Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Crime of the Nation

You know the symptoms, anyone who's grieved: the sob surges that you fight to contain; tears sting the eyes. It's a paroxysm. We have them in rage and in grief.  Sometimes in both.

I remember having particularly mixed-up ones after 9/11: so much sorrow for the dead, and so much fury at the attack. Anger, I think, had the edge, at least for me. That's not the case now, after last Friday's massacre of children and teachers in Newtown, Connecticut. All I feel now is grief.

Everybody finds a way to cope, and to hope. Music and elevated words in foreign languages help me. It feels as if Brahms Requiem saved my life at one point--not only its music but its German words: Selig sind die Toten. I don't know why those strange words feel better to me than "Blessed are the dead." Maybe in some sense it's an attempt to approach the absolute foreignness of eternity. Music seems to work that way, as we were reminded last week with the death of Ravi Shankar, who believed that music gives us a joyful link to the universe.

Or a sorrowful one, even during the Christmas season. Nothing could be more sorrowful than the Coventry Carol. But how poignant it feels now; how stabbing! It's a lullaby, for crying out loud, a lullaby about King Herod's slaughter of the innocents. "Lullay, thou little tiny child." More unbearably, in the traditional mummer's play about the event, the singer is a mother singing to her doomed child. I used to play it on recorder in a trio with my parents. Back then I thought it never really belonged to Christmas. In my childish literalness I didn't think there could be a chronological connection to the Nativity. Accurate as that may be, I don't feel that today. I can't look at anything, from seasonal decoration to mundane commonplace, and not think of the disappearance of these children ripped from life. Nor can I say anything that feels appropriate to the grief. All I can do is place my feelings on some raft of a foreign language and say lacrimae rerum.

Literally, "tears of things." These are the words that Virgil attributes to Aeneas when the escaped Trojan prince, cast ashore in Carthage, wanders into a temple where he sees a frieze of the battles for Troy. The memory of his slaughtered family overwhelms him, and, Virgil writes, Aeneas cries a river, saying "Is there anywhere in the world that does not have miseries to cause such tears, that does not share such sorrow?"

But, importantly, the weeping Aeneas also says to the marble image of slain King Priam, "lose your fears, for your fame will bring some benefit."

I wonder: Can we say that when we are shown the pictures of those killed in Newtown? Or is it as if they were doomed, as surely as the victims of Herod, and for nothing?

Considering this question, let's keep Virgil a little longer as our guide to our national purgatory. It is from him, also in the Aeneid, that we get the expression "beware of Greeks bearing gifts." The perspective is a Trojan one--beware them because the "gift" the Greeks brought to them was the hollow wooden horse that brought about the city's destruction. But Virgil has an even more telling line only a little later: Crimine ab uno disce omnes. "From a single crime know the nation." The crime of the Greek nation, in the Trojan view, was treachery: the wooden horse was presented as a peace offering, when in fact it was the opposite.

What is the crime by which our nation is to be known?

I had never heard of Newtown, Connecticut. But the night before the shooting I was reading 1775: A Good Year for Revolution by Kevin Phillips, an important and well-received account of the events that gave the American rebels a strong enough headstart to see them through the ensuing war with Great Britain.

In a section of the book that discusses the colonial militias there is mention of Newtown as being at the time "suspect" for its Tory sympathies. As I read, the name flashed by and melted into the other names-Fairfield, Litchfield, Ridgefield--until the next day, when the news broke. I thought, "Didn't I just see that name?" It wasn't in the index--the mention was too inconsequential--but I hadn't read very far past the mention and was able to find it at the top of p. 155.

Coincidentally, Newtown is mentioned in the part of the book that discusses the role and importance of colonial militias. Phillips, citing military historians as "the literary equivalent of expert witnesses," says that the militia functioned as an "internal security force" that made and kept the hinterlands safe for the patriot cause and enabled the Continental Army to confront the British on the battlefield. To elucidate the nature of this internal security duty, he quotes historian John Shy (A People Numerous and Armed) at length (p. 162):
Once established, the militia became the infrastructure of revolutionary government. It controlled its community, whether through indoctrination or intimidation; it provided on short notice large numbers of armed men for brief periods of emergency service; and it found and persuaded, drafted, or bribed, the smaller number of men needed each year to keep the Continental army alive. After the first months of the war, popular enthusiasm and spontaneity could not have sustained the struggle; only a pervasive armed organization, in which almost every took some part, kept people constantly, year after year, at the hard task of revolution.
Of course we know why this is important: because we, in our ignorance or weakness, have settled into an accepted understanding of the Second Amendment that is wrong, even though its meaning should be as plain as day.

The "well-regulated militia" understood in the amendment, by the testimony of history, means a militia that is an organized, statutory creature of state government. They were military organizations with a hierarchical structure. They were not every man or woman for him/herself, packing heat in a handbag or a bedside table or a man-cave gun rack. While they might presumably draw on those resources, as the Second Amendment clearly intends, equally important is organization and preparedness so as to bring to bear those resources for some public purpose.

We cannot understand or interpret the Second Amendment without reference to a well-regulated militia. To do so is to accept the kind of anarchy that is to blame for the disaster that we have just experienced in Connecticut. Even if we insist that "Congress shall make no law," nothing prevents the states from acting on their own constitutional subordinations of the military function to the civil authority by obligating those citizens who choose to be armed to perform some civil duty. It should be a requirement: own a weapon, be enrolled in the militia; do militia duty just as you would jury duty.

Like what? After all, there are no more Tories to tar and feather. What about being assigned--with regular training--to be a school security guard and being given civil leave a few days a year to perform the assignment? Even if assault rifle ownership is restricted after Newtown, there will still be ample opportunity for mayhem, and our schools are woefully under-protected. If our ancestors on the frontier, in all their Founding Fatherly wisdom, formed civil militias to respond to the threat of violence, why should we not do the same?

What is the crime of the nation? What hollow, wooden horse beckons, appearing as a gift, but posing a treacherous threat? It is, quite simply, our confusion of private rights with the public good on the subject of gun ownership. This is a criminal misconstruction of the Second Amendment. Individual concealed- or open-carry vigilantes are not and cannot be the "Militia of this Country," upon which George Washington conferred the title "Palladium of our security." Palladium? The Founding Fathers, conversant with the classics, knew this to mean "safeguard." (Troy again: the Palladium was the wooden statue of the goddess Athena that was believed to protect the city and that, according to Roman legend, was brought to Rome by Aeneas.)

Our security is not safeguarded by private individuals with guns. They might be able to defend themselves, but they do not defend us. To riff on another Virgilian phrase, there ain't no unum e that pluribus.

Such a nation, such a crime. Lully, lullay, our little tiny us.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Friend My Deathbed Poems

Here's a little bit of a spoiler to the book The End of Your Life Book Club, by Will Schwalbe: These are the last words that the author's mother ever read:
If you do not wish for His kingdom, don't pray for it. But if you do, you must do more than pray for it; you must work for it.

The words are John Ruskin's, taken from a daily devotional lying on the bedside table where Schwalbe's mother died of cancer. Early in her illness one afternoon awaiting chemo, mother and son had formed a "book club" and kept it going for two years until death cut off their discussion with a volume of Alice Munro stories still to share.

As his mother lay in extremis, Schwalbe read to her a poem by Mary Oliver called Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does It End? It ends "Like goldfinches, little dolls of gold/fluttering around the corner of the sky/of God, the blue air." Schwalbe reports that he felt "a bit self-conscious" when he read the poem.

When my mother--a lover of reading--was dying under similar circumstances, someone--I remember it being my brother Kevin--read to her one of her favorites, the grandfather's poem from Night of the Iguana by Tennessee Williams, which begins "How calmly does the olive branch/observe the sky begin to blanch." It was a beautiful performance absent, I hope, of any self-consciousness at all. That came later, when after she breathed her last we sang Amazing Grace in a spontaneous spasm of fideism for which Mama must bear responsibility because she hadn't picked out a suitable agnostic alternative.

My mother and I didn't share books in the same way did the Schwalbes. Ours was a more librarianly type of sharing, where she shared what she knew about a book so I would read and enjoy it. Which I pretty much always did.

So, now I wonder, what did she last read? Or, meta-read? Christopher Hitchens, who became someone she would've admired, records meditating on crucifixes and their Inquisitorial significance as he lay dying in--ironically?--a Catholic hospital. Mama was at home, in what was and would be again the dining room, attended by tall bookshelves in two of the corners and perhaps comforted by their presence: priests of the mind.

Thinking about these rites of passage, I am struck at how much they have to do with reading. And then, ping-ponging back to the other pole, I wonder, after my birth, what was I first read? And also what did I myself first read to my children after they were born? And how soon? And every step of the way beyond and since: being read to/reading to, learning to read/teaching to read, being wed/wedding, being lost/losing, lifecycling/lifecycling.

Thinking thus, I wonder about Andrew Keen's notion of reading. He's written a book called Digitalvertigo: How Today's Online Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us.

I like boogeymen as much as anybody--but boogeymen are supposed to be present, in a very frightening way. Keen's boogeyman is invisible. At least for the first 43.33 pages of his book. That's when I put it down and went looking for a real nightmare.

Keene's alarm bell in the night is "the socials are coming." Everything and everybody (meaning tech companies) are jumping on the social networking bandwagon so they can ride the next tsunami to the moon.

Well, I'm reading Keene's laundry list of SocialVibe and PeekYou and BeKnown and thinking, "So what? You know what happens to tidal wave-propelled buggy moonshots: they don't work" when he reaches the ne plus ultra his argument:
Phew! And if this vertiginous wave of social networks isn't enough, then there is social reading - offering a giant collective hello to book lovers everywhere. Yes, reading, that most intensely private and illicit of all modern individual experience, is being transformed into a disturbingly social spectacle. Some of you may even be reading this book socially - meaning that instead of sitting alone with this book, you'll be sharing your hitherto intimate reading experience in real-time with thousands of your closest Facebook or Twitter friends via your e-readers. ... You see, social reading does, in a sense, represent the end of the world. It means the end of the isolated reader, the end of solitary thought, the end of purely individual literary reflection, the end of those long afternoons spent entirely along with just a book.
See those italics? Those are his! The end of the world! But why am I not scared? I'm the kind of person who would've pooh-poohed Noah as a warmist, and I know this about myself, so I should pay attention.

So what do I do? I give up on the book. I put the book down. I say finis to this book. And I'm using a blog and probably Goodreads to record this opinion of the book, so that ... so that what?

Mr. Keene, I don't brag about Twitter followers like you do. I don't have Twitter followers. My dog doesn't follow me. If he slips the leash, he's gone!

This blog, Mr. Keene, is my diary. Believe me: No one reads it!

And as for Facebook and Goodreads, well, they're sort of like sitting around the table in the high school cafeteria and talking about things and showing pictures, except you don't have to surrender your cookies to the Key Club bully. Or instead of having to call lots of people, you can call them all at the same time.

I will say, though, that some people are very quiet on their end of the line. I know what they're up to, though:
they're engaging in an intimate reading experience--with your damn tweets, no doubt, Mr. Keene! Ha! Caught you red-handed! Sharing! Italics yours!

To think that my and Will Schwalbe's mothers died believing that sharing was a good thing.

Get your deathbed poems ready. And then share them with somebody else. They'll be thankful. And will probably sing Amazing Grace anyway.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012


A business seminar. An economist, a marketing consultant, a professor, a manufacturer. All have been asked to give their views on how businesses can get the best results in the near future. The economist says "get a more predictable regulatory climate from the government." The marketing consultant says "hone your brand." The professor says "keep an eye on what happens in Europe." The manufacturer says "be creative."

Of all the answers, I am most struck by the manufacturer's. I am surprised by it. But even more surprising is his expansion on it: "More testing in schools isn't going to produce creative people."

"Have I heard him right?" I wonder. It's not what I expect a manufacturer--conservative in dress, manner, and probably politics--to say. After all, isn't it the business community, more than any other, politically pushing the idea that more testing equals more learning? Didn't the standards-based idea that produced No Child Left Behind and the current testing regime get its muscle from the business community? Sure, there were regular Janes and Joes interested, but face it, this is the US of A, where Business is the only voter that really matters.

But is Business saying something different now? Are they thinking, "Oh, standards--that's so nineties!" Whether there is a retreat from the testing regimen or not (I listen for the sound of brakes being applied by the massive educational bureaucracy), the manufacturer at the seminar is far from being alone. Nor is it exactly breaking news: IBM's 2010 CEO survey indicates that the 1500 CEO's surveyed "now realize that creativity trumps other leadership characteristics."

A Newsweek article from the same year invoked the survey and added a gloomy warning of American educational decline, not in achievement, but in creativity. The article mentions an American educator describing the current testing regime for his Chinese counterparts, and they laugh at him, saying that America is moving in the direction of the old Chinese system of education.

(I hasten to say that this is not a criticism of teachers. Nothing makes me cringe more than Pink Floyd's gratuitous "Hey, teacher! Leave those kids alone!" Teachers are the front-line soldiers, the grunts of a misbegotten war. If you want to hear a passionate account of the myriad missed opportunities all but guaranteed by the foregone conclusion to the power struggle between teacher and unwilling student, talk to a teacher. Or watch the movie The Class and put yourself in that guy's shoes.)

You don't have to look very far to see that schools aren't just not good at creativity, they are in many respects quite bad. Here are a few examples: marching band, marching band, and marching band. Oh, and its whipping boy, football, that freakish distortion of the idea of physical fitness for all.

It almost seems that there is an inverse relationship between schooling and creativity. It's not rare for people who are both driven and smart to see the disconnect between school learning and the reality of their lives and figure out a way to cut loose. Look at all the illustrious CEO dropouts: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg. (Granted, they're college dropouts; but just think how much richer they'd be if they'd quit earlier.) Why should anyone believe that school-based education holds the key to the future when those people are the shining examples of creative business success? And this is nothing new: Thomas Edison didn't even go to school, at least not much: he famously home-schooled himself in public libraries.

Those, however, are the success stories, the rare cases. We're not supposed to advocate dropping out, but if you have a passion for something and, according to Malcolm Gladwell's formula for the success of outliers, 10,000 hours to spend on it, why not? Of course, the vast majority of dropouts experience nothing like the success of Kupferberg et al. But they do experience the same disconnect between school learning and the reality of their lives. How much creativity is being wasted because of that?

More importantly for creativity, what about the majority of students who don't drop out? If we're getting worse at creativity, it's not because schools are getting worse at teaching it. It's because they're sucking more spare time out of kids' lives. If we want more creativity, we have to figure out some way to cut back the dominion of schooling. Or change the way schooling works.

Much as I should like to be alone in my folly, in this particular case I am not. If you google "schools" and "creativity," your top result will be a lecture by Sir Ken Robinson, luridly headlined "Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity." The ideas expressed in the lecture appear in expanded form in Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative, which was first published in 2001 and re-released , "fully updated," in 2011.

Robinson's essential point is this: Schools, with literacy as their core function and with an industrial model of production as their modus operandi, serve only to promote effective test-takers and, ultimately, academics. What about those with other interests or abilities? "For them," he says, "education has always been an alienating experience."

Furthermore, subjects thought to be the most relevant to the adult world of work--math, science, language--are regarded as most important.  What about the arts? What about design? What about working with your hands? What about working with people? (Other than the non-credit variety known as bullying.) Robinson espouses a view of intelligence that comprises all areas of human achievement, not just the narrow band of subject matter "knowledge." Lest anyone think he means to detract from literacy, he says, "This is not an argument against developing academic abilities: it is for an expanded concept of intelligence that includes but also goes beyond them. If we fail to promote a full sense of people's abilities through education and training, some, perhaps most, will never discover what their real capacities are."

The emphasis on that last sentence is mine. Why do we persist with a system of education that we know to be not only hugely wasteful as it is, but just the reverse of what we should be doing? As a librarian who believes that learning and creativity are lifetime endeavors whose wellspring is the interests and passions of the unique individual, and that these endeavors deserve the support and encouragement of society at large, I am appalled at the wastage we tolerate, simply because we have a system in place that has "always" been there. One symptom of our societal blindness is that very few people regard libraries as having much to do with the education project, when in fact they should be one of the cornerstones.

Robinson seems to have a sense that part of the hope for transformation lies in broadening our understanding of how learning happens:
Nowadays, "school" refers to particular sorts of formal institutions that provide organized instruction, especially to young people. I am going to use the term here in a broader sense to mean any purposeful learning community, whether for children or adults, public or private, compulsory or voluntary. I include formal institutions and voluntary gatherings, from pre-kindergarten to universities, community colleges and home-based learning. Education is often associated with children and young people. By "education," I mean all of it from pre-kindergarten to adult education. When I use the word "student" I mean anyone who is engaged purposefully in learning, whatever their age and whatever the setting.
One can only hope that such a holistic, communal sense of learning takes hold. One can only hope that "no child left behind" will become "every child in front"--meaning not that there should be an equality of outcome but that there should be an equity of resources and a commitment as radical and binding as a Hippocratic oath to the value of the individual.

There is a saying commonly mis-attributed to Socrates that "education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel." Plutarch happens to be the most likely source of that sentiment--Socrates, after all, only asked questions--but, regardless, the vessel--our desire to learn--is already full within each one of us. How is it to be lit? Hmm, a question. Maybe it was Socrates after all.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

His eye is on the sparrow and/or bottom line

It starts to seem like the chorus of a song: "I sure am lucky to work in a public library." I think I declare this at least once a week, usually when I meet with my Nevermore Book Club on Tuesdays. This last Tuesday was no exception.

My "job" for my book club is to read something--or, more often, some things--and then show up and talk about it. When there are multiple books, I like to have a thematic thread connecting them, but this is as often as not a bit of a joke, e.g. a history of Babylon and a book about vertical gardening.

Luckily for me, the library is a phenomenal place to generate connections between books. It's almost as if that's a library's reason for being--unlike a bookstore, say, which exists to sell books. There really is a  noticeable difference between staging opportunities for discovery and staging opportunities for purchase. It's as obvious as the difference between the Dewey Decimal System (or any shelf-order classification scheme) and marketing-based notions of display.

The details of last Tuesday begin with this phenomenon. Two books side by side on the new book shelf--330.973 jostling 332.49792--made me feel like Elijah hearing the still, small voice. They were Unintended Consequences: Why Everything You've Been Told About the Economy Is Wrong, by Edward Conard; and The Man Who Quit Money, by Mark Sundeen. Promising, no?

Even if there wasn't literally a voice (you wish), something was telling me something. One a book by the former managing director of Bain Capital (Mitt Romney's pot o' gold) and the other a book about one Daniel Suelo, who, having sworn off money altogether for essentially religious reasons, lives as a squatter in a cave on federal lands near Moab, UT; a reasonable, science-minded corporate mover and shaker vs. an irrational, faith-based social worker dropout: that's as close as you can get to thesis and antithesis. And who among you is without synthesis?

Suelo's book reveals him to be an example of what some deride as a "holy fool." Driven to live exactly according to the Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, particularly where it says "therefore do not worry about tomorrow," Suelo dumpster-dives for food. But beyond that, he's engaged in his community as a volunteer, mostly for crisis centers and food programs. A "fixture" at the Moab Public Library, he uses a computer and the library's Internet access to maintain a blog that advances various causes, but mostly the cause of personal freedom from the tyranny of the money system. He is nothing if not principled. Here's a sense:

I went down to the train tracks and ran into a 60-something toothless hobo I'd met days before. He was nursing a beer and setting up camp at the underpass. "I was surprised when you came up and talked to me the other day. People usually don't talk to me," he said. I vented my cop woes onto him. He asked if I had a Bible. "Yeah, I found one in a dumpster," I said. "I like to read the Bible," he said. "Keeps me from getting lonely." He told me I could hope a train all the way to Bakersfield.

Conard, the tycoon/plutocrat, is principled as well, but his principles derive not from any scripture but from the belief that enabling investors is the best thing for everyone. If we want full employment, don't tax investors. If we want better health care, don't tax investors. If we want innovation, don't tax investors.

Conard finds the basis for his system in economic facts and figures--in science, in other words. In his words, as if to say "this is the way things are. It's not just what I believe." And part of the way things are, as Conard says again and again, is that success in the marketplace is the proper basis for morality and fairness.

For example, Conard's science has anointed "investors" as the saviors of the world. Investors are "risk-takers," and the object of their investment is invariably "innovation."  Woe be to you, says Conard's science, if you do not partake:
Many liberal-arts majors choose selfish solipsism over the burden of shouldering the risk and responsibility critical to increasing economic growth. They study literature and art history rather than computer programming and engineering. To add insult to injury, these people often cite a lack of fulfillment from Richard Easterlin's never-ending aspirational treadmill as their reason for choosing not to take risk or shoulder responsibility. They recognize that working hard won't make them happy. Yet they claim hard-working business leaders, problem solvers, and risk underwriters are the selfish ones, and that higher marginal tax rates and income redistribution are the true moral course. ... We should demand their leadership and risk taking as a moral responsibility--no matter their happiness--and declare as selfishly immoral the unwillingness of talented people to shoulder the burden of contributing to this supply. University professors--who lead our children--should be in the front lines of this campaign. They often preach the opposite, promoting liberal arts over engineering, computer programming, and business administration."
Yes: "liberal-arts majors" are "selfishly immoral" for their lack of risk taking, for their "selfish solipsism" of not going into such productive fields as computer programming, engineering, and business administration.

Oh, and remember: this is science.

Conard provides unassailable proof of this with a chart that shows how science test scores affect productivity ... but wait a minute. Isn't that Poland down there with the good science test scores and low-ish productivity? And isn't he trying to make the point that the USA does really well ... despite the fact that its top competitors in productivity have better science test scores? Could it be that ... surely not ... but could it be that ... hey, wait, don't go there. Conard's science proves it's impossible ... but maybe the reason for America's higher productivity, compared with higher-achieving science nerds like Finland and Hong Kong, is ... liberal arts majors.

Take a look at his litany of success stories: Google, Facebook (what, not Myspace?), Youtube, etc. How do they make their money? Not because anybody's lured by their sexy algorithms. No. It's advertising revenue, the same source of excess cash-wash float-foam that brought us broadcast television and now social networking via Internet. People buy ads. Who makes those ads? Ad people. Mad Men. "Creatives." Not engineers.

Nothing against engineers! Conard is absolutely right to say we have to encourage innovation, and engineers have infinite opportunities for creativity. But it's creativity of a different sort. It's not the same kind of creativity that enables advertising--hence marketing--to succeed. Artistic creativity--whether visual, linguistic, or musical--is an important component in an area of commercial endeavor that is fundamental to the kind of tech success that Conard brags on.

And the better it's done, the more successful it will be. For example, my money's on WordPress over Blogger as the blog platform of the future (even though I use Blogger) just because it's paid more attention to what looks good. Blogger feels like interior decoration by engineer; WordPress feels like the kind of design that winds up in MOMA (oops, art history there, sorry). Years from now, after Apple goes to its reward, Steve Jobs will still be remembered as the man who made fonts mainstream.

But let us remember that, by Conard's own invocation, this is a matter of morality. Where Suelo would give a Bible to a hobo, Conard would invest millions, as a moral act of benevolence, in something that a liberal-arts refugee (acting!) has sweet-talked him into thinking is "innovative," e.g. Myspace. What happens next? Fascinatingly, this is where Conard and Suelo come full circle and agree.

To both of them, the explanation for "why things turn out the way they do" is: chance. This is what "God" comes down to for Suelo. "If the best-laid plans were folly, then did it follow that mere chance was divine? This was Suelo's hypothesis: 'Chance is God.'" This is also the "Darwinian" randomness of the market that Conard finds thrilling and inspirational: "Survival of the fittest sets a high bar for success. Like the hit-driven music industry, one breakthrough requires hundreds of small, forgotten, and ruthlessly pruned failures." Investments are enormous, both in success and in failure. As to the actual predictability of success, Conard has only this shrug of the shoulders: "Success represents lucky investments in almost certain failure."

So much for the Protestant work ethic. Might as well be a hobo drinking beer in the morning. Given this randomness, how can success be regarded as a measure of individual productivity? And why should it be regarded as a yardstick for support to be received from public sources, support that is expressly legitimized as a safety net against the vagaries of a Darwinian marketplace?

And yet, amazingly, that's what Conard says: "Providing government services--health care, for example--that are somewhat proportional to each person's economic contribution is critical to the country's long-term success." How can this possibly be justified, even in Conard's "system," which is a crapshoot? Conard does of course justify it by saying "otherwise we must tax successful risk takers."

But take two equally hard-working, risk-taking engineers with innovative ideas; due to the vagaries of the market and the minefield of commercialization, one succeeds, but the other crashes and burns. Has there not been a social benefit from the effort of each, regardless of the economic contribution? If one breakthrough requires hundreds of failures, do the failures not "earn" something for their effort, something intrinsic that markets are too blind to recognize?

If they don't, then forget about goodness, beauty, honor, kindness, decency, generosity, the virtue of hard work, and any number of other qualities, including motherhood--which doesn't exactly lend itself to making an economic contribution unless you can be sure that your kid is going to be an engineer MBA with a job at Facebook (but not Myspace).

"Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?" Jesus famously asked. Might there be, behind this question, the thought that what you do for others is more important than what you do for yourself? Is that not also the crux of morality? Now, everyone--you too, liberal-arts majors--compute the probability that you can help others the Suelo way (absolute poverty) or the Conard way (wealth to buy your way into Heaven). What's your answer?

Sorry, Mr. Conard: you can't argue with science.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Creole Insinuation

I sing the birdsong of my desert ground
To mark my territory well.
No one will listen; no one will hear:
Why risk your bliss for hell?

All heterodox, I follow the tangents;
I'm quite the eddy-floater:
I, the rebel with my uncause,
Invisible to the voter.

Uncataloged, unclassified,
Unsigned, unclubbed, unlabeled,
Disliked, discarded, maladroit,
Malapropos, and disabled,

With malice toward none and malarkey toward all
(Clarity? Such baloney.),
My dissed divorce from reality
Doesn't provide much alimony.

Refused by the Salon of the Refused!
Don't cry for me, Guatemala!
I'm a citizen of the USA,
and that's a hard fact to swallow!

I'm the melungeon who got away:
The creole insinuation
Into the KelticK Kremery
of your inbred imagination.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


I've been trying to find an opportunity to watch Entre les murs (The Class), the French movie that won the top prize at Cannes in 2009. What it's about (from what I've read) is a year in the life of a middle school French class in inner-city Paris--which means the students are ethnically diverse and anything but privileged. Even though I've not seen it, I have found some scenes on TV5, including one in which an Antillean student named Carl delivers his "autoportrait" as part of a class assignment. He says:
I like to play soccer. I like to play on the computer. I like to flirt with pretty girls. I like to go on vacation to the Antilles. I like fries, zouk, and dancehall. I like to watch MTV Base. I like my parents and my brother. I like my friends, and staying up all night. I like the show Bitter Tropics. I like my apartment complex. I like the show Internal Security. I like to eat out and daydream. I don't like people who cry over nothing. I don't like techno and techtonic. I don't like showoffs. I don't like visiting my brother in prison. I don't like New Star and Star Academy. I don't like politicians, the Iraq War, goths, and skaters. I don't like mean teachers. I don't like math, racists, and I don't like Materazzi. I don't like Paul Eluard College and I kind of like being here.
Likes and dislikes. This is who we are, isn't it? How many of us, asked for an autoportrait, would come up with something much different in substance? We might even want some help, as seems to have happened here, along the lines of "just say what you like and then what you don't like." A strange thing happens, though, going from likes to dislikes.

The likes make sense as a category, because, no matter what it is, it's something that produces a simple pleasure. What's zouk? I had to find out (it's an Antillean dance), but it didn't make any difference. Included in the list of likes, whatever it was, I knew it was something that somebody enjoyed.

The dislikes, though, lack that kind of immediate understanding. Rather, reading through Carl's list of dislikes produces a destabilizing, complex, questioning attitude. The only thing immediate about it is the question "Why?"
  • people who cry over nothing
  • techno
  • techtonic [techno dance]
  • showoffs
  • visiting my brother in prison
  • New Star [French TV show similar to American Idol]
  • Star Academy [French reality TV show featuring wannabe pop singers on tour]
  • politicians
  • Iraq War
  • goths
  • skaters
  • mean teachers
  • math
  • racists
  • Materazzi [the Italian soccer player who, in the 2006 World Cup Final, provoked the French player Zidane to head-butt him, which led to Zidane's expulsion from the game. Materazzi had grabbed Zidane's shirt; Zidane said if Materazzi wanted his shirt he could have it after the match; Materazzi--according to himself--countered with "I'd rather have your sister;" that's when Zidane went all metalogical on him.]
  • Paul Eluard College [French middle school]
Why, for example, does Carl in a single sentence lump together math, racists, and Materazzi? Don't these represent different types of dislike, and various degrees? The sentence, however, is a confrontation: it challenges this reaction. Judge, jury, and executioner, it condemns the lot to a confraternity of badness and loads them into a guillotine-bound tumbril (hey, this is France).

Just like the dislike button on Youtube.

I've never used it myself, but it's been used on me, or rather on some videos I've posted to exhibit an oboe technique I've developed called the Celtic oboe, most recently one that gave a little explanation as to what it was and how it came to be. 

Celtic oboe is one of my many follies. It's a frivolous, fringe example of the phenomenon known as "the adjacent possible" in which someone takes things lying around, well-known and well-used, like wheels and shoes, puts them together and, voilà, roller skates. Well, there was the classical oboe, and there was traditional Irish music as played by the uilleann pipes; put the two together and, voilà, Celtic oboe.

Except it was anything but as easy as that. I had to learn circular breathing. I spent hours tinkering with different fingering combinations and applying them to music. The inventing continues. As far as oboe is concerned, when I started this folly there was no technique, no tradition, and certainly no teacher.

In general the purpose of the videos has been to say "Hey, random oboe player out there in the universe, this is interesting. You might like trying this yourself. You might figure out something else to do with this kind of technique. Like put it on roller skates."

I don't know if it's had that effect at all. I do know that there are people who dislike it enough to go beyond ignoring it and punch the dislike button. I'm imagining that the haters are either oboe (classical) purists or Irish trad purists who think I've committed an act of mongrelization that shouldn't be allowed to stand. You know, the kind of thinking that produces Aryan supremacists and ethnic cleansing.

But, painful as it is to think that my cherished folly (I don't deny that it is folly) properly belongs in some cultural landfill, I've learned to put things in proper perspective through a series of serendipitous encounters with books.

I recently (back before the most recent Youtube dislike) started reading How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music, by Elijah Wald (and liked on its back cover by Tom Waits: "It nailed me to the wall."). Wald's introduction explains how his history will be different. He would try to go beyond such labels as "jazz" and "rock," which, as shibboleths, have become in our time static categories rather than the fluid potentialities they were when they were being invented. Those fluid potentialities were being transformed by all kinds of influences and factors--like the commercial one--that purists would just as soon forget.

But what stands out is Wald's adoption of classical pianist and modern music expositor Charles Rosen as his guide to how we should go about explaining music. This quote from Rosen (in slightly altered form) heads Wald's introduction:
Dislike has no significance and no importance if it is not accompanied by understanding--and that implies the admission of at least the possibility of love.
Wald joins Rosen in his assertion that "Some of us are willing to try to understand what is alien to our experience" unlike those whose respond with outrage to something that is "disconcertingly new."  Wald says of his historical work, "The most difficult thing about understanding the past is appreciating the choices and tastes that seem strange or disagreeable and trying to confront them on their own terms." [my emphasis]

Then, reading Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, by Peter H. Diamandis, I encountered the notion of the adjacent possible, which seemed to fit Wald's expository apparatus like a glove. Finally, preparing for a session of my book club and familiarizing myself with When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, by T.M. Luhrmann, the author's own summation of her approach to her subject jumped out at me: "Anthropologists are taught as students to seek to understand before we judge."

It all stacked up, from the music historian, music critic, technologist, anthropologist: admitting the possibility of love, appreciating music by confronting it on its own terms, discovering via the adjacent possible, understanding before judgment. All of these writers contributed haphazardly to the idea that the Celtic oboe, however foolish, had some value ... because someone valued it.

But it's important, too, to go back to Carl's equality of dislikes and remember that we're talking about music. We're not talking about racism. Rather, we shouldn't be talking about racism. But opinions of music that don't admit the possibility of love have descended to the same gutter that flows into racism.

So there you have it: serendipity, with the capstone from a book about God, clearly evidence of divine favor on behalf of my folly. Dislikers, be warned: someday down the road you'll be working your way out of purgatory and will catch sight of me in the angel band of Celtic oboes and will disappointedly exclaim "Oh. My. God." And you will go right back where you belong: to the Garden of Perpetual Dislike.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

My Name Is Mud

My name is Mud. You renewed your acquaintance with me last weekend, when you washed me out of the filters of your pond's fountain pump.

The jet from the water-spitting carp fountain had been progressively weakening in the past weeks. You'd last cleaned the pump quite a while ago--last summer? that long?--and you were sure you'd find me in there, gumming up the works.

It's unfortunate, I suppose, that your painstakingly-dug French drain ne suffit pas toujours, and a global-warming, torrential downpour (they happen more often, don't they?) conjures me out of the ground and lets me cloud the water in the pond so that you can't spy upon your goldfish: unfortunate for you whose view must always be clear.

Less so for me who makes you work to regain your clarity.

You didn't want the pump motor to burn out, so you unplugged it, hauled the pump bag up from the bottom of the pond, and marveled at the weight after all the water had drained out. "Mud," you thought.

Yes. Me.

You'd never let the pump go this long without cleaning. Your French intestine de bassin and pump filter allies had done a pretty good job of keeping me out of the water and in my wet ghetto, but you were right: I was forcing someone else to pull my weight. Time for a cleansing.

All you had to do was dismantle the little net house that held the pump--take out the walls, the floor, the ceiling--and shower them in a strong jet of water. Out I flowed. Down the driveway, looking like a runnel of mocha. But you were much too aware of my provenance in clay and fish shit to make that comparison at the time. Nor did I suggest a sunset's draining of the light from the sky or a cloud-streaked moon or any such happily romantic notion. Your memory of squishy lake-bottom wading was too strong for that. Nor did my purging even conjure any current-event regrets that you couldn't donate me as enriched water to some millet farmer in east Africa.

Instead, you spiritualized me into metaphor. I suppose I should thank you, since that is supposedly the substance of the hereafter--spirit, I mean. Maybe metaphor too. Or conceit. As in angels. How could conceit not be the argot of angels?

But it was nothing so lofty. I can't even claim "metaphor," actually. It started with an adjective, and maybe it just ended there. It was just you with a hose consigning me to the storm drain of history and thinking about a book, analyzing its style, deciding it was "muddy," and wondering if it was the translation. 

The book was My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish Nobel laureate. (You can claim that he stole the title from you, since your playing with My Name Is Mud goes back a half-century.)

You've never distrusted the translator as much as you did with this book. But the translator has won prizes too! So you decided to make me the scapegoat for the unsettled state of the rhetoric, the murky atmosphere of so many of the scenes in which the characters careened from one emotion to a different, remote one--for example, from fear to love, or vice versa--as if they were playing tackle hopscotch in pea-soup fog.

Lacking any verisimilitude of a real, inner state, you the reader felt alienated from the narrative, when you prefer to dive into it and swim around in it and shake fins with the manta rays. The characters seemed to be allegorical constructs rather than flesh-and-blood people (except they did bleed). "Cartoonish" doesn't quite catch the reality.

Which is too bad, given that most of the characters were illustrators of illuminated books.

But maybe unsettlement was part of Pamuk's purpose? The chapters were all told from the perspective of a different "character," whether an actor in the story or a book illustration (such as a dog or a tree or a color, which is all the title of the book means). Some characters recounted their own violent death as it happened--obviously, then, part of the point was to create a certain distance between the narrative and the events being described, the same kind of distance that exists between an illustrator and his or her illustration.

The kind of distance that exists between mud and its cleansing.

With art occupying the center of this book, you found myself wanting an entirely new genre, or an entirely new literary/artistic phenomenon, which would involve the display of artistic details--as they occurred in the telling--simultaneously with the telling itself. Pamuk's alternative was to resort to long lists of things being depicted, which you perceived  liturgical quality, like the names of victims read at remembrance ceremonies, as if the mention of them has spared them the fate of a final disappearance. But did this not, in fact, disembody the art? Trick it out as a meaningless babbling in tongues? If Ottoman and Persian artists drew horses from memory instead of from live models, what did they look like? You the living lack those memories. Only with the sight of their art can you make sense of things. Can you live clearly, without mud.

You did think it ironic (as you watched the filter wash go from brown to khaki to tan to silver) to complain about the limitations of this novel--limitations to do with the written word--when its most significant theme is the conflict between calligraphic, Islamic art and representational, "Frankish" art. In the Middle Ages, the illumination of books seems to have been a way of bringing representational art into Islamic cultural productions; as long as the miniature illuminations were marginal conjectures of "what Allah sees," they were approved. Whereas, now, with this book, you wanted to see what Allah sees just so you'd have a companionable representation of what Pamuk wrote. What you got was reduced to words on a page--and it wasn't even calligraphy.

I drained away, leaving you imagining a flash of universal comprehension and calling it cosmocallipsychosis. How will you breathe life into that lump of garbage? From mud you came, and to mud you will return.

Your name is Mud.

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Incomprehensible Man

Meg Wolitzer recently lamented--in an essay for the NYTimes Book Review's "Second Shelf"-- that "the top tier of literary fiction--where the air is rich and the view is great and where a book enters the public imagination and the current conversation--tends to feel particularly, disproportionately male."

On the way to reaching that conclusion, Wolitzer determines that, while women can say they're interested in what men think because they already know what women think, the opposite is impossible to imagine. In her words, "Were a man to say, 'I already know what men think; I'm more interested in reading books by women,' he would be greeted with incomprehension."

Which inspired me to write the following letter to the editor of the NYTimes Book Review:


I’d like to thank Meg Wolitzer (Second Shelf, 3/30/12) for helping me decide on the title for my next book. It will be called “The Incomprehensible Man,” and its premise is taken from Ms. Wolitzer: “Were a man to say, ‘I already know what men think; I’m more interested in reading books by women,’ he would be greeted with incomprehension.”

It will be a nonfiction account of a year in the life of a man who, wanting to understand aesthetics, read The Elegance of the Hedgehog; who, wanting to understand the Civil War, read Uncle Tom’s Cabin; who, wanting to understand the shift in white sensibilities about civil rights, read The Help and, backwardly, Gone with the Wind; who, wanting to try to understand libertarians, tried to read Atlas Shrugged; who, wanting to understand America’s place in the world, read The Poisonwood Bible.

But The Incomprehensible Man didn’t even think of those books as being by women, or women’s books. It didn’t even occur to him. He thought of them as being the best books to read in order to learn about those aspects of life. And then he read Ms. Wolitzer’s essay and saw what he was doing. Why was he doing this? All he could figure was that men are more and more Freud’s Discontents, while women are more and more Freud’s Civilization. Was will das Weib? The Incomprehensible Man wants to know.

Don’t look for it in your bookstore. “Incomprehension” isn’t anybody’s idea of a market.


That "year in the life" actually did happen to me just this past year, in fact, in the course of reading for the Nevermore Book Club at my library. The format of the club is wide open: we just get together once a week to talk about books. My approach to what I'm going to read is somewhat random. I do bring a lot of current nonfiction, most of which I've ordered for the library. But my favorite books are the ones that stick with me, for good or ill (and believe me, there's a lot of ill in Ayn Rand).

This past year, these books have been overwhelmingly novels written by women, as the above letter attests. I certainly didn't try to make it that way. It just happened in that serendipitous way that public libraries so wonderfully abet. Somewhere in my mind would be a subconscious flash of neon along the lines of "What problem or issue in the world is on your mind?"--and within no time I'd be engaged with it in a book.

Was it by a man or a woman? I didn't care. All that I cared was that the book lead me into intimacy with the subject. With Margaret Mitchell it turned out not to be a place I wanted to go, and Rand depressed me no end. Still, the books punched the ticket.

Not that I expect any kudos from Wolitzer. It's not like I set out to read books by women qua women. Moreover, while the novels that I read were surely by women, they didn't necessarily exemplify the literary standards that so concern Wolitzer. Were they "top tier" literary? Only one or two really qualified.

But so what? Does the world Wolitzer imagine--that place where great literature "enters the public imagination and the current conversation"--even exist, whether the books are written by men or women?

Right now, the books that are in the public imagination are by women--but Wolitzer would scoff at the notion that they are literature. Whatever book-fueled public imagination we have is consumed by wizards, vampires, and a dystopian future of kids killing each other with bows and arrows in order to stay alive. And every single one of the chief exemplars of that influential body of literature--because, however "good" or "bad," it is literature--is by a woman.

As for serious fiction? Heck, not even the Pulitzer could dig one up this year by anyone of any gender at all. So much for that top tier where the air is rich and the view is great, where everyone yawns at Jonathan Franzen and decides not to read David Foster Wallace since he let boredom get to him.

Wolitzer's envy is needless. If change hasn't already happened, it's on its way. Modernism was the last gasp of male literary culture. Now that it's expired, men have fallen back into either the Iliad or the Odyssey and are content to relive either story again and again in sporting events or computer games. Women--to some extent despite themselves--will discover that the language they invented to express the concerns of their sphere will be the main prop of their growing political power, a power that will reshape civilization.

Patriarchy, your days are numbered. Time for a circle jerk with Louis C.K.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The weirdest performance ever on the stage at Barter Theatre

In the course of some Facebook-commenting, friend Anthony Parnther reminded me of a unique event in our lives: a duet we performed for Barter Theatre's 14th annual Community Christmas back in 2007.

We agreed that our duet stakes a solid claim as the weirdest performance ever on the stage of Barter Theatre.

And I'm sure Barter's seen plenty of weird things. For those of you who haven't heard of it, it's the professional theatre of the Commonwealth of Virginia--a year-round, residential repertory company with a wide variety of theatrical works in production at all times. It's in Abingdon, just up the road from where I live. (The name "Barter" comes from its early days, during the Depression, when local folks could parlay their vegetables into the price of admission.)

Barter is thoroughly professional and high-quality, but they're not what I'd call weird. Sure, they'll do Waiting for Godot or something by Ionesco from time to time, but challenging as those are, they're so well-known as to be mainstream. In order for a performance to qualify as "weird," it has to combine novelty, uniqueness, and strangeness in such a way that it leaves the audience completely unmoored from any safe haven of expectation.

Anthony and I, with the help of Jon Hutchins, unmoored that audience way more than Othello could have.

Partly it was just in the nature of things. The Community Christmas is a charity fundraiser variety show, and this being Appalachia, the variety is provided by a folksy mix of local performers--three or four bluegrass(y) bands,three or four acoustic balladeers, a Dixieland band, a youth choir, maybe a church choir, and--this being a town with cultural pretensions--a youth ballet company And there's always a theme--the heart of Christmas, celebrate local, a Southern Christmas, etc. Or rather there's always supposed to be a theme. I'd done the gig before and was impressed with how performers just seemed to do whatever the hell they wanted to do. The theme in 2007 was "high notes of the season: a jazz, blues, big band Christmas concert." They asked me to play and, well, basically, I'm an oboe player.

I don't know about you, but "oboe" doesn't just leap into most people's minds at the thought of jazz, blues, and big band. However, I had, as I said, done the gig before playing oboe with a bluegrass(y) group called The Full Grace Grifters. We'd rendered Jimmy Buffett's "Ho Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum," and I must've fooled some people. But hey, isn't that what grifters do?

I was determined to give them what they wanted. If they wanted jazz and blues, I'd give it to them. Since they'd already bid for an oboe, why not call them with a bassoon, and then raise them with electric lap dulcimer? Anthony Parnther would be able to cover on the bassoon whatever I threw at him. But who would we be? For some reason I started thinking about how unfair it is that our indelible image of Ebenezer Scrooge is his beforeness. So we'd be him afterwards. We'd be "Joy of Scrooge."

So, now that I've set the stage for the weirdest performance ever at Barter, here's how it went:

[Emcee Nick Piper]: And now, here for your listening pleasure are Eb Scrooge and Bob Cratchit, appearing at the behest of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, to exhibit musical abilities that they never knew they had by performing jazz on the oboe and the bassoon.


[Scrooge (me)] Just remember, as in everything connected with the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, what you're experiencing right now is a hallucination designed to change your behavior. What you are about to hear doesn't have to happen in real life ... if you will change your erring ways. Specifically, in one small matter of punctuation.

Look at your program.

Do you see how our first song is listed as "God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen"? What about that comma? Horrified? No? The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come is horrified. God rest you? What, is God in the mattress business now? Humbug! It should be "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen"! God rest you merry! God rest you merry! God rest you merry! Gentlemen. And ladies. Upon the placement of that comma rests an entire understanding of the nature of the holiday and indeed of divinity. So now we're going to play it with the comma in the right place so you can wake up to the joy of Scrooge.

[Joy of Scrooge perform God Rest You Merry for oboe and bassoon.]

[While they are playing, a figure--in real life Jon Hutchins--comes out onto stage behind Scrooge's (my) back, carrying an electric dulcimer and wearing a full peacock tail, snakeskin pants, a loud plaid tie, a loud paisley tie, sunglasses, snowshoes, and a faux-tigerskin cowboy hat with a garish crown of crosses for a hatband. Bemused titters from the audience. The figure--in real life Jon Hutchins--slides the dulcimer next to Scrooge's (my) chair and puts the cowboy hat on Scrooge's (my) head while he plays.]

[God Rest You Merry concludes and Scrooge (me) takes up the patter] OK! Enough drama about a comma! You know it's not widely known that Dickens had a fourth Christmas ghost, between Ghosts 2 and 3, variously known in his manuscripts as The Ghost of Christmas 2.3 the beta version, The Ghost of Christmas What Were They Thinking?, and The Ghost of Christmas My True Love Gave To Me As a True Test of Our Relationship.

In this pre-first-edition self-published version of the story [here Scrooge (me) holds up the Classics Illustrated comic book version of A Christmas Carol], Dickens describes this ghost as--I'm reading his words--"a bizarre, chimerical figure, part peacock, part snake, part plaid, part paisley, with the eyes of a bluebottle fly, having for feet the shoes of Esquimaux, and haberdashed with a broadbrimmed hat of tiger skin, banded with a coronet of sham Byzantium."

I've never met this ghost, but I've felt his presence on occasion ... hey! What's this?

[Scrooge (me) reaches up and feels the cowboy hat, takes it off, examines it, then questions the audience] Is there something you're not telling me? Oh, and look here!

[Scrooge (me) looks down and sees the electric dulcimer] Just what I've always wanted! An ironing board with strings! Nothing like a truly practical gift that only The Ghost of Christmas 2.3 would know how to bring! But we hope our next song is something you can take home and use. It's a simple folk blues from the tradition that recognizes that Mary must've been one tired mama sometimes that first Christmas, and that her and our own Christmases sometimes need some rocking to keep us going.

[Joy of Scrooge perform Mary Had a Little Baby on bassoon and electric dulcimer, with the dulcimer sound run through a distortion/phaser pedal and the bassoon laying down like a bad bari sax.]

[Performance ends. Polite applause.]

[Backstage patter: "Joy of Scrooge, y'all are very dangerous people."]

So anyway, that's it. There was no aftermath. Anthony rushed off to another gig. Jon had already left with his Bride of New Year's Yet to Come, my daughter Emily.

Barter Theatre hasn't invited me back.


Any oboe/bassoon re-enactors out there that want to take a shot at God Rest You Merry: get the music here.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Living la vida logos

A while back, wanting to put some conversational flesh on the literary bones of my college French, I went to Paris soon after I graduated and straightway signed up for a class at the school for foreigners. Needing a place to stay besides a hotel, I lucked out finding a room, practically around the corner from the school, in a boarding house at 44, rue d'Assas, called the Pension Familiale Littré. The luck wasn't so much finding out about the place--it was listed in the bible of my journey, the Harvard Student Union Let's Go guide to France--as it was that there was a room at all. It was the last one, and it was the size of a closet.

Which is only a slight exaggeration. There was a bed, a desk with chair, a wardrobe, and a sink. I could wash my hands by reaching over to the sink while lying on the bed. The desk and wardrobe, side by side, were the same length as the bed. When I sat at the desk, the back of the chair touched the bed. The door, when opened, rubbed against the foot of the bed. It was all very snug.

The proprietor of the pension was, unexpectedly, enthusiastically pro-American. He was French, but of Algerian birth (making him what the French call a pied-noir, or "black-foot"--like Albert Camus), and had fond memories of Americans during WWII. He always wore a lapel pin of crossed French and American flags. When he showed me the room, he apologized for its size and said it surely wouldn't be good enough for "un américain." But I thought it looked great. He seemed surprised when I told him I'd take it.

Next to the building's street entrance was a stone plaque that explained the "Littré" in the boarding-house name:

Littré, "author of the great dictionary of the French language," had died in the building where I was now living. It was kind of like booking a room in the Oxford English Dictionary.

For three months as a resident at 44, rue d'Assas, I took my classes, made this book on French argot my dictionary, wandered around a lot in Paris, enjoyed the nearby Jardin du Luxembourg, and kept up my oboe lip. Around the dinner table I asked the other boarders if the oboe bothered them. No, not at all, they said; in fact, they enjoyed listening to it. 

Years later I used my time there as part of the inspiration for a novel with the same title as the address. (p.o.d., XLibris, 2000.) It was written under the influence, as it were, of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and of Plato and George MacDonald, by way of C. S. Lewis, with their insistence that ideas have their own realm. If a genre is to be applied, probably "magical realism" would be the closest: the book  is supposedly a shadow play written by an oboe for Plato's Cave; words in the book take the life of miniature soldiers that interact with the real world of real people. You'd have to read it to ... understand? haha.

Here's the formal description of the book:

"What good are words against terrorism? Words haunt 44, rue d’Assas, once the Paris address of the great lexicographer Littré. It’s where two soldiers confront their souls of engraved lead, where an old lady can’t help her bitter pronouncements, where a young man tries to define himself. And it’s a place visited by world terrorism, with its stock-phrases of benevolence and its stockpile of ammonium nitrate. Words can be revealing, if you can understand them. The author is an oboe. Let the music begin."

In chapter 8 of the book the "old lady" is sitting in her apartment at 44, rue d'Assas, on a drowsy afternoon. Along with other sounds of the world outside, she hears through her courtyard window an oboe constructing a composition. Here it is as imagined on music video.

In case there are any treble instrumentalists (e.g. oboists, violinists, clarinetists, saxophonists) interested in the composition, here's the sheet music:

(Oboists: I bet you didn't know it was possible to play a low a-sharp ;-))

Thursday, April 5, 2012

No one expects the Copyright Inquisition

It's the time of the year to keep the earth-circling serpent from tightening its grip by making a pysanky-method Easter egg. I did my part. (Don't come complaining to me, all ye non-pysanky-method-Easter-egg-makers, when they prove that global warning is caused by an earth-circling serpent.)

Then I got los cuatro oboistas del Apocalipsis over to the house to record an instrumental version of the first and eponymous movement of Stabat Mater, by G. B. Pergolesi (it was originally scored for two women's voices). Then I recruited my egg into the Ballet Pysanka and made a little movie as my way of saying "Happy Easter, y'all."

It wasn't 15 minutes before I got a message from Youtube that my video "matched third party content." The message guided me through a process that gave me choices ranging from doing nothing and waiting for future action from the copyright owner (though ads might begin to pop up when the video was played) to disputing the claim.

You're damn right I disputed the claim. If this isn't public domain, there ain't no public domain. Pergolesi died in 1736. I'm pretty sure whatever claim he might have has expired. The performance is los cuatro oboes del Apocalipsis; it is, I'm absolutely certain, the only four-oboe performance of Stabat Mater in the entire universe--including any alternative ones you might want to throw in. I filed my dispute and, to Youtube's credit, within hours they had removed whatever copyright lien there was on the video.

Still, it was disturbing. What I'm thinking is that a robot matched the musical content to other video performances (using choirs or voices in duet) and through up a red flag to cover Youtube's DMCA ass. But it's also possible that somebody out there has tried to copyright a performance of Pergolesi, which is wrong, wrong, wrong.

Although not surprising. Over at the Librarian Party in Goodreads I've been reading Copyfraud and Other Abuses of Intellectual Property Law by Jason Mazzone. He documents case after case of entertainment industry over-reach that has all but destroyed our heretofore healthy sense of the public domain and drastically weakened the legal doctrine of fair use.

To the point that when you put up your own video Easter card with ancient music bizarrely arranged, copyright's Grand Inquisitors come knocking.

If it was Halloween, I might understand.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Librarian Party: Taking the "E.T." out of "Libertarian"

Having just read The Price of Civilization by Jeffrey Sachs, I concluded that it was time to take him at his word and start a third party that would focus its efforts on returning Americans to a sense of civil purpose.  And I knew just the group to do it: librarians.

Librarians are small-g government. They are local. They are efficient, service-oriented, and inexpensive. Because, for the most part, they are women. It is well known that any career that is identified as a "female" career is efficient, service-oriented, and inexpensive. You think teachers are expensive? How much is it worth to change someone's life? And when was the last time a banker did that? Bankers don't even give change. Tellers do that.

But librarians have another asset: they read. If they were to read more of the right kinds of books--like The Price of Civilization--instead of dystopian series after dystopian series written for young adults, maybe they'd realize that dystopia isn't really such a fantasy, and they'd mobilize their political might and change things. Or, seeing how their political might consists of being patronized by politicians who know librarians are essentially powerless--as well as efficient, service-oriented, and inexpensive--maybe they'd form a discussion group on Goodreads. Which is what I'm going to do. Hey, the national anthem was once a drinking song.

We already live in a dystopia in which millions of people don't begin to get adequate educations or have adequate access to healthcare, and librarians see and work with these people every day, because they come to libraries looking for help: how can I get a job? how can I get housing? how can I find a doctor who will take care of me? And no, I don't mean just any doctor. I mean a doctor who will take care of me.  Or do doctors not do that anymore? For people without money?

(I live in an urban area that is going to host a RAM event in a couple of weeks. RAM = "Rural Area Medical." But we're not rural. We're just dysfunctional. Close to 5,000 people will be treated in three days, people who live well within distance of hundreds of dentists, optometrists, and internists. But they're poor and uninsured. The people. Not the doctors.)

We already live in a dystopia in which greed has become good, Mammon is God, and the philosophy of Ayn Rand has replaced the philosophy of the Founding Fathers. The latter, those Age of Reason philosophers tempered by English and Presbyterian traditions of self-government, understood the need for government--a certain amount of it anyway--and they were justifiably proud of their efforts to engineer a continental system that worked an understanding of selfish human nature into the design of it. Political power was something to be balanced and separated; civic virtue was something to be cultivated and promoted so that selflessness and sharing for the common good would flourish. Benjamin Franklin exemplified much of what drove those men, with his eagerness to advance knowledge through shared scientific research and libraries that lent out books to working stiffs.

It was well understood that energy and hard work could make you a fortune. It was also well understood, maybe even better than today, that luck was part of it. Boom and bust was the name of the game. One day you had it, the next day you didn't. You had to keep scrapping, you and your family. And government could help pave the way to opportunity by providing schools and Erie Canals that you couldn't otherwise afford (although you could dream up Erie Canals while in debtors prison). Granted, no one really wanted to pay the taxes for those things, but at least there was a sense that government had a role.

No longer is that the case. The public sphere has been ransacked by "free enterprise ethic." Those are the words of Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan, who uses them in a Wall Street Journal review of Sachs's book. Ryan, of course, doesn't notice that there's a problem. In one telling paragraph, he starts out promisingly by saying that the pursuit of happiness "has long been recognized in America as a natural right to be secured by good government." Hmm, "secured." That's a good, active word. Only, in Ryan's way of thinking, it's a phantom: "it was to secure the right to pursue happiness by not interfering with either normal commercial transactions or freedom of worship."

That's it? Government is only supposed to stay out of the way? Why bother having any government at all? So eager is Ryan to paint Sachs as a big-government, declinist Europhile--and worse, a Francophile (even as he praises Thomas Jefferson, who was no slouch in either department)--intent on busting America's economic future with burdensome Federal taxes that he fails to note Sachs's radical proposal to tax nationally but spend locally. Where in Europe is that being done?

Nor does Ryan ask if the "free enterprise ethic" is going to provide the culture of education that everyone says we must have if we're to prosper as a nation. Everyone agrees it is part of the pursuit of happiness. How is it to be "secured"? If anything is a phantom, it is that free enterprise will do the job.

If anything is alien to American tradition, it isn't looking to Europe for answers. The Founding Fathers looked everywhere for answers! It isn't trying to restore a robust public sphere. That, in fact, was the original American exceptionalism! No, the alien element is the gospel of Rand, which gave Reagan his creed and got Ryan into politics. The doctrine of solitary, naked self-interest as a positive thing--as something to be glorified rather than understood, balanced, or channeled--owes more to Russian anarchism than it does to any American tradition or body of thought. And its growing inroads in American culture is stripping bare our ability to understand or appreciate the role of government.

Paul Ryan says that we learn from Sachs that the price tag for civilization is "quite steep." We also learn from Sachs that Oliver Wendell Holmes liked buying civilization with his taxes. Maybe Ryan is shopping for something else.

Pursue happiness the Ben Franklin way. Join the Librarian Party.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Plunderwear: a novel

"The only answer to 'why?' is 'because I said so!'"

Donald Pimp couldn't believe anybody--anybody!--had the nerve to ask that question, much less her. Lady Liberty.  Formerly of New York harbor. Formerly of the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. Now a dancer in his club. Not anybody known for saying anything at all, and here she was questioning him.

Him! Donald Pimp! Builder of Towers! Appropriator of Statues! Destroyer of Patrimonies! Landlord of Capitols! Had she asked why when he'd had her moved to her present position at Rouge State? No, she had not. Was she just too flabbergasted? Was she just now finding her voice?

It didn't matter in the sense that it could change his mind. His mind wasn't up for changing.

It did matter in the sense that it pissed him off and made him want to have her blasted into sand, which ordinarily he would do right then and there. But. She was the trophy that gave him cachet with history. And that "but" is what really galled him. Hesitation. He thought with his gut. And even though his gut was bigger than it used to be, it was still quick on its feet. If it said she should be pulverized into cat litter, then do it! Not acting on impulse made Donald Pimp feel constipated. Come to think of it, he was constipated. His gut was telling him to go to the bathroom and make an effort.

"You better get out on the floor if you know what's good for you, baby. You're asking me to justify myself. That will never happen. My deeds are their own justification."

If only justification could move his bowels, he thought as he got out of his $28.5 million dragon chair. Hell, who else on earth could do what he'd just done? Who else in history? He'd just bought the monastery of Mont St. Michel, razed it, and then--stroke of genius--he'd moved his gentleman's club, Rouge State (a.k.a. the U.S. Capitol) all the way from Washington, D.C., to France and had it rebuilt where the monastery had been! And to prevent anyone from doubting his exquisite sense of flare (or was it "flair"? His gut had never been that much of a speller), he'd garnished the Capitol dome with the famous windmill sails from the Moulin Rouge in Paris!

Why? Why? Did it really matter? The only answer was because he wanted to, and because he could. In today's world, it was expected. Ayn Rand's question had been "Who is John Galt?" And now, only a few years later, he, Donald Pimp, had answered the question. He was John Galt. Well, no, he was Donald Pimp, but that was even better, because he--Donald Pimp--was real! And when he had led the secession of the plutocrats, who was going to stand in his way? The U.S. government?

Puh-leeze. The Reagan revolution had taken care of that. A solid majority of Americans had decided that the gummint was the problem and, pfffffft! Bye-bye, gummint! So much for the much-touted American exceptionalism. "The last best hope" for humanity? Haha! Who'd said that, Lincoln? Asshole. Fighting a war to save a governmental system. Separation of powers? Bill of Rights? The hell with that. It was billing rights! Greed was the grease of history. And he, Donald Pimp, was the Saudi Arabia (or Turkey, or China, or wherever the hell they made grease) of greed. He was beyond anything the earth had known. He carried the earth! He was Atlas!

Only now, sitting on the toilet, he wasn't so much shrugging as straining and grunting and wondering what to do about her. Lady Liberty. He couldn't have people asking him to justify himself. Much less a statue. And that look on her face. You'd think she could look like she was having fun when she was taking her clothes off for his clients. But no, she just had that look of morose determination. Where had that gotten her? Objectively, off a pedestal and into a strip club!

If only she could sing, he thought through a long, straining push, she'd give new meaning to the term "torch singer."

And the rumor going around now was that some Irish terrorists were going to liberate her. Liberate Liberty. That was hilarious. It sounded like an ethnic joke. Three silly Irishmen. One Catholic, one Protestant, and one Alcoholic. Oh, wait a minute, that's the Irish Trinity. Hahaha! The Irish four-leaf clover. "But that was just three things!" Exactly! Hahaha! He wasn't worried about them. He'd put a pub out on the Mont St. Michel tidal flats and had switched the times of high and low tide on the hours of operation. And he doubted that Irish terrorists traveled by yacht. They should be Donald Pimp!

Plunderwear, part one

Plunderwear, part two

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The anxiety of the author before the genre labeling.

Hey, Jim! Yeah, you, Sunny Jim Joyce! C'mere for a sec. I need your help. No, not your advice. Your holp. A swig from your battle. A geistly flug on the mizzen of your Dutchman. A "What would Herr Satan do?" A walk-a-mile in my shoes ... and back, barefoot. Barfeet. Cheerio. M&Mpathy.

If it is advice, it is ad-vice: adwordtizing; me-harketing; labeling; nichyssoise; the what-is-my-crock? That is: I have to declare a genre. For Goodreads.

You see, there are books. With my name on them. And one without my name that is my fault. All of which I wrote for reasons I can only understand as Vesuvian. And, no, I'm not trying to be a Pompeiious ass. And, yes, nausea works the same way.

But as it happens "spewing word-chunks" isn't available as a genre on Goodreads. Should I suggest it? It does seems reasonably assonant with "Palahniuk," so maybe ... but what is his genre? "Grotesque" isn't on the list, but "horror" is followed immediately by "humor," and somehow it seems if you forced the two of them together, something like Palahniuk would come out of it, but then the whole rest of the genre list just gushes out. Diarrhea, man. Which sounds very Chuck, especially if you throw in a suck factor, but it's not me.

So, what've I got? "Literature & fiction" and "humor," and I get to pick one more. Okay, what are you laughing at? "Humor"? [rimshot]

Seriously, though, what do those tell you? Anything?

Except lots of readers will look at "literature & fiction" and go "Oh, no, probably somebody who would go to James Joyce for advice." Or to George Eliot. Or Russell Hoban. Or to Harriet Beecher Stowe. Or John Barth. Or Flaubert/Baudelaire/Rimbaud. Which I would do. I would also kiss death.

And "humor"? I'll keep that one, if only to clue in hurried flak flacks like Brian Doherty. (@Brian, the idea behind books is that you read them first, then you say something about them. But hey, look where ignorance got you! Editor at Reason magazine! [rimshot])

Yes, there's "science fiction/fantasy," but that's a clotted, sclerotic, schizo Big-G Genre: head of alien and foot of hobbit. No, they don't belong together, but the Lords of Marketing have ordained their merger marriage. Sure, I have talking toads and a writing oboe (pace, Brian "Reason" Doherty! Humor is more than a bodily fluid!). They seem to me closer to magic realism than to sci fi/fantasy. But magic realism isn't on the list.

Neither is "music." Music is a very important part of my novels. 44, rue d'Assas has a discography that lists, chapter by chapter, musical works that figure in the plot; also, as Brian can tell you from his deep reading of a catalog thumbnail, it is purportedly written by an oboe. The Signal Mountain Spelling Book of JuliUn Tod has a toad chorus. Blue Oboe has--surprise--a blue china oboe, but also bassoons, shawms, dulcimers, bouzoukis, harmonicas, etc. ("etc." here means "and clarinets.")

Most of it would also fit as "Southern fiction," since most of it takes place in ridge and valley Appalachian east Tennessee. As everyone knows, Southern writers are very placeful, which I am. But I'm not sure how much it "fits." In fact, it's mostly about being ill-fitting in one way or another: out of it in the South. "Southern misfiction"? With the added twist of making "out" the real "in." Work with me, here. We're murketing, aren't we?

Other significant elements are word-play, action-driven plots (chord structure!), revolution/terrorism, and the inégales of the French-American dance.

So, as near as I can tell, the real, true, and actual genre is "Neologistic Franco-Appalachian outsider musico-magical realistic thrillers."

Think of it this way: what would Deliverance be like if the rednecks were truffle-hunting blue oboe players?

To which Sunny 'Herr Satan' Jim ahems,  "Either way there's the swinish element."[rimshot]