask Charlie to help it sharpen its pencil.

Levine's title invokes the "culture business." Please, let's not equate that with art. Or quality. Does anybody see symphony orchestras getting stronger? Or struggling artists not struggling? The culture business is only interested in what sells. Rosen, presumably echoing Levine, laments that the music industry in 2009 had "$6.3 billion in sales in 2009, less than half its value a decade earlier." Party like it's 1999, music biz, or even better, 1982: take your backlist and re-release it in a brand-new format called the compact disc. No production costs other than manufacturing and marketing! Pocket billions of dollars for doing artistically diddly-fucking-squat! A long view of the history of home video says the same thing: billions of dollars for reaching into the vault and selling backlist products having zero "artistic" production costs.

Much of the story here has to do with copyright enforcement. Part of the solution the Levine proposes, and which makes sense, is already being done in Europe and involves the use of blanket licensing. But what are we doing in this country that Samuel Johnson could not love? A very unloveable thing: copyright enforcement without the involvement of the courts. There is something inherently wrong with copyright enforcement as it is practiced on Youtube. A request from the media companies to take down a video is going to be honored every time by Youtube. The individual poster will have no appeal, even if there is no infringement.

(You tell me: infringement or not? If for any reason Philips didn't like the quote from Love Potion #9--in spite of the fact that its use in a parodic performance is protected--do you think Youtube's going to pay any attention to anyone other than Philips?)

Do you think media companies care? They have already distorted copyright law as it applies to libraries. They don't care about libraries anyway. Using the right of first sale, public libraries have been able to lend materials since their inception, and media companies (oh, I'm sorry: "publishers") see this as stealing from their profit margin instead of a huge marketing platform that costs a pittance. Now, with licensing restrictions for ebooks, media companies (oh, I'm sorry: "publishers") are doing an end-around on libraries. They're looking no further than the initial, direct-to-consumer purchase. Yes, libraries are a fantastic platform for the promotion of authors. But Honey Badger doesn't ... oops, sorry: wasteland intrusion.

Occupy Blockhead Nation.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

"Xmas" scolds are full of humbug

'Tis the season once again for the Xmas scolds, the people who complain that the use of "Xmas" for "Christmas" is somehow defamatory or sacrilegious.

In fact, the Xmas scolds are ignorant.

The "X" in "Xmas" isn't the letter "x" (eks) of the Roman alphabet. It is the letter of the Greek alphabet that has the same shape, the letter "chi" (kai). Any word in the English language that has a "ch" pronounced like "k" comes from a Greek word. Where we see "ch" but say "k"--chromosome, character, chiropractor, bronchial--the Greek word would have the single letter "chi." Which, yes, is formed by two crossed diagonal lines.

One of those "chi" words in Greek was "christos," which was translated with the Hebrew word "messiah," but which the Romanized western world at the same time kept pretty much intact, albeit in a different alphabet, as the name-tagging honorific of Jesus. (I wonder if Greeks wonder why we need two letters when one works just fine for them?)

The shape of "chi" was also recognized in the early Christian world as a type of cross, the type that we call the cross of St. Andrew (it's the x shape on the national flag of Scotland, the Union Jack, and the Confederate battle flag). To early Christians, this doubleness of "chi" as both cross and first letter in "Christ" proved to be a powerful sort of pun, and early on the letter had an apotheosis of sorts, attaining spiritual status as a monogram for all things Christian.

No less than John Wycliffe, widely believed to have been the first to translate the New Testament into English, acknowledged the equivalency, explaining in a sermon in 1380 that "X bitokeneth Christ."

Complaining about "Xmas" is like complaining about "WWJD" because it has the letter "J" instead of the name "Jesus," spelled out. Hmm, now here's a thought: WWXD.

So by all means celebrate Xmas! And invite the scolds to go share their spite cake with Ebenezer Scrooge.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Veni: C'mon

Here's page one of a recent composition for oboe and organ. The title, Veni, is the Latin imperative meaning "Come." It is found in such expressions as Veni, veni, Emmanuel (familiarly known as O Come, etc.) and Veni, Sancte Spiritus (Come, Holy Spirit).

Yes, it does look the same as the word Julius Caesar included in his terse description of his Gallic adventure--veni, vidi, vici--I came, I saw, I conquered--and some of you out there might actually like to write a hymn to him (et tu, Brute?) and call it "I came," but, regardless of whether or not anyone listening to this thinks it sounds like the chain-clank of Gallic POW's on parade, I am not that person.

Veni has the same root as "Advent," the season leading up to Christmas, which began yesterday. I was fortunate to be able to use the piece in an evensong service last evening at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Bristol, VA. Many thanks to organist Stephanie Yoder for using it and for doing such a great job of interpreting it along with me.*

I highly recommend such a service to anyone for whom the rampant commercialism of Christmas has become a source of anxiety. One wonders if Julius Caesar, were he a present-day department store/bigbox/online uberretailing magnate, would apply his venividivici formula to the post-Labor Day calendar. So it's quite bracing to read, in the course of this kind of service, of the Lord's (in the mouth of the prophet Amos) condemnation of his erstwhile believers for, among other things, selling the righteous for silver and the poor for a pair of shoes. Christmas lights have a different kind of twinkle after you hear that kind of thing.

Somebody ran out of gas in my building parking lot today, a mother and her son in a beaten up van. She was sending him down the street with an empty gallon jug. As I walked by she was emptying her purse: a $1 bill and less than a buck in change. How much gas can that buy? I looked in my wallet. A ten. I was glad to let them have it. I don't know that, failing the gift, I would've been selling the poor for a pair of gallons of gas, but I can see the Lord's point of view.

It's worth asking for. Worth hoping for.

Come peace. Come justice. Come love. C'mon. Veni.

*Great, a footnote (see last post)! I also recorded a studio version of Veni at home and used a couple of days of post-Thanksgiving torpor to render a music video. While doing that, various children and nephews were exerting themselves on some hiphop stylings thanks to Wii; I collected their cartoon dance coaches. By some providential happenstance, the animated dancers strut their stuff to the same beat as Veni. Hmmm. Far be it from me, etc., even if one of them is wearing the devil's horns.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Footnotes Are the Stand-up Comedy of Academia, or Keep "Silent Night" in Christmas--and Take It Out of the Rest of the Year

You've no doubt heard of "publish or perish." But "publish and we killed"?

Imagine the obscure scholar, toiling away on the latest tangential iteration of a years-old thesis (student: "It's on there? Wow. Floppy discs really were floppy."), trying to keep the legend of original research safe from anti-intellectuals and Florida governors (oh, same thing), constrained by the straitjacket of formality ("If you're good we'll take you out of the APA style manual and give you a break in the Iron Maiden."), and just busting at the seams with data too good to waste that unfortunately looks headed for the waste basket. What's to be done?

That's why God invented the footnote. "God?" you ask. Yes, God. The second creation account of Genesis 2:4-25 was meant to be a footnote. How do I know? Isn't it obvious? Don't you think God would really prefer a single creation narrative in the main body of the text? All I can say is: editors, beware. Jesus may have washed his disciples' feet, but there's no record of him doing the same for his editors' feetnotes, or lack thereof.

Not that God necessarily intended the footnote to inject wry, subtle humor into an academic publication that might be read by three people outside of the author's immediate family (son: "Yeah, dad, the intro was awesome! Thanks for thanking me for my patience and understanding!"). After all, the Bible has been read by millions, and the humor of the second creation account, despite its lack of a punchline, is in this day of gay marriage much too over-the-top to be considered subtle.

But for anyone blessed with an academic publisher (they tend to cluster around the word "university"), the footnote has become such a gas outlet that the rest of us can only wonder--given the propensity of scholars to smoke pipes--that more campuses haven't exploded with laughter.

There is a wonderful one, encountered today in The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success; written by Geoffrey Lewis; published by Oxford University Press; borrowed through the magic of interlibrary loan from the James Madison University Library by the Bristol Public Library for my son Samuel who is at present in Kutahya, Turkey, outside of the Bristol Public Library's immediate delivery zone; and which I started reading today during my lunch hour.*

The book tells a fascinating story, and it is well-written with flashes of wry humor in the body of the text, so it's not like it needs footnotes, but how irresistible to take the reader aside for a moment of regaling! Lewis, in summarizing the history of modern Turkish journalism, recounts in a parenthesis how the first non-official Turkish newspaper was a weekly founded by an Englishman named William Churchill.

The parenthetical Mr. Churchill then gets additional treatment in a footnote: "As for Churchill, see Kologlu (1986), an entertaining account of how, despite being miyop (short-sighted), he went out pigeon-shooting one Sunday afternoon in May 1836 and wounded a shepherd boy and a sheep. There were diplomatic repercussions."

Here, have a kleenex. I know, I know. The whole thing deserves a movie!

But my all-time favorite footnote is this harrumphing explication of the Christmas song Good King Wenceslas in the Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford, where the footnote's the thing): "This rather confused narrative owes its popularity to the delightful tune, which is that of a Spring carol...Unfortunately Neale in 1853 substituted for the Spring carol this Good King Wenceslas, one of his less happy pieces, which E. Duncan goes so far as to call 'doggerel', and Bullen condemns as 'poor and commonplace to the last degree'. The time has not yet come for a comprehensive book to discard it; but we reprint the tune in its proper setting...not without hope that, with the present wealth of carols for Christmas, Good King Wenceslas may gradually pass into disuse, and the tune be restored to spring-time."

Remember that this season when you sing about snow laying dinted.

*This is a footnote. Originally, it was not meant to be a footnote, but a piece about footnotes cannot not have a footnote. And this is the closest thing to an aside that I have, speaking of footnotes, but it will soon be obvious that it's not really an aside at all, given its thematic connection to the above footnote-which-is-not-a-footnote-at-least-not-here about Good King Wenceslas.

But still. No: Stille. As in Stille Nacht. As in Silent Night, the Mohr-Gruber collaboration we all know so well. So, so well. Sometimes too well. As in today. I went to Starbucks to read this book on Turkish language reform, I encountered the fun footnote related above, I remembered the footnote likewise related above, and then it happened: over the airwaves the Starbucks favored us with Silent Night. "Favored," as in "do me a favor and stop playing that; it's only November 16; I'm trying to forget that Thanksgiving is already next week; and you want me to go all Silent Night? Look, Gruber wrote the melody only hours before a Christmas Eve service. The least we can do is honor his memory by listening to it one time and one time only, thereby returning it to its original state of blessedness."

I fled Starbucks. There was no room in the Americano. I felt bad leaving Jesus all by himself in there, but then I thought, hey, it's okay. He hasn't been born yet. Maybe. Depending on which footnote you read in which edition of the Bible.

Keep Christ in Christmas. Take Silent Night out of the rest of the year.

End of footnote. See what I mean about gas?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Race to the Bottom: "Readicide" and Killiteracy

I feel vindicated. I coined a word a little while back to describe what I thought were wrongheaded approaches to teaching reading: "Killiteracy." Now there is an entire book by Kelly Gallagher, a high school English teacher in Anaheim, CA, that describes the phenomenon much more thoroughly and authoritatively than I could. His word for it--and the title of his book--is "readicide."

He's hoping for a dictionary entry with the following definition of his word: "the systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing activities found in schools."

I'm a public librarian. It's important that a public librarian not make too much noise. When I express my fondness for certain follies, it is a quiet activity. When I blog that public libraries have an important, but completely unrecognized place in education, well, I mean, c'mon. Nobody listens to the tree falling in the forest except the person standing under it.

So when I find an authoritative educator--a real, genuine high school teacher--like Gallagher saying the same things as me, and coining words to do so, just like me, well sure it's vindicating! Especially when I see that one of the goads of the Killiteracy blog--the Accelerated Reader program--gets his goat as much as mine. The motivator of AR is to earn points by reading from a pre-selected list of books and answering multiple-choice quizzes about them. Gallagher calls the quizzes "mindless" and demotivating because the "extrinsic rewards" of the point system don't develop any real interest in the books.

But Gallagher's real target is the national regime that focuses on test-taking as a measure of educational attainment. The tests themselves have no real meaning, and in order to produce successful test-takers, our schools are resorting to instructional devices and strategies that will ultimately destroy any interest in reading as an activity to be pursued in everyday life.

Here's Gallagher: "We are killing readers, and in doing so, we are moving students farther away from those skills that 'expert citizens' need to lead productive lives: creativity, common sense, wisdom, ethics, dedication, honesty, teamwork, how to win and lose, fair play, and lifelong learning. Worse, in the name of raising test scores, teachers and administrators actually encourage this movement in the wrong direction."

Movement in the wrong direction. What that means is ... hmm ... "race to the top" is really "race to the bottom"? Or as another well-known educational theorist, Yong Zhao, puts it, "race to self-destruction"? In a blog by this title (subtitled "a history lesson for education reformers") Zhao invokes the story of Easter Island's famous statues as explained by Jared Diamond in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. According to Diamond's explanation, the unintended (but at some point, surely predictable) consequences of erecting giant faces on Easter Island included social and environmental collapse.

What an irony if our system of education were to have the unintended consequence of producing a collapse in literacy! And yet that consequence, given the approach to learning that now holds sway, seems entirely predictable. Is it folly to say so? If it were only me, a public librarian, saying it, absolutely! But when a teacher and an educator say so, a library card starts to look like a pretty good thing to let a kid use every now and then.

(By the way, Gallagher's target audience is teachers, and his educational world is the school. Apparently the notion that a public library has a place in that world is every bit as much folly as ever.)

Monday, October 31, 2011

Guillotine for Halloween

Halloween and the French Revolution would seem to be made for each other--opportunities for period costume galore and bookoo headless gore.

Except that Halloween doesn't really exist in France. And France--well, France seems not to exist either, on this side of the Atlantic (USA).

So I thought I'd try to remedy the situation by reelizing a recent lyrical effort called "Ptet ta tete," which means "maybe your head." I called it Cherokee Justice--more on that later.

The words of the chorus are in that made-up language called "French." Here they are with a translation:

Ptet ta tete, ptet ma tete, ptet on causera avec la foule [maybe your head, maybe my head, maybe we'll chat with the crowd]
Ptet ta tete, ptet ma tete, on est ici pour faire la fete [maybe your head, maybe my head, everybody's here for a party]
on est ici pour regarder la chute, toi ou moi aucune difference [they're here to see the axe fall, on you or me, it makes no difference]
la descente en panier [somebody's going down]
la descente en panier [somebody's going down]
Dame Gaga Lady Guillo Dame Gaga Lady Guillo Dame Gaga Lady Guillo [gibberish meant to conflate the guillotine and Lady Gaga. I don't have an explanation other than it felt right. But Lady Gaga uses gibberish in her own songs. And she has a guillotine in the video of one of them.]
Dame Gaga Lady Guillo Dame Gaga Lady Guillo Dame Gaga Lady Guillo [ditto]
Occupez, occupez,  [occupy, occupy--as in Wall St.]
O coupez!  [Off with their heads! As in Wall St. Haha! Just kidding!]

The guillotine was most famously the instrument of (primarily) Jacobin justice. The Jacobins were the party in power in 1792, during the French revolutionary period known as the Terror, when the Jacobins in Paris executed pretty much everybody they could get their hands on, including themselves. At the same time, they were fending off invading armies. The soldier-heroes of the day were the "sans culottes"--commoners who wore pants instead of the "culottes" or knee-breeches of the aristocracy. (Today apparently the French have decided that "culottes" are "panties," so that if you look for information on "sans culottes" on today's Internet, you will find shots of Lady Gaga in less than a complete state of wardrobery.)

But, back to the video: I wondered who might be a satisfactory target of Jacobin justice, at least theoretically speaking.

Ask yourself what single U.S. President inflicted more undeserved hardship on any group of Americans in our history? Don't have the answer? Okay, then, what President best combines the characteristics of the Ku Klux Klan and Adolf Hitler? Still don't know? Okay, then, take out your wallet and pull out a twenty. That guy.

So here's the project: remove his face and replace it with that of someone who actually did something positive, like introduce literacy to his people by inventing an alphabet to suit their language. Justice? Probably not. But sometimes even an empty gesture is better than nothing.

Happy Halloween! Bonne Guillotine! Cherokee Justice!


Monday, October 17, 2011

Sequential Fortuity: "Cloudsplitter" and "The Poisonwood Bible"

Oh, the manifold joys of learning through reading fiction! I'm tempted just to leave that sentence there and not explain it, partly because the thought has loosed an unharnessable stampede of other thoughts, a veritable expanding universe right inside my own brain.

It will be awhile before I come down to earth.

At least there's no doubt about who the Creators are. The most recent ones are Russell Banks and Barbara Kingsolver. Neither I nor they had any idea that they belonged together on the same Olympus or Parnassus, but getting them there was as easy as two people making suggestions at my Nevermore Book Club: Doris and Gary, one for Cloudsplitter (Banks) and the other for The Poisonwood Bible (Kingsolver), thereby being the Titans that the Creators depended upon. (The pantheon of my life is a pretty crowded place, as you can well imagine.)

And when I say "learning through reading fiction," I certainly don't mean to spite the cranial universes that are made possible through reading nonfiction. Mostly, nonfiction is what I read in order to learn. But to have a world unfold before your very eyes! To put yourself in someone else's cranial universe! Much less someone's shoes: empathy is a mere moon by comparison.

I've been digressing ever since that very first sentence sent me out into a universe from which I'll never return, and from which I must now return (quarks and away!) in order to share the discovery that launched me into that digression: having read Cloudsplitter and The Poisonwood Bible back-to-back, I've found that these two books belong back-to-back.

And what has just cemented that opinion is that just now, having written that paragraph, I wondered "I wonder if anyone else has thought about putting them back-to-back?" You know, how you do when you think of a phrase as a good title for a book or a name for a band or a product line for the budding entrepreneur in you, but you have to Google it to be sure nobody's already copped it, and it always seems somebody has. Well, in this case I went to Google to find out, and guess where the two occur back-to-back? In a list of books given as examples of the kind of fiction that qualifies for the prize that Barbara Kingsolver funds!  Mind you, this is just a coincidence of the two titles together one after another on a list, but hey: it's Barbara Kingsolver's list. So it's not like I'm completely without gravity, here.

What is it, then, about the two books that demand they be read sequentially? At the center of each is an individual who is determined to impose his Christian-God-inspired vision upon a society that resists. In fact, more than resisting, the society in large part actively repels the vision. And, remember, it's a society. As opposed, remember, to an individual.

In Banks's case, the individual is the famous abolitionist John Brown, who was famously executed after failing in an attempt to foment a massive slave revolt by seizing a Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Brown is commonly depicted as a crazy man--wild eyes, long unkempt beard, brandished rifle. I had always wondered if in fact he was crazy. Cloudsplitter is told as the memoir of his son Owen, who--according to this account--played a crucial role in bringing his father to act on well-reasoned, religious beliefs he had long held, and to act in such a way that required killing others in pursuit of his vision of freedom and equality for the enslaved Negro.

In Kingsolver's case, the individual is the Baptist missionary Nathan Price, who follows a call to the Congo in the late 1950's, during the last days of Belgian colonialism. His unwavering vision is the conversion to Christianity of African souls through the mechanism of immersion. The African souls resist the notion, given that the local baptistry is a crocodile-infested river. But Rev. Price refuses to let any of the realities of Africa dilute the purity of his faith: his realities are the only ones that matter.

Revolving around these central characters driven by unfaltering faith in a Christian God are their families. Brown's sons do not share his faith, but they share at least to some extent a belief in the justice he seeks, revere him as their leader, and are willing to die alongside him. Price's daughters (in whose voices Kingsolver tells her story), unshielded by the armor of God, bear the brunt of the African reality's parasites, pests, and poisons--indigenous biological ones and invading political ones. But the daughters have a life, at least--the tragic mixed with the blessings of love and learning--whereas the father pursues his vision of salvation until he reaches it, alienated and alone, at the hands of those he is trying to save. His life is all about death.

Both books depend on history. Banks, as Owen Brown's "memoirist," is to some extent the vessel of historical record--but to what extent? Kingsolver has been criticized for writing a tendentious novel upon which to hang an anti-American agenda. But with books such as these, history is only an excuse to engage morality. Humanity hangs in the balance: who can sway us? Do we bring faith to the world, or bring the world to faith? Which martyr will we follow, and which will we burn?

The answers expand outward, growing with the universe brought about by the collision of Cloudsplitter and The Poisonwood Bible.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Learning outside the box

Historian Niall Ferguson says in an April, 2011, interview in The Guardian: “The debate that I'm interested in having is with seriously smart people about how we design institutions in the 21st century that will genuinely address problems of poverty and educational underachievement. Now that's an interesting debate to have, but very few people in this country are interested in having it."

Presumably, “this country” refers to Great Britain. A similar lack of interest exists in the United States when the subject is poverty, which we’ve determined can no longer occur in an age of near-universal cellphone usage. We don’t debate poverty because we’ve decided it isn’t there anymore.

But educational underachievement? Tom Brokaw, trumpet major of the Greatest Generation, has declared “education in America” to be “THE national imperative of the 21st century.” There seems to be near-universal agreement that a prosperous economic future for the U.S. will depend on having an educated populace to spin out the money-making notions of the future—which the Chinese and Indians will presumably then manufacture.

The debate seems to be how we should go about getting that educated populace, when what we seem to have right now is an increasingly expensive system of—to use Ferguson’s words—educational underachievement. (Anyone remember A Nation at Risk? That was 1983. What would it be called if it were issued today? A Nation Really, Really, Really at Risk?) Many seriously smart people are involved in the discussion, to judge from the continuous flow of high-profile books on the topic: Class Warfare by Steven Brill pits charter schools and big city superintendents like New York City’s Joel Klein against teachers’ unions, but overall the regime is one that is driven by the need to perform well on standardized tests; Diane Ravitch, in The Death and Life of the Great American School System, says that the tests are themselves the problem.

In fact, the problem is that we have a basic, fundamental misunderstanding of education as something that occurs only in a box within a box—in a classroom within a school—where a teacher causes learning to happen. This is wrong, and all of our efforts to change education will fail unless we realize this.

I recently read the book Incognito by David Eagleman, which emphasized (among other things) the point that all vision occurs in the brain. Our eyes receive the light, but the attribution of pattern and perception to the light all happens in the brain. Thinking about this, I felt this point to be a kind of brilliant “duh.” Isn’t it obvious that all seeing occurs in the brain? Well, yes, it is in a way, but it is also worth thinking about—because among other things you start to “see” (haha) that vision is in no way a passive reception of inherent qualities in the world around us.

Thinking thus about learning/education produces a similar kind of “duh”—“yeah, well, it’s obvious that a teacher can only teach. All the learning happens in our brains.”

Obvious, maybe. But once you’ve taken this step, you start to see how limiting our model of education is; limiting, and maybe even destructive, if it is blind to other valuable ways of learning.

This is in no way a criticism of teachers. In fact, every teacher (I’ve been one myself) knows the truth of this. Every teacher has seen the light of learning ignite in a student’s eyes; every teacher has seen a student’s dogged, plodding, and commendable persistence with homework or rote learning so as to internalize knowledge; every teacher knows all too well the high walls that keep students from learning what is being taught; every teacher knows how students sometimes build those walls themselves.

But it is important to dwell on the fact that—to use an ungrammatical usage purposely—the teacher never “learns” us. We ourselves do the learning.

The reason I’m focusing on what may seem to be the obvious is that, when it comes to education, we do not, in fact, act as if we understand this to be the case. Instead, what we do is to declare, in effect, that education is a product of the classroom. That is a far cry from saying that it is a product of the brain.

To demonstrate a very clear consequence, I will draw on my own field of librarianship. I have recently been inspired by two books on copyright—Common As Air by Lewis Hyde and Reclaiming Fair Use by Patricia Aufderheide and Peter Jaszi—to dare to think that the fair use doctrine as applied to certain public library usages is out of whack and needs to be adjusted.

For a long time, I’ve been interested in building up public library activities like book clubs and speaker series as a way to get people actively engaged in some of the more communal (and—in our classroom-focused world of education—overlooked) forms of learning.

Among the things I’ve thought about doing has been a film discussion series, in which the library would show a film for the purpose of provoking discussion afterwards. Having participated in numerous “shared learning” activities in the past, I can testify to the educational value of these kinds of experiences. As such, I would like to claim that this kind of film series—showing a movie from the library’s collection for the purpose of stimulating discussion—should satisfy the educational exception to copyright restrictions that would otherwise prevent showing a movie without paying licensing fees.

The problem is that the American Library Association has a document—ALA Library Fact Sheet 7, last updated in Aug., 2009—that says I can’t.

The Fact Sheet lays out the following requirements that must be met in order for the educational fair use to apply to “videos.” First of all, it must be a “classroom use” in which seven factors must apply:

1. The performance must be by instructors or by pupils.
2. The performance is in connection with face-to-face teaching activities.
3. The entire audience is involved in the teaching activity.
4. The entire audience is in the same room or general area.
5. The teaching activities are conducted by a non-profit education institution.
6. The performance takes place in a classroom or similar place devoted to instruction.
7. The person responsible for the performance has no reason to believe that the videotape was unlawfully made.

The Fact Sheet then goes on to say that “most public performances of a video in a public room (including library meeting rooms), whether or not a fee is charged, would be an infringement. Such performances require a performance license from the copyright owner. The only exception would be educational programs meeting all seven requirements listed above.”

So there you have it. Even the American Library Association does not recognize a lay discussion group in a public library meeting room as having an educational purpose. The only category of educational fair use exception is a “classroom” one involving “instructors” and “pupils.”

I would be without much—or any—hope were it not for Hyde’s inspiration to take back the intellectual commons and Aufderheide/Jaszi’s very specific history of the recent development of current fair use doctrine.

According to A/J, many of the existing guidelines on fair use, including those developed to “interpret” the video revolution, are “unhelpful” and “distorted by powerful industry interests.” The authors remind us over and over that the Copyright Act is supposed to be a balancing act between the creators’ expectations of income and the general public’s first amendment right to free use of created works. The result of the video and digital revolutions have been in general to tip the balance quite a bit to the creators’ side—often as a result of the heavy hand of the media corporations.

The guidelines, say A/J, are “what you might expect from negotiated settlements where one side is much more powerful and invested in weakening fair use.” In other words, the guidelines can be “harshly limited” by using specific quantities and proportions in ways that have “no grounding whatsoever in the Copyright Act.”

My reading of the ALA Fact Sheet—in the context of my interest in having a public library film discussion series—is that it lays out an unduly narrow definition of an educational fair use of video material and that it needs to be replaced.

A/J recommend that “communities of practice”—such as, say, public librarians—draft “codes of best practices” as a way of balancing the competing copyright interests in various scenarios, or “situations.” For example, I would say that the educational fair use would be met by the lay discussion film series, but it would not by the mere showing of a film or movie. Similarly, a movie used as part of an interactive story hour would be educational fair use, but not a random showing for entertainment purposes.

Talk about a tiny, tiny niche. I know. But I believe it's instructive; it shows how far away we are from a real understanding of how learning happens. (And, mirabile dictu, we're not even in a classroom!) For us to be so far away from something so basic means that we’ll revisit A Nation At Risk every thirty years and wonder why Harry Potter doesn’t come back and do something about it.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Which came first, the pumpkin or the earworm?

It's a chicken and egg question. If you're going to write a song, do you start with the words or the music?

With Paul McCartney, we know that the egg came first. The lyrics for the three syllables that became "Yesterday" were originally "scrambled eggs." Keith Richards, to judge from his autobiography, liked his fried--however his eggs may have been cooked.

Giuseppe Verdi's technique was to play chicken with a metronome. Tinpan Alley learned that if you cut the head off the chicken first and let it run around, sometimes it produced a golden egg before it died. If only they could clone that "sometimes." Hmm, wait a sec: "sometimes." It has the sound of a hit! Grab a chicken!

I share a study with three backup oboists who perform under the name of Los Tres Oboes. As far as they're concerned, every composition starts with eggs and chicken--huevos rancheros and pollo loco--as well as a part for each one of them. "But guys," I tell them, "you're backup oboists. You make 'afterthought' look like an alpha male."

They hate it when I say that. They get back at me by inserting an earworm into my, well, ear. Actually, they are very cleverfully inserting it into my brain--as should be obvious, but if you read Incognito by David Eagleman, you'll see that obvious things are quite invisible. Los Tres Oboes must know this, too, because along with the so-obvious-it-was-invisible earworm (in the form of an uptempo bass line), this time they left a pumpkin in my foyer, got my wife to decorate it with flowers, and pretended to know nothing about it even as they blinked an instinctive challenge at me to mate it with the earworm. Musically speaking, of course.

Talk about creative process. I might say I don't want to go there, but I have to. The earworm already has me muttering "p'tet' ta tete" which means "maybe your head," which could be a pumpkin, right? No? Folly? Of course. Grab a chicken!

Los Tres Oboes are pretty smug about it. I'm stuck, and they already have a part. Not bad for a backup oboe trio.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Atlas Hugged

I tried. To read Atlas Shrugged. But I failed.
I feel bad when things like this happen. It was the same kind of thing with Gone with the Wind ... except I was able to finish it. Around about p. 178 of Atlas Shrugged I started feeling bad, the way I'd felt at the end of GWTW, so I decided that Atlas wasn’t the only one needing a shrug. (And he didn't seem like anyone who cared much for hugs.)
The bad feeling comes from the fact that my reaction to these books was deep and visceral. Simply stated, I despised them. But millions of other people have not only read them with enjoyment, but have been inspired by them! Why did I have such a bad reaction to them? For some unexplored reason I feel compelled to try to convince myself that my reaction to these books is not completely without reason. This is probably an exercise in all manner of folly. But, as this happens to be my area of expertise, off we sail.

Okay, I tell myself, the thing about GWTW is that at the center of the love triangle--after you’ve busted the corsets and ripped off the green velvet ball gown that used to be a curtain--is a heart that beats with faith in the intractable inferiority of negroes and in their inherent, inherited, and eternal place as servile retainers maintaining the whims of whitey. If nothing else endures, says GWTW, that will. The wind can blow down Tara and Atlanta and the Twin Towers of Babylon, but ain't nothing gonna alter neither the place nor the destiny of the negro. Thus saith Margaret Mitchell.

So, okay, it's a relief to be able to provide myself with the reasonable understanding that GWTW is in fact the expression of a racist world-view wrapped up in a costume romance. Got that, y'all?  

I will grant that it is readable. It has characters that are drawn from life. The clashing personalities of Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler spark enough pages to keep you chasing the conflagration until it smokes out.

But by the time I got to p. 178 of Atlas Shrugged, I decided that "Ayn Rand," the woman pictured on the jacket, was a stand-in for the true author, who was actually a gifted child (such as myself) with, on the one hand, an exalted sense of self-importance and, on the other hand, a pronounced persecution complex. And both of the hands were tightly wrapped around my very own neck in an effort to throttle out of me the suspicion that this story would've been better rendered as a battle between two dolls, one named Me and the other named All You Pitiful Peon-Wuss-Lamer-Idiots Who Don't Think I'm A Genius. Bam! Bam! Bam! Me wins!

It was difficult, by I managed to prise myself loose from the novel's grip to explore my suspicions as to the true nature of "Ayn Rand," and I determined that she was an architect and railroad builder of such accomplishment that she only existed in her own imagination in a world of her own devising in which she did everything all by herself and everyone thought she was wonderful because she was the only person there was.

I also found out that John Galt (spoiler alert! spoiler alert!) turns out to be a character in the book, rather than a pop culture artifact. Up until p. 178, people of all walks of life have been asking "Who is John Galt?" when they wanted to be saying "How are you?" This is, of course, a question the answer to which no one ever really cares to hear, so people are less than pleasantly surprised (as I was able to learn from reading a French book called La Grève--which means "the strike," is purportedly written by "Ayn Rand," and contains a plot and cast of characters suspiciously similar to Atlas Shrugged, except the words are in French) when a real John Galt turns up later saying not "Fine, thank you," but "Listen here, all you Pitiful Peon-Wuss-Lamer-Idiots ...", with an ellipsis that goes on for something like 84 pages of screed to the effect that the purpose-driven life is the only life worth living, and my purpose is better than your purpose, so Bam! Bam! Bam!

It turns out that John Galt convinces all the truly great people (Me! Me! Me!) to leave their purpose-driven lives and go on strike so as to convince everyone else--that is, the government--that the purpose-driven lives of the truly great people (Me! Me! Me!) are so valuable that they can do everything all by themselves.

But it all unravels on Galt and his crew of Atlas aliases when it turns out that by abandoning their purpose-driven lives, even for a short time, the truly great people (Me! etc.) have caused a contradiction, which the philosophy of Galt doesn't recognize, so the novel implodes on p. 178 (ironically, the last page I read!). The rest of the novel's 1,000+ pages are sucked into a black hole, where it exists in the same way a shadowboxing opponent exists. Bam! Bam! Bam! Me wins!

I was also able to learn that "Ayn Rand" was the visionary individual who wrote this book about the heroic venture of building an intercontinental railroad single-handedly in the face of opposition by everyone else--that is, the government--in 1957, thereby inaugurating the field of retro-retro-futurism. (The Eisenhower Interstate Highway system began in 1956. It was not heroic or single-handed and turns out to have been built by everyone else--that is, the government.)

We stand on the shoulders of lots of giants. Not just one.

I'm so glad to have convinced myself that it's okay to walk away from Atlas Shrugged. I know a lot of you really love the book. I'm not saying you're wrong. I'm just saying "Fine, thank you. And who is Lady Gaga?"

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Hymnopedie no. 1

A child asked me what he would see
If he could go beyond the sky.
A hummingbird, I told the child,
Galactic scatting with its wings.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Like carrying goals to Newcastle

Where to eat in Richmond? Looking out my window at the Holiday Inn Express, I can see the 3rd St. Diner, which is also on the short list of restaurants in the notebook in my room, so that's where I wind up.

It's not much in the way of interior decor--it's sort of shambling, with a bar, a line of two-seater tables, and a line of booths--but I like that the clientele is both families and working stiffs. In that way, it reminds me of Chattanooga's Rathskeller from my childhood.

I look behind the bar to see what bottles are on display and see that they have Newcastle Brown Ale, which is what I order. Then I look up at the screen over the bar and see that it's showing a soccer game between Aston Villa and--as luck would have it--Newcastle United. Score tied, 1-1.

Why am I in Richmond? I think the general idea is that my fellow library directors and I be treated to an opportunity for enlightenment. Along that line today's offering was a clarion call to re-invent the public library because e-books have exploded and Netflix--at the age of only 10--will probably soon only be streaming, and 75% of children have cellphones.

This is on my mind as Newcastle press Aston Villa with a pork chop special on order and only 30 minutes to play.

So, public libraries have to re-invent themselves.

Newcastle called for offsides.

I don't think they ever really knew what they were to start with. Not really. Ever heard of the Public Library Inquiry? It was a study carried out by the Ford Foundation (though the link says Carnegie) in the early 1950's to cut through public library PR rhetoric to see who really used public libraries. The conclusion was that maybe one adult in ten used libraries regularly.

Newcastle are spending a lot of time on Aston Villa's turf without much to show for it. Maybe another ale will help. Go Magpies!

Needless to say, the response in the library world to the inquiry was never favorable. The dress made us look fat. Or thin. Whatever. But we would by god have more than one in ten adults using our libraries because we would give them ... recreation!

Goal! No! Offsides again!

The presenter today asked how much of our circulation is made up of DVD checkouts. The percentage at my library is 40%, which is close to the national average. This isn't going to hold up, said the presenter, if the world is going to streaming video. It'll hold up, I think, if the borrowers are like the ones at my library: looking for ways to stretch a dollar. "Poor man's Blockbuster" is our nickname.

All these shots on goal. For nothing.

And, speaking of goals, where are they for the libraries? To re-invent ourselves, the presenter's examples indicate that libraries need to become Nintendo arcades and have band concerts once a week. Why? Did we never learn to dribble? Does no one think that self-directed education and lifelong learning are the sine qua non of public libraries?

Two minutes to play. A. Villa with a break, Newcastle goalie comes out for a stop, a shot is lobbed over his head, the goal is open ... but a defender slides it away at the last second. Whew!

Sine qua non. Really. I probably need to be put out to pasture. On a soccer pitch in the north of England. All this talk about changing things, and what do librarians do when they get together? They talk about per capita circulation. "I'll show you mine if you show me yours." And library boards are addicted to those numbers. Just keep 'em pumped up. (That's why those DVD's are so great.) Re-allocating budgets is an excellent idea ... for library directors who want to go looking for another job because their circ numbers plummeted.

The game is in its last throes. A peach cobbler appears. Coffee would be a good idea. There is an inverted bottle of Old Bushmill's behind the bar, so make it an Irish coffee. Apparently this is something that isn't frequently ordered at the 3rd St. Diner; the ingredients are in doubt; the call goes out: "Is there a librarian in the house?" As luck would have it ...

Time, gentlemen. An equality of goals. A tie.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Phyllosophy: 9/11 and Harriet Beecher Stowe

I'm a fortunate library director: I have a book club. Called the Nevermore Book Club, it meets once a week, on Tuesday. Its name comes from its raison d'etre, which, besides discussing books and reading, is to eat doughnuts doughnated by the nearby Blackbird Bakery. The name was the brainchild of crackerjack librarian Jeanne Powers, whose lightning chain-of-thought went something like "Blackbird-raven-Poe-Nevermore." It just had that incredible rightness of being about it.

The format is a departure from the usual everybody-read-the same-thing book club. Anybody can come. We sit around the table and talk about what we've been reading that week. I use the occasion to bring new books to the table and make a modest effort to connect a book and a reader. (So many worthy books! Why can't they be advertised during the 6:30 news instead of pharmaceuticals?)

But if Nevermore (as we call it for short) has a food metaphor, it's not the doughnut. It's baklava, because of the layers and layers of serendipity that occur every week. Call it phyllosophy.

E.g.: I've been pushing Grapes of Wrath for months, saying it's really a timely book given the state of our economy. One member has tried and tried to read it, but can't get past the dialect in the dialogue. She was raised in Memphis and just knows they didn't talk that way; it makes them sound stupid, and nothing I could say would change her mind. The point was unassailable. (It helped me understand the damning reaction of African-Americans to Kathryn Stockett's rendering of Mississippi diction in The Help--another book I've been pushing pretty hard.) But I was unwilling to surrender. I insisted that she owed it to herself at least to read the ending of the book. The following week she read the ending and came back to share a connection that she--an art history major in college--was able to make that no one else in the group knew about: Roman Charity, a classical legend of a man saved from a sentence of death by starvation when his daughter nurses him, an act that wins her admiration and his release, and which became a set-piece for such artists as Rubens and Caravaggio. Then another member said that he'd followed Grapes of Wrath with Room, which has its own set of lactation issues. We could've segued into a meeting of La Leche League without missing a beat.

Phyllosophy. I've always thought this was why libraries are so great. But it's even moreso when people share it.

I decided to take the 10th anniversary of 9/11 to Nevermore. I needed help with it. Garry Trudeau's B.D. had convinced me to lay low, and then there was a column at by Laura Miller, about why there can't be a good novel about 9/11, that shared B.D.'s sentiment. Which is, in Miller's formulation: it was senseless to start with, and it's been compromised by our tragically irrelevant reaction, so best just shut up about it: "Silence, too, can be eloquent."

But. But. But. Every "but" a layer of phyllo.

Since we were a book club that discussed novels quite often, we could start with Miller's nice working definition of the novel: The novel is "about what matters to an individual and the way ... he or she chooses to live." The novelist's job is "to explore life as it is lived instead of how it's talked about or photographed or editorialized or TV-movied." When novelists do this well, they "shape and influence human consciousness."

Miller indicates the novelist Don DeLillo has pretty much consigned his novelist's job to terrorists, whom he believes to be more influential these days. (Funny thing: I'd have said pharmaceutical companies.) But Miller seems to hold out some hope. After all, she says, McVeigh and Kaczynski were terrorists, but their influence will be nil: "Harriet Beecher Stowe they are not."

Nevermore laughed at this. They laughed because I've been bringing Harriet Beecher Stowe (henceforth HBS) to every Nevermore meeting for months now.

I read Uncle Tom's Cabin for the first time this summer. I expected a superficial, preachy melodrama with a tedious plot carried out by paper cutout characters. It turns out I had to wait to read Gone with the Wind (which I did next) before I got that--and GWTW came complete with a white supremacist world-view as a bonus! Then I read The Help by Kathryn Stockett, which helped neutralize GWTW and restore my faith that there had been maybe one white person with a shred of dignity in the 1960's. "In your white person dreams," say many blacks: The Help repeats the same stereotypes as GWTW, and these stereotypes are the fault of HBS. According to this view, HBS was the Dr. Frankenstein of all the monstrous literary lawn jockeys that have been used to simulate black characters in novels ever since Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Accordingly, for months now at least part of every Nevermore meeting has been an attempt by me to get HBS across a color line of sorts, to free her from the slavery of stereotypes that her characters may have engendered.

So when Laura Miller writes of HBS's influence, it gets a laugh in Nevermore because, sadly, the irony of HBS's influence is that it no longer exists. At least, not in the way she intended.

It is no longer the humanizing influence that once challenged people to understand slavery through the daily lives of enslaved people. It has become its widely spun-off legacy of blackface "Tom shows" that reduced a strong, thoughtful, intelligent, moral, Christian martyr into the pitiful butt of a bad racist joke. It's not what HBS intended; it's not what that first generation of readers understood. But it's what we today are left with.

In effect, HBS's legacy got sucked into the wake of influential novelists whose agenda was very different from hers: novelists like Thomas Dixon and Margaret Mitchell. Dixon believed the African strain in America was a taint that should be extinguished; it was he who wrote the story behind the hugely popular KKK epic film Birth of a Nation. That's right: hugely popular. As for Mitchell, need anything be said? The meta-narrative of GWTW is that servitude enables blacks to realize their exalted destiny as the conscience of white families.

Which brings us to Stockett and what I feel is her damning portrayal of white attitudes in apartheid Mississippi. She uses characters where Mitchell used stereotypes. But there remains the problem that Stockett's black characters still seem to have the same exalted destiny as Mitchell's.

How much of a problem is that? This is where we come back to 9/11. I remember one of the oft-repeated questions in the aftermath: "why do they hate us?" That would seem to be a good question for a novelist to try to answer, but I have a feeling that we wouldn't want to confront it. A good novelist would go ahead anyway. Did the U.S. want to confront slavery in the 1850's? No, but HBS made it happen. (And here I must say on Stockett's behalf: do white Americans want to confront the excruciating injustices and injuries of Jim Crow apartheid? No, they want to say it's water under the bridge. But Stockett makes us swim in it.)

There is still a color line in America. We are a divided country. Randall Kennedy has a new book about it that will no doubt shed light on it, but judging from reviews one of the thing it attests to is that you can't enforce the reality of racial apartheid for centuries, nor can you believe in the inferiority of another race and actively pursue a society based on that belief, and then just walk away from it like it never happened. Isn't it reasonable for a black person in a theatre showing Birth of a Nation to respond by wanting to kill whites? If it isn't, why not? There are questions that need to be answered. There are novels that need to be written. Silence is not an option. Silence is what the terrorists want.

As for HBS, I last encountered her purely by accident in a book about Paris by David McCullough that the library just received. She exults in the beauty of the city and rues (there are lots of rues in Paris) her severe New England upbringing devoid of any sense of the value of beauty. I wish she could meet a concierge of aesthetic proclivities in the Tuileries gardens. But at least she sits for a portrait with Hilaire Belloc. Regardless of the success of his portraiture, he captures the beauty of her work when he says that its success was due to the fact that it had in it more genuine faith than any other book.

If only that could be her legacy.