Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Five Best Concert Movies Ever

As usual, I'm using some attention-grabbing hyperbole here--think "the five best pop/rock/folk/funk concert movies/music documentaries I've seen." But I have to say that lately I've seen a lot, particularly the classics--Wattstax (watchable for Richard Pryor and a surprising appearance by Ted Lange of Love Boat fame), Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (shot in such a way that the outrageous David Bowie seemed like a pretty straightforward rocker-troubadour, especially when he does a solo with his guitar of "My Death," while his audience were made to look semi-possessed), Don't Look Back (more iconic than actually interesting; No Direction Home, which covers essentially the same time period, is much better), Depeche Mode: 101 (which basically convinced me of exactly two things: first, DM fans, to use Pretty in Pink, an appropriately 80s measuring stick, as a gauge, were mostly Steffs rather than Duckies; and second, DM's music was better in the studio than live), and more. The concert movie, whether or not accompanied by any documentary interviews or information, is an odd creature: much more than a music video, obviously, but in some ways still inseparable from that distilled art form. To make a concert worth watching, as opposed to simply being a recording worth listening to, the music has to be equal to what's on the cd, but also somehow cinematic: there has to be an added quality to putting live music on film, and seeing it. Anyway, out of my concert movie binge, here are my favorites (in alphabetical order):

The Last Waltz. The praise for this film is well-deserved. Martin Scorsese has few, if any, equals among mainstream American film directors in knowing how to use music to accent a film, and knowing how to make the creation and performance of music itself worth watching (sudden inspiration: Wes Anderson needs to make a Belle and Sebastian movie!), as the presence of his work elsewhere on this list makes clear. Anyone remotely familiar with the history of The Band knows about the disputes between Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm over what Scorsese ended up including and what he left on the cutting room floor, but all that is ultimately besides the point: the music-making he got on film during The Band's final concert is simply superb. (Though my favorite moment from the film, a transcendent performance of "The Weight" with the Staple Singers, the greatest mix of folk-rock, country, and gospel I've ever heard, was recorded a couple of days later.)

Rattle and Hum. The story is that U2 didn't care for this film about their American tour almost from the instant it came out, realizing that it was too obvious, too pretentious a work of personal myth-building. Maybe so--but I apologize to no one for still finding its mix of black-and-white and color footage, its obviously constructed scenes as well as accidental moments, its touches of hagiography, all of it, an utterly compelling and righteously entertaining document of a rock band strutting, stretching, exploring, and realizing itself (whether accurately or not) to be as big as all the world. For Bono to make like Mick Jagger here in the closing moments of "Bad" is therefore only to be expected.

Shine a Light. Scorsese makes another appearance in my top five, this time with his beloved Rolling Stones. The concert movie most identified with the band's history is, of course, Gimme Shelter, and I won't deny that film is a must-see, if only to capture Jagger's cock-of-the-walk aloofness in all its youth and relative immaturity, to say nothing of the entertainment of watching privileged rock stars and hippies react bemusedly to a bunch of drunk, violent, blue-collar motorcycle thugs, seeing a murder be committed on screen, and, of course, watching Tina Turner do the best on-camera orgasm until Meg Ryan came along. But seriously, Shine a Light is a great movie; it gives you the Stones as an old, reliable, well-oiled machine, capable of burning rubber on their greatest hits, inventively covering lost classics and even a couple of duds from their 50-year repertoire, and puts it all together in a venue and under the eyes of the camera in a way that makes you think, as cliche as it is to say it, that you really were there. The moment I like best is a comparatively quiet one, with Jagger and Keith Richards plucking out "As Tears Go By," an early song of theirs which they are, at last, truly old enough to finally play right.

Stop Making Sense. If you want to make an argument that this movie is the absolute apotheosis of the concert film, I won't disagree with you. It is, more than any other movie of its type that I've seen, the product of a wholly unified artistic vision; watching the movie, I couldn't help but wonder if I was viewing an actual concert film, or some massive work of performance art, or both. The level of costuming and choreography is stunning, matched only by the minimalist, yet somehow still funky staging. And the music is stunning, equal or superior to anything that ever appeared on any Talking Heads studio release. Just watch "Life During Wartime," and think: here is a punk band, that decided to sing pop songs, who put together a rhythm and blues outfit, staged a big funk show, all in order to do a tune about apocalyptic destruction amidst the strip malls and aerobics classes in early 80s America. Just brilliant.

Woodstock. With few exceptions, there aren't any performances in this film which rival most of what's available in some of the other concert movies I've mentioned here; as a rule, it doesn't look like Woodstock brought out the best in those who performed there. But this is a case where I have to break my aforementioned rules: Woodstock, the movie, may not give us music with some added cinematic component that makes it all worthwhile--but in this case you're watching because the movie itself is what make the concert, and the music which was played there, so historic. It's a document of collective memory in the making--and there was probably no more clear example of that than Jimi Hendrix's barn-burning finale. Our national anthem, and the memory of the 1960s, was probably never the same after this (and good for that, I say).

"There was a child went forth..."

Garrison Keillor has reminded me of this important date in American letters this morning; that makes it a good date to reprint one of my favorite poems, especially after the storms last night:

There was a child went forth every day;
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became;
And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.

The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass, and white and red morning-glories, and white and red clover, and the song of the phoebe-bird,
And the Third-month lambs, and the sow’s pink-faint litter, and the mare’s foal, and the cow’s calf,
And the noisy brood of the barn-yard, or by the mire of the pond-side,
And the fish suspending themselves so curiously below there—and the beautiful curious liquid,
And the water-plants with their graceful flat heads—all became part of him.

The field-sprouts of Fourth-month and Fifth-month became part of him;
Winter-grain sprouts, and those of the light-yellow corn, and the esculent roots of the garden,
And the apple-trees cover’d with blossoms, and the fruit afterward, and wood-berries, and the commonest weeds by the road;
And the old drunkard staggering home from the out-house of the tavern, whence he had lately risen,
And the school-mistress that pass’d on her way to the school,
And the friendly boys that pass’d—and the quarrelsome boys,
And the tidy and fresh-cheek’d girls—and the barefoot negro boy and girl,
And all the changes of city and country, wherever he went.

His own parents,
He that had father’d him, and she that had conceiv’d him in her womb, and birth’d him,
They gave this child more of themselves than that;
They gave him afterward every day—they became part of him.

The mother at home, quietly placing the dishes on the supper-table;
The mother with mild words—clean her cap and gown, a wholesome odor falling off her person and clothes as she walks by;
The father, strong, self-sufficient, manly, mean, anger’d, unjust;
The blow, the quick loud word, the tight bargain, the crafty lure,
The family usages, the language, the company, the furniture—the yearning and swelling heart,
Affection that will not be gainsay’d—the sense of what is real—the thought if, after all, it should prove unreal,
The doubts of day-time and the doubts of night-time—the curious whether and how,
Whether that which appears so is so, or is it all flashes and specks?
Men and women crowding fast in the streets—if they are not flashes and specks, what are they?
The streets themselves, and the façades of houses, and goods in the windows,
Vehicles, teams, the heavy-plank’d wharves—the huge crossing at the ferries,
The village on the highland, seen from afar at sunset—the river between,
Shadows, aureola and mist, the light falling on roofs and gables of white or brown, three miles off,
The schooner near by, sleepily dropping down the tide—the little boat slack-tow’d astern,
The hurrying tumbling waves, quick-broken crests, slapping,
The strata of color’d clouds, the long bar of maroon-tint, away solitary by itself—the spread of purity it lies motionless in,
The horizon’s edge, the flying sea-crow, the fragrance of salt marsh and shore mud;
These became part of that child who went forth every day, and who now goes, and will always go forth every day.

Wherever you are, Walt, happy birthday.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Ill Fares the Land of Kansas

Frequently over the years, but especially since Thomas Frank's bestseller What's the Matter with Kansas came out, my adopted state has been written off by various secular and liberal writers across the United States as zealous backwater, a place run by religious fundamentalists and fanatics that have purposely chosen to keep Kansas impoverished and unenlightened for the sake of protecting doctrinal purity. Despite my sympathy for Frank's politics, I never liked his thesis, nor those of many others who have repeated it: it's condescending and reductive take on the people who live here, one that fails to respect their own actual reasons for voting the way they do. But as of this morning, I have to give Frank & Co. some credit: they got the bit about zealotry and doctrinal purity right--only not exactly in the way they might have assumed.

Kansas Governor Sam Brownback came into office with the explicit intention of pushing our state's moderate conservative status quo in some extreme directions. He wasn't alone in doing this; he had our congressional delegation on his side, and the Kansas House of Representatives, and powerful interest groups like the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity and the Kansas Chamber of Commerce--given the weakness of the state Democratic party, really only the Kansas Senate, which remained in the hands of moderate Republicans, stood in his way. Ultimately, though, that didn't slow him down much. The Tea Party-motivated conservative caucus mostly fawned when Browback's team brought supply-side guru Arthur Laffer to town, selling his (completely discredited) gospel of how an abandonment by government of public responsibilities will result in a surging, libertarian economic paradise. Our governor, piggy-backing on Laffer's ideas, pressed forward with an extreme plan to lower income taxes, gut or privatize social services, and radically change the relationship between Kansas citizens and the state they have built. He didn't get everything he wanted--he failed (for now) in his push to move the developmentally disabled off the state's Medicaid program and into the hands of private insurers, for example--but he got enough, signing into law yesterday massive tax cuts (which he and state house had outmaneuvered the senate into passing) that will reduce state revenues by nearly $4 billion over the next five years. Given that Kansas is prohibited by its state constitution from producing anything but a balanced budget, and given the political reality that Brownback and his devoted co-religionists will make any further change income taxes next to impossible, this means only one of two things: devastating further cuts to education and social service funding (the local school district here in Wichita will likely lose over $100 million alone), or property tax increases to desperately attempt to contain the hemorrhaging. Probably we'll get both.

Just what kind of gospel is it that holds to a frankly mad idea that will likely result in our state government, under pressure from public schools and state courts, raiding essential highway funds and watching its credit ratings tumble as we potentially head towards California-level fiscal dysfunction? Could it be called a "conservative" ideology? I suppose if you define a word as meaning whatever you want it to mean, you could call it that. But of course, it isn't, not really: "conservatism," if it means anything, should mean prudence, and preserving that which has been accomplished. And Brownback's drive to break down and cut back and privatize the operations of the state, all to make possible enormous business-friendly giveaways (and which will have minimal to almost non-existent benefits for the working poor), is hardly prudent. So what is it? My own local congressional representative, Republican Mike Pompeo, perhaps unintentionally clarified this religion when he described his ideology as a "leave-us-alone conservatism." That desire to be left alone leads in the direction of remaining socially and fiscally untouched, unrecruited, unobligated--what Tony Judt called, in his last book before he passed away, "The Cult of the Private." In the face of a state government which has demonstrated again and again a near-fanatical devotion to a gospel of individualism, independence, austerity, privatization, market triumphalism, and self-help, I can't do better than to just quote from Judt here: 

The reduction of "society" to a thin membrane of interactions between private individuals is presented as the ambition of libertarians and free marketeers....Governments that are too weak or discredited to act through their citizens are more likely to seek their ends by other means: by exhorting, cajoling, threatening, and ultimately coercing people to obey them. The loss of social purpose articulated through public services actually increases the unrestrained powers of the over-mighty state.

There is nothing mysterious about this process: it was described by Edmund Burke in his critique of the French Revolution. Any society, he wrote in Reflections on the Revolution in France, which destroys the fabric of its state, must soon be "disconnected into the dust and powder of individuality." By eviscerating public services and reducing them to network of farmed-out private providers, we have begun to dismantle the fabric of the state. As for the dust and powder of individuality: it resembles nothing so much as Hobbes's war of all against all, in which life for many people has once again become solitary, poo, and more than a little nasty (Ill Fares the Land, pp. 118-119).

Brownback, Pompeo, and the rest of Kansas's emergent conservative Republican majority would, of course, deny this: they would insist that it is they who are truly supporting the traditional "conservative" cause of defending the communitarian, cooperative, and charitable power of churches, neighborhoods, and families by trying to get government off their backs. And admittedly, it is a little strange to see a social democrat like Judt quote Burke, the patron saint of traditional conservatives. But there is a real logic behind what he is doing. Our governor, and our congressional delegation, and all of Kansas today, is not (however much some might want it to be) the agrarian world of limited technology and established churches which Burke knew. We are--even here in Kansas!--a highly mobile and diverse place, deeply implicated in an economy of change and "creative destruction," as the economic Joseph Schumpeter put it (and as any Wichitan who has followed the ups and downs of the aerospace industry can tell you!). In such a world, people have democratically organized themselves to provide, through state institutions and taxation, social goods that, at one time--before modern hospitals, before the interstate highway system, before globalization and multiculturalism--churches and families provided to communities that were much more stable, local, homogenous, and limited than ours today.

In other words, in today's late capitalist world, the operations of the state are themselves the trusted forms of community support--and moreover, Judt feels at least, the only ones which are genuinely capable of dealing with our diverse and disparate lives. To attack the state, then, is not the way to conserve what is best about the state of Kansas; it is, rather a way to break it apart, to reduce even further those feelings of trust and attachment which still remain across our state. Look at it this way: if taxes and systems of common provision, which were once the shared reality of everyone from Topeka to Wichita to Dodge City, are to be seen wholly as an interference is the lives of individuals who prefer to be left alone, exactly what would be this "Kansas" thing that you claim to be trying to serve and conserve? Certainly it wouldn't be a state in the "traditional" sense--but then, the evidence points toward Brownback & Co.'s conservatism being anything but traditional conservatives. Business-friendly free-marketers perhaps, economic libertarians maybe...but not conservatives, not unless conservatism has suddenly come to mean the individualistic "take care of yourself" rather than the community-oriented "let's build something together."

To be sure, Judt's analysis of the culture- and community-conserving role of the state may seem perverse to many, and there are many ways in which his consideration of politics today doesn't fit Kansas at all. (For one thing, like many secularists, he assumes that religion can't truly bind people together in ways that serve diverse needs; he really ought to have read some Lew Daly on faith-based initiatives to gotten straight on this point.) And it is possible to read the business-besotted libertarianism of our governor as only the first step towards the revival of a genuine Jeffersonian localism--but that would assume that he and his supporters in the state government also have a plan to break up our large city centers, to wean our farmers off subsidies and diversify agriculture with a return to small and mid-sized farms, to reduce outward migration (and resist immigration), to restrict and reduce the size of corporations, to accept local limits upon our production and wealth, and to greatly democratize our politics and our economic policies. If I could actually believe that Brownback's aim was to generate a kind of localist revival here in Kansas, with real attention being paid to economic sovereignty and democratic participation and freeing us from the grips of global capitalism, I might look more kindly upon his efforts to starve the state. But given that this whole risky plan has been conveyed with promises of "growth" and "job creation," and has been identified from the very beginning as being in agreement with the agenda of interest groups very much in the pocket of powerful business corporations, all that seems unlikely. So even if you don't agree with the criticisms someone like Judt lodges against this oppose-the-state mentality (remember, as Governor Brownback himself commented as he signed the tax cut bill, his "faith" is in "people of Kansas"--not the government which, those people, you know, put him in charge of), the one thing you can't deny is that it's not any kind of conservatism at all. It is, instead, a rather intense, individualistic religious conviction. Pity Kansas for having unintentionally fulfilled Frank's warning, and given so much power to bunch of rather intense true believers.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Five Reasons Why I Don't Feel Much Like Voting for Obama These Days

[Cross-posted to Political Context]

The November presidential election is still five-and-a-half months away, which means there is still plenty of time for me to change my mind, and then change my mind again. About the likely outcome, of course (though given that I still think, seven months after my last prediction, that Mitt Romney is likely to win the election, I'd have to see some pretty convincing data to change my mind), but more relevantly about what I personally have to say about it. In 2008 I voted, despite some reservations, for Barack Obama to be our president, in part because I had real hopes that his presidency could bring a greater emphasis on democracy, community, and equality to the table, but probably mostly because I just couldn't stand the idea of even implicitly endorsing, by declining to support Obama, what his Republican opponent would bring, and what his election, in the face of the historic breakthrough which Obama's candidacy represented, would have meant. Today, in 2012, as cliche as it may be to admit to it, I confess: those hopes of mine have been, to a significant degree, crowded out by four years of reflection and reality. I get e-mails from MoveOn and Michelle Obama's website and other fundraisers and re-election operations almost daily, and I've long since given up on reading them. I won't say I don't care if Obama is re-elected or not (though I don't think he will be), because I do care--I'm pretty confident that, by any number of measures important to me at least, a second term for this president would be better for our country than a first term for Romney (especially with the Congress he will almost certainly have on Capitol Hill waiting for him). But as I sit here today, towards the end of May, and contemplate pushing the button on the touch-screen for Obama...well, I can think of at least five reasons why I find that hard.

1) The fact that I live in Kansas. We have six electoral college votes, and they aren't distributed the way our neighbors to the north in Nebraska do, following election returns along congressional district lines, but rather in a winner-take-all fashion, as is typical throughout the United States. And given that Kansas is a red state, by some measurements the most red state in the whole country, the odds that my vote could be the decisive one enabling the Democrats to capture Kansas and put it in the blue column this November are so ridiculously remote that I don't know enough math to be able to even begin to figure them. In other words, Obama will lose here in Kansas in November. Now I don't think there's anything wrong with voting for sure losers; I've done so a couple of times before myself, and given that voting is at least as much an expressive act as a strategic one, there might be good arguments for doing so. But at the very least, knowing that I almost certainly couldn't help re-elect Obama with my vote in November even if I wanted to, allows me a little more intellectual space to determine if I do, in fact, want to. And as of today, part of me doesn't. Why?

2) The treatment of Bradley Manning, and the Obama administration's whole approach to the supposedly-ending-but-not-really-hey-let's-just-use-drones "war on terror" and civil liberties in general. I have no doubts that President Obama, and the people around him, are far less captivated by the neo-conservative, "clash of civilizations," unitary-executive-trust-the-decider Kool-Aid which President Bush apparently imbibed, or at least encouraged those around him to imbibe, in great quantities. This White House is clearly a more rational, more responsible, more civil and careful place than the last one was. But that just makes my frustrations stronger. One of the very few areas in which an American president can act with significant freedom and authority is the shaping of foreign policy, and this presidency, for the most part, has treated the collateral damage which comes along with his power as commander-in-chief--which in many ways he has used far more effectively and intelligently than Bush ever did--in a frustratingly, sometimes infuriatingly, antiseptic and professorial way. I'm just not happy with using my vote to signify support for putting such significant power in the hands of a man who is apparently comfortable with, not just targeting American citizens accused of terrorist activities with arbitrary assassination, but also claiming the prerogative to indefinitely detain American citizens so accused without trial--even though he implies to us that he "never intends to use" the latter power. I'd like to think that my meaningless vote this November is worth more than that.

3) The contraception coverage mandate which the president endorsed as part of the Affordable Care Act. Yes, I know that essentially everyone uses birth control, no matter what their religious identification, which makes the whole controversy in some ways rather strange. Yes, I know that the imposition of a nation-wide standard of providing insurance coverage which includes contraception, including through Catholic hospitals and church-run orphanages and other religious organizations which may have theological objections to providing birth control, is arguably central to both the whole point of the ACA (which I support, despite disliking its philosophical foundations) and to respecting the rights of the women who actually make up the majority of those employed by these institutions. And yes, I know that most states already have locally imposed just such mandates upon the insurers (though with significant variety in the exceptions allowed), and yes, I know that Obama and his people have tried to work out a compromise here as well (though both the economics and the morality of the administration's "accommodation" are rather dubious). But I have to say all that doesn't change my mind--whatever gets worked out on the state level, it remains the case that the national government has both the position and the power to set the direction of American law and policy, and as one who strongly endorses the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (and thinks the the Supreme Court did real harm to this country with its overly broad decisions in Employment Division v. Smith and City of Bourne v. Flores), I really don't like seeing the national government involving itself in acts which compromise the ability of voluntary religious bodies (and to a lesser but still important degree their individual adherents) to fully define and govern themselves. No, this does not mean I'm fully on board with paranoid, historically uninformed cries about the HHS's threat to "religious freedom", nor with those 43 religious universities, groups, and organizations which have filed suit against the Obama administration over the mandate; my dislike for judicial decisions replacing democratic legislation remains strong, and so I, like some liberal Catholics, would have liked to see political pressure and negotiation continue to do their work before turning to lawsuits. (The left-leaning Catholic Michael Sean Winters, who has fiercely--and rightly--attacked the administration for supporting the mandate, recommends just such an approach here.). But if there is a point upon which I am generally willing to see courts act against popular majorities, it is to protect the limited, but vital, sovereignty of churches and church organizations; such a freedom is one of the few ways in which I agree with otherwise simplistic bromides about American exceptionalism. Ours is a country which, as Doug Kmiec rightly, if reluctantly, argues, deserves better than the sort of "episodic presidential aloofness" which we have gotten regarding religion from President Obama (remember: "above my pay grade")--and unfortunately, I don't see him changing anytime soon.

4) The profound unwillingness of President Obama, despite his occasional talk otherwise, to embrace anything other than deeply compromised, traditional liberal, economic-expansion-will-fund-the-welfare-state strategies, in the face of the most comprehensive crisis of capitalism which the industrialized world has seen in more than 75 years. Look, I know Obama and his people are basically Wall Street-friendly liberals, mostly a bunch of technology-friendly managers; at best, they might be called Rawlsians who are happy with our economic order so long as it can be made redistributive enough. I had no delusions that, whatever other hopes I had for him, he was suddenly going to come out of the closet as a populist, a socialist, or even a social democrat. But even allowing for the terrible legislative hand he was dealt after 2010, his approach to the systemic crisis which the dominance of the finance industry has wrought upon global markets has been, for the most part, very weak stuff. Where's the moral condemnation of the rapacious, exploitative system we have allowed to emerge around us, and where's the vision of what might replace it? Sure, I'd love a populist or socialist (or localist, or all three!) vision, one which exposed undemocratic, disempowering forces opposed to equality today. But failing that, how about at least a robust, pro-active defense of the progressive compromises which made what little American egalitarianism there is strong? Progressive liberals have never liked this weakness in our president's political rhetoric, because they think Republican intransigence requires a president more strongly committed to the left. And I confess that, as time has gone by, I've come to agree that they have the stronger arguments on their side: they can look at the economic data, and they see that the financial meltdown of 2008 contributed to a gap between the rich and the poor, a level of inequality in America, greater than it has been in more than a century; they can look at the outright criminality which enabled that meltdown on Wall Street, and they see no prosecutions, and no truly serious reforms (though that is at least as much Congress's fault as the administration's); they can look at the posturing over the debt-ceiling crisis, and note how we're going to play that stupid game again in 2013, even as Europe's economic house is falling apart. In any case, in the end, there is just this: I may know perfectly well that politics in the art of the possible, and achieving the kind of reforms needed simply weren't possible for Obama in the present legislative and political environment...but at least I'd like to see him say so. It is one thing to vote for a person who wants to continue to compromise and trust in civil discourse in the face of possible catastrophe; it is another thing to choose to support someone whose inability to see or acknowledge alternatives, and who thus keeps compromising over the same things, again and again, begins to sound a little like fiddling while Rome burns.

5) His essentially non-existent, do-nothing, "post-racialist" position on the continuing war on drugs and America's transformation into a segregated, mass incarceration state. I've written too much already, so I'll let a couple of smarter, funnier people complete my explanation of the difficulty I'm having with the idea of casting a symbolic vote here in Kansas to re-elect President Obama in November. First, Penn Jillette, whose contempt for Obama almost--but not quite!--gets in the way of the solid class point he's making:

And second, Michelle Alexander, who seriously wants to believe that the election of an African-American president ought to mean real changes in the way aggressive, invasive drug war policies have politically devastated a whole class of American citizens...but, on the basis of the evidence, just can't:

As I said at the beginning, there's still more than enough time for me to change my mind about all this. But for now, as I think about the current occupant of the White House, I realize two things: one, that I think he's better than his probable replacement, and two, that I nonetheless don't know if I support him enough to wave his flag with my vote this November. But we'll see.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Simply Mad About Rotoscope Animation

A random find on YouTube, one too good not to share. Some blessed soul remembered the glory which was Disney's early 90s awakening from its long slumber, and its first forays into MTV-era pop hipness, and managed to put up videos to most of the songs from this cd (which I still own, of course).

The poster also put up the Michael Bolton and LL Cool J videos of songs from the album, but Bolton and I don't get along, and the platinum-blond wigs worn by Mr. J's back-up singers frighten me. Also, tragically, En Vogue never made a video for "Someday My Prince Will Come/One Song," which is, I think, the best track on the whole recording. Still, I'm very happy to have made this find today.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Alan Jacobs Gets Wallace Stegner Right, Dammit

First, Wallace Stegner:

I have used four-letter words familiarly all my life, and have put them into books with some sense that I was insisting on the proper freedom of the artist. I have applauded the extinction of those d——d emasculations of the Genteel Tradition and the intrusion into serious fiction of honest words with honest meanings and emphasis. I have wished, with D. H. Lawrence, for the courage to say shit before a lady, and have sometimes had my wish. Words are not obscene: naming things is a legitimate verbal act. And “frank” does not mean “vulgar,” any more than “improper” means “dirty.” What vulgar does mean is “common”; what improper means is “unsuitable.” Under the right circumstances, any word is proper. But when any sort of word, especially a word hitherto taboo and therefore noticeable, is scattered across a page like chocolate chips through a Tollhouse cookie, a real impropriety occurs. The sin is not the use of an “obscene” word; it is the use of a loaded word in the wrong place or in the wrong quantity. It is the sin of false emphasis, which is not a moral but a literary lapse, related to sentimentality. It is the sin of advertisers who so plaster a highway with neon signs that you can’t find the bar or liquor store you’re looking for.

Alan Jacobs adds:

The key to successful cursing is restraint: saving the most powerful words for the occasion when they are needed. As Stegner comments elsewhere in the essay, if you “say shit before a lady,” what do you say when your car breaks down at rush hour on the Santa Monica Freeway? Presumably, in those days, you would take that opportunity to drop the f-bomb, but to judge by my Twitter feed, many people now use that word fifty times a day, which leaves them with absolutely nothing in reserve when something genuinely bad happens. Not only is it not the f-bomb any more, it’s not even the f-sparkler. The word has been eviscerated. I am not speaking in moral terms here, just linguistic ones: the spread of cursing into more and more situations where it once would have been forbidden has been one more form of linguistic inflation, like calling everything that’s even mildly pleasant “awesome.” It betokens a lack of judgment, a failure of assessment, and it leaves us with limited or no linguistic resources in the hour of need. We need to clean up our language, if for no other reason than to have room to make it dirty when dirty is really called for.

Damn straight.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Getting the Garden Going, One Baby-Step at a Time

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

This academic year Friends University found itself wondering what to do with a plot of land, directly beside and behind some student dormitories. Through a fortuitous combination of variables (the discovery of some left-over money in an otherwise cash-strapped university, the arrival of new university president and spouse who are fans of gardening and Wendell Berry, and some hard work by various students and faculty to get the Friends community to start thinking more about recycling, sustainability, and local economy), we are now embarked on the project of slowly, bit by bit, creating a community garden. And I seem to be the one in charge. Lucky me! Not that I don't have our own family garden to care for. (Just put our tomatoes, peppers, string beans, and cucumbers in on Saturday.)

This week, I'm occupied with finding out just which student, staff, and faculty individuals and groups are committed to maintaining a garden plot over the summer months. There's no money for a full-time gardener, so this is going to be run solely on a volunteer basis, and it was decided at an earlier meeting that, at this point, the best way to get the garden going would be to appeal to entrepreneurial opportunities and individual stewardships; to use the land as a space where anyone here at Friends interested in raising some tomatoes, onions, lettuce, herbs, or anything else could set up some rain gutters or raised beds or just put stuff directly in the ground and take ownership what whatever they raise, to eat or sell at one of our local Wichita farmers markets or donate to The Lord's Diner or another local homeless shelter, or just give it away (give it back, in a sense) to the Friends community. We've got some big hopes for this garden: that perhaps we'll find a way to integrate what we're doing with the Delano neighborhood (where the university is located) and their already thriving community garden; that we'll be able to get more classes involved, with students seeing tending the garden as an opportunity to further their own studies in plant biology or health science or social work; that maybe someday Friends own garden will be supplier--perhaps even the primary supplier--of our university's cafeteria. But for now, I have to get those volunteers, and find some time to get us together with the soil and the basic supplies. There's already been some sharp discussions over how "green" we want the garden to be (imagine: professional groundskeepers and interested-but-inexperienced students and faculty activists may all see things differently!), and I'm sure there will be a lot more negotiating to come. But getting something in the ground is the first step, and a baby-step at that.

Moving into a more local, more sustainable, more simple way of living and spending one's time is always a matter of baby-steps, or so it seems to me. For the third time, I've recently taken a group of students out to meet with some local Amish and Mennonite farmers and meatpackers, and like the previous two trips, it's an eye-opening experience to be confronted with people who have embraced a level of intentionality towards, and collective responsibility for, the practical necessities of their lives which is mostly absent from the environments of your typical American university student. We spent a while at Yoder Meats, where Kenneth (the bearded gent on the right) explained to us at length about what they do with the cattle, hogs, and other game which they slaughter, and about all their efforts to stay on the good side of state and federal inspectors and keep their "Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point" forms up to date. He made no bones about what a pain it all often is, but neither did he criticize the system; it's all a necessary part of enabling his customers to be able to eat the meat they procure themselves, or at least be able to be secure in the "point-of-origin" knowledge which locally processed and packaged meat can provide. He didn't even weigh in on the great "pink slime"debate of recent months; to him, the question wasn't at all what part of an animal one eats, but simply whether one can say with confidence where it came from and what happened to it on it's way to your stomach.

Over at Glass Springs Dairy, we similarly saw lots of baby-steps, lots of struggling to make this practice or that one both a practical success as well. Jacob (the fellow with the hat on the left) has been working to expand his Jersey herd, but he wants to keep them all grass-fed too, and so that means questions about access to pasture land and feeding them during the winter months. He has a thriving business in raw milk, and can wax eloquently (and at length!) about what he sees as the myths of pasteurization and the various restrictions which Kansas dairies operate under in comparison to other states. But he also wants to diversify, moving into cheese and other dairy products, as well as setting up a rotational grazing system with his cows, so he can expand his chicken operation and get more out his current land holdings. More questions about what he can sell, and to who, and for how much, and under what conditions: Jacob, like Kenneth, like us here at Friends, are part of an ongoing effort to figure out how to make something counter-cultural truly work, to contribute to our own lives and those around us, all while satisfying our practical needs (or at least as many as possible).

I see more and more of this, all around me, and it is simultaneously hopeful and frustrating. Hopeful because more and more people are recognizing the need to free themselves from those systems which supposedly were going to make things (what they eat, how they traveled, who they vote for, etc.) so clear and clean and easy; what they've done instead is debilitate us, make us weak and unhealthy and unpracticed in the arts of living and government, desperate for good economic news to be handed down to us and unwilling to interrogate those who benefit from these unequal, environmentally destructive distributions of wealth and work, privilege and power. But also frustrating, because the appeal of those systems--specialize, individualize, streamline, outsource!--remains huge, especially in a world where technology (falsely) promises us all the entertainment and insight we can handle, assuming we can find the time (and the money to upgrade all our smart phones to 4G), and thus almost all of us (save only the Wendell Berrys and other similar sustainability saints we have in this world) are similarly engaged in tentative, experimental baby-steps, just half-steps, compromises which often conflict and crash into one another. Not a reason not to keep trying of course, but it's sobering all the same.

This semester I was invited to speak a couple of times at a local private academy, a somewhat ramshackle school operating out of a warehouse, but one which showed tremendous devotion to educating their students in both religion and the practical arts; their motto of "Tradition--Community--Joy" summarized it all. They had me (and my reliable local food tour guide, Leroy Hershberger) talk in our different ways about stories, attachment, and how knowledge is passed on from one person to another in a community. They're taking their baby-steps too, I think--and doing well at it. (One of their graduates is now a Friends student who went on this most recent local food tour with us, and the questions she asked were engaged and intelligent to an impressive degree.) With all of these baby-steps, maybe some of will get through this times of transition yet.

Maurice Sendak, RIP

Via Crooked Timber, comes the news that Maurice Sendak, arguably the greatest, and certainly the most influential, living picture-book author has died. I can think of no equal to Sendak in his contribution to building--visually, verbally, lyrically--an entire vocabulary to the relationship between small children and the wider world, and most crucially small children and their parents. Possibly Dr. Seuss was his equal, and then of course there are those who operated in other media besides books. But we're a book family, us Foxes, and so alongside Seuss and many others as our children grew up, there was Sendak. Where the Wild Things Are, of course, and his fabulous, funny, subversive illustrations for What Can You Do With a Shoe?, and my favorite, and I think his best work: In the Night Kitchen. Check it out here, with the incomparable Peter Schickele doing the narration:

RIP, Maurice Sendak. Hope there are wild things where you've gone.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Summer's Here

Well, maybe not quite, but with my final grades submitted at last, it's close enough for me and JT anyway. I actually have my tape of Dad Loves His Work on right now, and it's kind of bittersweet. The truth is, I do love my work, I love it here at Friends, I'm a lucky man to be able to teach and work with and learn from and build a community with such a fine, funny, often smart, always motley bunch of students, colleagues, and friends. But you know--I'm really glad that this academic year has come to an end. Bring on the season of rejuvination!

Summer's here
That suits me fine
It may rain today
But I don't mind

In the past I've occasionally put up on the blog lists of what I plan to accomplish over the summer. I'm not going to do that this year. For one thing, as you may have noticed, I've gotten out of the blogging habit. I think I might try to get back into it this summer...maybe. But not right now. And for another thing, I've never been very good at actually accomplishing anything I put out here for public consumption, so this year, I think I'll keep my likely eventual embarrassment at what I don't manage to read or write or build this summer to myself. Instead, how about a favorite summertime pop video hit?

I listen to this, and immediately I'm driving down the freeway in a crazy, half-way broken-down pickup truck, which neither my older brother nor older sister wanted to drive, in the summer of 1985, between my sophomore and junior year of high school. This song comes on and I crank the radio all the way up, push the speedometer up over 80mph, making the whole truck rattle like mad as a cloud of dust and straw fly out of the back, and I sail past my exit, because the song is going and I don't want to stop. Good times. Hope the family and I can have some this year too.