27 December 2011

End of Year Politics

I’m still typing without the use of my pinky finger. If you’ve been following events here you’ll recall that I sliced the tip of my finger instead of the potato and the injury has made typing difficult. I learned to type on a typewriter by the traditional methods requiring pinky fingers.
But I am thankful that my F-A-C-U-L-T-I-E-S still function, thank you. I wish I could say with confidence the same for others. I read in the papers that Nebraska Democrat, Ben Nelson, will retire from the Senate next year, and his exit from this august body threatens the slim hold on the Senate that the Democrats still hold. The Republicans already control the House of Representatives.
Isn’t anybody paying attention? What are they thinking? The Republican array of candidates for President reflects the frightening shallowness of the party itself. Hell, the Republican array of candidates reflects the appalling stupidity of the party itself. Somewhere in The Nation this week someone said something about Rick Perry opening his mouth and his brains falling out . . . well, this description of such consequences applies to each one of the Republican candidates. Every day one of them outdoes the others in saying something senseless. Newt advocates child labor; Bachman and Perry don’t know very much about history or geopolitics. Mitt Romney—who the hell knows what he knows! Herman Cain has dropped out of the race after his sexual peccadilloes became front page news, and his economic plan sounded nothing so much as a pizza special. And Newt (him again!) took millions of dollars from the very company whose officers he claimed should be jailed, and was shtupping who knows who while he condemned Bill Clinton for shtupping you know who. Hypocrisy runs deep in the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln, though I am ashamed to put the name of that great man in the same sentence as that venal party. Republican politics all over the country is undermining democracy—Wisconsin, Arizona, Indiana, Michigan and New Jersey are easy examples—only Ohio gives some evidence of sanity these days.
How could anyone from the 99% consider voting for any Republican in the next election? Isn’t anybody paying attention? Doesn’t anyone care?
It is time someone stand up to the Republicans, look straight into the camera and accuse, “Jane, you ignorant slut!” It could even be the President.

24 December 2011

XMas Eve

Christmas Eve. I think Santa Claus is en route from the North Pole and headed out with his big bag of toys to deliver to good girls and boys. Given the state of the economy, I suspect his bag is light this year. In the lane the snow should be glistening but in fact, out here in the Midwest no flakes have fallen and the ground is brown and cold. No one will be building snowmen named Parson Brown out in any meadow. In town the Chinese Restaurants are starting to fill up with Jews with dinner reservations; the movie theaters are popping popcorn to gear up for the rush on Christmas Day. Not a great deal that I want to see.
And on this Christmas Eve the wars rage on and the petty political battles continue. In the dead of the year we light the lights and bring the green into our homes, but the hope for peace remains elusive. Eleanor Roosevelt said that it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness, and I suspect that she was right. At such moments I think of Melanie’s song “Candles in the Rain.” She urged, “So raise the candles high/'Cause if you don't we could stay black against the night.” There was a time when I thought that the song referred to Woodstock, but I think she was talking about the March on Washington, the former a symbol meant to define my generation but the latter the event I attended.
I am anxious for the children and the world into which they grow.

22 December 2011

New Clothes and Imminent Demise

I purchase things. Of course, I buy foodstuffs for our meals. As a result of my long-term stint in New York City I learned to buy only sufficient materials for today’s meals and to maintain in the home a small selection of snack food, the latter a miscellany that grows smaller as I grow older and my personal furnace less efficient. Mostly, I buy what I immediately require, an as I grow older I require less. I enjoy the daily shopping, and thoroughly relish consuming what I have purchased as some evidence that I live!
I do continue to buy many books that I continue to read: the UPS delivery man (yes, always a man) and I remain somewhat familiar, and he inquires about the latest read. Of course, I buy gadgets, items I consider might make my life more organized and less rigorous; compact discs; and small furniture items that I often must fumblingly put together myself. I control my infatuation for the former and try to keep to a minimum acquisition of the latter. These parcels are delivered by a variety of postal services, but I especially like when the UPS man motors up the driveway in his big brown truck. He knows to whom he delivers what waits within his vehicle. I don’t enjoy shopping in stores, and so much that I purchase outside of daily provisions comes from purchases from catalogs. And there even is not a little of my baking supplies that I order, as they say, on-line.
Ah, and I buy clothes. This type of purchase is subject for another time, but I note that when the clothes arrive I put them in my closet and refuse to wear them. These new products accumulate, entombed as it were, in their plastic wrappings. And when I go to dress myself and survey the collection, I inevitably choose an older garment rather than the newer one. As I purchase a new sweater, I note the moths have been enjoying the old. I have of late been considering what motivates this obsessive compulsion not to wear the clothes I purchase to wear.
And I think it is partly this: if I open the package and put on the new item, it immediately begins to become worn and will soon, alas, wear out. But if I don’t put it on, then the article of clothing remains inviolable and will last forever. Of course, the assumption here is that I will last forever, as well and one day will wear the new garment. The refusal to open the package serves as a charm that wards off death.
Freud speaks of this phenomenon concerning memory. Freud notes that as long as the Pompeian artifact remained buried under the volcanic ash, it remained preserved, but once it was recovered in the archaeological dig, it became subject to decay. So with memories: when I do not think upon them, they remain untouched, but as soon as they are uncovered, these memories are subject to the natural effects of the present, and then they become, if not inaccurate, then certainly unreliable. In a related sense, what is forgottenwhat remains unconsciousis unalterable and unvarying, but it remains, of course, unknown. It is not remembered.  Memory here may be unknowable but not without influence. It undergirds what I think I know and determines the contour of consciousness. But what is recovered from memorywhat is rememberedis immediately subject to a ‘wearing-away.’ And unearthed, memories are subject to natural erosion and decomposition, and the reliability of such memories becomes suspect. All memory, then, must be already a fiction.
            When I do not wear the new shirt, it remains useless but pristine. Its lines stay smooth, sharp and straight. Trouser seams continue uncreased and the colors unfaded. The new shoes bear not a trace of the ground on which they were meant to walk: they will last forever. I imagine how good I might look if only I would step outside in my new shoes. I sigh and put on the older, worn pair, and save the new shoes for a brighter, sunlit day. Ah, but the feet for which I purchased them will continue to scuff and bruise regardless of the shoe, and soon the new shoes will be no longer appropriate. Nor might they any longer fit my feet.
And I consider that it might be also true that I fear that having used and used up the new item, no others will be forthcoming and when the garments with which I presently adorn myself wear out, I will stand naked and hungry out in the world but for lack of reserve.
Zuckerman says “We are all in the power of something demented.” I say, is it only one thing?

20 December 2011

On Late Assignments

Once, many long years ago, I worked in a factory that produced finished apparel for women and children. Our output were not high-priced outfits wrought with great skill and attention to detail, but rather, were mass produced apparel manufactured without great concern for precision or exactness and meant for sale in bargain stores and basements. I think that the products were not to be worn by the children of the upper or middle classes!
Once, I remember, an order was late, and the manufacturer who had contracted with us to make the garments called irate at the delay and threatened us that if the order wasn’t filled within the week he would refuse to pay for the finished garments and would stop sending orders to the factory. I understood that if the order wasn’t shipped within the week, then his sale of the garments to his customers would be cancelled and he would lose his income. There are, I learned, serious consequences for lateness in business. 
Students regularly write to me apologizing for papers that are or will be submitted late. They ask for brief extensions. There are all kinds of reasons they offer for having not yet completed an assignment; many are graduate students with full-time jobs and families. I always offer the extension. I answer that I would prefer to have a good paper a day or two late than a mediocre (or worse) paper on time. Students thank me for my patience. I can’t read and comment upon all the papers immediately; I wouldn’t get to some papers until tomorrow or next week anyway. 
But the question I have now is this: why does it matter that an assignment is turned in late? I understand why a late order of garments or television sets or bed sheets could have disastrous results for sales, but of what consequence could there be in handing in a late project for a school class?  What would it mean for the learning that it took a day or seven longer for any learner to arrive in her effort at a sufficient level of competence and confidence to make public her work and brave evaluation. Why must learning occur within a specified time frame set arbitrarily by someone other than the learner? Is the learning any less meaningful that it took a day or week longer than expected? Why does an excellent paper lose five points for having taken twenty-four hours longer to perfect? 
These are rhetorical questions and, of course, I expect no answers. What I am asking is why we set such severe deadlines for completing assignments when our goal is to produce life-long learners? If a student can show that she is engaged in the work and merely asks for additional time to complete and polish the product, or the student offers some personal reason for the delay, then it could only be the fear or animus of the educator that would provoke him to refuse the student’s request and penalize her for refusing to turn in on time an assignment that does not presently meet the standards set by the student herself? Actually, it seems to me that such a request displays a student’s great respect for the teacher and the process that she would not waste any one’s time on work that is not yet of sufficient quality to present publicly. 
I understand that a late call to the warden might have catastrophic results, but I can see no consequence to the learning for turning in a late assignment.

18 December 2011

The Percussion Section

I went to hear the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra last evening. This orchestra travels about the Twin Cities area and last night’s venue was the United Church of Christ on Summit Avenue. I say this to emphasize that this particular stage was designed as a platform for religious ceremonies and not as a concert stage. The orchestra must fit into a much smaller space.
Thus it was that during the final piece, Haydn’s Symphony #100, the Military Symphony, from my seat I observed three men sitting to the rear on the right of the chancel. They sat behind a low wall and since I did not see any instruments I assumed that since there were microphones everywhere they were recording the concert for later air play. They were dressed, however, in the traditional black of the orchestra and so I knew that they were part of the unit itself.
But during the third movement, I believe it was, all three stood up and transformed themselves into a percussion section. The first beat on a drum, the second clashed a set of cymbals, and the third dinged the triangle. While they played—several minutes at most—they focused intently on the music on their stands before them and played with a seriousness and concentration no less engaged than that of the first violins. When they were done they sat down and did not move nor waver in the attention they continued to pay to the rest of the orchestra. Then, towards the close of the final movement, the three men rose again to join in the glorious conclusion to the symphony, beating the drums, the cymbals and the triangle.
I wondered what these players thought about as they sat immobile during the majority of the piece, and then how that thinking changed as they became transformed into the percussion section without which the symphony would have been incomplete. They were essential but marginal. In an entire symphony they were involved in 10-20 bars, and yet they were responsible for the entire evening. They received compensation for the entire evening. I marveled at their attention, their patience and their dedication.
I recall hearing recently Beethoven’s “Creatures of Prometheus,” and noticing on the stage a harp. And yet during the performance that harp remained silent for all but one small section of the entire thirty-minute piece. I thought, how remarkable, that in his composing Beethoven heard this sound of the harp in this one particular place and was compelled to write the sound into the piece. And that the harpist sat throughout the piece and even through the entire evening of music awaiting her moment.
There is, of course, a metaphor in this somewhere. And the concert was wonderful. I especially appreciated the percussion section.

16 December 2011

The Horror, the horror . . .

I have been thinking about Lionel Trilling’s essay “The Fate of Pleasure.” It is an historical study that defines the status of pleasure in Western culture over the years; in the essay Trilling argues that there has been a qualitative shift from the seeking of pleasure as a good to a state to be avoided, and that this shift has occurred not only because the pursuit of pleasure is associated with much that is exploitative or vulgar or mean, but because this ‘specious good’a term that refers to those things from which this physical pleasure might be derived“clog and hamper the movement of the individual spirit toward freedom, because they prevent the attainment of ‘more life.’” Pleasure is a trap.
To destroy this ‘specious good’ is the work of a great deal of modern literature, art and even music—and certainly of the work of Philip Roth and especially so in Portnoy’s Complaint. Trilling writes, years before Alex Portnoy disturbed the planet, “Whenever in modern literature we find violence, whether of represented act or of expression, and an insistence upon the sordid and the disgusting, and an insult offered to the prevailing morality of habit of life, we may assume we are in the presence of the intention to destroy specious good, that we are being confronted by that spirituality, or the aspiration toward it, which subsists upon violence against the specious good.” This intention to subvert and destroy our pleasure asserts our moral sense.
I get it, I think. It reminds me of the movie, The Aristocrats, in which a series of reputable comedians try to outdo each other in obscenely retelling an already distasteful joke. Screening the film I remember being appalled but sitting fascinated; at the time I was a grown up man who thought he has become used to such things. I had seen John Waters’ Pink Flamingoes, and I had sat through too much of Pulp Fiction. It is Kurtz's realization in Conrad's Heart of Darkness of the horror, the horror . . .
How do you destroy this specious good except by the disgustingly bad? By specious good Trilling must mean what is falsely good—that which is most identified with bourgeois culture of acquisition and false show, of that which obscures our spiritual selves. Roth’s Zuckerman understands this specious good; it is what he imagines destroys Swede Levov whose Paradise blows up when he discovers that “we are all in the power of something demented.” As his brother Jerry says to him, “Seymour, your kid blows your norm to kingdom come . . . and you still think you know what life is . . .” I think that this belief in the specious good is what draws us to Anne’s statement in her diary when she declares that she still believes in the goodness of people, at the very moment that the Nazis are killing millions of very innocent men, women and children no different than the occupants of the Attic, and not long before Anne herself will be sent to Bergen-Belsen and where she will die alone of typhoid or malaria or hunger or terror. Our saints and martyrs become so when they renounce the specious good. I am thinking of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.” This grace is the product of willed ignorance and represents our attachment to the specious good.
American Pastoral blows up the self-satisfied myths of American history and exposes the falsity in the American promise to escape from history altogether. The novel exposes how our faith in the specious good gives the power over us to something demented. I think this is the saddest book I have ever read, and one of the most beautiful books written in and of the United States. It stands on any shelf as necessarily as Melville’s Moby Dick

12 December 2011

Pinky Swear

I sliced my fingertip while cutting potatoes for a creamy potato cabbage soup.  It was the final potato, added as an afterthought when I considered that the proportions of potato and cabbage already added as part of the mix were unequal and might result in an imbalance in flavor. It was an obsessive move and a rash decision and it took two trips to the emergency room to stop the bleeding. During the second visit the attending physician applied silver nitrate to the open wound causing considerable pain. To my sharp in-take of breath and moan he directed: “Go to your happy place, go to your happy place,” and I told him my happy place was located somewhere before I cut my finger and I could no longer go there! He was not amused. He made a second application to the wound with a long match-like stick tipped with  silver nitrate, then applied a patch of something called Hemo-con and the bleeding was stopped. The pain, however, continued. He wrapped the wound in a huge bandage and sent me home. The soup was delicious, though it contained, I think, one potato too many.
Now, I have known Gary very well for the past twenty years, and during this time he has always worked in construction, run a very successful business. There are very few rooms in my house he has not done work in, and there are whole additions to it for which he is responsible. Gary built Walden. And in all that time he has never arrived at our morning run wearing evidence of any work-related accident, save the occasional emotional complaint concerning some spiritual fatigue. Gary works daily with instruments of potential destruction. He uses a variety of saws and electric drills and hammers, and yet he has never sliced anything but the necessary material and has never hammered the nail into anything but the wood; Gary climbs high ladders and has never fallen off, and he installs glass windows without ever putting his hand through a single pane of them. I have never seen him in need of even a band-aid, while I periodically arrive for our morning runs with body parts variously wrapped and bandaged. He looks at me with alarm and resignation. He says, “Next time, give me a call.”
Gary possesses patience, a characteristic that could serve me well and might have left my finger intact. Gary thinks before he acts, and positions himself always outside the danger zone and thereby minimizes the possibility of work-place accident. Gary never moves his car without first buckling his seat belt. Gary always drives under the speed limit, though he once was pulled over by the police for driving on the road to his house that he firmly believed was too long under construction. Gary always measures twice and cuts once, but when he cuts it is never himself that is rent.
I’m typing this without use of my left pinky finger. 

11 December 2011

On Complaint

He asked how I could keep such knowledge from him. I shrugged my shoulders and responded that I did not know. But, in fact, I think I did know.  I have actually considered just that question for some time now because I have of late been loath to talk to anyone about any matter concerning myself other than my thoughts on intellectual (the reading) and impersonal matters (the gossip and politics). I’ve been thinking about what that reticence might mean
So much of conversation turns on the subject of complaint. “How are you?” And to too large an extent, we are not overly interested in listening to the reply. The question is a formality, as is the lack of response. “I’m fine (or not). And you?” And I did not want to complain. Complaining, like whining, is such passive activity: we speak our state rather than change it. Neither did I see much purpose in leaking. For years I have referred to a particular form of conversation as ‘leaking,’ the propensity to reveal neurotic proclivities rather than devote the energies required to keep them private. I think that there is a qualitative difference between leaking and complaining. In the former I acknowledge my own weaknesses and bring them out for analysis, but in the latter I accuse the world for my state and remain innocent. From the former I think intimate conversations may flourish, but in the latter they arrive lifeless. I mean, what can be said to complaint except that the one who complains is either right or wrong? To the complaint one either extends or withholds sympathy, but from leaking one explores the sources of the leak and even attempts some exploratory work and repair. From leaking conversation and dialogue ensues, but complaint condemns the participant to monologue. My concerns were not of the neurotic variety and so entailed no leaking. And I would not complain.
I did not want to demand sympathy and I did not want to experience disregard. I meant to impose no burden on another in my need to merely unburden myself; and besides, nothing in the conversation could not have affected a healing I sought or provide the comfort that the cure I desired would ultimately bring. What could anybody offer that would make me calm, and nothing in the complaint would fix what was broken. My conversation could make nothing happen and I did not want to confess. From such confession there could be no absolution.
So I didn’t tell because . . . because to tell, perversely, would have felt to me some betrayal of the relationship. I know relationships need not be easeful, but this particular sharing seemed to offer nothing upon which anything further might be built.  It would have asked for something that in a way could not be given.
But can honest relationships follow from such concealment?