Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Viva President Hamlet!

There is a moment in the 1999 high school film Election in which student Tracy Flick comments on the life of her social studies teacher, Mr. McAllister. As she speculates about what it must be like to teach the same material year after year, we see a series of shots of him drawing the same balance of powers triangle on the chalkboard (legislative, judicial, executive), each time wearing a different tie-and-short-sleeve-shirt ensemble. Perfect. When people think about what can make teaching a drag at times, discipline problems and low pay may come to mind first, but there’s a certain mental repetitive motion syndrome that can plague teachers too.

But repetition has its rewards. In English, if you read a layered text enough times, it starts to reveal things to you that aren’t evident upon a first reading. Last month my Obama’s reading list class read Hamlet. It was my first time teaching it in several years, but I’d taught it five or six times before, so the text is quite familiar to me. The timing was good from a current events standpoint: just as we were reading it, the President was being accused of Hamletesque irresolution on the question of what to do about Afghanistan. You know – just as the Prince paralyzes himself with angst and delays avenging his father’s murder, so Obama uses endless deliberation to put off a tough choice as long as he can. But when Obama’s opponents use Hamlet to criticize him, they’re just revealing how poorly they understand the character and the story.

Because Hamlet chastises himself repeatedly for not getting revenge in a timely fashion (“I do not know / why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do.’”), it is easy for the reader conclude that he really has dawdled. But has he? There is powerful evidence that his self-imposed guilt trip is undeserved. To be sure, Hamlet does plenty that is blameworthy - his abusive treatment of his girlfriend comes to mind - but his reluctance to go off half cocked and kill his uncle just makes sense. After the ghost of his father first charges him with avenging the murder, Hamlet prudently decides to confirm the story before proceeding. After all, he's not a natural-born killer, and “A ghost told me to do it” won’t stand up in court as justification for a murder. He needs corroboration. Claudius’ guilty behavior during a play recreating the alleged murder serves as a smoking gun. Now Hamlet just needs an opportunity. One emerges promptly, but Hamlet thinks his revenge would be poorly served by killing the villain while he’s at prayer. That same evening he stabs viciously at what he hopes is the king, but it turns out to be the king’s adviser, Polonius, spying on him. Before he gets another chance, Claudius has Hamlet hustled aboard a boat for England, presumably never to be seen again. So where’s the delay? He’s got blood on his hands, but up until he saw conclusive evidence of Claudius’ guilt he wasn’t delaying: he was just making sure.

And Shakespeare does provide us with an example of what happens when we act rashly. Laertes, son of the murdered Polonius, comes back to Denmark sword drawn, an action hero ready to take his father's killer. Unfortunately, he’s so rage-crazed that his reason fails him: he allows Claudius to lure him into a murder plot that ultimately means ruin for everybody. Laertes may be decisive, but he perfectly illustrates the perils of decisiveness untempered with judgment (Laertes would have been right at home on the White House national security team in 2003). As Hamlet says

Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unus’d.

Hell yeah. Time will tell whether President Obama made the right choice about Afghanistan, but I'm glad we have a leader now who makes thorough use of his "large discourse." If Obama was being like Hamlet in his deliberations, that ought to be a compliment. As another great Shakespearean character tells us, “The better part of valor is discretion.” I’ll take discretion in my President, even if some mistakenly see it as irresolution.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Just Barely a Child of the Sixties

Today is Becki’s 40th birthday.

What can I say today about my answered prayer?

Just this, something that is not news to her friends and family, but it's worth saying anyway: To know her is to love her.

In other news, in the family competition for most blog traffic, Josie’s “Doggy Daily” is killing “FDR Jones.” What gives? Clearly, the reading public is more interested in her dog polls than in my sophisticated ruminations on Gerald Ford, Louis Rukeyser, and Oscar Peterson. Fine. Whatever.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Of Cabbage Patch Kids and Hail Marys

“Turn that off. We have to go.”

It was the day after Thanksgiving, 1984. We were watching a football game, me and my brother our cousins Bill and Ben. We were resuming a custom, the four of us, visiting our Grandmother Grace at her home in Chester, S.C. for Thanksgiving. I don’t remember how we spent most of the day – probably helping her rake leaves – but now we had settled in to watch a football game, a good one, too, a real barn-burner between Boston College and Miami. The Hurricanes had just taken the lead with about a minute left. What would the Eagles do?

Thanks to Grandmother Grace, we weren’t going to find out. She had made us turn the game off, and we were off to the Rose’s store on the bypass. They had obtained a shipment of Cabbage Patch kids and were going to raffle one off every half hour. This was the year that Cabbage Patch kids had become a phenomenon and were practically unobtainable. One raffle ticket per customer, so Grandmother Grace was making us all come along with her to get more tickets. It wasn’t that Grandmother Grace herself was obsessed with getting a Cabbage Patch kid. She wanted one for her only granddaughter, our six-year-old cousin Jessica, who had requested one for – was it for her birthday or for Christmas? I forget. They happen to be the same day.

I cannot speak for my brother or my cousins, but the idea of participating in Grandmother Grace’s scheme stuck in my craw, and not just because I was having to miss the end of a football game. Though Grandmother Grace was always more than generous when it counted, she appeared to put as much thought into our birthday gifts as she did into the radio settings on her LTD. She was especially big on pen and pencil sets. Why the favoritism for Jessica? How was it that she rated a special trip to Rose’s instead of a last minute trip to the drugstore? Bill had theorized that we could discern our place in the grandchild pecking order by checking out the contents of a clear plastic cube Grandmother Grace had for displaying family pictures. When we visited, Bill liked to make a big show of seeing whether he had “made the cube.” Thanks to her cuteness and our Uncle Tom’s enthusiasm for photography, Jessica was dominating the cube. We boys strongly suspected that our age and gender were actually detriments to our image in Grandmother Grace’s eyes. Jessica was small and cute and sweet and – above all – a girl. As her less-exalted kin, we simply had to accept the fact that our chief value to Grandmother Grace at this particular point was that we increased the odds of her being able to deliver a Cabbage Patch kid to her angelic granddaughter.

That such a devout Presbyterian could gamble so calculatingly was impressive, I suppose. And her plan worked. We only had to mosey around Rose’s for an hour before my ticket number was called. Grandmother Grace exploded with the same kind of joy I used to see when she had a winning hand at Shang Hai. She gave me a bone-crunching hug and took the ticket off to claim the prize for Jessica. I have always felt that in that moment my worthiness in her eyes took a dramatic leap, almost compensating for my failure to play golf or take Latin.

It had been a mildly amusing evening, I suppose. No real inconvenience, and Grandmother Grace was happy. No skin off anybody’s nose. Or so we thought.

While Grandmother Grace and Ben and Rob went off to play golf the next day, Bill and I went out for pizza. We stopped to get a newspaper on the way back to the house. He got dibs on the sports section, and we retreated to opposite parts of the house to relax for a while.

The relaxation did not last long. Bill began bellowing profanely from downstairs, as though something truly horrible had happened. I thought he had injured himself.

“What is it? What is it?” I yelled.

“BOSTON COLLEGE WON!” he yelled back, shaking the sports page angrily.

It was true. While chasing down a Cabbage Patch Kid for Jessica, we had missed the greatest play in college football history.

It has been 25 years since Flutie's miracle pass. Our last Thanksgiving visit to Grandmother Grace's house was a long time ago - I miss those trips every year. Jessica is all grown-up now, a successful photographer, and she has taken our abuse about this incident over the years with more good humor than we deserve. It would be hard to argue at this point that Grandmother Grace did not exhibit good taste in choosing her favorite.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Topic Dump

In the two years I didn’t post anything I was regularly thinking of things I would like to write about if I ever started blogging again. Now these ideas are impediments to me – they weigh me down as unfinished business instead of opportunities. So I am going to dispatch with all of them quickly.

The Goose

Two months ago, arsonists – perhaps not intending the level of destruction their act accomplished, but arsonists nonetheless – destroyed an old and treasured classroom building at the school where I teach, the Paideia School. The building was called “The Mother Goose.” Paideia is composed of a combination of modern classroom buildings and old Druid Hills homes repurposed for classroom space. The Goose was one of those old homes. When the school acquired it, it had been most recently used as a day care center called “The Mother Goose,” and the name stuck (as our headmaster Paul Bianchi observed in his speech to the high school student body the Monday after the fire, there could not have been another high school building in America with a name like that). It must have been heartbreaking to watch it burn. A colleague who was there told me that the inferno reminded him of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace. When I first saw the shell of the Goose, my eyes were drawn to the two chimneys, scorched and old and rising up high out of the ruins. They put me in mind of old photographs one sometimes sees of Georgia mansions in the wake of Sherman’s army.

The Goose was home to several outstanding teachers, and its front porch was the unofficial but clearly designated place for freshmen to congregate. Though much more was saved than anyone who witnessed the fire would have thought, the teachers who made the Goose their home have been deprived of much that they treasured. The loss of an old couch that had been signed by many years of students was particularly tough to take. The faculty refugees from the Goose have become my new neighbors (my building was the only one on campus with enough extra classroom space to accommodate the displaced). I hate the circumstances that brought them to me, but I am glad to be rubbing shoulders now with some of the teachers who have made Paideia what it is. It is also comforting to know that they ought to get their home back. As far as I know, plans are to rebuild the Goose, complete with the spacious porch, but with more modern appointments inside.

When I look back on this episode, Paul’s closing comments in his remarks to the students the Monday after the fire come immediately to mind: “We’ll get through this. We’ll get through this because of the way we treat each other. They can’t burn that down.” Or, as signs that appeared around the school said, “The Goose may be cooked, but we’re not.”

Laughing at Shylock

For my last English course as an undergraduate at UGa, I was assigned to write about how I would stage one of the Shakespeare plays we read in that class. I had not seen enough live Shakespeare at the time to realize how common it is in performance to set the play somewhere other than 16th century England, medieval Italy, ancient Rome, etc. I had never heard of Orson Welles’ voodoo Macbeth or of his Julius Caesar set in fascist Italy. Ethan Hawke's twentieth century Manhattanite Hamlet was still many years down the road. So I didn’t have much of anything to propose. I do recall suggesting that it would be interesting to plant some people in the audience who would respond to the action onstage as people probably responded at the Globe Theater in 1605. I don’t think I did well on that essay. I know that the class overall was my worst grade by far in my major.

I forgot all about it until a couple of years ago when my father-in-law and I were attending a performance of The Merchant of Venice at Atlanta’s Shakespeare Tavern. We had been discussing whether the play is anti-semitic. I like Harold Bloom’s contention that Shylock is “the right Jew in the wrong play” – that is, Shakespeare humanized him as much as he dared, but the combined forces of dramatic convention and the Christian orthodoxy of his time required him to put poor Shylock on a one-way path to villainy and a villain's fate.

What put me in mind of my bad essay of twenty years before is something that happened near the end. You’ll recall that not only does Shylock fail to recover his pound of flesh from Antonio, but he loses everything, even his Judaism – the Venetian court forces him to convert. At that moment in the Shakespeare Tavern production, the judge delicately removed Shylock’s yarmulke. And somebody in the audience laughed! It did seem to me that we had time-traveling visitor, a guest audience member from Elizabethan England enjoying the sight of a Christ-killing villain getting his comeuppance (the play is a comedy, after all), while us 21st century theatergoers recoiled at the unnecessary humiliation of a fellow human being.


In the summer of 2008 we took a wonderful family trip up the East coast (stopping for three nights each in Washington, Boston, and Rhode Island), then into Canada (three nights in Montreal), then across Canada to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to meet up with Becki’s family at Mackinac Island. It was a great trip – the kids got to see most of the sights you would expect them to see in the places we visited, the car travel was pleasant, the accommodations first rate and our hosts more than gracious – all in all a journey we will look back on fondly.

Except for one thing: re-enactors.

The sight of grown men and women publicly playing elaborate games of dress up and pretend - and expecting me to play along! - gives me the willies. I know I ought to feel differently - I am keen on history, after all - but something in me just can't endure re-enactors. I can’t look them in the eye. I am embarrassed for them. In the early stages of our trip there weren’t many. We only came across a couple at Mount Vernon, dressed like 18th century servants and apparently living under the delusion that they were about to throw a party for General Washington. I managed to smile my way through those encounters, queasy as they made me. There were no re-enactors at Gettysburg, much to my surprise and relief. But between Boston and Rhode Island we stopped at Plymouth Plantation, a recreation of both the original Puritan settlement and a Wampanoag village nearby. And these places were staffed, as it were, by “colonists” sitting in their little houses, staying in character as they told tourists about the eel soup they had just eaten that gave them good “belly cheer,” and “Native Peoples” using fire to hollow out tree trunks for canoes in their huts (I believe most of the Native Peoples were actually Native Peoples, but you get my point). I kept my distance from all of them. Later, up the road in the town of Plymouth, my wife struck up a conversation with a re-enactor during our visit to the reproduction of the Mayflower. He “was” an English sailor, and he complained bitterly about the Puritan accusations that the crew of the ship had stolen from them. That’s what Becki told me, anyway. I wouldn’t go near the man.

Not Enough Sartys in Baghdad

A while back I decided there were interesting parallels between Faulkner’s short story “Barn Burning” and the situation in Iraq – we needed fewer blood-and-honor hotheads like Ab Snopes trying to preserve their dignity by incendiary means and more people like his son Sarty, nascent adherents to a higher sense of justice: the rule of law for all, not just me and mine. But then my analogy turned nasty on me. What does it make the U.S.? Major DeSpain, the white-columned mansion owning, French-rug having, tenant-farmer oppressing, Confederate veteran.

So I decided to leave that alone.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Hard Waves of Nausea

Last Saturday was perhaps the darkest moment in a dark year for Georgia football fans. Leading perennial doormat Kentucky 20-6 at halftime, we turned it over four times in the second half to lose 34-27, despite having outgained the Wildcats by 150 yards. It was our first home loss to Kentucky since the legendary 1977 debacle, when they shellacked us 33-0 – at homecoming, no less! – with Prince Charles in attendance. As an Athenian, I remember well that civic humiliation before royalty. Even James Brown performing “Dooley’s Junkyard Dogs” at halftime could bestow no mojo on our lackluster team (Who was the greater eminence in Sanford Stadium that day, anyway, The Prince of Wales or the Godfather of Soul?). Last Saturday’s loss was a fitting end to a depressing week (the entire Bulldog Nation mourned the untimely death of Uga VII) and a depressing season, a revolting spectacle of a talented team shooting itself in the foot with catastrophic turnovers, untimely penalties, and faulty execution.

As the Kentucky game dragged toward its inevitable conclusion, I found myself missing Larry Munson, the radio play-by-play man who retired before last season after 40 years behind the mike. Georgia fans revere Munson. His call of the most famous play in school history, a touchdown pass from Buck Belue to Lindsay Scott to save the game against Florida during the 1980 championship season, is part of every fan’s mental soundtrack, along with other well-known Munsonisms: “Look at the sugar falling from the sky!” and “We just stomped on their face with a hobnail boot!” Especially during his later years, Munson was not known for clearly describing the action on the field, but that scarcely mattered to any of us who had grown to love him. The point of listening to his call of a game was not to know precisely what was happening but to participate in the psychodrama of Munson’s experience of the game. He was a notorious pessimist. It we were ahead, there was always too much time left on the clock. If we were behind, Lady Luck was not going to smile on us. For this reason, when things did turn out well- especially if it happened in dramatic fashion – having gone through the game enduring Munson’s angst made the thrill that much more thrilling. Yes, Munson was weak on the details, but when he retired, AJC sports columnist Steve Hummer aptly summed up what the change in the broadcast booth would mean for Georgia fans: “Know more, feel less.”

Munson’s celebratory calls are justly celebrated, and I think they sell well on DVD. But I’m sorry some enterprising person at the UGa Athletic Association has not made a compilation of Munson’s calls of on-field disasters. I regard those as some of his greatest performances. Why shouldn’t they be? Can anyone recite the radio call of a successful docking of the Hindenburg? Munson’s spontaneous imagery was just as vivid, just as memorable when the Dogs were experiencing the agony of defeat. It could even be cathartic. I recall a home game in the late nineties, after we had won an improbable victory over Auburn the week before and finally seemed about to turn the corner and get out of mediocrity. But then fate ordained that we lose to Ole Miss at home. When our failure to convert on fourth down made defeat in that game inevitable, Munson growled, “And hard waves of nausea sweep across the stadium.”

I suppose that’s how it was last weekend after the Kentucky game. Too bad Munson wasn’t there to be the Greek chorus commenting grievously on the nightmare unfolding before him.

This season isn’t over yet, mind you: we face Georgia Tech this Saturday, as we do every Thanksgiving weekend. The tables appear to have turned in this series. After losing to the Bulldogs seven straight years, the Yellow Jackets won 45-42 last year under their new coach, Paul Johnson, with his triple option offense. This year Tech is 10-1 and ranked seventh in the country. The Jackets and their coach are getting great press (A couple of weeks ago, one of the hosts on the sports talk station I listen to in the morning said, “If you’re a Georgia fan, you must be sick of hearing about Paul Johnson.” Yes. I. Am.) While Tech rides high, Georgia is 6-5 and unranked, after several years of top ten finishes. Coach Mark Richt, who revived Georgia’s program after years of mediocrity, is catching hell from the fan base. He will almost certainly have to fire his underperforming defensive coordinator Willie Martinez after the season.

As is always the case in a rivalry game, this is an opportunity for a frustrated team to salvage its season. A victory would be especially sweet this year: the Dogs are 7 point underdogs, and beating Tech would utterly tarnish what has been a magical season for them. Do I think an upset likely? No way. I don’t see how our undisciplined defense is supposed to slow down Tech’s juggernaut offense enough to allow our erratic offense to score enough to beat them. But you never know. Tech does not appear invincible - they barely escaped 4-6 Wake Forest. What if the Georgia defense that stuffed Auburn for three quarters shows up? Quarterback Joe Cox threw two bad interceptions in the second half against Kentucky, but he threw three touchdowns in the first half. If competent Joe shows up Saturday, who knows?

Sic ‘em, Dawgs.

UPDATE, SATURDAY NIGHT, 11:30: In the words of new voice of the Bulldogs Scott Howard, "the earth is back on its proper axis again."

Saturday, September 19, 2009

I am a Legit Coach, Thanks to My New Shirt

“Hey Coach, how much time before class starts?"

Kids used to say things like that to me often during my eighteen years teaching high school in Gwinnett County. The funny part, of course, was that I was never a coach. Not even close, not even an assistant coach for a 9th grade team in a marginal sport. In fact, one look at me would suggest the most unlikely coach imaginable, more Gilligan than Lombardi. But if you’re a male teacher and kids don’t know your name, they feel comfortable addressing you as “coach.” It just goes with the territory.

Coaches – especially football coaches - are a breed apart in Southern high schools. They carry themselves with a sense of mastery unavailable to the mass of ordinary teachers. The head football coach rivals the principal as the most prominent adult in the building. Coaches are often suspected of neglecting their teaching duties for the sake of their first passion, whatever their sport happens to be (I have found that the suspicion is sometimes founded, but usually not). The coach is a go-to person when you’re having a discipline problem with one of his players. Often he can clear the trouble right up. At times fate placed me alone in the company of a group of coaches, perhaps at a faculty luncheon or in the mailroom, and at those times I always felt like a dork at a fraternity party: “So, you guys talking strategy? How 'bout that spread offense, huh?” A sense of masculine insufficiency swept over me.

Demeanor alone will usually serve to identify a coach, but the wardrobe helps, too. When I was in high school, coaches were known for too-tight polyester shorts, polo shirts with team logos that barely covered their ample girths, and white turf shoes with black soles. At my high school, the paragon of this ensemble was a portly but spirited fellow known to students and faculty alike as “Coach Bow Wow." Contemporary coaches dress somewhat more stylishly, though they still have a fondness for pleats. The key coach fashion item today is the shirt, an expensive meshy thing with cool piping and a stitched-on team logo.

Last Monday our school athletic director came over to a group I was helping lead at our athletic fields. He was distributing this year’s school coach shirts.

One of them was for me.

I have a coach shirt, a for real coach shirt, and I did not get it secondhand at a thrift store.

My coach shirt is not mere “spirit wear.” Anybody can obtain spirit wear, the logo-emblazoned polo shirts that faculty are allowed to wear on Fridays. Coach shirts like mine are available only to actual coaches (and perhaps a few well-connected team fathers).

My coach shirt gives me special powers over others. I might find it necessary to instruct you to drop and give me twenty. If so, you had better do it. If I tell you to take a knee, you better take a knee and listen attentively. I might remind you – without irony – that there is no “i” in “team,” and if I do you will reflect with shame on the many ways your selfishness has detracted from the team’s success in achieving team goals.

Oh, sure I can hear the skeptics pointing out with a smirk that I am in possession of this shirt because I am a junior varsity ULTIMATE FRISBEE coach. So? I am an official coach, I have coach shirt to prove it, and I expect all of you to give 110%.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Once Again He Models the Appropriate Behavior

"To be a writer is to throw away a great deal, not to be satisfied, to type again, and then again and once more, and over and over." -- John Hersey (author of Hiroshima)

I have seen many inspiring images of Barack Obama since he came on the national stage in 2004, but none has made my heart soar like the photograph at the right: he is on Air Force One revising his health care address. Look at him give that text the business! As one of the countless high school English teachers struggling to get student writers to approach revision as the great opportunity that it is, I find this photograph positively thrilling.

The image is a little blurry, but I believe he has written himself a marginal note: "At this point I will bait a right wing yahoo into heckling me, thereby exposing the illogic and bad faith of the opposition."

By the way, in light of last night's behavior from Joe Wilson, my mother has advised me to conceal her and my South Carolina origins. Can't do it Mom. I will not deny my home state; it continues to be what it has been since 1860: "Too small to be a republic, too big to be an insane asylum."

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Obama's School Speech: When You Win, You Get the Platform

By way of a mass email, we got word this afternoon from the principal of our son’s elementary school that the school would present the President’s address to America’s schoolchildren on a delayed basis, and that children whose parents wanted them not to see it would be exempt. Then came another email: the speech will be shown in real time, but the right to choose out stands. This second plan sounds about right, I suppose, though I share Eduwonk's grievance: "What sorry point have we reached where the President of the United States can’t give a speech to schoolkids without it turning into a political circus?"

It’s a fine speech, an excellent use of Obama’s life story and the platform of the Presidency to encourage students to take responsibility for their own learning. I look forward to hearing him deliver it. Reading it affirms my belief that many of the conservatives who object to it aren’t really worried about their children being subjected to socialist indoctrination but about their children being subjected to evidence that the President isn’t Huey Newton.

I’m intrigued by this controversy. The charge that Obama is using his access to schools for political advantage reminds me that I once witnessed what I believe was a real instance of that phenomenon.

It was three years ago, and it involved the SAT. As every politically cognizant Georgian knows, the SAT is sore spot in our state. We annually have close to the lowest state average in the nation. Education professionals know not to take this low ranking too seriously. A disproportionately high number of our students take the SAT, making it an invalid way to compare our state’s educational performance to that of other states (the NAEP is better - there we typically rank in the high 30s). Furthermore, even if we could insure fair proportionality of test takers, the SAT – which professes to be nothing more than a predictor of first year college performance - would still be a dubious measure of the overall performance of a high school. Jay Mathews, the foremost education reporter in country and a school rankings maven, has warned repeatedly against using SAT scores to evaluate schools. By extension, SAT scores shouldn't be used to evaluate the performance of county or state school systems.

But everybody knows what a big deal the test is for college admissions, and the scores are published, as are the rankings, so even though it makes no sense to get worked up about our national SAT ranking, we get worked up about our national SAT ranking. The day the rankings come out and we're down there in the basement with South Carolina, you can expect public statements from the State Superintendent of Schools and the Governor that sound an awful lot like a football coach looking for the silver lining in the aftermath 30 point loss.

Our Governor, Sonny Perdue, is, if nothing else, an astute politician. To help combat Georgia’s annual SAT embarrassment he launched The Governor's Cup, an award to recognize those schools that achieve the highest average gains on the SAT. Presumably, many schoolwide efforts to earn this prestigious award would lead to a statewide bump in scores (it hasn’t yet panned out). In 2006, the high school where I was teaching won The Governor’s Cup.

I was skeptical, of course. I believed the Governor's Cup program reeked of politicized policymaking, and I despised anything that might further orient us toward test prep instead of real teaching. I don’t think I was alone in those thoughts, nor was I alone in my suspicion that our school’s dramatic improvement in scores was due at least in part to a demographic anomaly. The school was only three years old. When it opened, juniors and seniors who wanted to remain at the three high schools we were drawing our student body from had the liberty to do so, provided they could provide their own transportation. Consequently, our first two senior classes were smaller and less talented than the ones that would follow. We did what we could to help our students do well on the SAT, of course, but the big jump in scores probably resulted more from who our students were that year than from some dramatic improvement in education at our school. But the fact remained that we had made the biggest jump, whatever the reason, we hadn’t cheated, and we were a school that took pride in academics, so why not celebrate?

And celebrate we did. The entire 3000-kid student body gathered in the gym. The Governor made the presentation in person, having landed on our athletic field in a helicopter. It was a raucous event, an actual manifestation of something you can often hear teachers complain doesn’t exist: an academic pep rally. When Sonny handed our principal the humongous cup – still the largest object in the school’s trophy case, I’m sure – the crowd went nuts. The Governor even threw a bone to grousers like me, acknowledging in his remarks that there is much more to school than SAT scores. Whether you voted for them or not, you want your political leaders to exhibit an authoritative public presence, to appear sensible and solid. On that score Sonny Perdue did not disappoint. Having the Governor in your building is a big deal. All in all, it was a most memorable and joyful event in the life of the school.

It was also unmistakably, unquestionably a campaign event, a rah rah extravaganza worthy of Eugene Talmadge. Perdue and his people knew better than to be overtly political - he didn’t make a campaign speech, nobody passed out literature or bumper stickers – but the timing of the event (it was October, less than a month before election day) meant there was an implicit pro-Sonny rally bubbling along below the Governor's Cup celebration. He was sure enough chasing votes that day, whether that was the main reason he visited or just an ancillary benefit. Nobody complained, at least not publicly. Any of us who might have objected understood that if a politician wins the election, and if he's willing to play by the rules that go with appearing before a captive audience of students, then flying around the state handing out trophies to cheering crowds is the kind of thing he gets to do. He's the elected leader. He gets the platform. And if the elected leader is inclined to use the platform conscientiously, as certainly appears to be the case with the President's school speech, then the appropriate thing to do is shut up and listen. You might learn something.

Then again, the kind of partisans who object to Obama's school speech have never been known for their curiosity.

Friday, August 14, 2009

25 Years Ago This Month

In August of 1984, my father’s long struggle with type 1 diabetes and related health complications came to an end. He was 48.

Pop grew up in Atlanta, at the south end of Grant Park, on Kendrick Ave. He went to Roosevelt High School (where he was student body President in 1953-54) and earned his undergraduate degree at Presbyterian College. He met my mother while he was at Columbia Seminary in Atlanta and she was at Agnes Scott College. They married in 1959 and enjoyed a happy marriage of 25 years. After earning his PhD at the University of South Carolina in 1964, Pop joined the Language Education Department at the University of Georgia and taught there until his health forced him to retire in 1983.

After Pop's death, two of his colleagues wrote in an obituary that "those of us who worked closely with him lost a dear and trusted friend, while the English teaching profession lost one of its most valued contributors . . . His intelligence was penetrating; he could articulate in a few words what others took many to express, and strike at the heart of an issue with grace and sensitivity. He never showed a trace of pretension or desire to manipulate; his treatment of all people was respectful, sincere, and understanding.” One of his graduate students (and a friend of the family) confided in me once that “nothing was ever good enough,” meaning that he inspired such devotion that you wanted to transcend your own abilities in the work you did for him. One measure of his professional stature might be found in the fact that a research seminar at the annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English is named for him.

My personal memories of him have faded, of course. He had some mockable and exasperating qualities, to be sure, but mostly I recall kindness, solidity, intelligence, and attention. I miss him every day. A wonderful family of my own and a fulfilling career have eased the pain of his loss, but one regret I don’t think I will ever quite get over is that we were both at our worst when he died, he wrecked mentally by multiple strokes, I lost in adolescent self-indulgence. I am sorry that he did not live to see me grown up. Once, in his last years, when I was coming clean about the behaviors that were causing me to flunk out of college, he listened sternly, obviously hurt, but he managed to whisper in a stroke-choked voice, “You know I’m proud.” If he was proud of me then, what would he think of me now? I wish he could know his daughter-in-law and his grandchildren and delight in them as his wife does. I wish he could see what his other son, the son who shares his disease, has accomplished as a musician.

As I creep up on Pop’s age at death (I turn 46 this summer), I am thankful for the blessing of my good health. When Pop was my age he had already experienced failing eyesight for years, he had already suffered a stroke, he was about to undergo an amputation, and his kidneys were beginning to fail (that is what ultimately killed him). I would not wish the suffering he endured on anyone.

I am glad, of course, about the medical advances that have made juvenile diabetes easier to manage. Thanks to improved treatment, there seems to be no limit today to what diabetics are able to do and become. Still, the disease is a daily trial for those, such as my brother, who live with it. A diabetic's life is an ongoing high-stakes chemistry experiment, and problems such as workplace discrimination and difficult-to-obtain health insurance make it even worse. Whatever comes out of the current conflict over health care in Washington, I hope that it will be an improvement over the social Darwinism that characterizes the current system's attitude toward uninsured diabetics.

When I think of the summer of 1984, I am also thankful for my mother, the most dauntless spirit I have ever encountered. There is a scene in The Incredibles when Elastigirl saves her two children by wrapping herself around them to save them from a plane explosion. Though that scene is in the action-adventure mode, not to mention a cartoon, it never fails to make me tearful, so reminiscent it is to me of my mother’s brave and selfless conduct during the years when Pop was an invalid. Those years were hell, especially for her, and she kept the hell from swallowing us all.

In strikes me that I have now been without Pop longer than I was with him. He has been gone so long that sometimes it seems that being his son happened to another person, not me. But every now and then something happens to bring the reality of our relationship right into my mind's eye. Several years I ago I completed an advanced degree in his old department. My defense of my research project took place in a conference room where, as a boy, I had spent hours and hours on Saturdays drawing pictures while he caught up on work in his office up the hall. And no matter how ridiculous my pictures were, they always wound up taped to his office door.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Town That Made Aaron Burr Cry

FROM 2007

“She refers to a phenomenon of moviegoing which I have called certification. Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.”
Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

My mother’s hometown – Chester, South Carolina – was certified in a big way in 1983 when the TV miniseries Chiefs, starring Wayne Rogers, Billy Dee Williams, and Charlton Heston was filmed there. How Chiefs came to be shot in Chester is a little sad, I suppose. Its downtown was so frozen in time and so dead (monument to the Confederate fallen, many vacant storefronts) that one of the few things it was good for was a movie set, easily transformed into a small town in 1930s Georgia. But the unhappy circumstances that made Chester a film location couldn’t dampen the civic pride that comes with certification. Throughout the filming my grandmother got the thrill of rubbing shoulders with movie stars (Percy would have had some fun with that), and when the broadcast actually happened my mother and the diaspora of Chester enjoyed pointing out houses they had been in and locals they used to know. I remember taking pleasure in the locals’ real Southern accents (in contrast to Charlton Heston’s phony one). For a couple of years I drove around with a bumpersticker my grandmother had sent:   “Chester, South Carolina: Hollywood of the South.” I displayed it ironically, of course, but I suspected that it had been sent to me at least partially out of a proud sense of certification.

But Chester had been certified long before 1983, and by a much more exalted bestower of Somewhereness than Charlton Heston could ever be.

In 1806, Aaron Burr – former Vice President, scheming politico, killer of Alexander Hamilton – was being brought east under guard to Virginia to be tried for treason. It was said that he had been at the head of a conspiracy to start his own kingdom in the West. In Chester, Burr took the desperate step of jumping from his horse near a rowdy tavern, announcing his identity and pleading with the locals to liberate him from his guards (perhaps he was counting on the fact that his son-in-law was a member of a powerful South Carolina family to win him some favor). The locals did nothing. A burly guard pulled his guns on Burr and ordered him to get back on his horse. Burr refused, whereupon the guard grabbed Burr (who was a little guy) and threw him back in the saddle. They rode on to Virginia. The entire incident was over in a couple of minutes.

A throwaway moment from U.S. history, to be sure, but an enduring big deal to some Chestrians. On Chester’s main street (“up on the hill,” as Mom says) you can find the “Aaron Burr Rock.” It is shaped like a potato, about three feet long and two feet high. It is supposedly the rock that Burr leapt upon to make his fruitless appeal. As a small boy I saw it for the first time and read the inscription, a brief recounting of the incident. A small monument to a sorry episode in the life of the founding rogue. Before I ever knew of Walker Percy’s concept of certification, Chester had been certified in my eyes by the existence of that rock and the historical scene it commemorated.

Rock-inspired Burr fascination led me to read a good deal about Burr over the years, including the eponymous novel Burr, Gore Vidal’s attempt at historical redemption through historical fiction. In that book Burr comes off more as a Voltaireian charmer than a James Bond villain in knee pants. The historical Burr was indeed an interesting fellow. Did you know that he may have been our first great male feminist?  He regarded women as the intellectual equals of men, and made sure his daughter had as rich an education as any well-to-do young man of the day.  The whole arc of his life is worthy of study, but the rock incident is still the root of my fascination. When I come across a Burr biography I haven’t seen before I go right to the letter “C” in the index. Like a gossip freak who must buy every tabloid to get six different takes on Paris Hilton in jail, I’ve got to know how the Chester incident is portrayed. When I find Burr’s bold appeal - “I am Aaron Burr, under military arrest, and claim the protection of the civil authorities!” – the little town of Chester is certified all over again for me. It becomes a Somewhere.

All the biographies have the story essentially the same, but with a few added details, including this poignant fact: Evidently, getting snubbed by the rabble of Chester brought the famously self-possessed Aaron Burr to tears.

This is James Parton’s 1864 account of the aftermath of the Chester incident:

Burr was wild with excitement. The indifference of the people, the personal indignity he had suffered, the thought of his innocence of any violation of the law, the triumph his enemies were about to have over him, all rushed upon his mind, and, for a minute, unmanned him. Perkins used to say that, when the party halted, he found his prisoner in a flood of tears, and that the man who led his horse, touched by the spectacle of fallen greatness, was also crying.

Surely Parton is taking some liberties there in what he claims to know about the inner life of his subject. Milton Lomask’s 1982 version of the story (from his monumental two volume biography) is stripped of melodrama, as befits the restrained approach of a twentieth century historian: “Puzzled spectators watched as the convoy cantered on. Burr was weeping. Malone, sensing his frustration, wept too.”

Buckner F. Melton (2001) plays up the physically humiliating nature of the incident:

Perkins instantly drew his pistols, and a second later he was next to Burr, ordering him back in the saddle. "I will not!" shouted Burr. The brawny backwoodsman dropped his pistols, picked up the little New Yorker, and threw him onto the horse like a sack of potatoes. Then came one of the very few times, maybe the only time, when Aaron Burr lost control. Tears sprang to his eyes for moment - but only for a moment - and then the trek resumed.

And this summer we have a brand new Burr biography, Fallen Founder, by Nancy Isenberg. Her announced purpose is to rehabilitate Burr, to reveal him as a potentially brilliant statesman who was undone by ruthless enemies in his own time and biased historians in our time. Here is her account of what happened on that fateful day in 1806:

As the party reached Chester, South Carolina, Burr jumped from his horse. He called out to a group of men, urging them to fetch the local magistrate. He begged them for protection, claiming he was being held without proper authority. Perkins, a large man, dismounted and forcefully threw Burr back in the saddle. Then the party quickly rode out of town.

No tears! What a shame. I don’t know what her motivation might have been for leaving them out. Gore Vidal, the most famous Burr apologist, left the entire Chester incident out of his novel. Instead, his fictional Burr reports that he was the subject of several “rustic ovations” as he was led a prisoner through South Carolina. Maybe tears don’t sort well with the jaunty Burr that his defenders admire. I like the crying. I prefer my Burr “unmanned.” The ardent seeker of fame has landed in ignominy from which he’ll never escape. He has bottomed out. If he didn’t know it before Chester, he knows it now.

You’ll notice that the rock itself doesn’t make any of the accounts. That’s not surprising. But for me it will always be central to the story. And history works in strange ways. In the very moment that Burr was crying over lost glory, some enterprising Chestrians were probably sizing up the rock and thinking, “We really ought to save this thing.” They did, and knowing the uses the rock would ultimately be put to might have comforted Burr in his moment of anguish. Mom tells me that when she was in high school, the Aaron Burr Rock was where bad boys went to smoke.

In Praise of Meaningful Work


A Google search on an entirely unrelated topic recently brought forth a name from the past: Hargrett. As in, “The Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library” at the University of Georgia library, home of a lock of Jefferson Davis’ hair, the Confederate Constitution, and other curiosities great and small. I worked there my last two quarters as an undergrad at UGa. In college I helped make ends meet by painting houses, making sandwiches, clearing kudzu, shelving books, and making copies, but the finest gainful employment I ever had in Athens was on the second floor of the UGa Main Library in the Rare Book and Manuscript Department. The Hargrett Library has now put a list of its holdings online. Searching it reminded me again of how good I had it from August of 1986 to March of 1987.

In coming to the Hargrett Library when I did, I wandered into the outskirts of a crime drama. One of the higher ups in the department was a collector or rare books and manuscripts on his own. It turned out that he had augmented his own collection with some material belonging to the University. The year after I graduated he was convicted of stealing and sent to jail. I came along before he had been arrested, but the investigation was well under way and he the prime suspect, so much so that his office was being moved to another part of the building, away from the valuable stuff. One of my jobs was to make a list for the department director of everything this fellow had on his office bookshelf at the time of his expulsion. I was excited to find bound copies of a couple of parliamentary acts from the colonial era. They were land grants, officially authorized real estate grabs, but in that 18th century typeface and that ornate parliamentary diction, they were enough to make a person think he had his hands on something special, probably composed by a lord in a white wig. There was also a lot of stuff on Gus Hall. I have no idea whether there was anything incriminating on the list I produced, but probably not. It would take a major league conspiracy theorist to connect the dots between General Oglethorpe and the American Communist Party.

To be even peripherally involved in an investigation like that was both exciting and unexpected, but it was a small part of my job and stands out in my memory less than the day-to-day work. What I didn’t appreciate about my daily tasks at the time was that I – a highly undeserving and unqualified undergrad – received meaningful work to do. My supervisors didn’t make me a receptionist or a glorified janitor or send me out for bagels. Instead they gave me boxes of letters, photos, and other personal memorabilia to organize and catalog. These were not, as you can well imagine, the papers of heavyweights – I did not have my grubby untrained hands on the personal correspondence of Richard B. Russell. But I did have a hand in organizing for shelving some of the papers of the following:

- William Tapley “Tap” Bennett, Sr., one of the agricultural pioneers who labored in the 1930s to reduce Georgia’s dependence on King Cotton. Bennett’s contribution was in the area of livestock. Working on his stuff always reminded me of the time a bar-b-q dinner my father and I were enjoying was ruined by the local extension agent, who was using the back room of the restaurant to notify local stockmen about a new kind of parasite that was appearing on the underside of livestock. One of the most vivid slide shows I have ever seen.

- Mildred Lewis Rutherford, longtime headmistress of the Lucy Cobb Institute, an Athens finishing school for young women that flourished in the late 19th century – the R.E.M. video “The One I Love” was shot there. Miss Rutherford, as pictures of her attest, was an old school Southern Victorian dame, active in both the UDC and the anti-suffragette movement. The sort of woman you could imagine casting disapproving glares at Scarlet O’Hara.

- Wylly Folk St. John, of Social Circle, Ga, a fairly well-known writer of mysteries for children, one of which was evidently made into a Disney movie. Most of the correspondence wasn’t hers but letters she received from her husband, who was a salesman of some kind. While out on the road he wrote her a steady stream of apologetic letters on stationery from now defunct Atlanta hotels – the Winecoff, the Henry Grady, etc. One day I Xeroxed the letter-head of some of his notes and for a few years I had some pretty cool faux stationery to write my own letters on.

- Gilbert Maxwell, a sensitive Southern poet who showed early promise, went north, worked as a writer, editor, and actor, became a part of Tennessee Williams’ circle. Fame and major creative success ultimately eluded him. It was obvious to me – obtuse as I can be about such things - that Maxwell was gay. The trajectory of his life and the subjects of his poetry (especially after he retired to Miami) made that clear. But it is a curious thing that the description of the collection (it has my name on it, but I don’t remember whether I wrote it or it was just the real librarian being nice) doesn’t mention this detail. Looking back on that omission, I feel like a collaborator in the pernicious institution of the closet. On the other hand, we did mention that he had worked on biographies of Tallulah Bankhead and Joan Crawford. Maybe we were just counting on readers to put two and two together.

A fine collection of third tier famous Georgians, an honor roll of semi-noteworthies, our literary historical Biff Pocorobas. And I got to walk up the hill from Park Hall when my Shakespeare seminar was over and work on their collections. For some reason I had no idea how unusual that opportunity was. Even when I got bored with my own work the treasures that were around me reeked of significance. One day I disappeared into the stacks and spent a couple of hours with a box of transcripts of WPA slave interviews from the 1930s. One of the professionals was cataloging the papers of Calder Willingham, a novelist and screenwriter who had a hand the scripts for The Graduate, Little Big Man, and Paths of Glory. Then there was the time I came in to work and found a worn-looking bound volume sitting in my customary workspace. “What the hell is this doing here?” I asked, pretending to be annoyed. “Oh,” my ever-bland supervisor said, not even looking up, “That’s an original typescript of A Streetcar Named Desire.” I opened it up. It was. With The Poker Night, it’s original title, in big letters on the title page. The text was full of handwritten revisions. I couldn’t believe I was holding it in my hands.

That was as big time as it ever got for me there. I never did get to see Jeff Davis’ hair.

p.s. Some weeks after writing this I was in the science fiction section of a Grand Rapids used bookstore. I am often in Grand Rapids and in used bookstores, but rarely in science fiction sections. I was looking for something by the genius of paranoid sci-fi, Philip K. Dick. His “oracular” work was the subject of a laudatory cover story in the New Republic some years ago, and he seems to have influenced a couple of Steely Dan songs. Those are favorable nods from authorities I trust, enough to make me set aside my disdain for the genre. Also, I liked the film of Minority Report. But Philip K. Dick books cannot be had used. Oh, sure, you can find all 21 books in the Mutant Vixens of Planet X series, but if you want Dick’s We Can Remember if For You Wholesale, you had better be prepared to pay for a fresh copy. Anyway, in my latest fruitless search for used PKD fiction, I saw a name in the D’s that looked familiar: Tom Deitz. And I remembered: When I was working up in the Hargrett library I often heard of a member of the library staff, a Tom Deitz, who was striving to make it big in the world of fantasy literature. Was it the same guy? Oh yes. He did make it big, big enough to have six or seven of his books in paperback available in a Grand Rapids used bookstore.

My Oh My What an Unsatisfactory Day


“There is a state with more than half the area of Italy and more population than either Denmark or Norway, and yet has not produced a single idea. Once upon a time a Georgian printed a couple of books that attracted notice, but immediately it turned out that he was little more than an amanuensis for the local blacks--that his works were really the products, not of white Georgia, but of black Georgia. Writing afterward as a white man, he swiftly subsided into the fifth rank. And he is not only the glory of the literature of Georgia; he is, almost literally, the whole of the literature of Georgia--nay, of the entire art of Georgia.”

From “The Sahara of the Bozart”
H.L. Mencken (1917)

Sure, you could protest. You could say, “What about Sidney Lanier? Doesn’t “Song of the Chattahoochee” make the American literary hit parade?” But I wouldn’t argue too hard. In your heart you know he’s right. At least, rhetorical excess aside, he was mainly right in 1917. Has anyone read “Song of the Chattahoochee” in the last hundred years without being forced to by an English teacher? The comforting thought is that there was a gracious plenty of legitimate literary glory coming down the line to prove this jackass Mencken wrong: James Dickey, Carson McCullers, Alice Walker, and, most of all, the little girl who would be born to Edwin and Regina O’Connor of Savannah about eight years after Mencken heaped contumely (to steal a phrase from Decatur’s Roy Blount) on the literature of my home state.

Do you have any idea what the hell an “amanuensis” is? I didn’t. Turns out to be “one who is employed to take dictation or to copy manuscript.” I did figure out quickly who he was calling an amanuensis: Joel Chandler Harris, creator (or popularizer, if you prefer) of the Uncle Remus stories. You know the how those stories go: Uncle Remus, a garrulous old slave, tells comic tales of talking animals (Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, et. al.) to a small white boy, son of the plantation’s owner. Mencken’s charge is a common one: these enormously popular dialect stories ( originally published in the Atlanta Constitution and later in best-selling collections) were not really Harris’ own creation, but merely copied from the slaves and ex-slaves on the plantations where Harris spent his youth. Later critics charged (accurately) that the figure of Uncle Remus belongs with Amos and Andy in the Racist Stereotype Hall of Fame. Harris’ defenders contend that he was actually a true literary craftsman and that he deeply respected his sources. Whatever. Whether you consider Harris a sensitive folklorist or an intellectual property thief, a brilliant writer or a mere – ahem – amanuensis, or some combination of these, there is no denying the staying power of the Uncle Remus stories in general, and one in particular: “The Wonderful Tar Baby Story.”

Actually, it is two stories, published serially. In part one Brer Fox tricks his nemesis Brer Rabbit into getting himself stuck in a boy-shaped glob of tar. In part two, as Brer Fox considers how to cause his prisoner the most pain, Brer Rabbit (in what may be the best known deployment of reverse psychology in all of literature) pleads miserably not to be thrown in the briar patch, tricking Brer Fox into throwing him into the one place where can actually free himself from the tar. Psych! There’s so much to dig about this story. For starters, its fun. My children, like generations of children before them, love the humor, the trickery, the talking animals, the suspense. On the academic wavelength, scholars have long interpreted Brer Rabbit as a representation of the black man in the post-bellum South, using his wits to prosper in a hostile world. I’m sure that by now some pomo scholar must have gone deeper and analyzed the text as a racial hall of mirrors. Then there’s the enduring allusive potency of this story. If you don’t believe me, google “tar baby” and “Iraq.”

My kids have been exposed to Harris’ work in a couple of ways. They enjoyed a performance of Brer Rabbit stories at the Center for Puppetry Arts last year. Also, I have been able to read some of the stories to them in picture book form, from one of the many updated versions of the stories now available. Not that I object to the pungency of the original. The problem is that Harris’ reconstructed dialect is so thick as to make the stories almost impossible to read aloud. Here’s Brer Rabbit getting stuck, as it originally appeared in the local paper (the same one I get in the driveway every morning):

" 'I'm gwine ter larn you how ter talk ter 'spectubble folks ef hit's de las' ack,' sez Brer Rabbit, sezee. 'Ef you don't take off dat hat en tell me howdy, I'm gwin ter bus' you wide open,' sezee.

"Tar-Baby stay still, en Brer Fox he lay low.

"Brer Rabbit keep on axin' 'im, en de Tar-Baby, she keep on sayin' nothin', twel present'y Brer Rabbit drew back wid his fis', he did, en bilp he tuck 'er side er de head. Right dar's whar he broke his merlasses jug. His fis' stuck, en he can't pull loose. De tar hilt 'im. But Tar-Baby, she stay still, en Brer Fox, he lay low.

" 'Ef you don't lemme loose, I'll knock you agin,' sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, en wid dat he fotch 'er a wipe wid de udder han' en dat stuck. Tar-Baby, she ain't sayin' nothin', en Brer Fox, he lay low.

Can’t read six pages of that aloud, sez I.

I have had Harris on the brain lately because of one of our summertime experiences. This summer my wife cooked up the splendid idea of our own custom-made summer day camp for our own kids – “Keeping it Veal” – complete with field trips, art, and sports. Gradually we scaled back our ambitions to a week of field trips to local museums and educational tourist attractions: The Fernbank Museum, the High Museum, The World of Coke, the Georgia Aquarium, and the Wren’s Nest, home of Joel Chandler Harris. We all had fun and it was an enriching week for the kids. What escaped none of us was that of the five destinations we visited, one of these things was not like the others. Fernbank and the High satisfactorily counter Mencken’s complaints about Georgia as cultural backwater, and the World of Coke and the Aquarium – though they are both more about spectacle than about learning – are impressive. Each is a credit to the city.

But the Wren’s Nest, compared to these others, is just sorry.

Our visit, which cost $36 for the whole family, consisted of a seriously dated biographical slide show presented in a dingy parlor, followed by a tour through three rooms of the house. Though we learned a great deal about the peculiar domestic life of the Harris family during the tour, we also heard an awful lot about wallpaper. We wound up in a tiny little gift shop in back room that led to the exit (The Wren’s Nest has learned this much from the Aquarium and the World of Coke – nobody escapes without going through the gift shop).

I know we were there on a bad day. I’m told that the best time to visit the Wren’s Nest are days when they have professional storytellers on hand to tell the Uncle Remus stories.

I know that the Wren’s Nest, located as it is in a tough neighborhood, has an uphill struggle to become a tourist destination.

I know that an author’s house has certain inherent limitations as a tourist destination. I remember standing outside the Plexiglas barrier at Poe’s dorm room at UVa wondering, “What’s the big deal?”

I know that Harris’ problematic connection to the South’s racist heritage makes it difficult for the city to embrace him as a historical figure to be proud of.

And I know that the weakness of the Wren’s Nest as a tourist destination isn’t for lack of trying on the part of Harris’ devotees. Almost from the moment of his death they have been laboring and contributing to make his home a living monument to his life and work. In Atlanta, merely saving a historic building from the wrecking ball is achievement in itself, irrespective of what you’re able to do with the building.

And yet I cannot help believing that someone who matters as much as Harris deserves something more appealing. I’m not asking for Brer Turtle waterslides. Lord no. I would not want a visit to the Wren’s Nest to be like a visit to the World of Coke, but it could be considerably more engaging than it is now. Would a 21st century multi-media presentation be too much to ask? And perhaps a way to experience Uncle Remus stories when the storytellers aren’t there? And what about organizing exhibits by theme rather than by room, so that we could learn more about his controversial work than his uncontroversial home furnishings?

I know, however, that I should be careful what I wish for. The last time an institution with a talent for tourist-oriented spectacle got hold of Uncle Remus, the result was Song of the South, a film so appalling in its sunny depiction of race relations in the antebellum South that it is said to be permanently locked away in Disney’s vault. I have never seen it, but I gather that it makes Gone With the Wind look racially enlightened by comparison.

Frankly my dear, I don’t give a zip-a-de-doo-dah!

(For a full and fascinating assessment of Harris and his literary rehabilitation, see this article that appeared some years ago in our fine local alternative newspaper, Creative Loafing. The author convincingly argues for Harris significance as a national cultural figure).

NOTE: Since this piece was posted, a local storyteller who specializes in Harris visited my American Literature class. I cannot speak highly enough of him.

Focus on the Phony


"I felt I could have written it so the fact that it was already written was kind of a technicality."

People who have seen The Squid and Whale will recognize the quotation above. Walt Berkman, a teenage intellectual wannabe, has been busted for performing Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” at a school talent show and pretending it was his own composition. When a counselor confronts him, Walt tries to rationalize his cheating by confidently asserting that he “could have written it.” It is one of the biggest laugh lines of the film. An absurd character stating obvious nonsense with total conviction has a way of making people laugh.

I discovered something equally laughable recently when I came across blogger Inopinion’s expose of Focus on the Family’s “Astroturf Machine.” As part of its campaign to promote the “Marriage Protection Amendment” to the Constitution, FOF furnished visitors to its web page with five different versions of the four paragraphs of a potential letter to the editor. All the user has to do is cut-and-paste the paragraphs he or she wants, put them all together (no need to worry about transitions – the paragraphs are made to fit snugly together in a variety of combinations), send the finished product off to the local paper, and wait for it to show up on the editorial page in a couple of days. To give you an idea of the type of rhetoric the letters feature, here’s one sample paragraph three:

Think of the MPA as a shield between our traditional values and radical judges intent on forcing their politically correct agenda on our nation. Without that shield, it's only a matter of time until marriage loses all meaning -- and social science data indicate children will suffer the most when that happens.

Inopinion estimates that with the mix and match feature of the machine, 600 different letters are possible. You might think that such stuff would not slip past the editorial page editors of our nation’s newspapers. You’d be wrong. Inopinion gives a long list of papers that published these paint-by-numbers letters, including the Toledo Blade, the Seattle Times, and the Savannah Morning News (see the letter “by” Anne Phillips of Rincon).

I think Inopinion has misused the term “Astroturf.” The term is meant to signify “phony grassroots” campaigns, propaganda efforts bankrolled by powerful interests disguised as righteous crusades started around kitchen tables by regular folks. For example, Common Cause has identified groups such as the “Internet Innovation Alliance” and “Consumers for Cable Choice” as fronts for big players in the telecom industry who are trying to make their corporate interests sound like populist causes. THAT’s Astroturf. Based on how many state-level “Defense of Marriage” referendums have overwhelmingly passed, it is hard to make the case that Focus on the Family is attempting the create the illusion of widespread opposition to gay marriage. But there IS something they had to manufacture, something to compensate for the apparent inability of many gay marriage opponents to make the rherotical leap beyond "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!" in defense of their position.

What they created is a plagiarism machine.

They swear it isn’t. Gary Schneeberger of FOF contends that what’s being offered here is only assistance in putting one’s best rhetorical foot forward. He also points out that politicians regularly submit op-eds that are certainly written by speechwriters or other staffers and newspapers have no problem with that.

I haven’t got an answer to his contention that what’s good for politicians should be good for everybody else (maybe newspapers should be harder on politicians who use ghosts, too), but the rest of this apology for the “letter writing wizard” strikes me as (to use an allusion that Dr. Dobson ought to appreciate) a fig leaf, and a pathetic one, too. Schneeberger’s arguments come from the same sewer of sophistry as Walt Berkman’s “I could have written it” argument.

Look at any of the published letters created by the FOF machine and see if you think that what the writers got was simply “help in organizing their thoughts into persuasive, publishable arguments.” Help? Please. That’s the same kind of “help” I would get if I played golf tomorrow and Tiger Woods took all my shots for me.

I am a high school English teacher and have been for sixteen years. As such, I’ve read student-written research papers and persuasive essays numbering into the thousands, and I’ve emptied scores of red pens onto them. I’ve seen a lot of plagiarized work.  Most of it results from novice writers being inexperienced with the conventions of attribution.  Some of it, however, is the student's naked attempt to conceal his inability or laziness. The "letter writing wizard" is definitely the latter. If a student presented me with one of these prefab letters as his persuasive essay, and tried to defend himself with the arguments given by Mr. Schneeberger (“I was just ensuring the best presentation of my values in the marketplace of ideas”), I’d consider that a new low in trying to defend the indefensible. If he defined plagiarism as “taking someone else’s words and ideas without their knowledge or consent,” I’d call that an incomplete and highly self-serving definition. In school (and most of the world outside of school) we say that “Plagiarism occurs when a writer duplicates another writer’s language or ideas and then calls the work his or her own” (according to the Dictionary of Cultural Literacy). That’s what every school under the sun means when it forbids plagiarism and that’s exactly what people who use this “letter writing wizard” are doing. And I’d add that concern about whether the original writer consented to have his work copied, while important, is the least of our reasons for trying to prevent plagiarism. We want our students to be thinkers, and this kind of plagiarism short-circuits the thinking process. When you have to form and articulate arguments on your own, rather than just cutting and pasting, your mind has to go to work. To do it right you have to be more than a parrot.

I’m mad about this thing not just as a teacher but as a veteran writer of letters to the editor. When I think of all the times I’ve gotten in a stew over something stupid I read in the paper, then drove my family to distraction by spending the next eight hours or so struggling to compose the perfect 150 word letter to the editor, then held my breath and sent it in, and then spent the next two weeks (or years in some cases) fretting about one phrase I wish I had changed – when I think about that recurring ordeal, and then think about these lazy, semi-literate bozos and their enablers . . . oh boy. It makes me want to write a letter to the editor.

Vonnegut: Bargain in Good Faith With Destiny

FROM 2007

Last month at a yard sale I came across a VHS of Footloose. I'd never seen it, and at twenty-five cents it passed the "what the hell" test. Several hours later my wife and I were watching Kevin Bacon strut subversively in the corn belt, me for the first time, she for the first time since she saw the film in the theaters 23 years ago.

Early in the story there is an exchange that, due to recent events, really tickled me. High school senior Ren MacCormack (Bacon) has just moved from Chicago to a small town that - gasp! - doesn't allow dancing. He and his mom are on a front porch, enjoying a meet-and-greet with Reverend Moore (John Lithgow), leader of the anti-dance crowd, but not an altogether bad guy. Things are pleasant enough until a bow-tied prig and his wife join the group:

Bow-Tied Prig: Reverend, we have a little problem. I heard that English teacher over at the high school is planning to teach that book.

Bow-Tied Prig's Wife: Slaughterhouse-Five - Isn't that an awful name?

Ren: Oh, yeah, that's a great book.

(Long, tension-filled silence. Locals stare incredulously at Ren).

Ren: Yeah, it's a classic.

Bow-Tied Prig: (condescendingly) Do you read much?

Bow-Tied Prig's Wife: Maybe in another town it's a classic.

Ren: In any town.

Bow-Tied Prig: Tom Sawyer is a classic.

Now this is far from the best reference to Kurt Vonnegut in an eighties film. Number one would have to be his actual cameo in Back to School, when he was hired by middle-aged college student Thornton Mellon (Rodney Dangerfield) to write his paper on Kurt Vonnegut (Recall that Mellon gets an "F" on the paper, along with the professor's remark that "Whoever wrote this paper for you doesn't know the first thing about Kurt Vonnegut"). The nose-thumbing quality of that appearance (complete with a profanity-laced quarrel with Mellon over whether he deserves to be paid) seems true to Vonnegut's irreverent spirit, much truer, anyway, than using his most famous book as literary ammo in a humorless showdown between enlightenment and ignorance.

And yet that moment in Footloose testifies to Vonnegut's iconic status in America. The screenwriter had scores of objectionable titles to choose from. The line could have been, "The Communist Manifesto - Isn't that an awful name?" or, "Lolita - Isn't that an awful name?" In both cases our hero's defense of the book might have given us the willies about him. Marxists and perverts tend to score low on the popularity scale. But everybody loves a hip rebel. This screenwriter knew what he was doing when he gave Ren Slaughterhouse-Five to stick up for. That's the kind of cachet Kurt Vonnegut used to have, and perhaps still did when he died last month.

Like most other Vonnegut fans, I came across him at a time in life when a locker combination was one of the numbers I had committed to memory. In the tenth grade I was ready to graduate from Mad magazine to more substantial forms of satire. A guy a year ahead of me - a most-likely-to-succeed intellectual whose opinion counted for a lot in my crowd - turned me on to Vonnegut by recommending Cat's Cradle, a work of darkly-humorous apocalyptic science fiction. Ice-Nine! Bokonon! Granfaloons! It was mind-blowingly hilarious, especially compared to the stuff I was being assigned to read at school (Silas Marner, Great Expecations). Pip in the graveyard just couldn't compete with Vonnegut's absurd parade of mad scientists, banana republics, and fake religions. Reading Vonnegut for the first time, in the midst of those ossified classics, I felt like a boy who had been assigned to rake a two-acre yard and found a box of firecrackers - with no adults around to tell me what not to blow up.

More Vonnegut books followed, but Slapstick became my favorite. It is the story of Wilbur Daffodill-11 Swain, last President of the United States, who, as the story opens, is living in the lobby of the Empire State Building in the ruins of Manhattan, which has been overrun by the Green Death, which, if I remember correctly, is really Chinese people shrunk to microscopic size. As President, Swain had tried to solve the national problem of loneliness by giving all Americans artificial extended families, based on peculiar middle names composed of a noun and a number, i.e. Chipmunk-5 or Bauxite-13. I recall that much of the book revolves around Swain's strange symbiotic relationship with his twin sister, Eliza. Both of them were so large and ugly at birth that they were thought to be monsters (and mentally retarded). Strangely, when they are together they become a pair of geniuses - when separated, they are hopelessly flawed.

All this was Vonnegut's use of farcical science fiction to write indirectly about his relationship with his late, beloved sister. He says so in the introduction to the book. I've read it many times and think of its phrases often. He suggests an approach to life that I think I still, at some level, subscribe to: "Bargain in good faith with destiny." He says that the book is "about what life feels like to me. There are all these tests of my limited agility and intelligence. They go on and on." He tells of his fondness for Laurel and Hardy, of childhood in Indianapolis and of flying back there with his scientist brother for the funeral of an uncle, and of his sister's death many years before, from cancer. He confesses how much he lost when she died because she was the audience he secretly wrote for. He writes, "Any creation which has any wholeness or harmoniousness, I suspect, was made by an artist or inventor with an audience of one in mind." For some reason these twenty pages of digressive autobiography are the Vonnegut I know and love best.

In the introduction to another novel, Jailbird, Vonnegut reports of a letter he got from a high school student who said that having read all of Vonnegut's work, he could sum up its central message in a sentence: "Love may fail, but courtesy will prevail." Vonnegut agreed. How I envied that high school student. To be an interpreter of Vonnegut, with an interpretation certified by Vonnegut himself and preserved for all time in one of his books!

My Vonnegut phase began to wane about the time I lost interest in Salinger. Yes, I liked them at the same time. Adults had two equally insufferable mes to choose from: the oh-so-clever Vonnegut reader or the oh-so-sensitive Salinger reader. Ultimately, my passion for Salinger was done in when a freshman English professor of mine made some trenchant criticisms of Catcher in the Rye. Suddenly I wasn't so keen on Holden Caulfield any more, and I left Vonnegut behind at the same time. I can remember almost precisely when and where I stopped - halfway through Deadeye Dick, sometime in the mid-eighties at a hair salon on Alps Road in Athens, GA (waiting to get my mullet trimmed, no doubt). When my book club takes up Slaughterhouse-Five this month it will be the first Vonnegut novel I've read in almost 25 years.

I was going to say here that I gave up Vonnegut because it was starting to sound like kid stuff, but looking through some of his books I am reminded that what he wrote about was never kid stuff, even if his work appeals to a younger audience. In retrospect, I think I was developing misgivings about his famously dark worldview. A while back I heard R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe use the expression "store-bought cynicism" and that may be the name for the negative effect Vonnegut had on me as a reader. He came by his cynicism the hard way, of course, by living through the bombing of Dresden, his mother's suicide, and a stint as a G.E. public relations man, but his books engendered in me an unearned cynicism about people and their endeavors. Most of the adults in my world bore little resemblance to the fools and monsters that populated Vonnegut's novels, and the jaded Vonnegutian "so it goes" (his version of "whatever") had become a recurring phrase in my mental soundtrack, when the worst thing I had experienced in life was changing middle schools in the seventh grade. And when bad things actually did start to happen, "so it goes" didn't do much to get me through the night.

But I still treasure my days reading Vonnegut. His satire was sometimes breathtaking and it was almost always aimed at a deserving target. In fact, I still think so much of him that I would never assign his books to any student. I might have been on the side of the bow-tied prig in that front porch dispute about Slaughterhouse-Five, but for all the wrong reasons - I would want to rescue Vonnegut from the teacher, not rescue the students from Vonnegut. The canonization that comes with a place on an assigned reading list - of being labeled classic - disserves Vonnegut's books. For the thrill to be authentic they ought to be discovered the old fashioned way - passed around and read furtively by teenagers who feel that they've finally found some literature that is just for them.

There Was This Bat Factory

There used to be a baseball bat factory in Athens, GA - the Hanna Manufacturing Company. Hanna produced bats from 1926 until they went out of business in 1976.

Now should be the part when I wax nostalgic about our fine old bat factory, but I can't. I remember using a Hanna bat or two in little league, and I remember that the factory was located near downtown, behind where the Classic Center is now, downhill toward the river - near where Tyrone's was. And I vaguely remember getting a group tour of the place with some other schoolkids. Was there a lot of . . . sawdust? I couldn't tell you. That's the extent of what I recall about the Hanna bat factory.

But remembering what little I do about the factory has made me realize how useful it could be as a setting in somebody's novel (not mine, of course - fiction is not for me). Think of it - a family-run baseball bat factory. Could there be a more evocative setting? Baseball bats - so American in their function. Useful in both athletics and crime. Made from glorious old ash trees, carved and balanced and finished by tough, skilled, knowing hands. The signatures of living legends burned into the wood. When the ball hits them just right, they send it soaring. When the ball hits them wrong, they crack and become worthless. This bat that is on the lathe now - what is its destiny? Is it going to Yankee Stadium or a remote American Legion field in Mississippi?

I could never write that kind of stuff well, let alone with a straight face. But some would-be W.P. Kinsella ("If you build it, they will come") should take this bat factory idea and run with it. If you're writing contemporary fiction that aspires to be both popular and literary, you can't go wrong with a quirkily meaningful workplace or coming-of-age setting (consider the novels of John Irving, with their New England prep schools, tombstone factories and orphanages). There can't be a thing corporate about it - it must smack of homegrown authenticity. It has to be the sort of place where the primary activity has a symbolic aura about it, and where the main character can absorb life lessons from charming eccentrics as they go about their unusual work.

So I'm thinking that a family-run bat factory in a Southern town is absolutely full of narrative possibilities. There's a boy, of course - the main character, our hero. A callow but introspective young man who wants to grow up free from the burdens of operating a bat factory. Dad is the second generation plant manager, a man whose devotion to the art of bat making (and to keeping his small factory alive in a world of corporate behemoths) has caused him to neglect his family. I see a loyal but long-suffering mom, gifted with a fatalistic sense of humor, too. As for the factory workers - well, you can imagine the line up of types. You can bet that one of them is a wise old black man who has seen too much of life but is still strong in spirit. Our hero will learn a thing or two from him.

And the storylines: A flashback to the time a big slugger visited the factory and something scandalous happened. An attempted hostile takeover by a large bat maker in a certain Kentucky city. A bat from the factory is the weapon in the murder of a prominent citizen, causing everyone in the factory to reflect on his work. Our hero gets caught rolling in the sawdust with his girl.

This thing writes itself.

We had a big fertilizer plant in Athens, too. Not much you could do with that, unless you want to write a bildungsroman entitled The Education of Neal Boortz.

Play Catch, Invent Games, Find Jesus

FROM 2007

In 1977, as a restless eighth-grader in search of a good way to pass the time, I took up fishing. From my nerdy perspective, there was much to like about fishing – it required its own specialized equipment (to be studied and purchased with discretion) and it had its own magazines – but the actual activity of fishing turned out to be pretty damn tedious. Long bouts of staring at brown water, punctuated (rarely) by a few seconds of excitement, culminating in the dispiriting, smelly task of gutting and scaling a very small fish.

One day I was out fishing – unsuccessfully, as usual – at a small lake in a public park. I noticed a round yellow object floating in the middle of the lake. Figuring I might as well catch something, I hooked it and reeled it in. It was a Frisbee. A Wham-0 119G to be exact. I took it home and began to teach myself the art of throwing a flying disc. Before long my fishing equipment was collecting dust. Frisbee became my pursuit. Thanks to the fortuitous emergence of some nurturing conditions (a disc golf course opened near my house, a high school friend organized lunchtime ultimate Frisbee matches), I became a serious Frisbee player at 14 and remained one until I was 40. Mostly I played ultimate, beginning with the local college team, through a young adulthood of travel to weekend tournaments throughout the Southeast, winning and losing a lot of matches, learning to respect and uphold ultimate’s treasured “spirit of the game,” making plays (good and bad) that run on endless loop in my mind’s eye, establishing some friendships that I hope will last as long as I do, enduring two knee reconstructions, enjoying the small-time glories and fine bonhomie of the wonderful Atlanta summer league, and trying to make it all last far too long (the last time I ran well enough to be considered a good player was at least five years before I hung up my cleats for good). This sport has been one of the most fruitful pursuits of my life, and it all started when that yellow 119 seemed to rise up to me out of the depths of the lake.

If you think I am inviting a strained comparison between my Frisbee-finding experience and the legend of the Lady of the Lake bestowing the sword Excalibur on King Arthur, you are correct. That is exactly what I’m doing. I’m also here to tell you that ultimate beats the hell out of fishing.

I haven’t thought of Frisbee and fishing together in a long time, but tonight I am. I fished for a Frisbee, but some evangelist has hit upon the bright idea of using Frisbees to be a “fisher of men” (Matthew 4:19). One of my daughters was at an event at a Baptist Church this evening and came home with a flying disc that has proselytic messages on a sticker affixed to the bottom. The Frisbees we all grew up with merely bore some handy instructions on their undersides: “Flat flip flies straight. Tilted flip curves. Play catch. Invent games.” This disc that my girl brought home has a little about how to throw and lot about how to be a disciple. It features the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32) printed in its entirety, along with an interpretation (The boy who ran away is us; the forgiving father is God. Who knew?), and a four-step process for getting yourself on the road to redemption.

As a Christian and as a longtime Frisbee player, I recoil from this kind of evangelism. I don’t mind admitting that I’m a sinner and asking God’s forgiveness, but I’d rather not be instructed by a Frisbee in how to do so. To be sure, when Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations,” he did not add, “Just don’t be vulgar about it.” We Presbyterians kind of wish he had, especially when we’re clucking disapproval at some of the . . . uh, cheesier efforts of our more aggressively evangelistic brethren. Enough with the Bible verse soap and the Christian miniature golf courses. Then again, a Baptist might justifiably reply, “Yeah, how’s that ‘tasteful’ evangelism working out for you? Your denomination is shrinking by thousands of members every year.” We practice restraint and we lose market share. And who knows? Maybe those didactic discs work in ways I can’t imagine. The novelist and minister Frederick Beuchner once preached on the many spray-painted “Jesus Saves” signs that mark our highways, about how they make us wince with embarrassment. But perhaps, he observes, the embarrassment isn’t for the spray-painter but for ourselves, that when we read those signs we unconsciously place our own names after “Jesus saves” and we are reminded – to our shame – that we need saving, and we are astonished that anyone could save the likes of us.

Beuchner winds up rejoicing at God’s wonderful vulgarity, and sees the spray-painted signs as a reminder of how low God will go on our behalf. Maybe my daughter’s new flying disc is in that line somehow, but I still can’t reconcile myself to the Frisbee as an explicitly evangelistic tool. Action, not preaching, is still the most effective form of Christian witness. They tell me my wife’s maternal grandfather’s favorite saying was, “I am the Bible my neighbor reads.” That is, people should know what it is to believe in the Gospel by the way I live. That, honestly, is how I came to be a Christian. Everything loudly, garishly, or aggressively evangelistic had always repelled me. What drew me in at last was the humble, devoted conduct of certain Christian students of mine. Not all of them, mind you – I still give the self-righteous and the willfully ignorant a wide berth. Nor was inspiring behavior limited to Christians. But I saw in some Christian students certain virtues I knew I lacked and that I sorely wanted – mostly, a sense of quiet assurance about one’s purpose in the world and a devotion to kindness, selflessness, integrity. I wanted what they had. I still haven’t got it, of course, but I feel closer.

And please, if you’re reading this, I hope you’ll remember my conversion story the next time you hear some theocrat repeat the insidious canard that the early sixties Supreme Court decisions that outlawed school-led prayers and Bible readings “put God out of public schools.” God, in the form of the open fidelity of individual students to their faiths, is alive and well in public schools. The daily sight of my students unobtrusively striving to be followers of Jesus washed over me, and ultimately made me open to the message found in the scripture now affixed to the bottom of my daughter’s new flying disc: a great narrative of being lost and then found, of knowing God’s boundless mercy.

And when I consider all the blessings that have come my way because I found that Frisbee in the lake, it seems to me that sticking scripture on the bottom of a Frisbee is entirely superfluous. At least in my case, let the flying disc be its own argument that God is good.