Monday, May 26, 2014

Spider-Man, Batman, Rocket Raccoon, and Me

In my 35 years of varying levels of involvement (sometimes intense, sometimes merely cursory) with comic books and the whole geek world it has given rise to--as opposed to the numerous other geek words I'm also attached to--there have been only three characters that managed to become mainstays of my inner, imaginary world: Spider-Man, Batman, and Rocket Raccoon. Something needs to be said about this, because the first two are obvious, even predictable choices: those two characters have been repeatedly portrayed in numerous media for decades (in Batman's case, for 75 years; in Spider-Man's, over 50), and through those years and those hundreds of thousands of pages and rolls of film and reams of pixels, have been the narrative platforms upon which some truly tremendous, affecting stories and art have been laid out. You can't say that about my friend Rocket. So what's the deal? Let me try to explain.

Spider-Man came first. Why did I like him? For a million reasons--he was a nerd, a geek, a glasses-wearing schlemiel, who also happened to be awesomely intelligent and decent and talented and heroic and skilled, but never could really manage to translate that intelligence, decency, talent, heroism, and skillfulness into any actual social, financial, or public success. When I started reading the comics in the 1970s Spider-Man was still generally wanted by the police for any number of trumped-up reasons; through the 1980s and 90s, those troubles were mostly set aside by his many writers, and Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man, generally came to be written as a competent adult and a recognized hero, and that continues in most of his incarnations today. But he was never allowed to be too competent; when written well, it was always Peter who had the worst luck: he'd hide his clothes in a tree when he changed into his Spider-Man outfit, and would return to find a bird had built its nest in them; he'd carefully set up his brand new auto-focus digital camera to capture all sorts of wonderful photos of him fighting the Vulture, intent on cashing in on an offer from upstart news magazine challenging the Daily Bugle, only to find later that he'd forgotten to take off the lens cap. It was that sort of thing: the stories of Spider-Man gave me, as an adolescent and young adult, the ongoing adventures and passionate decisions and romantic debacles of a very cool super-hero who kept on going despite being, fundamentally, graceless and unlucky and un-smiled upon by the Powers That Be. And I liked that.

Batman came next; I didn't start reading him until around the time of Frank Miller's game-changing graphic novel, Dark Knight Returns, which I bought a first-run copy of when it came out in 1986. (From the late 70s through the mid 80s I was a Marvel zombie, avoiding DC comics almost entirely.) I was familiar with Miller from his early work on Daredevil, but I was completely unprepared from how this blockbusting Batman story of his would affect me. I became a huge Batman fan, searching out as many important stories from his long, convoluted past as I could, and frankly getting rather pedantic about the way Batman--a borderline crazy, ferociously disciplined, effortlessly wealthy, emotionally broken, physically perfect, self-made human justice machine--differed from just about every other super-hero out there. When he was written well, there were possibilities in the character of Bruce Wayne--impossibly aspirational stories, stories of detection and revenge and sacrifice and solitude that turned upon acts of will that a divided, confused, frustrated young man like myself could only absorb as the deepest kind of fantasy--which eclipsed, I thought, the best that could be managed by Wolverine or The Punisher or Green Arrow or any other putatively "hard-core" comic book hero. I never related to Batman the way I related to Spider-Man, but he quickly became iconic in my mind.

So where does Rocket Raccoon come in? He doesn't have nearly the narrative resources to draw upon in imagining him; he's hardly ever even been a main character. Even in the upcoming film, as awesome as it will be to see Rocket in action, he's clearly not going to be the center of attention. His occasional involvement over the years with the Guardians of the Galaxy and other space-based characters and stories have been a delight to read, but they don't really provide much of a basis for personal appreciation beyond the usual coolness factor and fan excitement. So what makes Rocket run so deep for me? The answer, I think, is Dungeons and Dragons.

When I picked up, and fell in love with, the one time Rocket Raccoon has been given his own comic, the character that was on display was a short, furry, fierce fighter--but he was also more. He was the guardian--the chief security officer--of half a planet. He was a responsible, well-connected, established and respected figure, but also recognizably human: he got flustered, he made mistakes, and was willing to make fool of himself if necessary to get the job done. The 4-issue limited series that featured him wasn't that great of a story--it was mostly an opportunity for writer Bill Mantlo, who had invented Rocket back in the 1970s, to indulge in his fondness of rhymes, puns, and Beatles-centric pop culture jokes ("Rocky Raccoon," "Gideon's Bible," etc.). But whatever weaknesses the story had were more than made for by the completely unapologetic and total goofball, cross-species anthropomorphism which Mantlo and artist Mike Mignola visited upon their characters. Rocket's beloved was an otter named Lylla (who is an heiress to an enormous toy-manufacturing fortune), and his best friend is a walrus (named Wal Russ, with hi-tech tusks), and his sometime opponent, sometime ally is a black-garbed rabbit mercenary named Blackjack O'Hare. You get it, right? Point it, it was enormous fun, one of purest bits of corny, cool comic delight I've ever read. And at the center of it was a raccoon. A short little furry raccoon. A raccoon who could be, as needed, totally bad-ass:

But who was also, in the end, a wise, visionary, and contemplative leader:

I think it might have been the pipe that did it. Because in the 1980s, when my brothers and I read comics and played D&D, the characters we most enjoyed creating were (as was the case for so many Tolkien-influenced dorky players like us) halflings--whom we would, of course, imagine as stupendous adventurers and thieves and fighters, while also still enjoying their second breakfasts and their pastoral retreats and their pipe-weed. That, I think, is what I saw in Rocket Raccoon: a short, furry, intelligent, good-hearted, pipe-smoking fierce hobbit warrior. Like my favorite, Meriadoc Brandybuck (who despite what the movie showed is actually equally responsible as Éowyn for slaying the Witch-King of Angmar, as anyone who has read the books knows).

Now I think about it, I'm pretty certain at some point in the distant past, I actually created a D&D stat sheet for Rocket, perhaps contemplating ways to somehow insert him into our existing campaign. No doubt I was realistic about his lack of strength, but likely loaded him up with a high level dexterity, constitution, wisdom, and charisma. Maybe I made him a paladin? He ended the limited series with his own war horse, after all. (Note the severed head of a robot killer clown in his hand--nice touch!)

I can't remember ever doing anything similar for Spider-Man or Batman, or any other comic book character for that matter. (Though, because I bought the Marvel role-playing game, perhaps there just wasn't any need for me to do so.) Nowadays, of course, much of the hobbitry has been written out of Rocket Raccoon, and he's more of a straight-forward disconnected rogue (except for his solid pal Groot, of course)--but the upcoming film would have to put Rocket into some pretty horrible situations and give him some pretty surprising reactions for me to become completely unable to see him as I once did.

In any case, the fact is that Rocket Raccoon managed to cross-over in my geek imagination, taking as deep a root as other far, far better developed comic characters, probably because my delight in the adventures of a small furry scrapper, exactly the sort of character who gets over looked in any adventure, got cross-pollinated with Tolkien. I suppose someone skilled in cultural deconstruction could make some observations at this point about how the soul of a furry lives within all gamers, but I'll take a pass on that. Spider-Man and Batman are psychologically complicated enough; I'd rather not let my deep affection for this little hero be poisoned by too much analysis. Might get in the way of my enjoying the movie, after all.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Saturday Night Live Music: "Sukie in the Graveyard"

A friend in Utah introduced me to Belle & Sebastian back around 2009, and for whatever reason, in my fan-fic imagination this somehow ended up becoming the theme song for Luna Lovegood. I can't imagine why. (Well, no, actually of course I can.)

Friday, May 23, 2014

Public Schools, Family Schools, Local Schools

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Yesterday was the final day of the school year at Peterson Elementary School, the public school which three of our four daughters have attended. It is less than a mile from our home here on the west side of Wichita, KS; we chose our house in part because we wanted our children to be able to walk or ride their bikes to school (a longstanding preoccupation of mine), which is what they've done for the past seven years. Lord willing and the creek don't rise (that would be Cowskin Creek in our case--and actually it has flooded on a couple of occasions, but Peterson has remained safe), our youngest two daughters will have another three years of benefiting from being part of the Peterson Tiger family, one which we've come to identify with to a far greater extent than either my wife or I probably ever would have guessed when we moved here. My wife, in particular, has frequently volunteered at the school, working with various teachers as well as their librarians (particular given her passion for children's, middle-grade, and young adult literature and her employment at Wichita's premier local independent bookstore, that was probably inevitable), but we've been part of parades and fund-raisers, have worked alongside many other parents and volunteers, and have gotten to know some teachers (like Mrs. Harman above on the left, or Mrs. Turner on the right) pretty well, as they have gotten to know our children--by name, by need, and by personality, despite having 20-30 other children to focus on as well, and despite having done so again and again for different patches of children for years. I spent some time at the school yesterday, talking to folks and snapping pics of my daughters as they delighted in the last-day-of-school fun, and I came away feeling impressed and happy--which, to tell the truth, is my usual feeling about the place.

It is easy, of course, to dismiss or mock or even outright attack the public schooling ideal, or even if one accepts the ideal to criticize it in practice. Seeing as how most of my brothers and sisters and their spouses have chosen to home-school their children or send them to private schools, I'm pretty familiar with their arguments: less bureaucracy, more personal attention, fewer discipline problems, higher standards, more explicit moral or religious content, etc., etc. All of those arguments hold water (often enough, anyway). But they've never changed my or my wife's minds; for all my own conflicted feelings, I remain very much a defender of the democratic principle of empowering local and state governments to fund and provide a common education for all. As a citizen, I obviously have my own views about how those schools and their curricula ought to be constructed, administered, and paid for, and sometimes those views are highly critical of what I see those in charge of the sprawling, multi-level, multi-faceted, often confusing, sometimes frustrating organization that goes by the name "Wichita Public Schools" doing. But the civic and egalitarian goods that the public schools provide make it worth it to me. Well, that, and the fact that the people who have taught our children really have by and large, provided them with something valuable, something that you might even call loving. Social skills, learning to work with and make friends with others, negotiating the diversity of expectations and interests which arise during every recess (which students still have in Wichita, thank goodness!) and every shared assignment in the classroom--these are sort of things which the disciplined, fun-loving, open-minded women (and they have overwhelmingly been women) who have taught my daughters have given them, and at the heart of those lessons is not just cognitive skill, but also ethics, citizenship, even a sort of charity. Am I saying that children educated outside of the public schools couldn't learn those things? Not at all. I'm just saying that they have gained those things from our public schools, from Peterson Elementary in particular, and that itself is an argument in defense of the public schooling ideal.

I've spoken of family, love, charity, locality: does that always obtain in every public school? Obviously not. (It doesn't always obtain in every parochial or private school or home-schooling co-op or family either, as if that even needs to be said.) And it could very well be the case that, someday or somehow, our local elementary school might become so out-sourced, so under-funded, so lacking in caring and experienced teachers, so slack in its discipline, and so arbitrary and irrational in how it exercises that limited discipline, that sending our children there simply wouldn't make any kind of moral sense. But I know that, were Peterson Elementary to get to that point, it wouldn't simply be a result of a stingy state-government, a tax-phobic local population, unreasonable teachers associations, mind-numbing state and federal regulations, bizarre and elite-driven educational trends, and the like; it would also be a result of families like our own no longer contributing our human capital, no longer investing time and effort in a public cause that we value not merely for what it provides our own children, but also for the way it blesses and builds affective ties in this public space that we here on the west side of Wichita share. And that would be a terrible shame, because it would cut us off from a history that, even if so many of us are unaware of it, nonetheless shapes the local world we are part of. Peterson (once named Prairie Rose School) has been in this location since 1875; the 1931 building which the school used has been preserved on the school's property (see above), goes by the nickname "The Little Red Schoolhouse," and is still used by students and teachers for various activities today. I don't want to lose that, I don't want my children to lose it, and I don't want my neighborhood to. So for the sake of an egalitarian principle, I need to be particular. Which, if you think about it, is what the best public school teachers model for us everyday: taking a particular set of children, and treating them afresh every year, passing along to them skills and knowledge and awarenesses that make them equal--in the midst of all their differences--to all those who have gone before and will come along in the future. Like any good family does.

It's a two way street, taking the sometimes unwieldy but--I think, anyway--entirely defensible civic and social good which is the whole apparatus of public schooling, and keeping it locally grounded, culturally responsive, and respectful of the teachers and families and children who all constitute its lifeblood. I wrote once, in response to an argument over the sometimes seemingly contrary obligations that we have to our families, our faith, and our local communities:

As members of our local communities and as a citizens of a country at least nominally committed to the principle of equality (a principle we all benefit from), doing our part of keep public goods like free schooling available to all is important. And that means being engaged in the state project of making these schools work....[But at the same time] a public school that does not listen to and strive to reflect all the concerns of parents in its neighborhood, including the religious ones, is going to make it ever more likely that these parents--which could be one of the few remaining resources for holding together the larger public enterprise which that school represents in such an environment--are going to turn away, and quite legitimately and unselfishly decide that through directly tending to their family in their own homes they can serve their neighbors as well as their own children much better than they could through the schools.

After seven years of sending daughters to Peterson Elementary, watching them learn, struggle, make friends, and grow, I think we're still pretty satisfied that we're not at that point--that the people there don't operate separate from the welter of social realities and needs and expectations particular to us parents and neighborhood residents that surround and support them. There's no culture war dividing us, for all our disagreements; there's a civil consensus which makes it easy to see that what all of us--as trained educators, as volunteering parents, as tax-paying and fund-raising citizens, and as mostly good-hearted and usually respectful children--can create by working together is greater than that which we can create on our own. Or at least, we managed, once again, to see it during the 2013-2014 school year. Here's to giving everyone a few months off, and then trying to make that Peterson magic happen, yet again, next August.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Six Months of Sabbatical (More or Less)

Yesterday was town-hall meeting for all Friends University employees; afterwards, our university's interim president invited me to serve on a summer committee involving various transitions which are underway here at Friends, but I demurred (even though some of those transitions are very important to me). As far as I'm concerned, yesterday's meeting was the last bit of academic business I'll have to attend to for the next sixth months. Of course, the next spring semester won't begin until January 13, 2015, so I suppose technically I could say my sabbatical is actually seven months and change in length. But then there'll be some advising stuff going on during those months, as well as some students who took incompletes in their classes that I'll need to deal with. And of course, I'll have to write my syllabi and order the books. So let's just say I've got six months to work on the sabbatical ideas that I first wrote about over a year ago, and nothing else. I'm going to think about, research about, talk to people about, and write at least a couple of papers (hopefully eventual chapters for a book) about the appropriate conceptual definition of, and theory of governance and sustainability for, cities "of a certain size"--which is on possible title for my overall project on mid-sized cities, like Wichita. How do I intend to do that? A few basic steps:

Reading: I have about 25 books (plus numerous articles and studies) siting on my desk or on their way to me, all dealing in one way or another with communities both large and small, both urban and rural, and the sorts of citizens they either shape or need, and all which I need to read or re-read all or parts of. Among them:

Mark Abrahamson, Global Cities
Gar Alperovitz, What Then Must We Do?
Benjamin Barber, If Mayors Rules the World
M.P. Baumgartner, The Moral Order of a Suburb
Daniel A. Bell and Avner de-Shalit, The Spirit of Cities
Marshall Berman, All That is Solid Melts Into Air
Harvey Cox, The Secular City
Edward Glaeser, Triumph of the City
Brendan Gleeson, The Urban Condition
Alan Ehrenhalt, The Lost City and The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City
Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities and The Economy of Cities
Peter Levine, We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For
Susan McWilliams, Traveling Back
Witold Rybczynski, Makeshift Metropolis
Richard Sennett, Together
James Shortridge, Cities on the Plains
Michael Taylor, Community, Anarchy, and Liberty
Adam K. Webb, Beyond the Global Culture War
Thad Williamson, Sprawl, Justice, and Citizenship
Thad Williamson, David Imbroscio, Gar Alperovitz, Making Place for Community
Robert Wuthnow, Remaking the Heartland and Small-Town America
Sharon Zukin, Naked City

That's a lot of reading, but if I don't have anything else on my plate for the next six months, I can get through it, right?

Bicycling: Over the past eight years of regular bike commuting here in Wichita, I suppose I've put over 10,000 miles on my Trek 7100. That's an impressive feat for getting around a city that lags behind just about every other urban area of significant size in America's plains states (Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Omaha, and Kansas City are all way ahead of us, though thankfully we're still better than Dallas)--but unfortunately, the great majority of that riding has been along my commute, and no where else. There are all sorts of public parks and other open spaces in the great Wichita area that I want to explore--and, if possible, even do some documenting of (both written and photography), since I want to be able to incorporate into my research a fair number of on-the-ground observations, studies of land use, and perhaps even artistic depictions of the practices, both historical and current, which make Wichita the sort of city it is. This means getting out and getting around, visiting different neighborhoods, spending time on less-used (by a west-side resident like myself) routes, and getting a better, different feel of this city that we've called home for most of decade, and presumably will call home for at least a decade or so more, if not longer.

Meetings: Didn't I start this out talking about the meetings I intended to avoid for the next six months? Well, yes--but that allows time for meetings of a different sort. If I'm going to provide the bones of my theoretical reflections with any substantive meat, I've got to not just observe, but attend to what others with access to information, with ideas about the heritage and future of Wichita, and how it compares (in ways both good and bad) to other cities of a similar size, are doing and saying. I've long been at least somewhat engaged in our neighborhood association and various local events and arguments, but I want to use the time I'll have over the rest of 2014 to do more. I want to get out to as many of the meetings of the Wichita Bicycle Master Plan, the Community Investments Plan, and the Wichita City Council as I can, and get to know (and ideally interview) some of their major players, from the Mayor on down. Why? I mean, they aren't (or at least I assume they aren't) political theorists or students of comparative government or community sustainability. True--but they know a great deal that I don't know, about what has worked in Wichita and what hasn't, and they can offer at least as informed opinion as anyone could about whether they things that did, or didn't, work did so because of some particular human factor, or rather reflected something cultural, something systemic, something--and here is where my real questions begin--that might shed light on the specific political, economic, and environmental struggles which a large-but-not-metropolitan urban communities--cities of a certain size!--happen to face.

(I should add that, which obviously Wichita will be the inspiration and foundation for most of my particular observations, it's not going to be the only city I'll be looking at. This summer I'll be traveling with my family to my hometown of Spokane, WA, for a big family reunion. As Spokane is about the same size and is situated in its local natural and socio-economic environment much the same way Wichita is--large, but not metropolitan; the biggest and clearly the dominant urban area for more than 100 miles around, but nonetheless lacking in any self-understanding of itself as a major city--while there I hope to find the time to meet with and learn some things from people who work in their city government as well. And besides going all the way to Spokane, we're going to go even farther, to Portland, where I'll meet with some people who work in at the Urban Sustainability Accelerator at Portland State University, some of whose staff worked closely with Wichita this past year. So, while most of the meetings I'm talking about are right here, not all of them are.

Blogging: What does this blog come into it? Well, I'm planning to put up a continuing series of short posts here, continuing over the next six months, all focusing on as-yet not-fully-developed ideas that I will have picked up from my reading, from interviews with local leaders or involve citizens, and maybe even photos that I've taken. People have said for years the only real justification for an academic like myself to spend so much time reading and writing on blogs is if they can make use of the format so as to make it serve a storehouse of ideas, which in time might become a springboard for a stronger synthesis and better arguments. I've had ideas of trying that in the past, but never did it consistently. Now, I'm going to try.

So that's it--my sabbatical plan for the next six months. Of course, in those six months there will also be a garden to tend, a playhouse to repair, local events to attend, camp-outs to go on, movies to see, and much more. I consider this next half-year to be a test to see if I can actually re-discover and hold onto the kind of discipline and inspiration in my thinking which enabled me to become a quasi- (or at adequately, if not entirely satisfactorily, paid) intellectual in the first place. Wish me luck, my eight readers. Hopefully, this won't be the last you hear about all this.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Satureday Night Live Music: "Tennessee"

Maybe not the very oldest of old school, but as my favorite number off the very first hip-hop cassette I ever bought, it counts as far as I'm concerned.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Leave it to Filkers to Speak the Sad but Honest Truth about the True Villain of Pride and Prejudice

Filking doesn't always produce insightful art--but when it does, I post it right here.

(I've never heard of The Doubleclicks before, but apparently, they're from Portland. Of course.)

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Bringing the Idaho Stop to Wichita Since 2006

Many thanks to David Watkins of Lawyers, Guns & Money for bringing this superb article on the physics and practicality of making stops while bicycling along public streets to my attention. Like David, I'm a long-time bike commuter; like David, I don't live in an urban area which has much by way of bicycle paths, which means that for the majority of my daily commute I'm traveling down public streets alongside automobiles; like David, I sincerely want to be treated as just another vehicle on the street and thus obey all the expected traffic laws...with the exception of low traffic intersections, where I have, for years, regularly slowed down and then continued through if the coast is clear, rather than stopping; and finally, like David, I've always felt guilty about this--but not guilty enough to resist what my own commuting patterns have long clearly propelled me to do. At last, someone with some real science and common sense has explained myself to me:

While it's obviously reckless for [cyclists] to blow through an intersection when they don't have the right of way, research and common sense say that slowly rolling through a stop sign on a bike shouldn't be illegal in the first place. Some places in the US already allow cyclists to treat stop signs as yields, and red lights as stop signs, and these rules are no more dangerous--and perhaps even a little safer--than the status quo....Idaho has permitted it since 1982, which is why this behavior is known as the Idaho stop.

Idaho's rule is pretty straightforward. If a cyclist approaches a stop sign, he or she needs to slow down and look for traffic. If there's already a pedestrian, car, or another bike there, then the other vehicle has the right of way. If there's no traffic, however, the cyclist can slowly proceed. Basically, for bikers, a stop sign is a yield sign. If a cyclist approaches a red light, meanwhile, he or she needs to stop fully. Again, if there's any oncoming traffic or a pedestrian, it has the right of way. If there's not, the cyclist can proceed cautiously through the intersection. Put simply, red light is a stop sign....

Unlike a car, getting a bike started from a standstill requires a lot of energy from the rider. Once it's going, the bike's own momentum carries it forward, so it requires much less energy....A cyclist who rolls through a stop at five miles per hour instead of stopping fully needs to use 25 percent less energy to get back to full speed. This explains why many cyclists roll through stop signs so often....

For drivers, the idea of cyclists rolling through an intersection without fully stopping might sound dangerous--but because of their slower speed and wider field of vision (compared to cars), cyclists are generally able to assess whether there's oncoming traffic and make the right decision. Even law-abiding urban bikers already do this all the time: because of the worry that cars might not see a bike, cyclists habitually scan for oncoming traffic even at intersections where they don't have a stop sign so they can brake at the last second just in case.

That last quoted paragraph--but truly, read the whole thing!--is the real clincher for me; all around, through the residential neighborhoods which surround Friends University, there is a patchwork of thru-streets and one-ways, and it is nearly a daily occurrence for me to move with unnecessary slowness through the intersections, never really certain of which cars will be looking or will give me the right-of-way or will stop. To allow it to be understood that, yes, as I cyclist, I am looking both ways, and I can respond to last-minute threats with much greater efficiency than an automobile, so please let me go my way, would be a great commuter blessing to me. So Idaho, since I can't count on the great state of Kansas being willing to tax itself sufficient to actually start making it's roads at least as bike-friendly as, oh, Tulsa, I implore you: send your law this way as soon as you can. It only makes legal what everyone is always going to do, anyway.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Saturday Night Live Music: "Everytime You Go Away"

Hall and Oates, the most successful (and, I think, the greatest) practitioners of blue-eyed soul, take back the song Daryl Hall wrote, and give it their full, patented rock-and-soul treatment. Good stuff.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Half Edward Abbey, Half George Grant, All Natural

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Farley Mowat has died. Long before I knew anything about alternatives to the late-20th-century American way of life, long before I considered myself an environmentalist or localist or anti-capitalist, long before I had any kind of serious understanding of what it actually means to be committed to "conservation," I was being taught by Mowat. In 1983, I went to the theater and watched Never Cry Wolf, a film which most might remember today as a vaguely hippie defense of chasing after wolves in the tundra in the buff, but which for me cracked open questions--about nature, progress, and humanity's place in our understanding of both--that haunt me still:

In 1984, in my sophomore year of high school, I read People of the Deer, and while more than a few books from that year have long stayed with me--like Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, or Richard Wright's Native Son--it was People of the Deer's powerful, lyrical, and indignant condemnation of the technological and economic motions of the world that left devastated cultures in its wake which, as my thinking for the past 30 years have more than demonstrated, obviously had the greatest impact:

When trading ceased to pay the high profits always required of it, the great company withdrew its post and the new way of life which had been taught to the People in their innocence now became death. Men who were once great hunters of the deer had instead become great hunters of the fox, but men cannot eat fox pelts. The People could not change their ways again. "Surely," they thought, "if we trap the fox this winter and take the pelts south, we shall find the trader has returned." But when the hunters traveled south, the trading post stood empty and decayed, as it had stood for many hungry years. The traders came, stayed briefly while their profits warranted, then left the land, abandoned it, and thought no more of the destruction they had wrought. Franz lived their still. And he could not drive out the hidden knowledge of the fault....

It was mid-March and Angleyalak had returned from a futile hunt during which he carried no gun, only a crude bow which served him little better than a toy serves a child; for the men of the Ihalmiut had forgotten how to make cunning bows of horn, during the long years when they had no need of bows, and the bright guns and shells were to be had in return for pelts....

For a month before that final hunt of Angleyalak's there had been no more than a mouthful of food for each person on each day, and this hunt had been a last desperate effort to halt the slow attrition of the gut. The hunt had failed, as it was bound to fail, and now the course of things followed and inevitable pattern which the hunter could no longer break, no matter how he tried. Death was upon the camp and all that the people there could do was to channel the approach of death so that the least important of the living might go first. There was no open mention of the problem, for none was needed. While Angleyalak still lived there was still hope. But should he, the hunter, die, then the family must perish, even thought the deer returned in numbers to the Little Hills
(People of the Deer, 1951, pp. 55-56).

Mowat never ceased representing, in all his writings and activism, a usually mostly hopeless alternative: one that respected Canadian sovereignty and attacked the global capitalism which the superpower war-machine made possible (he was once refused entrance into the United States, perhaps on the grounds that he'd once shot his rifle at American planes carrying nuclear payloads through Canadian airspace, thousands of the feet over his head), one that looked for a more sustainable, less exploitive, more rooted way of life. His frustration gave him an Abbey-esque edge, ultimately concluding that the best things that can be done with national parks is keep human beings out of them as much as possible. I don't care for kind of defiant environmental absolutism. But I prefer to contextualize it with some Grant-style red Toryism, and see in him a man who loved the local world near him--the vast, deep, quiet Canadian wilderness--so very much, that keeping it separate from those systems which would poison it seemed like the obvious imperative. That's a position I can respect--and even, if not to the same degree, hope to emulate. RIP.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Saturday Night Live Music: "Summertime"

It's getting up into the 90s this weekend in Wichita. I'm done teaching, and thanks to my sabbatical may not be back in the classroom for eight months. I'm finishing up grading and writing a paper, and need to starting working on my book plan, and have to get some things started in our garden and around our house...but mostly, I just want to drink lemonade, enjoy the twilight as it gets ever later in the evening, wait for the fireflies to arrive, and watch things grow.

Friday, May 02, 2014

Steve Martin's Five Best Movies

For no particular good reason, I found myself thinking about Steve Martin this morning. Now well along in his third (fourth?) career, the bulk of the movies he appeared in or contributed to--mostly from the late 70s to the late 90s--are increasingly distant to popular memory. And perhaps that's for the best; the argument can be made that his cinematic work never really equaled what he achieved in stand-up, television, and musical comedy. Still, after thinking about it a while, I had to admit to myself that Martin made or was part of more moments of genius than most working entertainers ever manage in equally long careers. He's five pieces of evidence, in chronological order:

1) The Jerk (1979). If the is such a genre of films as "the Saturday Night Live movie," which I'll define performers-developing-a-character-for-a-three-minute-skit-and-then-building-a-movie-around-it," then this Steve Martin vehicle--featuring "Navin R. Johnson," who emerged from a stand-up routine of his--has to be one of the funniest and most successful ever, up there with The Blues Brothers or Wayne's World or Anchorman.

2) All of Me (1984). A genuinely funny and good-hearted movie, with a few physical comedy routines that legitimately compare with some the very best from all of film history.

3) L.A. Story (1991). An absurdist parody of life in the white upper-middle classes of Los Angeles in the 1990s, but also something very close to a kind of magical realism/romantic comedy mash-up.

4) Leap of Faith (1992). Additional evidence that some of the best and most communicative and relatable of dramatic actors are those who have done comedy--and, probably against Martin's own wishes, also one of the most unapologetically (though not sectarian) Christian films made in Hollywood in my lifetime.

5) Bowfinger (1999). On paper, everything about this film seemed to promise comedy gold. Script by Steve Martin. Starring Martin and Eddie Murphy. Directed by Frank Oz. A parody of Hollywood movie-making, Scientology, life in Califonria made by consummate insiders. So you expect it to blow up in viewers' faces, right? But it didn't--not in the least.

Honorable mentions: Pennies from Heaven, Roxanne, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Plains Trains and Automobiles, and a personal favorite of mine, Loony Tunes: Back in Action.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

(Civic) Myths over (Religious) Markets: Defending the National Day of Prayer

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

I don't often disagree with my old friend Michael Austin, partly because he's much smarter and much better read than I, and partly because he's so thoroughly and non-ideologically committed to a moderate, pragmatic liberalism that it's hard to get upset with any position he takes. But I'm going to take issue with his column yesterday, which criticizes the, I think, perfectly harmless and socially positive holiday which President Obama--like every president for the past sixty-plus years--has declared today, the first day of May, to be: a National Day of Prayer.

Michael sees himself very much on Thomas Jefferson's side, who famously refused to follow the pattern of George Washington and John Adams in designating specific days for purposes of prayer, thanksgiving, and remembrance. He thinks highly of an excised sentence from Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists of Connecticut, which reads that "I have refrained from prescribing even those occasional performances of devotion, practiced indeed by the Executive of another nation as the legal head of its church, but subject here, as religious exercises only to the voluntary regulations and discipline of each respective sect." On his reading, what Jefferson is doing here (he feels wisely) is refusing to involve government in expressions of devotion which should (he agrees) flourish only in accordance the voluntary and diverse choices and actions of the members of various religious bodies themselves. In other words, by refusing to countenance the popular call for days of prayer, Jefferson was protecting "a genuine free market for religious ideas." Michael identifies such a free market with the "secular republic" that we are, and hence dislikes anything which "put[s] the government’s thumb on a scale where it does not belong."

As a pragmatic liberal who happily supports our local chapter of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, this is a consistent line for Michael to take, and I respect him for it. But I don't really respect his argument, because to celebrate a refusal to endorse collective devotional actions in the name of ensuring a pristine religious marketplace endorses a rather blinkered notion of what people who govern themselves can and ought to be able to do.

The degree of separation which Jefferson endorsed (and which Michael endorses) in the original version of the Danbury letter would mean that any kind of religious sentiment--or indeed any moral or metaphysical claim at all, not merely just obviously sectarian ones--would probably have to be declared incompatible with the business of government. So, the civic acknowledgement of Thanksgiving Day, Memorial Day, not to mention Christmas Day and so forth--all of which are quite obviously rooted in particular historical and social events and arguments and occasions which are utterly inseparable from their particular religious (mostly--but not entirely or always--Christian) contexts--all would have to go. Some would be fine with that; I wouldn't. Why? For many reasons--but the one most relevant to Michael's "marketplace of ideas" argument is that communities of people, even in "secular republics" like our own (and as one who believes that attempts to think through and democratically address the problems of self-government will always involve citizens "establishing" one kind of moral and religious preference or another through their own popular actions and legislation, I confess I'm dubious that label can really mean anything), don't navigate through such markets solely by "free argument and debate," as Jefferson said. They use myths as well.

I have a print of the Arnold Friberg painting I stuck at the top of this post in my office; it was a gift from my dad. It represents a pious, devotional myth that almost certainly had no basis in historical reality whatsoever. If someone would like to use some implied message in that painting--that this nation emerged from the desperate times of the Revolution only because wise men petitioned the grace of God through prayer!--to enforce, through the collective freedoms and expectations they possess as American citizens, some sort of sectarian prayer requirement on all their fellows, I would oppose it: I'm enough of a liberal to be happy that formal, mandated school prayer was declared unconstitutional long before my kids entered the public schools. But there is a huge amount of grey area between outright theocracy, on the one hand, and discrediting the very idea that people--as members a democratic society--who ought to be allowed to organize, vote, debate, donate, march, govern, and thus define themselves, in their particular communities and contexts, in response to certain collective ideals and presumptions and hopes. And if it is the case that some of those collectively (whether nationally or only locally) expressed ideals and presumption and hopes--those myths, if you prefer--reflect elements of some particular, historically specific, religious preferences (as Thanksgiving and Christmas obvious do, and as the people who put together the National Day of Prayer task force--what with them putting a quotation from Romans 15:6 right on the front of their website--clearly did as well), is that a reason to condemn the whole enterprise? To retreat to a supposedly (but, I would argue, never truly) un-interfered with religious market?

Since accepting democracy means accepting the some sort of popularly expressed civil religion (as well as continuous arguments over such!) will always be kicking around, I say no: instead, let's use of judgment here. That National Day of Prayer website is over the top, I agree--but is President Obama's declaration also?

Today and every day, prayers will be said for comfort for those who mourn, healing for those who are sick, protection for those who are in harm's way, and strength for those who lead. Today and every day, forgiveness and reconciliation will be sought through prayer. Across our country, Americans give thanks for our many blessings, including the freedom to pray as our consciences dictate....Let us remember all prisoners of conscience today, whatever their faiths or beliefs and wherever they are held. Let us continue to take every action within our power to secure their release. And let us carry forward our Nation's tradition of religious liberty, which protects Americans' rights to pray and to practice our faiths as we see fit....I invite the citizens of our Nation to give thanks, in accordance with their own faiths and consciences, for our many freedoms and blessings, and I join all people of faith in asking for God's continued guidance, mercy, and protection as we seek a more just world.

Like the painting of Washington at prayer, you could look at those words and call it pious nonsense, verbiage that has no real moral weight, a cynical work of verbal art which only serves to placate a religious majority (though now, perhaps only a bare one) that likes to see their way of thinking and evaluating and living validated. And maybe it is. But it is also the product of elected representatives who believe--or who at least once believed, and to this day still do not disbelieve strongly enough to challenge this particular civic tradition--in a myth: a myth of a community seeking justice, praying for wisdom, and expressing thanks. A nice democratic myth, that is: better and more defensible, I think, than some hypothetical pure marketplace of privatized ideas and hopes and beliefs, anyway.

First of May, First of May...

...and, well, complete the rest of the old rhyme yourself. I first heard it from James Taylor during an concert back in 1991--who told us in the audience that it was something he heard his father chant every springtime--before launching into his wonderful little gem, "First of May." I later learned that Jonathan Coulter used the rhyme in a much more explicit fashion in his same-titled song, and much earlier, and in a much of genteel and nostalgic vein, the Bee Gees made use of it too. But for now, why not go with a big production number?