Saturday, November 7, 2009

My Students

I'm doing my best to come up with practical and emotional strategies that will help me to get through the school year. A little bit of disengagement helps -- once you realize what a situation is and that you're not going to change it, you can concentrate on what you do and not over-invest in caring about the rest. Caring is a positive value, of course, and I am prone to it, but putting your emotional chips down on outcomes you can't control is like playing roulette with your own well-being. The odds in roulette are famously poor.

My students are interesting to observe. They say they like my classes, and I believe them. I work hard to interest them without watering down the material, and I'm not a harsh disciplinarian. But the classes suffer from a kind of collective Attention Deficit Disorder. Even when, say, I show a grabber of a film, 50% of the students will compulsively talk during the entire movie -- they cannot seem to turn off the "socialize" button at any time whatsoever. Although they can engage with the subjects to some extent during class and even make insightful comments, the vast majority will not do outside reading or written assignments or think about the material outside of class.

What makes that refusal more striking is that most of them are not "busy." Not a single one of my 50 students has a legitimate job -- there are almost none to be had hereabouts, and adults occupy most of the teen-type jobs such as fast food. Only a few have cars, and many don't bother to get their licenses (that surprised me), or can't pass the written exam. They are not involved in sports (with the exception of one cheerleader, one equestrienne, and two rodeo boys) or the arts (with the exception of one rock musician, and two fiction writers). Yet they will mostly all tell you straight up that they are far, far too busy to do any homework. A more genuine reason is that many of them have very stressful home lives, which is why we provide them two hours per day in school to get work done in our "Project-Based Learning" room. They use that time to socialize, too, of course.

"It is what it is," as they say. So this student profile is one of the factors I've allowed myself a level of emotional disengagement from. I cannot make Nevada into Massachusetts, and I cannot re-write these students' histories. I have to be content with the fact that what I do doesn't harm them, and probably benefits them slightly. I'll see little glimmers now and then. In movies about teachers those glimmers always turn into a big bonfire, but that's Hollywood, of course.

Monday, November 2, 2009


I played hooky from work today, since it was a "professional development" day, and, as earlier mentioned, I strongly dislike our teacher trainer. It felt good to get other things done, and to get a hint of what the area might be for me once I can breathe again. There is life after every job, and there will be life after this one. Unfortunately, the best part of many jobs in contemporary America is quitting them. Johnny "Take This Job and Shove It" Paycheck was exactly on the money about that.

The Myth of Western Good Looks

They people our imagination of the American West: tall, tan, handsome cowboys and lithe, beautiful cowgirls. There is only one slight problem. They don't exist.

On the historical photographic evidence, they never did. But lest I seem too definite, I will admit that some (not many) contemporary young Nevadans (to pick on my new home state) may indeed hit a moment of visual appeal in their late teens and early twenties. It is instructive how quickly it passes, though. Hard living, hard partying, and hard substance-using, combined with a lack of self-care foreign to us preening urbanites, insure that the moment is but a moment. It's quickly downhill from twenty-five.

In my three months in northern Nevada, I've seen exactly six men who, on looks and presentation, merited a second look (and my pulse, I assure you, is not that tough to quicken). Two of those fell in the early twenties category, although neither of those was remotely "Western"; I haven't seen a single good-looking man in a cowboy hat, despite my being partial to that look. I think all the good-looking cowboys these days are actually singers (Clint Black, Brad Paisley, Keith Anderson, Jason Meadows). As Daniel Akst comments in his brilliant essay "Looks Do Matter," we've outsourced the business of looking good and dressing well to celebrities.

One of the six "lookers" I've seen is a local celebrity, a thirty-something Democratic politician who ranks high in state government and certainly knows how to wear a suit; Carson City residents will have no difficulty guessing who I mean. He has an absolutely picture-perfect family, too, and I fully expect him to be Governor of the state, or a U.S. Senator, within ten years. I have no doubt he expects it, too.

But in general, I must look to the manifest beauty of the natural landscape here to make up for the lack of beauty in the human landscape. You can't have everything.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Back from Unplanned Hiatus

It's been more than a month since I've posted here, and the posts were few for a couple of months before that -- mainly in the "Acquisitions" series, which I enjoyed but am discontinuing because my personal library information is all available at LibraryThing under the "PatrickMurtha" name. It has been a busy several months, what with a move from Wisconsin to Nevada, and my getting used to a new job that, unfortunately, is a major bust. I wrote to my private web-group last week:

As the first quarter of the school year draws to a close, it seems a good time to give an update on my big changes of 2009. Unfortunately, the charter school job has proven to be something of a nightmare; I won't be returning for a second year. The school is very poorly run, with a one-day-a-week principal who's concentrating on his new PhD program, and several other part-time drive-by administrators who are worse than useless. I wouldn't recommend that my worst enemy send his kid to this school -- and that's a hard thing to say about a place where you teach 40% of the curriculum yourself! Nonetheless, I stand by it. If this is any kind of example of how charter schools function, the charter school movement is a failure. I haven't worked in any "conventional" high school that couldn't serve these students better.

I get along well with the students, because I always get along with students; it's a knack that I have, and one that I'm grateful for. But these students are the least academically prepared and motivated students I have ever dealt with. I can get a little bit of work out of them because they like me, but it takes a lot of cajoling. The African-American charter school students on the South Side of Chicago that I taught in the fall of 2000 were far more focused on making something positive of their lives; they saw doing well in school as a way out of their depressed, gang-run neighborhoods. If my current students are any indication, white rural students have simply given up. Their parents have no jobs, or are in jail, or are on meth (a big problem hereabouts); and they have no vision of what any other kind of life might be. The kids are deeply racist (you don't want to know how they talk about Obama), for which I try to cut them some slack because of their upbringing and influences; but it certainly makes them a little hard to love sometimes. If they guessed that I was gay, I doubt they would take it well.

My work-load is insane, comprising ten different courses -- four levels of English (9-12), journalism, American history, world history, American government, sociology, and a senior class advisory. I have 26 completely non-repeating hours of instruction in a week. Our part-time pedagogic observer, who's a real asshole, tells us we should spend an hour-and-a-half preparing for each hour of instruction, which sounds right to me except, where am I supposed to find 39 off-work hours per week to do that, and who is paying me for what is essentially a second full-time job? I'm pretty much working 24/7 as it is, even on week-ends, because I get very little prep time during the school day. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I teach six different hour-long classes with no time off except for a half-hour lunch (and on Fridays, I don't even get the lunch because I'm covering the student lunch for that half-hour). What prep time I get on my slightly lighter Tuesdays and Thursdays is very often co-opted by administration for other purposes. A teacher's union would never permit such abuse, but of course we're not in the local union. If the school couldn't abuse our time, it would have to shut its doors, since there's no money to hire additional staff. The economic model of the school is not sustainable.

On the plus side, my fellow faculty members -- four full-timers -- are a pleasant group. Four of the five of us are new, and all four of those are flight risks. Everyone is frustrated, but I think I may have it worst because of my double work-load and -- an entirely personal factor -- my depression and anxiety disorder, which has been kicking in big-time and revving up my OCD besides (little things are driving me completely crazy). Although this particular school is not a good test case, to put it mildly, I do think that any full-time high school schedule might be a bit much for me at this point. Students are very needy, these students especially so, and I'm pretty sure that I can't try to address all their needs without prostrating myself. I feel emotionally spent at the end of each and every day. All I want to do afterward is sleep, and that is not how I want to feel.

I do like the climate and geography here very much. Carson City is a pleasant home base, and it's nice having Reno a half-hour away. I haven't met any people outside the orbit of the school yet, for lack of time, but I'm also not as social as I used to be. It's a non-intellectual area, but so was Wisconsin. I can construct the intellectual life I need on my own, using books, DVDs, and the Internet among other resources. My apartment is great and I like my new vehicle -- a lightly used 2001 Isuzu Rodeo SUV -- a heck of a lot. Driving around here is a blast, and I enjoy that part of my day.

So, despite the disappointment of the school, I have no intention of moving again (and couldn't afford to do so anyway). For future employment, if I stay in education (which I always seem to be leaving and re-entering -- there's no doubt that I'm prone to frustration) , I may look at a combination of teaching part-time at local community colleges (there are several), perhaps part-time at a high school in Reno or Carson City (I think I could handle two classes a day or a similar workload), and in the burgeoning online education field.

I added some follow-up points as the exchange went on:

I ought to have mentioned that, although I have way too much material to prepare for my classes, I do have considerable academic freedom and take a real pleasure in working with the subjects that I teach, every single one of which I love -- and my students comment frequently about how strongly that affection for the content comes across. That has been helping to sustain me a little bit in the face of the insanity of the job, although as the year grinds on, I fear the insanity is winning. It's just simple burn-out.


Just airing the issues out helps a little. Among the faculty, our major theme of discussion is that we want to do a good job, but the conditions that are set up for us work directly counter to that. It's hard to see who benefits by the situation.

So my major goals are, get through the year, and start looking for other opportunities for 2010-2011 in earnest at Christmas break, when I'll have some time to devote to the search. I think the online education field does look promising, as it is growing so fast. In the meantime, I'll get my nourishment from small victories, such as that my American government students, whom I've been giving a grounding in political philosophy (Plato to Locke), actually seem to understand Thomas Hobbes pretty well. That's something.

I've long had a suspicion that the few jobs that are available in a bad economy tend to be bad jobs; so even if an unemployed person is lucky enough to land something, it is highly unlikely to be the job of their dreams, or even a lasting job for them. I think this situation is an example of that.


One of the key misrepresentations at this charter school is that it puts itself forward as an "alternative" school, and thus draws students with either official or unofficial special education issues. But in point of fact, we have nothing in the way of special education services to offer -- certainly less than the local district, although it offers little enough. I've been spoiled; I've worked as a teacher or educational volunteer in five of the eight top-ranked states for student outcomes: Massachusetts (#1), New Jersey, Connecticut, Vermont, and Wisconsin. Nevada is ranked 46th for student outcomes, and the differences are instructive. On the special education front, far fewer students in Nevada have Individual Education Plans (IEPs) than in Massachusetts or New Jersey, and the plans in Nevada have no teeth, because very little money is committed to special education services. In Massachusetts and New Jersey, money is shoveled at special ed, but then, money is shoveled at everything: AP courses, extracurriculars, you name it. It's unsurprising that those top states can compete proudly with the most education-oriented European and Asian nations, while Nevada would be lucky to come out ahead of Mexico. It's also unsurprising that the top-ranked states (which also include Minnesota and New Hampshire) are all blue states, and that the bottom-ranked states are mainly red (with a few anomalies such as Hawaii and California). Trust me, red states are every bit as anti-intellectual as reputed. Apart from the differences in the schools and the funding, the difference in grassroots attitudes towards education between a Massachusetts or New Jersey on the one hand, and a Nevada or a Louisiana on the other, is enormous. In Massachusetts, even very poor, disenfranchised families tend to understand the importance of education and to harp on it; I have observed this first-hand. In Nevada, even better-off families train their kids better to party than they do to study. It's one long debauch around here.

So that's the story up till now. But I'll try to spin it positively: I think I can make it through the year, although it will be difficult; I think I can come up with alternative employment for 2010-2011; and I am sure that I will enjoy living here once I accomplish those two goals.

My criteria for new employment are three:

1) A lighter workload than my current round-the-clock workload.
2) More money than the $42,000/year I am currently being paid. I was paid $66,300/year in my last job, and $42,000 seems awfully tight to me, especially as my rent is $200/month higher ($750 compared to $550) and the overall cost of living here is also higher.
3) Much less F2F contact, which I am seeing that my nervous condition simply will not bear. This is why the online sector seems increasingly attractive. I am not looking to be a hermit, but I need to pick and choose my interactions. Five full days a week of high school students is unsustainable for me: That's a lesson learned.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Acquisitions, September 5-11

  • Gary Alan Fine, With the Boys: Little League Baseball and Preadolescent Culture (University of Chicago pb) -- I'll use this superb book in my sociology class, as I have before. (Amazon, used)
  • Peter Rabe, Stop This Man! (Hard Case Crime pb) (Hard Case Crime Book Club)
  • Joshua Kaplan, Political Theory: The Classic Texts and Their Continuing Relevance -- Course Guide (Recorded Books LLC) (Recorded Books)

Friday, September 4, 2009

Acquisitions, August 29-September 4

I only bought a couple of items for use in class, this week. I can't buy much for myself until I see a paycheck from the new job -- and probably well beyond that; the cross-country move wiped me out financially. I fear that in the New America, you have to pay dearly simply to have a job at all. I don't know what I would have done this year if I hadn't had savings and hadn't gotten a generous severance package: I might have found a new job but been unable to take it. Even simply looking for a job cost me in the thousands of dollars, and the relocation cost many thousands more, all of it unreimbursed. There is a tax benefit due to me next year because of the job search and relocation adjustments the IRS permits (thank heaven), but future tax benefit is not a substitute for needed cash-in-hand. On that front, I just squeaked by.

  • Georges Perec, A Void (tr. Gilbert Adair) (Harvill hc) (Amazon)
  • Don Chaffey, Jason and the Argonauts (Columbia DVD) (Barnes & Noble)

Saturday, August 29, 2009


I'm starting my English classes on rock song lyrics, since they offer a certain accessibility. We began with Oasis's "Wonderwall," which has a nuanced but not overly difficult lyric. I think I will try Stone Temple Pilot's "Plush" next with my advanced English class, since it does have a challenging lyric. This acoustic version, with Scott Weiland in excellent voice, shows off the words very well:

Friday, August 28, 2009

Acquisitions, August 22-28

I checked out the location of Mom's Books & Gifts in Carson City. It was apparently a real used bookstore, but it closed in May. There appears to be a concentration of used bookstores in South Lake Tahoe, California, a half-hour trip which I will undertake one of these weekends once I've started to receive paychecks.

  • Neil Kagan, National Geographic Concise History of the World: An Illustrated Timeline (National Geographic hc) -- This will help me in planning my World History class. (Amazon, used)
  • Oasis, Stop the Clocks (Reprise, 2 CDs)

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Acquisitions, August 15-21

Just a couple of items this week:

  • Russell Atwood, Losers Live Longer (Hard Case Crime pb) (Hard Case Crime Book Club)
  • William Shakespeare, Richard III (London, 4 LPs) (Ebay)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Mission Accomplished

Former Majority Leader Tom DeLay to Join 'Dancing With the Stars' -- Fox News headline, August 17, 2009

The fusion of the celebrity culture, the political culture, and the media complex, long worked toward, is now complete. There is no point in debating the "public option," the war in Afghanistan, etc., because none of it means anything anymore; it's all bread and circuses from here on out.

My brother has commented shrewdly on the emergence of a "new genre" of person, exemplified by Rod and Patty Blagojevich, Nadya Suleman, Glenn Beck, Jon and Kate Gosselin, and Sarah Palin: whackos who "act out" in public with absolutely no sense of shame, and who get paid big sums to do it, because our appetite for the outrageous is insatiable. We just buried their forerunner and patron saint, Michael Jackson; the only key difference being that he actually had some talent to begin with. Now we have reached the point when those who, for better or for worse, are known for other, more important accomplishments -- the DeLays of the world -- want to join this cadre of nutjobs.

It is just sad that the dreams of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton should have come to grief on the shoal of reality television. But the wreckage is visible for all to see.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Acquisitions, August 8-14

Very light week. Book-buying -- and blogging -- have taken a back seat to getting acclimated to my new surroundings and preparing for my new teaching job.

  • Marianne Moore, Tell Me, Tell Me: Granite, Steel, and Other Topics (Viking Press hc) -- This appears to be a first edition of one of the last collections by the great American poet published in her lifetime. The book and the dust jacket are in very nice condition. A lovely find for $2.00! (Carson City Public Library)
  • Margaret Drabble, The Oxford Companion to English Literature, Fifth Edition (Oxford pb) (CCPL)
  • Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (Simon & Schuster pb) (CCPL)
  • Paula Rutherford, Why Didn't I Learn This in College?, Second Edition (Just ASK pb w/CD) -- Educational tricks of the trade, provided by the Douglas County NV School District.

The Failures of President Obama

This brilliant essay by Yale English professor David Bromwich astutely sums up the problems a lot of us are having with President Obama lately:

Money quotations:

His instinct is to have all the establishments on his side: Wall Street, the military, the mainstream media; the most profitable corporations in all but the most signally failing industries; and that movable establishment (which disappears and reconstitutes itself), the quick-take pulse of popular opinion on any given issue...The president tries to line up all of his forces, all together -- and do it with so finely tuned an understanding he can't possibly be wrongly portrayed. But while he is working in the background in foreign policy, or leaving things to Congress in domestic affairs, those who are angry, Cheney, Limbaugh, Netanyahu, the big insurers, say what they please. They don't much care whether it is true. The errors "take," as errors will.

Pragmatic justifications have been offered to explain his aversion to any contest that implies a clash of opposing interests. Thus Rahm Emanuel said of the disastrously time-wasting courtship of Republican support for the stimulus package: "The public wants bipartisanship. We just have to try. We don't have to succeed." But try every time and you will waste your life...Taken to the circuitous lengths Obama allows, pragmatism is another word for the compulsive propitiation of unnecessary partners. It expands the work and blunts the achievement of reform.

Several months into the president's call for health care reform, [the public's] level of ignorance is his responsibility...Somewhere at the bottom of the missteps of the last few months is a failure to recognize the depth of the popular ignorance a president of the United States confronts on any issue.

The strange thing about Obama is that he seems to suppose a community can pass directly from the sense of real injustice to a full reconciliation between the powerful and the powerless, without any of the unpleasant intervening collisions. This is a choice of emphasis that suits his temperament.

To take control of his presidency, [Obama] must give up the ambition to serve as the national moderator, the pronouncer on everything...If the public option in health care reform is finally defeated, Obama will not soon recover his credit as a national, a party, or a general-issue leader. To avoid that fate, he will have to grant to politics, mere politics, an importance he has not allowed it thus far.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Acquisitions, August 1-7

I arrived in Carson City last Friday, and although I'm loving it so far, I can't say as the local bookstore scene looks especially promising. Maybe Reno is a smidge better; and I know there are Half Price Books locations in northern California.

Carson City has a Borders that I haven't been to yet; a small bookstore inside the public library; and at least one "paperback trader" type store, Dog-Eared Books. A more promising-looking second-hand store, Comstock Books, hasn't been open on the occasions when I've walked by it, but I'm hopeful that it will be choice. "Mom's Books & Gifts" doesn't sound so promising. The thrift stores could be worth exploring.

  • W.H. Auden/Norman Holmes Pearson, Victorian & Edwardian Poets: Tennyson to Yeats (Viking Press pb) (Carson City Public Library)
  • Paul Engle/Joseph Langland, Poet's Choice (Time Reading Program pb) -- More than a hundred modern English-language poets choose their favorite specimens of their own work, and explain their preference. (CCPL)
  • Philp Sidney, The Old Arcadia (Oxford pb) -- An English prose romance of the late 16th century. (Dog-Eared Books)
  • Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (Penguin pb) -- The proprietor of Dog-Eared Books sold me these ;ast two volumes for $1.25 apiece, for which I'm most grateful. These were the highlights of the stock, which is thinner than the similar paperback trader stores in Appleton and Green Bay. But I'll stop by again.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Intersection: Lemony Snicket / George Romero

They'll eat my feet,
they'll eat my head,
I'm just a meal
for the walking dead.

Song from screenplay for Zombies in the Snow
Featured in Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Biography, Chapter Four

Monday, August 3, 2009

Commonplace Book: Self-Appraisal

[George] Bellows was not a stern critic of his own work; he thought it was fine. What's the good of saying you're worse than you are? Leave that to other people. Maybe it's not the greatest in the world, but compared to the fellow next door, it's pretty good, which is all you have to worry about.

Mahonri Sharp Young, The Paintings of George Bellows

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Acquisitions, July 25-31

A final little haul of classic novels from Appleton's Half Price Books.

  • Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons (tr. Rosemary Edmonds) (Penguin pb) (Half Price Books)
  • Madame de Lafayette, The Princesse de Cleves (tr. Nancy Mitford/Leonard Tancock) (Penguin pb) (HPB)
  • Andre Gide, The Immoralist (tr. Richard Howard) (Vintage pb) (HPB)
  • Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (Penguin pb) (HPB)
  • Theodore Dreiser, Jennie Gerhardt (Oxford pb) (HPB)

Fun with Mad Men

The folks at AMC have come up with a nifty "create your own Mad Men avatar" utility. Here is mine -- a very fair likeness, I think. I own that exact hat.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


You can, generally, pamper a dog, a cat, or a cockatiel with pleasure, although your vet would warn you against over-feeding them.

To a certain extent and with a degree of care, you can pamper a small child -- but don't overdo it, because that will create problems later on.

Never pamper an adolescent or adult.

If you know an adolescent who demands pampering, re-train them to the extent you are able. You don't want to have a My Super Sweet Sixteen type on your hands.

If you know an adult who demands pampering, run for the high hills; you cannot get far enough away from that person.

If the adult who demands pampering is your spouse or significant other, what were you thinking? You had to know this going in. Take the advice of Paul Simon: "Drop off the key, Lee,/And get yourself free."

If the adult who demands pampering is your boss, as it often unfortunately is, you've really got a problem.

Failure and Discontent

Our era is perverse in passing off the exception as the rule...The likelihood of reaching the pinnacle of capitalist society today is only marginally better than were the chances of being accepted into the French nobility four centuries ago, though at least an aristocratic age was franker, and therefore kinder, about the odds. It did not … cruelly equate an ordinary life with a failed one.

Alain de Botton, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (thanks to John Self of the blog Asylum, in whose review I spotted this quotation)

In America, not least because our media enables it, anything less than spectacular success is accounted as failure -- and, of course, spectacular success itself can be and often is redefined as failure in another way (see: Michael Jackson, Jeffrey Skilling; see even: poor Jennifer Aniston, unlucky in love). As a society we are completely obsessed by failure, and constantly looking for signs for it. Everyone is continually being reviewed and assessed, formally or informally, on their educational, financial, professional, even emotional and sexual attainments (or lack thereof). There is no escape from this for a moment, except to the extent that one can find the "peace within" -- and the general thrust of the outer world we all have to inhabit makes that peace frustratingly difficult to achieve, although definitely worth the pursuit. Take it as axiomatic that no force in society -- marketers are an especially egregious example -- wants you to be happy or content; you would be no use to them that way. Only because you feel yourself a failure will you continue to try to purchase success.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Domestic Migration, Ctd.

Using some U.S. Census data from 2007 that I found online, I've been extrapolating a "rootedness" figure for each state. The two base numbers I use are the percentage of the state's population that is foreign born; and the percentage of the state's population who are native-born Americans who were born in that state. I subtract the first number from 100%, then multiply the result by the second number to get the overall percentage of residents who have roots in the state.

Many states that have a high rate of native-born Americans who were born in the state, and a low rate of domestic in-migration, also have a low rate of foreign in-migration, but not all. New York, Illinois, and California qualify in the first two categories (which may surprise some people), but have very substantial foreign in-migration, especially into their major cities (from which American-born residents are fleeing in droves because of their high cost).

The most rooted state currently is the special case Louisiana, which had an unquestionably odd decade. 79.49% of its residents were born there. But domestic in-migration is picking up there again.

The other most rooted states are in the rust and farm belts: Michigan (75.97%), Pennsylvania (75.11%), Ohio (74.92%), Iowa (72.27%), and my current home state of Wisconsin (71.82%). These states are not popular destinations for native-born Americans or for new immigrants. In the long run, they have little to offer, and they will not develop economically. It is a bizarre but true fact that both North Dakota and South Dakota have lower percentages of residents born in their states than Wisconsin! Over my seven years in this state, I came to realize that no one would want to live here, unless it was the only world they knew. Some of these states would die altogether but for inertia.

On the other end of the spectrum is the state I am moving to this Friday for my new job, Nevada, the least rooted state in America -- only 22.97% (you read correctly) of its residents were born there. Close behind are Florida, as you would expect (33.98%), and Arizona (35.62%). Naturally, these states are works-in-progress, but they have an economic vitality that the Midwest will never challenge again.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Acquisitions, July 18-24

  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust, Part I (tr. Randall Jarrell) (Penguin pb) (Half Price Books, clearance)
  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh (Oxford pb) -- I'm been meaning for quite a while to take a look at the British verse-novels of the 19th century, so I was delighted to find this volume at the Goodwill in Green Bay.
  • Henry James, Washington Square (Oxford pb) (Goodwill/Green Bay)
  • Leon Wolff, In Flanders Fields: The 1917 Campaign (Time Reading Program pb) -- From 1961 to 1966, Time Inc. produced a wonderful series of trade-sized paperbacks with sturdy (and well-designed) covers as the "Time Reading Program." The titles, chosen for their high literary quality by Time magazine's book reviewer Max Gissen, spanned a wide range of fiction and non-fiction, with many "rediscoveries" and less-than-widely-known gems figuring in the mix. I think the series is highly collectible; the volumes are often seen in excellent condition in used bookstores, and are usually very reasonably priced. (Goodwill/Green Bay)
  • Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Reason Why (Time Reading Program pb) -- Another TRP history volume, this one about the Crimean War. (Goodwill/Green Bay)
  • Charlotte Lennox, The Female Quixote (Oxford pb) -- Lennox's 1752 novel was inspired by Don Quixote, and in turn inspired Tabitha Tenney's 1801 novel Female Quixotism, which I read and loved in an early American literature course at Yale.
  • Michael Powell, A Canterbury Tale (Criterion DVD) -- A going-to-Nevada gift from my friends Eric Johnson, Eric Levy, and Tony Dugandzic, along with...
  • Alfred Hitchcock, Waltzes from Vienna -- A dub of the Region 2 DVD of Hitchcock's rarest sound era film.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Walter Cronkite and The Grateful Dead

You will never meet anyone who is as warm and as much of a gentleman as Walter Cronkite. He loved music, he loved the Grateful Dead. He collected drums, including one from the drummer of the Grateful Dead. He adopted them and they adopted him; he was totally a fan. There were many sides to Walter.

Sean McManus, President, CBS News and Sports

Who knew?

When I took the class "Television News in America" at Yale -- taught by Tom Brokaw, who was then co-anchor of The Today Show, and who drove up to New Haven one day a week to teach it in the winter and spring of 1979 -- I got to meet Cronkite on our day-long class trip to New York (as well as Dan Rather, John Chancellor, David Halberstam, Jane Pauley -- it was quite the day!). The 15 of us in the class (selected competitively out of over 400 Yale students who applied) spent the morning at NBC, on the set of The Today Show and in a seminar with Halberstam, then split into three small groups to watch the production of the nightly news programs at the three networks, from the mid-afternoon conferences up through the broadcasts. I was in the CBS group and was actually on-set as Cronkite delivered the news that night. I stood next to Rather right behind the camera -- that set was small! It was a thrilling experience. I remember Cronkite being as warm and gentlemanly as everyone is recalling today.

The only downside to the day was that Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau -- Pauley's husband (still) and a Yale grad -- was supposed to join us all for dinner, but didn't (he is famously shy); however, John Chancellor and Brokaw as dinner companions are nothing to sneeze at.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Acquisitions, July 11-17

This will be the last "big" acquisitions week for a while, since I'm starting a new job in a new state on August 15, and won't see a paycheck till September 15. This cross-country move process is wickedly expensive, so I've got to watch my pennies here.

  • William Wycherley, The Country Wife and Other Plays (Oxford pb) (Book Store)
  • Elizabeth Gaskell, Wives and Daughters (Penguin pb) -- I got the trivia question right again at Half Price Books ("What famous writer has several butterflies named after him?" = Vladimir Nabokov). So I used my 15% off to buy a few more books than usual, mainly from the clearance shelves.
  • Bram Stoker, Dracula's Guest & Other Stories (Wordsworth pb) (HPB, clearance)
  • Richard Henry Dana, Two Years Before the Mast (Narrative Press pb) (HPB, clearance)
  • J. Frank Dobie, Cow People (University of Texas pb) (HPB, clearance)
  • Erwin Panofsky, Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art (Icon Editions pb) (HPB, clearance)
  • Colin Jones, Paris: The Biography of a City (Viking hc) -- I've noticed that in recent years, the "city biography" -- Robert Hughes on Barcelona, say -- has become an increasingly popular form. I'm strongly drawn to these books. (HPB, clearance)
  • Josh Pahigian, The Ultimate Minor League Baseball Round Trip (Lyons Press pb) -- I can't resist books about baseball stadiums, either. (HPB)
  • Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (Phaidon Press hc) -- Lovely edition from 1951. (HPB)
  • Tadao Ando/Richard Pare, The Colours of Light (Phaidon Press hc) -- Gorgeous little volume of photographs of the work of a truly great modern architect. The Ando Gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago is one of the most magical rooms in the world. (HPB, clearance)
  • Les Zazous (EMI/Pathe Marconi, 2 LPs) -- Back in the early Eighties when I worked at the late lamented Doubleday Book Shop at 53rd Street and 5th Avenue in Manhattan -- it is prominently featured in the 1970 George Segal/Barbra Streisand film The Owl and the Pussycat -- this was one of my favorite albums to spin in the record department (which I shared with the late Doug Root, Matt Callaway, and Victor Gomez; theater music historian Ethan Mordden frequently hung out with us). The Zazous were a French youth culture of the World War II era (; their swing-based music is sprightly and fun. I was so happy to nab a copy of this hard-to-find album on Ebay!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Al Franken

Thank you, Judge Sotomayor, for sitting here so patiently and for all your thoughtful answers throughout the hearing. Before lunch, our senior senator from Minnesota, Amy Klobuchar, asked you why you became a prosecutor, and you mentioned "Perry Mason." I was a big fan of "Perry Mason." I watched "Perry Mason" every week with my dad and my mom and my brother. And we'd watch the clock. And we knew when it was two minutes to the half-hour that the real murderer would stand up and confess. It was a great show.

And it amazes me that you wanted to become a prosecutor based on that show because, in "Perry Mason," the prosecutor, Burger, lost every week, with one exception that we'll get to later.

But I think that says something about your determination to defy the odds. And while you were watching "Perry Mason" in the South Bronx with your mom and your brother, I was watching "Perry Mason" in suburban Minneapolis with my folks and my brother, and here we are today. And I'm asking you questions because you have been nominated to be a justice of the United States Supreme Court. I think that's pretty cool.

Al Franken, Senate Judiciary Committee, Sonia Sotomayor Confirmation Hearings, July 15, 2009

This was a poetic moment: Senator Franken deftly summoning the lovely image of his family and Judge Sotomayor's family united across the vast spaces of America by watching Perry Mason at the same time. Television often gets a bum rap, including from me, but this is a fine reminder that in the heyday of the three networks, at least, the medium could have that kind of unifying effect.

As it happens, I've been watching Perry Mason episodes lately, and they are enormous fun. This is one instance (Chuck Jones's Roadrunner cartoons are another) where adhering to a strict formula really works -- the fun is in the little variations.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Ramapo Mountain People

William Carlos Williams is often on my mind, since I grew up in Passaic, New Jersey, across the river from Rutherford where he was a practicing pediatrician. The oft-quoted Williams poem "To Elsie" that begins with the famous line "The pure products of America go crazy" is partly about an isolated group in the Ramapo Mountains of northern New Jersey and New York, known unkindly as the "Jackson Whites" and more respectfully as the "Ramapo Mountain People." They are what some anthropologists call a "tri-racial isolate," a mixture of white, black, and Indian. Although in this case the preponderance of the ancestry is African-American, starting with free blacks in the 17th and 18th centuries (some of whom partnered with white Dutch), and the Native American element if present is not genealogically traceable, the People themselves insist that they have no black ancestry and are mostly Indian, despite the fact that they look more mulatto than anything else. As with some other isolate groups, there has been in-breeding over the years, with the expected resultant higher incidence of polydactylism (extra fingers and toes), syndactylism (webbing between fingers and toes), and albinism. Where I grew up, 25 miles away, the People were considered "hillbillies" and were feared (for no especially good reason except their "strangeness"). They did tend to keep apart. David Steven Cohen's 1974 book about them, The Ramapo Mountain People, is fascinating but was controversial with the People themselves, because it properly insists upon their easily provable black ancestry. As least as of the Seventies, the People expressed both racism against blacks, whom they utterly refused to identify with, and also "skin tone racism," favoring the lighter-skinned among their own group.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Commonplace Book: Scotland

As my knowledge of Scottish History is v. small I find it difficult to follow who murdered whom, or why – the general trend of Scots history.

J.R.R. Tolkien

Immediate Impression of Wilkie Collins

Oddly for such an enthusiast of the British novel, I had never read a novel by Wilkie Collins, but one of the points of my reading projects, including the 19th century British fiction project, is to fill in these unconscionable gaps. A true pleasure it is to do so, too. A quarter-way into Collins's most famous (along with The Moonstone) novel, The Woman in White, my impression is that Dickens's friend Wilkie has it all going on; those 150 pages demonstrate extravagant gifts in narrative drive and deftness, in characterization and dialogue, in descriptive prose, and in the cunning art of the set-up. Collins was a prolific novelist, and the received wisdom is that his work went into a steep decline after a one-decade heyday in the 1860s --but I'm going to want to test that for myself. At this point, he has me on trust.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

My Wardrobe: Straw Boater

This summer, I have been getting a lot of wearing pleasure from my vintage Brooks Brothers straw boater. It takes cojones to wear a boater these days, because the sartorial associations are so definite and so historical; would that I could take every "Great Gatsby" comment to the bank! But people seem to enjoy the gesture a lot, so while I used to wear this hat once or twice a summer, now I'm encouraged to wear it once or twice a week. Gotta give the public what they want.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Acquisitions, July 4-10

Very light acquisitions week. I'm watching my money because of my upcoming move. But at least I know that I'll have an income!

  • Joseph Conrad, The Shadow-Line (Oxford pb) (Half Price Books)
  • Joseph Conrad, An Outcast of the Islands (Oxford pb) (Book Store)

Birthday: Thomas Gomez

[Born July 10, 1905; died June 18, 1971. A poster at The Blackboard commented on Gomez's fine performance as John Garfield's older brother in Force of Evil.]

Gomez was wonderful in that part. He was a great actor who deserved more than the one Supporting Actor Oscar nomination he got (for Ride the Pink Horse). He was a pioneer as a Latino actor who essayed complex, non-stereotypical roles. Come to think of it, he would have made a compelling Nero Wolfe.

Interestingly, he learned his craft as part of the Alfred Lunt/Lynn Fontanne theatrical troupe in the Twenties and Thirties. Now that's training!

Birthday: Craig Stevens

[A poster at The Blackboard commented on Craig Stevens's July 8, 1918 birthday (he died on May 10, 2000), and on all the smoking in Peter Gunn.]

I'm no fan of smoking, but Stevens was one of the very best at handling cigarettes as a masculine prop. Watch for it. He is, as noted, a darned handsome fellow, smooth as all get-out, and (with the help of wardrobe coordinator Sydney LaVine) a terrific dresser who is one of my sartorial inspirations. He is often seen in the now exceedingly rare button-down French cuff shirts. (Raymond Burr can also be seen wearing them in Perry Mason, made at the same time.)

One aspect of the series that I love, and that was daring for its day, is that Gunn and Edie Hart (Lola Albright) are clearly involved in a torrid, ongoing, unmarried sexual/romantic relationship. They are more connected than many married people, and a pleasure to watch together. It is cool to see a 1950s television series strongly sanctioning an "unorthodox" and mutually satisfying arrangement.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Domestic Migration

I've been looking at some fascinating statistics on domestic migration between U.S. states (rather than immigration from other countries) for the years 2000-2007. What the stats tell us boils down to three facts:

  1. Americans migrate from colder, cloudier states to warmer, sunnier states.
  2. Americans migrate from more expensive states -- states with higher costs of living and tax and regulatory burdens -- to less expensive states.
  3. American migrate to states with expansive economic development and job opportunities. To a large extent, this is a corollary of (1) and (2) -- once people start migrating into a state, that tends to create jobs and economic development, which then attract more migration, so the process becomes self-fueling.
I am about to move to northern Nevada from northeast Wisconsin after a successful search (finally!) for a teaching job. I don't suppose it's any surprise that the two states from which I had serious inquiries -- Nevada and Arizona -- are by far the two states with the highest rates of domestic in-migration from 2000 to 2007 (2.4% and 1.7%, respectively) as well as the highest rates of overall population growth including immigration (27.1% and 22.7%).

Regionally, the patterns are very clear:

  1. The West is growing except for two very expensive states in rapid population decline -- California and Hawaii -- and one cold state -- Alaska.
  2. The South is growing, but some parts more than others. The Atlantic coast states of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia have been highly attractive. Florida's growth, strong for many years, has been tapering considerably as the cost of living there skyrockets. Louisiana and Mississippi had a period of substantial out-migration owing to hurricanes, but are bouncing back. Texas, with a low cost of living, decent job opportunities, and no personal income tax, has a growing rate of in-migration; Tennessee is also doing quite well.
  3. The Midwest is shrinking, predictably; but perhaps surprisingly, Illinois leads the way -- its recent levels of out-migration are higher than those of Michigan or Ohio. This is probably due to the high cost of living in Chicago, which was a pretty affordable city 20 years ago but is now unenviably rated America's "most overpriced city" by Forbes Magazine. The Midwest really has no strong spots. Even Minnesota, often touted as an economic development success story, had overall out-migration for 2000-2007; it's just too cold there.
  4. The Northeast is troubled because of its ridiculous cost of living. The three states with the highest rates of out-migration from 2000-2007 (leaving special case Louisiana aside) are New York (1.1%), New Jersey (0.7%), and Massachusetts (0.7%). The situation in Connecticut and Rhode Island has been substantially worsening as well.
Since none of the trends underlying these figures yield much to ameliorative effort -- certainly not climate! -- I'm forced to conclude that economic development efforts are largely a waste of time (and I say that as someone who has been substantially involved with them in northeast Wisconsin). You can't market or incentivize your way out of brute facts. People like warm weather, they like sunshine, they like affordability, they like availability of jobs. How can you persuade them otherwise? There is no way.

I notice that my own moves throughout my adult life illustrate all three of the patterns I enumerated:

  1. New Jersey to California, 1985 -- Move to better climate and (at that time) better economic opportunity.
  2. California to Illinois, 1989 -- The Bay Area was getting phenomenally expensive, and Chicago was still affordable. So this was an economy-based move, but I went backwards on climate -- and I have to say, I always regretted it.
  3. Illinois to Wisconsin, 2002 -- Now Chicago was getting phenomenally expensive; Wisconsin was way more affordable (and has remained so).
  4. Wisconsin to Nevada, 2009 -- The trifecta: moving for better economic opportunity, better affordability (since Nevada has no state income tax, and Wisconsin has a high one), and better climate.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

There Is Hope

When you have a U.S. president who is an enthusiast for Urdu poetry, you have officially reached one of the outer limits of cool.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Commonplace Book: Governors

People, what is going on with governors in this country? Are we doomed to see them go bonkers one by one, state by state?

Gail Collins, New York Times, re Sarah Palin, Mark Sanford, Rod Blagojevich, Eliot Spitzer, James McGreevey, and probably some others I'm forgetting

Phil Karlson and Samuel Fuller

[A poster at The Blackboard wondered why Phil Karlson didn't have a reputation similar to that of the much-celebrated Samuel Fuller.]

Fuller and Karlson are about even through 1960. But from that point on, Fuller burnished his resume with eccentric masterpieces such as Shock Corridor, The Naked Kiss, and White Dog, while Karlson worked mainly on indifferent commercial assignments such as The Young Doctors, Ben (the sequel to the "rat horror" film Willard), Kid Galahad with Elvis Presley, and a couple of Matt Helm films with Dean Martin. His most celebrated later film is Walking Tall, which tends to hit liberal viewers as well-done right-wing action fascism -- the same criticism that Don Siegel's Dirty Harry and Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs took a long time to recover from.

So Karlson did his reputation no favors by his seeming indifference to the shape of his filmography. Fuller kept it personal, which rightly endears him to historians, critics, and buffs.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Acquisitions, June 27-July 3

  • John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi and Other Plays (Oxford pb) -- Beefing up my collection of Shakespeare's contemporaries; the Elizabethan drama "team" is unusually deep. (Book Store)
  • Russell Hill, Robbie's Wife (Hard Case Crime pb) -- Hard Case Crime is having a $2.00 on ten of the titles in the series that I don't have, so I ordered all ten. Now there are only three of the 50+ volumes that I'm still looking for; those should be easy to add.
  • Cornell Woolrich, Fright (HCC pb)
  • Mickey Spillane, Dead Street (HCC pb)
  • Max Allan Collins, Deadly Beloved (HCC pb)
  • George Axelrod, Blackmailer (HCC pb)
  • David Goodis, The Wounded and the Slain (HCC pb)
  • Richard Aleas, Songs of Innocence (HCC pb)
  • Gil Brewer, The Vengeful Virgin (HCC pb)
  • Robert Terrall, Kill Now, Pay Later (HCC pb)
  • Ken Bruen/Jason Starr, Slide (HCC pb)
  • Anthony Trollope, Cousin Henry (Oxford pb) -- Today's trivia question at Half Price Books was "What is the longest-running network television series?" Once I determined that they did not necessarily mean a prime-time or a fictive series, I came up with Meet the Press, which was correct (it debuted on NBC on November 6, 1947). So I got 15 % off my larger-than-usual purchase.
  • Thomas Hardy, Two on a Tower (Everyman pb) -- I now have copies of all of Hardy's novels but two: Desperate Remedies and The Hand of Ethelberta. Ethelberta, you cannot evade me for long! (HPB)
  • Ann Radcliffe, A Sicilian Romance (Oxford pb) (HPB, clearance)
  • Christa Faust, Money Shot (Hard Case Crime pb) -- Happy to discover that HPB had one of the three Hard Case Crime titles I was lacking. I had driven to the Oshkosh outlet mall yesterday to check out the Hard Case shelf at the remainder store Renaissance Books, since I was pretty sure that they had one or two of the three, only to discover that the store had closed for good. A lot of that going around!
  • Simon Winchester, A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906 (Harper Collins pb) (HPB, clearance)
  • Tim O'Brien, In the Lake of the Woods (Houghton Mifflin hc) -- O'Brien is the author of the celebrated Vietnam novel Going After Cacciato, a National Book Award winner. I read his first novel Northern Lights many years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it.
  • Iain Pears, An Instance of the Fingerpost (Riverhead Books hc) -- One of a fairly sizable number of super-lengthy post-modern neo-traditional quasi-historical novels that have been popular in recent years, such as Susannah Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Charles Palliser's The Quincunx, A.S. Byatt's Possession, and Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White. All more bought than read, I suspect (but come to think of it, that's true of most books). (HPB, clearance)
  • Robert Utley, Encyclopedia of the American West (Wings Books hc) (HPB, clearance)
  • Ben Jonson, The Alchemist and Other Plays (Oxford pb) -- Another of Shakespeare's contemporaries; this volume is in the same series as the Webster, above. I've known that it was at the Appleton Goodwill for a while, but they always have a half-off sale going on a certain color of tag and they rotate the colors, so I waited for "purple" to go on sale to grab this book.
  • Dave Oliphant, Texan Jazz (University of Texas pb) -- Another purple-tag item at Goodwill; meaty academic history of an offbeat subject.
  • Emile Zola, Germinal (Oxford pb) (HPB)

Monday, June 29, 2009

The "Candle in the Wind" Trick

We can deplore the effects of fame on the famous -- it's easy -- but if we do, we are also deploring the only reason we know about their existence. It's what I think of as the "Candle in the Wind" trick, after Elton John's and Bernie Taupin's famous song about Marilyn Monroe. The singer regrets the fame that destroyed Marilyn Monroe's life, and puts forward the standard notion that she would have been better off as the original "Norma Jean":

They set you on the treadmill
And they made you change your name...

Hollywood created a superstar
And pain was the price you paid...

He imagines that he would have gotten along with the "real" Marilyn:

...I would have liked to have known you
But I was just a kid...

Goodbye Norma Jean
From the young man in the 22nd row
Who sees you as something more than sexual
More than just our Marilyn Monroe

But, but, but. There are plenty of "Norma Jeans" out there, beautiful, lively, charming young women, who do escape the ravages of fame, because fame never comes calling. These women are situated in the "real world," they are not tragic, and they are knowable. Does Elton sing songs about them? Of course not. Marilyn Monroe's fame, however deplorable its influence on her life may have been, is the only reason the singer is able to assume the posture of caring about the "real" her. With fame, we want to have our cake and not eat it, too.

Michael Jackson, Ctd.

The predictable media orgy over the death of the "King of Pop" continues. But there never was a moment, not a single moment, when Michael Jackson had anything of importance to offer American culture, and he never did. He had no real artistry -- Quincy Jones was the sensibility behind his albums, as far as that goes -- and he had nothing to say. Oh sure, the Jackson 5 were better than the Osmonds or the Partridge Family, and Michael sang "Never Can Say Goodbye" pretty soulfully for a 12-year-old (but that's in the nature of a stunt). But to compare Michael Jackson to Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney and John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, Prince, Frank Sinatra, or other true geniuses of popular music is not only misleading, it's an insult to our collective intelligence. There is no tragedy here, only grotesquerie; there was no height to fall from.

Perform a thought experiment. After Thriller, Jackson's career sputters, and his next couple of albums fail to catch commercial fire. How unusual would that be? Not at all. Then pretend there was no freakishness: no more plastic surgeries, no hyberbaric chambers, no Neverland Ranch, no friendships with little boys, no chimps in matching outfits. Michael grows up, marries, has a few kids. Still wealthy, he fades out of the public eye, retires from performing, moves into the production end of the business (emulating his master Quincy Jones), invests in a nightclub. Essentially, he's Boz Scaggs after Silk Degrees (like Thriller, an album of hits).

Then, at the age of 50, Jackson dies of a sudden heart attack. He hasn't been tabloid copy in 25 years. How "big" would this news be? Clearly, it wouldn't go unnoticed; but without the decades of freakishness, Michael Jackson as a star presence in 2009 wouldn't amount to much. America loved that freak.

Friday, June 26, 2009


Roger Ebert must have been in a particularly foul mood the day he wrote his review of Alex Cox's Walker and gave the poor film zero stars. He's frequently been far more indulgent of batty directorial invention (giving, for example, three stars to Mike Figgis's out there Hotel). It's true that Walker inspired a good deal of ignominy, as a confessedly "anti-capitalist," "sort of anti-American" movie (Cox's words) might be expected to do. But one wouldn't expect Ebert to jump on such a band-wagon, although he does sum up the standard case against Walker efficiently enough ("a pointless and increasingly obnoxious exercise in satire" with no laughs, witless anachronisms, etc.).

None of what bothers Ebert bothers me that much, which is not to say that I find Walker an especially accomplished work. It is, however, if taken in the right way -- but this is a difficulty, as I'll elaborate -- quite interesting. The jokey tone and the sometimes over-cute anachronisms (Coke bottles, newsweeklies, helicopters) are undeniably hard for some to take because they are not out-and-out Pythonesque or Mel Brooksian, but rather play off against a central story-line that is politically serious, with definite implications for our time, and an imperialist central character who is ferociously incarnated by Ed Harris. It's the mixing of tones that is tough, not one tone or another. The anachronistic approach mixing modern technology with older events is familiar from the quasi-documentary television series You Are There, and has been used in other films such as Peter Watkins's La Commune (Paris 1871) and Gualtieri Jacopetti's and Franco Prosperi's Goodbye Uncle Tom.

William Walker was what was called in the 1850s a "filibuster," an American adventurer who tried to push "manifest destiny" to the south of the United States even as the more conventional version of manifest destiny was being pushed westward. A number of unsuccessful expeditions were undertaken to try to win territories such as Mexico, Cuba, and Cental America for the United States, with an eye towards incorporating them as slave states. Walker led several such expeditions into Mexico and Central America, and on his Nicaraguan journey in 1855-1857, he gained a measure of control over the country, though it lasted barely a year. On a subsequent visit to Honduras in 1860, he was seized and executed at the tender age of 36.

Those are the barest bones of the story; it is terribly complex in its details and repays study within the overall context of the politics and diplomacy of the time. (A book on the subject I'm currently reading and enjoying is Robert E. May's The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire, which is what prompted me to put Walker in my Netflix queue.)

Here is where taking Alex Cox's Walker "in the right way" poses a challenge. Cox is very free with facts, in the usual way of historical romancers, and his freedom does bother me, also for the usual reason: The actual facts are much more interesting. I have to go to the histories to figure out what the director and screenwriter (Rudy Wurlitzer) made of the material, and as is often the case, that involves a bit of let-down. However, even allowing them their interpretation and their artistic license, as seems fair, the question remains: Who is this film possibly for? The number of viewers who bring enough to it going in to make much of what Cox and Wurlitzer have done is vanishingly small. The number who will follow up thoroughly enough to gain that perspective after seeing the film is way smaller still, human nature being what it is. And even the group that could enjoy the film on a more simplistic level is pretty tiny, because the movie is just not set up to be conventionally enjoyable or even "readable." For example, although I quite liked the "fall of Saigon" vibe with the helicopter in the final scenes, it's going to be lost on the overwhelming majority of most conceivable audiences (outside film festivals and Citerion DVD buyers, perhaps).

So, as with some other films that I like very much (more than Walker) -- Paul Schrader's Mishima, Robert Altman's Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie -- I cannot imagine who the directors thought they could reach, or how that microscopic sub-set of humanity could possibly justify the big studio investment that all four of these films had. I know that Jonathan Rosenbaum has often put forward the notion that mass audiences would embrace aesthetically or politically radical films if they were given the proper exposure to them; but I think that's wrong, I see no real world evidence for it. These films I mention began life under the auspices of marketing juggernauts, but they are essentially un-marketable (again, outside festivals and Criterion, which put out both the Walker and Mishima DVDs). I'm glad that recondite big budget follies occasionally get made with the full weight of Hollywood technical talent, acting talent, musical talent (The Clash member Joe Strummer's score for Walker is outstanding). But man, someone takes a bath on these.

POSTSCRIPT: I love this definition of "recondite" that I found through Google: "abstruse: difficult to penetrate; incomprehensible to one of ordinary understanding or knowledge." Yes, that would be Walker's problem.

UPDATE (6/28/2009): To push the Walker / Mishima comparison a bit: I doubt there are many William Walker experts who would find what Cox and Wurlitzer have done with his story to be especially satisfactory, although they might it...hmm, interesting. On the other hand, I doubt there are many Yukio Mishima experts who wouldn't be riveted by what Paul Schrader made of his story, although they might have a quibble here and a quibble there. Mishima is a difficult film, but also a gorgeous, provocative, and heart-breaking film for those who will take the trouble.

Acquisitions, June 20-26

  • Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge (Penguin pb) (Half Price Books)
  • Albert Cohen, Belle du Seigneur (Penguin pb) -- As well up as I generally am on 20th century novelists, I was only dimly aware of Albert Cohen (1895-1981) until recently, and that rather pleases me; there are always more discoveries to make! This 974-page novel (!), published to acclaim in 1968, is the third and longest in a sequence of four set in the period between the world wars. (The first two were translated decades ago but are very hard to find; the fourth has not been translated yet.) Cohen was a Jew born in Corfu, but raised mainly in Marseilles; he was involved for most of his adult life with what we now call NGOs, and the League of Nations figures prominently in the novel-cycle. (I note with pleasure that this Penguin paperback has an entirely period-appropriate painting by Tamara de Lempicka on the cover.) (HPB)
  • R.D. Blackmore, Lorna Doone (Oxford pb) -- The local Half Price Books has started a daily trivia contest; if you are the first to answer the day's question correctly, you get a 15% off coupon. Today's question: "What was the name of Shakespeare's wife?" I was the first to know that the answer was Anne Hathaway, so hello 15% on Lorna Doone! This fact was front of mind, since, as earlier noted here at PMD, the propitiously named Anne Hathaway, the actress, is starring in Twelfth Night at New York's Shakespeare in the Park this summer, with Raul Esparza and Audra McDonald (some cast!).
  • Vic Damone, Strange Enchantment (Capitol LP) -- "Haunting moods of faraway places, with rich string and exotic rhythm backgrounds" -- yes, it was the era of South Pacific, exotica music, and Hawaiian statehood. This album is positively dreamy; the lush arrangements by Billy May complement Damone's smooth voice (he had great pipes) perfectly. This is an original pressing in superb condition, hot diggity! -- all of four bucks on Ebay.

Michael Jackson

[I responded to a post on Jackson's death at The Blackboard -- ostensibly off-topic for a film noir board, but perhaps not.]

Someone pointed out that with the deaths of Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, and David Carradine, the Seventies Are Really Over.

You just know that the autopsy/toxicology is going to reveal that this is another Anna Nicole/Heath Ledger-type situation.

I've always felt that Jackson was distinctly over-rated. He made three super-slick, very popular albums (Off the Wall, Thriller, and Bad) between 20 and 30 years ago. I think a few of the songs are OK, but they don't hold up particularly well. His sister Janet's album Control might be a better album than any of Michael's. Of the Class of Summer 1958 (Jackson, Madonna, Prince, and me!), Madonna has had longer-lasting commercial instincts and a much less freakish life than Jackson, and Prince is a genius far above Jackson's league.

There is no question of Jackson's being a serial pederast -- Vanity Fair celebrity journalist (and Tim Russert's widow) Maureen Orth has been scathing on that point. He just kept buying his way out of it. And among the many other bizarre behaviors, the Frankenstein experiments he willingly had performed on his own face give me the shudders -- I've haven't been able to look at a photograph of Jackson for a long time without wanting to turn away in disgust.

He is the poster child for the sickness that is modern celebrity; compared to him, everyone else, with the possible exception of Elvis Presley (his father-in-law!), is a piker in that respect.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Note About and For Performers

It has been nearly a year and a half now since Heath Ledger died, and I still find myself upset when I think about it. This occurred to me again today as I read a nice Ben Brantley piece in the New York Times about star actors who are currently tearing up the London stage -- Helen Mirren in Racine's Phedre, Gillian Anderson in Ibsen's A Doll's House, Jude Law in Hamlet, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in Beckett's Waiting for Godot. I thought of what pleasures all those great performers have given me over the years, and what pleasures Ledger -- or River Phoenix -- can't give me going forward. It makes me sad.

It is easy to be cynical about celebrity, so I really feel the need to say this: I believe in star power. I don't believe it is everything, and I champion many artists who will never in that sense be "stars" -- but I certainly believe that the power exists, and is usually a better rather than a worse force. It enriches our lives.

But with it come perils, for those so gifted. And those perils have gotten much worse in our era of celebrity, because modern celebrity, although often an inevitable corollary of artistic power, is also its enemy. I heard an interesting segment on fame recently on NPR's Talk of the Nation, prompted by the sudden trajectory of Britain's Got Talent contestant and YouTube sensation Susan Boyle. Henry Winkler was one of the guests, and he said very wisely that the one thing you cannot afford to do when suddenly famous is to believe your own press. You've got to keep a humble head on you, no matter how great the fame or how large your gift.

But for every Winkler or Meryl Streep who handles their fame well, who sets boundaries, there are many young, gifted hotshots who don't, sometimes because they haven't been instructed how to. On the basis of history, you have to worry for them. So what I would like them to know is that, all cynicism aside, all the celebrity shit aside, what you do matters. It brings joy to many and lightens the burdens of many. Please take care of yourselves.

UPDATE (6/25/2009): Since the above post had largely been mentally formed months ago, I simply do not know what to make of my timing in actually writing and posting it yesterday. One day before Michael Jackson's death -- too weird.

My mother was a bit of an occultist and believed that there were "vibrations" throughout the universe, an opinion that some physicists would agree with at a very different level. Who am I to say that she was wrong? I can't. I seem to feel those vibrations sometimes -- probably most do -- and perhaps this is a small instance of that uncanniness.

Politicians and Their Libidos, Revisited

Something that greatly annoys me in American discourse is that evidence for a proposition can pile up almost infinitely and indefinitely, but, if the proposition is "politically inconvenient," almost no one will admit it to be true. Someone like Bill Maher, whom I generally quite like, can make a niche for himself out of being that rare person to call it like it obviously is. Of course Maher annoys people, but if he didn't, I'd have to take that as a sign that we had achieved maturity and grace, which simply isn't going to happen.

Case in point: these randy politicians! In the wake of John Ensign and Mark Sanford, can't we just stipulate that male politicians, like male actors, singers, athletes, CEOs -- in short, any guys who attain to fame, wealth, power -- are highly unlikely to be able to control themselves sexually for any great length of time, no matter the huge penalty to be paid if they are found out, and no matter what their stated "moral philosophy" is? Let's not consider these fellows the "exceptions"; let's look for exceptions in the other direction -- the Christian politician, say, who not only believes what he is saying (which is relatively easy) but can actually live up to it (which is very hard). Some may counter that those who become embroiled in sexual scandals are still a small minority -- but do you really think we hear about more than 3% of what actually goes on? I don't (although over time, because of intrusive new technologies, the percentage is going up).

Gay men make more sense on this issue, perhaps because they face up to the implications of maleness. The number of long-term gay male relationships I know of personally in which absolute monogamy is demanded is -- this is easy to guess -- zero. Every couple has a different accommodation, different "rules," but every such couple I know (or have been part of) has discussed this issue in detail and has come to decisions. It's harder for men to have illusions when it comes to other men, than it is for women -- or voters -- to have those illusions.

UPDATE (6/25/2009): Jon Stewart summed up the Sanford situation well: "Just another politician with a conservative mind and a liberal penis."

UPDATE (6/26/2009): Very apropos is a famous passage from Clare Boothe Luce's The Women (both play and film) in which the wise old mother of the cheated-upon Mary Haines explains how these things work (this is the theatrical text):

Time comes when every man's got to feel something new -- when he's got to feel young again, just because he's growing old. Women are just the same. But when we get that way we change our hairdress. Or get a new cook. Or redecorate the house from stem to stern...a man has only one escape from his old self: to see a different self -- in the mirror of some woman's eyes.

This does suggest that if a 45-year-old guy betrays a sudden mad urge to make a thoroughly impractical vehicle purchase, his wife might well let him do it, after grumbling just a bit for form's sake. He could be sublimating other sorts of urges. Of course, he could also be showing off to his new girlfriend; you never can tell.

UPDATE (7/5/2009): Leonard Pitts has a nice take:

The [male] governor...figures he can get away with it. With the arrogance, recklessness, self-delusion and lack of foresight common to my gender, he figures he can handle it, somehow. Granted, he does this figuring with the part of the body that does not contain the brain, but still, he does it. And then, when it all falls apart, he stands there and insults the intelligence of every human being within earshot.

"I made a mistake?''

Beg pardon, but what he made was a decision.

Birthday: Harry Partch

Born June 24, 1901; died September 3, 1974. For my earliest exposure to this great iconoclastic American composer, inventor of dozens of unique instruments, theoretician of micro-tonal intonation, explorer of the American underlife, I have to thank someone at Columbia Records, which in 1969 and 1971 put out two albums of Partch's music, The World of Harry Partch and Delusion of the Fury. The latter included a helpful demonstration disk of Partch's array of instruments (with names such as Xymo-Zyl, Spoils of War, Boo II, and Mazda Marimba), often constructed from discarded industrial materials. These albums were purchased for the excellent music collection at the Julius Forstmann Library in my hometown of Passaic, New Jersey, which during my youth was curated by music librarian Irwin Heilner, a composer in his own right who once had a piece recorded on Composers Recordings, Inc. I found the records during my numerous borrowing raids on the classical holdings, listened to them countless times, and was hooked.

Most of Partch's music was recorded on his own Gate 5 record label; he is one of those creators -- Sun Ra is another -- who went the do-your-own-distribution route very early on. But it is unlikely that those records would have found their way to the Passaic library -- in fact, none ever did -- so the availability of some Partch music at a macro-commercial level was crucial to my learning about him when I did. Columbia, like other mainstream media outlets, was experimenting a bit at the time to capture the youth crowd, for some of whom Partch in his ornery independence definitely possessed an appeal.

I am proud to know that all the original Partch instruments are now housed, and frequently played, at Montclair State College in New Jersey, just a few miles from Passaic.

In addition to setting hobo lyrics brilliantly in a piece like "Barstow" -- which is on The World of Harry Partch and is a great introduction -- Partch went in for large-scale ritual music dramas based on ancient Greek classics. I always felt that he had an affinity with Carl Orff, who was similarly inclined, and it turns out that "Partch admired Orff's neo-archaic musical style, melismatic and percussive" (Daniel Albright, Modernism and Music).

POSTSCRIPT: While I'm shouting out libraries for their music collections, I should also note the Rutherford Public Library across the river from Passaic. Rutherford, of course, was the residence of the great poet and pediatrician William Carlos Williams, and has always had a nice library. While the strength of the Passaic music collection dates from the mid-Sixties -- we got every Bernstein Mahler recording, for example -- Rutherford was weaker in acquisitions at that time but had absolutely amazing holdings from the early LP era, the Fifties and early Sixties, seemingly including every obscure European composer who had been recorded at a major label. Some fool later de-accessioned all of these LPs, ruining the efforts of a pioneering and sensitive music librarian; but during my high school years the collection was intact, a real treasure trove for exploration.

I was, you will have detected, a true library junkie at an early age. My mom arranged for me to have an adult library card in Passaic by the time I was in 6th grade, as I'd already been reading adult fiction and non-fiction for years at that point, and the librarians trusted me. Since the Rutherford and Nutley Public Libraries were easily accessible to me on my bike and by bus, I paid small yearly fees to gain borrowing privileges at each of those fine institutions. I have the happiest memories of all this!

Unsurprisingly, my first paid job was at the Passaic library, for which I worked throughout my high school years and during college summers, usually but not always in the Children's Room (one of the best I've ever seen anywhere). While I was at Yale, my "financial aid" job was at the Yale Forestry Library, a fascinating place; not many people realize that Yale has one of the world's great graduate forestry schools (now known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies).

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Menswear Moments: Alan Ladd

[A poster at The Blackboard mentioned the Alan Ladd version of The Great Gatsby.]

Ladd had quite a bit in common with Gatsby. Remember the "beautiful shirts" scene in the novel?

...[Gatsby] opened for us two hulking patent cabinets which held his massed suits and dressing-gowns and ties, and his shirts, piled like bricks in stacks a dozen high.

“I’ve got a man in England who buys me clothes. He sends over a selection of things at the beginning of each season, spring and fall.”

He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher—shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly, with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.

“They’re such beautiful shirts,” she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such—such beautiful shirts before.”

Ladd, in his personal enthusiasm for nice clothing, was a lot like that. He too had risen from the lower middle class to the point where he could open a walk-in closet to show a reporter a neat line of fifty suits and as many pairs of fine shoes. "Not bad for a kid from Arkansas, huh?" (I'm reciting this story from memory and forget where I originally read it, but I remember it vividly.)