Thursday, December 31, 2009

On teaching (part 2)

My previous post--that was a class, and an instructor to whom I responded positively. There were other, not so happy times, too. In the fall two years prior to the class above, I took my very first college class [a core social science] on a Monday or Tuesday morning, with MP. He was an intimidating figure then--impossibly crisp at all times in his mandarin collar shirt, with his hair slicked back, and round gold-rimmed glasses. A few weeks into the class, I went to see him at office hours (which was required). It was a trek into the ivory tower, as physically represented by the sixth floor of Harper. It really was a funny little tower, with more gothic windows overlooking the interior courtyard.

View of the interior courtyard (mew)

We had to sign up for office hours in 15-minute increments; graduate students could have 30 minutes. Before me, there was a graduate student, talking about Heidegger, I think. I was tongue-tied; I had nothing to say. It may not have been so imposing in reality, but I remember a very large desk, behind which MP was sitting, possibly leaning back with his fingertips touching--you know, the C. Montgomery Burns position--except that instead of “excellent,” he was saying, “this is a puzzling paper.” I’m not sure what I needed just then, but a human connection would have been nice. How I managed to pass the class--by finding something (anything!) to say about Marx, or Freud, or Durkheim--is beyond me.

In some ways my capacities are greater now, but I’m still capable of feeling adrift, left behind. My struggle with Sewell (and Geertz and Sahlins, by extension) is evidence of this. Life experience (including MP’s class, but also the intervening years since then) has made deciphering abstractions easier. I experienced a similar phenomenon mathematically, when I retook the GRE after having been a carpenter for three years. I did better. But my memory of college bears a certain similarity to my memories of early childhood: you know enough to be aware of the newness of everything, but not enough to do anything about it.

A pleasanter recollection of office hours is found in my memory of EL. I suspect he was somewhere between 75 and 80 when we first met. He wore large hearing aids; the kind that fit over the earpiece of your glasses. Also, he was a large man, both tall and robust. He used to wax poetic in class about potatoes and butter (he was Irish, you see, and it was Irish history). He used the Socratic method in class. You had to come prepared, like in The Paper Chase, because he would go ‘round the room, posing questions. It really looked bad when you couldn’t answer.

Nevertheless, he was a popular instructor, and at test-time I could only get a seat on the floor (thank goodness not everyone came to class for lecture). EL also required everyone to visit him at office hours. He remains the only person who has ever asked me:

EL: “So, what does your father do for a living?”
Me: [laughs] "Hopefully nothing!"
EL: “Oh, is he retired?”
Me: "Oh no, he passed away years ago."
EL: "He what?" [adjusts hearing aid]
Me: "He’s dead."
EL: “Oh, well, what did he do for a living?”

I have to give him credit for not saying “I’m sorry;” I hate when people do that. We also bonded over a love of Wilkie Collins, the Victorian sensation novelist and friend of Dickens. Even during his Socratic moments, EL was able to put you at ease. Some people do this quite naturally, others can’t . . . and in some cases, it depends upon the individual chemistry between student and professor.

On teaching (part 1)

I’ve been reading, among other things, UMass’s Handbook for New Instructors, in preparation for spring semester. In thinking about teaching, I am reminded of how I survived the Great Purge of Modern Chinese History. Picture it: Social Sciences 108(?), a small room on the first floor of a gothic building on 59th Street, with arched, multi-paned windows overlooking the Midway through wintering ivy. The first day of class, and I suspect there were 25 or 30 of us packed in there. 艾恺 comes striding in, in his customary fashion (I knew him already from his Civ course). I suppose he assessed the room and decided that the class was too large. He then began to lecture, and through his sharp content-driven questioning, he proceeded to frighten 15 students into never again returning to class.

I did not deserve to be spared. Perhaps he remembered me from the previous fall. Of course, even had he humiliated me, I would still have returned to class on Wednesday, and so maybe he thought any effort expended there would be in vain. Or, possibly he liked me. As I said, I didn’t deserve the confidence. He asked me two things (I’m sure I looked like I was in severe pain, since I was waiting for the other shoe to drop through the whole class):
1) “Miriam, you know what feng shui is?" (geomancy) and
2) “You’ve seen The Last Emperor?" (I hadn’t. This requires some explanation. He must have remembered me since a conversation in the previous year had uncovered a mutual love of movies, and had touched upon both The Cardinal and Oliver Reed’s enforced weight loss.)

Tenacity has its rewards, and we remain friends. Often, when I’m teaching a large group, I like to pretend that I am 恺. This includes his way of striding around, his mannerisms in talking, his actorly presence. Of course, I would never do what I’ve described above—I haven’t the nerve, or the heart. In my experience of him as a warm, personable, human individual, this incident has always puzzled me a little. Whatever its meaning, it really brings me back to a moment in which I can really, viscerally, remember what college is like—internally. And what it is like is . . . terrifying.

Social Sciences classroom (mew)

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Midnight Mass

So I attended midnight Mass on Christmas Eve at Our Lady of Czestochowa (in Turners Falls) without chickening out. It was pretty, and smelled nice, though they might have given a page number now and again so I could see where we were in the liturgy. I was sitting in the back with all the other folks who don't take communion. There were quite a few people there, though, and most of them did go up for communion... and not all of them were in the senior set. The homily was of an interesting nature. He started out with a very gentle critique of the Bishop's method for bringing people back in to the fold, and then began to talk about the reasons which one might want to either return to Catholicism, (or perhaps convert?). As a way of beginning, he talked about the big bang--undoubtedly an unusual topic for a Christmas sermon. I guess the point was that there is an unknown at the time of the big bang--the "nothing" from which something is created. It is like Catholics (and Jews) to accept science and incorporate it into religious meaning, so for this I am appreciative, and it is one of the many similarities I find between the two religions.

He also spoke (though less eloquently than Gerry, the Vicar of Dibley!) about the enduring power of the story of Jesus, of Christhood, and the spread of the gospel over the last 2000ish years. It's been said better, but anyway. It was a nice, inclusive service, and there was some Polish in there, naturally, but the congregation is far from homogenous. There are African-American, Hispanic and other European-American parishioners there. I managed to sing along when I could, especially for Kyrie, which I like.

Swiss Guard at the Vatican, 2007 (mew)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Sewell and Turners Falls

The paper about Sewell's Logics of History and its implications is done. I can now die with nothing on my conscience.

Winter gloaming
white houses
streets slick with ice
and lights strung up.
Plastic Santa Claus
lit from inside
like I never saw anything so beautiful

Monday, December 14, 2009


You and I, we did the same thing
we discovered the East,
leaving the hot sun and the shimmering oil
on Highway 99 through the Central Valley;
leaving Locke or Groveland or Oakdale,
passing Murder Burger;
leaving the fruit and vegetables that
flourish in the dust.

We crossed the mountains into
alkali desert.
You can't water your cows there
it's a primeval land of rocks and salt
and a lone coyote pants by the side of the road.
We stopped at a cowboy bar,
where the jukebox was playing,
when suddenly it rained huge heavy tears.
We drove fast on 80, maybe
racing into Salt Lake City,
a grid at the foot of the Wasatch.

And then we drove on to Chicago,
following the I & M
lost in Bridgeport with the ghost scent
of the stockyards creeping around the corners.
You and I, we spent a few years there;
I don't know how you were affected,
but I still bear a weight from that place
around my shoulders.

And then we came to the East,
with its carnivorous greenery;
the forests which rise
to cover all human detritus.
It has been my home, and yours.
I long for the desert (do you?),
"500 Metres" the music of the sand and stone.
We discovered the East, both of us--
but how we have been separated by time.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Portelli, Stanton, and musing

Well, things are moving slowly. I'll be in the new old house by December 9, I think. I ran out of heating oil yesterday night, which made me pretty unhappy all night and half of today, as I tried to rectify that. And then back to work. There was one pleasant surprise this week--some positive comments back on a piece of writing. I almost had a heart attack and died.

We discussed Portelli's The Order Has Been Carried Out, and somewhat surprisingly, people reacted in some of the most cold, clinical ways to it. I could hardly imagine why! It was as if Umberto Eco and Elie Wiesel had somehow combined to conduct oral histories in Rome. How poetically David Blight and Ed Linenthal responded to it, and how unpoetically, well... Anyway, the story is this, briefly: a Nazi massacre of 335 Romans occurred less than 24 hours after an Italian Partisan attack on the Nazis (killing 35), but years and decades later, Italians remember the Nazis requesting the surrender of the partisans to avoid the retaliation. In the end, many people blame the partisans, not the Nazis, for the massacre. It is an fascinating ambivalence on the part of Italians about their own involvement, and a sad commentary on politics, and an intriguing study of memory--of course. But why on earth did no one mention the memorial structure of the book? (You'll have to look at the book to see it--I don't really want to describe it). How could you not see that aspect of the book as somehow central? Like it or hate it, it was probably what I would have written about, if I'd had to write about the book myself.

I was also drawn in to The Lowell Experiment, though a lot of people seemed to have a lot of problems with it. As for me, I thought it elaborated quite well on Handler and Gable's The New History in an Old Museum and attempted to address some of the potential problems with that particular study. And people love Handler and Gable. What gives? Stanton dives right into the difficult questions: what of the homogeneity of museum visitors, public historians, interpreters, et al? Do historic sites fail to bridge gaps between the present and the past, or fail to admit to cyclical economic behavior rather than a linear progression? What of the attempts at including diversity, or social justice in the historical narrative? And most fascinating of all, that historians and anthropologists and presumably other professionals have difficulties with insight into their own colleagues--and so, what result does that have on the evidence they collect? At every turn, there was something really exciting to think about--and the best part is, there are no answers.

I am often accused of "musing" in my writing (this criticism is accompanied by "lose the first person")... and as a matter of fact, I do often muse. Well, I think, what about all these authors we read, whose writing is littered with the first person, and who are musing in the extreme (!). I understand that you must pay your dues (apparently over and over and over again) but when you think about the mechanics of learning, you see that people learn to write by reading. And what they're reading influences what they write. (Which is why I continue to hope that someday I will pop out a Graham Greene novel, after so many years of wonderful immersion. I would settle for a short story.)

What else? I also had dream that involved me getting a paper back from DG, and as I flipped through it, I realized that I hadn't looked at the pages after they'd printed, and so did not realize that some of the paper had printed in gibberish (zapf wingdings?). And, in what might actually be in the style of DG's sense of humor, he had written some comments in French. I don't, of course, speak French. So naturally I found the joke very amusing, but I was also mortified. I think I would rather dream about the Mormons and the Mennonites fighting charcoal creatures at a sanatorium.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Dream fragments

Some part of my dreams last night went like this: I was walking into a grocery store for some mundane item (perhaps a chocolate bar?) when I saw a little bundle of folded cash on the floor near the doors. I picked it up and looked all around, and then looked at it. There was about $80.00 there. I fought a brief internal struggle and then went to the service desk to turn it in. The guy there was busy with a phone call, and as I waited, I looked at the cash again. This time I saw that the bills were in fact elaborate fakes. So I gave up and went away.

The next place I happened to be was in an institutional-style building (maybe a school or dormitory) which had white or whitewashed cement walls. I think there might have been some kind of art installation there. As I was walking through, I spoke briefly with some people there who I knew in the dream, but don't know in life. And then I wandered outside. A whole series of buildings, some institutional and some cabin-like dotted a picturesque, hilly, green area. There were two groups of people, who seemed to be at odds with one another (and they were dressed rather strangely, at that). I believe I identified them as Mennonites and Mormons. Obviously Donald Worster's Dust Bowl and Rivers of Empire were infiltrating my subconscious, even though I'd been reading Raymond Chandler before bed. Anyway, there was some kind of forbidden love story between two of the young people, not to mention hideous monsters made of iron and charcoal roaming the countryside. The girl in the forbidden romance had just killed one of them with a broadsword when I woke up. Uh huh, yup.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Three quotes for tonight

Harry Stoner: Everybody misses.
Margo: Not professionals.
Harry Stoner: Oh yeah, professionals too. Quarterbacks get knocked down, nurses get knocked up, somebody invented the Edsel. Everybody misses.
Save The Tiger, 1973

"God was silent.
Cohn tried to squeeze out a small assurance."
Bernard Malamud, God's Grace

And one from Racine:
"Love is not a fire to be shut up in a soul. Everything betrays us: voice, silence, eyes; half-covered fires burn all the brighter."

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Assorted, uncategorized, adrift


"I fell in with some drifters
Cast upon a beachtown
Winn Dixie cold cuts and highway hand me downs
And I wound up fixing dinner
For them and Boston Jim
I well up with affection
Thinking back down the roads to then." (Joni Mitchell)

Getting ready for another long drive tomorrow, preceded by an outflow of cash that is guaranteed to feel like desanguination. House two weeks away. Odd class responses to recent readings. Manifest Destinies turned out to be a little on the controversial side, which I found surprising. It was primarily a legal history, which led to some negative comments about sources. My contention, I think, is that court cases, legal documents, policy reports--they are all legitimate primary sources. But I think people wanted to see sources from around these things--so as to gauge the public opinion behind the decisions. The sources may or may not exist--but I see the point of asking for them. Also raised the question of whether using historic (primary) sources that reference another document (which may or may not be available, like a 19th century report that mentions a letter received) is appropriate, and how often can it be done? I had hoped for HR and JH to weigh in, but no such luck. HR did have some issues with factual weakness in the book, as well, but I'm not sure how we're supposed to be able to assess that without more extensive background.

We talked briefly about the school of "whiteness studies," (mentioned in an earlier post about Roediger) and to some degree I have the same response to that as I do to gender studies. There's no question that [socially constructed] gender, and [the creation of] race have a tremendous amount of influence on the world. But I have an issue with framing an entire history that way. In the case of race, I find the argument overly simplistic. As with Roediger, I can't find a history that chronicles Southern and Eastern European immigrant transformation to whiteness either provocative or exciting. A legal history of Mexican American conflict in NM in the 19th century is interesting without tying itself to "whiteness studies." And I find I can't quite articulate my problems with using gender as a category of analysis. Joan Scott goes to great lengths to provide reasons and templates for doing this using literary deconstruction, and it drives me crazy. Maybe my problem isn't with "gender" (except that it is, sort of) but is a problem with "category of analysis." I feel like my thoughts here are too many and too confused to be contained in this one paragraph, so moving on...

Odd responses to Rivers of Empire too. I was fascinated by the connection to Wittfogel, particularly since Worster readily admits to Wittfogel's failings. And Worster's case studies about the utopian communities in Colorado (ie. Greeley, which is Centennial, by the way), and about the Mormon land and water use in Utah were fascinating examples of hydraulic societies. But I think I was in the minority here. I do admit that Worster's description of the Central Valley was spot on, but when he calls it unpicturesque, disjointed, corporate--I have to admit my jaw dropped. From the old woman selling okra by the side of the road all the way to the pesticide billboard and the migrant workers, I saw... beauty. I saw people living outside a corporate, capitalist order against all odds. For me, it was a perfect picture of how humans live so messily in and outside an imposed structure. And through Worster's description, all of it shines in the golden sun on the golden hills and in the shimmering desert fields--but that is me the poet, the romantic.

And I didn't have enough to say today, about Crimes Against Nature. Feel like crap as a result. Wish we'd talked more about policy here. When we talk about nature as secular religion, I feel like it is a kind of dead end. Yes, clearly the nation (the western world, perhaps) sees something holy in nature, particularly in grand natural formations, regardless of whether they identify as religious individuals. We can easily take nature as a national religion in a country where we at least give lip service to religious freedom: Yosemite speaks equally to Jews, Buddhists, Christians, Wiccans, et al. I assume. I have a hard time finding something to grab on to here. The connection between historical and current policy is sort of interesting to me, though, and in particular, I was curious to find out how likely it might be that this particular work could be used as a defense for deregulation on federally-owned lands. It was a criticism of the book itself, and while I realize the policy changes are realities we face right now, I want to know how much of a responsibility an individual author needs to feel about his contribution to the potential problem.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Two Jobsites

Two interesting, but oppositional things going on down in the Amherst area this week:

I was looking up at the roof work being done on the Student Center on the UMass campus, and I saw a sight which is beautiful to OSHA eyes. On the right side, the leading edge of the building was entirely enclosed by safety rails, which were both properly secured and neatly nailed together. On the left side, there was a guy doing leading-edge work. He was wearing a hardhat, pants, a shirt, boots, and a safety harness. The harness was attached with a lanyard to a rope, and there was no slack. All the guys on and around the building were wearing hardhats, and guys in basket-lifts were properly tied-off. I thought, well, I guess that makes sense since this is such a high-profile job.

The next day, I was in Montague Turners Falls. On Montague City Road, in yet another high profile location (a new commercial building being erected next to the grocery store) I saw the exact opposite. These guys were sheathing the hipped roof on this new building, and ... NO ONE was wearing a hard hat. Everyone was in sneakers. One guy was wearing shorts and two had no shirt (it was about 48 F). There was no toeboard at the bottom of the roof to keep things from sliding down (on about a 4/12 pitch, which isn't really steep, but things still slide off!). Worst of all, no one was tied off to anything. There were no safety harnesses, ropes, lanyards, or anything resembling fall protection. I have a hard time believing that the OSHA requirements for safety in commercial settings apply in Amherst but not Turners Falls. I think if I'd gone over with a camera in hand, everyone would have been off that roof in seconds--which would have been funny, come to think of it!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Love to eat dem mousies

At my mom's house, which is located among some conserved beaver ponds, Abby and Zoey Katz were wandering around, stalking various critters. Abby caught a baby shrew, which expired, and Zoey killed an unidentified rodent of considerable cuteness. Neither of them was hungry (of course), and so we had to throw them into the woods. Hopefully some hungry critter will find them and eat them up.

We also saw some evidence of deer, and there are a couple kinds of ducks floating around the ponds. I haven't seen the turkeys or the grouse around these parts yet, but I have seen both along the freeway, presumably trying to get killed.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sewell and theory

William Sewell’s article on the shift from social to cultural history would have been a much more useful text to include alongside Thompson, et al., last week, because (while it is a commentary on the domination of cultural history in the field in recent years) it also provides a much clearer picture of what social history is, and isn’t. Part of this clarity comes from Sewell’s placement of social history and cultural history in a sort of opposition—and also comes from Sewell’s distinctions between history/historians and the various fields and practitioners of social science.

Causing me further consternation is the question (in my mind) about where history is going. My understanding of history has been of an interdisciplinary, multi-theory (or theory-less), interpretive field; certainly a field without objective truth, regardless of the level of rigor applied to historical inquiries. However, I suddenly find mine to be a minority position—and I’m surprised. It’s not that the people around me (classmates and some professionals) would take such a hard line stance about objectivity, but what they’re saying, and what they’re writing, is in favor of a far more positivist viewpoint. They are skeptical about interpretation, find repellent the use of memory as historical document, and call incessantly for admission upon admission of bias, or uncertainty.

Added to this is Sewell’s implication that historians borrow theory from the social sciences, and twist, bend or amalgamate when the theory doesn’t quite fit… and that historians ought to be talking about, and developing theory from within. Sewell also discussed his wariness about the shift to cultural history and the large abandonment of social history, and what problems this causes. If social history borrows the language and methods of the sciences and the social sciences (quantitative data, for example, or creating theory based on events or social trajectories), then cultural history focuses too much on the individual circumstance to the exclusion of generalizable trends.

I never thought that Marshall Sahlins could be placed in opposition to, say, Natalie Zemon Davis, but apparently I’ve been missing great rifts between fields. Possibly I have not been careful enough about discovering what individual historians are doing when they write. I should know, I suppose, whether GA's writing is more oriented towards the social sciences or the humanities, at the very least (I suspect the latter, but I’m inclined to think it weaves back and forth over the boundary I used to ignore).

Some of this, I think, is due to the particular structure of the Core at the U of C, where I believe the emphasis was on the crossover of sociological thought, historical anthropology, intellectual history, literature, and the evolution of scientific thought. I realize this seems at once obvious and overreaching. Yes, the fields are connected—and no, they’re not. The social sciences do attempt to find social theory—something approaching a scientific theory that may be applied to many circumstances and with roughly the same results. Yet the historian’s approach is more complex and messy (despite, at the U of C, being a segment of the Social Sciences Division).

And then in the intervening (almost) ten years, I’ve had the chance to see just that many more ambiguities. Is the positivist thinking I’m seeing here, or the new-new social/cultural history Sewell calls for—are these the histories of the future? Probably to my disadvantage I am unwilling to discount any method, theory, or non-theory as the “wrong” way to do history. I’m sure I’m supposed to come down on a side—and if I do, will I then be hopelessly out-of-date?

Friday, October 09, 2009

Social history

The conversation we had at breaktime in Public History suggests to me that the discussion we had in Intro/History, regarding social history, was somehow unsatisfying, inconclusive. It was. There's no inherent problem in not resolving the argument, but when everyone leaves confused and adrift, maybe it wasn't the most productive discussion.

The question which we discussed most was: is social history a European construct, and something that does not exist for Americanists--and if it is a European mode of study, does it still exist, in what forms, and how useful is it? I can only give you my particular take on the discussion, and given the comments on my last paper, I am undoubtedly completely misguided. So, like LeVar Burton, I will say, "but don't take my word for it..."

HR had put the question out about Americanists, and my feeling was this: if you are starting with data "from below," (ie. bread riots or labor strikes, or working class insults, or whatever) and your goal is to project the data into a larger and longer social, political or economic trend which says something broad, then you are doing social history, whether or not you choose to call it that. Americanists call themselves political, labor, economic, consumer, environmental, whatever historians but often shun the social history label.

Problem being, there are Americanists calling themselves social historians, and the argument HR makes is that they're doing cultural history instead (let's not get into that can of worms!). The Europeanists (E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, a bunch of German historians whose names I can't recall) appear to be working from a Marxian framework regarding capitalism (and possibly even Marxist, if you're talking about Thompson), but unlike some in the class, I did not think that a labor/proletariat oriented Marxian framework was necessary for doing social history. However, I am leaning towards the idea that some framework (of your choosing) is necessary for creating true social history, and the presence of a framework indicates to me that you (the historian) have an agenda that is at least mildly political.

This is not to say that an historian can be without agenda or bias; far from it. I am not (Not Not Not) a positivist... As DG put it to me earlier, "I thought [Peter] Novick had put all that to rest [in That Noble Dream]" and clearly, well, he hasn't. (I remember now, it was Armistead Maupin who wrote (in Brian Hawkins's voice) that his generation would be succeeded by a generation of Calvinists. And so... a generation of groundbreaking postmodernism has been succeeded by the New Positivism.) But I guess my implication about frameworks is that cultural historians write using data "from below," but not generally demographic/quantitative data, but cultural artifacts (art, literature, journals, letters, buildings, music, etc.) in order to draw conclusions in a more specific way, and to prove a point but not to make large political statements or form economic trajectories.

But as I said, the discussion left many adrift, including me. I was hoping to hear from the experts on the matter, and forgive me, but I didn't really. So--I've tried to clarify it for myself as written above. If you think I am way off base, please tell me, and tell me why!

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Diego Rivera rip-off!

Yes, here it is, the painting I rushed for Art Hop. I suspect I will be making some changes before I varnish (needs another layer or two, and Shane's air gun needs a hose!), but no time to work on it at present:


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Yom Kippur fast-breaking

Yesterday night, I went over to Friendly's for dinner (I'm currently commuting to UMass) and as you may also know, it was the end of Yom Kippur. It was well after dark, and I was all alone in the place until three neatly dressed young guys show up. They're breaking the fast; they said so to the waitress. She was a bit confused, though she mentioned she had Jewish roommates, and so the guys said, "oh, they're probably not good Jews!" And so they peruse the menus a bit longer, and here's what they order: bacon cheeseburgers, double-thick milkshake, chicken strips basket and ice cream! I was amused.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Readings: Maps of Time

Well, leave it to David Christian to depress me. And on the large scale, at that. Christian's book, Maps of Time is "Big History." And Big History seems to be the newest (and probably the largest) framework ever. The macro-history is a blending of history and science, which provides a big picture view of the history and trajectory of the world, from the big bang and formation of the universe, to present times--and expanding outward towards the future.

Just reviewing this book seems like an impossible task. Let's just say that the majority of the book is a scientific history of the Earth which includes the physics of universe formation, the geology of earth formation, the beginnings of life on earth, and ends by tracing prehistory and then history of humanity, all the while highlighting synchronicity and repeating themes in science and human behavior, prehistory and modern history. He's like the Steven Strogatz of history. It's an overwhelming thing to convey, and to expect to keep in your head. But it isn't this part of the book that depresses me.

I do, in fact, believe that everything is connected. This belief affects my worldview, my historical inclinations, and my personal interactions. I don't think it's a practical way of writing most histories, but that's sort of beside the point. It's Christian's "Futures" section that is causing me pain.

Christian begins the chapter by comparing us (humans) to the inhabitants of Rapa Nui/Easter Island, and not in a good way. I mean that evidence suggests that the humans who colonized the land stayed, knowing there were limited resources, and still systematically destroyed all their resources and, in doing so, even their ability to escape the island. He writes that the generation who felled the last trees on the island in order to transport those giant stones knew what they were getting into, and still didn't stop the process. And here we are, on this tiny planet, doing the same damn thing.

Well, if that weren't enough to drive you to despair, Christian continues ever forward. He suggests what might become of humans in the next several thousands of years, and then moves on to what will happen when true Venusian global warming overcomes the earth and the sun turns into a white dwarf. And then what happens to the solar system and the galaxy, as they heat, cool and die. And finally, what of the universe? Most scientists have ruled out the 'big gnab' (I mean the reversal of the bang, of course) and agree that the universe will continue to expand, cool, and entropy will increase until the universe is a junkyard of cold matter. Eventually, no new stars will form and no energy will be present, matter will collapse into black holes which will evaporate and finally, no matter will exist around 10^10^76 years after the big bang.

So, why write history? Why do anything? Why did I read this book when I could have been reading a jolly good Wilkie Collins story?

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Two swell movies, and one mediocre

I don't have cable up in Milton, so last weekend's trip to Amherst supplied me with the first viewing of TCM I've had in years! I saw two good movies: "Grapes of Wrath" (the 1940 one, of course) and "Tokyo Joe," (1949) with Humphrey Bogart and Sessue Hayakawa (he was the featured star that night). Oh, and I also saw "The Farmer Takes a Wife" with a very, very young Henry Fonda, which was just goofy, but what are you going to do? Don't you prefer the Erie Canal to a farm?! Only if you've seen this movie will that sentence not seem like a non-sequitur.

Now, lots of people have seen "Grapes of Wrath," so I won't comment at length, but seeing it was a good reminder of what is fine filmmaking. And oh-so-timely. Also, I felt a little guilty about complaining about losing capital on the house. After all, I've never been bludgeoned by union busters or had my farm plowed under. And I was pleasantly surprised by Casy, who I felt I recognized, and for good reason: he was played by John Carradine. The scene near the end when Casy is explaining why he could no longer be a preacher--it took my breath away.

But--I found "Tokyo Joe" rather more fun--even though it was clear 10 minutes into the movie that it could not possibly end well. It features a real-honest-to-goodness "postethnic" moment (re: my last post) when, while the Japanese insurgent/mobster/criminal is being interrogated in Japanese, the [Asian-American] interrogator stops, sighs, and says something like, "I just don't get these goofy Orientals!"

"Tokyo Joe," is pretty fair to the Japanese in this postwar drama--Bogart goes back to Japan to resurrect a nightclub he was forced to leave during the war . . . and after having fought, he returns to find his old buddy Ito (Teru Shimada) tending the bar, and they have a good old judo session to renew the friendship. Of course, an old wife of his (now remarried) re-enters the picture, and some shady business besides, and you know Bogey is going to have to die. But not before saying the one dated line in the whole movie; something about the American presence in Japan being there so that the people will be able to "stand up on their hind legs" against oppressive leaders. So, I cringed of course, but smiled a little too, on the inside. I am, after all, a great believer in American democracy.

By the way, nobody steal that line about "Tokyo Joe" being postethnic! It's going in my book.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Readings: Postethnic America

David Hollinger's Postethnic America seemed an appropriate follow-up to the last reading, as the two works reference one another, and Hollinger's idea appears to flow quite naturally from the [Roediger's] idea of "whiteness studies," which documents how varied European and Middle-eastern "races" came to be considered generically white (only sometimes, as I pointed out before). Hollinger's book is more fascinating reading (shall I say more provocative?) than Roediger's--for an experienced historian. While presumably Roediger is writing to a lay audience, Hollinger is writing to a community of historians, sociologists and ethnographers, in a work that straddles the boundaries of historiography and sociology.

The first part of the book, already 14 years old, covers some familiar ground, though the way he writes it is more interesting. For example, as he talks about Americans' conscious and unconscious choices of "ethno-racial blocs" he writes that Alex Haley's choice (to seek out his African roots as opposed to his Irish ones) is no choice at all--although I think in the intervening years between Roots and now, Haley's choice has become a significantly more real one. Hollinger also (thankfully) talks a little about the different perceptions of ethnicity from the distinctly racial pentagon to a more complex and detailed approach. While it's true that in some situations, people from one "ethno-racial bloc" will not notice or care about the finer distinctions in another, I happen to think no sensitive or intelligent person would fail to try. Do I care about the difference between Dominican and Puerto Rican? Of course! Or about Abenaki vs. Miwok? Sure!

What really grabs you in this book is Hollinger's attempt to trace multiculturalism from its roots (emerging somewhat oddly out of post WWII universalist perspectives) to current (mid-90s) academic infighting about how we should understand or express our multiculturalism, having eschewed ethnocentrism and universalism almost completely. He outlines the universalist concept, and then the emerging "paradigmatic" concept of history (creating a huge objectivity question in the field) and then the beginnings of multiculturalism, coinciding perhaps, with relativism. Hollinger tracks Richard Rorty's progression through stages and incarnations of multiculturalism through to the '90s, effectively showing the sometimes comical twists and turns of the academic perspective as we try to do the right thing by our multiple cultures.

Universalism, the new multiculturalists wrote, was a manifestation of our own Western (and possibly even American) ethnocentrist perspective, and therefore even the hopeful remarks about being one human family that shares the same struggles and emotions are, in fact, false. This led, in the extreme case, to historians, anthropologists and others taking the opposite view--and concluding that we cannot impose our Western/Judeo-Christian ideas of human rights on other cultures. Taken to its full extreme, it creates ethical problems for those of us concerned with the health and quality of life of other human beings, to say nothing of liberty (which, while perhaps a Western idea, has over 5000 years of historical strength as a desired state of being.)

Complicating matters are the cosmopolitan and the pluralist movements before and around multiculturalism, which ask the question, "how do we determine the many groups which are either making up the whole, or which continue to be un-unified parts?" Hollinger's idea of a postethnic society is one where all categories, layers and aspects of identity are in question--and given equal weight. "Consciously and critically locating oneself amid these layers," where everyone has a choice as to how they identify themselves, and without external identification. Rather than wanting to eliminate ethno-identity, Hollinger hopes that ethnicity can be boundary-less, multifaceted, and part of a much larger and more complex picture. Interestingly, this has some of the positive aspects of universalism, combined with a modern interpretation of the cultural pluralist thread.

Hollinger addresses the potential problems innate in the pursuit of a postethnic world, fairly eloquently, and a 2000 postscript was added, tracking some of the changes in thought about multiculturalism and the US at the end of the century. I think--I think!--that in the last nine years, America has made that much more progress towards a non-racial perspective--not because of policy changes, different phrasing of census questions, changes in affirmative action, or anything else like this--but simply because the composition of the United States is changing. The number of "mixed" relationships and blended backgrounds, families with multiple ancestral origins, adoptions outside a specific group, and people who choose to be affiliated with groups that they have little or no blood-tie to--all these are areas of growth. If we continue to silence the undercurrent of hate (which does exist, sadly) perhaps in time that too will fade, like an unused, vestigial organ.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Readings: Roediger and Ehrenreich

I started my summer readings with a rereading of Novick's That Noble Dream, and first readings of David Roediger's Working Toward Whiteness, with a brief detour into Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed (not on the list, but which my mom was perusing for readings for her social justice class in the fall). Technically, another similarly titled Roediger book was on the list, but this was the one available here. Novick is an outlier and deserving of a full post so I will skip him for now. However, I was intrigued by the single blurb on the cover of Roediger's book, supplied by the Washington Post, "provocative." Well, I didn't find it terribly provocative--how's that for a provocative statement?

This doesn't mean I didn't find it a competent and readable history. It was. However, the concept of "whiteness studies" as a way of breaking the prevailing understanding of whiteness as a "norm," and the journey of Southern and Eastern European immigrants from "dark white" to "white" is not new to me. As a Californian, maybe, and a product of a parent and an historical moment concerned with ethnic origins, the sheer diversity within the category "white" has long been quite evident to me, and the origins and arrival times of various ethnic groups, along with the difficulties they faced--these stories have been with me since childhood. On top of European ethnic groups, California is also home to many Asian and South Asian ethnicities, "Black," African and Carribean ethnicities, and several indigenous groups as well. In the 70s and 80s, there was a lot of "roots" searching, and this phenomenon trickled down to schooling.

Added to this, I'm also aware that we're not living in a post-ethnic society for those deemed "white." While, on a form, a Croatian-, an Italian-, and an Irish-American may all select "white," that doesn't mean that there aren't people out there calling them "guinea," "mick" and who knows what else. There are. I've met them. And there are plenty of folks who still equate "Jew" with race or ethnicity, even though I do my best to make it clear that Judaism is a religion, and I feel strongly that that there are no "ethnic" Jews. And these things equate to a mild (or not so mild) racism, even if your term of choice is "ethnic." Some evidence (in an amusing and palatable form) can be seen in Gilbert Hernandez's comic Love and Rockets: A Rock 'n' Roll Headache from '89.

So you see it's not that I disagree with the premise of the book--Roediger is on the mark when he's speaking historically about transformations in ethnic groups arriving and living in America, and the parallel path of African-Americans, who did not have the benefit of being able to change race. But I would argue that only in some settings have certain groups effectively changed race. Another point that Roediger discusses, though it's not his main point, is the arbitrariness of the term "race." As I understand it, it is an unscientific term at best, and at worst it is a manipulation of perception. Percival Everett puts this quite well in Erasure when the character Monk talks about why society has deemed him "Black." If I felt an historical evaluation of the term "race" was the primary point of the book, and if it were written in the style of Frantz Fanon, then perhaps I would have called it "provocative."

Ehrenreich's book I also had ambivalent feelings about. I realize I am a late reader, but I'm sure it remains on reading lists everywhere. On one hand, it is an important bit of investigation, showing not only the near impossibility of rising out of the mire of minimum wage employment, and revealing the poor quality of life so many people have who are effectively "passing" for middle class. However, I felt a bit wary of someone who dips into blue collar life for a month or two, being myself someone who has been living a real honest-to-goodness blue collar life. And as my mom and I were talking about the book, we were both taken aback by some of Ehrenreich's own prejudices--she comes across as ageist, insensitive about Alzheimers patients (oddly, I thought) and at times irritatingly judgmental of people around her (which I noted that she sometimes admits to, in the writing).

We agreed that she's firmly within her own head, which makes this different from an ethnographer, or an historian, a novelist, or Studs Terkel--all of whom either make an attempt to be in someone else's head, or take the materials back to the subjects and say, "these were my impressions--am I on the mark?" There was a queer absence of follow-up with her coworkers--and I say this with the conviction that my coworkers will be lifelong friends, if they want it. At any rate, I'm sure that this book has raised some consciousnesses. But I wonder how many, as we struggle onward in the rising waters of low wages, unemployment, high rents, and outsourcing of jobs and industry to countries where we can exploit labor legally for peanuts.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Apocalyptic dreams

Okay, in the first I believe I was in a city--maybe Chicago, but not resembling any city I've actually visited. I guess I was there with my mom--maybe for a conference. At some point, I needed some item and headed for a big-box store (I don't know, maybe Wal-Mart--not because I ever go there, but because we were talking about it yesterday.) While looking for the item, I ran into 恺, and we talked for a minute, and then I saw John K., and we were talking when a large blast shattered the huge windows at the front of the store, and icy gusts of rain and hail were blowing in. I stood there for a minute in wonder, but not really thinking about the cause. At that moment, for me, it was just an isolated incident. And then I realized that this was a symptom of something much bigger. Perhaps a terrific storm that was going to destroy everything in its wake. John screamed (sorry John, just a dream) and I grabbed his hand and we ran for a bit--away--and when I looked at my cell-phone there was no service.

We stopped somewhere safe (I'm sure there were lots of people milling about in confusion still) and I pulled out a map, and we were looking at these territories (which I can't now name, but it was not local counties or states or anything recognizable). John and I talked about which place would be the safest to travel to, and then I realized I had a cell signal again, and I either called or received a call from mom, which said she would meet us at the hotel. She seemed less alarmed, and I said to John, I guess you can come with me to the hotel, or head on by yourself. And then I woke up, briefly.

When I fell back asleep, I dreamed I was wandering around some town or city, doing something innocuous, when I saw a group of goggled people leaving a theater, and I followed them. They seemed to be in varying stages of blindness, or something similar, and they seemed to be moving under duress. Somehow I became part of the group--and part of a subgroup of new people. The new people were not yet blind. We arrived at what I perceived as a prison/dormitory made from a converted building of some other type. The place itself was not unpleasant, but the imprisonment or internment was clear, as was I guess the hopelessness for the future. I saw everyone else getting settled in their rooms, and then I found 'mine;' it was not in my name, but someone else's. And then I woke up

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Uncle Silas and Cambodia

Well, I got sacked again! Not enough work. But this leaves me some extra time to fix the house, which is slowly getting improved for sale: new tile in the bathroom, new light fixtures inside and out, stained cabinetry and ceiling trim, finished tin ceiling, repainting, new cabinet handles, plants weeded, etc... Also, I'm getting a lot of non-required reading done now, as I imagine my fall reading will be a combination of histories, historiography and student papers.

The two I just finished are in no way connected. Uncle Silas is a Victorian gothic thriller (not really a 'mystery,' as it is billed) by J. Sheridan LeFanu. And Cambodia: A book for people who find television too slow, by Brian Fawcett, is a work of 'fiction' which reads like a combination of personal essay and social commentary. I enjoyed Silas, but I fell in love with Cambodia.

Uncle Silas is very much in the vein of Ann Radcliffe's work, such as The Mysteries of Udolpho, and in fact the main character Maud mentions Radcliffe more than once. However, LeFanu is not prone to writing endless descriptions of the Pyrenees or inserting three pages of poetry, and so the work is 400 pages instead of 800 pages. LeFanu also jumps right into the mystery--but perhaps this is because 1860s readers had slightly less need of books that lasted through the entire winter months as perhaps Radcliffe's readers in the 1790s had need of? However, Radcliffe is more realistic in her portrayal of courtship, I think, and her scenes at Udolpho (with Count Montoni) are quite compelling--whereas the estate at Bartram-Haugh (and Silas himself) never reach the same level of hatefulness. It drove me nuts waiting for Emily to escape, but I didn't feel the same urgency for Maud until the very end.

One interesting character, Milly, is a new one to me: a young (16-18) lady of the upper classes who has been so neglected in her childhood that she has read nothing, speaks like a 'dairy-maid' and runs freely around the estate, giving people cheeky nicknames and trespassing on neighboring properties. Some of the characters in Uncle Silas are followers of Swedenborg, and while I originally got the feeling that this was supposed to cast suspicion upon them, in fact (luckily for Swedenborgians) both Bryerly and Austin Ruthyn are blameless in the novel. I'd say this is a great book to read beside the fireplace in the dead of winter, with a cup of hot chocolate and a kitty on your lap.

And Cambodia: A book for people who find television too slow, by the Canadian author Fawcett, was totally unexpected. First of all, it changed the way I define fiction. Fawcett's stories combine the essay form, history, commentary on recent news and events, conversations with dead people, speculations or hypothetical situations, detailed explanations of the mundane functions of bureaucracy, conversations with friends and personal experiences. And they are incredibly compelling, sometimes funny, and often chilling. And on the bottom third of every page in a smaller font is an essay about Cambodia (written around 1985 about the events, mostly post-Vietnam, leading up to the Khmer Rouge regime, the Khmer Rouge, and then the subsequent Vietnamese invasion--and also about the western response and portrayal of these events.)

At the very beginning and throughout, Fawcett is suspicious of, and maybe disdainful of 'subtext,' the 'global village' and other such burgeoning concepts of the '80s. He writes about the inherent divisions between the academic 'in the know' and all others, and the growing loss of personal political involvement, the uselessness of the bureaucratic decision-making process, the lack of national memory for events like the Kent State protest/shooting, and the way globalization (perhaps in its current/capitalist form) is detrimental to many (most?). And what I assume are some personal details sneak their way in... in "The Fat Family Visits the Fair," his friend Howard (to all appearances a real person) ends up 'creating' the (non-existent) Cambodia pavilion at the World's Fair, and subsequently commits suicide. And the abruptness and reality of it hit me like a sandbag. I was knocked over.

If this is fiction--and he says it is--have I been playing it wrong. And I thought: where has this been?--why haven't I seen this before? I can't sit here and describe the stories. They pack a much better punch when you just read them. So, just read them!

Rice farmers (mew)

Sunday, June 28, 2009

West, punch list

There is a tenuous connection between my work story this week and Morris West's The Devil's Advocate, but since I want to talk about both, I will go ahead and make it. My workweek was half spent helping Mark Judge rock and tile my bathroom with subway tile, and half spent at the Naylor & Breen jobsite building "affordable" housing.

There are a lot of new guys on the jobsite, which is on the border of Winooski and Colchester, but Russ, Pat and Jimmy are holdovers from the old days of LWB, and Pat had only just arrived on site fresh from working with Doug in Cambridge. Of course, they three were happy to see me, and I them. My role is punch list (post stair installation--meaning kneewalls, soffits and handrail blocking) as well as cutting the notched stair stringers. Aside from the suspicious site supervisor (always), there was much laughter. Pat says (about a comment he just made), "no, that's not where I want to be when Jesus comes back!" Russ says, "I want to burn one with Miriam one day," and Jimmy confides in me about his wage being dropped $3 an hour. I feel as if these guys are my brothers.

And then there's Ben. Ben holds himself apart--not, I think, because he's the boss, but because he can't relate. After all, Doug (Ben's business partner) revels in earthy dialogue. But one very hot day last week, I went up to Ben's truck at lunch to ask a question, and he was hunched over, soaking his head and everything else with a bottle of water (he'd been up on the second floor deck setting walls with a crane). It seemed a very solitary and even private moment, and I'd almost not wanted to intrude. Later, Pat and I were sitting in the back of the Subaru laughing, and I (we?) were also watching Ben alone 50 feet away. When I first started working with him three years ago, I thought that he spent so little time talking with me about Japan, or Graham Greene, because he didn't want to cultivate that image in front of the rest of the crew--but now I see that it's not only that. I enjoy everyone (almost everyone) on the jobsite, on some level, and hearing them talk, well, it's like Studs Terkel's 'vox humana.'

And I remembered, in The Devil's Advocate, Meredith ruminates on this: "Other priests, he knew, found an intense pleasure in the raw, salty dialect of peasant conversation. They picked up pearls of wisdom and experience over a farmhouse table or a cup of wine in a workman's kitchen. They talked with equal familiarity to the rough tongued whores of Trastevere and the polished signori of Parioli ... They were good priests, too, and they did much for their people, with a singular satisfaction to themselves."

I like this novel very much, as I did Shoes of the Fisherman and Eminence, though it is a good deal older than those two Varican novels. In a way, it sets the precedent for them (and also the formula), but was written before Vatican II and the reforms of John XXIII. It's interesting to make a comparison of these three, because (in West's inimitable formula!) each main character undergoes a great personal transformation assisted by an impossibly ideal friendship (often between two unequal in rank) and in which the personal transformation has effects which reach into the personal lives of other characters in the novels, mostly for good. West is a Christian believer's author, where Greene is a Christian doubter's author.

Some elements of this 1959 work are surprising to me: West's rather sensitive portrayal of homosexuality (which gets even more sensitive in the more modern works) and his rather interesting portrait of the similarities and friendships between Jews and Catholics--a relationship I feel exists, but is often ignored. And West usually includes a man whose character is too beautiful to believe, but who the reader can't help but love: in this, it's Aurelio, the bishop of Valenta. Aurelio is the gentle push that sends Meredith into a renewed, if short life working as 'promoter of the faith' in a sainthood investigation.

Aurelio's suggestion to Meredith to carry a flask of grappa, and sweets, to Gemello Minore, brings me back, full circle, to work, and what it means to sit and listen and take part in conversation with people who live very different lives than me, to be as their sister, to be part of the human family.

Spooky Philadelphia (mew)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Sammler's Planet

I read my first Bellow some months ago--Henderson the Rain King. I suppose I liked bits of it, but the general effect on me was this sort of painful embarrassment and so I left off somewhere around page 100 with the feeling of impending humorous doom, and read the last five pages or so, which left me rather unsatisfied about what had transpired. After all, it is not a Mike Hammer mystery with the killer revealed on the last page. But anyway, I just couldn't concentrate on finishing the book, and moved on.

While I was in Chicago I stopped by the Old Neighborhood, and by Unabridged Books. They have a rather large Penguin collection, and I found Mr. Sammler's Planet, and encouraged by the description, I bought it. I did, after all, need something to read on the trip back. This book, too had a similar point-of-no-continuing for me (somewhere in the 80s, I think) but I persisted onward this time. I think (before I get down to the novel itself) that Saul Bellow's ideas appeal to me, but I find the particular way he executes them tiresome.

Mr. Sammler's Planet is about an academic--a Holocaust survivor too--in what must have seemed like a tumultuous 1970. The plot defies explanation (perhaps to Sammler's satisfaction: early in the novel he disparages the culture of explanation). Also, interestingly, this character Sammler seems like he might be an approximation of Bellow himself. I wondered, as the book's narrative snakes in and out of Sammler's long reveries, if these thoughts are the thoughts Bellow was having as he travelled through the city, observed its inhabitants, interacted with his friends and family. But, I realize this is too easy an assumption to make. At any rate, Sammler is less than capable of human feeling (compassion, maybe), though he approximates it. The book takes him through a series of historical events in his own life (and outside it) and through modern life of 1970, introducing us to his remaining family and his friends and benefactors. They are all subject to Sammler's silent and scathing criticism, though he appears to love them too. Modern life though--or modern thought--distresses, angers, unnerves, makes no sense to him. He is particularly concerned with sexual paradigm, and with the emphasis on individuality (as demonstrated in psychotherapy, clothing, the increased interest in cultural ancestry, art, etc.) which he perceives as self-serving behavior.

Oddly, Sammler's main complaint with one of his more likable family-members, Margotte, is that she talks on and on about theoretical subjects--which Sammler himself does even more often--which suggests what he lacks is not exactly compassion, but insight. He has also (in the search for a common? old world? civilized? existence) forsaken emotion, humor, sentimentality ("a man who looks upon all mortal foolishness with hostile condescension," writes Stanley Crouch). It is arguable what exactly happens... I suspect the events that take place as his friend Elya nears death (the assault on the pickpocket, the incident with Govinda Lal's manuscript, his daughter's mental illness and Elya's children's shortcomings) are like small steps toward humanity for Sammler. It occurs to me, as it may have to others, that a survivor of attempted genocide would find compassion a difficult, maybe foreign emotion, just as Holocaust survivors often renounced faith. Sammler reluctantly and irritably believes in God, because he cannot conceive the absence of God, but instead he has renounced humanity--and then returned to it.

One of the most fascinating and encouraging things about this novel was reading Sammler's thoughts: untruncated, difficult, far-reaching and diverse. The thoughts are tenuously connected, but attaching and detaching themselves like electrons to a molecule, or like brief connections between neurons. History, philosophy and science tied together with the lightest of strings, like a web--I loved the speed of the connections. Not stream-of-consciousness, but a consciousness accurately described in writing. This book does not end neatly--just as it does not read neatly. However, it is strangely and touchingly, multifacetedly human.

Guard goat, Milton (mew)

Monday, June 22, 2009

Bellow and Bowles

Bellow made me catch my breath the other day, as he seldom does, with this passage: 'And what is "common" about the "common life"? What if some genius were to do with "common life" what Einstein did with "matter"? Finding its energetics, uncovering its radiance.'

Interesting reading, recently--some new to me, some not. I thought I'd share some thoughts about a couple of recent reads: Mr. Sammler's Planet (Bellow), and Let it Come Down (Bowles); maybe I'll touch briefly on these two old favorites: Doctor Fischer of Geneva or the Bomb Party (Greene) and The Devil's Advocate (West).

As I began Let it Come Down, I felt a slight sense of character deja-vu, and after thinking for awhile I decided that Dyar was reminding me of Jim Dixon, of Lucky Jim. Even despite the fact that Dixon is English, and Dyar is quite American. I think this has something to do with the time--a gestalt?--of the early 1950s (1952 and 1954 respectively). But where Dixon is mired in England, English values and academic work, Dyar has just arrived in Morocco, at a politically ephemeral moment, without a clear prospect or understanding of the work he is supposed to be taking with his acquaintance Wilcox. It is apparent in the first few pages, without the aid of an introduction or a back-cover blurb, that Wilcox's operation is a front for illegal business, but Dyar seems innocent, ignorant--bloody stupid. I'll admit to feeling this way about Dyar until the fourth part, at which point I'm not sure quite how to understand him, if I can't see him as a blundering idiot--then what? He is portrayed, maybe purposefully, as a blank slate, an empty vessel: even Daisy says this when she reads his palm at the beginning. Somewhat oddly, I had another recollection of a similarly empty innocent--Pyle (Greene, The Quiet American, 1955)--though ostensibly Pyle is not living a "purposeless" life.

So, if I am horrified (I am) by Dyar in almost every way, I'm not sure how Bowles intended the reader to feel--if he intended at all. His other characters are flawed--Thami, Eunice, Daisy, Hadija--but not hateful. And it is as if Dyar, by his arrival in Tangier, upsets the precariously balanced ecosystem made up of varied political, social and economic interests in the international zone. By the finish, he has unraveled everything for himself--by missing a bank appointment, by taking off with 1,260,000 pesetas, by killing Thami in a haze of majoun hashish. Because (why?, I asked. Because) something has to happen in his life? Because he wanted to be sure he was alive? Or for no reason at all?

Bowles, at least in this novel, is not quite the fine storyteller Greene is, and so I'm left (as I never am with Greene) with quite a lot of doubt about the intention. It seems, among other things, somewhere between farce and tragedy, and about the evil of innocence, possibly of rationality (in opposition to morality). However, some readers may see this as a strength (for every individual his own interpretation). There is an unarguable strength, which left me wanting more, and that was the essence of Morocco in the thing. Its foreigners (Holland, in particular, is a small bright spot) and its natives, and also the dancer with the knife in some of the final pages--a scene which I recognized from "Moon Over Morocco" and from which I could remember the music and singing (which were taken from Paul Bowles' recordings.)


Marble tombstone in Westford. (mew)

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Work exchange

Me: "Oh, sorry, I should have put [the studs in the kitchen soffit] on the other side of the trusses [so the bracing would be neater]."
Ben: "It's not a violin."

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Cities large and small

Just got back from Chicago. I had a rough time with JetBlue on the return flight--it looked like I was going to be stranded at JFK, even as the plane sat at the gate, but with the gate closed and locked--but at the last second they opened it and let the four of us locked-out folks on. Then we sat on the runway probably for an hour. I saw a string of planes: Etihad (United Arab Emirates), Emirates (ditto, I assume), Qatar, Swiss (the odd one out). Back in Burlington at 1am. Williston Rd. was sweetly peaceful, how about that? By the way, Etihad has what I assume to be the UAE emblem on its tail, a very sinister and fascist-looking bird (a falcon, most likely). I feel like a change is in order, if only for reasons of public-relations. If the falcon had its wings raised in flight, for example, it would look 100 times less fascist.

I'll post a bit later about Chicago, but in the meantime I have pictures of Rutland, which I took on a research trip down to Proctor, home of the Vermont Marble Company. I was doing a little research into the early nursing at Proctor, the first industrial or occupational health nurse, Ada Stewart, who was hired in 1895. In addition, if I find anything about the mostly Italian and Finnish (and a few Irish) workers, so much better.

Because the Proctor Free Library is closed between 11 am and 2 pm, I had plenty of time to head into the city of Rutland, which has a style very distinct from Burlington (the largest VT city) and even from St. Albans, which has a little more grit, if you will. Rutland, from a distance, has the look of a city, with a main street row of tall buildings (between six and 12 stories, probably), all of a vintage between, say 1890 and 1940. It could easily pass for a small city in some noir fiction, I think. There are a number of large houses up the hill from the downtown. Some are subdivided, some aren't. There is obviously a lot of marble in use, in a lot of different applications; an obvious result of its proximity to Vermont Marble.

It was raining slightly as I walked around, which gave it a certain misty appeal. A Chinese place:


A motorcycle store window:


A warehouse (ha, ha):


More shortly.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Another dream

I dreamed that I had gotten off an elevator, I suspect in a building where each floor is one flat, because I basically walked out to find a husband and wife hanging pictures in an artfully lit hallway. The first ones I saw were portraits, like ink on glass, lit from behind, possibly with candles. They greeted me as if I ought to be there, and so I said (because I thought I recognized the man) "do you have a blog?"

He said, "Well, yes, but I only use it professionally." And so decided that this was not the person I thought it was, but I continued to stroll down the hall looking at the art. I saw one very large canvas with a few clouds hovering right at the edge. It was unframed. And then I was at their kitchen. They were back there, cooking, and so they asked me what specialty I was planning on. At this point I said, "oh, you're a doc." I thought I might leave, but at that point the wife started to give me some unsolicited advice.

There were a couple of guests at the door. The doc stood there talking to one, while the other came in and started to look at a stack of records(?). It was Jeff Goldblum. He was wearing a Harvard sweatshirt under a tweed blazer, and before I could reconsider it, I said, "oh, I see you decided to wear your costume from 'The Big Chill.'" He looked at me rather icily.

I thought I'd blew it with the only celebrity I'd ever meet by being cheeky, so I sat down on the couch and said, "so, how are you?" Surprisingly, he answered, but very softly--I could hardly hear him. We were talking about the piano when I woke up.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Good dream/bad letter

Well, 艾恺 was in my dream last night. I don't know why, but we were talking by a tennis court, and 恺 said (about the tennis player/instructor on the court), "He said to me [lowers voice an octave], 'I've never cried in my entire life!'" and we laughed and I said, "Well, buddy, good for you!" There was more, but this is the only exchange I remember.

I also received my fourth rejection letter in the mail today, essentially nullifying the sweet remains of my dream. But I was not shocked. This makes rejections from Ploughshares, The Sun, Green Mountains Review, and Poetry East, for a total of 3 stories and 6 poems rejected. I will try again, I guess, but it's hard not to just say, "well, I must be a talentless hack after all."

Quality control training was led today by a man named "Rock" Rockwell. He reminded me of someone--I had a hard time deciding who. He either winked or had a tic (purposeful) which was like Herbert Lom's in the Panther series, but he looked more like Darren McGavin. Still, it was entertaining enough, although Wanda would have gotten us out of there a few hours earlier. Wanda knows how to whip through those training manuals. I suspect the work, even here, will not last so long, and so I may have to take LWB up on their offer of part-time work. I shudder to think! But I need the money.

For more of the ongoing English from Spanish from English translation (is that like 'a woman, pretending to be a man, pretending to be a woman'?) of La Caseta Mágica, read onward here.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Three unrelated images

Second trip to Amherst moderately successful. Met with a realtor, saw a few houses, did a lot of driving around neighborhoods. Went to the Carle Museum. Became sad over selling my house. Saw "The Old Curiosity Shop" on PBS without pixelation and of course without the now antiquated "snow."

Here is a shot I took of the telephone pole outside my house. You could climb up it, I suppose--it's pretty old. My house, by the way, is 101 years old, and was most likely a mill foreman's house, for the old paper mill down the hill that is now the hydroelectric plant. If you walk down there, you can see the old foundations, and at some point someone stood some of the millstones upright. They look like strange druid totems on a cloudy day. I mean, there's not much fascinating about Milton, but occasionally you find something cool.


And here's a Harry shot. He is so aesthetically pleasing:


And finally, here is Tina's stupid porch. I still have to build the door and screen it:


Canvassing is almost over. We have done our job too well, and there will be no more new work for awhile now. I will miss the adventures. In a totally unrelated thoughtstream, if you would like to read my first attempts at Spanish translation (in preparation for the doctoral program) you can find them here. I'm working on The Phantom Tollbooth.

Friday, May 01, 2009

House dreams

Before I actually got in bed, I fell asleep in the chair downstairs, with my legs up over one arm and by back braced against the other. I had managed to nestle my head in at a strange angle against the back of the chair. At which point I dreamt about very hilly, perhaps even mountainous address canvassing, which was displayed in a dot-graph-like form in my head. Very rough terrain, as it were. There was an additional confusion, and maybe irritation, about evangelical involvement. When I woke up--just barely enough to stumble upstairs--I reflected that sleeping position has an influence on dreams--surely a great discovery for the oneirological world! Since I was positioned like a valley between two peaks, so was my dream. I also thought that the evangelical aspect of the dream, which created some difficulty in my graphing, probably was the cause of my pain in the neck!


Probably a long while after I fell asleep upstairs, I started to dream about my house (this one, above) and the neighborhood--or rather, the house's relation to the neighborhood. I remember an ominous feeling at one point (I suppose I was already worried) and when I looked out the window, I saw quite a bit of damage (or was it decay?) done to the two neighboring houses. Let me stop for a minute, and explain what the landscape around the house looked like: it was as if we were in a quarry, long overgrown of course, but at the bottom of an immense rock wall, and the houses were backed up to it. They were all quite small and skinny. My house looked in reasonable condition, but the one on the left of me did not. It was sea-green with either asbestos shingle siding or tarpaper (yes they don't usually make tarpaper in that color) which was in very bad condition. I had assumed, up until now, that someone lived in the house, but I saw huge tears in it, and the garage was ballooned out on all sides, as if compression might make for a collapse.

On the right side of my house was a small white house with red trim, and at first I assumed major damage had been done, but perhaps it had come loose of its foundation. I called (someone) for assistance. I think, at this point, I was hearing the terrible wind outside rattling my windows in conjunction with the rain on my metal roof. Who came but Harrison Concrete (more on this later), and they first took the white house and lifted it by crane to a craggy crevice a little further up the mountain. Then they started to tear apart--well peel away--segments of the green house. You could hardly tell it had been framed at all. Pieces of wall came off like wet paper, like butter. I was more than disturbed. The rest of the neighborhood seemed to be intact, but who could tell?

I went to have a look inside the white house, which Harrison had claimed for himself. It was metal all around, like a white cookie tin. It seemed to be in good shape on the inside, and I asked what happened and I suppose Harrison told me that the owner had abandoned it--I wonder why? I suppose I wanted to get away from all that--so I started to look through some DVDs (still dreaming, though I could feel Harry curl up around my arm for protection) and I found "The Sandlot," which was not really "The Sandlot," but it started off with two boys racing cars in a bomb shelter, yes it did.

I'm not one for asking others to provide dream analysis because after all, what significance could their assumptions have on my dreams? I think that house worry is a common theme for me, especially after having purchased. But I find it interesting that the neighborhood had such a different character than my own, or even the neighborhoods I've been canvassing, unless the houses in true disrepair are getting to me more than I think they are. I also recall, when we lived in El Cerrito, wondering if a certain shabby house was even inhabited, since I never saw anyone go in or out. Of course, my schedule did keep me from seeing midday weekday occurrences, but I think it still weighed a little. There is something very sad and queer about an empty house (not for sale, not new construction--just sitting empty). I suppose it makes me think of possible causes: plagues, death, etc. My own neighborhood is thoroughly inhabited, though down the road on 7 there are some really big contemporary houses that are vacant, and have a faded, fallen-down real estate sign in front, long crushed from the snow. In conjunction with some eerie wind chimes and a hot day (it was 90) I felt my skin crawl.

Harrison, the other aspect of the dream, comes quite naturally as the topic of discussion amongst neighbors (his business intends to erect wind-turbines on Georgia mountain, which I am not opposed to, but the people with land abutting or on Georgia mountain do oppose. I think this is not very neighborly) and then seeing Harrison Concrete working on a new subdivision on Westford Rd., which I canvassed yesterday.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

On the route

First off, I am really pretty depressed about having heard nothing from UMass with regards to fellowships or assistantships. Apart from the money issue (which I could really use), I can only conclude that everyone's happy to make money off me, but no one has any confidence in my scholarship or my ability to be a good TA, which is, well, really depressing. I know one is not supposed to rely on external validation for self-worth, but this is getting pretty bad. No job, no money: no one thinks I can do anything for them. You would think I was a brain-dead sponge. Nope, can't use those library/computer/design/research/historian/writing/editing/carpentry skills.

I finished my first assigned area yesterday, and got a new one within an hour (and between areas, I went to the Depot to buy some railings for Tina's porch). I spent about 9.5 hours working on a rather large area today (I took it on my bike, as it is local) which spread from the hopping city center of Milton out into the hinterlands of Milton. You say, "Milton can't be that big!" and you are correct, but I saw parts of Milton I have never seen before.

The first area was right around my house (about 450 residences) and ranged from poor to middle-class. There were some ultra-paranoid people, and some very nice people, including a few who invited me into their houses, which I mostly had to refuse. A youngish grandmother was quite helpful, and the seniors at the senior housing were alright too. A naturalist wanted me to take her classes. Most folks just looked some combination of puzzled and irritated. A twentysomething girl and a 40ish man were downright hostile. But that was really no comparison for today.

I started out on North, which intersects Main and goes up toward Georgia and toward the top of Arrowhead Mountain Lake, which is a segment of the Lamoille River. The road starts out with a row of bland rectangular living units: some trailers, some modular, some just contemporary with beige siding. I guess there are a few older homes in the mix, but mostly post 1960. The landscape quickly changes into farmland, fewer houses, larger houses, and the Husky Plant. I saw a brick farm with carpenter gothic details around the roof area, but it was across the road and not in my area. It also had a huge cross attached to it.

Anyway, I came across the sheriff's house, and the sheriff. And I went along further and turned onto some other streets which were a bit more swanky. Not all, but some. Developments from the 80s I think, with a few older and a few newer interspersed. I happened upon one house, one guy (who came out to talk to me for a half hour or more) who gets by, by making pickles and mounting deer antlers. He heats his house and big separate workshop with wood burning boilers which run radiant heat through the floors (as my mom has), and he makes a point of getting the wood for free. Boy, he could talk! I liked him well enough though.

Further on down the road it got pretty rural--folks who'd rather not be found, I guess... although I wonder what the point is of putting a house down a long, winding and foresty drive, and then making it a big, white, ostentatious colonial revival. And then leaving a bunch of junk around the yard, and a rusted-out car, too. So I finished up the end of the road and turned back. Very close to North again, I encountered a friendly, barrel-chested bearded man who said, "Oh! I see we're getting counted!" and I had to say, "Oh, sorry, not yet!" (addresses only for now). I was happy to get a happy reception though. It seems rare.

Back onto North I had the weirdest and most annoying encounter. Only seconds away from a friendly family living in complete disarray, I found the biggest and most pretentious looking gentleman's (or gentlewoman's) horse farm. I could not find the address anywhere (not uncommon, sadly), and I was trying to find out if there were any additional houses on the property. Well, there was at least one adult there--the trunk of the Subie was open, and I heard footsteps bounding through the house. No one answered the door, or my calls. I saw a woman coming from the back of the farm in a big black SUV and I tried to wave her down (I jogged a little towards the car and waved) and she looked right at me, and drove right by! Well, needless to say I was REALLY MAD. I had half a mind to tap "does not exist" on my little screen there, but I didn't. I made an assumption about the address and moved on. But really. Even if I was a Jehovah's Witness or from the LDS, I mean they really couldn't just answer the door?

Out the window, they see a short female dressed in business casual on a bike with a tag on a lanyard and a handheld computer. Is that really terrifying? See first paragraph for possible connection. I've talked to, oh, probably over 100 people on my routes so far (and some have hid from me!) and you know I didn't start this job being wary of people, but maybe I am now!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Address Canvassing (Census)

While I was updating the census maps and address list, I had an opportunity to check out the long abandoned rail station, located (of course) next to the tracks on Railroad St. It was right on my route, and I wanted to make sure no one was camped out there, because if someone was, I'd have to make a map spot.


It has clearly gotten a lot of graffiti and glass-breakage over the years--I guess it's better that the kids go here to be destructive than somewhere else. I didn't find anyone camped out, or even any evidence of that--which maybe surprised me a little, considering that I've seen people sleeping under the counter at the laundromat--but it is awfully messy and dangerous in the rail-station, so it really isn't conducive to camping out.


My cell-phone pictures don't do the building justice, sadly, but I will return with black and white film to really get some nice contrasty images. Everything was very still, and the chickadees (or are they nuthatches?) were flitting from tree to building.


I had some nice cooperative people (such as at the senior housing), some neutral people, and some mean and/or scary people on my routes. I also saw a number of pit-bulls and Am Staffordshire Terriers, I think, which are the short-haired ones that maul people sometimes? I wondered what people are so worried about that they train their dogs to growl and lunge at a person arriving quite neutrally in broad daylight, and announcing themselves. I was forced to take map spots from further away in some cases because I thought if I approached the stairs, I would get bitten or worse.

There are an awful lot of paranoid people here in Milton, or maybe in the world. Very suspicious, even when I tell people who I am, show them an ID badge, hand them a sheet about the confidentiality of the census, and say that I'm only updating addresses. One not-too-bright individual told me, after I'd said this, "I don't want any!" Want any what? Are you listening to what I'm saying here? Good grief, don't answer the door if you're only going to be mean--I knocked lightly and I'll go away when I'm done updating my maps, if you don't answer, [jerk.] What's funny is that the people who are most likely to form a militia are living on such bucolic-sounding streets as "Lovely Ln." and "Aurora Ln." Sweet_enemy mentioned earlier that the Bureau of Ironic Names must've been through beforehand.

The job is intermittently worrisome, and mostly boring. But I will update if I find any other interesting abandoned places.

How to! Part 6

Well, things are getting close. I won't write too much here--if you want to know how I determined the rafter length and pitch, and how I cut the bird's-mouth on the rafters, just comment and I will tell all. Suffice it to say that I decided to put the rafters on a 19.2 (diamonds) layout--because I had just enough lumber for that, and it looked evenly spaced. Ordinarily, I would stack them on top of the studs, for load-bearing, but on a playhouse it really isn't necessary.


Then I cut the sheets of 1/2 inch plywood to size, painted the inside light sky blue, and installed them with screws to the rafters. Because of the small size and rigidity, I did not need to pull the rafters to layout, but ordinarily you could not skip this step. Here it is--you can see a little of the under-blue:


I also put ice and water shield on the roof, but no pictures for that! Roofing next...

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Can't touch the New Deal

I'm behind in my postings for the dumb screened-porch, but I had something more pressing on my mind for this entry. I got an email from Vermont Arts Council, famous local grant-awarding organization, about a $250,000 allotment from the federal government, to be managed by VAC, for the purpose of distribution to non-profit arts organizations to: retain employees that would be lost, due to economic conditions, or to pay fees for previously engaged artists which the organization could no longer afford.

You can read the details here.

Now, here's what bugging me. (You thought perhaps I wrote this to get the word out? I didn't.) It's not that I fault the government for spending the money. $250,000 is peanuts. And it's not that I have anything against VAC, non-profit arts orgs, or perish-forbid, artists themselves. But I find this to be not a very useful, or efficient way to direct the flow money, and ultimately spend it.

The VAC plans on giving grants of $5000 to small orgs, and $10,000 to large ones. Let me break this down, in terms of payment:

A small organization will be able to pay ONE employee, full time, for about 6 months, at a bare-minimum wage ($5.25 an hour, about). Or in VT, since minimum is about $8, they will be able to support a full-time employee for about 3 and a half months. A large organization might pay a part-time employee (let's change it up here) for 6 to 12 months (depending on hours)--but the part-time employee had better be supported by a wage-earning spouse, or have a nice bank account already. A small or large organization may choose to pay for an artist-in-residence, or performance artists who are already booked. Read: one/few, no new hires, no new work in this budget.

My problem is not with the funding itself--fine, it has a purpose, and the purpose is sound enough. But the funds 1) are not enough to retain employees, and 2) go through a network of orgs before reaching the artist--if they reach the artist at all. Employees to be retained (not that there's anything wrong with this, but...) may not be artists at all--even if they are important to the function of the organization.

What I'm ultimately getting at here is... probably shockingly socialist. But once upon a time, the government used it's own (well, taxpayer, ultimately) money to fund DIRECT arts programs. I'm not saying there wasn't bureaucratic red-tape there too. But I, artist, would have been able to apply to one of many programs, and possibly be HIRED to do the work I AM GOOD AT. And thousands like me. Not to become an administrative assistant at a non-profit arts organization, or an event-planner for an arts festival. An actual artist, doing work for the government, in or on or at public sites and structures, or for the public good.

Instead, because we wouldn't want to seem too socialist, we funnel money through lots of little organizations, which each have an operating budget and at least 1 employee, and what's left of the money goes to the promotion of a select few artists, who are then thrown on the mercy of the public market/economy to either make it or fail, sink or swim--get their art purchased, or not. I would rather be a wage-earner building, painting murals, collecting oral histories, recording folk songs or acting in a play for the public benefit, than scramble around looking for ever-decreasing grant money and hoping that some buyer will help me break even on my art materials, while I work full-time at a dead-end job to make ends meet. Perhaps this, in someone's mind, is "on the dole," and perhaps in a lot of minds, I'm saying something unAmerican. But to my mind this is trickle-down economics as applied to non-profit organizations and their recipients. I didn't like government funding of charities for the same reason--not on religious grounds, but because I think it is a great way to squander money.

No non-profit--heck, not even the government--intends to squander money. But the more levels, and channels, and streams and flow-charts you add to something, the more money gets diverted to operational costs--the costs of business. Little by little, the stream gets smaller.

Friday, April 10, 2009

How to! Part 5

First, I remeasured my deck and decided where I was going to place the walls, and made small pencil marks for layout, since I can't use the indelible red chalk on the decking. I also measured how tall the wall would be, and subtracted 4.5 inches for 1 bottom and 2 top plates. You use 2 top plates both for strength and trim, in this case.

Then I came back to my cut station, and cut the bottom plate and the first top plate. There are vicissitudes to layout, and I will only touch upon it here. Truss, stud, joist or rafter layout is usually done in one of 3 patterns:
16 on center
2 foot on center
19.2 or 'diamonds'
Instead of choosing a layout (since I want a nice, even screen pattern), I chose to start from the center, working outwards in three sections on the long walls, and two sections on the short wall. It is very close to a 2 foot layout pattern:


In order to make both plates the same, by the way, you might want to line the plates up, mark your spots with a ^, make your line across both boards with a speed square, and put an X on the side of the line you want to put the stud.

Okay, then I carried all the walls over, and attached the bottoms to the deck with deck screws (easier than pulling nails if there is a mistake.) I also put a screw in the end stud to attach it to the house. I stepped back and took a look:


Aside from the dorky looking house, I noticed a problem. The deck is level, but the house isn't--and neither is the house plumb. And so my screws into the end studs were pulling my fresh walls out of plumb. I checked them with a level, and indeed this was the case. I needed to pull the tops of the walls out about 3/4 inch (with the bottom still tight) to make them plumb. If this was getting sheathed, I would have just nailed the end studs tight and brought the top plate out from the wall--but this is not an option, because I have to create square screen frames. So luckily I still had the second top plate to make.

I pulled the screws out and let the tops loose, and they came right into plumb. Then I measured specially for the second top plates. I made them weave together, so that the walls lap and hold together at the joints. To do this, I made the short wall have a seven-inch longer plate, and the long walls had plates that were short 3.5 inches each. And then I installed them:


There will be a trim discrepancy, but it was the least of all evils. Hopefully I will be able to disguise it before Tina goes: "why is there a gap here?" So then I decided to go a little further and try a ridge beam:


Once again, I measured the height (and I had toyed with the idea of making it lower, since good roofing requires it to be about a foot lower for the ice/water shield, and the flashing, and drainage... but that would have made a really low ceiling--and I thought, what the heck! It's a playhouse. I will do my very best to ensure that no ice-dams form in the winter--I plan on using ice/water shield and flashing, but in a much smaller space. Next, rafters...