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.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

So Long, Jerry


Me: You seem to view this as some kind of good versus evil thing.
Newt Gingrich: Yes.

That exchange took place in 1978 in a suite at the Biltmore Hotel in midtown Atlanta. Gingrich was in the midst of his first successful campaign for congress (against the late Virginia Shapard). I wish I could say that I was a fifteen-year-old kingmaker in a smoke-filled room, interrogating a would-be cog in my political machine, but the truth is I was one of two-dozen or so high school social studies geeks who had won places in a program that allowed us to visit Atlanta periodically, stay in a hotel, and learn about state government. Part of the deal was that we had visits from guest speakers, including political candidates like Newt, who was then 16 years away from the pinnacle of his success, the 1994 Republican “Revolution,” another four years from his fall from grace, and still a few more years from his mystifying comeback. Back then he was just trying to win an election. His visit is still vague in my memory – in my mind’s eye I see him speaking from a couch, with most of us teens gathered around him on the carpet. I remember none of what he said, and I would certainly have been too limited in my knowledge and rhetorical skills to make a challenge to any of it, but if Newt said it I must have disagreed with it, and you don’t have to be scholar of oratory to recognize scary zealotry when you hear it. So when Q & A time came up I made my observation and he made his reply. I’m sure he must have elaborated, but, as I said, I don’t recall any specifics of his comments. Just the “yes.” I would pride myself on recognizing early his particular brand of opponent-demonizing political obnoxiousness, but that would be like priding myself on recognizing that Red Skelton wasn’t funny. Too obvious.

I’ve been remembering my one and only encounter with Newt Gingrich during our vacation week here in Grand Rapids as it mourns the loss of its favorite son, Gerald R. Ford, who preceded Gingrich as a Republican leader in congress. I’m going back to Georgia before the big show starts locally, but the rest of my family will still be in town jockeying for position on the funeral route and soaking up the memories and reflections. I’m sorry to miss that, but there has been something cool about watching hometown pride in action as the preparations are made. In just a few days the Easttown coffee house I’m sitting in will be on the route between the Presidential Museum downtown and the church where his local memorial service will take place, in his old congressional district. The other night several of us dined at a downtown riverfront hotel and then took advantage of the freakishly pleasant December weather to cross the river on a pedestrian bridge to the Ford Museum to sign the book and see the impromptu memorials that have been set up – the usual heartfelt mélange of candles, flowers, and handmade signs. My favorites signs were ones that said, “Thank you Mr. President, honesty is still the best policy,” and “From the Big House to the White House,” a reference to Ford’s days as a U of M Wolverine.

Some of the Ford memorializing in G.R. has been hyperbolic (see the pictured newspaper headline), but doesn’t that go with the territory when a famous local boy passes on? In the days before Ford’s death we Atlantans grew accustomed to that sort of thing: It seems that James Brown was the most important musical figure since Beethoven. Hyperbole aside, there is much to admire in Ford. It goes without saying that he entered office like one of those pinch hitters who is sent up to the plate already two strikes down. It wasn’t just Watergate – South Vietnam was falling, inflation and gas prices were up, seemingly for good. We were already feeling Carter’s malaise. Most of the national commentary about Ford has revolved around his decision to pardon Nixon. Put me in the “I was pissed off at the time, but it makes sense in retrospect” column on that one. As a child of the seventies, I liked George Will’s appreciation of the good timing of Ford’s solid, Midwestern normalcy. He was so mild, so inoffensively the former Eagle Scout, that it continues to astonish that anyone could work up enough hatred of him to attempt an assassination.

There has also been much emphasis on Ford’s long service in congress. For many this has been another occasion to mourn the passing of bipartisan Washington, of which Ford was a high priest, back when Republicans and Democrats were more inclined to cooperate, before the ascendancy of scorched-earth types like Gingrich, DeLay, et. al. Maybe, but I can’t imagine many Republicans are eager to return to the days of permanent minority status that Ford’s conciliatory style seemed to get them. That style is probably a relic anyway, done in by talk radio and blogs and 24 hour news and ideological litmus tests of special interest groups. Too bad. Politics without conflict is not politics at all, of course, but our suffering national political life could really use some more above-the-fray grownups in the Gerald Ford mode.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Creek Dogs: MHS Makes AYP

I spent thirteen very good years teaching at Meadowcreek High School in Gwinnett County, Georgia.

Gwinnett is Georgia’s largest school system and home to some of the state’s most highly regarded high schools. Meadowcreek is not one of them. It is known for poor academic performance and for legendarily bad football teams. It is often referred to as “Ghettocreek” elsewhere in the county, and if by “ghetto” you mean “poor,” then the name fits, I suppose: well over half of the student body is eligible for free or reduced lunch.

But that isn’t the whole story, of course.

Meadowcreek is also known for having a stunningly multi-ethnic student body. Gwinnett has become a highly diverse county in the last ten to fifteen years, and ground zero for the coming of ethnic diversity was the Meadowcreek community. During my time there I taught students from all over the world: Romania, Mexico, Vietnam, Nigeria, Guatemala, Korea, Russia, Haiti, and on and on. The school has claimed to have over 90 nationalities, and I don’t doubt it (the flags of many of these nations hang in the cafeteria). This characteristic of the school naturally led to some challenges not faced by other schools in the county, but it gave the place a certain lively flavor and we endeavored to embrace it (“celebrating our diversity,” the phrase always seems to be). I loved it when a newspaper reporter, in a profile of the school, described Meadowcreek as being like “a cheerful port city on market day.” At its best, that’s how the school was.

And we were never really as bad academically as some wanted to portray us. We sent our share of kids to Governors Honors and to elite colleges, and there were always pockets of excellence within the school. During my last years there the Science Olympiad team was a state power, and I know that the culinary club has made headlines in recent years. One of my proudest moments as an MHS faculty member was a few years back when the student body presidents at both UGa and Georgia Tech were Meadowcreek graduates. We tried to emphasize these stories of accomplishment and create more of them, and we tried to remain undaunted by the school’s overall low socioeconomic status. Many of Meadowcreek's low SES students, facing obstacles that users of the "Ghettocreek" slur could scarcely imagine, were among the most committed and friendly I have ever encountered. There were outstanding teachers in every discipline, ready to meet our students where they were and do right by them. Still, we always knew where Meadowcreek's name would appear on days that the county high schools' standardized test scores were published: rock bottom. It was always discouraging. The “Ghettocreek” rep was hard to shake, but the students tended to take it in good humor. They called themselves “Creek Dogs.”

In the late nineties, we had a great girls basketball team, one of the top squads in the state, led by sisters Jocelyn Penn and Annie Lester. Those girls were scrappy and talented, easy to root for. At one game I attended, a forward named Ashley Kirkman dove out of bounds after a loose ball. She crashed into the old gym’s rollaway bleachers, rattling the wood and metal to make a frighteningly loud noise. She lay still, seemingly hurt badly. Anxiously waiting for signs of life from Ashley, the raucous crowd fell silent, and remained that way for several tense seconds. Then, a hip-hoppishly attired young man who had been sitting behind me broke the silence. He yelled, “SHE ALL RIGHT! SHE A CREEK DOG!” We all cheered his comment, and cheered even louder when Ashley stood up, obviously in pain but ready to keep playing.

I think of that incident often. It embodies the rough pride that many people at Meadowcreek – students, parents, faculty – feel about the school. I thought of it in particular when news broke last week that Meadowcreek made AYP this year. I think more of No Child Left Behind than do most teachers, but if I wanted an exhibit of why the whole “failing school” designation is unfair, I would have pointed to MHS. “That place is never going to make AYP, and it's not their fault,” I told people in conversation. Too many people with limited English, too little support for schooling at home. It was too much to expect this place to reach the standard.

They proved me wrong. I should have known better. They all right. They Creek Dogs.

In Lieu of the Braves, I'm For the Tigers


The annual rite of autumn for Braves fans – choosing whom you’re going to root for after the Braves get eliminated – has come a little sooner this year. Usually I have to hold my nose and pull for some team I’m not really that into, like the Angels. This year is different. I am fired up about the Detroit Tigers, and not just because they’ve been sticking it to the evil empire. I’m for the Tigers because of:

6. The guy at the right (no relation).

5. My Michigan connections. Related by marriage to the Meyers of Grand Rapids, I have adopted Michigan as my second home state. I know Wayland from Byron Center, I know Granholm from DeVos, but I don’t know any Upper Peninsula jokes. The only trouble with this Detroit-rooting scenario from the family relations standpoint is that that West Michiganders tend to regard Eastern Michigan (and Detroit in particular) as a sorry place, something they’d rather not be connected to. The good news is that when the Tigers are cooking, Detroit-loathing seems to be called off. My baseball-hating wife can even name several members of the 1984 Tigers championship team, including second baseman Sweet Lou Whitaker.

4. Detroit’s urban explorers. The city is a well-known urban wasteland, but where many see desolation, others saw a research opportunity. A small group of adventurers with digital cameras trespass in the ruins of abandoned structures from Detroit’s golden age – car factories, hotels, movie palaces – take photos and post them on the web.

3. A peculiar Braves-Tigers connection. Some trace the beginning of the Braves’ fourteen-year run of division titles to one of the classic, trade-deadline “contender swaps hot prospect for last place team’s established veteran” deals: In 1987 the hapless Braves gave the desperate Tigers Doyle Alexander for John Smoltz, who is now the last member of the Braves 1991 worst-to-first World Series team still with the club. And he’s bound for Cooperstown. Unfortunately for the Tigers, that trade was the beginning of a long slide that was only recently reversed.

2. I’ve been to old Tiger Stadium. In 1999, the last year before the team moved to its new ballpark, some Meyers and I drove east to take in a game. Though it was heartwarming to be in the very place where Ty Cobb, Hank Greenberg, and Denny McClain performed their legendary feats, the truth is that place was lacking in the charm people associate with old ballparks. As I thought once when my brother moved into a shoddy old mill village house in Athens, old doesn’t necessarily equal cool.

1. Tiger great Ty Cobb. Our annual Thanksgiving trips to my grandmother’s house in South Carolina always took us through Royston, Georgia, Cobb’s hometown, where they had put up a little museum in honor of “The Georgia Peach.” He was one of the five original members of the baseball Hall of Fame, owner of a .367 career batting average, the highest ever. But there was more to him than just baseball excellence. As Ernest Hemingway said, "Ty Cobb was the greatest of all ballplayers - and an absolute shit.” I highly recommend “The Fight to Live,” sportswriter Al Stump’s account of his maddening efforts to aid the elderly, diseased, alcoholic, murderously obnoxious Cobb in the writing of his autobiography. In the end Stump calls Cobb “the most violent, successful, thoroughly maladjusted personality ever to pass across American sports."

And he was from right up the road!

So I’m for the Tigers.

Hey, Guv, Let's Party!


Sean Penn’s new version of All the King’s Men is getting panned mercilessly in the media. “Appalling," “tedious," "ponderous and turgid as a book report" are a few descriptions I've read so far. Some are saying the film was in ill-conceived venture from the start. Maybe so, but it seems to me that it was perfectly logical for Penn to think he could play Willie Stark, the Southern demagogue at the heart of the story, given Stark’s uncanny similarity to one of Penn’s previous roles. The quotes below are from the 1949 version of All the King’s Men, starring Broderick Crawford.

On the Need for Revolution:

Willie Stark fires up a backwoods crowd: “Now, shut up! Shut up, all of you! Now listen to me, you hicks. Yeah, you're hicks too, and they fooled you a thousand times like they fooled me. But this time, I'm going to fool somebody. I'm going to stay in this race. I'm on my own and I'm out for blood.”

Jeff Spicoli explains the thinking of the founders to Mr. Hand: "What this Jefferson dude was saying is, we left this England place because it was bogus, and if we don't get some cool rules of our own - pronto - we'll just be bogus too."

Pathetic Attempts to Right Wrongs

Willie Stark attempts to bribe the father of a girl his son killed in an auto accident: “I’ll take care of everything . . . A man in the trucking business could really use a contract with the state, right?”

Jeff Spicoli claims he can repair Charles Jefferson's hopelessly trashed Camaro: "Relax, alright? My old man is a television repairman. He's got this ultimate set of tools. I can fix it."

On Living Well

Willie Stark: “I don't need money. People give me things because they believe in me.”

Jeff Spicoli: "All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz, and I'm fine."

On the Essential Darkness of Human Existence

Willie Stark: “There's something on everybody. Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption. He passes from the stink of the dydie to the stench of the shroud. There's always something."

Jeff Spicoli: “Hey, there’s no birthday party for me here!”

NOTE: Both Willie Starks hosted SNL, Broderick Crawford in 1977, Sean Penn in 1987.

An Absurd Name


Word that Bob Dylan has done a little creative borrowing from – of all people - Henry Timrod, the “Poet Laureate of the Confederacy,” brings to mind another obscure poet of the South, Thomas Holley Chivers (1807-1858). Like Chekhov and Walker Percy, Chivers was a physician by training who turned to literature as his true calling. Unlike them, he probably should have stuck to medicine:

As an egg, when broken, never
Can be mended, but must ever
Be the same crushed egg for ever—
So shall this dark heart of mine!

Chivers spent his last years in Decatur. A small monument next to the Decatur library marks the spot of his house. Today he is best-remembered for accusing his sometime friend and collaborator in mystic schlock, Edgar Allan Poe, of plagiarism: “Poe stole ‘The Raven’ from me!”

My favorite thing about Thomas Holley Chivers is that the creators of one of the best films ever, The Third Man, borrowed his name for one of the story’s main characters, the American writer of pulp westerns, Holley Martins, who is stranded in postwar Vienna looking for his scoundrel of a pal, Harry Lime. As screenwriter Graham Greene explained it, “The name had to be an absurd one, and the name Holley occurred to me when I remembered that figure of fun, the American poet Thomas Holley Chivers.”

September 11


On this fifth anniversary of the September 11th attacks I’m posting something I wrote in the aftermath. One of the people mentioned is Naguib Mahfouz, who died just a couple of weeks ago.

October 8, 2001

Ever since September 11 I have been thinking about writing to those teachers from Egypt who came to Meadowcreek in the late 1990s. The letter would be a general expression of friendship, goodwill. Maybe I would include the line from Auden's "September 1, 1939:" "We must love one another or we must die." I would have to avoid saying anything contentious: one of the things I remember about the Egyptian teachers was how eager they were to recount for me Egypt's military exploits against Israel. Furthermore, I read recently that anti-Israeli feeling in Egypt is still very high, despite the treaty between Sadat and Begin. So I would just say something like, "What happened September 11 had made all of us very sad and has made me realize the importance of maintaining friendships and good will across national boundaries." Leave it at that.

Thinking about the Egyptians reminded me of Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian novelist who won the Nobel Prize for literature. I happen to have a copy of the Georgia Review that included profiles of all living Nobel laureates in literature, plus their acceptance speeches. I looked up Mahfouz's speech.

He ends his lecture with these stirring words:

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In spite of all what goes on around us I am committed to optimism until the end. I do not say with Kant that Good will be victorious in the other world. Good is achieving victory every day. It may even be that Evil is weaker than we imagine. In front of us is an indelible proof: were it not for the fact that victory is always on the side of Good, hordes of wandering humans would not have been able in the face of beasts and insects, natural disasters, fear and egotism, to grow and multiply. They would not have been able to form nations, to excel in creativeness and invention, to conquer outer space, and to declare Human Rights. The truth of the matter is that Evil is a loud and boisterous debaucher, and that Man remembers what hurts more than what pleases. Our great poet Abul-'Alaa' Al-Ma'ari was right when he said:

A grief at the hour of death
Is more than a hundred-fold
Joy at the hour of birth.

Further back, he invokes Alfred Nobel:

I beg your pardon, ladies and gentlemen, I feel I may have somewhat troubled your calm. But what do you expect from one coming from the Third World? Is not every vessel colored by what it contains? Besides, where can the moans of Mankind find a place to resound if not in your oasis of civilization planted by its great founder for the service of science, literature and sublime human values? And as he did one day by consecrating his riches to the service of good, in the hope of obtaining forgiveness, we, children of the Third World, demand of the able ones, the civilized ones, to follow his example, to imbibe his conduct, to meditate upon his vision.

I was reading all this and thinking about it, feeling stirred, but also troubled, because we are at war. I had put on the soundtrack from the film Glory. Maybe that music is a bit on the treacly side - the Harlem Boys' choir, timpani, bells, crescendos calculated to give you chills - but I don't care. I love the story of the 54th Massachusets, fighting on the side of right in a just war, embodying the cause itself. In his poem "For the Union Dead," Robert Lowell examines St. Gaudens' monument to Colonel Shaw and his black soldiers, contrasting their heroism with the venality of contemporary Boston: "Their monument sticks like a fishbone / in the city's throat." I hope that our current fight remains true to that kind of heroism, that we make a point of fighting for more than just economic prosperity and our own safety. It hope it will be possible for this to be a war of liberation. That's part of what I was thinking about, and the music from the film, stirring as it is, made it easy for me to think that way. But it didn't shake me out of my fear, the helpless fear so many of us are trying to keep at bay every moment of the day: Will my children have a chance to live? This is a fear that hangs over all other thoughts, a cloud of dread, a suffocator of hope.

I was so preoccupied with these fretful thoughts that I didn't notice that my daughter Josie, who is almost three years old, had decided to style my hair. She was standing behind me on the sofa with a tiny comb and brush, her little body leaning against my back. Josie knows that part of being a hair stylist is getting to tell the customer which way to turn his head. So she started giving me instructions, in her softest, gentlest voice. Without knowing it, she led me on a tour of every evocative thing in my field of vision.

"Look at the trees."

I looked out the window at the trees. She combed.

"Now look at the grass."

I looked out the window at the grass.

"Now look at the mailbox."

I looked at the mailbox.

"Now look at the books"

I looked toward the bookshelves.

"Now look at the pictures."

I looked at the pictures of our parents.

"Now look at the clock."

I looked at the clock.

"Now look at the candle."

I looked at the candle.

"Now look at the light."

I looked at the light, feeling more under the care of a loving God and better able to go confidently into the dark unknown of the days ahead than I have felt in a long time.

Viva Ramona!


“The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does attempt to represent life.” - Henry James

Reading to children daily (or almost daily) means you end up reading many of the same books over and over again. Constant revisiting of the same texts gives one a special appreciation of the great and an intense loathing of the hacks. I’ve been meaning to make a big list of each, but maybe I shouldn’t get nasty (though I don’t mind saying that if anyone ever decides to publicly incinerate all books about a certain large red dog, I’d be happy to furnish the matches). But I do want to praise a great one: Beverly Cleary.

I don’t remember reading her books until my daughters got old enough to have chapter books read to them. Once I read Ramona the Pest, Ramona the Brave, and Ramona Quimby, Age 8, I realized what I had been missing all those years: the great comic realist of childhood. Nobody renders the inner lives of a six, seven, and eight-year-olds with less sentiment and more gritty truth (or with more wit and poignancy) than Beverly Cleary. Ramona is not impossibly mature like Nancy Drew or cutesy/obnoxious like Junie B. Jones. She seems like a real little girl, a hilarious bundle of charm and flaws. In Ramona’s life nothing more dramatic happens than getting stuck in the mud in new boots or the family cat dying in the basement, yet whenever we’re in the middle of one of these books I find myself looking forward to bedtime and disappointed when its Becki’s turn to read to the girls.

Tonight I was reading them chapter two of Ramona Quimby, Age 8. Ramona, now thriving in the third grade, has to spend her afternoons at her friend Howie’s house, under the care of his stick-in-the-mud grandmother and forced into being a playmate for Howie’s obnoxious four-year-old sister, Willa Jean. She winds up as Mister Rat in an annoyingly manic game of “Froggy Went a Courtin.” As Ramona struggles to keep her sunny side up during these degradations, Cleary reveals her concealed resentments with a verisimilitude that strikes me as somehow beautiful. And it’s funny, too. The chapter contains one of my favorite funny bits in any of the Ramona books. Willa Jean has two friends named Bruce: “Bruce who pees in the sandbox” and “Bruce who doesn’t pee in the sandbox.”

Louis Who?

NOTE: This was originally composed for a teenage audience: the readership of the high school paper I was sponsoring last year. In twelve years as a student newspaper sponsor I never took the prerogative to publish any of my own writing, but for my last issue ever, I thought "What the hell!"

Louis Rukeyser is dead.

He passed away May 2, at the age of 73.

If his name doesn’t ring a bell, don’t worry. Though he was famous in certain circles, there’s really no reason you should have heard of him. He was a minor celebrity of another generation.

I wasn’t much of a fan, either, but news of his death saddened me because I remembered the date my father regularly kept with Louis Rukeyser in the late 1970’s. Friday night, 8:30, PBS. Wall $treet Week.

The thirty minute show had only two segments. It began with a witty Ruykeser monologue on the major business stories of the week. Ruykeser’s obituaries describe these monologues as "crafted gems of wry commentary." They were, and he delivered them with a charming smirk, seemingly fueled by martinis. The rest of the show was a Rukeyser-led panel discussion with leaders in the investment community. The set made it look like the discussion was happening in an exclusive club. The only thing missing was cigar smoke. With coaxing from Rukeyser, his hyper-informed guests delivered sober-sounding insights about business and investments.

Why Pop loved this show is a mystery. He wasn’t a businessman or an investor. I’m certain he didn’t care for Rukeyeser’s politics. But there was something about Wall $treet Week that appealed to him. I like to think it was the show’s intelligence.

But there is another, less-charitable explanation: Pop watched Louis Rukeyser because he was there. It was Friday night, Pop was going to watch some TV, and Rukeyser was the least-dreadful of the few choices he had. These were the days before the cable explosion. Where we lived there were four channels. One baseball game a week. Cartoons on Saturday morning only. World news on three networks, but strictly at 7:00 p.m.

But between the cable explosion and the rise of the internet, the media environment has changed dramatically in just a generation. Where once there was scarcity, now there is plenty. All the baseball, cartoons, and world news you could ever want. Is Nepal still in chaos? I’ll just access the web page of the Himalayan Times and get the story straight from Kathmandu. Internet political bloggers expose the lies in political speeches before the speaker boards his flight for home. What Louis Rukeyser used to do for a half hour on Fridays we now have entire networks doing 24-7.

On balance, the wider availability of information and greater diversity of media outlets is a positive development. At times I might get nostalgic for the world of four channels on TV and a fresh newspaper in the driveway, but in the end I love having 60 channels and visiting 20 or 30 dot coms every day. I’m not going back, and neither is anybody else.

But this decentralizing of the news, the toppling of the so-called "old media," has a negative side that we ought to recognize.

Some have complained that this media fragmentation has contributed to our political polarization. If it seems that Democrats and Republicans are living on different planets (particularly with respect to the merits of President Bush), perhaps it is because of the way they get their information. If people can customize their news consumption – that is, if liberals get their news exclusively from liberal sources, conservatives from conservative sources – then they bring to their debates not just differing philosophies but differing versions of reality.

But where the new media environment is concerned, I’m less troubled about its consequences for politics than I am about its consequences for teenagers. Media abundance has, ironically, deprived teenagers of something important.

If my father was trapped with Louis Rukeyser on Friday nights in 1978, so was I. Because of the scarcity of media designed exclusively for teenagers I found myself getting gradually introduced to the adult world through television, movies, newspapers, and books that had been designed for people of my parents’ generation. I didn’t know it was happening. I just read Time and the Atlanta Constitution like my parents, watched the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite and The Deer Hunter like my parents.

At times these excursions into the media environment of grownups were excruciating, like those social occasions where I was the only fifteen-year-old in a room full of people in their forties, having to listen to their boring conversations about forced busing and the energy crisis and the Soviet threat. Sometimes I hated it. But all the while I was being drawn out of my adolescent cocoon into a world of concerns beyond my own.

No, watching my father’s TV shows did not make me into a mature person (ask anyone who knew me when I was 15, or when I was 30, for that matter), but it helped. And none of this is meant to suggest that there was no youth culture in 1978 (then, as now, there was a flourishing youth culture in the world of popular music). Nor am I saying that the sprawling youth culture of today has eclipsed all ways of getting initiated into the media environment of grownups. But things are different now. Today there are countless media sources that cater exclusively to the sensibilities of teenagers. As such, teenagers now are less likely than teenagers once were to read what their parents read and watch what their parents watch. Between MySpace and American Pie and MTV and the O.C. and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, teenagers of today can enjoy a "have it your way" media feast without ever experiencing something created for people who are 30, 40, or 50.

Again, it is no surprise and no shame if you’ve never heard of Louis Rukeyser. He was of another time.

The trouble is, if he were to come along now, you probably would never hear of him either.