In America, we have 19th century school conditions and a curriculum that prepares our kids for the 1990s.
WEDS: A Writer's Wit | Peter Ackroyd
THURS: A Writer's Wit | Thor Heyerdahl
FRI: My Book World | Ann Patchett's The Dutch House
WEDS: A Writer's Wit | Peter Ackroyd
THURS: A Writer's Wit | Thor Heyerdahl
FRI: My Book World | Ann Patchett's The Dutch House
My Book World
Kirp, David. The College Dropout Scandal. New York: Oxford, 2019.
Before I left public school teaching in 2002, the district I worked for had implemented, at a low level, a plan to mentor potential dropouts. Kirp’s book argues for the need to have American universities tackle the same problem, citing the fact that, nationwide, colleges and universities support a 40% dropout rate. The rate is even higher among community colleges: 60% of students drop out before completing an associate degree.
Kirp visits a number of universities who have implemented innovative programs to retain more students: Georgia State University, the joint campuses of the University of Central Florida and Valencia College, the University of Texas, and an “elite” school, Amherst College. His research indicates that, in some cases, small adjustments can allow a student to finish a degree. One helpful practice is to provide small grants (not loans) during the last semester or two; it can make the difference of finishing or not. Another is for the institution to provide professional advisors (not professors) whose job it is to keep tabs on students, particularly those at risk of dropping out; students cannot escape contact. The institutions have even provided experiences that help students to think positively about themselves. Some forward-thinking professors use the Internet to provide lecture material to be read on the students’ own time; then they use class time to work more actively together. Other places provide accelerated tutoring to catch students up in, say, math in the period of one semester without having to slow down the student’s advancement through a program.
In essence, Kirp asserts that because of the great expense involved in attending college now, institutions of higher education owe their students something better than the old sink-or-swim or trial-by-fire approaches of the past. They should meet halfway these bright students who have met the entrance qualifications and make sure they have every opportunity to finish their schooling. Although I attended a small, private school (a half a century ago) and found great comfort in attending small classes led by professors who were highly accessible, with the practices mentioned above, I might have succeeded at an even higher level. There were times that I felt like dropping out, and only the military draft, the threat of being sent to Vietnam, kept me in school. I wound up getting a degree in music that I only used tangentially to earn a living until I left the field entirely at age thirty. Professor Kirp’s book is one all college professors and administrators should read and consider. After all, in corporate parlance, students are the “business” of higher education. They should be given every opportunity to succeed.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Robert P. Watson's The Nazi Titanic
NEXT TIME: My Journey of States-23 Tennessee
My Book World
Alexie, Sherman. You Don’t Have to
Say You Love Me: A Memoir. New
York: Little, Brown, 2017.
I once attended one of Mr. Alexie’s readings in Iowa City; it was for his most recent publication, The Toughest Indian in the World. He’s tall and lanky; at that time his hair was of medium length. Handsome. His performance was half stand-up act, for he is acerbically, wickedly funny, and half dramatic reading in which he voiced all the parts. Not only the parts written on the lines, but you could hear the voices of his ancestors in the background, encouraging this talented young man to voice the Indian truth.
Once again, in this painful but poignant memoir in which Alexie explores the relationship with his mother, he does not fail to delight, does not fail to sear our consciousness with the wrongs of our white ancestors. Just as his skin color condemns him, an innocent man, anyone with white skin must share the blame of our ancestors who ravaged the land and its native peoples as if it were all one prehistoric wellspring of riches. The book composed of 160 short chapters is NOT linear in structure; I do not think that is a particularly Indian way to tell a story. The author begins in 1972 when his family moves into a HUD home on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington, when the author is six years old. Some chapters are as short as a four-line poem. Other chapters are poems several pages in length (including one about his mother as quilter), each one a work of art in itself, enhancing a lyricism spread throughout the entirety of the book.
By beginning with an intimate description of the HUD house, Alexie gives us a double-edged view. On the one hand, the house represents a major step up for the family from the cramped quarters where they’ve lived before. The HUD house is not huge, but it does have a toilet, a bathroom, and that means a great deal to the family. Yet these new cramped quarters are an important metaphor for the Spokane Indian, whose entire tribe has been smothered, crammed into a piece of earth that represents a fraction of what it once owned. Alexie is always shoving against these boundaries of what white people expect of Indians, knowing their place. One must wonder how this nation would have developed if the white man had approached the Indians with respect and conceded to their wishes. If the white man had purchased land instead of stealing it, what then? If the white man had formed a government with native Americans instead of one that killed them off, what would we have today? Would any of us be here?
NEXT TIME: Barcelona Photographs2 — Its People
MY JOURNEY OF STATES is a series in which I relate my sixty-year quest to visit all fifty states in the U.S. In each post I tell of my relationship to that state, whether brief or long, highlighting important personal events. I include the year of each state's entry into the union and related celebrations. I hope you enjoy my journey as much as I have. This is the fourth post of fifty.
4 Louisiana (1950-52)
I remember little about Louisiana, except that my family lived in a forty-foot trailer in Pineville, located near the air base at Alexandria. I recall cypress knees that my father brought back to Kansas and sanded to a sheen and varnished, using one to make the base of a lamp, the rest surviving as sculpture occupying various places in our tiny house. I recall the Po Boy sandwich my mother adapted by using “French” bread you bought in those aluminum foil wraps (instead of baguettes), shredded roast beef, topped with a mixture of ketchup, mustard, and Worcestershire sauce. This was as spicy as my parents could tolerate, even as young people. Their Kansas palates didn’t care for the traditional sandwich of fried oysters, vegetables, and coarse Creole mustard. The black-and-white photographs taken by a black box camera tell me more than my memory. There are surviving pictures of my sister, coy and cute, poised beneath a large metal bridge all by her lonesome. Shots of us playing in the dirt outside our trailor. Shots of my handsome soldier father in his uniform.
I later visited New Orleans when as a member of the SMU seminary choir we toured there. I remember wearing the choir stole jauntily around my neck as if it were a scarf. Getting a little tipsy along with the other seminarians as we partied on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. My fellow students grinning as if viewing the real me for the first time. ¶ Louisiana is the eighteenth state. Its centennial was held in 1912, its bicentennial, well, you know. One forgets how long the state has been established, part of the Old World, as it were.
If you missed earlier My Journey of States posts, please click on link:
NEXT TIME: My Book World
My Book World
Mundy, Liza. Code Girls: The Untold Story
of the American Women Code Breakers
of World War II. New York: Hachette,
Award-winning author Mundy writes of 11,000 women recruited in the early 1940s to help break codes of Japanese and German intelligence. The Navy recruits from exclusive women’s colleges in the Northeast, and the Army recruits from the ranks of teachers (mostly math but some who teach foreign languages), many of whom are disenchanted with their poor salaries and tough classroom conditions.
“Sworn to secrecy, the women were forbidden from telling anybody what they were doing: not their friends, not their parents, not their family, not their roommates. They were not to let news of their training leak into campus newspapers or disclose it in a letter, not even to their enlisted brother or boyfriend. If pressed, they could say they were studying communications: the routing of ordinary naval messages” (5)
This dictum is one that is repeated throughout the book until the very end. Even as some of these women survive into their nineties, even after the government grants them permission, finally, they are reticent to tell their stories. However, Mundy does a superb job of seeking out these sources, still sharp mentally, and getting their stories down. Mundy also combs written sources to fill out her epic narrative of quiet courage among these women—not only their work lives but their personal lives as well.
The code girls tackle many important difficulties, including the one of German U-boats sinking US ships in the Atlantic (as many as 500 by 1942). The women slowly but methodically solve this problem so that American ships are able to get supplies and matériel to troops in Europe. They are also paramount in intercepting official messages between Japanese and German leaders and confounding their strategies. Because of their unique skills the women make the work look far easier than it is. With a combination of innate ability and extreme dedication they are able to shorten the war and help save lives.
Every man should think about what it would be like to minimize his intellect, to hide what he does for a living, to keep it a secret for almost seventy years—and come to the conclusion that it is not fair. And never again in our history should women be called upon to keep silent in this manner. It’s not only unfair but it cuts in half the sources our country could be using to solve problems. This book is not only a tribute to these particular women but to the idea of women taking their true place in the world as multifaceted individuals.
NEXT TIME: My World of Short Fiction
With a 2015 visit to Oregon I concluded a life-long tour of the United States—only my first, I hope. The Jespers folk who resided on South Main Street in Wichita were not wealthy, so the only road trips we made were to visit family who lived in other parts of the country. Likewise, as an adult I was a public school teacher with little in the way of discretionary savings, but early on, if I needed to do so I would borrow money to make, for example, my first trip to Hawaii.
As I paid back my credit union, month by month, I would recall and cherish favorite scenes from my travels. Upon retiring Ken and I have journeyed out at least twice a year. And so now the list is complete. Some states I only visited once and quite briefly at that. Others I’ve returned to again and again. Yet others I’ve resided in. At any rate, through the years I’ve kept journals, scraps of memorabilia, and photographs, and I would like to share what I’ve enjoyed about our fifty states.
Travel is always a good thing, even if it’s only a few hundred miles away, and the wider your travels take you, the more you may learn about yourself and others. One might think that America is this homogenous mass of people, and, in a way national customs and holidays would imply that it is, but at the same time one must realize that Maine is distinctive from Florida and Arizona and Washington and North Dakota and Kansas and Texas.
I hope to put up at least two posts a week about my visits to all fifty states, a journey I began in the 1950s. Some people who embark on this sort of venture say that one must DO something significant in each state. I do not. One state, Delaware, I passed through as a child in less than an hour, but still I do count it toward my total because I must!
Each post relates anecdotes that make my accounts personal, while also giving short factual information about each state, such as its order of entry into the United States, significant celebrations like centennials, and special events or customs. I am posting personal photographs by way of galleries or slideshows, as well as scans of professional post cards I’ve collected through the years. I hope you will come along for the ride! Share your stories under Comments, your photos at Facebook. I begin with the state where I was born.
When I was old enough to study geography and scrutinize maps, I realized how isolated the state of Kansas was. In 1957, when it took several days to drive from Wichita to the east coast, I realized an even greater disparity that may not be discernible today. Now you can stay in a Holiday Inn Express in the burg of Garden City, one that’s like thousands of other Holiday Inns, but back then the majority of motels seemed to be individually owned and operated. Back then it appeared that the rest of the country was more established, more sophisticated somehow, than the agrarian state of Kansas. ¶ I later realized the place where I was born and raised profoundly affected who I would be for the rest of my life. My mother, for example, lived on a farm until she went to college and then married my father from New York, whom she called an Easterner, but she never stopped using the word “worsh” whether she was speaking of the laundry, or Worshington DC as if she could not discern the difference—never felt entirely comfortable living in Wichita, a city of 350,000 at the time of her death in 2001. ¶ Even though I left Kansas at the age of twenty-two to attend graduate school in Dallas, Texas, I never stopped considering the little boy buried deep in me, the lad who once played on his grandfather’s discarded tractors and combines, who capered along the crumbling banks of the Arkansas River located a couple of blocks from the home I lived in for over twenty years.
Whenever I return to the tiny Upchurch cemetery outside Norwich, I am overwhelmed by the sense that I might just belong there with my grandparents, my parents, my sister, and piles of other bones from previous generations. The primordial chant, "Rock Chalk Jayhawk," still gives me chills when I hear it on a ball game on TV. ¶ The school I attended, Southwestern College in Winfield, without a doubt, shaped my life. Sixteen hours of music theory formed the backbone of my music degree. Countless hours of rehearsal at the large Reuter pipe organ in Richardson Auditorium culminated in a senior recital of seven or eight pieces. I still have the scores from which I learned all that music. When I listen to my recital tape, transferred to a CD and my iPod, I shiver to think that I was once that accomplished. Below are from my personal collection of historic travel postcards.
NEXT TIME: My Journey of States—Oklahoma
My Book World
Andreas, Peter. Rebel Mother: My
Childhood Chasing the Revolution. New
York: Simon and Schuster, 2017.
This book is one of those that drew me in and would not let me go until I had finished it. I made not a single annotation or underline because the narrative was so compelling that I didn’t wish to stop and write.
Carol Andreas is raised as a Mennonite in North Newton, Kansas, and in the 1950s she marries another Mennonite seven years her elder. From this marriage she gives birth to three sons, one of whom is author, Peter Andreas, the youngest. As the Andreas family lives in suburban Detroit, Michigan, Carol eventually earns a PhD and radicalizes her political thinking. Against her husband’s wishes (he refuses to grant her a divorce), she packs up all three sons and moves to Berkeley, California, the epicenter of 1960s and 1970s radical politics.
As part of her radicalization, Carol Andreas abdicates her traditional role as mother and allows her three sons to make many of their own decisions, for example, whether they want to attend school on a particular day. However, when she decides to move to South America to aid the revolution there, she takes eight-year-old Peter with her—partly to spite her husband, partly because the child is too young to care for himself, but mostly so that she can mold his socio-political views. The other two sons prefer to remain in California and reside in the commune where they’ve all been living.
The heart of the book is about the years that Carol and Peter spend in three different South American countries. Instead thriving in the warmth of a middle-class Michigan home, Peter lives a rather deprived life. He is subject to the harshest living conditions as his mother does what is necessary to aid others in their political goals. He witnesses her many different boyfriends, sometimes having to sleep in the same room with them as they make love.
In one situation, his hair is infested with head lice. Worse yet, his mother places him in adult situations, “assignments” he accepts because they make him feel grown up. He even participates in his own kidnappings from Michigan schools, after his father has been awarded custody so that he can live with his mother in South America. His allegiances to each parent are probably stretched even tighter than most children of divorce, because his parents represent two different extremes and because both are set on having their way.
However, the narrative illustrates the strength of a love that can develop between parent and child. Carol Andreas makes many mistakes, yet even so, son Peter never stops loving his mother. At one point, as he reaches college, he does realize he will never be like his mother, nor like his father. He must become his own person, and he informs each parent of his desires. If Peter has learned anything from his mother it is that he is responsible for his own life, his own happiness, and as he matures he begins to pursue the one he wants. Today, he is the author of ten books and John Hay Professor of International Studies at Brown University. His childhood must in no small way inform his adult life.
NEXT TIME: New Yorker Fiction 2017
My Book World
Evans, Harold. Do I Make Myself Clear?
Why Writing Well Matters. New York,
Little, Brown, 2017.
The field of English grammar can be a pedant’s paradise (or nightmare), what with Twitter and texting divining their own rules, and for over 400 pages noted wordsmith Evans sounds off about his favorite peeves. He also, if readers take away nothing else, reminds us that the passive voice (not tense) can bloat a sentence, whereas active voice (subject+verb+object) allows for clearer and briefer writing. Evans takes governmental babble and rewrites it so that one can understand it:
The author reduces the passage’s bloat from 68 words to 46, without reducing its meaning; in fact, he clarifies its meaning. And this goal becomes his overarching purpose. As a journalist Evans hasn’t much use for other inflated language, including what he calls flesh-eaters. One should, for example, use “although” instead of the flesh-eating “despite the fact that” or “like” instead of “along the lines of.” He reiterates what every good eighth-grade English teacher tries to teach: “Don’t pad your writing.” He might have followed his own advice when explaining “flesh-eating” by reducing his verbiage from half a page (plus a photograph of Zoophagus insidians) to a sentence or two. His metaphor is self-explanatory.
Overall, Mr. Evans provides a fine review for persons who write or wish to. He directs his writing to the journalist, who is attempting to reach as many readers as possible, but his “Ten Shortcuts to Making Yourself Clear” (Chapter Five) alone are worth the price of the book, and could assist all writers in making themselves clearer, regardless of the genre. Kudos to Evans.
NEXT TIME: New Yorker Fiction 2017
My Book World
Each weekend I try to view selected portions of C-SPAN’s Book-TV, forty-eight straight hours of recorded author readings of nonfiction now hitting the shelves, and sometimes six- or eight-hour segments covering book festivals around the US. C-SPAN, by the way, is supported by most cable and satellite TV providers, so check your listings. You can also view at any time any reading at Book-TV’s Web site. And if you do wish to tune in, you can view, download, and print a copy of the weekend’s schedule off the Web site. Please find below a presentation I believe to be of interest to a broad audience.
Tom Clavin. Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West. New York: St. Martin’s, 2017.
Clavin’s reading, held at Watermark Books and Café in Wichita, Kansas, is one that holds your attention throughout, as he reveals the real history of Dodge City, this infamous town of the Wild West. The author digs deep to dispel all the myths. The players—Earp, Masterson, and others—are neither all bad nor all good. With the dogged pursuit of a fine journalist Clavin uncovers the truth, and it is more interesting than the myths! Tune into find out. This first aired March 8, 2017.
Click here to view Clavin's presentation at C-SPAN's Book-TV.
NEXT TIME: New Yorker Fiction 2017
Packing It Out is Good
I get aggravated enough when I’m in urban areas and see trash strewn all over the place. With the winds we have in West Texas, a piece of trash always seems to be lodged in our bushes. You don’t know whether to leave it there and let the wind blow . . . I’m kidding. I usually can’t stand it and do a trash run to the dumpster. I’ve picked up Sonic cups, KFC boxes, some kid’s schoolwork, plastic grocery sacks (one hung up high in our cherry laurel tree until it finally disappeared), even an individual’s county HIV test results (negative, thankfully). But when I’m out hiking in nature, I especially loathe seeing someone else’s trash.
In perusing the March/April issue of Sierra Magazine, I see that I’m not alone. I’ve attached the short feature so you can read it for yourselves, but the gist of it is that hiker Seth Orme has formed an organization called Packing It Out, in which he and his friends might hike for miles, and on their way they pick up trash and haul it out of the park or whatever wilderness they happen to be in. The story should inspire all of us to pack it out: not just our own debris, but a piece or twenty that someone else has left behind. Maybe the action would inspire others. We can only hope. According to Sierra, “Each U.S. resident generates an average of 4.4 pounds of trash a day; all together that’s 728,000 tons, or enough to fill 63,000 garbage trucks” (25). To state the obvious: that’s too much!
NEXT TIME: New Yorker Fiction 2017
My Book World
OFTEN, if I’m involved reading two or three lengthy books at one time, I may spend two to four weeks completing them.
Terry McDonell. The Accidental Life: An Editor's Notes on Writing and Writers. New York: Knopf, 2016.
As editor of Sports Illustrated, Esquire, and Rolling Stone, McDonell reveals scintillating details about his relationship with such writers as Hunter S. Thompson. His fascinating presentation sustained my interest throughout. First aired February 18, 2107.
Dean Baker. Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer. Washington DC: Center for Economic and Policy Research, 2016. In this book Baker “argues that government policies, not globalization or the natural workings of the free market, have led to the upward redistribution of wealth seen around the world over the past four decades.” His logical and comprehensive lecture offers one of the most compelling arguments I’ve ever heard on the subject. First aired January 17, 2107.
NEXT TIME: New Yorker Fiction 2017
New Yorker Fiction 2016
September 26, 2016, Petina Gappah, “A Short History of Zaka the Zulu”: Zaka, a Zimbabwe boy of seventeen, becomes head prefect in a rural boys’ school but later in life is accused and convicted of murdering a former schoolmate. ¶ An intricately compressed tale, this story opens a window onto this Jesuit school located in rural Zimbabwe. The author spends a great deal of time portraying the regimented yet torrid nature of such an institution: middlers, juniors, seniors, and each with his role, demerits, traditions, uniforms, alliances and betrayals. The latter is what ultimately concern this story. What happens when one boy is caught lying with another, and all but one of the witnesses agrees to keep his mouth shut? When one party decides to blackmail the two paramours, a boiling pot can only do one thing. Gappah’s Rotten Row comes out in December, for now only available at Amazon UK.
Photograph by Kent Andreasen.
NEXT TIME: My Book World
READ MY ‘BEHIND THE BOOK’ BLOG SERIES for My Long-Playing Records & Other Stories. In these posts I speak of the creative process I use to write each story. Buy a copy here!
Introduction to My Long-Playing Records
"My Long-Playing Records" — The Story
"A Certain Kind of Mischief"
"The Best Mud"
"Handy to Some"
"A Gambler's Debt"
"Tales of the Millerettes"
"Men at Sea"
"Basketball Is Not a Drug"
"The Age I Am Now"
"Bathed in Pink"
Listen to My Long-Playing Records Podcasts:
"A Certain Kind of Mischief"
"The Best Mud"
"Handy to Some"
"Tales of the Millerettes"
"Men at Sea"
"My Long-Playing Records"
"Basketball Is Not a Drug"
"Bathed in Pink"
Also available on iTunes.
A WRITER'S WIT
My Book World
Doidge, Norman. The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. New York: Penguin, 2007.
I don’t often read “science” books, but I was tempted away from literature by my partner to read this one. Dr. Doidge, through years of research, proves that the human brain is capable of being rewired, even after being damaged, even in old age!
Neuro is for “neuron,” the nerve cells in our brains and nervous systems. Plastic is for “changeable, malleable, modifiable.” At first many of the scientists didn’t dare use the word “neuroplasticity” in their publications, and their peers belittled them for promoting a fanciful notion (xix).
One aspect that makes the book fascinating is the number of case studies that Doidge brings to the reader’s attention: people with brain injuries, people born with only the right side of their brain, people with extreme emotional problems resulting from childhood trauma. Doidge contends that with exercise, people can change their brain “maps,” can change their brains. He tells of Arrowsmith, a school that takes these kinds of exercises seriously.
The brain exercises are life-transforming. One American graduate told me that when he came to the school at thirteen, his math and reading skills were still at a third-grade level. He had been told after neuropsychological testing at Tufts University that he would never improve . . . after three years at Arrowsmith, he was reading and doing math at a tenth-grade level (41).
The concept of brain plasticity helps to explain or reexamine all sorts of problems or phenomena.
Language development, for instance, has a critical period that begins in infancy and ends between eight years and puberty. After this critical period closes, a person’s ability to learn a second language without an accent is limited. In fact, second languages learned after the critical period are not processed in the same part of the brain as in the native tongue (52).
One of the experts that Doidge studies, Michael Merzenich, continues the line of thinking:
If two languages are learned at the same time, during the critical period, both get a foothold. Brain scans . . . show that in a bilingual child all the sounds of its two languages share a single large map, a library of sounds from both languages (60).
Merzenich strongly believes that older persons should continue “intensive learning,” that such an activity strengthens our brains.
Merzenich thinks our neglect of intensive learning as we age leads the systems in the brain that modulate, regulate, and control plasticity to waste away. In response he has developed brain exercises for age-related cognitive decline—the common decline of memory, thinking, and processing speed (85).
Wow! Doidge goes on to say that is why learning a new language in old age is so good for improving the memory generally (87).
To summarize the rest of the book, the author connects brain plasticity with love and personal relationships, imagination, rejuvenation, as well.
I concluded the reading of this book with great optimism. One’s brain does not have to wither and die with age. One can and should continue to learn. One may now approach the learning of things that he or she has always wanted to do but was afraid to try, with a totally new point of view, a renewed confidence. Doing so will increase the plasticity of the brain and thus strengthen it overall.
When I was young and would sometimes glance ahead, with fear and trepidation, to growing old, I often sought out older people for inspiration. The “seniors” I admired the most were the ones who continued to learn, continued to forge new pathways through life.
One woman in particular, Naomi, at age fifty-five—after finishing the rearing of her children and serving as caregiver to both her mother and mother-in-law—finished her BFA and moved to Taos, New Mexico. There she reinvented herself as a visual artist, who counted among her closest friends Agnes Martin, renowned abstract expressionist. Naomi lived well into her eighties, even outlived a daughter who died of cancer, before succumbing to the disease herself.
I still think of Naomi as a superb model for all of us. Whenever I’m tempted to feel sorry for myself, I think of Naomi and what she accomplished the last thirty years of her life. We must continue to learn, continue to forge for ourselves the lives that will most bring us satisfaction. By way of the Internet, by way of local schools and classes, we can learn almost anything we wish. It’s the least we can do for ourselves and for those who are to follow us. May they admire us as much as I’ve admired Naomi.
A WRITER'S WIT
Gray's Monumental Project
Gray, James. Teachers at the Center: A Memoir of the Early Years of the National Writing Project. Berkeley: National Writing Project, 2000.
James Gray, founder of the National Writing Project, writes of his many experiences with teachers who are also writers. The idea he develops is to send teacher/writers back to their classrooms to teach writing, not just English grammar. The earlier part of the book—filled with personal anecdotes about his own development as writer, anecdotes about teachers—seems more interesting than later sections about the political nuts and bolts of the organization’s formation.
Some nuggets from James Gray:
“I had thrived in Miss Popham’s class because she was in charge of her own curriculum. She had a wonderful idea and freedom to teach as she wished. I still think hers is the best way to organize a literature class in high school if the goal is to encourage wide reading and the love of books. My own best teaching in high school reflected my attempts to replicate the spirit of that 1943 class” (2).
“When teaching or learning new skills like reading Shakespeare or writing well, a teacher needs to keep at it. One way we learn to read and write is by reading and writing regularly and frequently” (15).
“This was a teachers-teaching-teachers idea, rare for its time  and transparently sensible. Effective and experienced classroom teachers, rather than professors, did the job of teaching and supervising beginning student teachers. I accepted, and every year for the next fourteen years I taught fifteen beginning English teachers how to teach and visited them in their student teaching classes. Year after year, I had groups of gifted young teachers who, I always thought, could have chosen any career, but chose teaching because teaching is what they had always wanted to do” (25).
“I was thinking that I should have listened to my parents and gone to law school. The thought of facing thirty-four sixth-grade students on Monday without the slightest notion of what I was going to teach was terrifying. In frustration, I kicked at a rock partially buried in the mud. Out scurried several small green crabs. One half-dollar-size specimen picked the edge of my shoe as its next hiding place. I carefully kneeled down without moving my foot to take a better look. The obtuse angle of the setting sunlight caused the crab to light up. She was blowing phosphorescent bubbles from her gill slits. I crouched in the mud absolutely transfixed. Each cell of that animal was illuminated in flame. I momentarily lost my breath . . . as if I had been jolted to consciousness. I knew then that if I could share this type of feeling with my students, I would be teaching them something worthwhile” (74).
“During the summer institutes, BAWP [Bay Area Writing Project] works to maintain a balance between knowledge gained through practice and knowledge gleaned through research and literature in the field. As teachers prepare for their demonstrations, they are asked to describe not only what they do but why they do it” (95).
“From the outset, the writing project adopted a different take on inservice. We believed that if school reform was to be effective, inservice programs must be conducted by the folks on the ground. Classroom teachers are the linchpin of reform. School reform can’t happen just by passing laws, publishing mandates, requiring courses, or reading one more book. But real school reform can happen when teachers come together regularly throughout their careers to explore practices that effective teachers have already proven are successful in their classrooms. Inservice of this sort equals professional development, two terms that, alas, have not always been synonymous” (103).
I was heartened by this book even though I left teaching some time ago. Gray helps to reinforce the idea that I may have done a fairly good job of teaching. If nothing more, his book helps me to see that teaching composition was not a waste of time. Instead, it may be the most important thing that I did with my life, topping, in terms of consequence, anything that I’ve ever written.
WEDNESDAY: MORE PHOTOGRAPHY FROM YELLOW HOUSE CANYON
A WRITER'S WIT
Terms We Should Remember: Masscult and Midcult
Macdonald, Dwight. John Summers, editor. Louis Menand, introduction. Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain. New York Review Books. New York, 2011.
I became interested in this book when I saw it reviewed in The New Yorker. Then after I received my copy, I found that this blurb from the back cover gives the reader a great introduction to Macdonald, who published most of these essays prior to 1972:
“An uncompromising contrarian, a passionate polemicist, a man of quick wit and wide learning, an anarchist, a pacifist, and a virtuoso of the slashing phrase, Dwight Macdonald was an indefatigable and indomitable critic of America’s susceptibility to well-meaning cultural fakery: all those estimable, eminent, prizewinning works of art that are said to be good and good for you and are not. He dubbed this phenomenon ‘Midcult’ and he attacked it not only an aesthetic but political grounds. Midcult rendered people complacent and compliant, secure in their common stupidity but neither happy nor free.” Wow!
Some Nuggets from a Book Filled with Them
On the Mags:
“This is a magazine-reading country. When one comes back from abroad, the two displays of American abundance that dazzle one are the supermarkets and the newsstands. There are no British equivalents of our Midcult magazines like The Atlantic and the Saturday Review, or of our mass magazines like Life and The Saturday Evening Post and Look, or of our betwixt-&-between magazines like Esquire and The New Yorker (which also encroach on the Little Magazine area). There are, however, several big-circulation women’s magazines, I suppose because the women’s magazine is such an ancient and essential form of journalism that even the English dig it” (59). 1960
On Speculative Thinking:
“Books that are speculative rather than informative, that present their authors’ own thinking and sensibility without any apparatus of scientific or journalistic research, sell badly in this country. There is a good market of the latest ‘Inside Russia’ reportage, but when Knopf published Czeslaw Milosz’ The Captive Mind, an original and brilliant analysis of the Communist mentality, it sold less than 3,000 copies. We want to know how what who, when, where, everything but why” (208). 1957
“The objection to middlebrow, or petty-bourgeois, culture is that it vitiates serious art and thought by reducing it to a democratic-philistine pabulum, dull and tasteless because it is manufactured for a hypothetical ‘common man’ who is assumed (I think wrongly) to be even dumber than the entrepreneurs who condescendingly ‘give the public what it wants.’ Compromise is the essence of midcult, and compromise is fatal to excellence in such matters” (269). 1972
I was fascinated with this man’s informed opinions because essentially little has changed since he made these assertions (when I was but a child or youth). If anything, such conditions have worsened. What can be more Masscult than People Magazine? And has even The New Yorker slipped a bit? Are we getting stupider as a culture, or was Macdonald too smart for his own good?
WEDNESDAY: SHORT ESSAY AND PHOTOGRAPH
A WRITER'S WIT
Bisbee Rediscovered . . . Twice
Shelton, Richard. Going Back to Bisbee. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1992.
In this long-heralded memoir, Shelton accomplishes many things. For one, he takes the reader on an extended journey, not only over his life on this earth, but, citing sources, he also brings an awareness to us of the fascinating town that is Bisbee, Arizona. He achieves a certain paradox by seemingly moving forward through time and backward at the same time.
Shelton seems to know so much.
He knows botany.
"The popular, as opposed to scientific, names for plants and animals are often based on figurative language, the language of impression and comparison, the language of poetry. These names are descriptive, concrete, highly compressed, and usually require some kind of imaginative leap. I am not a linguist, but it seems to me that the more 'primitive' a language is by our standards, the more it relies on such names" (16).
He knows archeology.
He knows history.
"Gradually, a terrible tension developed between life as it was actually lived in Bisbee and the deeply felt moral, spiritual, and religious impulses of the day. Starting just before the last decade of the nineteenth century and lasting until well after World War I, most of the non-Hispanic residents of Bisbee were trapped between the hardships of life in a small Western mining community, including the horrors of mining itself, and the pressures of an uncompromising Calvinist God. It is no wonder that those two pressures, one from below and one from above, created a society that was basically fatalistic and often hypocritical. The wonder is that the society survived at all" (265). That's Bisbee!
Richard Shelton knows, of course, literature, a great big chunk of it from the Greeks, to prose, to poetry.
My favorite chapter may be Chapter Ten, in which he relates what his first year of teaching in Bisbee's Lowell School—seventh and eighth graders—is like for a young man who has already served time in the army. He's not wet behind the ears, and yet he is honest enough to admit how astounded he is by the experience, how profoundly it affects him. He develops enough courage to tell off a rather officious faculty member who seems to have been after him since his first day (every school has a Molly Bendixon):
"Whatever it was, it caused me to be late getting the roll taken, and I had just turned to that task when the door opened and Molly Bendixon walked in abruptly.
I love this guy! Not only for his courage, but he goes on to say that when Ms. Bendixon is ill and in the hospital, he makes a point of visiting her. They do not speak of the incident, but instead, share a kind of camaraderie, just the two of them against all the other stupid sons of bitches in their school, the world at large. Yes, courage on the one hand, but also compassion on the other. Makes for great teaching.
Having made a visit to Bisbee myself, about ten years ago, I consider Shelton's book my trip back to Bisbee, too. I can visualize so very much that he puts before the reader, and I can see the town in a different light. If, like me, you've never read Shelton's book, check it out. Still available in fine bookstores everywhere! Click on title above. I wish to thank my friend Peter for turning me on to this book, in fact, for getting me my copy!
WEDNESDAY: PHOTOS OF LAS VEGAS ARCHITECTURE
My late mother was half German and half Welsh, having arrived on earth with the birth name of Richards. My father was Dutch, both of his parents having immigrated to the U.S. in 1911. Yet I had always wondered if, in my mother’s lineage that included John Howland, who crossed the Atlantic on the Mayflower, there might be a bit of Native American or First Nations blood running through my veins. I wondered if there would be a way that I might find out.
Then I saw a program on TV about the National Geographic Genome Project. All one had to do was fork over $200 and send for a kit in which one swabbed one’s cheeks and mailed in the results. Last April, after a number of false starts—several swabbings were inadequate and NG mailed me a new kit each time, or they revamped it altogether so that one tested for both sides of the family—I received my results. Simply, the document showed that my deep DNA fell out like this: I was 41% Germanic, 41% Mediterranean, and 17% Southwest Asian.
In some ways I was not surprised, given what I knew about my family: the Danes, to whom my aunt had traced my maternal grandfather’s ancestors; my maternal grandmother’s parents who immigrated from Germany in the nineteenth century; paternal grandparents who came over from Holland in 1911. But what about the 17% Southwest Asian? Well, in examining the map [find download below this paragraph], I saw that my father’s people had tromped through that area ages ago and mingled long enough to acquire a bit of that particular DNA. It may explain some things about my family and me, but I'm not at liberty to say what those might be.
Why do I write of this? I’m not sure. I've always been curious about my family, but I’d love to learn more. I know, for example, that the Jespers family’s whereabouts can be tracked back to the same few towns in Holland in the 1700s, as recently traced by one of my cousins. And as I said, my aunt, on the other side, traced the Richards family to the 1600s. Where were we before that? All the fathers and grandfathers I’ve had? All the mothers and grandmothers? To think that my traits, adorable and infuriating as they are to those who love me, are owed almost entirely to this large family of people I never knew and never shall. Will the next generation leave behind more clues than our ancestors did?
If this subject piques your interest, check out these two websites:
If you participate in the study, be sure and let me know what you find out!
In many of my posts I've spoken of items that do not recycle. An artist friend, Aidan Grey, of Denver, told me he would take any of those items when I was through writing about them. So I later packaged them up and sent them off. Recently, his show, Trash, opened at Denver's Edge Gallery. To your left you see my photo of the blue rubber rings that Target Pharmacy uses to identify its prescription bottles. Note below how Aidan transforms this gasket trash, as well as other pieces, into art.
My Book World
Drift by Rachel Maddow
I made a number of notes (as well as using Kindle’s handy yellow highlighter), but I fear they would interest only me, so I introduce Rachel Maddow's book by way of the following passage. “‘Not since the peace-time years between World War I and World War II,’ according to a 2011 Pew Research Center study, ‘has a smaller share of Americans served in the armed forces.’ Half of the American public says it has not been even marginally affected by ten years of constant war” (202).
And yet I wonder . . . haven’t more than half of Americans been
. . . affected? Haven’t more than half of us known at least one family affected by the war, at least known of a soldier (even a friend of a friend) killed or disabled by the war? Haven’t more than half of us known at least one person whose business has folded during this decade in which the war-induced deficit (along with other controllable factors) has crushed the economy?
In addition to demonstrating how the country has drifted to a new kind of warfare—distant, affecting civilian life hardly at all, almost unreal because it’s kept out of the public eye—Maddow brings to our attention how little U.S. citizens have at stake, apparently. Because our last two wars have been fought without a draft, without civilian sacrifice (except for, needless to say, the friends and relatives of over 4,500 men and women), without the approval of the civilian population who is paying and will continue to pay for these wars—we are a population that has drifted into war and will be less and less likely to drift out of it. My grandfather, my father, my uncles, my cousin all fought in various wars with mixed results. What will be the ultimate result of our decade of war?
Maddow, despite the progressive stance she takes on her show, manages to approach her subject objectively--siting support from military experts at both ends of the political spectrum. My only criticism concerns Maddow’s prose. Her writing is both elegant and pedestrian, at turns. It is elegant when she is making a point, employing “drift” as a fine extended metaphor throughout the book, articulating herself with a vocabulary that reflects her education.
On the other hand, her prose sometimes reads as if she has dictated one of her evening presentations complete with single-word fragments, not to mention using the word “busted.” Okay, it’s fine to opt for busted in informal usage or a context pertaining to police work (The detective busted him on the spot.), but in a book in which Maddow has gone to great lengths to be accurate and eloquent, might she please avoid the word “busted?” A “busted fuel line” (230) could easily be transformed to a “broken fuel line,” a “damaged fuel line.” In another instance, “broke-down busted, overgrown, spongy stairs,” (243) seems a bit like overkill—particularly in the context of describing the home Maddow and her partner are buying. Surely any editor over the age of forty—an editor who has mastered grammar and composition—could catch these instances and elide them.
25th Anniversary of Prick Up Your eArs
In 1987 two books concerning the life of British playwright Joe Orton were published. In June of that year I read The Orton Diaries edited by New Yorker critic John Lahr (son of Wizard of Oz actor Burt Lahr). Orton’s journal is comprised of brutally frank entries about his openly gay life in 1960s London. He offers his opinions on literature and the world of the theatre that he so desperately seeks to be a part of. Below is a sample of his candor.
“When I left, I took the Piccadilly line to Holloway Road and popped into a little pissoir [rest room at the Tube Station]—just four pissers. It was dark because somebody had taken the bulb away. There were three figures pissing. I had a piss and, as my eyes became used to the gloom I saw that only one of the figures was worth having—a labouring type, big, with cropped hair and, as far as I could see, wearing jeans and a dark short coat. Another man entered and the man next to the labourer moved away, not out of the place altogether, but back against the wall. The new man had a pee and left the place and, before the man against the wall could return to his place, I nipped in there sharpish and stood next to the labourer. I put my hand down and felt his cock, he immediately started to play with mine. The youngish man with fair hair, standing back against the wall, went into the vacant place. I unbuttoned the top of my jeans and unloosened my belt in order to allow the labourer free reign with my balls. The man next to me began to feel my bum. At this point a fifth man entered. Nobody moved. It was dark. Just a little light spilled into the place from the street, not enough to see immediately. The man next to me moved back to allow the fifth man to piss. But the fifth man very quickly flashed his cock and the man next to me returned to my side lifting up my coat and shoving his hand down the back of my trousers. The fifth man kept puffing on a cigarette and, by the glowing end, watching. A sixth man came into the pissoir” (105).
On and on Orton continues describing a situation where as many as eight men engage in illicit, illegal sex. As far as I know, he never used this material per se in any of his dramatic or fictional works, but here he arranges the material as if he is creating a scene in a novel—and it is quite instructional.
Orton is brutally frank concerning more substantive matters, as well. “I got to Brian Epstein’s office at 4:45. I looked through The New Yorker. How dead and professional it all is. Calculated. Not an unexpected line. Unfunny and dead. The epitaph of America” (73). Whether he’s right or wrong, he seems to state his opinion with authority.
In 1987 John Lahr published a biography of Orton called Prick Up Your Ears (a motion picture starring Gary Oldman as Orton and Alfred Molina as Halliwell was soon followed). Lahr borrows his title, Prick Up Your Ears, from one of Orton’s that he himself deemed “too good to waste on a film [Up Against It]” (88). “Ears” is Orton's anagram for his favorite part of the male anatomy. From a large number of sources, Lahr details Orton’s life from early childhood, to his first few successes on the London stage, to his relationship with lover, Kenneth Halliwell, who, in 1967 bludgeoned thirty-four year-old Orton to death with a hammer and then killed himself.
Fifteen years earlier, Halliwell, well-educated but lonely, had taken a poor teen-aged Orton under his wing, to educate him and provide him a safe haven in which he might develop his craft. Halliwell considered himself the writer in their duo, and when Orton began to experience success that included a bigger bank account, Halliwell’s jealousy got the best of him. One can extrapolate from Orton’s journal entries that he was fed up with Halliwell and nearly ready to leave him.
Recently, I re-read both of the Orton books, twenty-five years after first devouring them. I've also seen the film version of his hit play, Entertaining Mr. Sloane. I still find his works astonishing. In them I find the courage to be the writer I would like to be: saying that which I believe is true, rather than that which will be acceptable to the public. Of course, I still succumb the latter. I would like to be read by a broad audience. Still . . . I look to his journals for the right tone, the point of view that tells the rest of the world to go f@#k themselves while creating the works I wish to create.
A Workshop For Editing the Novel
In July I attended a workshop in Alpine, Texas sponsored by the Writers League of Texas. Alpine is part of an interesting trio of towns in far West Texas, Marfa and Ft. Davis being the other two. Alpine is home of Sul Ross State University. More like a small college nestled into a shining hill, it served as a great setting for our workshop. As we only had an hour to eat lunch each day, we often ate a great meal in the union. Several deluges pelted us during the week, but no one complained. Just a year before the area had suffered great loss from fires due to the long drought (see rainbow photo by Tanner Quigg.)
Author Carol Dawson, with at least four books to her credit, conducted the week-long course on how to revise and edit a novel. I’ve attended writing workshops before, mostly those concerning the writing of short stories. In this one, every exercise had to do with the novel manuscript I had brought to the group. At our first meeting, Ms. Dawson told an amusing tale of overhearing one of her students saying, “If you take Carol’s class, you’d better wear your big-girl panties.” Even though our group was evenly divided between men and women, no one disagreed with the idea that we were in for a tough ride.
Actually, the workshop—painful as it was at times (seems that my novel didn’t have a hook, that opening line that makes someone want to forget his or her chores and read on into the night)—was also quite helpful. Editing requires one to leave his or her creative shoes at the door. It requires one to look at his or her text as if it belongs to someone else. One must cut, cut, cut. One must chop "ly" adverbs away from speech attributions (he said hesitantly). One must cut most adjectives. One must cut material that doesn’t move the narrative along. I returned home with much to think about, and much to do. I highly recommend Dawson’s course, particularly if it’s held in Alpine.
On Thursday night, two of the WLT’s instructors gave readings at Front Street Books in Alpine. Poet Scott Wiggerman read from his recent volume of poetry entitled Presence. In addition to his writing pursuits, he is chief editor of http://dosgatospress.org/ in Austin.
I loved hearing Scott read his poem, “Letter to My Father-in-Law,” in which the persona skewers his partner's father for not accepting him. It begins with “I rode your son real hard last night/broke him like a wild stallion/head puled back, nostrils wide as moons . . . .” The piece--the tone of which is bold, angry--ends with the lines, “I’m reconciled to the fact that you’ll be dead/before I ever set foot on your farm/I should like to see the house your son grew up in/the acres he worked, the home he escaped/But the biggest draw will be standing on the land/that I’d been banned from, knowing that you/will be in your grave, writhing without a shotgun/ when your son and I get down in your dirt.”
Whooee, what a ride.
Joe Nick Patoski, read passages from two of his books: Dallas Cowboys: The Outrageous History of the Biggest, Loudest, Most Hated, Best Loved Football Team in America and his 2008 biography of Willie Nelson. Dallas Cowboys is more of an expose of the city of Dallas than it is about the cowboys. His prose is as wild as the rides he takes you on.
In 1977 I travel to Hawaii alone. I’ve had a particularly challenging year teaching, and I’m facing another one the next fall, so I borrow $700 from the credit union and spend nearly two weeks on the island of Oahu. There I meet three other gay guys at Hula’s, a fabulous (my first fabulous) dance bar, and we pal around together for the duration. Two of them, Alex and George, are friends from LA, and another guy, Tom, hails from San Francisco. He’s on his way to Australia to take a position he has accepted on faith will be a good one. We meet each day and share a place on Queen's Surf each day, ending up at a bar called the Blowhole. One day we are chummy enough to rent a car and tour the island together; the conversations seem like something out of E.M. Forster. It’s a sad time when our vacations are over and I have to go home to Lubbock. In Lubbock pride is not the same as here.
The next summer I return to LA to spend some time with Alex, one of the guys I meet in 1977. In a whirlwind visit, I see actor Cindy Williams at a restaurant, Louisiana Purchase, and Alex and I boogie on down to a gay disco, Studio One (see slide #5 above), several nights in a row. When I'd made arrangements to visit him, I had no idea that he, a friend of his named Lee, and I would wind up driving to San Francisco together to participate in the 1978 Gay Pride Parade that is to take place Sunday, June 25th. Alex surprises me further by making arrangements for us to stay at the famed St. Francis. To make the setting clear, it is the following autumn that Harvey Milk will be assassinated.
As we tromp up and down San Francisco’s steep hills, I feel like one of the early suffragettes approaching the area where we will view the parade. Of course, there are scores of groups that have signed up to march: gay lawyers, gay teachers, gay doctors. You name it, and they’re there. Marching bands are raring to go. People are carrying signs everywhere, particularly those opposing the Briggs Amendment, which, if it passes, will ban gays and lesbians from teaching in California public schools. (A coalition of gay and union activists is formed and later defeats the amendment.) All the groups conduct themselves in a very orderly manner, and, I’m not sure how this comes about, but at some point we are allowed to pick up and join the parade if we wish. And so we jump right in. Someone inches from me yells from the crowd. “Where’d you get that tan?” I grin. What am I to say? I started it in Texas and finished it off in LA. Such superficial considerations, but I’ve turned thirty this summer of 1978, have only been out of the closet for three years, and I want to cherish this moment, not to mention whatever youth I may have left.
What follows are a few remarks I write in my journal after I get home: “I really had misgivings about going [to the parade]. Where are the TV cameras? What about my job? What if I get shot by some crazy? You don’t live through the 60s and not ask yourself these questions as you enter an area in which 250,000+ people are gathering to march” [on behalf of gay rights]. “Yet, as I entered the parade, my paranoia subsided and instead I did begin to feel some sense of pride. Here was my real family—not united by blood, perhaps—but certainly by sweat and tears. Certainly we were united by a distinguished lineage of those who had marched before us.” Lord Byron, Tchaikovsky, da Vinci, and many others. “We were united by a bond that went farther than Gay Rights. Indeed we were marching on behalf of human rights. If those who are striving to take away our rights should win, what or who is next? I was glad to march. Proud. At the moment I didn’t care if a TV camera should by chance catch a glimmer of the smile on my face. I was glad to be where I was doing exactly what I was doing.” We were part of a large underground that no longer had to live under ground.
“From a friendship established that weekend, the three of were invited to spend the night out in the mountains near Los Gatos. It was so beautiful and quiet there: I could have stayed a week.” The parade is something I think about for weeks and months to come. It is the only one, as it turns out, that I have ever marched in.
Okay. It's fun for a moment to take a glimpse of your youthful past, what it meant
. . . means. But now . . . especially as San Francisco gears up for yet another fabulous (my second fabulous) parade . . . what does pride mean for us today?
The other day I viewed a documentary, Beyond Gay: the Politics of Pride (2009), about recent worldwide observances of Gay Pride Week (available now on AT&T U-verse). The narrator, Ken Coolen, is coordinator for the Toronto parade, and he spends an entire year traveling around the world to document what is happening with pride in places like Russia. It brings tears to my eyes to see young gays in Moscow strategize by setting up a fake parade just so they can fool the police and have the actual observance in another part of the city—it lasts about three minutes. They break it up before the press and police have a chance to catch up with them. We in America may complain about not being able to get married and complain that partners who’ve lived together for many years cannot be on the same health plan. And these certainly are goals to work toward, but when I see the young Russians do what they must to stage a “parade,” I see that we’re all in this together—worldwide. It’s no longer a national issue. If it ever was. Perhaps the issue has always been larger. Discos? Gay beaches? They seem like small potatoes by comparison.
In the 1970s I thought the Mattachine Society of the 1950s was passé and that Gay Liberation was what it was all about, man. Today’s young gay men must now look at us with similar disdain. Finding a dude (or dudes) via Grindr (a phone app in which members use GPS to locate local meat) is so much cooler than picking someone up at a bar. The young still go to bars, but I understand they don’t necessarily pick up anyone there. Pity. Even in a dark bar, I think you can get a better idea of what someone is like than by checking out his stats on your phone. The phone simply serves as a screening (oops, a pun) device that, I must say, could certainly be helpful. In the recent past, I've also watched a documentary about Rosie O’Donnell’s cruise for gay fathers and mothers and their families: All Aboard: Rosie’s Family Gay Cruise (2006). I am astounded. The film documents something that I assume can never be possible for gay men and women unless they’re raising children they’ve had with their former spouses in heterosexual relationships. (One can contact r family vacations for information about the latest cruises.) Other celebs like Neal Patrick Harris and his legal husband (in California anyway) are proud fathers of twins, each one sired by sperm from a different dad, birthed by a surrogate mother. Harris sits on a talk show and discusses his relationship with his husband and children in the same manner as a straight actor married to a woman. And the fact that I’m fascinated by this event is almost embarrassing.
It all makes our Gay Liberation of the 1970s look like child’s play. And perhaps that is what we are back then. Children. Children who’ve been denied their true identify. I know I myself go through two adolescent periods. One I experience as a pre-heterosexual boy (so I think), attending sock hops and dancing with girls to songs like “Do You Love Me?” “Be My Baby,” “He’s so Fine.” Fifteen years later I celebrate a second adolescence during which I can’t get enough of disco (or men): “The Hustle,” “That’s the Way I Like it,” “Last Dance,” “Boogie Oogie Oogie.” Perhaps at that time we are in the adolescence of our movement. We can’t get married. Our movement is too young. We can’t have children. They won’t allow us. And besides, who wants kids? How can you have fun 24/7 if children are hanging around your neck all the time?
A lot is happening now. Laws are changing. Society’s thinking is changing, and very quickly, it seems. Polls show increasing support for gay marriage, but like any progressive movement I believe it may take many more years for laws in every state to change, every country on the face of the earth. Am I sorry not to have had any children? No. It has never been on my radar. Nor Ken’s. We’ve had our careers and each other, and these seem to have sustained us. These, our families, and our friends. Our travels. We’re prepared to take care of one another until one of us dies. We’re prepared to be institutionalized in one of these lifecare places because we do not have heirs upon whom we can bestow the honor of overseeing the end of our lives. And we do it in a matter-of-fact manner without sadness or rancor. It is the way things are for us. Liberated, right through to the end.
My first post (Sept. 8) drew a few comments from friends and family that I did not publish (all supportive and positive). Perhaps it was too long, though my writer friends said no (I always trust them). A number of topics have caught my fancy lately, several of which I speak of below.
A Call for Submissions
On Tuesday, I belatedly sent my Texas representatives in congress a letter through the mail urging them to support the American Jobs Act. I plan to do this each Tuesday until some kind of action is taken (I don’t care if it failed to reach the floor in the Senate). Why standard mail? I know e-mails are cheap (except for that pesky monthly internet bill). But they’re also easy for clerical help to dump, and a million e-mails probably don’t equal the physical space of one piece of standard mail. Besides, if 50 million people were to write letters, the ailing postal system might be given a boost, as well.
I urge every one of my FB friends (assuming you support it) to write a letter a week to their congressional representatives. If they’re Republicans like mine in Texas, you understand the urgency. If one or more of them is Democratic, please write them anyway; it will reinforce the idea that they need to stay the course (blue dogs particularly need stiff encouragement). Then send all your FB friends (some of you have hundreds) a message urging them to write their representatives one letter a week until some form of a jobs act is passed.
Yes, it will cost you $1.32 to send a letter a week to your three representatives, but I like to imagine the tiny offices of these tiny people filling with letters to the point that they’ll have no room to sit in their tiny chairs. And no stationary is needed. No computers.
Scrawl your letters on the back of used paper (sift through your recycling bin at work).
Write your urgings on the back of an unpaid bill (better yet, a copy of the unpaid bill).
Write your urgings on a copy of your mortgage bill.
Write with your kid’s crayon, an old marker, a Sharpie, chalk.
Send it in a used envelope and tape it shut.
If you’re short on time or words, write it big: PASS THE AMERICAN JOBS ACT, five words every week until it is passed. Even if it fails, we continue write: PASS A JOBS BILL NOW. All the Republicans want to talk about right now is depriving a woman of her right to choose. Let’s keep them focused on jobs until they’re so sick of hearing from their constituents they’ll do SOMETHING.
On numerous occasions President Obama has declared that he cannot do this alone (and we see that it is true). I know we may feel helpless, but if we do the things we are capable of doing, perhaps, in the aggregate (imagine millions of letters flowing out the windows of the office buildings in Washington and down the streets, K Street in particular), we can succeed. Washington offices could soon be filled with stationery, scraps of paper, all screaming for congress to pass a jobs bill. Now.
Due to congress failing to pass a long-term budget, the issue will surface again, and again members will want to slash funds from necessary programs. I could take people in Washington seriously about cutting costs if they were willing to cut or even freeze their precious salaries (which receive an automatic annual raise) and if they were willing to pay a larger co-pay on their health insurance policies. If all budgets are on the table, they should offer no objection.
Cut back one staff member.
Cut back to one less trip home, one less vacation.
And while we’re cutting, why not cut that second mortgage deduction on federal income tax.
Who says members of congress must own property in one of the most historical and expensive real estate markets in the country? The people who claim to serve us should be willing to live in federal housing (i.e. grown-up dormitories of 2-3 bedrooms). More and more of them are leaving their families back home during congressional sessions anyway (so as to protect their offspring from the scourge of life inside the beltway), so why not assist them in their finer instincts?
Congress will continue to call on 98% of Americans to sacrifice, particularly those who don’t have or can’t find a job (all except their billionaire friends sans the honorable Mr. Buffett). Members of congress should be willing to do their share. Of course, 550 legislators freezing their salaries would not add up to much in savings, would largely serve as a symbolic gesture, saying, “We share your pain,” something that most in congress have not been willing to do—but it would be a start. Right now most Americans view people in congress as an elite group whose self-regard rivals that of nineteenth-century royalty—people who will eventually leave Washington (if you can drive them out) richer than when they arrived—people who continue to see that they and their friends and associates get richer and richer year after year. Is this really what writers of the constitution had in mind (is capitalism a concept meant to work well with democracy)? If so, they must be rejoicing in their graves.
A Dictionary of Errors
I watch local TV news largely because I detest the idea of giving patronage to the local paper. (Even online, I only read the obits; if I comb the list and fail to see my name of a morning, I get dressed and go to work.) I use other sources for news and editorials: the online edition of the New York Times; The New Yorker for belated but in-depth analyses of important issues written by urbane and erudite writers (mostly). I appreciate how they use the term “e-mail” instead of “email,” how they use “ë” in words like reëstablish, and write Web site instead of website. I’m not sure why.
As I observe the ambulance-chasing news being delivered by ever younger and younger people, I cringe at the grammatical errors I hear. Nothing catches my ear faster than if someone in the news says the word “bust.” Now, to be fair, the word is listed in the most comprehensive of dictionaries as being informal or slang. So context is important. But is the local TV news an informal context? If the anchor is reporting a drug bust or busting a drug ring by the cops (and whatever happened to using the word police or officer?), it is probably an honest use of bust. In some ways law enforcement people (with the help of TV cop shows) have made “bust” their own. No, where I become irritated is when the anchor or reporter uses the word “bust” to mean “to burst” or “to break.” A major water main busted today at Main and Avenue Q. Eek. If you are reading, local TV news people, use “burst” or “broke” to indicate breakage. You’ll garner the respect of educated and genteel followers among your audience.
Another error that creeps me out is the confusion over “lie” and “lay” (and often the speaker doesn’t even realize s/he is confused). Each is a discrete verb with its own conjugation (sorry this looks so English booky):
Present Past Past Participle_____________________________
Lie Lay Have Has or Had Lain = TO REST OR RECLINE
Lay Laid Have Has or Had Laid = TO PUT/PLACE AN OBJECT
We see that “Lay” is the ONLY word held in common by each conjugation and obviously the two have separate meanings.
Some well-considered examples of the verb lie (TO REST OR RECLINE):
I lie down to take a long-deserved nap. I’m lying down now, kids, so knock off the noise.
You lie down this instant. You’re lying down when there’s all this trash piled up?
S/he lies down for a long winters’ sleep. S/he is lying down to quiet her nerves.
They lie down after a long day on the road. They are lying down after getting in late.
Last night I lay down after supper. When the phone rang, I was lying down.
You lay down after supper because you were sleepy. You were laying out your clothes.
Now comes the form you may never in your life have heard used or used correctly.
I have/had lain down before taking a shower.
You had lain down as soon as you got in from your date.
S/he has/had lain down with a bad headache.
Some well-considered examples of the verb lay (TO PUT OR PLACE):
I lay or am laying the blanket on the bed.
You lay or are laying the blanket on the bed.
S/he lay or is laying the blanket on the bed.
I laid the blanket on the bed last night.
You laid the blanket on the bed last night.
S/he laid the blanket on the bed last night.
(Often “laid” is used incorrectly as part of the conjugation for “lie.” The only exception allowable is if you got laid last night or any other time.)
I had laid the comforter on the bed before it was laundered.
You had laid the comforter on the bed before having it laundered.
S/he had laid the comforter on the bed before she lay down to take a nap.
It might take ten minutes to memorize these conjugations, but once you do, you will distinguish yourself among educated people. Perhaps your listeners will mimic you, thus perpetuating the language we so love. A hundred years from now the two verbs may have merged as one, but for now (as long as I have breath) they most certainly have not.
“The Dictionary of Errors” is but a continuing series that I shall reprise when I see/hear other linguistic issues that stick in my craw (informal).
The (meta)morph(iz)ing of English. R we dvlpng a ntion of bby tlkrs? Will texting dictionaries replace Webster or Random House?
Self publication. Is it only a way of bypassing stuffy commercial publishers, or is it a rebirth of an old tradition?
How to write a successful New Yorker story—secrets not yet revealed by anyone. Late novelist John Gardner says in his 1983 work On Becoming a Novelist: “The New Yorker, for instance, ( to mention one of the best), has from the beginning been elegant and rather timid, a perfect magazine for selling expensive clothes and fine china, and its fiction editors, probably without knowing they do it, regularly duck from strong emotion or strong, masculine characters, preferring the refined and tentative.” [italics mine]
Still true in 2011? We shall see. I am currently re-reading every New Yorker story published in 2011. At the end of the year, I shall make an analysis and reveal what it takes to be one of the 50 stories published each year. There must be a formula.
Richard Jespers is a writer living in Lubbock, Texas, USA.
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