11 September 2018

To a question in my sleep

Thoreau writes “After a still winter night I awoke with the impression that some question had been put to me, which I had been endeavoring in vain to answer in my sleep, as what—how—when—where?” I think Thoreau is referring to his dreams of that night. In my dream last night, a question was put to me. Since at least fifty-five years ago, I have listened to the music of Peter, Paul and Mary. For awhile I attended their public performances, and once I remember (I think I remember!) traveling to a venue in New Hampshire where I sat on the floor not thirty feet away from the trio and my adored Mary (z”l) whose flung long, blond hair spoke of passion to my yet repressed bourgeois energies. The question my dream put to me wondered what it was about Peter, Paul and Mary that so attracted me that their music changed my life. Thoreau says he awoke to an answered question, but I turned to my writing to work through some answer.
            Years ago, I was privileged to introduce Peter Yarrow at a fundraising event. Then I think I approached this topic of why Peter, Paul, and Mary. Then I said that the first song I ever played on a juke box was ‘This Train,’ a song from Peter Paul and Mary’s first album —then, I was old enough not to remember if I put into the machine a nickel or a dime. Then I wondered where I had first heard that song, how it originally became familiar to me, and why it had attracted me. That event occured in about 1962, but I am also old enough now not to remember exactly what year that was exactly--but I imagine I must have been about fifteen. Then I said, I had earlier spent some time worrying about the tragic fate of Tom Dooley as expressed by the Kingston Trio, and had anguished over the tragic lot of a man named Charlie who for lack of an extra nickel for the fare increase couldn’t get off of the train on an increasingly expensive Boston subway. I am aghast at the expense of subway fare in New York City these days: back then (a typical phrase of older people) entry to the underground cost twenty-five cents for a ride down to Macdougal Street in Greenwich Village! In their music and by their presence, Peter Paul and Mary helped open my consciousness to the responsibilities of social activism and social justice. The first album I had ever purchased was Peter Paul and Mary’s first album. I felt that their work I ought to have readily accessible. It was on that piece of vinyl that I heard for the first time the anthemic songs “If I had a Hammer” and “Where have all the Flowers Gone.” They led me to Pete Seeger and the burgeoning folk music era. I spent considerable time in the folk clubs of Greenwich Village: see Inside Llewyn David and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel for a taste of the scene. Then, I wanted to become a beatnik. I wore black turtleneck sweaters and dungarees. In that time of bubble gum music, of “Yummy yummy yummy I’ve got love in my tummy,” Peter Paul and Mary stood on the cover of that album against a red brick wall that I knew to be in my beloved Greenwich Village, and sang of Sorrow and Justice, and repairing the world if we only had our way. They drew me and many others like me into the cause: the politics were ripe for such movement, and I would spend my nickels and dimes and energies proselytizing and marching and singing those songs of explicit and implicit protest. Peter, Paul and Mary allowed me to listen in the company of my parents to Bob Dylan’s notice that it was their responsibility to get out of our way because they didn’t understand us, even as Peter’s song, “Day is Done,” comforted us that our parents if they so chose could join with us in the struggle. I learned from Peter, Paul and Mary more about metaphor than I did from Ms. Bueschel, my ninth grade English teacher. When they sang the traditional folk ballad, ‘The Cruel War,” we knew what war they were talking about; when they sang the Weavers’ spirited folk song, ‘Wasn’t that a Time” we knew to which Revolution they were referring. Even poor Puff the Magic Dragon was dragged in unwittingly and unwillingly as an element in the secret code of our burgeoning drug culture,” Peter, Paul and Mary taught us about the struggle and stayed with us through it. There was no turning back. 
            Then I said that later we went with ourchildren to hear Peter Paul and Mary at Northrup Auditorium here in Minneapolis. They remembered to us that many of us who had listened to them in the beginning had now brought our children to listen with them to them again. Some of us were even older. And Peter remembered to all of us the prayer, “We Shall Overcome” and we–we and our children--sang together. 
            Some would argue that Peter, Paul and Mary were too commercially marketed and by this process were made socially acceptable and therefore, too homogenized. Unlike Bob Dylan their voices were melodic and pleasant. Peter and Paul wore suits and ties and Mary always donned a dress. It was accused that whatever anger they expressed was too muted behind their stage presence and the controlled quality of their honeyed harmonies to effect action. But to answer my dream, Peter, Paul and Mary let this bourgeois teen communicate my angst to my parents even if they didn’t know (or didn’t let on) that they were being addressed. Young children at the heder are taught their alphabet by licking honey from the slate on which the letters were written: thus, learning becomes sweet. Peter, Paul and Mary were the honey that sweetened the rebellion of this repressed bourgeois teen and opened the world for me. Maybe they were the velvet cloaking to my revolution.

07 September 2018

The Dream Day

Freud refers to two stages of learning psychology, but what he says of a specific subject matter applies also to learning in school in general. In the first stage the student—the child, in my orientation—learn things, the subject matter. Adam Phillips says that this stage in Freud’s language is identification: the student becomes identified as a person who knows things! We teachers love these students: they correctly answer all the questions in class and on our tests. They are ‘good students.’ In the episode “Saint Joan” in the first season of Joan of Arcadia, this student is represented by Steve Zackheim. “Will that be on the test,” he wonders, rather than be concerned with the validity of the newly presented item or the implications of it for historical understanding. His teacher refers to Zackheim as his best student.
     But in the second stage, the student takes in what is presented in class or in the texts and consciously or unconsciously does something with it: makes the material her own in whatever form she desires. Joan Girardi makes of the Hundred Years War a personal quest to study the character and martyrdom of Joan of Arc with whom she identifies. Mr. Dreisback’s description of Joan of Arc as a paranoid schizophrenic with messianic tendencies threatens Joan’s own attachment to sanity, and her pursuit of Joan of Arc is a personal quest to know herself. Her effort exasperates her teacher and the school administrators who are interested solely in ‘the teaching.’ Joan’s quest leads to learning—even a learning acceptable to the powers that be—she earns an “A+ on the test--but the route to her learning was idiosyncratic and beyond the understanding of her teacher or indeed, anyone else, even her family and close friends.
     Phillips says that the first stage of learning—the teaching itself—is like what Freud calls ‘the dream day,’ that process by which we select material for the night’s dream. Our dreams will idiosyncratically do something with that material to create the dream. I really love that idea: that we are all artists on the inside looking about for material out of which to construct our dreams. “So,” says Phillips, “the student finds himself unwittingly drawn to specific bits of the subject being taught—whatever the emphasis of the teacher happens to be—which [the student] will then, more or less secretly (even to himself) transform into something strange.”
     So, I was about to drift off for an afternoon nap when across my consciousness rose the image of a man in the apartment condominium across from me exiting his front door holding a lawn sprinkler—one of those oscillating mechanisms with a steel curved bar (but maybe it is aluminum, I don’t know) with nipples for the spray of water, and with the mechanism sitting on a yellow plastic base and frame.  The problem for me  is that though there I have seen a man entering and leaving the front door of the condominium across from me, though there is miniscule flower bed occupied by a few plants and decorative butterfly posts, and though there is a green hose attached to a spigot, there is not present, and has never been present, a lawn sprinkler as I have crudely described above. There is absolutely no need of such a device—having one would be like purchasing an industrial jack hammer to hang a picture in my living room.
     But I wondered (even as I drifted off to sleep) whence that image derived? Once, I lived in a house and I think I recall (already an interesting grammatical construction) in the garage were one or two of these lawn sprinklers, but I honestly cannot recall using them. And I wonder why would I assign ownership of one to a man across the way to whom I have never spoken and of whom I have not the slightest knowledge? And who, in fact, may not even live in the condominium but is keeping company with the woman who does live there! What dream was I creating? More, who is this “I” that has drawn these bits and pieces—the man stepping out of the door of the condo behind me with the sprinkler in his right hand, the sunny day and the anticipation of watering . . . well, what exactly did I think was about to be watered? What needed watering?

02 September 2018

There Was a Choice

There was a choice. On a single night at the end of August an event conflict arose. We had purchased tickets for Poco, a group formed in the late sixties, had a brief run of almost fame, and then faded slowly away. I believe the last album was issued some time around 1986. Of the original members, on this night only Rusty Young remained in the band. (I think of the song “All Your Favorite Bands,” by the group Dawes: I hope that life without a chaperone is what you thought it'd be/I hope your brother's El Camino runs forever/I hope the world sees the same person that you've always been to me/And may all your favorite bands stay together.) I vaguely recalled hearing Poco in concert sometime in the early 1970s with my brother, and I remembered their song “Good Feeling to Know” and the joy I had felt during those performance moments. Despite the fact that the band did not stay together, I looked forward to the concert and hoped they might sing that song.
     But on that same night at the Edina Theater was a film version of Ian McKellan’s performance in King Lear. I have been attracted to Lear of late and especially as I grow older and more foolish. I have read the play twice of late, and actually did screen McKellan’s Lear somewhere on the computer. His performance fixed me to the screen and the mad scene made me cry (I think of Dar Williams’ song, “When I Was a Boy:” And he says, "Oh no, no, can't you see/When I was a girl, my mom and I we always talked/And I picked flowers everywhere that I walked/And I could always cry, now even when I'm alone I seldom do”). But I knew that on the big screen McKellan’s Lear would enthrall . . . I am an English major: always have been. Always will be.
     We chose Poco. For the closing song the band chose “Good Feeling to Know.” And for the first time in years I was up and dancing. Oh, not as I did during my days with the Grateful Dead, but neither was my movement a gentle swaying. Rather, my body movement reflected the joy and vigor I felt, and the boundless smile on my face was a part of that movement. There was nothing profound about the music (as there might have been say, at a Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan event), but there was undistilled happiness. The band members were enjoying themselves, having a good time. And I existed in the moment. (I think of Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Do not think so much of the point we have left, or the point we would make, as of the liberty and glory of the way"). It was a good feeling to experience.
     It was what Rock n’ Roll has always been for me: the experience of joy and excitement. Oh, I have loved my folk music and the social conscious it inspired in me, and I do adore my Shakespeare and my novels, but when I want joy, I turn to rock n’ roll. It is a good feeling to know.

28 August 2018

This is it!

In the Author’s Note for her novel A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel avows that “almost all the characters in it are real people and it is closely tied to historical facts—as far as those facts are agreed, which isn’t really very far.” Facts are always subject to interpretation and therefore, not really an expression of reality. In this novel of the French Revolution, a subject that has long intrigued me, the array of characters is vast, and all of them I have found to have existed much as Mantel has depicted them. The politics is complicated and vicious and there is an accuracy to this novel that intrigues me. I am respectful of Mantel’s research.
     And then . . . two thirds of the way into the novel Danton’s wife Gabrielle dies in childbirth. Following her funeral, there is a brief recounting of some of her effects. We read that “the maid found a handkerchief under the bed where Gabrielle had died; a tradesman delivered fabric that she had ordered just weeks before her death.” And her husband, George-Jacques Danton “found a novel, with her place marked.” Following this brief recounting, Mantel adds this sentence: “And this is it.” On the one hand, this suggests that Mantel has situated the composition of her novel as having occurred prior to and during the French Revolution. Gabrielle Danton has been reading that novel in which she has played a significant role when she dies. Mantel does not offer any clue concerning what page Gabrielle had reached at the time of her death.
     Reading A Place of Greater Safety Gabrielle Danton has been reading (in part) an interpretation of her life and of the events in which she is both an observer and a participant. But she does not survive to the end of the novel she is reading. She does not learn how it all turns out. Well, who ever does? I am thinking that that is exactly what life must be like: I participate, and I observe. As in a novel I read for plot and character, even my own, and I make interpretations as I proceed. Sometimes I feel that I understand what’s going on--the characters and events--and at other times I remain somewhat baffled. I maintain some control over my reading, my life, and at other times I recognize my powerlessness and confusion. I go on regardless. There is a narrative that I both observe and construct as my life, and I keep reading to learn its trajectory, but really, I am always in the middle of that novel. And at the end of the day I place my bookmark on the pages where I have stopped reading, close the book and anticipate engaging tomorrow with the book and my life.
     But, I never do get to the end of my novel. Events continue even if I do not, and the future is never known to me. I would like to know what comes next, to follow this or that thread that has begun to its end, to remain immersed in the beauty and complexity of the woven environment, but finally that is not possible. At the end of the day I have to close the book and go to sleep. And someone else will read the novel. 

23 August 2018

Murder most foul

Fox News, Jason Lewis, running for reelection to Congress from the 2ndcongressional district in Minnesota, and the White House focused today, August 22, on the murder of Mollie Tibbetts rather than on the guilty verdict of Paul Manafort and the guilty plea and alarming revelations from Trump’s lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, that concerned Trump’s alleged approval of the use of campaign funds to silence two accusations of sexual congress outside of his marriage to Melania Trump, thereby implicating Trump in indictable criminal acts.
     This from the White House: “The loss of Mollie Tibbetts is a devastating reminder that we must urgently fix our broken immigration laws.” This from Jason Lewis,: “The unconscionable murder of Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts at the hands of an illegal alien should NOT be happening in America. This is an outrage that demands action at our border.” This from Fox News: Tomi Lahren said “the murder of Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts should be a wake-up call on illegal immigration. Cristhian Rivera, a 24-year-old illegal immigrant from Mexico, has been charged with first-degree murder in the death of the 20-year-old Tibbetts, who was reported missing more than a month ago. On "Fox & Friends" on Wednesday, Lahren said Americans are starting to see that border control and immigration enforcement affect the entire country, not just border states. Fox News, The White House, Jason Lewis (and other craven Congresspersons) missed this in the news: “A Utah man upset by complaints about the condition of his property summoned a code enforcement officer to his home on Aug. 9, only to fatally shoot her in the head and light her body on fire, according to an arrest document filed in Salt Lake City on Tuesday.” This man was a citizen of the United States. They also made no reference to this: Christopher Lee Watts, a Colorado man, “faces five counts of first-degree murder, one count of unlawful termination of pregnancy and two counts of tampering with a deceased human body.” He was a citizen of the United States. In Dallas, Texas, “A father was charged with capital murder Tuesday after police said he stabbed his 16-month-old son at a Dallas-area apartment complex.” The father was a citizen of the United States. Nary a word from Fox News, Jason Lewis or the White House decrying any of these or similar recent acts of murder. Indeed, as we know from Charlottesville, white citizen nationalists can kill with approval.
     Why the silence? Because there is no political gain to be had from any condemnation of these white, male United States citizens. The murder of Mollie Tibbetts, like the murder of the Watts family, the 16-month-old child, or the violent death of the enforcement officer are all heart-rending events of equal import, but only the murder of Mollie Tibbetts serves the ugly, self-serving motives of the white White House or its white co-conspirators in the media and in Congress. To raise the tragic events in Iowa to set an already racist national initiative is a horrible abuse of the life and death of Mollie Tibbetts and a denigration of the lives of other victims of violent crimes, sometimes by other white citizens of the United States. Sandy Hook. Charlottesville. Las Vegas. Stoneman Douglas. The list goes on and on. If there is a conscience left in the government, let them begin impeachment proceedings. If there is a conscience left in the United States, let them vote the bums out of office.

22 August 2018

Too dangerous for farce

Hilary Mantel says that in her novel of the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety,she has “as far as possible” used the real words of the characters—from their recorded speeches or preserved writings. Her central protagonists are George Danton, Camille Desmoulins, and Maximilien Robespierre, architects of the Revolution, from whose words and works she draws considerably. I have been long interested in the French Revolution, an interest derived I suppose from the occurrence of the Reign of Terror (which from Mantel’s novel shows to be how the leaders developed and referred to these events); my reading of Edmund Burke during college courses in 18thcentury literature, and my reading in the 9thgrade of Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities.
But I read this in Mantel’s novel:

From the private notebooks of Maximilien Robespierre:
What is our aim?
The use of the constitution for the benefit of the people.
Who are like to oppose us?
The rich and corrupt.
What methods will they employ?
Slander and hypocrisy.
What factors will encourage the use of such means?
The ignorance of the ordinary people.
When will the people be educated?
When they have enough to eat, and when the rich and the government stop bribing treacherous tongues and pens to deceive them; when their interests are identified with those of the people.
When will that be?
My word, this sounds threateningly familiar, because this represents the situation that exists now under the reign of Donald Trump who would be King. To refer to the press as the enemy of the people is the strategy he deploys to deceive because this accusation leaves his words as the sole source of truth. Whoever oppose him promulgates what he calls ‘fake news.’ But the press and his critics are deemed such because they call to account the words and deeds of his administration that promulgate lies and deceptions as its modus operandi. Of course, Trump is a liar, and the press has not failed to call him on his lies even as they number them into the thousands. That he might be a criminal has now been revealed by the guilty plea of Michael Cohen. Investigative journalism, the kind that in my lifetime discovered the crimes of Richard Nixon, lies at the heart of democracy, and to undermine the credibility of the free press protects the President from whatever the press discovers. And Trump is very selective about what press he defiles: he is an avid fan of Fox News and the National Enquirer. He is not very bright: he claims not to read very much! 
     And what protects Trump and his terrified lackeys is the ignorance of the people to their own interests. And these demagogues are protected from discovery by their control of the educational system, represented in this administration in the person of Betty DeVos. They all work to maintain the ignorance of the people. In the form of the catechism, Robespierre asks, What factors will encourage the use of such means as slander and hypocrisy? and he answers, “The ignorance of the people.”  I despair for our children and for the future of democracy in the United States.
     The administration works to protect their deceitful and criminal acts by attacking all who speak in opposition to them. This is exactly the nature of progress of the French Revolution: anyone who spoke against the Convention or Committee of Public Safety was declared a traitor to the Revolution and sent to the guillotine.
     We are living through a very dangerous moment in our history. Trump and his enablers threaten the very nature of our democracy, and those who object to his policies, his tactics, his vile rhetoric are deemed traitors. 

16 August 2018

Another Birthday, thankfully

I will turn 71 years old this week. Last year I turned 70 and next year I will be 72. I can count. I am about eight months into retirement. I am finding my way and drinking single-malt scotch from the Highland region of Scotland.
     Somewhere in Terry Eagleton’s early memoir, The Gatekeeper, he talks about his love of writing. When the publisher asks when the next book might be expected, Eagleton sheepishly acknowledges that the book is already complete. Perhaps his writing enacts Eagleton thinking. Often it is confusion and laziness that keeps me from writing and thinking.
     I read. But I don’t take enough notes and I forget. This is more than a problem of age; indeed, I have a very excellent memory, sometimes astonishingly so. Nevertheless, there are so many books on my physical and mental shelves that I know have somehow influenced my thinking, but I often cannot remember what I read in them. Only that I did read these books and that I know that I speak from their influence every day. But then suddenly, lying in bed at night too far from sleep, a sentence or idea flashes like a neon sign crackling somewhat feebly alight. But I can’t recall from where that reference derives; or if I remember from which book or article the thought derives, I don’t know how to find the exact reference except by studying, even rereading the entire text to find it again. And this assumption posits that the passage is somehow noticeably marked and highlighted. And even if I had once taken notes from the texts, these notes are in notebooks uncategorized, unclassified, archived and gone. I wish I were (had been) a more assiduous scholar. But I suspect now that not much will change: indeed, I have frustratingly spent the past 15 minutes looking for a post-it note on which I had placed a thought I wished to remember. I can’t find the note and cannot remember what book I placed it in. Certainly I can’t remember the thought or why I wanted to remember it.
     However . . . while I was looking for that note in some books I came upon this idea that I had earlier marked. It gave me pause. In a fragment D.W. Winnicott refers to confusion as an organized defense. Winnicott says that this confusion “must be analyzed if the patient is to get to that which is always at the centre of the individual, a primary chaos, out of which samples of individual self-expression organize themselves.”  I am not quite certain that I fully understand Winnicott’s statement, but it does offer me something about which to think. I have always thought of confusion as a state out of which one must move towards comprehension. I have argued that to students for almost fifty years: I may have been misinformed. That belief would entail a rationality which might be already a defense from anxieties and doubts. Similarly, I suppose that I could use confusion as a way to defend me from the arduous work that would be required to achieve understanding. Which strategy I suspect might already be a defense.
     More positively, perhaps when I say “I am confused” I could be asking for support: confusion demands that the confused one be held. Winnicott even links this state of confusion to that of depression and says that in this circumstance depression implies hope. While confused, the depressed individual is trying to sort out or tidy up the inner subjective world: the anxiety, the guilt and the instinctual experiences. To deal with it. It is not necessarily a pretty picture, but it is an authentic one. Tolstoy said, “If we allow that human life can be governed by reason, the possibility of life is annihilated.” Confusion as a defense might be the experience of anxiety, guilt and instinctual experience and the refusal to acknowledge ownership of these feelings. I think of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Chased by the posse viewed in the recurring and closing distance, Butch wonders aloud, “Who are those guys? They’re good.” But they have to keep running away from them in order to survive. Those guys in the end must be accepted and dealt with.
     An odd birthday posting. And I am relieved that during the day I did find the note for which I was looking and that began this writing. I’ve enjoyed the process. And I enjoy this birthday that I will celebrate.