Long Gone Blues: A Sixpack and Playlist

Memorial Day 2020

In a world turned sideways how do we mark the passing of time and remember the things we ought to?

As a kid, I hated having to march in the Memorial Day parade. To put that in perspective, if I was asked to do so more than a handful of times that would have been a lot. Yet I saw the very idea as a major encroachment.

It takes a lifetime to recognize sacrifice and understand that rituals are not devoid of meaning. They are how we convey honor and mark the passing of time.

Maybe it’s not so strange, then, that many of our rituals have gone missing in this Groundhog Day of a Spring.

But not all of them. This is the 5th year I’ve created a playlist to mark the unofficial start of summer. Let’s remember the things we’re missing will still be there when we’re in the safe zone. Enjoy the rest of the weekend.

Bell Boy– The Who (1973)
There are any number of songs about the ocean in this 1973 ‘rock opera’ set in a summer resort. In many ways, this song is the most improbable selection, at least if you glanced at the title alone. And while it is, in part, a song about a bell boy, it’s the indelible power of the opening line that matters. The beach really is a place where a man can feel he’s the only soul in the world that’s real.

Pete Rose Way–The Baseball Project (2011)
I grew up with a football-loving father and a grandfather who had seen every Yankees great from Babe Ruth to Mantle and Marris play in the original stadium. Never exactly passionate about sports, my heart lies with baseball, a game made for languid summer days and evenings. Here, a sort of jangle pop supergroup puts it all in perspective. (Venue note: Drew’s house is really a house, there really is a Drew, and that really is Peter Buck, Mike Mills & co.)

Lightning’s Blues–John Gorka (1990)
Some artists exist so I can eat crow. In general, I quickly tire of crunchy granola singer-songwriters. In part that’s just my personality. I’d much rather create a ruckus than quietly fit words, chords and notes together to express an emotional state. But, I have my moments. Joni. Suzanne Vega. And Gorka, another near-contemporary, who has enough songs like this one for me to get past the ones that start, “Like a clock I…”

No More Hot Dogs–Hasil Adkins (c. 1992)
What I like most about the Interwebs is the ease with which one can make a point. Because even a madman of psychobilly sat down to write the songs he sings. Was Hasil Adkins any less a singer-songwriter because his subject matter included hot dogs? I don’t think so, even if he did go a bit heavy on the meat songs. Besides, I’m not prone to argue with a man whose given name is pronounced ‘Hassle.’

Picnic in the Summertime–DeeeLite (1994)
Summer ought to be about fun, right? I mean, school’s out. The days are long. It’s too hot to work. The distractions that sleep nine months of the year all beckon. And so, too, the musical palette should lighten. So here’s to sunshine on a cloudy day and picnics that stop time.

We are the People–John Mellencamp (1987)
I remain hopelessly sentimental about the idea of America. Because first and foremost it’s an idea, which means it’s okay for the idea to grow and expand and get better. That makes me a sucker for an anthem from the heartland. This one seems appropriate to cap the list.

VIDEO BONUS

Soldier Poet King–The Oh Hellos (2015)
I don’t want to leave without including something for the men and women who have died in the service of our country. I’ll leave the honors to a somewhat new (they started in 2011)  indie, folk-rock, sibling-led group.

Playlist
With, as always, some bonus tracks to round out the mix.

Charlotte Sometimes

Charlotte’s Web
E.B. White

The read-aloud project here at the Stone Cottage has taken a well-deserved break from wizardly things. We have, in fact, most recently found ourselves in the barnyard, spending time with a garrulous group of animals as they encounter life’s biggest challenges.

Like many another kid, I read this book at about the age my son is now. (He’s finishing third grade.) It’s a Continue reading

Beat the Retreat

The Retreat of Western Liberalism
Edward Luce

Reading shouldn’t be a performative act. Peruse the list of titles on my Books page and you’ll find scant evidence of a grind, totally focused on the great ‘work’ of reading.

Truth is, I read plenty of high carb, low protein junk. But just like someone on the cookie diet, in the deepest recesses of my mind, where the truth lives, I know I’m cutting corners and taking the easier path. So you might not be surprised that the serious-looking title pictured nearby is a well-disguised byway of that ramble.

Don’t take my word for it. Our author tells us as much:

 

‘The West’s crisis is real, structural and likely to persist. Nothing is inevitable. Some of what ails the West is within our power to fix. Doing so means understanding exactly how we got here. It would also require a conscious effort to look at the world from unfamiliar viewpoints and admit the West has no monopoly on truth or virtue. … My guess is it will take you roughly three hours.” (p. 16)

That’s quite a promise. Hemispheric/structural/political crisis. Globally-informed solution. Three hours. It’s practically guaranteed to make a person who considers themselves a thoughtful citizen of planet earth find a quiet place and dig in. The rewards beckon.

I am here to remind you, in cliché-drenched terms, that there are no free lunches and that hard work is its own reward.

Mr. Luce is a former speechwriter in the Clinton Administration‘s Treasury Department who went on to write for The Financial Times. He has an easy, comprehensible style backed by an Oxford education. He avails himself of the trappings of scholarship such as a ‘Notes’ section that’s also the bibliography.

Nowadays, authoritarians come dressed in a well-tailored suit. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.

I know, I’m carping on small details. But they aren’t. What I’m holding, bound between hard covers, is not a weighty tome. It’s a highly competent–if scantily documented–senior project delivered in the Honors section of an esteemed university. Maybe the alums of such schools are the intended audience.

Again, lest you think I am making too much of  a small point, contrast the above quote with this one from a source Luce credits, Francis Fukuyama‘s The End of History and the Last Man:

“This Hegelian understanding of the meaning of contemporary liberal democracy differs in a significant way from the Anglo-Saxon understanding that was the theoretical basis of liberalism in countries like Britain and the United States. In that tradition, the prideful quest for recognition was to be subordinated to enlightened self-interest….” (p. xviii)

See, professor and student. Sure, Luce did the reading. He even appears to have understood the reading. But why, I flail myself, did I waste the three-plus hours on Luce when I could have invested them in Fukuyama?

(Full disclosure, I avoided the Fukuyama book upon publication though I’ve read articles and papers since. I grabbed the quote off Amazon because I knew I could find an appropriate one quickly. I suspect that’s how many students not wearing hairshirts approach their work these days.)

The right isn’t always male and isn’t always authoritarian. But it is usually nationalist. Marie Le Pen (& Marianne).

Okay, I’m done complaining. What has Mr. Luce come to tell us? First, we are witnessing an assault on tradition. Here he makes an important distinction that is often lost in the current continuum of moderate → liberal → progressive. Liberal democracy is rooted in the concept of liberty, more specifically in how individual freedom is retained and maximized in spite of the necessary formation of a state.

Poli Sci students should recognize that idea, which goes back to John Locke, though it seems sadly missing today. It is also distinctly Western in the sense of “Western Civilization” being a real thing and not just a construct that serves as a whipping boy for more enlightened perspectives.

Both political extremes forget this. America’s most conservative Conservatives have reverted to a Hobbesian worldview of all-against-all requiring an absolute sovereign to overcome threats while the most liberal liberals are quite happy to employ the power of the state to control individual behaviors.

That internal tension–maybe division is a more appropriate word–is exacerbated by the economic rise of new players. I use ‘new’ merely in terms of the modern global economy. Both China and India, as Luce demonstrates, are ancient civilizations, far older than our Western liberal tradition and not built on the same ancient intellectual foundation. The great mistake Prof. Fukuyama made in the early 1990s was extrapolating too far into the future.

The Left can be no less absolute. Do we really need to mandate how we use pronouns?

As far as this analysis goes, I don’t disagree with Luce at all. I’m not even sure I disagree with how he ties this into the current state of the West. The Right, embracing the metaphor of battle, has identified the external threats and is ready to render democracy a quaint curiosity that can’t be preserved if the people are to be saved.

There ‘s plenty of evidence for that. Viktor Orbán in Hungary. Recep Erdoğan in Turkey. Marie Le Pen‘s National Front in France. Even, arguably, some supporters of the Trump Administration.  Luce quotes Didier Eribon on LePen’s supporters, “ I’m convinced that voting for the National Front must be interpreted, at least in part, as the final recourse of people of the working classes attempting to defend their collective identity, or to defend, in any case, a dignity that was being trampled on.”
(P. 110)

The problem is not local. Nor is it only of the right. Luce is nothing if not even-handed. My Progressive friends will recoil at this statement: “But by giving a higher priority to the politics of ethnic identity than people’s common interests, the American left helped to create what it feared.”  (P. 97) As I read this book I thought about Mark Illa’s, and I couldn’t be sure that a return to New Deal or even JFK pre-Great Society politics was possible.

This isn’t a picture of what Locke had in mind. It is political assembly. And the nationalist trappings are, of course, present.

The solution, though, is not necessarily clear. The fear that drives the growth of more authoritarian government is economic insecurity. In this telling, corporations face an existential threat because they must be subordinated to the maintenance of the civilization if not the country. How do you unwind a quarter century’s worth of integrated, intricate supply lines?

You have a headache, right? It is a maddening situation. The authoritarians appall me, the kumbaya crowd strikes me as hopelessly naive, and we’re all at each other’s throats anyway.

I have no crystal ball, though I do like to think I take our civic and civilizational life seriously. If you feel similarly, but are intimidated by shelves full of books by professors, this might be the book for you.

If you’re looking for a blazingly new insight that had eluded you until now, I’m afraid you’ll have to keep looking.

 

 

Punk Rock Girl

Razor Girl
Carl Hiassen

Before I read my first Carl Hiaasen novel you could not have told me that comic crime was a genre. I’m not sure you could convince me of that today because, despite being at the center of almost every Hiaasen tale, crime is almost always incidental.

As ever, the real subject is Florida and Floridians.

Actually, the subject may be real estate. I know the Continue reading

The Killing Moon

The Onion Field
Joseph Wambaugh

A million years ago, okay, in the late-1970s, books by Joseph Wambaugh flew off the shelves of the local library where I worked part-time. Most of them, it seemed, got made into movies. Aside from being able to shelve the returned volumes blindfolded, I was never tempted by any title in either medium.

At some later point, I started reading crime fiction and the occasional true crime tale crept in. Despite what you might Continue reading

King of Kings and Lord of Lords

Easter 2020

I was always told religion and politics are dangerous subjects. That may explain my fascination with both.

Faith, though, is a different animal than religion and I’ve never questioned anyone’s faith or lack of.  Like the song says, that path Continue reading

You’ve Got Possibilities

The Art of Possibility
Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander

One of the more entertaining, if inconsequential, arguments I ever entered into started about 10 PM one late-April evening in the final decade of the last millennium. What began as a simple disagreement on how to manage creative development soon expanded to encompass the entire advertising business. No cow was sacred and by the time my debating partner and I had worn ourselves out at 2 AM, a century’s worth of discarded advertising truths lay scattered about the office along with rejected layouts and revised copy decks.

One of the more contentious points, I recall, was the USP, a concept created and promoted by Rosser Reeves of the Ted Bates advertising agency. A variant of that approach states that every brand–personal or otherwise–can be reduced to one inarguable, ownable attribute. Timex offers an apt, though dated, example. The watch that takes a licking and keeps on ticking is durable.

None of this has anything to do with the book at hand, mind you. But I’d suggest it provides an explanatory framework for just how I came to be in possession of a book in a genre I typically avoid. I’ve come to believe, you see,  that possibility lies at the heart of my personal brand.

Despite my encounter with this book, I see no reason to walk away from that belief. I’d suggest you run away fast, though, if someone recommends you read the book.

Found in every book store and library,
coast-to-coast.

Why do we even have self-help books? From the supply side, the answer is simple: there’s money in misery. From the seeker side, well, it’s more complicated. Needs, we marketers believe, are never far from wants and the interplay of the two is where we work. In a nation that likes to fancy itself full of strivers, improving the self practically commands investment.

How about two other factors marketers love: fear and greed? What if the key to your material success is lying right before you, bound between covers? Fourteen bucks is nothing compared to the rest of your life. The ROI could be incredible.

If you think I’m being unfair here, remember that Penguin, the publisher, has a marketing department. And they considered everything from the visually arresting bright yellow cover to the price to even the category: business/creativity.  Someone sensed a profit in sharing the Zander’s worldview.

My mind turns naturally to commerce as a social artifact. Yet my recurring thought as I made my way through this book had little to do with consumption and everything to do with social psychology. I realized, at a fundamental level, these books ask the reader to behave the same way members of cults or charismatic political movements do.

It’s a neat rhetorical trick, really. It also strikes me as self-serving and abusive of the very people all those entities are arguing they serve. But whether the venue is Jonestown, a Trump rally or this book, the initial transaction sets the terms of the deal.

I’m not sure survival and scarcity are great analogs when their reality is widespread and dire

Early on the Zanders present two dichotomous worldviews: survival/scarcity versus thriving/abundance. Almost immediately, they protest that interpretation of what lies right there on the page, saying “It may seem this chapter sets up a simple dichotomy between being successful and living a kind-hearted, feel-good life. Nothing could be further from our conviction.” (p. 21)

A bit further down the page, though, they introduce survival-thinking and scarcity thinking. Modes of thinking like these seem to abound in self-help writing, often serving the role of an internalized boogeyman who must be vanquished in the course of transformation ( a keyword in the genre and this book).

I’m not a fan of Abraham Maslow, but even he understood that survival and scarcity were so fundamental as to drive all other considerations understandably aside. Our authors reject that without ever even acknowledging it. Instead, they state Survival-thinking is  an “undiscriminating ongoing attitude.” Scarcity-thinking, they helpfully note, is a “prevalent” “fatalistic outlook.” (p.21) Thus the trap is baited. On the next page, it’s sprung.

“You look for thoughts and. actions that reflect survival and scarcity, comparison and competition, attachment and anxiety.” (p. 22) So, the problem is you, too concerned with thoughts that are merely attitudes and outlooks. But wait, there’ s more.

“See how easy it is to argue that you are an exception, that you personally are not governed by any such set of assumptions. This, of course, is another example of the measurement world at work” (p.22)

There you have it: the great circularity of true-believerdom. A world, which may or may not be exactly how you experience the world, is posited. Steps are taken to explain why this is the way things are. Then you are promised release from this prison once you see clearly and accept the gift you’ve been offered by your guide. Having been freed you can never look back.

It’s exactly the same, every time. The People’s Temple. The Branch Davidians. Erhard Seminars Training. Even Make America Great Again rallies. What amazes me is that it works.

All questions are answered and problems overcome when the proper frame of mind is adopted.

Though I had plenty of good reasons to walk away early on, I persisted. I didn’t want to negate the possibility that there might be some good here. That openness to possibility was not rewarded.

The work is a mess. The primary mode of instructing is the anecdote. I’ve nothing against that. The last time I looked, Christ did a pretty good job with the form. But the stories here are rarified, comprehensible on a deep level only by very privileged people. The Zanders are not just folks. He leads a symphony orchestra, she is a therapist, they attend Davos.

When they observe the form of seriousness, for example, using footnotes, it’s apparent doing so helps maintain a veneer of rigor.  And then there are the leaps that defy reason. This book was published in 2000.  After so much has passed, would any editor print this passage today?:

“If we want to increase the community’s strength against inhuman
forces, let’s include the terrorist in the discussion (emphasis added),
along with the families and the townspeople and the security forces
and the government. Let’s hear what he thinks about why this has happened…” (p. 191)

I have no truck with trying to understand yourself better. If you want great material success go for it. If you seek comfort and security I hope you find it. But the path to those things, I think,  doesn’t lie in this book or any charismatic movement.

But what do I know? I’m. just a spirit in the material world.

I Don’t Want to be The Prisoner

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
J.K. Rowling

In a recent post, I mentioned my lifelong, never-given-enough-attention reading project. Luckily, I usually have more than one project in progress (compensation, I suppose, for never finishing anything) and so it’s time to return to the series that launched a movie franchise and got an entire generation reading: the Harry Potter saga.

Here at the Stone Cottage, I started reading the books aloud to the AHC kiddos about a year ago and it’s become a sort of bedtime ritual. We have our issues (the Continue reading

Who’s Your Daddy?

The President’s Daughter
Jack Higgins

As a kid, when this reading Jones first kicked in,  I tore through everything I could get my hands on. Fiction. Non-fiction. Novels. Biographies. Myths and legends. Even an encyclopedia or two. And so, like many another lad, I read my fair share of Hardy Boys books.

At this remove, I wonder if those assembly line books exist Continue reading

We Live in a Political World

Twitter, Impeachment. and Primaries 

When I went missing, I didn’t exactly go dormant. Instead, I found myself in that most time-consuming sector of the “internets, Twitter.

I’m fascinated by Twitter. The ‘culture’ of the Internet continues to strike me as a hotbed of Golden State-utopianism. There’s a reason one of the web’s earliest and most consistent proponents also appears at the Continue reading

Just Like Starting Over

The  Return of the Prodigal

In the New Testament parable, the prodigal son wanders off and squanders the inheritance his father has given him. When his ruin is unmistakable, even to him, he returns home and is welcomed joyously.

I’ll settle for just being welcomed back after a sabbatical I hadn’t earned and which really didn’t Continue reading

Wrap it Up

The Year in Music: The Titular Playlist

And so we come to the end of another year (and for some, who may struggle with counting, a decade). For me, this was a year in which stark terror–and near paralysis–gave way to blessed relief.

We all need things to keep us going when times get hard. For me, those things have always been books and music, my first friends. My actual living, breathing friends are even more precious and they, and my Continue reading

We Let in Light and We Banish Shade

Hanukkah and the Verge of Christmas 2019

It’s that time of year again and I’ve little to give but much to be thankful for.

Gratitude, though, like a holly bush or berry, is really just an expression. And what I think it expresses, in its limited but necessary way, is love.

I heard a reflection last week and one thought stood out that I share with you in the spirit of the season:

Without love, you may be living, but you’re not alive.

E. Szendry, M.M.

Peace.

Love Stinks

The Hunchback of Notre Dane
Victor Hugo

There are, a thousand bromides tell me, good reasons to struggle. The reward will be worth it. Today, at the end of a nearly year-long struggle with the 19th century, I’m not so sure about that.

I’m honestly not surprised;, that’s been my experience almost from the start. I can vividly remember eighth grade Continue reading

Back With the Same Old Style

The Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, Gent.
Washington Irving
(History, Tales, and Sketches–A LIbrary of America Volume)

In the last century, when my love of reading was born, I early on discovered the tales of Washington Irving. Here was a guy I could really sink my teeth into, and a local to boot.

Though I spent my formative years on Long Island, the Hudson River valley is as important to me as the beach. And, as a kid, the discovery that stories are about places Continue reading

If I Had a Pony

The Long Valley
John Steinbeck
(The Grapes of Wrath & Other Writings, 1936-1941, a Library of America Volume)

Prompted by an errant remark, I returned after a long hiatus to the work of a writer who once totally captured my imagination. I’m happy to report that John Steinbeck still has the same effect on me he did long ago.

If you’ve been dropping by here for a while, you might find yourself wondering just how long long is. After all, there Continue reading

Wandering Early and Late

Here we go, again

No, that’s not me pictured at right, but it pretty much sums up my recent state of being.  A path beckoning. Family close at hand. The year withering.

I actually take great solace at this time of year. Despite the sinking temperatures and paucity of daylight, there’s something Continue reading

I’m Younger Than That Now

Back When We Were Grownups
Anne Tyler

Allow me to hazard a guess: novels centered on middle-aged females don’t typically set one to thinking about John Lennon and the Human Beat Box.

The latter is, perhaps, more understandable since Master AHC has spent the past few weeks referring to our author as “Ann E. Tyler.”  That silent ‘e’ thing doesn’t come easy and matters are not helped by my mom’s Continue reading

Buddy Guy and Mavis Staples at NJPAC, Newark, NJ, November 10, 2019

A genuine 80s houserockin’ party was thrown in Newark last night and the guests of honor did all the work.

Appearing at the outset of the TD Bank James Moody Jazz Festival, Mavis Staples and Buddy Guy sang and played gospel and the blues, demonstrating the power this music still holds. Remarkably, both headliners (Mavis opened the show, but that’s a technicality–these two are co-equals) are now in their 80s. If you want to make a Continue reading

Secret Words in a Secret Room

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
J.K. Rowling

It seems like I’ve been on a sabbatical, though it’s really been a turn of good fortune. In what qualifies as a first-class set of first-world problems, I am trying to reconfigure my days and weeks to reflect a new commute. It’s been, literally, decades Continue reading

Big Time Operator

Reminiscences of a Stock Operator
Edwin LeFêvre

Eventually, I get around to everything, although I’m pretty certain I won’t be able to do that forever.

I first heard of this book nearly thirty years ago, when I was working on marketing programs for the institutional side of a major investment bank. Floor traders, fund managers, senior executives, they all told Continue reading

If I Only Had a Brain

The Great Brain
John D. Fitzgerald

By the time I was thirty, I was certain I’d never raise children. By the time I finally started, my high school classmates were busy prepping their oldest kids for SATs and campus visits. Now, they’re retiring and I’ll be looking at tuition payments well into my eighth decade.

All of which helps color my perspective. That’s most apparent when I draw on memories of my own childhood. I’m well past the age where, finding myself reprising my Continue reading

We Can Discover the Wonders of Nature

The Best American Science Writing 2005
Alan Lightman, Guest Editor, Jesse Cohen, Series Editor

Over lunch earlier this month I floated a trial balloon past an old friend. What I’m most interested in, I asserted, is different ways of thinking. The details are a little less important, because a lot of those tend to stick and, in any case, I can always dive back in. It’s my current best explanation for the haphazard range of my reading life.

Hence the present volume,  which serves the useful purpose of bringing me back to my roots while updating Continue reading

In God’s Country

Potshot
Robert B. Parker

Often I find myself wondering about the economics of publishing. I’ve had book clubs and book retailers as clients, so I know something about the retail end of the business. What I haven’t a clue about is the author end.

How is it, for example, that a veteran journalist can pen a bestseller and suddenly find themself a millionaire, asked to Continue reading

Autumn’s Coming in the Air

Labor Day 2019

I first conceived this post on what was meant to be the first of my summer-end outdoor swims.  But the temperature at swim time was 58 degrees (F)  and there are limits to my fortitude.

That bracing change put me in mind of the approaching season, even if the weather, in Continue reading

Blasphemous Rumours

The Feast of Fools
Harvey Cox

Recently,  conservative talk-show host Erick Erickson offered a startling observation during what seems to be an ongoing attack against presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg: “But then he is an Episcopalian, so he might not actually understand Christianity more than superficially.”

I’m neither a regular reader nor listener of Erickson’s, though I’ve seen him quoted. He strikes me as not so Continue reading

Standing on the Front Line

A Son at the Front
(Four Novels of the 1920s, A Library of America Volume)
Edith Wharton

One could argue that World War I was the first modern war. There’s a case to be made for the wars of the mid-19th century, but their horrors seem more of scale. For something never seen before, it’s hard to beat “the war to end all wars.”

Edith Wharton was living in Paris when the war broke out in August 1914. She’d taken up ex-pat status a few years earlier when her marriage deteriorated. Now, she was on Continue reading

Treat Yourself to Some Meat

Finger Lickin’ Fifteen
Janet Evanovich

My local library has its own way of celebrating summer: they put out a table of pulpier titles that have been donated and invite patrons to take home a fresh read or two.

Unspoken is a request to just not bring them back. We’ve a small library and, evidently, a big book-buying Continue reading

Parodies and Prophecies

Midsummer 2019

There are any number of things we’re taught as children that we are later asked to revisit, diminish or dismiss. I’d suggest that among these is parody, a genre too easily cast aside.

There’s no good reason why. The word itself has been in the language half a millenium and Shakespeare, just before its first Continue reading

Orange Amber in the Sun

Oranges
John McPhee

My memory, I fear, is failing.

There was a moment, standing in the book store, the nearby volume clutched in my hand, when I wavered. Hadn’t I read this before? I paged through it once again, nothing seemed familiar. Graphically, it matched the rest Continue reading

Goin’ Down to the Swamp

Tropical Heat
John Lutz

The idea that any man-made object, let alone one made of paper and grease,  could survive the semi-tropical humidity of the Sunshine State for more than three decades seems far-fetched. Luckily, all I asked it to do was endure seven moves within a 50-mile radius.

Why that should be will have to remain a mystery. All I know is that even during the years when the only fiction I Continue reading

I Roam Around, Around, Around

wandering (noun): a going about from place to place

By now I should have this (mis)timing thing licked.  But I don’t, so I am allowing myself the quarterly luxury of sharing some longer pieces found on the web that have captured my attention.

Should any of you care to share your ideas on how to break my logjam, by all means, please post in the comments section. All I ask is that you stay away from programmatic Continue reading

Where is it taking us, what does it mean?

The Meaning of Trump
Brian Francis Culkin

For a wannabe social scientist like me, the Trump years offer seemingly boundless riches. From the President’s personal psychology to political theory and mercantile economics, if he’s tweeting, there’s probably a new avenue to explore.

I try to avoid the more commonly visited precincts. Bob Woodward‘s fly-on-the-wall style doesn’t add much when Continue reading

Schizophrenic Egocentric Paranoiac Primadonna

A Beautiful Mind
Sylvia Nasar

Math can be maddening.

That’s one lesson you might draw from this biography of noted mathematician John Forbes Nash, Jr. It might even seem of a piece, if you’ve read the biographies of any other major math figure, for instance, Georg Cantor, who has quite a story of his own.

I wonder, though, how many people really read such Continue reading

A Standout, a Whirlwind Wizard

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
J. K. Rowling

Among Harry Potter‘s many acts of wizardry, the most important was that his creator, in setting him loose in the world, ended the fiction drought, at least for me.

That would be the couple of decades or so where I don’t think I read any fiction but mysteries. In the repurposed and reordered words of a literature professor friend (albeit on a separate subject), it was too hard and wasn’t fun anymore.

Then along came Harry, although I was unaware at first. Truth is, I can be pretty oblivious about popular culture and, as a childless 30-something at the time the first novel was published in the US, I was paying even less attention. I probably clued into conversations between parents two or three years later.

That coincided with a lot of life changes including the decision by the then-not-yet-Mrs. AHC to become an elementary schoolteacher. Suddenly, Potter was in the house and I picked up the book in the same cursory way I pick up so many others.

J.K. Rowling Creator of Harry Potter before the image makeover that accompanied her financial success.

I got hooked.

Now that I’m through reminiscing,  we can get to the book, which I just spent reading aloud with my 8-year old son. His sister, approaching age 11, eschews fantasy, yet many nights found her listening in.  I’ll have to accept some blame for her viewpoint; I’m on record as not being favorably inclined toward the genre myself. What’s so different about Harry?

 

When I first read through the series, our kids had yet to be born. Yet I developed this idea that the series presented a great way to teach lessons about reading and language. I can turn anything into hard work if I try, but maybe I’m looking to justify just how much fun these books are. But when young D expressed an interest, I leapt at the opportunity to see if I was right.

Harry Potter Movie poster

Not just a best-selling book, but also a blockbuster movie.

I should say I’m not obsessive enough to have ascertained certain things. Such as whether Rowling had the arc of the series figured out from the beginning. That’s a recurring rumor among the Star Wars crowd, and it would be normal to wonder the same about Potter. I do know that this volume introduces a majority of the characters that will populate the rest of the novels.

At our first encounter with Harry, we already know more about him than he does of himself. That’s because we’ve been treated to a prologue that establishes the frame within which his wizardly life will uncoil. By comparison, all the 11-year old Harry knows is his Diceknsian existence.  An unwanted orphan living with uncaring relatives, Harry’s sleeping in a cupboard under the stairs, dressed in hand-me-downs and final sale remnants.  He functions as a sort of scullery maid/short-order cook. It’s equal parts Cinderella and Oliver Twist.

Then his past intervenes, in the form of a letter, and his world changes. Of course, it’s not that simple. The Dursleys (that’s the family name his mother’s sister, Petunia, took when she married Vernon; they have a son Dudley) at first try to ignore the mail, then run from it. But even a near-Hebridean hideaway can’t ward off the power of the magical world and Harry gets his Get out of Jail Free card in the form of acceptance at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardy, a sort of enchanted Eton.

Nicolas Flamel, c. 1340–1418
Even real people show up in Potterland.

That’s the good. The bad and the ugly are the same thing, a demonic wizard so terrible none dare utter his name. Except Harry, who, not having been raised among magical types (we’uns, being non-magical, are known as muggles), didn’t get the memo on proper behavior. And no one will question his naming the demon because Voldemort is responsible both for Harry being an orphan and the scar he bears on his forehead from their near-deadly encounter. Harry’s bravery starts with not agreeing to not name his nemesis.

This is a good point to stop for one of those lessons I mentioned. Harry’s story not only fits the good Proppian model, it has all these English overtones. The hero emerging from second class status is right out of the Arthurian legend. There’s that working for Fagin childhood. Hogwarts is itself, a perfectly recognizable British public school.  And then there’s the bad guy’s name. I’m always happy to point out that English is a mash-up of German and French, so how delicious to have a bad guy whose name literally means Flying Death.

Plus, there’s the sorcerer’s stone itself. In this telling, the headmaster of Hogwarts, Albus Dumbledore, is the co-creator of the stone along with Nicolas Flamel. Click on that last link and you’ll quickly find out that a) Flamel really existed and b) is the legendary creator of the philosopher’s stone. As I said, the book is just chock full of things that can help you teach children how to read more actively. (In case you’re wondering, Albus means white and Dumbledore is a bumblee in some English dialect, so there’s your old humming guy, too.)

Even the search for a sorcerer’s stone is rooted in reality. The Alchemist by Joseph Wright of Derby

The tale itself is rollicking and sets a pattern that will prevail through the series. The action takes place over the course of a school year, mostly in and around Hogwarts. There is always a new and problematic faculty member. Harry has friends and enemies among both the students and faculty.

I don’t want to give away too much in this plot-driven story, but I will say the climax involves a confrontation between Harry and Voldemort (and that is always going to be the crux of the matter).

There are six more books in the series, though, so I’m not really giving anything away if I say Harry survives the encounter. But it’s an action-packed battle and my son didn’t see the secondary (and necessary) bad guy coming. I’m betting Rowling would be delighted by D’s gasp at the revealed identity.

Details in a book or movie should matter, though I often wonder if they enter conciously. As this book ends, Harry awakens in the infirmary, three days after his battle with pure evil.

With a little prodding I eked out one last lesson: my kids quickly identified the other well-known figure who rose on the third day.

A Substitute for Another Guy

Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids
Nicholson Baker

“In fact, for me, the whole school year was over.”

That final sentence refers to June 11, 2014, five years ago this coming Tuesday. It’s a bit short of the  actual end of the school year both here and in Maine, where the events recounted take place.

Our raconteur is the novelist, Nicholson Baker. I’ve read Baker before, and enjoy his writing style, deeply detailed as it is. I’ve even enjoyed his obsessions when they are directed at non-fictional subjects.

This time, though, my eternal problem with endings was reinforced by the subject matter. This book didn’t just end. Organized by date, its end coincided with the end of the school year, always a bittersweet event for me. Despite being mostly self-directed in my learning, I need some structure to react to, so July and August always presented a challenge, at least until I discovered taking summer school classes.

Just why a noted, successful writer (whom no one recognizes) felt compelled to undertake a stint of substitute teaching is unclear to me. Early on, he says he “wanted to find out what life in classrooms was really like.” I’m not sure the participant-observer approach is the best way to scratch that itch because, let’s face it, subs don’t do much.

A high school in Maine. I imagine Baker subbed in buildings like this one.

Even Baker admits his activity was mostly limited to maintaining order and handing out worksheets. Both my children attend elementary school and worksheets are the bane of my existence. I understand the intent is to reinforce skills. I even grant you the notion is not new. I just don’t think they work.

A half century ago we ‘did dittoes‘ which were simply worksheets run off on a duplicating machine with a big A.B. Dick logo on the side. Some teachers called them stencils and, since similar machines were still in use when I entered the workforce, office workers tended to call them mimeos. Picking up dittoes from the office amused the hell out of us Catholic school boys once we had started to build our schoolyard vocabularies. As to the content, beats me and I can remember events from those years in vivid detail.

What’s stuck in my mind about dittoes is that there was so much alcohol in the duplicating fluid you could get drunk off the fumes. A test or worksheet fresh from the office invariably resulted in dozens of youngsters pulling rectangular sheets across their faces and inhaling deeply, as though following a 19th-century deep-breathing regimen. All because a Xerox machine cost so much that no school, and many businesses, couldn’t afford one. (The last workplace I can remember using mimeos was a division of Westinghouse, then a Fortune 500 corporation.)

The technology of my elementary school years: the ditto machine.

You may wonder what dittoes and tipsy students have to do with a serious, 719-page book. Actually, quite a bit because the book amounts to pages of student observations much like my stencil tale, all updated for the 21st century. Depsite all the technology–laptops, iPads, smart boards–kids are still kids and school is still something they have to get through.

Again, that’s something Baker says and, like me, he does it a bit ruefully. That might be the most interesting thing I learned. Baker and I are close in age but our own educations couldn’t be more different. He seems to have taken part in almost every educational experiment being run in the public schools of Monroe County, New York during the 1960s and 70s. I sat in one of 30 or more desks arranged in rows following an approach still used in many parochial schools and found similar rows when I moved along to the local public high school.

And yet he and I both wound up , in his words, “in college where I learned how to write and work hard.” Yet I’m haunted by how much more I could have gotten out of school if I’d been alternately pushed and given freedom instead of being controlled. Perhaps I am an unregimentable personality, but maybe–here’s an idea– teachers can learn from their students. I do, every semester I teach.

There’s a lot more tech in today’s classroom although it seems to be used for entertainment as much as learning.

Baker, the miniaturist, conveys his frustrations, which I’d describe as parallel to mine, rather than similar or the same, through his chosen approach: detailed description. Actually, detailed description might be a misstatement. Detailed transcription might be more accurate because, although the names have been changed, the things the kids say are reported more or less verbatim.

I actually have no basis for making that last claim. The kids voices sound authentic, at least to me. But I’ve spoken before of Baker’s style and how like Shaker furniture it requires stripping all ornamentation to reveal beauty. These kids are maybe a bit too verbally perfect, but I am comfortable with novelistic touches in reportage and non-fiction.

I could demonstrate but, even cleansed of all its “uhms,” “ahs” and “you knows,” kid language isn’t terribly interesting to read. At least not page after page of it and at least not to me. If I were peer-reviewing this as a social science manuscript  I’d suggest paring back and classifying the quotes so the reader can follow the author’s point.

Education really ought to be about the kids. Baker & I agree on that.

Baker, no doubt, would disagree and perhaps he’s right. His method certainly does manage to convey the repetitive and mundane nature of school days including the administrative intrusions and mandates that make a challenging situation farcical at times.

There’s a reason schools are the way they are and I’d send you all off with a reading list that begins with Randall Collins if you’re really interested. Or you can spend, as I did, a semester with Baker and his kids. I’m not sure you’ll come away understanding ‘why’ schools are the way they are. You may, as I did, come away with so many questions about classroom practice that a working teacher flees at the sight of you.  (Whenever I’d start a question, my in-house educator, Mrs. AHC, would utter a prayer aloud that I finish reading the book already.)

Maybe, though, you’ll come away as Baker (I think) and I did,  marveling at the curiosity and inventiveness of children. And loving them for it even as we shuddered at the institutional nuisances thrown at them.

 

 

 

 

 

I Can’t Stand Losing You

The Closers
Michael Connelly

Sometimes, I think I’ve forgotten how to read. In reality, though, what I’ve forgotten is how to finish reading.

Especially these days,  when it seems that starting a book is easier than finishing one. A well-informed friend says the inability to focus–always a struggle around here–is Continue reading

Libraries Gave Us Power

Books of College Libraries are Turning into Wallpaper
Dan Cohen at The Atlantic

When you’re a kid everything  you encounter already exists. So, in a weird permutation of object permanence,  it must always have. Looked at like that, even the quite new can seem very old.

My childhood spanned a time when the closer-in suburbs of New York were still growing and things were relatively new.   As Continue reading

Rise Up Singing: A Six Pack and Playlist

Memorial Day 2019

Living in a consumer society, I think, is such an immersive experience that it’s easy to forget holidays have meaning. I enjoy kicking off summer as much as anyone, but I try to remember Memorial Day is really about fallen soldiers, sailors and airmen.

So I will, on Monday morning,  view the big parade here in town, and do so Continue reading

Blues for Dixie

South to a Very Old Place
Albert Murray

The first time I encountered the idea that prose could mimic music was during my Jack Kerouac obsession. Time and again I’d come across the assertion that his goal was to capture on the page the rhythms, textures and fluidity of a Bop solo.

I didn’t, couldn’t really see it. The jazz I knew was the music of the Swing era, and its purpose was dancing. If I held any opinion about the jazz of the 1950s it was second-hand, acquired from Chuck Berry.

My ignorance and obsession have long since passed. Some days, though, Chuck still seems wise and I have a hard time finding music on the page. When I do, it’s usually in a poem. Prose is not without rhythm and melody, it’s just harder to find, though I count myself a part-time searcher.

If that describes you, and you’d care to take a break from looking, this book offers a perfect example of what the fruits of your search should resemble.

Albert Murray is the real deal. Around here that phrase always means the same thing: a writer of immense talent who has invested time in honing their craft and whose erudition is apparent. That last bit is important because, for me, erudition goes beyond an ability to quote Classics or 19th Century German philosophers at will.

Robert Penn Warren
1905-1989

While either of those examples might impress me, I take an expansive view of knowledge. A student of the streets is no less knowledgeable than a PhD and often in a better position to attest to truth. Nor does a writer need to be deeply immersed in one subject. Synthesis is what really bowls me over again and again.

Allow me to sketch a quick biography of the present author. Born in Mobile County, Alabama, in 1916, Murray was of the same generation as Rosa Parks, born into a segregated society soon after the birth of the NAACP and the death of Booker T. Washington. Murray attended Tuskegee Institute, from which he graduated in 1939, where he became lifelong friends with Ralph Ellison.

Murray joined the Army Air Force and served during World War II and remained in the reserves after the war ended. Though he tried to earn his living teaching he returned to active duty in the 1950s and rose to the rank of major before retiring, about the time I was born. He then moved to New York, completed his education with an MA from NYU and took up writing.

Always a music lover, his beat included writing about jazz and he moved in an orbit that included Duke Ellington and Count Basie, whose biography he would later write. The present book emerged from an assignment he accepted from Willie Morris, the legendary editor of Harpers in the 1960s. Morris, a man who brought Mississippi with him when he moved north and who later returned home, had a simple request: Go home to the post-Civil Rights Act South and see what’s really going on.

William ‘Count’ Basie
1904-1984

You and I, faced with such a task, would probably hop in the car or book a flight to Hartsfield. Murray caught the New Haven Railroad and headed further north. It’s really no small act of genius to begin an inspection of the contemporary South with a visit to the precincts of Yale.

But Robert Penn Warren was there ensconced. And what better place to begin than with an apostate apologist for segregation–a man who not only changed his mind but became an advocate for civil rights? That Warren wrote one of the classic novels set in the South–based loosely on one of the South’s real, larger-than-life characters–was icing on the cake.

The book–I’ve no idea if it was ever published as an article or series of articles–reminds me, structurally, of a jazz number. There is a head (the prologue and New Haven section) that sets the theme, and a coda (the New Orleans, Greenville, Memphis section). In between, it’s all riffing, a term I use in the best sense of the word.  For a jazz player, composing riffs and melodies out of raw material is the name of the game.

Murray hits his stride in those middle choruses named Greensboro, Atlanta, Tuskegee and Mobile. The first two represent different battlegrounds of the Civil Rights movement. If Greensboro is famous for the sit-ins, Atlanta, home of Morehouse College and Dr. King‘s family, was famously the self-declared ‘City too Busy to Hate.

The John A. Andrews Memorial Hospital at the Tuskegee Institute

Much of the book is dialog, placed in the mouths of locals, some Murray has known since boyhood. The closer he gets to home, the more the words fly, the rhythms pound and the truth flows. I never find it difficult to identify a writer whose background is lower than middle class. You can’t fake your way into the knowledge and trust of people just like you who stayed at home. That the truths revealed may be uncomfortable to those who would establish the proper narrative is part of the fun.

In an epigram, Murray warns us “Not everything in this book is meant to be taken literally” a point he immediately undercuts by saying he has changed names. The best way to convey the language, and the insider honesty, is with an extended quote sure to piss off almost everyone with an ax to grind on the subject of race relations. The speaker is an unidentified Mobile resident who has known Murray since boyhood:

“I’m talking about the goddamn white folks now. They come up and figure out how they can let a lot of loudmouth hustlers in there that don’t belong in there. Because they know good and well these the ones ain’t going to study. So that’s what we got now. We send them up there to learn what them white boys learning about running the goddam world and they up there out marching and wearing all that old three-ring circus stuff and talking about how they got to study about Africa. Now what I say is if that’s all they want to know they ain’t got no business up there. That’s what I say. Because the white man only too glad if they rather learn about Africa instead of how to run the world. I say them Africans already known about Africa, and what good is it doing them?” (pp. 182-183)

I can’t be certain if a transcript or recording of this, or any of the other reported conversation, exists but I don’t think that’s the point. This is Joseph Mitchell reportage and if the truth on the page is a work of artful construction rooted in fact I can live with that.

That last sentence used the words art and truth and I selected neither lightly. By the time you reach this quote you’ve traveled quite a ways with Murray. Your BS radar would have, should have pinged if you found him less than truthful. Was the above speech excerpt, with its accelerating rhythm and rising frustration, spoken verbatim? I’m not sure it matters because it has the same ring of truth as conversations I hear when I return to the neighborhood of my blue-collar youth.

I can offer no higher accolade than Albert Murray, great American writer.

 

 

 

With a Little Luck

Lucky Jim
Kingsley Amis

My son, the budding 8-year old literary critic, has built his evaluative armory on a strong foundation: cover illustrations. He subjects these packaging exercises to analysis–cursory or detailed depending on his mood–and generates more questions about the content than Leslie Fiedler could.

He had a lot of questions about the present volume. Continue reading

Life’s Sweet Promise

Easter/Passover 2019

The last week–with seemingly more stresses, distractions and interruptions, not  to mention conflagrations and reports on investigations–has left less time for the work I write about here.

So I turn to an older tradition, one I’ve been reading about, and hopefully will turn to soon: festivity. Celebration is important to everyone’s soul and it’s important to nurture that part of us.

Two great faith traditions use this time of year to mark the promise of rebirth and renewal. In that spirit, I wish you all the bounties and blessings of the season.

Peace.

A Building Which is on Fire

Thoughts the morning after the Notre Dame fire

The great world city I know best after my hometown is Paris.  If New York stands a monument to commerce and the ever-changing, Paris stands the same to the eternal and the beautiful.

Notre Dame sits at the center of that city, Continue reading

A Supersonic Honeymoon

The Glimpses of the Moon
(Four Novels of the 1920s, A Library of  America Volume)
Edith Wharton

Come with me to a favorite locale: Wharton country. There’s no reason you’d know that; supporting evidence isn’t exactly abundant.

I may even be overstating the case. A better, though dated, analogy might be a certain type of uptown resident who Continue reading

The Town that Billy Sunday Couldn’t Shut Down

Never a City so Real: A Walk in Chicago
Alex Kotlowitz

Once, in my business travels, I met a man from Chicago. Over the course of a somewhat lopsided conversation he made his love of his home town apparent, finally asking me where I was from.

New York,” I answered, dreading what was about to come. Continue reading

But They Don’t Have Cash

The Story of Outlaw Country in 33 Songs
Pitchfork.com

You didn’t think I’d go missing that easily, did you? Just don’t think I’ve made much progress on my primary assignment. (I did, however, add another volume to the stack, which may not be the optimal way to reduce the size of the task.)

Luckily, my friends at Pitchfork stood ready to help with this recently posted (October 2018) look at the roots of, well, roots music. The story, such as it is, is really a collection Continue reading

Grazing in the Grass

Not so much reading as grazing

Another week, another goal missed. At some point this backlog thing has to work itself out.

In the meantime, there are more than a few  items, published but lacking harder covers, to call to your attention. Given the number of academic papers I’m reading, that could Continue reading

Ever Since I Been Ridin’

A Subway for New York
David Weitzman

I confess. I cheated.

Making little progress on my stacks of reading material, I started in on the children’s novel I’d assigned Miss AHC, telling myself it was a noble effort to Continue reading

Somebody Done Somebody Wrong

Rumpole and the Reign of Terror
John Mortimer

You can always tell when I have too much going on because the only books I  finish are lighter fare. That puts you in an enviable position since, unlike Mrs. AHC, you needn’t deal with the stacks of unfinished tomes Continue reading

Don’t Go Back to Rockville

spencervilleSpencerville
Nelson DeMille

Let me state the obvious: there is no song lyric about Spencerville, at least that I’m aware of. And so I find myself stretching to make a completely unrelated burg serve as a stand-in so I can maintain a conceit about post titles.

Well, I had to fail sometime. And since none of this has Continue reading

Let Me Take a Ride

Echo Park
Michael Connelly

Here’s a puzzle I have no intention of solving: the dust jacket of my copy of this book bears a discounted price label from Barnes & Noble. No surprise, I regularly prowl the remainder bins and Sales Annex looking for bargains.

What’s surprising is that the book itself has all the markings of a library volume–acquisition date stamp, ‘property of’ stamp, even an indication it has been Continue reading